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Thursday, August 10, 2017

What Do Fairies Look Like?

The idea for today's blog was partially inspired by a discussion with a friend on social media that sprung from a quote I posted, from my book 'Fairies':
When you imagine what a fairy looks like, what do you picture?

For most people the mental image is strongly shaped by pop-culture and artwork, and these in turn are largely products of an idealized cultural aesthetic. Although Tolkien-style elves may be an accurate representation of one type of Fairy being, the idea that all fairies are tall, lithe, and handsome is far from what we find in folklore. And while the images of small insect-winged* children may fit a very specific type of garden fairy, the more widespread images of winged Barbie-like beauties - wasp waisted, disproportionately large eyed, large breasted, with tiny hands and feet - is straight out of our culture's fantasies. Many modern images, such as those that depict selkies as a kind of seal mermaid with the upper torso of a human and lower half of a seal, are purely from an artist's imagination. In the same way the recent upsurge in anime and video game influenced images - those that have extremely long pointed ears, sharp features, slim figures but exaggerated sexual characteristics - don't reflect actual folklore or mythology but an artistic view that is aimed at appealing visually to an audience used to consuming a specific aesthetic. 

So, what do the Good People really look like? As with most questions relating to Themselves there is no simple answer, because the subject is too broad and diverse. I think, therefore, that the best approach is to look at a range of different types of fairies known to have more human-like forms and discuss how we see them described in folklore, in order to get a feel for the ways that these beings, overall, may appear. In order to keep this article reasonably short I'm only going to give very brief descriptions of each below:

Aos Sí - Yeats described the Daoine Maithe as looking much like human people, although prone to wearing slightly outdated fashion. Described as around five feet tall, sometimes slightly taller. We see the idea of their human appearance reinforced in much of the anecdotal evidence particularly stories of borrowed midwives, stolen brides, and musicians who spend a night inside a fairy hill. There would seem to be then at least one type of more powerful fairy people who do or can look very much like humans and may even pass for human to some degree. 

Tylweth Teg - like the aos sí generally described as human-like in appearance, usually fair haired. 

Pixies - Descriptions can vary greatly but they are known to wear green; in one potential account of two children who may have been pixies they were said to have green-tinted skin. Pixies may range in height from a few inches tall to five or six feet, and by some accounts may take the form of hedgehogs. Briggs describes them as red haired with pointed ears, short faces, and up-tilted noses. 

The Baobhan Sithe - described as beautiful human-looking women, about five feet tall, who wear long green dresses to hide their feet which are the hooves of a deer. Said to take the form of wolves and crows or ravens.

Brownies - generally about 3 feet tall, a uniform medium brown color all over and preferring brown clothing. In some areas it was said they had no fingers while others described them as having no noses. 

Leprechauns - look much like humans in the oldest stories, except they are said to only be about 12 to 18 inches tall. In later folklore they are described with a similar height and as looking like older men with grey or white hair and beards.  


Goblin, from 'English Fairy Tales' by J. Jacobs, 1895, pubic domain

Goblins - three to four feet tall, ranging from almost human like, although extremely ugly (by our standards), to very animalistic with whiskers, tails, claws, and the like. 

Trows - in some folklore trows are described as very human in appearance, although they may appear old, shriveled, or physically deformed. In other stories however they are described as clearly inhuman, unattractive, and twisted, even in sometimes appearing as a mix of human and horse. They are often described in unflattering terms as having oversized feet, large noses, flat faces, and short limbs. They can range in height from three to six feet depending on the story. They are often said to dress in grey. 

Dwarves - Another type of fairy that has a wide range even within its grouping. In some cases they may appear as Tolkien described them, as short, barrel chested, heavily bearded men. In other cases the may have clear physical deformities such as animal feet or feet turned backwards at the ankle. 

Púca - a shapeshifter the Púca can appear as a variety of animals including eagles, goats, horses, bulls, and dogs. May also appear as a small man. 

Kelpies - can assume the form of a horse or of a dark haired person, usually but not always a man. As a horse he is appealing and fine-looking; as a person he would seem human except that his hair remains damp and may have water weeds in it if one looks closely. 

Merrows - Like traditional mermaids they have the upper torso of a human and the lower half of a fish; merrows also have webbed hands. Females are extremely beautiful. Males are hideously ugly, with green tinted skin, and deep set red eyes. Children born from the union of a merrow and a mortal are said to have scales. 

Selkies - Selkies can take the form of seals or of dark haired human-like beings. The children of selkies and humans are said in folklore to be born with webbed hands or feet.

