Meme asked me,
“I’m curious Nettle. When I hear the word “fairy” I think of wee folk, the Summer and Winter courts, The Sidhe, Queen Titania, and Puck. I have a feeling that when you say fairy you mean what I would call “anima”, a spirit of a local or object.Is that correct? Do you ever meet people who in their workings are trying to interface with the other type?”
RJ Stewart says faeries are “living beings which are one step, one change of awareness, beyond humanity They are also those which out of the wide range of spiritual beings described in tradition, magic, religion or folklore, are most close to humanity.” (The Living World of Faery, 1995) He thinks that the cute winged faeries are merely products of Victorian sentimentality that has been laid over the older tradition and are not “real faeries.” (I am not sure I agree with that.) The various beings you name are all part of Faerie but not all of it. Robert Kirk said that fairies were “of a middle nature betwixt man and Angel…of intelligence Studious Spirits and light changeable bodies….best seen in twilight.” (Secret Commonwealth, 1692) Orion Foxwood calls them a “co-existing order of pre-human intelligent beings [existing] very close to human awareness but not dependent on it for their existence.” (The Faery Teachings, 2003)
A. E. Evans-Wentz, an anthropologist, wrote:
And there seems never to have been an uncivilized tribe, a race, or nation of civilized men who have not had some form of belief in an unseen world, peopled by unseen beings. In religions, mythologies, and the Fairy-Faith, too, we behold the attempts which have been made by different peoples in different ages to explain in terms of human experience this unseen world, its inhabitants, its laws, and man’s relation to it. The Ancients called its inhabitants gods, genii, daemons, and shades; Christianity knows them as angels, saints, demons, and souls of the dead; to tin-civilized tribes they are gods, demons, and spirits of ancestors; and the Celts think of them as gods, and as fairies of many kinds.” (The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1902)
I’m quoting all sorts of other people because I want to be clear that what I’m saying is not based solely on my visionary experiences but also on a long tradition of such experiences. Faeries are those inhabitants of the unseen world that exist in a liminal place between the material world and the otherworld – they have a foot in both, which is why they can sometimes be seen by waking eyes. Sometimes they are connected to a place – my friend Otter “belongs” to this stretch of the banks of Mill Creek – never mind that Mill Creek was paved over and made to run through the sewers, I still live on the banks of Mill Creek even though I can’t see it and it runs far under the street. And so Otter is here too, because this is where he lives. I have seen all sorts of “genii loci” connected to the mountains and forests of my home. I do not think that they are the animated spirits of a place so much as beings who are strongly at home in that place, if you know what I mean. RJ Stewart (I think? I can’t find the reference right now) makes an interesting observation that when he does workshops in the US, the faery contacts made by people there look different from the ones made by people in the UK – the UK contacts tend to be more humanoid and often are dressed in fanciful clothing and armor, while in the US, they tend to be shaggier and generally wilder in appearance. I can say from my own experience that I’ve never seen a faery with clothes on – generally they are hairy or clad in bark or hides, (or made of bark or hides or hair – it’s hard to tell and seems impolite to ask) and I’ve never done faery work anywhere except the northeastern US, so I don’t know what they look like elsewhere. It’s one of the reasons I REALLY want to go on a pilgrimage to sacred sites in the UK. I think that these beings are everywhere and cultural traditions all over the world describe them, but they look different in different places (I’m thinking of Totoro all of a sudden… if I met Totoro, I’d call him a faery because he looks and acts like one, but I’m sure the Japanese have their own word for beings like that. In fact, the thing I love the most about Miyazaki is that his stories are always faery-stories) I am sure that the beings described in some Native American stories are the same beings.
I also think that faeries love to upset expectations and any attempts to define them or pin them down with words will result in me having my assumptions overthrown at some point. This is ok but if I suddenly come back and say, “no, wait, I was wrong, faeries are really this other thing!” that would be… well, not unexpected. And if anyone else has another perspective to contribute to this, I’d love to see it in the comments.
So – to answer your question – yes, faeries are Puck and Sidhe and Titania and all that, sometimes, and sometimes they’re local spirits connected to a place, and sometimes they’re connected to specific people or families, and sometimes they are something completely different – the only consistent characteristic is that they are the ones who are of the Otherworld but sit very close to our awareness – midway between man and the angels, as Kirk would have it.