Fairies appear in two kinds of folk stories--legends and fairy tales. Legends take place in the real world, and fairy tales occur in some imaginary land. Legends are told as true stories, but fairy tales are told as fiction. Actually, fairies appear in few fairy tales. Most stories about fairies are really legends.
A number of beliefs and stories about fairies have been popular for hundreds of years. For example, many children believe that the sandman comes each night and puts "sleepy dust" in their eyes to help them sleep. The tooth fairy replaces a lost tooth that has been placed under a pillow or in a glass of water with some money, while the youngster is asleep. The bogeyman, an evil fairy, kidnaps boys and girls who leave home without permission. The bogey beast, also called the bug-a-boo, carries off children who have been naughty.
No one knows how the belief in fairies began. In some stories, fairies were angels who were forced to leave heaven because of some wrongdoing. In other stories, fairies were spirits of the dead. Some scholars believe that fairies began as ancient nature spirits, such as the spirits of mountains, streams, and trees. Many stories about fairies represent attempts to explain various happenings. For example, if a cow goes dry, a farmer may blame fairies for stealing her milk.
Fairies vary in size, but the majority of them are smaller than adult human beings. Most fairies have various human features. Some fairies, including pixies, have great beauty. Other fairies have misshapen faces or deformed bodies. For example, trolls are short, ugly men with crooked noses and humped backs. Irish leprechauns are wrinkled little men. The banshees, who live in Ireland and Scotland, have long, streaming hair, and their eyes are fiery red from continual crying. Many fairies wear green or white clothing with red caps. Brownies usually wear brown cloaks and hoods.
Fairies may live alone or in a large group. The banshee is an example of a fairy that lives alone. In Scotland, she can be heard wailing by a river as she washes the clothes of a person who soon will die. In Ireland, banshees often live near a particular family. The sound of a wailing banshee means that someone in the family will soon die.
Large groups of fairies live in fairyland, a fairy society with its own government and territory. In most stories, a king and queen rule fairyland, with the queen having the most power. Queen Mab is a famous fairy queen in Irish folklore. Oberon is king of the fairies in many legends. Fairyland may be under the earth, inside a hollow hill, or beneath a lake. The entrance may be a door in a hill or under the roots of a tree.
Life in fairyland closely resembles life in the human world. Fairies work, marry, and have children. But time passes extremely slowly in fairyland, and so there is no old age or death. Many legends describe the difference between time in fairyland and time in the human world. In one legend, a man spends what he believes is one night in fairyland. But after he returns to his home, he discovers that hundreds of years have passed--and no one remembers him.
In fairyland, fairies often have trouble giving birth. A common type of fairy legend tells how fairies kidnap a human woman and take her to fairyland to help deliver a baby. The fairies blindfold the woman so that the entrance to the fairy society will remain secret. Fairies nearly always pay the woman well for her help.
People and fairies sometimes marry. A man might go to fairyland to live with his bride, or he might bring his fairy wife back to his home. In many stories, the human being must follow strict rules to remain married to a fairy. For example, a human husband must never scold or strike his fairy wife or refer to her being a fairy. If he does, the fairy immediately returns to fairyland.
Fairies often aid people in various ways. They might help with the housework or with such farmwork as reaping and threshing. In some cases, a person is not allowed to thank the fairy, to offer it gifts, or even to watch it work. If the person breaks one of these rules, the fairy runs away and never returns.
Sometimes fairies reward people for doing them a favour. According to one story, a farmer who mends a fairy oven or chair will receive delicious food in return. Grateful fairies also may leave money for people who have treated them well.
However, fairies are not always helpful and kind. They may steal grain or lead travellers astray. Occasionally, fairies commit cruel acts. In one legend, a woman helps deliver a fairy baby. As she puts some magic ointment on the baby's eye, she accidentally rubs some on one of her own eyes. The ointment enables her to see fairies who are normally invisible to human beings. Later, the woman sees a fairy in a market place and speaks to him. The fairy asks which eye the woman sees him with. After she tells him, he blinds her in that eye.
Fairies sometimes try to trick women into caring for fairy babies. The fairies may exchange their babies, called changelings, for healthy newborn human infants. Usually a human mother can see that a changeling has been substituted for her child because the fairy baby has some ugly physical feature or habit. If the mother threatens to burn the changeling, it may leave and give back the woman's own child.
Many people believe in fairies and have developed ways to win the favour of good fairies or to protect themselves from evil ones. Fairies love milk, and so people may pour milk into the ground for them. Parents may hang an open pair of scissors over a child's crib as a charm to prevent fairies from stealing the infant. Parents also may place a cross or a container of holy water beside the baby for protection. If travellers lose their way because of what they believe is a fairy's spell, they try to break the spell by turning a piece of their clothing inside out and burning it.