Most modern Americans associate fairies with carefree winged creatures that flutter about aiding mankind with their magical powers. In modern Western literature, art and culture this is the image we have cultivated to depict the mythical creatures, whose name is a derivative from the medieval root word “fae,” meaning “spirit-touched.” Cinderella’s benevolent Godmother was a fairy, as was Peter Pan’s sparkling assistant Tinker Bell. Farther back, even Shakespeare used mischievous but mostly well-intentioned fairies in his ethereal work “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” Thus, it may come as a surprise to many that the origins of the sprightly jovial creatures we associate with modern Fairy Tales are actually quite dark and rather menacing.
Perhaps the most famous precursor to fairies as we know them today appears in the plentiful legends of King Arthur. Morgan LeFay, whose surname equates to “of the fairies”, appeared in numerous forms throughout various tales of the Knights of the Round Table. Whether serving as the enchantress who seduces Merlin or the “Queen of the Faerie,” Morgan LeFay typically appears as a dark force to be reckoned with throughout the legends. This type of association between fairies and malevolent forces is far more deeply ingrained in history than our modern benign and benevolent connotation of the word. Irish, Icelandic, Nordic, and Arab cultures, to name just a few, all have lore depicting fairies as ill-tempered and vengeful Other-Worldly creatures to be avoided at all costs.
The origin of fairies as spirit-touched creatures with hostile intent differs from culture to culture, even within the same cultures there are often variations. Some believe that fairies are the embodiment of emotions that takes on enough form and substance to become a fairy. For example, a kind word or the laughter of a child would create a benevolent fairy creature, whereas an angry word or cruel deed would create a malicious one.
Many also believed that fairies could spring forth from the natural world, taking on the characteristics of the natural entity that had created them. Thus, fairies spawned from beautiful misty lakes were generally considered benign and nonthreatening entities whereas those spawned from decaying wood or rusted metal were often irritable and ill-tempered.
Later, once Christianity began to spread, the fairies origins were more frequently associated with demons sent to earth by the devil himself or fallen angels. In Scotland and parts of Ireland, these dark fairies were often said to drink blood much like modern vampires.
In Celtic tradition, many felt that fairies were actually the remnants of a prehistoric race that had withdrawn into a secret magical world and would reappear to torment mankind. Other Celts feared that fairies were the spirits or souls of the dead, which is why many old Irish “fairy” tales are actually more along the lines of ghost stories.
Similarly, Norwegian Folklore associated the mounds where dead warriors were buried with dark fairy activity. The idea stems from a long Nordic tradition of “Hidden People” called “Huldufolk.” Citizens were forbidden to do anything that might “wake the mound dwellers,” who were considered fairy-like beings who would wreak all sorts of unpleasant havoc on nearby communities, should they be disturbed. Eating the fairy-tainted fruits or vegetables found growing in the vicinity of these mounds could create chaos amid not just a household, but an entire community.
The one thing that seemingly remains a constant of fairy lore prior to the late 1800s is the connotation of enmity towards mankind on some level.
“Dark Fairies,” Dr. Bob Curran, New Page Books, 2010