Although each fairy is unique their are a number of common traits which many of them hold in common. This is a short list of some of the most common traits which fairies have.
1-Lovers of the Arts and Beauty
It’s the fairies that make the flowers blossom, the sun shine, the mountains rise and fall. In essence, it is fairies that make the world beautiful, but this is beauty as they define it. While people believed that it was fairies who allowed life to exist, people didn’t believe that fairies were creators simply for the sake of creation. Fairies are artists, and they love what they consider beautiful which is shown by their obsession with song, poetry, and dance.
“Dancing and song are their delight, and by their songs they draw mortals into the water with them... The fossegrim entices men by his music and instructs them in the fiddle and other stringed instruments.” (Jacob Grimm)
This is not to say that they are whimsical artists. Indeed, looking at the nature of artists throughout history, we see that they are rarely whimsical. Fairies are strict with their art as shown by the example of the fossegrim (a male waterfall fairy). In order to learn to play music from the fossegrim, a person would sacrifice a he-goat to him by throwing it into the waterfall. If the fairy accepted the gift, the fossegrim would grab the person’s hands and guide them so violently and for so long that blood would spurt out of the human’s fingertips. With their hands bursting apart and spurting blood, the humans in the tales would beg the fossegrim to stop to allow them to take a break, but the fossegrim would ignore their student’s cries of pain as they continued to force the human to play this way for as long as it took for them to perfect in his art and play so that the trees will dance. (Jacob Grimm) It should be clear from the amount of brutality in the way the fossegrim teaches music that fairies are demanding artists, that they do not accept weakness or pain when it comes to their art. They are beauty and art lovers to an extreme degree.
However, beauty in and of itself is a complex issue. It is more than simply in the eye of the beholder. The same artist who admired sculptures of neoclassicism can become Picaso who himself created more then just frilly art. He created works of both love and sorrow. Picaso painted scenes of war and pain, of sadness and depression alongside his works of happiness and joy. The same writers who carefully craft jokes and allow the boy to get the girl in their stories, will also kill major characters in horrible ways in another tale just as Shakespeare did.
It should be telling, for example, that the god of poetry in Germanic and Norse mythology (Wotan) is also the god who determines who will be victorious and who will lose a battle....
Fairies, like human artists, are quirky and odd. Artists are prone to violent bouts of rage. When Michelangelo didn’t like his work on the Sistine Chapel, he tore down a painting he’d been creating for years. Mozart was often reported to be half mad and would grow angry at his band for not hearing music that wasn’t actually playing. Van Gogh cut off his own ear in a fit of rage. Genius and an extreme, intense interest in one subject create bizarre quirks among humans so we should anticipate that the people who gave human traits to fairies would believe that this situation would be the same among fairies.
Thus, while human art has and is defined by endings; songs with finales, paintings with exhibition, and plays with curtains closings, many fairies do not like such destinations, and as immortal beings they never have to actually seek an ending. Their art can be a journey which never ends but continues on forever.
2-Mutable, Anamorphose, Astral, Creators of Illusions
Nothing is what it seems in the world of fairies. Castles turn out to be dark caverns, and caverns turn out to be bright palaces. Fairies are in and of themselves mutable beings, always changing form and type. When a fairy pays a human for services rendered, the enigmatic creatures are never satisfied with simply paying them in money. Fairies instead pay humans with dead horses, dried leaves, twigs, or other seemingly useless items. Items which turn to gold should the person be smart enough to bring it home with them. What are we to take from these strange actions?
The fairy world is confusing, whether as a means to test human fidelity or because of the fairies’ strange nature, fairy actions can never be straightforward. Fairies, by some peoples’ calculations, are astral beings (“astral” being the insubstantial world of the soul). This makes sense given that fairies appear at least in some respects to be essentially souls. The astral world itself is both less solid and more stable then water for it always changes, always flows, but the beings within it can choose to be solid or can choose their form.
“The fairy world is always described as an immaterial place.” (Wentz, 1911) Further testimonies gathered from Celtic peasents go on to attest that: “Spirits and fairies exist all round us, invisible. Fairies have no solid bodily substance. Their forms are of matter like ghostly bodies, and on this account they cannot be caught. In the twilight they are often seen, and on moonlit nights in summer.” (Ibid) Many fairies are always changing form appearing as a cup, an animal, or a tree. It’s impossible because of such changes to know for certain if fairies even naturally appear as humans, or if they simply take human form to put us at ease.
