“Fairy” is a literary term (derived ultimately from Latin Fata, the goddess of fate) for a kind of being widely recognized in various cultures around the world. Many other names have been used for such beings, for example, banshee, bogle, brownie, dryad, elf, goblin, hamadryad, jinni, kobold, leprechaun, naiad, nymph, peri, pixie, Robin Goodfellow, sidhe, troll, and water baby.
The technical theosophical term is “elemental,” reflecting Renaissance esotericism, in which various types of such beings were associated with the four classical elements: gnomes with earth, undines with water, sylphs with air, and salamanders with fire. Such figures became a part of the literary tradition, as in the seventeenth century satire Le Comte de Gabalis by the Abbé de Villars and the eighteenth century mock epic poem The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope.
The modern popular image of the fairy was developed in the Victorian period, based especially upon Shakespeare’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but incorporating other traditions as well. Victorian treatments of the fairy theme in art embraced the grotesque, the comic, the fantastic, and the sentimental, but it was the last that became the usual characteristic of the fairy, typified by Tinkerbell in James Barrie’s play Peter Pan.
The popular Victorian image of the fairy influenced theosophical concepts, especially in the early twentieth century. The height of that influence was reached in the affair of the Cottingley fairy photographs. Two cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, faked a number of photographs to convince adults in their family of the truth of their reports of having seen fairies. Arthur Conan Doyle, who was interested in spiritualism and whose father and uncle had been members of the fairy painting school, became convinced of the genuineness of the photographs and published a book about them. The clairvoyant Geoffrey HODSON investigated the sightings at Cottingley and supported the girls’ verbal reports. Edward L. GARDNER later published an account of the matter as he knew it. Eventually the girls, grown to be old women, described the manner and motive of the fakery, although Frances continued to maintain the genuineness of the sightings and of one of the photographs. The Cottingley fairies have remained a subject of interest, being treated in two 1997 films, centrally in “Fairy Tale — A True Story” and incidentally in “Photographing Fairies.” Both films are faithful to the ambiguity of the Cottingley fairies by implying the fraudulence of the photographs while maintaining the genuineness of the fairies.
Contrasting with the popular imaginative image of the fairy is the theosophical concept of elementals, which are life forms in the evolutionary process. The theosophical view of the development of consciousness on a cosmic scale recognizes two phases. In the first phase, or involution, undifferentiated consciousness is increasingly immersed into matter and thereby limited and constricted. In the second, or evolution, consciousness becomes increasingly differentiated, sensitive, and expansive, embracing its environment ever more fully and completely.
Each of the two phases has several major stages in which consciousness is embodied in and expressed through an appropriate “kingdom” of nature. The pivotal kingdom is the mineral, which is the turning point between intellectual involution and evolution, when consciousness is least aware of its environment, being most immersed in and dominated by matter. The succeeding evolutionary kingdoms are the vegetable, animal, and human (and beyond the human still more evolved superhuman kingdoms). Preceding the mineral are involutionary or elemental kingdoms, corresponding to the evolutionary ones, but developing toward less rather than greater conscious awareness.
Just as the vegetable, animal, and human kingdoms consist of living centers of consciousness in plants, beasts, and people, so the elemental kingdoms also consist of living centers of consciousness of three main types, known collectively as elementals, which are the basis for the literary, artistic, and imaginative images of fairies. Helena P. Blavatsky (CW VI:189) says of these beings:
They are the Soul of the elements, the capricious forces in Nature, acting under one immutable Law, inherent in these Centres of Force, with undeveloped consciousness and bodies of plastic mold, which can be shaped according to the conscious or unconscious will of the human being who puts himself en rapport with them. . . . These beings have never been, but will in myriads of ages hence, be evolved into men. They belong to the three lower kingdoms.
Calling them “nature spirits,” she goes on to say (CW VI:197): “Elementals, as said already, have no form, and in trying to describe what they are, it is better to say that they are ‘centers of force’ having instinctive desires, but no consciousness, as we understand it. Hence their acts may be good or bad indifferently.”
The foregoing remarks by Blavatsky touch on several important points about these beings:
1. They are called elementals or “soul of the elements” because their three kingdoms correspond to the three planes of matter on which their involutionary development is primarily focused. Those planes have traditionally been symbolized by the classical elements earth, water, and air.
2. They are forces in nature, or separate “centers of force,” being neither individualized like human beings nor even yet entered on the way to such individualization, as animals and plants have been.
3. These beings are concerned with organizing the forms used by the evolutionary kingdoms (mineral, vegetable, animal) and so are called “nature spirits.”
4. Their consciousness is involutionary in its orientation; hence it is said to be “undeveloped” or not to be consciousness “as we understand it”; they will, however, “in myriads of ages hence” themselves evolve into the human kingdom.
5. Their actions are governed by natural law rather than by a separate moral sense, so they are called “capricious” and “instinctive,” “good or bad indifferently” from our standpoint.
6. They have no fixed form, but instead bodies that can be molded and shaped in the perception of human beings who come into contact with them, whether or not those human beings are aware of that fact. This characteristic explains the descriptions that clairvoyants have given of the elementals as corresponding with the popular image of fairies. Because the clairvoyant has that popular image in mind, it is projected onto and consequently models the formal appearance of the elemental, which in itself is purely a center of force.
Blavatsky, Helena P. “Elementals.” In Collected Writings 6:184-201. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1975.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Coming of the Fairies. London: Hodder and Stonyhurst; New York: George H. Doran, 1922.
Gardner, Edward L. Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel. London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1945. Fourth rev. ed. 1966.
Hodson, Geoffrey. Fairies at Work and at Play. 1925; Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1982.
Kunz, Dora van Gelder. The Real World of Fairies: A First-Person Account. 2nd ed. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1999.
Martineau, Jane, ed. Victorian Fairy Painting. London: Merrell Holberton, 1997. See Elementals. J.A.