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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif F271.3

Fairies skillful as smiths. *Fb “smed” III 402a; Irish myth: *Cross; England, Scotland, Ireland: Baughman, Boberg DF XLVI 83.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

4. Legends and traditions

B. Marvelous Beings and Objects

2. Other Marvelous Creatures

In spite of the enormous variety of marvelous creatures believed in throughout the world, there are certain general concepts which are known in many lands, although these concepts vary in detail from one circle of tradition to another.

One of the most widely accepted of all such beliefs, particularly in the countries of western Europe, concerns fairies. [385] They are known by many names, the Irish sidhe or little folk, the English fairy or elf, and the corresponding German elf or fee. The shading off of such concepts into the French fee (apparently a thoroughly human woman with miraculous powers) and [p. 247] the frightful Italian fata brings it about that an accurate translation of folk tradition from one of these countries to the other is all but impossible. In a consideration of fairies it is perhaps easiest to think primarily of fairy beliefs of the British Isles, especially Ireland, and to realize that in other countries many of these identical beliefs are ascribed to similar, but actually different, imaginary creatures.

In contrast to most other creatures, the fairies are usually thought of as living in a land of their own, in an otherworld generally known as fairy land (F210). The Irish usually think of this world as being entered through the side of a hill or under the roots of trees. But sometimes the land is supposed to be across a body of water or even under a lake or river.

There is no agreement on the size of fairies. Between Mercutio's description of Mab, the minute queen of the fairies in Romeo and Juliet, and Oberon, the man-sized fairy king of Midsummer Night's Dream there is room for a large exercising of human imagination. It would seem that in general the Irish fairies are thought of as being much smaller than mortals. They are sometimes pictured as having bird feet and as having breasts long enough to throw over their shoulders (though these are qualities of many similar creatures). Fairies are normally invisible to the generality of men, but particular individuals may secure a magic soap or ointment which permits them to see the little folk, and it is sometimes possible to have a view of them (and of other spirits as well) by treading on someone else's foot. Various theories are advanced for the origin of fairies (F251). Some say they are the descendants of an early race of gods; others that they are the souls of the departed, particularly of unbaptized children.

Those who have seen fairies relate many interesting things about their lives. It is well known that they have rulers, Oberon, it may be, and Titania, or perhaps it is Queen Mab. One of their principal pastimes is dancing (F261), as anyone may see the next morning who observes the rings they leave on the grass. They have feasts and weddings, and they perform labor. Like the dwarfs, they may be skillful as blacksmiths (F271.3 and F451.3.4.2), and like some other creatures, they have been known to milk the farmer's cows and ride his horses sweaty at night.

The romantic imagination has long played with the idea of the fairy lover. There are many things that a young girl must not do—pluck flowers, lie under a tree, or pull nuts—or she may well be carried off by a fairy lover or elf knight. Mortal men have similar difficulties, if difficulties they are. Many is the story of the man who marries the fairy woman. Sometimes he goes to fairyland and stays with her, and sometimes he marries her and takes her to his home. In the latter case, he is always strictly forbidden to do certain things (C31), to utter her name, to see her on certain specified occasions, or to offend her in some trifle. Best known of such legends is that of Melusine (C31.1.2). This lady is not always actually a fairy, but may be a water-spirit or some [p. 248] related creature. In any event, the mortal husband breaks the prohibition against seeing her on a certain occasion, usually when she is transformed. When she learns that her secret has been discovered, she disappears forever.

The dealings of fairies with mortals are sometimes advantageous to people, but they are nearly always fraught with danger. In one of the common folk tales (Type 503) they remove a hunchback's hump only to replace it on someone else; and they give the hero coals which turn into gold, but in the hands of the wrong man the gold will again become worthless (F344.1 and F342.1). It is dangerous to accept a gift from the fairies. This is seen in the story of The Luck of Edenhall (F348.2). Here the fairies give a cup which is to be kept in the family. When the cup is broken, bad luck descends upon the house.

