Most of us when we think of the word Fairy imagine a little Tinkerbell. Then there is the word elf. Well those are tall archers. Spirits, or Sprites, are some sort of vague nature nymph thing associated with the elements. Well today It’s time to break down the word Fairy.
Of course at the very basis a fairy is the unknown. The notion is found in many cultures, think of trolls, dwarfs, oni, brownies, yehasuri, and Santa. These are the names given to the beings. Naturally as time went on traditions evolved about the creature, like them leaving Changelings, certain things you can do to pacify them, and specific names. The idea is actually similar to the idea of a ghost, and a lot of creatures we call fey were supposed to be undead spirits!
A lot of these rituals and traditions became their own things, like the Cat superstitions being separated from Cat Sith, wishing well stuff being separated from Water Nymphs, etc. Even nowadays we have our own fairies. Men In Black. Aliens. Shadow Men. Koinkadink? I don’t think so!
Usually each culture developed their own legends about the creatures, what we call Folk and Fairy Tales. (BTW how come Disney turns all the Fairy Tales into Princess Stories? Cinderella originally murdered her first stepmother, Snow White kills the Evil Queen by making her dance in red hot shoes until she dies, and Ariel originally is dumped by the prince and throws herself into the sea where she dissolves. The legends were then influenced by the religion, and since these traditions often influenced surrounding cultures many different countries have the same pantheons, but slightly different. So when everyone converted to Christianity the ideas of fairies converted too.
Leprecauns became angels who were on neither side in the “WAR IN HEAVEN”, Dragons became demons, unicorns became a symbol of Jesus, well, everything became a symbol of Jesus, and really Christianity got kind of messed up. Everyone believed in mythical creatures for a while, but they were sort of symbols. Then during the Elizabethan era and the renaissance they became the sort of magic wand waving little pixies they are today. Then Disney solidified it by sissifying fairy tales.
ELFS DWARVES AND TROLLS
Norse, Saxon, and Germanic mythologies were in one of those influencing cycles I talked about. Some of the most famous creatures come from this mix, famous because they spread across the landscape so much. If you ask anyone about one of these they will probably have some idea of what they are. Also, these are the three most clichéd races in all time, space and matter.
Of course, especially for elves and trolls, these ideas will vary quite a lot. Elves can be spirits, dancing in mushroom rings out in the forest, bow and arrow shooting people, or child stealing demons. Tolkien sort of mixed them together with wood and high elves, tall, (except for gnomes) noble, (except for wood elves) magic and bow wielding cool blondes.
Trolls can be really anything. There of course are little cutesy troll dolls, or ma-has, there are big strong creatures who’s weakness is they turn to stone at morn (or are they scared of lightning? Or fire? Or acid?), they can be these weird box people, they can be clever riddle tellers, or dumb but strong slaves of greenskins, they can be good or bad, they can be internet meanies, they can be tomte, they can be wilderness dwellers who capture princesses, etc. etc. Why? Because whenever people were telling each other fairy tales and transcribing legends they came across a lot of strange creatures they had never heard of. The solution? Call them all trolls.
Probably the most worthy of being called Troll is those bridge guys. Not dumb, clever. Tricky.
Those big slave guys that push carts and are “Nott to Brite” could probably be substituted for any number of creatures. Ogres. Giants. Atlas. Titans. Bugbears. Grendels, Cyclopes, Evil/ Enslaved Ents. Ma-whos. etc.
As for those little cute spiky haired guys, they can be called mahas. They give candy. They really fit in more with the Cute pantheon then the Big Brute, BFG, Nott to Brite kind of guys.
Bridge dwellers are the best because they really embody all the classic troll characteristics. Big, but clever. Flesh eating. They maybe hide under bridges to protect themselves from the sun and from acid and from lighting. You see?
So what were these creatures like originally?
Elves. Well really they were sort of synonymous with fairies. All the legends about fairies that came across the borders joined up with these ‘alfs’. They left Changelings, they danced in the woods, they messed around with your house.* There were two types, light elves and dark elves. Light elves were sort of like gnomes, they tended flowers and sang songs. Tiny little guys. There is confusion about whether dark elves and dwarves are the same. A lot of people think they are the same because of the Nine worlds. In Scandinavian mythology the whole cosmology of the universe revolves around the great tree Yggdrasil. It will probably be better to show a picture than try to explain it, so here it is.
