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A few spells mention using spirits, specifically fey, fiend or celestial spirits, usually regarding summoning them to take the form of another creature. A few examples are listed below:

Conjure animals (PHB, p. 225):

You summon fey spirits that take the form of beasts and appear in unoccupied spaces you can see within range. ... Each beast is also considered fey, ...

Find familiar (PHB, p. 240):

You gain the service of a familiar, a spirit that takes the form of an animal ... the familiar has the statistics of the chosen form, though it is a celestial, fey or fiend (your choice) instead of a beast.

Find steed (PHB, p. 240):

You summon a spirit that assumes the form of an unusually intelligent, strong, and loyal steed ... the steed has the statistics of the chosen form, though it is a celestial, fey or fiend (your choice) instead of its normal type.

Some of these I am identifying as fiendish or celestial spirits by inference, although conjure animals explicitly says "fey spirits".


My question is, what exactly is a fey spirit? Or a fiend or celestial one? (If this question is considered too broad by asking about all three, I'll happy reduce the scope to just "what is a fey spirit", but I don't see these as being too different to make this too broad, personally).

The only way I can make sense of this is to assume that this is referring to a fey being that has died, so literally the ghost of a fey. But then why can't some of these spells use an elemental's spirit, or even a humanoid's spirit? But even then, wouldn't these spirits be undead type, rather than fey or whatever, if they were the spirits of dead creatures? Shouldn't spirits of dead fey have gone to some kind of afterlife; how come relatively low level magic can summon them? Maybe it isn't literally a dead fey, but then what is a fey spirit?

Note that I don't expect each of the questions in the above stream of non-bold questions to be answered, they are just included to try to give some insight into my train of thought/confusion.


Also note that, although I'm asking "why" this or that, this isn't a question, this is a question, since I'm interested in the in-universe justification for things, not designer reasons. I don't care why, in the read world, Jeremy Crawford or Gary Gygax or whoever else from however far back this goes decided that this is the case, only how this makes sense in-universe. What, from a lore perspective, is a fey (or fiend or celestial) spirit compared to an actual fey (or fiend or celestial) creature?

If a setting is necessary to answer this question, let's assume Forgotten Realms, but I don't actually care about a specific setting. Given that this is a lore question, I'm also happy for answers to include information from previous editions, but I'm primarily interested in information from 5e.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So is that an inquiry of curiosity or does this matter in any other context? \$\endgroup\$ – Akixkisu Jun 24 at 9:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu Mostly the former, but also it may inform some worldbuilding decisions for my homebrew setting; in other words, I feel as though I need to know the answer to know what other contexts it could affect. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jun 24 at 9:10
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Your emphasis is on fey, but it’s actually easier to start with fiends and celestials.

Also, this is going to necessarily be based on the history of D&D, because 5e hasn’t really gone into a lot of details about this sort of thing. That said, everything I claim here is consistent with 5e, including the things that they have changed.

OK, so then, fiends and celestials are what previous editions of D&D called “Outsiders,” non-mortal creatures from other planes of existence. They are related to “Elementals,” and share many similarities with them—one could think of Outsiders as being the “Elementals” of non-elemental things, most notably belief. That is, where a fire elemental is a being made of fire, “fire incarnate,” a fiend is a being made of evil, “evil incarnate.” Celestials likewise but good. In the wider multiverse of D&D, most thoroughly described in the Planescape setting of 2e and 3e, belief in alignments is potent stuff, giving rise to entire planes of existence (the heavens and the hells and so on), which are made out of solid belief in that alignment. Fiends and celestials are made out of that same solid belief as the plane they originate upon—and since those planes of belief are known as the “Outer Planes,” they are known as Outsiders (for the record, the “Inner Planes” would be the elemental ones, but no one calls elementals “Insiders”).

One of the key things about Outsiders and Elementals both is that they do not exhibit “dualism,” the concept of a soul and a body as separate entities. For an Outsider or Elemental, their soul is their body and vice-versa. This allows their body to radically change in tune with changes to their soul—since those are the same. For instance, a marilith, a six-armed demon with the lower body of a snake and the upper body of a woman, could become a balor, a hulking, furry brute with horns, cloven hooves, and enormous wings.

Balor and marilith as depicted in 3e Monster Manual

A balor and a marilith, as depicted in the 3.5e Monster Manual.

Likewise, they could be bound to other forms, say objects. They could inhabit other creatures, possessing them. And so on. This is how fiendish or celestial “spirits” can be used as a familiar or steed.

How do Fey work into this? In previous editions, they didn’t; this use of “fey spirits” is new to 5e. However, some Fey creatures were incorporeal spirits—no body to speak of. Unlike, say, a satyr or dryad, some fey were only spirits—making them more like Outsiders or Elementals. And the Fey were largely associated not with the elemental planes, or the planes of belief, but with the material plane1—the plane of mortals. They are, in some ways, analogous to Outsiders and Elementals for the material plane. And this is exactly how 5e uses them: where in previous editions, a hag was a “native outsider,” that is an Outsider of the material plane, in 5e hags are classified as Fey creatures instead.

