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  • The Problem of Pygmy Fairies March 5, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Prehistoric , trackback

    Beachcombing has been having a bit of a fairy phase recently, played out in his evening readings after he’s put little Miss B to bed. And he has particularly been interested at the different explanations that our ancestors – distant and recent – offered to explain the fact that ‘little folk’ lived in the cairn behind the church or in the dell near the standing stone.

    This question becomes particularly urgent given that as late as the nineteenth century – and in a handful of places at an even later date, even today… – rural communities did not just tell stories about fairies, they believed in them and, in some cases, individuals claimed to see the small ones.

    In a spirit of confusion, Beachcombing thought that he would air then a nineteenth-century theory for the origin of the fairy-faith in the west of Europe, what might be called ‘the Pygmy Theory’ – the idea that fairies were no more than a distorted memory of a now extinct small race of humanoid or human.

    Now there had been mutterings about a Pygmy Theory of fairies since the Middle Ages – Beachcombing would love to know the earliest reference: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com.  However, in 1890 the Scottish writer David MacRitchie published a book with the bland title The Testimony of Tradition in which MacRitchie set out and carefully argued the Pygmy Theory with reference to archaeology and ethnology, in as much as the state of research at that time would allow him.

    MacRitchie was formalising a fascinating notion.

    Might it not be that ‘pygmies’ had lived side by side with European man?

    Might it not also be that they never learnt to smelt iron – hence the traditional fear that fairies have for that substance?

    Might it not even be that their traditional homes became the ‘fairy mounds’ of later ages?

    There was also one very concrete example of a different human type being classified as a fairy-tale creature: the sub-arctic ‘trolls’ met by the Vikings (another post another day).

    MacRitchie’s theory quickly ran into trouble, however: and opposition was vocal and, in some cases, vicious. For one, the archaeological remains of the fairy races remained virtually inexistent – his preferred ‘pygmy’ candidate, the Inuit, seemed never to have come to dwell in north-western Europe! For another, even ‘pygmies’ have legends about beings that are comparable to ‘fairies’. Then there is the problem that ‘fairy mounds’ are more often than not burial places or antique or medieval fortifications. Beachcombing is too good mannered to start with the awkward fact that not all fairies are small or even that some seem to change size constantly…

    In his recent readings Beachcombing has been disappointed by the quality of modern work on fairies – caught somewhere between earnest folklore and Glastonbury-Stargate mush – and runs this post/flag up the mast to see if anyone would care to defend ‘the Pygmy Theory’ today.

    After all, Darwinism is now better established. We know better than MacRitchie that Neanderthals overlapped with humans. And the possibility that humanity coexisted with other ‘humanities’ post homo floresiensis (if you are a ‘believer’) is also increasingly accepted.

    Or did the criticisms the Pygmy Theory receive a hundred years ago consign it permanently to the dustbin of history?

    Personally, Beachcombing finds the whole pygmy thing a bit of an uphill struggle: not least because fairy sightings continued, suggesting then that the pygmies were the ‘seed’ doesn’t seem to encompass the, let’s call it, ‘psychological need’.

    Beachcombing thanks MP whose email inspired this post.


    9 March 2011: This email came in from Firth Cultist and opens up a whole series of other fairy questions – Beachcombing was reminded of the stories concerning fairy changelings (another post another day). ‘I would like to know if you have ever seen the Wikipedia description of a rare syndrome called Williams syndrome here in the U.S. and Williams Beurens syndrome in the U.K. The April 2011 issue of National Geographic contains an excellent article with pretty photos and graphs on a Siberian project to domesticate foxes and study the genetic changes brought on by domestication. The rare condition Williams Beurens  Syndrome was listed as of interest to scientists studying domestication because the people born with it are especially gregarious. The syndrome is described as a combination of about 26 missing genes. Further reading after quick Internet searches revealed that  people with this syndrome are exceptionally kind, highly verbally skilled and they have a tendency to be famously musical and possess perfect pitch. The  syndrome is characterized by a lack of elastin in the body which gives a certain look to the features. The Wikipedia entry suggests that these people were thought of as magical because they were so kind and trusting , friendly and musical. They might have been one source of fairy legends.  Wikipedia is not such a great source but I just wanted to mention this connection along with the pygmy theory. God bless those who suffer from this syndrome and all those parents and loved ones who care for them. Their abilities run the gamut from needing life-long assistance to living independently and holding PHD level degrees and jobs.’ Thanks a million Firth Cultist!

