Hybrids and Half-Fairies
Is there such a thing in folklore as a fairy-human hybrid? What would they be called? What traits would they inherit? Or would they inheirt only one parent’s nature?
In Gilbert and Sullivahn's comic opera Iolanthe (1882), the hero is half-fairy . . . literally, with an immortal upper half but human legs. There are some problems. In a mid-nineteenth-century music hall song, "The Keeper of the Eddystone Light," the union of a man and a mermaid produces two fish and the narrator of the song. More seriously, the protagonist of Eloise McGraw's 1996 novel The Moorchild, is a half-fae with both human and "moorfolk" characteristics. But these are more modern spins.
In fact, there is a basis in legend. In a widespread tale type, a human man encounters a beautiful woman whose species varies from story to story. She may be a fairy, a mermaid, a selkie, a swan maiden, or a Yuki-Onna. Or maybe it’s a human woman who meets an otherworldly man: a fairy knight, an incubus, a god, a prince cursed into bear form… etc. When the human spouse breaks some taboo, the otherworldly spouse flees. Lucky humans go on a quest and have a chance to win them back. Unlucky humans pine away, alone for the rest of their lives. But either way, quite often the couple has produced at least one child.
I’m going to count mermaids among fairies here. Mermaids are essentially water fairies, and half the time when a man takes a fairy bride, she is somehow connected to water.
Otherworldly Hybrids in Mythology
The idea of a human/nonhuman hybrid is not new. Half-gods abound in Greek mythology. However, most are skilled warriors with no supernatural powers. The half-god Achilles gains invulnerability not through genetics, but through a ritual performed by his mother. A few, like Dionysus, are born as full gods. Heracles is an outlier, a human with super-strength, who ultimately becomes a full god. Over in Ireland, Cu Chulainn is the son of a god and a human woman. There are legends that Abe no Seimei of Japan was the son of a human and a kitsune named Kuzunoha, and that he inherited from his mother traits that made him a powerful magician. Similarly, in Arthurian legend Merlin the magician was supposed to derive his abilities from his parentage as the son of a human woman and a demon or spirit.
According to Jacob Grimm in Teutonic Mythology, vol. 3 "From the Devil's commerce with witches proceeds no human offspring, but elvish beings, which are named dinger (things...), elbe, holden" who appear as butterflies, bumblebees, caterpillars, or worms. Grimm describes the holden acting as spirit familiars to aid the witches in their mischief.
Nephilim, or giants, appear in the Bible as offspring of “the sons of God” and “the daughters of man.” Plenty of people have made much of this, suggesting that the Nephilim were born of angels with human women. I’ve also run into the idea that they were the offspring of God’s followers with pagan women.
Throughout history, descent from a god and, later, descent from a fairy could be a bragging point, especially for rulers. In a tale from India, a man lures a solitary girl known as "the daughter of the god Shillong" from her cave dwelling to marry her. She escapes him, as fairy brides always do, but, the people of the area hail their children as "god kings." (Folk Tales of Assam)
Option one: Offspring of humans with fairies are all human
The 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus wrote about "undines" - feminine water-spirits who might take human husbands in order to gain their own souls. Any children of such a union, Paracelsus adds, will be human beings, because they inherit souls from their human fathers.
There are numerous ballads and lais where women have children with "fairy knights." Sir Degare is the offspring of one such pairing, but doesn't seem overtly otherworldly. Similarly, the Yuki-onna of Japan may have children with a human husband in her stories, but they don't have any apparent tendencies towards ice and snow.
Such unions could produce whole clans. In Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, John Rhys recounts a number of overlapping fairy bride tales. A fairy named Penelope or Penelop was the ancestress of the Pelling clan. A fairy named Bella was the ancestress of the Bellisians. A fairy’s daughter with a human, known as Pelisha, began the family known as Bellis, who hated to be reminded of their fairy ancestry, and frequently got into brawls on the subject. Another term was Belsiaid. The names suggest that these are all the same story heard from different sources.
