Is it a good spirit or an evil spirit? That question always seems to come up when one is discussing mythological creatures, and usually the answer is 'neither or both.' For unlike Christianity in which the dualism, the opposing forces are contained in two separate beings fairy like beings tend to be their own opposites which makes sense given that nature itself is often unpredictable and it's own opposite. Hermes for example was the deity of both thieves and merchants, for he could help either as he wished.
It makes sense for natural beings to be their own opposites, for the same river which brings water to fields also floods them, the same forest which provides food is the place of wolves. It's also important to keep the world of fairies in perspective. For the king of the forest loves the spirits of the trees, they are his children and or his wives. Thus those who cut down trees are killing those he loves. From the perspective of the fairies humans are assaulting them, attacking them. Yet at the same time many of these fairies have a protective streak about them. Thus they will both help and harm humans, depending on the humans relationship with them.
This all comes down to the nature of the soul in ancient belief. In order to begin to understanding the ancient European conception of the soul, you must forget everything you think you know about it. Our modern conception does not help in our goal of becoming aware of the real nature of fairies and our relationship to them. Moreover, the modern European beliefs about the soul do not explain some of the important traditions that have been carried over from ancient belief systems.
People then, as they often times do now, believed that the soul was separate from the body. At one time people thought that souls inhabit objects as well as living things.
“The ancient Egyptians…conceived the Ka or personality as a thing separable from the person or body, and hence ‘the statue of a human being represented and embodied a human Ka’. Likewise a statue of a god was the dwelling-place of a divine Ka, attracted to it by certain mystical formulae at the time of dedication.” (Wentz, 1911)
When someone dies we erect a marker to them, a marker which is then placed in a beautiful location and on which we place flowers and other offerings. That this marker is a remnant of a shrine to the dead person is clear, for we speak to them at it which is in essence a form of prayer to their soul. What’s more, we feel reverence around it as we would in a religious setting. So again it is clear that this is a shrine for the dead. What isn’t clear, given most peoples current beliefs regarding the soul, is why this shrine must be at the persons body. The answer to this question is surprising as it is plainly obvious – people once believed that the soul remained with the body after death.
In Russia, they have funeral songs:
“which the grave itself is spoken of as the home of the departed spirit. “Dark and joyless is our prison-house," is the reply constantly made by ghosts when questioned about their habitation. "Stone and earth lie heavy on our hearts, our eyes are fast closed, our hands and feet are frozen by the cold." Especially during the winters do the dead suffer; when the spring returns the peasants say, "Our fathers enjoy repose," and in Little-Russia they add, "God grant that the earth may lie light on you.” (Ralston, 1872)
From this song, we can see that the Russians believed that the soul remained within the body. Similarly, as we will see further in “Humans Are the Dead”, in Celtic, Germanic, Mongolian, Japanese, and nearly every other Indo-European and Tengeri Mythology, humans souls were also thought to grow into flowers, trees, and rivers - things that we previously explained to be fairies. Yet at the same time, side by side with these beliefs, are Celtic and Russian myths that tell of soul taking the form of a winged animal.
In Brittany, souls are frequently thought to be in butterfly form, “but that upon leaving the body it is often believed to take the form of a fly and sometimes that of a raven…" (Ralston 1872). The butterfly also seems to have been universally accepted by the Slavonians as an emblem of the soul. Similarly, one of the names in the Government of Yaroslaw is dushichka, a caressing diminutive of dusha, the soul. In Kherson culture, it is believed that if the usual alms are not distributed at a funeral, the dead man's soul will reveal itself to his relatives in the form of a moth flying about the flame of a candle. Then, the day after receiving such a warning visit, the family would call together the poor and distribute food to them. Meanwhile, Bohemian culture holds that if the first butterfly a man sees in the spring is a white one, he is destined to die within the year. The Servians, on the other hand, believe that the soul of a witch often leaves her body while she is asleep and flies abroad in the shape of a butterfly.
“The belief in the bird-soul was well known in the Highlands. To illustrate: A farmer was coming home from Inverness to Buntait when at a weird part of the way his mare got uncontrollable and ran up with him to where there was a waterfall (eas). Whereupon he swooned and fell off. On recovering he found his way home and was amazed at finding his mare tied in the stable, not knowing how it happened, for nobody confessed to having tied her. Soon after he hurt himself in moving a heavy box of oats at the farm of Shewglie; a plough or two broke thereafter at the spring-work, always a bad omen. Getting more unwell, he said to his wife the night before his death: "What a beautiful bird I heard singing by my bedside to-night." "I well believe it," she replied. To which he answered: "It was my ghost; I cannot live long.” (Ralston, 1872)
There were also a number of other animal forms which human souls could take.