Jacob Grimm believed that: “The freest personality is proper to gods and spirits who can suddenly reveal or conceal their shape, appear and disappear. To man this faculty is wanting. He can but slowly come and go, and in his body he must abide.” (Grimm, 1935) What would it be like to not have to have any form? To be able to change and adjust at will; to be anywhere one wanted to be? There are two possibilities we must consider. The first is that fairies truely are free; that they are the artists that alter everything, even their forms, to get that which they seek. Or perhaps fairies are themselves a reflection of the world around them. A reflection that shows us what we want to see. In “Religion of the Ancient Celts” (MacCulloch, 1911) attests that: “With the growth of religion, the vaguer spirits tended to become gods and goddesses, and worshipful animals to become anthropomorphic divinities with the animals as their symbols, attendants, or victims. And as the cult of vegetation spirits centered in the ritual of planting and sowing, so the cult of the divinities of growth centered in great, seasonal and agricultural festivals which were the key to the growth of the Celtic religion to be found. Yet the migrating Celts, conquering new lands, evolved divinities of war. Here the old, female influence was still at work since many of these were female. “Most of the Celtic divinities were local in character; each tribe possessing its own group, each god having functions similar to those of other groups. Some, however, had or gained a more universal character absorbing divinities with similar functions. Still, this local character must be borne in mind. The numerous divinities of Gaul, with differing names—but judging by their assimilation to the same Roman divinity, with similar functions are best understood as gods of local groups. Thus the primitive nature spirits gave place to greater or lesser gods, each with his separate department and functions. Though growing civilization tended to separate them from the soil, they never quite lost touch with it. In return for man's worship and sacrifices, they gave life and increased victory, strength, and skill. However, these sacrifices had been and still often were rites in which the representative of a god was slain.” What we see then is that these fairies may not have been so free. They may have been, at least in part, defined by the thoughts of the people who surrounded them. So in this sense when humans wished for fairies to be beautiful, powerful beings that would make their crops grow, it was so. Later, as humans wanted them to be devils or faded souls, it again became so. Finally, when humans stopped caring about fairies, they ultimately vanished altogether.
Fairies feel emotions much more intensely than humans do. When a human gives them the tiniest amount of help, they reward that human with lifelong happiness, gold, or some other incredibly precious gift. However, should a human do even the slightest amount of harm to a fairy, death is often the punishment. We see this repeatedly in fairy tales. In the story of “The Three Mannlien in the Wood,” (Grimm and Grimm, 1812) a young girl shares her stale crust of bread with three Mannlien and, in return, they make her more beautiful every day. They caused gold to fall from her mouth every time she spoke and were setting it up so that she’ll marry a prince. The girl’s stepsister refuses to share her food so they cause her to grow more ugly, frogs to jump out of her mouth, and ultimately cause her to die horribly. Fairies are the strict enforcers of morality for fairies will ask humans to share with them crusts of bread, the warmth of a fire, etc. Yet these same fairies can create gold, give unlimited amounts of food, and grant wishes. The only real explanations for this is that fairies are testing the morality of humans.
In “The Edda,” a Norn (a wise woman/fairy which weaves the fate of humans) trips and hurts herself as she is getting up to give a child its fate, and in her rage she curses the child to die in much the same way that in the “Sleeping Beauty” tale, a fairy which was overlooked by a child’s parents curses the child with death. When Rumpelstiltskin found that he’d lost the child sought, he got so angry that he tore himself in two. The guardian of the bath house in the Russian folk tales will risk its life to protect people and then later will flay the skins from their bodies if it feels it’s been disrespected. Fairies have wild mood swings between happiness, sorrow, love, and rage.
4-Immortality and Immunity
Diplomatic immunity which allows people to park anywhere they wish, drive how they wish, etc., encourages people to act differently from how one might normally behave. Diplomatic immunity itself, however, is not true immunity as the diplomat’s job is to make the citizens of the country they are in like them or their employer. Fairies have no such needs, however, so they are often times truly immune from the punishments that haunt the mortal world, even from death itself. Such immunity alters their perception of things.
