What is a Fairy?
A fairy is a magical creature who resembles a human. Beyond that, defining fairies is almost impossible. Their legend is as old as European civilization itself, and they come in all colors, sizes, and temperaments. No two fairy encounters are quite the same!
If you saw a picture of an ancient fairy, you might mistake it for an elf or even a troll! The first fey people certainly weren’t as delicate as the fairies we know and love today. Most were the size of children, although some of them could be as tall as adults. They all looked human, but they ranged from supernaturally beautiful to hideously deformed. Some of them had traits that clearly set them apart from humans, like pointed ears, webbed fingers, missing noses, or green or blue skin.
During the Romantic Period, fairies took the stage in plays and operas. Ugly fairies fell out of fashion and were replaced by gorgeous creatures, whose connection to nature was made obvious by their flowery clothing and woodland companions. Conveniently, these new, beautiful fairies were human-sized and prone to falling in love with mortals!
During the Victorian Era, fairytales for children became popular. Fairies were shrunk down to a tiny size and given adorable, tailored outfits complete with tiny shoes and hats. Fairies with wings also became more popular, especially after the publication of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.
The fey people are as diverse in personality as they are in appearance. Their most common traits are a quick wit, a love of parties. Beyond this, they come in all habits and tempers.
Some fairies are helpful. They guide travelers who are lost in the forest back towards home. They help with household chores, often going to work overnight, so that their hosts wake up to a happy surprise. If they are particularly fond of you, they might even lead you to treasure, give you magical gifts, help you win your true love’s hand in marriage, or cast a lucky charm over your life.
Others are mischievous. They delight in misleading travelers or luring them into exhausting dances that go one for days. They also like to taunt domestic animals, pinching horses to make them gallop, stealing milk from cows, and playing cat-and-mouse with cats.
And then there are some fairies who are dangerous—so dangerous that, for centuries, they were called “the good folk,” “the little people,” or “the neighbors” because people were too afraid of them to say their name aloud. These fairies usually live in hierarchies, where the king or queen is the most dangerous of all. They don’t just get travelers lost; they lead them into deadly bogs. When they take a liking to a human baby, they don’t cast a charm over its life. They steal it from its cradle and replace it with a sickly “changeling.” And if they ever share their dances or treasure with you, be sure that the gift comes with a curse. The most dangerous fairies can declare ware over small disputes. Fortunately, they are more likely to go to war with other magical creatures, like pixies or trolls.
It’s important to be aware that most fairies have fluid personalities. They can go from helpful to mischievous quickly, and despite their cleverness, they don’t have to have a reason for their decisions!
As magical creatures, fairies have almost unlimited power. They can fly. They can make flowers bloom. They can conjure up gold. They can glow in the dark. They can create and cast new charms for any situation, and their curses can last for hundreds of years.
Fortunately, there are some measures you can take to keep fairies at bay. Marigolds, primroses, rowan wood, four-leaf clovers, and St. John’s wort can all be worn or hung over doors to repel the good folk. Iron is even more powerful. An iron nail in your pocket or a horseshoe over your door will provide long-lasting safety.
If you’re hoping to gain a fairy as a friend, leave a saucer of milk, cream, butter, or ale for the fey people to enjoy at night. If you do this on a regular basis, you might be rewarded!
Although the word “fairy” comes from old French, the concept behind these magical creatures cannot be traced back to a single source. Various Celtic and Germanic traditions merged together to create the fairies we think of today.
Many scholars believe that fairies are the modern-day version of ancient, pagan deities. Most regions that have a rich oral tradition, dealing with fairies, have a legend about the fey people being “driven underground” by Christian missionaries. These stories might symbolize a very real historical fact: worship of local deities was suppressed by Christians. Gradually, as people accepted Christianity, they turned their deities into lesser magical creatures, thus preserving their traditions in a way that was compatible with Christian monotheism.
A handful of bolder scholars claim that “fairies,” a prehistoric race of people who inhabited western Europe, really did exist. These people were driven out of Europe by the Celts and, gradually, transformed into legend. The childlike size of fairies corresponds with prehistoric humans in other parts of the world, and their fear of iron could be a cultural memory of how iron weapons were used to conquer a race of people who only had stone age weapons.
The arrival of Romans in Europe was a double-edged sword. On one hand, they began changing the ancient culture almost immediately. On the other, they began writing down the region’s oral traditions, thus preserving ancient folklore for future generations.
Long after the first waves of Roman colonization, Rome continued to have a profound effect on fairies. First, Christianity, which was enforced by the Roman Catholic Church, limited the powers of the fey people and associated them with demons and witches. Later, the nymphs form Roman mythology were blended with fairies, turning them into beautiful creatures with strong bonds to nature.
The first definitive text about fairies was written in the eleventh century. Since then, they have found their way into many of history’s most beloved legends.
In Le Morte d’Arthur, Morgan, Guinevere, and Merlin are linked to the fey people. Later versions of Arthur’s story state that he was crowned by fairies and, upon death, taken to the fairy realm of Avalon and buried under a fairy hill.
Shakespeare plays with fairies in A Middsummer’s Night Dream, where he describes the beautiful dances and meddlesome impulses of fairies.
By the mid-seventeenth centuries, fairies had even earned their own category of literature: fairy tales. The Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson included the good folk in countless stories, as did other writers. The Victorian Era saw a sort of fairy-mania that spilled into poetry and painting, as well as children’s literature.
But it wasn’t until the end of the Victorian Era that the most iconic fairy of all came along. JM Barrie published Peter and Wendy in 1911, and Peter’s fairy, Tinkerbell, immediately stole the hearts of all his readers. From thereon out, the word “fairy” would bring a tiny, fussy person, glowing with light and held aloft by delicate wings, to mind.