Note: In this piece I'm going to be making some generalizations which may not apply to all neopagans but which do hold true for a majority that I have looked into.
A main influence on the neopagan view of fairies, which is rarely acknowledged, is theosophy and more particularly the writings of Helena Blavatsky. Blavatsky herself is a controversial figure, accused of rampant plagiarism by her contemporaries and criticized today for her theories on race expressed in 'The Secret Doctrine'; that said her influence on neopaganism and western witchcraft traditions is profound if often ignored. In particular Blavatsky reimagined who and what fairies were and forwarded that in her writing; her ideas were picked up by occultists of her time, including WB Yeats, and seeped into esoteric thought on the subject. So, let us explore that.
|art by Arthur Rackham|
First we must quickly establish the understanding of fairies in folklore. What we find across the breadth of western European material are beings who can be intangible or physical at will, who are intrinsically connected to humanity in ways that are both helpful and predatory, and who exist both in and outside of the human world. These are beings in some cases who were formerly human and who steal living humans without compunction and beings who were once Gods. They must be warded against and also propitiated to stay on good terms and avoid harm.
We must digress here for a space to discuss Paracelsus, because his views are foundational for later ideas, but are often misunderstood.
A common defense of the idea of fairies as elementals that I often see is the claim that it was actually the 15th/16th century Paracelsus who originated this idea and that it is therefore genuine. However its slightly more complicated than that, and the modern understanding that we have has been refined and influenced by other ideas, including those of theosophy.
The view Paracelsus was advocating wasn't based in the four (or five) element system or in a strict division of fairies into four groups. Rather he was discussing the nature of all things as relating to different elements - he mentions 7 - based on what they seem most connected to in his opinion. It is worth noting as well that initially he assigns sylphs to the earth, along with four other types of beings, 'sylvani' to air, and associates nymphs - not undine - with water:
"So it is to be known also further that the spirits are many, and they are each one differently than the other. For there are spiritus coelestes, spiritus infernales, spiritus humani, spiritus ignis, spiritus aëris, spiritus aquae, spiritus terrae, etc.. And the spiritus coelestes [spirits of heaven] are the angels and the best spirits, the spiritus infernales [spirits of Hell] are the devils, the spiritus humani [human spirits] are the dead human spirits, the spiritus ignis [spirits of fire] are the salamanders, the spiritus of the air are the sylvani, the spiritus aquatici [spirits of water] are the nymphs, the spiritus terrae [spirits of earth] are called the sylphs, pygmies, Schrötlein, Büzlein, and mountain men." - Paracelsus, Tractatus IV
Later in writing Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris, et Caetebus Spiritus [the book of nymphs, sylvanis, pygmies, salamanders, and other spirits] he would expand these groups and did include undine with water and gnomes with earth. However he didn't limit these beings to single elements, instead listing three elements that each needed, one that they existed in and two others that they were nourished by (Willard, 2020). His elementals then were more complex and nuanced than the modern versions, and were also part of a complex system through which they might reproduce with a human to create a spirit with a soul or with other elemental beings to create monsters which included by his reckoning dwarves, giants, and mermaids. He also understood these beings as having a middle nature between the physical and non-physical, and being inherently good beings who were open to evil influences but sought God and longed for souls (Willard, 2020). Paracelsus also, rather ironically to us perhaps, did not use the names he chose for these beings by choice but rather because he felt they were recognizable (despite appearing to be the source for sylph and gnome) and instead, as Willard discusses more eloquently than I can here, preferred to call them people and emphasize their likeness to humans*.
In Blavatsky's view however we see none of the folkloric fairy and only a shadow of Paracelsus' ideas. We find fairies - interchangeably called elementals and nature spirits - described as lesser beings who seek to evolve upwards into human souls and who are incapable of physical form or of higher intelligence:
"They are the Soul of the elements, the capricious forces in Nature, acting under one immutable Law, inherent in these Centres of Force, with undeveloped consciousness and bodies of plastic mold, which can be shaped according to the conscious or unconscious will of the human being who puts himself in rapport with them. . . . These beings have never been, but will in myriads of ages hence, be evolved into men. They belong to the three lower kingdoms....Elementals, as said already, have no form, and in trying to describe what they are, it is better to say that they are ‘centers of force’ having instinctive desires, but no consciousness, as we understand it. Hence their acts may be good or bad indifferently." (Blavatsky, 1893).
