Monday, 16 November 2009

Fae mythology ...Part two


Fairies in Legend, Lore, and Literature

by Terri Windling


There are numerous stories of human beings abducted into Faerieland — particularly newborn babies, attractive young children, midwives, and musicians.

When human babies are snatched from the cradle, a fairy "changeling" is left behind.

Sometimes this creature is merely a piece of wood enchanted to look like a child; other times it is a sickly fairy baby, or an old and peevish fairy.

The stolen human children are petted and cosseted for a while — until they grow big and lumpish, or until the fairy court grows bored with them — whereupon they are turned into household slaves for the rest of their mortal lives, or banished from the Realm (for which they'll pine from that day forward).

Some say the fairies are required to pay a blood–tithe to Hell every seven years, and that they steal mortals for this purpose so as not to sacrifice one of their own. A human knight named Tam Lin was destined to be the tithe in one famous old tale, until his true love tricked the Fairy Queen into releasing him on All Hallows Eve.


Some fairies can be alluring creatures — but woe to those who seek their kisses, for few amorous encounters between fairies and mortals ever come to good.

A harp player named Thomas the Rhymer kissed the Fairy Queen under the Eildon Tree, then paid for each of those kisses with seven years of servitude in Fäerie.

Thomas was one of the lucky ones, because many hapless lads and maidens sickened and died after twilight encounters with sweet–talking lovers who turned out to be fairies in disguise.

There are stories in which fairies wed with mortals, but such marriages rarely turn out well — whether it is a woman with a fairy husband or a man with a fairy bride.

Irish seal–people who marry human men and women always return to the sea, and Japanese fox fairies make dangerous brides, stealing the life essence from their husbands.

The children born of such unions are often lonely, melancholic creatures, too mortal to live comfortably in Fäerie and too fey for the human world.


Some fairy lore makes a clear division between good and wicked types of fairies —
between those who are friendly to mankind, and those who seek to cause us harm.

In Scottish tales, good fairies make up the Seelie Court, which means the Blessed Court, while bad fairies congregate in the Unseelie Court, ruled by the dark queen Nicnivin.

In old Norse myth, the Liosálfar (Light Elves) are regal, compassionate creatures who live in the sky in the realm of Alfheim, while the Döckálfar (the Dark Elves) live underground and are greatly feared.

Yet in other traditions, a fairy can be good or bad, depending on the circumstance or on the fairy's whim.
They are often portrayed as amoral beings, rather than as immoral ones, who simply have little comprehension of human notions of right and wrong.



The great English folklorist Katherine Briggs tended to avoid the "good" and "bad" division, preferring the categorizations of Solitary and Trooping Fairies instead.

She noted that the fairies in either group "may be evil, dealing death or sickness to every man and creature they pass on their way, like the Sluagh of the Highlands; they may steal unchurched wives from child–bed, or snatch away unchristened babes leaving animated stocks [pieces of wood] or sickly children of their own in their place, or they may be harmless and even beneficial — fertility spirits watching over the growth of flowers or bringing good luck to herds or children."

Solitary Fairies are generally those associated with a certain location: a bog, a lake, the roots of a tree, a particular hill or household.

The Trooping Fairies, by contrast, are gregarious creatures fond of hunting, feasting, dancing, and holding court.

"This is perhaps particularly true of the British Isles,"
writes Briggs,
"though in France, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany there are the same tales of dancing, revelry and processions."

Other folklorists divide the fairies by their element, rather than by their temperament — harking back to Paracelus' classification system of earth, air, water, and fire.

Fairies associated with the earth are the most numerous group.

Earth elementals include those who live in caves, barrows, and deep underground, and who often have a special facility for working with precious metals. This group includes the Coblynau in the hills of Wales, the Gandharvas of India, the Erdluitle of northern Italy, the Maanväki of Finland, the Thrussers of Norway, the Karzalek of Poland, the Illes of Iceland, the various Dwarves of Old Norse legends, and the Gans of the Apache tribe.

