I am creating a comprehensive resource about fairies.
House, Hearth, and Field
Long after humans had left the wilderness, they were still intimately intertwined with fairies. So intertwined in fact that humans built their farms and cities around the desires and actions of the fairy. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that humans learned farming, the arts, and how to build cities from the fairies and deities they prayed to for help in these endeavors. For fairies are not strictly creatures of the forests. They help humans with domestic choirs, medicinal tasks, the arts, and agriculture. Certainly, some of these fairies provide this aid because they are ancestors of the people they are helping as is the case with banshees and domovoi. This is not the case with all fairies which help humans, however. Many appear to be as feral as any wilderness fairy and others which truly are wilderness fairies.
There is a castle in Scotland, for example, which was inhabited by selkies who provided advice and help to the castle’s inhabitants (Briggs, 1967) Many of the fairies which have become domesticated fairies appear to be those of other types which humans have asked to take on new roles. This is especially true of agricultural fairies which are most often clearly a form of nature fairy set to causing crops to grow. Of course, given that the crops themselves are natural plants which have been altered to fit human purposes, it should not be surprising that the fairies of these plants would be altered in addition. No one has made a better or more extensive study of agricultural fairies then the writer of “The Golden Bough” who points out that at one time people would say that the Grain-Mother, Goat, Wolf, or whatever other form the grain fairy took, was running when the wind blew through the fields thus personifying the field and all its actions.
The spirit of the grain was believed to live within the last bit of unharvested grain, and there were a number of rituals designed to keep in the grain fairies’ good graces. In some cases, the people would even turn the last of the grain into a doll in female form so that all the farmers could dance with it. “The Golden Bough” notes this repeatedly in one specific case it mentions that in parts of France the last sheaf would be named the Mother of the Wheat, Mother of the Barley, Mother of the Rye, or Mother of the Oats and would be made into a puppet dressed in clothing and given a crown and a blue or white scarf. In another case he notes that:
“A branch of a tree is stuck in the breast of the puppet which is now called Ceres. At the dance in the evening Ceres is set in the middle of the floor, and the reaper who reaped fastest dances around it with the prettiest girl for his partner. After the dance, a pyre is made. All the girls, each wearing a wreath, strip the puppet, pull it to pieces, and place it on the pyre along with the flowers with which it was adorned. Then the girl who was the first to finish reaping sets fire to the pile, and all pray that Ceres may give a fruitful year” (Frazer, 1922)
In this ritual then, we see a clear continuation of the belief that tree spirits help create a fruitful harvest. In parts of Dumbartonshire, the Maiden of the corn would be dressed in ribbons and hung in the kitchen for the entire year. In Bruck in Styria she would even be dedicated in the Christian Church indicating the longevity of the peoples’ respect for the fairies involved in the harvest, or at least in the tradition. Here they also took the extra step of making the finest ears of grain into a wreath which were twined with flowers and carried on the head of the prettiest girl in the village. The Slavs also made a wreath from the last sheaf known as the Rye-mother, the Wheat-mother, the Oats-mother, the Barley-mother, and so on which would be placed on a girl’s head and kept until spring when it would be mixed with the seeds the farmers planted. Other people drench with water the last girl who cut the last sheaf of grain. The fertility of the fairy is considered to be so strong that it was believed that the person who cuts the last sheaf of wheat will be married within a year. (ibid)
It’s interesting to note in this last example there was believed to be a connection between the fertility of harvest spirits and the fertility of people. This is further illustrated by examples where it was believed that humans could pass on their own fertility to the fields. In a number of parts of Europe, girls and boys would roll around in the fields together imitating the act of procreation in order to grant them their fertility. For example:
“In the Ukraine on St. George’s Day (the 23rd of April), the priest in his robes attended by his acolytes goes out to the fields of the village where the crops are beginning to show green above the ground and blesses them. After that, the young, married people lie down in couples on the sown fields and roll several times over on them in the belief that this will promote the growth of the crops. In some parts of Russia the priest himself is rolled by women over the sprouting crop.”
