A Brief Introduction to Faeries and Folklore (Faerieology pt. I)

 

Illustration of a fairy by C. E. Brock (public domain)

Fairyology (Faerieology) The study of fairies

Fairies have always been with us. From our earliest prehistoric origins, humanity as a species has always taken an interest in the unseen realm.

Curiosity fuels the imagination with depictions of otherworldly beings that can either be friend or foe. At the core of these images are stories that form the backbone of folklore and mythology.   Across time and culture, the names change but the essence remain the same. For all of the commonality that these tales hold, fairies are much more diverse than humanity could ever imagine. Our mythical representations fall short in relation to defining who or what a fairy truly is.

How should we define faerie (fairy)?

Defining fairy is not as easy as it appears. Limiting the meaning to a small, feminine, benevolent, winged being is too simple an interpretation. While doing my own research I have learned that there is more than one type of fairy and some of them can be conflated with others, creating an assortment of beings that may or may not fit with our accepted paradigm.

What importance do fairies hold in society?

In most tales about fairies and other related forms (ie: elves, pixies, fey) they are sometimes helpful to humans or out to make their lives miserable in some way (eg: Rumpelstiltskin).  Along with their mischief and mystery, fairies serve as a form of hope; a desire for something better or different that we can aspire to in our mundane world.

Studying fairies allows us to understand ourselves. The human imagination makes us unique within the animal kingdom. This is not to say that other animals do not have an imagination but that we-as the so-called higher-order, are able to take what we imagine and expand upon it by way of art, literature, music, etc. Fairy tales, folk tales, and myths teach us about how we explain phenomena, seek guidance, take responsibility for our own actions, and navigate the world through our unique cultural narrative.

Is fairyology(faerieology) the correct name for our praxis?

The study of mythical beings falls under the umbrella term of mythology. We consider fairies to be mythical beings that fall into the aforementioned category. Fairies are just one type of being that this broad classification covers. The problem with the term is that it is too broad and doesn’t specifically refer to the realm of faerie, which is the proper name for fairies and their world. For example, the creature known as Sasquatch is a cryptid and the study of these types of beings is called cryptozoology, just like the study of UFOs is called Ufology, and so I feel that the study of fairies should be called “fairyology” or at least faeology.

I will explain terms fae, fairy, and fey as you read further into this discourse.

The definition of the term SCULFT and how does it help to broaden our paradigm in regards to fairies?

Lastly, we will be studying and defining fairy in the context of SCULFT, which is a term that I have coined to refer to my research into this subject and other similar ones. SCULFT stands for sub-cultures, urban legends, and folk tales (fairy tales). I placed these subjects together because they provide a rich source of knowledge and information outside of the accepted mainstream literature.

Defining Fairy

Illustration of a fairy by Luis Ricardo Falero, 1888 (public domain)

Fairy (Faerie)

The word fairy evokes a variety of images which includes winged, magical beings that can be friendly or wicked. We understand the imagery, but the word itself applies to so many different types of creatures that it can be difficult to define. In this text, I use the word faery as an alternate to the traditional spelling to denote the diversity of beings and also to refer to the realm of the “fairies”.  Therefore, I will use the words fairy and faerie interchangeably.

Basic definition

1) A small winged creature with magical powers.

2) A tiny mythical being from folklore.

3) A clever and sometimes mischievous being that has magic powers.

Synonyms- Brownie, fae, elf, sprite, pixie, troll, gnome, puka, pyke, wee folk, duende, the good people, and leprechaun.

Broad definition-

A fairy is any being that has powers and abilities beyond that of the natural human world. The powers that fairies wield can be called supernatural or preternatural. This means that their powers are not subject to physics (time, space, etc.) and the laws of our world.

The three fatesClothoLachesis, and Atropos, who spin, draw out, and cut the thread of life.

Word Origin

The word fairy comes from the Latin word Fata, which means fate and is also the name for the Goddess of Fate. The word fate is derived from the Latin term fatum, meaning “what has been ordained (fated) or spoken”. The past tense of fatum is fari= to speak.

The term fata comes down to us in its Old French form as fee (pronounced as fay). Fee becomes faie in Middle English. It is also spelled fay, which refers to the “land of the fairies”, now called “faerie”. In Spanish fairy is hada and in Portuguese it is fada from the Latin fata, meaning fate.

