Italian Fairies
Fate, Folletti, and Other Creatures of Legend

by Raffaella Benvenuto

Though a relatively small country, Italy can boast of a very rich folklore heritage, as diverse as the regions comprising its territory. All of these possess distinctive traditions as concerns fairies and other kinds of legendary beings, which are a prominent feature of folktales.


Interestingly, Italy was also the birthplace of the literary fairy tale (Kunstmärchen), which had its origin in the works of Gian Francesco Straparola (Le Piacevoli Notti, 1550–3) and Giambattista Basile (the Pentamerone, or Cunto de li Cunti, 1643–6). Both collections of fantastic tales were based on the rich oral tradition of the authors' respective regions (Veneto for Straparola and Naples for Basile), though substantially adapted in order to appeal to court audiences in the late Renaissance and Baroque periods. These two works can be rightfully considered as the forerunners of literary fairy tales, from Charles Perrault to Hans Christian Andersen and beyond. By the 19th century, many folklorists and researchers had started collecting folktales from oral sources of every Italian region and putting them into writing, in order to make them available for study and general consumption. However, in spite of the wealth of material at hand, for a long time Italy lacked a true equivalent of the Brothers Grimm's monumental German fairy tale collection — although, in 1956, the publication of Italo Calvino's seminal, three–volume collection of Fiabe italiane came to fill that void and provide definitive versions of some of the most popular Italian fairy tales.

On account of Italy's long, variegated, often troubled history, its folklore shows highly individual, distinctive features depending on the historical and cultural influences that have emerged in its various areas throughout the centuries. Therefore, north–eastern regions such as Trentino and the partly German–speaking Alto Adige, or Südtirol, were obviously influenced by the traditions of the neighboring Germanic countries; while in the southern regions the significant Greco–Roman influence blended with a fascinating, often obscure background harking back to pre–Roman times. It can also be observed that fairy–like creatures are to be more frequently encountered in the north and south, in those parts of the country less subject to urbanization and therefore more in touch with their ancient cultural roots. As a matter of fact, mountain areas, both in the northern Alpine regions and in the Apennine range that forms the backbone of the Italian peninsula, seem to possess an especially rich, varied body of lore.

Italian folklore abounds in both fairies and other spirits, known by a multitude of local names as fascinating as their origins. Still rather widespread up to the years immediately following World War Two, popular belief in such creatures survived alongside the belief in supernatural beings directly derived from the country's ever–present Catholic background, such as devils and angels. However, most Italian folk and fairy tales are concerned with fate (fées in French), a southern European version of the fairies of English and Celtic tradition, though a very distinctive one.

Just like its English and French counterparts, the Italian word fata comes from Latin Fatae, which is the feminine form of Fatum, "fate, destiny." This was another name for the three divine sisters, Clotho, Lachesis and Athropos, called Moirae in Greek and Parcae in Latin, who presided over the fate of human beings, spinning the thread of life and eventually cutting it. Fate are likewise supernatural beings, possessed of equally supernatural powers — though their human appearance can often deceive the protagonists of fairy tales and lead them to committing near–fatal mistakes. Both their powers and their appearance are inherited from such characters of classical mythology as the above–mentioned Parcae (called in English the Three Fates) and the nymphs that inhabit woods, caves, rivers and sources. Like the latter, fate are often (though not always) nature spirits; like the Parcae, they can preside over the fate of their godchildren, handing out virtues or vices to them according to the situation. They are also all female: in Italian folklore there is no equivalent of the English King of Fairies, like Oberon in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.


The first fate appeared in both the literary and folk tradition of the late Middle Ages, being a particularly important feature of verse romances. Popular imagery depicts them as beautiful, elegant ladies, wearing hennin (tall, cone–shaped hats) and long gowns in the style worn in the European courts of the 15th century. The magic wand was added at a later stage as one of their essential attributes — like the one wielded by the sorceress Circe in The Odyssey — who was undoubtedly one of their most important literary ancestors. Over the years, this depiction became so popular that many Italian young girls still like to wear fairy costumes for Carnival, complete with those distinctive hats. This image, characteristic of French and Italian fairies, is often associated with the colour blue — as shown by one of the most popular fairy figures in modern Italian literature, the Fata Turchina (the "Fairy with indigo hair" in the English translation) in Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio.


Unlike their English and Celtic counterparts, in most cases fate are not diminutive, but rather they are regal and positively awe–inspiring. In fact, their appearance, especially as regards their otherworldly beauty, often conveys the strength of their power. Although generally of human appearance (and never winged), they can nonetheless alter their size to live in plants or even in fruits, like in Basile's La mortella ("The Myrtle") or Calvino's L'amore delle tre melagrane ("The Three Pomegranates"). While English and Celtic fairies are retiring and prefer to remain invisible to the human eye, fate are interested in people and do not purposely avoid interaction with them. As a matter of fact, the encounters of fate with human beings can often end in marriage: the motif of the union between a fairy and a man is extremely common both in oral and literary fairy tales originating from Italy, as can be seen from both Basile's and Calvino's collections.

As stated above, fate are almost always described as preternaturally beautiful, often golden–haired, slender and pale–skinned. Though they are usually good–hearted, they can also be vain and easily offended — hence the numerous fairy–tale instances of characters punished for a supposed, often unintended slight. When the author of the slight is the fairy's husband (usually because of having boasted about his wife before other people), the fata's revenge usually involves her leaving the man and forcing him to search for her far and wide. One such example is the tale of Liombruno, included in Calvino's collection and based on a medieval verse romance (1), in which the protagonist is saved from the Devil by the intervention of the beautiful Fata Aquilina. The two eventually marry; but, when Liombruno breaks his promise to his wife not to reveal her true identity, he is forced to embark on a perilous journey in order to find her and win back her love.

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