JANUARY
2008

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

01-10-08

Does the Tooth Fairy Have Insect Wings?

I don't know about you, but, at one time, I believed in the tooth fairy! So did my children. Like my parents before me, I contributed to the perpetuation of the legend. And now my grandchildren are approaching the age when they will begin to lose their baby teeth. We'll see if the tooth-fairy tradition continues in our family. I bet it will.

The tooth fairy, along with Santa Claus and the Easter bunny, are parent-assisted myths. Some people, for a variety of reasons, have expressed concern about exposing children to such myths. I personally fail to see the harm to children who are included in such rituals. To be honest, I have rather enjoyed helping perpetuate the myths.

How did the tooth fairy myth get started anyway? Some scholars believe that it goes back to ancient teething rituals during a time when belief in witches was common. The idea was that witches would use pieces of the human body, including shed teeth, to direct curses and magic. So ancient people tried to dispose of a baby tooth by burying, burning or hiding it.

Another method of disposal was to have an animal eat the shed tooth. An associated idea was that if a mouse or rat consumed the shed tooth, the child's permanent tooth would grow in sharp and strong. There is also a French-language fairy tale about a tooth mouse that hid under the king's pillow to torment him.

Exactly how all of this lead to the modern idea of the tooth fairy is unclear. But, by 1900, the ritual of a mythical character called the "tooth fairy" existed throughout English-speaking countries of the world. You know how the ritual works. A child places the pulled tooth under his or her pillow when going to bed. In the morning, the tooth is gone and has been mysteriously replaced by money. The work of the tooth fairy!

There is a useful purpose for the ritual. It rewards the child for removing the tooth, a process that can be traumatic for a 5- or 6-year-old child. In fact, such a reward system for removing teeth frequently exists in families, even if the concept of the tooth fairy is not used.

So why did a fairy get the job of rewarding children for loosing teeth? The concept of fairies has existed for thousands of years. Early fairies were thought to be conquered races of people, fallen angels, souls of dead people or nature spirits in pagan religions. While some fairies were evil, most were mysterious, mischievous pranksters -- perfect for the clandestine role of sneaking under a pillow and exchanging money for teeth.

Over the years, fairies have been thought to have human form. While some early fairies were the size of humans, most were considered to be very tiny creatures. The idea of fairies being small is reflected in the use of the name "fairy" to describe real animals. For instance, fairy scrimp, fairy armadillo, fairy moths, fairy wrens and fairy terns are all among the smallest of that type of animal. The so-called fairy fly is actually a wasp, but it is the smallest of insects, measuring 0.2 mm.

How fairies managed to travel has been a subject of human speculation for eons. One theory is that fairies hitched a ride on birds. Another idea was that they traveled by magic. A third idea was that fairies had wings. It was this idea that seems to have been adopted by artists. From flower fairies to Tinker Bell, these creatures are depicted with insect wings, primarily of the butterfly type. That makes sense because the earliest of the fairy-type creatures was the Greek goddess Psyche. The word "psyche" meant "spirit" or "butterfly."

The pictures I have seen of the tooth fairy show her with butterfly wings. I think it would be better if the tooth fairy had dragonfly wings. Why? Because the order name for dragonflies is Odonata, based on the Greek root "odon," which means "tooth." A perfect association for the tooth fairy, don't you think?

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox