Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Common Fairy Traits

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By Ty Hulse

Many of the writers of fairies within plays and poems believed that fairies were something they could encounter, that the experiences of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” were similar to one that they might have, for fairyland was just a misplaced step away. Indeed, “Early Modern theatergoers considered it possible to interact with an otherworldly, fairy realm even as the characters that they watched on stage were supposed to do” (Buccola). People believe that Puck, or perhaps at times multiple puck creatures, would cause mischief in the home, help keep things tidy, and even listen to women telling stories around the fire. He was, after all, a domesticated fairy of the home and morality, and a wanton and wild fairy. More importantly like many fairies he was humanity’s neighbor and took a deep interest in what we did. 

 The writers of early fairy plays and poems had likely been raised on stories of fairies, listening to gossip about encounters with them, as readily as we might hear gossip about someone who knew someone who saw a cougar or something similar. 

 These fairies would at once hide from humans but also seek human acknowledgement. In Italy, for example, there was a fairy that lived in an apartment with a human who refused to believe in fairies. Frustrated by this state of affairs the fairy caused trouble for the human who continued to refuse to believe in them until at last the fairy had to go and beg the human to acknowledge his existence. 


The Complex Character of the Fairies in Fairytales

When most people today read or hear a fairytale they might not even recognize that the beings within it are fairies, or know the many dozens of other stories and bits of lore surrounding the fairy within it. For fairytales are filled with momentary encounters with supernatural beings that are far more complex than the story lets on. Consider the story of the Wichtelmänner, or “Elves and the Shoemaker” as it is translated into English. The Wichtelmänner in this story feel sorry for a poor shoemaker around Christmas and help him by making shoes for him at night, until the shoemaker, feeling sorry for the naked fairies, leaves them some clothes. The Wichtelmänner grow excited by these clothes, put them on, and run off never to return. 


Because there are a lot of additional stories and encounters with Wichtelmanner, there is more to them than this quick story can show. For one thing, they had an affinity for horses, whom they enjoyed riding about and braiding the hair of. For another, while some were wild, dwelling in caves many had come to live in human homes, and so wouldn’t have left the house at night. Further, while they were often kindly, helping people who were lost in the woods or healing the sick they could also be vindictive and dangerous, leading people astray and causing illness. 


All the fairies in fairytales have lairs of complexity that one can only learn by reviewing multiple fairytales and folk traditions about people’s encounters with the magical beings. Even then, how a fairy acted depended in part on their mood. 


In an Italian tale an old widow and her child are starving, when one night she discovers some rodent like fairies known as buffardello stealing some of the only food she has left. Upset she scolds the buffardello who realizing what they’ve done, feel guilty. Later the woman discovers that the buffardello have brought her some bread to make up for their theft (this bread was likely also stolen), and in addition they bless the plants in her garden to grow extremely well. 


The buffardello in this story, like many fairies, are clearly wild creatures who are sympathetic to the plight of humans, but still live and think very much like rats or squirrels might, and don’t fully comprehend the morality of the people who have moved into their territory. These buffardello are freer beings than many other fairies, for when they are given clothes they are often offended by the thought, just as a cat often is when someone tries to dress them up. 


Even fairies and fairytales which we think of as being well known have layers of complexity to them, thanks to numerous stories that aren’t as well known. In one fairytale reminiscent of “The Three Little Pigs” a pixy in a shoddy wooden home is gobbled up by a fox when it comes to call. The clever pixy, who lives in a house of stone, uses multiple tricks and spells to outwit the fox who continues to try to hunt him every time he has to leave his home to get turnips or go to a fair. This pixy, this magical being is made relatable by their nearly humanlike activities and the character of a somewhat amusing trifle. Yet there is clearly far more to pixies than this simple story would indicate. Indeed, most people know of pixies as mischievous creatures. The book ‘English Forest’ goes on to write that pixies;


delight in plaguing dairy-maids, — upsetting their milk-pails, souring the cream, hindering the butter " from coming," and diverting themselves with a thousand practical jokes. The farmers, too, complain of their pranks ; for when the whim seizes them, these mannikins mount the ponies or colts left in the fields all night, and pulling hairs from their tails, twist them into stirrups for their tiny feet, or knot the mane, and sitting astride on the neck, ride away over moor and fell, faster and faster, until the poor beast sinks down from sheer exhaustion…


The pixies lead people astray and cause all manner of other mischief. Yet there is also even more to the pixies character than this. For pixies have a folk religious bent to them, such that they taught good witches their healing craft and people would behave morally so that the pixies would reward and look kindly on them. In another fairy story from the same region as that of the pixy and the fox a farmer heard from his threshing barn “voices raised in a merry chatter. Guessing it was the pixies, he had not dared to peep into the barn… Accordingly they allowed the busy little threshers to do as they pleased within the building, and only approached it when the sounds of labour had ceased. What was their delight on entering to find a large quantity of corn threshed, and the straw placed on one side in neat bundles. The farmer being desirous of rewarding the elfin laborers, sent his man for some bread and cheese, which was placed in the barn as an offering to them”


