Search This Blog

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Why Do We Envision Fairies As Tiny?


fairy from the movie Labyrinth

For many people today the word fairy immediately invokes images like the picture above, of a tiny winged being. In today's post I want to discuss specifically the idea of fairies as tiny, because its so pervasive and yet largely a popculture concept, albeit an early modern one. So, why do we envision fairies as tiny?

The fairies of folklore - historic and modern - are depicted across a wide range of sizes and forms, from about 18 inches tall to well over 13 feet. These beings are known as shapeshifters and their size is often fluid and changeable, or at least human perception of their size isn't constant. Also specific types of beings are known to have particular sizes and appearances, such as the selkies who are human-like on land and seals in the water. In many Irish fairy encounters the beings are described as more or less human sized, a feature we see as well in Scotland. Some specific beings like Leprechauns were known to be about 18 inches to 3 feet tall, depending on the story. As with so many aspects of folklore this subject isn't clear cut or easy to simplify but includes a spectrum of possibilities. However we can say in a very general sense that the idea of tiny, insect sized or smaller fairies isn't common across Western European folklore. 

Where we do find tiny fairies is in England, particularly English literature but with possible roots in older folk beliefs. Katherine Briggs discusses several medieval English examples of what she terms 'diminutive fairies' which are described as about as tall as a finger is long; these were either specific types of beings or specific individuals in context, rather than all fairies more generally. The earliest such account comes from Gervase of Tilbury in the 13th century who describes beings he calls 'Portunes' which are between a half inch and a foot tall* (Briggs, 1976). While a foot tall is on the smaller end of fairy sizes within folklore in general it isn't as tiny as we will find later as fairies are refined into the early modern period literature.

The earliest description I have found in writing of tiny fairies comes from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, completed in 1597, where he describes the fairy queen Mab as 'In shape no bigger than an agate stone; On the forefinger of an alderman' (Shakespeare, 1980). Mab is not only as tiny as the stone in a finger-ring but is said to travel in a wagon fashioned from insect parts: wheels spoked with spider legs and a wagon cover made of grasshopper wings. This idea is expanded several decades later in Michael Drayton's 1627 'Nymphidia' a poem which describes the English fairy court. In this poem the fairies are firmly established as tiny beings who can fit into flowers and use small natural objects for their construction - spider legs to build walls and bats wings to cover their roofs, for example. This comes to us from English literature (the literate class as opposed to direct folk belief) and is an idea we will see repeated in later works as well, blending the idea of diminutive fairies with Paracelsus's elemental divisions of these beings to create the tiny air and earth fairies that would later take hold in popular imagination. As to why fairies were so far reduced, as Diane Purkiss so aptly says it: "The Elizabethans and even more so the Jacobeans loved the miniature. In their hands, fairies shrank to tininess." and "Reducing the other to miniature scale reduces it to manageability too, making it laughable." (Purkiss, 2000, ps 181 & 182). Despite this diminishment the fairies of this period were still seen as having power and influence, particularly over human dreams, madness, and crops.

Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat by John Anster Fitzgerald 1860

The Victorian era is one of the most pivotal points in how popular culture today would come to view fairies, with a surge in interest in romanticized folklore, nature, and entertainment. The fairies of folk belief became subjects of retellings and fairies more generally were rewritten and redefined away from  dangerous and powerful beings and into the fodder of children's stories and art. These fairies were firmly rooted as well in the miniaturization that had begun with Shakespeare and persisted through English literature and poetry, finding expression in Pope's 1712 'Rape of the Lock' for example where fairies are definitively small and generally powerless as well as in William Blake's late 18th and early 19th century works which described tiny fairies. Victorian era literature though took these existing ideas and framed them for children, reducing fairies not only in size by favouring the insect comparisons but also infantilizing and moralizing them. As Carole Silver explains it: "As the elfin peoples became staples of children's literature, the perception grew that they themselves were childish....Some of the tales promoted a false set of conventions, one that made, the fairies tiny and harmless - moral guides for children or charming little pets - and a tradition of sentimentalization and idealization developed." (Silver, 1999, p187). Being tiny was then directly connected to both being childlike and being powerless, creating a being that was physically miniature and more decorative than dangerous. 

