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In popular culture and folklore, many species of Fairies are said to have a small true form (but can alter their size whenever they see fit)

I was wondering when did this occur? Did the original myths mention them being tiny or short beings? Or was this an invention of people like Shakespeare, Drayton, or The Brothers Grimm?

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So, the idea of many fairies being small or tiny can be traced back to the writings of folks like Shakespeare and Drayton in the medieval and Renaissance periods. In their works, fairies like Puck were often portrayed as these little, mischievous beings.

As for pinpointing the exact moment when many kinds of fairies shrank down, it's a bit like chasing fireflies in the dark. There isn't one single origin point. The concept gradually evolved and gained popularity over time.

Now, it's important to note that fairy folklore isn't a one-size-fits-all deal. Different cultures and regions had their own unique takes on fairy beings, and not all of them were depicted as small. So, it's more about the collective influence of various literary works, art, and cultural interpretations that led to the widespread image of tiny fairies in popular culture.

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Like most "what happened to fairies" generalizations, there isn't a one size fits all answer, because "fairy" is a term that applies to a whole bunch of different mythical creatures from different cultures with different histories. The process of lumping all these creatures together into one mythos for use in fantasy stories and role playing games is a later development.

Some cultures already had a tendency to present certain supernatural creatures as diminutive, such as Cornish pixies or Germanic trolls, though even here, diminutive stature wasn't always a feature of these creatures. Sometimes they were depicted as normal human height.

Others depicted fairy-like creatures as being capable of growing and shrinking at will, and so individual stories might have tiny fairies, but that wasn't some fundamental feature of them. To make matters more complicated, some cultures used terms like "wee folk" to describe fairies, despite not tending to depict them as diminutive initially, as a sort of polite descriptor to describe spirits diminutive in power compared to the divine after they began to be syncretized into Christianity.

Within some of these places, more recent local folklore even tries to explain the "shrinking" of the wee folk as a consequence of the old gods becoming small after they stopped being worshipped. While this is not literally true in the way some of the folk sayings suggest, there may be a process by which some fairies in narrative gradually diminished in both power and physical stature over time following the advent of Christianity. There is an interesting theory out there that the leprechaun is a diminutive version of the deity Lugh that shrunk and changed over time following the conversion of Ireland.

As fairies became the purview of Victorian children's authors, their diminutive stature became standardized. This may be part of the process of making these creatures that could be genuinely dangerous in their original depictions more "kid friendly", or as a way of explaining why you don't see fairies running around, or both, or neither, but during this time you start to see standard images of fairies, recognizable to modern eyes, showing up.

So it's kind of both. There are depictions of diminutive fairies in early folklore, and the tendency to represent fairies as diminutive increased and spread over time, but the idea that this applies to all fairies all of the time didn't develop until much later.

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  • Ah so calling them "wee folk" was referring to their power level compared to deities not their height? That makes sense as that can get confused.
    – Orionixe
    Jul 19, 2023 at 2:07
  • so diminutive fairies in early folklore were the results of shapeshifting, and not it being a constant feature?
    – Orionixe
    Jul 20, 2023 at 8:56
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I will take a stab at this. I think that it could go back to the Norman invasion of England. It is then that French words began to come into English more and more. The nobility (the French Normans) ate “beef” and “pork” (originally French words) while the people (commoners, the native English) raised “cattle” “cows” and “pigs” (English words). The French also had the term Fée/Fay that they brought over which was used for a woman skilled in magic and had other powers. It looks to have been Thomas Mallory who in 1485 first used the term “Morgan Le Fay” for Morgan of the King Arthur cycle. Morgan is often said to be Arthur’s sister. Images of her are of a tall adult human female. The terms for the French Fée/Fay and the English, Scottish and Irish “fairy” look to have been used somewhat interchangeably and that is possibly the reason for the confusion. This looks to be one way that faries came to be “tall characters.” In Ann Grant’s 1811 book “Legends and Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland,” she describes a “fairy” in the text. There is no indication of the actual size of her “fairy.” Since her “fairy” is described as holding a knife for his lover, the young girl, it is possible that the arm and the fairy are on the “larger” size of the scale. I would imagine this to be a being of small stature (like a German Elf). In images in Thomas Crofton Corkers 1825 book: “Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland,” “faries” are depicted as what modern people might imagine – they look like Disney’s Tinker Bell. Small (on the order of inches), humaniform winged or unwinged creatures. It could be that native UK (Ireland, England and Scotland) (no offence to the Irish who would not like to be considered part of the UK) “fairies” were the “small ones” and the “large ones” came over with the French “wise women” (Fée/Fay) after the invasion. At some point both terms got mixed up. “Fay” does sound very similar to “fairy.” In many any other languages this might not happen. It is difficult to mistake an “elf” for a “wise woman.” Don’t think about Tolkien or his “elves” (tall, human like, immortal beings with pointed ears, but without wings) either. That would just add to the confusion.

Is it not an easy or straight forward question. Some good links from Wikipedia:

Morgan Le Fay

Faries

It has even confused modern scholars.

Note: “The Hand with the Knife” mentioned below is the Grimm translation of the story in Grant’s 1811 book.

Among other things, it has led Jack Zipes, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, to be quoted on the National Endowment for the Humanities web site as writing: “a reader might notice that many of the stories such as “The Hand with the Knife,” “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering,”… have nothing to do with fairies or happy endings. Instead, these are stark narratives about brutal living conditions in the nineteenth century.” This is seems to be not correct. If the supernatural character in “The Hand with the Knife,” KHM 1812 #8, is not the actual “real life” embodiment of what is in English (Scottish) called a “fairy” in a “Fairy Tale,” then what is? Jacob Grimm translated this text from English into German from a book published by Ann Grant in 1811 titled: “Essays and Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland.” The text is in Vol. I on pgs. 285 and 286 of her book. The text begins: “A little girl had been innocently beloved by a fairy, who dwelt in a tomhan near her mother’s habitation.” Grant’s text explicitly describes the character as what the Scottish and/or English call a “fairy.” In German, what the English, Irish and Scottish call a “fairy,” is an “Elf” and Jacob translated the line as: “Aber das Mädchen hatte einen Liebhaber, der war ein Elfe und wohnte nahe an ihrer Mutter Hause in einem Hügel,…” (But the maiden had an admirer, he was an elf and lived near to her mother’s house in a hill,…” In his 2014 translation of the Grimm KHM #8 line, Zipes writes it as: “But the little girl had an admirer who was an elf and lived in a hill near her mother’s house.” Zipes looks to have taken this German “Elf/Elfe” and brought it straight back into English as “elf” without first translating it back into what it originally was in Grants text - a “fairy.” A Scottish tale about a Scottish “fairy” is what the English words “fairy tale” actually describe. One can not get much closer to an authentic “fairy tale” than an actual Scottish tale that includes an actual Scottish “fairy.”

Confusion abounds.

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