“It is frightfully difficult to know much about the fairies, and almost the only thing for certain is that there are fairies wherever there are children.”
People all around the world have been enchanted by fairies for centuries, to the point that we have an entire subgenre of stories named after them: the fairy tale. Characterized by magic, mythical beings, and happy endings, these folktales can be found in every culture around the world. While they don’t always include the presence of classic fairies, these magical beings and the lands they inhabit were the inspiration for the stories many of us enjoyed as children and continue to enjoy today.
It is fitting, then, that my first post about magical beings is all about fairies– some are benevolent while others seek only to wreak havoc and harm…they are as diverse as the people that imagined them. Here are some of my favorite examples of fey folk around the world!
We’ll start with the classic interpretation, the often colorful, winged fairies and elves. This is the form most associated with English, German, and French folktales. These stories are varied and often ambiguous, but a few themes did endure. These sweet little creatures lived in the forest, supposedly enjoying their dances among the flowers, music, or whatever it is they did when they weren’t enchanting hapless passerby so that they wandered aimlessly through the wood for hours on end. While they may look charming and innocent, these fairies were anything but. Certain folktales paint them as mischevious at best and downright malevolent at worst, kidnapping unsuspecting people or children or causing serious illness to befall you without warning.
Not all of them were bad, mind you. Some were quite mischevious, but if you could win their favor, they would use their powers to protect or support you rather than cause harm. Some of these more negative interpretations took hold during the rise of Christianity, as believers of the new religion painted them as fallen angels, demons, or spirits of the dead. One can protect themselves from the more dangerous spirits by carrying a piece of cold iron or a talisman made from the wood of the sacred rowan tree.
Often thought to be the origin of modern European fairies, these beings feature in Celtic mythology as supernatural beings who lived in earthen mounds, sacred trees, or a different world altogether, invisible to the human eye. Some tales identify them as ancient ancestors, spirits of nature, or even deities. The practice of leaving milk and baked goods is still held today by believers in the “fairy faith”, or Creideamh Sí, as a means of maintaining good relationships with the Aes Sidhe.
Unlike the more modern, winged interpretation, the Aes Sidhe took a variety of forms. Ranging from kind and gentle to feared harbingers of death, well-known Aes Sidhe include Ghillie Dhu, Selkies, Cu Sith, Cat Sith, and Banshees. Changeling stories are also often connected to the Aes Sidhe: tales of fairy children that were swapped with human infants without the parents knowing.
Also featured in British folklore, Brownies are a race of small, shaggy, gnome-like creatures that would bless a family’s home. They remain unseen during the day, and come out at night to clean or perform various household and farming tasks in exchange for an offering of milk, cream, or porridge. They are quite clever and helpful, if sometimes mischevious, but definitely one of the few fairies in folklore that you don’t need to fear…it’s even possible to befriend them if you’re lucky enough to spot one. Unless, of course, you insult them and they turn into a Boggart. They are easily offended and will leave if they feel that the family is simply taking advantage of their good will.
Featured in Arabian and Islamic mythology, Jinn are most commonly depicted as beings of air or fire. Depending on the tale, they can be sympathetic and helpful (as in “One Thousand and One Nights” and the tale of Aladdin), supernatural messengers, or demonic beings who eat rotten flesh and bone, capable of possessing humans. Like most of the subjects of fairy tales, Jinn appear in multiple forms. They could bear the form of a human, animal, or be completely elemental and sometimes invisible to the naked eye.
Some of the more frightful tales of Jinn are those that involve a Jinn attack– something akin to sleep paralysis that many claim to have experienced– or possession in which the victim is fully aware of the Jinn’s presence but can do nothing to control their body, sometimes for years at a time.
If you are a Miyazaki fan, then you might remember these cute little buggers from “Princess Mononoke”, or “Mononoke no Hime”. In Japanese folklore, the Kodama are tree spirits not unlike the Dryads of Greek mythology. They inhabit and take the form of their sacred trees, though sometimes appearing as animals, atmospheric lights, or even people. though there are tales about Kodama who interact with and sometimes fall in love with humans, they mostly keep to themselves unless their tree is chopped down. They may curse the perpetrator with misfortune in retaliation. If you must chop down a tree, you must first ask permission from the spirit that may inhabit it, and make a small offering in thanks.
Aziza are elemental beings from West African tales that live in forests, ant-hills, and silk-cotton trees. They are benevolent protectors of hunters and can grant knowledge to help those who find them. According to legend, the Aziza brought the knowledge of fire and survival to early humans, and some still entreat them for aid today. They are usually depicted as small, hairy beings that, as with just about all of the other fairies in this list, can be won over with gifts.
These are just a few of the fey folk that I’ve learned about in my travels…there are hundreds more that I couldn’t even begin to cover here! Good or evil, nature-bound or born from restless souls, fairies are a commonality of every culture and belief around the world. I grew up believing in the nature-fairies of my mother’s Celtic roots and some days, when I’m outside by myself, I think I can hear a rustling in the trees that couldn’t be attributed to any bird…
Regardless of what you believe, surely it wouldn’t hurt to leave a bit of cake and milk out, now would it? 🙂