They are usually depicted with pointed ears, and often wearing a green outfit and pointed hat. Sometimes their eyes are described as being pointed upwards at the temple ends. These, however, are Victorian Era conventions and not part of the old mythology.
In modern use the term can be synonymus with fairies or sprites.
Etymology and Origin
The origin of the name pixie is uncertain. Some have claimed that it comes from the Swedish dilectal pyske meaning wee little fairy. Others, however, have disputed this, claiming that due to Cornish origin of the piskie that the term is probably Celtic in origin, though no Celtic ancestor of the word is known.Pixie mythology seems to predate Christian presence in Britain. In the Christian era they were sometimes said to be the souls of children who died un-baptized. By 1869 some were suggesting that that the pixie was a racial remnant of Pictic tribes who used to paint/tattoo their skin blue, an attribute often given to pixies. This suggestion is still met in contemporary writing, but there is no proven connection and the etymological connection is doubtful. Some 19th century researchers made more general claims about pixie origins, or have connected them with Puck, a mythological creature described as a fairy; the name Puck is also of uncertain origin.Until the advent of more modern fiction, pixie mythology was localized with Britain. Some have noted simalarities to "northern fairies", Germanic and Scandinavian fae, but pixies are distinguished from them by the myths and stories of Devon and Cornwall.
Before the mid 19th century, pixies and fairies were taken seriously in much of Cornwall and Devon. Books devoted to the homely beliefs of the peasantry are filled with incidents of pixie manifestations. Some locals are named for the pixies associated with them. In Devon, near Challacombe, a group of rocks are named for the pixies said to dwell there. In some areas beliefs in pixies and fairies as real beings persists. In the legends associated with Dartmoor, pixies (or piskeys) are said to disguise themselves as a bundle of rags to lure children into their play. The pixies of Dartmoor are fond of music and dancing and for riding on Dartmoor colts. These pixies are generally said to be helpful to normal humans, sometimes helping needy widows and others with housework. They are not completely benign however, as they have a reputation for misleading travelers (being "pixy-lead", the remedy for which is to turn your coat inside out).The queen of the Cornish pixies is said to be Joan the Wad, and considered to be good luck. In Devon, pixies are said to be "invisibly small, and harmless or friendly to man". In some of the legends and historical accounts they are presented as having near human stature. For instance, a member of the Elford family in Tavistock, Devon, successfully hid from Cromwell's troups in a pixie house. Though the entrance has narrowed with time, the pixie house, a natural cavern on Sheep Tor is still accessible.at Buckland St. Mary, Somerset, pixies and fairies are said to have battled each other. The pixies were victorious and still visit the area, whilst the fairies are said to have left the area after their loss. By the early nineteenth century their contact with 'normal' humans had diminished. In Samuel Drew's 1824 book Cornwall one finds the observation: "The age of pixies, like that of chivalry, is gone. There is, perhaps, at present hardly a house they are reputed to visit. even the fields and lanes which they formerly frequented seem to be forsaken. Their music is rarely heard."
Pixie Day is an old tradition which takes place annually in the East Devon town of Ottery St. Mary in June. The day commemorates a legend of pixies being banished from the town to local caves known as the Pixie's Parlour. The Pixie Day legend originates from the early days of Christianity, when a local bishop decided to build a church in Otteri (ottery St. Mary), and commissioned a set of bells to come from Wales, and to be escorted by monks on their journey. On hearing of this, the pixies were worried, as they knew that once the bells were installed it would be the death knell of their rule over the land. So they cast a spell over the monks to redirect them from the road to Otteri, to the road leading them to the cliffs edge at Sidmouth. Just as the monks were about to fall over the cliff, one of the monks stubbed his toe on a rock and said 'God bless my soul" and the spell was broken. The bells were then brought to Otteri and were installed. However, the pixies' spell was not completely broken; each year on a day in June the 'pixies' come out and capture the town's bell ringers and imprison them in Pixies Parlour to be rescued by the Vicar of Ottery St. Mary. This legend is re-enacted each year by the Cub and Brownie groups of Ottery St. Mary, with a specially constructed Pixie's Parlour in the Town Square (the original Pixie's Parlour can be found along the banks of the River Otter).
Pixies are variously described in folklore and fiction.
They are often ill-colored or naked. In 1890, William Crossing noted a pixie's preference for bits of finery: "Indeed, a sort of weakness for finery exists among them, and a piece of ribbon appears to be ... highly prized by them." Lack of fashion sense has been taken by Rachael de Vienne, a modern fantasy writer, to mean that pixies generally go unclothed, though they are sensitive to human need for covering. In de Viennes book, the main character, a pixie child, delights in ribbons made from her father's shirt.
Some pixies are said to steal children or lead travellers astray. This seemed to be a cross-over from fairy mythology and not originally attached to pixies; in 1850, Thomas Keightley observed that much of Devon pixie mythology may have originated from fairy myth. Pixies are said to reward consideration and punish neglect on the part of larger humans, for which Keightley gives examples. By their presence they bring blessings to those who are fond of them.
Pixies are drawn to horses, riding them for pleasure and making tangled ringlets in the manes of those horses which they ride. They are "great explorers familiar with the caves of the ocean, the hidden sources of the streams and the recesses of the land."
Some find pixes have a human origin or to "partake of human nature", in distinction to fairies whose mythology is traced to immaterial and malignant spirit forces. In some discussions pixies are presented as wingless, pygmy-like creatures, however this is probably a later accretion to the mythology.
One British scholar took pixie myth seriously enough to state his belief that "Pixies were evidently a smaller race, and, from the greater obscurity of the ... tales about them, I believe them to have been an earlier race."
Many Victorian era poets saw them as magical beings. An example is Samuel Minturn Peck: in his poem The Pixies he writes:
‘Tis said their forms are tiny, yet All human ills they can subdue, Or with a wand or amulet Can win a maiden’s heart for you; And many a blessing know to stew To make to wedlock bright; Give honour to the dainty crew, The Pixies are abroad tonight. The late 19th century English poet Nora Chesson summarized pixie mythology fairly well in a poem entitled The Pixies. She gathered all the speculations and myths into verse:
The Pixie Day tradition in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s hometown of Ottery St Mary in East Devon was the inspiration for his poem Song of the Pixies.
The Victorian era writer Mary Elizabeth Whitcombe divided pixies in to tribes according to personality and deeds. Anna Eliza Bray suggested that pixies and fairies were distinct species.
In modern fiction the fantasy author Rachael de Vienne, is faithful to pixie mythology, weaving many of its elements into her work. Other writers pay tribute to pixies by at least using the name, though they often stray from the mythology.