The Smallness of Elvish Spirits and Fairies

[ This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]

In any anthropological estimate of the Fairy-Faith, the pygmy stature so commonly attributed to various orders of Celtic and of non-Celtic fairies should be considered.

Various scholarly champions of the Pygmy Theory have attempted to explain this smallness of fairies by means of the hypothesis that the belief in such fairies is due wholly to a folk-memory of small-statured pre-Celtic races ; and they add that these races, having dwelt in caverns like the prehistoric Cave Men, and in underground houses like those of Lapps or Eskimos, gave rise to the belief in a fairy world existing in caverns and under hills or mountains. When analysed, our evidence shows that in the majority of cases witnesses have regarded fairies either as non-human nature-spirits or else as spirits of the dead; that in a comparatively limited number of cases they have regarded them as the souls of prehistoric races; and that occasionally they have regarded the belief in them as due to a folk-memory of such races. It follows, then, from such an analysis of evidence, that the Pygmy Theory probably does explain some ethnological elements which have come to be almost inseparably interwoven with the essentially animistic fabric of the primitive Fairy-Faith. But though the theory may so account for such ethnological elements, it disregards the animism that has made such interweaving possible; and, on the whole, we are inclined to accept Mr. Jenner’s view of the theory. Since the Pygmy Theory thus fails entirely to provide a basis for what is by far the most important part of the Fairy-Faith, a more adequate theory is required.

Animistic Theory

The testimony of Celtic literature goes to show that leprechauns and similar dwarfish beings are not due to a folk-memory of a real pygmy race, that they are spirits like elves, and that the folk-memory of a Lappish-like people (who may have been Picts) evidently was confused with them, so as to result in their being anthropomorphosed. Thus, in Fionn’s Ransom, there is reference to an undersized apparently Lappish-like man, who may be a Pict; and as Campbell, who records the ancient tale, has observed, there are many similar traditional Highland tales about little men or even about true dwarfs who are good bowmen ; but it is very certain that such tales have often blended with other tales, in which supernatural figures like fairies play a role; and, apparently, the former kind of tales are much more historical and modern in their origin, while the latter are more mythological and extremely archaic. This blending of the natural or ethnological and the supernatural - in quite the same manner as in the modern Fairy-Faith - is clearly seen in another of Campbell’s collected tales, The Lad with the Skin Coverings,’ which in essence is an other-world tale: ‘a little thickset man in a russet coat,’ who is a magician, but who otherwise seems to be a genuine Lapp dressed in furs, is introduced into a story where real fairy-like beings play the chief parts. Again, in Irish literature, we read of a loch luchra or ‘lake of the pygmies.  Light is thrown upon this reference by what is recorded about the leprechauns and Fergus :- While asleep on the seashore one day, Fergus was about to be carried off by the luchorp‡in; ‘whereat he awoke and caught three of them, to wit, one in each of his two hands, and one on his breast. “Life for life” (i.e. protection), say they. “Let my three wishes (i. e. choices) be given,” says Fergus. “Thou shalt have,” says the dwarf, “save that which is impossible for us.” Fergus requested of him knowledge of passing under loughs and linns and seas. “Thou shalt have,” says the dwarf, “save one which I forbid to thee: thou shalt not go under Lough Rudraide [which] is in thine own country.” Thereafter the luchuirp (little bodies) put herbs into his ears, and he used to go with them under seas. Others say the dwarf gave his cloak to him, and that Fergus used to put it on his head and thus go under seas.  In an etymological comment on this passage, Sir John Rhys says :- ‘ The words luchuirp and luchorp‡in [Anglo-Irish leprechaun] appear to mean literally “small bodies “, and the word here rendered dwarf is in the Irish abac, the etymological equivalent of the Welsh avanc, the name by which certain water inhabitants of a mythic nature went in Welsh ·’

Besides what we find in the recorded Fairy-Faith, there are very many parallel traditions, both Celtic and non-Celtic, about various classes of spirits, like leprechauns or other small elvish beings, which Dr. Tylor has called nature-spirits ; and apparently all of these can best be accounted for by means of the animistic hypothesis. For example, in North America (as in Celtic lands) there is no proof of there ever having been an actual dwarf race, but Lewis and Clark, in their Travels to the Source of the Missouri River, found among the Sioux a tradition that a hill near the Whitestone River, which the Red Men called the ‘Mountain of Little People’ or ‘ Little Spirits’, was inhabited by pygmy demons in human form, about eighteen inches tall, armed with sharp arrows, and ever on the alert to kill mortals who should dare to invade their domain. So afraid were all the tribes of Red Men who lived near the mountain of these little spirits that no one of them could be induced to visit it.  And we may compare this American spirit-haunted hill with similar natural hills in Scotland said to be fairy knolls: one near the turning of a road from Reay Wick to Safester, Isle of Unst ;  one the well-known fairy-haunted Tomnahurich, near Inverness ;  and a third, the hill at Aberfoyle on which the ‘people of peace’ took the Rev. Robert Kirk when he profaned it by walking on it; or we may equate the American bill with the fairy-haunted Slieve Gullion and Ben Bulbin in Ireland.

