Fern seed and invisibility

faerie spell Alan Lee

‘Faerie spell’, by Alan Lee

“We have the receipt of fern seed: we walk invisible”

(Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I, Act 2, scene 1)

It is widely believed that the seed of ferns has magical powers.  On the continent it is used to disclose treasure; in Britain it brings love or conjures invisibility, as indicated by the line from Henry IV above.

Samuel Bamford, witness of the Peterloo massacre, records a Lancashire tradition that the fern seed was used to obtain the heart of a loved one and he tells the tale of an attempt to gather some in a highly melodramatic manner (Passages in the life of a radical, cc.20-22- see below).  In Michael Drayton’s epic poem Nimphidia we find the fays, like mortals, using fern seed to win a loved one’s affections.  We have discussed fairy glamour in previous posts, so it is of great interest that fern seed is also said to confer invisibility upon the possessor and was used for this property by both the fairies and by mortals; like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson referred to this usage in his play The New Inn- “I had/ No medicine to go invisible/ No fern seed in my pocket.” (New Inn, Act 1, scene 6).  Both playwrights were confident that their audiences would understand the reference.

Supernatural use of ferns is found from time to time in fairy literature.  In one version of the Cornish story of Cherry of Zennor, the young heroine is depicted pausing at a cross roads, uncertain which way to head.  She idly picks and crushes some fern fronds, the effect of which is to conjure up a fairy gentlemen who becomes her employer and her suitor (see Frances Olcott, The book of elves and fairies, 1918, c.VIII). The same book includes the poem Mabel on Midsummer Day by Mary Howitt.  The girl is sent on an errand to her grandmother’s, but is warned that it is Midsummer Day “when all the fairy people/ From elf-land come away.”  It’s a dangerous time of year, then, and she must take care not to offend the fairies, for example she should not “pluck the strawberry flower/ Nor break the lady-fern.”

To add to the mystery of the process, the seed could only be seen and gathered on Midsummer’s Eve when it was shed from the plants’ fronds.  William Browne in Britannia’s pastorals refered to the “wondrous one-night seeding ferne.”  This night is also the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist, and it was said that the fern seed fell at the precise moment of his birth.

The process of collection and the fairy link are described more fully by Thomas Jackson in A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, 1625, pp.178-9:

“It was my happe since I undertook the Ministrie to question an ignorant soule… what he saw or heard when he watch’t the falling of the Ferne-seed at an unseasonable and suspitious houre.  Why (quoth he) … doe you think that the devil hath ought to do with that good seed? No: it is in the keeping of the King of Fayries and he, I know, will do me no harm: yet he had utterly forgotten this King’s name until I remembered it unto him out of my reading of Huon of Bordeaux.” (i.e. Oberon)

Given the strong supernatural associations, it is not surprising that collecting the fees was accompanied by some measure of risk, as told by Richard Bovet in Pandaemonium, p.217:

“Much discourse about the gathering of Fern-seed (which is looked upon as a Magical herb) on the night of Midsummer’s Eve, and I remember I was told of one that went to gather it, and the Spirits whistlit by his ears like bullets and sometimes struck his Hat or other parts of his Body. In fine: though that he had gotten a quantity of it, and secured it in papers and a Box besides, when he came home he found it all empty.  But probably this appointing of times and hours is the Devil’s institution.”

Great precautions were taken to protect the collector with charms and spells (see Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Borders, II p.27).  Samuel Bamford’s account describes the kind of ritual and incantations that had to accompany the attempt to gather the seed and the ghastly retribution that might befall the seeker who erred in their supplications or who was deemed unsuitable by the spirits.  The fern was to be found in Boggart, or Fairy, Clough (gorge) and the collectors went there bearing items including an earthen ware dish, a pewter platter and a skull lined with moss and clay and with a tress of the hair of the loved one attached.  Various forms of words were recited whilst the seed was shaken onto the plates with a hazel rod.

The magical powers of fern seen were recalled even into the modern era, as witnessed by the poem The spell by Madison Julius Cawein, in which the fairy connection and the power to win a loved one are both invoked:

“St John hath told me what to do

To search and find the ferns that grow

The fern seed that the faeries know;

Then sprinkle fern seed in my shoe,

And haunt the steps of you, my dear,

And haunt the steps of you.”

In conclusion, herbal means to acquire fairy powers are commonly found and usually employ ingredients from plants commonly available.  The only practical issue seems to be that collecting sufficient to produce a usable amount is likely to be extremely time consuming and may demand a very large amount of luck.  In other words, the offer of fairy glamour is held out to us but, rather like a mirage, it is forever retreating before us.

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“A witchery of sound”- ‘ceol sidhe’ or fairy music

ceol sidhe

‘Flute fairy’ by Svetlana Chezhina

“There’s many feet on the moor to-night, and they fall so light as they turn and pass,
So light and true that they shake no dew from the featherfew and the hungry grass.
I drank no sup and I broke no crumb of their food, but dumb at their feast sat I;
For their dancing feet and their piping sweet, now I sit and greet till I’m like to die.

Oh kind, kind folk, to the words you spoke I shut my ears and I would not hear!
And now all day what my own kin say falls sad and strange on my careless ear;
For I’m listening, listening, all day long to a fairy song that is blown to me,
Over the broom and the canna’s bloom, and I know the doom of the Ceol-Sidhe.

I take no care now for bee or bird, for a voice I’ve heard that is sweeter yet.
My wheel stands idle: at death or bridal apart I stand and my prayers forget.
When Ulick speaks of my wild-rose cheeks and his kind love seeks out my heart that’s cold,
I take no care though he speaks me fair for the new love casts out the love that’s cold.

I take no care for the blessed prayer, for my mother’s hand or my mother’s call.
There ever rings in my ear and sings, a voice more dear and more sweet than all.
Cold, cold’s my breast, and broke’s my rest, and oh it’s blest to be dead I’d be,
Held safe and fast from the fairy blast, and deaf at last to the Ceol-Sidhe!”

