Fairies are supernatural or magical beings from European mythology and are found in many cultural traditions, such as Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, English, etc.
Since fairies appear so frequently, one question arises: are fairies good or evil? What are their motivations?
Fairies from mythology usually have ambiguous motivations, and cannot be described as either good or evil. Fairies primarily function as protectors of the natural world, and so they will help those who respect nature while punishing those who harm it.
In terms of appearance, fairies are human-like, though smaller in size, and usually inhabit natural locations such as forests, rivers, hills, and flowers. They may have the ability to fly, often aided by wings, and possess various magical powers.
Fairies appear frequently in European folklore, and fulfill a number of roles such as tricksters, helpers, hindrances, protectors of nature, and sometimes even harmful forces.
Their personalities and temperaments can vary greatly, from kind and helpful to mischievous or outright malicious.
Pagan fairies were wild and unpredictable, not good or evil
In general, modern fairies have evolved from ancient pagan religions, which believed that most objects or locations were possessed or protected by supernatural spirits.
A good example are the Norse Alfar (elves) and Greek nymphs, both ancestors of the modern fairies.
Thus, fairies are usually depicted as guardian spirits of forests, lakes, mountains, etc. They shy away from humans, but on occasion would interact with those that entered their domain.
Before the modern era, the wild areas of Europe were still untamed, poorly understood, or even hostile to humans.
As such, the pagan peoples of Europe believed nature was unwelcoming or dangerous because of fairies that protected their domain against insensitive humans.
Thus, fairies would use their magic to trap hapless humans in the forest, drown them in lakes, freeze them on mountains, etc.
However, being considerate of nature, knowing how to respect the wilds, or even offering small sacrifices to fairies such as bread crumbs or grain could appease the fairy and allow for safe passage through the wilds, help in hunts and foraging, etc.
In this sense, fairy tales were primarily educational tools to help people navigate through nature.
Remember, these were pre-modern times where practical skills (such as knowing whether a mushroom was poisonous or not) were just as important as spiritual skills (in this case, knowing how to appease the local fairy).
However, pagan fairies were neither good nor evil; they were simply wild and unpredictable.
Fairies, in the same way as animals, had no concept of good and evil. They lived in the moment, and whatever harm or benefits they brought were driven by practical reasons instead of good-and-evil morality.
Christianity and the transformation of fairies into evil beings
European belief in fairies began to change once Christianity became the continent’s main religion.
From a Christian perspective, any form of pagan belief was simply incompatible with Christian belief and had to be stamped out. This includes fairies.
The easiest way to do this was to deny that fairies existed and were, in fact, demons or fallen angels.
The purpose was to make it completely clear to the common folk that not only did worshipping fairies provide no practical benefit, but it was also dangerous since it meant dealing with the devil.
However, despite Christianity’s efforts, fairies still remained a common theme in European folklore, with superstitious belief in fairies surviving well into the 19th century.
Ironically, it wasn’t Christianity that managed to stamp out belief in fairy tales, but rather the establishment of modern education and the spread of scientific thought.
The evil deeds of fairies
As mentioned previously, fairies were neither good nor evil. They did, however, perform numerous deeds that can only be classified as evil nowadays:
Kidnapping: In a very common tale, a fairy would sneak into a family home, kidnap a baby, and replace it with its own fairy child so that the humans might raise it instead. This fairy child was called a changeling.
Most likely, these stories served as supernatural explanations for why some children turned out to be deformed or mentally disabled. In fact, the English name for the changeling was “oaf”, which evolved from the Norse word “alf”, a precursor of fairies.
Leading Astray: Fairies, like the Will-o’-the-Wisp in English folklore or the Pixies in Cornish folklore, could use their lights or illusions to lead travelers astray in the wilderness, often never to return.
On a more metaphorical level, the Will-o’-the-wisp represented a certain goal that a person cannot attain but still tries to achieve.
Curses: Some fairies have been known to curse humans who offend them. These curses can range from minor inconveniences to major afflictions.
A famous example is the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. According to the story, an angry fairy curses a beautiful princess to fall asleep for a hundred years if she pricks her finger on a spindle. The only way the princess can be woken up is if a handsome prince kisses her.
Stealing Livestock: In many folk tales, fairies are blamed for the mysterious disappearance of livestock, believed to have been spirited away to the fairy realm.
