Folklore is rife with stories about the "little people" and the powers that they wield. Both good and bad, malevolent and ambivalent, the Fairy both assist humankind and war against it. As symbologist J. E. Cirlot notes, ".they fulfill humble tasks, yet possess extraordinary powers."1 There is a duality in these stories in regard with the Fairy that is similar to many sacred and unknown things in the world. The Fairy are said to steal children and at the same time assist in their birth. The Fairy are said to cause illness and they are also able to prevent it. As Richard Kieckhefer wrote, "fairies have both good and evil sides, and while they can represent primal paganism they can also be said to hold the Christian faith."2
This is an interesting statement since early Christian theologians used to say that Fairies were fallen angels, or, as Harry Percival Swan wrote, "the fairies were angels who had remained neutral during the great war in heav-en."3 Should we assume that a worldwide race of little people existed, in the dim recesses of time? If so, how did they become associated with evil? We do know that pagan traditions and icons were intentionally altered by the Church to reflect darker, more evil aspects in an effort to sway pagan populations away from their original beliefs and into the fold of Christianity. According to 19th century folklorist John Fiske: "Christianity, having no place
1. Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols, 2nd Edition. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 1995, 101
2. Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989, 54.
3. Swan, Harry Percival. Highlights of the Donegal Highlands. Belfast: H.R. Carter Publications LTD. 1955, 159.
for such beings, degraded them into something like imps."4 The various stories about elves and Fairies which have them both as beneficial as well as malicious towards humankind indicates the uncertainty that humans have about the little people, their origins and intent.
What we see, in reality, is that the nature of the Fairy is not unlike that of humans — comprising both good and evil, bestowing "favors or destruction according to their individual character, whim, or purpose."5
In an unsigned article appearing in the June 1844 edition of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, an early folklorist quoted Dr. James Grimm: "Something superhuman, approximating them to the gods, is mingled up in them [the fairy]: they possess power to help and to hurt man. They are however, at the same time, afraid of him, because they are not his bodily match. They appear either far below the human stature, or misshapen. Almost all of them enjoy the faculty of rendering themselves invisible."6 This chapter will focus on these various tales and we will examine similar stories from around the world.
While their breath is said to be "mortal in Wales, in Ireland, in Scotland, and in Prussa"7 (as well as in Brittany), it is their physical attributes that are strikingly similar. one of the most interesting things to examine in regards to the Fairy is their actual description taken from various accounts the world over. Among the Cherokee, these strange beings came in different sizes and descriptions depending on their nature. The "Little People," who live in rocks and caves, are "hardly reaching up to a man's knee, but well shaped and handsome, with long hair falling almost to the ground."8 The "Immortals," another Cherokee Fairy, are said to remain invisible "excepting when they wanted to be seen, and then they looked and spoke just like other Indians."9 Among the Indian tribes of California, many of the Fairy were called "Water Babies". These creatures were described as small, dwarf-like men in traditional Indian dress with long hair. Also known in California are the "Rock Babies," these are said to look just like babies, with short black hair. Similar beings, part of Olmec culture since 1500 BCE, are those called chaneques. These creatures, similar to Water Babies, are still believed in today
4. Fiske, John. Myths and Myth-Makers: Old Tales and Superstitions Interpreted by Comparative Mythology. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company 1881, 129.
6. Anon. "Traditions and Tales of Upper Lusatia, No. 1: The Fairies' Sabbath" in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, No. CCCXLIV, Vol. LV, June 1844, 668.
8. Mooney, James. Myths ofthe Cherokee. New York: Dover Publications 1995, 333. A reprint of the 1900 publication "Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1897-98.
and are described as "old dwarfs with faces of children."10 The chaneques live in waterfalls, dominate wild animals and fish, and are truly wild in nature.
The hekura are known and feared by the Yanomamo Indians in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who studied this group he called "the fierce people," wrote that the hekura are "very tiny humanoid beings that dwell on rocks and mountains".11 The Yano-mamo view these small beings as "demons".
