fairies

   The basic European repertoire of beliefs and tales about fairies is less fully preserved in England than in the Celtic areas of Wales, Ireland, and Highland Scotland, though much of it was well known here in the 17th century, and later. Unfortunately it has been overshadowed by literary portrayals, medieval, Shakespearian, or modern; the rural lore collected by regional folklorists made little impact on public awareness until the 1960s and 1970s, when Katharine *Briggs brought all the evidence together, demonstrating its coherence and power.
   Folklorists generally use the term 'fairy' rather loosely, to cover a range of non-human yet material beings with magical powers. These could be visible or invisible at will, and could change shape; some lived underground, others in woods, or in water; some flew. Some were believed to be friendly, giving luck, prosperity, or useful skills to humans who treated them respectfully; many were regarded as troublesome pranksters, or, in extreme cases, as minor demons; sometimes they were blamed for causing sickness, stealing human babies, and leaving *changelings. Human adults might be invited (or abducted) into *fairyland.
   Fairies can be divided into two major groups: 'social' fairies, imagined as living in communities and pursuing group activities such as dancing and feasting; and 'solitary' fairies, of which some (the *brownie type) attach themselves to human households as helpers and luck-bringers, while others (the *bogey/boggart type) haunt an open-air site, often as a more-or-less serious threat to passers-by. But it is not always clear-cut; *pixies, for example, can be either 'social' or 'solitary', while *Robin Goodfellow behaves equally readily as prankster or helpful household sprite. Conversely, informants sometimes insist on rigid separations between categories; a brownie, for instance, might be regarded as a quite different creature from a fairy, and a shape-changing apparition like the Yorkshire *guytrash as something different again - which, from a functionalist point of view, is true enough. The number of local words for species and sub-species, and for individuals, is considerable. The original English term for the whole species was *elf, but in Middle English this was largely replaced by 'fairy', borrowed from French.
   The clergy, whether Catholic or Protestant, usually insisted that all such creatures could only be devils; many realized their similarity to the fauns, satyrs, nymphs, etc., of classical mythology, which they also regarded as demons. In popular belief, however, fairies were fitted into the Christian frame of reference in ways which left them morally ambiguous; in Cornwall, they were said to be angels who refused to side either with God or with Lucifer when the latter rebelled, and so, being 'too good for Hell and too bad for Heaven', were thrown down to earth and lived wherever they happened to fall. Alternatively, they could be identified with *ghosts - either of the dead in general, or of special categories such as *unbaptized infants. The latter was commonly said of the *Will-o'-the-Wisp.
   Belief in the household brownie (or pixy, or puck) was closely linked to farming; he threshes corn, tends horses, herds sheep, churns butter, cleans the kitchen, and so on, like an ideal farm servant. He also brings prosperity, and can take it away again if offended; he punishes anyone who mocks him, and those who work badly. The *knock-ers had a similar role in tin and lead mining, but not in coal mines, indicating that this belief had faded by the time the latter industry was established.
   The Anglo-Saxon charm against *elves shows how they were once dreaded for the diseases they inflicted; there are scattered indications that the fear persisted, to some extent, into Tudor and Stuart times. There are records of village healers seeking to cure children 'haunted with a fairy' by prayer and by magic measurements (Thomas, 1971: 184). On the other hand, people claiming unusual powers might say they had been granted them by fairies; there are instances of 16th- and 17th-century healers using ointments and powders alleged to be fairy gifts, or saying fairies enabled them to identify witches (Thomas, 1971: 186, 248, 266, 608-9). More sophisticated magicians used rituals to conjure up fairies, hoping to obtain great wealth, or occult secrets (Thomas, 1971: 236-7, 608-9, 613).
   In the final stage of fairy-lore, belief is deliberately instilled by adults (who do not themselves share it) as a way of controlling children and ensuring their safety by threats of danger from a *bogey figures, e.g. *Jenny Greenteeth, *hytersprites, or *poldies. This strategy was still used in the upbringing of some people now in middle age, but probably no longer is. A more amiable item of fairy-lore for children is that fairies take away shed *teeth, leaving money instead (see *teeth and *Tooth Fairy).
   ■ Briggs, 1959, 1967, 1976, 1978; Thomas, 1971: 606-14. For narratives embodying the beliefs see Briggs, 1970-1: B; Philip, 1992: 307-36. Narvaez 1991 contains valuable recent papers on various special topics.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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