I’ve always loved fairies, the idea of them, the look of them, but especially the unpindownable, ephemeral, otherworldly weirdness of them. They inhabit a world of uncertainties, even their existence is questionable. How alluring and delightful.
I am fascinated by the roots and history of fairies and I urge you to read no further if you wish to keep your beliefs that fairies are good and pretty little flitters, that play the occasional sweet wee trick and live in a timeless world of quaint beauty. All that stuff is the interpretation of fairy folklore by the Victorians via Shakespeare. Although it is aesthetically attractive, it says nothing about the true sinister history of fairy folklore and it’s place in society. I’m much more interested in why people believed in fairies and what purpose they served culturally.
I read a book called ‘Troublesome things’ by Diane Purkiss which covers all this fascinating stuff very thoroughly and I urge you to read it cover to cover as it is most illuminating. But, for now, I’ll share my interpretation of some of the book with you.
Fairies were often associated with stealing babies and replacing them with changelings. This concept helps grieving mothers cope with their infant’s death in a time when infant mortality was very high. The mother can say, when her baby becomes fretful, feverish etc, that this is not her baby. Her healthy baby was taken by the fairies and replaced with a sick fairy changeling. It means that when the baby dies, the mother can comfort herself that her baby is still alive and well which gives her a way to cope emotionally.
Fairies are also often associated with inappropriate sexual congress, rape even. Perhaps a simple peasant girl finds it easier to cope with being ‘taken’ by the fairy King than being raped by some stranger on her way home.
An errant husband pleads with his wife that his unfaithfulness was not his fault, that a fairy had come to him in the guise of his wife and only afterwards did she reveal her true form. Absolving himself of guilt or wrong doing.
Naughty children were often threatened with the words ‘behave or the fairies will take you away’ and fairies were also used to threaten mothers to attend to their children, ‘Be careful not to leave your baby alone or Lamashtu will come and steal him’.
Fairies were used by people to cope with the harshness and difficulties of life and to instil appropriate morals and social behaviour.
It’s not all dead babies, rape and grimness. Fairies were not only used as threats and excuses but they also embodied magic and hope. They could be helpful around the house, they could bring you riches, but at what cost? A dangerous mixture to be sure.
Fairies are a reflection of society and their appearance and function change through history as society itself changes. The darkness, struggles and fear of more primitive times have been replaced by brightly lit hospitals, rape crisis centres, therapy sessions and convenient household appliances. But we still need fairies. Now, in their post Victorian incarnation, they are playful, innocent, colourful and their purpose is to remind us of the playful child within who believes in magic and delights in the unexplained.
In a time of pragmatism and science, rationality, cynicism and banality, perhaps we need fairies more than ever.