There are two different meanings to the term “Fairy Faith.” On one hand, it simply refers to the old folkloric belief in fairies, and the practices found therein. This meaning is usually ascribed to the modern Celtic nations of Ireland and Scotland, where belief in fairies lingered long into the modern era.

In this sense, it is analogous to other places where belief in fairy-like creatures continued even into the present day, such as in Iceland and even in some Native American or Canadian First Nations traditions.

The second meaning is found in the modern neo-pagan community. It seems that the neo-pagan Fairy Faith sprung from the Wiccan community somewhere around the 1970s in California.

As the modern pagan movement proliferated, many different paths developed. Some were divergent variants branching off of Wicca, while others were born in the reconstructionist movement (reconstructionist meaning attempts to reconstruct the ancient indigenous religions of Europe, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere, with historical accuracy).

Yet more versions of neo-pagan paths emerged that were influenced by these, but took their own shape and form. So in the modern pagan community, the Fairy Faith has various incarnations and meanings. This article will focus mainly on the first definition.

The modern notion of fairy is vastly different from that which our ancestors knew, and even antiquated descriptions vary widely. While it’s fair to say that the image of the fairy has changed a number of times, its origins sprang from the murky haze of the Neolithic period.

In those times, ancestor worship was a common feature among Indo-European groups. Both the Celtic Sidhe as well as the Germanic Alfar were originally both associated with burial mounds, and therefore appear to have derived from ancestor worship. Human remains, and especially highly revered ancestors such as tribal leaders, chieftains, and great warriors were interred in mounds.

A chieftain or hero of the tribe would have been considered a tribal ancestor to everyone within the tribe, especially as tribes were built around the structure of kinship.

Some scholars speculate that one possible origin of indigenous European deities are persons of renown whose legends grew as they continued to be remembered and honored by subsequent generations. The word sidhe originally meant the mound itself, but eventually came to mean the spirits who dwelt therein. And, alfar is the Norse word from which the modern English word “elf” derives.

Spirits of the mound are one direct foundation of elf and fairy belief. But, the connection may have also come about indirectly by the demotion of pagan gods during the conversion to Christianity.

It has been noted that belief in “small spirits” continued on in folk belief for hundreds, and in some cases even a millennia, after conversion. The epic gods may have been diminished into smaller spirits of the land.

By small, I don’t necessarily mean stature. But their power and roles were lesser than the mighty and central role that the great gods once played. For example, the Irish gods of the Tuatha De Danann were later associated with fairy lore.

Even into the modern era, fairies continued to be associated with the dead. In fact, some folklorists have noted that in folk accounts, there isn’t a clear differentiation between ghosts and fairies (Spence, 87).

The Otherworld inhabited by fairies was often associated with the land of the dead, and spirits of dead relatives and ancestors were often said to be existing in the land of the fairies.

Some folklorists speculate that the notion of fairies could be a cultural memory of the original inhabitants of Britain before they were pushed aside by the incoming Celts.

These people may have been smaller in stature, and took to hiding in the forests and mounds as their numbers became increasingly less.

They may have engaged in guerrilla war-like tactics as they became ever more adept at disappearing into their wooded environment.

Because they had less resources than the Celts, the idea of the indigenous people swapping their sickly infant and stealing a healthy one from his cradle is one hypothesis for changeling tales.

An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, & Other Supernatural Creatures
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So we can see that there are numerous influences and hypotheses for the origins of fairy lore. To complicate things, the term fairy would later be used to describe all manner of otherworldly spirit. There are tales of demon or ghost dogs, for example, that are described as fairy.

The word “fairy” itself is a departure from the early notions of sidhe and alfar ancestor spirits. It comes from fatae, meaning the Fates from classical mythology. Fatae evolved into the noun fay. Those who wielded the power of the fay could bring about a state of enchantment called fay-erie, which developed into the modern fairy (Briggs, 131).

