Fairy Rings in the Landscape

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Author Thomas Nashe in his satirical pamphlet of 1596, Have With You To Saffron-Walden, Or, Gabriell Harvey’s hunt is up, memorably mocks his victim by describing how:

“more channels and creases he hath in his face that there be fairy-circles on Salisbury Plain.”

In a few words he highlights for us a fact that we simply don’t appreciate today: that the former, unimproved landscape of agriculture- before intensive weed control and fertilisation- looked completely different to what we see now.  For Nashe and his contemporaries, evidence of fairies was everywhere.  This confirmed the constant presence of the faeries for many; for others it provoked speculation about the processes of Nature that might generate such striking features.

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A century after Nashe, naturalist Robert Plot discussed the English Midlands countryside in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686).  He described rings he had seen that were forty or fifty yards in diameter, often encircled by a rim between a foot and a yard wide.  These rims might be bare, or might have a russet, singed colour.  The grass within could also be brown but was more often dark green.

Fairy-Ring

Some people blamed lightning for the rings; others put them down to fairies. Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) recorded these explanations:

“These [the fairies] are they that dance on heaths and greens as Lavater thinks with Tritemius, and as Olaus Magnus adds, [and that] leave that green circle, which we commonly find in plain fields, which others hold to proceed from a meteor falling, or some accidental rankness of the ground, so nature sports herself; they [the dancing faes] are sometimes seen by old women and children. “

Ludwig Lavater (1527-86), in chapter 19 of his book Of ghosts and spirits walking (translated by Robert Harrison in 1572) was sure the cause was dancing fairies, writing that:

Olaus Magnus in his third booke and eleventh chapter De Gentibus Septentrionalibus, wryteth that even in these our dayes, in many places in the North partes, there are certaine monsters or spirites, whiche taking on them some shape or figure, use (chiefly in the night season) to daunce after the sounde of all manner of instrumentes of musicke: whome the inhabitants call companions, or daunces of Elves, or Fairies.”

Robert Plot, meanwhile, sought to explain the rings scientifically, suggesting that the rings were caused by deer grazing, by moles or by the concentrated dung of penned cattle boosting growth, but given their occasionally huge size and distinctness, and their tendency to appear overnight, it is unsurprising that others would readily suspect supernatural causation.

Living with the Fairy Presence

The prevalence and visibility of rings in the fields of communities that were predominantly rural was bound to have an effect on their thinking.  The proximity of the fairies’ dancing places to homes, and the persistence of the rings in sward, led to much apprehension and many precautions against the ever-present fairy peril.

As I have described in my recent book, Fairy Ballads & Rhymesproper respect for fairy rings was inculcated into children and cultivators through memorable verses- for example:

“he wha’ spoils the fairies’ ring,/ Betide him want and woe,” but

“he wha’ cleans the fairy ring,/ An easy death shall dee.”

In any case, it was often impossible to plough up the rings, as they would just regrow.  Acceptance and caution were therefore the better responses; showing the fairies respect whilst, at the same time, not getting too near, was strongly advisable.  Children knew that to run around certain rings too many times (usually seven or nine) would put them in the fairies’ power.  In an earlier post, for example, I have discussed the particularly notorious reputation of those rings called gallitrapsThe tiny fairy girl shown below may look charming and harmless, but don’t be fooled: there may be malice behind those eyes…

Further Reading

I discuss faery rings and other faery places in my recent book, Faerywhich- I’m pleased to say- became available to UK buyers from April 1st.

Maximilian Esposito, Capitolo Primo

‘Gude Neebers’- living with the faeries

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Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, ‘The Introduction’

The fairies are everywhere; they are among us, at all times and in all places.  When we address them as our Good Neighbours (or ‘Gude Neebers’ in Scots), the reference to their proximity is not idle politeness but a simple statement of fact.  This reality was well known to previous generations, but the knowledge has been obscured for us now because of urbanisation and the dislocation of rural traditions.  For our ancestors, though, the faeries were ever-present in their environment.  Here are two examples.

On Shetland, folklorist Eliza Edmonston recorded in her 1809 book Sketches and Tales of the Shetland Islands (and with some irritation on her part at their gullibility) how amongst the local people:

“the knolls under which these ‘good people’ congregate, the solitary springs whence they fetch water and the especial evenings on which they busy themselves in mundane matters, are all heedfully noted and, at any other risk, avoided.” (p.22)

The daily routines of the trows were known- and human life was organised around them.