Into the 20th century this idea was further refined in popculture with Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairies and with JM Barrie's Peter Pan taking to the stage. While fairies in art during the Victorian period were often shown as small both of these sources were popular and gained wider traction in the popular imagination and refined fairies down to their essential tweeness. Barker's fairy art featured tiny childlike fairies connected to and often clothed with specific flowers and plants. Her fairies then were small enough that flower petals could form a skirt for one and an acorn the perfectly sized cap for another. Barrie's Tinkerbell in print was both feminine and seductive but on stage transformed into an indistinct ball of light who communicated through the sound of bells, existing largely through Peter Pan's perception and translation (Kruse, 2019). The tiny, glowing, nature-bound fairy may well be understood as the conglomeration of all of these influences into the 20th century. 

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, by Joseph Noel Paton, c. 1849

So while tiny fairies can be found in older material, particularly in England, they represented only a small portion of the wider range of fairies. The image above of Oberon and Titania's quarrel in A Midsummer Night's Dream displays this range of sizes and appearances, including both human sized beings as well as tiny ones, rather than the exclusively tiny sized fairies that some modern sources depict. It is also important to understand that tiny fairies are largely coming from English literary traditions rather than folk belief, a point that Silver notes in her book and which we have traced out here. The tiny fairies that are seen and experienced today and which can be found in modern fairylore exist parallel to older folk beliefs, often contradicting them, and represent one unique strand of belief rather than the entirety.

*the text is sometimes given as 'half an inch' but Briggs rightly suggests this is a scribal error as that size is incompatible with the actions described - such as carrying a young frog - within the text. Despite this the error has undoubtedly influenced later perceptions of the size of fairies. 


Purkiss, D., (2000) At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things 
Kruse, J., (2019) "Ray of Light" Tinkerbell and Luminous Fairies', retrieved from 
Shakespeare, W., (1980) Romeo and Juliet. Retrieved from
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Silver, C., (1999) Strange & Secret Peoples: Fairies and the Victorian Consciousness

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Excerpt - Pagan Portals Lugh

 I'd like to offer an excerpt from my recently released book Pagan Portals Lugh. This particular section comes from chapter 5, looking at Lugh in the modern world. 


Lugh’s importance has changed over time, of course, as Christianity came in, but he has not been relegated to obscurity by any means as some of the other Tuatha De Danann were. Time has shaped people’s understandings of Lugh in new direction however which can be shown by looking at his depictions over the last hundred years or so. In this chapter we will look at the way that Lugh has been depicted in modern retellings of his stories, which often vary significantly from the older mythology, how he has been shown in mass media, and Lugh in modern paganism.

Modern Folklore

We have examined Lugh’s place in the older mythology and in older folklore but he can also be found in more recent folklore, some of which has been created by the fertile imaginations of authors during and since the Victorian period. It’s important to understand these newer  threads and how they have been woven into the older in the last 150 years. It is up to the reader to decide their place and value, but whether you accept or reject them they do form part of our understanding of who Lugh is.

Jeremiah Curtin, Hero-tales of Ireland, 1894 – Lugh continues to be found in modern Irish folklore and as was true historically this folklore can often be very regionally specific. One example of this is seen in Curtin’s late 19th century work which preserved folklore from the area of Donegal and gives us versions of the Lugh and Balor story that are largely different from older mythology. Curtin’s retelling has been presented already in chapter 2 so it won’t be recapped again however one key change to be emphasized here is the shifting of Lugh (called Lui in the story) into a wholly human figure. This sort of euhemerization is common in later material and Williams in ‘Ireland’s Immortals’ notes the prevalence of historic and ancestral figures named Lugh or with names that are variants of Lugh who are described in fully human terms yet are certainly meant to be reflections of the older deity.

W. B. Yeats – also writing in the late 1890’s we find Yeats, a poet and amateur folklorist, as well as occultist. Yeats wrote of Lugh, and the other Tuatha De Danann, in both poetry and prose and did much to help spread their popularity although his depictions were more concerned with evocative descriptions than passing on genuine folklore. The Lugh of Yeats was a more romantic figure and one intrinsically linked to the sun. This reflected Yeats own personal approach to deity as expressions of moods or imagination (Williams, 2016). From this view gods become a way to convey wider themes in a poetic work or embody the desired mood or atmosphere of the text. Yeats also did much to shift the existing understanding of the sidhe as a numberless multitude into the commonly listed pantheon of Tuatha De Danann we find in books today (Williams, 2016).