This poem, ‘The fairy music’ by Nora Chesson Hopper, captures the enchantment and other worldliness that it is associated with fairy music.  Previously I have discussed the fairies’ liking for music and song and what seems to be the generally pleasure-seeking nature of their existence (see my earlier posting as well as chapter 11 of my British fairies).  According to John Dunbar of Invereen, one of folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz’ Highland informants, the fairies were “awful for music, and used to be heard often playing the bagpipes.” (The fairy faith in Celtic countries, p.95)

What I would like to do now in this posting is to discuss the actual nature and sound of that fairy music, based upon the first hand testimonies of those who have claimed to have been fortunate enough to have heard it.  Nonetheless, there are a number of themes associated with fairy music which we may quickly recap:

  • the music is often heard coming from particular knolls, hills or barrows, in which the fairies are taken to reside.  This is a very common local story and it can be found from the Fairy Knowe on Skye to the ‘music barrows’ of southern England, for example at Bincombe Down and Culliford Tree in Dorset and Wick Moor, near Stogursey in Somerset.
  • fairy musical skills and even instruments can be granted to fortunate humans.  There are several sets of bagppies in Scotland alleged to be fairy gifts.  Fairy musical ability could be a blessing that made a man and his heirs rich (Evans- Wentz p.103). It could also be a curse, too: the favoured one might die young, being taken back by the fairies to play for them (Evans-Wentz p.40).
  • conversely, talented human musicians were from time to time abducted to satisfy the powerful fairy need for music and dance.  Almost always they met the fate of all who tarry in Faery.  They believed that they had played for just a night, but find all transformed on their return home.
  • fairy music can have magical or enchanting power- for example, from Ireland come stories of those who, on hearing it, felt compelled to dance- and then had to continue until they dropped from sheer exhaustion (Evans-Wentz p.69).  Coleridge in his poem The eolian harp described “Such a soft floating witchery of sound/ As twilight Elfins make;”  deliberately or not, a spell seemed to be cast upon the listening human; and,
  • occasionally, humans are able to commit a fairy tune to memory and contribute it to the mortal repertoire.  One such is Be nort da deks o’ Voe from Shetland. Two Welsh examples are Cân y tylwyth teg and Ffarwel Ned Pugh (see Wirt Sikes, British goblins c.7 and also Evans Wentz pp.118 & 131- two examples from Man).

The last two points are of particular significance into an enquiry into what fairy music actually sounds like.  Most of our older sources are not very helpful on this.  In his history of Aberystruth parish, the Reverend Edmund Jones in 1779 is typical of the vague descriptions normally found: “everyone said [the music] was low and pleasant, but none could ever learn the tune.”  Gathering evidence for his book The fairy faith in Celtic countries, Evans-Wentz was told that fairy music consisted of tunes not of this world, unlike anything a mortal man ever heard (pp.124 & 24), being the finest, grandest and most beautiful kind (pp.32, 47 & 57).

Ninfa

‘A little night music’ by David Delamare

Evidently the otherworldly nature of the music gave witnesses problems when they later tried to describe their experiences.  The testimony of those of a more artistic temperament might therefore prove more enlightening.  Poet and mystic George Russell (AE) told Evans-Wentz that he first listened to the music in the air on a hillside in County Sligo.  He heard “what seemed to be the sound of bells, and was trying to understand these aerial clashings in which wind seemed to break upon wind in an ever-changing musical silvery sound.” (p.61)  This leads us much closer to the reality and, in fact, the best account comes from a close friend of Russell and his wife, the visionary writer Ella Young.  Over the summer of 1917 and into 1918 she repeatedly heard the ceol sidhe, which in her opinion surpassed human symphonies.  Interestingly the very same description was used on the Isle of Man in the 1720s (Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook, Magical folk, 2018p.173).

The fairy music was, Young said, “orchestral and of amazing richness and complexity.”  The melodies could be exquisite, sometimes like very fast reels, at others slow and wistful.  On August 27th 1917 she described “a certain monotony like slow moving waves with a running melody on the crests.”  Interwoven with this might be voices singing in an unknown tongue, either solo or resembling Gregorian chant.  Young noted “delicate and intricate rhythms” in a variety of tempos, including “music of stricken anvils.”  She heard a “myriad, myriad instruments” among which she mentioned cymbals, bells (both silvery tinkling and deep tolling), trumpets, harps, violins, drums, pipes, organs and bagpipes.  Several times, though, she could not compare the sound to anything she knew from earthly ensembles; she heard “very high notes- higher than any human instrument could produce,” “something like a Jew’s harp” and “a curious reedy instrument.”  Again, Young was not alone in this: George Waldron recorded that on Man in the 1720s islanders would hear “Musick, as could proceed from no earthly instruments” (Magical folk, p.173).

Despite her eloquence and sensitivity, Young struggled to give a clear account; it was “not music I can describe… it is beyond words.”   Moreover, she found it “difficult to recall this music and the sensation it creates.”  Nevertheless, she wrote (in terms similar to Russell’s) that the orchestral sound resembled a “wave or gush of wind” and that its effect was to create “a sense of freedom and exultation.”

Young harboured some doubts over her aural visions.  She wrote on September 9th 1917 that “my head has been for several days quite normal,” but then she heard the sounds again and concluded “I think the singing in my head was really astral.” In other words, its origin was aethereal and unearthly.  She believed that all could hear the same if only they drew closer to nature and had a peaceful and patient heart.

