A Brief History of Fairies

Present in one form or another across the spectrum of global folklore, you’d be forgiven for thinking these butterfly winged blighters belong solely to children’s literature and kitschy garden ornaments. Don’t be fooled by the charming exterior made popular in victorian illustrations, the Fay Folk are not to be trifled with. Let’s find out why.

A Vintage Fairy Illustration


Descriptions of fairies are just as diverse as their folklore itself. When we use the term “fairy” – or faerie, fey, fae or fair folk – we’re sometimes referring to a handful of mythical subspecies including goblins, gnomes, elves and trolls, but for the purpose of this article (and my fragile sanity) we’ll save these folkloric creatures for another time. However, let’s begin by exploring some of the specific fairy folklore.

Inhuman spirits

Fairies are tiny, beautiful people with shiny wings, galavanting through fields and befriending tiny animals right? Well despite this sanitised view, popularised by literature, the proposed origins of the Fae is much more complex.

As explored in Vol. 2 of Dr Hawthorn’s Ghost Guide, an inhuman spirit is an entity that has never been human. It’s not a synonym for “demonic”, but as Christianity spread through formerly Pagan Celtic countries, Fairies were assimilated with “demoted angels” or “demons” or sometimes, formally worshipped Deities who were also unceremoniously demoted to lesser powerful fairies (or, occasionally, saints).

Spiritually, Fairies may sometimes reflect a belief in Animism – the belief that natural objects or places have a spiritual consciousness – or the manifestation of elemental spirits.

Artists depiction of a man about to be attacked by a group of merciless Fairies

A Few Fearsome Fairies 

The different types of Fairies are as boundless as your imagination, and each culture has their own classifications. We explored a few more of these in our Around The World In 80 Ghosts saga, but for now lets focus on a handful of the most famous.

  • The Banshee – Believe it or not, one of Ireland’s most terrifying global exports is, in fact, a fairy. The term Banshee comes from the Old Irish for “woman of the fairy mound” or “fairy woman” and her wails are said to foretell the death of a family member.

  • The Wild Hunt – Although present across Europe, where the leader of the Hunt is often determined to be Odin (or the Germanic, Woden), The Wild Hunt is also believed to consist of fairies. In Welsh folklore in particular, the hunt is thought to be lead by Gwyn ap Nudd, a mythological King Of The Tylwyth Teg and ruler of Annwn – translated as the Fair Folk and the fairy Otherworld, respectively.

  • Cottingley Fairy Hoax – Although well renowned as an accidental hoax, when two young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths had the absolutely fantastic idea of posing with a series of homemade fairy pictures for a bit of fun, it sparked debate across 1917 Britain. Elsie’s mother, a spiritualist who became convinced the photographs were genuine, brought the images to public attention when she attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society. A media circus proceeded and swept up a large portion of the public, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who sincerely believed the images were genuine. Despite their childhood hosting by occultists and researchers completely genuine in their belief in the photos, both girls admitted to faking the images by 1983. However, both maintained they had indeed encountered the fairies in their youth, which provided them with the inspiration to take the photographs in the first place.
The first of the Cottingley Fairy photos, taken in 1917, first published in 1920 in The Strand Magazine


The topic if fairies can hardly be broached without paying mention to Changelings. Even those with only a passing knowledge of folklore is likely familiar with the concept. Fairies were often thought to swap human infants with one of their own, leaving behind what is known as a Changeling. The reason behind this swap varies from story to story but is said to include the fairy’s want of a human servant, an act of malice or the fairy’s love of the human child. 

A Changeling baby was said to have a range of identifiable features including:

  • A sickly appearance
  • Abnormal growth 
  • Unusual development
  • Physical differences
  • Unusual behaviour – which may include both lower and higher than average intelligence.

If these features sound broad enough to resemble a host of common – or uncommon – medical conditions, then you’ve identified the sad origin of the changeling myth. Thanks to modern understandings, we know that if a child exhibits these or similar features, it is indicative of medical or behavioural differences. 

Sadly, historical families lacked the knowledge and understanding and children suspected of being changelings often met a sad fate. 

Amongst the more barbaric ways of identifying a changeling, it was often said that cooking a meal in an egg shell would cause the child to exclaim, “I have seen the acorn before the oak, but I never saw the likes of this,” or similar, causing the changeling to disappear and the human child to return. 

Belief in changelings was not confined to the far past, however, as shown by two 19th century incidents. In 1826, a four year old boy named Michael Leahy was accidentally drowned in the river Flesk in County Kerry, Ireland. Michael could neither speak nor stand, so an old woman named Ann Roche instructed that he be bathed in the river every morning to “drive the fairy out of him”. Unfortunately, on the third morning, Michael drowned. Although the case went to trial, the court found her not guilty, as the bathing was not intended to kill young Michael.

In 1895, a young woman named Bridget Cleary also fell victim to Changeling folklore when her husband, Michael, became convinced that she had been taken by fairies, with a changeling left in her place. Bridget, a dressmaker and professional woman, died when her chemise allegedly caught fire while Michael attempted to “menace” the fairy out of her. 

She lives on in the Irish children’s rhyme: 

“Are you a witch, 

or are you a fairy

Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”

A troop of Fairies out hunting for their next human meal

Today, many people and cultures take fairies very seriously, and I don’t blame them. Even though modern romanticism paints the Fae Folk as innocent, cuddly little things that delights in the laughter of children, don’t be fooled – they are capable of great mischief and malevolence if provoked. 

They may bequeath you with gifts of small stones or pine cones, but their bites are similar to those of a mosquito and they will feast upon your mortal flesh if they deem you unworthy of it. 

So next time you find yourself deep in the forest, beware – the Faires are always watching.

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