Etymology of the Word ‘Fairy’

Duddington – the Land of Fairies

‘Watery fairies dance in mazy rings’ 

Homer: Iliad (c. 800 BCE) 

Author’s Note: Throughout the British Isles and Ireland, trees were often viewed as ‘sacred’ within Celtic culture. Quite often, these trees, their leaves, flowers, fruit and even wood often contain medical properties which were highly valued amongst the Celtic tribes which once traversed the entirety of Britain and Ireland. Special-beings that lived in, around or near these trees were often viewed as ‘guardians’ imbued with spiritual powers. If these beings had a Celtic name, it is now lost in the mists of time, but has come down to use through the relatively recent name of ‘fairy’. Indeed, within the Isle of Man there are ‘fairy trees’. As a pre-Christian term, there is no reason to assume a Greek or Roman heritage, and yet as these civilisations possessed writing from the earliest of times, it is these traditions that we must examine – at least in part – when ascertaining some kind of history. Although the English word ‘fairy’ dates back to only the 13th century CE, the Celtic concept of a special being inhabiting forests is probably far-older and pre-dates the arrival of Christianity on these Isles. As matters stand, the three particularly ‘holy’ trees of the British and Irish Celts are the Oak, Ash and Thorn, amongst many others. Fairies can be ‘good’, or ‘bad’ – they can be ‘attracted’ or ‘rejected’ by various spells involving the use of different types of wood. Sometimes, the old texts present ‘fairies’ as being identical with the type of tree they inhabit, being synonymous with the name of the tree involved (which are plentiful in the various types of Gallic and Gaelic, etc). A clue to a possible Celtic pronunciation for ‘fairy’ is found within the modern Irish word of ‘sióg’. This derives from the Middle Irish ‘si’, which originates from the Old Irish ‘sid’ meaning ‘mound where fairies live’. This can be traced further back to the Proto-Indo-European ‘seds’, or ‘seat’ – suggesting a place where fairies ‘sit’, ‘live’, ‘exist’ and ‘dwell’, etc. Within modern Irish, ‘siog’ suggests the meaning of ‘a place from which fairies emerge’. Fairies live in a place that rises up from the ground, from which they might emerge for humans to see when the time is correct. Within the Chinese language, the term ‘fairy’ is represented by the ideograms ‘仙女’ (Xian Nu). The ideogram ‘仙’ (Xian) refers to a ‘sage’ or ‘holy’ being who gains immortality by living at the top of a mountain (where the divine sky meets the broad earth).  Whereas the ideogram ‘女’ (Nu) refers to a ‘woman’. A ‘fairy’ in this context then, refers to a ‘divine woman who has attained immortality’. In this case, however, we must be careful as this concept refers to a feminine divine spirit that is not human in the conventional sense. On the other hand, sometimes ordinary human-beings go up into the mountains and attain a state of being far beyond the ordinary. It is interesting to speculate whether the ancient Celts possessed a tradition whereby ordinary humans were able – through self-cultivation – to attain to a rarefied spiritual state ‘like a fairy’. ACW (10.6.2020) 

I started researching this term after a conversation with a good friend about the possible association between ‘daemons’ and ‘fairies’. The problem I immediately encountered was a lack of clarity on this subject from those who are presented as being knowledgeable in this area. Indeed, a lack of clarity appears to be part of the allure of fairies and their enchanting ways, but this does little for academic clarity. For every supposed ‘fact’ I ascertained, someone else would assert the exact opposite, and believe it fully. This, I suppose, is part and parcel of what ‘freedom of thought’ is about, and why the supernatural retains such a hold over the human mind. So be it. This is the arena within which we must operate. My Irish grandmother (from Westmeath) use to talk routinely of the ‘little people’, who lived ‘at the bottom of the garden’. She used to translate the Irish ‘leprechaun’ as ‘fairy’ to us children. These were small, smartly dressed people with the men having beards, smoking pipes and being generally mischievous. The women were often beautiful, shy and occasionally inquisitive. Although I lived in Southern England, the ‘fairies’ we encountered (at least in our imaginations) were entirely ‘Irish’. These small humans did not possess ‘wings’ as English fairies are thought to today, but I am told that at least in England, the idea that fairies were ‘small’ and possess ‘wings’ is only around 200 years old and that prior to this, fairies were often conceived as being very similar to ordinary humans in look and dimension, whilst possessing certain magical powers. I am not sure if this observation applies to Ireland, as the idea that fairies are ‘little people’ seems ancient in the Irish (Gaelic) language. English fairies seem to have been combined with the concept of a Christian fairy and had wings affixed to them, as well as losing stature. Today, most young children in the UK, if asked to draw a fairy would reproduce this image. Of course, children from other ethnicities often reproduce their own, culturally relevant images.  