In Lakota lore, a mythical, malicious creature said to be similar to a goblin lived in the waters. It "presided over floods, drowning, and accidents in water."12 It was also said to be the cause of foul water.
Another Fairy known to the Cherokee is "Little Tsawa'si." This Fairy is called upon by the hunter to give him skill to slip up behind game silently and unseen. He is said to be "a tiny fellow, very handsome, with long hair falling down to his feet."13
Spence noted that the Celtic Fairy are of human height while the Teutonic spirits are "usually dwarfish".14 However, the Celtic Fairy were also known to take on diminutive animal, bird or fish forms. A distinction between the British and German Fairies and Elves was made during the early 20th century, which appears to be the result of British ethnocentricity. Contrary to Spence, Porteous wrote in 1928 that the British Fairy are "tiny creatures, ever dancing on the greensward."15 He went on to say "we hear very little of Fairies in Germany, at least as they were known in Britain, owing probably to the coarseness of the Teutonic mentality being unable to appreciate the delicacy of these ethereal beings."16 Porteous was obviously biased in his treatment of Teutonic lore, more than likely due to the terrible conflict of World War I.
Also tiny are the abatwa fairy of Africa. These truly Little People live in anthills and are said to be visible only to children and pregnant women. 17
The relative size of the various Fairy populations really cannot be definitive as there are many stories of Fairies who can change their size at will — becoming small and "dwarfish" or as tall as an adult human, or, like the djinn of Islam, able to shape-shift to the form of gigantic men. Such tales are common not only of British Fairies but of the Little People of Polynesia, the Eskimo, and the Native Americans. The Russians as well had their own form
10. Berrnal, Ignacio. The Olmec World. Berkeley: University of California Press 1969, 100.
11. Chagnon, Napoleon A. Yanomamo: The Fierce People. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology, 1968, 52
12. Walker, James R. Lakota Belief and Ritual. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1991, 122.
14. Spence, Lewis. Legends and Romances ofBrittany. Mineola: Dover Publications Inc. 1997, 74. A reprint of the Frederick A. Stokes Company edition, New York, n.d.
15. Porteous, Alexander. The Lore of the Forest. London: Senate 1996, 87. A Reprint of the 1928 edition published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London.
17. O'Connell, Mark and Raje Airey. The Complete Encyclopedia of Signs & Symbols. London: Hermes House 2005, 134.
of size-altering Fairy. Called the Leshy18, these mysterious creatures inhabit the forests and they disappear and reappear with the falling leaves and the sprouting vegetation. Described as "of human form, with horns, ears, and feet of a goat, his fingers are long claws, and he is covered with rough hair, often of a green colour."19 They could also change their stature at will, remaining as tall as grass stalks or as tall as the tallest tree.
Each spring the Leshy would awaken from its hibernation and seek out travelers to cause them to become lost in the new and rich growth of vegetation. "He springs from tree to tree, and rocks himself in the branches, screeching and laughing, neighing, lowing, and barking."20 The trees and animals of the forest, however, are under his protection. Philpot wrote, "the migrations of squirrels, field-mice, and such small deer are carried out under his guidance."21 The animals protected the Leshy as well as he was prone to drinking and vulnerable to attacks from other woodland spirits.
To the Polynesians the various nature spirits and Fairies are widely separated by description and character. The Menehune were said to be the ancestors of the Hawaiians and were responsible for the ancient stone constructions evident around the islands. William D. Westervelt, an early 20th century collector of Hawaiian folklore, disagrees with this however, writing, "Menehunes. were classes of fairies or gnomes which did not belong to the ancestor-gods...The menehunes were fairy servants The Hawaiians separated them almost entirely from the spirits of ancestors. They worked at night," he continues, "performing prodigious tasks which they were never supposed to touch again after the coming of dawn."22 However, there were other spirits, also known as "fairies," said to be from six inches to four feet in height, fair to dark in complexion and with long straight hair growing to their knees. They were also very strong and, like other fairies around the world, very fond of dance and singing. 23
Like the "fairies" of Polynesia, Chinese lore speaks of a race of "pygmies" which inhabited many of the mountainous regions of the country. Described as "less than nine inches high, but...well formed," 24 they were said to live in thatched houses that resembled ants' nests. Like many of their other small cousins, these "pygmies" worked in gold, silver, precious stones and wood. The men were distinguished by sporting "slight" beards, the women with
19. Philpot, Mrs. J. H. The Sacred Tree in Religion and Myth. Mineola: Dover Publications Inc. 2004, 69 (A reprint of the 1897 edition published by Macmillan and Co. Ltd, New York & London).
