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Faerie Lore of the British Isles

Suzette is a retired teacher who has been writing online for more than 10 years.

What Are Faeries?

Faeries have been popular in the folklore of Europe but especially in the folklore of the British Isles. Really, nowhere but the British Isles have faeries, pixies, brownies and sprites been so popular and so believed for so long. And faerie folklore made the journey to the New World with the colonization of America. That's why we have Tinkerbell today!

Many scholars differ in the field of faeries and folklore throughout the British Isles, but one thing that has been agreed upon is that the faerie stories and fairy tales are relics of ancient mythology. About this, there is harmony in the understanding of faerie folklore.

It has always been believed that faeries live in their own realm literally and that they live figuratively in the realm about which cluster such delightful memories of the most poetic period of life – childhood – before skepticism takes over innocence.

We all can remember fairy stories from our childhood. If any of the women of today remember, the first step to being a Girl Scout was to become a Brownie, named for the little brownie sprites that inhabited the English households and kept them spotless and in tip-top shape. That was the duty of good Brownie girls – to help mom keep the house clean.

Faeries were around to help the human world and plant a little mischief in it too. Just to make things interesting of course! So faeries have delighted us, entertained us, perplexed us, and generally made life "enchanting" for us from childhood on.

It is known that faeries mostly come out at night and love singing and dancing in wooded areas and glens. The faerie world is magical and mysterious and faeries usually disappear during the day.

Faeries' big night out is midsummer's night which falls around June 21, and on this night, quite magical things can happen to those humans in love. They can tease lovers, sprinkle fairy dust over them, drop magic potions in their drinks, and generally cause havoc, especially on this night. This night is faeries at their merriest.

Faeries have been so much part of the lore of the British Isles that faeries have shown up in literature as characters of their own. They represented what the British believed at that time in history and have continued to come down in history as enchanting and delightful.

Origin of Faeries

Fairy, also fay, fae, from faery, faerie or "realm of the fays," are mythical beings or legendary creatures in British folklore. It is a form of spirit often described as metaphysical, supernatural or preternatural. Sometimes the term can describe any magical creature including goblins or gnomes.

The word fairy/faerie derives from the Middle English faeirie, also fayerye, feirie, fairie and a direct adoption from Old French faerie (Modern French feerie). This word also was derived from late Latin fata (one of the Fates), Italian fata, Protuguese fada, Spanish hada are all of the same origin.

These words refer to the three Fates, or witches, that spin and control the threads of life. Hence, "destiny" or "fate" could be in the hands of faeries.

Much of the folklore about faeries revolves around protection from their malice. Belief in faeries reaches back to ancient times and are traceable in both written and verbal tradition.

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They originally were depicted as short wizened trolls or as tall, radiant and angelic beings. As time marched on, modern culture has often depicted them as young, winged humanoids of small stature.

A common theory or theme found among the Celtic nations of the British Isles describes a race of diminutive people who had been driven into hiding by invading humans. The Aos Si were faery folk and are immortals living in the ancient borrows and cairns throughout Britain.

There is evidence that small-structured races populated parts of the British Isles in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages before the spread of the Celts. The Little People, or pygmy's, were said to be the disposed early tribes of the British Isles. They faded away into inhabited places growing smaller and smaller over time until they were finally forgotten and passed into legend.

These elusive fairy races were regarded with suspicion by the larger races. It was believed that faerie and human lovers could marry though with restrictions and if those restrictions were violated, the marriage would end and sometimes the life of the human.

Up until the 13th century, having fairy blood was admired. Since then, many people began endowing faeries with magical characteristics. It was also believed that faeries could resemble humans in size but could decrease themselves to a very small size.

In Ireland, these faeries were known in the Tuatha de Danaan and resided in burrows and shelters burrowed under hills, mounds and cairns. These elusive faerie races were regarded with suspicion by the larger races. They were seen as people of the Goddess Diana who ruled Ireland before the Milasian invasion. They were driven underground where they became the Daoine Sidhe faeries.

The sidhe, therefore, are the fairy folk in the Tuatha de Danaan and the sithein is the name of any place in which faeries take up residence, such as a cairn, a green rounded mound of earth. The brugh is the word for the inside of a faerie dwelling.

