The Faerie Myth: Transformation, Appropriation and Survival

POSTED BY MATT STAGGS

What do you think of when you hear the word “faerie?” A tiny, winged lady in a sparkling cloud of pixie dust? Mischievous little people hiding beneath toadstools? Maybe those Keebler elves and their magically fattening cookies come to mind. No matter what, the image of the faerie – actually its very definition – has changed dramatically over the ages, and it is likely that your own idea of faeriedom has been shaped by shifts in religious thinking, technological growth and popular culture.

Like any other matter of folklore, the origins of the faerie myth are obscure and subject to scholarly debate. In the matter of Celtic faerie stories, some have posited that their stories of the Tuatha de Danaan’s war against the fierce “Fir Bolg” are actually ancient memories of Ireland’s early Gaelic invaders’ defeat and subsequent extinction of the isle’s aboriginal inhabitants. Some further suggest that some of the “goblins” of Celtic myth were based on this ancient people, described as dark and hairy, and that the Gaelic people – the Tuatha de Danaan were subsequently mythologized as the early Celtic gods and goddesses.

It could be that as time went on some of these various gods and goddesses of ancient lore fell out of favor, being relegated to the status of Genius Loci – well spirits, gods of bridges, haunters of shadowy places – while others grew to a formal pantheon. Perhaps some of these early dark gods were the deities of the original people now known as the mythical Fir Blog. This would be in keeping with the religious transformations common following the conquest of other ancient people: the conquered people’s gods become the demons and devils of the dominant pantheon. One need only look at the Old Testament’s various demons, all of whom were the gods of the conquered.

In many cases, degenerate gods and goddesses may have retained their associations with their original divine jurisdiction: hearth spirits became brownies, death goddesses became banshees, et cetera. In the pre-modern, pre-scientific era, these personifications of earthly powers were a comfort in some ways: you can’t make a bargain with crop blight, but you can certainly seek a bargain with the corn spirits. Ultimately, these bargains had their price: early faeries were things to be feared and placated with tokens and various sacrifices. A coin tossed in a fountain to appease the water gods (a tradition still in practice today) or a percentage of one’s crops, bread or milk sacrificed to please the spirits and guarantee their continued grace. They were known to be capricious, arbitrary and sometime cruel. Occasionally they demanded even darker sacrifices. Over time, the collected folk wisdom regarding how best to handle the attention of the faeries may have grown into the faerie tales we know today.

Further devaluation of the faerie myth’s cultural capital occurred with the advent of Christianity, although the extent of appropriation or rejection varied with the local parish priest and his congregation. By necessity, faeries lost all of their godlike status, but their origin and proper role in the Christian universe fluctuated. In some accounts, they were considered the servants of Satan himself. In others, they were understood to be the souls of the virtuous but unbaptized, stuck in a limbo realm between the heavens and earth (see the myth of “Jack o’ Lantern” for a good example of this). Others held a far more liberal view of the ancient faeries, gods and heroes. There are several tales of legendary Celtic hero Finn Mac Cool or one of his boon companions appearing in Christian Ireland and receiving salvation at the hands of a wandering priest.

Over time, as modernity and industrialization crept into the wild outlands of Ireland, what was left of the ancient faerie tales further dwindled into the realm of children’s stories. Gone were the ancient groves and mounds; where would such creatures “live,” anyway? It is significant to note that the physical size that faeries were depicted at diminished in direct proportion to their spiritual relevance. Look at – for instance – the faerie photos in the famous Cottingley faerie hoax: they’re tiny.

Faerie tales still held the same practical relevance of the ancient stories, even if the spiritual dimension was defunct. River spirits and lake demons became cautionary tales, “nursery bogies” whose fierce appetites and ghoulish affect became good reason for children not to go near dangerously swift rivers by themselves. Ravenous goblins offered justification for not wandering into the woods. Hags and witches taught important lessons about not wandering off with strangers.

These faerie tales became the sole province of the nursery and an important element of childhood folklore, ultimately becoming popular characters in rhymes, movies and even advertising around the United States. Elves make cookies. Beasts and beauties sing duets in big-budget cartoons. Goblins make war on entire nations via sophisticated video games. Modern fantasy tales make great use of the ancient tales, reviving these creatures of mystery to walk the streets of urban cities.

However, as thoroughly appropriated as faeries have become, the old creatures of legend aren’t entirely gone. Here in the South, Mississippi specifically – an area largely settled by people of Celtic descent – traditional “jump tales” and campfire stories still invoke “the booger man,” an obvious derivation of “bogey,” itself a variant of the Welsh “Bwca,” a type of goblin. Legends abound of Witches, like the “Witch of Yazoo” made famous by “My Dog Skip” author Willie Morris, and the “Bell Witch” of Tennessee featured in numerous movies, documentaries and folk tales. Ghosts still walk the halls of Antebellum mansions, and just about every old person can tell you a story about “Haints.”

As long as there will be people, there will likely be faeries, even as we don’t know them as such. They satisfy a fundamental need: transmitters of folk knowledge, an “other” to fear or envy, an embodiment of whimsy and shadow to the enlightened and orderly world. It is likely that many of our own gods, heroes and villains will become the faeries of future generations. Until then, we’ve got our own.

Comments

  1. says

    I liked Neil Gaiman’s idea of fairies and the like transplanting to the Americas in ‘American Gods’ but for me one of the best treatments of the ‘little people’ is in Lyonesse. Vance manages to convey humour, respect and a certain amount of fear toward his version of them. Twisk in particular is a marvellous creation. Forgotten books have a viewable copy of Evans Wentz’s ‘Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries’ which is a goldmine of information on Fairy traditions. I tried to post a link here but I haven’t worked out how to do it without it being too long…

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