one of my holiday gifts was a glossy copy of the British magazine Fae, one of the many fairy-themed publications to spring into creation these past several years. as with many such publications, it seems to center on fashion and artwork (which is okay by me, by the way).
but reading it, i muse about the concept of fairies…
“fairy” is a garbage term — it simply means “spirit.” as such, it can denote any one of the three Kindreds (Gods, nature spirits, ancestors); fairy lore also has instances that identify fairies with all three.
For example, the Tuatha De Danann are described as fairies, although they are undoubtedly the Celtic pantheon. Spirits of water, forests and the like may also be included within the realm of divine beings normally considered fey.
Fairy tales often include stories in which people believed dead are found among them, or they inhabit ancient burial mounds. Eddie Lenihan’s Meeting the Other Crowd contains several examples of fairies as spirits of the dead, although (alas) i no longer have the book to ferret out the references directly.
today, we often associate fairies with Nature Spirits and Druidic rites can (whether it’s often depends on the practitioner) include the Sidhe in the nature spirits invocation. in this form, they are what the New Age community often calls “devas” — the inhabiting spirits of plants (trees, flowers, etc.), particular places, stones and the like. there are also tribes of spirit-beings that don’t have any truck with the incarnate world, or who are generally not friendly with its denizens. (think of the Fomhoire, for example.)
but what they aren’t are winged sprites in neo-medieval garb, hate to say.
as spirits, they can take any form they like, as they are “non-physical” in the sense of fleshly being.
i’ve certainly sensed spirits for much of my life, starting in childhood. i’ve never seen them as winged sprites. rather, i’ve seen the Gods in varied forms, nagas (“snakes with people heads,” which i drew from the time i was three or so), occasionally sphinxes and many-armed women (which i had seen in elementary school, leading me to believe one of my previous incarnations must have been in India). i’ve seen spirits of the dead as light, as men and women in period costumes, as glowing skeletons dancing. spirits of nature i generally just sense rather than see.
personally, i’m not sure what spirits people are seeing when they claim to see little creatures with gossamer wings. something that wants attention and acknowledgment, and is using a familiar form, most likely.
in my experience, however, spirits ar enothing like the benevolent, glitter-scattering, gift-giving fairies of popular media. the Kindreds are full of depth, majesty, beauty and terrible power. (so are we, as it happens.)