Today, when picturing a faery (or, more commonly, fairy), most people imagine diminutive little creatures with tiny little wings, flitting about from flower to flower. However, accounts of medieval fairies show them to have been neither small nor particularly kindly, while traditional understanding in Ireland before the Middle Ages was that the Faery were mythical characters, often referred to the Tuatha De Danann.
Perhaps the earliest form of faeries can be found loosely in the mythical beings in Greek mythology, such as the nymphs, satyrs and sileni. The nymphs from ancient Greek myths can be considered as fairies and they existed as early as the time of Homer writing the Iliad and the Odyssey. Even the river gods in Greek myths can be classified as fairies. These are spirits or minor deities of nature or of the natural phenomena.
The Norse versions of the fairies are the wide variety of elves and the dísir that exist in the Teutonic traditions. The Faery underwent many alterations, from the powerful and respect-inspiring Tuatha De Danann down to the classic Folk Tale Fairy and picturesque Flower Fairy. The Fairy Lineage is an attempt to describe the various realities that have been associated with the word faery.
The Tuatha De Danann are the first people of Ireland. They were beings close to humanity, but not a part of it, with the ability to change their shape at will.
While some of the Tuatha De Danann retreated far from humans to become the Daoine Sidhe, other remain on Earth and become the Fenian Heroes and the Heroic Fairies, ladies and knights of classic medieval romances, the heroes of the great tales of the era. By the 11th and 12th centuries, the Heroic Faery had developed to include characters who were fine warriors and champions of the people, as well as patrons of the arts and lovers of cultures.
The Faery Lineage did not stay confined to the shores of Ireland. When the Fenian Heroes found themselves cast adrift from the fiana, they went in search of a new king to serve. Some tales suggest that they made their way to England and found the legendary King Arthur. Seeing him as a man of honor and integrity, they may have chosen to follow him as they once had the High Kings of Ireland. It was here, in Britain, that the Fenian Heroes gave birth to the Medieval Fairy. As followers of King Arthur, the Medieval Fairy are subject of many tales, most of them woven with sorcery and enchantment, wizards and witches, and characters such as Morgan La Fay and Lancelot. Even Arthur himself came to be considered to be one of the fairy people.
"By the 13th century, the original context of Old English belief had become lost, and people were using the word 'faery' in various ways. Early fourteenth century English literature appears to distinguish fairies from dwarves (goblin-like entities who lived in burial mounds); from brownies or hobgoblins (who lived in houses near the hearth and performed domestic tasks); and from the fairy damsel or White Lady who was regarded as a benevolent guardian spirit or genius loci "(Pemberton 1997).
In the time of the Medieval Fairy, the size and appearance of the fairy became quite variable. They could be tiny and beautiful or huge and monstrous. Most commonly, however, the Medieval Fairy was depicted as a fair-skinned maiden with flowing red hair. Despite their sometime mischievous nature, the Medieval Faeries were enamored with humans, and often mated with them. The children who were a natural result of these unions were often gifted with many of the powers of the fay.
By the late 14th century, the traditional image of the modern fairy was born. The Diminutive Fairy became connected to death and the departed while the Literary Fairy forged a new mythology
The Diminutive Fairy was generally quite benign, but they were prone to some mischief. They mischief was usually confined to simple pranks and jokes, and it was considered rare indeed for a human to be harmed by a fairy. The people of Ireland, Britain, and Scotland viewed the Diminutive Fairy with some admiration, but they were also wary of them. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the fairies were spoke on kindly, just in case the might be listening. The fairies were called the Gentry, the week folk, the Good Neighbors, and many other flattering names.
The fairy tradition in literature begins in the 1380s, with Chaucer and Gower. In their eyes, the fairies are already a vanishing race, partly frightening and partly comic. The implication (particularly in the preamble to The Wife of Baths Tale) is that people used to believe in fairies, but dont do so any more. However, the fairy mythology as a consistent set of beliefs (dancing in rings, living in hills, the rule of a queen, and so on) is itself created by the writers who claim to be recording its final echoes. Earlier evidence does not describe these fairies. Instead it details encounters with various supernatural beings who were, in retrospect, treated as if they had been citizens of fairyland.
