By Lillian Glockson
From the beginning of time man has believed that fate was not entirely in his own hands, but also in the hands of all-powerful beings, residing within an alternate dimension, separated from our perception of time and space.
The entities believed to inhabit that plane of existence have been countless. A very large and heavy book would be required to recount all of their names, not to mention the variations on their names in different countries. Let it suffice to give only generalized references within this article for the sake of brevity.
Even to this day there are people who continue to believe in those elusive masters of destiny, and who continue to perform rituals meant to appease, just in case, for fear of the consequences of not believing.
Although people of every continent have embraced the supernatural at one time or another, to the point of worshiping those entities they thought would favor them, there has been an effort by some to abolish all other beliefs but their own. Through disinformation they have reshaped the public sentiment, to transform the once benevolent into malevolent creatures that evoke fear rather than reverence.
Such was the fate of the Fay: The fairies of the Seely Court and the fairies we know as nature spirits. In an unpredicted twist of circumstances, their fortune came to rest in the hands of humankind rather than the reverse.
Where did they come from? Were they just imaginings that took on an existence of their own? Were they a race that is now extinct? Are they still with us? These questions have never been conclusively answered. Nonetheless, for the humans who share in the passionate love of nature that fairies epitomize, and who wish to do all they can to preserve its balance, it does not matter. They are alive in the hearts of those who believe, and life would not be complete without their stewardship.
Because fairies were very real to so many of our ancestors, it is difficult to know for sure whether or not the many tales about them were grounded in some truth. Most people now feel that fairy stories were just flights of fancy, but there is strong evidence in literature that they were either a popular tool for scaring children or enhanced accountings of actual events. Perchance they were both. Reports of recent sightings are rare, but fantastic rumors of fairy encounters were once numerous and quite descriptive.
The fairies of legend have always been with us under one name or another. Whether or not they were ever real, it is well documented that great caution was always used when referring to fairy-kind. The names they were called by, such as "Gentle Folk", were more wishful than descriptive. It was held that dealings with the Fay could bring about either fortune or misfortune. No one really knew for sure which it would be, so it was the practice at least to try not to anger a fairy and at best to find favor, just in case it was ill-tempered.
The more recent trend is to classify a fairy as light, dark, or grey - suggesting a disposition or tendency. However, many of our ancestors would have never dared to do so. Stories passed down on the subject frequently reported that fairies despised those who would attempt to define them and objected to even being called by the name fairy or Fay. As such, they would have certainly taken exception to being classified by human moral values.
Fairies were thought to be the servants of nature, and it appears that the fairy code of ethics was no more reconcilable with human morals than would nature be herself. Nature cannot and will not follow the moral codes we have set for ourselves, because to do so would ensure its extinction.
Tales of the Fay often described them as seductively alluring, as well as deadly. Fairies were believed to be entwined within nature's driving need to reproduce itself, to ensure species survival; and death is as important a part of life as birth in keeping a delicate balance. This custodianship of nature intimately involved them in both the procreation and the decline of all living things. They were symbolically responsible for the renewal of life that comes with the emergence of spring.
Not unlike humans, fairies were often attributed with extreme emotions such as happiness, joy, anger, and rage. Perhaps that is why we tend to judge them by our own standards. The resemblance is so profound that it is difficult to see more than superficial differences. It is also true that humans are part of nature and its innocence. This makes it very tempting to see fairies as lighter versions of ourselves, but that comparison would be groundless. We do not truly serve nature, as fairies were renowned for doing; we depend on nature to serve us. That alone makes us significantly different.
It is well documented in literature that fairies loved music and dance. In that aspect fairies and humans have always been very much alike. The Fay were also noted to be eternally young with childlike qualities of curiosity and mirth, and like children they delighted in playing pranks on the unsuspecting. Still, life was not all gaiety and fun for their kind. Sometimes their dancing was said to weave magical rites of the seasons, in their service to nature. The ground where these dances took place was considered sacred, with fairy rings marking their places of revelry. Legend says that any humans who dared to tread there, did so at risk of great peril.
Also well established is that fairies instinctively distrusted humans, and for good reason. Intrusions on their privacy seldom went unpunished, unless of course the intruder was a child. There seemed to be a softening of restrictions, in those instances, that can only be indicative of nature's love of youth and beauty.