22. Westervelt, William D. Hawaiian Legends of Ghosts and Ghost Gods. Honolulu: Mutual Publishing 1998, 255. A reprint of the 1916 edition.
23. Beckwith, Martha. Hawaiian Mythology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press 1970, 336.
24. Werner, E.T.C. Myths and Legends of China. New York: Dover Publications,Inc. 1994,386.A reprint of the 1922 edition published by George G. Harrap & Co., Ltd. London.
tresses four to five inches long. These Little People, however, did not wear green but clothes of a reddish color.
A Fairy-like race called the Patu-pai-a-rehe (wild men) are said to live in New Zealand and are described as having reddish skin, "hair with a golden tinge...eyes black or blue..full sized, dress in white.,"25 and are very numerous.
The Russian Bania is a structure equivalent to the Finish sauna and has been world renowned since the 12th century. They have been made of wood, concrete and even dug into cliffs. However, what makes the Bania really interesting is the folklore surrounding them. Spirits known as the Bannik frequent them. Rarely seen, they have been described as "old men with hairy paws and long nails"26 and live either behind the stove or under the benches. For the most part they are harmless but have been known to attack unsuspecting persons by throwing hot stones or water on them and, in some cases actually wrapping the victim around the hot stove. To appease these mean spirits it was common to allow the Bannik to bathe alone after you had finished your bath, and to leave offerings of soap, lye, and birch twigs. In extreme cases, a black chicken would be sacrificed to the Bannik.
What is perhaps even more amazing than the commonality of their appearance is the almost universal descriptions of the Little People's character. Another very common characteristic of the Fairy is their willingness to do the chores of their human neighbors, in record time. The Fairy of Hawaii, it is said, are "so small and industrious (that) any task undertaken must be finished in a single night."27 As previously noted, the Cherokee YunwiTsunsdi', or the "Little People," were known to also help the Indians with their work at night.
Similar stories of helpful Little People were common in Britain. In a submission to the December 14th, 1850 edition of the English periodical, Notes and Queries, "H.G.T offered the following concerning Piskeys:28
An old woman, the wife of a respectable farmer at a place called "Col-mans," in the parish of Werrington, near Launceston, has frequently told my informant.of a "piskey" (for so, and not pixy, the creature is called here, as well as in parts of Devon) which frequently made its appearance in the form of a small child in the kitchen of the farm-house, where the inmates were accustomed to set a little stool for it. It would do a good deal of household work, but if the hearth and chimney corner were not kept neatly swept, it would pinch the maid. The piskey would often come into the kitchen and sit on its little stool before the fire, so that the old lady had many opportunities of seeing it. Indeed it was a familiar guest in the house for many months. At last it left the family under these circumstances. One evening
26. Aaland, Mikkel. "The Russian Bania: History of the Great Russian Bath," http:// www.cyberbohemia.com/Pages/russianbaniahistory.htm 1998.
27. Andersen, Johannes C. Myths and Legends of the Polynesians. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company: Publishers 1969, 137.
