The Faerie Folk, by whatever name and in whatever form they may be known – fairies, elves, pixies, sprites, fawns, banshees, leprechauns, little people, etc. – can be said to be symbols, ‘manifestations’, of the profound Celtic bond with the natural and the supernatural world (these two worlds being inextricably inter-connected).
Fairies were (and still are to an extent) believed to be metaphysical beings that were often associated with mythological figures or deities of the Celtic religion.
Belief in fairies, however, can be found in both the written and oral traditions of many ancient cultures throughout the world.
The universal term ‘fairy’, ‘faery’ or ‘faerie’, in fact, derives from the Latin fata, meaning ‘fate’, and refers to the mythological ‘Fates’ – three hag-like goddesses who spin the threads of life and destiny, and are a major part of European mythologies in general.
The theme of spinning, in fact, is an important and recurring symbol of destiny in many folk traditions and fairy tales (such as the Sleeping Beauty, for example, in which at the birth of the princess the bad fairy proclaims her fate – that she shall prick her finger on the spindle of an old spinning hag and fall asleep for 100 years).
In Celtic mythology, moreover, the triple goddess Brighid is a spinner.
The name ‘Elf’ derives originally from the Anglo-Saxon ælf, and refers, like the fairies, to an invisible and ethereal race of supernatural creatures that were believed to live on the earth alonside humans while, at the same time, having their own unseen world, where humans were rarely granted access. This land is known by different names, including the Isle of Avalon (to which the mortally-wounded Arthur was taken by three faerie queens), and Tir-Nan-Og (the ‘Land of the Young’).
The Faerie Folk are basically divided into two main groups: the communal fairies, who live together in organised groups or tribes, often with their own king or queen, and the solitary fairies, who either have connections with humans (e.g. hobgoblins, brownies and banshees) or avoid them (e.g. leprechauns).
Related to the Faerie folk are Fays (e.g. the Lady of the Lake and Morgana le Fay from the legends of King Arthur), who are basically enchanters and enchantresses with supernatural powers and may be either human, supernatural or a mixture of both.
Mermaids, water-spirits and tree-spirits are Nature Fairies. The word ‘dryad’, or wood-nymph, in fact, has the same Indo-European root deru (‘wood’, ‘tree’) as the word ‘druid’.
The Faerie Folk could be said to represent a kind of ‘re-sizing’ of the gods and goddesses of the most ancient Celtic populations, bringing them closer to humans and human understanding.
Although fairies (and especially elves) were acknowledged as being of both sexes, they have always been particularly associated with the feminine principle. The Welsh, for example, called them ‘the Mothers’, and believed fairyland to be the Land of Women. As creatures and spirits of Nature, in fact, the Faerie Folk are closely related to the Celtic symbols of the Great Mother.
Celtic Fairy Jewelry by Toulhoat