Pixies playing on the skeleton of a cow,
drawn by John D. Batten c.1894
|First reported||In folklore|
|Habitat||Moor, Forest, Cave, Garden|
Pixies (also pixy, pixi, pizkie, piskies and pigsies as they are sometimes known in Cornwall) are mythical creatures of folklore, considered to be particularly concentrated in the high moorland areas around Devon and Cornwall, suggesting some Celtic origin for the belief and name.
In traditional regional lore, pixies are generally benign, mischievous, short of stature and attractively childlike; they are fond of dancing and gather outdoors in huge numbers to dance or sometimes wrestle, through the night, demonstrating parallels with the Cornish plen-an-gwary and Breton Fest Noz (Cornish: troyl) folk celebrations originating in the medieval period. In modern times they are usually depicted with pointed ears, and often wearing a green outfit and pointed hat although traditional stories describe them wearing dirty ragged bundles of rags which they happily discard for gifts of new clothes. Sometimes their eyes are described as being pointed upwards at the temple ends. These, however, are Victorian era conventions and not part of the older mythology.
Etymology and origin
The origin of the name pixie is uncertain. Some have speculated that it comes from the Swedish dialectal pyske meaning wee little fairy. Others have disputed this, given there is no plausible case for Nordic dialectical survivals in southwest Britain, claiming instead, in view of the Cornish origin of the piskie, that the term is more probably Celtic in origin, though no clear ancestor of the word is known. The term Pobel Vian ('Little People') is often used to refer to them collectively. Very similar analogues exist in closely related Irish (Aos Si) and Breton (korrigan) culture, although their common names are unrelated, even within areas of language survival there is a very high degree of local variation of names. In west Penwith, the area of late survival of the Cornish language, spriggans are distinguished from pixies by their malevolent nature. Closely associated with tin mining in Cornwall are the subterranean ancestral knockers.
Pixie mythology is believed to pre-date Christian presence in Britain. In the Christian era they were sometimes said to be the souls of children who had died un-baptised. These children would change their appearance to pixies once their clothing was placed in clay funeral pots used in their earthly lives as toys. By 1869 some were suggesting that the name pixie was a racial remnant of Pictic tribes who used to paint and tattoo their skin blue, an attribute often given to pixies. This suggestion is still met in contemporary writing, but there is no proven connection and the etymological connection is doubtful. Some 19th-century researchers made more general claims about pixie origins, or have connected them with the Puck, (Cornish Bucca) a mythological creature sometimes described as a fairy; the name Puck is also of uncertain origin, Irish Púca, Welsh Pwca.
The earliest published version of The Three Little Pigs story is from Dartmoor in 1853 and has three little pixies in place of the pigs. In older Westcountry dialect modern Received Pronunciation letter pairs are sometimes transposed from the older Saxon spelling (waps for wasp, aks for ask and so on) resulting in piskies in place of modern piksies (pixies) as still commonly found in Devon and Cornwall to modern times.
Until the advent of more modern fiction, pixie mythology was localised to Britain. Some have noted similarities to "northern fairies", Germanic and Scandinavian elves, but pixies are distinguished from them by the myths and stories of Devon and Cornwall.
Cornwall and Devon
Before the mid-19th century, pixies and fairies were taken seriously in much of Cornwall and Devon. Books devoted to the homely beliefs of the peasantry are filled with incidents of pixie manifestations. Some locales are named for the pixies associated with them. In Devon, near Challacombe, a group of rocks are named for the pixies said to dwell there. At Trevose Head in Cornwall 600 pixies were said to have gathered dancing and laughing in a circle that had appeared upon the turf until one of their number, named Omfra, lost his laugh. After searching amongst the barrows of the ancient kings of Cornwall on St Breock Downs, he wades through the bottomless Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor until his laugh is restored by King Arthur in the form of a Chough. In some areas belief in pixies and fairies as real beings persists.
In the legends associated with Dartmoor, pixies (or piskeys) are said to disguise themselves as a bundle of rags to lure children into their play. The pixies of Dartmoor are fond of music and dancing and for riding on Dartmoor colts. These pixies are generally said to be helpful to normal humans, sometimes helping needy widows and others with housework. They are not completely benign however, as they have a reputation for misleading travellers (being "pixy-led", the remedy for which is to turn your coat inside out).
The queen of the Cornish pixies is said to be Joan the Wad (torch), and she is considered to be good luck or bring good luck. In Devon, pixies are said to be "invisibly small, and harmless or friendly to man."