Causing Illness: In the pre-modern era, the human body and medicine in general were poorly understood, so fairies were often blamed for sudden or unexplained illnesses.
One such famous example was the Elf-shot disease, said to be caused by an elf or fairy shooting invisible arrows at people. Based on the evidence, the Elf-shot disease was likely rheumatism, arthritis, or simple muscle cramps.
Spoiling Food and Drink: Some house fairies or brownies, if not properly appeased with offerings, could sour milk or spoil food as a form of retaliation.
Ruining Crops: In agrarian societies, fairies were sometimes blamed for poor harvests. They were believed to blight crops or prevent them from growing.
However, the fairies were just as likely to do the opposite and help farmers obtain a bountiful harvest if they were kindly treated.
Foretelling Death: In Irish folklore, Banshees are fairies that wail or scream when someone’s death is imminent. It is important to note that it is not the banshee’s scream that brings about death, she merely announces it. As such, they serve as bad omens.
The Norse Fylgja performs a function that is somewhat similar. These are invisible protective spirits that are attached to a person at birth but become visible if the person’s death becomes imminent.
Luring to the Fairy Realm: Fairies sometimes lure humans into the fairy world, a sort of magical dimension where time flows much slower.
After returning from the fairy world, the person will find that many years have passed in the human world, that everyone they knew is gone, and in some cases, can age decades in a matter of days.
Fairy Dances and Songs: Humans who join fairy dances or circles can become entranced, dancing for what seems like minutes but could actually be days, weeks, or even longer.
The moral of fairy stories involving song and dance is to be wary of strangers that seek to disarm through entertainment. As a warning for women, many such tales involve fairies charming an innocent girl through song and dance, and then demanding the girl drink wine or magical liquor.
Fairy Rings: These naturally occurring circles of mushrooms are named after fairies, and are said to appear after they have performed their song and dance in that particular spot.
Entering one can cause bad luck, illness, or even entrapment in the fairy realm.
The good deeds of fairies
As mentioned previously, fairies are capable of both good and evil. In fact, it’s possible for the same fairy to harm one person but help another.
Helping family chores: Scottish and English folklore mention a type of fairy called brownies, which are household fairies that do chores and help with tasks while the family sleeps, provided the brownies are treated well and given offerings.
The Fairy Godmother: A Fairy Godmother is a helpful fairy that helps a kind and noble person while they are facing great challenges, such as in “Cinderella”.
The Fairy Godmother rarely appears in actual folklore, but has become a common element in modern fairy tales after appearing in various literary works by French authors Charles Perrault and Madame d’Aulnoy in the 17th century.
Protecting the household and providing good fortune: The Tomte and Nisse are Scandinavian gnome fairies that protect the homestead and ensure good fortune, so long as they are treated with respect and given a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve.
Seelie Court: In Scottish folklore, the Seelie Court (from the Scottish word seilie meaning “happy” or “blessed”) is a group of fairies who are known to seek help from humans and return the favor with blessings and protection.
The Seelie fairies are generally benevolent towards humans; however, they have a short temper and are vengeful if insulted.
The opposite of the Seelie Court were the Unseelie Court, who, as the name implies, were fairies hostile to humans and would harm them at first sight.
Helping lost children: The Ghillie Dhu is a Scottish male fairy that lives in isolated woodlands, dressed in a coat of leaves and moss.
The Ghillie Dhu is said to be kindly disposed towards children, helping them find their way whenever they get lost in the forest.
Gnomes: Some mythologists regard gnomes as belonging in the fairy category. These tiny creatures were originally described as being earth elementals, but in later stories they gained powers similar to fairies.
Thus, gnomes are said to be industrious creatures that can help one find precious minerals, build useful devices, or provide wise advice.
Fulfilling wishes and providing fortune: Leprechauns are male fairies commonly found in Irish mythology. They were usually good humored pranksters who could grant wishes or even give someone a pot of gold when caught.
Providing magical talents and good luck: Zână are Romanian fairies and frequently appear in folk stories, where they help the main character in their quest. Depending on the story, the Zână can provide good luck, beauty, dancing or musical talents, etc.
They also act as guardian spirits for children who get lost in the forest, guiding them back home.
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