Fairies are tiny, often beautiful human-like creatures (sometimes with wings) that appear in legends and folklore around the world. Fairies likely began as versions of pagan nature gods and goddesses, and thus they are often associated with the outdoors (especially forests), as well as magic and journeys.

Depending on the region, fairies are said to live in woodland communities, underground kingdoms, or inhabit lakes, hills, or stone or grass circles — often along with centaurs, elves, ogres, gnomes and other such animals. Fairies come in many races and tribes, and are also said to vary in size and shape; though most are small, some change size and become man-size or larger if they choose.

Frances Griffiths and the Dancing Fairies, one of the photographs she and her cousin, Elsie Wright, took of "real" fairies. Many people, including author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed the photos were genuine. (Image credit: Cottingley.net)

In centuries past, people were much less sophisticated about what was real and what wasn't; much of the world was still unexplored and shrouded in mystery. Traveling shows brought amazing creatures from around the world to people who had never seen such wonders. Animals such as giraffes, bears and tigers, for example, appeared as attractions in carnivals and circuses during the 1800s. For many having seen these animals for the first time, dragons, mermaids and fairies did not seem far-fetched.

Not so nice

In the modern era, fairies have been mostly relegated to children's magical fiction, hence the phrase "fairy tales." In centuries past, however, many adults also believed in the existence of fairies. Early fairies were not cute pixies; they were lustful, nasty and cruel creatures as likely to kill you as lead you out of the forest. They were often benevolent, but could also be capricious and vindictive. Travelers on long journeys (or even those beyond their home villages) would bring offerings to leave for the fairies, typically bannock (bread) cakes, tobacco or fruits. In return, the fairy folk might provide good weather or safe passage from wild beasts and highwaymen.

On the other hand, those who failed to do so risked ruin; if you got on the bad side of a fairy, doom was sure to befall you sooner or later. Whether in the form of a terrible storm, an accident, or the death of a child, the fairies would have their revenge. Even mentioning fairies was enough to incur their wrath; for that reason they were often referred to obliquely as "the gentle people" or "the good folk."

Fairies were also associated with changeling beliefs, and were sometimes said to secretly swap sickly fairy babies for healthy human ones. In fact, belief in fairies was at the root of a famous murder in Ireland. In 1895, a woman named Bridget Clearly was killed by her husband, who claimed that she was not really his wife but instead a changeling brought to him by fairies.

Fairy pictures

Fairy affairs reappeared two decades later when two teenage cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, played with fairies in the English countryside near Cottingley. Interacting with imaginary fairy friends would probably be considered normal behavior for 10- and 16-year-old girls, but the pair insisted that the fairies were real. They even provided proof in the form of five photographs showing little fairy folk playing with the girls.

While some dismissed the photos as obvious fakes, many others were not so sure. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed that the fairies were real, and wrote a book titled "The Coming of the Fairies," in which he discussed the fairies and his conviction that their existence had been proven beyond any doubt. Many were taken in, and the reality of fairies was the subject of debate among some adults for decades. Finally, in 1983, Frances Griffiths, then 75 years old, confessed that the "fairies" were cut-out drawings from a book,

Though belief in fairies exists to the present day in some places — especially in Ireland, Iceland, Norway, and Scotland — modern fairies have been sanitized for today's children and (luckily) lost their murderous ways.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books, including "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.