Friday, December 10, 2021

"Flower Fairies" Pleading for Innocence

One might be tempted to think of Cicely Mary Barker's "Flower Fairies" as "beauty for its own sake" a remnant of the ideas of aestheticism or the arts and crafts movements. But the extreme innocence of the images, and the way they managed to captivate people above so many other beautiful images of fairies means that there is likely more going on. 

The Great War had left people fleeing from the horror that the modern world could bring, and towards what they hoped would be a brighter future of parties, jazz, cars, and a changing moral standard. In this flight they found the problems that come with decadence and thoughtless, self-serving behavior, from a rise in crime to many forms of emotional scarring.

It is likely that "The Flower Fairies" beckon us to return to a more innocent time, to a purer morality.

As imaginative as the flower fairies are, they are in essence portraits of children doing daily things. In essence, they are reminders of childhood, of purity, and hope. 

For Cicely M. Barker the roaring 20s must have been a terrifying time. She was, after all, a devout Christian who had donated much of her money to missionaries and had painted post cards of angels for the “Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge”.

But while her angels guide children, that was before the Roaring 20s. The children in "Flower Fairies" are instead meant to guide us, or at least remind us of what we were before hedonism took over. 

By drawing innocent, cherubic children as fairies she likely hoped to remind people of the purity and wonder of childhood. For her this was likely the path to a better world, not the hedonism of roaring twenties excess that would lead to the Great Depression.

Barker wasn't the first one to use fairies in this way, however. 

Fairies have been used for moralizing purposes for a long time. The Rusalka were said in one fairytale to be leaving Russia because of the immorality of the people. Nymphs taught people morality in Greek Mythology, not the gods.

Fantasy and fairytales are frequently used as a part of moral instruction, and for many that meant tying them to religious themes. Indeed, early fantasy art, whether a painting of “Saint George” battling a dragon or a unicorn which was symbolic of Christian ideals, Krampus who was invented by Christian plays as a punisher of immorality, and the tales of King Arthur, much of early fantasy was entirely about religious morality.

Perrault wrote down fairytales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella” in hopes of instructing children on proper morals, altering the fairytales to fit with the lessons he wanted to teach. More recently “The Chronicles of Narnia” channeled old Christian plays which used animals as symbols for Christian moralism, with the lion often symbolizing Christ, in order to pass on Christian ideas through a fantasy story.

In the world of art, however, few were so inspiring as Barker whose paintings of pure and innocent fairies became the standard that many people thought of fairies. Obviously, she didn’t exist in a vacuum and there had been other fairies that approached this level of innocence before her, but none so famous, and few so perfect in their display of purity. This was clearly what many people needed from their art.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Holiday fairy visitors and Santa Mythology

This article is a shortened version of a topic in my book "A Worldbuilder's Guide to Fairies and Fairy Tales" 

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

The Night Before Christmas, as it is most commonly known now, is an important part of the most successful and intriguing piece of worldbuilding ever performed. By using ideas from multiple cultures and legends, the anonymous writer of this short poetic story was able to help reinvent a holiday to focus on family and children, while creating one of the few fairy figures still commonly believed in (if only by those of a younger age) and change our entire view of the world. 

The ultimate creators of the modern Santa were likely unaware of most of the history of fairy visitors, nor did this legend evolve the same in all places. Nor can we say that all winter visitors contributed to the idea of the modern Santa, but they are all interesting and can help us better understand fairylore.

Winter was a mixed time in the medieval and earlier periods of time. It was a hard time when cold, disease, and hunger became all the more threatening. Yet in agrarian and pastoral societies, the winter could offer some break from hard toil as work moved inside.

No one could do all the work alone; they needed the gods and fairies to help and bless them. Thus, people would invite these supernatural beings to their homes and villages to receive their blessings. 

 When the culture changed, the nature of the winter visitor changed. After all, these visitors serve a purpose within the culture. 

Although there have been hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of magical visitors, most of them fit within one of eight primary categories which include:  the gods of alcohol production, the gods of animal husbandry, trooping fairies seeking a place to rest, wild men of the mountains and forests, gods of household work, hunters of evil spirits, gods of children, and the dying god and carnival king.

Obviously, any one being could fit within many of these categories, and there are many more beings that visited to bring blessings to the house and village in other ways because people needed the deities for a number of reasons. This, of course, confuses people who want there to be some straight line between a single god or divine idea and the later Santa figure. Such a line doesn’t exist, however, for places like England and later America where the Santa myth was finalized, included a synchronization of Celts, Germans, and Romans from multiple regions who herded animals, farmed fields, and performed cottage industry. Thus, there were numerous concerns and ideas that would get merged together to eventually create the Santa we know.

Regardless of the form the winter visitor took, it’s important to keep in mind that a large part of the holidays were designed not only to celebrate these visitors but to lure them to people’s homes. Thus, people might leave donuts for Perchta and the spirits of children she travels with, or hold wild, inverted celebrations with a lot of cross-dressing dances for a carnival king. 

The Deity of Alcohol Production

One of the many tasks that commonly occurred in winter was the production of wine, cider, or similar beverages. What’s more, in many places the casks of alcohol were first opened in the winter. A large part of most winter was celebrating the fact that there was fresh meat from slaughtered animals, and just as important, the fact that people began making alcohol after the harvest and opened the previous year’s barrels. This tended to make these winter celebrations very ruckus and wild affairs. Among the Greeks and the Kalasha the gods of alcohol, Dionysus and Balimain respectively would visit the villages in the winter. People in Britain would sing to the spirits of the apple orchards or ask gods for a good bounty on apple and cider. It wasn’t unheard of for the Apple Tree Man to leave gifts for some people in the winter as well. 

Divinity of Household Chores

Just as winter was a time for opening the alcohol and slaughtering the animals for meat, it was also a time when people performed numerous household chores. They would spin thread, sew, weave, clean, and more. Fairies were a big part of these activities. In Scandinavian nations, tomte and nisse, household fairies give presents on Christmas. From Scotland to Northern Italy, the goddesses of spinning tended to visit around Christmas time


Animal Husbandry and Pastoralism

In pastoralist societies, people who would take their animals to eat in the summer, often in mountains, forest meadows, or fields, the places where the gods and fairies dwelt. In the winter, their animals would still need blessings from these gods, so it would make sense for people to pray for the gods and fairies to visit them. We see such traditions in the Yule goat of Scandinavia. Although, it is interesting that Scandinavia also had the tomte and nisse, spirits of the household who would also dwell in barns and bless animals and receive gifts of oatmeal with butter in return for this.