In short, the origins of the fairy mythology lie not in the remote past, but at the court of Richard II. The creative synthesis which the poets, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, made out of English and French traditions was developed in the Tudor period to include tricksters of the Robin Goodfellow type as well as the familiar spirits of cunning men, and domestic spirits like the brownie.
As an English-language tradition, it was able to dominate and then change the native sidhe beliefs of Ireland and the Highlands, introducing alien notions such as small size into their narrative. By the nineteenth century, it was possible for Anglo-Saxon spirits like the grima, scucca and thyrs - who had lived out a quiet rural existence as Church Grims, Black Shucks and Hobthrusts - to find themselves reinterpreted by folklorists (not the folk!) as minor figures in the fairy mythology.
Shakespeares Titania and Oberon are King and Queen of the blithe subjects of the fairy kingdom forming part of the supernatural spectrum of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Such benevolent fairies have become the current archetype and todays children are brought up to think of fairies as diminutive beings of kindly disposition. This had a major impact on how the populace of Europe as a whole viewed the fairy, including the Irish, who had traditionally worshipped the Tuatha De Danann.
The fairy ladies of eras past were no longer in style by the 16th century. Nymphs, brownies, hobgoblins, and the classic fairy with gossamer wings become popular in tales and stories. Common literature of the time was suddenly flooded with references to these mythological creatures.
The writers of the age supplied the very first look into the social structure of the tiny fairy. Individual writers chose different traits to emphasize, but on the whole, they managed to give a literary version of the fairy and its social life. The Elizabethan Faeries were seen as living in a monarchy, almost a parody of the monarchies present throughout the British Isles and various other areas of Western Europe.
By the end of the 15th century, the Diminutive Fairy had changed again, not necessarily in appearance, but in nature. This new breed of fairy was pesky and bothersome, and rarely helpful of kind to humans. Appearing in the 16th century, this new fairy eventually came to be known as the Elizabethan Fairy.
The physical appearance of the standard modern fairy has its roots in Elizabethan times. Elizabethan Fairies were tiny little things, occasionally with gossamer wings, and were usually described as being female. Often lovelier than any human woman, these fairies tended to wear little in the way of clothing.
The Elizabethan Fairy were not seen as evil. However, they were considered pests and most regular citizens went to great lengths to avoid contact with these beings of myth and legend. It was said that these fairies would torment humans for simple entertainment, though they did not typically seek to harm. Harm would instead happen by accident. For many people, fairies were spirits against which they had to guard themselves by ritual precautions.
In the 17th century, the faery is more commonly associated with the Devil. The Jacobean Fairy is described as being as very small and malicious towards people. They were also considered somewhat of a nuisance and often warded against.
The Jacobean Fairy were said to have many powers. They could affect the seasons, controlling when the seasons changed. The fairies could turn a good harvest into dust. They could withhold the spring rains, causing drought. And in some cases, they were credited with prolonging the winter, causing starvation when the food ran out.
As the 18th century arrived, the nature of the fairy changed once again. The Jacobean Fairy lost its tendency towards evil, and reconnected with the powers of nature. As this happened, the Faery Lineage split into the Flower Fairy and the Folk Tale Fairy. Both of these forms have endured into modern times, but it is the Flower Fairy that most people envision when they hear the term fairy.
The Victorian Age was a time of great industrialization and a moving away from the romanticism that preceded the period. It was an age where the was a clear breaking away from mysticism that dominated even scientific ideals and what replaced it, was logic and reason.
Between 1840 and 1870, historians have dubbed this period of time the "Golden Age of Fairies." It is where former leading British Victorian Art Historian, Christopher Wood, begins his reference book with glimpses into what inspired a society to turn to the fantastic both with real-world examples and literary examples such as the societal fascination with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Tempest. Other literary inspirations are attributed to the works of William Blake and Henry Fuseli.
