Beltane is traditionally a time when the veil between our world and that of the Fae is thin. In most European folktales, the Fae kept to themselves unless they wanted something from their human neighbors. It wasn’t uncommon for a tale to relate the story of a human being who got too daring with the Fae -- and ultimately paid their price for his or her curiosity! In many stories, there are different types of faeries. This seems to have been mostly a class distinction, as most faerie stories divide them into peasants and aristocracy.
Early Myths and Legends
In Ireland, one of the early races of conquerors was known as the Tuatha de Danaan, and they were considered mighty and powerful. It was believed that once the next wave of invaders arrived, the Tuatha went underground. In hiding from the Milesians, the Tuatha evolved into Ireland's faerie race. Typically, in Celtic legend and lore, the Fae are associated with magical underground caverns and springs -- it was believed that a traveler who went too far into one of these places would find himself in the Faerie realm.
Another way to access the world of the Fae was to find a secret entrance. These were typically guarded, but every once in a while an enterprising adventurer would find his way in. Often, he found upon leaving that more time had passed than he expected. In several tales, mortals who spend a day in the fairy realm find that seven years have passed in their own world.
In parts of England and Britain, it was believed that if a baby was ill, chances were good that it was not a human infant at all, but a changeling left by the Fae. If left exposed on a hillside, the Fae could come reclaim it. William Butler Yeats relates a Welsh version of this story in his tale The Stolen Child. Parents of a new baby could keep their child safe from abduction by the Fae by using one of several simple charms: a wreath of oak and ivy kept faeries out of the house, as did iron or salt placed across the door step. Also, the father's shirt draped over the cradle keeps the Fae from stealing a child.
In some stories, examples are given of how one can see a faerie. It is believed that a wash of marigold water rubbed around the eyes can give mortals the ability to spot the Fae. It is also believed that if you sit under a full moon in a grove that has trees of Ash, Oak and Thorn, the Fae will appear.
Are the Fae Just a Fairy Tale?
There are a few books that cite early cave paintings and even Etruscan carvings as evidence that people have believed in the Fae for thousands of years. However, faeries as we know them today didn’t really appear in literature until about the late 1300s. In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer relates that people used to believe in faeries a long time ago, but don't by the time the Wife of Bath tells her tale. Interestingly, Chaucer and many of his peers discuss this phenomena, but there is no clear evidence that describes faeries in any writings prior to this time. It appears instead that earlier cultures had encounters with a variety of spiritual beings, who fit into what 14th century writers considered the archetype of the Fae.
So, do the Fae really exist? It's hard to tell, and it's an issue that comes up for frequent and enthusiastic debate at any Pagan gathering. Regardless, if you believe in faeries, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Leave them a few offerings in your garden as part of your Beltane celebration -- and maybe they'll leave you something in return!