It is difficult to know quite what to make of this.  Young herself admitted concerns over her own sanity, but at the same time W. B. Yeats and both AE and his wife heard the same “faery chimes” and “solemn undertone” of song.  Either they all hallucinated together or these highly detailed and circumstantial experiences record some actual sensations.  The consensus, at least amongst poets, was certainly to confirm that pipes and, particularly, bells were characteristic of fairy music (see for example Ceol sidhe by Francis Ledwidge or Fairy ring by Abbie Farwell Brown).

cicely-mary-barker-fairy orchestra

Cicely Mary Barker, ‘Fairy orchestra’

In conclusion, whatever its nature, the idea of fairy music has always had an aura of mystery and enchantment and, as such, has always attracted poets.  The opening verse from Nora Hopper embodied this, but even a poet like Rose Fyleman, whose fairy verse was generally very anodyne and was aimed at a junior audience, could still suggest a little of that magical strangeness; here’s her poem ‘Fairy music’:

“When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.

When birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din-
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.

When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals,
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.

Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope- these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.”

Perhaps our best response is to hope to share Ella Young’s experiences and to know for ourselves that “This astral music is very much in sound delicately beautiful.”  As Irish poet William Sharp wrote in his verse The nine desires, it is “The desire of the poet, the soft, low music of the Tribe of the Green Mantles.”

 

 

‘An ode to joy’- the fairies and the good old days

Prince-Arthur-and-the-Fairy-Queen

King Arthur and the Fairy Queen, by Henry Fuseli

It is often said that true happiness passed away with the departure of the fairies from our land.  In this posting I want to examine the traditional ties that exist between fairies and the myths Merry England.

Fairies are inextricably linked with joy and merry making in the English/ British tradition.  In many accounts their sole or main occupation is dancing in rings and one persistently identified characteristic of fairyland is joy.  The fairies take a simple, unalloyed pleasure in dance and music, so much so that circle-dancing in the moonlight has become a defining trait.  Accordingly, William Warner’s Albion’s England published in 1602 described how:

“The Elves and Faries, taking fists, did hop a merry Rounde…

The ayrie Sprites, the walking Flares, and Goblins great and small,

Had there good cheare, and companie, and sporte the Devill and all.”

In his 1611 masque Oberon the fairy Ben Jonson celebrates that:

“These are Nights,

Solemn to the shining Rites

Of the Fairy Prince and Knight:

While the Moon their Orgies light…

Stand forth bright Faies and Elves and tune your lays.”

In Milton’s Comus of 1632 we read how:

“And on the Tawny Sands and shelves,

Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves,

By dimpled Brook and Fountain brim,

The Wood-Nymphs deckt with Daisies trim,

Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:

What hath night to do with sleep?” (lines 117-122)

Fairies continued to be associated with innocent pastimes into the nineteenth century, for example in Ann Radcliffe’s poem Air the “Fays of lawn and glade” circle to the merry tabor sound and Paul Dunbar reassured his readers that the fairy rout still shouted, sang and danced their roundelays, even in late Victorian times (Dunbar (1872-1906), The discovery).

Fairies, therefore, may be said to have been synonymous with ‘merry England.’  Unfortunately, the general opinion emerged that those times were over- despite Dunbar’s promises that fairy glee persisted- and this, of course, necessitated the poet’s assurances to the contrary.  Most later writers felt that the fairies had departed, or at least fallen silent, and that Britain had become a less joyful place.  As early as the seventeenth century, indeed, Richard Corbet in Farewell rewards and fairies explicitly blamed the Reformation and the baneful effect of Puritan morality for this:

“At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.”

John Selden expressed the belief most memorably and succinctly: “There never was a merry World since the Fairies left Dancing and the Parson left conjuring” (Selden, Table talk, 1689, c.XCIX). Later the same century John Dryden, in his version of The wife of Bath’s tale, conveyed the same sentiment, but emphasised the intimate connection of the fairies to the British Isles:

“Above the rest our Britain they held dear,

More solemnly they kept their Sabbaths here,

And made more spacious rings, and revelled half the year.

I speak of ancient times, for now the swain

Returning late may pass the wood in vain,

And never hope to see the nightly train:”

The death of ‘Merrie England’ continued to be mourned long after the event.  Thomas Hood lamented that the “Fairies have broke their wands/ And wishing has lost its power!” (Hood (1799-1845), A lake and a fairy boat).  In the ‘Dymchurch flit’ Kipling’s fairies declared “we must flit out of this, for Merry England’s done” (Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1906). Folklorists on the Isle of Man in the nineteenth century heard the same stories of the fynoderee: “There has not been a merry world since he lost his ground” ( J. Train, Account of the Isle of Man, vol.2, p.138).  This supernatural Manx being is comparable to the British mainland brownie; he lives on a farmstead and is the source and guarantor of good fortune.  It follows that “The luck of the house is said to depart for ever with the offended phynnod-derree” (William Harrison, Mona miscellany, pp.173-174.)  The same of course is true in England and Scotland: there can be no happiness or contentment on a farm if the brownie is displeased or has disappeared.

To summarise, then, we can only hope to reconnect with joy and good luck if we re-establish contact with our good neighbours.  This was certainly the conviction of William George Russell (AE).  His poem The dream of the children describes how music and wonder are revived:

“For all the hillside was haunted/ By the faery folk, come again.”

Identification of elves with older, happier times holds out to us the hope that they may be restored.  Through the fairies we may recover our innocence, simplicity and sense of community.  The fairies’ unaffected love of dancing and music, their childlike joy in play, imply that our own ability to reconnect with a better, less complex world persists undiminished and may be revived.

http://www.john-howe.com/blog/2011/09/15/the-defining-of-dreams/

‘Hence to Hell or Faery’- the nature of fairy religion

huon

Huon meets King Oberon, by Henry Ford

What do fairies believe in?  This may seem like a nonsensical question for at least two reasons:

  • firstly, if you subscribe to the belief that our current fairies are the diminished remnants of former pagan gods and goddesses of nature, then it is illogical to propose that an erstwhile divinity should worship another deity; or,
  • secondly, because the fairy code of morality is so distinctive and so deliberately selfish (see my earlier post or chapters 2 and 18  of my British fairies): fairies are not concerned with good works; they are concerned with furthering their own interests.