Secondly, there is the Clackmannanshire story of the Sautman of Tullibody.  The ‘sautman’ was a merchant with a monopoly on the sale of salt- perhaps this was profitable work, or thirsty work, for he was also a drunkard.  His wife constantly tried to get him to reform but he paid no attention until, exasperated, she wished the fairies would take her.  Ever vigilant and ever willing to interfere maliciously in human affairs, they complied with her wish, snatching her up the chimney of their home.  Now, Tullibody is a small town just east of Stirling.  The story tells us that the wife was taken to the fairy palace at Cauldhame.  This is a hill seven or so miles north of  Tullibody (although there is another place of the same name about fifteen miles west, on the way to Aberfoyle, where the Reverend Robert Kirk lived, which might be a candidate).  The woman was treated well there- like a queen- and, in due course, returned home to a sobered husband, but the point is that (as in Shetland) this hill was well-known to the people of the area to be a fairy dwelling.

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Beryl Haig, ‘English -Fairy Whispers’ series published by A.M. Davis 1925 (set of 6).

An Enchanted Landscape

For many of us now, the intimate knowledge that our ancestors had of their surroundings is something we can only imagine.  That intense familiarity was derived from working and walking within a neighbourhood on a daily basis.  Not only would the minute changes of the seasons be known, but every feature of a landscape would be recorded in their memories: where firewood could be found, where there was good pasture, where berries grew and such like.  To the inhabitants of such a world, every stone and tree would have its name and stories about them would be passed down from parent to child.  It’s been said in recent years that we need to ‘re-enchant’ our world, which has been reduced by science and materialism to a mere source of consumable resources; for our predecessors, their environment was pervaded by enchantment.

Fairy hills, mounds, stones and trees and wells were everywhere, reflecting the fact that people lived side by side with the supernaturals.  The need to keep on the right side of the faeries was accentuated by the fact that they weren’t distant and theoretical: they were there, in the next field, looking down from the nearest hill, listening and paying attention to our every action.  The faery world interpenetrated our own and, knowing this, people structured their lives to accommodate this fact.  As the example from Shetland earlier illustrates so well, we had a relationship rather like an old-fashioned weather house: when the fairies were out and about (at night) we stayed inside out of their way and vice versa.  As long as the unspoken rules of time and place were observed, everyone was happy.

 

 

Fairy Godmothers- the folklore evidence

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Estella Canziani, Fairies Bless the New Born Child

I recently read an academic article which suggested that the idea of the fairy godmother, so prevalent is our contemporary views of Faery, was a relatively recent introduction to existing tradition, something derived from the Brothers Grimm and from stories like Pinocchio and Cinderella, and since reinforced by popular films, rather than it being a long-standing element of folklore belief.  In this posting I want to challenge that idea and to argue instead that it is one of the oldest recognised aspects of faery behaviour.

Medieval Romance

One of the pastimes or habits of medieval faeries was to either bless or torment humans. According to the historian Layamon, for example, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (this is, by far, our earliest faery godmother account, as the writer was born around 1200).  In the 13th century French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, too, there is a reference to a healing horn that’s presented to faery king Oberon by four faery ‘godmothers.’  Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly.

The fourteenth century romance of Ogier the Dane mixes fairy material with the ‘Matter of Britain,’ the stories of King Arthur and the exploits of the knights of the Round Table.  At his birth, Ogier is endowed with gifts and qualities by six fairy women; the last of these, Morgana, declares “I claim you as my own.  You shall not die until you have visited me in Avalon.”  After many adventures serving King Charlemagne, Ogier is shipwrecked on a strange island that turns out to be Morgana’s realm.  He falls under her seductive spell and passes a hundred years in bliss, not ageing a day, until by accident he recovers his memory and wishes to return to France.  On doing so, Ogier finds a new king, Hugh Capet, on the throne, whilst the language spoken has changed during his long absence.  After more noble deeds, Morgana reclaims Ogier for herself and takes him back to Avalon- where he is still alive today, alongside King Arthur.

Jessie wilcox smith cinderella
Jessie Wilcox-Smith, Cinderella

Faery Gifts

Amongst the christening gifts made by fairies is very famous song indeed of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye.  This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman.  It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life.  Each verse of the song had a different tune.  For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the latest baby heir.