Wild Men

There were a multitude of wild mountain spirits that lived in the places where people would hunt and or herd animals. Some of these, such as Bellschniggle [also known as Pelznichol Bellsnickle and more], were likely connected with such Alpine spirits. In this tradition, people would dress in rough furs, and often masks, and go house to house delivering candy to and scaring children. In others, he would visit like Santa, flitting from house to house, unseen, he would slip down the chimney to leave presents in stockings.

Another wild man from Basque country is Olentzero. Legends about his origins vary, but in some he is the last or one of the last of the jentillak, the giants of the mountains. He, too, lived in the mountains, coming down during Christmas to give presents to children.



Children and Generosity

Children would likely struggle to survive the winter with hunger and cold (although at one time summer was also a time for disease thanks to the danger of bacteria). This would explain why so many spirits of the winter seemed eager to take the spirits of children, but it could also explain why people were eager for deities who would bless and protect children as well. 

Befana, from Italy, was a woman, said to have given Jesus the toys her dead child had played with, and so in return she became mother on Christmas to all the children of Italy. She flies around on a broom, bringing gifts to children. It has been suggested that she is connected with the goddess Strenia, the Roman goddess of the New Year and wellbeing, with the Christian element thrown in later to explain her.


Trooping Fairies

There were numerous fairies who would enter people’s homes to search for fresh water to bathe their children, a warm place to rest by the fire, a place to hold weddings, or get a little food. Others would come in to check up on the people of the village. In any case, these fairies often blessed the good and punished the bad. They helped shoemakers and others down on their luck by making shoes or performing similar tasks. Although not specifically winter related, an awful lot of the stories with them happen around that time. A widow in Italy encountered the Buffardello during this time. 


The Evil Spirit Hunter

Vampires, trolls, cruel fairies, and more were more active during the wintertime. On Christmas, at the cross-roads, vampires could often be found fighting, celebrating, and generally causing trouble. It makes sense, then, for the gods and fairies who hunt these beings and protect humanity from them to come out at Christmas. Perchta and Holda led the wild hunt to hunt down evil spirits, as did Odin.


Monday, November 22, 2021

Trampier's Heist - Masterpieces of Fantasy Art

This work of art, painted by Trampier for the cover of an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons book is reminiscent of Pulp Magazine covers, using sensationalism to attract attention, such as the skeleton writing something during World War Two in Europe by Hannes Bok. 

 Trampier’s painting outshines them all in this goal however, while also achieving so much more.

Unlike pulp illustrations which promise horror, heroism, and sexually provocative situations Trampier’s painting promises comradery, alliance, and perhaps even friendship. For the terrifying setting, like a heist film, can enhance the depiction of friendship among the pairs of comrades in the painting.

There is a long history of Heist stories and tales of adventurous rogues such as Robinhood being more about skilled friends, working together to obtain some goal, than about obtaining treasure. Robin Hood works with a large band of Merry Men, who constantly exhibit joy in each other’s company, and in the freedom they have found outside of society.

Comradery, adventuring together with each character having different skill sets that are needed for the group to succeed is as important to Dungeons and Dragons as it is to heists, making the display of companionship in this painting as important as the vivid and eerie imagery.

Wright, Weissglass, and Casey performed a psychological experiment in which they had some groups play Dungeons and Dragons and found that “imaginative role-playing games can serve as an enjoyable medium for promoting (and protecting) moral growth. In particular, gaming that involves the encounter of morally relevant situations appears to facilitate a shift away from concern for one’s own personal interests and toward the interests of others.”

As with all great works of art, however, there are more layers to this painting than the surface idea. That of the fostering of camaraderie inherent in Roleplaying and the idea of groups of adventurers

Heists are also stories about rebelling against social limits. Treasure, after all, is something society denies to most of us, that many of us wish to have. Julian Hanich states that heist tales spring from a “desire to extend spatial options, to resist boundaries set by gates and walls, to rebel against artificially imposed limit.” Heist stories aren’t simply about greedy people obtaining treasure, they are about people eluding the repressiveness of society.

From the arch around the statue of the demon god, to the inky blackness of the room, it clearly feels as if this was a place hidden from the figures in the painting, and from the world. A forbidden place that the characters were able to break into.

Yet despite their seeming victory in getting here, none of the companions are celebrating. They seem to feel a sense of trepidation. One of the men trying to pry the ruby from the eye of the statue looks precarious, like they are ready to tumble down at any moment.

In the foreground the companions talking seem uncertain as well, as they pour over a scroll or a map, perhaps trying to figure out their next move. They all seem to know that this isn’t over, that something is about to happen. Yet they, like the viewers of the art don’t seem to know what that is. Perhaps the only one who does is the demon statue, grinning wildly beneath its ruby eyes.

The year before this painting was released Elvis died and the Apple II and Atari were released. It was as if the old world were being swept away by a new one. The world is, after all, filled with change and uncertainty and this perhaps explains the sense of uncertainty and trepidation one feels when looking at this art. And why no one in the painting is fully relaxed.

There is greed on display in this painting too. Such Greed is common in stories of companionship. The goal of friends in many stories is to obtain wealth. Yet, as already stated, heist stories aren’t about greed for the audience. They are about working with others towards a goal, and while it’s nice to have friends, it is even better to be working towards a singular goal with those friends. To have a sense of purpose. The search for treasure with friends is what makes stories like “Goonies” so engaging and emotionally satisfying.

Psychologists have found that Table-Top RPGs help provide psychological gratification in this area. That those who play them feel more fulfilled. Likely because they are more than just friends getting together to passively watch something.

Yet there is also something sinister about this painting, and its not the demon that takes up most of the focus. Rather, further inspection causes one to sense a separation between the characters depicted, making one wonder if they might not be the best of friends. They are isolated into their groups by walls of darkness. For some of these characters at least, the goal may very well be about treasure, about greed.

