fairies are devils -- 12/23/16

Today's selection -- from Elf Queens and Holy Friars by Richard Firth Green. For centuries, Europeans believed in fairies. But what exactly were fairies? The most common belief was that they were devils, and they interacted with the world in two ways -- by copulating with mortals or by abducting them:

"For sixteenth-century England, it is a comparatively simple matter, in M. W. Latham's words, 'to reproduce the everyday belief of the Elizabethans concerning the fairies, to treat the fairies not as mythical personages or as fanciful creations of the literary imagination or of popular superstition, but to regard them, as did their human contemporaries of the 16th century, as cred­ible entities and as actual and existing beings.' ... One of the most concise and thorough descriptions of [fairies] appears in a treatise on the geography of Iceland written in the late sixteenth century probably by Oddur Einarsson, the Lutheran bishop of Skálholn; it will provide us with a useful point of departure:

But some [beings], who live in the hills close to men, are more amicable and not so dangerous unless they chance to have been harmed by some kind of injury and provoked to wickedness. They seem, indeed, to be endowed with bodies of incredible subtlety, since they are even thought to enter into mountains and hills. They are invisible to us unless they wish to appear of their own volition, yet the properties of certain men's eyes are such that the presence of no spirit can ever escape their sight (as was Lynceus's unhappy situation). They know a thousand devices and an infinite number of tricks with which they harass men in wretched ways, but their young people are said to have a similar stature, clothing, and even way of life to that of their human neighbors, and to take excessive pleasure in coupling with humans. Examples are not lacking of a number of the rogues who are said to have impregnated women beneath the earth and had access to them at fixed times or as many times as they wished. And from time to time the women of our land have been oppressed by these earth-dwellers and innocent boys and girls and the young people and adolescents of both sexes have very often been taken away, though quite a few are restored safe and sound after a number of days, or sometimes a number of weeks, but some are never seen again, and certain ones are found half-alive, etc. But it would be tedious to waste more of this study on them; for whether these things are brought about by the frauds, impostures, and illusions of the devil, which seems to be the view of almost all the more reasonable people, or whether they are some kind of mixed species created between spirits and animals, as some conjecture, yet it is certain that the appearance of these spirits has been common in many other regions, not only in Iceland, so that it is pointless to take this [their ubiquity in Iceland) as evidence that these curious creatures were fashioned in the underworld.

"Some European traditions locate fairies in castles deep in the woods or even in realms beneath the surface of lakes, rather than in underground kingdoms, but otherwise Oddur Einarsson's description conforms closely to the common understanding of the vast majority of medieval people. Though several other kinds of interaction are certainly possible, fairies most often impinge on the human life world in two ways: by copulating with mortals or by abducting them. What is more interesting about Oddur's account for our immediate pur­poses, however, is the attempt he makes to explain these creatures in terms of a standard Christian cosmology. The two possibilities he suggests-that they are either a trick of the devil (fraus Sathanae) or some kind of mixed species (genus mixtum) halfway between spirit and animal -- are found elsewhere, though his apparent reluctance to concede that fairies may actually be devils (a third explanation that was widely entertained by other authorities) seems due to an understandable reluctance to endorse the common belief that the mouth of hell was situated in Iceland.

"Citing James I's statement that the "spirites that are called vulgarlie called the Fayrie' are one of the four kinds of devil 'conversing in the earth,' C. S. Lewis suggested that the idea that fairies were really devils became the 'official view' only around the beginning of the seventeenth century. In actu­ality, however, it had been the orthodox position of the church for more than three hundred years. ...

"By the time of an early fourteenth-century French Dominican redaction and translation of the Elucidarium known as the Second Lucidaire, the faithful are left in no doubt not only that fairies exist, but also that they are quite simply devils: 'And vnto the regarde of be feyryes the which man sayth were wonte to be in tymes past, they were not men ne women naturalles but were deuylles be whiche shewed themselfe vnto be people of pat tyme, for they were paynyms, ydolatres and without fayth.' "


Richard Firth Green


Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2016 University of Pennsylvania Press


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