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What Are Fairies?

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Fairies are supernatural beings existing in the mythology and folklore of all nations. They have often been represented as tiny, winged sprites, sometimes malignant, sometimes benign, who possess a mysterious power over human destinies. They need not, however, be diminutive beings, and have often appeared in the shape of humans. The fairies of Teutonic and Celtic lore probably owe much to the sirens, nymphs, and fauns of classical mythology.

They have also often taken the form of beautiful women who have beguiled men by their charms. Such were the Sicilian Sirens, whose singing on the rock near Cape Pelorus had a fatal attraction for all seafarers until Ulysses, by an artifice, sailed safely past them, and they then drowned themselves in the sea. There are fairy lemans in Homer, elf-maids in Scandinavian literature, and R. L. Stevenson, in Island Nights' Entertainments, says that they are not uncommon in Samoa.

Fairies are soulless beings, but by marriage with a human may attain immortality; however, when they have left their own country to marry and live with men, they have generally been bound by some restriction, which, when disregarded, brings great misery. An example is in the story of Melusina. According to another superstition, fairies have to pay a yearly tribute to the powers of hell, and for this purpose they are always trying to steal little children, leaving Changelings in their place. Moreover adults, too, have sometimes been lured to fairyland, and can seldom return from that country. A human being is doomed if he eats fairy food.

Fairies have also traditionally been divided into good and bad. As in the old fairy tale of the Sleeping Beauty, so at the birth of Ogier Le Danois six fairies were present, five of whom gave good gifts, but the sixth was malevolent.

In England the fairy has been, in general, a domestic spirit, who visits houses at night, sweeps the floor, threshes the corn, or skims the milk. Considerable interest has been aroused in Celtic fairy legends through the writings of Andrew Lang, W. B. Yeats, Ernest Rhys, and others. Irish fairies, for example, dwell in crevasses and underneath old tumuli, and in some ways the Irish leprechaun therefore resembles the black earth elves of Scandinavia, who burrowed underground dwellings, where they retreated with stolen treasure. Scottish fairies, brownies, kelpies, and the like are supposed to be more malignant than their Irish brethren, and are creatures of storms and tempest.

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