Option two: offspring show otherworldly traits
Even if some half-fairy knights like Sir Degare show no overt fairy characteristics, that is not always the rule. In the medieval lai of Tydorel (whose name I keep reading as Ti-D-Bol), the titular character is the son of a fairy knight and a human queen. Tydorel's otherworldly origins are shown by his inability to sleep. A man who cannot sleep, the lai tells us, is not human.
This tale had a darker counterpart in the story of Merlin, as well as those of Sir Gowther and Robert the Devil, whose fathers were demons. In these cases, their heritage makes them evil, but can be overcome.
The original Oberon, in the tales of Huon of Bordeaux, was depicted as the son of Julius Caesar and a fairy woman sometimes identified as Morgan le Fay. So this Oberon is actually half fairy! But his otherworldly appearance - small size and incredible beauty - is not an inborn trait, but the result of a curse. He does do a lot of magical stuff, though, and is king over the fairy realm.
According to Irish lore, Geróid 'Iarla was the son of the Earl of Desmond, who fell in love with the water-goddess-like Aine n'Chliar when he met her on the lake. It was a typical fairy bride marriage, but in this case, the taboo was that the Earl must never express wonder at his son's abilities. Geróid was able to leap in and out of a bottle. When his father exclaimed at it, Geróid immediately went to the lake, transformed into a goose, and swam away. There was another connected story where Geroid took a wife himself, and she also had to abide by taboos.
This is a legend which grew up around the historical figure of Garrett, fourth Earl of Desmond, who is supposed to have disappeared in 1398. The collector, David Fitzgerald, also mentions a possible connected legend that the Fitzgeralds are web-footed, hinting at the idea that the descendants of a fairy marriage have bird characteristics.
Jeremiah Curtin collected a tale, "Tom Moore and the Seal Woman," which ends with the mention of the fairy's children: "All the five children that she left had webs between their fingers and toes, half-way to the tips." However, this trait decreased with successive generations. In an equivalent tale recounted by Thomas Keightley, the children of a human and a sea-maiden "retained no vestiges of their marine origin, saving a thin web between their fingers, and a bend of their hands, resembling that of the fore paws of a seal; distinctions which characterise the descendants of the family to the present day."
As far as fairy wives go, Melusine possibly takes the lead as the most prolific childbearer. She bore her husband ten sons, eight of whom had strange appearances.
Bear in mind that Melusine herself is half-fairy! Her story is full of repetitions and layers. Her experience with her husband is foreshadowed by that of her mother, the fairy Pressyne, and a human king. Both Melusine and Geroid are examples of a child of a fairy bride and a human who take after their fairy parent - so much so that they repeat the story in the next generation.
Melusine's mother Pressyne bore triplet girls, which in that time would have been scandalous, hinting at marital infidelity. However, like Oberon, Melusine wasn't born with her visible fairy qualities; her form as a half-serpent creature is the result of a curse. She must marry a human, who must keep to certain rules, in order to break it. Some scholars have suggested that her sons' deformities are also created by that curse. In some versions, her youngest sons are apparently human, indicating that her curse has been fading over the years. This makes it all the more tragic when her husband fails her and she loses her chance at humanity.
Sometimes fairies carried humans off to marry them, and their children would then presumably be half-fairies. in the German tale of "The Changeling of Spornitz," the little people or "Mönks" (manikins) carry off human children to ensure that "earthly beauty would not entirely die out among them."
Similarly, a girl named Eilian is stolen away as a fairy's bride in a Welsh tale. However, nothing is said of what her child is like, other than that it requires ointment in its eyes to have true sight of the fairy world - but this is common in tales of human midwives caring for fairy babies.
The child of a human/fairy marriage is often a culture hero. His parentage explains why he's such a great warrior. One Arapaho tale has two parts - one dealing with a woman who marries a star with tragic results, and the second part dealing with their son Star Boy, who becomes a culture hero.
In a Maori tale from New Zealand, a mermaid named Pania marries a human and bears a son named Moremore, who is completely hairless. His name means "bald." This son becomes a taniwha (serpent) or a shark and guards the local seas.
