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MYTHICAL CREATURES THROUGHOUT HISTORY: AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT ‘FAIRIES’

by Caro, April 10, 2010

“Now, until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride bed will be
Which by us shall blessed be.”
-Oberon from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Fairies: mythical beings also known as faery, faerie, fay or fae which means otherwordly, able to see the future, or touched in the head. In popular culture the fey, have been reduced to small, winged, humanoid, female creatures who are frequently portrayed in the nude and can be either good or bad.

For years we’ve been enchanted by their beauty and folk stories. Spirits that roam gardens and forests casting their spells in the nature that surrounds us. With famous quotes like “I believe in fairies,” (Peter Pan), fairy tales come to live.

Some believe that they control the seasons, resembling the elements. Without their magic, existence or care for the woods and forest would bring awful consequences and everything would be dead, nature would have no life. Others portray them as serious and sinister. The exceptions include the tooth fairy (who exchanged presents, usually coins, for teeth left out or under one’s pillow at night), the fairy godmother in Cinderella, and Snow White and the seven dwarfs. Fairy godmothers are protective beings, like guardian angels. (These are portrayed as good. But remember what happened in Hellboy II? The tooth fairies were evil little beings who as their name said it, well, ate teeth. Quite pretty and curious, but lethal. 😉 but yet another example of how fairies are portrayed in the modern day.)

Fairies have been described as having a human form with pointy ears and magical powers, winged like demons and angels. Appearing in medieval tales of chivalry to the present modern literature. They have changed through the years going from tall, angelic beings to small and young. Sometimes even mentioned as trolls, gnomes or goblins. Fairies didn’t always have wings; there was time when people thought of them flying on the backs of birds or with magic. Nowadays, we can see artwork, cartoons or any kinds of representations with wings of butterflies or insects.

If we look for a description of the word “fairy” we find that it is derived from the Latin fata, or fate, referring to the mythical Fates, three women who spin and control the threads of life. (Oh, remember who they were?) The archaic English term for fairies is fays, which means “enchanted” or “bewitched.”

Origins

Theories of their origins are that fairies were unbaptized souls. They are souls caught up in a netherland land, not good enough to enter heaven, nor bad enough to deserve hell. Such a place is frequently referred to as limbo.

Their origin can be also somehow related to babies. Remember how they came to be in Peter Pan? But this, just like others could be a fantasy myth, “When the first baby laughed for the first time, his laugh broke into a million pieces, and they all went skipping about. That was the beginning of fairies.” (J.M. Barrie).

Fairies were also believed to be fallen angels. They were among the angels loyal to Lucifer, cast out of heaven with him to plunge into hell, but God stopped them in mid-flight and ordered them to remain where they were. Some were in the air, some in the earth and some in the seas and rivers. Such belief is widespread in fairy lore of Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia.

Fairies were also claimed to be familiars of witches. Both could heal, just like cast and break spells. Sang and danced beneath the moon, were repelled by iron and avoided salt among other similar things.

Belief in fairies can be universal, they can be known by various folkloric names including brownie (English and Scottish folklore), elf (German folklore), dwarf (Teutonic and Germanic folklore), troll (Norse folklore), gnome (Europe, popularized by Paracelsus), pooka (Irish folklore), kobold (German folklore), leprechaun (Irish folklore), and banshee (Irish and Celtic folklore). Fairy lore is thought to exist in almost every culture and is most prevalent in Europe and the British Isles. It spread to America during the colonization period and is still strong in the Appalachians, Ozarks, and other remote mountainous regions.

Fairyland, or Elfland, resembles the pre-Christian abodes for the dead. Fairyland is sometimes referred to as the Land of the Ever Young (doesn’t this remind you of Peter Pan? 😉 again), which is eternal and beautiful. People carried off to fairyland cannot return if they eat or drink there. Fairy and human lovers can marry, though only with restrictions whose violation ends the marriage, and often, the life of the human. Some female fairies are deadly to human lovers. Fairies may resemble humans in size, but can decrease to three inches (7.5 cm) or less. Female fairies may be fortune tellers, particularly prophesying at births and foretelling deaths.

Literature and Poetry


Fairies appeared in literature and poetry. One that is well remembered is William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; where fairies cast their magic upon the Athenians.

