Its no mystery that here on the S&H podcast that we deal with the weird, unexplainable and macabre. From ghosts and goblins, to horrors living next door or buried underneath our feet we explore them all. In all my time exploring these phenomena, both real and folkloric, none have inspired my imagination quite like fairies. Small diminutive creatures, flitting to and fro among wildflowers, dancing on gossamer wings, singing haunting songs that float on the breeze in the wee hours of the morning as the dew settles and the light begins filtering through the trees; or well, thats what the story books tell us. Everyone, or most everyone, has heard of Tinkerbell, and when you ask most people thats what they think of when they hear the term “fairy” but that is only part of the story. Contrary to popular belief the fairy we all conjure in our minds is only one kind of these creatures and boy, do they run the gambit, from little good natured tricksters to malevolent entities hell bent on hurting you and everything in between…or both at once depending on their mood. So what are these “fae” creatures? What is their history? Why are we so fascinated by them? I can answer some of those questions but you’ll have to form your own opinions. So come along with me on this wild globe trotting adventure as we try to answer the age old question, “what came first, the fairy or the spoiled milk?”
Before we dive in I need to make some things clear. I have my own biases and reasons why I term certain things as falling within the “fae” realm. This falls into a simple rule “If they are humanoid, exhibit magical abilities or properties, they revolve around nature or being outside human society, i.e. seen in graveyards, etc. and they don’t come from here. Then they’re fae.” I am human and I dont claim to know much on anything, and so I am liable to make a mistake, take things out of context, and be insensitive towards things in an unwitting matter. If you have any questions, concerns, or comments please please please write into the show or interact with us so we can try and rectify whatever we, or I, messed up on. Now, with that being said lets get right into it! Just what are the fae?
What are the “fae”?
Ok so the term ‘fairy’ originates with the Middle English word faerie, as well as fairie, fayerye and feirie, which were borrowed directly from the Old French faerie. In Middle English the word meant either enchantment, the land of enchantment, or the collective noun for those who dwelt in fairyland. In Modern English the term went from fairie to fairy and fae turned to fay. However, there is another form of this word that originates in the Persian language a “peris”. Now Peris were angelic beings that were mentioned in antiquity in pre-Islamic Persia as early as the Achaemenid Empire. Peris were later described in various Persian works in great detail such as the Shahnameh by Ferdowsi. A peri was illustrated to be fair, beautiful, and extravagant nature spirits that were supported by wings. This imagery may have influenced migratory Germanic and Eurasian settlers into Europe, or been transmitted during early exchanges. The similarities could also be attributed to a shared Proto-Indo-European mythology. Which when you dive deep into ancient languages there is a whole “family tree” of languages called the “Indo-European” languages. English, and other romance languages, are also part of this family. Older branches of this language family include Celtic, Balto-Slavik, Italic, Germanic and Indo-Iranian. Which leads scholars to suggest that if this language tree exists then there must have been a Proto-Indo-European language as well, which lends credence to the mythological origins of beings like fairies.
This is all well and good, but I still havent gone over exactly what a fairy is in a literal sense. Simply put a fairy is a denizen of the land of the fae, or otherworld. What we see when we picture a “fairy” is actually a pixie at least in my opinion. Pixies are very small, with dark hair and skin tone, and they have butterfly wings. They are very small. Maybe 2-3 inches tall. A lot of people will argue that fairies have wings, usually dragonfly or moth wings, and are about 6 or so inches tall. However, I dont personally think there are any major differences between the 2 entities, and see them as the same. Their demeanor is almost identical by all accounts, can be evil when provoked and nice when treated with respect. If anything theyre just closely related cousins than 2 separate entities. Now its at this point you might think we’re done. Weve talked about the term fairy, where it originated, and the entities associated with the name but we havent even scratched the surface of this phenomenon. Strap in for a wild ride!
There are other “Fairy” beings?
If you guessed that theres more beings running around than just fairies and pixies well you were right! The “Little People” phenomena, as I call it, stretches across the globe. Below I will be going into detail of just some of the creatures that are associated with this phenomena.
