Our Mythical Creatures Spotlight is a new blog feature that will take a deep-dive into mythical creatures, from dragons to mermaids and all in-between. This week’s spotlight is on: Fairies.
Ah, the beautiful enigmatic fairy. A creature that has sparked human imaginations for centuries. It’s hard to not picture a Tinkerbell-esque figure when hearing the word ‘fairy’, normally clad in human clothing with butterfly wings and a magical wand. But fairies are so much more than that.
We touched on the origins of fairies in our previous blog post, A Dragonspace Bestiary. They’re such an integral part of European myth and fantasy, it does make you wonder if they’re even a ‘myth’ at all...or perhaps a mystical part of reality. While we can’t provide a definitive answer as to ‘what is a fairy?’, ‘where did they come from?’ or ‘are they real?’ we’ll explore a few different versions of the fantastic fairy legacy below.
The Tuatha Dé Danann are often considered the ‘first’ fairies. In Gaelic legend, this ancient supernatural tribe came to Ireland on flying ships and won the right to rule the land. Over time, and many battles, the Tuatha Dé Danann were eventually driven underground, where they became the mysterious ‘aos sí’ or ‘People of the Ground’ that appear in later folklore. Their land underground is parallel to our own, and reveals itself in mysterious ways...like the Fairyland we often see in stories.
The concept of the ‘Little Folk’ or the ‘Good People’ isn’t necessarily separate from the legends of the Tuatha Dé Danann. In fact, they could be one and the same. The ‘Good People’ is one of the names given to the fairy folk who are said to still live in the shadowy landscapes of Ireland and parts of Britain. These invisible folk are generally benevolent, but can be spiteful, and care should be taken not to upset them. There are many tales of terrible luck befalling anyone who damages or obstructs mystical sites like fairy rings, fairy paths, hillforts and fairy trees. But leaving offerings like milk, butter or wine for the Folk is traditionally said to win over their favour.
The Seelie and Unseelie Courts are two 'groupings' of fairies in Scottish folklore. This classification divides fairies into ‘light/good’ (Seelie) and ‘dark/bad’ (Unseelie). Benevolent fairies - like the ‘Good People’, pixies and nature elementals - are considered part of the Seelie court. While malevolent fairies - like boggarts and redcaps - are part of the Unseelie court. While both Courts must be treated with caution, you’d much rather encounter a Seelie fairy on a deserted country lane than an Unseelie one.
Elementals are nature spirits who guard and embody the natural world. In some belief systems they take a physical form. Classically, gnomes are the earth elementals, undines are the water elementals, sylphs are the air elementals, and salamanders are the fire elementals. These figures can be worshipped as deities, to connect with the natural world and ask for its favour. While they don’t take the traditional form of ‘fairies’ as we know them, they’re all intrinsically linked.
All of these figures are benevolent, mischievous forms of fairies. Pixies and knockers are prevalent in Cornish and Welsh folklore, while leprechauns are Irish, and brownies are Scottish. Ultimately, they’re all a part of the same family and share a few things in common. They’re typically humanoid yet miniature in appearance, love dancing and playing tricks, and are normally connected to the domestic or working sphere. They can be useful companions if treated well, but will cause quite a mess if they feel mistreated...or just want a bit of fun.
The archetypal ‘wise woman’, ‘witch’ or ‘sorceress’ often found in literature may have her origins in the world of fairy. A prime example is Morgan le Fay from Arthurian legend. Morgan le Fay - whose very name has connections with the fairy world - is a complex character in the vast myriad of Arthurian tales. Some paint her as a wicked femme fatale, others as a powerful wise woman and healer. But it’s commonly accepted that Morgana had fairy blood, which was where her magic and wisdom came from. Another Arthurian figure closely linked with the world of fairy is The Lady of the Lake (also known as Nimue or Viviane), the mysterious sorceress who gave Arthur his sword Excalibur and enchanted the great Merlin. The Lady's close connected with water and magic has similarities with Elemental lore.
Some stories say that fairies will present themselves in the guise of an animal. Deer, mice, cats, wolves and birds are favoured forms amongst the fairies. In fact, if you find a fallen bird feather while walking in nature, it's considered a gift from the fairies. Animals that are coloured red-and-white are considered most strongly connected to the fairy world, including the Fairy Cow. This speckled hornless cow might appear amongst a regular herd of cattle and and cause trouble, sometimes leading the herd into the misted world of the fairies never to be seen again.
It's no wonder fairies inspire such fascination. Their mystical world has been explored in story, song, art and spirituality for centuries, and there still remain shadowy corners left to discover. If you want to delve further into this magical land, take a look at our fairy collections below. And let us know your favourite fairy stories in the comments!
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