The word fata also means oracle. Fata may also be related to the Latin word vates, meaning to foretell. Vates also means oracle, prophet, and seer. Vates is the root word for the name Vatican. Vatican Hill was the place where pagan Roman priests would communicate with the gods (eg. Fairies and spirits).

Types of faeries

Fee/Fay- A woman with special skills is sometimes called a fay. The word fee/fay as mentioned before comes from the Latin term fatum, meaning fate, prophetic vision, oracle, and fairy. In mythology, goddesses of fate such as the Moira, the Norns, the Furies, and the Gray (Graeae), are always portrayed as three women. The number three represents the goddesses whose responsibility it was to parcel out one’s allotment in life and destiny. Each Fate had a duty which was to be the spinner, measurer, and cutter of life. The number three is considered to be a magical number; it represents the Triple Goddess of the moon. The triple goddess or moon goddess triad is made up of “the maiden”, “the mother” and “the crone”, representing the phases of the moon and the phases of life. The moon is also a very powerful symbol in Witchcraft.

The terms fey and fee are also applied to women with magical powers and skills such as Morgan le Fey from Arthurian legends.

An Illustration of elves from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Arthur Rackham (public domain)

Elves, pixies, and dawrves

The word elf comes from the Germanic words aelf and alp, originally meaning spirit, nightmare, imp, incubus, goblin, and white. While the term pixie is used to refer to a mischievous fairy. Pixie as a word comes from the legendary Pictish tribes of ancient Britain that painted their skin blue. But, it may have originally come from the Scandinavian word for fairy-pyske. It is also related to the Celtic pwca (puca, puka, bucca,puck, pyke) and the Old Norse puke and puki, all meaning fairy.

In Spanish, the term for an elf or dwarf is enano. It is from the Greek word nanus, meaning dwarf or pygmy. It is also found in French as nain, as in Le Nain Rouge the famous “red devil” of Detroit. Duende is another Spanish word for elf and it comes from the term “dueno de casa” meaning the true “owner of the house”. A duende was a type of household elf or spirit. It is likely that the duende was a spirit that inhabited the land that the house was on and that’s why he was called the real owner of the property. The word is also related to the Swedish word tomte, which is a household elf, and means “house-master”.

The Roman Penates were also household spirits. The name Penates means “gods of the house” and comes from the Latin term penatus, meaning a temple sanctuary or inner part of the house. The Penates are usually associated with the temple of the goddess Vestia (Vesta/Hestia), the spirit of the hearth and household. Sprite is another term for a fairy. The word comes from the Latin word spiritus and down into Old French as esprit and into English as spirit and sprite.

The Princess and the Trolls –The Changeling, by John Bauer, 1913 (public domain)

Gnome- The word gnome comes from the Greek word genomos, meaning someone who lives in the earth. It is also said to have been derived from the words gnomikos and gnosis, meaning wise and knowledge.

Troll- A magical being that is depicted as very tall and awkward. In some cases, trolls can also be very tiny. The term troll may go back to the old Scandinavian word trolla, meaning to charm.

 

Gnome Watching Railway TrainCarl Spitzweg, 1848 (public domain)

Dryad- A dryad is a type of tree spirit. The term is derived from the Greek words drus and druad, meaning tree. Druad, means tree nymph. The word drus means tree and is related to the word Druid. The term Druid may come from the Celtic word derwos (true), but it is more likely from the Proto-Indo-European word dru, meaning tree and wid (uid,vid), which means to know or to see. A Druid was someone who had “knowledge of the tree” or knowledge of the dryad within the tree. Druids were said to have magical powers and an understanding of secret knowledge.

Sylph- A sylph is an air or forest spirit. The word sylph comes from the Latin word sylvan, meaning forest or woods.

Wights- The word wight comes from the Germanic language family. A wight (or “white”) is another name for a spirit, ghost, or any other type of otherworldly, supernatural, or preternatural creature. The term wight is also associated with the word wicht, meaning creature and also a little child. Wight is also related to the Old Norse term vettir, meaning creature, which in turn led to the Swedish word vatte meaning earth spirit or gnome. The Danish term for a wight, is vessen/vaesen, also meaning a creature or being.