Other peoples pretended to be giving birth to the last sheaf of grain, wailing as if in labor. (ibid) What are we to take from this relationship between plant and human fertility? Certainly, it’s true that most early magic is based on sympathy; however, is this simply a case of humans giving grain fairies ideas? Of course, it’s also possible that this is a case of humans actually impacting the energy of the fields themselves, that there is an actual relation to the souls and fertility of humans and those of plants. This is not to say, however, that harvest fairies are always treated with the greatest of respect. In many cases they are treated in much the same way that forces of nature are treated. In some places, for example, people threaten to cut down a tree if it does not yield good fruit. In others, people mock the fairy, teasing it while it remains in the last sheaf of grain. Other people even try to drive the fairy away by beating the last bits of grain with sticks. The connection between humans and harvest fairies it would seem is not always guaranteed but varies from place to place.
Part of the reason humans may attack the grain fairy in some places is because the fairies of the grain are often dangerous which is also why parents tell their children to avoid going into the fields or the Grain-Mother will catch them. It is at this juncture that we begin to see the split from the fairies of the grain and humans. Indeed many lands have grain fairies that look like animals rather than people. When the spirit is an animal, it is often considered more feral than that of a human, and it is more likely that people will need to either catch or kill it when it is in the last sheaf of grain. Further, such fairies will cause illness to those harvesters who stumble upon them.
As the corn is being cut, the animal flees before the reapers. If a reaper is taken ill on the field, he is supposed to have stumbled unwittingly on the corn-spirit who has thus punished the profane intruder. It is said, “the Rye-wolf has got ahold of him; the Harvest-goat has given him a push.” In its animal form we again often see the people trying to either capture and, in essence, tame the fairy or to kill it as noted by the actions of the people of France who “form a ring round the last standing corn and cry, “The Wolf is in there.” In Finisterre, when the reaping draws near an end, the harvesters cry, “There is the Wolf; we will catch him.” Each takes a swath to reap, and he who finishes first calls out, “I’ve caught the Wolf.” (ibid)
It is not simply that the animal fairy is dangerous, however, that causes people to kill it. Indeed, it’s often more common to try to kill fairies which manifest as animals that are hunted such as the hare. For example, when a hare is seen to sit “in the last patch of standing corn, and must be chased out by the last reaper, the reapers hurry with their work, each being anxious not to have “to chase out the hare”; for the man who does so, that is, who cuts the last corn, is greatly laughed at. At Aurich, as we have seen, an expression for cutting the last corn is “to cut off the hare’s tail. He is killing the hare.” At times, this embodiment of the fairy as a food animal is given a solid form in a sacrifice thus cocks and goats are killed for a feast and are seen to host the harvest fairy.(ibid)
The question is why kill or chase away the fairy of the grain? Perhaps the people are doing it a favor, allowing it to be reincarnated the next spring rather than forcing it to wait out the winter in a barn or an attic. Perhaps, too, the reason they mock the person who cuts the last sheaf thus “killing” the grain spirit is to pacify the spirit into thinking that they are exacting revenge so that it doesn’t need to. It was believed by many peoples after all that animal spirits were reincarnated in the same place over and over again and that they would have to find ways to pacify these spirits in order that they might return.
Not all fairies are so wild as those of the harvest. However, indeed many fairies seem to share with humans their desire for domestic items. The hill folk, for example, often sneak into peoples’ houses to steal beer and other items including stoves, wheat, and more. (Knightly) Such thefts could have led to the humans’ first relationships with what would later become many of the household fairies of legend which are otherwise unrelated to humans. The Nis of the Scandinavian nations, for example, would aid young boys in stealing from neighboring households and would often get into prank wars with them. Although in the aforementioned stories, the nis often appears to be angered by the boys’ actions; their revenge is yet more pranks indicating that the nis is not truly furious as when a fairy is really angry, they tend to kill or curse humans severely. The nis then can be presumed to like the banter they have with these children, enjoying being teased as much as they enjoy teasing, or at least accepting that they have to be teased as part of their opportunity to do so. (Knightly)
Another household fairy by the name of Hinzelmann came out of the Bohemian forest because, as he said, “consequence obliged (him) to retire and take refuge with good people till his affairs should be in a better condition.” He was extremely loyal and kind to those who provided him with shelter during his time away from the other fairies. Fairies tend in general to repay kindness many fold so it shouldn’t be surprising that they would work, provide divinations, and other forms of aid to those people whose houses they chose to stay in to gain respite. Further, many fairies are friendly and kind anyways. So when they live with another intelligent being for a long period of time, they begin to care about their adopted families as a matter of course. Hinzelmann is described as “quite friendly and intimate: he sang, laughed, and went on with every kind of sport so long as no one vexed him, and his voice was on these occasions soft and tender like that of a boy or maiden.”
