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Dictionary Definition

fairy

Noun

1 small, human in form, playful, having magical powers [syn: faery, faerie, sprite]
2 offensive terms for an openly homosexual man [syn: fagot, faggot, fag, nance, pansy, queen, queer, poof, poove, pouf]

User Contributed Dictionary

English

Etymology

Middle English fairie, from Old French faerie, from fae, from Vulgar Latin Fata, from fatum

Noun

fairy (abstract noun)
  1. Land of the fae, state of enchantment, associated with fays (as in fairy gold, fairy queen)

Noun

  1. A mythical being who had magical powers, known in many sizes and descriptions, although often depicted in modern illustrations only as small and spritely with gauze-like wings; A sprite.
  2. (derogatory slang) A male homosexual, especially one who is effeminate.
  3. In the context of "paganism": A nature spirit revered in modern Paganism.

Synonyms

Translations

mythical being
(derogatory slang) male homosexual
Translations to be categorised

Extensive Definition

A fairy (also fay, fey, fae, faerie; collectively, wee folk, good folk, people of peace, and other euphemisms) is the name given to a type of mythological being or legendary creature, a form of nature spirit, often described as metaphysical, supernatural or preternatural.
The concept of fairies is based on the fae of medieval Western European (Old French) folklore and romance. Fairies are often identified with a variety of beings of other mythologies. Even in folklore that uses the term "fairy," there are many definitions of what constitutes a fairy. Sometimes the term is used to describe any magical creature, including goblins or gnomes: at other times, the term only describes a specific type of more ethereal creature.

Characteristics

Fairies are generally described as human in appearance and having magical powers. Their origins are less clear in the folklore, being variously dead, or some form of angel, or a species completely independent of humans or angels. Folklorists have suggested that their actual origin lies in a conquered race living in hiding, or in religious beliefs that lost currency with the advent of Christianity. These explanations are not always mutually incompatible, and they may be traceable to multiple sources.
Much of the folklore about fairies revolves about protection from their malice, by such means as cold iron (fairies don't like iron and will not go near it) or charms of rowan and herbs, or avoiding offense by shunning locations known to be theirs. In particular, folklore describes how to prevent the fairies from stealing babies and substituting changelings, and abducting older people as well. Many folktales are told of fairies, and they appear as characters in stories from medieval tales of chivalry, to Victorian fairy tales, and up to the present day in modern literature.
Fairies are generally portrayed as human in appearance and as having supernatural abilities such as the ability to fly, cast spells and to influence or foresee the future. Although in modern culture they are often depicted as young, sometimes winged, females of small stature, they originally were depicted much differently: tall, radiant, angelic beings or short, wizened trolls being some of the commonly mentioned. Diminutive fairies of one kind or another have been recorded for centuries, but occur alongside the human-sized beings; these have been depicted as ranging in size from very tiny up to the size of a human child. Even with these small fairies, however, their small size may be magically assumed rather than constant.
Wings, while common in Victorian and later artwork of fairies, are very rare in the folklore; even very small fairies flew with magic, sometimes flying on ragwort stems or the backs of birds. Nowadays, fairies are often depicted with wings of various shapes:
Various animals have also been described as fairies. Sometimes this is the result of shapeshifting on part of the fairy, as in the case of the selkie (seal people); others, like the kelpie and various black dogs, appear to stay more constant in form.

Origin of fairies

Folk beliefs

Dead

One popular belief was that they were the dead, or some subclass of the dead. The Irish banshee (Irish Gaelic bean sí or Scottish Gaelic bean shìth, which both mean "fairy woman") is sometimes described as a ghost. The northern English Cauld Lad of Hylton, though described as a murdered boy, is also described as a household sprite like a brownie, much of the time a Barghest or Elf. One tale recounted a man caught by the fairies, who found that whenever he looked steadily at one, the fairy was a dead neighbor of his. This was among the most common views expressed by those who believed in fairies, although many of the informants would express the view with some doubts.
Some hold that the Catholic concept of Purgatory was an invention to appease converts who believed "The Land of Fae" was the home of the souls of the dead, said realm being co-existent with, but separate from, the world of the living and which could only be seen by those gifted with an ability known as the "second sight".

Elementals

Another view held that the fairies were an intelligent species, distinct from humans and angels. In alchemy in particular they were regarded as elementals, such as gnomes and sylphs, as described by Paracelsus. This is uncommon in folklore, but accounts describing the fairies as "spirits of the air" have been found popularly.