Forest fairies are also earth elementals, and are the most numerous type of fairy around the world.

Fairies of this type include the shy Aziza in the forests of West Africa, the Mu of Papua New Guinea, the Shinseen of China, the Silvanni of Italy, the Oakmen of the British Isles, the Skogsra of Sweden, the Kulaks of Burma, the Hantu Hutan of the Malay Peninsula, the Bela of Indonesia, the Patu–Paiarehe of the Maori, and the Manitou of the Algonquin tribe.

Other earth fairies are those who guard standing stones, such as the web–footed Couril of Brittany, and sand fairies in desert environments, such as the Ahl Al–trab found in Arabic lands.

Fairies associated with air include the various winged fairies and sylphs that are so numerous in modern picture books, popularized by Tinkerbell and Victorian–era fairy paintings.

Examples of air fairies include the luminous Soulth of Irish fairy lore, the Star Folk of the Algonquin tribe, the Atua of Polynesia, and the Peri, the "good fairies" of Persian legends, who are said to dine exclusively on perfume and other delicate scents.

Fairies who account for weather phenomena, such as mistral winds, whirlwinds, and storms, are associated with the air element, including the Spriggans of Cornwall, the Vily of Slavonia, the Vintoasele of Serbia and Crotia, the Rusali of Romania, and the mischievous Folletti of Italy.


The most common type of fire fairy is the salamander, an elemental spirit much prized by Renaissance alchemists.

Also associated with fire are the Djinn, who are the "bad fairies" of Persian lore, and the Drakes (or Drachen), fire fairies found across the British Isles and western Europe who resemble streaking balls of fire and smell like rotten eggs.

Luminous, will–o'–the–wisp type fire fairies are famous for leading travelers astray — including the Ellylldan of Welsh marshland, the Teine Sith of the Scottish Hebrides, the Spunkies of southwest England, Le Faeu Boulanger of the Channel Islands, the Candelas of Sardinia, and the Fouchi Fatui of northern Italy.

The various fairies who guard hearth fires are also associated with this element, such as the Gabija of Lithuania and Natrou–Monsieur of France. The Muzayyara are fiery, seductive fairies in old Egyptian tales; and the Akamu is a particularly dangerous fire fairy found in Japan.


Although (as the brief list above indicates) fairies are known all around the world, nowhere are they quite so varied and populous as they are in the British Isles — which is probably why we find so many of them in English literature.

Fairies can be found in many of the courtly Romances of the medieval period — although they're rarely named as such, "fairy" being a relatively late term.

These ancient stories are filled with fairy–like men and women who wield magic, live in enchanted palaces, forge magical weaponry, and bewitch or beguile innocent mortals — such as the Lady of the Lake who gives Arthur his magical sword, Excalibur.


The tales of King Arthur and his court are particular rife with fairy–like beings, especially in the Welsh and Breton traditions — as are the splendid Lays of Marie de France, written for the English court sometime around the 12th century.

The Wife of Bath in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales speaks wistfully of an elf queen and her merry court in the old days of King Arthur, when "al was this land fulfild of fayerye" — as opposed to the Wife of Bath's own time (the 14th century), when fairies were rarely seen.


A 15th century French Romance called Huon of Bordeaux was popular among English readers.

This sprightly story of King Oberon, Queen Mab, and assorted knights of the fairy court is notable for providing inspiration for the fairy plays of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare seems to have been well versed in traditional English fairy lore, for he borrowed liberally from this tradition to create the fairies who quarrel, scheme, and cavort in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.

Along with "Queen Mab" from Mercutio's famous speech in Romeo and Juliet, these are the best known and most influential fairies in all English literature —

which is why diminutive fairies
"no bigger than an agate–stone on the fore–finger of an alderman"
are better known today than their human–sized cousins found in many older stories.


Fairies are also the subject, of course, in Edmund Spenser's extraordinary poem,
The Faerie Queene, written in the late 16th century
— although Spenser's fairy court owes more to Italian Romance than to homegrown English fairy legends.