Some stories suggest that fair human youths were once irresistible to fairies, who were accused of spiriting away those that they favored. Some tales speak of the fairies wishing to rescue those they stole, from a life of cruelty and/or hardship. Indeed, those captives were often given full fairy status and lived in luxury within the fairy realm. An identical child was thought to be left in place of the stolen one, but this is where the story turns to horror: That child was often tortured by its human parents, to make the fairies return their true offspring.
Of course there were also tales written about adults being taken to Elfame (also known as Faery or Fairyland) as servants or mates. Once released, they found that more time had passed in the human world then they had realized. Time had not been perceived and they had not aged during their stay in Elfame. The fairies living there also did not age and were considered immortal due to their indeterminate life-spans.
Marriages between fairies and humans were recorded as well. Fairies remaining in the human world had to give up their powers and live as mortals, but children born from those unions were noted to be greatly gifted with talent and beauty. Sometimes, after a number of years, the fairy wife returned home to her own people and was never seen again.
Elfame, the legendary realm of the fairies, was renowned for being accessible through magical portals. The entrances were thought to lie under hills, under water, and under certain trees. The distance between those doorways was of no consequence, and any human who entered was changed forever by the experience.
Admission into that world was by invitation only and did not come without a price. Going there often resulted in indefinite imprisonment, even for guests, and trespassers were dealt with severely. Yet for those who claimed to have visited the fairy kingdom, it seems the price paid was not felt to be unjust.
Accounts of Elfame described it as a resplendently dazzling land with elaborate castles dotting magnificent farmland, rolling hills, and meadows covered with wild flowers. Trees were heavily burdened with exotic fruits of every kind and it was rumored that one taste of fairy food would forever make all other food seem unpalatable.
Magnificent celebrations were held there frequently - lavish spreads of sumptuous foods were served on golden platters and wine was served in bejeweled goblets - but the biggest party of the year was believed to be held in May on the full moon. Almost every fairy attended.
The fairies were summoned at midnight by the ringing of bluebells. They dressed in extravagant finery made from the most exquisite cloth and embellishments. Enchantingly beautiful music could be heard floating on the evening breezes, and it was said that the lights from the fairy ball could be seen sparkling through the water on those moonlit nights.
The remarkable sights reportedly witnessed from within the fairy world are as yet unrivaled. Only fleeting glimpses of that same grandeur were ever seen from outside its magical gates. The glittering jewels and golden spires of that realm were noted to be hidden from the eyes of those who did not possess fairy sight, an ability to see through fairy glamour.
Tricking the human eye, into believing whatever it sees, was easy for fairies; and the use of glamour made that possible. Legends and stories are filled with fairies able to hide or transform portions of the landscape, to the dismay of travelers. They even transformed themselves into animals and inanimate objects. In the blink of an eye they could either disappear or disguise themselves completely. The forms taken were limitless.
Fairies were even known to make themselves look like humans, but the image that most readily comes to mind is that of a tall, elegant, radiant nymph that is lithe and beautiful with delicate wings shaped either like a butterfly or like a dragonfly. Other popular shapes are that of a child with wings and that of a very tiny, luminescent being that appears to be a firefly.
It is also said that the use of fairy glamour allowed fairies to decorate themselves however they chose. Flower fairies appeared dressed in the same flower petals as the flowers that they tended, forest nymphs appeared in the colors and substance of the wood, and water sprites appeared almost as crystalline as water itself. There were also many other variations when it came to the choice of clothing or the lack of it.
The Fay were not always described as having wings. Earlier stories recounted an elfin creature endowed with a strong work ethic and/or mystical healing powers. These were sometimes skilled master craftsmen, able to create fabulous works of art overnight. Metalwork was one of the more favored trades. Jewelry, armor, and legendary weapons – all bestowed with magical properties - were said to have been made by elfin fairies.
How ever the Fay were described, their most outstanding and consistent quality was that they all served nature in one way or another. They were noted to be guardians of the forests, the trees, the flowers, the waters, the rocks, the mountains, the children, the birds, and all wild animals.
For a great number of years, stories of fairy encounters were passed down by word of mouth or in letters; but recently scholars have been compiling many of those tales into numerous volumes of books. Intellectual analyses of those accounts have also added a dimension to the fairy lore. How they lived, where they lived, their interactions with humans, and the amazing powers they were believed to possess are all subjects of great speculation.
There seems to be no end to the information gathered about fairies throughout the ages; yet we still cannot fully define them nor conclusively establish their existence. Nevertheless, we continue to be spellbound by them. Legends of their magical enchantments and influences on destiny have irresistible appeal for children and adults alike. Despite all the time that has passed since people believed in fairies, they still have the power to hold us captive.