Demoted Angels

A third belief held that they were a class of "demoted" angels. One popular story held that when the angels revolted, God ordered the gates shut; those still in heaven remained angels, those in hell became devils, and those caught in between became fairies. Others held that they had been thrown out of heaven, not being good enough, but they were not evil enough for hell. This may explain the tradition that they had to pay a "teind" or tithe to Hell. As fallen angels, though not quite devils, they could be seen as subject of the Devil.

Demons

A fourth belief was the fairies were devils entirely. This belief became much more popular with the growth of Puritanism. The hobgoblin, once a friendly household spirit, became a wicked goblin. Dealing with fairies was in some cases considered a form of witchcraft and punished as such in this era. Disassociating himself from such evils may be why Oberon, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, carefully observed that neither he nor his court feared the church bells.
The belief in their angelic nature was less common than that they were the dead, but still found popularity, especially in Theosophist circles. Informants who described their nature sometimes held aspects of both the third and the fourth view, or observed that the matter was disputed.

Pagan deities

Many of the Irish tales of the Tuatha Dé Danann refer to these beings as fairies, though in more ancient times they were regarded as Goddesses and Gods. The Tuatha Dé were spoken of as having come from Islands in the north of the world, or, in other sources, from the sky. After being defeated in a series of battles with other Otherworldly beings, and then by the ancestors of the current Irish people, they were said to have withdrawn to the sídhe (fairy mounds), where they lived on in popular imagination as "fairies."

Sources of beliefs

A hidden people

One common theme found among the Celtic nations describes a race of diminutive people who had been driven into hiding by invading humans. They came to be seen as another race, or possibly spirits, and were believed to live in an Otherworld that was variously described as existing underground, in hidden hills (many of which were ancient burial mounds), or across the Western Sea. In popular folklore, flint arrowheads from the Stone Age were attributed to the fairies as "elf-shot". The fairies fear of iron was attributed to the invaders having iron weapons, whereas the inhabitants had only flint and were therefore easily defeated in physical battle. Their green clothing and underground homes were credited to their need to hide and camouflage themselves from hostile humans, and their use of magic a necessary skill for combating those with superior weaponry. Selkies, described in fairy tales as shapeshifting seal people, were attributed to memories of skin-clad "primitive" people traveling in kayaks.

Christianised pagan deities

Another theory is that the fairies were originally worshiped as gods, but with the coming of Christianity, they lived on, in a dwindled state of power, in folk belief. In this particular time, fairies were reputed by the church as being 'evil' beings. Many beings who are described as deities in older tales are described as "fairies" in more recent writings. According to this theory, fairies are personified aspects of nature and deified abstract concepts such as ‘love’ and ‘victory’ in the pantheon of the particular form of animistic nature worship reconstructed as the religion of Ancient Western Europe.

Spirits of the dead

A third theory was that the fairies were a folkloric belief concerning the dead. This noted many common points of belief, such as the same legends being told of ghosts and fairies, the sídhe in actuality being burial mounds, it being dangerous to eat food in both Fairyland and Hades, and both the dead and fairies living underground.

Fairies in literature and legend

The question as to the essential nature of fairies has been the topic of myths, stories, and scholarly papers for a very long time.