We are further told that “The Fairies no longer inhabit Somerset, for they were defeated  in a pitched battle with the Pixies, and everywhere west of the River Parrett is now Pixyland.” The fairy fair that was once in Somerset is now a pixy fair. Earlier “the fairies tried to conquer part of Devonshire, but the pixies defeated them, injuring the fairy king Oberon’s leg so badly not even magic could cure it.”


This is why the fairies live as refugees in the forests in Southwest England, while the pixies live in the open moorlands. However, there is an even darker side to this, for the pixies, powerful in magic as they are, shrink every time they cast a spell and will eventually grow so small that they vanish all together. This in turn gives their character a touch of nihilism. 


Thus, pixies are more than mischievous, they are often warlike, frequently nihilistic in philosophy, joyous, helpful to farmers, moralizing, and more.


Because there are so many types of fairies, each with their own stories associated with them, it is far easier to think of their most common traits when reading through fairytales to try to glean what the fairy’s motivations are and their actions mean, than it would be to find every fairytale and bit of lore associated with a particular fairy. This is especially true, given that most of the old stories and bits of lore were never recorded. 


Common Fairy Traits

The following wheel represents the most common traits exhibited by the fairies of folk religion, lore, and tales. Not every fairy necessarily exhibits all of these traits, still, thinking about the fairies in these terms can help you better understand many of their actions in fairytales. 


Depend on and Afraid of Humans

A fairy man and woman once entrusted the up -bringing of one of their offspring to a man in Netherwitton. He received along with it a box of ointment, with which he was enjoined regularly to rub its eyes, but he was to be careful not to touch his own with it, otherwise he would incur a heavy penalty. Curiosity overcame his scruples, and he anointed one of his eyes with the ointment without experiencing any inconvenience. Having gone to Long Horsley fair, he saw both the man and woman moving about among the fair people, and thinking there could be no harm in it he accosted them. Surprised to be thus recognized, they inquired with what eye he saw them , and he told them , whereupon they blew into his eye and it became blinded . The child was removed before his return home. (Denham)


The above story illustrates how fairies were often integrated closely with human societies. Not only do the fairies in this story entrust a human family to raise their child, but they also attend human fairs in disguise. That said it also indicates that the fairies want to keep their world hidden from mortals and will attack anyone who threatens this secrecy.  

The story also raises another key question, namely ‘why would the fairies want their child raised by humans’? We may not have an exact answer for this specific case as the story doesn’t say, but fairy children were often sickly. Indeed, fairies in general, from their queens to their poppers could become sickly and weak, with only human food and aid acting as a cure. Because of this fairies often left their sickly children with humans to raise, perhaps hoping that the human food and aid would cure the fairy child and make them stronger. 


Fairies and other magical beings needing something from humans is a common theme in ancient religions, with a story from central Siberia illustrating the push and pull between early humans and fairy like beings very well. 



In ancient times there was a place in a little valley of our village where cows and sheep used to sink and drown. No spring passed without a cow or a sheep or a horse drowning in this place… 

Old people all gathered together and discussed what to do if this spring eye was going to take a horse or a cow or a sheep every single year. And so they thought that we would promise a ram to the spring. Every spring the village people would buy a ram, when the earth softens. Then the ram’s head is cut off and the whole ram is cast into the spring, saying: “Here’s the whole summer’s food for you!” Then they leave the place. All the village people tramp on molehills. Then they return to the village. The molehills were tramped down for making the hay raking easier and to prevent the growing of sods on the hay field. The village elder gives the collected money and they buy half a bucket of vodka. The whole village drinks and celebrates the wake of a ram. And so every spring a ram was slaughtered and molehills tramped down. 


The above story illustrates that humans had a lot to lose when the fairies were unhappy, but also that fairies desired certain things – such as food from humans. In addition fairies often needed humans to make and repair simple objects, to clean, or to act as midwives. Briggs relates the story of a farm laborer who was crossing Wick Moor when he heard someone crying and found a small broken shovel. Being kindly he stopped and fixed it. “he called out, “there ‘tis then – never cry no more,’ and went on his way.” While returning home he found a fresh cake where the shovel had been. He ate this, found it delicious, called out a ‘Good night” to the fairy and prospered after that. 


