History of Fairies

We crave enchantment. We need to be seduced by myth and magic and fairies and castles and druids. The reason is that some part of us longs to penetrate through that “mythic mist” and break through the barriers of the ordinary, five-sensory world in order to make contact with organic Divinity, manifested in earth magic, stone circles, and fairy rings. Ireland’s St. Bridget came from a Druid background. Legend has it that she was trained in Druid rituals of healing and organic mysticism, and then drawn to the convent where her earthly mystical roots grew into a cosmic mystical connection with the Divine.  I’ll do a Druid article at another time.  

Now I’ll admit to a little ‘flack’ from a few people, not many, though I’m glad to say on the ‘layout / content’ of my blog, and with the amount of views of my website / blog, I don’t think that a mere ‘couple’ of naysayers are going to bother me very much.  Suffice to say I do cover various topics that I find of interest, with the Internet being as vast as it is, information overload etc… I spend a great deal of time ‘filtering through’ the information and presenting it *with relevant links to the author, what I found to be both, the most informative and interesting information.. 

The following From “Timeless Myths” (except pictures) : “Fairy” comes from the Old French word faerie. The word has been overused to describe a supernatural being. There is a great deal of difference in classifying a being as a fairy from the medieval literature and those from modern literature, especially those belonging to the Celtic tradition.There are other traditions such as that found in English, German and Slavic folklores.

Today, when we think of fairies, we often visualise them as tiny, supernatural beings with wings and glowing with uncommon light in today’s children fairy tales. And they also possessed some sorts of strange magical powers, like Tinklebell in the story of Peter Pan or the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. The modern fairies, between the 18th and 20th century, comes from oral tradition before they were transmitted into writing.

faerie night

The fairies are supernatural beings that can be best described by the Greek word – daimon, which means “spirit”. They are not divinity, ie. god or goddess, in the usual sense of the word, and yet they are not mere mortal; often, it is easier to classify them as minor divinity.

However, if we look at the idea of fairies, then you would find that have been around a lot longer than everyone expects. 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.

And then, there are household or guardian spirits that can be found in Roman religion and mythology, such as the penates, lares and genii.

A portrait of a fairy, by Sophie Anderson (1869). The title of the painting is Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things - purportedly from a poem by Charles Ede.
A portrait of a fairy, by Sophie Anderson (1869). The title of the painting is Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things – purportedly from a poem by Charles Ede.

The Norse versions of the fairies are the wide variety of elves and the dísir that exist in the Teutonic traditions. The Valkyries could also be classified as fairies.

It was during the time of Queen Elizabeth I of England, where William Shakespeare (1564-1616) had popularised fairies in English folklore, in his play Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the characters Oberon, Titania and Puck (Robin Goodfellow). Earlier than Shakespeare, Chaucer (1342-1400) mentioned that the land of Britain was filled with fairies before the time of King Arthur.

In the Arthurian legends, the divine or fairy figures also appeared in abundance. Morgan, Arthur’s half-sister, seemed to be a great sorceress and healer, was often called Morgan le Fay; her nickname Fay, which means “Fairy”. And then there is this Lady of the Lake. Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, or Gwenhwyfar in the Welsh tradition, also appeared to be a fairy, as well as the sovereignty goddess. Many knights were either born from fairies or they took female fairies as their lovers. Even Merlin was only part mortal.

"Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen". by Johann Heinrich Füssli; scene from The Faerie Queene
“Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen”. by Johann Heinrich Füssli; scene from The Faerie Queene

Then you would discover that that these images of fairies are not the only kind. There were all sorts in fairy tales and folklores. Some are benign, while others are maligned and hostile to mortals. Some were seen as fair, while others were considered ugly and monstrous to look at. They can come in all size and sizes – tall or short, fat or skinny, so there is really no clear definition of fairies may look like. Different types of fairies may also have different types of magical powers.

So, what are these fairies? Where do they come from?

To understand what they are, we should look at some of those found in Celtic mythology and other Celtic traditions. But, then you would discover that fairies are not just confined in Celtic traditions. Many cultures and civilizations have their own versions of fairies.

There are enough kinds of fairies to confuse anyone, because sometimes writers have associated one fairy with a different kind.

In Celtic religion, there was Celtic deities in Gaul (France and Belgium), Hispania (Spain) and Britannia (Britain) during the Roman occupation of these regions or provinces. But the situation changed when Christianity spread to the west and north. These deities that were worshipped before the conversion to Christianity were reduced to the status of fairies in Celtic mythology and folklore.

So in Ireland the gods in the Tuatha De Danann were degenerated to the roles of fairies (eg. Dagda and Lugh), people living under the dune mound or fabled islands, or even within underwater domains. Similar degeneration occurred with old deities in Wales, Scotland and other surviving pockets of Celtic kingdoms (such as Cornwall, Brittany and island of Man).

These earlier Celtic traditions of fairies, the former Irish or Welsh deities were also not fairies in the usual sense. They looked very much like human, in size and shape, except that they have special magical powers and they seemed eternally young, but they don’t have wings. The Dananns or their Welsh counterparts were usually seen as race of fair people. They can die just as mortals can, but their lives could last hundreds or even thousands of years.