These objections are quite valid, yet our predecessors (at least before the Reformation) almost unconsciously assumed that these creatures would be Christians just like them.  Our medieval ancestors had absolutely no hesitation in accepting fairies as just another god-fearing creation of the Christian deity.  This is revealed, in passing, in many of the earlier stories.  The fairy king in King Herla’s tale exclaims “God be my witness;” the Green Children of Woolpit came from a place called St Martin’s Land and professed themselves to be good Christians. Oberon, the king of faery in Huon of Bordeaux, for example exclaims “God keepe you all! I desire you to speake with mee, and I conjure you thereto by God Almightie and by the Christendome that you have received and by all that God hath made” (chapter 21).  In several Scottish ballads, including that of Thomas the Rhymer, the fairy queen points out to the hero the roads leading to heaven and hell, which lead from faery.

Thomas-the-rhymer-Thomas Canty

Thomas the Rhymer, by Thomas Canty

This uniform certainty in the orthodoxy of fairy kind received severe blows during the sixteenth century.  Two events undermined the formerly unshakeable conviction in their godliness.  One was the Reformation, which, as we shall see, initiated attacks upon all forms of superstition.  The second key factor was the settlement of the Americas.  Christians were confronted with continents and civilisations unheard of by the Bible and who knew nothing of the church or Christ.  The question arose how these peoples were to be accommodated in the existing world view and whether they had souls capable of salvation.  These debates must in turn have given rise to doubts over the position of fairies in the Christian creation.

Some people persisted in the older beliefs and still simply accepted fairies as another Christian race.  In a spell to conjure the fairy Elaby Gathen, Elias Ashmole reminded the spirit that “thou doest feare the heavy wrath and judgment” and demanded that the being “should be obedient or judged to eternal damnation with the demons in hell.”  As a magi, Ashmole very likely believed fairies to be a form of spiritual being closely related to angels, so their godly nature was something he took for granted.  More surprising are the recorded beliefs of Scottish minister Robert Kirk, who felt that the elves and fairies were less sinful than men, “but yet are in ane imperfect State, and some of them making better Essays for heroic Actions than others; having the same Measure of Vertue and Vice as wee, and still expecting an advancement to a higher and more splendid State of Lyfe.”

The Reverend Kirk believed that the fairies had the same prospect of judgment and salvation as any Christian man or woman. In fact, a number of related theories emerged as to the place of the fairies in the Christian universe.  One name for the fairies was ‘the Hidden Folk;’ the origin of this is explained in a Carmarthenshire story told to Evans-Wentz:

“Our Lord, in the days when He walked the earth, chanced one day to approach a cottage in which lived a woman with twenty children. Feeling ashamed of the size of her family, she hid half of them from the sight of her divine visitor. On His departure she sought for the hidden children in vain; they had become fairies and had disappeared.” (Evans-Wentz, p.153)

Another widespread belief was that the fairies were fallen angels who had followed Satan in his rebellion but who had not yet reached hell when God commanded that the gates of haven and hell be closed.  They were left stranded between and hid in holes in the earth (Evans-Wentz, pp.85, 105, 109, 116, 129-30 & 205).  They will finally be released from this intermediate status on the day of judgment.  Lastly, there are Europe wide stories telling of incidents in which anxious fairies approach humans begging for reassurance that they too will be saved.  Generally, the answer is no, to the fairies’ great dismay (see Spence, British fairy origins, p.165 & the story of the ‘Minister and the Fairy‘ printed in Folk-lore and legends: Scotland, 1898).

At the same time, in some quarters there was a clear conviction that fairies could never be good Christians, because they were either demonic delusions wrought by the devil or they were deceits of the Roman Catholic church (which to many godly Puritans amounted to the same thing anyway).  Certainly, fairies, elves and the like were hard to accommodate within the strict terms of the Bible.  Whether they were genuine malign entities or just an invention of the Papist clergy- and thus a minor distraction to reformers- was never fully resolved, but the different positions are very well evidenced.

For Thomas Heyrick, fairies were nothing but vain stories:

“Dotage, the Vice of ancient years …

Listens to each Fabulous Legend, every story

of Relicks, Exorcisms and Purgatory,

of Fairy Elves and Goblins, wakeful Sprights

That rouze the drowsie Monks to Beads at Nights!”

(The new Atlantis, 1687, p.15)

Likewise, for George Chapman, they were a product of a more credulous past: “Fairies were but in times of ignorance, not since the true light hath been revealed, and that they come from heaven I scarce believe.” (A humorous day’s mirth, 1591).  Fairies and witches were nothing but conceits “whereby the Papists kept the ignorant in awe” (T. Cooper, The mystery of witchcraft, 1617, p.123), they were the worthless recipients of reverence from “silly people” (John Penry, The aequity of a humble supplication, 1587).

In contrast, others saw real harm and spiritual peril in the fays.  For Thomas Jackson, there was no question of distinguishing good and bad fairies because “it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both” (A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, 1625, p.178).  Fairies and elves were nothing more or less than “infernal deities” (Henry Smith, Christian religion’s appeal, 1675, p.45); they brought disease and madness (Mirror for magistrates, 1575, line 215; William Vaughan, The soul’s exercise, 1641, p.113) and they had to be cast out in the same manner an any evil spirit: “Gang hence to Hell or to the Farie” (Philotus- a comedy, 1568). One common explanation of the taking of children as changelings was that the fairies had to pay a tithe to the devil every seven years and, understandably, preferred to do so with a human life instead of one of their own kind.  Ironically, the truth is that the Catholic church had much the same opinion as the Puritans: the fourteenth century Fasciculus morum, for example, condemned all belief in fairies and elves as “only phantoms displayed by an evil spirit.”  As I have described previously, the result of this kind of thinking was to mix up belief in fairies and in witches, with serious consequences for those professing a faith in our ‘good neighbours.’

