“Let me grab your soul away”- faeries, souls and the dead

fitzgerald Fairy_passage

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy passage

Fairies and the dead have always had some ill-defined relationship, but in an account of folk beliefs in North East Scotland, I came across this fascinating note:

“It is said that, if a person dies of consumption, the fairies steal the soul from the body and animate another person with it.” (Shaw, The history of the province of Moray, 1827, p.278)

In the far north of Scotland, fairy abductions of humans can include not just a physical kidnapping but the abstraction of a person’s vital essence, leaving an inanimate stock behind: their soul is in Faery and a lifeless shell remains.  Related to this may be the Shetland belief that trows can only appear in human form if they can find someone who’s not been protected by a ‘saining’ or blessing. There is one story in which two trows attend a Yule dance in the form of two small boys whose mother had forgotten to bless them before she went out for the night’s festivities.  When they were exposed for what they were, the trows vanished from the dance, but the boys didn’t return to their beds.  They were found the next day dead in a deep snowdrift.  Fairy ‘possession’ can lead to real or simulated death, then, as well as following on from it.

Virtuous Pagans?

This particular Scottish manifestation is unique, but the idea that fairies (or, at least, some of them) have an association with the souls of the dead is widespread in the British Isles.  It has been speculated that the pixies of the south-west might be the souls of unbaptised children, or those delivered stillborn, or perhaps the spirits of virtuous druids and other non-Christians.  The mine sprites (the ‘knockers’ in the South West) were the souls of ancient miners and there are traces of a belief that bees and moths were spirits in some form.  In Wales as well the tylwyth teg were thought to be the spirits of virtuous druids who had died in pre-Christian times, whilst on the Isle of Man the belief was that the fairies represented the souls of those who died before the Flood (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, pp.183, 169, 179, 177, 178, 147 & 123).

Faery Dogs

In Yorkshire, the supernatural hounds called the Gabriel Ratchets were believed to be the form taken by infants who died before baptism; they would circle their parents home overhead at night.  Other ‘faery beasts’ such as the black dogs, shugs and shocks were regarded as portents of death in the counties where they were seen.  The Welsh equivalent of these hounds, called the Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven.

Faery Limbo

Certain people- those who died early, unexpectedly or by violence- would go to live with the fairies in a sort of limbo.  This is a concept found across Britain in folklore, ballad and poetry from at least the Middle Ages.  Sir Walter Scott used it in his ballad ‘Alice Brand’ which is incorporated into his novel The Lady of the Lake.  Alice and her lover Richard are hiding in the greenwood; the Elfin King hears them cutting his trees and sends a goblin to chastise them:

“Up, Urgan, up! to yon mortal hie,

 For thou wert christen’d man:

For cross or sign thou wilt not fly,

 For mutter’d word or ban.”

When the goblin finds the pair, Alice confronts him and asks how he fell under the king’s power.  He replies:

“It was between the night and day,

 When the Fairy King has power,

That I sunk down in a sinful fray,

And ’twixt life and death, was snatch’d away

To the joyless Elfin bower.”

Alice is then able to release from this captive state by making the sign of the cross three times.

Witches’ Faery Helpers

What appeared so frequently in verse and story merely reflected genuine folk belief, as is confirmed by the evidence given by several Scottish witchcraft suspects.  For example, Alison Peirson told her inquisitors that several deceased members of her family were to be found in the court of Elphame, including her uncle William Simpson; Andro Man claimed that he knew “sindrie dead men in thair cumpanie” (one of whom was the late King James IV, who had died at the Battle of Flodden).  Bessy Dunlop revealed that the laird of Auchenreath, who had died nine years previously, was to be seen amongst the fairy rade whilst her particular ‘familiar,’ a man called Thom Reid, had fallen at the battle of Pinkie some 29 years earlier.  Elspeth Reoch’s fairy intermediary was a relative called John Stewart, who had been murdered at sunset- a violent and early death at a liminal time of day.

Lewis Spence examines some of the thought behind these folklore traditions in his classic British Fairy Origins.  The soul is often conceived as a small person and it is easy to understand how the little folk and the spirit homunculus might become confused.  Walter Evans-Wentz, in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, also espoused the theory that (some at least of) the fairies are the souls of the dead, something which he set within a wider Celtic ‘Legend of the Dead.’  He said that:

“the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and fairyland.” (Spence pp.68, 70 & 80; Evans Wentz pp.280 & 493)

The Reverend Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth goes so far as to argue that, whilst the bodies of the dead lie in their graves in the churchyard, their souls inhabit the fairy knowes that are so often found in proximity to Highland churches.  He confirmed that fairies were, therefore, believed by some with the second sight to be “departed souls, attending awhile in this inferior state, and clothed with Bodies procured through their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe… but if any were so impious as to have given no Alms, they say when the Souls of such do depart, they sleep in an unactive state till they resume the terrestrial Bodies again.”  Other seers believed that the souls of the dying people became wraiths, and the apparitions of black dogs which I mentioned earlier, and yet others were convinced that the fairies were “a numerous People by themselves, having their own polities.”  He mentioned too other beliefs that people’s “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged” and that some will “go to the Siths (or People at Rest, and in respect of us, in Peace) before the natural Period of their Lyfe expire…”  These ideas seem very clearly to be identical with the idea that those murdered or otherwise killed violently end up in faery.  Seventeenth century Scottish opinion on the nature of fairykind was divided then, but it was apparently as common to see them as some manifestation of human dead as it was to consider them to be a separate form of life.

Poet Robert Sempill put these ideas into verse, describing how one suspected witch:

“names our nyboris sex or sewin, (6 or 7)

That we belevit had bene in heawin.”

Faery song

waterhouse siren 

A siren, J W Waterhouse

I have written before of the fairies’ love of music (known as fonn-sith in Scotland) and of song.  Songs are more, though, than just entertainment: they are magical.

The special status of song in fairy culture is demonstrated extremely well in a story from Highland Scotland.  Angus Mór of Tomnahurich was a shepherd.  He heard music coming from a fairy knoll, accompanied by the voice of his wife-to-be singing.  Approaching the knoll, he peeped in but couldn’t see her.  A fairy woman happened to be passing by so he seized her with his iron-tipped crook and demanded to know what was happening.  She told him that he would only be able to save his intended if, at the end of that week, he could tell the fairy queen’s secret on the Bridge of Easan Dubh (the Black Falls).  Seven days later Angus was on the bridge, where he heard a woman singing in a very fine voice.  It was the queen, and the song itself was her secret.  The last verse went as follows:

“There is music (ceol) in the hall of my dear,

There is gold in the land of Mackay,

But there is a song (oran) in Inverness,

That shall never be known.”

Big Angus cried out that he now knew every word of her song- and her secret with it.  The Queen screamed in frustration, but he had effectively broken her spell, and she was forced to relinquish her claim to his wife.

James Halliwell long ago observed that “fairies always talk in rhyme” and it is true to say that many of their activities and many significant statements are accompanied by song.  For example, fairies at work- grinding, churning or ‘waulking’ cloth- had special songs that went with those activities.  Expressions of strong emotions, such as anger, love and grief, would also take a verse form (Halliwell, Popular Rhymes & Nursery Tales, 1849, p.190; Evans Wentz pp.102 & 112).

The use of verse and rhyme to formulate secrets was also common amongst faery-kind.  Think, for example, of the British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin, creatures such as Whuppity Stoorie and Sili Go Dwt: these goblin-like characters sing their secret to themselves, but are always overheard and undone:

“Little kens oor gude dame at hame,

That Whuppity Stoorie is my name!”

“Nimmy, nimmy not,

My name’s Tom Tit Tot” and,

“Little did she know

That Trwtyn Tratyn

Is my name.”

This last verse works much better in the original Welsh:

“Bychan a wydda’ hi

Mai Trwtyn-Tratyn

Yw f’enw i.”

Wordplay was something that supernaturals particularly respected and enjoyed- and a skill in it could prove crucial.  Some fishermen from the Isle of Lewis were out in their boat when a mermaid briefly surfaced.  They saw her ‘blood-charm’ (perhaps a reference to the fact that a mermaid’s shed blood will stir up the waves into a tempest) and, in any event, merely sighting a mermaid would normally have been interpreted as a sign of disaster.  She resurfaced nearer to the boat and asked the helmsman for his ‘half-stanza.’  The steersman gave a clever answer, referring to his control over the ship, to which she said “It is well that you gave such a reply” and then sank out of sight.  It appears that his quick wit and versifying pleased her, because the boat and the crew got home safely, although other ships out that day foundered and men drowned.