The fairies had many enemies that only we seemed capable of defeating, such as the aforementioned giants and dragons. This is a common idea in Indo-European lore, that divine beings needed humans to help them defeat the giants. The Greek Gods certainly did, for they could not harm the giants that Gaia had created to kill them and free the titans unless a mortal struck these beasts first. Similarly the fairy King of Wales sought out a human king to help him defeat a monster the fairies couldn’t. 


Despite the fact that fairies often needed and could get along with humans, people are fickle and dangerous things, quick to go back on our word, to lie, and to turn greedy. In German medieval sagas humans were tasked with helping to protect the zwerg from dragons and giants, but many humans chose instead to rob the zwerg of their treasure or hunt them down like animals. People could catch leprechauns with their bare hands and often did so to force the fairies to give up their treasure. One girl in Dartmoor snatched up a pixie and shoved it in her picnic basket like it was nothing more than a slow moving rabbit. In Brittany France a man snuck up on a fairy and hit it over the head, killing it, out of spite. In Carmarthenshire “a woman once actually caught a fairy on the mountain near Pant Shon Shenkin, and that it remained long in her custody, retaining still the same height and size, but at last made its escape. (Sikes)”




Worse, humans had numerous uncanny powers, we could use symbols such as stars and crosses that drained fairies of their powers, iron and garlic which hurt them and broke their spells, and even our look seems to have rendered them unable to turn invisible for so long as we gazed upon them. It makes sense than that they feared us so greatly that they preferred to remain hidden when they could.



Extreme Emotions


Tink was not all bad; or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good. Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time. They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a complete change. (Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie


Barrie’s description of fairies as being so completely filled with an emotion that they wholly become that emotion is a commonality in fairy tales. For the fairies seem to feel things far more deeply than mortals and are much more committed to them. Thus when a kind and friendly house fairy becomes offended they might burn down the house of the people they live with and love, as in the Aitvaras of Lithuanian folk lore. Who can turn from a kindly house fairy to a fiery dragon, turning completely on the people they love. At the opposite end of the spectrum the fairies are quick to bless those who show them even the smallest bit of kindness with great wealth and happiness. Consider how often a fairy creature asks for a crust of bread, and when it is given, they bless the giver with the power to have gems fall from their mouth each time they speak, or with an endless supply of thread, or a bowl of food that will never empty. 


In fairytales the fairies are almost never slightly annoyed or a little grateful, rather they are violently, even murderously outraged by someone who sings badly or whistles while they are relaxing. By the same token they are exceedingly delighted by beautiful singing, a funny joke, or a kind action. 


This is why the way to survive fairyland is through kindness and politeness, for the fairies entire personality can be shifted by saying the right or wrong thing. The young man who calls Baba Yaga ‘Grandmother’ can expect her to prepare him dinner, despite the fact that she is best known for devouring people. When one woman is looking for her husband she encounters the grouchy and angry North Wind. At first, he is angry that she is intruding upon him, but then she cries and tells her story. Instantly the North Wind feels sympathy for her and can do nothing but help her. 


This last story leads to one more important aspect of the fairies’ extreme emotions, that they have an overabundance of sympathy. They frequently help poor peasants and others in great need, for no other reason than they seem unable to stand to see others in pain, at least when they aren’t angry. 


The fairy’s extreme emotions impacts every other aspect of their nature. It may even explain one reason why they avoid people, after all we are filled with negative feelings and drama which they might wish to avoid. Certainly the Rusalka were said to flee Russia and the Zwerg parts of Germany because they couldn’t stand the increasingly negative emotions associated with the people in those lands. 




Joyous/Artistic and Childish


As part of their extreme emotions, the fairies have a propensity to act in ways many might consider childish, which seems to stem from a zest for life. For example, in Bergichen


Late one evening a blacksmith heard some beautiful music which seemed to emerge from the grass behind some stones. Curious he searched for the source of the marry fiddle and horn music until he finally spotted numerous tiny figures dancing on the stones. One of the little men was dancing atop a rock that jutted out of the water. He seemed far more joyful than the rest for he cheered as he threw his silvery hat into the air over and over again, loving the way it looked in the moonlight, before skillfully catching it. Then, all at once this zwerg cried out as he missed the hat and it fell into the water. None of the zwerg could get it back.

That is when the smith stepped out from behind the bush. “Little man, I saw your hat fall if you want to be patient until morning I’ll retrieve it for you.”

All the tiny people applauded him and promised to give him a rich reward. 

From that point, for quite a while after the smith found all his work done in the morning. 


Sagen und Märden des Bergiſchen Landes HER geſammelt von Dr. Franz Leibing, Ord. Lehrer an der Realſchule I. Ordnung zu Elberfeld . 1868


This childishness can manifest itself in dangerous ways as well, for fairies can frequently throw tantrums. One zwerg, for example, wanted the flower a girl was holding, when she refused to give it to him he bit her. Further, it isn’t atypical for the zwerg to steal and cause mischief simply for amusement. There are stories of them having rivalries with the youth of villages, where in they would engage in prank wars with each other. While the stories of them swapping out the roast goose with a live goose for a wedding are amusing, they do point to a silliness that is common in human encounters with the fairies. 


