Fairies and fertility

Cherry Blossom Fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

In East Anglia the local fairies are variously called the Yarthkins, the Tiddy Ones, the Strangers or the Greencoaties.  As the first name plainly shows, they are rooted in the local soil: ‘yarthkin’ derives from ‘earthkin’ and denotes a small spirit born from the land.  According to one witness interviewed by Victorian folklorist Mrs Balfour in the fens, the diminutive beings are so-called because “tha doolt i’ th’ mools” (‘they dwelt in the soft earth or mould’).  These ‘Strangers’ act as fertility spirits, helping the growth and ripening of plant life.  According to Mrs Balfour’s late nineteenth century account, in the spring they pinch the tree and flower buds to make them open and tug worms out of the earth; they help flowers bloom and green things grow and then, at harvest time, they make corn and fruits ripen.  Without their attention, the plants would shrivel, harvests would fail and people would go hungry.  In recognition of this, the Strangers receive tribute or offerings from the local people- the first share of any flowers, fruits or vegetables and the first taste of any meal or drink.  If neglected, these beings may be vindictive, affecting yields, making livestock sick and even causing children to pine away.  (see Folklore vol.2 1891)

In this posting I shall examine the fairies’ connection to plant growth and our reliance upon them for good harvests.  One theory about their origins popular with folklorists is that our modern fairies represent the minor fertility gods of Roman times and earlier (see for example Lewis Spence, British Fairy Origins).  Certainly, as the Yarthkins show, they can play a key role in fertility.

Examining the British records, you soon discover that there are plentiful indications that the fairies are intricately associated with the weather and plant growth and with the fertility of not just farm livestock but of people too.  They are, in general therefore, symbols of natural life in all its forms.

Midsummer Night’s Dream

The intimate links between the balance within Faery and the health of the human world is brought out in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Early in the play, Titania describes how her quarrel with Oberon has disrupted the natural world:

“Therefore, the winds, piping to us in vain,

As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

Contagious fogs; which falling in the land

Have every pelting river made so proud

That they have overborne their continents:

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,

The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn

Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;

The fold stands empty in the drowned field,

And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;

The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,

And the quaint mazes in the wanton green

For lack of tread are undistinguishable:

The human mortals want their winter here;

No night is now with hymn or carol blest:

Therefore, the moon, the governess of floods,

Pale in her anger, washes all the air,

That rheumatic diseases do abound:

And thorough this distemperature we see

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts

Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,

And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown

An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds

Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evils comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.” (Act II scene 1)

Summarising all of this in one phrase, Titania later tells Bottom that: “”I am a spirit of no common rate:/ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene 1)

These lines provide vivid descriptions of the woes that can befall Nature if the fairies do not lend their guiding hand and support.  We know, too, from other sources, of their powers to control the weather, whether this relates to mermaids, pixies or Scottish hags.  Most often in folklore accounts we find these powers wielded to punish or harm humans who have in some way offended or violated fairy kind (as in pixies bringing down fogs to mislead travellers), but it must follow that they are able to influence the seasons and the sprouting and ripening of crops (see my Faery).

The fairies’ relationship to human fertility is apparent from the very last scene of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The weddings of Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander have taken place and the newly married couples have gone to their beds.  At this point the fairies enter the palace and Oberon instructs them:

“Now, until the break of day,

Through this house each fairy stray.

To the best bride-bed will we,

Which by us shall blessed be;

And the issue there create

Ever shall be fortunate.

So shall all the couples three

Ever true in loving be;

And the blots of Nature’s hand

Shall not in their issue stand;

Never mole, hare lip, nor scar,

Nor mark prodigious, such as are

Despised in nativity,

Shall upon their children be…” (Act V, scene 2)

The fairies promise the new human families many healthy children, a scene that reminds us of the broader role played by the fays in human childbirth.  The traditional functions of fairy queen Mab, for example, included acting as a midwife and also as a domestic goddess, especially in the dairy (see my Fayerie).

Folklore Accounts

It seems clear that earlier generations understood that the fairies controlled the natural world and that, as a result, they could bring either prosperity or ruin to communities.  Given this power, their propitiation was fundamental to life and health.  We see instances of this from all around the British Isles.

In one case, a Dartmoor sheep farmer’s flock was plagued by disease.  He concluded that the only way of saving his stock and his livelihood was to go to the top of a tor and there to sacrifice a sheep to the pixies- a move which promptly alleviated the problem.

At Halloween, on the Hebridean island of Lewis, the population would attend a church ceremony that included pouring ale into the sea in the hope that the sprite called ‘Shony’ (Seonaidh) would guarantee a good supply of seaweed in the year ahead; so too on the remote isle of St Kilda, where shells, pebbles, rags, pins, nails and coins were thrown in the sea.  Seaweed may not seem very important to most of us today, but it was a vital fertiliser and source of winter fodder for cattle, so a plentiful supply of ‘sea ware’ on the beaches was essential to survival.  This is nicely demonstrated by the story of a ghillie of the MacDonald clan on the Isle of Skye who saw a bean nighe (a type of banshee) washing a shroud at Benbecula.  He crept up behind her and seized her, thereby entitling himself to three wishes.  That, of all the things he chose, was a guarantee that the loch near his home would be full of seaweed indicates the significance of humble kelp to the economy.

Other Scottish examples of the influence of the supernatural over the health and fertility of livestock are to be found in the widespread habit of offering milk to glaistigs, urisks and gruagachs.  As I have described before, these brownie-like creatures have a direct influence upon the well-being of farm animals and cheating or neglecting them could only lead to ruin (this will be dealt with in greater detail in my forthcoming book Beyond Faery).

