Fairy names

 

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Previously I have discussed fairy language in the context of conversation with humans and in fairy song; I want here to consider fairy names.  I have recently been reading Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies (2014) and my examples are mostly drawn from that book.

To recap previous discussions, there are several aspects to the human experience of fairy speech.  Sometimes there is a complete barrier and no communication at all is possible: for example, in Canada in the early 1920s a little man “made an effort to talk to [a girl aged eleven] but she could not understand what he said” (p.34) or a three year old in Liverpool talked at length with some pixies “in a language her mother could not follow” (p.279).  More often the fays seem quite at home in the local tongue, whether that is English, Welsh or whatever.  Still, their speech will be distinctive for its tone: repeatedly fairy voices are reported to be “high pitched,” “bell-like or chirpy,” clipped and very quick” and like “a melodious twittering” (pp.44, 51, 59, 255).  This chirping, tinkling nature might in itself cause some problems of comprehension.

une fee d'automne

How are fairies named then?  We have both contemporary and historical evidence on this:

  • Elias Ashmole recorded various spells for conjuring fairies in the seventeenth century.  Knowing a name was an important part of gaining control over the fay, and he identified two- Elabigathan and Margaret Barrance. The former is suitably exotic, the latter sounds like any goodwife Ashmole might have met in contemporary Oxford;
  • There are traditional/classical names, such as ‘Sybilia‘- one of the fairy queens, and rulers of the elemental beings known as Paralda (air), Niksa (water), Ghob (earth) and Djinn (fire).  The names of these kings can be found widely in contemporary writing (see, for example, Ted Andrews, Enchantment of the faerie realm) but they derive from Eliphas Levi, The conjuration of the four elements, and (perhaps) beyond that from Kabbalist sources;
  • Doreen Virtue records an encounter with a small pink, long-haired fairy called Lilitte (Fairies 101, pp.12-13); and,
  • from amongst Marjorie Johnson’s informants we learn of Trindy and Frieta, two fairies who lived in a cairn in a garden in Cornwall (p.65), Puck and Parry, two Cornish pixies met in Liverpool (p.279), a male fay in Shropshire named Hartha and, lastly, a tiny Welsh fairy called Veronica (p.272).  We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the mildly exotic, to the traditional.

What emerges seems to be a mixture of classical inherited names, conventional contemporary names and some which might be dismissed as made up or might  alternatively be thought of as examples of genuine fairy appellations.  It is a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus over fairy dress and appearance.  Perhaps what we can identify are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken: sometimes it is familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown.

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‘Elf addled’- the ill effects of faery contact

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Brian Froud, ‘Something evil this way comes’

I take the title of this posting from one of the Anglo-Saxon herbals or Leechbooks.  Our forebears diagnosed a number of ailments which they ascribed to malign fairy intervention; one of these was called ælfadl (which we may roughly translate as elf- addle today).  Its nature is uncertain- it appears to involve some degree of internal physical pain- but I have co-opted it to describe the mental health effects of contact with our fairy neighbours.

Physical risks of fairyland

It’s pretty widely known that a visit to fairyland can have serious physical consequences. Because time may pass more slowly in Faery, the returning visitor may discover that their few hours away were really years or centuries, so that they return to a land wholly unfamiliar to them and where they often crumble away to dust as soon as they have contact with the food or soil of the mortal world. The ill-effects may be less drastic than this, but nevertheless contact with the otherworld can lead to permanent disablement by the fairies.

Psychological risks of faery

Less well-reported are the psychological ill-effects of a sojourn with the fays.  We can piece together the evidence from various sources across the centuries.  In seventeenth century England John Aubrey collected a story concerning a shepherd, employed by a Mr Brown of Winterbourne Basset in Wiltshire, who had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played.  As Aubrey observed of such visitors, they would “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.” (Briggs, Fairies in Tradition, p.12).

Later the same century the Reverend Robert Kirk met a woman who had come back from Faery; she ate very little food and “is still prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly seen ever to laugh.  Her natural Heat and radical Moisture seem to be equally balanced, lyke an unextinguished Lamp, and going in a circle, not unlike the faint Lyfe of Bees and some Sort of Birds that sleep all the Winter over and revive in the Spring” (Kirk, Secret commonwealth chapter 15).  The ‘half-life,’ withdrawal or hibernation that Kirk seems to be describing here is mentioned elsewhere in Scotland.  On Shetland it was believed that the trows might steal part of new mother, that part that remained at home seeming ‘pale and absent.’  (Magical folk, p.132)

The Shetland trows would also take children for a while, but released them at puberty.  Back with human society, they always maintained “an unbroken silence regarding the land of their captivity.”  Indeed, that silence could be physically enforced: in Ireland it was believed that “the wee folk puts a thing in their mouth that they can’t speak.” (Spence, Fairy tradition, p.262)

Sometimes it is hard to determine whether the after-effects are psychological or physiological (though one may lead to the other).  The Reverend Edmund Jones in his history of Aberystruth parish in Wales described a neighbour and good friend who had been absent with the fairies for a whole year.  When he came back,  “he looked very bad.” (p.70)  Likewise Jones wrote in another book on spirit apparitions in Wales that the experience was debilitating and left the revenant sickly and disturbed; often the person would fade away and died not long after their return home (The appearance of evil paragraphs 68 & 82).  In Welsh belief of the time, in fact, even seeing fairies might prove to be a premonition of the person’s death (paras 56, 62, and 69).

