Your response to my recent Fairy Doors products shows just how popular these little folk are! Even in 2018, there are signs of fairy life as discovered by my partner in crime writing, Julia, when she moved to a new village on Dartmoor. On one of her first exploratory walks with her dog, Moss, she came across two wooden fairy doors in the base of a living tree. Fascinated, she has kept her eye on this magical phenomenon as she passes the tree at least once a week… She has seen tiny figures come and go, little offerings left at Christmas and Easter, and coins pressed into cracks in the tree’s bark. Yet, she has never seen anyone else nearby…!
Intrigued, I decided to have a scoot about online and see what other fairy evidence I could come up with…
Most of us think of fairies as beautiful, tiny creatures, flitting about on gossamer wings, – but history and folklore tell a different tale. When belief in fairies was common most people didn’t dare mention them by name and referred to them as the Little People or the Hidden People. Many explanations have been given for belief in fairies. Some say that they are like ghosts, spirits of the dead, or fallen angels, neither bad enough for Hell nor good enough for Heaven. There are hundreds of different kinds of fairies – some are minute creatures, others grotesque – some can fly, and all can appear and disappear at will.
Sometimes the term fairy is used to describe any magical creature, including goblins or gnomes, while at others it describes a specific type of more ethereal creature or sprite. As so often happens when I look into ‘traditions’, I find that the Victorians are largely responsible! They were the ones who made fairies tiny and twee… resulting in fairy tales for children. It was during the Victorian and Edwardian eras when fairies were extremely popular that winged fairies became the norm. In folklore, wings were very rare and even tiny fairies flew by magic, sometimes flying on ragwort stems or the backs of birds.
Hobgoblins are guardian fairies – they are the useful ones that secretly come and do housework and odd jobs around the house. Unfortunately, they never seem to come and visit me! In Aberdeenshire, Scotland they are hideous to look at, they have no separate toes or fingers and in the Scottish Lowlands, they have a hole instead of a nose. Banshees are less common and more sinister, they usually only appear to foretell a tragedy. Goblins and Bug-a-boos are always malignant – and we should avoid them if possible!
Most of the nature fairies are probably descendants of pre-Christian gods and goddesses or are the spirits of trees and streams. Black Annis, a blue-faced hag, haunts the Dane Hills in Leicestershire and Gentle Annie who governs storms in the Scottish lowlands, are believed to be descended from the Celtic goddess Danu, mother of Ireland’s cave fairies. Mermaids and mermen, river spirits and spirits of pools, are the most common nature fairies.
A famous fairy story
One of the most famous fairy stories, and the photos that we have probably all seen was of the Cottingley Fairies who appeared in a series of five photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths two young cousins who lived in Cottingley, near Bradford. In 1917, when the first two photographs were taken, Elsie was 16 and Frances was 9. The pictures came to the attention of world-famous writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (he of Sherlock Holmes fame), who used them to illustrate an article on fairies he had been commissioned to write for the Christmas 1920 edition of The Strand Magazine. Doyle, as a spiritualist, was enthusiastic about the photographs and interpreted them as clear and visible evidence of psychic phenomena. Public reaction was mixed – some accepted the images as genuine, but others believed they had been faked.
Interest in the Cottingley Fairies gradually faded after 1921. Both girls married and lived abroad for a time after they grew up, yet the photographs continued to hold the public imagination. In 1966 a reporter from the Daily Express newspaper traced Elsie, who had by then returned to the UK. She left open the possibility that she believed she had photographed her thoughts, and the media once again became interested in the story and I can remember reading about it myself and wishing the photos were genuine.
In the early 1980s Elsie and Frances, by then very old ladies, finally admitted that the photographs were faked, using cardboard cutouts of fairies copied from a popular children’s book of the time, but Frances maintained that the fifth and final photograph was genuine. The photographs and two of the cameras used are on display in the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.
How extraordinary that such a hoax could go on for so long, even deceiving Sherlock Holmes’ creator. It just goes to prove how many of us dearly wanted to believe it was genuine and to believe in fairies… do you?