Believe it or not, faeries were once real, just not in the way you might have imagined.
I’ve always adored fantasy and fairy tales, particularly those about the Fae. The pointy-eared intelligent creatures of Celtic mythology go by many shapes and names, such as Fey, fairies, Fay, Sidhe, Seelie, Tuatha Dé Danann, faeries, changelings, the Good folk, elves etc., but always have one trait in common, that they are essentially other (fey: strange, mysterious or dated: fated to die). Although fairies and spirits are known in all cultures in one form or another, the classic version of the Fae originates from the British Isles, on which I will focus here.
The faeries are often believed to live in another unseen realm, from which they can sneak into ours, through specific gateways or at specific times, such as the solstices. Commonly the myths claim they once freely walked on the mortal plain, but had to retreat to their realm with the onset of Christianity and as I will show you, there is some truth to that. Nowadays, everyone imagines the faeries as beautiful, purely good magical beings, which is largely due to J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, the Celtic revival literary movement and the popularity of the ethereal, beautiful faeries of the Renaissance and Romantic era, as well as in Victorian and Edwardian times in the UK. But, it was not always so.
Even in the Shakespearian era, the Fae encompassed a wide variety of species, which were not always good, but fickle, mischievous and prone to pranks and harmless misdeeds. Very few were considered truly malevolent, although some were, as the tradition of carrying iron for protection was still around during those times. However, going further back in time reveals that faeries were considered evil and dangerous, they were called the Good folk out of respect and to ensure their goodwill. Iron and in later times salt were known to be harmful to the Fae and people would carry an iron protective charm at all times and nail iron horseshoes above their doors.
Faeries would take children and lone travellers during misty nights and if they managed to return from the unseen lands, they were forever changed. Whenever a person went missing, the repercussions were felt in the local folklore and the attitude towards faeries (more here). Encounters with faeries were considered best avoided and places of such encounters would be marked and passed down through the generations. Particularly Neolithic stone structures, mushroom rings and barrow mounds were known for belonging to the Fae and avoided at all costs, especially during the solstices. These beliefs are still alive today as superstitions, particularly in Ireland, where they take their fairy circles very seriously, just in case.
But did the faeries ever truly exist? History says yes, as one of the accepted theories is that a race of diminutive people may have once inhabited the British Isles. At the time of the first settlers from the mainland Europe, the natives were likely still in the Bronze age or earlier in terms of development, while the invaders had already entered the Iron age and fought with iron tools. The belief that faeries cannot survive iron might have come from there, as the natives had no way of producing iron and likely fought only with flint weapons and were thus easily defeated in battle. To this day, Stone age flint arrowheads are considered elf-shots in the Irish and British folklore and it is believed that the natives chose guerilla tactics due to their disadvantage.
Stories passed down from those times describe small, brown-skinned faeries attacking suddenly out of the mists, ambushing or kidnapping the invaders at convenient spots. Since they knew their land very well and apparently also fought quite skilfully, rumours of magic soon began. The notion of faeries retreating back to their hidden realms under the hills is attributed to the small underground dwellings of the natives, who likely also adjusted their clothing to camouflage themselves as much as possible. Despite their best efforts, the natives were soon wiped out by the iron brandishing invaders, although it is believed that they had held out the longest in Ireland. Rumours of faery ambushes resurfaced there during the Roman times and were given flight after the unsuccessful Roman attempts to conquer Ireland, known then as Hibernia.
Whether that is true remains to be determined, as the archaeological evidence is scarce and the theory is based mostly on the few written and oral sources, but for now I choose to believe that at least the Fae might be real, since most of the Druidic lore surrounding the monolithic structures turned out to be a religious hoax from the 1700s. And after all, if the faeries were once real, why not dragons too?