Something similar is seen in England, too, in respect of fruit and nut trees.  As I have examined before in a separate post, orchards are haunted by sprites whose role is to bring life to the trees and to protect the crop from thefts.  These faeries go by various names, Owd Goggy, Lazy Lawrence, Jack up the Orchard, the grig and the apple tree man.  At harvest time a few apples should always be left behind for them- an offering called the ‘pixy-word’ (or hoard)- and, if this is offering is made, the faeries will bless the crop.  See too my recent book Faery.

Modern Encounters

It is common nowadays to speak of fairies as ‘nature spirits.’  This isn’t quite the same thing as controllers of fertility, necessarily, as the latter function is less restrictive and allows scope for the fae to get up to other things too.

All the same, a couple of twentieth century reports suggest the sorts of things we may encounter them doing.  In 1973 ‘Circumlibra’ wrote to the Ley Hunter to describe a meeting with a gnome near Alderwasley in Derbyshire.  They met on a small mound and conversed telepathically and the human learned from the gnome that “his work was in breaking down decaying materials into food for plants.”  Interestingly, this being regarded himself as another human and not as any sort of ‘elemental.’   Secondly, Scot Ogilvie Crombie met a fawn-like creature in Edinburgh in 1966 who said that he ‘helped the trees to grow’ (see Janet Bord, Fairies, 72).

Monarchy and Hierarchy in Faery

steele

from the Famous Fairies series by Lorna Steele

In Morgan Daimler’s latest book, A New Dictionary of Fairy- A 21st Century Exploration of Celtic and Related Western European Fairies, she remarks that “Fairy is a very feudal system… everything is tied together with debts and obligations and what’s owed to who.” (p.120)  This set me thinking once again about fairy monarchy and how exactly their society is organised, something I’ve tackled before in several postings.

The human societies of the High Middle Ages were, indeed, feudal, in that land was granted in return for services within a rigidly hierarchical and monarchic social structure, from the king down to the lowliest knight.  The system was pyramidal, with the ruler overseeing a multitude of tenants and subtenants across each realm.

How closely does Faery resemble this?  We know of fairy kings and queens, obviously, and we know too of the importance of promises and obligations in fairy relationships.  However- so far as we know- land, and rights over it, form no part of fairy social dynamics and the fairy hierarchy seems to be very flat- perhaps no more than two levels, comprising the monarch and subjects.

So far as we can tell, British fairy monarchs reigned over no highly structured nation nor over any court in which precedence or rank dominated.  Fairy kings and queens were remarkably free of airs and graces.  They undertook the most menial chores for themselves- so, for example, the elf king in the ballad Sir Cawline fights his own duels and does not rely on a champion.  These kings and queens were not averse to entering sexual relationships with the humblest of humans, either.  Margaret Alexander, from Livingston in Scotland, told her 1647 witchcraft trial that the fairy king had taken her as his partner and, even, “laye with her upone the brige” at Linton.  Al fresco sex in the highway with a human commoner is about as far from regal as we can imagine.

Sometimes, intermediaries with the human world might be employed, as was the case with Thom Reid who communicated with Bessie Dunlop on behalf of the fairy queen, but any more elaborate organisation than this seems to have been absent.  The only exception to this statement is the system of multiple ‘elphin courts’ that’s mentioned in some versions of the ballad of Tam Lin (Child versions D, K & G)In two, we read of three courts including a ‘head court’ that is dressed in green and accompanies the queen.  In the third of these renderings, the ranking is more complex, as Tam explains to his human lover, Margret:

“Then the first an court that comes you till

Is published king and queen;

The next an court that comes you till,

It is maidens mony ane.

The next an court that comes you till

Is footmen, grooms and squires;

The next an court that comes you till

Is knights, and I’ll be there.”

In this scheme, we have a very distinct and strict social ordering.  Usually, however, the most that we hear of is some servants, as in the ballad of Leesom Brand, in which the hero goes to the fairy court aged ten to act as a server at the king’s table. Of course, such domestic servants were once quite common in a range of households, and implied no great wealth or status.

Faery society is a very flattened pyramid, therefore, and its individual citizens have an almost compete autonomy- it seems.  Perhaps the problem is that we lack any adequate word to transliterate the fairy term: Donald McIlmichael, tried at Inverary in 1674, said that he had seen an old man inside the fairy hill he visited who “seemed to have preference above the rest” and “seemed to be chief.”  Perhaps there is seniority, priority and respect, but little more than that.

Nevertheless, regardless of the parties, interpersonal relationships in and with Faery are governed by reciprocity.  Good deeds should always be repaid, and to the same degree or value.  If a fairy loans you some flour, always give exactly the same quality and quantity back.  Debts are remembered and will be exacted, even decades later.  It will be obvious that you should never enter into any sort of deal with the fairies unless you are able and willing to fulfil your side.  Default is not an option.

For more information on fairy governance, see chapter 11 of my book, Faery.

Titania by Arthur Rackham

Estella Canziani- piper of dreams

MAS 701 - The Piper of Dreams

I have described before how fairy art made a contribution to the 1914-18 war effort, through artist Estella Canziani’s 1915 painting The Piper of Dreams, an image that became immensely popular amongst troops and their families.  The Piper remains Canziani’s best known picture, but she had many other accomplishments and she painted several other faery scenes.

Canziani (1887-1964) was born in London, the daughter of painter Louisa Starr, who herself produced some ‘fantasy’ paintings, such as ‘A Fairy Tale’ in 1869 and ‘Undine’ the next year.  Canziani lived her whole life in the same house, but she travelled extensively and published three travel books based on these trips.  She was a painter, worked as a book illustrator and wrote articles in Folklore, the journal of the Folklore Society.

