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What is a Fairy?

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

FAIRY (Fr. féefaerie; Prov. fada; Sp. hada; Ital. fata; med. Lat. fatare, to enchant, from Lat. fatum, fate, destiny), the common term for a supposed race of supernatural beings who magically intermeddle in human affairs. Of all the minor creatures of mythology the fairies are the most beautiful, the most numerous, the most memorable in literature. Like all organic growths, whether of nature or of the fancy, they are not the immediate product of one country or of one time; they have a pedigree, and the question of their ancestry and affiliation is one of wide bearing. But mixture and connexion of races have in this as in many other cases so changed the original folk-product that it is difficult to disengage and separate the different strains that have gone to the making or moulding of the result as we have it.

It is not in literature, however ancient, that we must look for the early forms of the fairy belief. Many of Homer’s heroes have fairy lemans, called nymphs, fairies taken up into a higher region of poetry and religion; and the fairy leman is notable in the story of Athamas and his cloud bride Nephele, but this character is as familiar to the unpoetical Eskimo, and to the Red Indians, with their bird-bride and beaver-bride (see A. Lang’sCustom and Myth, “The Story of Cupid and Psyche”). The Gandharvas of Sanskrit poetry are also fairies.

One of the most interesting facts about fairies is the wide distribution and long persistence of the belief in them. They are the chief factor in surviving Irish superstition. Here they dwell in the “raths,” old earth-forts, or earthen bases of later palisaded dwellings of the Norman period, and in the subterranean houses, common also in Scotland. They are an organized people, often called “the army,” and their life corresponds to human life in all particulars. They carry off children, leaving changeling substitutes, transport men and women into fairyland, and are generally the causes of all mysterious phenomena. Whirls of dust are caused by the fairy marching army, as by the being called Kutchi in the Dieri tribe of Australia. In 1907, in northern Ireland, a farmer’s house was troubled with flying stones (see Poltergeist). The neighbours said that the fairies caused the phenomenon, as the man had swept his chimney with a bough of holly, and the holly is “a gentle tree,” dear to the fairies. The fairy changeling belief also exists in some districts of Argyll, and a fairy boy dwelt long in a small farm-house in Glencoe, now unoccupied.

In Ireland and the west Highlands neolithic arrow-heads and flint chips are still fairy weapons. They are dipped in water, which is given to ailing cattle and human beings as a sovereign remedy for diseases. The writer knows of “a little lassie in green” who is a fairy and, according to the percipients, haunts the banks of the Mukomar pool on the Lochy. In Glencoe is a fairy hill where the fairy music, vocal and instrumental, is heard in still weather. In the Highlands, however, there is much more interest in second sight than in fairies, while in Ireland the reverse is the case. The best book on Celtic fairy lore is still that of the minister of Aberfoyle, the Rev. Mr Kirk (ob. 1692). His work on The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, left in MS. and incomplete (the remainder is in the Laing MSS., Edinburgh University library), was published (a hundred copies) in 1815 by Sir Walter Scott, and in the Bibliothèque de Carabas (Lang) there is a French translation. Mr Kirk is said (though his tomb exists) to have been carried away by fairies. He appeared to a friend and said that he would come again, when the friend must throw a dirk over his shoulder and he would return to this world. The friend, however, lost his nerve and did not throw the dirk. In the same way a woman reappeared to her husband in Glencoe in the last generation, but he was wooing another lass and did not make any effort to recover his wife. His character was therefore lost in the glen.

It is clear that in many respects fairyland corresponds to the pre-Christian abode of the dead. Like Persephone when carried to Hades, or Wainamoïnen in the Hades of the Finns (Manala), a living human being must not eat in fairyland; if he does, he dwells there for ever. Tamlane in the ballad, however, was “fat and fair of flesh,” yet was rescued by Janet: probably he had not abstained from fairy food. He was to be given as the kaneto Hell, which shows a distinction between the beliefs in hell and in the place of fairies.

It is a not uncommon theory that the fairies survive in legend from prehistoric memories of a pigmy people dwelling in the subterranean earth-houses, but the contents of these do not indicate an age prior to the close of the Roman occupation of Britain; nor are pigmy bones common in neolithic sepulchres. The “people of peace” (Daoine Shie) of Ireland and Scotland are usually of ordinary stature, indeed not to be recognized as varying from mankind except by their proceedings (see J. Curtin, Irish Folk-tales).

