Fairies in the Bible?

Speaking of Jewish folk beliefs, a few years back I wrote a piece about fairies in the Bible at my other blog. Some of that material, with some elaboration, found its way over here in my post on “Shedim: Eldritch Beings from Jewish Folklore.”  Here is the full, original post from July of 2013, only slightly edited:

Joel Hoffman has written a blog post about unicorns and other mythological creatures in the Bible—or at least in the King James Version. As he usually does, Dr. Hoffman raises an intriguing question about how the original Hebrew words the KJV rendered as “dragon,” “unicorn,” and so forth should be handled. Did the original writers intend their readers to understand these as real-world creatures (e.g., as serpents, rhinoceroses, etc.) or did they mean to depict creatures of fantasy? He writes,

More generally, I think the real translation question with all of these creatures is whether they were intended to be mythic or — for want of a better word — real.

Even if they were intended to be real, “dragon” and “unicorn” may have been right once. It seems that people thought that both existed. (As late as the 17th century, scholars in Europe argued that griffins were real, and the only reason we didn’t see them was that, quite naturally, these magnificent creatures tended to stay away from people who would steal their gold). But now those translations wrongly take the real and turn them into fantasy.

On the other hand, if they were not meant to be real, then attempts to identify the exact species may be misguided, and maybe we should stick with “dragon” and “unicorn” and so forth.

Hoffman deals mainly with “unicorns” (re’em) and “dragons” (tannin), although he makes passing reference to a possible merperson in the character of Dagon, the god of the Philistines.

Along these same lines, I would suggest that there are a handful of possible reference to fairies in the Bible—at least if the rabbis of the medieval period were interpreting these passages rightly.

Two Hebrew words are of interest: shedim and se’irim, both translated daimonia (“demons”) in the Septuagint. Shedim only appear twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the plural (although the singular form would be shed or sheid). Psalm 106:37 says, “They sacrificed their own sons and daughters to demons!” (CEB). In a similar context, Deuteronomy 32:17 says,

They sacrificed to demons, not to God,
to deities of which
they had no knowledge—
new gods only recently on the scene,
ones about which your ancestors
had never heard.

Shedim are therefore obviously bad news in the Bible. Oddly enough, the term seems to be related to the Akkadian shedu, a benevolent or protective spirit, perhaps something we might think of as a guardian angel. Then again, people around the world have made offerings to various local protective spirits to secure their goodwill. The biblical writers were obviously interested in discouraging such a practice. Thus, in the Bible, they are depicted not as helpful minor spirits but as false gods to be avoided.

The next word is se’irim (singular se’ir), meaning “hairy beings” or “shaggy beings.” In the KJV, the word is translated “satyrs.” There are a few more references to se’irim than there are to shedim. According to Leviticus 17:7, “The Israelites must no longer sacrifice their communal sacrifices to the goat demons that they follow so faithlessly. This will be a permanent rule for them throughout their future generations.” The LXX renders se’irim as mataiois, “to empty or vain things.”

Se’irim dwell in the desolate wilderness and are apparently fond of dancing. According to Isaiah 13:21,

Wildcats will rest there;
houses will be filled with owls.
Ostriches will live there,
and goat demons (LXX, daimonia) will dance there.

And again in Isaiah 34:14:

Wildcats will meet hyenas,
the goat demon will call to his friends,
and there Lilith will lurk
and find her resting place.

I saw you wondering about Lilith in that verse. We’ll come back to her in a minute. It should be noted, that the Septuagint translation removes Lilith from the picture but possibly gives us a completely new mythological creature. My fairly wooden translation of the Greek is as follows:

Demons will meet onocentaurs
and they will shout one to the other,
There onocentaurs will rest
for they found a resting place for themselves.

If you’re not up to speed on medieval bestiaries, let me quickly explain that an onocentaur is part man, part ass. (And please refrain from any comments about half-ass blog posts. Thank you.)

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the se’irim are “are satyr-like demons, described as dancing in the wilderness…identical with the jinn of the Arabian woods and deserts.” Azazel, the goat-like wilderness demon (Lev 16:10ff) and Lilith (whom we already encountered in Isa 34:14) are said to be of the same class of beings. Further, it should be noted that some see in Lilith a prototype for later vampire legends. The Jewish Encyclopedia also raises the possibility that “the roes and hinds of the field” (gazelles and wild deer in the CEB) in Song of Songs 2:7 and 3:5 are “faunlike spirits similar to the se’irim, though of a harmless nature.”