The immaturity of fairies causes many of them to act in a manner that is almost like a child without parental supervision. The Norggen in Germany would tease the livestock, mix 

the peas with the flower, the beans with the barley. When it got dark, he would giggle gleefully as they ran about the houses causing trouble while invisible (Lyncker, 1854). There are numerous other tales, especially from central and southern Europe, about fairies who pull the covers off people's beds, tickle their feet at night, and engage in all sorts of other mischiefs. It is true of course that some of the mischievous fairies may actually be the children of fairies, but it's likely that most of them are fully grown, but are unable to fully mature. Indeed, the stories of fairy mischief are among the most common tales. When the villagers in Germany held festivals and 

carnivals, the dwarfs would amuse themselves by seeking to outsmart them. When some young men held a grand ball, the dwarfs didn't want to let the opportunity pass without some 

prank. So three of the dwarfs snuck into the party and pretended to be humans in order to steal the pig that was going to be used for the feast (Jergerlehner, 1907), making the fairies 

seem like goofy children having a slumber party rivalry.

(A Writer’s Guide to Spirit Journey’s)




Liminal, Illusionary, Dreamlike, Vanishing

The fairies exist between states of being, and indeed might very well be the gods of such transitional states. This is likely why they are most often found at cross-roads, the boundaries between lands, bridges, etc. 


The fairies exist in the world between gods and humanity, they are semi-divine but also close to the mortal realm. “Fairyland conflates protection and menace, the familiar and the exceedingly odd… Vaguely envisioned as somewhere between celestial heavens and the pit of hell, fairyland could be anywhere and everywhere – the guts of mountains, the middle of country roads, the mossy darkness of a dense forest.” (Buccola)


Fairies such as nymphs, are according to Purkiss, stuck in a particular phase of life and are forever caught between being young girls and women, they have “failed to pass from a transitional phase to a phase of completion”.


Fairies live on the margins of human society, much like those going through transitional rituals. “Not bound by any structure, the liminars are likely to defeat behavioral expectations, and ritual license that provides them with the grounds to do so renders invalid any potential charges that could be levelled against them. Whatever crimes the initiands perpetrate, they cannot be held accountable for breaking laws because they are free from the constraints of structure as such, including moral order. Neither good nor evil but licensed to do both as they please, they embody “the peculiar unity of the liminal: that which is neither this nor that, and yet is both”. 


Living outside of morality and between two realities, the fairy world is both seemingly very real but at the same time nothing there is what it seems, what appears to be worthless is treasure and treasure is very often worthless. Many fairies are impoverished beings, yet they can make their poor homes look beautiful through illusions and make their nearly inedible food seem like a delicious feast. Not only is it difficult to tell what is real in fairyland, it is also often difficult to tell if one is awake or asleep when encountering them. Often witches would lay down in deep meditation, appearing to be asleep or even dead, so that their souls could leave their bodies and join the fairies in their halls and on their journeys. Emma Wilby points out that the witches’ experiences with their familiar fairies is perhaps similar to the meditative state which shaman’s fall into to speak with their helping spirits. 


The liminality and illusionary nature of fairies is perhaps partially due to the fact that they are always weakening and vanishing. In many beliefs fairies were a former people driven into hiding, while the pixies specifically, were also said to be shrinking as they use magic and will eventually vanish all together. Fairies were often sickly, they had difficulty baring children, and were often thought to be dying off. There is a seemingly eternal sadness about many of the fairies who seem to be on the edge of vanishing. No matter when people wrote about fairies, from the medieval to the modern day, people always thought that the fairies had nearly gone forever, yet they always lingered on, just barely. 





Contrasting their childish nature is the fact that many of the fairies are not only ancient and wise, but grandfatherly / grandmotherly. The nymphs and rusalka of Greece and Russia, for example, are the ancient founders of cities. People believed that they not only taught humans the arts of weaving, of music, of math, science, and more but that these fairies were in fact humanities great, great, great grandmothers or aunts. Banshees in Ireland and Scotland took on a similar role which is likely why they and perhaps the wood wives of Germany would visit new babies to bestow gifts and blessings like a doting grandmother. 


Most fairies could and often had lived for thousands of years. There are stories which indicate that the zwerg, for example, were as old as the forests of Germany themselves. As such the fairies could often take a sort of grandparental attitude towards people. When encountering a fairy or ancient magical being, even a dangerous one, people would often gain their aid by calling them Grandmother or Grandfather. People called the house fairies “grandfather’ in Russian lore. 


