Sunday, November 6, 2011

Humans turn into fairies

This is the second article in this series the first is "Humans Become Fairies"

In fairy tales humans could often turn into fairies, and on one occasion at least a fairy turned into a human after living in among us and eating our food for a number of years. It is well established that fairies have a strong connection to ancestral spirits, and indeed many fairies are likely to be such. Indeed, people often saw among trooping fairies the faces of people they knew who had died. 

Some European peasants, says Jacob Grimm, believe that the dead "belong to the fairies, and they, therefore, celebrate the death of a person like a festival, with music and dancing. (Spencer, 1917) 

Witches who entered fairyland would often encounter the spirits of the dead. Campbell, however, points out that there were numerous stories "which show that according to popular belief, fairies commonly carried off men, women, and children who seemed to die, but really lived underground. In short, that mortals were separated from fairies by a very narrow line."
This line could blur and vanish altogether, especially when it came to the heroic dead. "Shamanistic ideology includes a feature according to which the souls of shamans or worthy persons become, after their death, guardian spirits for those still living, thus acquiring a status different to that of ordinary mortals in the ‘other life'" (Bäckman, 1975)
This notion, of great people becoming guardian spirits was common throughout Europe; certainly, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had it. Further, the Russians and Germanic people’s had ancestral spirits who lived within their homes and helped to care for the farm. Ancestral spirits such as the tomte who are commonly thought of as fairies today. 
Even the trooping fairies, and their kings were strongly associated with the spirits of the ordinary people who had seemingly died. 
A man named Hugh King went with the fairies to a fair on November eve and men Finvarra, a fairy king who told Hugh to look at the fairies dancing. Soon Hugh realized that these were people he knew had that had died. 

"Another woman out on November Eve saw a young man named Brien who had drowned the year before. He warned her that the fairies were coming “and amongst them were all the dead who had died as long as she could remember.”
Brien warned her to run for if they drew her into a dance she would never be able to leave…"

It’s important to point out that while some of the fairies were clearly the spirits of the dead, not all of them were. Fairies had many origins, however it does often seem that there isn't much difference between humans and them. Indeed, eating fairy food or dwelling long enough in fairyland seems to give certain humans the powers to become fairies. 

In a Greek Fairy Tale the Queen of the Fairies asks the protagonist "Would you not like to be a fairy?...and live with me in this garden where the sun never ceases to shine and where it is summer all the year?” (Gianakoulis, 1930).

In another story from the same collection of tales all a girl would need to do to become a fairy is eat candy that the fairies offer her.

Fairytales and lore are filled with examples of people joining the fairies. Not all of these people become fairies, per say, but they all become a member of the fairy’s court. 
When a woman named Bessie was suffering greatly, her husband sick, her children sick, and poverty crushing down on her, a spirit named Tom Ried appeared. He had once been a man but after dying in battle he came to serve the fairy queen who had, after years of service, sent him to teach Bessie magic.

It is worth noting here that the earliest record we have of the Seelie Court of fairies says that their numbers include good men who fell in battle, as Tom had. The Seelie court also included those who were not good enough to go to heaven nor bad enough to go to hell, good people who died in battle, and children whose parents were cruel so the fairies took them to be raised properly in fairyland.
There is a Lithuanian fairy tale about a girl who is mistreated by her stepparents. Feeling sorry for her the fairies replace her with a changeling made of dirt, magically disguised to look and act like her, so that the girl can be raised in fairyland.

Given similar ideas throughout Northern Eurasia it does seem likely that living in the fairy courts was likely one of the pre-Christian afterlife options among the Celtic and Germanic.
Yet sometimes fairies simply needed human help. A newspaper article from Iowa in 1886 states that a girl named Kitty was taken by the fairies. While visiting her family after she said the fairies needed her, although she didn’t specify why, and she was traveling around them like magical, invisible hobos.

The Des Moines Register.
As this article shows it’s not always clear why a person was taken into fairyland but there are common threads that stories and folk tradition hint at.

First, fairies often needed human warriors to fight for the fairies. In Welsh mythology a king spent a year in fairyland fighting a war with the monsters for the fairies and many German Medieval texts speak of humans helping the fairies battle dragons, giants, or even other fairies.
The folklorist Wentz states that when two fairy armies met the side with humans would win.

Second, the fairies needed those who had a talent for magic, that is those born with a caul over their head or some other marker which indicated they had the potential to become fairy doctors, witches, and cunning folk.

Third, fairies sought beauty and talent. In fairy tales this was because they needed marry and have children with mortals, but sometimes as friends. For example, grave markers from ancient Greece will sometimes indicate that a person hadn’t actually died but that they were taken to live as playmates for the nymphs.

Fourth, the fairies often sought those who had relatives already in fairyland. Having a mother or uncle in fairyland increases someone’s chances of being taken to fairyland.