In the 17th century, fairies inspired Michael Drayton's Nymphidia, the Court of Fayre, a satirical work featuring King Oberon, Queen Mab and a hapless knight named Pigwiggen.

A series of poems in Robert Herrick's Hesperides also feature King Oberon, and also have a satirical edge, but this is a darker, more sensual look at Fairyland than Drayton's.

In the 18th century, the fairies appeared in Alexander Pope's arch tale, The Rape of the Lock; and also, covertly, in Gulliver's Travels, the great satire by Jonathan Swift, for Swift used many elements of fairy lore to create his tiny Lilliputians.


It was in the same century that Bishop Thomas Percy began to collect old British folk ballads, which he published in an influential volume called Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.

Without Percy's labors, many traditional ballads might have been lost forever — he rescued one old manuscript from kitchen maids who were using it to light the fire.

Percy's work had a notable influence on the writers of the German Romantic movement, who in turn influenced such English Romantics as

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and John Keats.

All three of these writers wrote fairy poems, but the ones that are best known and loved today are

Keats' evocative "Lamia" and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."

Other writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who were much beloved by the fairies, and vice versa, were

Tom Moore, Thomas Hood, Allan Cunningham, and especially James Hogg.

Known as The Ettrick Shepherd, Hogg was a working shepherd for most of his life as well as a writer of popular tales that drew upon old Scottish legends.

James Hogg's good friend Sir Walter Scott was another writer who found inspiration in Bishop Thomas Percy's efforts to preserve the folk heritage of Britain.

Scott's fiction is permeated with the fairy lore of his native Scotland, and he was an enormously influential figure in the 19th century folklore movement.

As a collector of tales and ballads himself, Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border preserved important fairy ballads such as Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and did much to educate readers about the value of Scotland's rich folk history.

In addition, Scott gathered around him a group of poets and antiquarians who were likewise interested in preserving the old country tales of a nation that was rapidly urbanizing.

Scott was fond of fairy lore in particular — for he'd believed in fairies in his youth, and never entirely lost faith in

"things invisible to mortal sight."


Partially due to Scott's influence, two extensive volumes of fairy lore appeared in the early 19th century:

Thomas Keightley's The Fairy Mythology

and Thomas Crofton Crock's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland.

They proved to be enormously popular and kicked off an explosion of folklore books by

Reverend Sabine Baring–Gould, Anna Eliza Bray, Joseph Jacobs,

and many others.

These books are important when looking at English literature and art of the 19th century, for they were avidly read by a wide variety of Victorian writers and artists.

Folklore was still a new field back then — the name itself wasn't coined until 1846 — and these groundbreaking publications generated talk and excitement among the intellectuals of London.

At the same time, the magical tales and poems of the folklore–loving German Romantic writers

(Johann Wulfgang von Goethe, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, etc.)

frequently appeared in English magazines of the period.

One German story, in particular, captivated Victorian readers:

Undine by Baron de la Motte Fouqué,

about a water nymph's love for a mortal knight and her attempt to gain an immortal soul.

Undine inspired a large number of subsequent stories, paintings, and dramatic productions about doomed fairy lovers of various kinds (including, over in Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid).


Such stories were particularly appealing to readers who were interested in matters of the occult and in psychic phenomena — which was a substantial segment of the reading public once the Spiritualist movement crossed the sea from America and took England by storm.

These various influences came together to create a wide–spread interest in the fairy race that was unprecedented. At no other time in British history have the fairies been so popular among all types of people, from the working class to the aristocracy.


n visual art, following in the footsteps of the 18th century painters

Henry Fuseli and William Blake , artists such as Joseph Noël Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Heatherly, Eleanor
Fortesque–Brickdale,

and many, many others created an entire genre of Victorian Fairy Art — a genre found in prestigious galleries and at the Royal Academy exhibitions — not marginalized, as fantasy art tends to be today.

These were paintings for adults, not children.