Closely comparable to this incident are the circumstances which gave rise to a ‘fairy song’ from Argyllshire.  A fairy woman daily visited a mother and her new-born son, “with words and with singing of verses to try if she could ‘word’ him away with her.”  Luckily, the mother always had a ready answer and was able to prevent her child being taken.  The fairy woman in her verses successively disparaged the boy- in response to which his mother praised him- then she warned of the temptations of the girls in town as he got older, with their curly brown hair and their bouncy breasts (cìochan currach) and lastly the bean-sith admitted that she wanted him to be the herder of her sheep on the moor.  The mother instead retorted that she hoped he’d be a warrior or a rich farmer.

henry william walker, a fairy bower

Henry William Walker, A Fairy Bower

Mermaid wisdom is also often expressed in verse, as in this advice on health and diet:

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

The same habit was known amongst fairies: for example, a man on the Island of Barra was sent to fetch a doctor for a seriously ill woman.  It was a hot day and on his return journey he sat down on a fairy knoll for a rest and fell asleep.  He awoke to hear a song “Ill it becomes a messenger, on an important message, to sleep on the ground in the open air.” (Evans Wentz p.114)

Faery song can have a sinister significance as well.  The song of the kelpie, the supernatural horse that lives in Scottish rivers, is said to signify that it is in search of human blood.  It is certainly known to sing in triumph when a person is already on its back and it is too late for them to escape.  One song had these words:

“And ride weil, Davie

And by this night at ten o’clock,

Ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Another version, recorded in 1884, went as follows:

“Sit well, Janety, or ride well Davie

For this time morn, ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Pot Cravie is the English attempt at the Gaelic place-name Poll nan Craobhan, a deep pool on the River Spey.  The song celebrates that the victim will be plunged into the kelpie’s lair and won’t be returning.

Another very famous fairy song is that of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye.  This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman.  It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life.  Each verse of the song had a different tune.  For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the baby heir (Evans Wentz p.99).

In summary, in Faerie speech and words in all their forms are magical and must be carefully guarded.

msn-fairy-orchestra

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Orchestra, (from ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’), 1908

“Shoot that poison arrow”- elf bolts & abductions

archer

The Reverend Robert Kirk, in The Secret Commonweath, makes some fascinating remarks about the fairies’ habit of shooting ‘elf-arrows’ at people:

“Those who are unseened or unsanctified (called Fey) are said to be pierced or wounded with those People’s Weapons, which makes them do somewhat verie unlike their former Practice, causing a sudden Alteration, yet the Cause thereof unperceavable at present; nor have they Power (either they cannot make use of their natural Powers, or ask’t not the heavenly Aid) to escape the Blow impendent…

They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life … leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts.” (chapter 8)

Two features of his account are especially striking: one is how the arrows change the character of the people that they strike; the second is Kirk’s later observation that cattle hit by the fairy arrows can be healed by the laying-on of hands.

The firing of elf-bolts was a practice especially associated with the so-called saighead sith (the archer fairies) who are numbered amongst the sluagh sith or fairy host.  They will fly over the length and breadth of the land at night, picking off their chosen targets as they go.

As Kirk indicates, the fairy arrows are used by the sith not as a way of killing people or cattle but as a means of abducting victims.  Numerous examples of this may be found.  For example, the practice is described in the Shetland ballad, King Orfeo, which is a version of the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo.  In the ballad-

“The king, he has a-huntin’ gane
An’ left his lady all alane
The Elfin King wi’ his dairt
Pierced his lady tae the hert…”

In one reported example, a woman at Glen Cannel on Mull was shot and replaced by a log of alderwood.  To earthly eyes these victims appear to have died, but in reality, they have been taken.  Women were an especial target, but in a case from Gortan in Argyll a cooper was the subject as the fairies needed some barrels to be made.  Scottish witch suspect Jonet Morrison explained that “quhen they are schott ther is no recoverie for it and if the schott be in the heart they died presently but if be not at the heart they will die in a while with it yet will at least die with it…”  In other words, it’s always fatal.

Witch-suspect Isobel Gowdie, interrogated in 1662, gave a similar account:

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

Folklore authority J. G. Campbell recorded that the strike would take the power from the person’s limbs, so that they could not defend themselves or escape.  Sometimes, they would not die but rather fall ill, in which cases they would have been replaced with an elderly elf who inhabited their body and received care in the victim’s stead.

Cattle were taken in the same manner.  When the elf-bolt struck a cow, it would be found in distress, rolling its eyes and bawling as if suffering from a malignant cramp.  If the shot was not instantly fatal it would leave an indentation on the skin that slowly killed the beast.  Either way, when it died, it was not in fact dead but rather an effigy had been left behind and the cow itself had been taken to the fairy knoll to milk.  Likewise, a living semblance of a cow might be left behind, but it would eat and drink prodigiously without fattening or producing milk.

Sometimes shooting with a bolt is inflicted not for the purposes of abduction but in order to punish the human.  The fairies might take offence over some perceived slight by a person or they might feel that their moral code has been breached.  For example, a couple at Herbusta on Skye were reaping by moonlight.  The husband was struck by a bolt because the fairies objected to them being out in the field at night (presumably because they considered it their time of day).

arch2

Weaponry

Elf-bolts have every resemblance to Neolithic flint arrows.  According to witch-suspect Isobel Gowdie, they are made by the devil, who roughs out the shape before passing them to elf-boys who finish them off using some sharp instrument like a needle to knap the sharp edges and point.

There was some difference of opinion as to how the bolts were fired.  Some saw them as being just like human arrows. Poet Cromek rather fancifully described how the bows were made from the ribs of men who had been buried at spots where three lairds’ lands met, the quivers were made from the sloughed skin of adders and the shafts were fashioned from the stems of bog-reeds.  According to Isobel Gowdie the arrow points were not fired at all, but were rather flipped forcefully from the thumbnail.

The oddest aspect of the sluagh’s hunting expeditions was the fact that the fairies themselves could not fire their own arrows at their intended victims.  They had to take a mortal with them to perform this act for them.  Numerous sources confirm this curious disability.  For example, in one story from the Highlands, a man saw the fairies making a bow and knew that this was for him and that they were about to carry him off.  He begged his friends to hold him tightly so that he could not be taken, but it happened anyway.  The disadvantage with this reliance is that the human hunter was often reluctant to shot the targets, often because they knew the person selected.  For instance, in the case of the woman from Glen Cannel on Mull, the man taken by the sluagh first shot at a lamb, which rose through the window out of the woman’s house.  The faes were not pleased and he was forced by them to shoot again.  In other cases reported, the human captive would deliberately miss or shot a sheep and a hen instead.  As Isobel Gowdie said: “Som tymes we misse; bot if they twitch [touch], be it beast or man or woman, it will kill, tho they had an jack [mail-coat] upon them.”  She went on, with clear regret: “Bot that quhich troubles my conscience most, is the killing of several persones, with the arrowes quhich I gott from the divell.”

Defences

Given the constant threat of being shot and taken, what could the human population do to protect themselves?  There were several lines of defence, luckily enough.

Firstly, there were charms that could be recited to protect person and property.  On the island of South Uist, for example, a ‘herding blessing’ was sung whilst tending the cattle.  It asked St Bridget to protect the stock against a variety of dangers, including “the arrows of the slim fairy women” (o saighde nam ban seaga sith).”  At his trial for witchcraft in 1607 ‘fairy doctor’ Bartie Paterson confessed to invoking the holy trinity to guard cattle against “arrowschot” amongst other types of ‘shot’ directed at them.  In the Outer Hebrides, a person would be protected outside if they carried with them a sieve in one hand and a piece of coal in the other.  If you were able to come by an elf bolt that had previously been fired, simply carrying that with you was thought to be a complete defence against being struck yourself.

There are various practical steps that can be taken to diminish the risk that you will ever become the target of an attack by the sluagh.  It’s believed that the host (and fairies generally) will make their approach from the west.  That being the case, leaving westerly windows open after sunset is always a bad idea, because it tempts the sluagh to shoot arrows in, especially if a cow is being milked beside that window.  Another protection, which is useful where a window is needed for ventilation, is to place an iron bar across it.  Then, the iron will stop fairies and fairy arrows from entering.

Cattle ploughing are deemed a particular target, but there are simple precautions that can be taken, even out in the fields.  Both in Durham, in the North of England, and in Scotland, the practice was to put a bend in the furrows when the fields were being ploughed.  The reason for this was said to be that the fairies aimed along the ridges when trying to strike the oxen.  The curve simply but effectively ruined their aim.