Nixes, nymphs, and satyrs need not fear reprisals for their actions, and so their desires are rarely ever tempered by anything. In such cases then, a fairy becomes pure desire, mating and dancing, living for the moment because there is no need to worry about anything else. Not even the freest of humans can do this for long because eventually mortality will crash down on them, or eventually other humans will tire of their actions and they’ll be restrained. Immortality itself will greatly alter a fairy’s perceptions of the world. Mountains rise and fall, trees grow and die, even the stars shift their courses over time. Even for humans, growing older means that little things seem to matter less and less.
Imagine what it would be like to live for thousands of years and you will come to a closer understanding of the emotions of fairies. After thousands of years of life, very little would seem to matter. Any kingdom might simply be just another kingdom, any mortal is just another life in an infinite string of meaningless and temporary lives. Immortality can also cause fairies to hate the new just as elderly people are stereotyped. In German mythology, wood wives demanded that humans not bake cumin in their bread. Water wives didn’t like the touch of new clay pots in Welsh mythology. Dwarfs called humans fickle creatures (Grimm 1835).
5-Fairies Never Mature but are Always Ancient
Many fairies never truly mature. At the same time, however, they grow up within a few years or are born ancient from the very beginning (Grimm, 1835). Further, because of their immortal nature, they would eventually only have the slightest inkling that they were ever young at all. This situation can lead them to desire that which they cannot have, a childhood. Consider that when fairies kidnap adults, the fairies most often replace them with objects which are made of dirt or wood but are enchanted to appear to be corpses. Yet when a fairy takes a human baby, they replace the child with old fairies in disguise. So when a fairy takes an adult, it is clear that what they are after is the adult because they leave the humans very little recourse to discover the deception or to force the fairies to return the person who was taken. When fairies take human children, however, they are after something else, something more. By leaving an elderly fairy, the fairies risk being found out because of the actions of the elderly fairy. Further, they risk having the fairy abused by the humans as often happened. If all the fairies wanted was the child, then they would simply replace them with clay or wood magically disguised to appear as a dead child as they do adults.
By replacing children with older fairies, the fairies are actively seeking to take the place of the child. In history and our own society, we can see many child actors who grew up to seek after their childhood later. They sought to create a “Neverland” for themselves. Even beyond this, however, there are many people who seek to go back to or to find a childhood again. Movies are ripe with stories of people who wish to regain their youth, or to find the happiness they never had as a child. For such people, however, the rules of society, age, mortality, as well as the fact that no matter what they do they cannot look like children prevents them from achieving childhood later in life. Fairies, however, can change their form at will, and they don’t have the same social rules as humans.
Perkiss points out that when the nymphs would kidnap heroes, it seemed that they did so in order to essentually play house with the hero the way a girl might seek to pull a father, brother, or neighbor boy into a game of tea. Thus, while even human children must follow certain rules, (they can’t force the neighbor boy to play tea without adult intervention or a lot of badgering), fairies with their supernatural powers do not have very many rules at all. Further, because of their immortal nature, they have forever to gain a greater longing for a childhood and can act childlike forever. There is never a moment when they start to whither and get injured more easily or must worry about finding a job. So they can dance on the hillsides every night for eternity and so they often do.
6-Dangerous, Quirky, Playful, and Unpredictable
Beautiful and seductive, she moves through the trees, lithely jumping branch to branch like a squirrel. Intrigued, the boy approaches her eliciting a welcoming smile. She whispers gently in his ear before tickling him. At first he laughs, enjoying the attention, but she doesn’t stop. She keeps tickling and tickling; harder and harder he laughs. He wants to stop laughing, but he can’t. It’s hard to breathe, his lungs hurt. He starts to cough from laughing for so long and so hard, and eventually she tickles him to death. What are we to take from the strange behavior of the rusalka, a fairy of the water and forest which performs the bizarre act of seducing men so that it may tickle them to death? No matter how seemingly dangerous the fairy, they always seem to have some element of playfulness though their play can often turn deadly. Fairies are always a contradiction. Fairies are the moment when the coin is in the air, the time it hovers twirling, caught between two choices, between two opposites. The rusalka, for example, is a young girl, one who can never grow, never mature, never find true love. She is caught forever between lust and childishness, between youthful play and death. She is ancient yet has never grown up. It is a maddening moment in time that fairies live, between dark and light.
