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Exclusive Excerpt


Faeries and Folklore – Part Two: The Evolution of Fae

Titania by Matt DixonLast time we looked at the faeries as a whole, a genus. But to really get to grips with the fae and just who and what they are, we need to be more specific, we need to go deeper. If we arm ourselves with Purkiss’ list (refreshed below) we can begin to look at some of the fae and how they have evolved throughout both folklore and literature. Whether we stick closely within SFF (which we pretty much will) or venture farther, it’s not difficult to see that the fae are deeply woven within most folklore and culture.

We’ll touch briefly on representations of the fae around the world, but looking inward is what we’re really going to focus on: the fae are a rich and varied genus and although we have words that have been translated to mean the same as “faerie” in other cultures, they aren’t precisely the fae we’re looking for. They are, rather, unique to the cultures in which they originate. In the same way that, at a first glance, the deva / devi of Hindu mythology might appear to resemble the angels of Catholic mythology (I’m going to refer to the wealth of biblical lore just so). Yet they are not angels, they are deva/devi (masc. fem.). In fact, they prove ideal to demonstrate some of the difficulties in accurately exploring the fae as a single genus throughout the world of mythology and folklore.

Deva by William O' ConnorSimilar to their benevolent existence in Amalie Howard’s Alpha Goddess, the deva/devi enjoy a rather pleasant reputation in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, however, travel a little, warp the spelling and the story changes. Daeva in Persian and Iranian mythology are something else again. With a complicated hierarchy of importance and the title “ahura” being all that stands between a daeva’s classification as benevolent, or evil, the cause of plague and violence, it’s easy to see where modern literature gets confused. Initially, the term ‘daeva’ referred to all of these creatures, but since a daeva is viewed as a demon of disease, the title of ahura became important. These daeva are far removed from both the gentle Buddhist definition of a non-human who is better, longer-lived and who lives more contentedly than a human, and the light and celestial beings of Hindu lore, but the spellings are so commonly mixed and warped that the image of just what these creatures are becomes fluid.

In a sense, the idea that jinn / djinn are an Arabic interpretation of the fae is somewhat more plausible. A little digging into even Islamic lore suggests that the jinn/djinn are viewed in the same sense as fae. If we think of the classic appearance of the jinn/djinn, it’s very easy to consider them at least an interpretation of the fae, if not necessarily fae themselves. Let us refer again to Purkiss’ suggestions of categorising fae:

1. Brownies, hobs and familiars; live in one house or serve one person and overlap with
2. Faerie guides; often dead; conduct a person to faeries and/or teach them faerie law.
3. Faerie societies; seen in faerie world or on ride; include king and queen.
4. Poltergeist/demon faeries, eventually melt down into tricksters and overlap with 1. [1]

It is easy to see from this, how you could consider both the daeva/devi/deva as being under the umbrella term of “faerie”. Of course, here’s where’s it’s important to remember that the faeries (even the spelling) belong to Celtic folklore, to the Irish and the Scottish and to a lesser extent, to the Welsh and English. Yes, there are experiences with the fae in mainland Europe (we’ll come back to this), but for the most part, we are dealing with a kind of lore unique to, if not a “religion”, but a “people” or region in the very least. As such the lore is viewed more loosely, more fluid, but still holds the same superstition and depth.

DJINN by RemtonIn this sense, anything supernatural that remotely fits the broad description could present itself as a member of the fae family. Of course, this muddies the waters and it’s why the preference to refer to the individual elements of mythology and folklore as precisely what they are, instead of considering them to be “versions” of the fae. They are, in fact, elements unique—albeit similar—to a particular mythology/religion/region. The jinn/djinn might be easily identified—physically—as goblins or similar, the daeva to demons or trickster fae, the deva/devi to the aos sí or even the Japanese ten, the Chinese and Korean tian and cheon, but ultimately, they are not fae.

Zashiki-warashi by HelenKeiThere are creatures throughout folklore that are more easily likened to the fae, including the Japanese yosei, who are generally viewed as fairies whose hearts know no great evil and therefore never grow old. It is believed in places that the yosei could bring the dead back to life. In Okinawa there are stories of tree-sprites (likened ultimately to dryads), generally referred to as the Kijimuna, whereas the house spirits Zashiki warashi are similar in nature to the mischievous, smaller faeries known for their child-like size and playing pranks.

Ultimately, in the same way that Voltaire’s Zadig suggested that the being “God” was in fact the same entity, the same being, in every different religion or incarnation featuring such a deity, there is the slightly oddball suggestion that these beings—these “fae”, these supernatural entities—are in fact all essentially the same creature, just called different names and given different roles or aspects. Just as we’ve flirted with the notion that some symbols are identical in worldwide ancient cultures with no previous knowledge of one another because there was some way in which they were in fact in communication (Atlanis, divine intervention, heck, aliens, even), and the fact that creatures such as dragons permeate mythology the world over (and because some outlandishness is good for the soul) because they were/are real, there is the tickling idea that perhaps faeries and the Fair Folk—whatever their incarnation—are scattered the world over, because they exist.