The belief in a species of lady fairies, deathly to their human lovers, was found by R.L. Stevenson to be as common in Samoa (see Island Nights’ Entertainments) as in Strathfinlas or on the banks of Loch Awe. In New Caledonia a native friend of J.J. Atkinson (author of Primal Law) told him that he had met and caressed the girl of his heart in the forest, that she had vanished and must have been a fairy. He therefore would die in three days, which (Mr Atkinson informs the writer) he punctually did. The Greek sirens of Homer are clearly a form of these deadly fairies, as the Nereids and Oreads and Naiads are fairies of wells, mountains and the sea. The fairy women who come to the births of children and foretell their fortunes (Fata,Moerae, ancient Egyptian HathorsFéesDominae Fatales), with their spindles, are refractions of the human “spae-women” (in the Scots term) who attend at birth and derive omens of the child’s future from various signs. The custom is common among several savage races, and these women, represented in the spiritual world by Fata, bequeath to us the French fée, in the sense of fairy. Perrault also uses fée for anything that has magical quality; “the key was fée,” had mana, or wakan, savage words for the supposed “power,” or ether, which works magic or is the vehicle of magical influences.

Though the fairy belief is universally human, the nearest analogy to the shape which it takes in Scotland and Ireland—the “pixies” of south-western England—is to be found in Jan or Jinnis of the Arabs, Moors and people of Palestine. In stories which have passed through a literary medium, like The Arabian Nights, the geni or Jan do not so much resemble our fairies as they do in the popular superstitions of the East, orally collected. The Jan are now a subterranean commonwealth, now they reside in ruinous places, like the fairies in the Irish raths. Like the fairies they go about in whirls of dust, or the dust-whirls themselves are Jan. They carry off men and women “to their own herd,” in the phrase of Mr Kirk, and are kind to mortals who are kind to them. They chiefly differ from our fairies in their greater tendency to wear animal forms; though, like the fairies, when they choose to appear in human shape they are not to be distinguished from men and women of mortal mould. Like the fairies everywhere they have amours with mortals, such as that of the Queen of Faery with Thomas of Ercildoune. The herb rue is potent against them, as in British folk-lore, and a man long captive among the Jan escaped from them by observing their avoidance of rue, and by plucking two handfuls 135thereof. They, like the British brownies (a kind of domesticated fairy), are the causes of strange disappearances of things. To preserve houses from their influences, rue, that “herb of grace,” is kept in the apartments, and the name of Allah is constantly invoked. If this is omitted, things are stolen by the Jan.

They often bear animal names, and it is dangerous to call a cat or dog without pointing at the animal, for a Jinni of the same name may be present and may take advantage of the invocation. A man, in fun, called to a goat to escort his wife on a walk: he did not point at the goat, and the wife disappeared. A Jinni had carried her off, and her husband had to seek her at the court of the Jan. Euphemistically they are addressed as mubarakin, “blessed ones,” as we say “the good folk” or “the people of peace.” As our fairies give gold which changes into withered leaves, the Jan give onion peels which turn into gold. Like our fairies the Jan can apply an ointment, kohl, to human eyes, after which the person so favoured can see Jan, or fairies, which are invisible to other mortals, and can see treasure wherever it may be concealed (see Folk-lore of the Holy Land, by J.E. Hanauer, 1907).

It is plain that fairies and Jan are practically identical, a curious proof of the uniformity of the working of imagination in peoples widely separated in race and religion. Fairies naturally won their way into the poetry of the middle ages. They take lovers from among men, and are often described as of delicate, unearthly, ravishing beauty. The enjoyment of their charms is, however, generally qualified by some restriction or compact, the breaking of which is the cause of calamity to the lover and all his race, as in the notable tale of Melusine. This fay by enchantment built the castle of Lusignan for her husband. It was her nature to take every week the form of a serpent from the waist below. The hebdomadal transformation being once, contrary to compact, witnessed by her husband, she left him with much wailing, and was said to return and give warning by her appearance and great shrieks whenever one of the race of Lusignan was about to die. At the birth of Ogier le Danois six fairies attend, five of whom give good gifts, which the sixth overrides with a restriction. Gervaise of Tilbury, writing early in the 13th century, has in his Otia Imperialia a chapter, De lamiis et nocturnis larvis, where he gives it out, as proved by individuals beyond all exception, that men have been lovers of beings of this kind whom they call Fadas, and who did in case of infidelity or infringement of secrecy inflict terrible punishment—the loss of goods and even of life. There seems little in the characteristics of these fairies of romance to distinguish them from human beings, except their supernatural knowledge and power. They are not often represented as diminutive in stature, and seem to be subject to such human passions as love, jealousy, envy and revenge. To this class belong the fairies of Boiardo, Ariosto and Spenser.

There is no good modern book on the fairy belief in general. Keightley’s Fairy Mythology is full of interesting matter; Rhys’s Celtic Mythology is especially copious about Welsh fairies, which are practically identical with those of Ireland and Scotland. The works of Mr Jeremiah Curtin and Dr Douglas Hyde are useful for Ireland; for Scotland, Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth has already been quoted. Scott’s dissertation on fairies in The Border Minstrelsy is rich in lore, though necessarily Scott had not the wide field of comparative study opened by more recent researches. There is a full description of French fairies of the 15th century in the evidence of Jeanne d’Arc at her trial (1431) in Quicherat’s Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, vol. i. pp. 67, 68, 187, 209, 212, vol. ii. pp. 390, 404, 450.