John Anster Fitzgerald's fairy imagery, for instance, was often dark and hallucinatory, full of references to opium pipes and opium medicines.
Richard Dadd's obsessively detailed fairy paintings were created in a mental hospital where Dadd was interred after he lost his reason and killed his father.

Many fairy paintings were distinctly salacious, such as Sir Joseph Noël Paton's huge canvases of luscious fairy maidens in various states of undress.


Fairies enabled Victorian painters to explore the subject of sexuality during the very years when that subject was most repressed in polite society.

Paintings of the nude were deemed acceptable so long as those nudes sported fairy wings.


The passion for fairies among Victorian adults must also be viewed in light of the rapid changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, as Britain moved from the rhythms of its rural past toward the mechanized future.

With factories and suburban blight transforming huge tracts of English countryside, fairy paintings and stories were rich in nostalgia for a vanishing way of life.

In particular, the art of the Pre–Raphaelite Brotherhood — depicting scenes from Romance, legend and myth — promoted a dreamy medievalism and the aesthetics of fine craftsmanship to counter what they saw as a soul–less new world created by modern forms of mass production.

"For every locomotive they build,"

vowed artist Edward Burne–Jones,

"I shall paint another angel."


The Arts & Crafts movement, which grew out of Pre–Raphaelitism, embraced folklore and fairies to such a degree that by the end of the 19th century fairies could be found in middle class homes in every form of decorative arts: wallpaper, draperies, ceramics, stained glass, metalwork, etc.

Advances in printing methods allowed the production of lavishly illustrated fairy–tale books, ostensibly aimed at children but with production values calculated to please adults (and the growing breed of book collectors).

Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Warwick Goble, the Robinson brothers, Jessie M. King,

and numerous others produced wonderful fairy pictures for these volumes.
Jessie M. King, like William Blake before her, was an artist who passionately believed in the fairies.
Her lovely illustrations were based, she said, on visions seen with her "third eye."


Fairy music was another popular phenomenon, much of it imported from Germany – such as Weber's fairy opera Oberon, Hoffman's Ondine (based on Fouqué's Undine), Wagner's Die Feen (The Fairies), and Mendelssohn's overture for A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Fairy music for the harp was composed and performed by charismatic musicians as popular then as pop stars are now, and young women swooned and followed their favorite harpists from concert to concert.

Magical music and dance reached its height in the works of Tchaikovsky, the brilliant Russian composer who took London — indeed, all of Europe — by storm.

The popularity of his fairy–tale ballets (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker) fuelled the Victorian public's love of all things magical and fey.

In literature Anne Thackaray Ritchie's Fairy Tales for Grown–ups, the Arthurian poems of Lord Tennyson and William Morris, and (at the turn of the century) the remarkable fairy poetry of "Celtic Twilight" writers such as William Sharp (writing as Fiona McCleod)
and William Butler Yeats.


famous series edited by Andrew Lang:

The Blue Fairy Book
, The Green Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.

Fairies flittered across London stages and nested in bucolic scenes on gallery walls, but outside on the city streets it was a long, long way from Never Land, crowded as they were with beggars, cripples, prostitutes (many of them children), and with homeless, desperate men and women displaced by the new economy.
While the upper classes charmed themselves with fairy books and dancing nymphs, and clapped to bring Tinkerbell back to life, in the lower classes, both urban and rural, fairies remained a different matter altogether.

Here, the delicate winged maidens depicted by painters and ballet dancers were superceded by the fearsome creatures of the still–living oral tradition.

Throughout the 19th century, the British newspapers reported cases of fairy sightings, curses, and abductions.

The most famous of these incidents occurred as late as 1895, and riveted newspaper readers all across the British Isles.

This was the murder of Bridget Cleary, a spirited young woman in Ireland who was killed by her husband, family, and neighbors because they thought she was a fairy changeling.

Bridget Cleary had fallen gravely ill, and the family had consulted a "fairy doctor."

He claimed that Bridget had been abducted and taken under a fairy hill, and that the sickly creature in her bed was a fairy changeling in disguise.