It must the penetration of popular culture by such ideas that led to accounts describing the fairies’ strong aversion to bells and churches.  I have mentioned these before in a couple of postings, but the stories are common: for example, in Dorset at Portland, Cadbury and Withycombe church bells drove off the local pixies, whilst at East Chelborough the resident sprites objected to the site chosen for a new church and removed it bodily.

“But the king who sits on your high church steeple/ Has nothing to do with us fairy people!” (Charlotte Mew, The changeling)

One definite effect of the post-Reformation debates was to create the widespread popular belief that fairies were repelled by anything Christian.  Possession of a copy of the Bible or some pages from it alone could be efficacious, as could saying grace, making the sign of the cross and a number of other actions.  This is the aspect of fairy nature we recall today- not the earlier views.

All of this brings us full circle.  It came to be said that fairy belief was on the wane in Britain because the fairies were less and less frequently seen and the reason for this was that they were Catholics and had deserted British shores since the break with Rome.  See, for example, Richard Corbet’s Farewell, rewards and fairies:

“Lament, lament, old Abbeys,

The Fairies’ lost command…

But now alas, they are all dead,

Or gone beyond the seas,

Or farther from Religion fled,

Or else they take their ease.”

(see too my British fairies chapter 6 and appendix)

Corbet’s allegation is that with the fairies’ went ceremony and dancing, and, more seriously, justice and equity too.

 

 

Oberon’s books- fairy spell books

MS.-e-Mus.-173,-fols.-61v-6

There is a scattering of evidence to the effect that fairies had their own spell books, as well as their innate magical abilities, which I have described before.

There are only a few references to these spell books:

  • In Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth (chapter 7) he informs us that:
    • “They are said to have many pleasant toyish Books; but the operation of these Pieces only appears in some Paroxysms of antic corybantic Jollity, as if ravished and prompted by a new Spirit entering into them at that Instant, lighter and merrier than their own. Other Books they have of involved abstruse Sense, much like the Rosicrucian Style. They have nothing of the Bible, save collected Parcels for Charms and counter Charms; not to defend themselves with, but to operate on other Animals, for they are a People invulnerable by our Weapons…”;
    • From this we can deduce that there seem to be three varieties of spell book- one to used to send the fairies into some sort of ecstatic dance; a second using scraps of Biblical verse for casting spells on others (rather like local magicians offered to do in human communities) and a third that was employed for more powerful conjuring- perhaps to contact other spirits such as angels, a practice used by such magi as Queen Elizabeth’s own conjuror, John Dee;
  • The Red Book of Menteith- the story goes that a fairy queen banished some troublesome elves from Cnoc-n’an-Bocan (Bogle-knowe, or Hobgoblin-hill) near to Menteith into The red book of Menteith.  The condition was that they would only be released when the laird of Menteith opened the book.  Eventually, this happened by mistake and instantly the released fairies appeared before him demanding work. He had to set them various impossible tasks to be freed of them himself.
  • The Red Book of Appin is another Scottish tome that, J. G. Campbell implies, has power against both witch and fairy spells.  That said, its primary content is concerned with healing sick cattle and with maintaining the fertility of fields (although of course these may both be the subject of fairy blights).  The Red Book was therefore a local cunning man’s book of incantations used for assisting small farmers with their common problems.  The legend is that it came from a mysterious ‘fine gentleman’, although it does not appear clear that he was of fairy origin; when the book was obtained from him by devious magical means, he transformed into many shapes, implying that he was (at least) a wizard and maybe a demon.  He was defeated, however, and the book came into more benign human hands;
  • Thomas Keightley states in his Fairy mythology that the Danes believed that the elle folk had books which they would give to favoured humans and which helped them tell the future.  The existence of such volumes seems to have been a wider Scandinavian belief.  In Iceland the story is told of Jon Gudmundsson of Reydarfjord who met an elf girl called Ima whilst tending the family flock one day.  He and Ima were strongly attracted to each other and during the course of their courtship she told him about a book that her father possessed that was full of marvellous lore and from which Jon could learn a great deal; he would become a poet whose verse would have magical powers and he would foresee the future and ‘never be surprised by things.’  Jon persuaded her to arrange a loan of the book and then generally ‘enjoyed her company.’  The loan was made but then after a fortnight when return of the book was requested, Jon refused.  He was threatened with fairy vengeance.  On Christmas Eve Ima, her father and mother and a man who had been abducted and trapped by the elves planned to attack his home to recover the text.  The plan was betrayed to Jon by the captive human, who had tired of his interminable supernatural life.  Jon was prepared for his attackers’ arrival and slew all four, including Ima, before burning their bodies.

There is tendency for humans to believe that fairy magical powers are wholly innate. Various evidence I have offered in recent posts suggests that the situation may be different: either it is acquired by physical means after birth- whether by dipping in a pool (for which see c.16 of my British fairies), by the application of herbal ointment or by some other form of of physical contact– or it is learned (or at least supplemented) from written sources.  If any of these are at least partially true, it makes our access to supernatural power considerably easier than we might have supposed.

1.5-MS.-Rawl.-D.-252

‘Reach out and touch me’- the physical transmission of magical power

fairy touch

Fairy touch, by Carol Armstrong

I have written here before about fairy magic (and see chapter 10 of my British fairies) and about the properties of fairy ointment.  In this post I want to home-in on another aspect of our good neighbours’ magical powers- their ability to convey these by mere touch.

The most significant consequence of this aspect of their magic is that it demonstrates that their abilities seem not necessarily to be innate; they may be learned from grimoires or they may be transferred by supernatural means- they are capable of being passed simply and quickly from person to person. In this respect the situation resembles the ointment which I discussed previously. Magical ability is, we might say, a commodity to be acquired by anyone, regardless of birth or status.

