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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fairy Doors and Fairy Houses

There are two things that are trendy right now, although I wouldn't say either is exactly new: fairy doors and fairy houses. The principle behind each is simple and how serious or kitschy it is depends entirely on the person making it. A fairy door is a small door, usually at least several inches high, that can be plain or decorative, and which is designed to be placed against a surface to mimic the presence of a real door. A fairy house* is a small house, again simple or decorated, usually a foot or so high, that is intended to represent the home of a small fairy.

100 year old Japanese Maple in the sun

Fairy Doors - As far as I've been able to find with my ametuer investigating the modern phenomena of fairy doors seems to trace to Ann Arbor Michigan and the early 90's although they didn't start appearing in random public places until 2005. Originally the idea of illustrator Jonathon Wright the fairy doors began as artwork, although it should be noted that Wright moved on to writing about and hosting a website dedicated to 'urban fairies' and calls himself a fairyologist (NPR, 2006). One can now purchase them from a variety of specialty companies as well as mass market catalogs and they also feature in the work of different artists. Some fairy doors open up to tiny rooms, rather like doll house rooms, and the implication is that these are where fairies live. Others are simply doors placed against flat surfaces, meant to replicate the above idea. We even see them now painted onto things, to give the impression of a doorway where none actually is.

So on its face the idea of fairy doors seems fairly tame. It was originally aimed at children, created by Wright to delight and encourage belief in his wife's preschool students (NPR, 2006). I will be honest though, I have never been a fan of fairy doors particularly the indoor ones. Many people use them as a sort of blanket invitation to Otherworldly beings and while I do understand that they are approaching it with the belief that fairies are little winged sprites that are full of glitter and love that doesn't actually change the fact that an open door is an open door. When people are inviting fairies in, whether they have a set idea of what a fairy is or not, they are still putting out a blanket invitation to any fairy being who may want to come through that doorway. I tend to be very hesitant about the idea of any sort of open doorway like that, and having such a thing around children given the folklore of children being taken by the Fey just isn't something I would do. If a person really wanted to have a fairy door I would at the least ward it and keep it from actually being used as a passageway for anything to travel through. For myself my children's rooms have iron and broom in them not open doorways.

Under specific circumstances such a doorway could be useful, if a person was in a situation where they needed to open a passage for a spirit or fairy. I would be very cautious about doing this however unless I was very sure of exactly what was coming through. It isn't easy to filter such an opening.

Fairy Houses - Fairy houses have a complex history and while they seem to be rooted in the late Victorian period, with its shift to viewing fairies as garden spirits, they draw on the older folklore concepts of giving the fairies of your home and land a place and offerings. Having a fairy house indoors represents offering a space to your house fairies, while having outdoor fairy houses, theoretically is a type of offering to the spirits, the fairies, of that place. These are strongly reminiscent of the Roman household shrines to the lares familiaris, shrines which housed objects devoted to household spirits and where offerings could be placed (Connor, 1994).

Like Fairy doors, Fairy houses have taken off as a cultural idea recently and can even be found as public art displays and in museums. They are so popular that books have been written about them and one can easily find instructions for making different kinds of fairy houses online, as well as a wide range of images of them. Fairy houses are limited only by a person's imagination, and while they are certainly often viewed as nothing more than decorative items they can also have practical uses. A fairy house can serve as a point of connection to your house fairies and yard fairies and also as a place to leave offerings, just as the shrine to the lares did for the Romans.

While I am extremely cautious of fairy doors I am quite pro fairy houses. A fairy house, while admittedly often kitschy and twee, is a way to offer a permanent place to the spirits that are already present in your home and yard. Obviously they don't need such a thing but it's a symbolic gesture to them, a way to say that you appreciate their presence and efforts.

Doors and Houses - The key difference between the two, and the reason that I like the one and not the other really comes down to the intention behind them. A doorway by its nature will always be an entrance to a place and it is dangerous from my perspective to have something like that open to the Otherworld and with a sort of carte blanche invitation attached. After all just because a person is assuming that all fairies are pleasant little winged sprites who bring luck and happiness doesn't actually make it so. To have such a door and a welcome mat in front of it means that one can't be certain of what may come through that door. In contrast a fairy house is aimed at a more specific type of fairy from the off, either in the house for a house fairy (or house spirit more generally) or in the yard intended to offer a home for the fairies in your garden. Fairy houses are also by their nature designed to be specific to the fairies that are already in place, rather than open portals to anything wandering by. In one case you are inviting things in; in the other you are offering a place to what is already there.

Popculture will always shape and affect our beliefs and practices, sometimes more than we realize. For many people fairy doors have become a ubiquitous concept, yet as we have seen they are a recent addition to our culture, brought in initially to delight small children. Fairy houses were a feature of late Victorian era gardens yet they reflect older ideas relating to shrines for spirits in the household. I believe one should be approached with caution and the other can be useful if we look beyond their bright colors and small features and give serious thought to the metaphysical implications they carry with them.

*there's a range for what may be considered a 'fairy house' but what I'm mentioning here are the sort that can be bought or built for inside the home or permanent placement in the yard. When I was a child back in the 80's I used to build these instinctively, if you will, but out of wild materials in the woods. Little acorn cups and tiny bark plates, tables of stone and wood, beds of twigs and pine needles, walls of stone and branches and leaves - you get the idea.

NPR., (2006) The Wee Fairy Doors of Ann Arbor, Mich.
Connor, P., (1994) Lararium

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Never thought of either subject exactly like this. It also brings to mind the fad of Fairy Gardens. Not having done any research, but using the logic you portrayed in this article, I would put theses gardens on a par with the Fairy Houses. A place to welcome what is already there. I am anxious to start my Fairy Garden more than ever now.