If, despite charms and physical measures, a cow or a person was still struck, there were various cures that could be administered.  In many communities a ‘fairy doctor’ would be able to detect when sickness arose from being shot with a dart and could then prescribe a remedy.  On Shetland, for example, the suspected ‘trow-shot’ cow would be felt all over.  If a dimple, marking the site where the bolt hit, was located, a page of the Bible would be rolled up tightly and put into the depression for a little while.  Then it was removed, and with it the cattle’s affliction went.  Washing the injured cow, or giving it water to drink in which an old elf-arrow had been steeped, were other tried and tested remedies.  Putting tar between the cows’ horns was also, apparently, helpful.

‘The House on Selena Moor’- a story analysed

 

DSCF1782

A view west towards Silena Moor (in the valley) today

Here is an annotated version of this fascinating text, taken from William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series, Penzance 1873, pp.94-102

“When the ancient family of Noy flourished in Buryan, there was a large tract of unenclosed common, belonging to the farms of Pendrea, Selena, and Tresidder, which extended from Cotnewilly to Burnewhall, and branched off in other directions. Great part of this ground was swampy and produced a rank growth of rushes, water-flags, and coarse herbage. Many acres were gay in summer with cotton-grass, bog-beans, cucco-flowers, and other plants usually found in such soil. In some places were dry rocky banks overgrown with sloe-trees, moor-withey, furze, and brambles; these patches being surrounded by a broad extent of quaking bog or muddy soil appeared like islands in a marsh. There were also many springs, rivulets, and pools, that seldom froze, much frequented by wild-fowl in winter. Great part of this moorland was then impassable; horse-tracks leading to Burnewhall, Selena, and other farms, passed over the driest places, and were continued by rough causeways through swamps;—they were very bad roads at all seasons.

[Silena Moor is still to be found in Penwith, to the west of Newlyn on the main B3315 road to Land’s End.  It is to the south west of St Buryan and is an area of rough grass and scrub, as can just about be seen in the above photo.]

DSCF1781

The menhir overlooking Silena moor

“One afternoon in harvest, Mr. Noy, with some of his men, were over to Burnewhall helping his kinsfolk, the Pendars. As more hands were required for the next day, which was to be the gulthise (harvest home), soon after ‘croust‘ time (lunch time) he rode up to Church-town to get them…

Soon after ‘day-down’ Mr. Noy, followed by his dogs, left the public-house intending to return to Burnewhall, but he didn’t arrive there that night nor the next. The Pendars and their people thought he might have enjoyed himself at the Ship Inn till late, and then have gone home to Pendrea. Mr. Noy had no wife nor anybody else to be much alarmed about him, as he was a middle-aged or rather elderly bachelor. But next day when people from Church-town, Pendrea, and scores of neighbours from other farms, came with their horses to help and to feast at the gulthise, and nobody among them had seen or heard of Mr. Noy from the time he left the inn, they got somewhat uneasy; … Dame Pendar sent messengers round to all places where she thought Mr. Noy might have gone, and they returned, just as the feast was breaking up, without any tidings of him.

Then everyone became anxious, and as it was near daybreak they volunteered to disperse and search in every place they could think of before going to bed.  So away they went, some on horseback, others afoot, to examine mill-pools, stream-works, cliffs, and other dangerous places, near and far away. They returned at night, but nobody had seen or heard of the missing gentleman. Next morning horsemen were dispatched to other parishes, and as Mr. Noy was well known and liked there was a general turn out to hunt for him; but this day, too, was passed in a like fruitless search miles away.

On the third day, however, in the grey of the morning, a horse was heard to neigh, and dogs were heard barking among thickets on a piece of dry ground almost surrounded with bogs and pools, on Pendrea side of Selena Moor.  Now it happened that no one had thought of looking for Mr. Noy in this place so near home, but when with much ado, a score or so of men discovered a passable road into this sort of island in the bogs, there they saw Mr. Noy’s horse and hounds; the horse had found plenty of pasture there, but the dogs, poor things, were half-starved. Horse and dogs showed their joy, and led the way through thorns, furze, and brambles—that might have grown there hundreds of years—till they came to large ‘skaw’ [elder] trees and the ruins of an old bowjey [cowshed] or some such building that no one knew of.

[Note the presence of fairy elder trees at the remote spot where Noy is found.  The description of the spot as an ‘island’ may have resonances with the wider Celtic concept of faery as a normally inaccessible island in the sea]

“The horse stopped at what had been a doorway, looked around and whinnied; the dogs, followed by several people, pushed through the brambles that choked the entrance, and within they found Mr. Noy lying on the ground fast asleep. It was a difficult matter to arouse him; at last he awoke, stretched himself, rubbed his eyes, and said,

‘Why you are Burnewhall and Pendrea folks; however are ye all come here? To-day is to be the gulthise, and I am miles and miles away from home. What parish am I in? How could ‘e have found me? Have my dogs been home and brought ‘e here?’

Mr. Noy seemed like one dazed as we say, and all benumbed as stiff as a stake, so without staying to answer his questions, they gave him some brandy, lifted him on horseback, and left his steed to pick its way out, which it did readily enough, and a shorter one than they discovered.

[Note his physical and mental state– a good indicator of his recent contact with faerie.  Waking up in a strange place after a fairy encounter is a very common scene, especially to be found in Welsh stories of visits to unknown houses and inns on the moors.]

“Though told he was on his own ground, and less than half a mile from Burnewhall, he couldn’t make out the country as he said, till he crossed the running water that divides the farms. “But I am glad,” said he “however it came to pass, to have got back in time for the gulthise.” When they told him how the corn was all carried three days ago, he said they were joking, and wouldn’t believe it till he had seen all in the mowhay [barn] under thatch and roped down; that the loose straw was raked up, and all harvest implements put away till next season.”

[We have the classic lapse of time here, something that typifies the difference between Faery and the human world.  The mention of crossing streams may also be an indicator of a transition from faery back to the normal world.]

“Then whilst breakfast was getting ready, seated on a chimney-stool by a blazing fire, he told his neighbours that when he came to Cotnewilly, the night being clear, he thought he might as well make a short cut across the moor and save nearly a mile- as he had often done before in summer time- instead of going round by the stony bridle-path; but his horse, that was pretty much used to finding his own way when his master was tipsy, wanted to keep the usual road, and his rider, to baulk him, pulled farther off towards Pendrea side of the common than he would otherwise have done, and went on till he found himself in a part that was unknown to him; though he had been, as he thought, over every inch of it that man or beast could tread on, both in winter and summer. Getting alarmed at the strange appearance of everything around him, he tried in vain to retrace his steps, then gave the horse its head, and let it take its own course.

[This stumbling into a strange place in a familiar landscape is a very good example of the experience of being ‘pixy-led’.]

“Yet, instead of proceeding homeward, as was dobbin’s wont, it bore Mr. Noy to a land so crowded with trees that he had to alight and lead his steed. After wandering miles and miles, sometimes riding but oftener afoot, without seeing any habitation in this strange place, which he believed must be out of Buryan but in what parish he couldn’t tell, he at last heard strains of lively music, and spied lights glimmering through the trees and people moving about, which made him hope that he had arrived at some farm where they had a gulthise, and the harvest-folks were out, after supper, dancing in the town-place.

[Pretty obviously, Noy has crossed now into fairyland. This music and feasting is either some fairy event he has stumbled upon or is deliberately set up to lure him to them.]

“His dogs slunk back, and the horse wasn’t willing to go on, so he tied him to a tree, took his course through an orchard towards the lights, and came to a meadow where he saw hundreds of people, some seated at tables eating and drinking with great enjoyment apparently, and others dancing reels to the music of a crowd or tambourine—they are much the same thing—this was played by a damsel dressed in white, who stood on a heaping-stock just beside the house door, which was only a few paces from him.”

[The white dress may be indicative of fairy nature- and of course the reluctance of the dogs and horse to approach demonstrates their keener sense of otherworldliness- but then, they’ve not been in the Star Inn for several hours and they’re a good deal more alert than Mr Noy probably is as he comes upon this faery celebration.  Across Britain, the faeries are renowned for their love of feasting, music and dance, all of which are good ways of trapping unwary humans too.]

“The revellers, farther off, were all very smartly decked out, but they seemed to him, at least most of them, to be a set of undersized mortals; yet the forms and tables, with the drinking-vessels on them, were all in proportion to the little people. The dancers moved so fast that he couldn’t count the number of those that footed jigs and reels together, it almost made his head giddy only to look at their quick and intricate whirling movements.”

