On the Fairy Road

An exploration of historic and modern Fairy beliefs, and more generally Irish-American and Celtic folk beliefs, from both an academic and experiential perspective.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Seeing The Shape of Folklore: From Popculture to Source Culture

One of my favourite things to contemplate is the connection between folklore as its found in the living cultures, particularly the Celtic language speaking cultures, and folklore as its manifested in popculture. I have written articles about aspects of this and even presented a paper at the University of Ohio for a conference they had in February of 2019. There are so many diverse factors that influence and shape the way that folklore is preserved within a source culture and the ways that that same material is taken, reshaped, and spread throughout popular culture. 

As I was thinking about this all today, and particularly the ways that popculture reimagines older and existing folklore it reminded me of something. There was a time in Europe when very few of the educated elite there had been to Africa, especially the interior, and so descriptions of animals found there - and more to the point artwork depicting them - were quite fantastical. For example the image with this blog was created by Albrecht Durer in 1515, based on  a written description and rough sketch he had seen although he personally never saw a living (or dead) rhinoceros. 

Obviously this bares some resemblance to the actual animal in the broad strokes but also has some fantastical elements and errors that make it something unique. Rhinoceros aren't literally armour plated, they don't have scales on their legs or a spike on their back, and their feet are quite different in reality. A person familiar with a living rhinoceros would likely recognize what Durer's image was meant to convey but also would be confused by the strangeness of the depiction. 

This, to me, is very like the relationship between existing folklore and folklore as seen through the lens of popular culture. When we look at fairies as they appear in urban fantasy, role playing games, television or movies, recent artwork, or even some corners of pagan belief shaped by these, we get the equivalent of Durer's rhinoceros: an image that bears enough of a resemblance to the source folklore to be loosely recognizable but which is also profoundly different in important ways. In contrast when we look at the folklore and anecdotal accounts we get a very different image, like a photograph of the actual living rhinoceros. The two are related but also distinct. 

Much of popculture fairylore is, at its core, rooted in folklore or retold anecdotal accounts. The popular culture  version however is often divorced from the belief held in the source cultures and blended with fiction; how much or how little fiction varies greatly. Sometimes this popculture version is then taken back into belief in areas where there is no existing source folklore or very little, rather like the way people who never saw a rhinoceros would allow Durer's image to shape their understanding of and envisioning of the real animal. Because of this we see the phenomena whereby the source material itself is ignored in favour of the new popculture understanding, because that is what people have grown their knowledge from. One example would be the way many people believe that elves and fairies have pointed ears, despite this not being found in older accounts, because it is nearly ubiquitous in art and fantasy novels. 

Perhaps this is a helpful concept to keep in mind, or perhaps you may decide that both simply represent different angles on the same exact thing. Its a fluid and often debated topic. And of course I am not examining here the way that popular belief may influence the direction that fairy beliefs develop in1 although that is also an important discussion. My food for thought today was simply the way that the single level of removal from a source can so radically change the envisioned subject.


End Note
1 for example the idea of fairies with wins began in the theater in the 17th and 18th century, spread to artwork, and has now entered the popular imagination. Anecdotal accounts of fairies never described wings even when they were described as flying but this has shifted in recent years so that people are now describing encounters with winged fairies. 

Last modified on
Morgan has been a practicing witch since the early 90's with a focus on the Fairy Faith and fairylore. She has written over two dozen non-fiction and fiction books on topics related to Irish mythology, witchcraft, fairy folklore, and related subjects. Morgan has also taught workshops on these same topics across the United States and internationally. In her spare time she likes to study the Irish language in both its modern and historic forms.
Author's recent posts


Additional information