The Wonderful World of the Wee Folk
By Joan Whetzel
Stories of the wee folk come from a long line of mostlly European storytelling traditions. Generally, these wee folk are said to possess special powers that they use to make things happen for humans - or sometimes to humans. The stories of the wee people acting in our lives are used to help explain seemingly unexplainable events or to teach a life lesson. Either way, it's always fun to hear the tales of the wee folk.
Types of Wee Folk
There are many types of wee folk described in these tales. The most popular wee folk stories though tend to revolve around sprites, brownies, gnomes, elves, dwarves, fairies, and leprechauns. They are all small in size and are generally believed to be supernatural beings. Some have been known to be a bit mischievous in nature.
Sprites are colorful creatures, about the size of a large cricket or katydid, with shimmering wings (something like dragonfly wings). Sprites are believed to be part of the fairy family of wee folk, and are said to travel in swarms and live near streams and ponds, or near tree fairies. Sprites are known to be playful. Though they can be mischievous at times, they have a short attention span so their mischief won't last long. Sprites have different magical skills, depending on the type of fairy. Some help trees shake off snow when winter is over, remove fall leaves, and sing to the trees during the winter to keep them company.
Brownies, wee folk from England and Scotland, are known as helpful spirits around the house - something like the elves. They look like tiny humans in appearance. They have brown hair and generally wear brown clothing. Brownies usually attach themselves to one household or farm for centuries and are said to be quite protective of the inhabitants of the farm or house, and don't like quarreling or mistreatment of animals. While quite hard-working when laboring for their chosen families, they prefer to work after the family has gone to bed for the night as they are rather shy. Families who suspect they have a brownie, should leave a bowl of fresh cream or porridge, or some freshly baked bread, or a shiny trinket as token of appreciation for the efforts that the brownies put out. However, if the brownie is insulted, they will undo everything done, and leave the household forever.
Gnomes are found throughout Europe where they are known by different names: Erdmanleins (Germany), Heinzelmännchen (in the alpine regions), Nisse (Denmark and Norway), Nissen (Sweden), Nains (Britain), Foddenskkmaend (Iceland), Tontti (Findland), Gnom (Poland), Dudje (Bulgaria and Albainia), Mano (Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, Kabouter (by the Dutch), Skritek (Belgium), Kleinmannaeken (Switzerland and Luxembourg), and Domovoi Djedoes (Western Russia).
Woodland gnomes usually live in forests, generally steering clear of humans. Others, known as garden gnomes, live in older gardens. House gnomes make their homes in houses or on farms with families. They are generally quite small - a few inches in height - and wear drab clothing so as not to stand out. The supernatural powers that gnomes posses include the gift of speed (running at speeds of up to 35 miles an hour), superhuman strength, and eyesight that is even sharper than that of a hawk. They have a love of animals and will protect them and heal their injuries. Gnomes love gemstones and jewelry. They are also supposed to have a wicked sense of humor as they love to play practical jokes.
In some stories, namely Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the elves are the size of humans. However, in most folklore, elves are quite tiny. The small elves are said to use their magical skills to create many wonderful things like shoes, toys for Santa, and baked goodies. Some prefer to live in the woodlands or near wells and springs.
Dwarves are similar to humans in appearance, but smaller in stature, around 3 to 4 feet tall. They generally live or work underground, performing many mining or smithing jobs. They are not generally possessed of magical skills, but they are believed to be quite strong.
Fairies are the most widely known, and arguably the most popular, of magical wee folk found in legends, folk tales, and myths. Like the sprites, fairies have wings and have human like features. Fairies are said to have the ability to cast spells and some have the ability to either foresee the future or influence future events. Fairies are believed to be immortal.
Leprechauns are small creatures found only in Ireland. Leprechauns are always males and tend to wear plain garments, usually green in color. Among their occupations is the making of shoes for elves and fairies. For entertainment, they are said to like to drink a bit, to smoke pipes, and to play jokes and pull pranks. Some are even known to "borrow" whatever items they want because they tend to be on the lazy side and won't work for what they need. They are known best for having a pot of gold, which they stash at the end of the rainbow, which can never be found because the end of the rainbow keeps disappearing as you get close to it. However, if a human or any other mortal creature captures a leprechaun, that person can take the Leprechaun's gold - unless, of course, the leprechaun manages to use bribes or deceit to trick his way out of the situation before pulling a disappearing act.
Urban Dictionary. Wee Folk.
The Free Dictionary. Wee Folk.
Mythical Creatures Guide.
Your Gnometown Brewery. What Is a Heinzelmannchen?
Celtic Attic. Myths, Spirits, and Wee Folk.
Goodies. Wee Folk of Folklore.
Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. Wee Folk and Their Friends.