[We’re dealing here with pixies or ‘an pobel vean’ the little people of Cornwall.  As in many British stories, this is an encounter with small faeries– child height or less.]

“Noy noticed that the damsel who played the music was more like ordinary folks for stature, and he took her to be the master’s daughter, as, when one dance was ended, she gave the crowd to a little old fellow that stood near her, entered the house, fetched therefrom a black-jack [a leather jug], went round the tables and filled the cups and tankards that those seated, and others, handed to be replenished. Then, whilst she beat up a new tune for another set of dancers, Mr. Noy thought she cast a side-glance towards him; the music, he said, was so charming and lively that to save his soul he couldn’t refrain from going to join the dancers in a three-handed reel, but the girl with a frown and look of alarm, made a motion with her head for him to withdraw round a corner of the house out of sight. He remained gazing, however, and still advancing till she beckoned to the same little old man, to whom she spoke a few words, gave him the crowd to play, and leaving the company, went towards the orchard signalling to Mr. Noy to follow her, which he did. When out of the candle-glare and in a clear spot where moonlight shone, she waited for him. He approached and was surprised to see that the damsel was no other than a farmer’s daughter of Selena, one Grace Hutchens, who had been his sweetheart for a long while, until she died, three or four years ago; at least he had mourned her as dead, and she had been buried in St. Buryan Churchyard as such.”

[Grace is a fairy captive, a servant at the celebration rather than a participant.  She knows the danger of Noy joining in the dance, which is a classic way of being ‘taken.’]

“When Mr. Noy came within a yard or so, turning towards him, she said, ‘thank the stars, my dear William, that I was on the look-out to stop ye, or you would this minute be changed into the small people’s state like I am- woe is me.’ He was about to kiss her, ‘Oh, beware!” she exclaimed, “embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing. You may think it strange, yet it was all through my love for you that I am come to this.'”

[‘Changed into the fairy state‘ is a very important phrase.  Long presence in faery,  and especially consumption of food and drink there, will alter you both physically and mentally.  It’s interesting in this account that even touching one of the inhabitants can have the same effect.]

“‘People believed, and so it seemed, that I was found on the moor dead; it was also supposed that I must have dropped there in a trance, as I was subject to it. What was buried for me, however, was only a changeling, or sham body, never mine I should think, for it seems to me that I feel much the same still as when I lived to be your sweetheart.'”

[Abduction of people and livestock by a faked death, and the leaving behind of a ‘stock’ is a strategy used across Britain by the fays.  A log or plant stem might be used for people, or a slaughtered cow’s hide might be stuffed- or even left behind with an elderly elf hidden within.]

“As she said this several little voices squeaked, “Grace, Grace, bring us more beer and cider, be quick!”

[Note the small voices to go with the small bodies of the pobel vean- and their treatment of Grace as a slave.]

“‘Follow me into the garden, and remain there behind the house; be sure you keep out of sight, and don’t for your life, touch fruit or flower,’ said she, in conducting out Mr. Noy, who desired her to bring him a tankard of cider too. ‘No, my love, not for the world,’ she replied, ‘await me here, I’ll soon return. Sad is my lot to be stolen from the living and made housekeeper to these sprites,’ murmured Grace, in quitting the garden.

Over a few minutes she returned to Mr. Noy, led him into a bowery walk, where the music and noise of merriment didn’t overpower their voices, and said, ‘you know, my dear Willy, that I loved you much, but you can never know how dearly.’

‘Rest yourself,’ she continued pointing to a stone, ‘on that seat, whilst I tell ye what you never dreamt of.’ Mr. Noy seated himself as desired, and Grace related how one evening, about dusk, she was out on Selena Moor in quest of strayed sheep, when hearing him, in Pendrea ground, halloo and whistle to his dogs, she crossed over towards the sound in hopes of falling in with him, but missed her way among ferns higher than her head, and wandered on for hours amidst pools and shaking bogs without knowing whither.

After rambling many miles, as it seemed to her, she waded a brook and entered an orchard, then she heard music at a distance, and proceeding towards it, passed into a beautiful garden with alleys all bordered by roses and many sweet flowers, that she had never seen the like of. Apples and other tempting fruit dropped in the walks and hung over head, bursting ripe.”

[Again there is the idea of crossing a stream as a boundary into faery, a place that has some connotations of the garden of Eden.]

“This garden was so surrounded with trees and water- coming in every here and there among them- that, like one ‘piskey-led,’ all her endeavours to find a way out of it were in vain. The music, too, seemed very near at times, but she could see nobody. Feeling weary and athirst, she plucked a plum, that looked like gold in the clear starlight; her lips no sooner closed on the fruit than it dissolved to bitter water which made her sick and faint. She then fell on the ground in a fit, and remained insensible, she couldn’t say how long, ere she awoke to find herself surrounded by hundreds of small people, who made great rejoicing to get her amongst them, as they very much wanted a tidy girl who knew how to bake and brew, one that would keep their habitation decent, nurse the changed-children (i.e. the changelings) that weren’t so strongly made as they used to be, for want of more beef and good malt liquor, so they said.”

[The music is a lure, yet has no definite source- a clear example of ‘ceol sidhe.’ The fairy food, we note, may seem enticing but is unsatisfactory- even unpleasant, when actually eaten. We note too the fairy preference for neatness in humans and their complaints about the weakening of human stock found in the stolen infants.]

“At first she felt like one entranced and hardly knew how to ‘find herself’ in such strange company; even then, after many years’ experience, their mode of life seemed somewhat unnatural to her, for all among them is mere illusion or acting and sham. They have no hearts, she believed, and but little sense or feeling; what serves them, in a way, as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals- may be thousands of years ago.  What appear like ruddy apples and other delicious fruit, are only sloes, hoggans (haws) and blackberries. The sweet scented and rare flowers are no other than such as grow wild on every moor.”

[In this story the fays seem to be our deceased ancestors; there is, too, the familiar use of ‘glamour‘ to deceive.]

“In answer to Mr. Noy’s enquiries about small people’s dietary, Grace told him how she sickened, at first, on their washy food of honey-dew and berries—their ordinary sustenance—and how her stomach felt so waterish that she often longed for a bit of salt fish. The only thing she relished was goat’s milk, ‘for you must have often heard,’ said she, ‘that these animals are frequently seen on moors, or among carns and in other out-of-the-way places, miles from their homes. They are enticed away by small people to nourish their babes and changelings. There’s a score or more of goats here at times. Those cunning old he-ones that often come among a flock—no one knows whence—and disappear with the best milkers, are the decoys, being small people in such shapes. One may often notice in these venerable long-beards, when seen reposing on a rock, chewing their cuds, a look of more than human craftiness and a sly witch-like glance cast from the corner of their eyes.'”

[This story is firmly of the opinion that faery is a place of scant pleasures, for its all superficial and unreal; the food sounds unappetising in the main, although the fairy love of dairy products, especially those of goats, is confirmed.  The fact that fairy food was insubstantial and unhealthy for a human reminds us of the story of the Suffolk Green Children, in which the reverse was the case.]

“Looking at Mr. Noy for a moment with a melancholy expression, Grace sighed and continued, ‘I am now getting used to this sort of life and find it tolerable, the more so because the whole tribe behave to me with great kindness, the elderly men above all; you observed that little fellow to whom I spoke and who now plays the tambourine, I desired him to tell the rest, in case they inquired for me, that I was gone to look after the children, and he is so much attached to me as to do or say anything I request.’ Seeing Mr. Noy look somewhat lowering, Grace exclaimed, ‘Oh! my dear Willy, don’t be such a noddy as to be jealous, for he’s no other than vapour, and what he is pleased to think love, is no more substantial than fancy.’

Mr. Noy asked if there were any children among them besides those they stole and replaced with changelings?

‘Very few indeed,’ she replied, ‘though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father. For you must remember they are not of our religion,’ said she, in answer to his surprised look, ‘but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them, anyhow the small tribe seem to think so. And the old withered ‘kiskeys’* of men that one can almost see through, like puffs of smoke, are vainer than the young ones. May the Powers deliver them from their weakly frames! And indeed they often long for the time when they will be altogether dissolved in air, and so end their wearisome state of existence without an object or hope.'”

* the kiskey is the dried up stalk of the kegga, the water hemlock.

Midsummer night's dream

[I have discussed fairy physiology in an early posting and have examined too fairies’ mortality: they are long lived but not immortal, it appears.  The statement about star worship was discussed in my article on fairy religion.  The references to fairy salvation are a late, Christian interpolation into fairy-lore, transferring to the Good Neighbours our own concerns about heaven and hell, beliefs that may well not be theirs.]

