Tooth Fairy Tales: The Strange Origins of the Dental Sprite
The tooth fairy is rivalled only by Santa Claus in popularity among American children. She is famous for exchanging a few dollars for baby teeth that have fallen out. Belief in the tooth fairy has become so common in the United States that losing belief in her is considered a rite of passage showing that a child is “growing up.” Despite its popularity, little is known of the origins of the tooth fairy and few parallels are found in other cultures. One fact that emerges when the tooth fairy’s origin is investigated is that the original tooth fairy, if there was one, seems to have been of a less innocent nature than the modern dental sprite.
Precursors in European Folklore
There is no direct parallel to the tooth fairy in European folklore. In Medieval England, it was popular to burn a child’s baby teeth. The reason for this was connected to beliefs about the afterlife. An old superstition was that if a child did not dispose of his or her baby teeth properly, the person would wander the afterlife for all of eternity in search of them.
In other parts of Europe, children were encouraged to offer their teeth to animals, usually mice, or to throw them in to the air. Some 19th century scholars found this interesting and even went as far as to suggest that this custom was evidence of vestigial paganism in the form of sun worship. Only a few scholars have considered the relevance of this practice to the tooth fairy, however.
An 8-year-old’s gift to the tooth fairy. (Public Domain)
These examples show how European folklore regarding children’s teeth diverges in many ways from American folklore. They sometimes involve just getting rid of the teeth rather than offering them to any entity. Others involve offering the teeth to rather different entities, such as animals instead of to a fairy.
There are legends in Europe, however, that do more closely resemble the tooth fairy legend. These often involve witches. In some cases, the reason for disposing of the teeth is so that a witch does not find them rather than to make an offering. If a witch found a person’s teeth, it was believed that she might be able to gain complete control over that person. There are however a few European legends that do resemble the American tooth fairy.
One English legend from Lancashire tells of a witch named Jenny Greenteeth. Jenny Greenteeth was a witch that was said to hide in scum-filled ponds and catch unsuspecting children. Parents would use Jenny Greenteeth as a way to frighten children into obedience. Interestingly, there is a dental connection. The pond scum in which the witch hides (duckweed) is said to resemble green teeth. Jenny Greenteeth is also used to encourage children to brush their teeth, possibly so that their teeth do not become as dirty as the teeth of the old witch.
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Jenny Greenteeth by Felixthecat001. (DeviantArt)
A benevolent example is Marantega in Venice, Italy. Marantega is a Venetian version of the generally Italian Befana, a benevolent old crone who gives children gifts at Christmas like Santa Claus in the U.S. Interestingly, Marantega not only gives children gifts at Christmas, but also when they lose a tooth. Marantega makes for an interesting parallel to the tooth fairy legend, though it is unlikely that Marantega represents a direct precursor.
Were Tooth Fairy rituals originally to protect children from harm?
The rituals associated with the tooth fairy in the United States also bear an eerie resemblance to rituals used to protect children from supernatural kidnappers such as trolls and fairies. Stories about human children being snatched from their cradles by trolls or fairies and replaced by a shape-shifting troll or fairy baby are common in folklore. There are also parallels to these stories in non-European cultures.
Teeth, because of their apparent indestructibility compared to other body parts, have historically been seen as a form of magical protection against evil. They are used in cultures all over the world as protective talismans. Placing a tooth near the bed of a child could be thought of as a way to protect the child from harm or as a sacrifice of sorts to the supernatural creatures that might otherwise take the child.
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Look at them, troll mother said. Look at my sons! You won't find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon. (1915) by John Bauer. (Public Domain)
Interestingly, one common variation of the tooth fairy ritual is to sprinkle the tooth with salt and leave it in a glass or on a plate by the child’s bed. Salt, because it is used as a preservative, has traditionally been believed to have many of the same protective powers as teeth. It could be said that a tooth sprinkled with salt is an even more powerful protection than the tooth by itself.
Another interesting tooth fairy ritual that resembles these customs for warding off evil fairies is placing the tooth under a pillow. There are examples of customs where objects such as knives are placed beneath a pillow as a form of supernatural protection. This can also serve as protection from mundane human threats of course, but iron knives and other iron objects are also used for magical protection as well in many cultures.
This is not to say that American parents who indulge in tooth fairy rituals are secretly protecting their children from malevolent fairies, simply that some of the rituals associated with the tooth fairy legend may date back to a time when such rituals were used to protect children from supernatural harm.
Although there are parallels to tooth fairy customs and stories in other cultures, there doesn’t appear to be a direct precursor to the tooth fairy in European folklore or generally in world folklore. The tooth fairy is largely an American phenomenon. Nonetheless, there are enough similarities to other legends mentioned in folklore to suggest that the tooth fairy may be at least partially derived from these tales about trolls and witches and the use of teeth as a form of other-worldly protection. Although the tooth fairy currently lacks a clear genealogy or ancestry, she has nonetheless made a great success as one of America’s only fairies.
Top image: Mythical creatures – The Tooth Fairy Source: Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
Rushton, N. “Swapping Babies: The Disturbing Faerie Changeling Phenomenon” Ancient Origins. (2016). Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/swapping-babies-disturbing-faerie-changeling-phenomenon-007261
Underwood, Tanya. “Legends of the Tooth Fairy”, Recess. (2005). Available at: http://www.recess.ufl.edu/transcripts/2005/0823.shtml
Narváez, Peter. The good people: New fairylore essays. Vol. 1376. Scholarly Title, 1991.