Enchanted Entryways: Elf Houses and Fairy Doors
Fairy Faith, Past and Present
Belief in fairies was common in many parts of the world. Although “fairy” is a European word, many other cultures used different words to describe similar beings. And, different classifications of beings had different attributes. The word fairy comes from the Old French faerie, which is etymologically descended from the Latin fata, meaning The Fates.
It is believed that both the Aos Sí in the Irish tradition and the Alfar of Norse tradition were related to ancient ancestor worship. This is because both types of spirits were associated with mounds. Aos Sí comes from the older form, aes sídhe, which means people of the mounds. The aos sí were often referred to as “The Good People” or “The Fair Folk,” and eventually became synonymous with fairy lore.
Alfar is the the ancestor word of our modern term elf. There are many fascinating aspects of the álfar over the years. They may have once been thought to have been the male counterpart to the Norse dísir, female ancestor guardian spirits. Over time the álfar become the elves of folklore, while the dísir faded away with the erosion of indigenous Germanic religion.
In any case, belief in elfin and fairy spirits continued on among the common folk long after belief in the old pagan gods had disappeared. Some of these spirits were given offerings such as bread, milk, porridge, salt, or other food items, which demonstrates the connection to the worship of the Old Religion.
In fact, leaving milk and cookies for that jolly spirit we call Santa Claus is a modern adaption of leaving out milk and food for household deities such as the Brownies of Scotland or Kobolds of Germany. Many of the traits of Santa himself are speculated to have a strong connection to Odin, who rode his flying horse through the night skies in the Wild Hunt at Yuletide.
The connection between fairies and old paganism was not lost on Church leaders as Christianity spread throughout Europe. In many places, people who were found to be honoring a household deity (or leaving food out for a house elf, for example) could be punished for taking part in pagan rituals. Fairies became equated with demons and communicating with fairies could be used as evidence in witch trials.
Despite the transformation from a pagan to Christian society, the belief in fairies lived on. Some people insist that elves and fairies exist today. One expression of belief in fairies are the creation of fairy gardens, fairy doors, and elf houses. While for some this is pure fantasy fun, for others the doors and houses are meant to mark the places where these beings are thought to really live.
Elf Houses in Iceland
Elves in Iceland are called the Huldufólk, which means Hidden People. Belief in elves is still quite strong in Iceland today, certainly more so than in most other parts of the world. It is thought that the mysterious landscape as well as the isolation of this island country both influenced stories of elves to flourish over the years.
Old Norse religion lingered longer in Iceland than in most other parts of Europe. And, even after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, their society was much more accommodating to old beliefs than other parts of Europe.
Today there are many beliefs associated with elves in Iceland. They are especially believed to live in rocks. Major motorways have been diverted to avoid disturbing elves residing in mountainsides. People will go out of their way to avoid stepping on rocks or hills in which elves are thought to reside.
Elf houses spring up all around the Icelandic countryside. In some cases this is to alert passersby that elves are present so as not to disturb them. They may also be simple a way to acknowledge their otherworldly presence.
Fairy Doors and Rows in Great Britain
As mentioned above, the “Fairy Faith” as a vestige of the Old Religion continues to linger on. Places associated with fairies are sometimes places where offerings are left for them. Common gifts for fairies include ribbon, coins, and flowers.
To the right is a photo of a naturally occurring “door” upon a tree trunk that has been bedecked with a house number and door handle. You can see the ribbon and flowers left beside the fairy home as offerings to the Good Folk.
Many types of trees are associated with fairies. Some were thought to hold fairy magic. For example, it was common to make wands from branches of the Rowan tree. Other trees were thought to be homes of the fairies, such as Hawthorn bushes.
Places that naturally have a look about them that seems to resemble a fairy abode are sometimes turned into fairy houses by imaginative people. Little fairy doors appear in such places with no explanation as to who is responsible.
In Cumbria, England, there exists a magical place called Fairy Row. This is a place near the Gelt Wood where one day, in 2010, many little fairy doors suddenly appeared on the bases of trees and rocks. So far, nobody has claimed credit for them.
The doors found at Fairy Row are made of pottery, painted and glazed. Each door seems designed and shaped specifically for its particular location, molded to the shape of the space where it sits.
These doors were created with great care and they are adorned with intricate accessories. To the right is one door with tiny blue boots on the porch, and the green door is equipped with a tiny key. Whomever created them surely must be caring for them still, as they are said to disappear each September, only to reappear in the springtime after the winter is over. Is this the work of the potter who created them? Or is it magic?!
Fairy Doors in America
Similar to the doors of Fairy Row in England are the Fairy Doors of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Like the doors of Fairy Row, these doors are the work of one artist. However, unlike Fairy Row, this artist is known. Or at least thought to be known.
The fairy doors first sprang up in the home of Jonathan Wright and his wife, Kathleen. Shortly afterward, the first public door appeared in Ann Arbor. Soon, little fairy doors began to spring up in many places around town.
There are other differences between these fairy doors and the ones at Fairy Row. The first one being that while the first fairy doors were found in a woodland setting, these are found in an urban environment. The doors are placed by shops and businesses around town. As such, these doors have hard, geometric lines, unlike the organic shapes found in the Fairy Row doors.
Each one is unique, and designed to compliment its location. This is actually something these doors have in common with the other doors from Fairy Row. Each door is designed individually and specifically with its environment in mind.
Does this say something about the artist or about our perception of fairies? Perhaps it’s both. Maybe we believe that fairies are something special and not bound by the laws that bind the modern world. While our houses and buildings often appear punched from cookie cutter patterns, these fairy houses are one of a kind.
Conclusion…This is just the beginning!
I hope you have enjoyed this jaunt around Fairyland. Of course, there is another meaning of for the term “fairy door,” and that is a real doorway to the Realm of Faerie. Those doorways are not as easily spotted by the casual passerby. I’m sure I will explore those doorways soon. They are also called “thin places,” because the veil between our world and the world of spirit is thought to be especially thin.
By Carolyn Emerick