Warwick Goble This was the image I used on our "welcome baby" cards for my little one - MAGIC!
Warwick Goble, illustration in Dora Owen, The Book of Fairy Poetry, 1920

In Tudor times the belief still lingered that some children might be endowed with talents and good fortune at their birth, as in these lines by John Milton (At a Vacation Exercise in the Colledge):

“Good luck befriend thee Son; for at thy birth,

The Faiery Ladies daunc’t upon the hearth;

Thy drowsie Nurse hath sworn she did them spie

Come tripping to the Room where thou didst lie;

And sweetly singing round thy Bed,

Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping Head…”

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Jessie Wilcox-Smith, The Fairy Godmother

These conceptions of course persist for modern readers in the fixed character of the ‘fairy godmother,’ but in Tudor and Stuart times it seems that the favour of the fairy kingdom more generally was envisaged by Ben Jonson (The Silent Woman, Act V, scene 1):

“To what strange fortune, friend, some men are born…

Surely, when thou wert young,

The fairies dandled thee.”

In Victorian verse the idea of fairy godmothers and of three wishes was greatly elaborated, most notably with mermaids, thereby embedding it in our consciousness.  See for example, The Fairy Gift, The Fairy and the Three Wishes & The Farmer and the Magic Ring, all by John Godfrey Saxe, The Fairy’s Gift, Margaret Elizabeth Munson Sangster, in Poems of the Household (1893), 242 and Wise Sarah & The Elf, Elizabeth Coatsworth.  Generally, see my Victorian Fairy Verse.

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Sarah Stilwell Weber, Fairy Godmother

 

 

Faery fantasies- naked nymphs & naiads

I’m reblogging another posting from Dr Sean Conroy, this time on ‘Faery fantasies’ in art. His primary interest is art history and literature, but he makes some very useful points about the representation of Faery in painting over the last hundred years or so- how it can be used a vehicle for dealing with other matters- quite close to some of the points I’ve raised in the past.

Sean Conroy blog

Pagliei, Gioacchino (1852-96); Naiades (1881), Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum

One theme of this blog is to examine the ways in which certain writers and artists have managed to incorporate into their work discussion or representation of material that might be considered controversial, subversive or risque . For many artists, an important vehicle that has for centuries legitimated depictions of naked adults and juveniles in the public domain has been the fairy or mythical painting. If you’re portraying scenes that are simply imaginary, there’s apparently almost no limit on the number of bare bodies that you can get away with showing: they’re not real, so no-one can be harmed or offended…

Hector Caffieri, A Young Siren

Nudity in these situations is further excused by the fact that mermaids and (it seems) fairies are naturally naked: in other words, their lack of clothing is a natural state for them and…

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Riding humans- a fairy pastime

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Fairies are reputed to ride a variety of creatures. As the illustrations to this post show, artists at least have allowed themselves considerable latitude in the sorts of steeds deemed possible- great fun being had with notions of the tiny size of the faes and the kinds of steed that might therefore be suitable.

It is very well known from the folklore that fairies and pixies like to take horses from stables and ride them at night, returning the steeds distressed, sweating and exhausted in the morning.  Often, too, their manes will be fiendishly knotted to make stirrups and panniers for their faery riders.  A witch-stone or hag-stone (a naturally holed stone) hung just above the animals in their stalls will prevent this.  Sprays or crosses of birch put over a stable door will bar the faeries from entering at night.

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Faery Ridden

Be warned, though: if the faeries want to go out riding and there are no suitable steeds to hand, they can use us instead.  Especially on the Isle of Man, people have been known to be taken and ridden all night.  They feel no weight on their backs during the experience, but they become tired from loss of sleep and thin and weak from their exertions.  Luckily, it is said that taking the precaution of wearing a suitable flower or herb to scare off the faeries (rowan blossom say) should be enough to prevent this.

From the Isle of Arran, we hear of a woman who suddenly fell ill and became very tired and sleepy.  Her family suspected that this was no ordinary fatigue and watched her at night.  They discovered that the fairies were coming when the house was asleep and turning her into a horse, which they then used for their carting.  A search of the garden the next morning uncovered a hidden harness, which helped break the spell cast upon her.

Hag Ridden

Also from Scotland, we have the confession of suspected witch Isobel Gowdie that she had gone out with the fairy host, the sluagh, to shoot elf-bolts at hapless humans.  Of these random victims she said:

“we may shoot them dead at owr pleasour.  Any that ar shot be us, their sowell will goe to Hevin, bot ther bodies remain with us, and will flie as horsis to us, as small as strawes.”