Stories of changelings (F321.1) are very common all over Europe. A fairy steals a child from its cradle and leaves a fairy substitute. The changeling is usually mature and only seems to be a child. There are various ways in which he is eventually deceived into betraying his age. The problem then arises as to how he may be disposed of, and this is not easy. Sometimes the fairy does not desire a mortal child, but only to have herself assisted in childbirth by a human midwife (F372.1). The women who have actually gone to fairy land to perform this service bring eternal good luck upon themselves and their families.

Many of these legends of fairies are told also of other kinds of spirits and demons. The resemblance is especially notable in stories of water-spirits (F420) and wood-spirits (F441). We nearly always find that the female spirits have the long breasts which they can throw over their shoulders and that they have a tendency to entice mortal men. Even the trolls (F455), large and ungainly mountain creatures, dance and do skillful work as blacksmiths.

Most like the fairies, especially in the wealth of the traditions concerning them, are the dwarfs (F451). In the countries of northern Europe they are considered as spirits of the underground. [386] They are certainly more ungainly, as generally conceived, than the fairies, and are nearest in appearance to the little house-spirits which the English know as brownies (F482) and the Danes as "nisser." In his production of "Snow White" [387] Walt Disney was particularly successful in catching the traditional conception of the dwarf.

As far as legend and tale are concerned, the dwarfs seldom play a leading role. They are either subsidiary actors in a complex narrative like Snow White or The Two Girls, the Bear, and the Dwarf (Types 709 and 426), or else they are merely reported as being present or as having certain appearances or habits. Some of the latter characteristics may be mentioned. They are sometimes spoken of as having their feet twisted backward, or as having [p. 249] bird feet; as being long bearded; as having red heads and red caps; as having their home underground beneath the cow stable; as always turning to stone at sunrise; and as having great fear of hymn-singing or the sound of church bells. These last two features they share with the trolls (G304.2.5 and G304.2.4.1). Like fairies, they seek human women as midwives; they exchange children in the cradle; and they give perilous gifts to mortals. They sometimes act as the servants of human beings, but if a man is ever so foolish as to pay them all he owes them, they disappear. [388]

Several other kinds of spirits are generally believed in, and some of them have characteristic traditions. Such are the many tales of the Rübezahl (F465), a spirit of the mountain and storm, and the beliefs in the Nightmare or Alp (F471.1) who presses and almost strangles one in his dreams, or the Incubus (F471.2) who consorts sexually with women in their sleep, or the Huckauf (F472) who jumps on one's back as he walks along the road at night. Cobolds (F481) and brownies (F482) stay close to the house but have few distinctive traditions, unless we include as such the brewing in an eggshell in order to drive away a cobold. [389]

If there is confusion in the concept of a dwarf, sometimes a pigmy or thumbling and sometimes a creature of the underground, there is even a greater variety of ideas suggested by the word giant. The term has become confused with that of the French ogre and the German Teufel, so that mere size is only a small consideration in a tale like Jack the Giant Killer. Giants are even equated sometimes with the dragon concept, so that the dragon fighter is said to go out and kill the seven-headed giant. They may, of course, be thoroughly human, like Goliath. As far as the traditions of northern Europe are concerned, however, neither of these concepts is valid. The giant there is thought of as being an enormous person of human shape many times the size of a mortal. Such giants live ordinary lives and have usual family relationships. A huge number of stories are known about their activities, [390] though many of these parallel the stories of fairies or dwarfs.

Polyphemus was a typical giant in this sense, for he had one eye in the middle of his forehead (Type 1137; F531.1.1.1). Other giants are headless, and some have shaggy hair all over their bodies, and sometimes long beards. Some of them wade the ocean, and nearly all of them throw great rocks around and produce changes in the landscape. [391] They have been known to move churches or other buildings, and they are frequently said to be the builders of certain great structures. [392] All these are rather general ideas unless indeed it be the Polyphemus story. But there is one specific tale about the life [p. 250] of the giants which has had a very general appeal—"The Giant's Toy" (F531.5.3). A young giantess sees a plowman with his team. She thinks it would be fun to have such a toy, and she picks up the man and his horses and takes them to her mother. Her mother tells her, "You must take him back. He will drive us away." It is probable that the homely wisdom of the giantess who fears the conflict of brute strength with human intelligence has done most to give popularity to this pretty tale.

Two specific cycles of giant legends deserving mention are those of Gargantua in France and of Paul Bunyan in America. Readers of Rabelais are familiar with the satirical use a great author can make of such popular traditions, but they are perhaps not always aware of the extent to which such legends are actually a part of the folklore of France. [393] Whether these French traditions were preserved by the colonists in New France, or whether stories of gigantic persons reached the French Canadians from other sources there seems little doubt that these people have had much to do with the spreading of the tradition of a purely American giant, that of Paul Bunyan, the enormous woodsman. [394] In spite of all the discussion of Paul Bunyan during the last thirty years, much about the tradition of him and his enormous ox remains very dark. [395] But the popularity of this legend among lumbermen today, whatever its origin may have been, shows that the stories of giants are perennially interesting.

The giant concept is so varied in its appearances that it is hard to be sure of the role which a giant will play in popular tradition. Frequently he is thought of as a kindly helper, benevolent if slightly stupid; sometimes he is the acme of stupidity; and very often he is an ogre quite as frightful as any monster conjured up by the folk imagination. The same double nature may be found in stories of dwarfs and trolls. But about two important classes of supernatural beings there is never any ambiguity. Nothing but evil can be said for witches and their like, or for the devil. Some of the traditions of witches resemble fairy legends, but never enough to affect the essentially evil nature of the witch.

Unmistakably wicked as she is, the witch presents no clear-cut picture to the folk. Sometimes she is simply a human old woman who has, by some foul means, acquired mystic powers of evil. We hear rumors of them in Massachusetts and New York in Colonial times, and even in our own day in Pennsylvania. The three weird sisters of Macbeth are certainly superhuman [p. 251] and belong much nearer to the world of trolls and fairies than to that of demented old women. It is this latter concept of the witch as essentially other than human that has had most appeal to the popular imagination and that seems to be implied whenever a witch is mentioned in a folktale.

As in the Macbeth legend, such witches are usually thought of as sisters, most often as three (G201). The witch may appear in almost any form, even that of an animal (G211), particularly a horse. As with some of the other creatures we have met, witches sometimes have seven heads (G215.1) or they have goose feet (G216.1). They are sometimes said to have iron members (G219.1) and are usually represented as bearded (G219.2). Being evil, the witch is opposed to Christianity and she parodies Christian expressions and religious services (G224.1). Particularly well known is the witches' sabbath (G243). In this, on certain saints' days, they meet and go through a mockery of divine service. No reader of Goethe's Faust can ever forget their meeting on Walpurgis Night. A few habits of witches are believed in almost everywhere they themselves are known. Such are the fact that they fly through the air on broomsticks (G242.1); that they ride on unusual animals (G241.1), a wolf, a goat, or a cat; that they have familiar spirits who serve them (G225), frequently insects or cats; that they love to steal children (G261) and to suck blood (G262.1); that, like fairies, they ride horses sweaty at night (G265.3) and make cows give bloody milk (D2083.2.1). Sometimes witches are pictured as beautiful and attractive women enticing lovers and then deserting them (G264). Such was Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci and such, indeed, is a whole legion of Circes and Calypsos in both popular and literary tradition.

Tarn o' Shanter learned much about witches in the short hour he spent in haunted Kirk Alloway, the dancing, the fiddling, and the suggestion of intimate relations with the devil (G247, G303.9.8.2, and G243.1). He, too, yielded to their female charm and forgot himself. But eventually he escaped because he knew one of the sure ways of ridding oneself of witches. They can never cross a stream, and especially if a man can induce one of them to grab his horse's tail as he crosses the bridge, he is always safe (G273.4). There are, of course, other ways of escaping from the witches which Tarn did not need to employ. If he had only waited in some safe place until cock-crow (G273.3), or had even thought—good Protestant though he was—to make the sign of the cross (G273.1), all would have been well.

