In comparison to the cute, friendly little creature Hollywood likes to portray them as, fairies seem to have a much darker history in Newfoundland.
From carrying metal charms and slabs of bread to ward them off, to stories of being taken away never to return, fairies are an integral, albeit frightening, part of Newfoundland’s culture.
Margaret Rose, 80, grew up on Bell Island and currently lives in Mount Pearl. Rose says she hadn’t thought about fairies in a long time, but suddenly the memories came flooding back as though it were yesterday.
When she was very young, Rose says a man on Bell Island disappeared for some time. And when he eventually returned, he was like a completely different person. He suddenly developed a serious speech impediment, and walked hunched over with a cane in a jerky, unstable fashion.
“The rumor was that the fairies took him,” she said, folding her hands together. “Whether there was any truth or anything to that, I don’t know. But, before he went wherever he went, he was just a normal, every day person … When he came back, he was a changed man.
“There was nothing whatsoever pertaining to … like, he was in hospital, or he got hit with a car, or he fell down, or any of the things that you would think would be associated with someone that had changed like that.”
At the time, when most of her community and even her own parents talked about the man having been ‘taken’, Rose says she did believe. Now, she’s not as sure.
“I can’t say yes or no,” said Rose. “I’m hoping it’s all just a story.”
Dale Gilbert Jarvis with the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador says he’s heard several stories similar to Rose’s. He also runs the popular St. John’s Haunted Hike.
“That is something that’s very common in old Newfoundland stories,” said Jarvis. “That if people have some kind of interaction with the fairies, they are changed as a result … People in Newfoundland will also talk about a ‘blast’. Where they will get an injury of some kind, like they’ll trespass on fairy ground, and they’ll be struck with the fairy arrow, and they’ll get like a boil or a lump or something that will form on their body.”
When the lump or boil is cut open, Jarvis says things such as feathers and twigs would come out of the wound.
“And that’s a very ancient belief – illness was caused by supernatural forces, and fairies were always very much part of that belief system.”
Jarvis had several unsettling, but fascinating tales to tell about them, too.
Jarvis tells the tale about a man from North River who disappeared while cutting wood and was eventually found dead.
“People had always said he’d been killed by the fairies, because when he was found he had a little red handprint burned into his face where the fairies had struck him.”
Make no wonder people were afraid. Jarvis agrees that fairies are a creature generally thought to be avoided, but they aren’t inherently evil.
“They just kind of do their own thing and they don’t like it when you interact with them,” Jarvis said.
When asked about where he himself stands on fairies, Jarvis laughed, dodging the question.
“I’m not gonna say that they don’t exist. It would be bad luck to say that they didn’t exist.”
Nora Andrews, however, has no doubt that fairies live among us.
The 86-year-old currently resides in a nursing home in St. John’s, but originally grew up in the town of St. Joseph’s on Salmonier Line.
Andrews is a spiritual and insightful woman. She spoke without fear about the presence of spirits, and the line between life and death being as thin as the sheer curtains in her room from which spirits come and go.
Her father believed, too.
“… If he was going up to cut wood or anything like that, he always had slices of bread in his pocket … So, if the little people got him, he had something to give,” said Andrews.
She spoke of old tales such as Jackie the Lantern (a mischievous nighttime spirit), and of a young girl who disappeared for two nights, and when she returned, she said she had been taken by “ladies in white”.
Similar to Jarvis’ story, Andrews also mentioned a man who disappeared while cutting wood and never came back.
“And the priest said, ‘oh, the poor fellow, they got him.'”
Some 20 years later, she said, they found his bones.
“I think he probably just died, you know. But, the fairies had him as far as everybody was concerned. They still believe the fairies got him.”
Fairies were certainly regarded as dangerous when Andrews was a child. The stories were meant to instill fear and keep them safe.
“I feel different about fairies,” said Andrews. “I think now I would try to communicate with (them) if I could … I think they play. I don’t think they mean to hurt you.”
Andrews also says it saddens her that the stories aren’t nearly as common knowledge as they were when she was growing up.
“The younger people don’t know about it, and it’s too bad.”
Jarvis, however, disagrees.
“There’s this idea, I think, that fairy stories are disappearing,” he said. “And I don’t know if that’s true or not. I think what maybe has shifted is kind of the level of belief.”
Both feel it’s important to keep their rich history alive, and remember the perspective of their ancestors; how life was for them 80 years ago.
“It’ll fade out if somebody doesn’t do what you’re doing now,” Andrews said. “I think that’s wonderful … I think it’s very important. They should know how we grew up.”