A species of supernatural beings or nature spirits, one of the
most beautiful and important of mythological concepts. Belief
in fairies is ancient and widespread, and similar ideas concerning
them are found in primitive as well as civilized societies.
Fairies have been celebrated in folklore, stories, songs, and
poems. The term fairy comes from the Latin fata and fatum
(fate), and in Middle English implied enchantment, or an enchanted
land and its inhabitants. Fairies were known as ‘‘fays’’
or ‘‘fées’’ in the British Isles and Europe.
Fairies were often said to be invisible, usually of smaller stature
than humans. It was believed they could be helpful to humans,
but might be dangerous and evil if offended. They were
often considered just mischievous and whimsical in a childlike
manner, but were believed to have magical powers.
The strongest traditions of fairies are those of the British
Isles and Europe, but belief in fairies has also been found in
Asia, America, and Africa. There are scores of characteristic
fairies in the European tradition, but the main types include
the trooping fairies, who are the aristocrats of the fairy world,
living in palaces or dancing and feasting underground; the
hobgoblin fairies of a rougher, workman type; nature spirits of
rivers, gardens, and woods; and deformed monsters, like hags
and giants. For a comprehensive listing of pixies, nixies, elves,
fauns, brownies, dwarfs, leprechauns, bogies, banshees, and
other fairies, see the excellent work A Dictionary of Fairies
(1976), by Katharine Briggs, a modern authority on the subject.
Typical activities of fairies in relation to human beings include
abducting babies and putting changelings in their place;
helping plants and flowers to grow; sweeping floors; bestowing
miraculous gifts for friendship (such as removing deformities
or breaking the spells of witches); performing mischievous
pranks like milking cows in the fields, soiling clothes put out
to dry, curdling milk, and spoiling crops.
Fairyland was usually underground or in some magical
other dimension. Here time became mystically changed—one
night in fairyland might equal a lifetime in the human world.
Some of the most romantic and poignant folktales concern
mortals who fall in love with a fairy queen and are transported
to the magical world of fairyland where all wishes come true,
but through breaking some taboo or indulging in homesickness
for earthly existence, the mortal is suddenly returned to
his world, in which scores of years have passed.
In the seventeenth century, Rev. Robert Kirk investigated
the fairies of Aberfoyle in Scotland, much as a visiting anthropologist
might study a native tribe. In his book The Secret Commonwealth
of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies (1691), Kirk confidently
describes the life, occupations, and activities of the fairies in
their subterranean world. Kirk’s tomb is in Aberfoyle, but legend
has it that he swooned away while crossing a fairy hill and
after apparent death and burial appeared in a dream to a relaFahler,
Jarl Ingmar Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
tive, stating that he was a prisoner in fairyland. He gave instructions
for his release, but his cousin was too frightened to complete
them, and Kirk was lost forever.
There are many folklore stories of fairies assisting humans,
mainly in a bucolic setting. Household fairies were said to assist
in everyday tasks like washing dishes, laying the fire, sweeping
the floor, making bread bake properly, and so on but asked to
be treated respectfully and given a cup of milk for their trouble.
Other fairies played mischievous pranks of a poltergeist nature,
pelting mortals with stones, preventing bread from rising,
blowing out candles, knocking pans off shelves, sending gusts
of smoke, or annoying horses and cattle. Often this was deemed
a punishment for lack of respectful treatment. In rural areas,
fairies were often referred to in flattering terms as ‘‘the good
people’’ to avoid offending them.
According to superstition, the fairies would sometimes steal
a human baby and put a changeling fairy child in its place,
often ugly and bad-tempered. The changeling might be tricked
into a sudden admission of its fairy origin, but there was also
a folk superstition that it should be set on fire for this purpose.
Undoubtedly some temperamental babies were fatally burned
because of this belief, which persisted until some two centuries
ago in isolated peasant districts.
Fairy traditions have been strongest in Celtic countries. In
Scotland and Ireland, fairies were called daoine sithe (men of
peace) and it was believed that every year the devil carried off
a tenth part of them. In Scotland and Ireland, Neolithic flint
arrowheads were believed to be fairy weapons, and water in
which they were dipped was said to be a cure for many ills. The
Celts believed fairy music could be heard in certain spots, and
it was usually described as sublime. Some folk music airs are
said to have originated in fairy music.
‘‘Fairy rings’’ are small dark green circles in the grass of
meadows, fields, or lawns caused by a certain fungus. These
rings were once said to be the dancing places of the fairies. In
Ireland, mound burials were believed to be the haunts of
Theories of Fairies
There were many different beliefs concerning fairies. Peasant
traditions said they were fallen angels who were neither
good enough to be saved nor bad enough to be lost. Folklorists
hypothesize that fairies are a folk recollection of an ancient
pygmy race, are mythological personifications of natural phenomena,
or are remnant figures from ancient religious beliefs.
