February – May 1998

Pixies, nixies, hobgoblins, water-spirits, brownies, elves, dwarfs, banshees, knockers, leprechauns . . . these are only a few of the fairies who inhabit enchanged kingdoms throughout the world. Where did they come from? There’s a good deal of speculation about how the concept of fairies began: perhaps from legends of people who were conquered by others; from tales of superseded gods and heroes; as the personification of animistic spirits; or as part of man’s attempt to rationalize natural phenomena.

Although there are also numerous theories about the origin of the word “fairy,” the general consensus is that it comes from the Latin fata, which referred to beings like the classical Fates and nymphs, and later with the French word fae. The English “fairye” originally described a state of enchantment and eventually came to denote specific supernatural beings.

Fairies may fall into one or more of four major classifications: 1) the fays, who are enchanters or enchantresses with supernatural powers; 2) monsters, dragons, giants, djinn and demons who have characteristics of fairies such as shape-shifting and human-snatching; 3) nature fairies such as tree-spirits or mermaids; and 4) the fairy people, or what we often think of as “true” fairies.

These fairy people are generally either communal or solitary. The communal sort, such as elves, dwarfs or pixies, when not mixing with humans, usually live in a fairyland or enchanted kingdom – a place distinctly separate from the human world with a well-defined social hierarchy – where they spend a good deal of time dancing, singing, feasting, and playing instruments or games. Solitary fairies are generally of two types: those who have a relationship wtih humans, like hobgoblins or brownies, and those, like leprechauns, who shun humans.

Fairies share some other characteristics as well. They usually have a human or human-like form but are capable of assuming forms, or becoming invisible. They may be approximately three feet tall, although much smaller is not uncommon. The diaphanous wings, with which most of us envision fairies, became popular only after the artistic representations of the nineteenth century. Generally neutrally disposed to humankind, fairies are sensitive to slights and tend to punish people who break their rules – such as calling them by their true names. The preferred mode of address is with a complimentary substitute such as “Wee Folk” or “Little People.” Rebuke runs the gamut from serious (being hit on the head) to inconvenient (having a sausage attached to your nose). Most fairies see nothing wrong with stealing food from humans or even stealing humans – especially babies or beautiful women.

So, to quote Peter Pan, “If you believe, clap your hands . . .” and enjoy this exhibition, which concentrates on the fairytales from northwestern Europe and traces their presence from the middle ages to today. Most fairy lore is a retelling of traditional forklore and often does not contain an actual fairy character but does embrace the concept of enchantment. Writers who substantially modify these stories or create new enchanted kingdoms provide us with the literary fairytale.

This exhibition was prepared by Liz Dube, Anna Embree, Pam Kacena, David Schoonover, Pamela Spitzmueller, and Rijn Templeton, with assistance from Regan Cunningham, Lucy David, Beth Embleton, Cynthea Mosier, and Susan Hansen.