Thoughts of Fairies and "little folk" seem to bring up scenes of the forest where they live in a cartoon world of mushroom houses, snail-carriages, flower parasols and an ambivalent co-existence with the few humans who live in the area. They are usually thought of as somewhat mischievous but harmless. However, like other nature spirits, they may also be expressions of mankind's primeval sense of the mystery and awe of nature.
Most cultures have myths of tree gods and tales of strange fairy-like creatures that live deep in dark forests or in the very trees themselves. Such stories reflect an ancient animistic belief system that gives every object in nature its own spirit and power. These vegetation spirits and gods are the foundations for classic and contemporary religious thought.
For many people the very feel of the forest imparts a sense of awe and wonder, inspiring thoughts of the immensity of nature and the depths of time, triggering a delighted or even fearful awareness of all that we do not know about this world. To an artistic sensibility this can suggest the presence of spirits and unseen creatures. "The edge of the forest," write Carol and Dinah Mack, "is always the boundary between the wild and domesticated, the animal and the human community. It holds its genius loci, which may appear as demonic guardian species of wilderness and wild creatures and attack trespassing hunters, mischievous fairies...and the many huge man-eating species.."1
This statement may be applied to any forest in the world, for they all seem to be populated with legends of these local spirits and fairies who are not often kind to human intrusion. The Cherokee, according to anthropolo
gist James Mooney, believed that "trees and plants also were alive and could talk in the old days, and had their place in council".2 The intelligence of trees and plants, as well as other inanimate objects, were taken for granted by the Cherokee and the other indigenous people around the world.
"Little People" are most often thought of as residents of the woods. "In Scandinavian countries," wrote Alexander Porteous, "groves and trees were appointed as the residence of the Elves after they had been worsted in a conflict with superior beings."3 In many parts of the world, hunters will leave small offerings of food or other items for the spirits of the forest, "just in case." "Something of the same fear is felt by the peasants for the fairies, elves, pixies, and all the tribe of little people familiar to European folk-lore,"4 noted 19th century folklorist J.H. Philpot. In his book, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, J.A. MacCulloch noted that in Scandinavia the dead were called elves and that they were presumed to live in barrows or hills. He also reports that the word "elf" also means any divine spirit and that the term was later changed to "fairy".5
The Coos Indians along Oregon's southern coast believed that the forests were filled with ghosts and spirits. Five types of spirits were identified as residing in the forest:
1. Ghosts or spirits that "reentered a corpse and escaped into the forest to do evil things to humans, especially poor people";
2. A "mirror image" of oneself, a doppelganger. If you saw one of these, your life was supposed to be shortened;
3. Giant people who lived on the fish in the streams; they were neither good nor bad "and do not scare people";
4. A visible spirit or ghost, and
5. The "noisy ones," that are little people, usually covered in long hair;
they would leave tracks along creek banks. These creatures were usually seen only at night and were said to throw rocks at people's homes. 6
Other Oregonian tribes such as the Alsea and Yaquina believed in longhaired female wood sprites called osun who could give certain special powers to humans that would enable them to become shamans.7 The "sauna fairy" of Udmurt folklore were also referred to as "the one with long hair."
2. Mooney, James. Myths of the Cherokee. New York: Dover Publications Inc. 1995 (A reprint of the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1897-98 published in 1900 by the Smithsonian Institution), 231.
3. Porteous, Alexander. The Lore of the Forest. London: Senate 1996, 52. A Reprint of the 1928 edition published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London.
4. Philpot, J.H. The Sacred Tree in Religion and Myth. Mineola: Dover Publications 2004, 65. A reprint of the 1897 edition published by Macmillan and Co. Ltd., London and New York.
5. MacCulloch, J.A. The Religion of the Ancient Celts. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. 2003, 66. A reprint of the 1911 edition published by T &T Clark, Edinburgh.
6. Beckham, Stephen Dow. "Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw: Traditional Religious Practices" in Native American Religious Practices and Uses, Siuslaw National Forest. Eugene: Heritage Research Associates Report No. 7(3), September 20, 1982, 41.
Tree elves have been popular in many cultures; they have been said to inhabit the elm, oak, willow, yew, fir, holly, pine, ash, cherry, laurel, nut, apple, birch and cypress trees. Each of the tree elves is created from the specific tree and thus takes on the characteristics of that tree. While all of these species of trees have a resident elf, "the elder", writes Nancy Arrowsmith, "has without doubt the highest elf population."8 The lives of the "elder elves" are linked directly to their tree and so they are very protective of it.
The appearance of tree elves varies according to the tree from which they originated. The oak elf will appear as a gnarled old man and the birch elf appears as a thin white female. The oak has guardians in England, Italy and Germany.
