We all know about fairies, even if we wouldn’t all necessarily agree on an exact definition. Some of us may picture Tinker Bell from Disney’s Peter Pan, while others have images firmly fixed in our minds from other pop culture sources such as Dungeons & Dragons or The Spiderwick Chronicles. “Fairy” is even a type of Pokemon.
When it comes to trying to pigeonhole the fair folk, though, we find that they are (thematically enough) surprisingly elusive. While the word may call to mind images of pixie-like, minute creatures with delicate wings, coming up with a definition that captures the wide variety of fairy lore is all but impossible.
Indeed, even knowing what to call them can be tricky. According to Historic-UK.com, “when belief in fairies was common most people didn’t like to mention them by name and so referred to them by other names.”
Perhaps this is part of why there is such a bewildering array of epithets for fairies. You may see them referred to as little people, hidden people, good neighbors, kindly ones, and many more.
Ask a folklorist, and they’ll tell you that many of these names, especially the ones that make the fair folk out to be beneficent, are used in irony, or as a kind of ward against incurring their wrath.
Even the word “fairy” itself has an array of spellings and variations. There are fairies and faeries, fay and fey and fae—even once you settle on a spelling, the word “fairy” can mean a creature, or it can be used as an adjective, to mean “magical” or “enchanted.” It’s also often used as the name of the land from which these beings hail.
On top of all that, the term covers a dizzying array of different entities. Sometimes, the word fairy describes a particular thing—often those smallish creatures with the wings we mentioned earlier, though that is a somewhat more recent representation—while other times, the term includes all manner of other creatures, such as goblins or gnomes.
So just what is a fairy?
What we can pretty much all agree on is that they are a type of legendary or mythological being found throughout a variety of European cultures.
Fairies can be found in the folklore of the Celts and the Slavic peoples, as well as the history of England, Germany, and France, to name just a few. Many other countries are also home to folk tales featuring similar creatures, such as the Japanese yokai; but for now, we’ll confine our interest to the European fairies. After all, there’s plenty of them.
As you might expect from an entity with such diverse origins, there are a lot of different stories about just what fairies are and where they come from. Because they have been handed down from a wealth of different traditions, and passed through a number of different cultural filters to reach our understanding of them here in the present day, the possible origins and explanations of fairies are as bewildering as everything else about them.
Many of the Christian traditions that came to dominate much of Europe during the Middle Ages absorbed the existing belief in fairies and painted them as either demoted angels or as demons, depending on the inclinations of both the fairy and the storyteller. Other traditions, including Pagan belief systems which predated the Christianization of the continent, saw them as everything from nature spirits, to prehistoric pre-humans, to the spirits of the dead.
It is as nature spirits that we most often encounter fairies in popular media today, though earlier depictions of them ran the gamut, from the Christian-tinged idea that they were fallen angels not quite bad enough for Hell, to the notion of them as the souls of the departed, literally “haunting” certain locations much as a ghost would.
Ultimately, fairies were creatures of oral tradition, and like all oral traditions, they were changeable, adapting as the needs and cultural lenses of the times and the specific tellers needed them to. It’s something fairies are particularly good at, and something that they’re still doing today…
Then what makes a fairy a fairy?
Again, it depends on who you ask, but folkloric accounts have a wide variety of answers. Many early fairy stories revolve heavily around two things. One is stories of changelings, in which human children are abducted by the fair folk, and a shapeshifter fairy left in their place. The other is ways to ward fairies off, to break their spells, or to simply avoid their displeasure.
There are a variety of protective charms that are said to ward off fairies, with one of the most popular in modern culture being cold iron. Others include church bells, four-leaf clovers, and wearing your clothing inside out. Specific wards work for specific fairies, though, and we’re quickly going to get back into the weeds if we start talking about all the different varieties of fey that are said to exist throughout European history.
There are brownies and hobgoblins, who often do useful work around the house but may sometimes be hideous to look upon. There are banshees, whose wail is said to foretell the hearer’s death—or, in the Scottish Highlands, you might instead encounter the Washer-by-the-Ford, a web-toed creature with only one nostril who washes bloody clothes on days when someone is about to die. There are water horses and will-o'-wisps, not to mention individual fairies with personal names like the sinister Black Annis who hung human skins in the tree outside her cave, or Jenny Greenteeth, who drowned vulnerable people in the river.
From goblins to nobility, what all fairies had in common is that they were magical beings, intelligent and capricious, sometimes malignant, sometimes beneficent, often tricksters, and almost always bound to inscrutable laws that could, nonetheless, be used to trick, trap, ward, or repel them, so long as one knew how to do so.
Beyond that, descriptions varied wildly, and even wings—perhaps the most commonly ascribed visible characteristic of fairies today—is more often a Victorian addition to fairy canon than a part of the original lore.
Why are we still talking about fairies today?
For much of the English-speaking world, at least, fairies have a cultural penetration that isn’t true of most other mythological creatures. You can find shirts, sculptures, artwork, and a variety of other media and merchandise bearing images of fairies, and countless people still put lawn gnomes in their front yards. As mythical creatures go, only dragons can boast a similar footprint in contemporary popular culture.
So, why are we still so caught up in fairies, even after all these years? The answer to that question would probably require a sociologist, but for the origins of the craze, one need look no further than the Victorians.