Psychology today states that; “Greed often arises from early negative experiences such as parental absence, inconsistency, or neglect. In later life, feelings of anxiety and vulnerability, often combined with low self-esteem, lead the person to fixate on a substitute for the love and security that he or she so sorely lacked. The pursuit of this substitute distracts from negative feelings, and its accumulation provides much needed comfort and reassurance.”

The trauma that leads to greed can also lead to a longing for friendship and love, showing that the two emotions can be equated. So, the idea of adventuring with friends for treasure makes sense, but perhaps the companions in this painting can never form a fully satisfying relationship.

This separation and tension is perhaps explained by the artist. A few years after completing this masterpiece Trampier left his life and art behind without telling anyone. For a time many thought he might have died, but as it turned out he simply left his old life and began driving a cab. When people found this out years later, he was offered a number of jobs related to art and RPGs but he refused them all. For reasons we will never know he felt disconnected from the others in the fantasy industry, and eventually didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

Yet in the short time he worked Trampier still left us with some of the most evocative works of art, which manage to balance depictions of deep seated human desires and anxieties.

This is the back cover of the book, which shows some characters working together to hall, their treasures from the dungeon while others stand guard. Any problems they had likely resolved, and that is a nice image to leave us with. 

Wright, Jen & Weissglass, Daniel & Casey, Vanessa. (2017). Imaginative Role-Playing as a Medium for Moral Development: Dungeons & Dragons Provides Moral Training. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 60. 002216781668626. 10.1177/0022167816686263

Hanich, Julian "On Pros and Cons and Bills and Gates: The Heist Film as Pleasure" Film Philosophy Vol 24 Issu 3

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Fairy Backgrounds and Origins

Pinpointing an exact fairy’s origins is often difficult, but there are many for which an origin is specifically given. These origins include; That of another ‘hidden people’, ancestral spirits, tutelary deities and nature spirits, familiar spirits, and former gods. 

Another people

When the Mansi and Greek gods first created the world, they created an original people to act as the heroes of a golden age. These other peoples from a golden age would later become the pupi and daemons respectively. They would watch over the humans that came later, helping and sometimes hindering us – even as they typically remained invisible.

The dwarves and presumably the later zwerg of Germanic mythology arose from the flesh of the giant that was slain to create the earth, and there are many stories in Germanic, Scandinavian, and Celtic lore about God choosing to make half of Eve’s children hidden from the rest of humanity. In Iceland the Huldufólk are one such people who live in underground homes and rocks.

Such other peoples are often so much like humans it is difficult to tell the difference, until they use their magic to do something seemingly impossible.

Tutelary Gods and Owners of the Land

Two hundred years ago, in Ireland, before a family of humans moved into a new home they would leave food in the home as an offering to the spirits who owned the land the home was on. If the spirits ate the food the family would move in, with full knowledge that the fairies had accepted them. If the fairies didn’t eat the food, however, the house would sit empty until someone came along that the fairies would accept. In Sweden there was an Island that couldn’t be used for anything as the spirits of it didn’t allow farming or construction on their land, that is, until someone tried growing hay on it. The spirits of that island enjoy the taste of dairy so much that they decided their land could be used to feed the cows.

Before the humans there were spirits of the land, or at least fairies that had already claimed a place as their own. This is one reason that in Ireland and Mari-El there are clusters of trees in the middle of farmland, for that space is still claimed by the gods of those lands. The tutelary gods themselves have a number of different origins. Some are the gods of the land or water themselves. In “The Kalevala” there is a lake that was offended by the people in a region, because they were bandits and immoral, and so it flew off to a new home, where the people treated them with respect by building dams to calm the water, planted trees to shade it, and acted morally.

In Dartmoor a wealthy man was surveying the land to establish farms, when an old man came and warned him that Old Crocken, the spirit of Dartmoor, had said anyone who dared scratch his back with a plough would be reduced to poverty and suffering. Obviously, the wealthy man ignores this warning and is indeed reduced to poverty. This story, short as it is, leaves the distinct impression that Old Crocken is indeed the spirit of the land, that he feels the ploughs themselves.

While the lives of many nymphs were tied to springs, and the nymphs would die when these died up, just as many more were tied to trees and would die when the tree died.

The exact form and nature of tutelary deities was hugely variable. Some were previous people from a golden age, the spirits of dead heroes, nymphs, dragons, and giants.


Humans often became or joined the fairies when we died. The spirits of the dead were often to be seen partying and walking with the fairy courts and it wasn’t atypical for ancestral spirits to help someone who was in danger from their fellow members of the fairy court. What’s more the fairy Queen’s and Kings of Scotland frequently sent the spirits of the dead to teach new witches the art of magic and to act as mediators between the human and fairy worlds.

Banshees were the spirits of women who had died young that came back to watch over and care for their family. Sometimes they would invisibly help family members play chess, while at others they would weep and cry when they knew something bad was going to happen to a family member they loved.

Many house fairies throughout Europe are cast as patriarchs or other male (and sometimes female) ancestral spirits who continue to watch over the homes of their decedents.

Former Deities

In ‘Preserving the Spell’ Maggi points out that there are Italian fairy tales in which the role of Venus has been replaced by an ogress, yet such a replacement can make sense when she was acting in cruel and destructive ways. Indeed, the words orco and ogre comes from Orcus, an ancient god of death and punishment. As people came to worship other things, the Celtic gods and Roman gods when those people conquered the British Isles and Italy, for example, it would make sense for the worship of the old gods to continue as that of lesser and displaced divinities. Certainly, after Christianity took over people would still go to make offerings at springs and trees sacred to the fairies, would still remember them in charms and festivals, but they became small things, or leaders of the fairies. Larson points out that ”In some cases, the nymphs were identified with indigenous deities (hence with non-elite populations) through a process of syncretism…” It is difficult to tell, of course, when such a being was merely a tutelary deity or other spirit, and when they were once a powerful god. Certainly, however, it does appear that the elves of Anglo-Saxon were once equated with the gods and worshipped by people with offerings and prayers. The folklorist Alric Hall indicates that the Elves that eventually became the little prancing creatures of England may have originally been the Vanir, their king being one of the Gods. Similarly, Gwyn ap Nudd in Welsh lore was likely a god of winter and the forest, who was billed as the King of the Fairies in that land. Still, people would pray to ask him for protection on entering the forest, even if he had been somewhat diminished by the importance of the Christian deity.