So 5e changed Fey to be more like Outsiders, and so it would seem this included the greater malleability of Outsiders, to allow them to be bound into conventional animal forms.

  1. Or the Feywild, which was a new plane introduced in 4e that 5e has retained. But since the Feywild is “an echo of the material plane,” it still associates Fey far more strongly with the material than either the Elementals or Outsiders would be.
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    \$\begingroup\$ So, if you were to cast find steed and choose fiend type, you're essentially summoning a (likely not very powerful) devil or demon, for example? Have I understood that right? \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jun 24 at 15:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS Correct. There are fiends (technically neither demon nor devil) that take on the form of jet-black-but-flaming equines—the nightmares. So for a weaker fiend to be bound to the form of a regular horse is no great stretch. (To be clear, find steed does not get you a nightmare; those are much scarier than just a fiendish warhorse.) \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 24 at 16:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have a good source for a fleshing out of the Feywild? I've never been clear on whether it's more like the ethereal plane with life or more like a neutralish rendition of the outer planes in inner plane space, paired with Shadowfell \$\endgroup\$ – Alex H. Jun 24 at 20:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlexH. I don’t; I actually forgot about it entirely since it wasn’t part of the 2e/3e Great Wheel cosmology that I still use. The Feywild and the Shadowfell kind of replaced the Ethereal and Shadow in 4e, sort of, which as a general rule handled the lore terribly, but unfortunately 5e retained at least this much from it. The Shadowfell also took on aspects of the Negative Energy Plane, and the Feywild exhibits aspects of the Positive Energy Plane, as I understand things. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 24 at 22:14
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From Dictionary.com:

Spirit n.

[...]

  1. the soul regarded as separating from the body at death
  2. a conscious, incorporeal being, as opposed to matter
  3. a supernatural, incorporeal being, especially one inhabiting a place, object, etc., or having a particular character
  4. a fairy, sprite, or elf
  5. an angel or demon

The word 'spirit' in this case should be read in the sense of "nature spirits" or "evil spirits" rather than "spirits of the dead". It's the more general sense of the word -- not the ghost of a dead creature, but rather supernatural not-quite-corporeal entities, which you are creating a vessel for.

The game is unclear on what exactly it's talking about because they don't want to tie it down to any particular cosmology or framework. What happens if your game world doesn't have planes in it, or has planes that operate very differently from the standard Planescape-like cosmology? Because they're vague about exactly what these things are, you're free to come up with your own ideas about them.

A fey spirit could be an actual creature of the feywild drawn into the prime material plane, or it could be the spirit of a very old tree given a body of temporary flesh, or it could be just vague 'spirits of the forest' -- the kind that folklore claims can bring bad luck, inflict illness, or brew up storms if they're disrespected.

In the case of a celestial or fiend, what you're summoning is more like a minor outsider -- a low-class angel or imp, perhaps, or a creature of the planes that doesn't qualify for a place in their hierarchy yet. It may be something that can't travel across the planes on its own, but you're calling it into the material plane and binding or contracting with it.

Not every inhabitant of the outer planes is a capital-letter Angel or Demon or Devil or whatnot. There are a lot of smaller beings that live in the planes that don't classify into a specific Monster Manual entry; they're just small manifestations of the energy of the planes. The way you might see butterflies made of fire or ice-fish in the elemental planes, there could be little balls of sentient light in the upper planes, or conscious maggot swarms living in the hells. The feywild has similar creatures that aren't sprites or eladrin or sidhe or anything else classified in the books.

The spirit summoned by one of these spells, then, could be an actual angel, demon, or dryad; but it could equally be a nameless unclassified entity of the planes that may or may not even have a specific form in its home plane. It might just be a formless presence from the primeval forest or a sentient patch of haze, which you're housing in a distinct body for the first time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ But what are such spirits? How do they fit into the general D&D lore (or Forgotten Realms lore if "general D&D lore" doesn't make sense)? For example, is there anywhere in a published book that goes into more detail about these spirits (outside of these spell descriptions, of course)? \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jun 24 at 15:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ In other words, this answer replaces one question with another: "What exactly is a nature/evil spirit [in D&D]?" \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jun 24 at 15:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, 5e doesn't have the "Outsider" type. \$\endgroup\$ – JohnP Jun 24 at 15:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS You seemed really hung up on the "undead" aspect of the term "spirit", so I was just aiming to point out that it's very common in the real world to refer to spirits when talking about supernatural creatures, particularly ones that are only sometimes physical entities. I thought I answered the "what exactly is" part in the last four paragraphs -- can you clarify what you feel I've left out? \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jun 24 at 16:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm really not hung up on the "undead" aspect at all. I mentioned it once in my question, and not at all in the comments under your answer. Also, these -1's aren't mine. I just wanted to understand more about what these spirits are in established lore. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jun 24 at 17:11

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