This Halloween, fairies have been everywhere. I’ve seen wings fluttering all over TikTok, bouncing around the Union, and even hanging up on my wall (don’t worry, Sallies’ staff, I used command hooks!). Clearly, fairy fandom is undergoing a serious revival.
But who really are these mystical creatures? From where did we get today’s whimsical image of pixies floating around an enchanted tree?
Well, far from our modern-day vision of pastoral idealism, fairy-lore is actually enmeshed by a palpable sense of threat. A long lineage of mythology, dating back to Ancient Persia, has seen fairies emerge as temptresses, fallen angels with destructive intent.
In Old Norse belief, fairies are depicted as tiny, supernatural creatures who live in the crags of rocks, gathering masses of gold and often acting malevolently towards unsuspecting humans. Though pretty on the exterior, if mistreated, these little beings could destroy a whole family’s prosperity and cause disruption in the domestic sphere.
In Celtic tradition, fairies are equally disruptive. Cast down from heaven due to excessive pride, they too possess a combination of childlike goodness and satanical evil. Their delicate, perfectly formed bodies and flaxen hair easily seduces men, who they enchant through song and dance. Unlike Walt Disney’s well-wishing Flora, Fauna and Merryweath, these fairies don’t even have qualms about messing with innocent babies, abducting them and swapping in their own kind.
By the medieval period, Irish fear of these ill-willed, miniature temptresses was so great that people stopped referring to them by name, instead alluding to ‘little people’.
What’s worse, as myths of beguiling fairies travelled down the generations, they routinely found themselves contorted into vehicles for female oppression.
Though magical nymphs and pixies feature heavily in Renaissance artwork, in the early modern period, any association with fairies could see a woman burned at the stake for witchcraft. Healer Alison Pearson, for example, was executed in Edinburgh in 1588 for claiming to have visited a ‘faery court’.
Even as late as the nineteenth century, fairies were used to spear-head the damaging female seductress archetype. In La Belle Dame sans Merci, for example, John Keats characterizes an alluring ‘faery’s child’ who enchants an unsuspecting knight, before leaving him to fade away in the cold like a dying flower. Here, as in many other tales of feminine magic, there is a thinly veiled sense of unease surrounding Patriarchal disruption in the supernatural realm.
It’s only at the start of the twentieth century that a more friendly image of fun-loving fairies, frolicking in meadows, streams and ancient trees, starts to emerge. With the rising tide of industrialisation and imperialism grew a dewy-eyed fantasy for the unruly, mischievous characters of old mythology.
Parents across Europe started encouraging their children to leave teeth out for the tooth-fairy and the fairytale genre saw a huge resurgence. In the post-WW2 books of Enid Blyton and films of Walt Disney, endearing young sprites like Tinkerbell and Silky the Fairy soared to popularity, encouraging a new generation of youngsters to whisper, ‘I do believe in fairies, I do, I do’.
And now, as we face the sanitized world induced by the coronavirus pandemic, Gen-Z has also become entranced by these nostalgic emblems of natural wildness and innocence. On TikTok, #fairycore now has 1 billion views and, on Instagram, over 6 million people have used #fairy in their captions.
Though seemingly superficial, this trend just might be an important symbol of a growing societal desire for fun and freedom. And so, as we return to a much-anticipated ‘new normal’, it’s hard not to question just what twists and turns fairy-lore will take next.
Will the ancient myth of tiny, supernatural beings continue to flourish anew? Or, will tinkers and flower-fairies alike waft into cultural obscurity?