Canziani had started to paint The Piper of Dreams at Easter 1914,  demonstrating that there was no thought on her part to produce an image that might cheer ‘our boys’ in the trenches with thoughts of home.  Instead, it is a clear testament to the fact that she had inherited her mother’s interest in fantasy scenes.  The picture’s original title was ‘Where the little things of the wood live unseen,’ nowhere near as emotive as the label it bore at the Royal Academy exhibition the next summer.  The canvas sold the day the exhibition opened and hundreds of thousands of copies of the picture were sold over the next few years and posted to troops across the world.

Canziani Fairy of childhood 1919

ANGELICO,_Fra_Annunciation,_1437-46_
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, San Marco, 1437-46

In 1919 Canziani painted The Fairy of Childhood, which portrays a fae in a long red dress, seated on a tree stump, watching over a mother and baby who have fallen asleep in wild and lonely landscape.  The fairy has red wings that fade to white towards the feather tips, making it look a good deal more like one of Fra Angelico’s angels, but there is a second, much smaller, blue sprite with wings sits on the ground in the foreground, perhaps confirming that we are witnessing a supernatural rather than heavenly scene.  Other fairy pictures that Canziani painted include Fairies Bless the New-Born (see this posting for a reproduction of this), in which an armoured knight kneels before a stream or pool holding a naked baby whilst pale spirits arise from the water, and Dancing Sea Nymphs (1938) showing three naiads emerging from the surf on a beach, apparently celebrating the sunrise with music.

Canziani Dancing sea Nymphs 1938

canziani, enchanted basin

Perhaps rather more sinister is The Enchanted Basin, in which a boy and girl watch in wonder as another pale water sprite emerges from the surface of a pond chasing bubbles.  My caution here comes not so much from the painting itself but from a wariness over fae water sprites, as I will describe in my forthcoming book Beyond Faery.  Admittedly, the naiad here looks charming enough, but looks can be deceptive– especially where water is involved.

canziani songs
The Dwarf

As mentioned, Canziani was also an illustrator and in 1923 she received a commission to work on an edition of Walter de la Mare’s Songs of ChildhoodThis incorporated several fairy plates: ‘Oh Dear Me!’ shows a little girl seated outside in a grassy place whilst fairies swirl around her; in ‘Down a Derry’ mermaids play instruments beneath the sea; ‘The Dwarf’ features a boy and a girl running along the ground as angel or fairy-like creatures with red wings soar away from them and, finally, in the plate for ‘Fairies Dancing’ a cloud of gauzy beings swarm in a woodland glade with a castle in the background.

The plates don’t quite match the poems for which they’re named.  For instance, The Dwarf above seems to fit better with the verse titled The Gnomies:

‘Come away

Child and play,

Light wi’ the gnomies;

In a mound,

Green and round,

That’s where their home is!

We must also forgive de la Mare a truly terrible rhyme here.  As for Oh Dear Me!, it seems to best be matched by Bluebells:

Where the bluebells and the wind are,

Fairies in a ring I spied,

And I heard a little linnet

Singing near beside.

 

Where the primrose and the dew are,

Soon were sped the fairies all:

Only now the green turf freshens,

And the linnets call.

canziani oh dear
‘Oh dear me’

Lastly, in the charming Good Morning (c.1931), another blonde-haired being in a red dress (this time with more definitely fairy wings of a gauzy, butterfly description) appears to a young girl. The child has poked her head out of the front window of her home, presumably attracted by the sound of the pipe that the fairy is playing; the girl now stares in utter amazement at the vision that has appeared in an ordinary city street.  There’s a gentle humour to this vignette- something in the little girl’s posture I think- which contrasts with the sober scene of destitution and isolation that we see in The Fairy of Childhood.

Canziani Good morning

Estella Canziani was not a truly great artist, but her pictures are bright and attractive.  For further information about her and about twentieth century fairy art in general, see my book on the subject, Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.

Marc Symonds- a faery artist

Fairy Tale, 1935

Mark Lancelot Symons (1887-1930) was an English painter who has been described both as a Symbolist and as a Pre-Raphaelite follower. His fairy art is in many respects transitional, between Victorian and modern in both its influences and style.

Symons was born in Hampstead, London, but spent his childhood in Sussex in a strictly orthodox Catholic family, the impact of which can be seen in the religious imagery of many of his pictures. Symon’s family mixed in artistic circles and Whistler, John Singer Sargent and Hercules Brabazon were all friends. Symons studied at the Slade School of Fine Art between 1905 and 1909 but after this became a monk. It was not until 1924 that he became a full-time painter and he died quite young.

Floating Fairy with Nude Youth

Many of Symon’s works depict Biblical incidents, or have an explicit Christian theme, but at the same time they abound with naked fairy children, all painted in his bright, clear, almost hyper-realist manner.  Amongst the works in which a less orthodox supernatural influence intrude are Floating Fairy with Nude Youth in the Background, which bears strong resemblances to some works by William Blake, and A Fairy Tale, of 1935.  This latter image closely resembles many of Symon’s other canvases: a young woman lies asleep amongst ruined stonework and honeysuckle; whilst she dreams, a host of naked fairy girls have appeared around her, singing, playing and cavorting in the air.  Most have gauzy dragonfly wings, a few have pieces of material draped loosely about them.  Most seem only partly aware of the sleeping human figure nearby.  One holds a long trumpet, something we might associate more with an angel rather than a fairy (although they are known to having hunting horns and both Tennyson and Dunsany described ‘horns of elfland’ in their work.)

