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The Fairies are Afoot! - Modern Fairy Beliefs

Updated on December 17, 2015
"The Bewitched Piper" by William Holmes Sullivan, 1882.
"The Bewitched Piper" by William Holmes Sullivan, 1882.

Fairy Rings - Where the Fairies Dance

Fairy rings are spaces where fairies are said to appear. Folklore tells of people who have come across the fairies dancing, usually at night, and usually in a circle. It may be that when people saw mysterious rings of mushrooms in a perfect circle, the only explanation must have been that the fairies had been dancing.

In the Middle Ages, people believed that certain unusual phenomena in nature could be doorways or portals to other realms. We forget that our modern lives are filled with entertainments and distractions that our ancestors didn't have. So while we are indoors staring at our televisions and computers, our ancestors were outdoors observing nature.

People of previous eras were very aware of natural occurrences such the shift of time. It was believed that odd times of the year, such as solstices and equinoxes, cause the veils between worlds to become so thin that beings from other realms could slip through. Not only could fairies, goblins, ghosts, and other creatures slip into our world, but it was said that humans could be taken away into their world as well.

A fairy ring circles a tree, this may also be a fairy tree!
A fairy ring circles a tree, this may also be a fairy tree! | Source

Hey! Where did this ring come from?

A similar notion is attributed to fairy rings. Fairy rings are formed in a shape not often found in nature - the ring or loop. Specifically large ones randomly sitting in fields and forests were an anomoly. Circular rings on a large scale are a shape typically associated with something man-made. But, in those days fungiculture (the cultivation of mushrooms) was not well understood. And, besides that, it makes little sense for people to walk about planting mushroom circles. Since the shape of the growth appeared purposeful, yet it seems unlikely humans did it, the best explanation is that must have been the fairies!

Fairy rings in moss in Iceland.
Fairy rings in moss in Iceland. | Source

The association with fairies, who were suspicious and feared in those days, meant that lore and superstition grew up around these rings. Stepping in one could transport an unsuspecting wanderer to Fairy Land! Especially if the wanderer was unfortunate to find himself standing in a fairy ring on a night when the veils were thinned.

Fairy rings could be made of stuff other than fungi. A ring appearing in grass darker than the grass surrounding it could be highly suspect. Circular patterns in moss might be especially devilish as well. Best steer clear of anything round!

Because these rings are a phenomenon of nature, of course they still spring up today. And, even today many people still attribute these magical circles to the fae folk.

A scientific explanation of fairy rings

Offerings of ribbon decorate a Fairy Wishing Tree  near Madron Well, Cornwall.
Offerings of ribbon decorate a Fairy Wishing Tree near Madron Well, Cornwall. | Source

Fairy Trees

Trees. They were very important to European pagans in the days before Christianity. Nearly all European cultures were known to have Sacred Groves. Rather than worshiping in a building, pagans would gather in a special part of the forest which was usually revered and protected. Usually there would be one particular tree held in high esteem. The tree was usually the oldest in the forest. Offerings of food and other items would be left around or on the tree. (In some cases these offerings involved animal carcasses or dead bodies, but we won't go there!)

Ahem.

Like many of our holiday customs, the tradition of leaving offerings to the deities in nature was kept alive in fairy trees. To this day, certain trees are thought to be associated with the fairies and offerings of ribbons, coins, and other such items, are strewn on the tree. This custom is has survived especially in Celtic nations such as Ireland and Scotland, but can be seen in other places as well.

Even if this custom hasn't survived in your area, you may have participated in similar traditions without even knowing it. If you have ever thrown a penny in a wishing well or water fountain, then you unwittingly paid homage to the god, goddess, or spirit who guards the water. Or so your ancestors might say.

Most of us know that the Christmas Tree is a German custom, but honoring a tree by making it the focal point of the family's attention and adorning it with beautiful objects follows the same intention as the fairy tree. Germanic people held trees in high esteem, just as their Celtic neighbors did.

Coins hammered into a wishing tree at High Force waterfall near Middleton-in-Teesdale, Tees Valley, England.
Coins hammered into a wishing tree at High Force waterfall near Middleton-in-Teesdale, Tees Valley, England. | Source
A Victorian representation of a Leprechaun.
A Victorian representation of a Leprechaun.

Leprechauns A Protected Species?

In another article I discussed Iceland's belief in elves. Well, apparently Iceland ain't got nothin' on Ireland, where Leprechauns are now a protected species! That's right. Not only has Ireland protected leprechauns and their native habitat, but they convinced the European Union to declare them protected too.

So if you're ever in Ireland, best tread lightly and not disturb the Wee Folk or their fairy rings if you don't want to be transported to the land of no return.

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© 2013 Carolyn Emerick

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    • profile image

      Travis Judah 19 months ago

      I am embarrassed. Carolyn, I had no idea you wrote here! Fascinating material and I look forward to delving in deeper!

    • newbizmau profile image

      Maurice Glaude 2 years ago from Mobile, AL

      I think I read this one before but glad I came back. Such a good read.

    • NisseVisser profile image

      Nisse Visser 2 years ago from On the Edge

      Nice one, shared

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image

      Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      I love this one. Shared! ;-)

    • profile image

      me 3 years ago

      Interesting fairy Carolyn

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      wow, i didn't know the poor tree had been hammered with coins, it hurts to be rich

    • anitajsmith profile image

      Anita Smith 3 years ago from Burnside, Kentucky

      nice article Carolyn

    • Blake83 profile image

      Blake 3 years ago from Poughkeepsie, NY

      This was really interesting. You write well and your pieces are very engaging.

      I came across a fairy ring last spring, and had no idea what it was. I had never seen one before. It happened to have been when I was out for a hike. And that, I think, correlates to something you said.

      "We forget that our modern lives are filled with entertainments and distractions that our ancestors didn't have. So while we are indoors staring at our televisions and computers, our ancestors were outdoors observing nature."

      That is true. There is a lot we could be missing, and now that I think about it, it's a bit foolish to dismiss things if one spends all of their time at work or with technology.

      Looking forward to reading more. Voted up.

    • Tolovaj profile image

      Tolovaj 3 years ago

      Thanks for this interesting lesson about little people. It's always great to learn how certain costum began. And every answered question opens ate least two new questions ...

      Thumbs up!

    • Lindsey Nobles profile image

      Lindsey N 3 years ago from Western New York

      Very cool hub. Never realized the correlation between a Christmas tree and throwing pennies in a fountain to have its origins in honoring fairies. Thank you for sharing :)

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      A brilliant hub and I now look forward to so many more.

      Eddy.

    • pinto2011 profile image

      Subhas 4 years ago from New Delhi, India

      This is simply fantastic.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      I loved your hub, as I do all of your writing. How magical that the Irish have convinced the European Union to declare the leprechaun as protected. Only the brilliant, verbally gifted Irish could be as convincing and passionate. When my family and I toured Ireland and Northern Ireland about 6 years ago there were so many vivid stories about the wee folk they had us half convinced. We were riding in the country and the tour bus stopped abruptly because the bus driver said he saw one and the little fellow was trying to make trouble for us. The bus driver got out and beat on the bus tires with an umbrella. He shouted, "I caught 'em," then ran back aboard and threw this little stuffed leprechaun to my daughter. It was so memorable. The entire bus roared. We kind of believed him. Leprechauns will always have a special place in our household. Voted up and more, plus sharing.