Pictured: a pixie. (Also known as pixy, piskie, piksy, pexy, pigsey, or pigsnye.)
Pixie was originally just the Cornish term for a fairy. The exact etymology is unclear. It's been connected to everything from Picts to Puck. Anna Eliza Bray's A Peep at the Pixies (1854) uses the word for all sorts of fairy beings of varying size and appearance: will o' the wisps, fairy godmothers, brownie-style house elves, and ghostly phantoms.
In modern times, pixie is frequently used for the cute, winged flower-type fairy (like pillywiggins). Disney uses "pixie" and "fairy" interchangeably to describe Tinker Bell's species. Marvel comics has a winged, pink-haired heroine named Pixie. However, I have found some websites and posts passionately declaring that pixies are not meant to have wings.
Anyway, I decided to take a look at the earliest mentions I could find, to try to nail down as much as I can what a pixie was supposed to look like in folklore.
Another creature from English folklore, the colt pixie, takes horse form to lead people astray like a will o' the wisp. "I shall be ready at thine elbow to plaie the parte of Hobgoblin or Collepixie" (The Apophthegmes of Erasmus; trans. Nicolas Udal, c.1564)
As early as 1746, in An Exmoor Scolding, "ye teeheeing pixy!" was used as an insult.(Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 16)
In 1787, in A provincial glossary: with a collection of local proverbs, and popular superstitions, pixy was simply defined as "fairy" and sourced to Exmoor. It also mentioned the Hampshire term "colt-pixy."
The print references to pixies really started to spread in the 1800s. I've mentioned A Peep at the Pixies; there was the English Dialect Dictionary in 1880 and in more detail in 1902; Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology (1892); Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies (1890); Brand's popular antiquities of Great Britain (1905).
But even as they grew popular in literature, writers were already lamenting that "the age of piskays, like that of chivalry, is gone" (Drew, The History of Cornwall, 1824) "Beautiful fictions of our fathers . . . They are flown before the wand of Science!" (Cabinet of Modern Art, 1829).
The general consensus seemed to be that the pixies were little people or elves. In Malvern, as I found it by Timothy Pounce (1858) a character declares that a winged being "could not have been a pixie" (p85). By this period in time, though, people certainly had a concept of winged fairies. In 1867, there is a description of a "pixie court" with wings, in 1921 a poem with a reference to pixie wings, in 1927 a design for a pixie with wings. In 1953, Disney's Peter Pan brought with it Tinker Bell's "pixie dust." It was fairy dust in the original novel.
Going back to the older resources on pixies, in Brand's Popular Antiquities, a pixy child is "human in appearance, though dwarfish in size." Other accounts called them "invisibly small." Many were strange-looking, hairy or animal-like, or dressed in rags, though they had a strong affinity with the color green. They sometimes stole children, and loved dancing and music.
Pixies were laughing and mischievous; they might have been the souls of unbaptized infants. They liked to tangle horses' manes. Pixy-stools were a kind of mushroom - i.e., the pixies used mushrooms as chairs. Similar fungi were pixy-puffs and pisgy-pows (pixies' feet). To be pixy-led was to be led astray by mischievous spirits. To pixy was to glean leftover apples and walnuts after the harvest. (Report and Transactions - The Devonshire Association, 1875)
All together, these descriptions paint an interesting picture. Really, to ask whether pixies should be shown with wings, is to ask whether fairies in general should be winged. I don't think anyone has nailed down the actual point at which people actually began to think of fairies as winged. Right now the earliest I know of is the illustrations for the 1798 edition of The Rape of the Lock. (See also Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog.)
This incomprehensible phrase is most famous for appearing in "Jack the Giant Killer." Most versions adhere to basically the same model:
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he alive or be he dead
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.
What does "fee-fi-fo-fum" actually mean? Nobody knows. Although there have been theories. (Does fie mean a cry of disapproval, as in "Fie! Fie!"? Or does it come from the Gaelic word for "tasty"? I'm leaning towards "neither, just a nonsense phrase.")
When Thomas Nashe mentioned it in Have with you to Saffron-walden (1596), it was already an old saying of obscure origin.
"O, tis a precious apothegmatical Pedant, who will find matter enough to dilate a whole day of the first invention of Fy, fa, fum, I smell the blood of an English-man".
(I have to say, I love that paragraph.)
It also appears in King Lear (1605):
Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.
In 1814, Robert Jamieson's version of Childe Rowland in Illustrations of Northern Antiquities had the Elf-king proclaim,
"With fi, fi, fo, and fum!
