A fairy, according to tradition, is a humanlike supernatural creature that lives alongside human beings but is seldom seen by them. Fairies appear often in the folklore of Western Europe, particularly that of the Celtic cultures of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Legends hold that fairies have magic powers. Fairies are sometimes helpful but can also be mischievous and even cruel.
The term fairy is French in origin. But other terms for fairies and fairylike creatures, such as brownie and pixie, come from different countries. Common Celtic words for fairy were bucca, puca, and pwca. Bogey, bogeyman, or a bug-a-boo refers to an evil fairy who kidnaps or harms people. Another term for a fairylike creature is hob or hobgoblin. People once thought it was risky to talk about fairies by name. Instead, they referred to fairies as “the wee folk” or “the good neighbors.”
No one knows how the belief in fairies began. In some stories, fairies were angels who were forced to leave heaven because of some wrongdoing. In other stories, fairies were spirits of the dead. Some scholars think that fairies began as ancient nature spirits, such as the spirits of mountains, streams, and trees. Even today, people in some communities avoid removing certain rocks or trees when building roads, for fear of offending the fairies believed to live in them.
Fairies appear in many folk stories and legends. People often told such stories to explain things that they did not understand. For example, people walking at night through marshes and swamplands sometimes noticed strange lights. A person who left the path to follow such a light could become hopelessly lost in the darkness. Stories held that these lights were fairies trying to trick people to leave the safety of the path. Today, scientists understand that these lights, called will-o-the-wisp or fox fires, are caused by the natural burning of methane (marsh gas) produced by decaying plants.
Types of fairies. Folklorists describe fairies as either solitary or trooping. Solitary fairies always appear alone, while trooping fairies live together.
Solitary fairies. The leprechaun of Ireland is a solitary fairy sometimes spotted in a field, often working at making shoes. If captured, a leprechaun must reveal where he has hidden his pot of gold. However, the leprechaun usually manages to escape through some clever trick. The banshee, another solitary fairy, foretells death. In Scotland, the banshee can be heard wailing by a river as she washes the clothes of the person who soon will die. In Ireland, many people believe that if they hear the sound of a wailing banshee, someone in their family will soon perish.
Brownies, a type of helpful fairy, inhabit human households and often do work for the family at night. A brownie might help with the housework or with such farm work as reaping and threshing. However, people are not allowed to thank brownies or watch them work. If the person breaks one of these rules, the brownie runs away and never returns. Mischievous fairies called boggarts often undo work or create trouble unless food offerings are left for them.
Trooping fairies live together in a society often called fairyland. Fairyland may be under the ground, inside a hollow hill called a fairy mound, or beneath a lake. The entrance may be a door in a hill or under the roots of trees. In most stories, a king and queen rule fairyland. Queen Mab is a famous fairy queen in Irish folklore. Oberon is king of the fairies in many legends.
Life in fairyland resembles life in the human world. Fairies work, marry, and have children. Time passes slowly in fairyland, so there is no old age or death. However, it is dangerous for human beings to enter the world of fairies. Many legends describe the difference between time in fairyland and in the human world. In one legend, a man spends what he believes is one night in fairyland. But after he returns home, he finds that hundreds of years have passed and no one remembers him. The American author Washington Irving based his famous story “Rip Van Winkle” on such a legend.
Trooping fairies enjoy dancing and making music, and many stories tell how human beings happen to see or hear their merrymaking. Many famous Celtic melodies are said to have been learned by musicians who happened to walk past a fairy mound and hear the music.
Magic powers. Fairies have many magic powers. The most important is the ability to make themselves invisible to people. They use this power to steal items that they need from people. However, some people possess fairy sight. They can see fairies as they move to and from their underground homes. Sometimes fairies become visible to a person who plucks a four-leaf clover or steps into a fairy ring. A fairy ring is a circle of mushrooms around greener grass or bare soil in a field or meadow. Fairies are said to dance in fairy rings.
Many fairies can fly and travel great distances quickly. Small whirlwinds called dust devils were thought by some people to be caused by groups of fairies flying from place to place.
Appearance. Older traditions describe fairies as similar in size and appearance to human beings. But fairies always have some distinguishing feature. They may have greenish skin, for example, or a squinting eye. Later traditions hold that fairies are smaller than human beings-sometimes the size of insects. These fairies often have transparent wings. Some fairies, including pixies, have great beauty. Other traditions describe fairies as old men with deformed bodies. Many fairies wear green or white clothing with red caps. Brownies usually wear shabby brown cloaks and hoods.
Fairies and people sometimes marry. A man might go to fairyland to live with his bride, or he might bring his fairy wife back to his home. In many stories, a person must follow strict rules to marry a fairy. For example, a human husband must never scold or strike his fairy wife or refer to her being a fairy. If he does, she immediately returns to fairyland.
Fairies sometimes reward people for doing them a favor. According to one story, a farmer who mends a fairy shovel or chair will receive delicious food in return. Grateful fairies also may leave money for people who have treated them well.
In fairyland, fairies often have trouble giving birth. A common type of fairy legend tells how fairies kidnap a human woman and take her to fairyland to help deliver a baby. The fairies blindfold the woman before she enters and leaves fairyland so that the entrance to the fairy world will remain secret.
