Fairies are a hot topic in paganism again, as they tend to be every few years, and so I’m seeing more discussion about them and more pagans writing about them. As with any topic that’s broad and complex trying to be relayed to a wide audience, I’m also seeing a lot of oversimplification in discussions about what, exactly, fairies are and a lot of reductionism and homogenization. Because of all of that I decided it would be helpful to touch on some of the main ones that I’m seeing and my thoughts on them. People want to know what fairies are and the simple answers are easy to latch onto, but the complicated answer is where the truth actually is.
A Few Misunderstandings
First I want to tackle a couple things that have shown up in books across the decades. If any of these ideas work for you I’m not saying ditch them immediately but I do want people to be aware of the sources and consider not forwarding them as ancient.
- fairies as elementals – this came into paganism via theosophy which expanded on the 15th century idea from alchemy that each element was ruled by a spirit which were listed as sylphs, salamanders, undines, and gnomes. Theosophy took the idea further, along with viewing all fairies as nature spirits.
- fairies created by humans – this one came in, I think, from a specific book where the author suggested creating a fairy to serve the witch. What was actually being done was the creation of a magical servitor and it’s really unfortunate that the author chose to label it a fairy. Yes you can create energetic beings or thought forms. No you cannot create a fairy.
It’s really hard to pin down a clear definition of what a nature spirit is because the term itself is fairly new and different groups have very different ideas of what it means. Most, however, seem to at least generally agree that a nature spirit is a spirit tied or bound to the physical world, i.e. ‘nature’, in some way. I personally tend to conflate nature spirits and landvaettir [land spirits] and would probably see things like genii locorum [spirits of places] as nature spirits as well. I do see nature spirits in the same general category as fairies and often look at them as a kind of sub-grouping of fairies although I’m ambivalent about that; I worry that humans over-categorize everything and that if anything we should simply view these spirits as part of the wider grouping of fairies without worrying about it otherwise.
That said though, I don’t think there’s any solid argument for all fairies as nature spirits. Too many beings that we call fairies are not connected to anything in the natural world, are tied explicitly to humanity in some sense (such as the Leannan Sidhe or Redcaps), or have a transitory nature between this world and the Otherworld. Even as an animist I can’t simply say that all fairies are nature spirits because some simply aren’t, unless we broaden the definition of nature spirit out so widely that it would also encompass human beings and earthly animals, in which case everything is a nature spirit by default anyway.
So, some fairies are nature spirits but not all.
There’s a very long history of human beings, living and dead, joining the fairies. Folklore and anecdotal accounts make it clear that it is not only possible for a human being to become a fairy but that this is how the fairies increase their numbers to supplement what is often described as a low birthrate of their own. Stories of changelings, stolen brides, and the recently dead being seen among the fairy throng are widespread across all the Celtic language speaking cultures.
There is some debate as to whether the ‘dead’ humans are actually dead or were taken alive and magic used to make their family and community believe they had died, but for this article we’ll just assume that they were dead. There are some types of fairies who may have their roots in a human life cut short in some violent or tragic manner who then became a fairy as well. In any event it’s clear that humans can be a source of fairies, and we see this mentioned explicitly in the Ballad of Tam Lin and the story of Selena Moor.
That said we also know that humans, dead or otherwise, are not the only way fairies increase their numbers so not all fairies were originally human. There are references, including in the aforementioned Selena Moor, of fairies producing their own children and some changeling lore involves fairies trading their own sickly baby for a healthy human one. There are also some types of fairies that do not seem to be connected to taking or transforming humans, such as fairy hounds or leprechauns, meaning we do know that some fairies are not believed to be former humans.
So, some fairies were once human but not all.
Another explanation for some fairies is that they were once Gods. The Irish Tuatha De Danann for example were said to have gone into the fairy hills after being defeated by the Gaels and become the aos sidhe [people of the fairy hills]. Many named beings who we know were considered deities in mythology including the Dagda and Aine were also later described as Kings or Queens of fairy hills. We see this also with the Welsh Gwyn ap Nudd and his connection to the Welsh fairies. There is an undeniable connection between some Gods and the fairies.
However, just because some Gods are associated with the fairies, usually as rulers, doesn’t mean that all fairies are former pagan Gods or even that all types of fairies have their roots in a specific pagan deity (and by the way, no leprechaun isn’t connected to the God Lugh). The vast majority of Otherworldly beings are not Gods.
So, some fairies were once pagan gods but not all.
So Then What Are Fairies?
It is sometimes easier to say what fairies aren’t than to clarify what they are, but what we can say for certain, based on the long-term understandings of what fairies are, is that they are beings of the Otherworld, literally ‘of Fairy’. Are some of them what we might now call nature spirits? Are some of them human dead? Are some pagan Gods? Yes, clearly some fall into each of those groups. But no one category or explanation fits all of them.
The best way to understand what fairies are is to appreciate the nuances. There is no simple answer. Rather, what we see is a diverse grouping that encompasses an array of Otherworldly spirits and land spirits which we label fairies for convenience. Hundreds, if not thousands, of different kinds of named and even unnamed types of beings fall into this wide category and it makes sense that there is no easy way to understand them all as a whole beyond the broadest strokes.