I smell the blood of a Christian man!
Be he dead, be he living, wi' my brand
I'll clash his harns frae his harn-pan! " [I'll dash his brains from his brain-pan]
And in Tom Thumb (1621) - on this blog you know it's always going to come back to Tom Thumb - the hero encounters a giant who says,
Now fi, fee, fau, fan,
I feele smell of a dangerous man,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
He grind his bones to make me bread.
So, by 1621, the rhyme was already associated with giants, and the colorfully gruesome idea of bone-meal bread was in existence.
(Tom Thumb, as well as being the first fairytale printed in English, has lots of common fairy tale tropes, such as the fairy godmother.)
So the phrase fee-fi-fo-fum has been around a long time. It first appeared in print in combination with Jack the Giant Killer when that story was printed in 1711.
Regarding Childe Rowland, Jamieson recalled hearing a version in his childhood from a tailor: "the tailor curled up his nose, and sniffed all about, to imitate the action which "fi, fi, fo, fum!" is intended to represent."
So maybe "fee fi fo fum" is meant to be some kind of onomatopoeia for smelling? I don't know how that would work, but I do find the different variations interesting. It looks like it was once more common to have only three syllables instead of four.
Although this phrase is English, there are parallels to monsters detecting people by the smell of their blood in other countries. In Perrault's Popular Tales, Andrew Lang connects this theme to the Furies in Aseschylus' Eumenides.
I found a new Thumbelina! Baratxuri is one of several Basque characters, the only girl among them. She has the typical Thumbling adventures, which is, ironically enough, rare for a female thumbling. She takes food to her father in the field, rides ina donkey's ear, and frightens off thieves.
I found it interesting that her name means "garlic." In that respect, she's the same as Maria como un Ajo, or "Mary like Garlic," from Cantabria in Spain. She has exactly the same adventure as Maria, too.
Here is a quick list of the notable thumbelinas I found:
Draganka or Katsmatsura (Bulgaria)
Doll i' the Grass (Norway)
Nàng Út (Vietnam)
The Little First Man and the Little First Woman (Dakota)
The Daughter of the Laurel Tree (Barcelona)
Ditu Migniulellu (Corsica)
Katanya (a Jewish tale from Turkey)
In comparison to the vast list of male thumblings, this is very short. Finding thumbelinas was part of the reason I started this project. This is why I get so excited when I find a new one.
Thumbelinas are much more likely to fall into other tale types, like the Animal Bride tale type. I think their scarcity says something about these cultures; when the childless couple prays for a child it is quite often specifically a son that they ask for. Female thumblings are also more likely to grow to full size, like the Japanese Kaguya-hime.
If you're a fan of King Lindworm and other beastly bridegroom tales, check out Jenny Prater's blog Halfway to Fairyland. I've been enjoying it.
Now, on to the analysis!
Little Shell is a tale from the people of the Visayan Islands, one of the three main divisions of the Philippines. Retold by Elizabeth Hough Sechrist, it's a unique variation on the Thumbling tale, but still has many recognizable elements.
The story begins like many thumbling stories. A man and a woman, after many prayers, have a son no bigger than a seashell. When he grows a little older, the boy - known as Little Shell - begs his mother to allow him to go out on his own and work.
He crawls into a woman's fish basket and shouts, "Run! Run!" Thinking that her fish have been bewitched, the frightened woman runs off, allowing Little Shell to make his exit with one of her fish, which he takes home to his mother. He plays a similar trick on an old man carrying a cow's head (cow's heads have good meat on them). Hearing Little Shell shouting, the old man thinks that the cow's spirit has returned to haunt him, and flees.
Little Shell asks his mother to go to the chief or headman, and request the hand of his daughter in marriage. Although the headman immediately refuses, his daughter agrees to the union. Shell's mother is astonished; the headman is furious, and Shell and the princess are forced to flee. They live together, but are unhappy in exile.
However, after one week, Little Shell grows to normal size. It turns out he was enchanted by an evil spirit at birth, and the princess's love has broken the spell. They return home, the headman is ashamed of his behavior, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Sechrist drew this story from "The Enchanted Shell," which appeared in Visayan Folk-tales, II, in the Journal of American Folk-Lore in 1907. These folktales were prepared by researchers Berton L. Maxfield and W. H. Millington during their stay in the Visayan Islands. They collected them in Spring 1904, on the island of Panay. Teachers and students at schools in Iloilo and Mandurriao contributed stories.
