Date : August 4, 2021
Are Fairies Real? Answering Awkward Questions from Little People
When we think of fairies, we think of tiny, beautiful beings with angelic faces and sparkly wings fluttering about waving magic wands and bestowing good deeds – but where does this image come from?
For centuries, human beings have been enchanted by the idea of a race of magical, supernatural beings full of mischief and mystery – beings we call fairies. Where did this belief come from, and how has it changed? What should you do if your little one asks if fairies are real? Step into the fairy circle and discover a whole otherworld of beautiful fairies and the magical spell they’ve woven over people for millennia.
What are fairies?
Supernatural beings with magical abilities appear in mythology and folklore all over the world – from Greece, Germany, and France, to Norway, Iceland, India and China. These beings were often half animal, and could be grotesque and terrifying but were always powerful. There are several explanations for a belief in beings like these, that we now call fairies. Some described them as ghosts or spirits of the dead, others believed they were old gods, and in the post-Christian period, many believed they were fallen angels.
It is with the Britons and the Celts (Irish, Welsh, and Cornish people) that our modern idea of fairies originates. Here, fairies appeared like extremely beautiful humans with astonishing power. They were anywhere from 3 inches tall to 14 feet tall, depending on where the story came from. People often paid these fairies a tribute – small gifts of nuts, fruits, and trinkets – to prevent cruel fairy pranks or mischief, or to allow people to pass through fairy territory unharmed. These fairies also came from other realms, which humans could access through stone circles, fairy hills or forts, or small rings of mushrooms called fairy rings. It was very important for humans to refrain from eating anything in fairy lands, or else they’d be trapped there forever.
As human beings developed science and unlocked some of the mysteries of our world, belief in supernatural beings decreased. Today, though, people in countries such as Iceland, Scotland, and Ireland still express a belief in fairies. In fact, there’s a story from Ireland where a major highway was diverted to avoid cutting down a fairy tree, which would upset the fairies and bring bad luck to the locals.
Where do our ideas of fairies come from?
Our modern ideas of fairies come from a resurgence of belief in fairy tales and myths in the 19th and 20th centuries. The fairies from these stories were tiny beings with gossamer wings that fluttered through flowers and trees at the bottoms of gardens. They weren’t the capricious or malevolent beings of Celtic or British myth – they were the gentle versions we offer children in Disney movies and fairy tales today. It was these tiny, mischievous beings that May Gibbs transplanted to Australia, updated for their new, harsher environment, and called Gumnut Babies and Bush Babies.
Should we keep the magic going?
If your child asks you whether fairies are actually real, it can be very tempting to try to keep the belief going. Afterall, there’s nothing more wholesome than a young child believing in magic and whimsical beings from fantastical lands. If they’re very little, you may want to keep the magic alive.
However, as your child gets older, you could talk to them about different beliefs people held long ago, before science, when the world was much more mysterious, and the only way people could make sense of nature was to attribute it to magic. By the time your child is old enough to even ask this question, they’ve probably already stopped believing, and a little more knowledge is always a good thing. But remind them that the best thing is that no matter how old we get, when we use our imaginations, magical stories can live on forever!
Discover more about the origins of May Gibbs’ beautiful stories and illustrations.
Right now, Librarian Bec’s hard at work at your local library, sharing a passion for reading with little people and big. Bec writes about inspiring little readers and embracing lovely literature.