“Grace also told him—but he didn’t remember exactly the words she spoke—that she was the more content with her condition since she was enabled to take the form of any bird she pleased, and thus gratify her desire to be near him, so that when he thought of her but little suspected her presence; she was mostly hovering round and watching him in the shape of some common small bird. Grace assured Mr. Noy of her everlasting love, yet as long as nature would permit him to retain his mortal form she would rather behold him in flesh and blood, than see him changed to her state. She also told him, that when he died, if he wished to join her, they would then be united and dwell in this fairy-land of the moors.”

[Changes in shape and in size are characteristic, it seems, of Cornish fairies with spriggans able to swell rapidly to the size of a giant and the fairy master of Cherry of Zennor varying between tiny and normal human stature.  The fairy associations with birds and with insects have been discussed in previous posts.]

“Mr. Noy wanted to know much more about these strange beings, and was about to enquire, when they again called, ‘Grace, Grace, where art thou so long? Bring us some drink quickly.’ She hastily entered the house, and that moment it came into his head that he, too, would have some liquor, disperse the small tribe, and save Grace.

Knowing that any garment turned inside out and cast among such sprites would make them flee, and happening to put his hand into his coat pocket, he felt there the gloves that he had worn for binding in the afternoon; quick as thought, he turned one inside out, put into it a small stone, and threw it among them; in an instant they all vanished with the house, Grace, and all the furniture. He just had time to glance round, and saw nothing but thickets and the roofless house of an old bowjey, when he received a blow on his forehead that knocked him down, yet he soon fell asleep and dozed away an hour or two he thought.”

[Turning a garment, whether coat, glove or hat, is a tried and tested solution to being piskey-led.  Throwing the item of clothing- most especially gloves, adds potency to the charm.]

“Those to whom Mr. Noy related his story, said that he had learnt nothing new from Grace, for old folks always believed of the fair people such things as she told him, and they disliked to be seen, above all by daylight, because they then looked aged and grim. It was said, too, that those who take animal forms get smaller and smaller with every change, till they are finally lost in the earth as muryans (ants), and that they passed winter, for the most part, in underground habitations, entered from cleves or carns. And it is held that many persons who appear to have died entranced, are not really dead, but changed into the fairy state.”

[A repetition of some of the themes already highlighted- faery and death, the change in physical state experienced there plus a statement of the underground location of faery.  The celebration seen above ground seems more likely them to have been intended to catch Noy- or just to enjoy a warm summer evening.]

“The recovered gentleman further informed them that he had remarked amongst the small folks, many who bore a sort of family-likeness to people he knew, and he had no doubt but some of them were changelings of recent date, and others their forefathers who died in days of yore, when they were not good enough to be admitted into heaven, nor so wicked as to be doomed to the worst of all places. Over a while, it is supposed they cease to exist as living beings, for which reason fewer of them are now beheld than were seen in old times.”

[Seeing neighbours believed to be dead still alive in faery is a common theme- for example, the story of ‘The Tacksman of Auchriachan.’ There’s a trace here too of the idea that fairies are fallen angels who were caught between heaven and hell when the doors of each were closed.  It’s got mixed up with concepts of abduction and stocks, though.]

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail) or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

[This is a poignant statement of the sense of bereavement felt by many returned from faery.  This yearning to get back to the joys of faery, however compromised they may be, is seen too in the story of ‘Cherry of Zennor’ and James Hogg’s poem ‘Kilmeny‘ amongst many othersNoy hopes to stumble upon Grace and her captors again at evening time, one of the liminal points in the day.]

Cherry of Zennor

an enactment of the Cornish story of ‘Cherry of Zennor’

Fairies and bees

 

Carse, bees

Duncan Carse

There is some strange connection between the faes and bees which, rather like their associations with the cuckoo, are now no longer as clear to us as once may have been the case.

The Voice of the Beehive

There is certainly a similarity in terms of appearance and sound between honey bees and faeries.  For example, a man on Arran was out cutting bracken one day when the fairy host flew over him.  He reported that he saw “something like a swarm of bees,” into which he threw his reaping hook.  The iron tool caused the faes to drop his wife, whom they had abducted, leaving a ‘stock’ behind in her bed.

This comparison to a flock of small creatures is common in eye-witness reports.  A man at Benbecula in the Hebrides heard the sluagh go over- it sounded to him ‘like a flock of plovers.’  A man living near Harrogate once got up early to hoe his turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green.  As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled like flocks of partridges.  In another Yorkshire report from Ilkley, fairies surprised whilst bathing in the spa there made a noise “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” when disturbed by the caretaker.

The noise of the fairies, as well as their appearance, might resemble that of a hive of bees.  John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass) on the Wiltshire downs and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion on their dancing and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  A fairy host described on the Isle of Man sounded first like humming bees, then like a waterfall and lastly like a marching and murmuring crowd as they drew progressively nearer to the witness. (Sophia Morrison, Manx Fairy Tales, ‘Billy Beg, Tom Beg & the Fairies.)

ˇ¡

Florence Anderson, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’

Bee-like Faes

Modern sightings have often compared fairies to insects (though admittedly butterflies, moths and dragonflies rather than bees) but ‘buzzing’ is a term used to describe their motion.  One woman in Florida saw a fairy riding a bee (for example Fairy Census no.s 5, 5A, 320, 400, 417, 475 & 251).  The weirdest sighting comes from Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies:  a woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described meeting a female cliff-dwelling pixie, who was about two feet in height and was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, very much resembling a bumblebee (p.53).

Returning to the Manx faes, another traditional belief was that ‘bumbees’ are actually misbehaving fairies who have been turned into insects as a punishment by others in their community.  In Ireland, in the 1850s, a folklore collector was told that bees are fairies, who are in turn the souls of those deceased, a notion that connects us back to the longstanding ties between fairyland and the land of the dead.  The identity between fairies and bees is attested from Wales, too.  In British Goblins Wirt Sikes describes how those trying to destroy ancient megalithic monuments would face supernatural opposition, amongst which might be “swarms of bees, which are supposed to be fairies in disguise.”  (Notes & Queries, vol.10, 1854, p.500; Sikes p.383)

Lastly, mention ought to be made of the spirit called Browney, a Cornish fairy whom you’ll find listed by Katherine Briggs amongst others.  Simon Young (of the Fairy Investigation Society) has written an article, Against Taxonomy: The Fairy Families of Cornwall, which argues quite convincingly that this sprite- who was allegedly summoned to settle a swarm- was the product of confusion and misremembered stories, and never existed at all.

Further Reading

The fairy associations with moths is the subject of an earlier posting on this blog.  The fae ability to fly is also related to this, as is the existence (or not) of fairy wings.

hester margetson

 

“That’s Not My Name!”- names, power and secrecy in Faery

06_Barnum_TamLin

Tam Lin, by Joanna Barnum.

“They forget my name

They call me Hel,

They call me Stacey,

They call me her,

They call me Jane

That’s not my name”

The Ting Tings, ‘That’s not my name’, 2008

In the traditional Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, a handsome human boy has been abducted to Elfland to serve in the fairy queen’s retinue.  His sweetheart, Janet, agrees to help save him and bring him home but he warns her of the obstacles she will face in attempting this.  The fairies will change his form to try to scare her, but additionally he advises her:

“First, they did call me Jack, he said,

And then they called me John,

But since I lived in the fairy court

Tomlin has always been my name.”

These lines very strongly imply that, as part of his kidnapping and detention, a change of name has played a part.

Fairy Names

We know already the power of names in Faery.  Fairies often conceal their names from humans in order to preserve their power, but are as often careless in doing so, meaning that they are outwitted in the end.  Welsh brownie Gwarwyn-a-throt exemplifies this: he is overheard by his intended victim foolishly repeating his name to himself, gloating that it is a secret- and so he is undone.  In another example, also from Walespossession of the fairy maiden’s name constrained her to marry the man who discovered it (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, p.45).

Concealment of identity by this simple strategy is found in another ballad, The Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter, although in this case a seducer is trying to avoid taking any responsibility for a child he has fathered.  Before he leaves her, the knight is asked for his name by the shepherdess and he responds, evasively:

“Some men do call me Jack, sweetheart,

And some do call me John;

But when I come to the King’s fair court,

They call me Sweet William.”

The lines in these two ballads are obviously very similar; there may well have been borrowing from one song to another, in fact.  Nonetheless, this shouldn’t detract from the significance of personal names in Faery.