Receipt of magic vision is demonstrated from several sources.  Seers (those endowed with the second sight) can admit others to their visions by means of mere contact.  The Reverend Kirk in chapter 12 of The secret commonwealth tells us about this:

“The usewall Method for a curious Person to get a transient Sight of this otherwise invisible Crew of Subterraneans, (if impotently and over rashly sought,) is to put his [left Foot under the Wizard’s right] Foot, and the Seer’s Hand is put on the Inquirer’s Head, who is to look over the Wizard’s right Shoulder, (which hes ane ill Appearance, as if by this Ceremony ane implicit Surrender were made of all betwixt the Wizard’s Foot and his Hand, ere the Person can be admitted a privado to the Airt;) then will he see a Multitude of Wights, like furious hardie Men, flocking to him haistily from all Quarters, as thick as Atoms in the Air…”

Those with second sight are, of course, humans who are privileged to be able to see the supernaturals surrounding us which are invisible to most.  Those fairy beings have the same power, nonetheless.  In various Scottish ballads and poems we hear of an identical process.  In the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer the hero meets the fairy queen who tells him:

“Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies [wonders] three.”

The same is recounted in Thomas of Erceldoune and in the Queen of Elfland’s nourice:

“O nourice lay your head
Upo my knee:
See ye na that narrow road
Up by yon tree?
. . . . .
That’s the road the righteous goes,
And that’s the road to heaven.
An see na ye that braid road,
Down by yon sunny fell?
Yon’s the road the wicked gae,
An that’s the road to hell.”

You may notice that all these examples are of Scottish provenance, but the conception is not exclusively from the north of Britain.  John Rhys tells a tale of a Gwynnedd farmer:

“who lived not long ago at Deunant, close to Aberdaron. The latter used, as is the wont of country people, to go out a few steps in front of his house every night to–before going to bed; but once on a time, while he was standing there, a stranger stood by him and spoke to him, saying that he had no idea how he and his family were annoyed by him. The farmer asked how that could be, to which the stranger replied that his house was just below where they stood, and if he would only stand on his foot he would see that what he said was true. The farmer complying, put his foot on the other’s foot, and then he could clearly see that all the slops from his house went down the chimney of the other’s house, which stood far below in a street he had never seen before. The fairy then advised him to have his door in the other side of his house, and that if he did so his cattle would never suffer from disease. The result was that the farmer obeyed, and had his door walled up and another made in the other side of the house: ever after he was a most prosperous man, and nobody was so successful as he in rearing stock in all that part of the country.” (Celtic folklore, p.230)

Lastly, we may note that this idea has a long history.  In the Life of Bartholomew of Farne, which is published as an appendix to Simeon of Durham’s Works (vol.1, Appendix 2, CUP reprint 2002) there’s a story about how the devil showed the hermit Bartholomew spirits in the form of sheep.  It was only when he put his foot on the other’s that the holy man saw through the deception and realised they were actually demons.

What can we conclude from all this?  Well, the process of transference by touch certainly suggests the considerable power of the magic involved, yet at the same time it implies that magical ability is not unique.  Anyone can acquire it provided that they have the right materials (to make ointment) or the right acquaintances.  It suggests too that there may not be a huge gulf between humans and fairies: they seem to be closely related and the distance between us is narrow and easily bridged.  All we need then is luck, the right contacts and/or determination and commitment (for example, to gather enough four leaf clover to be able to produce a usable quantity of the magic ointment).

 

Girdle measuring and fairy healing- some curious folk beliefs

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As I have described in previous posts and in chapter 20 of my 2017 book British fairies, it was widely accepted in the British Isles that fairies could inflict harm upon humans, whether by striking them with illness or disability or by abducting them.  This illness was so familiar as to be known as ‘the fairy;’ the symptoms might also be described as being ‘fairy- taken’ or ‘haunted by a fairy.’  This being the case, medical practitioners had to be able to respond to the condition.

In 1677 John Webster in his book The displaying of supposed witchcraft  had this to say on the belief:

“… the common people, if they have any sort of Epilepsie, Palsie, Convulsions, and the like do presently perswade themselves they are bewitched, fore-spoken, blasted, fairy-taken or haunted with some evil spirit and the like…” (p.323)

Clearly a range of maladies might be ascribed to supernatural causes, but it appears that ‘fairy-taken’ often had a more precise identity.  Speaking of Ireland, W. B. Yeats described how in the late-nineteenth century men and women would be ‘taken.’  This very often happened to women soon after childbirth, but it was also common for sufferers to take to their beds, perhaps for weeks, for years (frequently for the magically significant period of seven years, but sometimes for decades) or for the remainder of their lives, lying in a state of unconsciousness, as if in a dream or trance.  During this time they were believed to be living in Faery.  (Yeats, note 39 to Lady Gregory’s Visions and beliefs in the West of Ireland pp.287-8).

I’m not in any position to diagnose this coma-like state but it seems to have had consistent, recognisable symptoms.  Yeats’ description also helps to explain a detail of the record of the accusation made against Isobel Sinclair, an alleged witch, who was tried on Orkney in 1633.  The court heard that she had been “six times controlled with the fairy.”  In light of the above, we may conclude she had half a dozen periods of illness when she was unconscious and assumed by her family and neighbours to have been abducted to ‘Elfame.’

Healers offered to diagnose and treat cases of ‘taken’ individuals.  Very frequently this was done by means of ‘measuring.’  This was an ancient practice worldwide, but in Western Europe  it can be traced back at least to the time of Pliny.  It was used in England until the late sixteenth century and in parts of Wales into the nineteenth century.  A change in the size of a girdle or belt could indicate that a person had been invaded by a fairy or evil spirit; clearly there are suggestions of demonic possession in this.  Charms and prayers could exorcise the spirit, although the belt might also be cut up as part of the cure.  In Ireland headaches were treated by measuring the sufferer’s head, whilst in Wales a range of conditions including depression, jaundice, nervous complaints, consumption and witchcraft were all detected by means of ritual measurement from the elbow to finger tip or by tying a cloth or rope around the body or limbs.