These straw-like beings were used by the witches to ride upon, just like horses.  They sat astride them, pronounced ‘horse and hattock’ and then travelled in a whirlwind.  This mode of travel is a trait of witches (see too the testimony of Bessie Flinkar, tried in 1661, who travelled to covens this way); but it was a power of those with the second sight and is, of course, exactly what the fairies were very commonly known to do.

We’ve looked previously at the fae tendency to move in whirlwinds.  That they travel in this manner is a widespread belief in Britain, from the Forest of Dean all the way north to Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides.  There, for example, the band of fairies called Friday’s People (Muintirr Fhionlaidh) would travel on calm days in whirlwinds, occasionally picking up those found asleep en route and carrying them a short distance.

Another Scottish witch suspect, Jonet Morrison of Bute, confessed in 1662 that the way the fairies ‘blasted’ those against whom they had a grudge was with “a whirlwind that the fayries raises about that person quhich they intend to wrong and, that tho ther were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot quhom they were set for.”  I’ve written about fairy whirlwinds in other posts on their movement.

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Summary

In former times it was widely believed that wasting illness and perpetual tiredness (symptoms we might now ascribe to a poor diet or to underlying health conditions) were actually the result of being ‘hag ridden’- turned into horses by witches, or fairies, and ridden at night or, alternatively, because the person was being carried off nightly to dance under the fairy hill.  Either way, their energy was being drained and they received no rest when they seemed to be asleep.

To conclude, therefore: we must not be complacent.  Almost any available object can be employed by the faeries to travel about.  Plant stems are regularly enchanted with their glamour, they keep their own horses, but will just as readily take steeds kept by humans from their stables and, most alarmingly, they will even cast a spell on us and exploit us.

The Pied Piper of Elfame: fairy abductions of children

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Noel Paton, Fact and Fancy, 1863

It is well known that fairies try to steal new born babies and that they leave changelings behind in their place.  Here, I want to examine the evidence for the abduction of children older than toddlers and how this is achieved.  Babies can be snatched from their cradles; how are less helpless juveniles abducted?

There seem to be three broad strategies employed by the fairies in taking infants.  They kidnap them, they trick them or they lure them away.  There are ample examples to illustrate all of these ploys.  It was believed that the fairies were always on the lookout for chances to abduct infants (see, for example, Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 150).

Muriel Dawson
Muriel Dawson, Welcome to Fairyland

Obviously, it is easiest to kidnap children if they come willingly.  It is perfectly possible to achieve this by friendly means.  In one Scottish example, a little girl used to regularly play with the faeries under the Hill of Tulach at Monzie.  One day they cut a lock of her hair and told her that next time she visited she would stay with them for ever.  Fortunately, the child told her mother what had happened and she immediately worked various charms and never let her daughter out to play again.  A boy from Borgue in Kirkcudbrightshire used regularly to make extended visits to the Good Folk underground in the same manner; he was protected by suspending a crucifix blessed by a Catholic priest around his neck.  Indeed, in one case from Orkney, a little girl so pestered the local trows with repeated visits to their underground homes that, in their irritation, they breathed on her and paralysed her for life.

The Scottish ballad of Leesom Brand fits with the friendly visit pattern of journey to Faery.  A boy aged ten finds his way to “an unco’ land where wind never blew and no cocks ever crew.”  There he meets with and falls for a woman who is only eleven inches tall.  It is at this point that this story takes a slightly uncomfortable turn.  Despite her small statute this lady was “often in bed with men I’m told” and the young boy, despite his tender years, is no exception; he gets her pregnant, too, and it is this scandal that forces them both the flee back to the human world.

girl with faes

Simply opening the door to a human child might be enough to tempt it in, then. More often, some additional inducement was necessary.  It might be nothing more than playing upon the child’s curiosity, as in the Welsh medieval case of Elidyr.  He had run away from home after an argument and had hidden for two days on a river bank.  Two little men then appeared to him and invited him to go with them to “a country full of delights and sports.”  That was all he required to persuade him to go with them.  Somewhat comparable is the tale of a boy from St. Allen in Cornwall who was led into a Faery by a lovely lady.  He first strayed into a wood following the sound of music and after much wandering feel asleep.  When he awoke, a beautiful woman was with him and guided him through fantastic palaces. Eventually he was found by searchers, once again asleep.  Fascinatingly, Evans Wentz has a modern version of the Elidyr story, told to him near Strata Florida (see Fairy Faith 148;  Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 86, ‘The Lost Child’).