"The Enchanted Shell" has some minor differences. Rather than telling the woman to "Run! Run!" Shell tells her "Rain! Rain!" There is also a specific location named - "a desert place called Cahana-an." Specific location names are always interesting.
The phrasing is a little confusing; Maxfield and Millington's Shell is "very small, and just like a shell," and at some points he's referred to simply as "the shell." It seems Sechrist adapted this as she felt best. However, thumbling characters can be small animals or objects. The enchanted shell does several things typical to a thumbling story. He's born as the result of a hasty wish; he goes out to do work despite his small size; he's a trickster; he climbs into an animal's ear. It's possible some aspects of this story came from European colonizers. I do think it's important to note that Maxfield and Millington say that all of the stories they published were very widespread in the Visayan islands, and everyone seemed to know them.
The revelation about an enchantment seems to come from nowhere, almost as if there's a part of the tale which has been lost. The romance plot, on the other hand, reminds me of Issun-Boshi and the Japanese family of thumbling tales. Japan and the Philippines have had relations for centuries, with trading going back at least to the 1600s and to the Muromachi period. Issun-Boshi and Little Shell could perhaps share roots.
The Living Head, another Visayan tale, is very similar - at least at the beginning. Here, the childless couple produces not a shell or a tiny baby, but a disembodied head. The head, imaginatively named Head, sees the chief's daughter and falls in love with her. He sends his mother to ask for the princess's hand in marriage. Like Little Shell and his mother, they argue back and forth, but the mother finally goes to ask the chief. However, in this case, she gets a solid no. When Head hears the news, he begins to sink into the ground. His mother calls him to dinner, but he only cries, "Sink! Sink! Sink!" He disappears into the ground, and from that spot grows the first orange tree.
A final relevant tale from the Philippines is the Bagobo tale "The Woman and the Squirrel." The Bagobo people live in southeastern Mindanao. This story was collected in 1907; collector Laura Watson Benedict noted that the myths were specifically those that hadn't been recorded yet, they were told in mixed English and Bagobo, and they were collected from "Mount Merar in the district of Talun, and at Santa Cruz on the coast."
A woman drinks some water from a leaf. She goes home and falls asleep for nine days, and when she wakes up and begins to comb her hair, a baby squirrel emerges from it. This type of unusual conception is not unusual in fairytales (see Nang Ut and the Miraculous Birth).
The squirrel grows to maturity and a week, and tells his mother that he wants to marry the chief's daughter. Despite her protests, he sends her off to the chief's house with nine necklaces and nine rings as a dowry. She chickens out and comes back without asking, so the squirrel bites her (!). Finally, she makes her request. In response, the chief tells her that he wants his entire house turned to gold. She relays this to her son the squirrel.
That night, the squirrel goes out and calls to his brother, the Mouse. The "great Mouse" has golden fur, and his eyes are glass. He gives the squirrel a bit of his fur, which the squirrel uses to turn the sultan's house and possessions completely into gold. When the chief wakes up and sees that his impossible request has been granted, he dies of shock. The squirrel then marries the princess, and after a year, he takes off his skin and becomes a handsome young man.
"The Enchanted Shell," "The Living Head," and "The Woman and the Squirrel" form a tale family of their own, with a romantic aspect that runs through all three stories. A woman gives birth to a small and monstrous son, who sets out to marry the daughter of a chief. Whether he succeeds or not - that's another story.
Another thumbling figure from the Philippines is Carancal, a Young Giant-type character who is born only one span tall. That, however, is a very different tale.
Niraidak is a tale from Siberia, told by the Evenks. This is probably one of my favorite Thumbling tales. The main character is actually larger than a thumb, but the word "thumbling" can be used for small characters in general, including characters who are one span high, or the size of a bird, or what have you. "Tough Little Niraidak" is included in Margaret Read MacDonald's Tom Thumb book and in Irina Zheleznova's folktale collection Northern Lights.
The story takes place at the beginning of time, when the sky was still being woven. On the island lives a tiny man named Niraidak. Where he came from, the tale doesn't explain.
"A squirrel to him was as big as a fox to an ordinary man, a doe as big as a moose, and the tiniest bird as big as an eagle."
