From the latin fata meaning fate, the term comes from the Fates of Greek and Roman mythology – three sisterswho spun the thread of life and determined the fate of all human lives. In archaic English fairies were also known asfays, a term which means enchanted or bewitched, and is in recognition of the skill fairies were thought to have in predicting and even controlling human destiny. Fairies are thought to bring good or bad luck on a person and to possess magical power and the ability to cast spells. They are sometimes said to be witches or their familiars.
Fairy legends are universal and show many similarities. There are numerous ideas about how they originated. One is that they are descendants of the children of Eve, another is that they are fallen angels, not evil enough to be dismissed from heaven but not good enough to stay in heaven. A third idea is that stories about fairies arose to explain misfortunes and disasters, another suggests they are spirits of the restless dead, and yet another that they are simply small human beings.
Regardless of how they originated, getting involved with fairies is never considered to be straightforward. They can be good but numerous superstitions also suggest a darker side. For example, it is thought that fairies may steal away babies and turn them into changelings, or they might curse a person to ill health or a household to poverty. If they fall in love with a human that person may be blessed with immortality, but this also brings the curse of living forever and watching loved ones die. In order to stay in favour with the fairies some superstitions suggest that humans should leave out food, drink and gifts for the fairies. In return the fairies will bestow wealth and health on a family.
Fairies, also known as the good people, the little people, elves or good neighbours, come in all shapes and sizes but traditionally they are tiny, resemble humans and have wings. It is said that they are only visible to those with clairvoyant sight but if they wish they can make themselves visible to anyone. Some are said to be fearsome creatures with awesome powers, while others, like leprechauns or brownies, are almost cute and loveable by nature. Whatever their shape or appearance, fairies are thought to have great affinity for nature. They are said to live in the Land of Fairy or Elf Land, which is believed to exist in a timeless underground world. At night they allegedly step out from Elf Land to dance, sing, travel and have fun or make mischief.
Fairies are mainly associated with Northern European cultures, especially the Celtic folklore of Ireland, Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. In Ireland they are known as Tuatha de Danaan, or people of the goddess Danu, a divine race that once ruled Ireland. The Tuatha are thought to be strong and beautiful and skilled in magic. Celtic folklore was also transported to American colonies and to Asia. Native Americans have their own ‘little people’ fairy lore. The little people live in the Pryor Mountains of Montana and are said to have powerful medicine and strong teeth.
From the eighteenth century onwards stories report that the fairies have departed or are fading away. Some people believe that they are disappearing because humans have stopped believing in them. Others say pollution, urbanization and technological advances are the main cause of their decline. Yet, however often they are reported as gone, belief in fairies still lingers, reports of sightings still occur and the traditions continue.
Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, a man called Hugh Miller recorded what was supposed to be the final departure of the fairies from Scotland at Burn of Eathie.
On a Sabbath morning…the inmates of this little hamlet had all gone to church, all except a herdboy, and a little girl, his sister, who were lounging beside one of the cottages; when, just as the shadow of the garden-dial had fallen on the line of noon, they saw a long cavalcade ascending out of the ravine through the wooded hollow. It winded among the knolls and bushes; and, turning round the northern gable of the cottage beside which the sole spectators of the scene were stationed, began to ascend the eminence toward the south. The horses were shaggy, diminutive things, speckled dun and grey; the riders, stunted, misgrown, ugly creatures, attired in antique jerkins of plaid, long grey cloaks, and little red caps, from under which their wild uncombed locks shot out over their cheeks and foreheads. The boy and his sister stood gazing in utter dismay and astonishment, as rider after rider, each one more uncouth and dwarfish than the one that had preceded it, passed the cottage, and disappeared among the brushwood which at that period covered the hill, until at length the entire route, except the last rider, who lingered a few yards behind the others, had gone by.
‘What are ye, little mannie? and where are ye going?’, inquired the boy, his curiosity getting the better of his fears and his prudence.
‘Not of the race of Adam,’ said the creature, turning for a moment in his saddle: ‘The People of Peace shall never more be seen in Scotland.’
(Hugh Miller, The Old Red Sandstone)