Most of us think of fairies as tiny creatures, flitting about on gossamer wings, waving a magic wand, but history and folklore tell a different tale.
When belief in fairies was common most people didn’t like to mention them by name and so referred to them by other names: the Little People or the Hidden People.
The oldest fairies on record in England were first described by the historian Gervase of Tilbury in the 13th century.
While the number of people that still believe in fairies has dwindled markedly in the modern era, a significant number of individuals not only believe in these beings, they claim to have seen them.
You may be surprised to learn that at the beginning of the 20th century, large swathes of rural Ireland and Britain had a steadfast belief in the existence of fairies. The term ‘fairy’ comes from the word ‘fay,' which in turn derives from the old French word ‘feie.' This word came from the Latin word for Fates ‘fata’. The Fates were supernatural beings that played a major role in the fortunes of humans.
There is some confusion over the origin of stories involving fairies. Given the propensity of the Ancient Celts to worship nature, plus the fact that fairies are often associated with the elements, there was an insistent sentiment that fairies were worshipped as deities in pre-Christian times. It was a common belief in the Victorian era that modern anthropologists have debunked.
What we do know is that the likes off Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporaries wrote about ‘faeries’ in the 14th century. According to writers of the age, these beings were capable of enchantment and illusion. It was commonly understood that fairies either lived underground or in prehistoric Cairns, forts and earth mounds. As a result, sites such as Fairy Hill, Fairy Mound, and Fairy forts received their names.
Fairies around the World
While the existence of fairies is commonly associated with the United Kingdom and Ireland, most nations around the world have their own version of this magical creature. For example, the Cherokee Indians in North Carolina refer to fairies as Yunw Tsunsdi. These little people are effectively elf-like natives. The Cherokee have great respect for these elves as they believe they are spirits belonging to an age before man.
Over in Eastern Europe, a number of countries have tales relating to fairies. In Germany, they had evil spirits working in mines that caused havoc. Whenever miners heard the knocking of the kobolds, they knew not to work. Fairies are also known in Cuba, New Zealand, Romania, Argentina, and Canada.
To further understand why fairies do what they do, we must understand where they came from and what they really are. It was once believed by Europeans that everything in the world – trees, rocks, shadows, even emotions – had a life of its own. The belief that all things have souls was once shared by nearly all people. This view also gave rise to the mystery of what the souls that inhabited everything were. These souls were later understood to be and personified as the fairies
Fairy means "The controllers of fate, thus they are the things that make fate, for fate is not an abstract concept, rather it is what they make the world to be."
‘Fairyland’ of course refers to the residence of fairies, but yet again, there are different versions of where and what it is. Believers point out that there are a variety of spiritual realms; the likes of Tir-nan-Og are relatively close to us while others are so rarefied that a human being will never reach them.
In Cornwall, descriptions of Fairyland range from the sublime to the ordinary. In the epic tale ‘The Lost Child,' written by Robert Hunt, a young boy follows enchanting music, meets a beautiful woman and is brought to a fabulous glistening palace. Tir-nan-Og is where the Tuatha de Danann lived while in Welsh lore, Fairyland was apparently seen by sailors; they described lush meadows between Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. According to Old Norse mythology, there are Nine Worlds where different enchanted beings such as elves and fairies live.
One interesting theory, espoused by Teresa Mooney in ‘The Fairy Bible’ is that Fairyland consists of four cities, each of which is associated with one of the four elements.
Gorias: This city is in the East and is associated with Air. It is a wonderful place to live as inhabitants share a sense of tranquillity and well-being.
Finias: This city is in the South and is associated with Fire. The people of Finias are kind-hearted, and it benefits from perpetual daylight.
Murias: This city is in the West and is associated with Water: It is located near the ocean and is a thriving and vibrant place.
Falias: This city is in the North and is associated with Earth. It is the opposite of Finias insofar as it is covered in perpetual darkness. There are no inhabitants, but Falias has a multitude of metal towers covered in jewels.
Types of Fairies
The impression of fairies as tiny winged creatures (think Tinkerbell) is wide of the mark. In reality, there are a huge variety of fairies, both good and bad. Here is an overview of some of the better-known fairy types.
Goblins: This type of fairy is ugly, bad-tempered and tends to live in dark places. In Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins book in 1880, he describes Goblins as wearing clothes that are a ‘poor imitation of a miner’s garb.’
Hobgoblins: This fairy lives in farms, and because it loves the warmth of the hearth, it may enter the home to get near one. On occasion, they become a nuisance, but they are generally good-natured unless someone offends them. They are part of the Brownie tribe.
Brownies: These lone fairies get attached to a house and live in a dark corner of the home, in a cupboard or a hollow tree near the home. Brownies are helpful fairies and keep things tidy. Legend has it that they appreciate when you leave out a bowl of cream as a reward.
- Pixies: This fairy is associated with England’s West Country region and is known as the Piskie in Cornwall. Centuries ago, people in these regions almost unilaterally believed in Pixies/Piskies and even had ‘pisky pows’ on the roof to ensure these fairies had a dancefloor of sorts. Pixies are mischievous creatures capable of doing good or harm to humans.
Elves: According to Norse Mythology, there are Dark Elves and Light Elves. In Scotland, Dark Elves are known as Trolls. In Danish lore, male Elves appeared as old men, and if you got too close, they would open their mouths and cause sickness with their breath. Females danced in the moonlight, and young men were warned to steer clear lest the charming elf steal their heart.
Dwarfs: This particular fairy is associated with Icelandic and Indian lore; dwarves typically lived within the earth and mined it for precious stones and metals. The magical stones they unearthed gave them wisdom and the ability to become invisible.
Gnomes: Although many traditional tales equate Gnomes with Goblins or Dwarves, they were originally classified as earth elementals in the 15th century. Like other elementals, Gnomes were said to have superhuman speed, did not possess immortal souls but did live much longer than humans. They are also known for guarding vast treasures.
Nymphs: These are nature fairies associated with Greek mythology. They normally appear in the guise of beautiful women and are associated with natural landscapes such as lakes, mountains, springs or meadows.