    29 March 2011: KMH writes in with some unusual thoughts – Beachcombing particularly liked pre-Adamic ‘I don’t know of any realistic theory concerning paranormal beings such as fairies, elves, leprechauns, gnomes, banshees, etc. Paranomal means they aren’t a real biological phenomenon and appearances tend to be suited to the viewer.  My very uncertain idea is that they originate from pre-adamic races that may never be discovered by shovel and pickaxe.  Their smaller size may be a general  reflection of the size of their mind or soul rather than their prior physical bodies. Supposedly their “magical”  powers compensate for this deficiency. However, features such as wings, horns, etc. imply that they aren’t pre-adamic, and are more likely to be in the same category as the merfolk (also paranormal).  Being too good for the human race most of the time, they have existed independently for millennia. Whatever function they have had on the planet is in decline as humanity overwhelms his environment, especially the wildlife areas. All these minor entities (ranking below angels)  would seem to have a final choice between incarnating into the human race or being shipped off to another realm in some other solar system.’ Thanks KMH

    30 Dec 2014: Leif with some good stuff here, David MacRitchie’s ‘pygmy fairy’ theory sounds like an inspiration for Arthur Machen’s ‘Novel of the black seal’ in ‘The three imposters’ (1895). If this is true, at least some good came from it. And while the theory obviously doesn’t hold water, a watered-down version just might: in past times, people interpreted rare visitors as fairies. In other words, fairy believers were subject to confirmation bias. Two examples– the first discussed in two Beachcombing posts: ‘Inuit in Orkney?’ February 2, 2013 and ‘Inuit in Aberdeen?’ February 13, 2013. If an Inuk found himself unfortunate enough to be blown across the Atlantic, people in the Orkneys well might have thought he was a Finn man. This quote from Reverend James Wallace which appears in MacRitchie [1] indicates ‘Finnmen’ left physical evidence. ‘One of their Boats sent from Orkney to Edinburgh is to be seen in the Physitians hall with the Oar and the Dart he makes use of for killing Fish, [and it is stated by Mr. John Small, M.A., &c., in his edition(3) of this book that the boat spoken of was “afterwards presented to the University Museum, now incorporated with the Museum of Science and Art, Edinburgh”; and a note appended to the second edition also states that “there is another of their boats in the Church of Burra in Orkney.”]’ The second example is speculation on the part of Peter Vilhelm Glob [2]. A bog body (known as the Huldremose woman) was found near Ramten, Denmark in1879. Glob romantically writes: ‘We may be sure that many a young man in bygone days saw the fairy’s mocking dance and heard her entrancing song, even if the actual name of the bog, Huldre Fen, is probably new, the product of the imagination of the local people, stimulated by the recovery of the huldre or fairy’s body from the bog a little less than a century ago.’ The name of the peat bog is Huldremose, (literally: fairy-fen). The Danes have been digging peat for centuries, and bog body finds, while infrequent, have to predate the earliest recorded in Denmark (1773). [3] Finders had no idea of the bog bodies’ age before the late 19th century. [4] If you believed in fairies, and found a body within walking distance from your house that appeared recent yet was dressed in clothing totally unfamiliar, what might you think?


    [1] MacRitchie, David. The testimony of tradition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner. 1890. ch 1.

    [2] Glob, Peter Vilhelm. The bog people: iron-age man preserved. The New York review of books. 1965. p 79.

    [3] Glob. Ibid. p 66.

    [4] Wikipedia: Danish language entry for ‘Moselig’. accessed 13 dec 14.