John William Waterhouse. A Mermaid (public domain)

Mermaid and sirens

A mermaid is a creature from mythology that is usually depicted as a woman with the lower body of a fish. Mermaids can be male (mer-man) or female (mer-maid).  The term mermaid comes from the Old English word mere which is related to the Latin term mare and the Spanish word mar and the French mer, meaning sea. A maid, is another word for a woman or a girl. The term mere may also be connected to the Proto-Indo-European term mer, meaning to gleam, shine, and sparkle. Mer is also associated with an old Latin word merus, meaning pure, bare, and naked. Another word for a mermaid was the Old English merewif, meaning a sea-witch or a mythical woman who lives in the waters.

Another type of mer-maid is the Siren. In legend, sirens were known to sing enchanting songs that caused shipwrecks and drownings of sailors at sea. The term siren may have come from an old Greek word seira, meaning to entangle, to bind, and to rope. It’s also related to the Latin term siren/sirena and the Greek word seiren, meaning mermaid. In Spanish, a sirena is also a mermaid.

* Interesting how the Old English term mer-wif, was associated with the concept of a mermaid, but actually meant a sea-witch. 

Sea nymphs and Nereids are creatures that are similar to mermaids. In Greek mythology, sea-nymphs (water spirits) and Nereids were demi-goddesses who were companions of the sea god Poseidon. Some had fishtails like a mermaid, while others did not. The Nereids rode on the backs of dolphins and other sea creatures, like how some fairies ride on the backs of butterflies, birds, and flowers.

Description of fairies

Some fairies are human in appearance, while others are not. They also vary in size. The most common types of fairies have been described as being from very tiny to the size of a small child. The smaller fairies are said to fly with either their own wings or on the backs of birds, butterflies, flowers, etc.

It is very common for fairies to be depicted as having green eyes. In fact, the color green is associated with two types of fairies- leprechauns and elves. The color green is most likely a nature symbol like the pagan spirit called “the Green Man”. Wearing green clothing is also a way to camouflage oneself from humans by blending into the forest or woods.

Most fairies are described as being attractive and beautiful.  Yet, there are others that may be hideous or grotesque in appearance. Usually, the grotesque types are ogres, trolls, goblins, etc. But, don’t be fooled, because beautiful fairies can be evil too.

 The Flammarion Engraving, Anonymous 1888 (public domain)

The Realm of Faerie (mounds, rainbows, and  mirrors)

Fairies live in a variety of places, such as streams, trees, or in underground mounds called sidhe. Faerie is the name of the realm that the fairies live in. There is the belief that Faerie is another dimension that humans cannot penetrate unless they have a magical tool, the proper words (incantation), or have been invited there by the fae. Another name for the faerie realm is Alfheim, which comes from Scandinavian mythology and literally means elf-home.

Prav, Yav and Nav, are three mythical realms from Russian (and Ukrainian) mythology. The Prav is the realm of the gods or divine beings that creates a balance between the other two worlds. Yav is equivalent to earth (the material world) and the Nav, is the unseen and immaterial world. The dead spirits and other beings in the form of stars dwell in the Nav.  Fairies also live near rainbows, which are considered to be the bridge between the earthly realm and the realm of the gods. Rainbows are also known as the path that gods, spirits, or other divine beings take in order to get to the earthly realm.  In   Greek mythology, Iris is the messenger of the gods, and her vehicle is a rainbow. In fact, in the Spanish language, a rainbow is called an “Arco de Iris or arcoiris”, meaning the “arch of Iris”.

The Mirror World

What does one think of when you see a mirror? The first thing that comes to my mind is a reflection of some sort. Mirrors are used as a form of divination, and are also associated with parallel worlds, hidden realms, and the occult. The root word for mirror is mirare and it means to gaze and to see. The root word mirare is also related to another word, mirari, meaning to look at in wonder or to be astonished. The word mirari gave birth to the words miracle and mirror.

A miracle is usually a wonderful supernatural event. Since ancient times, mirrors have been associated with the supernatural, and this is probably why breaking a mirror is considered bad luck. The mirror is the key or door to another realm and to break it means to cut off contact with the spirit world.  In the tale Through the Looking Glass, Alice enters a parallel realm by way of a mirror. And, of course, there is the magic mirror in the Snow White story.  So, we can say that mirrors have a supernatural quality to them, and can lead you into another world.

Why should we study fairies and related beings?

Fairies cross the boundaries of reality and myth. They provide a framework for the study of other similar subjects and are also fun to read about. Our human mind purports to comprehend the complexities of existence and attempts to reconcile said reality with what some consider to be fantasy. Fairies are no longer just the subject of children’s books but are a serious study into culture, nature, and society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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