The problem is that sometimes, the Christian authors have also turned them into beings serving the Devil, and that the fairies were actually demons. However this view is no longer shared, today.

These medieval fairies are different from the common folklore and fairy tales of today. The Tuatha de Danann is nothing like the brownie, leprechaun and goblin of these later traditions.

Classic representation of a small fairy with butterfly wings commonly used in modern times. Luis Ricardo Falero, 1888.
Classic representation of a small fairy with butterfly wings commonly used in modern times. Luis Ricardo Falero, 1888.

Types of Fairies:

Most of the information about Irish fairies here, comes from 19th century poet, Williams Butler Yeats.

He wrote two works, which is of interest:

  • The Celtic Twilight (1893, 1902)
  • Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888)

In Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, is not only description of fairies; it is a collection of works, poems and prose, from other authors, such as T. Crofton Croker and Lady Wilde.

Sidhe

In this work, he divided the fairies into two broad categories:

  • Trooping Fairies or Social Fairies
  • Solitary Fairies

Social or trooping fairies are those who lived in large company, like in a clan. The Tuatha de Danann who lived in the sidh, ruled by a king, and sometimes a queen (or both), can be considered as the social fairies. They were often seen feasting, singing and dancing. They can be either benevolent or hostile to humans. Another example of trooping fairies is the Merrow.

The solitary fairy usually avoid large gathering. There are many types of solitary fairy, such as banshee, leprechaun, cluricaune, brownie, pooka, etc.

Generally, they can recognise by the type of jackets they wore. The social fairies wore green jackets, while the solitary fairies wore red ones, but sometimes their jackets are brown or grey.

Scottish fairy folklore can also be divided in the similar fashion of solitary and social fairies.

Another writer, Wirt Sikes wrote in the British Goblins (1880), comparing the Welsh fairies with that of Norse/Teutonic fairies.

Sikes says that there are four types in the Norse tradition: 1) elves, 2) dwarves and troll, 3) nisses and 4) necks, mermen, and mermaids.

While in the Welsh traditions there are:

  1. the ellyllon, or the elves;
  2. the coblynau, or the mine fairies;
  3. the bwbachod, or the household fairies;
  4. the gwragedd annwn, or the fairies of the lakes and streams;
  5. the gwyllion, or the mountain fairies.

Here, the classification of Welsh fairies distinguished household fairies from that of the mines, lakes and mountains. Like the Irish tradition, the Welsh can be further divided into solitary and social fairies.

The Welsh name use for fairies is y Tylwyth Teg, which mean “the fair folk”. And these folk lived in Gwlad y Tylwyth Teg, “Fairyland”.  Continue Reading at Timeless Myths Includes a full description of various types of Fairies, and more. Also Classical Mythology, Norse Mythology, Celtic Mythology and Arthurian Legends ‘The Sword’ will take you to their main page:

ON THE ORIGINS
OF FAIRIES

    In 1846, William John Thomas, who contributed the term folklore to the English language, commented in The Athenaeum that “belief in fairies is by no means extinct in England” (Merton, p. 1846, 55). Thorns was not alone in his opinion; he was merely echoing and endorsing the words of others such as Thomas Keightley, the author of The Fairy Mythology. For believers were not limited to gypsies, fisherfolk, rural cottagers, country parsons, and Irish mystics. Antiquarians of the romantic era had begun the quest for fairies, and throughout Victoria’s reign advocates of fairy existence and investigators of elfin origins included numerous scientists, social scientists, historians, theologians, artists, and writers. By the 1880s such leading folklorists as Sabine Baring-Gould, Andrew Lang, Joseph Jacobs, and Sir John Rhys were examining oral testimony on the nature and the customs of the “little folk” and the historical and archaeological remains left by them. At the beginning of the twentieth century, eminent authors, among them Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Arthur Machen, swelled the ranks of those who held the fairy faith and publicized their findings. In a remarkable “trickle up” of folk belief, a surprisingly large number of educated Victorians and Edwardians speculated at length on whether fairies did exist or had at least once existed.

    For the Irish, especially those involved in the Celtic revival, belief in fairies was almost a political and cultural necessity. Thus, William Butler Yeats reported endlessly on his interactions with the sidhe (Irish fairies) and wrote repeatedly of their nature and behavior. His colleagues AE (George Russell) and William Sharp/Fiona Macleod proudly enumerated their fairy hunts and sightings, and the great Irish Victorian folklorists–Patrick Kennedy, Lady Wilde, and Lady Gregory–overtly or covertly acknowledged their beliefs. Even those not totally or personally convinced, like Douglas Hyde, remarked that the fairy faith was alive and well in Ireland.

By CAROLE G. SILVER

Excerpt from: Strange and Secret Peoples

Fairies and Victorian Consciousness

Oxford University Press

Related Articles:

Forgotten Books: Irelands Fairy Lore

Various Books on Faeries: Faery Mists Tripod

The Cottingley Fairies, How Two Young Girls Fooled the Sherlock Holmes Creator

Interesting Link to some Faerie Artists

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