Fairy or Fae

Fairy or faery? Which is correct spelling? Is there a difference? What do people mean when they say “fae”?

Photo by Cristian Escobar on Unsplash

As an avid fan of fairy tales and fantasy books and movies, this is actually something I’ve been curious about for a long time. But as I started to dig into the subject, the information was a lot harder to find than I expected.

So this post has taken more research than usual to put together. I’ve actually been working on it off and on for a few weeks now. I wanted to release it in tandem with my review of the Artemis Fowl movie that released earlier this year, as that movie very loosely deals with fae, and the books it’s based on even more so. (Luckily, that it also took longer than expected, so the only thing that suffered was my motivation.)

From a linguistic standpoint, there’s actually not a difference between fairy and faerie or fae. The first recorded used of faerie was in the late 1500s as a variant of fairy and they’ve been used pretty interchangeably since. But the two have come to take on different meanings over the years. Fairy tends to refer to the more European type of magical being: think fairy godmothers, the elves from The Shoemaker and the Elves, or Disney’s Tinkerbell. Some of the magical beings from those stories have sinister motives but they are always clearly labeled (evil fairy) and seem to be the exception to the rule. Fae has come to refer to a more malicious type of magical beings, which as far as I can tell, stems from Irish and Celtic legends of Fair Folk, called sidhe (pronounced shee).

Photo by Jie on Unsplash

Sidhe lore is absolutely fascinating. I don’t have the space or the research time to go in depth, but I’ll summarize some of the main features of the Fair Folk. Some of this is sidhe lore. Some is fae lore. Some is folklore. A few places I got my info from are the Library Ireland website, this article exploring the difference between fairy and fae, and this writer’s consolidation of common beliefs regarding fae, along with several books, movies and TV shows I’ve seen, but there’s a lot more out there. Much of the lore surrounding the fae and fae behavior has become popularized and widely accepted (through modern media like Supernatural the TV series, Labyrinth the movie, the Dresden Files book series by Jim Butcher, the Artemis Fowl book series by Eoin Colfer, and the MBRC books by K.M. Shea, to name a few), so it’s hard to know where the line is between historical legends and current fiction. I’ll be using the term “fae” as that seems to be the current favorite term for these types of creatures.

  1. Fae cannot lie. They deal in half-truths and manipulations, but cannot outright lie. Possibly because of this, they cannot break their promises. But they are experts at finding loopholes.
  2. Fae must abide by the rules of hospitality. This one is a little more nebulous and tends to differ in terms of interpretation. Sometimes this means waiting to be invited in before being able to enter someone’s home, sometimes it means showing no aggression towards those who invoke said rules.
  3. Fae tend to be more malicious than fairies. This might be because they are often portrayed as having a completely different moral system than humans.  Think along the lines of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  4. A mortal who gives a fae their name gives that fae power over them. A mortal who eats fae food cannot leave the fae realm, or not for long. A mortal who crosses into a fairy ring (often made of mushrooms) will cross into the fae realm and magic might interfere in their lives. Oftentimes, when a mortal comes back from the fae realm, more time has passed than they experienced.
  5. Fae do have weaknesses. Pure iron causes them injury, and different legends show that circles of fire or salt will reveal the true nature of a fae.

What’s your favorite piece of fae lore?

Until next time, word nerds!

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