Fairies are said to be untrustworthy when communicating with humans. It is better to avoid all contact if possible, but if this is not possible, then do not enter into any discussions, negotiations or agreements, as such interactions will always be to the detriment of the human. It is as if fairies are default set to ‘mislead’ humans, and do this by appealing to the agency of human-greed. Fairies possess an unlimited access to gold – either in a pot that never empties (found at the end of a rainbow), or from their pockets. If you capture a fairy you can demand to be given their gold, but be careful as this is exactly what the fairy wants you to do. The gold will only appear to be ‘given’ to you, and you will suffer some type lose or other inconvenience. This probably explains why fairies and daemons became synonymous during the Middle Ages. The idea that fairies were once very similar in stature to humans can be gleamed from the concept of a ‘changeling’, whereby a human baby is swapped from the crib for a fairy baby that to all intents and purposes looks more or less the same, except for the occasional odd behaviour. Obviously, if the fairy was small and possessed wings it would look more like an insect than a baby, severely jeopardising the exchange of babies! Fairies often like to drink and share alcohol and food, and can often relax humans to the point of a deep slumber. Sleep seems to re-set the flow of time and space and any profit gained from interacting with fairies is wiped-out or reduced to the level of mundane existence (as if the fairies had never been encountered). On occasion, I have come across the idea that fairies can psychologically pollute a human-being by taking control of their minds, emotions and behaviour. This might well be a type of ‘possession’, or ‘enchantment’ whereby a human embarks upon a hitherto uncharacteristic path of life that literally ‘alters’ their ‘fate’. This is an important observation when constructing a reliable etymology of the word ‘fairy’. Although I mention this last in this list, I suspect that a fairy-possession of this type might well be the original purpose of a fairy, and explains the association between fairies and daemons, even though the two entities are separate and distinct. Fairies are not ‘evil’, whereas ‘daemons’ undoubtedly are.  Fairies can be naughty, dangerous, funny, helpful, troublesome, mischievous and highly unreliable, but all these attributes are also found within many human-beings. It may be that the ‘purity’ of a human’s character is reflected in the behaviour of the fairies, and that individuals only receive back from fairies what they project onto fairies. If a human-being tries to steal their gold through lying and deception, then is it really any wonder that fairies respond as they do? On the other hand, a pure character may well attract a pure response, although I am told ‘never accept an invitation’ from a fairy, or you will be taken into their realm – which is not quite like our realm and slightly out of sync with it. Of course, for scientific purposes, an invitation to fairyland is exactly what we would require so that we could film, photograph, measure and record!  

Around 800 BCE, Homer wrote about the ‘neráida’ – or benevolent female sea nymphs (which appeared to be dancing in a circle upon the land at one-point in the story) – in his Iliad. Within Greek mythology, these are the fifty daughters of Nereus and Doris – sisters of their brother Nerites. Being good and powerful, these beautiful and alluring women often accompany Poseidon – the Greek god of the sea. In modern Greek, the term ‘neráida’ not only now represents all nymphs (water spirits), land-based-fairies, but also all mermaids. The modern English term ‘fairy’, although synonymous in meaning with ‘neráida’, traces its origin to the vulgar Latin ‘fata’ – or the ‘Goddess of Fate’ – which becomes ‘fatum’ or ‘fate’.  Fata or ‘Fatum’ is pronounced in Old French as ‘fae’ – meaning ‘fate’. When the suffix ‘erie’ is added as in ‘fae-erie’ – the term ‘fate place’ is constructed, which better transliterates as ‘place of fate’, or ‘land of fate(s)’, or ‘land of the goddesses of fate’, etc. The fact that the concept of ‘fate’ was controlled by more than one supernatural being explains why the Old French concept of ‘fae-erie’ is plural and not singular. Extant dictionaries suggest that the English term ‘fairy’ was not used until the 13th century CE, where it is recorded in Middle English as ‘fairye’ and ‘fairie’. This literally means ‘fate – ery’, and refers to the ‘land of fate-controlling beings’. From around 1390, ‘fairies’ are presented as mythical beings that ‘enchant’, ‘possess’, ‘manipulate’ and ‘control’ human-beings, whilst remaining notoriously difficult to see.  Fairies live in another land or dimension which is difficult to see, but which can occasionally be encountered on this plane if the conditions are right. Fairies (unlike daemons) can be helpful to humans, but there always seems to be a sting in the tail.  

NOTE: I can find no direct linguistic link between the older Greek ‘neráida’ and the Latin ‘fata’. Whereas the former refers to all three Greek goddesses of fate, the latter refers to a non-specific, but nevertheless ‘collective’ (Latin) representation of ‘fate’. This would suggest a conceptual heritage rather than a direct linguistic heritage. This explanation may not be entirely satisfactory as the Romans were well aware of the Greek goddesses of fate and even had their own names for them. Perhaps ‘fata’ is a Latin shorthand for an otherwise complex Greek mythology. Lastly, British people living in the countryside prior to the 20th century, used to think that the old Roman roads were built by fairies, the latter of which had an obsession with straight-lines and getting to places quickly!  

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