It seems like he's closer to the size of a baby than the size of a thumb. In this respect, he's more similar to the Native American child-sized heroes Boy-Man and Tshakapesh (see blog posts here and here). However, his small size is a major part of the story and there are many descriptions of his clothes and so on. This is one of my benchmarks for whether a tale is a thumbling story or not. His tent is made of rose willow twigs and squirrel skins, his gloves are made from mouse skin, his hat from a mole skin, and his coat from two sable skins. For reference, sables are 15-22 inches long.
Niraidak is totally alone except for his steed, a small hornless deer. He survives by hunting. Hunting was the traditional livelihood of the Evenki people, as well as herding reindeers for riding, carrying packs, and milking. I believe Niraidak's deer is a Siberian musk deer, which grows tusks instead of antlers. Musk deers are an endangered species, and adults weigh from 15 to 37 pounds and stand 20-28 inches at the shoulder.
Since Niraidak has no one to compare himself to, he gradually begins to believe that he must be the biggest and strongest person in the world. Eventually, he decides to do three things: see how other people live, fight a giant, and marry the most beautiful woman in the world. He summons the deer and tells it to turn into a flying, fire-breathing boar.
Apparently it can do this.
So he rides off on his flying boar (formerly a deer). First, they set out to see how other people live. In Zheleznova's version, the boar tramples everyone they come across, while Niraidak takes no notice; MacDonald leaves this out. Eventually, they come across a massive giant named Dioloni, or "man of stone." (The Evenk word for stone is d'olo.) When this happens, you might expect a fight similar to that in David and Goliath or Jack the Giant Killer. Niraidak certainly does.
However, when the giant notices Niraidak (whose stealthy approach has been impeded by tripping on a twig), he picks him up. The giant seems fairly benevolent, but Niraidak is ready to fight.
“I am the great Niraidak,” the little man squeaked. “I have no fear of you, Dioloni the Giant. Beware, for I am going to slay you.”
He then begins screaming and jumping up and down in order to intimidate his foe. The giant, understandably, just thinks this is hilarious, and puts Niraidak in his pocket. Niraidak decides to cut his losses, crawls out, and flies off on his boar again with a final boast: “Take care, Dioloni the Giant, next time I’ll skin you and crush your bones to dust!”
They travel on to a camp "where the most beautiful women in the world lived." Apparently all the women hear Niraidak's bragging (or maybe see his magic boar) and are quite impressed, because they quickly line up to take their chances.
Niraidak picks out the most beautiful one and takes her home on his boar. However, he immediately realizes that his tent (made of three squirrel skins, remember) is far too small for his new wife, a normal-sized woman. He builds a new one that will fit her (which to him, of course, is incredibly spacious). Then he goes to fish, and comes back bearing a massive load of twenty-five fishes, so much that he can't carry them all and has to ask his wife for help. She's excited at first, but when she actually sees his catch, is outraged. They're nothing but minnows!
She eats them, but still feels hungry and begins to scream at Niraidak. In response, he tells her to lie down, puts a rock on her belly so she won't feel hungry, and heads into the woods.
While he's gone, the wife starts reconsidering her life choices. So: "off she went to a village where there lived strong and considerate men who did not refuse their wives anything they asked."
For his part, Niraidak isn't particularly upset to find his wife gone; now he has a big tent all to himself, and no one's screaming at him about food. So he lives happily ever after.
This short, straightforward tale is full of parody. I particularly like the bit about the "strong and considerate men."
Niraidak is both perpetually cheerful and filled with delusions of grandeur. He is a fierce hunter in his own mind, unable to grasp that he is really the weakest person around. His feats are impressive only from his own skewed perspective. (Well, except for the transforming fire-breathing boar.)
Niraidak sets out to complete three tasks, but none of them go quite the way he expects. They turn out more as embarrassments than triumphs. He remains upbeat, but never seems to mature or gain any self-awareness. As he sneaks off from Dioloni, he still boldly threatens him. After his wife leaves, he happily takes up his old life again. He doesn't change.
Thumbelina, or Tommelise, was first published in 1835. An author may be inspired by many things, not all of them obvious. One theory is that the character of Thumbelina was inspired by a close friend of Hans Christian's Andersen's: Hanne Henriette Wulff, known to friends as Jette (1804 -1858).
Andersen considered the Wullfs close family friends. The oldest daughter of the family, Henriette was tiny, frail, and slightly hunchbacked. She became one of Andersen's most faithful penpals, and their letters are one of the main sources of information about his life. She also helped translate some of his work to English. They seem to have had a close platonic relationship, and Andersen would portray her in his autobiography as almost his muse. The theory that she inspired Thumbelina is seen in works such as Opie's Classic Fairy Tales (1974) and Houselander's Guilt (1951).
