Wedgwood Flame Fairyland Lustre Vase. Circa 1920. M.S. Rau (sold).
The ethereal winged creatures we call fairies can be traced back to pre-Christian times when they were perceived as fallen angels or magical entities. In the Middle Ages, these mystical beings became integral to folklore and superstitions. As the lore behind fairies adapted over time in art and literature, so did linguistic changes of the word “fairy” itself. The Old English word “fairie,” meaning “something incredible or fictitious,” derives from the Old French word, “faerie,” or “enchantment, magic, witchcraft, or sorcery.” The origins of such nomenclature can be traced to Latin, as the word “fata,” meaning “fate” or “destiny,” includes a similar sense of mysticism with which we associate “fairy” today.
In many ways, the word "fairy" has gone through as many linguistic changes in folklore as their ever-evolving representation in art and literature.
Meissen Cherub Resting After Conquering A Heart Figure | M.S. Rau
Origins and Evolution of Fairy Beliefs
Pre-Christian and Middle Ages Perspectives
Daphne embracing her father, the river-god Peneus, at the left three nymphs bring jars from the Story of Apollo and Daphne print, after Baldassare Tommaso Peruzzi. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source.
In the pre-Christian era, various cultures believed in spirits, sprites and supernatural entities that inhabited the natural world and were often associated with specific landscapes or elements. This system of pagan faith was similar to the Greeks and Romans who worshipped gods, goddesses and even fairies as lesser deities. These deities were often known as nymphs, female figures associated with forests and rivers.
The Roman author, Ovid, writes about Daphne, a water nymph, in his Metamorphosis as part of the story of Daphne and Apollo. In the narrative, Apollo is struck by one of Cupid’s arrows, causing him to fall immediately in love with Daphne. As he chases after her, Daphne is forced to transform into a laurel tree just before her capture. This scene is most famously depicted by Renaissance artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in his captivating sculpture, Apollo and Daphne. In the Medieval era, fairies were seen more commonly in folklore and other literature.
The 14th-century poem, Sir Orfeo, follows the knight and his wife, Heurodis. When Heurodis is captured by a fairy king, Orfeo enters Fairyland to save her. Throughout the story runs a connection between the representation of Fairyland as a place of insanity and the overworld as a realm of control, and this parallel serves as an example of the Medieval association of fairies with mischief, playfulness and folly. As the Roman era ended and Christianity gained prominence during the Middle Ages, these pre-existing beliefs merged with Christian narratives, giving rise to a new set of supernatural beings known as fairies.
In medieval Europe, fairies were often depicted as enchanting, ethereal creatures residing in mystical realms, with an ambiguous nature that could be benevolent or mischievous. These Anglo-Saxon fairytales were deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness, passed down through oral traditions, tales and superstitions. Over time, these mythical beings became central figures in literature, art and cultural practices, evolving into enduring symbols that continue to captivate imaginations and shape perceptions of the mystical and otherworldly.
English Folklore and Its Influence
Scene from a Midsummer Night's Dream by Sir Edwin Landseer | National Gallery of Victoria
The origin of fairies in English folklore can be traced to a blend of Celtic, Germanic and Norse traditions, amalgamated with local beliefs and practices. In the medieval and Early Modern periods, the term "fairy" was used to describe a myriad of supernatural beings, from benevolent nature spirits to more mischievous entities.
These entities were often associated with specific natural features such as hills, woods and bodies of water. In Celtic mythology, the Sidhe, a race of supernatural beings, are considered precursors to the modern fairy concept.
Over time, English folklore assimilated these elements, and the notion that fairies served as both literary and artistic phenomena became deeply embedded in the cultural imagination. Folktales and ballads recounted encounters with fairies, portraying them as whimsical and capricious beings with the ability to bring both good fortune and misfortune. The influence of Shakespeare's works, particularly "A Midsummer Night's Dream," further popularized and standardized the image of fairies in English literature, contributing to their enduring presence in the rich tapestry of English folklore. Shakespeare demonstrates the mythological allure of fairies while describing Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, during a song and dance in a fantastical version of Athens.
Through the house give gathering light,
By the dead and drowsy fire:
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier;
And this ditty, after me,
Sing, and dance it trippingly.
The lively and enchanting nature of fairies as we consider them today is purported by Shakespeare’s work, one that serves as a literary masterpiece that describes these creatures as central to the peculiar reality of a magical world.
Fairy Art as a Cultural Reflection
Depictions of Fairies from Yesteryears to Present DayThe evolution of fairy beliefs is intricately intertwined with artistic expression. From the delicate illustrations found in medieval manuscripts to the elaborate paintings of the Renaissance, depictions of fairies have served as a mirror to the cultural ethos of their respective eras.
Several artists have played pivotal roles in shaping the visual representation of fairies. The works of Victorian artists such as Richard Dadd and Arthur Rackham, who captured the whimsy and mystery of these magical beings, left an indelible mark on fairy art. Their influence reverberates through the centuries, inspiring subsequent generations of artists to explore and reinterpret the fairy realm. In Rackham’s Twilight Dreams, a parade of fairies glide over a forest across a moonlit sky. Some of them fly in pairs, seemingly engaged in vigorous conversation, while others move alone and sink lower or higher than the group, observing the natural landscape. The flowing dresses and orange light give the fairies a sense of human elegance, while glimpses of their wings preserve the viewer’s recognition of their magical spirits. In his painting, Rackham beautifully captures the transient and graceful nature of female fairies, maintaining a sense of both realism and fantasy.
Twilight Dreams by Arthur Rackham | The University of Liverpool Victoria Gallery & Museum
The spirited works of contemporary artist Frank Frazetta are distinctly similar to those of Dadd and Rackham in their portrayal of fairies as curious and mysterious celestial creatures. As a comic book illustrator, Frazetta created characters who matched the exaggerated intensity of the stories in which they appeared. While implying in his work the sophistication of artists like Rackham, he adapted his rendering of fairies to reflect the societal ideals of female physical beauty and power, adding the realism of social commentary to the genre of fantasy. In Icon: A Retrospective by the Grandmaster of Fantastic Art, Frazetta writes, “Who wants to look at just an ordinary hero forever? You want the ultimate, you pull out the stops and do everything in extremes. The extreme in beauty, if it fits; the extreme in ugliness if it fits; the extreme in terror if this is what's required.”
Fantasy in Art — A Broader Canvas
For one, fairy tales are still lauded today, as the element of the bizarre is one that continues to amaze and inspire 21st-century story-tellers and listeners alike. Thus, it is the creative leniency of folklore that allows people to adopt fairy mythology as their own. Fantasy admirers can create and adapt imaginary worlds in which fairies and other creatures exist more freely as original products of a person’s artistic mind. With humans as the ultimate sovereigns of a fairy realm, there is no end to the already vast collection of fantastical legends.
Not only do fairies reflect the physical ideals of femininity and youthfulness, but they carry with them an aura of supernaturality — a quality that imparts on them a sense of twofold mystery. Their playful, yet mischievous nature is comical, while their elegance is touching and serene. From age old folklore to contemporary stories, viewers of fantasy art and readers of fairy tales have been left wanting more from these magical beings.
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