Beneath Pixie Hollow: A Brief Social History of the Fey Folk

RDG Stout

So apparently fairies are a thing again.

When most folks hear “fairies,” we surely think of Tinkerbell. Disney has rather cornered the market on tiny winged Victorianesque young ladies. As a father of little girls I must confess that I’ve become surprisingly well-versed in the various denizens of Neverland, and I can’t say as I mind a bit of Tinkerbell merchandise. Indeed, I rather hope that hanging a blonde in a strapless miniskirt from the Christmas tree gives my wife ideas.

But this fad goes beyond Disney and the family-friendly market. Neopaganism and the New Age movement have made fairies into big business. Witness the art of Amy Brown, or the 131,395 books that an Amazon search for “fairies” nets you. Cynics would surely dismiss this as infantilism, the aptly-named Peter Pan Syndrome, and lump it as part of a larger phenomenon encompassing Avengers movies and Brony conventions. (Not that we don’t watch a little MLP in the Stout household.)

But methinks there’s more to it than that. Fairies inevitably represent nature, and our postmodern world—largely disconnected from the soil and insulated from the seasons—yearns to reconnect with natural phenomena not just on a physical but also on a spiritual level. We want the world to feel enchanted again. And that’s what fairies do: they enchant the world. But nature isn’t cutesy. And up until recently, neither were fairies.

Medieval Christianity inherited from the ancient Greeks a belief in the Hierarchy of Being. Humans people the terrestrial sphere whilst the gods (or angels) populate the celestial. Between earth and stars lies the atmosphere, the powers of the air. Greeks wrote of “daemons,” creatures of a middling nature between the human and the heavenly, themselves neither angel nor man. Female daemons, the nymphs, were classified according to their dwellings: oreads in the mountains, oceanids in the sea, dryads in the forests, and so forth. Psychologically, daemons may represent a movement from animism, in which every object possesses a spirit, to polytheism, in which independent spirits happen to dwell in certain objects or locations.

Northern Europe had similar notions of nature spirits, called jotuns. Unlike the frisky Mediterranean nymphs, however, these jotuns of the hardscrabble North represented the more hostile and sterile aspects of nature. They were frost giants, fire giants, stone giants, and shadowy night elves. As a general rule, the harsher the climate, the fiercer the fairy. In Scandinavia, we find no coquettish dryads for Vikings to seduce, only monsters to be smashed with a hammer.

Of course, daemons were spirits that did not act much like spirits. Unlike angels, which consisted of pure mind, daemons possessed “subtle” (i.e. ephemeral) bodies of “coagulated air” that could change size, shape, and density. Daemons ate, danced, laughed, fought, mated, bred, and died. Angels did no such thing. While Christianity came to use the word “demon” to describe fallen angels—nonphysical immortal beings of pure thought—Judaism and Islam continued to speak of daemons as mortal, sexual, and notably tangible. Medieval rabbis supposedly ruled that a man having an affair with a daemon, even if the union produced children, was not guilty of adultery. Fairies don’t count, fellas. Good news for Numa Pompilius.

In Christendom, the daemons came to be known by many names. In England and France they were the Fair Folk—whence derive terms such as Fey, Faerie, and Fairy—for fear of offending them. C.S. Lewis dubbed them the Longaevi, “the long-livers.” Muslims knew them as jinni or genies. Paracelsus called them Elementals, and categorized them by fire (salamanders), earth (gnomes), air (sylphs), and water (undines). Scots divided them into the Seelie and Unseelie Hosts, with the latter paying tithe to Satan.  I should point out that as water spirits, dragons were considered a distant branch of the fey family tree. And then of course there were the various tribes of elves, goblins, piskies, ogres, brownies, and certain classifications of giant.

It was Shakespeare who identified the king and queen of elvish kind as Oberon and Titania. And most recently Katherine Briggs, the living authority on European fairy traditions, has written that folklore presents to us four varieties of fey: (1) household spirits, helpful but temperamental; (2) water spirits, often predatory and murderous; (3) trouping fairies, who hold court and enjoy pomp and circumstance; and (4) flat-out monsters, such as ogres and jotuns. These same categories may be found from Rome to Russia, Louisiana to the Lorraine. A surprisingly recent addition to the ethereal realm dawned with early aviation, when the technological terror of gremlins afflicted the 20th Century’s pioneering pilots.

