After spending some time on the famous Isle of Skye (pictured above), off the coast of western Scotland and feeling very much at ‘the end of the world’, the idea of fairies has become maddeningly pervasive in my head. So, in this week’s Pop Mythology I’ll be asking what are fairies? And why do we still find them compelling in modern culture?
What Are Fairies?
A common thing to hear whenever the saccharine stories Disney spun from ‘real’ fairy tales are brought up: “The reality is much darker, y’know?”’.
Since we’re really trying to avoid the obvious here at Pop Mythology, we’re going to skirt the treacherous Isle of Cliché by saying the ‘reality’ of fairy tales isn’t necessarily darker it’s just more … real.
There’s an important term for understanding what I mean by this: fairies are morally ambiguous.
You see that term crop up everywhere fairies are discussed seriously. In the fairytales and myths of northern Europe, fairies are made up of all kinds of ‘folk’ who are both good and bad. Depending on which group a fairy came from, they could either mend your shoes or steal your baby but, most of the time, they wouldn’t even acknowledge your existence.
This morally ambiguous version of fairies is very much in-keeping with the viewpoint I mentioned in a previous post about Nature being both a sustaining and murderous force at the same time. There are few places in the world more ‘fairy-like’ than the Isle of Skye and fewer still that manifest this duality in a more in-your-face-stupid-human kind of way, so let’s take a look at fairies through that lens.
Who Are The Tuatha Dé Danann?
Nitpicker disclosure: It’s important to say here that, although the Isle of Skye is part of the Inner Hebrides, there are (unsurprisingly) a boatload of connections, similarities and outright borrowing of mythologies in and around Ireland and western Britain.
(If you want to learn about a fascinating and specifically Hebridean tradition about fairies, check out the Fairy Flag, supposedly a gift to Clan McCleod from the Fair Folk themselves.)
The Tuatha Dé Danann were a mystical people who were said to have once occupied Ireland before they were exiled to the Otherworld after they lost a battle to an invading force. They originally came from mystical islands to the ‘North’ of Ireland (ahem, Skye) and taught mystical arts like magic, necromancy and … architecture.
Many scholars today consider them to be ‘demoted deities’ since it’s likely that they were the actual gods of pre-Christian Ireland and became associated with fairies later on. The truth is, we’re not entirely sure what the name ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ means but the consensus seems to be something like the “Folk of Danu”.
More truth, we don’t really know who Danu was, either! There are all kinds of etymological and theological arguments raging in the tweed-rustled halls of academia but at Pop Mythology we’re interested in how myths come to us – through the filters and fog of all the past leading to the present – and not so much with falling into a nit-picking bog of eternal stench.
SO … let’s just say that Danu was a ‘Mother-Earth’ kind of goddess and her ‘folk’ were mystical beings from mystical islands in the north who were generally knowledgeable and good but, if pushed, could get prickly.
According to Ireland’s semi-legendary history, the Tuatha Dé Danann ended up fighting battles with their enemies, the Fomorians until they eventually tried to avoid more bloodshed by intermarrying with them. The Formorians have since been contrasted with the Tuatha Dé Danann as being ‘malevolent nature forces’ since they were monstrous to look at and only ever seemed to come out of the sea or earth to cause a ruckus.
Fairy Weddings Mean A Lot
Now, marrying into the Formorians didn’t avoid that much bloodshed, since they were involved in multiple intrafamilial battles for quite a while after. Nevertheless, from a mythological perspective, this intermarriage means quite a lot.
In the legends, they are often opposed diametrically in terms of ‘good and bad’ nature elements. The marriage of the two, then merged the natural, morally explicit beings into the morally ambiguous creatures that permeate all fairy lore. From the Grimm ‘Elves and the Shoemaker’ to the Fairy Flag-giving folk of Skye, fairies have since become repositories of knowledge who can bestow gifts on humans if they choose to.
Well, they’re a useful mythological creature to carry around with you, which is kind of the aim of Pop Mythology in general. Let me explain.
Having stories in our heads that only ever have cause-effect rationales for unfortunate (or worse) events isn’t all that useful in the real world where bad stuff happens to good people and vice versa.
Thinking in terms of fairy-like creatures that are ‘morally ambiguous’ and sometimes just do stuff to piss you off isn’t always a sign of intellectual paucity. Just look at what this kind of thinking did for the pilots in World War II.
Gremlins, prior to appearing in the lovable 1984 film, were creatures borne out of the aviation age. They were considered little creatures with pointy teeth that caused mischief amongst the wires and engines of early aeroplanes. They were blamed for the many seemingly inexplicable events that resulted in damage to aircraft.
This has been referred to as ‘buck passing’, which it definitely is but that might not be the worst thing in the world in these cases since it also, as the Wikipedia article linked to above states, gave wartime pilots something to point the finger of blame at:
«Morale among the R.A.F. pilots would have suffered if they pointed the finger of blame at each other. It was far better to make the scapegoat a fantastic and comical creature than another member of your own squadron.”
WARNING: this is not a call to forego all responsibility for your misdemeanours. we’re myth nerds, not fucking sociopaths.
So, let’s use another example. Anyone who still uses headphones with wires knows the very real phenomenon of wrapping them up neatly and carefully to put into a pocket, only to retrieve them later in a shape that rivals the gordian knot.
Now, acknowledging this state of affairs might result in my not putting my headphones in my pocket but, let’s face it, that’s not going to happen. I will definitely lose wireless headphones and I will always need a place to put the wired ones and they will never not turn into the gordian knot. So, if I decide to blame it on the ‘knot goblin’ and go about my day, I relieve myself of the anxiety.
It’s mad, I know and probably the early onset symptoms of schizophrenia but what if it’s not? What if faking a belief in something is a lot more fun and useful than flagellating myself with my knotted headphones? It’s not that hard and a whole lot more fun when you’re doing it not to control another group of people (that’s always a dick move) but to relinquish a little of that control in yourself and put the blame on a ‘morally ambiguous’ little bastard.
Just a thought.
If the notion of “dark fairies” is new to you, check out Arthur Machen’s weird stories for the best tellings of the ‘other side’ of these cutesy little beasts!