Many of Andersen's fairytales were inspired by older folklore, and there was a wealth of thumbling stories that he surely drew on for Thumbelina. Tom Thumb was famous, of course; there were also the Thumbling stories of the Brothers Grimm collection, and Danish variants such as Tommeliden or Svend Tomling. Thumbelina's opening sequence, with the lonely woman longing for a child, could be straight out of one of these tales.
There were plenty of other works containing tiny people which could have inspired Andersen. As listed by Diana and Jeffrey Frank, Andersen would have been familiar with Gulliver's Travels (1726), Micromégas by Voltaire (1752), and E.T.A. Hoffmann's works "Meister Floh" (1822) and "Prinzessin Brambilla" (1820).
The image of a tiny girl also appeared in Andersen's previous work and first real literary success, A Journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of Amager (1828).
According to the Franks, there is no evidence that Thumbelina was based on Henriette.
They do suggest, however, that the character of the learned but literally and metaphorically blind mole was inspired by Andersen's former teacher, Simon Meisling. Meisling was a short, overweight man who apparently did look somewhat like a mole. He repeatedly told Andersen that he would never make it as an author, calling him a stupid boy.
SurLaLune also compares Thumbelina's beautiful singing voice to that of Andersen's friend, the famous singer Jenny Lind. Andersen and Lind met in 1843.
In Hans Christian Andersen's Interest in Music, Gustav Hetsch and Theodore Baker assert that Lind inspired "The Nightingale," "The Angel," and "Beneath the Pillar."
Another biographer, Carole Rosen, suggested in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that Lind inspired "The Ugly Duckling" and that her rebuffing of Andersen's affections influenced the icy-hearted Snow Queen. That last one is kind of a leap.
The tale that is most likely connected to Lind is "The Nightingale." The Franks mention that right after Andersen saw her perform and visited Tivoli Gardens, which had an "Asian fantasy motif," he started the Nightingale and made note of it in his diary. He finished the story in two days (pg 139). Afterwards, as Lind grew world-famous, she was known by the nickname "The Swedish Nightingale."
The Franks also say that Andersen's bleak tale "The Shadow" was aimed at a friend named Edvard Collin who had snubbed him years before (pg 16).
Andersen undoubtedly drew on his experiences and the people around him for inspiration. It's entirely possible that aspects of the mole were inspired by Simon Meisling, some part of Thumbelina by Henriette Wulff, or the sweet song of the Nightingale by Jenny Lind. However, a lot of that has to remain speculation.
As for more on Henriette Wulff: she loved travelling and the sea, visiting such places as Italy, the West Indies, and the United States. After her parents' death, she lived with her brother until he died of yellow fever. She returned to Denmark, but strongly considered emigrating permanently to America, where her brother was buried.
In 1858, she embarked for New York on the SS Austria. Twelve days after her departure, on September 13, there was an accident with fumigation equipment, and the ship's deck burst into flames. Passengers leaped into the sea to escape the roaring fire that engulfed the entire ship. Out of the 542 people aboard, 449 perished. Henriette was among the dead. In a poem dedicated to her, a grieving Andersen called her sister.
I have a few pages, including "The Little Folk," "List of Fairies," and "The Denham Tracts," related to fairy lore. They're a work in progress. I've found that sources are often hard to sort through. A small superstition from one area can easily bloat and transform into a supposedly famous Europe-wide tradition. Mistakes are repeated as fact until the real facts are forgotten.
For one example: hyter sprites are mentioned in a few encyclopedias as small fairies with sand-colored skin and green eyes, who are protective of children and, most notably, can transform into sand martins. The most well-known source for these was Katherine Briggs' Encyclopedia of Faeries (1973), based on an account by folklorist Ruth Tongue.
In 1984, Daniel Allen Rabuzzi wrote an article, “In Pursuit of Norfolk's Hyter Sprites," trying to chase down the original tradition. When he interviewed natives of Norfolk, he found no tradition of little werebird fairies. Instead, the phrase hyter, hikey or highty sprite was an idiom or nickname, most frequently used for a bogeyman ("Don't go out after dark or the hikey sprites will get you!") Everyone imagined them differently. One account described them as human-sized, batlike, threatening figures. Also, it turns out that although Ruth Tongue was a wonderful storyteller, she may have straight-up invented a lot of the stories she "collected."
