The Pixie


Etymologically the term ‘pixie’ is of uncertain origin but may be Celtic in derivation. However, pixies are a mythical group of diminutive sprites that hail from the west country of Britain. More specifically they inhabit the netherworld of Cornwall and Devonshire as well as parts of Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and even Hampshire. They are called variously pigsies, pizkies, pixis, pixysm, and piskies. They live, according to west country folklore traditions, mainly the moorlands of Cornwall and Devon. (Frazer’s, 1867). The pixies share many features in common with the hobgoblin and the mischievous pookas and pucks. Indeed, they have more affinity with them rather than the more elegant elves.

Characteristically the pixie is portrayed as an elfin-like and child-like mischievous redheaded green attired sprite. They are however, a distinct race from the fairies. They can often be depicted with pointed ears and have in modern usage erroneously classified as being synonymous with fairies – but such images are in reality conventions derived from the Victorian era and not part of the original mythology. For the modern tourist to Cornwall souvenir shops sell such items which are really conventionalised and stereotyped creations of the imagination. It was prior to the end of the 19th century that pixies and fairies were, in Cornwall and Devon especially, taken quite seriously as part of the ‘little people’. Pixie activity often included poltergeist infestation that involved in tapping on walls, kissing maidens in the darkness, splashing  water around. Young girls were particularly prone to unwelcome teasing by pixies.

In the folklore of Dartmoor pixies were believed to dress in rags in order to attract and play with local children. Moreover they were believed to enjoy riding the colts that roamed the area. Nonetheless they were usually benevolent to human beings including helping needy widow women with their housework. In Devon pixies were believed or claimed to be harmless and small friends of mankind. legends had that they possessed a near human-like nature themselves. Indeed the Queen of the Cornish pixies known as Joan the Wad (or torch) was a sign of good luck. A pixie king had, like Oberon, his own court from whence he sent his subjects out to carry out various activities. The ‘colt pixy’ was a pixy horse that lead other horses astray according to legend in Hampshire.  Some horses were supposedly ‘pixie-ridden’ and driven around pixie-circles called ‘gallitraps’ and left confused and tired out. The remedy by humans was to place a horseshoe over the stable door. Some abodes in Cornwall had holes made in them to allow free access to pixies. Despite being, in some fictions and fairy tales, as ill-clothed or even naked most pixies had a preference for adornment, finery and penchant for lovely ribbons. One effect bestowed on humans is that of being ‘pixie-ridden’.

One pixie reputation is that of their mischievous misleading travellers. and such feeling of being lost. confused and led astray is known as being ‘pixie-led’. One remedy to avoid being misled during the 17th century was to turn one’s coat inside out. Others carried sometimes carried a piece of bread to prevent such bewilderment. The same spell used to break the effect of the pixie charm also occurs among the corrigans and lutins of Brittany. In Ireland it is the ‘good people’ who try to mislead those travelling persons.

Pixies are extremely fond of music, especially that played by frogs and crickets. They are definitely reputed to be very interested in dancing by moonlight. The favourite practice of the pixie is the dancing circle which is carried out on clear moonlit nights. They assemble to dance and frolic around mounds, stone circles, menhirs and dolmens. Such barrows ancient subterranean sites, ring-forts occur in highland moorland. Again, haunted houses are associated with the dead as well as the abode of goblins, brownies and pixies. In some villages found in Cornwall, despite the admonitions of the Christian chapel and church, the local populace still place ‘pisky pows’ to the roofs as dancing venues for the frolicking pixies.


Pixies frolicking and see-sawing with the remains of a cow. Source: public domain.

As very small dancing creatures the pixies are viewed as spirits of a spectral nature who also make their appearances at morningtide.

Some pixies are reputed to steal children and replace them with a changeling. Indeed, the pisgies are reputed to be the souls of the dead in the form of night-flying moths As they are also assumed to steal the souls of unbaptized infants they share a characteristic with some fairy folk. A part of pixie mythology which my be derived more from fairy lore. It is most certain that pixie mythology predates the Christian era in Britain. Because their mythology is localised to Britain it may suggest that pixies are remnants of ethnological elementals derived from the blue tattoo adorned ancient Pictish aboriginals. Even though an attribute of pixies is their bluish pigmentation there is no substantiated connection with the Pictish folklore or legends.