Earthly Paradise, 1934

Ave Maria, 1928

Symons’ naked fairy girls might- given his background- be viewed as cherub-like symbols of innocence.  True enough, his religious scenes involving the holy family, such as his Earthly Paradise of 1934, are as replete with naked young bodies as Fairy Tale.  At the same time, though, similar writhing masses of flesh are seen in pictures such Sir Noel Paton’s Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania, where they have clear erotic intent, and John McKirdy Duncan’s Yorinda and Yoringel of 1909 features a group of prepubescent nudes dancing around the two main characters.  In some respects, these scenes of orgy- like indulgence bring to mind Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

Paton, Oberon and Titania

yorinda-and-yoringel-in-the-witches-wood-john-duncan
John McKirdy Duncan, Yorinda & Yoringel

File:Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights tryptich, centre panel -  detail 7.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1510

At the same time as Symons was working, Arthur Rackham continued to portray a fairyland full of bared youthful flesh and, in the late twentieth century, this theme came to the fore again in the work of Alan Lee and Brian Froud.  Naked juveniles have come to be seen as a defining aspect of Faery, perhaps indicative of the fairies’ uninhibited and natural state.

3 wood nymphs gathering flowers
Rackham, Three Wood Nymphs Gathering Flowers

Art critic Susan Casteras has been quite assiduous in identifying sexual scenes in Victorian fairy paintings in which the protagonists are adolescents or younger.  For example, in the Paton picture above, she points out several incidents, including the girl “with budding breasts” in the lower right hand corner, who is being propositioned by a clothed male fairy.  Casteras finds pubescent or prepubescent lovers everywhere, in scenes by Richard Dadd, Robert Huskisson and John Anster Fitzgerald.  As she remarks, they are displayed to us in a consequence-free voyeurism of the fairies’ intimacies.

For Casteras, these children behaving in adult ways convey several messages.  The diminutive size of most fairies is linked to sexuality in a covert manner.   The child lovers can simultaneously negate any suggestion of sexual contact, whilst still depicting it as possible.  The use of mythical beings allows all sorts of licentious and taboo behaviour to be shown without it seeming to be endorsed, not least amongst which are scenes in which female fairies are granted as much sexual appetite and freedom as males.  At the same time, many of the anxieties of Victorian Britain could be portrayed: the liberated sexual gymnastics of fairyland still involve plenty of sexual menace and violence by (older) males to the girl faes.  All in all, Casteras believes, these paintings provided a safety valve.  They are a “pre-Freudian displacement of sexuality into a childhood realm.” The adult purchasers of these images could in safety view them, but not participate.  They offered contemporary audiences a potent visual mix of nudity, the latent appeal of childhood, the qualities of vulnerability and even latent paedophilia.  (see Casteras in M. Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, 130-140).

Froud, Faeries

Modern artists continue to portray fairies as naked girls, very possibly still confronting the same societal issues that motivated Victorian painters.  This trend was, perhaps, initiated by Brian Froud and Alan Lee in Faeries in 1977.  In these respects, the illustrations may very much have been a product of their time, but the trend persists some thirty years later, in a very different moral climate.

erle 3

French artist Erlé Ferronniere has created many very attractive visions of fairyland, of which just two are reproduced here.  Most of his fairies are young girls, many are dressed in clothes made of dried leaves, but some are naked.  Like Symons’ fairies, they suggest a state of nature, unconscious and unashamed.

erle 6

The artist Syuceui continues this theme in his imaginings of girl-fairies.  This picture is from 2015 and is one of several in which his fays are winged prepubescent females.

F

Lastly, another French draughtsman, Jean-Baptiste Monge, has produced very similar designs, albeit it with rather bustier and saucier faes.  Faery, nudity and youthful sexuality have become inseparable in the minds of many, it seems.  See too my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.

monge 1

 

Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

F Art

I am pleased to announce the publication in paperback, and as an e-book, of my latest book, Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century.  

As I describe in the book, a great deal has been written about the Victorian fairy painters like Richard Dadd, Sir Noel Paton and Dickie Doyle, but there has been much less focus on their successors in the next century.  This may partly be because most of the art of the twentieth century was not ‘fine art’ (oil paintings hung in galleries) but was illustration instead- and that for children’s books.  The major artists of the genre, Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant (of flower fairy fame), Ida Rentoul Outhwaite and Mabel Lucie Attwell, have been the subjects of biographies and monographs on their work, but most of the other artists and their work is more neglected.  That many were women, who were dealing with ‘female’ subjects (i.e. drawing fairies for children) may have contributed considerably to this lack of attention.

In this book I try to begin to redress the balance by providing short biographies of all the artists I have been able to identify, along with descriptions of their work.  In addition, I put the fairy art of last century in the context of what preceded it and identify the main themes and styles used in fairy imagery.

Twentieth century fairy art was shaped by the Victorian pictures and, in turn, the way that all of us imagine fairies has been moulded by the vision of those twentieth century artists.  So many elements of fairy iconography that we tend to take for granted- flower fairies; round pixies dressed in green; female faes and male goblins and gnomes; pointy hats and shoes; tiny size and childish looks- all come from the twentieth century illustrators.  They created a fairyland that was, by and large, very safe and welcoming for children.  Not all of these artists were very talented, but even in their reduction of Faery to the lowest common denominators, they have something significant to tell us about the way that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents understood the fairy world.

Freda-Rose02
A card designed by Freda Mabel Rose, c.1930s

Fairy art evolved over the century, of course.  For at least decade it continued Victorian styles and themes before, after the First World War, new formats for children’s books and new media (most notably postcards) provided new markets and new design possibilities for artists.  This reorientation of the genre to purely juvenile audiences- and the need for images that were instantly attractive and commercially viable- had a major impact on fairy art.  Much of it lost the edge of threat- and sexuality- that characterised earlier representations. Critic Susan Casteras has remarked how painters like Tarrant, Barker and Attwell tried to ‘revive’ Victorian fairy painting, but did so only by portraying fairies who were winged, child-like and sometimes chubby- fairies who were adult neither in their form nor their behaviour.  (Casteras in M. Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, 139).