Some children require more material temptation.  On the Isle of Man, a girl was walking over a bridge when three little men appeared to her and offered her a farthing to go with them.  She wisely refused, knowing that consent would place her in their power for ever.  In Northumberland, at Chathill Farm near Alnwick, there was a well-known fairy ring.  It was reputed that, if a child danced around it nine times, she or he would be in the fairies’ control.  To encourage children to do this, the fairies used to leave food and other gifts at the ring and parents, in response, would tie bags containing the age-old remedy of peony roots and seeds around their infants’ necks as a protection against fairy harm.  Elsewhere in the north of England, it has been reported that the fairies would leave out fairy butter as bait for children.

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Hester Margetson

These inducements to stray start to merge into out and out tricks.  For example, a boy lost on Dartmoor was found by his mother seated under an oak tree known to be a pixie haunt.  He told her that “two bundles of rags” had led him away- evidently, pixies in disguise so as to attract his attention and lull his suspicions.  As soon as the lights of his mother’s lantern appeared, these rags vanished (Hunt, Popular Romances, 96).

The kidnap can be covered by means of a changeling put in the abductee’s place.  The son of a blacksmith on the island of Islay, aged fourteen, suddenly fell ill and wasted away.  It was revealed to the father that, in fact, he had been taken by the fairies and a changeling left behind.  This the father exposed with the trick of brewing in egg shells and then violently expelled.  However, he had then to go to the fairy knoll to recover his son rather than the boy being automatically returned (as is the usual practice).  He was working for the fairies there as a blacksmith, which may explain their reluctance to part with him.

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Some children are snatched without ceremony.  In one case from the Isle of Man a boy sent to a neighbour’s house to borrow some candles at night was chased on his way home by a small woman and boy.  He ran, but only just kept ahead of them, and when he was back at his home, he had lost the power of speech and his hands and feet were twisted awry.  He remained this way for a week.  This could almost be a changeling story (see Evans Wentz 132).

sarah stilwell weber water babies
Sarah Stilwell Weber, Water Babies

Waldron tells of a ten-year-old girl from Ballasalla on the Isle of Man who had a lucky escape from such a kidnap attempt.  Out on an errand one day, she was detained by a crowd of little men. Some grabbed hold of her and declared their intention to take her with them; others in the party objected to the idea.  A fight broke out amongst the fairies and, because she had incited this discord, they spanked her but let her get away.  The truth of her account was seen in the little red hand prints marking her buttocks.

I have assumed so far, naturally, that parents would not wish to see their offspring taken to fairyland.  One incident contradicts this.  A woman from Badenoch in the Highlands was given shelter overnight in a fairy hill but, the next morning, she had to promise to surrender her child to them so as to be set free.  She agreed, but was to visit her daughter in the hill.  After a while, with no sign of things changing, the infant complained that she had been abandoned by her mother.  The woman scolded the girl for suggesting this and the fairies ejected her from the hill and never allowed her in again.  This suggestion that fairy abduction might sometimes be a boon for the child is confirmed by another source.  The verse ‘The Shepherd’s Dream,’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England, reveals that changelings were taken from mothers who beat or otherwise abused their progeny.

Going with the fairies need not be prolonged nor unpleasant, fortunately.  Many stories indicate that children will be well cared for in Faery.  A game keeper and his wife lived at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor. This couple had two children, and one morning when the wife had dressed the eldest she let her run away to play while she dressed the baby. In due course, father and mother realised that the child had disappeared. They searched for days with help from their neighbours, and even bloodhounds, without finding her. One morning a little time later some young men went to pick nuts from a clump of trees near the keeper’s house, and at there they came suddenly on the child, undressed, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.

Ezio Anichini, Peter Pan

There are, therefore, many ways of luring children into fairyland- some are friendly and almost consensual, others are more underhand and forcible.  The child’s treatment once in Faery will also vary: some will be well cared for and treated as fairy playmates; others may find themselves put to work in menial roles.  I discuss all the many aspects of these abductions and how to avoid them in my recently published book Faery.

 

Fairy Herds- winning and losing good luck

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There are two sorts of fairy cattle: there are the supernatural ‘water beasts,’ the water bulls of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man, which are magical and live under water (but are relatively harmless) and there are the less magical herds of cattle kept by the faes themselves.

