Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Our Fairy Neighbors - Fairy Tales and Fantasy for Artists - p19

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Our Fairy Neighbors 

 by Ty Hulse

An English woman clutches her feverish child close as she runs up the side of a hill. Just a few hundred feet from her village is a small cave, home to a fairy known as a hob she hopes will cure her child’s illness, that had been caused by the shot from an elf’s invisible arrow. On the far side of Europe, a teenage girl, who is being chased by a vampire, runs into her bathhouse and calls out “Grandfather Bunnik, come save me.” At which point the bunnik who took care of her mother while she was being born in the bathhouse, and who has taken care of the girl her entire life, jumps out and tackles the vampire. 

Perhaps the most important thing you need to understand about fairies is that they were the magical beings with which we could form emotional connections, for they were our neighbors. 

In the Odyssey when Odysseus finally made it home, after decades of facing monsters and every challenge the gods could throw at him, he fell to the ground, kissed the earth, and greeted the nymphs; 

Ye Naiad nymphs, daughters of Zeus, never did I think to look on you again, but now be ye greeted in my loving prayers: yea, and gifts as aforetime I will give

As Larson points out ““With the ‘dear nymphs,’ unlike the Olympian gods, one could feel an intimate bond.” In the odes of Pindar… “an individual nymph is elevated to represent the city itself; she personifies at once the land, its familiar topographical features, and local mythic genealogy.” The nymphs represented people’s homes, they were tutelary deities who could encourage prosperity for the city, herds, and farms. They were the mothers of the heroes of a land, the ones who raised people and even gods to greatness. It is no wonder than that coins were so commonly stamped with their faces. 


Although the nymphs were important to the wealthy, and relations with nymphs were evoked by the rulers as justification for their position, it was the poor who most often sought the aid of the nymphs and their servants. Those who could not afford to go to the oracles of Apollo sought out the prophets who worked for the nymphs and would tell people’s fortunes by rolling animal knucklebones in a similar way to how tarot cards might be read now. The nymphs were the goddesses of farming, herding, hunting, and domestic work. Thus, nymphs were in many ways the benefactors of the poor.


Just as the nymphs were frequently seen as benefactors of the poor in Ancient Greece, in Early Modern England the fairies demanded generosity from those who could afford to give alms to beggars. People presumed the cunning folk and witches were among the poorest people because they imagined that the fairies sought out the most desperate of people and taught them secrets to magic, allowing them to find a better living helping the poor with healing, finding lost cattle, discovering thieves, and telling fortunes. This isn’t to say that the wealthy didn’t seek the aid of these fairy doctors and cunning folk, they very often did, but when they did they contributed to the income of a peasant person the fairies had chosen to aid. 


There has always been, to some extent, a private religion, separate from the larger state religions. This is especially clear when looking at Silvanus, a Roman god of the forests, herds, and farms. In the city of Rome Silvanus had more inscriptions to him than all the deities but Jupiter, yet almost nothing is written about him. "He stood completely outside the public cult. He had no state temple, festival or holy day." The senators and wealthy had little interest in him, “most of Silvanus' devotees were humble fold, including slaves, freedman...” (Dorcey). So while he was one of the most important gods in Rome, very little was recorded about him during the hundreds of years of Roman Worship. 

Fairies were folk religious figures who presided primarily over domestic and agricultural concerns. They were involved in things such as the churning of butter, the cleaning of homes, spinning of thread, and plowing of fields. Perhaps more importantly, however, the fairies acted as spiritual entities of transition. This made the fairies important to survival, but also terrifying figures. Van Gennep states that "Danger lies in transition states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefinable. The person who must pass from one to another is himself in danger and emanates danger to others. The danger is controlled by ritual which precisely separates him from his old status.”


Fairies presided over these liminal rituals and existed during these times of transition. They decided who would survive and who wouldn’t, when crops would succeed or fail, etc. As Purkiss states “A fairy is someone who appears at and governs one of the big crises of mortal life…. She presides over the borders of our lives, the seams between one phase of life and another. She attends christenings and stages funerals, organizes first party-dresses and lays dead kings to rest.”

This makes fairies ambiguous beings, which are difficult to ever fully understand, and the moment one feels they have a grasp of one concept of their nature it seems to slip away like so much falling water. Or put another way “One can no more commit fairies to paper in concrete specificity than one could take home a waterfall as a souvenir from a hike in the woods” (Buccola). Fairies and humans frequently found each other to be inexplicable, or uncanny, beings. 

People were often well aware that what the fairies did was mysterious, but they often seemed to think that the supernatural beings were befuddled by humans as well. A fairy known as a zwerg in German lore stated that humans couldn’t be trusted, because we are inexplicable, and this was so often why fairies chose to hide from us. In Sami lore Akanidi, the Sun’s daughter “understood all the animals that lived and brought them happiness. Only people were beyond her comprehension: sometimes they rejoiced at her warm gaze, sometimes they scowled behind their tent flaps.” (Riordan) We understand, of course, why a person might enjoy the warmth of the sun one moment and be annoyed by it another, but for Akanidi such behavior was befuddling, and so it is with the fairies, that we and they often struggle to fully understand each other.