Girdle measuring was definitely used to identify and to help cure those taken by the fairies.  Here are a few examples:

  • in 1438 Agnes Hancock in Somerset was treating children afflicted with ‘feyry’ by inspecting their girdles or shoes;
  • in 1566 Elizabeth Mortlock of Pampesford, Cambridgeshire did the same.  She repeated a series of Catholic prayers, and then measured the child’s girdle from her elbow to her thumb, asking god to confirm if the girl was haunted with a fairy.  If the girdle or belt was shorter than usual, the affliction was clear and she had assisted several children in this manner;
  • in about 1570 Jennet Peterson was accused before the ecclesiastical court at Durham of using witchcraft.  According to Robert Duncan of Wallsend she practiced the “measuring of belts to preserve folks from the farye.”  Jennet seemed to make a good living by identifying and curing fairy blights upon her neighbours;
  • Lady Gregory (see citation above, p.237, but see generally her chapter IV, ‘Away’) told a story of a changeling child that seemed to be thriving until a neighbour called into the house.  She proposed to measure her child and the changeling with the string from her apron.  From that point on the infant did not thrive and was always screaming.

‘Santa’s little helpers’ – the origins of the Christmas elves

rockwell

Norman Rockwell, Santa with elves, 1922

Santa’s elves are the result of the combination of a number of traditions. Santa Claus himself is of course much older, deriving from the historical figure of St. Nicholas of Myra but with attributes added from several European Christmas traditions, particularly the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas. The association of Christmas presents with elves has precedents in Swedish and Danish folklore.

The Christmas elf as such first appeared in literature in 1850 when Louisa May Alcott completed, but never published, a book entitled Christmas elves.  The American political magazine Harper’s Weekly (1857-1916) featured in its Christmas edition for 1857 a poem The wonders of Santa Claus which recounts that he:

“Keeps a great many elves at work/ All working with all their might/ To make a million of pretty things/ Cakes, sugar-plums and things/ To fill the stockings, hung up you know,/ By the little girls and boys…”

The image of the elves in the workshop was popularised by Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American women’s magazine published 1830-1878.  The front cover illustration of its 1873 Christmas issue showed Santa surrounded by toys and elves with the caption, “Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time.” At this time Godey’s magazine played a major role in influencing the Christmas traditions that were developing in the USA: for example, the cover of its 1850 Christmas issue featured the first widely circulated picture of the modern Christmas tree. Additional impetus was given to the idea of Christmas elves by Austin Thompson’s 1876 play The House of Santa Claus: a Christmas fairy show for Sunday schools.  In fact, in Clement Clarke Moore’s earlier poem of 1823, A visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known today as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), Santa Claus himself was described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”

These literary and commercial strands mingled with Scandinavian ideas brought to North America by immigrants.  Prior to the influence of St. Nicholas in Sweden, the job of giving out gifts had been done by the Yule Goat. By 1891, however, the saint had become so well known that he could no longer be excluded from the festival; he became merged with the tomten, which were supernatural farm guardians closely akin to the British brownie, dobby or hob (tomte means ‘homestead man’).

jultomte_and_horse

A jultomte & horse

tomte, or nisse, is a Nordic mythological creature that closely associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season.  It’s generally described as being a small male, about 90 cm/ 36 inches tall, with a long white beard and a conical or knitted cap in red or some other bright colour. Their appearance is rather like our modern convention of the garden gnome. In Swedish and Danish folklore the creatures are solitary, residing in the pantry or barn, and tend to be mischievous.  However, they are also very hardworking, being responsible for the protection and welfare of a farmstead and, particularly, caring for the livestock.  The nisse/ tomte was a very familiar creature in Scandinavian folklore and, with the romanticising and collection of folklore during the 19th century, it gained even greater popularity.  (NB: nisse derives from Nils/ Nicholas, further underlining the intermingling of traditions.)

Jultomten_1895

As already mentioned, in the Nordic folklore traditions associated with Christmas the tomte is often accompanied by the Yule goat (julbocken). The pair appeared on Christmas Eve, knocking on doors and handing out presents. The nisse also delivered gifts at the door, but was more commonly seen with a pig, another popular Christmas symbol in Scandinavia.  It is customary to leave out a bowl of porridge with butter in gratitude for the services rendered by the creature. Then, in the 1840s, the farm nisse became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called julenisse (Yule Nisse).

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Tomten & gingerbread, by Jenny Nystrom.

In 1881, the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning published Viktor Rydberg’s poem Tomten, illustrated by Jenny Nyström.  She took the traditional Swedish folk character and turned it into a friendly white-bearded, red-capped figure that has come to be associated with Christmas ever since. Shortly afterwards, and obviously influenced by the emerging Father Christmas traditions as well as by the new Danish tradition, a variant of the nisse/tomte, called the jultomte in Sweden and julenisse in Norway, started delivering Christmas presents in those countries, taking over the role from the traditional julbock.

Still today in Scandinavia the nisse/ tomte are pictured on Christmas cards, calendars and house and garden decorations, often with a horse or cat, or riding on a goat or in a sled pulled by a goat. The julenisse tends now to be adult sized , rather than being the height of a child, as was the older tradition.

Glædelig_Jul,_ca_1917

Also caught up in this legend making was another myth, that of ‘Santa’s little helper.’  This seems to be derived from the German companions to Santa Claus, who include Knecht Ruprecht (boy Rupert).  The idea of a child assistant has become mingled with that of fairy bringers of presents to help produce our present ideas.