We see this benevolent grandparent like behavior time and again, especially from the fairy queen and spirits like Mother Holda or Perchta of Germany in the Alps. In many cases this is because these fairies are considered to be grandparents. In the lore of most people humans were descended from the tree spirits or some other spirit. Further many families had legends about and ancestor who married a swan maiden, a water woman, or some other fairy. 


Even when fairies aren’t related to people they are much, much older. Older people will often dote on young children, even if they have no connection to them and fairies do the same. Take, for example, the following story from Tyrol in the Austrian Alps…


 Tale of the Alps

One icy cold winter’s day a poor mother asked her two children to gather firewood.  While they were at the edge of the woods a blizzard swept down from the mountains. Unable to see through the wind whipped snow the two children were soon lost, stumbling through the forest. Finally after many hours they met a friendly little man. He took them to his home, built a fire for them to warm themselves and served them delicious rahmmus* (hot cream based desert). At first the children were afraid of the strange little man, but by and by they came to trust him.

After eating the Rahmmus and some white bread they said their prayers and the little man gave them a little bed where they slept warm until he sun was high in the sky. 

When morning came they rubbed their eyes and the little man served them breakfast. They said their morning prayers and ate the most wonderful white bread they’d ever eaten. They were so hungry it seemed like they hadn’t eaten in months. 

Once they had eaten the little man gave them some bread for the road, helped them re-gather their bundle of wood. 

On their way home the children were surprised to discover that despite the previous storm the road was clear of snow on their return home. When they got home their mother turned pale with fear for she thought that they were ghosts as they had been gone all winter. It turned out that rather than just sleeping for one night the children had slept the whole winter through in the little man’s hut. Once the children explained what had happened, however, there was great joy in the house, a joy that became greater when they discovered that the bread had no end.

Story Collected by Joh. Adolf Heyl in Volkssagen, Bräuche und Meinungen aus Tirol 



Sleeping through the harsh winter was a dream come true. It’s difficult for us to imagine how miserable winter could be. A fire barely warms the corners of a house. With shoes too expensive to ware constantly the children would have to walk around on the icy floor with bare blue feet. They would work with their fingers constantly frozen. Indeed there is another story in which the opportunity to sleep through winter is the gift a poor fairy godfather gives to his godsons family. 


This Grandparental attitude is likely why the fairies taught humans so many domestic arts such as cheese making, for they felt a grandparent like sympathy for the poor, cold, hungry humans. Even grouchy fairies will often become kind if people act like young children in need. Baba Yaga is one of the grouchiest and perhaps one of the cruelest fairies yet can become kind-hearted and affectionate when a lost traveler calls her “grandmother.”


Like grandparents (and many children) fairies have a strong sense of traditional morality. We can see this in the original version of “Snow White” the zwerg’s home is immaculately clean and tidy when she arrives. Yet in true fairy fashion the zwerg willingly take care of her, while putting her to work, for the fairies can’t stand idle hands. Perhaps more importantly, they teach Snow White the traditional values that one can presume her wicked Stepmother failed to. In a way then, the zwerg became Snow White’s grandparents, caring for her and teaching her how to survive and proper behavior when her Step-Mother failed to. 




Ancient, Conservative, Moral, Wise, and Folk Religious figures


“Order rather than morality is part of the fairy code” (Briggs)


Fairies could be thought of as the guardians of a culture, as one of their primary functions was to punish those who broke social mores, people who dressed wrong, cursed, and acted immodestly. 

“Fairies of Stuart Literature were conservative, among the working class they demanded cleanliness and hard work in the house, at cottage industry tasks, and on the farm.” (Swann, 2000). 

One fairy noted that they were older than the forest itself. Most fairies are incomprehensibly ancient, which likely explains why they often act like grandparents. It also helps to explain their often staunchly conservative way of looking at morality. They tended to adhere to and obsess over ancient traditions and ways of looking at the world. 

Along these lines they were frequently used as a means of maintaining the status quo of society such that; "the evocation of "faeryland" by courtly writers was designed to legitimize an hereditary aristocracy." (Swann) This makes sense given their folk religious role, but also given the fact that they were ancient beings. This isn’t to say that the fairies only sided with the nobility, for their hatred of greed often meant that they would punish miserly landlords and cruel rulers. It wasn’t uncommon for rebellious elements in society to evoke fairies in their revolutions and philosophies. 










What are Fairies 

There are a number of things people believed fairies were, although more often than not what they were wasn’t so important as what they did. Most fairies were simply a part of the natural order of things. They were the controllers of fate and or the natural world, and this was primarily what people were interested in. That said, there are five primary origins for fairies; first they are frequently spirits of the dead, second they can be spirits of the land or animals, third they can be gods of the past or which dwell on earth, fourth they can be a past people who went into hiding, and finally they can be their own species of beings. 




