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.