A class of fae similar to hyter sprites are "pillywiggins," tiny spring flower fairies in English and Welsh folklore. They have wings and antennae like insects. Though protective of their garden habitats, they are peaceful creatures who (unlike most fairies) don't bother much with humans or pranks. They live in groups, ride on bees, and their queen is named Ariel.
At least, that's what you'd gather from the handful of books that mention them.
I should mention that many of these books are terrible at citations. Many of them don't cite anything, they just have one giant bibliography with no way to tell what came from where. Dubois's book is rife with misspellings, and Bane's with mistakes and misattributions.
It looks like Dubois and McCoy were both elaborating on the brief description of Fairies & Elves, with very fanciful entries of their own. I have not found any supporting evidence for McCoy's "Queen Ariel." Here, McCoy actually seems to have cribbed from Shakespeare's Tempest (1610).
McCoy's pillywiggins are bee-riding spring fairies, and her Queen Ariel "often rides bats, and is blonde and very seductive. She wears a thin, transparent garment of white, sleeps in a bed of cowslip, and can control the winds. She cannot speak, but communicates in beautiful song."
Compare The Tempest, where a spirit named Ariel sings,
Where the bee sucks, there suck I.
In a cowslip’s bell I lie.
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
Still, later writers cited Dubois' and McCoy's work as folklore fact. Bane's encyclopedia of folklore and mythology has an entry on pillywiggins based on McCoy's description. Pillywiggin queen Ariel appears in the novels Buttercup Baby by Karen Fox (2001) and Alexander of Teagos by Paula Porter (2010).
In 1986, a UK-published My Little Pony comic featured pillywiggins as non-winged flower fairies. It was apparently written for Wayne and Claire of Hanham, Bristol.
There is an extensive article on pillywiggins on the French Wikipedia. But these are supposed to be English fairies - why is there more on them in French than in English? Even the talk page raises questions about this, besides pointing out that all sources are very recent and do not point to pillywiggins being a part of tradition.
The most recent edit, by Tsaag Valren on June 6, 2011 says,
"...after a week of research, seeing that I could find nothing more, I asked Pierre Dubois himself how he got his sources. He told me broadly that he wrote from popular English songs and discussions. As for the other works on the fairies, in general they repeat themselves: pillywiggin is the fairy of flowers, and not much more!"
Although they've gained a tiny foothold into literature, I have yet to find the word pillywiggin recorded in anything before the 1970s. This is in stark contrast to other British and Welsh fairies such as pixies and brownies, which were first described hundreds of years ago, and which have variations in many different places. There could certainly be an oral tradition of pillywiggins going way back, but in that area of the world, it seems unlikely that it would have escaped notice.
I can only track the name itself back to Arrowsmith's Field Guide to the Little People. It mentions pillywiggins briefly, in a list of other tiny fairies, and says they're from Dorset. My research into Dorset folklore has not yet discovered any mention of pillywiggins. Arrowsmith's bibliography lacks details, so it's hard to say where she found this information. She also mentions Ruth Tongue's hyter sprites, which as already noted, have a shaky basis in folklore.
However, there are plenty of traditions of fairies being related to oak trees and plants including bluebells, thyme and foxgloves. Oak trees have magical qualities in British lore, and there's an old poem with the line "Puck is busy in these oakes." Many other plants were named for fairies. Foxgloves in particular are often connected to fairies and witches. For instance, the Welsh ellyllon are “pigmy elves” who wear foxgloves on their hands.
The idea of miniature fairies goes at least as far back as the description of the one-inch-tall portunes in Gervase of Tilbury's Otia Imperiale, around the year 1210. Around 1595, A Midsummer Night's Dream gave us fairies who have power over nature, crawl into acorn cups and hang the dew in flowers. In 1835, Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina emerged from a flowerbud and later encountered flower spirits with fly's wings. In the first half of the 20th century, Cicely Mary Barker's illustrations and Queen Mary's interests truly popularized the idea of tiny, benevolent flower fairies.
As it happens, Pillywiggin does sound a lot like another fairy name: Pigwiggin or Pigwidgeon. You might recognize this word as the name of a pet owl in the Harry Potter series. It is a name for a tiny, insignificant creature. There are lots of different theories on its etymology, but Pigwiggin became famous as the name of a fairy knight in the 1627 poem Nymphidia. From there, pigwidgeon emerged as an obscure name for a miniature fairy or dwarf.