That fairy illustrations created for children’s books need not necessarily be devoid of darker themes is demonstrated by the work of Arthur Rackham, but after his death in 1939 the anodyne and the harmless took hold for several decades.

margetson snow drop
Hester Margetson, Fairy Snow-drop

It was only with the appearance of Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee that a more authentic atmosphere was restored to depictions of Faery.  This has continued since- alongside less challenging images.

These expressions of personal taste aside, the fact remains that twentieth century fairy art is rich and multitudinous. Because the artists created their works for reproduction on mass produced media such as postcards and greetings cards, there are far more images to absorb than was the case in Victorian times.  There’s a wealth of art out there, waiting to be discovered and appreciated.

Still Ill? Diseases caused by faeries

babies

I have described in other posts the various ways in which the faeries can prejudice human health. Here, I want to draw these together and add details of a few other illnesses ascribed to the supernatural causes.

Fairy Blights

The fairies blight and debilitate in a variety of ways.  Overall, medical practitioners recognised that a patient might suffer from being “haunted by fairies” and that she or he might have been “stricken with some ill spirit.” (John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches, 1646, 49).  These malign attentions might manifest in various ways, depending upon the exact causes.  People might sicken and fade away, having been shot with elf-arrows; they might display similar but much more sudden symptoms after abduction and they might fall victim to paralysis.

In the Scottish Highlands, if a fairy breathed upon a person, they might be covered in huge blisters. A lesser version of these symptoms, the rash called ‘hives,’ was known in the region as the ‘fairy-pox’ or a’ bhreac-sith.  

Fairy Nips

The fairies are well known for their pinching, and severe and persistent symptoms of this were treated as a condition in its own right.  In his attack on the idea of witchcraft, A Candle in the Dark, which was written in 1655, Thomas Ady noted that:

“There are often found in Women with Childe certain spots black and blew, as if they were pinched or beaten, which some ignorant people call Fairy Nips.”

Another book of 1672, a satirical attack on Catholicism, mentions the stigmata and sneers that,  although one priest does not bear the holy marks, “he may have fairy nips, which are as bad.”

In 1671, playwright Henry Carey hinted in the epilogue to his play, The Generous Enemies, at a belief that even greater harm might be suffered by younger victims of this condition:

“like children, just alive,/ Pinched by the fairies, never after thrive.”

On Shetland, there was a condition known as ‘dead man’s nip’ which manifested as a small discoloured spot somewhere on a person’s body. It could be healed by the application of churchyard earth or by brushing with a bible.  This seems very likely to be a northerly version of the English illness, not least because fairies and the dead are often intimately associated, and most especially so in Scotland.

Elf-Cakes

Enlargement of the spleen was also believed to have been inflicted by vengeful fairies.  Thomas Lupton in 1579 made reference to “hardnes of the syde, called the Elfe-cake.” Herbalist William Langham in his 1597 book The Garden of Health prescribed certain ‘simples’ to “heale elfe cake and the hardnesses of the side.”  In these cases the word ‘cake’ seems to be used in the sense of a congealed mass, rather as in ‘cake of soap.’

Cures

Very fortunately, as I have described several times, the fairies often supply the cure as frequently as they inflict a blight.  The remedies to fairy illness are as numerous as the illnesses they cause, ranging from using belts and girdles to cure to the many herbal treatments I have described.

For further information on sickness and healing, see chapters 12 and 13 of my Faery (2020).

Fairy herbs

Waterhouse_JW_-_The_Sorceress_1913
J W Waterhouse, The Sorceress, 1913

I have previously drawn attention to the various herbal remedies prepared and prescribed by faeries.  In this post I add a few more ingredients to the fairy pharmacopeia.

Ointments

We know very well that the fairies collected and processed plants for medicine.  Suspected witch Alesoun Peirsoun spent seven years visiting Elfame and had seen the Good Neighbours making salves in pans over fires, using herbs picked before sunrise.  The trows of Shetland did the exactly same because, in the story of Farquhar’s Pig (a pig was a small earthenware jar or bottle), a container of healing ointment is obtained from them (against their will) by claiming it in God’s name.  This invocation rendered them powerless to stop the human seizing the vessel.

In some sources we are simply told, very frustratingly, that the fairies used ‘herbs.’  For example, in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Purse she describes “herbs and flowers wet with fairy dew” being gathered to make eye salves and other ointments, but we aren’t given any more detail than this.  The ‘green herbes’ used by Bartie Paterson in 1607 are another instance of this vagueness.

Medicines & powders

Luckily, the records are often a lot more specific and helpful.  According to the manuscript, Sloane MS 73 f.125, a person who has been taken by elves can be treated as follows:

“Take the root of gladen and make a poudre thereof, and ȝeve the sike both in his metes and in his drynkes, and he schal be hool within ix days and ix nyȝtes, or be deed, for certeyn.”

‘Gladen’ is the common iris, formerly called orris root.  When fresh, it is poisonous; dried, it used to be employed as a flavouring.  In this form it would at least do no harm, so the patient’s recovery of their whole health, or their death, probably couldn’t be ascribed to their treatment.  The rather fatalistic attitude of the text might suggest that the author knew that the treatment would make no difference and that, instead, nature would take its course.  (NB: in Norfolk ‘gladen’ denotes the cat’s tail, or bulrush, a plant with absolutely no known medicinal or food properties).