In the USA these varied concepts also became mixed with the less rustic and more childlike images of fairies and elves derived from more recent British tradition.  The result was that Santa Claus’ elves steadily lost their beards and became more infantile and saccharine.  Walt Disney’s 1932 cartoon Santa’s workshop was a stage in this process, depicting ‘Santa’s little helpers’ as white bearded elves in green hats and costumes.  An autonomous body of lore has begun to accrue around these creatures now, with their ‘traditional’ names purporting to include such dismal examples as Alabaster Snowball, Bushy Evergreen and (I regret to say) Sugarplum Mary.  There is of course very little traditional material in these current stories: the whole idea is alien to the British tradition as it was imported into North America and it has evolved a long way beyond the Nordic elements. Nevertheless, the image has developed a life of its own with such films as Elf (2003) and it continues to evolve, as much through popular as commercial influence.

Glædelig_Jul,_1885

 

 

“Builded all of burnished gold”- fairy buildings

Elven_city_by_Nagare-Boshi

An elven city, by Nagare-Boshi

It may seem to run counter to our intuition to think of fairies as building physical structures.  I have described fairy dwellings previously, mostly implying that they were natural features like caves and hills (see too chapter 4 of my British fairies).   This is the case, but our predecessors readily assumed and accepted that a great deal more could be achieved by their supernatural neighbours.  Indeed, fairy-kind seemed to excel at constructing grand accommodation for themselves.  Here are a few early examples.

In the poem of Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas enters fairyland and sees a “faire castell” next to a town and tower; “In erthe es none lyke theretill.”  In the twelfth century story of King Herla the fairy king occupies a ‘splendid mansion.’  These tales convey some general impression of what the fairies could build, but the poem Sir Orfeo provides much more detail (what follows is J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of the Middle English text):

“A castle he saw amid the land
princely and proud and lofty stand;
the outer wall around it laid
of shining crystal clear was made.
A hundred towers were raised about
with cunning wrought, embattled stout;
and from the moat each buttress bold
in arches sprang of rich red gold.
The vault was carven and adorned
with beasts and birds and figures horned;
within were halls and chambers wide
all made of jewels and gems of pride;
the poorest pillar to behold
was builded all of burnished gold.”

These beliefs in a parallel world of splendid palaces and fortifications persisted into the nineteenth century.  Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices.

These fairies were building for themselves in their own realms, but they would interact with humans in construction projects too.  There seem to be three different situations in which fairies got involved in building structures in the human world. Firstly, this occurred under duress.  There are several instances where fairies were compelled, against their will, to carry out tasks for a human.  Michael Scot, a stone mason, drank a magic potion and thereby got control over the fairies.  He commanded them to build roads and bridges around Scotland.  A similar tale is told of Donald Duibheal Mackay.  On the Isle of Skye the Great Barn of Minguinish was roofed by the sidh as a ransom for a captured companion (see my post on captured fairies).  Lastly, a fairy queen banished some troublesome elves from Cnoc-n’an-Bocan (Bogle-knowe, or Hobgoblin-hill, near to Menteith) into a book, The red book of Menteith.  The condition was that they would only be released when the laird of Menteith opened the volume.  Eventually, this happened by mistake.  Instantly, fairies appeared before him demanding work. Not knowing what work to set them to, his lordship hit upon the plan of making a road onto the island where his castle stood. They began, but the Earl realised that, if they continued, his hitherto impregnable retreat would be made vulnerable, so instead he asked them to make for him a rope of sand. They began this latter task without finishing the former, and finding their new work too much for them, they resolved to abandon that part done and depart, to the relief of the Earl.

Secondly, a large number of Scottish sites claim to have been built by fairies.  One, the Drocht na Vougha (fairy bridge) in Sutherland, was for their own convenience to shorten the journey time around Dornoch Firth; however, it benefited humans too and, when one traveller blessed the builders,  the bridge sank beneath the waves.  Many other places are alleged to have been built by fairies- sometimes in a night, such as the castles at Dunscaith and Duntulm- or by such laborious means as passing the stones from person to person over a great distance (Corstophine church and Abernethy tower). Other fairy buildings include Glasgow cathedral, Linlithgow palace, Peebles bridge and the castles at Dunstanburgh and Edinburgh.  All this effort to create edifices only used by humans might seem puzzling, but we are told that the church of St Mary’s at Dundee was built for gold, so that the good neighbours’ motivation in these labours might actually be very familiar indeed.

Lastly, there are numerous sites where the fairies did not build, as such, but objected to the site chosen and moved the assembled masonry blocks elsewhere by supernatural means overnight.  These appear exclusively to be churches.  Those at Rochdale, Samlesbury, Winwick, Newchurch in Rossendale, Burnley, Ince, Gadshill, Isle of Wight, Holme on the Wolds and Hinderwell are all associated with legends that the original location selected proved unacceptable to the fairies and that, eventually, after repeated efforts, the humans had to choose a new site.  Sometimes the fairies appeared in human form to do this, sometimes as pigs.

There are several comments to make on these records.  Firstly, it’s notable how most are Scottish or come from the north of England.  It seems that the more northerly fairies were the skilled stone masons, though why this should be we simply can’t speculate. Secondly, whilst we can understand why they should wish to build for themselves or hinder  building at places to which they had some special attachment, their willingness to work for humans (even for gold) is less comprehensible, especially as that included buildings for religious purposes- something to which they normally violently objected (as seen at Drocht na Vougha).

Perhaps part of the association in story tellers minds was between the magic of faery and particularly remarkable buildings. Palaces and churches might possibly have seemed so grand and impressive in their scale and decoration that they seemed, metaphorically and romantically, the work ‘of fairy hands.’

The other consideration that must be noted is the possibility that much of what was seen (especially during visits to fairyland) was simply ‘glamour‘- it had no physical reality.  We are familiar with stories of midwives taken to assist fairy women in labour who believe that they are in fine houses until they accidentally touch their eyelids with ointment intended for the fairy newborn and see that, in reality, they are in a ruined building or a cave.  Given their magical powers, indeed, one wonders why the good folk would bother at all with the labour of actually piling stone on stone when it could (presumably) all be achieved by the wave of a hand (or wand).

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Fairy Bridge, Isle of Man