In a story recorded in More West Highland Tales by Campbell and McKay, a woman becomes pregnant apparently by a seal, reminiscent of selkie tales. She gives birth to a son "as hairy as a goat," whom she names MacCuain, the Son of the Sea. MacCuain sometimes goes into a horrible frenzy where his face is distorted, and plays a villainous role in the tale.
In the fairytale “Hans the Mermaid’s Son,” the main character is the son of a human and a mermaid. This is part of the Young Giant folktale type; Hans is the size of a large grown man when still a child, and has prodigious strength. He lacks any kind of stereotypical mer-attributes, having instead supernatural strength and size. (There are many tales of this type; sometimes, for instance, the Young Giant is the child of a woman and a bear.) Note that Hans is difficult for both his mortal father and magical mother to handle.
Option three: Offspring are normal humans, but inherit non-genetic otherworldly gifts
In "The Thunder Spirit's Bride," a tale from Rwanda, the children of the Thunder Spirit and a mortal woman are taught by their father "how to travel through the air on flashes of lightning, and they had a much more exciting life than the children of the earth, who could only walk and run."
The Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, was printed in 1628 but may have existed much earlier. Here Robin Goodfellow is the son of Oberon the fairy king and a human woman. Although a born prankster and a thief, Robin seems like a normal human - at least until Oberon reveals his parentage and grants him the ability to shapeshift. Oberon informs him,
"By nature thou has cunning shifts,
Which Ile increase with other gifts.
Wish what thou wilt, thou shalt it have;
And for to vex both fool and knave,
Thou hast the power to change thy shape,
To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape."
The phrasing in these stories leaves it unclear whether their powers are genetic or the result of teaching. The children may or may not have inherent skills, but either way, they require their fairy parent's instruction in order to use them.
There is one clear case where the children are apparently human, but learn fairy knowledge from their mother's teachings. Sir John Rhys recorded a Welsh tale of a fairy bride from the lake Llyn y Fan Fach. Her human husband was told never to strike her three times without cause, but over the years scolded or even just tapped her, and on the third time she vanished back into the lake - leaving three distraught sons, who often walked by the lake searching for her. And one day it worked - she appeared to her oldest son, Rhiwallon, and taught him and his brothers the art of healing, so that they became the famous Physicians of Myddfai.
Child Abandonment and DNA Dominance
Fairy wives hardly ever take their children along when they jump ship, but leave their husbands to care for any offspring they have. For practical story purposes, the children may remain so that they can tell their father what happened to their mother. In T. Crofton Croker's story of the Lady of Gollerus, the mermaid wife doesn't mean to abandon her children, but forgets them the moment she touches the water. (Despite this, her human husband never remarries and always insists that she must be being held against her will beneath the ocean, not understanding how she could possibly want to leave him or their children.)
This indicates that these children, although nominally hybrids, belong to the human world. Their father’s DNA is dominant. In a gender-flipped version, where a human woman is captured by an otherwordly husband and escapes, she still leaves her kids with him.
Francis James Child described different variations of a ballad with this theme. Sometimes the woman returns home with her children, but she may also leave them behind while she makes her escape, ignoring her husband when he tells her the children are crying for her. In one Danish version of "Agnes and the Merman," where when Agnes returns to the human world, her husband insists that they divide their five children evenly. In the worst custody arrangement of all time, the fifth one is split in half. (This is not the only tale where the supernatural husband turns violent towards their children when the mortal wife goes home; the same thing happens in an Italian tale called "The Satyr.") In another related ballad, the human woman has never seen her children, since they are always taken from her to live in the elf-hill. At the end, she is taken to the elf-hill and her children give her a drink which makes her forget her mortal life.
But sometimes the wife, whether human or fairy, does take her children along. In “Story of a Bird-Woman,” from Siberia, a goose-maiden bore her human husband two “real human children", but when she grew homesick, she contrived to take her children along. She begged help from the geese, who "plucked their wings and stuck feathers on the children's sleeves," so that they were able to fly away with their mother.