Practical beliefs and protection

When considered as beings that a person might actually encounter, fairies were noted for their mischief and malice. Some pranks ascribed to them, such as tangling the hair of sleepers into "Elf-locks", stealing small items or leading a traveler astray, are generally harmless. But far more dangerous behaviours were also attributed to fairies. Any form of sudden death might stem from a fairy kidnapping, with the apparent corpse being a wooden stand-in with the appearance of the kidnapped person. Consumption (tuberculosis) was sometimes blamed on the fairies forcing young men and women to dance at revels every night, causing them to waste away from lack of rest. Fairies riding domestic animals, such as cows or pigs or ducks, could cause paralysis or mysterious illnesses.
As a consequence, practical considerations of fairies have normally been advice on averting them. In terms of protective charms, cold iron is the most familiar, but other things are regarded as detrimental to the fairies: wearing clothing inside out, running water, bells (especially church bells), St. John's wort, and four-leaf clovers, among others. Some lore is contradictory, such as Rowan trees in some tales been sacred to the fairies, and in other tales being protection against them. In Newfoundland folklore, the most popular type of fairy protection is bread, varying from stale bread to hard tack or a slice of fresh home-made bread. The belief that bread has some sort of special power is an ancient one. Bread is associated with the home and the hearth, as well as with industry and the taming of nature, and as such, seems to be disliked by some types of fairies. On the other hand, in much of the Celtic folklore, baked goods are a traditional offering to the folk, as are cream and butter.
“The prototype of food, and therefore a symbol of life, bread was one of the commonest protections against fairies. Before going out into a fairy-haunted place, it was customary to put a piece of dry bread in one’s pocket.”
Bells also have an ambiguous role; while they protect against fairies, the fairies riding on horseback — such as the fairy queen — often have bells on their harness. This may be a distinguishing trait between the Seelie Court from the Unseelie Court, such that fairies use them to protect themselves from more wicked members of their race. Another ambiguous piece of folklore revolves about poultry: a cock's crow drove away fairies, but other tales recount fairies keeping poultry. In County Wexford, Ireland, in 1882, it was reported that “if an infant is carried out after dark a piece of bread is wrapped in its bib or dress, and this protects it from any witchcraft or evil.” While many fairies will confuse travelers on the path, the will o' the wisp can be avoided by not following it. Certain locations, known to be haunts of fairies, are to be avoided; C. S. Lewis reported hearing of a cottage more feared for its reported fairies than its reported ghost. In particular, digging in fairy hills was unwise. Paths that the fairies travel are also wise to avoid. Home-owners have knocked corners from houses because the corner blocked the fairy path, and cottages have been built with the front and back doors in line, so that the owners could, in need, leave them both open and let the fairies troop through all night. Locations such as fairy forts were left undisturbed; even cutting brush on fairy forts was reputed to be the death of those who performed the act. Fairy trees, such as thorn trees, were dangerous to chop down; one such tree was left alone in Scotland, though it prevented a road being widened for seventy years. Good house-keeping could keep brownies from spiteful actions, because if they didn't think the house is clean enough, they pinched people in their sleep. Such water hags as Peg Powler and Jenny Greenteeth, prone to drowning people, could be avoided by avoiding the bodies of water they inhabit. Other brownies left households or farms because they heard a complaint, or a compliment. People who saw the fairies were advised not to look closely, because they resented infringements on their privacy. The need to not offend them could lead to problems: one farmer found that fairies threshed his corn, but the threshing continued after all his corn was gone, and he concluded that they were stealing from his neighbors, leaving him the choice between offending them, dangerous in itself, and profiting by the theft.
Millers were thought by the Scots to be "no canny" due to their ability to control the forces of nature, such as fire in the kiln, water in the burn, and for being able to set machinery a-whirring. Superstitious communities sometimes believed that the miller must be in league with the fairies. In Scotland fairies were often mischievous and to be feared. No one dared to set foot in the mill or kiln at night as it was known that the fairies brought their corn to be milled after dark. So long as the locals believed this then the miller could sleep secure in the knowledge that his stores were not being robbed. John Fraser, the miller of Whitehill claimed to have hidden and watched the fairies trying unsuccessfully to work the mill. He said he decided to come out of hiding and help them, upon which one of the fairy women gave him a gowpen (double handful of meal) and told him to put it in his empty girnal (store), saying that the store would remain full for a long time, no matter how much he took out.
It is also believed that to know the name of a particular fae could summon it to you and force it to do your bidding. The name could be used as an insult towards the Faerie in question, but it could also rather contradictorily be used to grant powers and gifts to the user.

Changelings

main article Changeling A considerable amount of lore about fairies revolves around changelings, fairy children left in the place of stolen human babies. A common thread in folklore is that eating the fairy food would trap the captive, as Persephone in Hades; this warning is often given to captives who escape by other people in the fairies' power, who are often described as captives who had eaten and so could not be freed. Folklore differed about the state of the captives: some held that they lived a merry life, others that they always pined for their old friends.

Classifications

main article Classifications of fairies In Scottish folklore, fairies are divided into the Seelie Court, the more beneficiently inclined (but still dangerous) fairies, and the Unseelie Court, the malicious fairies.