The English Parnassus (1657, Josua Poole) includes a list of Oberon and Mab's courtiers, including "Periwiggin, Periwinckle, Puck." This is based on Nymphidia with some misspellings. This textual error could be an important clue. Maybe pillywiggin, like periwiggin, is just a misspelling of Pigwiggin. From there, it was picked up by other researchers and took on a life of its own.
I will say that Pillywiggin is a fun name, and I don't really mind using it for the modern flower fairy. For the moment, my search has come to an end, but I will be keeping an eye out for further clues. If you have any insight on this subject, let me know!
In a lot of modern stories, iron is fairies' kryptonite. Their silver bullet. All the hero has to do is whip out a cast-iron skillet, and evil sprites cower.
It's often explained as iron having natural anti-magic qualities, or symbolizing the march of industrialization and the fading of magic. Or any other of a billion explanations.
For further confusion, it's not just iron. It's "cold" iron. The phrase can be baffling to modern readers, and for maximum confusion there actually is such a thing as cold-wrought iron. However, cold-wrought iron is newer than the phrase "cold iron," which in this case is poetic. "Cold steel" is the modern equivalent and simply means a weapon that to draws blood (Current Literature, 1891).
Where did this originate? It's just one of those folkways that can never be sourced to any one person, and always seems to have been "well, everyone knows it." However, you can trace it back through history to an xtent.
In Robert Herrick's "Another charme for stables" (1648), the reader is told to hang up metal hooks and shears to protect their horses from being ridden at night by witches.
In 1691, Robert Kirk wrote that "The Tramontanes, to this day, put bread, the Bible, or a piece of iron, in womens bed" to prevent newborn children from being stolen by fairies; and "they commonly report, that all uncouth, unknown Wights are terrifyed by nothing earthly so much as by cold Iron."
So the phrase and the tradition date back at least to the 1600's. The iron seems to be more popular than the bread as a popular way to repel fairies. I guess it's just not as exciting to send your hero into battle wielding a baguette.
The superstition of leaving iron in the bed to prevent fairies kidnapping expectant mothers continued over the centuries. Thus, the way to protect children from being replaced by changelings was usually to leave open scissors, a knife, fire tongs, or a similar object near their cradle.
Around 1850, in Northern mythology by Benjamin Thorpe, a story is related where a smith sees a troll kidnapping a pregnant woman. Since the smith is working at his forge, he uses a piece of red-hot iron to frighten off the troll.
In other stories in the same volume, trolls and huldra seem to have no trouble with iron. And, like, most people don't want to be chased with red-hot iron. That's not just a magical creature thing.
However, there is also a mention of a Danish tradition that "On the eve of Maundy Thursday the country folks cast axes and iron wedges on the sown fields, and fasten steel on all their doors, that the witches may not injure them."
In the Ozarks, there were many traditions surrounding iron nails. They could be nailed into someone's footprint - either to hurt an enemy, or a witch. They could be used to prevent disease, or they could be driven into a doorframe, which was particularly effective in protecting (again) pregnant women from evil. These practices were recorded around 1947.
So these superstitious practices surrounding iron are surprisingly long-lived. Right into the 20th century! On the other hand, they also go back further than I originally realized.
In Natural History, Book XXXIV, Chapter 44, Pliny the Elder mentioned that iron was used both in medicine and in preventative magic.
"Iron is employed in medicine for other purposes besides that of making incisions. For if a circle is traced with iron, or a pointed weapon is carried three times round them, it will preserve both infant and adult from all noxious influences: if nails, too, that have been extracted from a tomb, are driven into the threshold of a door, they will prevent night-mare."
There is much more about iron and magnets besides this, but this quote alone establishes a history for iron as having magical protective properties.
And that was around 79 AD!
So at first, it was simply that iron could protect and heal people. Actually, some of the superstitions in Pliny - like iron having healing properties, or the idea of driving nails into a door - were still pretty current in the Ozarks almost 1900 years later.
It's easy to see how it could go from "iron protects from evil" to "iron protects from sickness, evil spirits, witches, and fairies" which were all kind of interchangeable at that point. Many of the superstitions center around vulnerable groups, like pregnant women and small infants.
A Victorian theory is that the first iron found was from meteorites, which would give it an otherworldly and sacred meaning as something that had fallen from the heavens. However, that's speculation.
Iron is a hard and durable metal with the possibility of becoming magnetized. There are beliefs about it and evidence of it being used in amulets and charms for about as long as iron has existed. It was seen as pure or impure by different groups. There were quite a few superstitions surrounding blacksmiths, as well; blacksmiths having healing abilities or, in Scotland, being allowed to perform marriages; and there were gods who were smiths, like the Greek Hephaestus.