28. In Devon and Cornwall the Piskey, or Pixy were believed to be the ghosts of un-baptized babies.
it was sitting on the stool as usual, when it suddenly started, looked up, and said —
"Piskey fine and Piskey gay
and vanished; after which it never appeared again.30
In addition, of course, we cannot forget the Leprechauns. In an ethnographic study of a small Irish island made in the late 1960s, John C. Messenger, professor of anthropology at Indiana University wrote, "Fairies seldom permit themselves to be seen, but most of the islanders have experienced their presence.."31 According to information obtain by Messenger, contrary to Spence's statement, while the descriptions of the Fairies is not always consistent, the majority are said to be of the classic image, being "knee high and wear green jackets, flat red caps and buckled shoes."32
Another ancient group of nature spirits (for that certainly is what the Fairy are) are the genii loci ("local spirits") that exist in an area of Ethiopia peopled by the Qemant.33 The Qemant are a "pagan-Hebraic" group of the Agaw, which are the indigenous people of Ethiopia that have lived in this region of the world for thousands of years. These genii loci are believed to control the rain and other aspects of nature and the environment. They are considered minor deities but deities that have major control over small areas. "Community tensions caused by locusts, strife, disease, or a need to regulate rain," writes anthropologist Frederick C. Gamst of Rice University "can be eased by proper veneration of the genii loci."34
These nature spirits are widely worshipped and even venerated by the local Christian priests although this practice is not condoned by the Church. They admit these beings are "only indirectly apparent" but say they are believed to exist in two areas of the Qemant territory. One that is venerated is believed to increase rainfall and is said to live on a hilltop with a single large tree. Another who is sought out to reduce or end rainfall lives on a rocky pinnacle a few miles to the west. According to Gamst, "the entire community participates in ceremonies honoring [the genii], which feature sacrificial offerings by animal blood."35 The genii are said to drink the blood as it is absorbed by the earth.
29. Another version of this chant is "Pixy fine, pixy gay, Pixy now will run away."
30. H.G.T., "Piskies" in Notes and Queries, Vol. 2 (59), December 14, 1850, 475.
31. Messenger, John C. Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland. Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1969, 98. Note, Inis Beag is a fictitious name given in the study for an actual location.
33.The Qemant were removed to Israel during the Ethiopian civil war and no longer reside in their ancestral homeland.
34. Gamst, Frederick C. The Qemant: A Pagan-Hebraic Peasantry of Ethiopia. Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1969, 38.
Where They Live
The "Little People," such as the genii loci, dwarves, elves, trolls, menehu-ene and leprechauns are closely associated with the earth. In fact, they are often referred to as "land-spirits." Most reportedly live in hills, mounds, caves and the other mysterious places we all know and fear, although a few also are said to live in trees, among waterfalls and mountain passes. The Leprechaun of Inis Beag reportedly live in torn bushes where they "spend most of their time feasting, singing, dancing, fighting, playing games, and making love."36 Even among the Maya, Aztecs and Olmecs these little people had many of the same features of their European relations. Among the Olmecs dwarves were occasionally featured with wings in a semblance of the gargoyle. These dwarves were said to play unpleasant tricks on humankind — much as the Fairies and other nature spirits did in the rest of the world. Even today among contemporary Mayan people in the highlands, they "believe that dwarves dwell under the surface of the earth."37
In some parts of the world, Little People are referred to as dwarves and trolls rather than the more refined "Fairy" terminology used elsewhere. Dwarves and trolls tend to be regarded as more crude and evil than Fairy. Thirteenth-century Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson wrote, "The dwarfs had taken shape first and acquired life in the flesh of Ymir and were then maggots, but by decision of the gods they became conscious with intelligence and had shape of men though they live in the earth and in rocks."38
In all aspects, however, the Little People regardless of their names had extra-ordinary powers. These powers include invisibility, shape shifting and, according to Mesoamerican lore, the ability to move heavy objects. According to John Bierhorst, "as explained by Yucatec storytellers, the first people were dwarfs, the ones who built the ancient temples. Construction work had been easy for them because all they had had to do was whistle and heavy rocks would move into place."39 Called "the Adjusters," like their cousins they worked in darkness, for to be struck by sunlight would result in their turning to stone. This fate is also recorded in Norse tales of trolls being turned to stone by exposure to the sun.
Similar tales occur in other parts of the world as well. Megaliths in Brittany "were raised by fairy hands," wrote folklorist Lewis Spence, "the elves collecting 'all the big stones in the country' and carrying them thither in their
Was this article helpful?