The Iroquois had a belief that they could summon dwarfs, who were similar nature-spirits, by knocking on a certain large stone.  Likewise the Polong, a Malay familiar spirit, is ‘an exceedingly diminutive female figure or mannikin ‘  East Indian nature-spirits, too, are pygmies in stature.  In Polynesia, entirely independent of the common legends about wild races of pygmy stature, are myths about the spirits called wui or vui, who correspond to European dwarfs and trolls. These little spirits seem to occupy the same position toward the Melanesian gods or culture heroes, Qat of the Banks Islands and Tagaro of the New Hebrides, as daemons toward Greek gods, or as good angels toward the Christian Trinity, or as fairy tribes toward the Brythonic Arthur and toward the Gaelic hero Cuchulainn.  Similarly in Hindu mythology pygmies hold an important place, being sculptured on most temples in company with the gods; e. g. Siva is accompanied by a bodyguard of dwarfs, and one of them, the three-legged Bhringi, is a good dancer  - like all corrigans, pixies, and most fairies.

Beyond the borders of Celtic lands - in Southern Asia with its islands, in Melanesia with New Guinea, and in Central Africa-pygmy races, generally called Negritos, exist at the present day; but they themselves have a fairy-faith, just as their normal-sized primitive neighbours have, and it would hardly be reasonable to argue that either of the two fairy-faiths is due to a folk-memory of small-statured peoples. Ancient and thoroughly reliable manuscript records testify to the existence of pygmies in China during the twenty-third century B. C. ;  yet no one has ever tried to explain the well-known animistic beliefs of modern China-men in ghosts, demons, and in little nature-spirits like fairies, by saying that these are a folk-memory of this ancient pygmy race. In Yezo and the Kurile Islands of Japan still survive a few of the hairy Ainu, a Caucasian like, under-sized race; and their immediate predecessors; whom they exterminated, were a Negrito race, who, according to some traditions, were two to three feet in stature, and, according to other traditions, only one inch in stature.  Both pygmy races, the surviving and the exterminated race, seem independently to have evolved a belief in ghosts and spirits, so that here again, it need not be argued that the present pre-Buddhist animism of the Japanese is due to a folk-memory of either Ainus or Negritos.

Further examination of the animistic hypothesis designed to explain the smallness of elvish spirits leads away from mere mythology into psychology, and sets us the task of finding out if, after all, primitive ideas about the disembodied human soul may not have originated or at least have helped to shape the Celtic folk conception of fairies as small statured beings. Mr. A. E. Crawley, in his Idea of the Soul (pp. 200-I, 206), shows by carefully selected evidence from ancient and modern psychologies that ‘first among the attributes of the soul in its primary form may be placed its size’, and that ‘in the majority of cases it is a miniature replica of the person, described often as a mannikin, or homunculus, of a few inches in height’. Sometimes the soul is described as only about three inches in stature. Dr. Frazer shows, likewise, that by practically all contemporary primitive peoples the soul is commonly regarded as a dwarf.

The same opinions regarding the human soul prevailed among ancient peoples highly civilized, i.e. the Egyptians and Greeks, and may have thence directly influenced Celtic tradition. Thus, in bas-relief on the Egyptian temple of DÉr el Bahri, Queen Hatshepsu Ramaka is making offerings of perfume to the gods, while just behind her stands her Ka (soul) as a pygmy so little that the crown of its head is just on a level with her waist.  The Ka is usually represented as about half the size of an ordinary man. In the Book of the Dead, the Ba, which like the Ka is one of the many separable parts of the soul, is represented as a very little man with wings and bird-like body.

On Greek vases the human soul is depicted as a pygmy issuing from the body through the mouth; and this conception existed among Romans and Teutons.’ Like their predecessors the Egyptians, the Greeks also often represented the soul as a small winged human figure, and Romans, in turn, imagined the soul as a pygmy with butterfly wings. These ideas reappear in mediaeval reliefs and pictures wherein the soul is shown as a child or little naked man going out of the dying person’s mouth;  and, according to Caedmon, who was educated by Celtic teachers, angels are small and beautiful  - quite like good fairies.





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