The Brothers Grimm included fairies in their first edition, but decided this was not authentically German and altered the language in later editions, changing each “Fee” (fairy) to an enchantress or wise woman.

J. R. R. Tolkien described these tales as taking place in the land of Faerie. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books which featured many such classical beings as fauns and dryads, mingles them freely with hags, giants, and other creatures of the folkloric fairy tradition.

Fairies are seen in Neverland, in Peter and Wendy, the novel version of J. M. Barrie’s famous Peter Pan stories, published in 1911, and its character Tinker Bell has become a pop culture icon. When Peter Pan is guarding Wendy from pirates, the story says: “After a time he fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy. Any of the other boys obstructing the fairy path at night they would have mischief, but they just tweaked Peter’s nose and passed on.”

Nowadays we have modern fairies in books, for example in the Sookie Stackhouse series: the twins Claude and Claudine who are related to Sookie by her father. Author Charlaine Harris introduces the fairies in the short story Fairy Dust, they also appear in Dead to the World and can be seen throughout the series. In Laurell K. Hamilton’s Bloody Bones we can also find fairies such as Dorcas Bouvier and Magnus Bouvier. In Aprilynne Pike’s Wings we find out that Laurel is a fifteen-year-old girl who discovers that she is a fairy sent among humans to guard the gateway to Avalon.

Poem

Believe in the faeries
That make dreams come true,
Believe in the wonder
The stars and the moon
Believe in the magic
From the faeries above,
They dance on the flowers
And sing songs of love
And if you just believe
And always stay true
The faeries will be there
To watch over you!

(source)

Art

Fairies in art are mostly a genre closely associated with the Victorian era in Great Britain, but has experienced a contemporary revival. Moreover, fairy painting was also seen as escapism for Victorians. Some of the fantasy themes of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Other also like Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic The Rape of the Lock. Fairies have made their way through all out this years into the popular culture in other ways as well, including clothing designs, ceramics, figurines, needlecraft, figurative art, quilting.

A modern illustrator is Howard David Johnson. He is a contemporary realistic artist and photographer with a background in the natural sciences and history. In his gallery we can find all kinds of fantasy, folklore, mythology, legend, religion, and heroic history pieces. He works in and mixes a wide variety of media such as Oil paintings, Acrylic Paintings, Prismacolor Paintings, Drawings, Chalk & Oil Pastel Paintings, Photography, Digital Artistry & Mixed Media.

Movies and TV

In movies and TV shows we have seen fairies such as Disney’s the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, Maleficent from the Sleeping Beauty, Cosmo and Wanda from the animated series The Fairly OddParents. Hallmark’s fantasy movie The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns where a war between fairies and leprechauns takes place. And just like these we can find an endless list of fairy references.

Music

Fairies have also found their way onto music. There’s songs like “Avalon” from Brian Ferry/ Roxy music, which refers to the fairies land, “without conversation or a notion. Avalon.”

Another is Ozzy Osbourne/Black Sababth’s “Fairies wear boots” a heavy metal, blues rock song “Fairy boots were dancing’ with a dwarf, all right now!Fairies wear boots and you gotta believe me”.

And then there is “Fairie Queen” by Heather Alexander whose music talks about fantasy, mythical and traditional themes:

Be it carved from out the finest wood
And strung with silver string
Only mortal trust or faerie dust
Can make a fiddle sing!

I raised my head my arms like lead my heart ablaze once more
The Faerie Queen looked down at me, shaken to the core
‘I’ve played for many centuries, yet, by the stars above,
You’ve taught me skill is not enough. It can’t compare to love.’

Games and More

Fairies have also taken over video games and other fun stuff. One popular being The Leyend of Zelda. And in internet we can find sites like Fairy name generators, where you can search for your fairy name 😉 I have just become:

Thorn Goblinfly
She is a bringer of riches and wealth.
She lives in brambles and blackberry bushes.
She is only seen at midday under a quiet, cloudless sky.
She wears purple and green like berries and leaves. She has gentle green wings like a butterfly.

As you can see fairies have an interesting fantasy mythical history and have been present in our lives always and were transformed into what we know now.


“Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.”
-Titania from William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream


How much of fairies did you know?
What has been your favorite fairy book, movie, art, etc.?

Remember to check out our OBS YA Book Club of the month A Midsummer Night’s Dream and join us in the discussion!

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