Where do fairies come from? Folklorists, philosophers, historians, mystics and others have debated this question for centuries. No one really knows how fairies originated — unless it's the fairies themselves, and they're not telling. What we do know is that tales of the fairies can be found on every continent around the globe, and that belief in the existence of the "Hidden People" is surprisingly widespread today.
Some scholars see the vestiges of pagan religions in tales about the fairies — who are, they say, the diminished remnants of once powerful gods and goddesses. Other scholars insist that fairies are really just the early, indigenous peoples of each land, who may have been viewed as magical and otherworldly by conquering tribes. Many people once thought that fairies were fallen angels who'd been ejected from Heaven but weren't quite wicked enough for Hell, or else that they were the wandering souls of children who'd died unbaptized. Some read the following words from the Bible as proof that God had created the fairy race in addition to mankind: "And other sheep have I that are not of this fold." (John 10:16). The most widespread belief, still prevalent today, is that fairies are simply nature spirits and thus as ancient as wind and rain. In this view, they're the manifestations of the living spirit in all organic matter.
In the 15th century, an alchemist named Paracelus divided fairies into four elemental groups: sylphs (air), gnomes (earth), undines (water), and salamanders (fire). They are made of flesh and blood, he said, and procreate like human beings but are longer lived than man and do not possess immortal souls. In the 17th century, a Scottish minister named Robert Kirk wrote that fairies "are of a middle nature betwixt man and angel," with "light changeable bodies, like those called astral, somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen at twilight."(1)
In the 19th century, the physiology of fairies was of great interest to the Spiritualists (2), who divided them into two basic types: nature spirits tied to features of the landscape (a river, a pool, a copse of trees), and higher spirits who lived on an astral plane between flesh and thought. In the early 20th century, a Theosophist (3) named Charles W. Leadbeater developed an elaborate system of fairy classification inspired by Darwin's theory of evolution. Leadbeater maintained that fairies live on an astral plane divided into seven levels. He believed the fairy race to be the original inhabitants of England, driven to its margins by the invasion of mankind; and he drew elaborate diagrams showing how the fairies had evolved. His chart began with mineral life and then rose upward through water and earth, and through seaweed, fungi, and bacteria. Further up the evolutionary ladder he showed how fairies developed through grasses and cereals, reptiles and birds, sea flora and fauna, until they matured into nature spirits linked to each of the four elements. But evolution didn't stop there; these nature spirits would in turn evolve into sylphs, then devas, and then into angels. On the top rung of the ladder the fairies would become what he called "solar spirits," where they'd join with evolved humans in a more enlightened age. (4)
Another Theosophist, Edward Garner, argued that fairies are allied to the butterfly genus, and are made of a substance lighter than gas which renders them invisible to human beings (except clairvoyants). The function of fairies in nature, he said, is to provide a link between plants and the energy of the sun. He wrote that the "growth of a plant which we regard as the customary and inevitable result of associating the three factors of sun, seed, and soil would never take place if the fairy builders were absent." (5) Franz Hartmann, a medical doctor, believed that fairies have a role in human psychology, explaining that "the spirits of nature have their dwellings within us as well as outside of us, and no man is perfectly master of himself unless he thoroughly knows his own nature and its inhabitants." (6)
While the Spiritualists, in their journals and lectures, argued how many fairies could fit on the head of a pin or swim through the higher astral plane, unlettered country people were taking great pains to avoid the fairies' notice. Charms, talismans, and spells were used to keep troublesome fairies at bay — to chase them away from the house, the livestock, newborn children, and unmarried girls. Although fairies had been known to give aid to mortals, more often they were seen as irksome creatures, quick to take offense and dangerous when riled. Fairy bargains were notoriously tricky things and fairy treasure was often cursed. Mortals who stumbled into Fairyland could end up trapped in that realm forever, or emerge from it aged and withered, even though it had seemed like little time had passed. Fairies were blamed for soured milk, blighted crops, and barren cows; for illness, madness, birth defects and other mysterious ills. Even good fairies followed rules and taboos that could be unfathomable to humans — thus it was wise to be scrupulously polite and to treat all fairies with great caution. Folklore is filled with cautionary tales outlining the perils of fairy encounters. Do not eat fairy food, they say, for it will trap you in Fairyland. Avoid using a fairy's name, and don't ever tell them your own. Don't bargain with the fairies, or join their dances, or spy on their courtly revels. Wear your shirt inside out and carry iron to avoid abduction.
