The Wee folk: Strictly Fantasy, Or Was there a Basis in fact?

The Wee folk: Strictly Fantasy,  Or Was there a Basis in fact? (PART 1)

Over the centuries, there have been tales of elves, brownies, nokken, leprechauns, pixies, trolls, green men, woodwoses, famkes, ondines, russalki and canard noz – fascinating creatures one and all, delightful fantasies, created from whole cloth within the human imagination. Or were they? Certainly, they were embellished by the human imagination, until a process akin to magic realism touched what they saw and knew of but did not understand with overlays of the fantastic to create hybrid Wee Folkentities that have enthralled us to this very day. Let’s go back to the latter phases of human evolution. Some 45,000 years ago, during the Ice Age, when huge beasts like wooly rhinos, saber-toothed cats and mammoths roamed the continents as megafauna, a culture that produced gorgeous figurines of these creatures began to emerge. They are known as the Aurignacians. They were AMHs (anatomically modern humans) but their precise genetic composition is something of a mystery.

The Neanderthals had occupied the area 2000 years earlier, but it’s unlikely they mated with them. Yet there’s a substantial Neanderthal genes in their genome (likely a result of mating with other AMHs in the area who did have them), At the right is a reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis, ancestor of both the AMHs and Neanderthals. He was already extinct 45,000 years ago, but both Neanderthals and AMHs retained some of his physical characteristic, and he is certainly an ancestor of the Aurignacians

Early attempts to represent the appearance of the Neanderthal were misleading, to say the least. The Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia is incredible, covering not only the Neanderthals, but human evolution in general, and in juxtaposition with other life forms. It’s well worth a side trip from Zagreb or Maribor, if you’re in the area. Recently, it reconstructed a Neanderthal Clan, using the same modern forensic techniques used to identify bodies of crime victims – and the results are a far cry from the almost simian images of a generation ago.
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A museum photograph of a Neanderthal clan, as thus reconstructed, can be seen at left. A comparable reconstruction of a Neanderthal boy can be seen in the featured photograph.


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The Aurignacians were hunter-gatherers who made tools from worked bone or antler points with grooves cut in the bottom. Their flint tools include fine blades and bladelets that were struck from prepared cores rather than using crude flakes. They also produced some of the earliest known cave art, such as the animal engravings at Aldène (such as the one at right).

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and paintings at the Chauvet cave in southern France, (a modern copy of one can be seen on the left).




In what was once the Danube valley, one finds anthropomorphized depictions, such as the Lion Man, right (photo by J. Duckeck) – in its larger form (an identical miniature version of the same statue from the same period was found in a cave approximately 30 miles away) that seem to be iconic, and could well be inferred as being amongst of the earliest evidence of some form of religion. They also made pendants, bracelets and ivory beads, and may have fashioned the first flute.Wee Folk

But perhaps most significant of all, they developed the first lunar calendar.(pictured right) around 34,000 years ago. Initially, some tried to dismiss the etchings as meaningless doodles, but between 1964 and the early 1990s, Alexander Marshack engaged in breakthrough research that ultimately established that its marks had been made carefully made by artisans, who had controlled the line thickness so that the etched lines and crescents would be easily perceived.



He then deciphered the mathematical and astronomical language of those lines and crescents and established a correlation with the lunar phases. (for more information, see, MarsWee Folkhack, Alexander, The Roots of Civilization: the Cognitive Beginning of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation. New York: McGraw-Hill (1972)). But why would hunters and gatherers have an interest in astronomy, sufficient to record the cycles of the moon and other celestial cycles? They’d certainly not be doing so to optimize any kind of harvest. Rather, due to their shamanic practices and an ability to use both sides of their brains, they’d recognized that the Universe was alive and conscious, and thus organized spiritual and ritual activities around a calendar that was in synch with universal cycles.

In short, they did so for cosmic, mystic, sacred and metaphysical reasons, and were in touch with life in ways we’d now consider to be spiritual.

Fast-forward 25,000 years. Neanderthals have become extinct – not from being out-evolved, as taught in decades past, but from being outnumbered and absorbed, physically, culturally and genetically, by AGHs.. They’d bred their way to extinction, with their genes comprising 1 to 3% of every modern human genome, except for peoples of pure African descent.

Wee FolkThe ice age has receded. Europe is now covered with temperate rainforests, separated by plains. Two different and distinct AMH populations share the continent:

1. The first farming population of Europe. Its fairly unmixed DNA is found today in Sardinians and Basques, and in the Druze of the Middle East.
2. The other remains hunter-gatherer, its DNA unique, but most closely matching Native Americans, and the people of northeastern Siberia: And 4% Neanderthal, an inordinately high amount. They didn’t inherit Neanderthal musculature, being delicately build, and 25-35% shorter than farming populations. Accounts by Roman historians, from tales related by the farming populace, claim they were rather hirsute.  King Olaf & the Little People (1871 engraving)

The years passed, and other AMH tribal and ethnic groups replaced the farming population, first the Celts, and later, throughout much of the European continent, the Germanic tribes. But the tinier, hunter-gatherer population remained – ever on the margins of society, living the ancient equivalent of a “hippie-like” lifestyle, relatively non-violent when compared to their more warlike neighbors, and possessing a knowledge of nature that seemed to straddle boundaries between science and the supernatural, an existence more in magic realism than the mundane.

Some could occasionally be prevailed upon to interact with various farming peoples as healers or midwives. Had they carried with them the knowledge and wisdom of the Aurignacians? Though they were much smaller than their farmer neighbors, tales of beings that fit in a man’s hand or were no larger than his forearm were, of course, exaggerations to make fantasy tales more interesting.