Crodh mara & crodh sith

The fairies’ own livestock are the crodh mara, the fairy sea cows of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the fairy cattle or crodh sith of the Scottish mainland and the gwartheg y llyn, the Welsh ‘lake cattle’, that are frequently brought to marriages with men by the beautiful lake maidens- and just as frequently are taken away again by them when the relationship ends or when some taboo is breached.  These beasts may be livestock belonging to fairies, but they are by and large without any fairy characteristics of their own.  The dividing line between fairy cattle as simple chattels and fae beasts, as otherworld creatures, is a very fine one, though; here are two examples.

Elf Bulls

Victorian fairy expert Crofton Croker gathered some very interesting information on ‘elf-bulls.’  He described how, in Scotland at the end of harvest, the farmers’ cattle would be gathered into the cleared fields to graze the ‘aftermath.’ They might be seen to run about, bellowing, without apparent or visible cause.  However, if a person cared to take the risk, they might look through a knot hole in a piece of wood or through the hole made in a cow’s hide by the strike of an elf-bolt (both well-attested ways of penetrating fairy glamour) and the source of the disturbance would be revealed.  An elf bull would be seen, fighting with the strongest bull in the herd and mating with the cows.  The price of this revelation was the loss of sight in the eye used, however.  As I’ve described previously, the cows are naturally able to see the fairy beings, the second sight being innate.

Elf bulls are smaller than conventional ones, mousy in colour with upright ears, short horns and legs, and hair that is short, smooth and glossy like an otter’s pelt.  They are supernaturally strong and courageous and linger around rivers, grazing on the banks at night.

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The Manx taroo ushtey, from Bamart

Catching a Fairy Cow

These creatures, as I’ve said, may voluntarily mix with farm livestock and leave their hybrid offspring amongst those herds as well.  They can be trapped too.  At Shewbost on the Hebrides the crodh mara used to come ashore to graze and the local people were able to catch them and add them to their own stock by the simple measure of sprinkling maistir (stale urine) across their path back to the sea, as I’ve described previously.

On Skye, the cattle were known only to graze in certain spots on land and it was common to hear their fairy owners calling them home again at night.  They could be caught by strewing earth across their route back to the sea; soil taken from a churchyard being especially favoured.

How to Lose a Fairy Herd

One Scottish farmer had a cow that, every May, would suddenly leave the herd in its pasture and make her way to the adjacent river bank.  She would swim across to a small island in the stream and stay there for a few hours before returning.  In due course a calf would be born, displaying many of the characteristics of an elf-bull.  This went on for many years, but eventually one Christmas the farmer, sitting by the fire with his family, suggested that the time had come to cull her.  She had given many years of milk and calves, but she was ageing and less productive.  The cow, however, heard their plans- and had understood. She bellowed, broke out of the cowshed and charged down to the river bank, where she swam to the island and disappeared forever.  Even worse, she took all her offspring with her.

Nearly identical events are told involving a couple on the Scottish island of Pabbay: they found there an abandoned cow and from it bred their entire herd.  Once again, after some years had passed, they decided that the time had come to slaughter their original cow.  It overheard and left with all its daughters, vanishing into the sea.  The ‘abandoned’ beast had in fact been one of the crodh mara.  In both these accounts the cow’s comprehension and its ability to vanish clearly set it aside from normal members of a herd.  Unlike many of the gwartheg y llyn in the Welsh stories, these cattle are not called away by their fairy owners- rather they leave of their own accord.

‘The Wild Calf’

A very attractive story, related to the preceding ones, concerns the ‘Wild Calf’ of the Highlands.  This was an invisible cow that would visit farms at night.  If the farmer went out to his byre in darkness and embraced the supernatural calf, he would gain great good fortune in cattle keeping: he’d become a very successful cattle breeder, he would always have healthy and productive herds and he would become very rich.  However, one farmer was visited by the Calf sometime during the mid-nineteenth century and was too scared of the dark to go out to his byre without a candle.  Because he took the light, he breached that fairy condition of secrecy that attached to the rewards he would have received.  The Calf vanished- and was never seen again.

Summary

As we know, the fairies aren’t just great lovers of milk and cream; they are very active beef and dairy farmers.  I also discuss fairy livestock in chapter 5 of my recently published book, FaeryMy next book, Beyond Faery, which is also to be published by Llewellyn, specifically examines the magical water bulls and horses of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man.

Matt Collishaw- British artist

Here’s a second reblog from Sean Conroy’s pages on art and artists. This one features the fairy photographs of british artist Matt Collishaw. I used a few of his works in my posting on capturing fairies several months ago. This page gives you a lot more of his faery themed work.

