Back in the 16th century, it was very common for people to believe in fairies, but they didn’t think they were eight inches tall, necessarily good or even sporting wings. For instance, if a baby was born less than perfect, people referred to them as changelings and claimed that fairies had replaced them. Fairies were magical but were feared as more malevolent beings.
In was in the early 1900s, probably as a result of the Peter Pan story, that the pretty little friendly female magic became the common image of a fairy. It was about the same time that the Cottingley fairy photos hit the headlines and took the world by storm. This new image persisted for some time and when Disney released the animated film of Peter Pan in 1953, Tinkerbell cemented that image as the de-facto description of a fairy into the
We all know about fairies, even if we wouldn’t all necessarily agree on an exact definition. Some of us may picture Tinker Bell from Disney’s Peter Pan, while others have images firmly fixed in our minds from other pop culture sources such as Dungeons & Dragons or The Spiderwick Chronicles. “Fairy” is even a type of Pokemon.
When it comes to trying to pigeonhole the fair folk, though, we find that they are (thematically enough) surprisingly elusive. While the word may call to mind images of pixie-like, minute creatures with delicate wings, coming up with a definition that captures the wide variety of fairy lore is all but impossible.
Indeed, even knowing what to call them can be tricky. According to Historic-UK.com, “when belief in fairies was common most people didn’t like to mention them by name and so referred to them by other names.”
Perhaps this is part of why there is such a bewildering array of epithets for fairies. You may see them referred to as little people, hidden people, good neighbors, kindly ones, and many more.
Ask a folklorist, and they’ll tell you that many of these names, especially the ones that make the fair folk out to be beneficent, are used in irony, or as a kind of ward against incurring their wrath.
Even the word “fairy” itself has an array of spellings and variations. There are fairies and faeries, fay and fey and fae—even once you settle on a spelling, the word “fairy” can mean a creature, or it can be used as an adjective, to mean “magical” or “enchanted.” It’s also often used as the name of the land from which these beings hail.
On top of all that, the term covers a dizzying array of different entities. Sometimes, the word fairy describes a particular thing—often those smallish creatures with the wings we mentioned earlier, though that is a somewhat more recent representation—while other times, the term includes all manner of other creatures, such as goblins or gnomes.
What we can pretty much all agree on is that they are a type of legendary or mythological being found throughout a variety of European cultures.
Fairies can be found in the folklore of the Celts and the Slavic peoples, as well as the history of England, Germany, and France, to name just a few. Many other countries are also home to folk tales featuring similar creatures, such as the Japanese yokai; but for now, we’ll confine our interest to the European fairies. After all, there’s plenty of them.
As you might expect from an entity with such diverse origins, there are a lot of different stories are just what fairies are and where they come from. Because they have been handed down from a wealth of different traditions, and passed through a number of different cultural filters to reach our understanding of them here in the present day, the possible origins and explanations of fairies are as bewildering as everything else about them.
Many of the Christian traditions that came to dominate much of Europe during the Middle Ages absorbed the existing belief in fairies and painted them as either demoted angels or as demons, depending on the inclinations of both the fairy and the storyteller. Other traditions, including Pagan belief systems which predated the Christianization of the continent, saw them as everything to prehistoric pre-humans, to the spirits of the dead.
It is as nature spirits that we most often encounter fairies in popular media today, though earlier depictions of them ran the gamut, from the Christian-tinged idea that they were fallen angels not quite bad enough for Hell, to the notion of them as the souls of the departed, literally “haunting” certain locations much as a ghost would.
Ultimately, fairies were creatures of oral tradition, and like all oral traditions, they were changeable, adapting as the needs and cultural lenses of the times and the specific tellers needed them to. It’s something fairies are particularly good at, and something that they’re still doing today…
Again, it depends on who you ask, but folkloric accounts have a wide variety of answers. Many early fairy stories revolve heavily around two things. One is stories of changelings, in which human children are abducted by the fair folk, and a shapeshifter fairy left in their place. The other is ways to ward fairies off, to break their spells, or to simply avoid their displeasure.
There are a variety of protective charms that are said to ward off fairies, with one of the most popular in modern culture being cold iron. Others include church bells, four-leaf clovers, and wearing your clothing inside out. Specific wards work for specific fairies, though, and we’re quickly going to get back into the weeds if we start talking about all the different varieties of fey that are said to exist throughout European history.
There are brownies and hobgoblins, who often do useful work around the house but may sometimes be hideous to look upon. There are banshees, whose wail is said to foretell the hearer’s death—or, in the Scottish Highlands, you might instead encounter the Washer-by-the-Ford, a web-toed creature with only one nostril who washes bloody clothes on days when someone is about to die. There are water horses and will-o'-wisps, not to mention individual fairies with personal names like the sinister Black Annis who hung human skins in the tree outside her cave, or Jenny Greenteeth, who drowned vulnerable people in the river.
From goblins to nobility, what all fairies had in common is that they were magical beings, intelligent and capricious, sometimes malignant, sometimes beneficent, often tricksters, and almost always bound to inscrutable laws that could, nonetheless, be used to trick, trap, ward, or repel them, so long as one knew how to do so.
Beyond that, descriptions varied wildly, and even wings—perhaps the most commonly ascribed visible characteristic of fairies today—is more often a Victorian addition to fairy canon than a part of the original lore.
Well, we don’t really know, do we? Obviously, we have no real evidence that fairies exist, but at the same time, it’s difficult to prove that they don’t, for the simple reason that it’s difficult to prove a negative.
Like cryptids and UFOs—which have, in some ways, taken fairies' place in the imagination of the credulous or those who, to quote the X-Files, “want to believe"—fairies exist for those who want them to badly enough, and there’s probably nothing that anyone can say that will dissuade them.
Here’s what we do know, though: There are definitely some of those people about—and there are people who are all-too-willing to take them in with a little good-natured (or not-so-good-natured) tomfoolery. And there are plenty of people who want to be taken in, for whom belief in fairies and fantastical beings could provide a welcome jolt to hoist “the material twentieth-century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life,” So are fairies real? Maybe not, but our belief in them is, and so is our desire to see that belief borne out. And so long as we want to believe in magic, that will probably never change…