Sadly, as happens with outsiders, they were often scapegoats for misfortunes in the community.

At such times, they’d be falsely accused of theft, kidnapping – even ritual killings. They accordingly learned to disappear into the forest on very little notice. They tended to wear forest green clothing, mixed with earthtones as a crude, ancient camouflage. They were expert archers and woodsmen; while they preferred to hide instead of fight, they could, if necessary, dispatch persistent intruders with miniscule bows and arrows, the heads sometimes dipped in poisons or, more often, in hallucinogens. From this, superstitions arose about wee folk having supernatural powers (stories they likely found convenient to perpetuate as they learned of them).

But generally, they were peaceful and gentle. They played the flute and at least one form of bowed string instrument – possibly more. They loved to dance, and their revelries often lasted well into the night – likely the ancestor of the elfin and faerie dances deep in the forest, that are described so often in fairy tales.

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Elfin Dance by Night (1870)
by Richard “Dicky” Doyle (1824-1883)

Wee FolkThey bartered with the outside world, trading for goods they wanted in exchange. They are known to have worked with wooden tools, and were proficient woodworkers. Goods were deposited at a pre-arranged spot. As the seller hid, the purchaser came, took such goods as he liked, left goods in payment, and then disappeared. The seller then emerged to pick up the goods left in payment. It is echoed, later on, in fantasy stories of transactions between men and faeries, elves or dwarves.Dwarves (Dwarves (Dwerrow) (1895) as depicted by Lorentz Frőlich (1820 – 1908)


They were known to have been panentheistic. Unlike pantheism, in panentheism, God and the universe are not ontologically the same. In panentheism, God is viewed as the eternal animating force behind the universe. Some versions suggest that the universe is nothing more than the tangible part of God, or that the cosmos exists within God, who, in turn, transcends or pervades the cosmos. Pantheism asserts that “All is God;” panentheism goes further, to claim that God is the whole of creation, and inseparable from it. But is more, a transcendent being or force that governs and guides it not only encompassed the whole of creation, but also the inception and termination of everything, the forces of birth and death, yin and yang, with life as a harmoniously flowing force amongst it all.

This deity was in no sense anthropomorphic, a concept that was lost on the Romans when they sought to conceptualize just what the nature of this deity was. In trying to grasp its nature and finding an equivalent word, a single word kept coming up in translation: “Pan.” Now this meant “pan” in a Greek linguistic sense of all or everything, as well as “Pan” the Greek nature god (whom the Romans had already conflated with their gods, Faunus and Silvanus), but the Romans concluded – quite erroneously – that the little people worshiped a deity like Pan/Faunus/Silvanus.

Given the supposedly hirsute appearance of the little people, it mightn’t have been unreasonable for the Romans – who’d already failed to grasp the concept of a non-anthropomWee Folkorphic and intangible deity – to assume that these people would worship an anthropomorphic god who looked as they did.

The deity of the wee folk never did become any anthropomorphic figure, but another figure did arise from the attempt to make him so: The Woodwose.Fight in the Forest (ca. 1500)

Fight in the Forest (ca. 1500) Hans Burgkmair (1473–1531)


The Woodwose was wild, but not bestial. Indeed men tried to capture the Woodwose and tie him up because he was wise, and also knew how to channel many powers of nature; they hoped that he would impart this wisdom and knowledge to them in exchange for his freedom. We have no idea what he was originally called, but the name, as we know it today, comes from Old English (Saxon) – likely wudu-wāsa or wude-wāsa, “wudu” and “wude” being the word for woodland or forest. The word “wāsa” is less clear, but appears to be a noun derived from the verbs “wesan” and “wosan, which mean “to be” or “to live” – hence, “being.” He was also known as “Orke”, “Lorke”, or “Noerglein”, in parts of Italy as “orco” or “huorco”. Ogres have a similar derivation, as do J. R. R. Tolkein’s orcs (see, Tolkien, Christopher, The War of the Jewels, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1994)).Wee Folk

You can see what appear to be different versions of the Woodwose on the right. They’re side panels from a portrait painted in 1499 by Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528).

There were female versions of Woodwose, sometimes called Maia, for the Roman fertility goddess, more often called Fange, Fanke or Famke taken from the Latin “fauna,” the feminine form of “faun”. See, generally, Bernheimer, Richard, Wild Men in the Middle Ages; a Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology, Octagon books (1970).

He shouldn’t be confused with the Green Man of the Forest although they’re often erroneously conflated. Unlike Woodwose, Green Man once represented an ancient Celtic deity – guardian of the forest and of all the life therein – usually believed to die/depart upon the autumnal equinox (Mabon), to return/be reborn/revived at vernal equinox (Ostaria). Both separately appear in decorations on the walls of Canterbury Cathedral.

Wee FolkBut in the next blog, we’ll see that wee folk could also play a far more sinister role, deriving from Norse mythology. Every autumn, the Norse god Odin rode through the air performing both magic and miracles. But Odin did not travel alone. Accompanying him was Norwi, god of the dark, son of Loki (pictured right, from an 18th Century Icelandic manuscript) the trickster of the gods, and a constant shape-shifter.

We know little of Norwi, but he seems to have been a more benign form of his father. Next time, we’ll explore how tales of the wee folk merged with tales of the Norwi entity, how the “dark” side evolved, why “dark” does not necessarily equate with “evil,” how both sides merged in certain instances, and how Christianity, both individual and institutional, began to play a role, for good and ill, in the lives of the wee folk.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.