Preserving the Spell Basile's "The Tale of Tales" and Its Afterlife in the Fairy-Tale Tradition Armando Maggi 

Familiar Spirits

Familiar Spirits Shamanism has been a part of humanities’ cultures for a long time and was, at one time, the most widespread religious phenomenon outside of the belief in spirits and deities, (Winkelman, 1990). Those people who lived in shamanistic cultures presumed that there were magical creatures who wanted to teach people magic, to work for people, and to guide them. In England, these shamanistic helping spirits are often referred to as familiar spirits and are frequently fairies. Indeed, the fairy-like nature of these helping spirits is common throughout Europe. "Cunning Woman, Karin Persdotter... learned sorcery from a male water spirit referred to as ‘the man of the stream,' ‘the neck,' or ‘the river…' nature spirits could be understood as more tangible, more available, and more inclined towards direct intervention in the material world." (Petersen)

Many cunning people (witches) In Denmark and the like would learn their powers from trolls, while in England, Jersey, Guernsey, Cornwall, Scotland, etc. they would learn their magic from the fairies, often being whisked away to celebrations in the fairy court with the king and queen of the fairies of their region.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Worldbuilding History and Fairydom

Fairy lore gives us many indications of how people would react to fairies in the Victorian era, as does the literature and art of the Victorian era itself. In 1890, the year that electric traction trains began operating in the then nearly thirty-year-old London underground, that same year a book was published on fairy tales about people's encounters with pixies in Dartmoor. A few years later a woman in Ireland would be murdered for fear that she was a fairy changeling. 

The Victorian era was a complicated time, for science had started to dominate, yet there was still a memory of magic, and perhaps more importantly, a longing for it. People would gather near houses that were supposed to be haunted in hopes of seeing a ghost, they would attend lectures on occultism and seances in drawing rooms. Perhaps most important they would set out to explore the countryside in hopes of gathering information from the ‘folk’ on fairies. Thus, most of the information on fairies we have comes from the Victorian, Edwardian, and Regency periods. Indeed, the most famous collectors of fairy lore such as Grimm, Yeats, Wilde, and more, were all active during these times. 

There were many witches involved with technology and science in the Victorian era. In places like Essex, just a few miles from London, the Cunning Men or Curren (witches) were laborer's who’s magical powers had adapted to the new technology. One family had power over anything with wheels, with a member being a mechanical genius was nick-named ‘wizard’… The tradition is still strong and the youngest member of the family, a child of six, living in London has the ability to repair his broken mechanical toys” (Maple, 1965). 

This adaptation makes sense, given that those with magic in England were often said to have power over horses and wagons, that is, early modes of transportation and farm work. And while belief in such things waned through the 1960s, this adjustment in powers hints at the ability of magic to adapt to the ever changing world. 

Perhaps, most important, for our purposes, however, was the fact that attitudes towards fairies had changed in interesting ways. Fairies had become an important part of Victorian nationalism, in Britain, Scotland, Germany, and certainly Ireland. What’s more fairies acted as a protest against the utilitarianism of the industrial revolution and the dourness of the Victorian sensibilities. Enthusiasm for fairies in art and for being a part of the occult grew. Secret and not so secret societies sprang up to study magic and folklorists traveled out into the country to collect and compile stories about them. 

Era’s of belief 

There were a number of eras of attitude towards fairy belief through the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian eras. These include traditional beliefs before the 1820s, attempts to force skepticism from 1820-1860, and the rise of romantic belief in the 1860s through the 1920s and beyond. 

This shift in belief and attitude towards fairy belief is important for us to understand, because it had more to do with politics and philosophy than with actual belief. Indeed, if one wants, they can see these eras not as eras as belief but as three separate political movements taking hold of England. These different political movements can be used to understand how people in these eras would have interacted with real fairies in a fantasy world. 

The first era (before the 1820s) was conservativism – in which old traditions are respected.  Between 1820 and 1860 this was followed by an attempt by elitists to discredit the masses and conservative political parties (the Tories) that lead to making fun of traditional beliefs and ways of living. This is followed by a rebellion against the strict moral and utilitarian codes of the elitists who had run Victorian era. This lead to a romanticization of fairies and traditional beliefs. 

During this second era, according to Waters “Liberal, Whig, and Radical journalists were particularly enthusiastic disparagers [of magic and fairies], no doubt because witchcraft belief in particular could be used to embarrass their Tory and Anglican opponents.” What’s more newspapers and other periodicals could make themselves appear as founts of knowledge and sobriety by attacking belief in magic between 1820 and 1860. Again, Waters states that;

"An alternative to this reading of the attack on "popular superstition" would be to interpret as a self-serving campaign designed to legitimize the social hierarch. Victorian elites, it has been argued, justified their privileged positions by stigmatizing and slandering their social inferiors with accusations of superstition."

Waters, T. (2015). Magic and the British Middle Classes, 1750–1900. Journal of British Studies, 54(3), 632-653. doi:10.2307/24702123

There are limits to these eras of belief, as Green in "Elf Queens and Holy Friars" points out when discussing Le Goff's model of Fairy Belief and literature in the middle ages and it might be better to think of these eras as additions, in which new ideas are added to the older ones by people with political and social agendas. Nowhere is this more clear than the Early Modern Era when execution's of witches was far more common than most, if not the entire middle ages. Yet fairies were starting to be used by moralists, such that fairies like Puck/Robin Goodfellow actually had poems written about him which instructed women of the era on how to clean and be 'proper.' At the same time poets like Shakespeare were using fairies as a sign of chaos but also for aesthetic beauty. 

All of this points to the fact that, as with everything else, people use fairies for their own political agendas. 

