The Wee Folk



What I love most about make believe creatures is that we can take at times dramatic liberties in our interpretation of them. Vampires and werewolves used to be in horror stories but now are featured in teen romances. Zombies are walking corpses but the mention of the word is somewhat comical, bringing to mind a silly creature featured in fun video games, silly movies, and a rework of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, the new version titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The one class of creature that doesn’t appear to be as widely popular is fairies (or as they were once written in folklore, “faeries”). They seem to be making a semi-comeback in pop culture, as I see various movies and shows with Tinkerbell from Peter Pan as the star, and Sookie in the True Blood book series has fairy blood in her. The reason I used the term “pop culture” is because generally fairies are thought of and depicted as mischievous little imps. Tinkerbell tried to murder Wendy, after all. But they are mythological creatures we can do whatever we want with. Gail Carson Levine in her wonderful novel Ella Enchanted made her fairies look like normal people, although they had tiny feet and never used magic for fear of tampering with the natural order of things. Still, this is quite different from what fairies really are… err, I mean what legends tell us about them.

Like many non-human creatures the supposed origin of the fantasy lies in the wide medieval belief that they are either demons or a demonic species. Many old tales revolve around spirits like druids or banshees and some thought fairies were spirits that merely looked human, so they were not creatures to be sought after. They were to be kept away. The most popular way would be with iron, but I have read that carrying bread in your pocket will keep them away from you.

Fairies are found mostly in Celtic religions and folklore. When Christianity spread further, it is supposed that certain gods had been worshiped previously but then became minor divinities or spirits. This can tie to one origin that states the fairies were a race of hidden people who retreated due to the change of religious practices. In that sense, they sound rather like ghosts.

Through my research I found these fairies represent several kinds of spirits, but I only will name a few here. The first kind was in old Irish literature—a banshee. The term banshee meant fairy woman. She has various descriptions, from an old woman to young woman who cries and weeps so much that her eyes are red. That’s freaky.

One thing that might better fit our picture of a fairy would actually be called a brownie, also known as a household elf. They would tidy up your house but you had better reward him or her, else they might decide to cause mischief. One could also associate a brownie with a leprechaun, a fairy that is always male and likes to make mischief.

Possibly the creepiest kind of a fairy is called a “changeling.” A fairy might secretly exchange a human baby with a fairy baby, for their own nefarious ends. But there would be signs that your child was a fairy child… the fairy baby might be sickly. If you still had your doubts, it was advised to put the baby on a fire and chant a magical chant. If it was a fairy baby it would climb out of the chimney. Yes, that’s a brilliant idea!

Finally, something often myths and tales use is a siren-like creature, or a Korrigan. In the forest, if a man drank from her river he would either have to give in to her seduction or be cursed. She also may have stolen infants and raised them as her own. From this, I can see the origin of certain fairy-tale villain. Repunzel’s mother, maybe? Rumpelstiltskin?

In our modern world, we do not usually blame spirits or dark magic when things go wrong, but when people did not know how many scientific things worked, blaming fairies was the natural result of their pagan superstitions. If we had lived long, long ago and did not know any better, we may have carried bread in our pockets to keep fairies away. Would you want your baby to be snatched? Or your cows chased off, or any unholy thing possessing you or your animals?

Reading these accounts, I must say that the authentic fairy is creepier to me than a vampire or a werewolf. Something hidden is a little more frightening than something very obvious. Maybe this is why fairies seem to be so hard to find in the most popular books and stories. Even writing this, I feel a bit frightened at the thought of living in a world where fairies are real. Vampires are no big deal to me anymore. Keep the wee folk away! ■



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