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According to Thomas Keightley, the word ,,fairy" derives from the Latin fata, and is from the Old French form faerie, describing ,,enchantment". Other forms are the Italian fata, and the Provençal ,,fada". In old French romance, ,,fee" was a woman skilled in magic, and who knew the power and virtue of words, of stones, and of herbs.
Faie became Modern English fay. Faierie became fairy, but with that spelling now almost exclusively referring to one of the legendary people, with the same meaning as fay. The word ,,fairy" was used to in represent an illusion, or enchantment; the land of the Faes; collectively the inhabitants thereof; or an individual such as a fairy knight.
To the word faie was added the suffix -erie (Modern English -(e)ry), used to express either a place where something is found (fishery, nunnery) or a trade or typical activity engaged in (cookery, thievery). In later usage it generally applied to any kind of quality or activity associated with a particular type of person, as in English knavery, roguery, wizardry. In the sense ,,land where fairies dwell", the distinctive and archaic spellings Faery and Faerie are often used.
The latinate fay is not to be confused with the unrelated (Germanic) fey, meaning ,,fated to die".
Various folkloristic traditions refer to them euphemistically, by names such as wee folk, good folk, people of peace, fair folk (Welsh tylwyth teg), etc.
Sometimes the term fairy is used to describe any magical creature, including goblins or gnomes: at other times, the term describes only a specific type of more ethereal creature or sprite. The concept of ,,fairy" in the narrow sense is unique to English folklore, conflating Germanic elves with influences from Celtic and Romance (French) folklores, and later made ,,diminutive" according to the tastes of Victorian era ,,fairy tales" for children.
Fairies have their historical origin in the conflation of Celtic (Breton, Welsh) traditions in the Middle French medieval romances. Fairie was in origin used adjectivally, meaning ,,enchanted" (as in fairie knight, fairie queene), but was used as a name for ,,enchanted" creatures from as early as the Late Middle English period. In English literature of the Elizabethan era, elves became conflated with the fairies of Romance culture, so that the two terms began to be used interchangeably.
The Victorian and Edwardian eras saw an increase in interest in fairies. The Celtic Revival viewed them as part of Ireland's cultural heritage. Carole Silvers and others suggest that the fascination of English antiquarians arose from a reaction to greater industrialization, and loss of folkways.
Fairies are generally described as human in appearance and having magical powers. Diminutive fairies of one kind or another have been recorded for centuries, but occur alongside the human-sized beings; these have been depicted as ranging in size from very tiny up to the size of a human child. Even with these small fairies, however, their small size may be magically assumed rather than constant. Some fairies though normally quite small were able to dilate their figures to imitate humans. On Orkney they were described as short in stature, dressed in dark grey, and sometimes seen in armour.
Wings, while common in Victorian and later artwork of fairies, are very rare in the folklore; even very small fairies flew with magic, sometimes flying on ragwort stems or the backs of birds. Nowadays, fairies are often depicted with ordinary insect wings or butterfly wings. In some folklore, fairies have green eyes. Some depictions of fairies either have them wearing some sort of footwear and other depictions of fairies are always barefoot.
The early modern fairies do not have any single origin, representing a conflation of disparate elements of folk belief, influenced by literature and speculation.Their origins are less clear in the folklore, being variously dead, or some form of demon, or a species completely independent of humans or angels. The folkloristic or mythological elements combine Celtic, Germanic and Greco-Roman elements. Folklorists have suggested that their actual origin lies in religious beliefs that lost currency with the advent of Christianity. These explanations are not necessarily incompatible, and they may be traceable to multiple sources.
According to King James in his dissertation Daemonologie, the term ,,faries" was used to describe illusory spirits (demonic entities) that prophesy, consort, and transport individuals they served. In medieval times, it was believed that a witch or sorcerer who had a compact with a familiar spirit to serve them could receive these types of revelations or use them to perform various tasks.
One other Christian belief held that fairies were a class of ,,demoted" angels. One popular story described how, when the angels revolted, God ordered the gates of heaven shut: those still in heaven remained angels, those in hell became demons, and those caught in between became fairies. Others suggested that the fairies, not being good enough, had been thrown out of heaven, but they were not evil enough for hell. This may explain the tradition that they had to pay a ,,teind" or tithe to hell: as fallen angels, though not quite devils, they could be seen as subjects of the devil. For a similar concept in Persian mythology, see Peri.
One popular belief was that they were the dead. This noted that many common points of belief, such as the same legends being told of ghosts and fairies, the sídhe in actuality being burial mounds, it being dangerous to eat food in both Fairyland and Hades, and both the dead and fairies living underground. Diane Purkiss observes an equating of fairies with the untimely dead who left ,,unfinished lives". One tale recounted a man caught by the fairies, who found that whenever he looked steadily at one, the fairy was a dead neighbor of his. This was among the most common beliefs expressed by those who believed in fairies, although many of the informants would express the belief with some doubts.