The doctor devised several ordeals designed to make the changeling reveal itself — ordeals that soon grew so extreme that poor Bridget died.
Convinced it was a fairy he had killed, Bridget's husband then went to the fairy fort to wait for his "real" wife to ride out seated on a milk white horse.

Bridget's disappearance was soon noted, the body found, the horrible crime brought to light, and Michael and other family members and neighbors found themselves prosecuted for murder. Although this was the most flamboyant case of changeling–murder in the Victorian press, sadly it was not the only account of brutal mistreatment of those deemed to be fairies.

Usually the poor victims were children, born with physical deformities or struck by sudden wasting illnesses.

It wasn't until the 20th century that reports of fairy abductions began to dwindle — when reports of abductions by aliens began to take their place.


The last major fairy encounter reported widely by the British press took place in the tranquil countryside of Yorkshire in 1917 — when Elsie Wright, sixteen years old, and Frances Griffith, her ten–year–old cousin, contrived to take photographs of fairies at play in their Cottingley garden.

Elsie's mother had the photographs sent to Edward Gardner, head of the Theosophical Society, who then passed them on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes).

Although the photographs are rather unconvincing by today's standards, professionals at the time could find no evidence of photographic doctoring.

The pictures, championed by Conan Doyle, caused an absolute sensation, and brought the fairy craze well into the 20th century.

Only when Elsie and Frances were old ladies in the 1980s did they admit that the Cottingley fairies were actually paper cut–outs held in place by hat–pins.

Even so, their deathbed statements on the subject were more ambiguous, implying that the fairies, if not the photographs, had been real after all. Especially one of the photographs.....


In her fascinating book Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness,

Carol G. Silver points out that the Cottingley incident, despite briefly reviving interest in the fairies, was actually one of the factors that ended the "Golden Age" of fairy art and literature. "Ironically," she says, "the photographs, the ostensible proof of the actual existence of the fairies, deprived the elfin people of the grandeur and their stature . . .

The theories that Gardner formulated to explain the fairies' nature and function reduced them to the intelligence level of household pets and the size of insects."

In addition to this, the massive popularity that the fairies had enjoyed throughout the 19th century insured that they'd be branded old–fashioned by the generations that immediately followed.

Those who'd survived the hard trials of World War I had little interest in the faux–medievalism and fairies of their grandparents' day. And yet, it is interesting to note that one of the most popular art prints of the war era depicted a simple country boy playing a pipe, surrounded by fairies.

This was "The Piper of Dreams," a painting by the Anglo–Italian artist Estella Canziani — an image as ubiquitous in England then as Monet's water lilies are now.

Canziani's gentle, forgotten fairy picture once rivaled
William Holman Hunt's
"The Light of the World"

in popularity, and was said to be a favorite of English soldiers in the trenches of World War I.


During the middle years of the 20th century, the fairies seemed to go underground, rarely leaving the Twilight Realm to interact with the world of men — except to appear in sugar–sweet guise in children's books and Disney cartoons.

Then an Oxford don named J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about elves in a place called Middle–Earth that fairies came back to popular art in any numbers.

And then they came with a vengeance. Professor Tolkien was a scholar of folklore, myth, and Old English literature, so when he created the elves of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he knew what he was doing.

Although written and published some years earlier, it was not until the 1970s that Tolkien's books dominated the bestsellers lists and became part of British and American popular culture. This in turn created an enormous interest in all things magical, wondrous, and fey.

Suddenly there were fairies, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and wizards everywhere.

People started seeking out folklore texts, and teaching themselves to speak Elvish.

What Tolkien did was to prove to us that we needn't give up these worlds at age eighteen — or at twenty–eight or forty–eight for that matter.

Back in the 1970s, this was a radical notion.

Tolkien dismissed the post–Victorian idea that fantasy was fit only for children, and reached back to an older adult fantasy tradition running from Beowulf to William Morris.

He opened a door to Fäerie, and readers discovered this door was not child–sized after all, but tall and wide, leading to lands one could spend a life–time wandering in.

Love and light
Tracey-anne x

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