Fifth be sympathetic. The fairies often delight in those who work hard and are always kind no matter how terrible their circumstances.

Sixth is Liminality, or right place at the right time. Being in a liminal space or time increases the odds of being in fairyland. Liminal means a point in transition. That is at crossroads, while a child, during sunrise or sunset, etc. Fairies are more likely to appear to those who are at a liminal point and so are more likely to take them to fairyland.

Seventh is the future. One of the abilities often proscribed to the most powerful fairies is the ability to see the future, at least to a point. Thus, a fairy might appear to someone and say they were destined to be married.

Eighth is human food and tasks. Fairies often needed humans for a number of tasks. Some fairy tales indicate that a fairy couldn’t give birth without a human’s help. Numerous fairy tale also say that fairies needed food prepared or grown by human hands, which could explain why fairies would often have humans watch their sheep and cattle, cook for them, and have humans babysit their children in fairy tales.

 Humans are so close to fairies they can, in fact, be transformed into fairies while still living. This should not be so surprising because, as previously mentioned, humans are in essence just another form of fairy. It has been theorized that many of our fairy stories come from the existence of indigenous peoples in England. People ostracized and driven to the fringes of society or the underdogs who were mysterious to those who rejected them. In Cornwall one man testifies that: “Pixies were often supposed to be the souls of the prehistoric dwellers of this country. As such, pixies were supposed to be getting smaller and smaller until, finally, they are to vanish entirely.” (Wentz, 1911) This paints a much more terrifying picture of some of the fairies than we often imagined. According to this account, the pixies who people often think of as cute, little, playful fairies, are small because they are shrinking into oblivion. What’s more, they have had to live for thousands of years with the knowledge that they will eventually disappear and that those humans who would remain are the decedents of the people who forced them into their horrible fate. It is no wonder then that such beings are caught between human-like sympathy and incredible bitterness because, while they must retain some human emotion, much of this emotion must be anger at being driven into their current state.

If we accept the presence of many of our ancestors among the fairies, as we surely must given the large amount of evidence to support this, we must also accept that there are other humans, often far angrier humans, occupying the world of fairies. Further, there are very few people who can claim to be the first inhabitants of their lands and only two such people groups in Europe. So it would seem that only some fairies would be the ancestors of any given set of humans especially given that as with the pixies whole kingdoms of humans could become fairies. This might explain why people in Europe were so afraid of the wilderness. After they drove the original inhabitants of Europe into the dark forests and mountains, these peoples and the fairies they came to be had centuries to grow ever more bitter.

In Ireland, many people believe that the Tuatha De Danann were an indigenous people who turned invisible and entered a parallel realm when the Irish people invaded Ireland, as the Tuatha De Danann were unable to defeat the newcomers in a test of arms because of the Irish peoples’ powerful druids and deities. The Tuatha De Danann now reside in the hills and rocks of Ireland much as fairies do in other parts of the Europe (Wentz, 1911).The Tuatha De Danann are mysterious but also understandable because they still structure themselves much as humans would with kingdoms and fortresses, wars, and a little bit of both enmity and pity for the decedents of those that drove them into the underground realm who are still stuck as suffering mortals despite their apparent “victory.”

Lest we think that such myths are confined to Europe, we must consider a more recent case of this “fairyification” process which comes from Hawaii, that of the Menehune. The Menehune are the indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands. As the Samoan peoples moved into Hawaii, they drove the Menehune deeper into the jungles from which they mythologically emerged at night to build magical temples before fleeing back to the jungles when the sun rose. Yet despite their mythological status, they were a real people whose ancestors were counted in the Hawaiian kingdoms first census and whose ancestors likely still survive today.

Fairies also take humans into their world to join them. In Greece, a fairy queen asked one girl: "Would you not like to be a fairy?...and live with me in this garden where the sun never ceases to shine and where it is summer all the year?” (Gianakoulis, 1930) Then, despite the girl’s apparent refusals, the fairies took her soul anyways to become one of them leaving behind her body. This is not, however, an isolated incident. Fairies often take humans away, offering them magical candy that will transform them into fairies or items of clothing which can transform them such as scarves and shawls. At times, this is done because the fairies want a servant. Other times fairies want a sexual partner. However, it would also seem that fairies are also after friends and allies, or that they have some other purpose humans cannot discern. Consider also that some fairies appear to be simply humans who have some garment of clothing that makes them different and unique. In Greek folklore, many fairies are made fairies by a handkerchief which when stolen forces them to become human. In Scottland, selkies have a seal skin which allows them to become ocean fairies or ghost-like creatures which inhabit castles. (Briggs, 1967) Jacob Grimm points out that in some cases, the immortality of fairies comes from the food they eat in fairy land. Further, as previously mentioned, simply entering fairy land and living there would turn some humans into fairies. Humans can simply be fairies who do not live within the fairies’ world.