Away With the Fairies?

June 28, 2016 in General

We view them as beneficent but fictional entities within children’s literature, but until recently, fairies were depicted as malevolent and potentially evil or dangerous sprites. They were used to frighten small children, explain illness amongst cattle, or otherwise inexplicable prehistoric tools. They were blamed for ailments but also praised for rural fertility. They were either souls of the departed, or morally ambiguous fallen angels that weren’t quite bad enough for hell. They were said to especially lurk around mushroom circles in the Celtic ‘fringe’ of the British Isles- Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland. They were small but powerful, so required respect from rural dwellers. If they didn’t get it, they might steal one’s newborn infant and replace her or him with a ‘changeling.’ Credulity in rural Ireland led to the deaths of several infants, children and even adult women suspected of ‘changeling’ attributes. In a recent BBC History article, Richard Suggs explains them as being susceptible to phenylketonuria or Williams Syndrome (the latter leads to ‘elfin’ child facial features). Fairies usually only ‘took’ boys. Like ‘demons’ or ‘witches,’ ‘fairies’ could possess others. As the nineteenth century wore on, due to the advent of recorded and sanitised fairy tale formats for traditional oral childrens tale folklore accounts, fairies became sanitised, miniaturised and fictionalised- although belief in them still lingers in the Celtic Fringe.

Source: Richard Sugg: “The Fairy Menace” BBC History: May 2016: 60-63.