It is obvious that fairies do not like to be seen by humans; for although they live in every rock and tree, they almost never appear to humans. Instead, it is within their nature to hide from mortals. Why should this be? Why is it that fairies always appear to be nervous around humans? It is, of course, possible that the reason is the danger humans present to fairies. After all, there are a number of stories in which people take fairies hostage to force them to marry them, provide gold, or to grant other forms of wishes.
Yet the fairies’ fear of humans stems from more than simply our ability to harm them. Fairies which fly at a distance should know they are safe from humans yet they too are rarely seen.
What exactly is it about human sight that scares them? Is it perhaps the natural power which humans have, the ability to essentially give the evil eye? Or is it perhaps a form of embarrassment? There is a tale in which the dwarfs who helped humans all ran off never to be seen again because one person saw that they had the feet of geese. In ancient mythology, people believed that humans came from fairies; that we essentially chose to be grounded, to mature, to grow, and to change. Fairies, however, never grew and so are like shy children, like spirits that can never pass on. Fairies are forever caught in a realm between being humans and gods, between eternity and momentary bliss, between life and death. Perhaps it is the solidness, the stability of humans that disturbs fairies. Perhaps fairies feel the discomfort of our solid gaze just as a child would. The times then when fairies seek out humans are those times when humans join them in the realm of in-between; at puberty, parts of childhood, birth, and death.
Many fairies and similar beings had multiple souls, that is they were their own opposites. Many of the peoples of ancient Eurasia believed that people had multiple spirits, multiple souls each of which went to a different place when a person died. For spiritual beings, however, this multiple souls often manifested as multiple personalities, multiple characters. In Japan the same Kami will have different names and shrines and methods of worship for each of these souls. In Celtic lands house fairies could turn from good to bad with a change in mood (as was depicted very well in "The Spiderwick Chronicles."
Nature tends to act in a contradictory way, rivers water fields and flood them, fire warms the house and burns it down. Given that people believed nothing happened by chance they believed that the same fairy was doing both these things, and so many had multiple personalities.
9-Kind and Caring
At lease one of the fairies natures is often very kind and caring. Santa Claus and the many fairy like beings which he comes from for example, are fairies. One of these Santa figures in the Kalasha lands would bring blessings to villages, among the Japanese the Lucky Kami would do the same. The Tylwyth Teg of Wales would leave coins in the shoes of poor servants and fairies in France would help the poor become wealthy.
As with Santa's love of children much of this kindness often manifests in a grandfatherly or grandmotherly like affection, which is why it's often important to call a fairy Grandfather or Grandmother when one first encounters them in order insure that one gets on their good side. Given that many fairies are thousands of years old they can view a human of any age as being young.
Other times the fairy might view a person the way we might see a stray animal, perhaps leaving a little food out or doing performing other similarly kind, but momentary acts.
Finally given that some fairies are the spirits humans who have passed on they can be caring ancestor spirits.
10-Enforcers of Morality
Fairies have a very specific vision of how the world should work, like a grouchy old man who yells at naughty children or a kindly person who tries to direct people down a better path fairies are the enforcers of morality in fairy tales. Even the famous Santa Claus gives toys to good children, more often, however, fairies punish those who break societies morals.
Fairies can be extremely vindictive, killing those who offend them. In Russia those who work on and don't keep the Rusulka's day sacred risks being murdered. Those who whistle in the forest risk being tortured to death by the King of the Forest who's peace they are disturbing. When one family built on the fairies land the fairies kill them off one by one.
Some fairies are vicious and murderous for a number of reasons. Jenny Greenteeth would drown people to replace the human sacrifices which were no longer being offered to her. Black Annis would devour children out of revenge for the fact that humans had turned their backs on her. There are elves who were in essence serial killers, killing simply for fun and pleasure. Others killed for food, and as a way of gaining power the way vampires did. In fact the smell of blood could make some vampires hungry.