Augusta Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men, 1904 – Lady Gregory may represent the first example of widely read re-tellings of myths, where the core of the older mythology or story is retold in a new and partially fictionalized way. Her work was popular and has gained popularity again today, possible because it is easily accessed free online. This may present a challenge for readers that are new to Irish myth because her writing often combines multiple conflicting versions of tales, as well as her own ideas, into one whole that is presented in a way that may seem like genuinely older material.

Her writing is too extensive to recap full here but for example her chapter ‘The Coming of Lugh’ combines material from the Lebor Gabala Erenn, Cath Maige Tuired, and Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann along with her own flourishes into a single story the like of which had not existed previous to her writing it. She places Lugh in a central position throughout the story, repeatedly emphasizing his prophesied importance in driving out the Fomorians. For a second example in her chapter ‘The Hidden House of Lugh’ she retells the Baile and Scáil, but she adds material where Lugh is speaking to Conn so that she related his prophecy which is not found in the older text and she doesn’t have Lugh stating that he is a dead human, but rather at the very end of the text has him simply declare himself ‘Lugh son of Ethniu.’

Ella Young, Celtic Wonder Tales, 1910  – Ella Young was born in Ireland and emigrated later in life to California, USA. Considered an expert in Irish mythology she toured various universities and taught Celtic studies at Berkley. Despite this expertise her book ‘Celtic Wonder Tales’ takes extreme liberties with the older mythology, rewriting stories completely in places and creating new material in others. Her ‘Celtic Wonder Tales’ has become a common resource in the past hundred years and is enjoyed for its poetic text and evocative descriptions.

In Young’s work we first meet Lugh in a story titled ‘The Coming of Lugh’ which retells the Cath Maige Tuired in parts but with alterations. Young’s version begins with Manannan taking the child Lugh, who she calls a Sun God, away with him into Fairy from Ireland. She describes a variety of animals including lions, panthers, and unicorns that keep Lugh company as he grows. While he is with Manannan the Fomorians come to Ireland and steal the Dagda’s cauldron and the spear (another of the treasures) leaving only the stone of Fál which prevents the Fomorians from fully taking over. Finally Lugh reaches his 21st birthday and Manannan makes a show of giving him a  gift, the sword1 which is the fourth treasure and which has been in Manannan’s keeping. When he touches it Lugh remembers Ireland and pledges to go back. To help him Manannan equips him with a horse and armour. Lugh returns with a fairy host to Ireland, passing invisibly thanks to Manannan’s magic until he reaches Nuada’s court. He requests entry and is denied until he lists all his skills after which he is allowed in, then he best Ogma in a test of strength and plays chess. Finally Nuada proclaims him ‘Ildana’ and Lugh plays music on the Dagda’s harp which, according to Young, causes the seasons to turn. He lulls the court to sleep and slips away.

Lugh’s presence inspired the Tuatha De to rebel and they go to Uisneach. A battle is about to begin when Lugh and the fairy host appear, Young comparing his approach to the rising of the sun. the Fomorians are destroyed save 9 men who Lugh sends back to Balor to tell him and the other Fomorians that the De Danann are free from their oppression.

Lugh shows the Tuatha De Danann the sword and asks them for the other three treasures which they admit have been lost except for the stone. He then has them all swear an oath with the earth of Ireland on the sword and stone to fight and destroy the Fomorians. Shortly after this his father is killed by the sons of Tuireann and the earth sends a wind to tell Lugh. Lugh finds his fathers body and gets the tale of his death, then goes to the assembly and accuses the sons of Tuireann who Nuada orders killed. Lugh stays his hand however and asks instead that they gain items useful in the upcoming battle. They agree to these terms and set off to acquire the list of items Lugh requests2 engaging in adventures for each one. The three gain many of the treasures and Lugh, aware that they only have two left, decides they are succeeding too easily and puts a spell of forgetfulness on them so that they return early, however he immediately regrets this and sends out a second spell so that if the feel badly for what they have done they will not forget. They have no regret so they return early and are sent out a second time to gain the last two items. They manage to do this but are mortally wounded in the process. Finally dying they return to Ireland to give Lugh the items they have gained. Tuireann begs Lugh to heal his sons with the healing skin and so Lugh gives them the choice to be healed or to pass to the next life; they choose to go to the next life3.