The Court of Faerie by Thomas MaybankIf we delve back in time and focus on the birth of these various stories, even widening our net and including other “fae-like” beings whose appearance or vocation has led them to be tangled up in the same net as faeries—such as the short, stout Northern Dwarves, the elfin Álfar and Svartálfar who could become the aos sí, as well as the creatures already discussed—it becomes clear that appearance alone is sometimes enough to define the beings from different realms as fae.

In this way, we can trace the evolution of the faeries through their alteration and adaptation, drawing up lines of likeness between similar beings, as well as their manmade transformations throughout literature and popular culture. Sprites and pixies essentially express themselves as of the faerie genus, bringing us onto the notion of both elves and creatures such as brownies and goblins. All faeries (or suggestible as such, in line with hobs [hobgoblins, too, maybe?] and tricksters).

Brownie by infraberryThe elves have been imagined in a number of different aspects, such as the small, woodland creatures, their Renaissance counterparts, through to their elegant rendering by Tolkien in his Middle-Earth. Here the elves Tolkien imagines draw somewhat on the idea of both the aoi sí—and certainly the Norse elves with which Tolkien was fairly enamoured, as displayed throughout his mythologies—and the little-known Welsh notion of the “Shining Ones”. Brownies are still viewed as the little-folk, depicted such as Aileana’s small faerie in Elizabeth May’s The Falconer and Toot-toot in the Dresden Files (Butcher). Furthermore: where do you imagine the name for the “Brownies” originates? Liken the children’s group in activity with the tiny faeries of folklore (albeit the benevolent and helpful idea of brownies) and you can see the reference.

When it comes to faeries such as those suggested to have originated in places like Greece and Italy—dryads and donas de fuera (likened to the aoi sí perhaps, but belonging to a faerie host with a King and Queen)—the descriptions of the fae don’t alter so much as do their roles, their alliance with the sides of good or evil. There is also a notion, in the European countries with a far more traditional and longer period of worship, that these faeries would lure people away from the worship of the Catholic God and towards that of the faerie royalty, in return for pleasure and riches. Associated heavily with the Isle of Sicily, there is a further deep connotation between the reward of sexual pleasure (ooher) and the giving over of one’s self to the faeries instead of God. The difference between what is now superstitious folklore and in fact not original mythology is a far deeper topic and one more strongly attached to the evolution of religion and its effect on traditional mythology, than the pure anthropological study of the faeries.

Timid Little Water Spirit by LiolDepending how wide we cast our net when suggesting the faeries of cultures beyond the Celtic/Gaelic origins, we will find a richer wealth than if we initially disregard what are more often than not referred to as “spirits” in their native incarnations, but do also, finding that these spirits are often likened to the fae by means of comparison. However, the farther afield we travel and the more open we become to the idea of “spirits” as fae, the more we find such as the Native American “Water Fairies” of Micmac legend and the idea of fairies as spirit guides. None of these can be strictly speaking said to not fall within the broad terms laid out by Purkiss, but their inclusion is a matter of debate.

Snow Queen by Justin SweetOne reason for the widespread recognition of foreign mythological entities falling inside the genus of the fae is that people will assume that any character or creature who features in anything referred to as a “fairy tale” is such. This isn’t the case, though there are of course fairies in fairy tales. Think of something as obscure as Rumpelstiltskin. Supposedly an elf or goblin. Sleeping Beauty and the fairies? Pretty standard as fairy godmothers, go. But take Rapunzel: no fairies there, only a witch/enchantress. Though the meat of these stories is far chewier than those diluted for popular children’s media, there is a decided lack of the fae in such as Rapunzel and even Beauty and the Beast, wherein any magical or mysterious purpose is fulfilled by a witch. Hansel and Gretel is notably the same. Arguably these kinds of story are far, far older than the pure faerie lore we’ve been examining, and their plotlines tackled by authors such as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. In regards to the latter, The Snow Queen comes to mind, with its reference to the goblins who produced the mirror from whence the shards of glass originate. We can consider goblins close enough to the mark.

A Fairy and Her Steed by robreyThe main way in which fae have developed and evolved throughout time is due primarily to two things: the first being a lightening of the world, wherein the shadowed woodlands are no longer home to dark fears and secret things and secondly, imagination and constant retelling have shaped the lives and forms of the fae, giving an astonishingly wide variety of just what we can consider as fae. If you add the idea that mythologies are explored and adjusted, lore cherry-picked and altered by authors, across cultures and regions, we are left with a constantly evolving body of both same and alternative faerie “lore” that still resembles the original in places, but which has more often than not been completely transformed into something of a chimera of mythology, folklore and subjective imagination.

However, as we’ll see in the next part of this series, there are some faeries that are so famous/infamous that regardless of tweaking or transformation, their roots are still firmly in the soil. Some remain unchanged where others have adapted and grown, but the ties that link them back to their original forms are still visible and clear. We will also explore the little-known faeries, those who seem to simply evade notice for one reason or another, remaining, even throughout the long process of evolution and adaptation, firmly in the dark.

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[1] “Introduction: Fear of Fairies”, At The Bottom Of The Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins and Other Troublesome Things. Purkiss, D., p8 (New York University Press, 2003)

Title image by robrey.


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