Deities and Fairies


In fairytales many ancient gods are similar to the fairies themselves and would frequently travel with them. Indeed, it could be argued that many of the stories of fairies were at first stories gods whose original roles were forgotten. Many religions, including folk religions related to the fairies are built on superstition and supernatural beings that are close at hand. Among the Celts:


The gods could be helpers or hinderers: “They frequently entered the world of men and played tricks upon those they chanced upon. They were not invincible.’ In sum, ‘The lives of the pagan Celts – and, to a certain extent, of their Christian successors – were hemmed in and imbued with superstitious feelings and petty ritual observances. (Anne Ross)


Consider Odin, who was captured by a dwarf in one myth, and to get his revenge he aided a human in slaying this dwarf, after the dwarf had turned into a dragon. Odin frequently took on the role of strange old man giving advice to those that had set out to seek their fortune, a role that would later be taken by fairies. Zeus, with his shapeshifting trickster’s nature and his constant praying upon women, or Artemis and her connection to the woods and the danger she posed to hunters could both have had their stories turned into tales of encounters with fairies. 


It wasn’t atypical for people to worship these gods in the forests, rocks, and mountains near their home. Thor and Zeus were both said to have been connected to ancient and interesting looking oak trees. The Roman Tacitus, speaking of the Germanic people’s religions stated that


Another kind of reverence is paid to the grove. No person enters it without being bound with a chain, as an acknowledgment of his inferior nature, and the power of the deity residing there. If he accidentally fall, it is not lawful for him to be lifted or to rise up; they roll themselves out along the ground. The whole of their superstition has this import: that from this spot the nation derives its origin; that here is the residence of the Deity, the Governor of all, and that everything else is subject and subordinate to him. These opinions receive additional authority from the power of the Semnones, who inhabit a hundred cantons, and, from the great body they compose, consider themselves as the head of the Suevi.


The Mari-El, the last unconverted pagan society in Europe still frequently worships their gods at trees. They don’t necessarily believe that the gods live in the trees, so much as they visit them. Still, the presence of these gods means that people could encounter them, and likely often did in fairytales. 


The scholar Devyatkina lists a number of domestic deities of the Mordvinian people such as; Kardazava, the deity of the Cattleshed who lived under a stone in the middle of people’s yards. People would offer her blood sacrifices after the Epiphany in order to increase and protect their cattle. She was a ‘self-willed’ creature who would attack animals she disliked and plait the manes of horses. Norowawa a harvest deity who dressed in silvery clothes, or Paksyava, the grouse woman for whom people would leave a patch of unreaped grain. Additionally, there was a spirit of the fields. “When the rye is blooming, at midnight, the deity of the field is said to produce sounds. People listened to them very carefully and concluded: if the sounds resembled whistling, it promised a good harvest, if they were weeping it betokened a poor harvest… at this time it was forbidden to make noise…. It was advisable that one should stay at home with the windows closed, because she like silence…” There was also Sera, the deity of grain who was yet another such deity who appeared as a skylark or hare, or someone dressed in gold and silver with a copper hat. She had children with whom she lived much like a human family would. People would offer her the blood and bones of animals in return for a good crop and protection against hailstorms. 

All these deities seem to have lived close at hand, as did the goddesses of the fireplace known as Tolava or the home known as Kudwa. Every home had one of these, as well as her husband Kudatya and their children who lived under the cellar floor. When people moved to a new home, they would brew beer and make bread to share with her and invite her to follow them to the new house, where she might occasionally be seen sitting at the table eating and drinking, while talking to herself. She had an interesting habit of plaiting people’s hair, and it was a bad idea to then unplait it. 




Ancestral Spirits

It is likely that most people throughout human existence have believed that their ancestors could watch over them in some form another. Often these ancestral spirits exhibited many of the same traits as the fairies, and in many cases they inspired the stories of fairies that have been shared to this day. Indeed, in many cases the place people went when they died was close to the village. In Sami and Icelandic lore, the hills and rocks were filled with the spirits of the dead. Some spirits even remained within the home they’d built, watching over everyone who lived there afterward. Even ghosts that went to another would when they died would often travel about on certain days of the year such as Christmas and Halloween. In Germanic lore, there was a troop of women who traveled about at night, and people would leave them gifts, and or food. In return, they would bring prosperity and fertility to the households they visited. Very often these were thought to be the spirits of the dead, led by a female deity figure. 