Next Young retells a version of the battle between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorians. The two groups meet and fight but Lugh stays back waiting for Balor who he believes will not enter the fight until later. A few days pass before Balor does appear and then Lugh and he have their epic confrontation. The two meet an a scene that describes the clash of darkness and light, with Lugh throwing the spear into Balor’s eye and Balor dissolving into shadow.

This summarizes Young’s stories about Lugh, which hopefully the reader can hold in contrast to the Irish mythology discussed in chapter 2. Young’s Lugh is devoid of the fierce and tempestuous nature of the mythical Lugh and presented instead as a figure of light – figurative and literal – who acts as a saviour figure to the Tuatha De Danann.

Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Myth and Legend, 1989 – Ellis is an English historian and novelist who has written nearly 100 books, including several on Celtic mythology. ‘Celtic Myth and Legend’ is his attempt at retelling various famous myths from the Celtic language speaking cultures and includes a creation myth of the author’s own imagination.

The book begins with a chapter titles ‘The Ever Living Ones’ that combines Ellis’s own fictional creation story with a retelling of the Cath Maige Tuired. As with Young, Ellis takes creative liberties with the mythological material, for example attributing the sword to Lugh (not the spear which he gives to no one) and giving Lugh’s lineage as an odd combination of the possible fathers we find in mythology, saying that he was the son of Cian who was the son of Cainte. In Ellis’s version Lugh was kept from the battle of Maigh Tuired because the De Danann saw him as too valuable to risk and said “his was the wisdom needed to serve humankind” (Ellis, 1989 p 31). He also explains Nuada placing Lugh in charge for thirteen days as a means for Lugh to share his wisdom with them, before they set nine warriors to guard him from the battle. When Nuada was killed in the battle Lugh escaped and set out to join the fight, his arrival appearing like the sun’s rising to the Fomorians. Lugh kills Balor with his sling and then leads the Tuatha De Danann to victory.

Ellis ends that section of text with a passage claiming that Lugh was reduced into the folkloric Leprechaun and that is how his fame and memory have been preserved. We will discuss this assertion separately later in this chapter, but suffice to say here that it is less than accurate.

Ellis goes on in the following chapters to retell several other Irish myths, including the Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann with more accuracy. Although these retellings are written in a more exuberant manner than the originals and include expanded conversations the main themes and characters are kept relatively true to form. In itself this is good, but combined with the imaginative and less accurate earlier chapter this can be very misleading to readers who may struggle to sort out the accurate from the imaginative.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Recommended Translations of Irish Myths

 Responding to a social media question: What are my favorite translations of [old/middle] Irish material?

I don't know that I necessarily have favorite translations, per se, so much as favorite translators. So if I have a choice I tend to look for work by Kuno Meyers or Elizabeth Gray when possible because they are two of my favorites. Meyers because he footnoted like nobody's business and he's very good about discussing alternate possible reads which I really appreciate. Gray because her work is newer and so incorporates newer understandings of the language. Macalister isn't bad and his work on the Lebor Gabala Erenn is valuable especially for the notes and appendices, but he tends to take the easiest English translation option rather than (in my opinion) what might be the most accurate. Dunn's Tain Bo Cuiligne is decent although like most translators especially of his period he tends to add material. I abhor Whitley Stokes and may never forgive him for his appalling treatment of the Cath Maige Tuired.

Whitley Stokes is actually the reason I started teaching myself old/middle Irish, so that I could read the Cath Maige Tuired for myself after I realized how much he was both adding in and editing out. And that sort of thing is exactly why you have to be very careful about translations especially of this material. Older Irish doesn't lend itself to literal translation to English because to an English speaker what is rendered tends to look clunky and redundant, however in altering the material to better suit an English language audience the feel and spirit of the original is, again in my opinion, often lost. What we are left with may seem beautiful in English but it may not reflect the original story, only the translator's opinion of the spirit of the original story and that quickly becomes perspective and opinion.

I highly recommend checking out University College Cork's Irish Sagas Online which includes side by side renderings of many important texts in the original older Irish, modern Irish, and English. For those seeking reasonably accurate versions of a selection of the stories Cross & Slover's 'Ancient Irish Tales' offers a fairly good, close to the original, version of many of the more popular stories.