On this point, I think that it’s also highly significant that the evidence from the Scottish witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries regularly refers to the existence of a king and queen of Elfame, but these royal personages never have a personal name.  This could well be because they wished to preserve their power and mystery from us untrustworthy humans.  For that matter, the few names we have for faery royalty- Mab, Oberon, Titania– are all imported from outside the British Isles.  None are authentic, native names.

the-grump-fairy-7

“That’s not my name!”- Grumpy fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

Human Names

Similar magic applies to human names, which should in all cases be withheld from the faes.  There is a class of stories to which I’ve referred several times in my posts, the so-called ‘ainsel’ theme, which hinges upon this point.  A human meets a fairy of some description and, on being asked his/her name, cannily responds ‘mi ainsel,’ ‘misen’ or the Gaelic equivalent ‘mi-fhín’ (all meaning ‘myself’).  Some dispute then arises between them, the human fends of the fairy’s attack and injures it, and the fairy flees to complain to a parent or to its companions.  They are unsympathetic, because the aggrieved fae has to admit that it was ‘myself’ who inflicted the harm.  This story involves simple self-preservation, but concealing a name is a more general protection against supernatural control.  Put simply, if the fairies have a grievance against you, it’s harder for them to find you if they don’t have your name!

A name can, therefore, be a source of power and of protection.  It follows-as with Tam Lin- that the fairies could very likely want to change an abductee’s name when that person is safely ‘under the hill,’ so as to make it harder for family and friends to retrieve him or her.  There could well be another aspect to this too, though. The harsh truth is that, for many visitors to Elfame, the experience is an unpleasant and involuntary one.  They are taken as captives and held in servitude, performing chores for the fairies (whether child rearing or kitchen duties) that are never-ending and exhausting.  Such conditions can only be called slavery and it has, of course, been the practice of human slave masters throughout history to rename their slaves, taking away their individuality and rendering them more clearly someone else’s property.  It would make sense for the faes to do the same: if they have a human skivvying in the kitchens, or serving at banquets, they have to be able to call them something, but they may very well wish to avoid using their proper personal names.

Finally, we ought to recognise that fairy expert Lewis Spence felt uncertain about the significance of the lines in Tam Lin.  He had made a wide study of British and world folklore and could not think of other examples of a name change being part of the magical detention of a captive.  Nevertheless, he also observed that in some versions of the ballad Janet has to keep calling out Tam’s name as she undertakes his rescue, further suggesting that there is some spell residing in the unearthly name that has to be broken to free the boy from the fairy queen’s clutches.

Further reading

See my forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn International (March 2020) and my previous postings on silence in faery company, on fairy name taboos and on fairies’ personal names.

grumpy red fairy

“That’s not my name!” Grumpy Red Fairy by Jasmine Becket-Griffith

 

Laughing gnome- the faery attitude to humans

db

The source of my title, but not very relevant, I know…

What do the fairies think about us?  The view that has emerged in recent decades is that they are concerned to help us, to heal the planet and to better ourselves, but as I’ve indicated in previous posts, the older tradition very frequently discloses a harder, more cynical character.

The attitude of the faes to humans that is exposed in the folk stories can be, at best, dispassionate and can be coolly exploitative in other accounts.  In fact, according to some observers, the fairies regard us with humour or even contempt.

jultomte-JN2

In the 1673 text, A Pleasant Treatise of Witches, the author describes the fays as “little Mimick Elves” who “busy themselves chiefly in imitating the operations of men.”  We shouldn’t mistake this for flattery though: these ‘imitators of men’ seem to laugh, he tells us, “mocking sometimes the workmen [in mines] but seldome or never hurting them.” (p.53)

This bleaker view of fae conduct was repeated in an article in Fraser’s Magazine in 1842 (vol.25, p.317).  In A Sketch of Scottish Diablerie in general the writer observed that most people feel that they imitate human feasts and pastimes in “fiendish mockery” and for some “hellish purpose.”

In this light, an isolated incident in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies acquires more meaning and significance.  A Mrs J. Hanley recalled an incident that had occurred when she was a young woman of eighteen.  Walking in the mountains near Bettws-y-coed in North Wales, she had the sensation that she was being followed and turned around.  She saw:

“a little man about two feet high, who looked rather as if he had been put together out of sticks or the twisty roots of gorse.  He seemed too me to be swaggering along, mocking us, I think, as a small boy might so.”

She turned to her companion to point out the extraordinary sight, but the being vanished at that moment (of course).  Nevertheless, she retained the feeling that she and her friend were being watched by several unseen observers and were “the objects of derision.” (p.24)

This is not the only such experience recorded in Johnson’s book.  Other witnesses detected a derisive tone in voices or in the way that fairies laughed at them- although sometimes this amusement may have been merely teasing or even sympathetic. (Johnson pp.25, 58, 68 & 90)

From time to time, fairy contempt for humankind breeds overconfidence.  This can be seen in the ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ class of stories, in which a fairy being holds power over an individual so long as his name can’t be discovered. Contemptuous of the human’s ability to guess the name, the supernatural uses it to himself- and is, of course, overheard.

Why should the fairies have this attitude towards us?  Scottish fairy poet James Hogg may offer part of the explanation.  He was told by shepherd William Laidlaw that he had met with fairies in the Ettrick Forest. Their wild unearthly eyes had-

“turned every one upon him at the same moment and he had heard their mysterious whisperings, of which he knew no word, save now and then the repetition of his name, which was always done with a strain of pity.” (‘Odd characters’ in Shepherd’s Calendar, 1829).

Perhaps this explains the fairy attitude.  Humans are short-lived, they lack magical powers and they spend their time working hard to win the means to live. Compared to the carefree fairy lifestyle, it must seem a comically pitiable existence, hectic with unceasing toil and prematurely ended.  In this context, it’s highly instructive to reread the recollections of Welsh boy Elidyr, who visited faery in the twelfth century.  He recalled to Gerald of Wales that the fairy folk he met had only contempt for humans’ ambition, infidelity and inconstancy.  Later he tried to steal a golden ball from his supernatural hosts; they recovered it from him with expressions of scorn, contempt and derision.  The encounters described above all appear to be modern instances of the same responses.

Further Reading

See my new book, Faery, forthcoming from Llewellyn International in March 2020 and see too my previous posts on faery relations with humankind and the overall fairy temperament and attitudes.

iro- f banquet

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, A fairy banquet

 

“Neither a lender nor a borrower be”- transactions with the fairies

Cloke baskets

Despite the apparent strength of the fairy economy, with its markets, agriculture and manufacture, as well as an apparent abundance of money, the Good Folk are still often portrayed in folklore accounts as dependent for many basic items of food or equipment upon their human neighbours. Shortages of provisions may reflect fluctuations in the availability of homegrown produce, but the seeming lack of basic utensils is more puzzling.  It is a regular feature of traditional accounts for fairies to approach humans to request the temporary load of an implement or of a small quantity of some foodstuff.

Loans to the faes

Part of the purposes of loans may be to establish a relationship of reciprocity between the two parties, which may then lead to other requests.  In one case, for instance, a very grand ‘fairy queen’ dressed in green came begging for oatmeal, something she repaid with the very best quality meal at the promised time.  It seems, though, that this may have been a preliminary to asking to use the lender’s water mill for grinding the fairy corn.  Something similar happened to a cottager living at Airlie in Angus-shire.  She was visited by a mysterious old woman asking to borrow salt one day, although the cottage stood alone with no neighbouring homes in sight.  The little woman regularly visited after that, borrowing and lending a variety of small articles and then disappearing behind a tree outside.  Eventually, the housewife was outside the cottage one day pouring away the household waste when the sith woman appeared again- but this time to ask her to tip her water elsewhere as it presently was running into the hollow by the tree where she lived. A very similar story was told on the Isle of Man, in which the relationship and obligations established through a loan of meal- and its repayment with an inexhaustible supply of meal wrapped in a cloth- culminated in a request that the farmer change around the way his cows were stabled in the byre, putting their troughs where their tails had been and so preventing their waste running down into the fairies’ home beneath.

As just seen in the Airlie case, a regular feature of these experiences is the sudden and unexplained appearance of the fairy borrower.  This reflects the invisible or hidden nature of most fairy homes.  The fae might suddenly vanish into the air or disappear into an unlikely location, such as down a hole or into a lake.

Why loan to the faes?

Whatever their reasons, fairies will frequently enter human homes seeking a loan.  Amongst the items borrowed have been salt, griddles, kettles, flour and oatmeal. Besides pure good neighbourliness, why should humans comply?  There are several very sound reasons.