According to the 1819 Edinburgh Magazine the Seelie Court of Fairies was primarily made up of; Babies who had cruel parents that the kindly fairies took to fairyland to be raised properly, the spirits of good people who feel in battle, and good people that had died not quite ready to go to heaven. Meanwhile the Unseelie Court was made up of the wicked who had died in battle, wicked people, and children who were cursed by their parents in anger. It was common for people in Britain and throughout Europe to encounter people with the fairies who they knew had died. 


Past Peoples 

The Daemons, earthly gods meant to aid people in Greek mythology were said to be an ancient people who predated humanity. After their age was done these Daemons were tasked by Zeus with remaining on earth to help humanity. Among the Siberian Nenet the Sikhirtia or Sirte were the mythical people who inhabited the Arctic tundra before the arrival of the Nenets. When the Nenets arrived, they fought a series of wars with Sirte, and despite the Sirte’s ability to disappear and reappear the sirte were driven underground, typically coming out only at night they have the power to bring joy or misery to humanity. This is reminiscent of the Tuatha de Danann of Irish lore, who the humans also fought a war with and drove underground. 




Nature Spirits


Many of the beings we think of as fairies were the spirits of places and natural phenomenon. Often in folklore these spirits owners of the land often lived so much like humans it was often difficult to tell when one had encountered them in their home. As people moved into new lands, they became neighbors to these spirits who often welcomed and cared for humans as they would any other animal, so long as the humans were polite. Indeed, the nymphs famously took humans under their wing in Greek mythology and taught us about morality and civilization, as did the Rusalka of Russia, and other fairies throughout Europe. 


"According to the beliefs of Southern Altaic peoples, every mountain, every lake or river has its own spirit owner, which owns the place, and is in command of the animals and birds living there. It could protect people who lived there or crossed the area. Spirit owners were believed to be able to understand human speech, and the myths associated with them say that, like people, they also had children, and one could obtain their goodwill with prayers, supplications and sacrifices" (Alekseev quoted by Hoppal).


"According to Yakut beliefs, the icci is a unique category of being, present in certain specific objects and natural phenomena as a mysterious inner force…. If certain rules are observed, they can be helpful to human beings in various life situations, people can regard them as protectors... For all the icci bloodless sacrifices were made." (Gogolev quoted by Hoppal).

Natur Worship in Siberian Shamanism

Mihaly Hoppal

Folklore 1997


It was important, however, to make certain one got along with these fairies. Thus, in the past when the people of Ireland would build a new home they would leave some food in it overnight before moving in. If the food hadn’t been eaten by the fairies, they would take it as a sign that the fairies didn’t accept their presence in the house and wouldn’t move in. (Wentz) Fairies were the original residents of any and every land, and so humans typically had to get their permission to live on said land or drive them away. 

These fairies were often, although not always, the spirits of the land, of nature. Kvideland and Sehmsdorf point out that “people responded to nature in the way they experienced it, namely as animate and possessing will and thus capable of aiding humans but also doing them harm.” (Rieti). Fairies then could be kind or harmful, almost at seeming random, there were however some that were far more ‘domesticated’ than others. 

Wentz pointed out that; 


belief in fairies often anthropomorphically reflects the natural environment as well as the social condition of the people who hold the belief. For example, amid the beautiful low-lying green hills and gentle dells of Connemara (Ireland), the ‘good people’ are just as beautiful, just as gentle, and just as happy as their environment; while amid the dark-rising mountains and in the mysterious cloud-shadowed lakes of the Scotch Highlands there are fiercer kinds of fairies and terrible water-kelpies, and in the Western Hebrides there is the much-dreaded ‘spirit-host’ moving through the air at night.


Fairies as their own people


The fairies of nature and spirit owners of the land could, in many cases, be thought of as stewards of the land, rather than its true owners. A such they still had to share their land with humans, as a lord might with the peasants. In Greek lore the Daemons were often believed to be humans that were created during a golden age of the world, that were assigned to act as local gods and helpers of humanity. The Menkw in Mansi lore are forest spirits that were the first humans created by the supreme god, or the children of Crow in other legends. They lived much as ordinary people would, hunting as humans do, but not the same animals. Although they were tall as trees and able to change their shape, and could only be killed by copper weapons, they were somewhat dim and easily deceived. As with other magical beings they could serve as guardian spirits of people’s and villages, and be put into idles. (Gemuev et al.) The Mis Maxum are another group of forest people with long slender necks and seven fingers on each hand who dwell in remote forest places. Although they are clearly beings of the wild, hunting using sables instead of dogs, and having cabins filled with rich furs, they will change their shape to appear human or turn invisible to shop in human cities. As with many similar magical beings they could grant those they liked with luck in hunting and fishing. (Gemuev et al.)