Many of the Irish tales in the Tuatha de Danaan refer to these faerie beings though in ancient times they were regarded as goddesses and gods.

Another theory as to the origin of faeries is that faeries were originally worshiped as minor goddesses such as nymphs or tree spirits. They figure prominently in British pagan belief in druids who employed magic and faeries to do their bidding.

The last theory of the origin of faeries comes from Christian mythology that worked the faerie folklore into acceptable religious beliefs. The faeries came about when the angels revolted and God ordered the gates of heaven shut. Those still in heaven remained angels, those in hell became demons and those caught in between became faeries. Faeries live in a limbo world according to Christianity.

The archaic English term for faeries is fay which means enchanted or bewitched. Although the British Isles remain the foremost place where we get our beliefs and images of faeries, belief in faeries is universal because they are known by various folklore names:

  • brownie (England and Scottish folklore)
  • elf (German)
  • dwarf (Teutonic and Germanic)
  • troll (Norse)
  • gnome (European)
  • pooka (Irish)
  • kobold (German)
  • leprechaun (Irish)
  • banshee (Irish and Celtic)

Faerie lore is believed to exist in every culture but is most prevalent in Europe and the British Isles. There is much evidence of fairy lore in relation to witchcraft.

Margaret A. Murray, a British anthropologist, and other historians state the real "little people" became identified with witches. During the 16th and 17th centuries belief in faeries was at its peak and particularly belief in the activities of faeries and witches combined.

William Shakespeare, in his play, Macbeth, begins his play with the three witches stirring the black cauldron of fate or destiny. They reappear throughout the play several times. The belief during these centuries was that both faeries and witches could cast and break spells and both practiced metamorphosis, flying and levitation and could cause others to levitate.

Even King James I of England had in his library the book, Daemonologie, a book about witches. The book states that Diana was the goddess of witches and also Queen of Faeries. It further states, Oberon, King of the Faeries, was also a demon that could be summoned by magicians.

Faeries figured into witch trails and the trails richest in detains occurred in the British Isles. Faerie lore became particularly prevalent in England, Ireland, Cornwall, (England), Wales, and Scotland.

The Life of Faeries

Faeries are believed to live in a land where time does not exist. It is called the Land of the Ever Young, and this land is eternal and beautiful. Therefore, faeries never grow old and are immortal.

This land is found in the woods, forests, glens, bubbling brooks, rivers and lakes, and most faeries live in small groups here. Faeries rarely come out during the day and prefer to come out at night to frolic and make mischief. They are merriest at night.

Faeries are ready to help innocents and victims of persecution. They make up for a wrong, avenge an offense, and they can also be malicious and vengeful. They can give good and bad luck to humans.

Therefore, it was always prudent to treat faeries with kindness and respect. Faeries love beauty and splendor, grace of movement, music and pleasure, but especially everything that is artistic. At night they come out to dance away the hours of darkness.

Faeries that came out at night could be full of mischief and malice. They pulled pranks on unsuspecting humans by tangling hair, stealing small items or leading a traveler astray.

Humans could do the following to protect themselves from faeries mischief. Getting rid of faeries necessitated having cold iron around as faeries are most afraid of this and will immediately fly away when in the presence of cold iron. Cold iron is like poison to a faerie and it will not go near it.

Humans, wearing their clothes inside out, could scare the faeries away. They cannot conceive of this trick by humans. Keeping the water running constantly drives faeries away, also. Bells, especially church bells, will rid one of faeries.

Placing St. John's wort and four-leaf clovers around the house will protect humans from faeries interfering in their lives.

Celtic folklore tells humans that faeries love any baked goods as a traditional offering.
They love cream and butter and can be found licking the cream crock and butter dish. However, the cock's crow will drive them away.

Rowan and herbs are charms that will bring faeries around if that suits a human's purpose.

Many faeries will confuse travelers on the path but a faerie will never lie. It is suggested that humans avoid the faerie paths on which they travel. Thorn trees are dangerous to chop down as this is a favorite faerie home.

When building a house it is best to line up the front and back doors so faeries can troop through the house all night and not be trapped inside. Many have knocked corners from their houses because they block a faerie path.

