Why Did the Fairies Shrink?

Once again, Papers comes to you to answer the hard-hitting questions today’s scholars are afraid to touch, or about which they don’t care much.  Today’s question is, why did the fairies shrink?

For, indeed, the fairies did shrink.  The diminutive figures of stage and screen, from Peter Pan to Pan’s Labyrinth, reflect how we see them today.  Yet fairies were at one time seen as beings of roughly human size, up until the 17th century or so.  What was the cause of this?

Purkiss, in her book Troublesome Things, suggests that the fairies shrank as a result of Mercutio’s speech in Romeo and Juliet, Act 1 Scene 4, which begins as follows:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate stone…

This seems to be the scholarly consensus (I see indications that Katherine Briggs thought differently, but her works are not at hand), but is it the case?  I’ll suggest another possibility for the shrinking of the fairies’ size:  the writings of Paracelsus.

In his essay On Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, the noted sixteenth-century Theophrastus Paracelsus presents his vision of the creatures of the four classical elements in a manner so striking that it has captured the imagination of occultists down through the centuries.  According to Paracelsus, each element has associated with it a type of being, similar in basic shape to men, but seeing its particular element as its habitat.  One manner in which these spirits differ from each other is in their physical appearance:

About their figures, know that they are different.  The water people look like men, both women and men.  The sylvestres do not conform, but are cruder, coarser, longer and stronger than both.  The mountain people [pygmies] are small, of about two spans.  The salamanders are long, narrow and lean.

Paracelsus goes on to cite the discovery of tiny underground chambers and indicative of the existence of such creatures.  These creatures, along with the other elementals, have many traits that might be shared with fairies – for example, the notion of the importance of promises to be made to them:

The mountain mannikins also must keep their pledges, when they are in service and have been pledged.  But obligations to them must be kept also, in all that is due to them…

We have another passage that combines the notions of fairies as guardians of treasure with their folkloric nature, connecting them with the past:

…gnomes, pygmies and mani guard the treasures of the earth, the metals and similar treasures… people say;  in times of old there used to be mountain mannikins, earth people here, but now they are gone.

My hypothesis is that the popularity of Paracelsus spread such beliefs about these beings far and wide.  As treasure-bearing spirits are usually the ones in which people express the most practical interest, gnome lore likely became more widely known than those of the others (sure, Paracelsus says that the salamanders have treasure too, but their environments are much less hospitable).  These creatures would have been conflated with the fairies, until the fairies were seen as bearing the same traits.

In the realm of having one’s theoretical cake and eating it, too, I should point to a recent article in Shakespeare Survey that suggests that lines in MacBeth indicate that Shakespeare was familiar with the doctrines from this very treatise of Paracelsus…

Published in: on December 12, 2009 at 11:42 pm  Comments (6)  

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  1. In Katharine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, And Other Supernatural Creatures she states “The first very small traditional fairies that we know are the Portunes recorded by Gervase of Tilbury. They were probably carried on in the stream of tradition by the fairies’ connection with the dead, for the soul is often thought of as a tiny creature which comes out of a sleeping man and wanders about. Its adventures are the sleeper’s dreams. By this means or others the tradition continued, and came up into literature in the 16th century.”

  2. I’ll have to look more into Briggs’ position. I can say with some certainty that what searches I’ve run in more recent literature seem to highlight Shakespeare as the source of this, without any refutation of Briggs. Odd, that.

  3. Interesting. The size of fairies appears variable – most pre-17C encounters describe figures the same size as humans (again I recommend Emma Wilby’s book!), but the Paracelsus does indeed describe somethig akin to the modern diminuitive fairy. FWIW, the medieval romance of Auberon in Huon of Bordeaux suggests that the fairy king is three feet in height.

    The Gervaise of Tilbury is from Otia Imperialia:
    “As among men, nature produces certain wonderful things, so spirits, in airy bodies, who assume by divine permission the mocks they make. For, behold! England has certain daemons (daemons, I call them, though I know not, but I should say secret forms of unknown generation), whom the French call Neptunes, the English Portunes. With these it is natural that they take advantage of the simplicity of fortunate peasants; and when, by reason of their domestic labours, they perform their nocturnal vigils, of a sudden, the doors being shut, they warm themselves at the fire, and eat little frogs, cast out of their bosoms and put upon the burning coals; with an antiquated countenance; a wrinkled face; diminutive in stature, not having [in length] half a thumb. They are clothed with rags patched together; and if anything should be to be carried on in the house, or any kind of laborious work to be done, they join themselves to the work, and expedite it with more than human facility. It is natural to these, that they may be obsequious, and may not be hurtful. But one little mode, as it were, they have of hurting. For when, among the ambiguous shades of night, the English occasionally ride alone, the Portune, sometimes, unseen, couples himself to the rider; and, when he has accompanied him, going on, a very long time, at length, the bridle being seized, he leads him up to the hand in the mud, in which while, infixed, he walls, the Portune, departing, sets up a laugh; and so, in this kind of way, derides human simplicity.” (Otia imperialia, D. 3, c. 61).

    – the part about taking control of the reins reminds me of contemporary ghost story that has always fascinated me: the ‘hairy hands of Dartmoor’, which since the early 20C have been causing accidents on a stretch of country road.

  4. Very interesting post Dan (and commenters), I look forward to reading Brigg’s book as well as some of the other sources.

    But, really, you put some green fairy in front of many of us and it will shrink very quickly.😉

  5. なぜ妖精は縮んだのか…

     かつて妖精は人間と同じくらいの大きさだったが、現在ではきわめて小柄な生き物と見なされている。そうなった経緯をダニエル=ハームズが考察している。 Why Did the Fairies Shrink? « Papers Falling from an Attic Window  シェイクスピアの「ロミオとジュリエッ…

  6. […] Falling from an Attic Window, Dan Harms asks (and answers) a rather interesting question: “Why did the fairies shrink?” Apparently we can blame Paracelsus and […]


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