In some of the legends and historical accounts they are presented as having near-human stature. For instance, a member of the Elford family in Tavistock, Devon, successfully hid from Cromwell’s troops in a pixie house. Though the entrance has narrowed with time, the pixie house, a natural cavern on Sheep Tor, is still accessible.
At Buckland St. Mary, Somerset, pixies and fairies are said to have battled each other. Here the pixies were victorious and still visit the area, whilst the fairies are said to have left after their loss.
By the early 19th century their contact with humans had diminished. In Samuel Drew’s 1824 book Cornwall one finds the observation: "The age of pixies, like that of chivalry, is gone. There is, perhaps, at present hardly a house they are reputed to visit. Even the fields and lanes which they formerly frequented seem to be nearly forsaken. Their music is rarely heard."
Pixie Day is an old tradition which takes place annually in the East Devon town of Ottery St. Mary in June. The day commemorates a legend of pixies being banished from the town to local caves known as the "Pixie's Parlour".
The Pixie Day legend originates from the early days of Christianity, when a local bishop decided to build a church in Otteri (Ottery St. Mary), and commissioned a set of bells to come from Wales, and to be escorted by monks on their journey.
On hearing of this, the pixies were worried, as they knew that once the bells were installed it would be the death knell of their rule over the land. So they cast a spell over the monks to redirect them from the road to Otteri to the road leading them to the cliff's edge at Sidmouth. Just as the monks were about to fall over the cliff, one of the monks stubbed his toe on a rock and said "God bless my soul" and the spell was broken.
The bells were then brought to Otteri and installed. However, the pixies' spell was not completely broken; each year on a day in June the "pixies" come out and capture the town's bell ringers and imprison them in Pixies' Parlour to be rescued by the Vicar of Ottery St. Mary. This legend is re-enacted each year by the Cub and Brownie groups of Ottery St. Mary, with a specially constructed Pixies' Parlour in the Town Square (the original Pixie's Parlour can be found along the banks of the River Otter).
Pixies are variously described in folklore and fiction.
They are often described as ill-clothed or naked. In 1890, William Crossing noted a pixie's preference for bits of finery: "Indeed, a sort of weakness for finery exists among them, and a piece of ribbon appears to be... highly prized by them."
Some pixies are said to steal children or to lead travellers astray. This seems to be a cross-over from fairy mythology and not originally attached to pixies; in 1850, Thomas Keightley observed that much of Devon pixie mythology may have originated from fairy myth. Pixies are said to reward consideration and punish neglect on the part of larger humans, for which Keightley gives examples. By their presence they bring blessings to those who are fond of them.
Pixies are drawn to horses, riding them for pleasure and making tangled ringlets in the manes of those horses they ride. They are "great explorers familiar with the caves of the ocean, the hidden sources of the streams and the recesses of the land."
Some find pixies to have a human origin or to "partake of human nature", in distinction to fairies whose mythology is traced to immaterial and malignant spirit forces. In some discussions pixies are presented as wingless, pygmy-like creatures, however this is probably a later accretion to the mythology.
One British scholar stated his belief that "Pixies were evidently a smaller race, and, from the greater obscurity of the ... tales about them, I believe them to have been an earlier race."
- ‘Tis said their forms are tiny, yet
- All human ills they can subdue,
- Or with a wand or amulet
- Can win a maiden’s heart for you;
- And many a blessing know to stew
- To make to wedlock bright;
- Give honour to the dainty crew,
- The Pixies are abroad tonight.
She touches on all the essentials, including even more modern accretions. Pixies are "in-between", not cursed by God or especially blessed. They do the unexpected, they bless the land, and are forest creatures whom other wild creatures find alluring and non-threatening. They love humans, taking some for mates, and are nearly ageless. They are winged, flitting from place to place.
In Michael Buckley's The Sisters Grimm series, pixies are described as small orange-glowing creatures that resemble fireflies and are controlled by fairies such as Puck by the use of a small wooden flute.
Enid Blyton wrote a number of children's books with pixies as featured characters. One employee of the BBC even criticised "Her stories... haven't much literary value. There is rather a lot of the Pink-winky-Doodle-doodle Dum-dumm type of name (and lots of pixies) in the original tales."
In Holly Black's and Tony Diterlizzi's Spiderwick Chronicles, pixies are green-skinned, human-sized fairies with shimmering wings. They have a command of glamour (enchantment) and a type of power to charm or seduce others. Holly Black has also written a book called Tithe in which the main character is a pixie.
In Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series, pixies are one of a number of magical species that have been driven underground by humans and the pollution they have caused on Earth. Opal Koboi is the megalomaniac genius pixie of Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception. Colfer describes characteristics of pixies as having abnormally childish features and larger heads than other types of Fairies, with large but vulnerable brains (their cranial mass is thin, which makes them easy to knock out). They are also prone to headaches and, particularly in the case of Opal Koboi, violent mood swings and temper tantrums. Koboi is the perfect example of their genius turned to madness.
In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Gilderoy Lockhart releases a cage of Cornish blue pixies into the classroom in an inept effort to teach the students how to defeat them in his Defence Against the Dark Arts class. Rowling's version of pixies are about 8 inches tall, electric blue in colour, and are wildly rambunctious tricksters.
In Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan series, Rachel, a witch, works closely with Jenks, a pixie, to track down the missing, save various creatures, retrieve stolen objects, and defend the defenceless, etc. Jenks, his wife, and large family live in, tend, and protect Rachel's garden.
In the Disney film, Peter Pan, Tinker Bell is described as a pixie, although, in the J.M. Barrie play on which the film is based, she is actually a fairy. In the Disney versions she always uses "pixie dust", rather than the fairy dust in the play. In Barrie's original play, Tinker Bell is traditionally staged just as a flying point of light beamed from offstage. Disney continues to use the terms "pixie" and "fairy" interchangeably for Tinker Bell, and associated spin-offs.
In The Fairly OddParents, the pixies are recurring villains who are dull, wear grey suits, speak in monotone voices, wear pointy caps and, unlike the fairies, treat magic like a business. Instead of wands, they carry cellphones. This is due to them being named after pixels. The Head Pixie (H.P. for short), and the other male pixies are all voiced by Ben Stein. The female pixies are not seen.
Pixies also make an appearance in the cartoon "Winx Club". In this version, it seems that almost all pixies are females, and while they do use their magic as a carrier based on their talents (Examples: Chatta for Gossip, Lockette for Portals, Amore for True Love, Tune for Good Manners, Digit for Nano-tech, and Piff for Sweet Dreams), these pixies are more colourful, more fun-loving, and more voice-variant in spite of having the same toddler-like, high-pitched accent from their natural toy-like size. Also, the Winx Club pixies are friends with fairies. In fact, each pixie bonds at first sight with her fairy of fate (like "soul mates" or "twin sisters") and helps her any way their talent would allow and that fairy, in turn, protects her pixie.
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- R. Totnea: "Pixies", Once a Week, 25 May 1867, page 608, notes the prevalence of belief in Pixies in Devon.
- "The Folk-Lore of Devon", Fraser's Magazine, December 1875, page 773ff.
- Imagined Landscapes:Archaeology, Perception and Folklore in the Study of Medieval Devon, Lucy Franklin , 2006
- English forests and forest trees, historical, legendary, and descriptive, Ingram, Cooke, and co., 1853
- A Peep at the Pixies; or Legends of the West, Bay A.E., 1853
- E. M. Kirkpatrick, ed. (1983). Chambers 20th Century Dictionary (New ed.). p. 978.
- Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Traditional Cornish Stories and Rhymes, 1992 edition, Lodenek Press
- "South Coast Sunterings in England", in: Harpers New Monthly Magazine, (1869) pp. 29–41.
- English Forests and Forest Trees: Historical, Legendary, and Descriptive (London: Ingram, Cooke, and Company, 1853), pp. 189-90
- e.g. John Thackray Bunce: Fairy Tales: Their Origin and Meaning 1878, page 133.
- traditional Cornish Stories and Rhymes, 1992 edition, Lodenek Press
- William Crossing, Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies, 1890, page 6.
- A Handbook for Travellers in Devon, 1887 edition, page 230.
- Katherine Mary Briggs: The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, page 179.
- The History of Cornwall From the Earliest Records & Traditions, to the Present Time, 2 vols. 1824.
- Robert Hunt: Popular Romances of the West of England, 1881, page 96.
- William Crossing: Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies, 1890, page 5.
- The Fairy Mythology, 1850, page 299.
- Devon Pixies, Once A Week, 23 February 1867, pages 204–5.
- C. Spence Bate: "Grimspound and Its Associated Relics", Annual Report of the Transactions of the Plymouth Institution, Vol. 5. part 1, 1873–4, page 46.
- Ballads and Rondeaus, 1881, page 47.
- Nora Chesson: Aquamarines, London, 1902, page 81.
- Shed (editor): Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. 7, 1854, page 24.
- Bygone Days of Devon and Cornwall, 1874, page 45.
- Legends, Superstitions and Sketches of Devonshire, 1844, page 169.
- Will Pavia in The Times 16 November 2009.
- "Small beer Blyton banned by BBC". BBC News. 15 November 2009.