Household tales of folk heroes like Jack the Giant-Killer are
probably transplanted from ancient Indo-European folklore,
and folk traditions have been made sophisticated in the tales
of the Countess d’Aulnoy and Hans Christian Andersen.
Different beliefs and folk memories have no doubt merged,
but when all this is sifted and evaluated there remains a body
of tradition and testimony, even today, of an elusive ghostly
order of life on the borderland of mind and matter, usually depicted
in the natural setting of wild and lonely places rather
than in the skeptical materialistic bustle of towns and cities.
W. Y. Evans-Wentz, in his The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries
(1911) presents a living testimony of fairies, the recorded traditions
of Celtic literature and mythology, an examination of various
theories for fairies, and a case for the reality of fairy life.
In the final section, Evans-Wentz correlates fairy life with the
ghosts and spirits of psychical phenomena, quoting the French
researcher Camille Flammarion, who suggests in his book Mysterious
Psychic Forces (1907)
‘‘Either it is we who produce these phenomena, or it is spirits.
But mark this well these spirits are not necessarily the souls
of the dead; for other kinds of spiritual beings may exist, and
space may be full of them without our ever knowing anything
about it, except under unusual circumstances. Do we not find
in the different ancient literature, demons, angels, gnomes,
goblins, sprites, spectres, elementals, etc. Perhaps these legends
are not without some foundation in fact.’’
Evans-Wentz concludes that ‘‘we can postulate scientifically,
on the showing of the data of psychical research, the existence
of such invisible intelligences as gods, genii, daemons, all kinds
of true fairies, and disembodied men.’’ In his assertions, EvansWentz
goes far beyond the territory usually covered by his colleagues,
who usually limit themselves to the study of folklore
In his foreword to the 1966 reissue of Evans-Wentz’s book,
Leslie Shepard cites the protean aspect of fairies (i.e., their ability
to change form in accordance with the convention of the
viewer) and says, ‘‘I have a strong suspicion that in the newer
mythology of flying saucers some of those ‘shining visitors’ in
spacecraft from other worlds might turn out to be just another
form of fairies.’’ Since then, similar views have been advanced
by UFO commentators like Jacques Vallee and Brad Steiger.
Other ufologists have suggested that fairies and flying saucer
phenomena can be correlated with such miraculous religious
apparitions as those of Fatima or Lourdes.
Real Fairies
Claims of contact with fairies are numerous. In 1907 Lady
Archibald Campbell interviewed an old blind man and his wife
living in an Irish glen who claimed to have caught a fairy and
kept it captive for two weeks before it escaped (see Occult Review,
6, no. 5, November 1907). A friend of the couple claimed
he had seen fairies on the Hill of Howth at early morning, ‘‘little
men about three feet high, riding on donkeys to scale.’’
Around the same time a reporter on Irish radio interviewed a
woman in the west of Ireland who had been ‘‘infested with
fairies’’ for several weeks after cutting down a fairy thornbush.
The thornbushes believed to be jealously cherished by fairies
are still sometimes left undisturbed in Irish fields.
The most famous case of alleged fairy contact came in 1917,
when Elsie Wright, age 16, and Frances Griffiths, 10, who lived
in the small Yorkshire village of Cottingley, England, claimed
they saw and played with fairies near a brook in the local countryside.
No one believed them, so they borrowed a camera and
produced photographs of their fairies. These pictures later
came to the attention of the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
and became the basis of his book The Coming of the Fairies
(1922). Doyle accepted the girls’ story. The evidence for the
genuineness of these photographs was quite strong, and a number
of attempts were made to disprove them. Skeptics suggested
a number of explanations (all of which proved wrong) and
it was not until a thorough study of the photographs was made
in the 1980s that the source and means of the hoax became
known. Shortly before their deaths, the women admitted the
Doyle’s book continues to be reprinted and circulated, primarily
in theosophical circles. Many Theosophists became convinced
of the truth of the girls’ story after independent claims
regarding the reality of the Cottingley fairies came from Theosophist
Geoffrey Hodson, who visited the Cottingley glen with
the two girls in 1921 and affirmed that he saw wood elves,
gnomes, goblins, and other nature spirits.
In her book The Real World of Fairies (1977), theosophical
leader Dora van Gelder, who grew up in Java, states that she
played with fairies and later even saw them in New York’s Central
Other British psychics, including Vincent Turvey and Horace
Leaf, also claimed to see fairies, and in 1927 the Fairy Investigation
Society was formed in Britain to collate information
on fairy sightings. The society eventually became inactive,
largely as a result of unwelcome newspaper reports ridiculing
the subject. Other organizations that take an interest in fairies
include the Gnome Club of Great Britain and Gnome International.
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