When we think of Fairy lore, many of us in the US naturally think of Ireland. However, Fairies appear in the folklore of most every culture and on every continent. The similarities are striking and some have suggested that a common source memory exists or existed widely among people at one time. John Rhys advanced this theory at the beginning of the 20th century. Rhys thought that the lore of the Fairy were ancient stories of the original inhabitants of Britain. They were called the "Corannians" in Wales, and Rhys believed that the name was derived from the word cor, which meant, "dwarf."
American 19th century ethnologist James Mooney, who studied American Indians in the minutest details, wrote: "The belief in fairies and kindred spirits, frequently appearing as diminutive beings in human form, is so universal among all races as to render citation of parallels unnecessary...usually benevolent and kindly when not disturbed, but often mischievous, and in rare cases malicious and revengeful."1
The Little People were thought to affect the minds of sane people. According to the Creek Indians in the 1800s, "Fairies or little people live in hollow trees and on rocky cliffs. They often decoy people from their homes and lose them in the woods. When a man's mind becomes bewildered — not crazy — this is caused by the little people."2
The Cherokee believed that the Falls of Tallulah, in northeastern Georgia, were occupied by a race of tiny people who lived in the rocks and grottos under the waterfalls. Known as the Nunne'hi, or the "immortals," they
1. Mooney, James. MythsoftheCherokee. NewYork: Dover Publications 1995, 475. A reprint of the 1900 publication "Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1897-98.
were thought to be no larger than children but were well formed with hair reaching to their feet. The tiny people exhibited a dual nature, being both helpful to humans as well as hostile — should anyone see the Immortals at their work, they would die. Because of this hostility, the Cherokee hunters and fishers avoided the falls. Mooney reported that just a few years prior to the turn of the 20th century, "two hunters from Raventown, going behind the high fall near the head of the Oconaluftee on the East Cherokee reservation, found there a cave with fresh footprints of the Little People all over the floor."3 A belief in an inherent hostility on the part of the Fairy toward humans is not restricted to those in the Americas.
The Cherokee say that the Yunwi Tsunsdi' or the "Little People," were known to help lost children, the ill and wounded, and would help the Indians with their work at night. Cherokee fishermen would pray to the Water-dwellers, a type of Fairy that lived in the water. Hunters also had Fairy people, called the Tsawa si, to pray to for guidance. They were tiny, well-formed people with hair to the ground and had great power over game animals.
A similar being was familiar to the Iroquois. These Little People often dispensed wisdom and gifts of magic and it is said that a human in the company of one of these creatures does not age.4
The Yana Indians who lived along the Sacramento River adjacent to what is now Lassen National Park believed in a race of malignant little people, called yo-yautsgi, who appeared to be the size of small children but had the reputation of enticing travelers and eating them.
The Seri Indians who live on Tiburon Island in the Gulf of California, said at one time to be the "wildest and most primitive tribe surviving in North America",5 speak of Abtiso'ma. It is said he is "the size of a child, has a beard, a golden staff, white clothes inside and black outside"; he lives in a cave and reportedly stole a young man "in order to dress him nicely."6
Little People also figured in the lore of the Maliseet-Passamquoddy tribes that occupied the area that is now Maine and New Brunswick. The Little People were thought to have "made concretions of sand and clay along the stream banks. Through the objects they leave behind one can divine the future. A small coffin-shaped object forewarned death."7
The "ruler of water" recognized by the Araucanians in the Tierra del Fuego region of South America sometimes appears as a "tiny manikin...with
4. Blackman, W. Haden. The Field Guide to North American Monsters. New York: Three Rivers Press 1998, 123.
5. Kroeber, A. L. The Seri. Southwest Museum Papers Number Six. Los Angeles: Southwest Museum, April 1931,3.
7. Erickson, Vincent O. "Maliseet-Passamaquoddy" in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15: Northeast. Edited by Bruce G. Trigger. Washington: Smithsonian Institution 1978,133
dark skin and curly hair." Known as Sompallwe, he is, however, "more feared than reverenced."8
Among the Indian tribes of California, many of the Fairy were called "Water Babies" or "Rock Babies." Described as small, dwarf-like men in traditional Indian dress with long hair, the Water Babies were regarded as unusually potent spirit helpers, which lived along streams and water holes. The Water Baby was believed to enhance the power of the shaman. Archaeologist David S. Whitley remarked that "the sighting of Water Baby was believed to result in death — a metaphor, in fact, for entering or being in an altered state of consciousness."9
In the Owens Valley between California and Nevada is a large rock art complex known as Red Canyon. Here are found large rock outcroppings with unusual rock art. The stone is covered with small, engraved human-like footprints said to be those of the Water Baby. Next to the Water Baby tracks are engraved bear tracks, which appear to be walking in the same direction.