Legends

In many legends, the fairies are prone to kidnapping humans, either as babies, leaving changelings in their place, or as young men and women. This can be for a time or forever, and may be more or less dangerous to the kidnapped. In the 19th Century Child Ballad, "Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight", the elf-knight is a Bluebeard figure, and Isabel must trick and kill him to preserve her life. Child Ballad "Tam Lin" reveals that the title character, though living among the fairies and having fairy powers, was in fact an "earthly knight" and, though his life was pleasant now, he feared that the fairies would pay him as their teind (tithe) to hell. King Herla also visited Fairy and returned three centuries later; although only some of his men crumbled to dust on dismounting, Herla and his men who did not dismount were trapped on horseback, this being one folkloric account of the origin of the Wild Hunt.
A common feature of the fairies is the use of magic to disguise appearance. Fairy gold is notoriously unreliable, appearing as gold when paid, but soon thereafter revealing itself to be leaves, gorse blossoms, gingerbread cakes, or a variety of other useless things.
These illusions are also implicit in the tales of fairy ointment. Many tales from the British islands tell of a mortal woman summoned to attend a fairy birth — sometimes attending a mortal, kidnapped woman's childbed. Invariably, the woman is given something for the child's eyes, usually an ointment; through mischance, or sometimes curiosity, she uses it on one or both of her own eyes. At that point, she sees where she is; one midwife realizes that she was not attending a great lady in a fine house but her own runaway maid-servant in a wretched cave. She escapes without making her ability known, but sooner or later betrays that she can see the fairies. She is invariably blinded in that eye, or in both if she used the ointment on both.

Literature

Fairies appeared in medieval romances as one of the beings that a knight errant might encounter. A fairy lady appeared to Sir Launfal and demanded his love; like the fairy bride of ordinary folklore, she imposed a prohibition on him that in time he violated. Sir Orfeo's wife was carried off by the King of Faerie. Huon of Bordeaux is aided by King Oberon. These fairy characters dwindled in number as the medieval era progressed; the figures became wizards and enchantresses. Morgan Le Fey, whose connection to the realm of faerie is implied in her name, in Le Morte d'Arthur is a woman whose magic powers stem from study. While somewhat diminished with time, fairies never completely vanished from the tradition. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late tale, but the Green Knight himself is an otherworldly being. In many works of fiction, fairies are freely mixed with the nymphs and satyrs of classical tradition; while in others (e.g. Lamia), they were seen as displacing the Classical beings. Fifteenth century poet and monk John Lydgate wrote that King Arthur was crowned in "the land of the fairy", and taken in his death by four fairy queens, to Avalon where he lies under a "fairy hill", until he is needed again.
Fairies appear as significant characters in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream, which is set simultaneously in the woodland, and in the realm of Fairyland, under the light of the moon. and in which a disturbance of Nature caused by a fairy dispute creates tension underlying the plot and informing the actions of the characters. According to Maurice Hunt, Chair of the English Department at Baylor University, the blurring of the identities of fantasy and reality makes possible “that pleasing, narcotic dreaminess associated with the fairies of the play”.
Shakespeare's contemporary, Michael Drayton features fairies in his Nimphidia; from these stem Alexander Pope's sylphs of The Rape of the Lock, and in the mid 1600s, précieuses took up the oral tradition of such tales to write fairy tales; Madame d'Aulnoy invented the term contes de fée ("fairy tale"). While the tales told by the précieuses included many fairies, they were less common in other countries' tales; indeed, the Brothers Grimm included fairies in their first edition, but decided this was not authentically German and altered the language in later editions, changing each "Fee" (fairy) to an enchantress or wise woman. J. R. R. Tolkien described these tales as taking place in the land of Faerie. Additionally, not all folktales that feature fairies are generally categorized as fairy tales.
Fairies in literature took on new life with Romanticism. Writers such as Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg were inspired by folklore which featured fairies, such as the Border ballads. This era saw an increase in the popularity of collecting of fairy folklore, and an increase in the creation of original works with fairy characters. In Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, Puck holds to scorn the moralizing fairies of other Victorian works. The period also saw a revival of older themes in fantasy literature, such as C.S. Lewis's Narnia books which, while featuring many such classical beings as fauns and dryads, mingles them freely with hags, giants, and other creatures of the folkloric fairy tradition. Victorian flower fairies were popularized in part by Queen Mary’s keen interest in fairy art, and by British illustrator and poet Cicely Mary Barker's series of eight books published in 1923 through 1948. Imagery of fairies in literature became prettier and smaller as time progressed.
Fairies are seen in Neverland, in the novel Peter and Wendy, the version of James Barrie's famous Peter Pan stories that was published in 1911. In the part of the story where Peter Pan and the lost boys had built a house for Wendy on Neverland, he stays up late that night to guard her from the pirates, but then the story says: "After a time he fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy. Any of the other boys obstructing the fairy path at night they would have mischiefed, but they just tweaked Peter's nose and passed on."