More evidence of fairy sympathies for houses and towns comes from England where the Grant, a fairy which looks like a young foal standing on its hind legs, will run around at sunset to warn people of impending danger so that they can be on their guard (Wentz, 1911). Swiss dwarves exemplify the kindness of fairies towards people, taking delight in performing work for them in the night even as they remained living in the mountains rather than near peoples’ homes. When people would come back to work and see that everything was done, the dwarves would laugh at their stunned faces from the bushes. The Swiss dwarves would also harvest crops early if a storm or the weather would have wiped them out thus preventing the farmers from losing everything. (Keightley, 1870) Through these examples we can see that not only wild fairies can become household fairies but perhaps in some small way the means by which this could have happened. After all, if a fairy received refuge with people and came to care about them, it is likely that they would do so even after refuge was no longer needed. In many cases, humans can become companions of the fairies both through playfulness and through a common goal in theft again leading to a long-term relationship between these fairies and the humans.
Such fairy stories, however, fail to show the depth of the human relationship with the fairies which are often loved ones who have passed on. More than that, however, they can come to represent the ideal of housekeeping. This is true of the Russian domovoi which is “industrious and frugal; he watches over the homestead and all that belongs to it.” When a goose is sacrificed to the water spirit, its head is cut off and hung up in the poultry yard in order that the domovoi may not know when he counts the heads that one of the flock has gone. Because he is jealous of other spirits he will not allow the forest spirit to play pranks in the garden nor witches to injure the cows. He sympathizes with the joys and sorrows of the house to which he is attached.
When any member of the family dies, he may be heard (like the banshee) wailing at night. When the head of the family is about to die, the domovoi forebodes the sad event by sighing, weeping, or sitting at his work with his cap pulled over his eyes. Before an outbreak of war, fire, or pestilence, the domovois go out from a village and may be heard lamenting in the meadows. When any misfortune is impending over a family, the domovoi gives warning of it by knocking, by riding at night on the horses till they are completely exhausted, and by making the watchdogs dig holes in the courtyard and go howling through the village. He often rouses the head of the family from his sleep at night when the house is threatened with fire or robbery.
The Portunes of England are similar to the domovoi in many ways as “it is their nature to embrace the simple life of comfortable farmers, and when, on account of their domestic work, they are sitting up at night when the doors are shut, they warm themselves at the fire and take little frogs out of their bosom, roast them on the coals and eat them. They have the countenance of old men with wrinkled cheeks, and they are of a very small stature not being quite half an inch high. They wear little patched coats, and if anything is to be carried into the house or any laborious work to be done, they lend a hand and finish it sooner than any man could. It is their nature to have the power to serve but not to injure. They have, however, one annoying trait. When in the uncertain shades of night the English are riding anywhere alone, the Portunes sometimes invisibly join the horseman, and when he has accompanied him a good while, he at last takes the reins and leads the horse into a neighboring slough. When the horse is fixed and floundering in it, the Portunes go off with loud laughter and by sport of this sort they mock the simplicity of mankind.” (Keightley, 1870)
In the Scandinavian countries, the Nis was both house and barn spirits just as the Portunes were. And just as the Portunes, they were extremely small but strong and perhaps overly playful. In fact, their closest companion and rival often appears to be the family’s boy who they aid in stealing food for cattle and other objects from neighbors’ houses. The Nis and children also play pranks on each other tossing each other around, pushing each other into dog yards, or tossing them in the well while they are sleeping. These pranks, as you can see, reach an incredible peak of brutality as one would expect from a semi-irresponsible fairy and a boy faced with a creature that is nearly impossible to permanently injure. The important takeaway, however, is the intimacy of the relationship between a household fairy and the members of the household. A relationship which goes well beyond simply the fairy performing work for the family but can, in fact, involve the two developing close and, at times, playful emotional bonds with each other.
That said, however, not all household fairies were helpful. The boggarts, for example, would take up their abode within the human home the same as other household fairies would. Instead of aiding, they would be tormenting the children, stealing their food, acting as a poltergeist to scare and even injure the children. So here too we see the creature that haunts the houses most specifically targeting children. This is the strange conundrum of fairies that they are wise, childlike, ancient, and immature.