Sean Conroy blog

Sugar & Spice no.2

Matt Collishaw has often been associated with the works of Lewis Carroll. In December 2018 he was involved in an exhibition at London’s Cob Gallery entitled ‘Through the Looking Glass.’ Other exhibitors included Polly Morgan, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Gavin Turk and their works explored miniatures and changes of scale. Collishaw’s 2010 installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum, ‘Magic Lantern,’ also played with transformations of scale and explicitly referenced both Carroll and Alice in Wonderland in its publicity.

In previous works, Collishaw has also shown a keen interest in Victorian photography of children, in which Carroll was, of course, a pioneer, as well in fantasy worlds, such as those fairyland.

Sugar and Spice, All Things Nice, This Is What Little Girls Are Made Of #3 1998 Mat Collishaw born 1966 Purchased 1999 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P78247

In his 2008 installation, Shooting Stars

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Maximilian Esposito- fantasy art

I’m sharing a couple of posts from the art blog of Sean Conroy; firstly a feature on the Italian artist Maximilian Esposito who has some pretty fairy pictures.

Sean Conroy blog

Mural, Chaville, France (2013)

Massimiliano (Maximilian) Esposito is an Italian artist whose work has been inspired by fantasy novels and by fantasy subjects in general (for example, fairies). He has painted pictures based upon The Wizard of Oz and on Alice in Wonderlandhence his inclusion here.

Esposito was born in Milan in December 1969 and developed a passion for drawing and painting whilst a child. He attended art school, graduating in 1988. His early works are dreamscapes of full of fantastic and mythological characters inspired by the traditional fables and folktales of Europe. He has called this early work ‘Gothic.’ Although his subjects and backgrounds were imaginary, Esposito sought to express his personality through his characters. In particular, he was fascinated by portraying pre-adolescents placed in different contexts because, as he has explained, this age offers the greatest emotional tension as the individuals experience the transition from childhood…

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Fairy Knot Magic

The spinning wheel
Lilian Amy Govey- from ‘Dreams and Fairies’ series, 1922

I’ve written before about fairy magic involving intricate hand gestures.  Here I want to pursue that general idea.

In Ben Jonson’s masque of 1610, Oberon the Fairy Prince, two satyrs discuss celebrations organised by Oberon.  One asks if they shall “Tie about our tawny wrists/ Bracelets of the fairy twists?”  What is this referring to? What on earth does it imply?

Faery Twists

It seems that knots and twists are something intimately linked to fairies.  They will, of course, twist animal and human hair.  The faeries like to take and ride human horses at night, at the same time tightly knotting their manes into ‘pixy locks.’ These knots seem to function in part as stirrups and bridles, but they also seem to be a sign of fairy control.  For example, a Perthshire man who was taken from his garden by the faeries was returned three days later with his hair all in knots- visible, physical evidence of his abduction.  The knots have a practical function, therefore, but they appear to represent more than that.

Knot Magic & Healing

Scottish fairies are reported to dance around a fire at Halloween, throwing knotted blue ribbons over their left shoulders with their left hands.  Those who then pick up the ribbons will fall into the fairies’ power and may be abducted by them at any moment.

These actions are plainly some sort of magic spell.  The tying and releasing of knots is a long-established means of binding sickness to a person, or of freeing them from it.  It is seen very often in folk medicine and in witchcraft and the Scottish witch trials of the seventeenth century supply several examples.

Jonet Morrison of the Isle of Bute, who was tried in 1662, cured a sick baby by tying a knotted and beaded string around it for forty-eight hours, which was then removed and placed on a cat.  The cat instantly died, proving that the illness had been transferred from the child to it.  The power of knots for protecting or cursing is revealed most powerfully in the account of a woman condemned as a witch at St Andrews in 1572.  She faced the usual punishment for such an offence- strangling at the stake and burning- but she had betrayed no fear or alarm about her fate until her jailers removed from her a white cloth “like a collore craig [a collar or neck cloth] with stringes, whair on was mony knottes.”  After this was taken away, she despaired.  We may compare the fact that accused witch, Isobel Haldane, from Orkney, had been found to have “thrie grassis bound in a knot” in her home, a circumstance that only added to the weight of evidence against her.

Isobel Gowdie, of Auldearn near Nairn, was investigated for witchcraft in 1662.  She gave a fulsome and lengthy confession that included a couple of uses of knotted threads.  To steal milk from sheep and cows, she told her inquisitors that she and the other witches in her coven would take their tethers and “pull the tow and twyn it and plait it in the wrong way… and we draw the tedder (sua maid) [so made] in betwixt the cowes hinder foot and owt between the cowes forder foot and thereby take the milk.”

