Updated: Aug 1, 2018
We thought we'd tell you all about Pixies, as by now you all know about Fairies. The fairies of Cornwall, roundabouts, whereabouts, hereabouts we live, us fairies are friendly with the local Pixies and Elfs, and as you know they help us from time to time with our work in the Fairy Workshop.
Pixies are more mischievious than the Elfs, and although they can cause us headaches and havoc in the workshop, they are loveable little creatures and deserve a mention in our blog.
So here is the official guide to knowing all about Pixies, and especially Cornish Pixies or Piskies as they are known locally.
What are Pixies?
Pixies are wee, magical creatures who throw merry parties and shower blessings across the English countryside, especially in Devon and Cornwall. They are beloved for their childlike appearance and bubbly spirits, even though they do play the occasional prank on travelers.
As a rule, Pixies are very small. In some stories, they are so tiny that they can sit in your palm or rest under the shade of a mushroom. In other stories, they are larger, but they rarely reach the height of a human’s knee.
Their skin may be flesh-colored, blue, or green. Their eyes and ears are slightly pointed, and they have lovely wings, resembling a butterfly or dragonfly.
Although the little people aren’t particularly good at making clothing (if left to their own devices, they go around naked or clad in rags), they do love fine things, and they will seize upon any gift of beautiful clothing that is offered to them.
Descriptions of pixies tend to break down into two different kinds. When pixies are social fairies and live in groups, then they tend to be described much as other ‘fairies’: they are small and might wear green clothes and perhaps red hats. There seems also a tendency to be old: ‘the Piskey has seldom been seen in any other shape than that of a weird, wizzened-looking, little old man or woman’. Solitary pixies tend to be bigger and if they are associated with houses or farms are often naked, hence the pixy clothes story. There is also a tendency, true of other fairy breeds too, for pixies to be equated or confused with Wil-O’-The-Wisp.
Pixies may be small, but they are rich in magical power. They often use their powers to bring a smile to the face of a human friend; as one popular poem describes, “All human ills they can subdue / Or with a wand or amulet / Can win a maiden’s heart for you / And many a blessing know to stew.”
The little people have a special talent for casting charms that affect human behavior. They can enchant children and beautiful maidens into joining one of their dances, or they can muddle travelers and cause them to wander for miles in the wrong direction.
Nature can also fall under the spell of these merry little creatures. Plants grow more quickly, flowers blossom more brightly, and wild animals are tame when they are nurtured by Pixies. The little people have a soft spot for horses; they enjoy making nests in the horses’ manes and hitching a ride around the countryside, which they are fond of exploring.
Although adventurous and fond of exploring, Pixies are also very attached to their homes. If there is a way to provoke the wrath of these happy-go-lucky little people, it is to threaten their homes, which they have defended from monks and fairies on numerous occasions.
Pixies are concentrated in southern England, especially in Devon and Cornwall. According to early folklore, they live in ancient underground locations, which usually have some connection to their ancestors. These may be barrows (mounds of earth covering a burial ground) or stone rings.
More recently, folklore has moved the little people into cozier abodes. They are now said to live in hollowed trees or stumps, complete with miniature windows and gardens.
Pixies are commonly confused with fairies, but they are not the same at all. In fact, folklore contains many stories about conflicts between fairies and Pixies, primarily involving fairies who try to invade the Pixies’ homelands in Devon and Cornwall.
There are several important differences between fairies and Pixies. In early legends, fairies are often malicious, while Pixies are kind, with the occasional fit of mischief. Fairies are said to be spawned by nature spirits, while Pixies are more often regarded as close relatives of humans.
Sprites are also swapped out with Pixies in today’s vocabulary, but in original folklore, they were two separate creatures. While Pixies are meadow and woodland creatures, sprites need to spend time near the water. Sprites are harmless as far as humans are concerned, but they certainly aren’t as friendly as Pixies.
