Thursday, May 3, 2012

Jeudi: Great Spirits

Beltane was just two days ago and this time of year one often hears Neo-Pagans speaking of their work with the fey, fee, fata or, more familiarly, fairies.  In popular imagination, fairies are the little folk illustrated in the painting above, all gossamer wings and dainty gowns, none of them any bigger than a man’s finger.  They seem harmless if a little mysterious and speaking of fairy godmother, lawn gnomes and fairy tales is not more off-putting than talk of the toaster needing to be fixed.

Personally, I beg to differ.

Fairies have a long and storied history in Indo-European folklore.  They appear in almost all cultures from Russia to Spain and back again.  Most of the stories however, if read in their original forms, are not about helpful little people with a yen to protect nature.  In many cases the fairies are secretive, mischievous, sometimes malicious and on occasion down right evil. 

The history of the Western fairy proper is itself somewhat in dispute.  Certain scholars (K.M. Briggs of Oxford University, for instance) claim that the tradition of fairies was exclusive to the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome and specifically the Etruscans in particular.  In this theory, fairies were not introduced into the north until the Roman invasions.  Briggs points out that written evidence of fairy lore does not appear in England, for instance, until the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles of the 9th century.

This is probably overstating the case, and perhaps a symptom of the conqueror, who could write and thus leave their history, not bothering to mention the traditions of the conquered.  Fairy lore is so engrained in Celtic tradition, which sweeps across not just the British Isles but Spain, Portugal and France as well, that familiar oral traditions concerning fairies remain alive to this day.

The Etruscan fairy, according to Wiccan scholar Raven Grimassi, was known as the Lasa.  These were spirits of nature who also knew the secrets of healing and would protect people who left them offerings.  Grimassi speculates that the Lasa may have been, at least in part, the origin of the Roman house spirits known as Lares which in more agrarian times were protectors of cultivated land.

From here, the little spirits known as fatua or fata must be considered.  These were personal “fates” that looked after individuals and were imagined to function rather like what modern people call their conscience.  If an individual did the right thing, the fata was pleased and would help them; if not, the little spirit might make them ill or bring about injury or even death.

The leap, then, to French and Spanish words like fee or fia and then to the British fey becoming fairy is not hard to imagine.  All of these creatures retained a certain fascination with, and need to be close to, human beings even after they lost their attachment as personal or family sprites.

Of course, stories of “fairy children” abound.  In the average story, a baby is taken from its cradle by fairies with one of their own left in its place.  Why fairies want to raise human children is never sufficiently explained in these stories which may be a point in and of itself.  The reason for fairy kidnapping may have been so well understood by our ancestors that there was no need to include it in the story.  Because of this, it unfortunately slipped away to be replaced, on occasion, with some clumsy add-on.

But babies were not always the fairies’ target.  The Scottish story of the blacksmith and his son tells of a child who simply took to his bed one day and refused to move.  Though he ate he would not drink, he rarely spoke and he stared at the wall across the room with unblinking, silvery eyes.  Upon consulting a local wise man, or in later versions a priest, the smith found that his son had been kidnapped by fairies and replaced with one of their own.  Through a series of trials, he manages to banish the imposter and retrieve his son from a fairy mound.  Once home, the young man displays a previously unknown genius for smith craft and makes his father a tidy fortune through this art.

The good done by the fairies here is back handed and after the fact.  Would they have returned the boy without his father’s courageous efforts?  The story does not say.

In other cases, there seems to be no chance of happy ending and the fairy in question seems to be satisfying their own selfish needs at the expense of humans.  This seems to be the case in the French story of the fee, sometimes mermaid or gargoyle, Melusine who marries a human man but makes him promise never to spy on her on Sunday.  They are happy, have children and grow rich together but, when on one fateful Sunday the husband peeks into Melusine’s chamber and sees her in her true form, none of that matters.  She flies, or swims, away and is never seen again.

Countless tales such as these, which are far more ancient than the modern fairies-in-the-raspberries stories told today, can be found.  To my mind this points up what fairies really are.  I share my grandmother’s opinion; they are great spirits, gods we no longer know, and the best way to handle them is to nod in respect and keep your distance…

Header El Sueno de Una Noche de Verano (The Dream of a Summer Night) by Emilio Freixas via Old Paint


Timmy! said...

Sounds like good advise to me Pauline.

Especially if they are wearing boots...

Pauline said...


Capt. John Swallow said...

Aye...not what the folk at Disney marketing would have ye believe LOL
Of course, explaining this to "certain" people is like trying to explain the true aspect o' Angels...

Thankfully, there are some who actually do believe in knowledge & enlightenment...and if they're truly enlightened, they'll read yer blog(s)!

Pauline said...

As ever, brother, you are unusally wise; and I thank you for your kind words.