In modern theosophy all fairies, under any name, are lumped into the general categories of elemental or nature spirit (Theosophy World, 2023). It is broadly understood that all named types of folkloric beings are actually cultural interpretations of specific categories of elementals/nature spirits. These beings are also more strictly limited to their single element and categorized into one of three kingdoms which all seek to evolve into mineral, seen as a transition point into higher evolution which leads eventually to human incarnation (Theosophy World, 2023). While Paracelsus described these various spirits as very humanoid and capable of interacting with and even reproducing with humans, Theosophy sees them as entirely intangible, shaped or given appearance by human assumptions or projections, and as less intelligent and more primitive than humans. They are, from this view, nature embodied in spirit and exist in a world where humans are the ultimate goal of spiritual evolution, a state which all 'lesser' spirits seek to achieve by working their way up a hierarchy of incarnation, from the elemental state into form then into humanity.
Another key aspect which is paraphrased by the Theosophy World website is that fairies/elementals are "neither individualized like human beings nor even yet entered on the way to such individualization, as animals and plants have been" or in other words elementals in this view are a collective consciousness, an expression of a natural force, rather than a unique or individual being. This is an aspect of the lower evolution of these spirits compared to humans, that they exist in a primitive state and are not conscious or self aware in a way that humans understand. This is also reflected in the idea that these beings lack any form of their own and are only given form by the humans they interact with. They are understood to be immoral or amoral in that they lack the cognitive ability to make moral judgements and instead act by 'natural law' (Theosophy World, 2023). This is of course sharply in contrast to Paracelsus' idea of elementals as inherently good but capable of being mislead into evil, as it positions them as incapable of any moral understanding or judgment.
So what are the key points that neopaganism/witchcraft have taken from Blavatsky that are at odds with folklore?
- fairies as incorporeal - a common idea seen in modern views that is rooted in Blavatsky but not found elsewhere is that fairies are incapable of being tangible or corporeal.
- fairies are beneath humans - Blavatsky placed fairies as less evolved souls and simple primitive spirits. While there are corners of neopaganism who view fairies as evolved guides there are also many who see fairies as animalistic and easily controlled by humans or existing in a hierarchy beneath humans.
- fairies as nature spirits - while this is concurrent with Victorian imagery it was also a point that Blavatsky specifically wrote about, tying fairies intrinsically to the human natural world and particularly plants and minerals. In this view fairies are limited to and defined by the human natural world.
- fairies as elementals - widely popular now and seen even outside neopaganism is the Blavatsky idea of fairies as elemental spirits. This view generally removes the nuanced belief about fairies and reduces them to simple expressions of the qualities of an element. While claiming to be based on Paracelsus, often more strongly informed by Blavatsky.
- fairies require human input to express forms - I have seen this in multiple contexts now, the idea that fairies are formless unless and until given form through interaction with a human. Put another way, humans see what they expect when encountering a fairy because they shape themselves to the human's expectation.
- fairies seek human incarnation - while we have a plethora of material, including Paracelsus, which discuss the fairies desire for souls and Christian salvation it seems to be an effect of Theosophy to believe that fairies desire or seek physical form in a human body**. This seems to have blended into some neopagan/witchcraft ideas around reincarnation and the afterlife to give us a belief in witches as fairy souls incarnate in human bodies or humans being corporeal fairies who return to Fairy after death.
We do find stories, such as that of Melusine, that discuss a fairy reproducing with a human so that their offspring will have a soul, but that is a rather different concept.
- fairies as simple or childlike spirits - an outgrowth of Blavatsky's ideas of fairies/elementals as less evolved and less intelligent spirits, possibly blended with the Victorian infantilization of fairies, seems to be the idea of fairies as childlike spirits.
*this is particularly worth noting in relation to the salamander which is envisioned as a kind of fiery amphibian creature but which Paracelsus saw as humanoid
**I am expressing no judgment on this belief, before people jump into the comments, simply tracing the available evidence for the source of the belief.
Blavatsky, H., (1893) Elementals Retrieved from https://www.theosophy.world/resource/elementals-hp-blavatsky
Paracelsus (nd) Tractatus IV Retrieved from https://theomagica.com/blog/paracelsus-wisdom-on-the-ecosystem-of-spirits
Willard, T., (2020) The Monsters of Paracelsus Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/83978616/The_Monsters_of_Paracelsus
Theosophy World (2023) Fairies Retrieved from https://www.theosophy.world/encyclopedia/fairies