TO the question, “Does any fragment of ancient Greek mythology survive?” the answer is, “Yes, the nymphs.” For among the hills and across the fields and streams of Greece, where the gods were born and dwelt, fairies now dance and play and radiate a subtle charm. Fairies are none other than the modern forms of the dryads, oreads, naiads, nerejds, fates, furies, graces and muses of the ancient myths. They are the nymphs that sang and played with Pan and Hermes, Apollo and the satyrs, but now they play and dance and sing with common shepherds, fishermen and hunters. Their very name is as old as Pontus, their father, and Doris, their mother. Nereida or Neraida and Numfe, vernacular Nufe, have the same meaning, which we may translate “fairy” or “nymph.”
Fairies are the virgin divinities of the earth. They know no heaven, for they take the place of the lower, earth-dwelling gods of the ancient mythology. They were never born; they never grow old; yet they are not immortal. Their beauty is everlasting and their dance eternal. They were created out of the earth and always live upon it, the anthropomorphic spirits of hills, streams, trees and ocean.
The Greek’s conception of fairies springs from his worship of nature, to which he is bound by his constant love of beauty. To his mind they are beautiful maidens, endowed with mysterious power, who inhabit palaces in the clouds, in caves on remote mountain peaks, along wild, rocky shores, or at the bottom of the sea. At noon on sunlit days and moonlit nights they visit the haunts of mortals, often choosing a tall pine tree, a cave or a spring. Sometimes they come singing, playing violins or flutes, or gently beating drums; sometimes they steal silently over hills and fields, seeking beautiful children or youths or maidens to carry away to their palaces for purposes of pleasure.
The fairy world is higher than that of mortals. Its creatures are not subject to the same laws of nature as are binding upon us. Nevertheless, they are not goddesses and their power is not unlimited. They can be frightened and driven away by the firing of a gun. They dare not touch the mortal who wears a felahtare, bag of incense, such as many Greeks have suspended about their necks. The cross, a sign of the cross, and prayer, are protections against them. If a mortal seizes a fairy’s handkerchief or veil, a strand of hair or a bit of clothing, the fairy becomes a helpless mortal woman, bound to serve the human being who thus captured her. If the fairy article returns to the possession of its rightful owner, the woman regains her fairy attributes and power, but should the article be burned to ashes, communication between her and the fairy world ceases and she is doomed to die a mortal’s death.
Music, laughter and song, play, dancing and love are associated with fairies, but at times these creatures can be cunning and cruel and, when thwarted, revengeful. Occasionally, as in the case of the water fairies, they offer gifts to their prospective captives. By accepting these gifts, mortals place themselves under the fairies’ dominion, from which escape is possible only by burning the gifts. Fairies have destroyed the happiness or wrecked the life of many a youth who, having seen them, cannot put the memory of them from his mind, or who, having possessed one of them, has lost her forever. The springs from which fairies drink are called magemenes, bewitched. The mortal who drinks from such a spring becomes magemenos, fairy-possessed, and, forgetting home and family, wanders aimlessly like one mad.
The mediator between the fairy and the mortal worlds is the sorcerer or the sorceress. The sorceress is the more common. She is usually an old woman with a practical knowledge of healing and much supernatural lore. She not only cures physical ills, but she ministers also to the troubled mind. By conjuring, murmuring mystic words, and applying magic herbs, she can release a magemenon, bewitched mortal, from evil spirits. The sight of an old sorceress with her bag of magics, wandering over lonely hills in search of herbs, is familiar to every villager in Greece. These awesome women live a hermit’s life, seeking the unfrequented ways, speaking little, mingling with their fellow beings only when summoned to aid.
The relation of Christianity to this last remnant of mythology is an interesting field of study. As a sacred Christian symbol serves to frustrate the power of a present-day fairy, so has Christianity, adopted as the state religion, dethroned and driven out the ancient gods. In the revolution, the new religion borrowed much from the old worship in church customs and seasonal festivities. It can be truly said that the Greeks are scarcely yet Christians, for in their hearts linger fragments of pagan nature worship and superstitious awe of the anthropomorphic creatures that are a part of nature.
