Ronald Hutton’s Typology of Faeries

In the video I mentioned in this post, Prof. Hutton provided a concise classification system for the faeries of northern Europe. It is but one part of a fascinating and expertly presented lecture, and I’m summarizing it here because it fits nicely (though not perfectly) with the way I developed the Fair Folk one meets in Children of Pride.  Hutton speaks of three basic categories of faeries in the British Isles:

1. Faeries proper, which Hutton describes as “the neighbors from hell.” These are the frightening and often malicious faeries one encounters in the oldest strands of faerie lore: the daoine sídhe and their cohorts. They live underground in a society that mirrors that of human beings, with courts, royalty (usually queens), banqueting, dancing, and the like.

2. Household helpers, including all manner of brownies, hobs, fenodyrees, and the like. These creatures are more mischievous than malicious, and they can sometimes be persuaded to help with the domestic and agricultural chores. But be careful, because they are easily offended and may just leave if one does something of which they don’t approve.

3. Faerie tricksters such as Robin Goodfellow. These are practical jokers, generally harmless or amusing rather than hostile. They are a rather late invention according to Hutton, largely under the influence of Shakespeare’s Puck. He is most assuredly not a pooka, which would better be understood as a dreaded “night being.” He further compares Robin Goodfellow to Native American trickster archetypes like Coyote as a trickster and buffoon, but also sometimes a powerful cosmic force. (Hutton does not use the specific terminology of “faery trickster,” but I think this is a fair description.)

He also notes a fourth category:

4. Nature spirits such as the pans and nymphs of Greek mythology. Properly speaking, Hutton says there are relatively few of these in the folklore of the British Isles. He further insists that these creatures are not, properly speaking, faeries at all since they fit into the natural realm in a way that traditional Anglo-Celtic faeries do not. Unlike faeries proper, beings of this type seem to be nearly universal in human cultures. Although Hutton insists such creatures are not faeries, he does say that the trolls or faeries of Iceland (and the related trows of the Orkney and Shetland Islands) are something of a hybrid between this category and the first. They are “land wights” who exercise guardianship over the land, but they are also said to live in underground communities and are often less than hospitable to human beings.

If you’re interested in the faery lore of the British Isles, you really owe it to yourself to listen to Prof. Hutton’s lecture.


Satyrs: Greek Spirits of the Wild

Michelangelo, "Satyr's Head"

Michelangelo, “Satyr’s Head”

Satyrs are associated with forests and mountains in both Greek and Roman mythology. Hesiod (7th cent. BC) considered them the “brothers” of the mountain nymphs and Kouretes. Whatever their genealogy, they are uninhibited children of nature: earthy, reckless, seductive—and dangerous if threatened. They are the quintessential “bad boys” of the faery world, brazenly flouting the norms of civilized society. In keeping with their untamed nature, their traditional garment is a panther pelt.

Despite their wildness, satyrs do have an appreciation for at least some of the gifts of human culture. They love music and dance, for example. In fact, they have a special form of grotesque, vulgar dance called the sikinnis. They are also associated both with Pan, the Greek god of the wild, and Dionysus, the god of wine. They are notably hardy and resistant to fatigue, able to dance for hours on end, for example, or remain (relatively) sober no matter how much alcohol they consume. They are lovers of wine, women, and revels. They have a particular infatuation with nymphs.

There are two common depictions of satyrs in Greco-Roman art. Young satyrs are called satyrisci (singular, satyriscus). They are graceful beings with elfin features and pointed ears. Praxilites’s sculpture “Resting Satyr” depicts a satyriscus.

The earlier depiction of satyrs made them older, more animalistic, but also more powerful. These satyrs are classified as sileni (singular, silenus). Sileni are bearded and strongly built. They have the ears of a horse, a horse-like tail, and sometimes even the hooves (or the entire lower body) of a horse. Sileni are the oldest, wisest, and most magically adept of satyrs.

It should be noted, then, that satyrs are not to be confused with fauns or “goat-men.” As time progressed, Greek satyrs became blended with Roman fauns in the telling of the myths. The two, however, were originally different sorts of beings. Satyrs are, in fact, fully humanoid (at least in their youth). Medieval bestiaries often compared satyrs not to goats but to apes or monkeys.