As noted above, Water Babies are an important aspect in the folklore of most Indian cultures in the Great Basin. The Kawaiisu mythology includes a story on the origin of these beings, which are called the Pagazozi. Ethnologist Maurice L. Zigmond noted that the term Pagazozi refers to a people who lived to the north of the Kawaiisu and also to "a queer people, i.e. mythological. They are 'water people'".10 According to legend, the trickster god Coyote fell into the water at Owens Lake and as he floated to the surface "big worms" emerged from his hide and swam to shore, transforming into people as they transitioned from the water to the land.11 This legend is a short but important one, tying the origin of the Water Babies directly from a god through the medium of water where they not only live but from where their powers are also generated.
There are hundreds of lakes in the Pacific Northwest between Mount Adams and Mount Rainier and a majority of them are reported to be inhabited by strange animals and spirits. Ella Clark noted in her book, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, that these spirits were of little children "who had lived in the days of the ancient people. Their cries sometimes broke the silence of the nighttime. The next morning," according to Clark, "the prints of their little naked feet were found in the wet sand along the margin of the lake."12 Are these spirits the same spirits of the Water Babies?
Among the Chinook Indians of Oregon and Washington, a race of little people known as the Kwak-wa-etai-mewh existed. These little people had
8. Krickeberg, Walter, et al. Pre-Columbian American Religions. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1968, 264.
9. Whitley, David S. A Guide to Rock Art Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company 1996, 53.
10. Zigmond, Maurice L. Kawaiisu Mythology: An Oral Tradition of South-Central California. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 18. Menlo Park: Ballena Press 1980, 55.
12. Clark, Ella E. Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest. Berkeley: University of California Press 1953, 51.
beaks instead of mouths, ate shells and, according to legend, while their skin was protection enough against knives or arrows, the feathers of birds could inflict mortal injury. According to 19th century ethnologist George Gibbs, the Kwak-wa-etai-mewh "are not withstanding their size very strong, and one of them can paddle a great canoe by himself and catch it full of salmon, halibut and sturgeon."13
The Lakota believed in a race of "ugly" small men and women that they referred to as "tree dwellers." Similar to tales of other Fairy folk around the world, the tree dwellers, called Can Otidan, reportedly stayed in the woods and forests and "would lure hunters away and lose them or they would frighten them so that they would lose their senses."14 The Can Otidan apparently were more than simple Fairy spirits as they were classed in a group referred to as "bad gods".
Little people15 referred to as "travel-two" were among the forest spirits in the Nehalem Tillamook (Oregon) world. Called "travel-two" because they always traveled in pairs, these Fairy-like creatures were hunters and would often give a human they encountered on their travels the skills to become a good hunter — if the travel-two happened to speak with him.16
In New Brunswick, Canada, the Little People are called Geow-Iud-mo-sis-eg. There are two types of these creatures, one Healers and the other Tricksters. The Healers are said to do "some super marvelous things for a person who may be stricken or inflicted with some kind of physical ailment." The Tricksters, as their name implies, play pranks and tricks on people that are more annoying than they are dangerous. Both types of Fairy are closely linked to water sites such as lake shores, rivers, brooks and marshes.17
Whitley believes that the belief in "little people" worldwide may be the effect of certain hallucinogens, used by shamans, which temporarily change the optic nerve. When this happens, according to Whitley, an unusual "Lilliputian hallucination" takes place that makes everything appear much smaller than it is in "reality." This is an interesting hypothesis; however, it is not convincing in itself. The thousands of legends from around the world of Fairy and Water Babies have not been sourced from shamans alone. It would also seem logical that if a hallucinogen were responsible, then stories of other diminutive creatures (deer, birds, etc) and landscapes would also be contained in the mythic literature — and they simply aren't. Such beliefs may stem from the effects of poor nutrition, as periodic food shortages and seasonal
13. Clark, Ella E., editor. "George Gibbs' Account of Indian Mythology of Oregon and Washington Territories" in Oregon Historical Quarterly Vol. LVI, Number 4, December 1955, 309.
