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I was surprised to find that this particular question is difficult to Google. Everyone is familiar with Tinker Bell and Disney's interpretation of her, but was she the first to have these characteristics? The related question on this site, Who and what are the winged “faries” that feature in fairytale?, has an answer which gives the following quote from Etymonline:

As a name for the diminutive winged beings in children's stories from early 17c.

This claim itself is not cited (it is not even couched as a claim), but context leads to an essay by Tolkien: On Fairy Stories. There, Tolkien mentions Michael Drayton's Nymphidia (1627) and through the use of "fluttering" implies the existence of the archetype:

Drayton's Nymphidia is one ancestor of that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child

Having skim-read through it, it appears that for the most part that all the fairies were indeed diminutive but ground-bound - save for the eponymous Nymphidia who appears to fly between lines 313 and 320.

This thing Nymphidia overheard,
That on this mad king had a guard,
Not doubting of a great reward
    For first this business broaching ;
And through the air away doth go,
Swift as an arrow from the bow,
To let her sovereign Mab to know,
    What peril was approaching.

Whether this is an accident of translation or not is up to people more knowledgeable than I. The question now becomes: is this the earliest example of the archetype, or was Drayton inspired by another?

Also, researching this question has given me a new appreciation for Tolkien as an essayist. Thanks Rubellite Fae!

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  • Shakespeare's fairies can be interpreted as tiny, or at least able to change their size, so that beats Drayton.
    – Spencer
    Jun 22 at 23:12
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Fairies were not traditionally winged in folklore, and it seems unlikely that Michael Drayton imagined Nymphidia with wings; the first mention of winged fairies is usually dated to 1712. Fairies were widely believed to have the capability of flight or high-speed travel. See, for instance, Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1691) where fairies “swim in the air near the earth.” There’s also a widespread story where a man overhears fairies saying “Horse and hattock!” or some other chant, and gets taken along on a ride through the air. (Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, p. 604 - see the footnotes for a 17th-century version.) Nymphidia fits into this; she can fly, but Drayton never says she has wings, although later illustrations added them. Tolkien could have been influenced by Thomas Maybank's illustrations from 1906, or something similar.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, works like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Nymphidia” reduced fairies to tiny, harmless beings who might be mistaken for bugs or wear insect-inspired clothing. A wasp is mistaken for a fairy in the poem. So it is certainly fair to call Nymphidia an ancestor of winged fairies even if she's not one herself.

Simon Young's 2019 article "When did fairies get wings?", in the book The Paranormal and Popular Culture, is a helpful in-depth read.

There were some stage costume designs by Inigo Jones around 1605-1610 that may portray winged fairies, but that’s mainly speculation.

Alexander Pope's poem “The Rape of the Lock” (1712) is generally credited with the first appearance of winged fairies:

Some to the sun their insect-wings unfold

And

Swift on his sooty pinions flits the Gnome…

Pope’s winged beings are actually sylphs and gnomes (inspired by Paracelsus’ writings on elemental spirits), but these words gradually became synonymous with fairies. In the later 18th century and the Enlightenment era, the supernatural was not as popular in British literature and art. Young credits a specific group of artists including William Blake, Henry Fuseli, and Thomas Stothard, who stood out for focusing on supernatural subjects including fairies and sylphs. They drew fairies with insect or butterfly wings, possibly to differentiate them from angels.

In the 19th century, fairies were more popular again, and winged fairies predominated. Young posits that winged fairies developed mainly through visual art. Direct textual references to wings generally came later; one of the earliest that he cites is an anonymous poem from 1805 with the line "Wafted to bliss on fairy wings." From poetry, literature and theater, winged fairies eventually looped around into modern folklore.

It’s not clear what made winged fairies win out, but it may be that it’s an easy way to identify them in pictures. I think it grew out of those Nymphidia-like associations with insects and small size. Young mentions some theories that wings were used to evoke flight, angels, or infantilization.

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  • Thanks again! Simon's article more than suffices for an authoritative source, and the rest of your post makes the argument pretty clear. Jun 23 at 13:05
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From "How Did Fairies Get Their Wings?":

Search Google images for “fairies” and you find pages of diminutive human-like magical creatures with insect wings, often with pointed or animal ears and occasionally with antennae. Too often, this stereotypical fairy is at odds with the literature that produced her. No mention of such features appears in any literature preceding Elizabethan England, nor in Shakespeare, nor Spenser and both used fairies in the same manner as greek mythology did, as either nature spirits (nymphs and satyres and the like) or gods rather than magical creatures.

Not that mythical worlds could not conceive of winged beings, but these are in fact quite rare. The only winged beings among the Greeks were Nike and various monsters including Pegasus, and these are individuals rather than classes of beings, and almost none of the anthropomorphic beings prior to the Christian era sprouted wings, though these were found frequently in Etruscan tombs which probably contributed to the popular concept of angels and demons throughout the middle ages up to today. But these are not fairies in the literary tradition, and it is only in that tradition where this image of fairies seems to exist.

The appearance of winged fairies seems to have coincided with the industrial revolution, by which point the concept of the fairy story had been relegated to the nursery since adults were supposed to be rational and no longer deal with such matters, so by the Victorian era the concept of fairy became more childlike, and also linked to formal gardens, and these nature spirits of mythology evolved features drawn from children, insects and flowers. These are certainly very much in evidence in todays popular art of fairies.

It was in keeping with this style that Arthur Rackham provided wings for some of the fairies in his illustrations for A Midsummer Nights Dream. Shakespeare makes no reference in any of their speech. It is, after all, a tale blending greek mythology and English oral tradition of fairy beings so his inclusion of these seem fitting somehow, at least to his Edwardian audience who grew up with Victorian sensibilities.

As well in Peter Pan in Kensington Palace, Rackham also provides these generously even though there is no reference to any of the fairies having wings, but plenty of references to the dealings of these with the birds, who are the only truly winged creatures in the story. Although there is no mention of wings, Barrie’s narrative style is more suggestive than explicit and probably expected this feature of fairies to be assumed by his audience.

Edmund Dulac, Sulamith Wulfing and others also contributed many fairy images, but they were less likely to provide them with non-human appendages, but they certainly did provide them with that necessary magical quality to grant us the sense of wonder that fairies are known to bestow.

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  • There seem to be some ancient depictions of Iris the messenger god as a winged humanoid, eg. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iris_Louvre_L43.jpg . Do you think these are all misidentified depictions of Nikē? Not that this changes your main point.
    – b_jonas
    Jun 22 at 11:27
  • Wait, I have one better than Isis. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/… These are definitely ancient depictions of wind gods as winged humanoids, though you may say it's Roman rather than Greek.
    – b_jonas
    Jun 22 at 11:38
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    Winged human depiction can be found as far back as the Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations. But the question was about the tiny, insect-winged fairy archetype, not regular sized human depictions with wings.
    – Codosaur
    Jun 22 at 12:43
  • Yes, I was just commenting about your sentence “The only winged beings among the Greeks were Nike and various monsters including Pegasus”
    – b_jonas
    Jun 22 at 13:09
  • Wow, I didn't expect to get an answer submission so soon! I'm not sure if I should mark this as "the" answer, though, since the source isn't particularly authoritative and focuses on illustrations where wider myth may have contained such winged characters as Nymphidia implies. Then again, Ricardo is a PhD candidate in some related field (I couldn't find which). What's the criteria for "probably true" on this SX? Perhaps I am being overly conservative. Jun 22 at 20:45

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