What image comes to mind when you think about
fairies? Dainty female figures with gossamer wings, long flowing hair, and
gauzy dresses? Maybe waving magic wands or flinging sparkly pixie dust around?
Most likely they’re tiny enough to perch on flower petals, but regardless of
size these magical creatures are always dazzlingly gorgeous––and sometimes
sexy, in an ephemeral sort of way. Of course, they’re also sweet, fun-loving
beings, just the sort of playmates you’d like your kids to hang out with.
Nice, but not
true––unless you’re in Disneyland, that is.
Until the last century or
so, fairies came in a wide assortment of sizes, shapes, and colors––with a
variety of temperaments to match. Yes indeed, some were exquisitely beautiful,
but others could star in your worst nightmare. And when it came to their
behavior, parental guidance was definitely advised.
Wherever you go on this planet you’ll hear fairy
tales of magical and mysterious beings, some no bigger than your hand and some
taller than the redwoods. They fly through the air, tunnel deep into the earth,
splash about in the seas, even flicker in candle flames. These awesome
creatures have played a prominent role in the lives and legends of mortals
since the beginning of time, and they still do.
Although flying fairies dominate the scene today,
they didn’t really become popular until the Victorian era. Instead, early
legends in Europe, Britain, and Ireland tended to focus on these fairy folk:
pixies, elves, dwarfs, trolls, hags, leprechauns, goblins, and the sidhe. Other
cultures had their fairies too. The ancient Greeks, for instance, believed in all
sorts of nymphs who occupied the waterways. The Persians had their beautiful
peris. Deep in Russia’s immense forests woodland fairies called leshiye ruled
supreme; they could shapeshift to appear as tall as trees or as tiny as mice.
folklorists say fairies descended from ancient gods and goddesses. For
thousands of years, these deities had dominion over the earth, the heavens, and
all the inhabitants therein. They governed day and night, land and water, the
seasons, the growth of plants, wild and domestic animals—just about everything.
Basically, fairies can be grouped into two categories: those who guard and
guide the natural world, and those who deal with destiny and the fate of
Usually, fairies stay out of sight of humans, going about
their business without fanfare. But if you detour off the beaten track and into
the peaceful, unspoiled places on our planet, you may get lucky and enjoy a
close encounter with these nature spirits. Just be careful not to get too close
or to fall for their ruses—you might never come back from the fairy realm!
Myths and legends tell us that fairies have an arsenal of
supernatural powers that they can use for good or ill—and mere mortals are no
match for them. Throughout history, friendly fairies have helped humans by
protecting crops and livestock, healing the sick and delivering babies,
granting wishes and bringing good luck. Angry spirits, on the other hand,
reportedly stir up storms, wither crops, conjure plagues, cast curses that last
for eternity, and turn humans into toads, stones, or worse. So obviously, you
want to stay in the fairies’ good graces.
Here are some characteristics
- Fairies live practically forever––at least ten times as long as humans, maybe more.
- Fairies are stronger than they look––Hawaiian
mythology tells of small spirits called the menehuene who supposedly created
amazing stone dams and walls on the island of Kauai, and Arabic myths say
fairies known as the jinn built the pyramids.
Fairies can foretell the future––“The Sight”
(clairvoyance) is natural to them.
Fairies can make themselves invisible––you’ll
only see a fairy if she wants you to.
Friend or Foe?
Fairies don’t feel emotions the way humans do, nor do they
share our sense of ethics—although they have their own codes, which can be
quite rigid. At best, fairies could be considered amoral. Our ancestors sought
to understand the ways of the fey, in order to win the fairies’ favor and avoid
incurring their wrath. You might want to do the same, because although modern
media depict these spirits as pretty innocuous, they have a long tradition of
being anything but.
Scottish brownies assist people with domestic
chores, cleaning the house, or plowing the fields after everyone else has gone
Native American spirit animals guard and guide
The Incan huacas protect crops and livestock.
Irish merrows are known for their gentle and
Goblins roam in packs, terrorizing humans and
In Hindu mythology, cannibalistic rakshasas eat
holy men and cause leprosy.
England’s spriggans steal children, rob homes,
and damage crops.
India’s troublemaking mumiai torment people of
the lower castes by attacking them and destroying their belongings and gardens.
The Russian rusalki charm human men, then drown
Japanese tengu herald death and war.
Many legends describe fairies as tricksters who like to tease and torment humans. Irish leprechauns are notorious for playing tricks on people, especially those who want to grab the fairies' gold. Pixie confuse travelers, causing them to veer off track and get lost. Britain's bogles sneak into people's houses and mess things up, make strange noises, and generally annoy the occupants.
Some fairies are known to steal humans’ belongings. It seems
they do this either for their own amusement or to get our attention, because if
you ask politely they usually give the objects back. So the next time you lose
your keys or glasses, ask the fairies to please return them.
How to Win a Fairy’s
Favor or Avoid a Fairy’s Curse
Want to attract friendly fairies? Put
out food and drink for them. Many of them like milk, honey, wine, fruit, and
bread. Gifts of clothing, coins, and shiny trinkets also appeal to some
fairies. In return, they might offer you treasure or healing benefits. In the
Brothers Grimm’s story “The Three Little Men in the Wood,” fairies give a
little girl gold in exchange for a bit of bread.
You might try these things to win
their favor too:
Build a fairy house for them to live in.
Sing and dance, and invite the fairies to join
Play a flute or ring wind chimes.
Respect nature and animals.
Support causes that protect nature and wildlife.
Plant a garden (no pesticides, please).
Not everyone wants fairies hanging around, however. If you’d
rather these unpredictable spirits kept their distance, you could try the
tactics our ancestors used:
- Display iron objects.
Sprinkle salt around.
Hang up garlic.
Hang a rowan branch above your door.
Make loud noises.
Ring church bells.
Probably the best advice for dealing with fairies is to err on
the side of caution. Let them make the first move. Be courteous, but not
solicitous. Don’t invite them into your life or try to insert yourself into
theirs. If you meet a fairy or if one gives you a gift, keep that secret
between you and the fairy. If fairies want to stop by at midnight and wash your
dishes or muck out the stables, fine. But if they invite you to dinner or offer
to babysit your kids, beware.
(Excerpted from my my book Fairies: The Myths, Legends, & Lore)