Legends surrounding fairies have been passed down by written, and verbal means, for thousands of years. The term is now used to describe supernatural beings that perform specific tasks. In each society, other names have been used for fairies, such as the moira in Ancient Greece and the fata in Ancient Rome. These beings were both responsible for deciding an individual’s fate.
Tales surrounding fairies vary greatly and range from miniature helpful beings, such as brownies that enter homes during the night and tidy up, to evil-doing creatures that cause great misfortune. The fairies’ appearances are as diverse as their personalities, and many are thought to be child-like, winged creatures and others imposing, gigantic beings in the shape of natural elements. Many cultures believed that the creatures originated from the elements and are, therefore, essential to their balance.
In Gaelic folklore, fairies were believed to be descendants of the gods and, therefore, incredibly powerful. Villagers referred to them as the ‘fair folk,’ but they were also known as the Aos Si, meaning the ‘People of the Mounds.’ They lived in Irish mounds known as sidhe, where they had retreated after being attacked on numerous occasions. Legend has it that when they went to live underground, the Aos Si entered a parallel dimension where they became immortal. They go back and forth between worlds, granting wishes to the villagers on this side.
Irish folklore has also produced one of the most well-known fairies in our modern culture, the leprechaun. Even though the image that most of us have of this solitary male fairy is one of a rotund, mischievous being always playing jokes upon mortals, this differs from their original appearance. In early stories, they dressed in homely clothes and had old faces. They were also known as ‘one-shoemaker’ fairies, as they only ever made single shoes. Leprechauns love treasure, often hiding it in a pot at the end of a rainbow. They protect their treasure by using their magic to disguise worthless items, such as leaves, as gold. The objects reveal their true nature after a few hours, greatly disappointing anybody that has acquired it.
Scottish legend tells of two types of fairies, both of which are powerful, that inhabited the country in previous centuries. The Seelies were practical jokers, while the Unseelies were malevolent beings. Witches were often disguising themselves as good fairies, and the Scottish used their animal appearances to determine their identity. Female fairies would take the shape of a deer, while witches were able to turn into other animals such as cats and badgers.
In Norse mythology, fairies were referred to as elves and would be prayed to for home protection and healing. They fell into two categories, light elves and dark (or black) elves. It was believed that the gods created separate worlds for them to live in, giving them supernatural powers and making them immortal. The light elves lived in one of the Nine Worlds, Alfheim. Here the Vanir god, Freyr, resided and ruled over them. They also believed in other elves such as mountain elves, field elves and wood spirits.