Although some scholars trace the etymology of the word Pixie back to a Swedish word that means “wee little fairy,” most people agree that the little people are probably Celtic in origin. Indeed, the culture of southern England was shaped heavily by the Celts, and Celtic folklore contains some creatures who, while unlike the Pixie in name, are a lot like him in appearance and habits.
Pixies are thought of today as fairies in the South West of England: Devon and Cornwall, and to a lesser extent Dorset and Somerset. However, there are traces of pixie belief and pixie placements and legends in the Welsh Marches and along the southern coast of England as far as Sussex.
Pixies have undergone a lot of changes since the days when they dwelled under the barrows and stone rings of old England. Today, they are more mischievous than ever, and they are less distinguishable from fairies and sprites.
Pixies step into the spotlight in the popular fantasy series, ArtemisFowl, where they are childlike, temperamental villains who live underground. They also make a famous appearance in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, where they are small, bright blue, pesky creatures.
The folklore of southern England is full of the antics of Pixies. They go merrymaking with the village folk, mischief monks, and even fraternize with King Arthur and Santa Claus. A large sample of their stories can be found in Peter and the Piksies: Cornish Folk and Fairy Tales, an anthology of Cornish folklore by Ruth Manning-Sanders.
Perhaps the most famous folktale featuring the little people is the story of “The Three Little Piksies,” which gained worldwide fame as “The Three Little Pigs.”
Pixies (aka Pigseis, Pizkies and Piskies or Pigsies, Pizkies and Pigsies) are associated, above all, in their south-western heartlands with mischief. Men and women are pixy-led or piskey-led, which means that the pixies lead their victims off their paths. Victims are advised to turn a coin or turn a coat or jacket, socks or even a pocket inside out. Though sometimes the wanderer strays into a bog, which might point to a darker idea behind the legend: were victims originally drowned? Pixies ride horses, donkeys and ponies at night, indeed, in many stories a farmer will discover platted or knotted manes the morning after on an exhausted animal. Pixies were also believed to have taken changelings as late as the mid nineteenth-century in Cornwall. Pixies are said, to be able to shape shift becoming ants, birds, hedgehogs and even weasels. Transformation into a weasel may be the result of linguistic confusion: in Cornish English a weasel was a ‘fairy’. Pixies are sometimes said to have been the souls of unbaptised children, a version of the idea that fairies are the dead. Pixies are described both as social and solitary fairies: sometimes they are in groups and sometimes alone.
Some scholars believe that Pixie folklore is, in fact, based on a real, ancient race of people who lived in or near southern England. The Pict tribe, famous for their blue war paint, are often pointed to as “real life Pixies,” but the theory is undermined by the fact that the Scottish tribe was located a good distance from Devon and Cornwall. Other scholars believe that a race of pygmy people might have lived on the islands off the coast of Southern England.
Earliest Attestation and Etymology: The origin of the word Pixy is much confused, not least because there is uncertainty about the proper form of the word. Pixies, first reference c. 1630, are also known as Pigseis, Pizkies and Piskies or Pigsies, Pizkies and Pigsies. The difference in spelling is fairly arbitrary (e.g. Pigsey vs Pigsie). The difference in pronunciation is above all regional: e.g. Piskeys are typically found in Cornwall and parts of west Devon. The word pixy or pixey has been preferred perhaps because they come from the more ‘cultured’ Devon or perhaps because the word ‘Piskey’ was a little too reminiscent of ‘piss’ to Victorian ears. But back to the original problem: where did piskey/pixy/pigsey come from? A pyske is the Swedish word for a small fairy: this would be an excellent candidate save for the fact that Norse influence in the south-west was slight. There may be a British-Celtic word lurking behind Pixy or Piskey but, if so, there is no obvious equivalent in Breton or Welsh. And the first occurrence of the word comes in the late sixteenth century. Given some medieval forms from the southern coast of England the correct etymology is almost certainly from Puca (Old English goblin).