How does all this apply to fairies? Thomas Keightley argued in The Fairy Mythology (1870)  that the prototypes of European fairy legends were to be found not only in the nymphs and satyrs of Greco-Roman mythology but also in Near Eastern stories of jinnis and peris (or jinn and parian, to use the correct Arabic and Persian plurals). He even argued  that our English word “fairy” derives ultimately from Persian pari (or peri). This linguistic argument may or may not hold, but anyone who looks at Persian peri-stories will find many parallels to what was believed about fairies in rural Europe until fairly recent times.

If Keightley is correct, then the European conception of fairies owes a good deal to the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world(s) in which the Bible was written. It therefore would not be unusual to find references to the such creatures in biblical and other early Semitic materials.

After tracing the fairy mythology throughout northern Europe, Keightley makes quick reference to Jewish legends about similar creatures found in the rabbinic corpus. These beings are in fact called shedim and seirim (although Keightley transliterates them shedeem and shehireem). Another term, maziqin (or mazikeen in Keightley’s transliteration), is Aramaic and applies specifically to a malevolent spirit. According to rabbinic tradition, all these beings are in fact directly analogous to the jinn of Arabic folklore. Keightley writes,

It has long been an established article of belief among the Jews that there is a species of beings which they call Shedeem, Shehireem, or Mazikeen. These beings exactly correspond to the Arabian Jinn; and the Jews hold that it is by means of them that all acts of magic and enchantment are performed.

The Talmud says that the Shedeem were the offspring of Adam. After he had eaten of the Tree of life, Adam was excommunicated for one hundred and thirty years. “In all those years,” saith Rabbi Jeremiah Ben E’liezar, “during which Adam was under excommunication, he begat spirits, demons, and spectres of the night, as it is written, ‘Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begat children in his likeness and in his image,’ which teaches, that till that time he bad not begotten them in his own likeness.” In Berasbith Rabba, R. Simon says, “During all the one hundred and thirty years that Adam was separate from Eve, male spirits lay with her, and she bare by them, and female spirits lay with Adam, and bare by him.”

These Shedeem or Mazikeen are held to resemble the angels in three things. They can see and not be seen; they have wings and can fly; they know the future. In three respects they resemble mankind: they eat and drink; they marry and have children; they are subject to death. It may be added, they have the power of assuming any form they please; and so the agreement between them and the Jinn of the Arabs is complete.

Keightley shares three Jewish legends about the shedim: “The Broken Oaths,” “The Moohel,” and “The Mazik-Ass.”

As with dragons and unicorns, there are probably some who will pounce on “rational” or “scientific” explanations for fairies. Some do, in fact, attribute European fairy-lore to dim memories of diminutive tribes driven underground—and ultimately to extinction—by later invaders with the advantage of iron weapons (in both Europe and the Middle East, iron is a potent weapon against the Fair Folk).

In my experience, however, I think most interpreters would see shedim and se’irim as terms intended to describe supernatural or otherworldly beings and not merely misidentified pygmies or “wild men”—whether or not they judge such creatures to be “real.”

Faeries and Personality Disorders

When I first set out to write the Into the Wonder books, I realized that much of the action would involve nonhuman characters and even be told from nonhuman points of view. How to do that convincingly and still end up with characters a teenager could relate to was a mystery. I pressed on, however, by (1) sticking as close to the mythological source material as possible while (2) toning things down enough that at least the “good guy” faery characters didn’t look like complete monsters despite their alien attitudes and morality.

Two books later and well into writing a third, I’ve come to a conclusion: faeries are crazy. True, many of them are high-functioning crazy, and some don’t look crazy at all until you really get to know them. But the more I tried to get a handle on the motivations and personalities of the Fair Folk, I realized that much of their behavior as depicted in folklore lines up quite well with a number of real-life personality disorders.

Now, when I’m writing faery characters and wondering how they might respond to a given situation or what they’re likely to do next, I look for guidance from the world of psychology. These insights don’t explain everything, of course, but they do provide a fresh perspective that can spur on my creativity.

Here, then, are some of the things I’ve found that seem to explain (in part) what makes faeries tick.

Narcissism

Humans: Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by patterns of grandiosity, an overwhelming need for admiration, and usually a complete lack of empathy toward others. Simply put, narcissists believe they are “special.” They have an inflated sense of self-importance and a strong sense of entitlement. They are quick to pass blame to others when things go wrong rather than admit their faults. Furthermore, narcissists can be envious of others and regularly display arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes.