In other words, if in your story or world, no one would dare question the existence of fairies and magic because they are ever present, it might be that the elite are railing against the worship of the local gods of the 'ignorant' uneducated masses, the heroization of trickster beings, the following of ancient gods from times and kingdoms past, contact with wilder spirits and fairies that have yet to be ‘tamed’ or with which the nobility and Queen has no alliance. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Fairies for Worldbuilders - Steampunk Fairies

“The age of chivalry is gone. That of the sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” Edmund Burke 

The industrial revolution wore on and smog became so common that moths’ wings turned black and the rivers smelled so bad in London that the paper “City Press” stated; “it stinks, and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.” For many the world felt like it was being ruled by heartless industrialists and bean counters who intended work everyone to death and kill the world with filth in the process. 

Fairies represented an escape from this repressive, stink filled society. They were a nostalgia for an imagined and fading past of a joyous and rustic life. They were the beauty of the countryside. A rebellion against industrialism, despair, and repressive morality. 

We can see this push back against the ‘modern age’ through fairy are on display in the painting “The Nymphs and the Satyr.” A drawing of this massive painting in it’s home within a bar can be seen above. This painting was released during a time of heavy-handed moral policing and censorship. 

“Nymphs and Satyr made a stir because it both expressed and contained transgressive female sexual power. The theme of dangerous eroticism would have been obvious to any Gilded Age viewer.” After all, Nymphe du Pave was a word for streetwalker, nymphomania and satyriasis were terms for sexual obsession. People therefore were well-aware what aggressive nymphs and a satyr meant.

The nymphs in the painting, however, “don’t give themselves over to ecstatic adventure… rather they perform ecstasy and impulse for us. Their performance is itself a mode of transgressive power. It is not genuinely horrific and deadly, but it is not quite safe either.” (Sayre and Lowy)

This painting of nude nymphs being sexually playful with a satyr caused a stir, but also excitement and interest as so many women came to see it the owner had to ‘institute a weekly visiting day to accommodate their intrusion.” This is because the second half of the nineteenth century had a difference between the ideals that were espoused in public and personal behavior. That is there was a public sphere where people exhibited self-control and a private sensual underworld that fairies and mythological creatures allowed artists and people to discuss and explore. 

This rebellion against sterility and utility could be especially interesting for writers worldbuilding a steampunk like setting, where the act of seeking out and encountering certain fairies could be equated to a romanticist search for beauty and truth in nature. 

People began to dream of escaping the mundane world to a land of endless play and enchantment. At first many didn’t trivialize the romantic idea of fairyland because it was childish or whimsical but loved it because of these things. This largely cumulated in the fame of Peter Pan, a child who never wants to or has to grow up, who lives in a land that is perfectly set up for children to play with fairies and pirates.

This isn’t to say that everyone loved fairies. There was a philosophical and emotional battle however, between tradition and the new, the countryside and progressivism. The Enlightenment sought to create a better world, to cast off the shadows of the past and prejudice while the Romanticists sought the past and its traditions, putting them in a more romantic light, as it were. In this sense, the Romanticists were conservative, attempting to maintain an imagined culture, the shackles of which many wanted to escape. The fairies came to represent the goals of the romanticists and their emotional and philosophical decedents. 

 Jason Harris argues that such ‘fanciful but distorted representations’ of ‘sentimentalized fairies’ found in popular culture had ‘effaced the folk roots’ as artists and writers ‘dazzled’ the public. The spectacular and escapist nature of these fairy presentations naturally lent themselves to the whimsy of children’s culture. After all, the fairy tale was increasingly considered appropriate children’s literature in the late nineteenth century.

This escapist idealism contrasts, at least in part with early 19th century philosophers such as Schopenhauer who believed that the state of the sublime, beyond beauty, was to be found in terrifying landscapes and pain with beauty. It happens when one sees something stunningly beautiful that is also so fearsome or vast that they “consciously turn away” and in so doing “violently wrenching himself free from his will.” This in turn leads to an elevated state, or the feeling of the sublime. 

Such ideas are useful in so far as fairies are concerned for, they were at once dangerous forces of nature, beautiful and sometimes angelic spirits, dangerous, and helpful creatures. Many who encountered them reported being afraid, awed, and of course dazzled by them. 

I will be exploring the fairies of the Victorian Era in my new series of essays. So please follow me to learn more.

CONNOLLY, C. 2006. Irish Romanticism, 1800 - 1830. In: KELLEHER, M. & O'LEARY, P. (eds.) The Cambridge History of Irish Literature. Volume 1 to 1890. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity By Michael Löwy, Robert Sayre


Monday, September 6, 2021

Economy of Fairyland for creating a fantasy world

Survival, desire, and pleasure are the great motivators, and all three are wrapped up in the economy of a people and fairies. For the longest time most of humanities economy centered around the obtainment of food, whether this was through agriculture, pastoralism, or hunting and fishing. Fairies too would farm, fish, raise, cattle, make shoes, and have similar sorts of jobs. 

Yet fairies were often dependent on humans for at least a portion of their food and even mundane objects. For many fairies also had trouble creating mundane items such as ovens, pots, or even fire. Yet at the same time fairies were magical and so could help crops grow, create illusions, etc. In other words, the wealth of the fairies depended in large part on the success of the humans economy, which the fairies could influence. Fairy magic and fairy need meant that fairies could be at once wealthy and poor. 

Briggs (1959) states that "clean water and bread are often left out for fairies at night. Then the fairy ladies would come and wash their babies in the water set ready for them, warm themselves by the fire and eat the bread milk left for them. Then the house would be lucky, and the neat obliging maid would find sixpence in the pail or in her shoe. But if the house was left in disarray, pinching was the best that the maid could expect. Sometimes she might be cursed with lameness."

These fairies needed clean water, a fire, and food from a human, but they had silver in abundance. This, however, didn’t make all, or even most fairies wealthy. For fairies frequently, used illusions to make cheap food appear good, and dank caves appear like beautiful palaces. Such fairies were often poor, but they wished to appear rich. As such, one of their most frequent means of obtaining goods was through theft. In some cases, however, they would repay those they stole from with luck, making people who the fairies stole from prosper more than they otherwise would have. 

Fairies would visit human markets in disguise in German, 

Britain, and other places, often to steal what they needed.

"Strange were the doings of little folk in Ambleside fair 

and market. Dressed as common folk, they would mingle 

with the marketing folk, and then by blowing at women 

at the market stalls, they became invisible, and were 

enabled to steal things from the stalls."