In Albania and Lithuania, certain tree fairies guard the cherry tree, while the ash tree is protected in Scandinavia by the Askafroa. The Askafroa was considered an evil fairy or spirit and was left sacrificial offerings every Ash Wednesday. In West Africa a male tree spirit known as the Huntin lives in and protects the silk-cotton tree. Nature spirits and Fairies must be propitiated with offerings of fowls and palm oil prior to the removal of the silk-cotton tree.
For some reason most tree-spirits are ambivalent at best and demonic at worst. Stories abound of tree-spirits that take savage revenge on those that dare to cut trees down. Indian legend says the Banyan tree is inhabited by spirits that will "wring the necks of all persons who approached their tree during the night."9 The guardian spirit of the Brazilian rainforest is Corupira who is not evil but will disorient those who are intent on harming the trees and the forest animals — much like Pan. However, other tree and forest-spirits do exhibit traits of kindness towards humans. Some forest spirits were said to protect hunters and fishers, and in fact to lead game to them. It was to these spirit-gods that the forests were dedicated and sacrifices made. In other cultures, tree spirits provided the rains and sun that made crops grow.
The Mesquakie, also known as the Fox Indians of Iowa, believed that the spirits of their ancestors lived within the trees. It was said, "the murmur of the trees when the wind passes through is but the voices of our grand-parents."10 The Fox felt that all wood was sacred and that objects made from wood "were thought to contain the very essence of a tree's spiritual substance."11
Nature spirits, normally described as miniature people but not necessarily the same as Fairy, are common throughout most "undeveloped" societies. This is not a negative judgment of those cultures, only an observation that the more "developed" and "western" societies have reinterpreted their con
8. Arrowsmith, Nancy and George Moorse. A Field Guide to the Little People. London: Macmillan Company 1977, 180.
9. Porteous, Alexander. The Lore of the Forest: Myths and Legends. London: Senate 1996, 123 (A reprint of Forest Folklore published in 1928 by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London).
10. Anon. TheSpiritWorld. Alexandria: Time-Life Books 1992, 90.
nection with nature in light of scientific explanations. The Gururumba, a New Guinea people, believe in certain nature spirits, some who live in the forests and others who live in the reeds along the riverbanks. Other than the location of territory, there is little difference between the two forms of nature spirit. The Gururumba say that these spirits are seldom seen because even though they reside in our world, in our reality, they appear as mist or smoke. They are also always male. While generally ambivalent to the humans who live in the area, the spirits will attack anyone who stumbles into their territory. Ethnologist Philip L. Newman, who researched the Gururumba, writes "each spirit has its own dwelling place — a certain clump of reeds, a particular configuration of boulders along the river, or the exposed roots of some tree. Anyone wandering into one of these sanctuaries is attacked by the spirit which may cause him illness or even death."12
The Gururumba seek to placate the nature spirits by providing a small dome-shaped house (about two feet in diameter) in an enclosure in the family garden. The Gururumba provide housing, food and information to the nature spirit in exchange for the spirit's protection of the garden and care for the Gururumba's pig herds.
While we rarely think of Australia as being forested, the Aborigines tell of a race of "little men" that they call the Tuckonie. Said to live in thickly timbered country, the Tuckonie cause the gum-tree to grow. "They are tiny little men," William Ramsay Smith relates, "but they have the wonderful power of causing the trees to grow," mostly by dancing around specific trees.13
Tree spirits are also commonly believed in throughout Africa. The Ashanti reportedly believe that certain nature spirits are present that animate trees, stones and other "inanimate" objects as well as animals, rivers and charms. The powers of these spirits are great and respected. John Mbiti reports, in his book African Religions and Philosophy, an incident that took place in Ghana in the 1960s. During the construction of a new harbor at Tema, equipment was repeatedly stolen and a company investigator, an Englishman, was sent to look into it. After his investigation was over, one of the European supervisors mentioned to him that a lone tree was causing him a great deal of trouble. All the other trees in the area had been cleared but one relatively small tree remained. Every attempt to remove it had failed, as the heavy equipment always stalled when approaching the tree. One of the African foremen said that the tree was magic and could not be removed unless the tree spirit could be persuaded to move on to another tree. A shaman was called in; he sacrificed three sheep and poured three bottles of gin onto the roots of the tree as an offering. Evidently, the ritual worked as the machinery could be started,
12. Newman, Philip L. Knowing the Gururumba. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology 1965, 63.
13. Smith, William Ramsay. Aborigine Myths and Legends. London: Senate 1996, 128. A reprint of the 1930 edition published by George G. Harrap, London.
and a few of the workmen simply walked to the tree and were able to pull it up out of the earth.14
This story illustrates the fact that myth and folklore continue to be created in contemporary times, often utilizing traditional lore as the basis for new stories and providing more fuel for the evolution of oral culture.
14. Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. Garden City: Anchor Books 1970, 255.
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