Most female faeries are diminutive, delicate, feminine creatures dressed in white or transparent clothing, or sometimes none at all. They usually intervene in human lives with good intentions.

Most faeries have transparent butterfly wings, but that has been more of a modern conception. Originally, faeries did not have wings and it was only during the Victorian age that wings were added in illustrations of faeries.

The Irish leprechaun is a tiny faerie who wears a cocked hat and apron and can be good or bad. Originally, he was dressed all in red and has been dressed all in green only since the 20th century in which he has been closely associated with St. Patrick Day (March 17) celebrations.

The leprechaun always possesses a hidden crock of gold that humans desire to find. He must keep it hidden and does not divulge where it is unless threatened with bodily harm. The pot of gold can usually be found at the end of a rainbow, but finding that end to the rainbow has proved elusive.

Most of the faeries in fairy tales we read today, portray them as serious and sinister. This is how they look in Grimm's fairy tales. The only exceptions are the tooth fairy, the fairy godmother in Cinderella, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Malificent, a recent Disney film, portrays its winged protagonist as sinister and serious. Humans do not want to cross paths with her. This film shows us that faeries and fairy tales are still an important part of our culture and an important way for teaching children our customs and values.

Some faeries create more than a little mischief and are eager to kidnap human women for wives and human children, which are considered more attractive than faerie children, for changelings that they leave behind in exchange.

Throughout the years, faeries have been so prevalent in British belief that they have shown up in many important and highly regarded works of literature.

Faeries in Literature

Many folktales are told of faeries and they appear as characters in many stories from medieval tales of chivalry to Victorian fairy tales and up to the present day in literature. Many faeries have appeared in medieval romances as one of the beings a knight-errant might encounter.

  • Le Mort d'Arthur. In this book by Thomas Malory, Morgan le Fay is a major character whose very name implies a connection with the faerie realm.
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight himself is an otherworldly being.
  • The Faerie Queen. Written by Edmund Spenser. Here faeries are mixed with other nymphs and satyrs of the classical tradition. And the Faerie Queen represents Queen Elizabeth I herself in this important literary work.
  • King Arthur legends. Monk John Lydgate wrote that King Arthur was crowned in "the land of the fairy" and taken by four faerie queens to Avalon where he lies under a "faerie hill" until he is needed again.
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream. Written by William Shakespeare, this play is set in the woodland and in the realm of faerie land under the light of the moon. Here we are introduced to Puck, the British Isles' most famous of faeries who is quite the mischief-maker in this play. We also come across the dispute of the King and Queen of Faeries, Oberon and Titania, which also figure into the plot of the play and the actions of the characters.
  • Brother's Grimm. Includes faeries in their first edition fairy tales book. Later, the brothers felt the faeries were not authentically German and removed the language in later editions. They changed the word fee (faerie) in their tales to an enchantress or wise woman.
  • The Lord of the Rings. Written by J.R.R. Tolkien elves and faeries and otherworldly beings are characters who enliven and live in his Middle Earth. His belief in a race of "little people" or a pygmy race is evidenced by his hobbits. This is probably the best use of fantasy characters in a British written work and is considered one of the best by many fans of the trilogy and films.
  • Puck of Pook's Hill. Written by Rudyard Kipling, Puck is the most famous and notorious of faeries. He creates much mischief where ever he goes.
  • Narnia books were written by C.S. Lewis and are also great fantasy works featuring many classical beings as fauns and dryads, hags and giants and other creatures of folklore faerie tradition.
  • The Lilac Fairy Book. Written by Andrew Lang. This book is one of many volumes of the Flower faeries from the Victorian period. These books were popularized by Queen Mary from her interest in faerie art, and British illustrator and poet Cicely Mary Barker's series of eight books published between 1923 and 1948 have added to the faerie lore. The imagery of faeries in literature became prettier and smaller as time progressed.
  • Peter Pan novels by J.M. Barrie (1911) in which the character Tinkerbell, our beloved faerie character, has become a pop-cultural icon and forever associated with Disney Studios.

And, Geoffry Chaucer wrote in the "Wife of Bath's Tale" from his Canterbury Tales:

In olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour
Al was this lond fulfilled of fayrie . . .
I speke of many hundrid yer ago;
But now can no man see non elves mo.