In the 18th century, the world of literature expanded. For the first time in Europe, books were written specifically for children. All manner of creatures, both good and evil, were pulled from various mythologies to be adapted to suit childrens stories. Fairies took on a new form they became guardians and guides, relentless moralists and featured characters such as the classic fairy godmother. The new illustrators were predominately women, including Beatrix Potter, authoress of The Tale of Peter Rabbit which was published in 1901. Other influential figures included Mabel Lucie Attwell, whose doll-like portrayals of children were displayed in many nurseries and bathrooms up until the 1950's. Much of her work is still seen in cards, posters and calendars.
The Folk Tale Fairy did not have a single, fixed appearance. They could be as small as the Flower Fairy or as big as the Giant of 'Jack the Giant Killer' but they usually seek or show the path of virtue.
Flower Fairies were the gentle spirits of the earth. Above all, the tiny Flower Fairy was said to be gentle and generous. They were thought to exist wherever nature flourished. They lived in the hills and the mountains, the lakes and the oceans, and they would flit from flower to flower in every garden.
Those humans who left a bit of food or drink for them at night earned their love. They were said to wander the physical realm at night, collecting the last bit of grain from the field, the last fruit off the tree, and the last drop of milk from the pail. They also enjoyed a bit of wine, but Flower Fairies never became intoxicated.
In the 18th century Europe, including Ireland, superstition was still very much a part of daily life. Common knowledge of the era held that the blessings of the Flower Fairy could be brought into a household with a few simple actions.
Those households wishing to draw the Flower Fairies into their homes were advised not to sit up too late, as the fairies might wish to come into their home after dark. They would leave some food or milk for the fairies to dine, and a vessel of clear water for them to bathe. Those who made the effort to provide the fairies with these small comforts were said to be rewarded quite richly in the form of luck and protection.
Belief in fairies was still widespread in the early twentieth century, according to the testimony of W. Y. Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries (London, 1911). An American-born believer in fairies, Evans-Wentz travelled all the Celtic countries on foot and collected material from all social classes, during which respondents spoke of their convictions without condescension or scepticism. In more recent times the fairy faith has fallen sharply, and many residents of all Celtic lands have found inquiries about such beliefs to be insulting.
Also in 1911, Jonathan Caredig Davies published his Folk-lore of West and mid-Wales. No less than 60 pages are devoted to detailed accounts of fairy beliefs. Although he is poor at citing his sources, we must assume that most of these were still current as folk tales in the second half of the nineteenth century. This took its place alongside Robert Kirks The secret common-wealth (first published 1815 but written in 1691) and Thomas Keightleys The fairy mythology (1828) as the leading works of reference on fairy lore. Despite a substantial volume of literature, the next major study of fairies did not appear until 1959 when Katherine Briggs The Anatomy of Puck was published, which lead in due course to her better-known A dictionary of fairies in 1976
In the nineteenth century roads in Ireland were rerouted to avoid disturbing fairy mounds. In the December 25, 2005 edition of the Boston Herald, it was written that belief in fairies, elves, leprachauns, etc., collectively known as the "Little People" or "Hidden Folk", still flourishes in Europe, as for example in the case of Icelandic road planners who will always consult an elf expert before building a highway, in order to avoid building through elf territory.
Many people in European countries still hold a mixture of fear and respect for the Hidden Folk, and will be especially careful not to arouse their anger , for they know that to do so would be disastrous. Such beliefs even extend to the United States, as reported in the lead article of the May 2006 issue of Fate Magazine, where it was reported that a small town in Minnesota, that was settled primarily by Scandinavian immigrants, told stories of what were called the Huldefolk, and a witness named Richard Connors even reported having an unexpected wrestling match with one of the beings!
With the coming of the 21th century, the Age of Faery seemed to have truly come to an end. The gods of Ireland had become no more than fairy tales, and most had forgotten they were ever anything more. However, this same century brought about a renewed interest in ancient religions and beliefs, and today, there are those who have resurrected the ancient Faery Faith. With the rise of Wicca and other Pagan movements in the 20th century, the Flower Fairy was reinvented, slowly becoming the Elemental Fairy.
As demonstrated in this account, belief in the Little People doesn't necessarily stop at just the folklore and mythological angle, but instead continues on to reports of actual encounters with the Little People, mainly from the United States and Europe but not just limited to these countries.
Origins of fairies