The Good Neighbors
Now, here is my forte, the Irish call these fellows “The Good Neighbors, or the Good Folk” so as to not displease them. The Irish tell time and time again how the Good People are folks not unlike you and I. They are the size of a human, have the same hair as a human, eyes, ears, mouth, all the same as us. You could be talking to one of the Good People and never know it, until your cow stops producing milk or you suffer terrible misfortune. This is also where “changeling” folklore comes from at least as far as I can tell. These Good People steal children, for what purpose it is never said, and replace them with one of their own. Now this has been attributed to in recent times, how people then viewed birth defects and mental illness within children. It also effected grown adults too. People who “changed” from a happy driven individual to some who wasnt and never seemed to get better was treated as an adult changeling or that they had been “led by the fairies”. These days we know that what these people were suffering from was a mental illness, possibly depression. Now, I wont go into the more horrible stories of how you are supposed to tell if someone is a changeling or not. I’ll save that for another episode! Irish, and honestly all of the Celtic areas, a fraught with creatures that hail from the otherworld. The Nuckelavee of Scotland is a horrible beast said to be an amalgamation of man and horse with no skin, the Selkie and the Kelpie also come to mind. The first a mermaid of sorts but instead of being half fish she can shapeshift from a seal to a human, and you can trap her on land if you find and keep her seal skin. The latter is a horse than comes up from a body of water and if you get on its back it rushes back into the water, drowns you and eats you. These are just some of the many entities that call the British Isles home.
Staying in Europe for a moment, I promise we will move along soon. There is a creature residing in the harsh environments of Iceland and the Faroe Islands. These denizens are called the Huldufolk, or the hidden folk. They are elves, and like the ones in Ireland, they are human in proportion, with muscular builds and black hair. They are said to reside in rocks scattered throughout the landscape, and when I say rocks I mean boulders the size of humans. They are considered benign from all accounts though they do not like it when you mess with their things. Legend has it that a road construction was halted from going over Alfholsveger or elf hill road when the construction team met resistance in the form of equipment malfunction. Namely the big machines used to build the road. They would work when they got to the site, but would break down the next day and start right up after leaving the site for repairs. This is a story though and is thought to be an urban legend of sorts. However, that didn’t stop people from believing it. In 2013 Jónsdóttir an elf activist joined in protesting, along with environmental groups, about a road going through an old lave bed. It is believed that the elves like volcanic rocks, and that it is a more stable pathway between worlds, according to Jónsdóttir. The road was moved but officials stated it wasnt elves or anything of the sort that made them change the direction of the road, but that the rock in question, a huge basalt boulder, was unique in a cultural light and so they moved the road. In recent years there have been surveys, though there are naysayers, that have stated that 46 percent of people in Iceland believe in the elves. The naysayers say that because of the wording chosen for the surveys are asking leading questions or not worded the best. Choose to believe in these things or not, they are here to stay.
The Little People
Moving away from Europe and into North America now. The North American continent is riddled with lore surrounding these entities. I will continue using the term “fae” as an umbrella term and it is by no means a way to diminish or belittle anyones beliefs or to “Eurocentrize” or white wash these stories and histories that are not my own. In Cherokee stories there are a race of beings called “the Little People” or the Yunwi Tsunsdi (yun-wee joon-stee). Now there is a lot to unpack with the Little People. In appearance they are small, about knee high, they are always said to be very handsome or beautiful, and they have long black hair that almost touches the ground. Now depending on who you talk to, and I dont know the veracity of this, but there are three different kinds of Little People, the Rock people who are mean, and take children but only when they are threatened, the Laurel people who are mischievous tricksters but will do more good than harm, and the Dogwood people who are the ones who do good and heal people. Each one has a different lesson to teach. The Rock people teach that meanness is not good, and it will come back to you. The Laurel people teach us to not take life seriously and to enjoy the time we have, and the Dogwood people teach us to be kind out of the goodness of our hearts and not to do good for personal gain or obligation. I have seen this division before in some places but as far as I’m aware it is not within the general belief of these beings that they are divided in such a way. More than likely the Yunwi Tsunsdi have the ability to do all of this and these categories or labels that have been put on them are a modern addition to the history of these creatures.