And according to Hasan el-Shamy in Folktales of Egypt, in a union between a man and a jinniyah, "children from such a marriage belong to the mother, never to their human father." John Rhys, in Celtic Folklore, mentions a man whose fairy wife and children vanished when he broke a promise by unknowingly touching iron.
In a tale from the Orkneys, Gem-de-Lovely the mermaid marries a human and bears seven children, then takes the whole family along when she returns to the sea. However, her mother-in-law brands the youngest child with a cross, blocking the merfolk from ever touching him, and he grows up on land as a powerful soldier who fights in the Crusades and makes a good marriage.
In the story of Melusine, her mother Pressyne actually does take her daughters from a mixed marriage with her when she flees. However, in the next generation, Melusine leaves her sons with their father. In some versions she comes back to nurse those who are still babies. That doesn't change that in some way, daughters share their mother's nature and native realm, while sons share their father's. Maybe this is just because Melusine's sons are more distantly related to the fairy realm. But there's another example that bears it up.
A romance of Richard the Lionheart explained his battle-prowess by saying that he was the son of a human king and a woman named Cassodorien, who had fairylike characteristics, echoing Melusine-style myths. In the story, when forced to attend Mass, Cassodorien flies out through the roof carrying her other son John and daughter Topyas. John falls and is injured, but Topyas is carried away with her mother and never seen again. Again - the son gets left behind, the daughter gets taken.
One of my favorite movies is the 2014 Irish animated film, Song of the Sea, which features two children (a boy and a girl) born of a human-selkie union. The boy is human like his father, while the girl is a selkie like her mother.
Sometimes the offspring of a human-fairy marriage are hybrids - humans with a touch of fairy ancestry, like the webbed-fingered kids in the selkie tale. However, more often they are either one or the other: all human, or all fairy. They typically take after their father's side of the family, at least in European myth, but there are occasional hints that their inheritance might be based on gender. If it's a human with special attributes, it's often because their fairy parent taught them a skill.
Sons are mentioned more frequently than daughters, and typically grow up to be great warriors or wise men. Divine or fairy heritage was used to establish political power or explain the backstory of a popular culture hero. Throughout history, incubi or gods were given as the fathers of figures like Seleucus, Plato, or Scipio the Elder. The houses of Lusignan and Plantagenet claimed ancestry from Melusine or her equivalent.
On the other hand, an unpopular person might be accused of being the offspring of a demon. See Bishop Guichard of Troyes in 1308, rumored to be the son of a human woman with a "neton." Also recall the Bellis clan, who would fight anyone who brought up their fairy background.
I don't think there is any commonly used name for these fairy hybrids- although I would love to hear if you've come across one.
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2/14/2021 01:22:08 pm
Sarah, in regard to your post on fairy/human children. In the version of the ballet Swan Lake, which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1895, Odette is a human woman who along with other women is cursed to have to turn into a swan during the day and can only regain her human form at night. However, according to the Marius Petipa website, see here: https://petipasociety.com/swan-lake/, in the story for the original version, premiering in 1877, Odette is a “swan maiden” and the daughter of a good fairy and a Knight. So, this would be an example of a half fairy. Also, in Johann Musaus’ story The Stolen Veil, the swan maidens are the descendants of Leda and a swan fairy instead of Leda and Zeus. Because of this fairy ancestry the swan maidens could put on their swan “veils” and fly to the magical waters of a pool in Schwanenfeld. Bathing in the waters of that pool would allow them to renew their beauty and youth. So, the swan maidens would have at least some fairy abilities. Based on this I believe that the “Stolen Veil” was an important inspiration for the original Swan Lake story. Since I've been reading your posts backwards I do not know if you already wrote about this.
2/14/2021 01:25:52 pm
Tom, I hadn't come across that source but that's a great example. Thank you for sharing!
Grady Stephon Livingston
8/3/2022 04:10:21 pm
Isn't Peter Pan a half fairy since he was born a human baby, but taken to Neverland, irradiated by the fairy dust?
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.