There are more esoteric explanations, like iron being seen as the lifeforce of the earth, or associated with lifeforce because blood smells like iron.
There are superstitions associated with every substance known to humankind. There are some negative superstitions associated with iron, too. This one just happens to be the most well-known.
Fairy tales are obsessed with hunger. There’s Thumbling, Jonah, Red Riding Hood, and Zeus's siblings, all gulped up only to emerge unharmed one way or another. In many stories, In stories from all over the world, parents threaten their children that some boogeyman will gobble them up if they don't behave.
In Hop o' my Thumb, the ogre hungers for the flesh of children. In Jack and the Beanstalk, the giant chants "I smell the blood of an Englishman . . . I'll grind his bones to break my bread." These man-eating giants hearken back to monsters such as Polyphemus in the Odyssey. Hansel and Gretel's witch is the same character. The evil queen desires to eat Snow White's heart. In Perrault's Sleeping Beauty, the second half features the heroine's mother-in-law attempting to eat her and her children cooked with sauce piquante.
And on the other hand there are stories where people are tricked into eating human flesh, especially the flesh of their loved ones - as in The Juniper Tree and some older versions of Red Riding Hood. In the Vietnamese story of Tấm and Cám and the Greek myth of Philomela, it's the hero tricking the villain into cannibalism.
There's one theory that the frequently-digested Thumbling is a story related to how children process the concept of pregnancy and childbirth.
This motif of being eaten and escaping appears in other tales, like Red Riding Hood and The Seven Kids.
Earlier theories suggested Red Riding Hood was a myth-like tale of rebirth, with the girl as the sun and the wolf as the night. That school of thought has now been largely discarded, and it's more popular to read it in sexual terms, perhaps as the devourer eating a lover in order to possess her completely. Hunger in fairytales is often a stand-in for sexual desires.
There are other factors behind the stories, though. I think it's partly ancestral fear, the fear of a bigger predator snatching you from your cave.
It could also be a way to face the taboo. In the 1997 article “Incest in Indo-European Folktales,” D.L. Ashliman points out that “many fairy tales owe their longevity to an ability to address tabooed subjects in a symbolic manner."
So, along with stories containing abuse or incest, there are stories like The Juniper Tree where people, even parental figures, turn to cannibalism.
Perhaps this is also where the heroes taking harsh revenge come from. In a story, you can dance the villain to death in red-hot iron shoes or send her hurtling down the street in a barrel lined with nails.
There are some beliefs that eating your enemy - usually in a ritualized ceremony - will give you his strength, courage or life force.
The Iroquois and Aztecs would do this with prisoners of war. The Sawi (Sawuy) people of New Guinea would give the victim's name, and thus his life force, to one of the villagers.
In Tanzania and other areas of Africa, some superstitions hold that albinos are magical and their bodyparts can be used in talismans or potions.
In Europe, human fat, flesh, blood and bones were consumed in medicines until around 1750.
Consuming the life force would be the goal of Snow White's evil queen, who seeks to eat her stepdaughter's heart and once again be the fairest in the land. Similarly, in Norse mythology, eating a dragon's heart gives Sigurd the power of prophecy.
Civilization vs. Barbarism
In The Irresistible Fairytale, Jack Zipes says, “Almost all cultures have cannibalistic ogres and giants or dragons and monsters that threaten a community. Almost all cultures have tales in which a protagonist goes on a quest to combat a ferocious savage. The quest or combat tale is undertaken in the name of civilization or humanity against the forces of voracity or uncontrolled appetite.” (page 8.)
In The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, Zipes says something along the same lines: "Though each one of the Tom Thumb tales differs, they all focus on the same major concerns of The Odyssey as discussed by Adorno and Horkheimer: self-preservation and self-advancement through the use of reason to avoid being swallowed up by the appetite of unruly natural forces."
This describes the quests of Hop o' my Thumb, Jack, Gretel, and others. All three of these tales begin with families in extreme poverty, on the verge of starvation.
They begin with the hungry parents doing the unthinkable and abandoning their children in order to keep more food for themselves. Hunger thwarts the heroes again when birds eat their breadcrumb trail. Finally, they face a force trying to devour them. The tale reaches its happy ending when the heroes succeed, and in many cases even turn the monster's tools against them.
This website is based on my research into folklore.