Newman, L., & Wilson, E. (1952). Folklore Survivals in 

the Southern "Lake Counties" and in Essex: A 

Comparison and Contrast. Folklore, 63(2), 91-104. 

Others would disguise themselves and purchase what they needed fairly. Plant Rhys Dwfn visited markets in Cardigan and Fishguard and paid so much they cleared the market and raised the price of grain. 

There are a few tales of fairies hosting their own market; however, these are most commonly found in Somerset.  It's possible that that these markets weren't equipped to deal with money, as there are reports that fairies didn't exchange money at these, but rather emotions and ideas.

Still, fairies often did exchange physical goods for the use of human objects such as kettles, ovens, etc. 

What we see then is that there were five common ways that the fairies people encountered obtained food and other objects they needed.  

The first of these was through banditry, by using their illusions and natural stealth. 

The second was helping humans create objects, grow crops, etc. Some of these fairies such as the pixies would even help with farm work such as threshing, reaping, and mowing the fields. Other fairies would grant humans skills in crafts and other forms of aid in return for offerings of food.

Thirdly fairies would trade with humans or borrow from them. 

Fourthly, fairies could hire or kidnap humans to work for them, providing them with what they needed.

Finally, There were fairies who would raise cattle and farm or hunt. Indeed, there are many stories from Norway and France of people being hired to help watch the fairies cattle for a short period of time or even as a long term job. Other fairies, such as Leprechauns (who made shoes) would make things to sell to their fellow fairies. 

Despite this last means of obtaining food it is interesting that fairies so frequently depended on humans for their food, art and other goods. Indeed, aristocratic would even hire or kidnap humans who could perform music. Fairies of the land would often go to listen to humans joke and tell stories, so even here, humans were an important part of the fairy economy. 

 As I have pointed out many times on this blog and in my books then, there is an interesting push and pull between humans and fairies who need and fear each other for numerous reasons. 

Fantasy Writing Prompts Related to "The Fairy Economy"

Write a story about someone who is hired to care for a fairies cattle. In folklore those hired in this way often became godparents to the fairy's children. 

Write a story about someone encountering a fairy market. 

Write a story about some fairies who can't start fires sneaking into some ones home to use their oven in secret. 

Write the story of someone who exchanges food and mundane goods such as kettles or cups with the fairies in return for magical trinkets and potions.

See more Fantasy Writing Prompts

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Friday, September 3, 2021

Worldbuilding, fantasy food, cultures, and folklore

 There is a sort of magic in food that many storytellers have used to enhance the quite, awe inspiring, or even terrifying moments of the tales they tell. Take for example the following moment from "Dragons of Autumn Twilight,"

"Tas flung the door open wid. A wave of light, noise, heat, and the familiar smell of Otik's spicy potatoes hit them full in the face. It engulfed them and washed over them soothingly. (Wies and Hickman)"

It is the description of the smell of the “spicy potatoes” that really makes this moment feel like coming the characters are coming home after years away. The smell of food creates an emotional bridge to a time of happiness and peace that motivates the characters when the war that is about to happen takes this inn away from them. Throughout the book the protagonists long to taste these potatoes of their home once more. 

As with everything else in storytelling the most important question when including a food is how it fits into the story emotionally. The ‘spicy potatoes’ in "Dragons of Autumn Twilight" work because potatoes are a comfort food, they can feel associated with the French fries of our childhood, or the potato salads of picnics and barbeques. Yet the name makes them feel unique and exotic enough that they fit within a fantasy world and a town that is at a crossroad for trade. 

Food can fill such a strong emotional function with stories because it has been one of the primary concerns of humans since before we were human, so its no wonder that it features so strongly in so many of our oldest fairytales. As Tatar states; 

"Food – its presence and its absence – shapes the social world of fairy tales in profound ways. It is not at all uncommon for a peasant hero, faced with three wishes, to ask first for a plate of meat and potatoes, or to be so distracted by hunger that he years out loud for a sausage while contemplating the limitless possibilities before him."

Food has strong association with our parents, our family, but also our culture. Indeed, food is so important that just as Tolkien centered his world around his hobby of creating languages, a person could easily center their world building efforts around inventing interesting new cuisines. 

"Food touches everything. Food is the foundation of every economy. It is a central pawn in political strategies of states and households. Food marks social differences, boundaries, bonds, and contradictions." (Counihan, C. & P. van Esterick (1997, Food and Culture: A Reader)

This was even more true in the past when 90% of the population, or more, was involved in the production of food in some way, the food a culture ate could change every aspect of people's daily lives in that culture. Thus, any culture in a world you invent will be heavily impacted by the foods they eat. The wiki for The Forgotten Realms world, for example, states that one of the species known as halflings enjoys cheese as a primary food source. This makes sense given that their personalities would make them appreciate comfort food, of which cheese is a big part in many European countries. Still, less often mentioned is the fact that in order to get cheese the halflings would need to raise cattle, sheep, goats, reindeer or some other animal. Buildings would have to be built to feed these animals and to store their feed in the winter, altering their villages architecture. The halflings would also need to figure out a way to protect the cattle in a land filled with dragons, orcs, giants, and other monsters. There would also have to be up early in the morning to milk the cattle, stories would told while watching cattle in the fields, thus like the Scottish and Norwegians many of their fairytales would likely involve people who watch the cattle. Further, the people would likely worship gods and make deals with fairies and spirits that could help them with caring for cattle and making cheese. 

There are numerous fairytales about people encountering the fairies while herding their cattle in the mountains, fields, or forests. Indeed, as already mentioned those who would herd cattle were often considered to be akin to witches, and able to negotiate with the spirits of the wilderness. The Finnish and Karlinians had there own unique take on this, believing that there was a sort of “cattle elf. This was a supernatural being that could protect and take care of the cattle and was in some places believed to dwell in sauna stoves.” The stones from these stoves could then be brought into the forests when herding cattle to help protect and heal the animals. 

(A hard matter: stones in Finnish-Karelian folk belief. Timo Muhonen)

As you can see the simple decision to have halfings eat cheese can completely alter the way their culture, the way the live, and the spirits they associate with and hold in the highest regard. Obviously, you don’t need to include the full complexity of any food choice in your book, just what is important to your story. Still, being generally aware of history, economy, and folklore can give you ideas as you write. 