Firstly, there is pure self-interest, in that not only are these loans returned, but they are always repaid, often several-fold.  As with all fairy gifts, these should never be rejected nor looked at askance.  A Kirkcudbrightshire family lent oatmeal to a fairy and received meal back in due course.  Everyone in the household was happy to eat this fairy food, except for one boy who worked as a farmhand- and he died shortly afterwards.  This case suggests that much of the lending to fairies is undertaken not out of a spirit of generosity, but in fear of the consequences of refusing a loan.

The-Trolls-and-the-Youngest-Tomte-Trollen-och-tomtepojken-by-Alfred-Smedberg-1909-art-by-John-Bauer-4

John Bauer, A troll (tomte), 1909

The recompense may be especially great if the person who lends is themselves deprived or inconvenienced in some way.  A faery woman visited a Highland home and asked for a cup of flour.  Even though supplies were low, as it was nearly time for the new harvest, the housewife gave her visitor what she asked for- and in return was granted a never-ending supply of meal.  The person who refuses to lend, particularly where they are very capable of helping, will end up with nothing.

Another motive, undoubtedly, is what the result of refusal may be.  A woman in Sutherland was visited by a fairy woman asking for the loan of a ‘lippie’ of meal (a lippie is a measure of dry goods like grain, and is one quarter of a peck).  Just as the housewife was about to hand some over, they both noticed that the corn drying kiln on the nearby hillside was ablaze.  The sith woman then told her the loan was no longer necessary, for she would soon have plenty (because what was destroyed would come to her.  Whether or not the fire was deliberately started by the sith folk is not clear).

Charms when loaning

In poor agricultural communities where food is in short supply and assets are limited, there may be understandable reluctance to part with goods, even for a short time.  One resolution to this was tried by a woman on Sanntraigh.  She had a very useful kettle (cooking pot) and a sith woman used to visit regularly to borrow it.  She wouldn’t speak, but would simply walk in and take the item.  The housewife, in response, would say:

“A smith is able to make/ Cold iron hot with coal./ The due of a kettle is bones,/ And to bring it back again whole.”

The sith woman would always return the kettle the next day, full of flesh and bones.  This arrangement continued happily for a long time, until one day the wife had to go away for a day and left her husband at home.  He was told what to say when the fairy visitor arrived, but in the event, he panicked and locked the door against her.  The sith woman had the pot anyway, making it fly out of the smoke hole in the roof.

After she returned home and found out what her husband had down, the wife was not pleased and she wanted her property back.  Angrily she went to the nearby knoll to recover her cooking pot.  The door was open and she walked in and picked it up, full of the remains of the faes’ last meal.  They set the dogs on her though, and whilst she managed to get home uninjured, she had to tip out all the contents along the way to distract the hounds.  The sith woman never came borrowing after that day and the family lost its supply of free meat.

The risks of faery loans

The fairies can be peremptory and intrusive, nonetheless, simply walking into houses unannounced and uninvited and helping themselves.  In one Scottish story a housewife was troubled by faery women suddenly appearing at her cottage asking to borrow items or, unbidden, undertaking household tasks for her, such as spinning wool into thread.  This became very tiresome and, on advice from a local wise man, the decision was made to demolish the house and rebuild it elsewhere.

Removing yourself from the faes is probably the best course of action: in one Welsh case a woman lost her temper with faes who kept coming to her house to borrow kitchen implements.  She demanded that they grant her two wishes in return for the item they wanted.  They agreed  and she asked that, when she awoke, the first item she touched would break (she wanted to get rid of a projecting stone in her wall) and the second would lengthen (she wanted to extend a roll of cloth she had). The faeries gave her exactly what she’d asked for- but the wishes didn’t come true as the woman had planned: the next morning the first thing she touched was her ankle, the second her nose.

Loans from the faes

Loans in the other direction are very rare indeed.  In the Airlie case mentioned earlier, a familiar pattern of mutual loans seems to have developed.  The only instance in which fairies habitually lent to humans was that of the Frensham cauldron, described by John Aubrey.  This unusually large pot could be borrowed by anyone in need, simply by going to the right spot and asking, at the same time specifying why it was needed and when it would be handed back.  Ultimately a borrower failed to restore it on the appointed day and the fairies refused to take it back.

Summary

The faery economy is far more complex and nuanced than we might at first suppose.  They have a full range of productive and commercial institutions, but there seem to be items that they cannot make, or choose not to make.  The latter explanation seems more likely; they live amongst human kind and, whether for neighbourly reasons or because they wish to have a measure of influence over us, they elect to create relationships of obligation and reciprocity between us.  We are then bound into their society then and subjected to their rules- which is just what they want.  There’s no need to wield magic to have control over the humans…

 

Silence is golden- in Faery

fairy song

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Song

Speechless

On this blog I’ve many times returned to what is, for me, the fascinating subject of fairy speech.  As I’ve described previously, we expect to be able to communicate with our Good Neighbours and, most of the time, this happens without comment.  From time to time, however, the incomprehensibility of the fairy tongue is remarked upon.  We may draw several conclusions form this: either that they share- and have always shared- our speech with us, or that close proximity with us over centuries has made them bilingual- even though they may naturally, amongst themselves, speak another language entirely.  British fairies have been heard to speak English, Gaelic, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon as well as wholly unknown tongues: according to one Scottish witch suspect, Anne Cairns (tried and executed at Dumfries in April 1659), the ‘fferie’ were “not earthen folkis” and so spoke “no earthly talkis” but rather conversed with “ane eldridge voyce.”

a fairy song (2)

Rackham, Fairy song.

Silence is golden?

In this post I take a different tack: that contact with the fairies can require- or lead to- loss of one’s voice.  From this perspective, silence is the result of being near the fays or it is the safest option when they are near.

Elspeth Reoch was a young Orkney woman tried for witchcraft in March 1616.  She told her prosecutors that she had been in contact with the fairies on and off since she was twelve years old.  There is much that is interesting in her confessions, but here we are interested solely in the fact that she lost her voice after she had sex with one of two fairy men who approached her; this was to protect her against people’s questions as to how she had gained the second sight.  Elspeth lay with him and when she woke the next morning, she had “no power of her toung and could not speik.”

Diane Purkiss provides a full account of the case, along with considerable sociological and psychological theorising about Elspeth’s situation, in her book Troublesome Things.  It looks as though Elspeth derived some income from begging as a mute and from telling fortunes, but that her own family were angry about her silence and allowed her brother to beat her quite severely to try to get her to speak.  Purkiss’ speculations over gender roles and power may be justified, but let’s put Elspeth’s loss of voice in a wider context.

Barbara Bowndie of Kirkwall on Orkney was taken by the fairies for a day.  She told her trial in 1644 that this experience left her speechless for a further twenty four hours- as well it might.  Janet Morrison, a suspect witch from Bute, told her trial in 1662 that she had healed a girl who had been blasted by the ‘faryes.’  The child, daughter of a man called McPherson, was lying “without power of hand or foot and speechless.” Janet made her well with herbs.  In both these cases, loss of use of the tongue is the consequence of fairy proximity- whether deliberately inflicted or not; it is one symptom of being ‘elf-addled‘.

John Stewart, tried for sorcery at Irvine in 1618, had acquired knowledge of palmistry from the fairies whilst in Ireland.  One Halloween, he had met the king of faery and his court.  The king had touched John on his forehead with his staff (wand), which had the effect of blinding him in one eye and making him dumb.  Three years later he met the king again one Halloween and his sight and speech were restored.  He then met the fays regularly and acquired his skills from them.

Silence might also be enjoined upon a person meeting the fays.  The Reverend Robert Kirk stated that the “subterraneans [would] practice sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their mysteries.”  Any humans who had spent time with the faes under the hill might be “smit… without pain as with a puff of wind… or they strick them dumb.”  Bessie Dunlop is a very famous witch suspect, tried at Lyne in 1576.  Once again, her confessions are a rich and fascinating source, but I am interested only in one aspect.  A fairyman (or ghost) called Thom Read was her supernatural adviser, helping her with cures for sick people and cattle and locating lost and stolen goods.  On one occasion, Thom introduced her to twelve handsome fairy folk; before they met Thom forbade her to speak to them.  The ‘guid wichtis’ as Bessie called them greeted her and invited her to go with them to Faery/ Elfame.  As instructed, she did not reply and then they conferred amongst themselves- she didn’t know what they said “onlie sche saw thair lippis move.”  This suggests that they were audible when addressing her directly but when speaking privately amongst themselves they were inaudible, whether that was deliberate or just a feature of fairy speech.