In 1597 four Edinburgh women were tried for alleged witchcraft and for being associated with the “Farie-folk.’  They appear to have been traditional healers, claiming to have been taught their remedies by the Good Folk.  Christian Lewinstoun, for example, made one treatment by mixing fresh butter with a ‘sweet wort.’ She bathed one of her patients in woodbine and resin and  treated heart disease in another by seething broom and chamomile in white wine.  The former herb has many medicinal properties, including reducing the narrowing of blood vessels; chamomile, too, has a range of healing properties. This suggests that we have here a folk remedy with some genuine benefits.

Lewinstoun also, much less wisely, prescribed mercury (both as a salve and as a drink) to at least two sick people.  The element is highly toxic- although ‘trained’ physicans used it without hesitation during the same period.  Another of the group who faced trial, Jonet Stewart, advised bathing in red nettles and alexanders; she also made a salve by seething alexanders in butter.  Alexanders can promote appetite, aid digestion and act as a mild diuretic and disinfectant.  Nettles share these properties and can reduce inflammation, so again there were some healing properties to these ingredients and certainly nothing magical.

Elsewhere in Scotland flax (the ‘blue-eyed one of the fairy woman’ or, in Gaelic, gorm-shuileach na mna sith) was used as a medicine as well as to protect people against the elves and the sluagh.  In Wales the plant ‘purging flax’ was called llin y tylwyth teg, or fairy flax.  Flax seeds have a range of medicinal properties, as their continued use today demonstrates, so that we have, again, a good indication of a genuine folk cure.

Further Reading

See my posts on fairy inflicted illnesses, physical as well as psychological, and on the treatments, which included the use of still and running water and belts as well as herbs.  See to my Faerychapters 12 and 13.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children’s encounters with faeries- folklore & art

time
Postcard, by Agnes Richardson

It’s frequently said that children are especially able to see the fairies- perhaps because of their innate innocence, perhaps because they are endowed with a sort of second sight and so are open to wonder and magic and are not closed off mentally by rationality and ‘good sense,’ as adults can be.

Children’s Second Sight

The folklore evidence as to the existence of special powers in children is equivocal.  The sheer number of accounts that could be analysed mean that a statistical test of this is impractical, so I rely on my anecdotal impression of all the reports I’ve read to say that there’s no special bias towards infants: any one of any age and any sex is liable to see the Good Folk, it seems from the folk stories.  However, we can be a bit more scientific about the more recent reports.  Consolidating the cases of sightings from the Fairy Census  and from Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies,  it’s possible to say that around a third of witnesses were children.  Of these, about 80% were girls.

fs
Margaret Tarrant, Fairy Secrets

girl with fairies, rabbits, and cupid  vintage postcard by Agnes Richardson

What do the above statistics tell us?  Well, for developed countries, the proportion of children seems high.  In the UK, those under 18 make up about 21% of the population; in the USA it’s 24%, whilst 14% of the German population are 17 and under.  It seems, then, that children are indeed now slightly more likely to experience a fairy encounter; and girls are obviously significantly more likely.  Whether this is reflective of genuine differences, or of a sexist tendency for it to be acceptable for female children to express such ideas, and for boys not to do so, is much less clear.

fairy parachutes

Acquiring Second Sight

On the whole, though, age appears to be much less a factor in seeing fairies than other influences.  Doubtless a pre-existing predisposition to belief- even an expectation that a fairy might be seen- must help.  In earlier generations, other explanations for being able to see supernaturals were advanced.  For example, those born on a Sunday were said to be more prone to second sight (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.81); others said that it was those born early in the morning who acquired the gift (Spence, British Fairy Tradition, p.160).  Some people might be genetically more likely to have these experiences; others may acquire the second sight as a gift from the fairies.Browse all of the Margaret Tarrant Fairies photos, GIFs and videos. Find just what you're looking for on Photobucket

by Margaret Tarrant (1888 - 1950) Little girl playing the flute with fairies and pixies.

The fact seems to be that some people are lucky enough to have the second sight and the majority of others are not.  The ability does not discriminate by any physical factors.  For example, Martin Martin, touring the Hebridean islands in the eighteenth century, reported the local belief that not only children, but horses and cows as well, were all believed to be endowed with the ability to see the sith folk

The Brownie's Dream - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Brownie’s dream

MARGARET TARRANT The Magic Pool Original Vintage Children's Print 1927 - 87 year old - Matted - Ready to Frame
Tarrant, Girls and fairies at magic pool

The differential nature of the gift is demonstrated very well in an account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland.   In 1937 an old woman told a folklorist how, as a small girl, she had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field.  The little girl was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing.  Very possibly, however, if the mother had held her daughter’s hand, she would have seen the Good Folk- it’s very common for the sight to be easily transferred by contact in this manner.

Margaret Tarrant, On Primrose Hill
Tarrant, On Primrose Hill

Sightings by Children

Now, to turn to my illustrations, which are largely taken from postcards and books of the 1920s and 1930s.  What will be apparent instantly is that the authors and artists of this period were quite blase about the experience of contact with the faes.  Although, as I have explained several times in previous postings, people (especially children) are very vulnerable to abduction, you might know nothing of this danger from these pictures.  Instead, it’s all rather charming and lovely.  Kids- and in particular girls- are encouraged to hope for these encounters and to plunge into them without hesitation.

The Elfin Band - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Elfin Band

Suggesting to anyone, especially guileless infants, that a free and easy approach to fairy contact is advisable seems- in light of all the folklore evidence- to be extremely unwise, even reckless.  Clearly, by the interwar period, the fairies had been reduced in the minds of many to harmless and probably unreal little beings- just perfect for amusing little girls.  Margaret Tarrant- presumably in a play upon the name of the junior girl guiding organisation, the Brownies, and the domestic fairies of British tradition, also called brownies– seems to actively promote contact as a harmless pastime for young Guides. The human Brownies were so-called (I assume) because they were encouraged and expected to undertake lots of little household chores for mother (just like their supernatural counterparts); the risk is, of course, that they’ll be kidnapped and made into slaves for the fairies.