To simplify the quest of understanding how food fits into the cultures of your world and the character’s palates, however, you can keep in mind a number of key questions.

What is the impact of the supernatural, history, availability, on ingredient selection?

Read through the history of many cuisines and you will find that immigration and historical encounters can have an outsized impact on the palette of any culture. The Hawaiians, for example, added some Spanish foods to their cuisine after a sailor gifted King Kamehameha some cattle, leading King Kamehameha III to hire Spanish vaqueros to manage the animals. Britain began choosing tea over coffee, in part, because the queen Catherine of Braganza (who was a Portuguese princess) preferred this drink and built its popularity among high society. 

Folklore too has a number of stories about how food ingredients became popular. Fairies like milk, vampires were kept at bay by garlic, and good witches used fennel to help insure the success of crops. Thus, the preferences of  fairies or other magical beings could have an outsized impact on the choices a culture made. For example, a world with dragons might raise lots of small goats, rather than a few large cattle in order to reduce the damage when an animal was taken, and to have an offering on hand when a dragon comes looking for a meal.

Obviously you can choose the ingredients that a given culture in your fantasy world prefers based on emotions and ideas associated with our own world. You might, for example, have a people eat rich buttery foods and cheeses because you want to associate them with France or the Midwestern cultures. Certainly the cultures within "Game of Thrones" ate foods based on medieval Western European cuisines to help us stay in that frame of mind for the book.  

Who eats the food and when?

The Romans avoided eating butter because it was a Barbarian food (just like they outlawed pants in cities because they were barbarian clothes). What people eat and win can have a large impact on how people feel about a food. In most cultures the wealthy and the poor eat different foods, and the foods the wealthy eat such as caviar and truffles, have a different emotional association than those the poor eat, such as corn dogs. Indeed, we might find some people avoiding a food based on its associations. For example, Americans will rarely eat roast turkey in the summer because turkey is associated with fall and winter holidays. 

What are the philosophies behind food choice? 

Philosophies have often had a huge impact on food choices. For example, 

"Bread symbolized humanity leaving the natural world and becoming human. In the Iliad and the Odyssey ‘bread eaters’ are ‘men.’ In Gilgamesh, the first literary text known, a wild man only leaves his wildness behind when he learns of bread, from a woman." (Food is Culture by Massimo Montanari)

Thus bread became symbolically important to humans, but in a fantasy world certain elves or other people’s might view it negatively due to its association with 'humanity'. But philosophical ideas can run even deeper than that. The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that boiling as superior to roasting because “roast meats being rawer and drier than boiled meats.” The philosophers of the Ancient Greeks in general viewed roasting meat as primitive and raw. Many people around the world thought something similar. In Guiana the sorcerers of the Waiwai tribe had a taboo against roasted meat which is associated with rawness. Similarly, the Wyandot American tribe has myths about negative associations with roasted meat for similar reasons. Less extreme perhaps but In France boiled chicken was for the family to eat, while roasted chicken was for a banquet. (Food and Culture A Reader 1997). 

Thus, many people's boiled meat, rather than frying or roasting it based on a philosophical idea. 

What emotions do people and especially the characters associated with the food? 

Most foods have some emotion associated with them, based on who consumes the food and how. PB and J, for example, has very specific emotions associated with it, such as incense, whimsy, and potentially poverty. Such associations are based on the fact that children eat it. Obviously such emotional associations can change over time and have a multitude of emotions associated with it. Coffee and tea began life as stimulants, they were a way to wake up to gain new energy, etc. Now, however, they are also often associated with relaxation and breaks, because this is how they are being used – as coffee breaks during work, thus in addition to waking up they are a way to destress and unwind. Tea, thanks to its associations with British nobility in the minds of Americans, has come to be associated with elegance that makes certain children want to play at having a tea party. This in turn can associate certain aspects of tea with childhood as well. There is a scene in the TV series “Big Bang Theory” where some of the protagonists, wanting to do something ‘mature’ and sophisticated go to a tea house, where they are surrounded by children who want to do the same. 

How is the food obtained and distributed? 

How a food is obtained and distributed can greatly alter the course of history, and a culture. If Britain hadn't been getting tea from China, for example, there likely never would have been the war that between these nations that lead to the creation of Hong Kong. 

There are arguments made that the family culture of Japan comes largely from their histical methods for growing rice, which required a lot of laborers to work closely together. This is opposite from the more solitary exercise of wheat farming or cattle ranching. 

The distribution of any food can lead a city to include homes in the mountains, which they move to when they herd their cattle to the alpine pastures, or entire cities based and market fairs based around the spice trade. 

I will publish more articles on food, culture, and fairytales if you are interested, please consider following me. 

Friday, August 27, 2021

Can Fairies Lie?

 A reader of modern Urban Fantasies such as "Harry Dresden", "Mercy Thompson", "The Cruel Prince," and more likely has to wonder, were fairies really incapable of lying in folklore? In the "Cruel Prince", for example, lying is almost presented as a superpower that humans have, that fairies find amazing and confusing. More often this is used as a means of pushing the plot forward, allowing characters to semi-trust dangerous supernatural forces. In “Summer Knight” by Jim Butcher the Queen of the Winter Court says; “You should know, Mister Dresden, that my kind, from great to small, are bound to speak the truth.” 

I can’t be completely certain why so many writers have taken this one aspect of fairy lore to heart, even when they ignore most everything else associated with fairy nature. I think writers might have this aspect of fairy lore because it allows them to move the plot along. If the protagonists of these stories had to spend the whole time worried that the fairy was lying, the story wouldn’t be able to progress. This is likely also why fairies didn’t lie in many folktales. Just as Kings and similar people rarely lied in them, because when someone lies who has power of the protagonist it can interrupt the flow of the plot and fairytales are too short for those sudden reversals.

Okay, so I've already established that I think the fairies can't lie is a part of fairy lore - mostly. The place writers most likely got this idea from was Wentz's book where he states that the “Tuatha de Danann have a respect for honesty.” This is a common aspect of fairy behavior. In a Scandinavian story someone accuses a huldre folk of lying and is scolded by their fellow people, for everyone knows that the huldre’s honor is too great to willingly lie. Further, in fairytale after fairytale the fairies tell the truth, even when it would be so easy to get what they want by lying.

