Society has long been enchanted by the thought that small winged beings dwell in our gardens and forests, protecting the trees and flowers they inhabit. From Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell to the magical sprites in FernGully, fairies are still integral to many childhood stories. But new research shows that the idea follows a surprising number of us into adulthood, too.
Forty-four percent of the 1,602 Brits surveyed by Dr. Simon Young and Dr. Ceri Houlbrook professed to see fairies. Their new book, Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present, is the first major modern history of such beings in almost half a century. The two historians found that fairies are significantly more likely to have appeared to women—68 percent of those who had seen them were female—and that many respondents were able to provide detailed descriptions of their fairy experiences, ranging from the malicious to the sensual.
“There is something inherently fascinating about a phenomenon that cannot be proved or disproved conclusively,” Young tells Broadly. “Despite their continual existence in our culture, we still cannot decide whether fairies are fact or fiction. They are simultaneously known and unknown; an itch that cannot be finally and completely scratched, even though we've been trying for centuries. Fairies have remained perfectly balanced on that line of belief.”
Sightings of fairies in the study vary wildly from the Tinkerbell caricature many of us are acquainted with. One respondent described witnessing an all-night woodland rave where two female fairies, a dwarf or goblin, and what they described as a “mudman” danced to “tribal drums” till dawn.
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Another recalled: “My friend and I initially both noticed an amorphous greyish shape on the ground about a hundred meters ahead. We thought it may have been a large dog, or a deer. It morphed into a branch and emerged again. It had become two female figures… They both had long flowing dresses on and wings on their backs. Their laughter was felt in my whole being, [it was] like a babbling brook or rustling leaves.”
In line with the folklore that fairies favor nature, the study found 27 percent of sightings occurred in the woods. Their idyllic context perhaps helps to explain their continuing appeal as an antidote to our increasingly industrial and urban world. Arianna Nadine, a practicing witch and the co-host of astrology podcast Blood Moon Milk, says that her fascination with fairies was spurred by a craving for a greater connection with nature.
“I was always into nature, animal rights and recycling, and I’m an animal intuitive,” she tells Broadly. “I’ve always thought of the earth as an intelligent consciousness, my relationship with fairies and earth spirits grew from that.”
For those keen to experience fairies, Nadine cautions that they are not all gossamer and glitter. “Working with them is super easy,” she says. “But it’s very serious, since they have egos. I make a daily offering of incense, thank them for parts of nature—like the rain or bees—and tell them I remember them even if their names are forgotten. I always keep fresh birdseed on my porch, take care of my plants, and pick up litter I see.”
So what happens if you get on the wrong side of a fairy? The last time their devious behavior made headlines was the case of Bridget Cleary, an Irish woman murdered by her husband in 1895. He claimed that that the real Cleary had been abducted by fairies, and that he had merely killed the changeling that they left in her place.
Though Cleary’s case is now better understood as a case of domestic violence rather than fairy mischief, 27 percent of the Magical Folk respondents who had experienced fairies did report them being unfriendly or downright hostile. “A middle-aged woman watched a fairy hunt children by the side of a river; the implication was that the fairy wanted to drown the children,” recalls Young of one respondent. “It has to be said that this has always been a feature of fairy sightings. Fairies are not all sweetness and light, they have this nasty or cruel side in historical accounts.”
Heather, a 30-year-old British ceramicist and fairy fan, chooses to placate them with offerings. (She requested to withhold her last name for privacy reasons.) “I have an altar for them just outside of my studio where I leave them bread and honey and crystals, more in the hopes of a peaceful relationship than because I’m seeking out contact,” she says.
As with 35 percent of Young and Houlman’s study group, Heather claimed her fairy sightings were typically short, lasting only a few seconds or less. “I see fairies in my peripheral vision and on rare occasions, straight on for a few seconds,” she says.
Other women say that they have lasting relationships with fairies that have altered the course of their life. Cornwall-based event organizer and Fae magazine editor Karen Kay says she communes with fairies on a daily basis.
“They tend to communicate telepathically, I hear them in a different way to my usual internal mind chatter, this takes on a different quality. I get goosebumps and tingles. It’s a lovely feeling. Like waves of magic washing over me,” she explains.
The experience is often visual, too. “Fairies usually show themselves to me as forms of tiny flashing lights. Once when I was driving along the A30 [highway] my eyes were drawn to a giant pair of legs on the horizon. Naturally, my gaze went upwards, only to see this giant fairy standing next to a tree… When I thought about it, it made perfect sense that a fairy would be the same size of the plant or tree that it was guardian of. Big trees mean big fairies—simple.”
Kay says that the fairies’ communications over the years have ranged from asking her to pick up litter to requesting that she organize a festival for other fairy enthusiasts. “I was very concerned that this could literally ruin my reputation,” she recalls. “But the fairies insisted that I announce the event and explained that this was a way of building trust between us.” It was a success and Kay went on to found Fae, a publication that pays homage to all things fairy-adjacent.
It’s easy to understand how fairies can become lifelong companions for women who crave a taste of the ethereal and wish to embrace the intangible feminine forces that sit quietly at the margins of mainstream patriarchal society. Nadine argues that an increasing number of women are becoming open to the possibility that fairies can remain relevant well into adulthood: “I think the Earth is needing our attention. The earth spirits and fairies need our help to protect it. We’re a part of nature too, and we’re fucking it up faster than Mother Earth can level out.”