Pukwudgies are a magical, humanoid race of people that feature prominently in Algonquian folklore. To different tribes, the Pukwudgie acts and looks differently. For example, in the Ojibwe tribes they are described as a mischievous but mostly good-natured being that may trick people but rarely has malicious intent. The Wampanoag and many other tribes of New England know the Pukwudgie to be both a trickster but also dangerous. They are known to play tricks but, in some cases, help out a human who has encountered them. If you wrong them or somehow offend them they are known to steal children, commit acts of terror, and can even be deadly. They are short, about knee-high, and have large hands, stooping postures, and sagging shoulders. Some people say they have shaggy unkempt hair that reaches below their waist. The Wampanoag story of the Pukwudgies is my favorite. In this tale the Pukwudgies want to be as dear to the culture hero Maushop and so tried to help the Wampanoag people to try to endear themselves to Maushop. This backfired, whether due to their mischievous nature or other misfortune, and the Wampanoag people entreated Maushop, by way of his wife Granny Squanit, to get rid of them. He did this by gathering up as many as he could in his hands and throwing them all over New England, some say even as far south as Delaware! The Pukwudgies came back with a vengeance however, and began burning villages, stealing children, and leading people astray in the woods in record numbers. Maushop sent his 5 sons to take care of the situation but they were no match for the Pukwudgies and were ensnared and killed. Enraged, Maushop and Granny Squanit went on a rampage against the Pukwudgies and slew as many as they could find. Some Pukwudgies survived and these remnants are what are seen today all throughout New England.
The Duende or El Duende is an interesting creature. The stories of this entity can be traced back to Spain and Portugal. There the El Duende, or the Goblin, if my sources are correct, ranges from an elf like figure, to a spirit that dwells in your house, to a forest spirit with a big hat, remember that detail, that whistles a mystical tune that leads children astray. In Latin America there are a few different views on Duende. In Belize they are said to be helpful and guide children out of the forest, and in some cases has been described as carrying or wearing dried palm leaves as some sort of hat…sound familiar? In Southern Mexico they are seen as forest spirits. In the northern parts of Mexico and also the Southwest of America they are seen as spirits who dwell in your house, namely the walls of your house, and they have an affinity to walls of childrens rooms. Its said that they also come out of the walls and clip the toenails of misbehaving kids, and sometimes they miss and take a toe with them instead of just the toenail! In the Philippines they are spirits that are differentiated into 2 groups. White dwende which are good and black dwende who are mean and evil. They live in forests, caves, homes, anthills, and termite mounds. It is said to step on and crush an ant hill or termite mound places a curse on you from the dwende who live within. They are also known to play with children and seem to be only visible to them.
The Menehune are small humanoids, with appearances not unlike the Hawaiian people, and were said to be marvelous workers. Doing most of their building under the cover of night these little people built temples, fishponds, roads, and houses. The most famous of these is the Alekoko fishpond on Kauai, one of the islands that makes up Hawai’i. Archaeologists estimate this structure to be around one thousand years old. Above the pond sits 2 stone pillars. These pillars of stone are said to be a king and his sister changed into these pillars by the Menehune who saw them spying on them as they built the fishpond. They also never finished the pond because they were spied upon. Legends say that the Menehune were first brought to the island at the behest of the first king who settled the island. The king sent for the Menehune and brought them in. They came with their chief, their high priest, and eventually they ended up with ten divisions of men and seven of women, each with their own particular skill. People say that they were real people, not mythological, and that they had engineering skills the likes of which havent been replicated to this day.