There is, however, little evidence that fairies can’t lie, rather, there is the evidence that they choose not to. At one time, and in some places, honor systems have been extremely important and it was much rarer for people to break social and cultural norms, although not unheard of and many kings became famous for doing so. It's important to remember that fairies were folk religious figures, and they often enforced social rules such as generosity, kindness, and honesty. 

 That said, there is some evidence that fairies could suffer for lying in part of Germany, at least.

In Arndt’s fairy tales from the island of Rugan, it is explained that the Unterirdeschen (underground ones) can’t lie or they will be turned into toads, dung-beetles, or other nasty creatures for a thousand years. So, in this case, the fairies can lie, but they fear being punished for it, although it isn’t certain who is doing the punishing.

Given that there is a fairy king or queen such a punishment might not stop lying all together, as a fairy could potentially be blackmailed, threatened, or rewarded into agreeing to spend a thousand years in an unpleasant form by lying on behalf of their monarch. Still, this doesn’t seem to happen in fairytales and it certainly hasn’t happened in modern books that I am aware of. Although Patricia Briggs has a book with a fairy who chooses to lie and is punished in other ways for it.

Being a folklorist I decided to put this idea to the test and read through hundreds of folktales and stories of people's encounters with fairies at random. In all that time I only found a few incidents that come close to lying, but aren't quite.  In the first an Irish story the teller tells;

My grandfather, you see, was out there above in the bog, drawing home turf, and the poor old mare was tired after her day's work, and the old man went out to the stable to look after her, and to see if she was eating her hay; and when he came to the stable-door there, my dear, he heard something hammering, hammering, hammering, just for all the world like a shoemaker making a shoe, and whistling all the time the prettiest tune he ever heard in his whole life before. Well, my grandfather, he thought it was the Cluricaune, and he said to himself, says he, "I'll catch you, if I can, and then I'll have money enough always." 

So he opened the door very quietly, and didn't make a bit of noise in the world that ever was heard; and he looked all about, but the never a bit of the little man he could see anywhere, but he heard him hammering and whistling, and so he looked and looked, till at last he see the little fellow; and where was he, do you think, but in the girth under the mare; and there he was with his little bit of an apron on him, and his hammer in his hand, and a little red nightcap on his head, and he making a shoe; and he was so busy with his work, and he was hammering and whistling so loud, that he never minded my grandfather till he caught him fast in his hand. 

"Faith, I have you now," says he, "and I'll never let you go till I get your purse -- that's what I won't; so give it here to me at once, now." 

"Stop, stop," says the Cluricaune, "stop, stop, says he, till I get it for you."

So my grandfather, like a fool, you see, opened his hand a little, and the little fellow jumped away laughing, and he never saw him any more, and the never a bit of the purse did he get, only the Cluricaune left his little shoe that he was making; and my grandfather was mad enough angry with himself for letting him go; but he had the shoe all his life, and my own mother told me she often see it, and had it in her hand, and 'twas the prettiest little shoe she ever saw.

Source ( Thomas Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (London: John Murray, 1825), pp. 211-14.

Perhaps the fairy in this story did lie. Certainly the storyteller believes that her Grandfather was foolish for trusting the fairy.

Taking an apologist view, however a quick person will notice that the fairy in this story never promised to “stop, I’ll get you the treasure right away." The fairy said “Stop, till I get it for you.” Semantics matter in fairyland, so maybe somewhere in Ireland the Grandfather's grave is where the fairy keeps their gold for safe keeping, because they never said they wouldn’t steal the treasure back once they brought it to the person or when he would bring it to the tellers grandfather.

Second some people in the German mountains heard someone calling for help from the river, as they ran to help, getting exhausted and wet, they discovered that the person wasn't a person but a fairy using an illusion. Though again, the fairy didn't necessarily lie directly, they never said they were drowning, they just called for help. 

There is some evidence that people thought fairies could lie, however. People would torture someone they thought was changeling to force them to tell 'the truth' and when the person claimed they weren't a changeling, they would be tortured some more. Bridget was famously killed by her family, who were trying to rescue her from the fairy they thought had replaced her. 

That said fairies rarely ever needed to lie to trick people, for fairies were masters of illusion and mental glamor. That is, they could make a person see themselves in a vast forest and cause the person to walk in circles for hours, when they were in fact just a few feet from their own home.

Fairies didn’t need to lie because people believed what the fairies wanted them to, at least until a clever or alert person noticed some flaw with the illusion and broke it with bread, the cross, or by turning their clothes inside out.

A fairies trickery comes from the fact that those who encounter them have no way of knowing what’s real and what isn’t. Is the castle they are in a lake? Is the lake a castle? Is the fairy really standing there or are they an illusion too?

The fact that fairies don’t lie could also explain why fairies in tales so often speak in riddles. The fairies won’t given straight answers, even when they are telling the truth, because never giving a straight forward answer has become a part of their culture. We see something similar in human cultures where people try to avoid lying, even by accident.

When I lived in Alaskan villages, if you went to a door and asked a child if their parent is home and they would say maybe, because the parent might have slipped in or out the back while they were answering the door. Thus, you can never know for certain what the truth is, even when there would be no reason for a fairy to lie.

Yet, the inability to lie isn’t just a fairy weakness, when dealing with fairies it is a human one too. Remember, fairies are folk religious figures and may sometimes be based on former gods and ancestral spirits. Lying to them can, potentially, put the liar in the fairy’s power. Those in the fairy’s power are likely to be taken by them to fairyland, forced to work for them, for years or even forever.

These later ideas aren’t used in modern stories nearly as often as the general concept of fairies who can’t lie. This shows that while great stories often draw some inspiration from actual lore, there is no need to confine ones world to the rules and ideas that lore provides.

 Fairy Lies and Fantasy Writing Prompts

Write the story of a fairy who was forced to lie by their king/queen and so now has to live as an animal for a large number of years.

Write a story in which fairies can't lie to people but people can't lie to fairies but where fairies can lie to other fairies.

Write a riddle like conversation in which a fairy conceals the truth without lying.

See more Fantasy Writing Prompts

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