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Mythological Origins of Fairy Tales

I’ve talked about the origin of fairy tales in oral and written tradition as a literary genre. Today, I want to delve a little into the mythological origin of the fairies themselves in folklore and religious history. 


In the United Kingdom, it is very likely fairy lore originated from the Tuatha De Danann, a group of pre-Christian deities from Irish mythology. They are said to have come from the sky, far-away islands, or even alternate dimensions (the Underhill, the Undying Lands, etc, representing the Afterlife or world beyond the Veil), and were seen to be very human-like in their society and interactions but with immortality and specialized magics as a bonus. The Aos Si are similar to the Tuatha De Danann (immortal, magical, godlike beings), but once lived alongside humans until they were driven underground by violence, thus spawning the belief in fairy mounds and cave passages into Fairyland. In some tales, the Tuatha De Danann and the Aos Si are the same people, while in others they are rivals. In Scottish tradition, The Good People are not gods per se, but nature spirits who can be categorized somewhere between humans and minor gods. 


The role of these deities was often to maintain the balance between human communities and nature, acting as deterrents to over-farming, encroachment upon animal habitats, and respect for weather forces. The practices to appease fairies are often useful for preserving food for winter, good farming practices for a bountiful harvest, and avoiding predators. Much like how illnesses were chalked up to fairy mischief, survival techniques which worked but could not be clearly explained were attributed to fairy benevolence. 


The belief in the Tuatha De Danann, Aos Si, Good People and various other titles, seems almost parallel to the Greek tradition of deifying aspects of nature or human psyche which did not have a ready explanation. Similar pantheons can be found in every pre-Christian religion around the world. With the spread of Christianity, these deities were demoted to demons, saints, and fairies - depending on how malicious or heroic their roles were.


In the Christian tradition, there can be only one deity, but it is difficult to convert large numbers of people by disavowing their entire culture, so morphing these immortal beings into fairies and spirits was an acceptable compromise. Of course, as with the older religions, Christians also had a habit of attributing anything they didn’t understand to the supernatural, so adding Irish and English mythology into their compendium of troublesome entities was a relatively smooth transition. 


Research on specific deities who became fairies in legends are sparse. Most of the lore is from oral tradition, so very little was written down before Chrisitanity took hold and changed the lore to suit their own beliefs. Oftentimes, priests and monks would destroy any books they did find on the subject so that only their version would be believed. There are a few who have repeat mention, however.


The Morrigan, a war and death goddess, became a death omen and is sometimes attributed as the leader of the banshees; Dagda was once a father god, Morrigan’s consort and an Odin-like figure. His role as a leader of Tuatha De Danaan is unchanged, though the status of godhood is lost. Lugh, the Irish god of light, became Lugh of the Long Hand, a warrior of epically heroic proportions. Brigid, the goddess of poetry, healing, and fire (an intriguing combination) was adopted into Christianity as Saint Brigid, perhaps evidence of how significant she was in Celtic culture. 


Similarly across the world, ancient deities were kept alive in tales and superstition by stripping them of their godhood and relegating them to the confines of nature spirits, immortals, demons, and saints. Examples can be found in some African traditions such as the Merina people of Madagascar, and in Hinduism, where Sri Krishna and Sri Radha’s servants were classified as fairies. 


For my alternate universe setting The Grymveil, I acknowledge these mythological beginnings while also spinning my own origin legend. I wanted to keep the magic but trim out the superstition and religion, leaving behind a diverse group of magical beings which are not bound by any one discipline, thus allowing a variety of cultures to be represented without having to declare one of them as the “truth”. It also allows me to blend scientific principles and magic together into a modern setting that still has room for the fantastical. 


The magic of Faerie is its adaptability, and that’s a large part of its appeal. I hope I’m able to do the folklore justice while still adding in modern sensibilities. 


Until next time, Stay Magical!

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