14. Walker, James R. Lakota Belief and Ritual. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1991, 107.
15. Other "little folk" in Tillamook lore are the dit'katu who lived in lakes. He is described as "like a little brownie, about one and a half feet high."
16. Jacobs, Elizabeth D. The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press 2003, 182.
17. Paul, Pat. "Little People: Geow-Lud-Mo-Sis-Eg". [email protected].
shortages of fruit and vegetables would routinely cause vitamin deficiencies of the type that may be associated with signs of delirium.
Much of the rock art located in certain areas are said to be the work of Rock Babies who actually live within the rock surfaces — normally also near water sources. The Kawaiisu, living in the area around the southern Sierra Nevadas in California and Nevada, call the Rock Babies "uwani azi," derived from "uwa uwa," which is said to reflect the sound of a baby crying.
Ethnologist Maurice Zigmond reported that the Rock Baby are believed to be responsible for many of the pictographs in the Kawaiisu territory and they are never finished working on them — as indicated by the changing patterns of the rock art. The pictographs of the Rock Baby are characterized by the use of at least five colors rather than the one or two colors used by humans. "Both the Rock Baby and his pictographs are 'out of bounds' for people," says Zigmond, "the paintings may be looked at without danger, but touching them will lead to quick disaster. one who puts his fingers on them and then rubs his eyes will not sleep again but will die in three days."18 Described as looking just like a baby, with short black hair, the Rock Baby is seldom seen but more commonly heard. To see one is to court disaster. Like the Fairy, the Rock Baby is also capable of stealing human babies and exchanging them for non-human look-alikes.
Like the Kawaiisu, the Mono Indians living around the Mono Lake area also believed in a water-spirit similar to the Water or Rock Baby. Called Pauwiha, they live in springs and rivers and can cause illness. According to Mono Indian Gaylen D. Lee, "Pauwiha has long, very shiny hair, sometimes blond, sometimes black, but it is never seen, because it jumps back into the spring when someone approaches...if, by chance, Pauwiha is glimpsed, only its hair and body are seen, never its face. If the face is seen...the person becomes 'sick, many different ways'."19 Rock art sites were also out-of-bounds with the Mono as well. "Don't go near there," Gaylen Lee was told, "because they're places of power."20
A small race of mysterious beings called Surem, that some believe to be the ancestors of the Yaqui Indians in Mexico, live in the Sonoran Desert. These people, about three feet tall, are considered nomads who do not fall ill or know death and are able to communicate not only with animals but also with plants. "The little people moved about," says writers Carol and Dinah Mack, "and carried a lake with them, rolled up like a carpet, and whenever they needed water or fish, they would unroll the lake and fish in it."21 Legend says that the Surem still live in the Sonoran Desert today but in a parallel universe where the world still exists in its wild state.
19. Lee, Gaylen D. Walking where we lived: Memoirs of a Mono Indian Family. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 1998, 36.
21. Mack, Carol K. and Dinah Mack. A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits. New York: Owl Books 1998, 139.
Similar beings are those called chaneques, which have been part of Olmec culture since 1500 BCE. These creatures, similar to Water Babies, are still believed in today and are described as "old dwarfs with faces of children."22 The chaneques live in waterfalls, dominate wild animals and fish, and are truly wild in nature. They can cause illnesses, foresee rain, and are said to eat the brains of humans. To buy their good behavior it is a practice to provide the chaneques with buckets of water, which is regarded as "the magic food."23
The Yupa Indians, located in the mountains between Columbia and Venezuela known as the Sierra de Perija, also tell tales of a race of dwarfs known to them as the Pipintu. In a story similar to that told by the Kawaiisu in California, the P'ip'intu live in a world almost identical to our own and yet it is different. Entering a large cave of the dead and working yourself through a small opening in the rocks is the only way to find them. Yupa lore describes them as "sporting long beards, but without hair on their heads (which they lost because the waste of all humanity falls down upon their heads from the world above)." The Pipintu are said to be very friendly but obtain almost all of their nourishment by breathing in smoke from their fire; they are unable to eat food through their mouths because they have neither intestines nor
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