It’s worth pointing out that in several modern cases witnesses have reported an identical experience: they see the fays speaking but they hear nothing (for example, see Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.48, 89 & 299).  In this connection too, we should note the scattered but consistent reports on telepathic communication, in which the barriers of the spoken word are overcome entirely (Johnson pp.20, 80, 89, 111, 163 & 262).

A woman of Rousay in Orkney, whose child was taken by the trows, was instructed how to recover her infant by force.  She had to break into the fairy lair, snatch back her baby and hit the fairy woman who’d abducted it with a bible, three times.  Throughout this encounter, not a word was to be spoken, otherwise the rescue would fail.

Finally, on certain other occasions Bessie Dunlop saw Thom Reid in public- in the street and in the churchyard- but had been enjoined not to speak to him.  She had been instructed that, on such occasions, she must never address him unless he had spoken to her first.  This may be as much to do with concealment as with matters of confidentiality or communication between dimensions, it has to be remarked.

It may be significant too that speech can be a way of dispelling fairy enchantment.  Those who are pixie-led or in the process of being taken by the fays can sometimes break the spell by crying out for help.  For example, a Manx woman who was surrounded on the road and jostled in a direction she didn’t want to go managed to free herself by calling her son (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith p.126).

Struck dumb?

Lastly, the fairies could also help with curing loss of speech.  Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried for witchcraft in May 1658, was a folk healer who diagnosed and treated a man whose tongue had been ‘taken’ by the fairies.  She advised him to use foxglove leaves and water taken from a south-running stream.  Likewise, the parson of Warlingham in Surrey during the 16th or 17th century made a manuscript collection of medicines and cures that were “taught him by the Fayries.”  One of these was for loss of speech: “take wormwood, stamp it, temper it with water, strain it and out a spoonful in the mouth.”

Conclusions & further reading

So, to conclude, we have tantalising glimpses of a fresh perspective on the fairy world.  Loss of speech may well be an integral part of that condition called ‘fairy blast,’ being ‘taken’ by the fairies or what I’ve termed ‘elf-addled.’  It may also be something that’s imposed or inflicted upon a person who has dealings with the fairies so as to ensure that their privacy is protected.

My other postings on this general subject include: That Strange Tongue, on fairy names and speech; A Hidden Tongue– fairy song and speech and Fairy Language.  

“Some kind of joy”- the meaning of fairy encounters

frederick cotman, spellbound

Frederick Cotman, Spellbound

How does contact with the fairies affect us?  I have often mentioned the more negative aspects of meeting fairies on human health- the consequences, both physical and psychological, associated with being ‘elf addled.’

Shock & awe

These adverse outcomes can be real and life changing- here are two further examples from the Isle of Man: a man who spied on fairies dancing in an old kiln was taken ill, and was left unable to walk for the remainder of his life, whilst another who watched fairies dancing through the keyhole of a deserted cottage was blinded for his impertinence.  These are the extreme outcomes.  Definitely, the common responses are terror, bewilderment and, naturally, surprise.  In Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies we read these not untypical accounts:

“The physical reaction was that Mr X’s wife was so completely unnerved as to be almost hysterical… The boy said he felt ‘weird.'” (p.115)

“He said he was stunned by the sight and one occasion had gone into a kind of swoon… he seemed partially ‘fairy-struck.'” (p.116)

Some people certainly can find fairy encounters very draining and are left ill and exhausted for some time afterwards.

Very understandably, many people will be amazed, awed, entranced and fascinated by what is happening to them.  One man wrote in 1973 of a meeting with a gnome which made him “neither disturbed nor excited, just curious to know more about him.” (Janet Bord, Fairies, p.72)

Elation

However, in this posting I’m going to focus upon the pleasant and spiritual results of a fairy encounter.  Beyond the natural astonishment and shock, there are far more positive responses.

For instance, some men walking along a road on the Isle of Man one night met three huge fairies coming the other way.  As they passed them, they felt a curious sensation, ‘as if lifted up.’  This reaction is very far from unique.  We find it echoed in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies by witnesses who describe their elation, exhilaration and sense of enhanced health.  One felt “as light as air” afterwards; another “had a rather exciting feeling like being on a great height, but I was in no way afraid.”  (pp.31, 144, 156, 192, 251, 254 & 296)

hutton lear glimpse

Hutton Lear, A glimpse of the fairies

Calm

Also from Man comes the following experience, recounted by a Mr J H Kelly to Evans Wentz (Fairy Faith p.134).  The witness was walking back from Laxey to Douglas one moonlit night when he heard voices and “was conscious of being in the midst of an invisible throng.”  The strange feeling continued for the distance of a mile or so “There was no fear or emotion or excitement, but perfect calm on my part” he recalled.  Eventually he turned off the main road and “there was a sudden and strange quietness and a sense of isolation came over me, as though the joy and peace of my life had departed with the invisible throng.”  He was left convinced of the reality of the fairy folk.  In Seeing Fairies several witnesses mentioned the sense of peace or calm they felt.

Confirmation

As in the Laxey case, and as is quite predictable, a fairy encounter will often create a true believer.  For example, Dorothy Tompkins saw a flying being in her garden and said to herself:

“This is not a butterfly or anything else, it is a fairy.  I am absolutely sure, and nothing and nobody must ever make me doubt it.”

Another of Johnson’s informants described the sighting as an “enlightening experience.  I knew something first hand, which I had not known before.” (pp.44, 46, 66, 112, 181 & 318)

Similar was the experience of Cynthia Montefiore, recorded in 1977.  She was with her mother in the family garden in Somerset, when they both saw a fairy hovering in a rose bush.  “We went back to the house astonished and enriched by our mutual experience…” (Bord p.69)

Even if the witness isn’t changed, the encounter will very often stay with them for the remainder of their lives: “one of the most vivid experiences of my life” said one.  Equally, there can be sadness to have seen a fairy and then never to see one again, and a longing to go back to an age when we might have been more open to such visions.

Comfort and joy

Many of the first hand accounts sent to Marjorie Johnson recount the happiness, even joy, that the sightings gave.  Often, too, the individuals derived comfort from the encounters.  Several had been sad or worried before, but afterwards felt restored and reassured (for example, pp.45, 223 or 254).

These sensations can stay with you, too.  Consider for example the words of a Welsh woman who spoke to researcher Robin Gwyndaf (in Narvaez, The Good People, 1997, p.181).  She described how her knowledge of the reality of the tylwyth teg made her feel: “it gives you some kind of joy to think about it,” she told him.

Friendly

A Hampshire woman called Sylvia Pigeon saw a fairy in her garden.  She recalled that:

“She felt love and compassion coming from the creature, that ‘it was looking at me with some delight, I would say… I had a feeling of love and friendliness.’” (Bord p.71)

An assurance of friendliness was communicated to several of those who described their fairy encounters to Johnson.

Mccubbin, what the little girl saw in the bush

McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush

“Like seeing beyond this world”

These sensations of happiness, love and personal development must surely be part of the reason why people so often connect fairy encounters with religious meaning.  Not only are they in touch with an otherworld- they feel uplifted and enhanced by it.

The end of the experience may also abruptly terminate the feelings of joy, though.  We saw this in the earlier account from the Isle of Man; something similar was felt by two boys who met two fairy youths and their mother on a beach on the island of Muck in about 1910.  They spoke to the fairies for some time and even shared their food.  After a while the Scottish boys’ sister arrived and spoke to them- “the spell was broken and immediately they became fearful, though before they had felt happy.” It is fascinating how often the intrusion of an external individual is necessary to break the fairy enchantment, although this is usually the welcome release from being pixy-led: for example, a woman unable to find her way out of a field in Cornwall was only rescued when a farm boy came wandering past; an Irish woman being led off by a crowd of fairies could only escape them by calling to her son and a Welsh man who had awoken at night to find fairies dancing and feasting in his bedroom could only find his way out of the room by crying out in panic and awakening the rest of his family (Bord, pp.15, 123 & 128).

Faery music

A special mention should be made here of the impression caused by hearing fairy music.  I have described before the impact the ceol sidhe can have and it’s worth repeating now.  The combination of contact with supernatural forces, conveyed in a form that naturally affects the human senses and emotions, can be extremely powerful.  For example, one of Johnson’s witnesses said that hearing the high and plaintive sound of undines signing was: “so alluring that I was filled with a strange longing.” Another told her that the sweet, unearthly music “will never be effaced from my memory.” (pp.328 & 329)

Further Reading

I have discussed in several posts the beneficial influence of fairy belief upon human culture; I also examine the broader ‘psychological’ aspects in my books British Fairies (Green Magic, 2017) and Faery (Llewellyn, March 2020).

elsie-gregory-children-watching-fairies-dancing