Still, there is something of the fairies’ nature which we can grasp, for they cared about humanity. What’s more, humans and fairies feared and needed each other. Thus, as the book ‘Mansi Mythology’ states; "The relations between the people and the guardian spirits had the character of gift exchange. The man satisfied the spirit’s requirements with different sacrifices. A special respect to the spirit was expressed by perfectly following the standards of relations with them… every new sacrifice destroyed the barrier between human and spirit and included the spirit into the sphere of human relations, making him act in accordance with the rules of human society… the spirit became a kind of ‘business partner.’” And in this case when the spirits didn’t fulfil their obligations people could complain about it to the son of the supreme god Mir-Susna-Xum. 


While somewhat different in Western Europe it was still presumed by people in Ireland and England that if they left water and bread out for the fairies, that if they gave them oatmeal in Norway, the fairies would be generous in turn and help them. In Buckow Germany some people were fishing when a nix came out of the water and asked them for cloth to make trousers. One refused and the other gave what was requested. From that day on the man who had given the nix cloth would catch a great many fish, while the one who refused never caught fish again. 

From such ‘business’ relationships we gain a means of understanding the fairies. Perhaps most important to this quest, however, is their connection to us as our neighbors. 

“Berking stresses the importance of reciprocity as the basis for relationships between humans and supranormal entities on several levels: As the organizational principle of social cohesion par excellence, gift exchange cannot simply be equated with the reproduction cycle of the social community. Rather, it encompasses both the living and the dead, the nature that gives everything and to which one owes so much, the supernatural forces and gods to which one sacrifices a little in order to obtain a lot.” (Stark)

Often humans would seek to enter alliances with the fairies, and fairies with humans. Among the Sami, for example, there was an underground people known as Saiwo, who as with fairies, lived underground in ways that mirrored that of humans, but they were far happier than humans and had a greater understanding of magical runes. Humans, for their part, would seek to enter into alliances with the saiwo, asking them to become their guardians and provide them with luck, and in return the humans would serve the Saiwo, providing them with gifts.

Yet, despite the fairy’s role in helping humans, they were just as quick to punish those who displeased them. Indeed, for many the emotion most commonly assigned to supernatural agents was anger, wrath against the greedy, the lazy, and disrespectful. 

The Uralic people’s have a number of prayers and rhymes meant to ask supernatural agents for forgiveness, for example; 

Water, golden king, Waters’ masters, waters’ mistresses, 

Golden tresses, golden brows Forgive me this once, 

If you forgive, then between us there will be great harmony. 

 So that you believe there stands my witness

Waters’ masters, waters’ mistresses, children big, small, and middle-sized, serving-maids, farmhands, priests, sextons, servants of the church, waters’ kings. Waters’ emperors, emperors’ emperors, and the whole of waters’ empire … forgive me… (Stark)

This prayer appeals to the water spirits desire for harmony, while also mentioning a whole community of beings that live and work in the water. For people envisioned the denizens of fairyland as living much as they would, often with similar sorts of farms. Indeed, these fairies might sometimes hire humans to herd their animals for them, in France a young woman who was hired to watch a fairy’s cow, eventually became the fairy children’s ‘human godmother’


One young girl tells how she was sickly and week until she was 15 years old, at which time, her grandmother being a skilled tietäjä [healer/witch/shaman] performed a divination to find out that the girl had somehow angered the forest spirits. As the girl says “Grandmother took hold of my hand and led me to the forest. When we were at a sufficient distance and grandmother was sure that there was no one to see us, the bowing started” (Stark)


The grandmother offered apologies and begged the forest spirits for forgiveness and so the girl was able to heal and get better. 


Among the Sammi too, one had to be careful for there were many sacred places in the wilderness where people would pile reindeer antlers and if a child walked too close to these they might become lame, and parts of the animals killed in these places, such as the head, feet, wings, etc., had to be left as offerings to the forest beings. 


It is easy to see, given the danger that fairies posed, how people could have become so afraid of them. Further, for every helpful and protective fairy there is likely to be a harmful one. For many fairies were dangerous and cruel, and even the kindest of them could be somewhat devilish. Indo-European’s tended to think of the world as having duality, which it does to a point. There are floods from the river that brings life, disease, and dangers in the peaceful forest. Because of this fairies were often divided into two other groups, those who acted more kindly and those who acted destructive. In Herefordshire people were warned “be very careful not to offend the wicked old fairies, or they would do us dreadful injury. These always accompanied the pretty bright fairies, who were always draped in white, with wands in their hands and flowers in their hair.”


“In old [English] pantomimes, the demons or evil spirits and their followers enter on one side and stand in lines; the good fairy and her followers enter on the opposite side and stand in line; the principal characters advance from the line, and talk defiance to each other”

It is perhaps because of their inexplicable nature, and their willingness to help those who are down and out that fairies became representative of rebellious movements, the desperate, and outcasts. Indeed, the fairies and the fantasies they stood for have been central to many of the most important artistic movements.