The oldest recorded mention of fairies in English dates back to the 13th century, but by that time, when they were written about by the historian Gervase of Tilbury, the term was already in common usage.
Medieval romances featured numerous stories of encounters between knights and fair folk, some of which found their way into Arthurian legend in the 14th century. Perhaps the most famous of these is the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was just recently made into a new film.
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The Victorian and Edwardian eras in England saw a revival of interest in these old stories, and it could easily be said that the modern fairy is a product of these Victorians rediscovering old folklore from ages gone by.
Some of the greatest English writers of the age reworked, revived, retold, or reimagined fairies for a variety of uses, and fairy stories loomed large in the public consciousness as fictional motifs rather than folkloric traditions. J. M. Barrie’s first Peter Pan stories were written during this time; and Mary of Teck, who was queen from 1910 until 1936, had an abiding interest in fairy art.
In addition to bringing fairies into the public imagination in a new way, the Victorians did something else: codifying much of what we think of as fairy lore today. By choosing which stories and traditions they retold, and how fairies were depicted in art, they had a lasting impact on how we would imagine fairies over the next century—an impact that is still being felt.
Enough stalling! Are they real or not?
Well, we don’t really know, do we? Obviously, we have no real evidence that fairies exist, but at the same time, it’s difficult to prove that they don’t, for the simple reason that it’s difficult to prove a negative.
Like cryptids and UFOs—which have, in some ways, taken fairies' place in the imagination of the credulous or those who, to quote the X-Files, “want to believe"—fairies exist for those who want them to badly enough, and there’s probably nothing that anyone can say that will dissuade them.
Here’s what we do know, though: There are definitely some of those people about—and there are people who are all-too-willing to take them in with a little good-natured (or not-so-good-natured) tomfoolery.
Take, for example, probably the most famous fairy hoax of all time, the so-called Cottingley Fairy photographs, which even managed to convince Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
The photographs in question—five in all—were taken by two cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, between 1917 and 1920. At the time the first two photographs were snapped, Elsie was 16 years old and Frances was 9. Elsie’s mother believed these first two photos to be the genuine article, and eventually took them to a meeting of the Theosophical Society, which led them to the attention of Arthur Conan Doyle.
While putting one over on Sherlock Holmes may be an insurmountable task, Doyle himself was not so incredulous. A devout spiritualist, Doyle was perhaps too eager to believe in the authenticity of the photos, and used them to illustrate an article on the subject of the fair folk that he had been commissioned to write for The Strand. This, more than anything else, thrust the photographs into the forefront of the public imagination, where they would stay, on and off, for years to come.
For their part, the two girls insisted that the pictures were the real deal, going so far as to take three more in 1920, at the behest of Edward Gardner, a member of the Theosophical Society and acquaintance of Doyle, who provided the girls with one camera each, along with secretly marked plates. Gardner and Doyle showed the photographs to experts, including technicians from the Kodak company, who concluded that the results “showed no signs of being faked.”
The public wasn’t always so credulous, however. Novelist and poet Maurice Hewlett wrote in the literary journal John O’ London’s Weekly, “And knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I decide that [they] have pulled one of them.”
Perhaps sadly for wannabe believers, the skeptics proved to be correct, though the truth didn’t fully come out for many years. In fact, it wasn’t until 1983 that the two girls—now two women of advancing years, both of whom would be dead within the decade—finally admitted their hoax.
In an article published in the British magazine The Unexplained, they confessed not only that they had faked the Cottingley Fairy photographs, but how. The truth, as is so often the case, proved to be disappointingly prosaic.
They had copied illustrations of dancing girls from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, a popular children’s book of the time, and drawn wings on them, then cut them out and used hatpins to prop them up for the photographs. Nothing more elaborate nor more supernatural than that.
While both admitted to the hoax, however, both did maintain, even then, that they really had seen fairies. Elsie said all of the photographs were hoaxes, but Frances said the fifth photograph was genuine. In a 1980 interview, Frances said of the fifth photograph, "it was a wet Saturday afternoon and we were just mooching about with our cameras and Elsie had nothing prepared. I saw these fairies building up in the grasses and just aimed the camera and took a photograph."
As for why they maintained the ruse for so long, in a 1985 interview on the television program Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers, Elsie claimed that they were simply too embarrassed to admit the truth after so thoroughly taking in a personage as esteemed as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“I never even thought of it as being a fraud,” she said, “it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in… they wanted to be taken in.”
And there are plenty of people who want to be taken in, for whom belief in fairies and fantastical beings could provide a welcome jolt to hoist “the material twentieth-century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life,” as Doyle himself said in his Strand article.
While the Cottingley Fairies may have been the most famous, they were far from the only bits of fairy fakery through the years. All of these hoaxes rely on one simple fact: many of us would like to believe that fairies are real. It’s why the Cottingley Fairies took off in the first place, and why they continue to linger in the popular imagination. In 1997, a pair of movies were released that dealt with the hoax, while Terry Jones and Brian Froud parodied it in their 1995 publication, Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book.
So are fairies real? Maybe not, but our belief in them is, and so is our desire to see that belief borne out. And so long as we want to believe in magic, that will probably never change…