So, we can see that in the modern English speaking world, the concept of fairy has numerous foundations, notwithstanding the fact that most cultures worldwide contain their own unique beliefs about fairy-like beings.

As Christianity arose in Celtic and Anglo Britain, the indigenous fairy beliefs were grafted into the Christian lexicon, altering beliefs further. Not only did powerful deities of mythology become shrunken into fairy lore, but ideas about fairies changed to fit the Christian paradigm.

Instead of being spirits connected to Earth-centered spirituality, it began to be said that fairies were the fallen angels. Another story is that they were angels who had refused to take a side during Lucifer’s revolt, so they were damned to exist between heaven and hell for eternity.

Because the Judeo-Christian pantheon has only God (as trinity), Satan, angels, demons, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, these extra-biblical indigenous spirits had to be made to fit a biblical context. Thus, they were relegated as demons by Church leaders.

And while this may sound very medieval, later Protestant Reformation writers were especially forceful in their condemnation of fairies as demons. People found to be interacting with fairies could be charged with witchcraft.

In fact, fairies feature prominently in Scottish witch trial records and were discussed in detail in leading demonology texts written during the witch hunt era.

The image of the sweet little pixie with butterfly wings comes strictly from the Victorian Era. In folklore, fairies have many different descriptions.

Spirits who live closely with humans, such as domestic elves, tend to look like little old men dressed in antiquated clothing. This likely connects to the alfar’s evolution from an ancestor spirit as described above. In an age when property was handed down through the generation, it was believed that the original owner of the homestead lingered on as guardian.

The propitiation of domestic spirits was common all across Europe, as well as elsewhere in the world. Due to early Christianization of Celtic lands, domestic spirits are not as common in Celtic folklore as elsewhere – except for in Scotland.

This is due to the heavy (but sadly overlooked) Germanic heritage in Scotland. The brownies of Scotland fit snugly into the house-elf tradition seen elsewhere in Germanic culture. (For more in Germanic Scotland, click here).

Another change in the modern view of fairies is their role as benevolent and spritely elemental spirits. While these supernatural beings were long associated with nature, it was often in a frightful way.

Far from the gentle winged fairy, we might have the gargantuan leshy, guardian of the forests in Russian folklore. Leshy is thought to be a cousin of the Celtic green man, another ancient guardian of the forest.

Forest spirits were known to be wily. They might lead the careless wanderer off their path and then disappear leaving only their echoing laughter as the traveler finds himself lost in the wilderness. Likewise, water spirits might seduce a young fisherman only to pull him to his death beneath the waves.

Just as fairies evolved into innocuous, playful sprites in modern times, they also went through transformations in the past. It seems that every major age in civilization brings with it a change in fairy belief.

From ancestor mound spirits in the Neolithic, to more advanced and god-like notions in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and then another change when Christianity swept through Europe. Great and powerful spirits were relegated to smaller realms. And, good or neutral spirits became seen as strictly demonic.

We tend to view fairies, and the like, as not only innocuous, but fairly silly. Those who profess to believe in them today are laughed at by mainstream culture; derided as not only misguided, but even dim-witted.

Yet, from the beginning of Europe’s conversion to Christianity, which began in the 7th century in England (13th century in the Baltic, elsewhere in between) up through the Early Modern Era (circa the 16th and 17th centuries), belief in fairies was quite dangerous.

The Church (both Catholic and Protestant) recognized fairy belief as a vestige of pagan religion, which therefore made it a threat to Christianity’s control over the peasantry. And, during the turbulent years of The Reformation, fairy belief could get an individual accused of witchcraft.

An excellent book on this is European Mythology by Jacqueline Simpson. Rather than focusing on the great gods of classic mythology, this book focuses on fairies and folk tradition.

She explains that there is a huge difference between fairy belief found in folklore and the other genre that often gets lumped together with it; fairytales.

Simpson says that fairytales are told mainly for entertainment, while folklore “is concerned with supernatural forces as real entities, to be reckoned with in the everyday world, and not just as material for entertaining…” (Simpson, p8).