Fairy Overview, Creatures & Folklore | What is a Fairy?

Instructor: Natasha Deveau

Natasha taught English as a Second Language for five years. They have a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from St. Mary's University in Halifax, NS, Canada and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Concordia University of Texas in Austin, Tx, US. They also have a diploma for Teaching English as a Second Language from St. Mary's University in Halifax, NS, Canada.

Explore the history of fairies. Learn what a fairy is and what fairies look like. Read about the role of fairies in folklore and literature and view examples. Updated: 08/10/2022

The History of Fairies

The term fairy dates back to the Middle Ages in European folklore. Beginning to appear in both written and oral literature, fairies play a significant role in many stories from different cultures and religions around the world. Fairies are seen from the Sanskrit Gandharva to the nymphs of Greek mythology and Homer, and the jinni of Arabic mythology. While the word fairy is derived from old French, there is no exact source to trace these creatures back throughout history to pinpoint a specific origin. However, some scholars believe that fairies were pagan deities forced to suppress their traditions by Christian missionaries. As the acceptance of Christianity grew, fairies were changed from deity status to magical creature status to preserve their traditions. Other scholars argue that fairies are a prehistoric race of people. They claim that fairies inhabited Western Europe until they were driven out by the Celts and eventually changed into legend. The fairies that most people think of today are a conglomeration of various Celtic and Germanic traditions.

A fairy is a category of faerie or a fae. A mythical or legendary creature is a good way to describe a fae's meaning. Fae is a shortening for the early modern English word faerie, which meant "realm of the fays" and referred to a multitude of creatures and worlds, including fairies, mermaids, and other supernatural creatures and entities. These entities were generally metaphysical or spiritual in nature. Many fairies and fae are featured in myths, stories, legends, folktales, fairytales, and artwork.

Fairies are a type of fae. Mermaids, which are depicted above, are another magical creature classified as fae.

This image is of 2 faes. 2 mermaids sitting on rocks. They are staring out to sea at a ship in the distance. There is a seaweed border around the image. There is a large fish in the bottom left corner.

What is a Fairy?

What is a fairy, and are fairies evil?

In general, a fairy is a creature with humanlike, fluid personality characteristics. Some fairies are helpful, while others are mischievous, and others are evil. Like humans, fairies have quite diverse personality traits. Some different fairies include:

Disney Fairies
Disney largely influences how North Americans view fairies. Disney usually depicts their fairies as pixies, which are tiny and humanlike, with butterfly wings. This is captured in two ways, and both kinds of these fairies are helpful. The first way is as a fairy godmother, like in the tale Cinderella. A fairy godmother arrives just in time to save the protagonist from anguish and grants them wishes so that they can fulfill their destiny. The other way that Disney depicts their fairies is through a trusty sidekick to the protagonist, such as Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. Her magic grants Peter Pan and his companions the ability to fly so long as the children truly believe in Tinkerbell's magic. These characters are significant because they are usually the magical element of the films. However, these types of characters have influenced how fairies are viewed in America. This is because no matter where the fairy is seen, it is usually depicted in a Disney-style fashion.
Trickster Fairies
These fairies are usually merely mischievous but can also be adventurous. William Shakespeare wrote world-renowned plays during the late 16th and 17th centuries. Many of his plays included a magical aspect. Some of those plays had fairies as the magical aspect. A Midsummer Night's Dream has one of the most popular fairy characters, Puck, who also happens to be a trickster-like fairy. He changes Nick Bottom's head into that of an ass, spoils milk, changes shape, and misguides travelers. Puck is significant because he provides comic relief while causing chaos throughout the play.
Changeling Fairies
Perceived as evil, these faerie children are well-known and feared throughout Europe. People believed that their children were kidnapped and that a sick or distorted changeling was left in their place. Perhaps, what is most significant is that these fairies change the fate of those that are affected by their thievery and magic.

What Do Fairies Look Like?

Early pictures of ancient fairies look like elves or trolls, some being extraordinarily striking while others were disgustingly malformed or misshapen. Although some fairies were tall like adult people, most were childlike in size. However, they may also have very distinguishable traits or a combination of traits that humans do not possess, such as green or blue skin, no nose, pointed ears, webbed fingers and toes, and wings. Once the Romantic Period began, ugly fairies became a thing of the past. They were replaced with beautiful fairies that had deeper connections with humans. Other characters in a story would likely perceive fairies as a friend and not a foe based on their appearance.

This image is representative of what a fairy would be described as looking like.

An image of a fairy. She is humanlike with long hair and wearing a green dress with flowers in her hair. She has wings. She holds a green sack.

Fairies in Folklore and Literature

Fairies are legendary creatures. They have prevailed throughout centuries and continue to thrive today, including in novels like Narnia by C.S. Lewis. In this book, fairies can be seen alongside other mythical and magical creatures, like giants, dryads, and other folkloric creatures. Fairies have a prevalent presence and an impact on folklore, literature, and the arts.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What do fairies do?

Fairies can do many things, but it usually involves magic. Some fairies are helpful, while some are mischievous, and others are sinister.

What are different types of fairies?

There are many different types of fairies. Some examples are pixies, sprites, trolls, nymphs, brownies, tricksters, and elves. Most people will also think of Disney fairies as well.

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