Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Origins of Fairies

Now in the olden days of King Arthur,
Of whom the Britons speak with great honour,
All this wide land was land of faery.
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,
Danced oftentimes on many a green mead;
This was the old opinion, as I read.
I speak of many hundred years ago;
But now no man can see the elves, you know
(From The Wife of Bath's Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer)

The origin of fairies is one of the most debated questions in regards to folklore with their roots being traced back in time to nature spirits, Pagan gods and goddesses, elementals and the dead, amongst other things.  The Welsh, who worshipped the Mother Goddess, referred to fairies as The Mothers and fairyland was known as The Land of Women, with fairies often depicted as women.  These 'little people' can be perceived as both good and bad, malevolent and giving, capable of assisting us and warring against us.  Symbologist, J. E. Cirlot noted that they fulfill humble tasks, yet possess extraordinary powers.  Throughout their history they have been connected with the devil and have been believed to serve witches as familiars.  They have been said to steal children, leaving changelings in their place.  They can cause illness but can also prevent it.  As Richard Kieckhefer wrote, Fairies have good and evil sides, and while they can represent primal paganism they can be said to hold the Christian faith.  But how did these beings come into existence as we perceive them today - as the tooth fairy, Tinkerbell and the fairy godmother?
The belief in fairies actually goes back to the dawn of time and is evident across the world.  Parallels in traditions can be seen in cultures as far apart as Africa, Australia and Britain and can be traced to both written and oral traditions.  From the Sanskrit gandhana - semidivine celestial musicians - to the nymphs of the Greeks, the jinni of Arabian myth to other characters of the Samoans, Arctic and other indigenous Americans.  The word fairy is derived from the Latin fata, or fate, which refers to the three women who spin and control the threads of life.  We also have the English term fays, meaning enchanted or bewitched.  The Old French word faerie has also been linked to the modern word fairy.

Those researching fairies often turn to Medieval texts, occasionally using place names as evidence of the history of fairies.  However, it is questionable that these texts and place names are describing fairies at all.
Fairy traditions within literature really began with Chaucer and Gower in the 1380s.  They are described here as a combination of the frightening and the amusing, as an already vanishing race.  Before this, the fairy didn't really exist - at least not as we know them today.  So called 'earlier accounts' tell us of supernatural beings that vary from text to text, with their characteristics or dwelling place found within their name, for example, the Barrow Revellers and the Green Children of Woolpit.  There is nothing within these texts to suggest that these beings are of the same 'species'.  The fairy tradition grew to encompass sprites, boggarts, pixies, banshees, brownies, hobgoblins, elementals, trolls, elves and many other creatures.

A 1639 depiction of Puck
In fact, there are many different concepts which were once unrelated that have, in modern times, come together to define what we now call the fairy.  Take, for example, the word elf, which Chaucer made into the equivalent of the word fairy.  The word elf can be linked to the Old English aelf, the Anglo-Saxon dryades and the Scandinavian Vanir.  In later literature, elf has been used to translate the Romance fadas.  Robert of Gloucester took a different approach, relating elves to the spiritual beings of the sky.
Elves are often found within literature but are absent from the land and, along with the fairy, you will not find them in English place names until the 18th century.  You do, however, find the puca, an occupant of barrows, wells and pits.  The puca was later linked to Puck, or Robin Goodfellow and could also be associated with the Will o'-the-Wisp and Friar Rush.  These were usually night-walking spirits which mislead men into unfortunate circumstances, playing tricks and causing mischief on the unwary.  However, in the earliest instances, a puck, pouke or pook was another name for the devil.
When looking at northern England, we find that aelf is commonly used, but puca is absent.  In this area elf is kept as the normal word for these beings in modern times, but the Romance fairy has been almost completely rejected.  This is believed to be through the influence of Scandinavian beliefs, with the aelf referring to a dwarf, or dweorg.  When looking at Scandinavian tradition in connection with the fairy, we find the words nanus and pygmaeus, which refers to a short human being.

There are many theories which have been proposed for the origin of faires:
  • Unbaptized souls which are caught in limbo because they are not good enough to go to heaven, nor bad enough to go to hell.
  • The Book of Enoch makes fairies fallen angels - the angels which were loyal to Satan.  The legend tells us that they were cast out of heaven with Satan but, on the journey to hell, God stopped them mid-flight, condemning them to remain where they were.  Some stopped in the air, some on the earth and some in the rivers and seas.  This belief can be found in Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia.  A similar account to this is that when God stopped these angels, those still in heaven remained angels, those in hell became devils and those in between became fairies.
  • The Irish tales of the Tuatha De Danaan refer to these beings as fairies, but they were once worshipped as gods and goddesses.
  • Certain traditions tell us that fairies were demons.  This belief became popular with the start of Puritanism, with the once friendly hobgoblin becoming a wicked goblin.  Any dealings with fairies was considered a form of witchcraft in this era and was punished as such.
  • Some say they are native spirits which live in all things and in all places on Earth.  These can be described as elementals, such as gnomes and sylphs, as described by Paracelsus  Some popular folklore accounts describe fairies as 'spirits of the air'.
  • Others believe that fairies are simply tiny human beings.  There is evidence in parts of Europe and the British Isles that, in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, there were populations of small-structured races.  The Irish know these races as the Tuatha De Danaan and believe them to dwell in barrows, hills and mounds.  These people are believed to have been hard-working but shy and, as the lands were invaded by bigger, stronger people, they hid in the woodland to live with nature.
  • The dead have sometimes been linked with fairies, with the Irish banshee at times being described as a ghost.  The northern English Cauld Lad of Hylton tells us of a murdered boy who is described as a household sprite, like a brownie.  Another tale describes a man who was caught by the fairies and, everytime he looked at one, he saw one of his dead neighbours.
  • J. M. Barrie's 1902 book The Little White Bird tells us: When the first baby laughed for the first time, his laugh broke into a million pieces, and they all went skipping about.  That was the beginning of fairies.
 There are many sources for these beliefs, with common themes being found in the Celtic nations describing a race of small people who were driven into hiding by humans.  They were seen as another race or as spirits which were believed to live in the Otherworld, or Tir na nOg.  With the coming of Christianity fairies lived on and were reputed by the Church to be 'evil beings'.

So, when looking at the origins of modern fairies, one needs to look to the time of Richard II, where a combination of poets from both England and France took their old traditions and formed the tricksters like Robin Goodfellow, the familiar spirits of cunning men and the domestic spirits like the Brownie and Hobgoblin.  This, in turn, changed the native traditions of the sidhe of Ireland and the Highlands, adding new characteristics such as small size into people's beliefs of fairies.

By the 1800s, fairy traditions had changed so much that it became difficult to discern what some beings - the Anglo-Saxon grims, scucca, thyrs and the rural Church Grims, Black Shucks and Holothrusts - were like to start with.  The modern fairy was born, masking a full understanding of the older supernatural encounters which have been included in the modern perception of these little people.

Next time I plan to tell you about some of the things which were said to please the fairies and about what was said to happen if the fairies were displeased.  I also was to include some of things believed to be sacred to the fairies how these things effect modern man in places like Ireland.
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