Fairy (variously derived from the Celtic, faer, "to charm;" Old English, fere, "a companion;" from faran, "to go;" Persian, peri; Arab. feri; but probably rather from the Lat. fatum, through the mediaeval fatare, "to enchant;" the French faer, thence faerie, "illusion"), an illusory or imaginary being, properly female, of supernatural but limited power, common to the popular belief of most European countries. The fay of romance resembles the Greek nymph, generally represented as a damsel of almost angelic loveliness, who seduced knights into enchanted isles and palaces. Fairy- land was supposed to be sometimes underground, at others amid wildernesses, or even in the ocean. The English sprite, or male fairy, Shakespeare's Puck, called "Robin Goodfellow," corresponds to the German "Knecht Ruprecht," the Scotch " brownie," and the French "esprit folet," or "gobelin" (goblin), and the Cornish "pixy." SEE ELF.
Everything known of fairies in the way of sayings and fables came from the Romance people. There were at first only three of these beings, but soon their number swelled to seven, and later to thirteen. Since their number was seven, these are six good and one evil, likewise later twelve good, the thirteenth evil. This, probably, is a result of the influence of Christianity, which sought to bring the fairies, as heathen deities, therefore spirits of darkness, into disrepute, which, however, could not be accomplished at once. They are spoken of as superhuman, long-lived female beings, sometimes good, sometimes bad; the former adorned with all the charms of body and spirit, exceedingly beautiful and young, perfect mistresses of all female arts, and ever ready to help: the down-trodden, to lead the lost in the right path, by their gift of sorcery to make the impossible possible; and to use this power as becomes the perfect will of a divine being. The evil fairies are the opposite, but have no power to undo the work of other similar beings. In the French Pyrenees it is believed that if flax be laid on the threshold of a fairy grotto, they immediately change it into the finest thread. On New Year's day the fairies visit the houses whose inmates believe in them, and bring fortune in their right hand and misfortune in their left. In a room a table is spread for them, a white cloth on it, a loaf of bread, with a knife, a white shell full of water or wine, and a candle. The windows and doors are then thrown open, and he who shows the greatest hospitality may hope for a rich harvest, but he who neglects this duty may fear the greatest disasters. On New Year's morning the family surround the table, the father breaks the bread and distributes it, whereupon it is eaten as breakfast; then all wish each other a happy New Year. In the Highlands of Scotland it is thought dangerous to speak out the name of a fairy on the mountains which they inhabit. The fairies are able assistants at births; therefore they are often taken as god-parents, and a place is reserved for them at the table. In FrancheComte there is known a Fee Arie, who appears at country festivals during the harvesting season, and rewards the diligent reapers; she drops fruit from the trees for good children, and during the Christmas season she distributes nuts and cake, similar to the German Frau Holda. Again, the fairies appear as giant maidens, carrying huge rocks on their heads and in their aprons, while with the other hand they turn the spindle. On Saturdays the power of the fairies leaves them; they therefore take all kinds of forms on this day, and try to elude the gaze of all eyes. They can hide in a tree, in a horse, in a sword, in a mantle, and this is the origin of the belief that such things are "gefeyt," that is, possessed of a fairy.
For the literature of the subject see Shakespeare, Midsummer Night's Dream; Perrault, Contes de mi Mere l'Oye (1697); Keightly, Fairy Mythology (Lond. 1860); and Scott's writings.