Patupaiarehe Patu-pie-era-ah-he and the Maero
Patupaiarehe are supernatural beings in Māori mythology that are described as pale to fair skinned with blonde hair or red hair, usually having the same stature as ordinary people, and never tattooed. They can draw mist to themselves, but tend to be nocturnal or active on misty or foggy days as direct sunlight can be fatal to them. They prefer raw food and have an aversion to steam and fire. Patupaiarehe can be hostile to humans, especially those who intrude on their lands. They are believed to live in deep forests and hilly or mountainous regions, in large guarded communities, though their buildings and structures are invisible to human eyes. The music of their kōauau and pūtōrino (bugle flutes), along with their singing of waiata occasionally reveals their presence on foggy days. The music of the Patupaiarehe is described as ‘sweeter’ than the music that Māori could play. According to most traditions, the Māori are able to converse with them. These beings are found mostly on the North Island. The South Island has a different kind of spirit known as the Maero (Mai-ro). In Māori tradition, the Maero (or Mohoao) are supernatural people from New Zealand. They are sometimes described as giants or wild men of the woods, and inhabit mountains and forest, particularly in the South Island and Tararua Range. Maero are characterized as wild, malevolent and often violent, carrying stone clubs as weapons. They are covered in dark body hair and have long, bony fingers with sharp fingernails. They kill and eat humans and other animals. The Maero are said to harbor anger towards the Māori, who arrived from Hawaiki, and are thought to have displaced them and ruined the sacredness of their homes, forcing them to dwell in inhospitable alpine regions.
The kijimuna are small wood spirits according to Okinawan mythology. The kijimuna are said to live in trees, but the most common one is the ‘gajumaru’ or banyan tree. They are often described as being child-sized, with red hair covering their bodies and large heads. They are also known to be excellent fisherman, able to catch many fish, but then only eating one of the eyes of the fish before leaving the rest of it. The Kijimuna festival in Okinawa is named after them. Another name for the kijimuna is “bungaya,” which means roughly “Large-Headed.” The Kijimuna are known to be very mischievous, playing pranks and tricking humans. One of their best-known tricks is to lie upon a person’s chest, making them unable to move or breathe. This is known as “kanashibari.” Even though the Kijimuna are tricksters, they have been known to make friends with humans. However, these relationships often go sour. A kijimuna may offer to carry a human on its back as it leaps through the mountains and over the seas. The kijimuna dislike people passing gas on their backs, however, and will immediately throw the human off, no matter where they were at the moment. The kijimuna also hate octopi.
are a race of small people in folklore of the Ainu people of the northern Japanese islands. The name is traditionally analysed as a tripartite compound of kor (“butterbur plant”), pok (“under, below”), and kur (“person”) and interpreted to mean “people below the leaves of the Fuki” in the Ainu language. The Ainu believe that the korpokkur were the people who lived in the Ainu’s land before the Ainu themselves lived there. They were short of stature, agile, and skilled at fishing. They lived in pits with roofs made from butterbur leaves.Long ago, the korpokkur were on good terms with the Ainu, and would send them deer, fish, and other game and exchange goods with them. The little people hated to be seen, however, so they would stealthily make their deliveries under the cover of night. One day, a young Ainu man decided he wanted to see a korpokkur for himself, so he waited in ambush by the window where their gifts were usually left. When a korpokkur came to place something there, the young man grabbed it by the hand and dragged it inside. It turned out to be a beautiful korpokkur woman, who was so enraged at the young man’s rudeness that her people have not been seen since. Their pits, pottery, and stone implements, the Ainu believe, still remain scattered about the landscape.
Yumboes are the spirits of the dead and they are completely of a pearly-white colour. They are from the Wolof people in Senegal Africa. They are sometimes said to have silver hair. They stand about two feet tall.The Yumboes live beneath the Paps hills and come out to dance in the moonlight. They feast on large tables, waited on by servants who are invisible except for their hands and feet. Yumboes eat corn (which they steal from the humans) and fish (which they catch on their own). They invite both natives and foreigners to their feasts. They are also called Bakhna Rakhna or the Good People. Now theres some debate on these spirits as the main person to write about these spirits was a white guy by the name of Thomas Keightley, but looking at other sources there are lots of parallels between these “Yumboes” and other supernatural beings on the African continent. For all intents and purposes these spirits are the spirits of dead relatives who dwell underground. As for the word “Yumboe” it isnt an actual word and it should be stated that the word passed through multiple white languages before being told to Keightley.
Well, that just about scratches the surface of the belief in these beings. There are many many more that I either dont know about or didnt have time to research and I’m honestly glad about that. If anything this opens up many doors to questions about humans as a whole. Why do we continue to believe in these “other” peoples? What makes them so ubiquitous? Almost every culture in the world has some form of “little” people. So what are they? I couldnt say, and thats the magic about it. We can sit and talk until we are old and gray and still wont have the answer.