As the Church expanded throughout Europe, she encountered such powerful belief in fairies that people began to ask how beings of “coagulated air” could fit into a biblical worldview. Some, like the Swedish huldefolk, were said to be an offshoot of humanity, the hidden children of Eve. Others were claimed to be neutral angels who refused to take sides in the great war between the Devil and St. Michael. But most Europeans stuck with the opinion held by Greeks, Celts, and Muslims alike: that these were creatures of their own nature, with their own origin.

Interestingly, Jewish tradition speaks to us of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who refused to submit to Adam’s domination. Rejecting humanity, Lilith flew off to marry Asmodeus, king of the daemons, thus becoming mother of all vampires. (Said to be insanely jealous of Eve’s offspring, Lilith is also blamed for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and songs to ward her off—lilu abi—have developed into our modern lullabies.) By some accounts Lilith did not start off as human, but was made by God on the fifth day of Creation along with other flying creatures. She was Adam’s companion and helper in the Garden before the creation of his human wife, Eve. This all sounds rather fairyish to me. Even her refusal to submit to Adam mirrors the Quranic account of Iblis, chief of the jinni, likewise refusing to bow before Adam. In the Quran, jinni have subtle bodies not of coagulated air but of similarly elemental “smokeless fire.”

In these traditions, fairies have exceedingly long lives but prove ultimately mortal. Like humans and angels, they experienced a Fall from grace. They possess free will, and will stand before God’s throne on Judgment Day. Their powers are great but ultimately illusory; fairy magic is called glamour, and is distinguished from both holy miracles and unholy sorcery. Thankfully for mere mortals, glamour can be dispelled by carrying a four-leaf clover. The fey are intimately connected with nature, fearing technology, and may be slain by cold iron. The ringing of consecrated iron church bells is considered particularly effective in ridding an area of unwanted goblins, as you may have read in Hellboy.

Not all have an aversion to religion, however; the Rev. Robert Kirk, author of The Secret Commonwealth, is remembered as Apostle to the Elves. More than a century after the fact, his disappearance remains a mystery. And who could forget the julenisse who aid St. Nicholas each December?

For whatever reason—the curse on Lilith, perhaps—fairies have great difficulty in childbirth, and are always said to be diminishing in the land. No matter when fairy stories are told, the fey are usually believed to have been common roughly two generations back. They’re always leaving, never gone. Because of this frailty in breeding they often seek out human paramours and midwives. Taking a fairy lover can be risky business, however, as wicked fairies are wont to drain away a virile man’s life and then enslave his ghost. Unbaptized children prove likewise at risk, as the fairies would steal away the baby to be raised in fairyland, leaving a changeling—a withered old elf under the appearance of the stolen child—in its place. Many folktales are concerned with the retrieval of children or loved ones carried “away with the fairies.”

Fairies are said to be on the move at Quarter and Cross-Quarter Days, especially Midsummer. I’ve had my fair share of strange stories come through the parish, but I had to smile last Midsummer when one parishioner claimed to have seen a lady made of mist crossing the road, and another complained that some undetectable prankster had been moving the fairy statue in her garden about. To the best of my knowledge, neither congregant had any familiarity with Midsummer lore.

In modern times the more frightful fairy traditions have been largely suppressed, though they may still be found in the works of such authors as Bob Curran or Neil Gaiman. For a classical take on fairy fear, I highly recommend the stop-motion movie adaptation of Coraline, itself based on Keats’ poem “La Bella Dame Sans Merci.”

That, my friends, sure ain’t no Tinkerbell.

 

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.

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3 Comments

  1. Among the 4 dozen things I learned in this piece was why HD called her poem “Oread.” Turns out a well-rounded education on extra-Greek mythology fills in a ton of gaps in understanding art (and stuff).

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  2. One of my favorites was the brownie, or English house spirit. (Domovoi in Russian, Pentares in Latin IIRC.) They live under the hearthstone and like to sit in the little dip found on fireplace kettle hooks. When fireplaces shrunk and kettle hooks disappeared, people started hanging horseshoes on the wall so that the brownie would have a place to sit. Just don’t upset him, or the brownie will become a hobgoblin and throw things at you.

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