Sunday, July 31, 2022

Understanding Fairy Mythology

Understand Fairies Discover the emotions, personalities, and motivations of the most compelling characters in Fairy Tales.
Fairies are some of the most compelling characters in fairy tales, yet few people understand them. From fairy refugees to blood thirsty vampires take a journey to discover what drove these characters, where they came from, and what they wanted.Using folk belief and lore to explore the first fantasy stories, which are likely far stranger and more astounding than you ever imagined.

Rain sweeps over the dusty fields, causing the people who work the land to breathe a sigh of relief; their crops will continue to grow. Although many will still go to bed so hungry that it stunts their growth, the fear of outright starvation has been alleviated, for now. A few weeks before, when people had started to become desperate for rain to keep their crops alive, they'd gone to the rivers, or into the forests. There they'd offered either bits of cloth, votive statues, tablets, oatmeal, bread, or even animal sacrifices to the fairies in hopes that the spirits would make it rain.
This was the world of the people who told fairy tales, a world filled with constant fear and dependence on the forces of nature. People once believed everything was controlled by the spirits of nature and the ghosts of the dead, the magical beings we now call fairies. At its root, the word fairy roughly means “those that control fate” (Narvaez, 1997). It was the fairies who made it rain or storm, who caused the plague or the years of bountiful harvests. Fate in ancient Europe wasn't some abstract concept; it was something fairies made happen. What this means is that fairies were very often those beings that cared about humanity, for good or for ill. Jacob Grimm stated that:

Destiny itself is called orlog, or else nauor (necessitas), aldr (aevum); the norns have to manage it, espy it, decree it, pronounce it. It was only when the goddesses had been cast off, that the meanings of the words came to be confounded, and the old flesh and blood causes disappeared. (Grimm, 1835)

The word “fairy,” then, refers to a whole host of beings who control the fate of humanity. Throughout this work, we will discuss many beings from many lands, yet I refer to each of these as fairies because the word is meant to designate those who control the fate of humanity and who share certain traits in common. The word “fairy,” like the word “deity” or “animal,” is just a definition, one that crosses many cultures. This book is not, however, an encyclopedic discussion of fairies, but rather it is a discussion of the emotions and personality traits that people assigned to them. After all, when humans believe their lives and happiness depend so completely on something – as people once believed they depended on fairies – they ponder its nature, they worry about its moods, and they constantly concern themselves with it. So, for thousands of years, people worried about the nature of fairies. Shaman figures, such as witches and cunning, would enter the spirit realms to gain a better understanding of the metaphysical world of fairies. People would consider carefully what would make fairies happy and what might make them angry. In his memoirs, one Breton man muses that; 

At that time, with no education, the peasants, laborers, and fishermen had no other topics to talk about; they (fairies, ghosts, and spirits) were the sole matter for conversation, for chatting, whenever a few people found themselves together with nothing else to do. But I, who already knew well those tales and legends from my father and mother, and especially from the great weaver…. (Dequiqne 2011)

He goes on to say that people oftentimes argued about stories from distant places:

But, when it came to local lore, there was not of that wrangling. Those legends, or rather accounts – for they were always real-life stories-were about personal incidents that every man would tell and that no one would want to dispute. In those times, everyone had seen ghosts, miserable souls caught in some swamp, or in a nook of some old house, or in a hollow tree trunk, or out on a moor; everyone had seen fairies, night washerwomen, night-screamers, and the elfin couriquets… (Dequiqnet, 2011)

So, to a large extent, people assigned some level of personality to various fairies, despite the fact that fairies often make only small appearances in fairy tales. This also means that fairies were much more than just prancy, dancy little creatures that lived in crystal palaces beneath lakes and hills. Rather, fairies were often complex beings about which people would have nightmares or tell horror stories, and to whom people would give offerings in hopes that the fairies would leave them alone. Because of this, it's easy to picture fairies as a little like gangsters, demanding that people pay them for protection and certainly some fairies were very much like this. Most, however, were generally caring and kind, going out of their way to help humanity, yet capable of having horrible tempers.
Reading about fairies, one quickly realizes that they are complex, conflicted beings. Take the Rusalka, for example. The Rusalka is a young girl – one who can never grow up, never mature, never find true love. Yet, at the same time, she is always wise and ancient, and very lustful; she was a nature spirit, who taught humans how to create civilization. Thus, she is caught forever between many opposite extremes. It is a maddening moment in time in which fairies live; between dark and light, between youth and maturity. They are forever caught betwixt and between. It's no wonder, then, that when a fairy tells someone they love them and makes an offer to allow someone to come away with them to a land of beauty where they can be immortal, it sounds both lovely and at the same time a little like a threat.
Despite the threatening nature of fairy abductions, Fairyland could oftentimes be likened to Heaven, for many humans were comforted by the idea of going to Fairyland when they died. In Rome, when a girl drowned, people took comfort in the knowledge that she got to play with the nymphs forever (Larson, 2001). Starving peasants who heard tales of fairy dances and of eternal parties must have, at times, hoped that they too would become a fairy who got to participate in these dances when they died. They must have longed for the day when they could be free of the suffering and toil of their station in life. Again, looking at the Rusalka, we see that she lives a life that is, in many ways, a girl’s dream; for Russian girls were truly second-class citizens. They often gave birth while working in the fields, and the harshness of the experience caused them to develop age spots on their faces while they were still barely twenty. Their husbands would spend their money on vodka, leaving them to starve. Then, the drunken husbands would come home and beat them. At times, their husband would grab them by the braids and beat their heads against a wall or drag them up and down the stairs (Ranset, 1993). 
Rusalka, who were often said to be the spirits of dead girls, had no braids; their hair was free just like they were. They were all beautiful and sexy so that men longed for them, but the Rusalka were in control. They could not only refuse men, they could kill them if the men became too cruel. No one dared to walk on the Ruslakas' laundry when they laid it out to dry; no one dared to mock or abuse them. The Rusalka danced all evening and lived in crystal palaces, while human girls were forced to continue working (Rappoport, 1999). At the same time, in order to become a Rusalka, a person had to die, and there were no guarantees, which explains why people both feared and longed for the fairy world.