The Brownie's Clock by Margaret Winifred Tarrant
Tarrant, Brownie’s clock

There’s seldom a hint in all these images that any wariness is required.  A few suggest a hesitation on the child’s part, or a sensible inclination to spy from a place of concealment, but most of the subjects make no attempt to protect themselves, or appear to experience any apprehension.  All I can say is- you have been warned….

Nearly There - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Nearly there

Queen of the Brownies by Margaret Tarrant. Margaret Winifred Tarrant was an English illustrator specializing in depictions of fairy-like children and religious subjects. She began her career at the age of 20, and painted and published into the early 1950s. Wikipedia
Tarrant, Queen of the Brownies

Last thoughts

The fairy themed children’s books and postcards that were so abundant during the interwar period enriched our visual culture immensely- I’m thinking especially of the work of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and their flower fairy illustrations but, as this post shows, many other artists were active during those decades as well.

However, these artists showed little awareness of or respect for British folk tradition and the fairies they promoted to the card buying public were almost exclusively sweet and harmless.  Nevertheless, others (such as Marjorie Johnson) maintained actual contact with Faery and, as some of the recent encounters in the Fairy Census demonstrate, the Good Folk are still temperamental and potentially perilous.

For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century and also follow the links to earlier posts in the text and see too chapter 12 of my book Faery.

adorable Margaret Tarrant picture. I loved Margaret Tarrant books when I was young! Wish I'd kept them!
Tarrant, Angelina in the garden

Florence Choate

I wonder where Angelina is? - Counted cross stitch pattern in PDF format by Maxispatterns on Etsy
Hilda Cowham, I wonder where Angelina is?

Fairy Playdate Greeting Card
A ‘Fairy Playdate’ invitation card by Dorothy Wheeler

Fairy home. Dorothy Wheeler I had never seen this but she is just like my shining face in the tree
Fairy Home by Dorothy Wheeler

Vintage
‘The Fairy Queen’ from the ABC Book

Muriel Dawson

Beatrice Goldsmith (1895-1947), "Little Girl with Fairy"
Beatrice Goldsmith, Little Girl with Fairy

1940s Vintage Fairies by Helen Jacobs
A fairy abduction, by Helen Jacobs

"A Moonlight Party" F. Harrison (Artist), The Story Hour Book , Blackie and Son Circa 1922
Florence Harrison, A Moonlight Party

In the Fairy Ring, frontispiece by HARRISON, Florence Susan - Jonkers Rare Books
Florence Harrison, In the Fairy Ring

Florence Harrison / Elfin Song
Florence Harrison, Elfin Song

Susan Beatrice Pearse (British, 1878–1980), "A Girl Meets the Fairies"
Susan Beatrice Pearce, A girl meets the fairies

Baudelaire & the Supernatural

Here’s something I wrote for my personal blog about the French Symbolist poet Baudelaire and his relationship to the supernatural. I thought its references to fairies, to the Breton goblins called lutins and to nymphs might be of interest to the readers of ‘British Fairies.’  Baudelaire explores many of the themes we have touched upon, the ill-defined relationship of Faery to the land of the dead, or the abduction and subjection of humans as slaves; all in his inimitable style.

johnkruseblog

Baudelaire_en_1844_par_Emile_Deroy Baudelaire in 1844 by Emile Delroy

Charles-Pierre Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821.  He came to be one of the leading Symbolist or decadent poets of the period.  He is known for exotic, gothic verse that is obsessed with boredom, sin, submission, death, sex and femmes fatales.  His themes sound like the classic teenaged/ emo preoccupations, familiar to us now, but in the mid-nineteenth century the poet’s references to Satanism and pagan orgies were shocking, rather than the mere conventions of death-metal.  There was also a notable supernatural element to Baudelaire’s poetry, which is what I wish specially to explore here.

Let’s deal with the black magick side of his work first.  In his ‘Preface’ to Les Fleurs du Mal, Baudelaire declared “On evil’s pillow Satan Trismegist/ Our ravished senses at his leisure lulls… The Devil holds our strings in puppetry!”  At the conclusion of Possessed, he cries…

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‘An Ill Wind’- Faery Paralysis and Other Blights

Sleigh- Phylis & Demoophoon, Phantastes
Bernard SleighPhyllis & Demoophoon

People can be rendered completely incapable of movement by the fairies.  This is generally inflicted as some sort of punishment and can be a short-term measure to remedy a temporary problem- or a long-term state, which is indicative of a completely different state of affairs.  Long lasting paralysis is often a sign of fairy abduction.

Frozen on the Spot

A lazy, drunken farm labourer from the Cotswold area of England sneaked away from the harvest work in the fields to drink beer in the sun.  He chose a small mound with a hawthorn growing on top as comfortable spot and settled down to relax.  However, a crowd of small green beings appeared in front of him.  Despite his fear, he found he was completely unable to move.  After a while, they disappeared and he recovered the use of his limbs; he needed a drink, but found that all the beer in his flask had also disappeared.

It seems very clear from this account that the shirker had chosen a fairy hill to laze upon.  The incident might simply be a case of the fairies stealing alcohol because they fancied their own binge, but it seems more likely that this is an incident of a trespass being punished and- at the same time- a human being chastened for infringing the fairies’ moral code.  Whilst the story doesn’t say it explicitly, I reckon we may infer that the shock was such that the man rarely drank afterwards.