Glaistig - May appear as a beautiful woman with slightly damp or dripping hair; as a woman wearing a long green dress to conceal her lower half which is that of a goat; or may appear in the form of a goat.  

Huldra - A kind of Scandinavian fairy that looks like a very beautiful woman but always has some hidden deformity in stories; sometimes a tail, or a hollow back. The Huldrekall (male huldra) is quite ugly with a long nose. 


Martin Brandenburg 'Elfenreigen', Public domain

Elves - elves present a unique difficulty because the English word elf is used to gloss several words in other languages and was also used for a long time as a generic. Because of this we end up with a range of beings that fall under the label 'elf' but are very different in nature and description. We may perhaps divide them into two main groupings, the taller elves and the small elves. The latter are generally described as about a foot tall and can appear as old and wizened or younger. The former group are often described as more human in appearance, although they are clearly supernatural in their abilities and are averse to iron. Grimm suggest a division in Germanic mythology of taller elves into three main groups, the ljossalfar, dokkalfar, and svartalfar, each living in different domains and having slightly different appearances; lossalfar means 'light elves', dokkalfar 'dark elves', and svartalfar 'black elves'. Snorri writing about Norse mythology described only ljossalfar and svartalfar. In Scottish and Germanic sources the taller elves may be described as beautiful and the word elf was sometimes glossed with incubus; elves were known for seducing mortal women. However in other Germanic sources elves were explicitly called ugly and were said to have long or crooked noses. 

Giants - there are also a variety of giants to be found in fairylore, beings who can be 7 or 8 feet tall or more. In English folklore these are usually named beings like the Jack-in-Irons or Jimmy Squarefoot. In other cultures these may appear as a type of being in their own right such as the Norse Jotun or Anglo-Saxon Ettin, both names meaning 'giant'. Giants may appear very human but on a larger scale or may be monstrous, such as the aforementioned Jimmy Squarefoot who was part man and part boar, or they may have extra heads or limbs.

Gruagachs - male or female, generally human-like in looks may appear as either young and attractive, or as wizened, old, and very hairy.  

Muryans - Cornish fairies that could be as small as ants. They might be shape-shifters who could take animals forms, particularly birds, but were also associated with the Heathen dead. It was believed they had once been human-sized but had shrunk over time, eventually disappearing entirely. 

This is only, obviously, a small sample of the huge array of fairies that can be found in folklore. I hope though that this has illustrated the range of descriptions we see, from human-like to monstrous, from tiny to taller, from what we may call beautiful to what we judge as ugly, from entirely human-like to animalistic, with various skin colors including green. As Katherine Briggs says "The fairy people are good and bad, beautiful and hideous, stately and comical...one of their greatest variations is size" (Briggs, 1976, page 368). Personally I have seen what we would call beautiful, but I have also seen beings we'd describe as outside that 'normal' that are within context considered beautiful by their own. Hollow backs, back-turned feet, single eyes and limbs, small, huge, horns, tails, famine-thin and very large, webbed feet or hands, immobile, non-ambulatory - Fairy has an enormous diversity to it that far, far defies our modern cultural perceptions of 'beauty'. If we are seeking to understand and appreciate the folklore, and to connect on any level with these beings then we must understand this diversity and appreciate it for what it is without overlaying our own perceptions and opinions onto it. We must understand that each group of fairies, each kind, would seem to judge by their own standards just as we do by our cultural ones, so that what a pixie considers beautiful is not what an elf (of any type) might consider beautiful, and neither may be what a human would call beautiful. I think we limit our appreciation of Fairy when we are looking at it through our own lens of beauty, height, ability, size, skill, or mobility, rather than appreciating it and Themselves for what and who they are in themselves. 

 

Further Reading:
Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W. Y. Evans-Wentz
Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats
Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry by Yeats 
Meeting the Othercrowd by Lehinhan and Green
Teutonic Mythology by J. Grimm
Prose Edda Snorri Sturlisson
The Trows, Orkneyjar http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/trows/index.html 
A Dictionary of Fairies by Katherine Briggs
Elves in Anglo-Saxon England by Alaric Hall


*on a small side note, the idea of fairies having wings is actually more recent and comes from the theater. I recommend this article 'In Search of the Earliest Fairy Wings' for a far more in-depth discussion of the subject. 

* there is some art out there that is based more closely on folklore, rather than adapting an idealized concept of what a fairy is to our modern beauty standards. What I am referencing here is specifically the more popular images found in video games, anime, and more imagination based art. 

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