Fairies in art

seealso Fairy painting Images of fairies have appeared as illustrations, often in books of fairy tales, as well as in photographic-based media and sculpture. Some artists known for their depictions of fairies include:
The Victorian era was particularly noted for fairy paintings. The Victorian painter Richard Dadd created paintings of fairy-folk with a sinister and malign tone. Other Victorian artists who depicted fairies include John Atkinson Grimshaw, Joseph Noel Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald and Daniel Maclise. Interest in fairy-themed art enjoyed a brief renaissance following the publication of the Cottingley Fairies photographs in 1917 and a number of artists turned to painting fairy themes. Following in the footsteps of this trend, and utilizing modern digital technology, fantasy photographers like J. Corsentino created a new sub-genre of "fairy photography".

Fairies in popular culture

Fairies are often depicted in books, stories, and movies. A number of these fairies are from adaptations of traditional tales.
Perhaps some of the most well-known fairies were made by Disney. Tinkerbell, from the Peter Pan stories by J.M. Barrie and the Disney adaptation. While in Carlo Collodi's tale Pinocchio a wooden boy receives the gift of real life from a fairy described as the "lovely maiden with azure hair", who was dubbed the "Blue Fairy" for Disney's adaptation.
As would be expected, fairies appear in other media as well, including novels, video games, and music. A comprehensive list is beyond the scope of this article, but one recent and notable example is Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which revolved about two magicians with close connections to the fairy world; it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Clarke drew heavily on British folklore for this work and her collection of short stories The Ladies of Grace Adieu, including retelling the story of Tom Tit Tot as her "On Lickerish Hill".
As fairy art, folklore and music inspired by it has continued to thrive in popular culture, various fantasy faires and conventions dedicated to everything fairy have sprung up around the country, such as Faerieworlds, Faeriecon and fairy festivals at Sproutwood Farm. Recording artist Gary Stadler released a series of fairy-influenced music CDs on Sequoia Records, beginning with "Fairy of the Woods" in 1994, and including "Fairy HeartMagic", that appeared on Billboard's top 25 New Age music chart in 2000, and featuring fairy artwork by Katlyn Breene of Zingaia.
Many children television programs such as The Fairly Oddparents also feature fairies and magic.
Fairies are a companion and helper of Ofelia and the faun in the Spanish movie Pan's Labyrinth by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. They originally look like large insects but shapeshift after Ofelia shows them a picture of what a fairy is supposed to look like.
In the Harry Potter scenario, unusually, fairies are depicted as non-sentient and reproducing by egg and larva and pupa like insects do.
In the Artemis Fowl series, faires are depicted as wingless creatures who can "mesmerize" humans and live underground.

Bibliography

  • D. L. Ashliman, Fairy Lore: A Handbook (Greenwood, 2006)
  • Brian Froud and Alan Lee, Faeries, (Peacock Press/Bantam, New York, 1978)
  • Ronan Coghlan Handbook of Fairies (Capall Bann, 2002)
  • Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan, ''Scottish Fairy Belief: A History'' (Edinburgh, 2001; 2007)
  • C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964)
  • Patricia Lysaght, The Banshee: the Irish Supernatural Death Messenger (Glendale Press, Dublin, 1986)
  • Peter Narvaez, The Good People, New Fairylore Essays (Garland, New York, 1991)
  • Eva Pocs, Fairies and Witches at the boundary of south-eastern and central Europe FFC no 243 (Helsinki, 1989)
  • Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (Allen Lane, 2000)
  • Tomkinson, John L. Haunted Greece: Nymphs, Vampires and other Exotika, (Anagnosis, 2004) ISBN 960-88087-0-7

References

External links

fairy in Asturian: fada
fairy in Bulgarian: Фея
fairy in Catalan: Fada
fairy in Czech: Víla
fairy in Welsh: Tylwyth Teg
fairy in German: Fee
fairy in Spanish: Hada
fairy in Esperanto: Feo
fairy in French: Fée
fairy in Korean: 페어리
fairy in Indonesian: Peri
fairy in Italian: Fata
fairy in Hebrew: פיה (פנטזיה)
fairy in Lithuanian: Fėja
fairy in Hungarian: Tündér
fairy in Dutch: Fee
fairy in Japanese: フェアリー
fairy in Norwegian: Fe (eventyr)
fairy in Norwegian Nynorsk: Fe i eventyra
fairy in Portuguese: Fada
fairy in Romanian: Zână
fairy in Russian: Фея
fairy in Finnish: Keijukainen
fairy in Swedish: Fe (väsen)
fairy in Turkish: Peri
fairy in Urdu: پریاں
fairy in Chinese: 小仙子
fairy in Classical Chinese: 精靈

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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