Secondly, the witches interfered with the dyeing vats of Alexander Cummings of Auldearn.  They took “a thread of each cullor of yairne… and did cast thrie knots on each thread… and did put the threidis in the fatt, withersones abowt in the fatt [stirring anti-clockwise] and thairby took the heall strength of the fatt away, that it could litt [dye] nothing bot onlie blak, according to the culor of the Divell.”

MWM 1
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

These practices made their way into Scots verse as well.  Alexander Montgomerie composed the Flyting of Polwart in the early 1580s as a ritualised mocking of Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth.  The latter was extravagantly insulted, amongst other things being accused of being born of an elf and then abandoned.  His baptism proceeded in this manner, with the child being bound to Hecate:

“Syne bare-foot and bare-leg’d to babtize that bairne

Till a water they went be a wood side,

They fand the shit all beshitten in his awin shearne [faeces],

On three headed Hecatus to heir them they cryde

As we have found in the field this fundling forfairne,

First his faith he forsakes in thee to confyde,

Be vertue of thir words and this raw yearne,

And whill this thrise thretty knots on this blew threed byd…”

Another verse was provoked by the trial of accused witch Alison Peirson in 1588.  She was discovered to have treated the Bishop of St Andrews, amongst other sick persons, and poet Robert Sempill subsequently attacked the bishop for his ungodly conduct, accusing him of “sorcerie and incantationes,” amongst which were spells involving “south rinning wellis” and “knottis of strease [straws].”

MWM 2
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

Curing with Hoops

What I regard as a related curing practice involved passing people through loops of yarn; the idea of release seems to be shared between the two.  Janet Trall, of Blackruthen, admitted in 1623 that she had cured a man called Robert Soutar in such a way.  She passed him through a “hesp of yarn, and afterwards cut it in nine parts, and buried it in three lords’ lands.”  Janet had learned these skills from the fairies, she said.  Thomas Geace from Fife also passed patients through yarn, in one case burning the thread afterwards.

There are plenty of other Scottish examples.  Andro Man from Aberdeen would administer cures by passing patients nine times through “ane hespe of unvatterit [undyed] yarn” and by then passing a cat nine times through in the opposite direction.  Once again, the illness passes to the unfortunate cat, which promptly dies.  A number of Edinburgh women, tried as witches in 1597, had treated patients by passing them through garlands made of green woodbine.  Some did this three times, others nine times.  One woman went through three times on three occasions twenty-four hours apart; in another instance the garland was cut up into nine pieces and burned after the ritual.

Knots & Knowledge

We have previously discussed the fairies’ power of seeing what is to come and to tell fortunes, and there is also a little evidence that knots and threads were used to foretell the future.  In this there must be a strong echo, or imitation, of the Greek Fates.  Whatever the exact source, in Alexander Montgomerie’s mocking poem, The Flyting of Polwart, his target or victim Polwart is alleged to have been raised by the hag Nicneven, who:

“With chairmes from Cathness and Chanrie of Ross,

Whais [whose] cunning consistis in casting a clew…”

‘Casting a clew’ seems to refer to reading the future in threads.

Protective Threads

Lastly, knotted threads could inflict or transfer harm, but they could also guard against it.  In the Scottish Highlands, threads called snaithean were used to protect children and livestock from attack by fairies or witches.  Lengths of wool, coloured either red or black, would be tied around the neck or a beast’s tail accompanied by a prayer and a charm that invoked aid from the trinity, Mary and various saints.

Much of this seems to come together in the ballad Willy’s Lady:

“Oh wha has loosed the nine witch knots

   That was amo that ladie’s locks?

 ‘And wha has taen out the kaims [combs] of care

   That hangs amo that ladie’s hair?

   ‘And wha’s taen down the bush o’ woodbine

   That hang atween her bower and mine?…

   O Willie has loosed the nine witch knots

   That was amo that ladie’s locks.

   And Willie’s taen out the kaims o care

   That hang amo that ladie’s hair.

   And Willie’s taen down the bush o’ woodbine

   That hang atween her bower and thine…

   And now he’s gotten a bonny young son,

   And mickle grace be him upon.”

(Child Ballad no.6; see my Fairy Ballads & Rhymes)

MWM3
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic