The benevolent little Disney-fied flittering things you think of when someone says “fairy” are quite a recent invention. However the origin of the fairy is often a bit more sinister.
My house overlooks a “fairy” fort/ring planted with old beech trees. It’s likely that the earthworks have been there for well over 1000 years and back then it was probably a small farmstead or cattle enclosure with a wooden palisade. But the original purpose of similar ancient structures scattered across Europe were lost to the sands of time for hundreds if not thousands of years; people simply forgot what they were and the fear of the unknown crept in. People started to believe that something supernatural created or lived in these places, or would rise up from the underworld through them. Myths and stories were created to understand these places and became deeply rooted in the culture of various peoples. The fact that so many fairy forts and mounds still exist today is probably due to a very real fear that people had of fairies.
Right back from pagan to very recent times, fairies were considered to be a nuisance at best and the stuff of nightmares at worst. Fairies might spoil the milk, lead travellers astray or perform any number of annoying pranks. Or they might swap one of your loved ones for one of their own, make people sick or be the reason behind a death. This was a very real belief. Right up until the Victorian era there were incidents where people actually believed that their loved one had been exchanged for a fairy changeling, and then if it was an infant it might be left exposed to die or if it was an adult, murdered. There’s an excellent explanation of one such horror story in the blog: The burning of Bridget Cleary Part 1 and Part 2. Unbelievably, in the late 1800’s a woman was burned to death by her husband because he and his family believed she was a changeling simply because she’d walked past a fairy fort and become very ill afterwards. Even in modern Ireland you’ll find that these types of superstitions still run deep, particularly in older people, fuelled by myths and beliefs passed down by word of mouth for centuries.
Try to remember that in the past there weren’t solid brick houses and tightly sealed double-glazed windows or electric lights, and people didn’t have access to the vast amounts of information we have today. Instead wind would whistle through cracks in the walls, doors would slam, candlelight would quiver – the night was a frightening place full of flickering shadows and anything you couldn’t explain had to be caused by a creature with malice in its heart.
In your fantasy writing you can turn these old beliefs into real creatures and completely justified fears. It’s worth looking into some of the more ancient fairy stories to create a place full of little nasties. An excellent example of this is The Ill Made Mute by Cecilia Dart-Thornton where something small and very sinister seems to be hiding beneath every rock and in every bush. It makes for an extremely rich tapestry of a world where you have to get somewhere safe before night falls or the little folk will get you.
Don’t forget that people also found ways to protect themselves from fairies. These too can be used to spice up your stories. People would wear garlands of certain types of flowers such as marigolds. Or avoid particular types of trees where fairies were thought to dwell. Iron was always a great way of repelling them – if you have a horseshoe hanging over a doorway in your house you’re subscribing to the belief that it will keep fairies away. Fairies could also be appeased with food or drink. And people avoided going anywhere near fairy forts or mounds where they might be lurking.
I might just avoid that fairy fort outside after all…