There are numerous stories of human beings abducted into Faerieland — particularly newborn babies, attractive young children, midwives, and musicians. When human babies are snatched from the cradle, a fairy "changeling" is left behind. Sometimes this creature is merely a piece of wood enchanted to look like a child; other times it is a sickly fairy baby, or an old and peevish fairy. The stolen human children are petted and cosseted for a while — until they grow big and lumpish, or until the fairy court grows bored with them — whereupon they are turned into household slaves for the rest of their mortal lives, or banished from the Realm (for which they'll pine from that day forward). Some say the fairies are required to pay a blood–tithe to Hell every seven years, and that they steal mortals for this purpose so as not to sacrifice one of their own. A human knight named Tam Lin was destined to be the tithe in one famous old tale, until his true love tricked the Fairy Queen into releasing him on All Hallows Eve.
Some fairies can be alluring creatures — but woe to those who seek their kisses, for few amorous encounters between fairies and mortals ever come to good. A harp player named Thomas the Rhymer kissed the Fairy Queen under the Eildon Tree, then paid for each of those kisses with seven years of servitude in Fäerie. Thomas was one of the lucky ones, because many hapless lads and maidens sickened and died after twilight encounters with sweet–talking lovers who turned out to be fairies in disguise. There are stories in which fairies wed with mortals, but such marriages rarely turn out well — whether it is a woman with a fairy husband or a man with a fairy bride. Irish seal–people who marry human men and women always return to the sea, and Japanese fox fairies make dangerous brides, stealing the life essence from their husbands. The children born of such unions are often lonely, melancholic creatures, too mortal to live comfortably in Fäerie and too fey for the human world.
Some fairy lore makes a clear division between good and wicked types of fairies — between those who are friendly to mankind, and those who seek to cause us harm. In Scottish tales, good fairies make up the Seelie Court, which means the Blessed Court, while bad fairies congregate in the Unseelie Court, ruled by the dark queen Nicnivin. In old Norse myth, the Liosálfar (Light Elves) are regal, compassionate creatures who live in the sky in the realm of Alfheim, while the Döckálfar (the Dark Elves) live underground and are greatly feared. Yet in other traditions, a fairy can be good or bad, depending on the circumstance or on the fairy's whim. They are often portrayed as amoral beings, rather than as immoral ones, who simply have little comprehension of human notions of right and wrong.
The great English folklorist Katherine Briggs tended to avoid the "good" and "bad" division, preferring the categorizations of Solitary and Trooping Fairies instead. She noted that the fairies in either group "may be evil, dealing death or sickness to every man and creature they pass on their way, like the Sluagh of the Highlands; they may steal unchurched wives from child–bed, or snatch away unchristened babes leaving animated stocks [pieces of wood] or sickly children of their own in their place, or they may be harmless and even beneficial — fertility spirits watching over the growth of flowers or bringing good luck to herds or children." Solitary Fairies are generally those associated with a certain location: a bog, a lake, the roots of a tree, a particular hill or household. The Trooping Fairies, by contrast, are gregarious creatures fond of hunting, feasting, dancing, and holding court. "This is perhaps particularly true of the British Isles," writes Briggs, "though in France, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany there are the same tales of dancing, revelry and processions." (7)
Art: "Fairies Among Mushrooms" by Thomas Heatherley, "Fairies" by Edmund Dulac, "Butterfly Dance" by Richard Doyle, "Changelings" by Alan Lee, "Queen of the Bad Fairies" by Brian Froud