Monday, March 28, 2011

Mythic Monday: Origins of the Fey

In recent weeks there have been posts on how the cosmology I'm using in Gothic Greyhawk simplifies the AD&D cosmology - there's a place for Law (the divine realms), a place for Chaos (the Elemental plane and the Abyss), a place of magic (Fairy), and an underworld for the dead - instead of 50+ planes.  Readers voted that the Realm of Fairy should have strong ties to Celtic folklore.   As I've been pondering the fairy folklore of Ireland and the British Isles, one thing has become abundantly clear - the imputed origins for fairies are really muddled!

Here's a brief survey of the  theories and then some notes on incorporating it into a D&D campaign.

Spirits of the Dead
Many creatures considered as fairies and having a role in the folklore seem to be ghosts!  Drowning water fairies like Jenny Greenteeth or Peg Powler were often maidens that turned into fairies/ghosts after drowning themselves.  The unseelie host (the Sluagh) was peopled by dead spirits, and many versions of the Wild Hunt include the dead as well.  (It was the pagan dead or the unbaptised that was at risk of going to Fairy...)

Old Gods
Pre-Christian gods and nature spirits that lost their jobs with the coming of Christianity found new work as characters in fairy folklore.  Creatures like the Brown Man and the Green Man, with their fertility roles, the Lord of the Wild Hunt, and some of the water lords like Manannan mac Lir were gods in earlier traditions.

Fallen Angels
This origin is fairly interesting - the idea that when the rebel angels were thrown out of heaven, quite a few stragglers didn't make it to hell, but weren't admitted back to heaven, either, and were forced to find a new place to new live.  They came to earth and became the supernatural Sidhe.  The idea of fairies making a tithe to Hell shows up from time to time as well.  Could these fallen angels be echoes of the Nephilim stories?

This isn't an ancient origin, but more of a reminder that one aspect of the fairy folklore - the abduction experience - mirrors modern alien abduction stories.  (Thanks Trey for pointing out Keel's theory on ultraterrestrials as a catchall for faries, demons and aliens).

Conquered Primitives
Finally, we saw this with last week's article on the Brownie - much of the fairy folklore could be attributed to  memories of primitive, conquered races, that lurked in the nearby wilds, living in mounds and hills, and stealing what they could.

Implications for D&D
I'm beginning to see the Realm of Fairy as a nightmarish place that combines all the worst elements of these origin stories.  I'm thinking this will be the motto of the Queen of Fairy:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, so they can be turned into monsters...

The wretched refuse of history doesn't find it's way to America, it lands in Fairy and haunts the twilight as a thrall to Chaos.  What ties all these disparate creatures together is the mortal world has passed them by; they are remnants of a bygone age and have accepted a cursed form of immortality as creatures of magic.

The folklore theme, 'fairies fear the church', begins to make sense when you think of them as diminished pagan gods, dead spirits, and the soulless descendants of exiled angels; in game terms, this would be represented as "fairies can be turned by clerics".

Like last week's Brownie, I'll develop additional fairy types in some upcoming weeks (or at least re-envision some of the D&D versions so they cleave closer to the folklore).  For instance, real mermaids drink blood and crash ships!  Wahoo.
Next week:  Ariel, with fangs and a bloodthirst.


  1. I like the idea of fey being fallen angels.

  2. Definitely! I picture a few of the oldest and most powerful fey rulers were those angelic beings, barred from heaven but not exiled to hell, that carved kingdoms out of the chaos magic and became the first fairy rulers.

    Now I just need to come up with a few of them.