Incursion upon the fairies’ reserved places seems constantly to be the cause of cases of paralysis.  A farmer of Ffridd Uchaf was returning from Beddgelert fair in Snowdonia. He saw a company of fairies dancing and, whilst he lay in hiding watching them, he fell asleep. As he slumbered, they bound him so tightly that he could not move, after which they covered him over with a veil of gossamer, so that nobody would see him in case he cried out for help. As the man did not return home, his family made a thorough search for him, but in vain. Fortunately, about the same time the next night the fairies returned and freed him and, a little while later, he awoke after sleeping a whole night and a day. He had no idea where he was, and wandered about on the slopes of the Gader and near the Gors Fawr until he heard a cock crow, when he finally realised he was less than a quarter of a mile from his home.  This case is comparable to the story of ‘Miser on the Gump at St Just.’  An old man set out one moonlit night to Woon Gumpus, near the village of St Just, where he had heard that the fairies assembled and where he thought he might be able to steal some fairy treasure.  The whole fairy court emerged from under ground for a feast and the man hoped to steal some of their gold and silver plates.  He was so preoccupied with the precious metals that he neglected to notice that he had been surrounded by spriggans.  They threw hundreds of tiny ropes around him and pulled him to the ground, where he was pinched and stung by the entire fairy multitude.  At dawn they vanished, leaving him bound with cobwebs on the open moor.

A man who unwittingly stumbled upon a fairy market on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset was mishandled in a similar way. He tried to ride through the crowd of fairies gathered around the numerous stalls and was “crowded and thrust, as when one passes through a throng of people… He found himself in pain and so hastened home; where, being arrived, lameness seized him all on one side, which continued with him as long as he lived, which was for many years…” Although the writer here, Richard Bovet, calls it ‘lameness,’ it seems apparent that the man suffered some sort of paralysis on one side of his body (Pandaemonium 207).

Our last example comes from Torrington in North Devon.  One day at the very beginning of June, 1890, a man was working in a wood.  At the end of the day he separated from his companions to collect a tool he had left nearby.  On bending down to pick it up, a strange feeling came over him; he was unable to move and he heard pixies laughing.  He realised he was at their mercy.  When he had not returned home by ten o’clock that night, his wife became very alarmed and went out to look for him.  She met the man emerging from the wood, soaked to the skin.  He explained he had been held under the pixies’ spell for nearly five hours, capable only of crawling along on his hands and knees.  It was dark and he had no idea where he was, as a result of which he fell into a stream, which broke the spell.  The wood was apparently known for pixie-leading, although this is not really the right term for the man’s experience, which was much more akin to a paralysis.

Several features unite these cases: an action which somehow incurs fairy displeasure and their sanction, which is a loss of bodily function that may vary in terms of its extent and/ or duration.  I have called this fairy paralysis; our forebears seem to have called it something else- ‘fairy blast.’

soper spell
Eileen Soper, The Spell That Went Wrong

Fairy Blast

Roughly speaking, there are two main ways in which the fairies make humans sick.  One is to shoot us with arrows (elf-shot), which leaves the victim elf-struck (suffering from a stroke).  The other is to blast them with an ‘ill-wind’- a condition also sometimes called the evil eye.

The condition was recognised in England, and was often termed ‘the Faerie’ but it is from Scotland that we have the better records of the illness and its cure. The evidence mainly comes from the trial of women suspected of being ‘witches,’ although in reality what they had usually been involved in was folk healing, using herbs, of the sickness caused by fairies and witches.  For example, Jonet Andersone of Stirling was tried in 1621: using a shirt worn by the patient and an iron knife, she had diagnosed that the illness had come from ‘a blast of ill wind.’  Likewise, Janet Boyman of Edinburgh told a mother than her child had been blasted with an evil wind by the fairies when they found it in its cradle, unblessed by the mother and therefore unprotected from faery malignity.

In 1662 Jonet Morrisone of Bute was tried for witchcraft.  Amongst the evidence against her was an incident where she had told a man that his daughter was paralysed and unable to speak because of “blasting with the faryes,” something she cured with herbs.  She had treated at least two others in the same way.  Janet Trall of Perth treated a baby that had got “a dint of evil wind” by bathing the infant with water from a south-flowing well.   I’ve discussed before the crucial role of water in curing fairy illness and in cures provided to us by the fairies.

On Shetland and Orkney, the trows were also said to cause identical illnesses. The islanders said that an ‘ill wind’ in the face could lead to languor, stupor and loss of appetite.

There were two explanations as to how blasting happened.  Healer Catie Watson of Stow explained in 1630 that people were “blasted with the breath of the fairy.”  Jonet Morisone, though, said that “blasting is a whirlwind that the fayries raise about that persone quhich they intend to wrong and that, tho’ there were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot him quhom they were set for.”  She went on to explain that the effect of the wind gathered in one place in the body and, unless treated in a timely manner, would cause the victim to ‘shirpe’ (shrivel) away.   Janet Boyman in 1572 expanded a little on this: the purpose of the blasting was, in her opinion, to enable the fairies (the “sillyie wychts” as she called them) to abduct the victim.  She saw blasting as part of a longer term strategy, therefore, rather than as an immediate response to some offence.

Some close contact was evidently necessary for the blast to be inflicted.  I’ll end this discussion with a mention of a Highland Scottish belief that cattle could be paralysed by the so-called ‘fairy mouse.’  The luch-sith was the name for the shrew and it was believed that its presence in pastures could lead to livestock being struck down with the marcachd sith, (fairy riding), a paralysis of the spine brought on by the shrew running across the backs of the cattle when they lay down.