What are Fairies?
Everything in the world – trees, rocks, shadows, even emotions – has a life of its own. The belief that all things have souls was once shared by all people. These souls were later understood to be the fairies. We are perhaps best served in our understanding of fairies by looking to the Japanese for their understanding of the nature of Kami, which are things that inspire reverence and awe. In the same manner, fairies are the wondrous trees in nature, the tall mountains, and the calm majestic rivers. Fairies are in the poems we tell and the songs we sing. This view is apparent in people’s original belief that the gods needed no temple - they lived directly within that which inspired awe. The word “temple” itself means wood, implying that the deities lived within groves of trees on mountain tops and within sacred wells. (Jacob Grimm, 1835) Early Romans also worshipped deities associated with specific localities and even household objects which they needed to survive, such as cupboards and hearths. (Bailey, 1907) Fairies are not simply those creatures that inspire awe and reverence. Just as the Kami was worshipped in Japan, so too were the fairies worshipped by the peoples of ancient Europe. Just as the Kami and Yokai of Japan were often feared, so too in Europe did the fairies also plant the seeds of fear and cause sorrow. So in myth, fairies are both the monster and the object of reverence, the illness in the cattle, the things in the dark that cause our flesh to constrict into Goosebumps and make our hearts race.
What are Humans?
In Greek mythology, humans are the children of the nymphs of the ash trees who, in turn, are the children of the deities themselves. In Germanic and Scandinavian mythology, humans were created from the ash trees directly by the deity Odin. The Celts have a slightly different take on the origin of humans;
“In Celtic belief men were not so much created by gods as descended from them. (For) All the Gauls assert that they are descended from Dispater, and this, they say, has been handed down to them by the Druids. Dispater was a Celtic underworld god of fertility, and the statement probably presupposes a myth, like that found among many primitive peoples, telling how men once lived underground and thence came to the surface of the earth. But it also points to their descent from the god of the underworld. Thither the dead returned to him who was ancestor of the living as well as lord of the dead” (Religion of the Ancient Celts)
Ultimately then, we have to conclude that humans in mythology are not a separate species from nature like the fairies and deities, but that we are a direct descendant of these things. In one of the most famous stories of humans encountering fairies, two fairy children - a girl and a boy who were green in color - were taken in by Sir Richard de Caine at Wikes. Scared and saddened at finding himself in the human world, the boy eventually died. However over time, the girl became human; though she remained “rather loose and wanton in her conduct.” (Keightley, 1870) What this shows us is that it was believed that fairies could become human simply by living among us.
Some interesting questions arise from these stories regarding fairies and humans. Firstly, if we are so close to fairies why is the world of fairies such a mystery to us? Why are humans mortal while fairies are immortal? Why do we lack the fundamental knowledge of nature that fairies have? The fact of the matter is that most humans lack magic and immortality. There have however been many humans throughout myth and folklore who have found immortality and magic through druidism, witchcraft, wizardry, and the arts of the cunning folk. Even by simply visiting the realm of fairies, humans have actually found their place among them. Despite this, however, most humans lack such powers, leaving us to wonder why this is so?
There are three possible answers to these questions. First, we must recall that the deities were not the first beings. They joined together to kill the first being; and just as the deities killed the first being, so too perhaps could humans displace the deities. So allowing us to understand all the secrets of nature the way other fairies do could be dangerous. Indeed, Zeus forbade teaching humans the secrets of fire and many other arts out of fear of what humans would do with this knowledge. Fairies, too, desire to keep secrets from humans. For in the same manner that they will capture us to be their spouses, so will we take them out of greed for their treasure or to fulfill our own lustful desires. Indeed there was a dwarf who told humans directly that they were mortal and weak due in part to their “faithlessness” (Grimm, 1935). What we see then is that humans are believed by fairies to be their treacherous descendants, so it is possible that the secrets of magic have been concealed from us simply to keep us from being even more dangerous.
Germanic and Scandinavian myths also tell us that Odin will eventually need the souls of dead humans to help him in his final battle to prevent all things from being destroyed. So it is perhaps necessary for humans to be mortal so that we can join his army. This could also probably be his reason for creating us. Briggs points out that one aspect of fairies is that they can never mature or be the hero, while humans on the other hand can mature and grow physically strong. (Briggs, 1967) Saving the world from Armageddon requires something other than capricious or playful beings. Instead, it requires creatures that are not afraid to die, beings who seek out the warrior’s life and are always striving for more – these are qualities that immortal and magic-bearing beings would have difficulty obtaining. Odin is not the only one in mythology who needed humans. In the Welsh story of Prince Powell, the fairy king seeks out Powell in order to aid him in slaying a monster that the fairies cannot kill. (Griffis, 1921)
Fairies can become deities or loose their divinity based on human worship. What is ultimately clear is that in most Indo-European and Tengeri myths, humans are simply another stage of life. Not just in the evolution of fairies but also within the life cycle of fairies themselves.
What are Deities?
Just as humans exist somewhere between fairies and giants, so do fairies lie between mortals and deities. Deities appear to exist physically alongside the giants as massive, awe-inspiring beings.
The differences between the ancient gods and fairies may be less than many suspect, just as it is with humans and fairies. On one hand, many of the fairies are descendants from deities or created by them. On the other, some fairies seem to come from the same place that deities are from and are even older than the deities themselves. For instance Zeus, the leader of the deities in Greek mythology, was raised by a nymph who kept him hidden from his father. Examining the evolution of European beliefs about deities makes the definitive line between the worlds of fairies and deities even harder to see. Initially, Europeans had no real pantheon or concept of deity as it is now understood. Rome’s first deities were the spirits of rocks, trees, and animals. In other words before they worshiped gods, Romans worshiped fairies (Bailey, 1907).
Among the Celts, most gods were local gods rather than all-powerful deities. They were the gods of the rivers, mountains, trees, war, and more, making it hard to make a clear distinction between them and other spirits which might exist. J. A. Maccullock (1911) believed that the divinities were the most important spirits which only later came to be deified. Oftentimes, these deities included among their ranks the spirits of the great humans who had died. This shows a connection not only between fairies and deities, but humans and deities as well. These examples suggest that the only separation between deities and the other spirits (fairies) is simply that humans hold more respect for the deities.
Moreover, as we will see in the chapter “Fairies are Forgotten Gods”, deities can lose their godhood and turn back into fairies. This deification process can go beyond the fairy stage and down to the realm of humans where humans can become the deities that people worship.