Cultural Appropriation: "Pari" not "Fairy"
Updated: May 16
Faeries are otherworldly creatures or spirits that appear in folklore. They are often depicted as tiny, adorable winged creatures in modern times. That has not always been the case. The pari inspires this representation of fairies – the pari first lost its individuality by being translated as “fairy” by English and French colonial folklorists. It was then appropriated by English literature and media. We say appropriated because how often have you seen a fairy dressed in South Asian, Central Asian, Persian, or Middle Eastern attire?
The origins of the folk lie in Celtic mythology. They were believed to be anything from beautiful, angelic beings to short, hideous trolls. Common themes among the Celtic nations describe faeries as a mythical race of people driven into hiding by some invader.
Celtic fairies go by several names, like the Asrai's, Banshees, Changelings, Dryads, Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Goblins, Imps, Leprechauns, Nymphs, Pixies, Pookas, Selkies, Unseelies, Trolls, Wee Folk, and Wichtlein to name a few.
In ancient Persian mythology, on the other hand, the Peris have traditionally been tiny, lovely, winged creatures – often depicted as anamorphic beings. They were neither good nor evil – they were both helpful and mischievous.
They were believed to be spirits imprisoned in their form to atone for past sin or sins. Another theory is that they were the descendants of angels who had been cursed and were to remain as spirits until the original sin had been atoned. In ancient Persian lore, a Peri may be a messenger or someone who may play a little trick on you, like hiding your saddle.
Lore is as fluid as empires used to be. Time passed on. Indian, Arab, and Persian cultures began to blend. The pari’s perception evolved into that of a friendly, benevolent spirit.
The chances are that Islamic belief had a significant role in this integration. It was primarily from the concept of the “Hoor” in the afterlife that the pair, too, began to be seen differently. Besides minor, harmless pranks they may play, they are invariably pretty and invariably good.
Usually feminine, the concept of Parizaad, a male fairy, is mentioned in Pakistani folklore occasionally. The race is also believed to be in eternal war with perceived evil, the Jinns, Deos, and Divs. Marzolph, an authority on Middle Eastern and Persian oral tradition, discussed the Indo-Iranian origin of the pari.
Pakistani folklore from the Northern areas mentions as many people as pari’s and the jinns as an everyday part of life. In the South of the country, Balochi, Brahui, and Sindhi oral traditions, particularly the pari, is seen as an unwelcome visitor.
Despite these differences in lore, presumably friendly or selfish, an evil Pari is a concept alien to Pakistani lore. For the lack of a better word, the pari/peri was translated into “fairy” by Englishmen who set out to document folklore from what is now Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
Rather than loaning the word pari, grouping them with otherworldly creatures closer to home was convenient. The subtle differences may or may not be a big deal, and it has killed the distinct nature of the pari. Oral tradition is essential to intangible cultural heritage, and whitewashing it should be criminal.
This blog has been written by Komal Salman.