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.
Fairies, Fairies Everywhere
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.
Many 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 humankind.
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 possess:
- 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 to bed.
- · Native American spirit animals guard and guide humans.
- · The Incan huacas protect crops and livestock.
- · Irish merrows are known for their gentle and cheerful natures.
- · Goblins roam in packs, terrorizing humans and ruining property.
- · 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 them.
- · 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 you.
- · 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)
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