As you can see there are nine “heims”, homes. These are all worlds. Eight of these we know for sure: Asgard land of the Ayseer (the main gods, like Thor, Odin, and technically Loki) and honored dead, Vanaheim land of the lesser gods**, Alfheim home of the light elves, Muspelheim land of fire and lava (maybe Balrogs), Nilfheim land of Ice and Stench, Jotunheimr land of the giants ( and the vulture heads, jotuns, cyclopes, and Titaen), Midgard land of men, and lastly Helheim land of the dishonored dead. The ninth is unknown. It is usually thought to be Svartlheimr the land of the dwarves but also sometimes it is referenced as Ljosfalheimr land of dark elves. Why not just say there are ten worlds? Because in all the stories whether they say Ljos or Svart there are nine worlds. Some people say that Alvheim and Ljosfalheimr are the same, but this is incorrect because the Dark elves and the Dwarves live in the same place. Thus, I conclude Ljosfalheimr and Svartlheimr are two counties in the same world. Disagree? Comment, I would love to become better informed.
Anyone who understood that whole thing is smarter than I am.
*Technically these were Nisse, but similar.
**Like Gaia and Uranus, these were older gods that were adopted into the newer religion for tradition’s sake.
So that’s it for elves, and since I ended up going into Dwarves a lot too I won’t talk about them too long. They are actually evil spirits. They are mountain folk, but they aren’t as specific and stereotyped as Tolkien copycat-sith would have us believe. Hey guys you should really have read The cultural influence authority part two before you read this.1
All throughout history there have been instances of fairies taking care of people’s houses. From The Peddler’s Friends to Dobby. This is because the deep primal human instinct to excuse oneself from doing work. Many creatures give example to this. Nisse, as mentioned above, are basically house dwarves. They look like this.
Tomte are house trolls.
And Brownies are sort of house elves.
Of course, when you really get down to it these are all sort of interchangeable. At one point every type of fey has gotten chance at working in a house. Whether making shoes for an old lady, like Leprechauns, Making shoes, like brownies, turning puppets into people, like fairies. Also to tell you the truth quite a lot they get the chance to be mischievous.
Gremlins are the solidified version of this. Whereas most creatures are OK sometimes, these guys are always mischievous. They’re actually more modern guys, you know. They were a superstition during World War two and were popularized by Roald Dhal and by posters. They are similar to Imps, but with a more modern airplane jinx side. Lares and other household gods are a similar concept to house fey but less mischievous and subjected.
Tomte are sometimes called Nisse, but in modern fantasy they are more like trolls than dwarfs. Hobs are related to Bugs, but where as all Bug creatures are in the wild, hobs are in the house doing house work. Thus, hobgoblins are more civilized than regular goblins. Some examples of Hob creatures are: Hob, Hobgoblin, Hobhoulards, Hob-thrusts, Hobby lanthorns, Hob thrushes, Hob and Lanthorns, Hob-headlesses, and Hobbits.
The Domovoi are a good example of this. These fuzzy Lorax looking guys are very protective. They hide behind corners and sometimes disguise as dogs. (fantasy writers, take note! This guy is a great way to be unique in your Creaturepedia!)
Also the Heinzelmachenn are interesting because they get into the vengeful side of this. Unlike house elves who are bound to their house unless given a sock, these guys left when some lady got a little too curious and tried to trap them. Other examples of vengeful fairies are the Boggart, a house elf who was mistreated and started trying to poke their masters with pins.
In modern fantasy Fairies in your house are often Magical Buildup, a phenomenon that occurs in deserted corners of houses. You see, magical winds are floating all over the world, and in places like that, magical dust builds up and spawns a regular little fairie community. When it’s dark energy the buildup becomes Gremlins.
This led to the idea, Hey, maybe some places in your house are magical portholes! Like this Wardrobe or this strange and numerous collection of cupboards! But that’s another story.