These are fairies who are in essence another group of people, people who might have greater knowledge of magical things, different abilities, and may be closer to nature, but still other humans. The dwarves that were said to spring from the body of the giant from which the world was made aren’t humans, but they aren’t nature spirits. Rather they are another group of beings that share our world with us. Often such peoples lived very much like humans would. Briggs states that “People entering their brughs, have found the inmates engaged in similar occupations to mankind, the women spinning, weaving, griding meal, baking, cooking, churning, etc., and the men sleeping, dancing, and merrymaking, or sitting round the fire in the middle of the floor.” 


Similarly, the Dwarves of Germanic lore were said to have come into being separately from humans, and yet they lived very much like humans did. 





The Value of the Artist and Storyteller



At the heart of every fairytale is a longing, a fear, and a desire to transcend the mundane world. 


This desire to transcend the normal world is a powerful one. Powerful enough that the following humble illustration and the poem it was drawn for was able to change the world and so become one of the most important, all be it lesser known pieces of art in history. 


This illustration represents the very first time Santa rode a sleigh drawn by reindeer. This piece of art was one of the first in a movement that put the focus of Christmas on children, wonder, magic, and generosity. These images of Christmas tapped into our need for fairytales and fantasy, and in so doing were able to transform multiple cultures and touch countless lives. 

As this work of art shows fairytales can be one of the greatest sources of inspiration, for few stories have transformed the world so much as fairytales and their descendants fantasy stories have. 

As with many of the greatest fantasy stories those that transformed Christmas built upon existing fairy lore. Santa, also called “jolly old elf” in “The Night Before Christmas” draws on older traditions with hundreds of stories of gift giving fairies. In Wales fairies would leave coins in people’s shoes, in other places they would bring luck, in still others they would bring food. 

Many have used the term escape to describe the function of a fantasy story, and while Tolkien has pointed out that escaping the drudgery of the world can be a heroic act, the role of fairy tales and fantasy stories is far greater than that. Fairytales are an emotional and philosophical exploration of our inner selves. Fairy stories are also one of the best ways to help many people achieve psychological and emotional equilibrium, something that is necessary for peak productivity. 


According to Weisl and Cunder;


There is a certain refuge in reading a story that takes place in a truly  different world, not only in place but in time as well. There is a subtle magic in reading about elven spellcasters who live among the trees… a magic even in reading about knights who must defend their castles against an ogre hoarde.


Part of the appeal of fantasy and fairytales is that their imaginary status provides “an acceptable outlet for the expression of fears and taboos. Helpless children are abandoned in the forest, then threatened by a cannibalistic witch, but they survive.” (Ashliman) Because of this fantasy and fairytales can serve many functions. They can act as a rebellion against society and a conservative way of preserving it through the instruction of the young and a reinforcement of the society’s values for adults. In “Breaking the Magic Spell” Zipes states that “fairy tales have been considered subversive” in that they project better worlds than our own, and show attempts to create more just societies.” Yet at the same time in “Why Fairy Tales Stick” he states that Fairy tales have a tendency to be “politically conservative in theme and structure and reflect the dominant interests of social groups that control cultural forces of production.” Meanwhile, even Tolkien’s novels, especially when put in paperback were seen as ‘countercultural’. Paperback fantasies were ‘new and rebellious’ not the stuff of stuffy professors. “Moreover, Tolkien’s nostalgic medievalism and its focus on rustic simplicity also paralleled the hippy ethos of rejecting technology and returning to nature.” (Helen Young)


It is important to note that despite the fact that most in the modern day would view fairytales and fantasy as something unreal, mythology and folklore weren’t always intended to be untrue stories, rather they were religious and magico-religious tales people believed were based on something true. People left bread, water, butter, and other gifts for the fairies and did their best to avoid offending them. As we’ll explore later, fairytales could be said to be folk-religious stories that explain how to survive in a world people believed was filled with magic. Even these magico-religious tales, however, were an expression of people’s longings and fears, and obviously it is from them that modern fantasy stories sprung. 

Once shamanistic stories were used as a means of helping people understand their culture, morality, the world, and of course to help heal and maintain the psyche. 

The purest present day sources of the kind of shamanic storytelling that once sustained the psyche are epic fantasy and science fiction, they are the myths and legends of our time and in them archetypes and the experience of the collective unconscious are validated and affirmed. This affirmation provides a context for our modern experience, a way of understanding not only the world, but ourselves. Epic fantasy provides a refuge from the modern world, a place to which millions of young minds can escape. But hidden within this escape is the potential for personal redemption, if individuals can be taught how to unlock and decode the symbols of heroism (Haitsma, Thomas)

Writers and artists are drawn to philosophies and people as a general rule “expect a book to satisfy our moral standards, except when it has won an exception by being labeled fine art, in which case anything goes.” (Martin Green)