Fairies nearly always reward the woman well for her help, but they can be cruel if she gives away their secrets. In one legend, a woman puts some magic ointment on a newborn fairy’s eye and accidentally rubs some on one of her own eyes. The ointment enables her to see fairies who are normally invisible to human beings. Later, the woman sees a fairy in a marketplace and speaks to him. The fairy asks which eye the woman sees him with. After she tells him, he blinds her in that eye.
Fairies sometimes try to trick women into caring for fairy babies. The fairies may exchange their babies, called changelings, for healthy newborn human infants. Usually, a human mother could see that a changeling has been substituted for her child because the fairy baby has some ugly physical feature or habit. If the mother threatens to harm the changeling, it may leave and give back the woman’s own child. Folklore scholars think that some kinds of birth defects may have inspired this belief in changelings.
People who believe in fairies have developed many customs to win the favor of fairies or to protect themselves from evil ones. Fairies love milk, and so people may leave bowls of cream outside to please them. To prevent fairies from stealing milk, they might protect stalls holding milk cows with a magical charm, usually a piece of iron such as an old horseshoe. Parents might hang an open pair of scissors over a child’s crib as a charm to prevent fairies from stealing the infant. If travelers lose their way due to a fairy’s trick, they can break the spell by turning a piece of their clothing inside out.
Fairy tales are fantasy stories told to children that occur in some imaginary land and time. They sometimes-but not always-include fairies or fairylike creatures.
The French author Charles Perrault collected a book of folk stories called Tales of Mother Goose (1697). In one tale, Cinderella’s fairy godmother changes a pumpkin into a carriage and mice into horses. In another story, an evil fairy condemns Sleeping Beauty to death. But a good fairy changes the curse from death to a long sleep, so a handsome prince can awaken the girl with a kiss.
In the early 1800’s, two German scholars, the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, published a collection of folk stories that became known in English as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. However, the Grimms did not use the term fairy, and only a few of the stories include fairylike creatures. One tale, “Rumpelstiltskin,” tells of a strange creature who spins gold from straw to get a young woman to give him her first-born child.
Some authors have made up their own stories about fairies. The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen wrote several volumes of stories from 1835 until his death in 1875. In one tale, “Thumbelina,” a fairylike girl springs from the heart of a magic flower and later meets and marries a fairy prince.
The Italian author Carlo Collodi wrote Pinocchio (1883), a children’s novel where a fairy character brings a wooden doll to life. These stories have been told and retold in many different ways, so that now children around the world know them.
Fairies in literature. For hundreds of years, authors have written about fairies in novels, plays, and stories. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, written in the 1300’s, concerns a fairy woman who marries a knight.
The English playwright William Shakespeare used fairies as major characters in his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (about 1595). This play includes Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, and the mischievous fairy Puck. A fairy named Ariel appears in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (about 1611). Shakespeare also wrote a famous description of Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet (about 1596).
Peter Pan (1904), by the Scottish writer J. M. Barrie, tells the story of a boy who encourages other children to fly away and live with him in a timeless world resembling fairyland. His tiny companion, Tinkerbell, is one of the most famous fairies in literature.
Fairies and other imaginary creatures inspired the works of the English author J. R. R. Tolkien. In The Hobbit (1937) and the three-volume The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), Tolkien described a race of wise and gifted elves that share many characteristics with trooping fairies.
Fairies appear in the Harry Potter series of novels written by the British author J. K. Rowling. Published in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, these books introduced readers to many fairylike characters.
Fairies in modern times. Belief in fairies has declined in modern times, particularly as science has provided explanations for many mysteries of the natural world. However, the idea of magical beings living alongside us remains attractive to many people, and so their image has persisted in stories and tales. As fairy traditions became less serious, fairies have grown increasingly associated with early childhood.
Even today, parents often tell of fairylike creatures to frighten or reassure their children. The bogeyman, originally an evil fairy, is said to carry off boys and girls who are naughty. Parents may also tell of the sandman, who comes each night and sprinkles magic sand on their eyes to help them doze off peacefully. Another modern fairy is the tooth fairy, who comes to take the baby teeth that children lose. If children put the lost tooth under their pillow or in a glass of water, the fairy will take the tooth while they are asleep and leave money in exchange.
People’s continuing belief in fairies has occasionally led to hoaxes. In one famous hoax created in 1917, two young girls in the north of England borrowed a camera and took pictures of themselves with paper images of fairies that they had cut out from a book. When the photographs were published, many people believed they provided evidence that fairies really existed. The English author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote essays arguing that the photographs were real.
Many people in rural parts of the United Kingdom, and in rural areas of Newfoundland settled by Celtic immigrants, still claim to have seen fairies out in the countryside. In many other parts of the world, people have similar beliefs. Hawaiian folklore includes stories about dwarfs called Menehune, who work at night. In Japan, people still believe that fox-spirits cause fairylike mischief.
Belief in fairies has also influenced modern folklore in the United States. During World War II (1939-1945), American pilots told of strange little creatures in their planes, blaming them for causing mysterious mechanical problems. They called these creatures gremlins. The term has since come to mean anything that causes an unexplained problem in a machine.
Bill Ellis, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, American Studies, Pennsylvania State University, Hazleton.