NYMPHS AND NATURE ELEMENTALS
Now we come to one of my favorite subjects, Gnomes! This may not seem like a very good intro to Beautiful Nymphs and Elementals, but here goes.
Alchemy is real. A lot of people think it’s made up, but they are wrong. Alchemy is the study of elements, and transforming them. One of their main goals is to discover how to turn lesser materials into Gold. Probably a lot of Wizards, like Merlin, were Alchemists.
They also were into classifying spirits, and these were their four basic Alchemical Elementals: Earth Element was the Gnome, Water Element was the Undine, Air was the Sylph, and Fire was the Salamander. Everyone nowadays, especially people trying to do Asian style fantasy, used this idea. Sometimes adding other elements, but basically this. Gnomes are sometimes substituted for Golems, Undines are sometimes substituted for Mermaids, Sylphs are sometimes called Sylpheeds, and Salamanders are often replaced with Ifreets (AKA Balrogs)*.
Wow, those gnomes are pretty different, aren’t they? What happened that made them into Garden Décor? Well, what happened is the original Gnome thing of being a Earth Elemental and a Miner type guy got totally stolen by Dwarfs. So, they got thrown in with Fairies and Scandinavian Elves. Of course, there are also Zombie Gnomes.
The other really big influence for modern elementals is the Greek and Roman mythologies. Nyads and Dryads! Also Oreads, but no one cares about them. Nyads are water spirits, Dryads are Dry tree spirits, and, well, Aurae are wind, Nephele are clouds, Hamadryads are tree spirits that are the tree, as opposed to haunting the tree like Dryads, Nereids and Oceanids are the ocean, Lampades are underworld Nymphs, and Muses are nymphs of the art, specifically poetry. Elemental Embodiments are really the Ultimate Nymphs, but they are Tough and Mean. They come from a couple places, and are kind of like in those movies where like the doll or the vacuum cleaner come and attack people, except with nature. Kind of like Gaia’s Vengence, or Ents.
The common ones are Fire, Air, Water, and Earth; but often with some others like Ice or Wood thrown in. Then things get crazy. People start adding in stuff like Darkness Elemental, Evil Elemental, Lightning Elemental, Illusion, Decay, Poison, Plasma, or Time. It gets kind of ridiculous.
Ninjago is a good example. You know Ninjago, the LEGO attempt at making a Ninja thing? It started off pretty cool, they had a good idea. They fought the skeletons and stuff. Then they made the snakes. It was still cool. Then came Nindroids and Ghost and those Rock Guys. My point is, each Ninja is an element. Jay is Wind and Lightning, Zane is ice, Kai is Fire, and Cole is rock. Then they started getting more suit upgrades.
They had dragons to go along with them, and then Sensei Wu got a White Dragon, and then the Green Ninja took the four original guys’ dragons and combined them into one guy. Poor guys!
Well, folks, that’s all for this week! Coming up soon is Prairie Dog week, so keep a lookout for that!! Also here’s a couple Stories for the week by Lou and Hiram: The Girl in the Clockworks
*Ifrits and Balrogs are actually different, and also no one believes Balrogs are real.
1 Up in Norse-ville, way back as far as they kept any records, one day the Ice Age hit. It was already very cold!
“Good Grief,” said The High Elf, “My feet are so cold and my toes are Thor!”
So, he sent out several groups of elves. They were sent out to many lands and in all directions looking for anything warmer.
Some went to Germany and England, but it was still under snow and ice. Some stayed, others returned. Same with Russia and Greenland, They survived by tunneling. That’s how all that stuff with dwarf vs elf got going actually.
One group made it past the frozen Straits of Gibraltar and on the other side saw some green grass.
They kept traveling until they got the Nile and took a boat even further south. They were surprised that the boatman was dark skinned. Never saw that kind of thing before. Anyway, they settled in the Congo and eventually their skin darkened as a way to protect them from sunburn.
Later, much later, they were captured and forced to help built the pyramids. But they managed to escape and return North.
The Egyptians found some other slaves to replace them and you know that story.