Faeries: Faeries are notoriously vain. In fact, a Manx term for faeries is cloan ny moyrn, “children of pride.” Even as harmless a faery as J. M. Barrie’s Tinker Bell exhibits great vanity. Whether it be in the area of looks, intelligence, magic, musical skill, or some other achievement, faeries crave the attention that comes with being the best—and heaven help anyone who would challenge their claim!

Obsessiveness

Humans: People with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder have excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). They operate on the assumption that things need to be done “just right.” They crave an orderly, predictable environment. The specific nature of such a person’s thoughts and behavior may vary, but some common manifestations seem quite in tune with the faeries of mythology. These include a craving for order and symmetry, overzealous cleaning, and fixation on patterns and numbers.

Faeries: Depending on the legend, faeries might exhibit obsessive personality traits all the way up to full-blown OCD. They can be driven to distraction by such things as a person wearing his or her clothing inside-out, for example. In some legends, faeries always travel in straight lines—and visit mischief on anyone unfortunate enough to have a house that lies in their way!

Furthermore, there are many legends about faeries who clean a person’s house or finish their chores for them at night as well as legends of faeries punishing housewives for failing to keep a tidy house.

Other stories make much of numbers and patterns: a command or an oath must be spoken three times to take effect, for example.

Psychopathy

Humans: Antisocial Personality Disorder is commonly referred to as psychopathy in popular culture. Psychopaths have an abundance of impulsivity and heightened attraction to rewards and risk-taking. A recent study has found that their brains are wired to keep seeking a reward at any cost. Due to their hyper-reactive dopamine reward system, they are inclined to take what they want without thinking of the consequences.

The traits most commonly associated with psychopaths are antisocial behavior, lack of empathy, and bold or disinhibited behavior. “Psychopath” need not mean “serial killer,” however. In fact, many successful people exhibit certain psychopathic traits such as ruthlessness, fearlessness, impulsivity, reduced empathy, developed self-confidence, and lack of remorse.

Faeries: Most faeries seem to effectively be high-functioning psychopaths, although the more unsavory among them drift easily into dysfunctionality: redcaps, spriggans, particularly nasty pookas, and the like. To one degree or another, almost all faeries seem to be impulsive, deceitful nonconformists prone to aggression and vindictiveness. Humans who violate their taboos will pay a hefty price.

Faeries’ lack of empathy is, well, legendary. They simply don’t appreciate the harm that is caused by their mischievous pranks. This deficiency plays into the popularity among faeries for such behaviors such as blighting crops, striking humans and animals with “elf shot,” and kidnapping human children. Putting themselves in another person’s shoes seems to be an alien concept to them.

Finally, faeries are often quite bold and uninhibited. They rarely seem to consider the negative outcomes of a course of action—which has tripped them up in some legends. Their fearlessness is partly fueled by their sense of arrogance, which leads them to overestimate their own abilities. This is especially true for trickster figures, who often have buffoonish or prideful traits.

What nonhuman characters have you especially related to in fiction? What made that character come alive for you?

A History of the Fae

Leo Elijah Cristea has posted the final installment of his series on the fae. (Links to all four parts here.) This has been a very informative series looking at the legends and myths surrounding the Fair Folk, and I heartily commend it.

In this final part of our exploration of the fae, it seems appropriate to take a look at not only the varied and expansive wealth of literature and that features fae, or any recognisable incarnation of them, but also a more comprehensive look at their time line. We’ve briefly explored the evolution of the fae, from Irish folklore, through to Shakespeare’s romantic depictions, and to their modern day Disney or urban fantasy cousins, but the long and fluid history of the fae makes it difficult to succinctly follow. As such, if we head as far back as a pre-Christian time, indeed touching on the relevance of Pagan faeries and early Greco-Roman fae we start to see that two things are true:

You’ll just have to click through to see what those two things are. 🙂

The Fairy Investigation Society

I may have to check these folks out. I’ll definitely be taking their online survey of faery beliefs.

The Fairy Investigation Society (FIS) was founded in 1927 by a British man named Quentin Crauford. Attracting mostly Theosophists who believed that fairies were elemental beings, the Society continued sporadically through the 20th century until finally disappearing in the 1990s.

In 2013 the Society was re-booted by Simon Young, an English historian living in Italy. While membership in the original Society was limited to people who believed in fairies, the current society is open to “all those who have an interest in fairylore, be they believers or ultra skeptics.” I’m proud to be a member myself!