Etymologically there is a claim that the Swedish word for ‘wee little fairy’ which is pyske or pyng, has a connection but their background indicates a Cornish and therefore Celtic origin. The oldest parallel is with the Swedish pysk or pyske  for goblin, dwarf or small fairy. This can be compared to the Norwegian pjusk – meaning little insignificant person. The pixie of Cornish origin appears to share similar attributes with the lutins and corrigans of Brittany. Again, like the pixies these little people are also assumed to enjoy night-time dancing, steal infants, and mislead travellers. In Wales there are echoes in folklore which are ancestral to that of Cornwall where they are known as the ‘Verry folle’, of Flanders, and also England. As such they are surviving beliefs derived from the Brythonic Celts. The only true fairy in Cornwall is part of the Pobol Vean and that is the pixie. In Cornwall a further aspect of the pixie is the spriggan. To the Lowland Scots the Cornish pixie equates with the brownie, for the Highlanders the Duine Sith. The Daoine Sith of the Orkney Islands are regarded as the inhabitants of the mounds or barrows.

Amongst the ‘little people’ that abound in the folklore of Cornwall there are a number of variants. These ‘little people’ are known locally as the Pobel Vean. They consist of the ‘small peoples’ as such, the piskies and spriggans who are all quite similar. In addition there is the Bucca who is in fact an ancient god and not part of the fairy folk. In terms of archaeology and anthropology the Duine Sith may have derived from the Pictish ‘Peght’. The implication is that they may therefore represent, in folklore the aboriginal swarthy peoples who allegedly lived in the mounds or barrows, and cromlechs after the later Celtic invasions. In Cornwall the ‘Piskie Halls’ were prehistoric structures also known as ‘Piskie’s Crows’. In Brittany  the crow or craw is the Breton krao and is in fact a shed or hovel – thus ‘pegs‘ craw is a pig-sty.

In this case pixies could be the one-time pisky or pisgy. In etymological terms the origin of pixy or pix when separated into its components is piks and pics from the x root. The s or z in Cornish equates with the consonantal t or d in Welsh and Breton. From this it can be assumed that the pixy is picty in the Cornish variant. If, anthropologically speaking, both pixy and picty are representative inhabitants of the extreme north of the British Isles it implies the Britons of the south-west regarded them as a mysterious populace. A half-dreaded, half-despised aboriginal form of preternatural beings. Pixy then gives some credence to the probability that the term was grafted onto the Pictish and pre-Celtic peoples who were seen as smaller individuals than the Celts themselves.

In Wales there were believed to exist a form of spiritual group called the Tylwyth Teg. They apparently had some human characteristics and could appear and disappear at will. In general they were regarded as kind and good natured but could exert some form of revenge if wrongly treated. Unlike the pixies they were always dressed in white rather than green. Again these Tylwth Teg were are also much taken with dancing and singing in rings where the grasses grew. In similar trickery they also took delight in enticing passing travellers to join their frolics and play tricks on them. Their sinister side was the belief they also took untended babies and left behind a deformed substitute. Pixies and the ‘Verry Volk’ were never used to describe fairies,  as was Tylwth Teg, but used ‘Verry Volk’ instead and who were attributed with a height of about one foot tall.

Sources Consulted.

All illustrations are in the public domain unless otherwise credited.

Briggs, (1976).  An Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins etc.

Bunce, J. T.  1898).  Fairy Tales: Their Origin and Meaning.

Crossing, W.  (1890).  Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies.

Frazer’s Magazine (1867).  The Folklore of Devon, 25.5.1867.

Hunt, R.  (1881).  Popular Romances of the West of England.

Keightley, T.  (1850).  The Fairy Mythology.

Leach, M. (1972).  ed.  Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend.  New York.

Wentz, W. Y. Evans.  (1988).  The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.  Humanities Press, London.

Leave a comment

Filed under Folklore

Discussion & Comment Welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s