Just as the word witch is frequently used to encompass all sorts of occult or spiritual practitioners, the word fairy is often used as a catch-all for all kinds of disparate spiritual entities. Like “witch” “fairy” is used by different people to express different concepts. Fairies, thus, can be very difficult to discuss unless one determines exactly how the word is being defined.
The English word “fairy” has historically been used to encompass the following:
• Miniature winged flower fairies or devas—each individual flower has a petite presiding spirit. These tiny, charming spirits ride butterflies, birds, and dragonflies and are the prototype of what many modern people understand as “fairies.” Because of their small stature, they seem sweet and harmless; however, flower fairies share the essence of their respective flowers, thus not all flower fairies are gentle: beautiful, poisonous wolfsbane possesses flower fairies, too.
• Human-sized fairy folk are the subject of a high proportion of fairy tales and folk ballads. In stories at least, fairies are often aggressive, stealing human children and adults. Those who assume that all fairies are two inches tall sometimes find these stories confusing.
• Different types of spirits from all over the world with distinct names in their own languages are commonly categorized as “fairies” in English translation, as if “fairy” was a generic term for “spirit.” In English, all these spirits are known as fairies, sometimes spelled faeries or fées. Thus one speaks of “Hungarian fairies” or “Russian fairies,” rather than Tündér and Rusalka, distinctly different types of spirits and both distinguishable from sidhe, the Irish fairies.
• Fairy is used as a generic term for ancient pre-Christian spirits. In essence, it’s a demotion: deities who’ve refused to fade away (or whose devotees stubbornly cling to them) are removed from the pantheon of gods but permitted a lesser role as “nature spirits.”
• Fairy has also been used historically to indicate devotees of pre-Christian spirits. In seventeenth-century England, “fairy” was a synonym for “witch” and/or “Pagan practitioner.” This may be the root of the modern usage of “fairy” as a pejorative for homosexual men.
In stories, legends, and fairy tales, witches and fairies are often treated as mirror images of each other: both are powerful beings, predominately female using similar tools—charms, magic wands, and spells. Both are reputedly shape-shifters. Older stories blend the boundaries: not all witches are evil, not all fairies are sparkly and benevolent.
Modern versions of these fairy-tales often take a dualist approach: witches are exclusively malevolent while fairies are exclusively “good.”
Historically this has not been the case. Witches and fairies have been linked for centuries; the dividing line between them has not always been distinct. In many parts of Europe, accusations of “witchcraft” were technically accusations of consorting with fairies: witchcraft was considered synonymous with fairy-craft. Witch-trial testimony from Hungary, Italy, and Scotland indicate that powerful, largely femaleoriented fairy spiritual traditions did exist.
The English word fairy derives from the Old French feie or fée, which in turn derives from the Latin fatua (female seer) and fatum (fate or destiny). This concept is demonstrated with more clarity in Italian, where the word corresponding to fairy is fata. Thus Celtic fairy goddess Morgan le Fay is Fata Morgana in Italy. The Fates may as well be called The Fairies or vice-versa.
This is now largely unfamiliar partly because, in recent years, as fairy tales have become relegated to nursery tales, fairies have become sanitized. To the modern ear, “fairy” often has a whimsical aura, but this was not always the case:
• Fairies were once respected to the point of fear
• Fairies were perceived as dangerous spirits and for good reason: “fairy” derives from “fate”
Many fairies resemble the Middle Eastern/North African spirits known as djinn. Both are shy, volatile, nocturnal spirits who frequently distrust people and are reputedly temperamental, easily offended, and potentially dangerous. In both cases it’s considered hazardous to call them by name and so euphemisms like “the neighbors” (djinn) or “the good people” (Fairies) are substituted. (Nicer, sweeter, more benevolent female djinn are sometimes classified as “fairies” in those English-language fairy tales where “djinn,” unlike “fairy,” still retains an aura of volatility.) Both dislike iron and salt, although djinn allegedly formed from fire, as people were formed from Earth, do not fear that element as some fairies, notably the sidhe, reputedly do.
“Fairy” is sometimes used to encompass any kind of spirit or fabulous being. Thus mining spirits, dwarfs, kobolds and goblins are all labeled “fairies,” as are the Black Dogs of Britain and other supernal animal creatures. One thousand pages devoted to this vast array of spiritual entities alone wouldn’t do them justice and so in these pages “fairy” is more narrowly defined.
Two types of fairies are discussed in these pages, together with their human devotees:
• Spirits that determine human fate and destiny
• Spirits of wild nature: those spirits with dominion over animals, botanicals, fertility, birth, love, sex, and women’s power
Sometimes these two types of fairies overlap. Both types also are often involved with death and transitions between life and death. Many serve as psychopomps (See ) and thus encounters with them are often unwelcome and perceived as threatening.