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…