One can see most clearly the mingling of Christianity and paganism in the felahtare. Grandmother Adamis’ bag, described in “The Fairies’ Theft,” page <page 89>, “contained incense from Mount Levanos, a bit of candle that had burned on Easter before the portrait of the Virgin, a leaf from a hundred-petaled rose and an amethyst stone. The bag had been hung about her neck by her godfather on the day of her baptism, to protect her from all evil.”
My personal experience with fairies, which is recounted in “The Fairy-Hunter,” began and ended in that one venture. But I was to be associated with many who claimed first-hand knowledge of fairies and with many more whose relatives or acquaintances or ancestors said they had been given glimpses of the fairy world or contact with its inhabitants.
In “The Fairies’ Theft” is found the story that my Grandmother Adamis related as her own. It was she who told me “The Fairy Ring,” “A Fairy Wedding,” and “The Fairy Wife.” She had heard the latter from the lips of Demetros’ mother who went about half mad through Loutro, telling the sad tale after her son’s disappearance. Uncle Kostas, “uncle” to the whole village, loved nothing better than to narrate, to anyone who would listen, the story we give in “Fairy Gardens.”
Many summer afternoons when I was tired swimming, diving or pulling up traps for fish, I would walk a little way along the Gulf shore to find an old fisherman called Gero Nassos. He was almost sure to be sitting at the water’s edge where his fishing boat was fastened, waiting till sundown to cast his nets. Gero Nassos was always barefooted and hatless, with flowing white hair and beard. Like an ancient god of the sea he sat, cynical yet beneficent, and to him came his worshippers, village folk and children, to listen to his violin music or his stories. He was called alafroiskeotos, one who is a seer.
“Ho, Theodorake!” he would cry out, on seeing me. “Run up to the fields and bring me some grapes.”
Swiftly I would dart up to the vineyards with their green or purple fruit, for I knew well that the reward would be a sea story. Sometimes it was about sea monsters or sea ghosts that Gero Nassos told, but the story I liked best was of sea fairies, because he said it had happened to him.
He always began with his early life on the beautiful island of Psara, one of the cluster of emeralds that gleam in the Aegean Sea. His father owned many trading ships and was very rich. But after his death the ships one by one slipped out of the family’s control. At the age of eighteen, Nassos became owner and captain of the last one and was never happy again, he said, except for one moment. His story is related in “The Haunted Ship.”
With two of the tales I was indirectly connected, “The Fairies’ Theft” and “The Wonder of Skoupa.” I was playing in the fields of Petsa with other children, while our parents were threshing wheat, when the shepherds brought Tasoula, fainting, down from the hills. I knew Tasoula, I had often played with her, and I can never forget how white and still she looked as she was laid on her bed. I remember the difference of opinion from the onlookers. Some thought she was dead, others that her spirit was in the possession of the fairies. After she was restored, it was agreed in Petsa that many prayers and offerings had been needed to free her soul from the fairies’ evil power and that if she had been more beautiful, her body would have been stolen too and we should never have seen her again.
On the Saint Nikolaos Day that the shepherd boy, Nikolas, disappeared at the Stavrodromos, I was visiting my cousin Nikolas in the village of Skoupa. The old field watchman, Vasilis, burst in upon our festivities to ask breathlessly whether any of us had seen the fairy shepherd on that day. My uncle Kristophoros went out to join him and the other villagers in their fruitless search.
During my years in America, I have listened to many narratives about fairies told by my countrymen from all parts of Greece. These tales can be found in any section, from Thrace to the Peloponnesus and from the Aegean Sea to the Ionian, with variations in names, perhaps, and details. They came to me in fragments which have had to be pieced together.
Fashions in fairy tales differ as much from section to section as do customs and dialect. There are, however, certain universal fairy characteristics of which every Greek has heard and which are never disputed. These are the supernatural beauty of fairies; their love of the beautiful which makes them seek to carry away beautiful youths and maidens; their power over mortals; and their transition to a human, powerless state when an article belonging to them is in the possession of a mortal. The authors have tried to catch these universals and clothe them in characteristic form.
It is not at all times that a Greek will speak of fairies.
The mood of the unreal, of the idealistic, the mood of poetry and of dreams, must be evoked before he can unveil his soul and talk of the mysterious, elusive beings that are part of his native land, almost of his religion. It is in some such mood as this, forgetting the world of logic, of material things and of everyday thinking, that I hope our readers will enter our world of Faery.