The most important ally of witches as a power of evil is the Devil (G303 and subdivisions). He seems to have been walking up and down on the face of the earth since long before the days of Job, and his presence is widely known, and felt, in all the lands of western civilization. There is little consistency to be looked for in such a legend. As already suggested in connection with the devil's appearance in folktales, [396] the concept seems to be an [p. 252] inconsistent merging of the Biblical Satan, the general idea of evil spirits abroad, the goat-footed god Pan, or the satyrs, and sometimes the Oriental demon or "jinn." Sometimes also any ogre is spoken of as a devil, especially in German tradition.

With a figure built up from an adaptation of so many others, some of them contradictory, it is no wonder that legends about the devil should be impossible to reconcile with one another. As he appears in folktales, we have seen him enforcing bargains with those who have promised to give themselves to him at a certain time. In others, the devil is stupid, and the interest is entirely devoted to cheating him. [397] The devil sometimes is pictured as living in hell (Type 803). In at least one case he is equated with Death, and is kept magically sticking to a tree so as to keep people from dying (Type 330).

The devil, as we have seen, [398] opposed God in His creations from the first, and in the form of a snake caused the loss of paradise for mankind. Contrary, we assume, to God's intentions, he found a place on the ark and survived into the new world inaugurated by Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sometimes he appears as the Adversary at the court of God, sometimes as Lucifer, the bearer of light. It is in the Middle Ages that the devil legends, grow and proliferate. More and more in the thought of the western world there appears the antithesis between God, or Christ, and Satan. He took on during these centuries some well recognized physical characteristics: the cloven hoof, a tail, a beard, the latter always trimmed in the most stylish fashion. He often appeared as a fine gentleman, and it was only by accident that the cloven hoof or the tail betrayed him. As finally evolved into Mephistopheles, he is the essence of seductive evil, and we are far from the popular tradition of the unattractive and ogre-like demon which the devil can sometimes be.

It is easily seen, then, that devil legends are not all of one piece, so that it would be a mistake to expect the same kinds of tales in Finland and in Spain. Such differences depend not only on a fundamentally different ancient tradition, but also upon the more recently developed separation in religion.

A thorough study of devil legends would involve many things beyond our scope. Oriental demonology and, indeed, the world-wide belief in evil spirits present interesting suggestions to the student of western tradition. But the actual influence of such ideas from one culture to another is extremely difficult to trace out with any degree of certainty. Thus far no one has even attempted to give to this subject a serious scholarly investigation.

Although a complete view of all the imaginary beings in Occidental tradition would give attention to dozens of additional beliefs current in [p. 253] one country or another, those which have been mentioned here will serve as sufficiently typical of the traditional background from which so much of the literary and artistic life of Europe and western Asia has sprung.

[385] For a collection of fairy motifs, see F200 to F399. Perhaps the best general book on fairies in folklore is Hartland, The Science of Fairy Tales (London, 1891).

[386] They should by no means be confused with the pygmy tradition, for the dwarf is not simply a very small person.


330, 426, 709, 803, 1137


C31, C31.1.2, D2083.2.1, F200-F399, F465, F210, F251, F261, F271.3, F321.1, F342.1, F344.1, F451.3.4.2, F372.1, F420, F441, F451, F455, F471.1, F471.2, F472, F481, F482, F531.1.1.1, F531.5.3, G201, G211, G215.1, G216.1, G219.1, G219.2, G224.1, G225, G241.1, G242.1, G243, G243.1, G247, G261, G262.1, G264, G265.3, G273.1, G273.3, G273.4, G303.9.8.2, G304.2.4.1, G304.2.5