“it was generally believed among the Northern nations that the soul escaped from the body in the shape of a mouse, which crept out of a corpse’s mouth and ran away, and it was also said to creep in and out of the mouths of people in a trance. While the soul was absent, no effort or remedy could recall the patient to life; but as soon as it had come back animation returned.” (Guerber, 1909)
It is also clear that along with these ideas, it was believed that humans changed into some other form after death. What we see from examining the mythology surrounding death is that the same people believed that two or even three things happened to a human soul when we died.
Why did the ancient Europeans hold so many beliefs? Is it simply because they were confused by what happens after death? Is it because people were not certain which one of a myriad of choices to believe in so they picked all possible outcomes? Of course, any of these options is possible. Certainly the modern tradition of laying flowers on the grave has persisted even though almost no one truly believes that this does any real good for the dead. So it is also quite possible that the beliefs in Europe changed slowly over time, thus making it appear that they believed that two very different things could happen to a person's soul.
There is, however, an alternative option; that people believed many things happened to a person when they died. That like the people of the Steppes in Central Asia, the Ainu, the Japanese, the Finns as well as the forbearers of the Hungarians and North East Europeans some Europeans believed that everyone had multiple souls. These peoples do have some disagreement as to the number of souls a human can have, but they believed that when people die some of their souls reside in nature and become trees or mountains, while others are reincarnated or travel to the afterlife for a time in the form of a winged creature such as a butterfly or a bird. (Ried, 2002)
Jacob Grimm points out that Germanic people spoke of the soul as a feminine object, while they spoke of life -integrally related to breath - as masculine. (Grimm, 1835) Clearly, then, there was a distinction of some form between the two, which in turn, supports the idea that at one time the people in Europe believed in more than one soul. The fundamental belief in multiple souls is significant because it shows us not only how some fairies that reside in nature can be connected with ancient humans, but it also explains how an individual fairy can seemingly have many personalities and forms at one time.
We see the same belief repeated in Japan where people thought that the Kami had multiple souls, and therefore multiple natures or personalities. According to them, any given Kami has four souls and three natures. Namely, Aramitama, Nigimitama, and Sakimitama. Any one of these natures can become dominant, thus completely changing the way the Kami acts, what they desire, and what goals they will have.
The Aramitama is violent and generally destructive. However, it is important to keep in mind that destructiveness is not always harmful. After all, it was violence and destructiveness that saved Japan from the genocide of the Mongols and protected people from other dangers.
The second type, Nigimitama, is the gentle nature which Kami uses to make the crops grow and the water pure. However, Kami in this state do not go out of their way to do good. They simply keep the natural order of things so that there is enough for humans and animals to survive.
The final nature, Sakimitama, is one in which Kami brings extra luck, creates wealth for humans, and other similar helpful actions.
I believe that, just as in the concepts behind the Kami, we see separate natures in fairies of European mythology. For the same fairy that causes people's crops to grow is the one that children are told to avoid. (Frazer, 1922) In the sacred groves, the fairies that people prayed to for wealth and luck would not hesitate to kill those who disturbed them. (Tactis)
Hermes in Greek mythology was both the god who protected merchants from thieves and the one who helped thieves rob the merchants. He gave humans secrets to keep them safe, yet snatched children away, dragging them into a dark world from which there was no return. It is clear from these stories that the fairies and deities in European myths had multiple natures, and that their motivations and thoughts changed with their mood. Indeed, fairies and deities can be said to feel things with more intensity than most humans can and so they need to struggle for control much more fiercely.
Unlike much of the modern perception of the world, in which the duality between destruction and creation exists in separate beings, fairies exhibit this duality inside themselves. An internalized duality makes sense given that fairies were natural phenomena which are, in themselves, dualistic in a way that is neither good nor evil. After all, if fairies helped humans hunt for food, they must also help wolves source their food, which can include humans as there is no moral difference in the wolf's mind between a deer and a human. In addition, we as humans have every right to kill the wolf to defend ourselves, our own food, and those we love. Why is this comparison significant? Because this is the way of fairies – in fact, the way of all feral creatures - and this is a critical insight into what they think and do.
Indeed, when examining fairies, it becomes obvious that humans are not always their closest companions. Fairies often love trees and animals more because these are their friends. When a human chops down a tree they are in fact killing a fairy, which can be a child, mother, or lover of another fairy. To fairies, humans can be the wolves that destroy what they love, the rats that bring disease and eat off their infant’s faces. In this sense, fairies have every right to return pestilence onto humanity to protect themselves just as we have the right to defend ourselves from predators and illnesses.