1902 Encyclopedia > Fairies


FAIRIES (Fr. fée, faérie; Prov. Fada; Sp. Hada; Ital., fata; Med. Lat., fatare, to enchant, from Latin fatum, fate, destiny). In early times, when so much of the energy of man was not, as now, applied to practice, it seems to have found a natural outlet in the imagination. Of all the minor creations of mythology, the fairies are the most beautiful, the most numerous, the most memorable in literature. Like all organic growths, whether of nature or of the fancy, they are not the immediate product of one country or of one time; they have a pedigree, and the question of their ancestry and affiliation is one of wide bearing and weighty side-issues. But mixture and connexion of races have in this, as in many other cases, so changed the original folk-product that it is difficult to disengage and separate the different strains that have gone to the making or moulding of the result as we have it. Certain points, however, in the course and development of the superstition can be definitely placed.

The character of the religion of the people of Gaul was undoubtedly much changed by the Roman occupation, but, inscription and legends, traces are to be found of what the primitive belief was, which faintly shadow out that primitive belief, and it is here that we first find traces of one of the various classes of beings which have in later times received the general name of fairies. Votive inscriptions to supernatural beings, corresponding to the nymphs and fauns of classic mythology, have been found on Gaulish and German soil repeatedly. A passage in Pomponius Mela (De Situ Orbis bk. Iii. c. 6) points distinctly to a belief of the Bretons in certain beings having many characteristics of the fairies.

"Sena being situate in the British sea against the country of the Osismyes is renowned with the oracle of the god of the Galles, whose vowesses in number nine, are hallowed to continual virginitie. They call them Gallicens, and are of opinion that, through the singular wisdom wherewith they are indued, they raise the seas and winds with their charms, and transform themselves into what beastes they will, and heale such diseases as to others are incurable, and knowe things to come and prophesy of them, but not unto any other than such as sayle thither for the nonce, and come of set purpose to demand counsel of them." – Golding’s translation, p. 78.

The similarity of these beings to the fays that play so important a parting mediaeval romances is remarkable. A passage in the romance of Lancelot du Lac is so directly descriptive that it may be quoted:-

"En cellui temps estoient appellees fees toutes celles qui sentermettoient den-chantements et de charmes, et moult en estoit pour lors principallement en la Grande Bretagne, et scavoient la force et la vertue des parolles, des pierres, et herbes, parquoy elles estoient tenue en jeunesse et en beaulte et en grandes richesses comment eiles divisoient. Et ce fut estably au temps de Merlin le prophete.- Ed. 1533 p.v.

These fays preside at the birth and influence the destiny of men, taking individuals under their special protection. They take lovers from among men, and are often described as of delicate, unearthy, ravishing beauty. The enjoyment of their charms is, however, generally qualified by some restriction or compact, the breaking of which is the cause of calamity to the lover and all his race, as in the notable tale of Melusine. This fay by enchantment built the castle of Lusignan for her husband. It was her nature to take, every week, the form of a serpent from the waist below. The hebdomadal transformation being once, contrary to compact, witnessed by her husband, she left him with much wailing, and was said to return and give warning by her appearance and great shrieks whenever one of the race of Lusignan was about to die. At the birth of Ogier le Dannois six fairies attend, five of whom give good gifts, which the sixth overrides with a restriction. Gervaise of Tilbury, writing early in the 13th century, has in his Otia, Imperialia, a chapter De lamiss et nocturnes larvis, where he gives it out, as proved by individuals beyond all exception, that men have been lovers of beings of this kind whom they call Fadas, and who did, in case of infidelity or infringement of secrecy, inflict terrible punishment-the loss of goods and even of life. There seems little in the characteristics of these fairies of romance to distinguish them from human beings, except their supernatural knowledge and power. They are not often represented as diminutive in statute, and seem to be subject to such human passions as love, jealousy, envy, and revenge. To this class belong the fairies of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Spenser.

The etymology traced at the beginning of this article is that generally given, but it is by no means universally accepted. Some fanciful theories that prevailed at the beginning of the century, as, for instance, that adopted by Sir W. Scott in his Essay on the Fairy Superstition, which connects the word fairy with the Persian peri, are now generally rejected. M. Walckenaer believed the word to be purely Celtic (see his Letters sur les Contes des Fées, Paris, 1836). Apart, however, from the question of the origin and varying intention of term, the kind of beings first signified by it can be fairly connected with creatures of the Greek and Roman mythology.

The Gauls had no doubt a populous pantheon. The peasants seem to have offered worship to, and peopled the old hills, trees, rocks, streams, and springs with, beings similar to the nymphs and fauns of antiquity. And each little locality seems to have had its protecting deities, female, and generally three in number. The coming of Christianity only changed slightly the way of regarding these creatures - did not by any means overcome the superstition. It is most likely to the similarity in character and function of these local deities to the Parcae or Fates of antiquity that we owe the name generally given to all the different beings, a great part of whose functions it was to preside at the birth and rule the destiny of man. It seems probable that among the people generation after generation of nurses changed these topical divinities into those fairies, the tales of which Perraut and his successors made so popular. The fairy tales in the Piacevoli Notte of Straparola (1550-54) and the Pentamerone of Basile (1672) are also, no doubt, the result of genuine tradition. By this time, however, the influence of Eastern stories had been brought by travelers and crusaders to bear upon the traditions of the West, as well as that of the superstition next to be mentioned. To the eleves and duergar of the northern mythology we must go for the origin of those little creatures that dance in the woods and meadows. The elves are divided into two classes, the light and the dark. It is related in the prose Edda that the gods reflected how the duergar animated the clay below the earth like maggots in flesh; and certainly, under different names, as brownie, cluricaune, kobold, nisse, lutin, hobgoblin, beings of this kind, whether of the hill or wood, of the rock or stream, or of the household, have played a great part in the life of the peasantry of many countries. They are represented as of very various characteristics and propensities. Their appearance and power are sometimes propitious, at other times baleful. "He that looks on them shall die," says Falstaff, and hides his face accordingly. Perhaps the leading features of their character with relation to man is a desire for fair human children, which, substituting abortive creatures, they practice many tricks to obtain. They are often represented as animated by a spirit of malicious mockery towards men, which is not, however, altogether malignant. In connection wit their fabled abode underground, it is to be noted that Chaucer makes Pluto and Proserpina king and queen of fairy.

Besides scattered allusions, we owe to this superstition many fair products of our poetry. Works of Drayton, Ben Jonson, Fletcher, Randolph, and Herrick will at once suggest themselves. Its influence is of course very marked in the youthful works of Milton. Of the Midsummer Night’s Dream, that perfect rose among all these flowers of fancy, it is unnecessary to speak, even were it possible to do so adequately.

For an elaborate account of fairies in general, see Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, where the legends of different countries are collected. (W. HE.)

The above article was written by: Walter Hepworth, Commissioner of the Council of Education, Science and Art Department, South Kensington.

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