In most traditions, especially in the British Isles and Scandinavia, the fairy folk were supernormal entities who inhabited a magical kingdom beneath the surface of the earth. Fairies have always been considered to be much akin to humans, yet something more than mortal person. As many of the ancient texts declare, the fairies are "of a middle nature between Man and Angel." One factor has been consistent in fairy lore—these so-called "middle folk" continually meddle in the affairs of humankind, sometimes to do them good, sometimes to do them ill.
Tales have been told with endless modifications and variations, but it remains essentially a story of a fairy outwitting a greedy human. Less widely known are the many stories in which the person who discovers the fairies at their work is whisked away by them to the fairy kingdom, from which he or she may return much later as an old person believing that only a day or so has gone by.
In The Science of Fairy Tales by Edwin Sidney Hartland, published in London in 1891, the account is given of a shepherd who went out one day to look for his cattle and sheep on the mountain and seemingly disappeared into thin air. After about three weeks, the search parties had abandoned hope of ever finding him again. His wife had given him up for dead, and it was at that time that he returned. When his astonished wife asked him where he had been for the past three weeks, the man angrily said that he had only been gone for three hours. When he was asked to describe exactly where he had been, he said little men who closed nearer and nearer to him until they formed a small circle surrounding him. They sang and danced and so affected him that he got lost.
Near Bridgend is a place where a woman is said to have lived for 10 years with the fairy folk and who upon her return insisted that she had not been out of the house for more than 10 minutes.
The Germans, the Irish, the Scots, the English, and the Scandinavians have no end of such accounts of fairies interacting with people and stealing time. There are variants of these tales in Wales, in the Slavic countries, and in Japan and China. Stories are told of men and women who returned years, sometimes even generations, after they had stepped into a fairy circle and been enchanted by the singing and dancing of the wee people. Additional anecdotes are told of those who coupled with fairy folk and produced a hybrid of human and fairy individuals.
In Scotland the story is repeated of a man who went with his friend to enter his first child's birth in the record books and to buy a keg of whiskey for the christening. As the two men sat down to rest, they heard the sound of piping and dancing. The father of the newborn child became curious, and spotting some wee folk beginning to dance, he decided to join them.
His friend fled the spot, and when the new father did not return for several months, the friend was accused of murdering him. Somehow he was able to persuade the court that he should be allowed a year and a day to vindicate himself. Each night at dusk, he went to the spot where his friend had disappeared to call out his friend's name and to pray. One day just before the term ran out, he saw his friend dancing merrily with the fairies. The accused man succeeded in grabbing him by the sleeve and pulling him out. The bewitched man snapped angrily because his friend would not let him finish the dance. The unfortunate friend, who would face the gallows if he could not bring the enchanted man home, told the celebrating father that he had been dancing for 12 months and that he should have had enough. When rescued from the fairies' circle, the man would not believe the lapse of time until he found his wife sitting by the door of his home with their year-old son in her arms.
Several Native American tribes have similar stories of interactions with entities they call the "pukwudjinis," the little vanishing people. The tribespeople also refer to the medicine or magic circle. If anyone stepped inside one, he or she could disappear for months or years or a lifetime.