Cornish case study

An example of being elf-addled comes from the well-known story of the House on Selena Moor, in Bottrell’s Traditions and hearthside stories of the West of Cornwall (1873, pp.94-102).  Pixie led on the moor, a Mr Noy finds a farmhouse at which a celebration is taking place.  As he approaches, he meets a former lover whom he thought dead, but who has actually been captured and enslaved by the fairies.  She warns him not to touch the fairy food and drink, as she had done, and tells him something of the fairy life.  The experience of seeing the fairies, and of knowing his lost love still to be alive in fairyland, deeply affected him:

“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.”

Noy had had no physical contact with Grace nor had he partaken of the fairy fruit and beer- otherwise he would never have been able to return home at all.  Nevertheless, what he saw and heard was enough to blight the brief remainder of his life.

It’s worth recalling here too that prolonged physical contact with the fairies- a sexual relationship with a supernatural lover, perhaps in the course of a prolonged partnership or marriage- can have both physiological and psychological consequences.  It can often be fatal, whether almost immediately or over time.

Summary

A visit to fairyland need not be harmful.  Many travellers come and go unscathed. Some are even transformed for the better by the experience.  As alluded to earlier, girls might be abducted by the Shetland trows but returned to their homes when they reached adulthood.  They would be restored to their families “in maiden prime with a wild unearthly beauty and glamour on them.” (Magical folk p.132)

To close, time spent in faery must always be viewed as potentially perilous.  Even if the person is not enslaved or entrapped, they can still be affected long term by the experience, both physically and mentally.

Further reading

Morgan Daimler has posted on fairy possession on her blog, looking particularly at the Anglo-Saxon and old Irish evidence for the problem and its treatment.

‘The prettiest face’- fairy sexuality

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Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The reconciliation of Oberon & Titania

“Tension mars the prettiest face-/ Sex in fairyland!” (Heaven 17, ‘Play to win,’ Penthouse & pavement, 1981)

I have written before about the location of faery and how the fairies may pass their time there.  These discussions have, of course, accepted that fairyland is a physical place.  In this post I want to explore the idea that it also exists within the human (male) psyche. When conceived by artists and writers, faery is often a ‘house of fun,’ it is a ‘stately pleasure dome.’

Fairyland is a place full of nudes disporting, as we see in the works of painters Noel Paton, John Simmons, John McKirdy Duncan, Richard Dadd, Robert Huskisson and (to demonstrate that it was not all men) Emiline Dell.  Paton’s canvases in particular are alive with naked, writhing flesh, conveying to us an idea that Faery is a place of constant and unbridled pleasure.

Peter Blake

Given that artists repeatedly populate Faery with naked bodies, we are driven to enquire- is it Eden or is it an orgy?  It’s true that some artists expressly consider their imagined worlds to be places of innocence, free of self-consciousness.

For example, Peter Blake painted a series of fairy paintings in the mid-1970s , both portraits and larger canvasses.  Blake saw children and fairies as sharing an enchanting naivety, which was translated into the nature of his pictures, in which the nudity is devoid of sexuality and is simply a natural, almost tribal, state.  That said, his image of Titania, a naked adolescent who has decorated her breasts and pubic hair with plants and found items, suggests something both more aware and more self-possessed.  In addition, close examination of several of his pictures will reveal naked, shadowy figures, cavorting and contorting in the margins and the background.  Placid as the main characters see, there is passion and disturbance very near.

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Peter Blake, Poppy fairy

Many contemporary images of fairies tend to take a more overtly sexualised approach.  This is entirely understandable, given that much of our literature depicts them as uninhibited- as petulant, lascivious children even…

Medieval fairies

Generally, the traditional view of fairies was as wanton and libidinous.  In the romance of Sir Launval, the knight encounters the fairy woman Tryamour reclining upon a couch in a pavilion.  It is a summer’s day and:

“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert./ Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May/ Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day./ He segh never non so pert…”

Presented with this alluring prospect, Sir Launval responds predictably and “For play, lytylle they sclepte that nygt.”

Robert Herrick is equally explicit in his poem Oberon’s feast.  The fairy king enters his bed chamber:

“and now he finds
His moon-tann’d Mab, as somewhat sick,
And (love knows) tender as a chick.
Upon six plump dandillions, high-
Rear’d, lies her elvish majesty:
Whose woolly bubbles seem’d to drown
Her Mabship in obedient down.”

Oberon approaches the bed, which is decorated thus:

“The fringe about this are those threads
Broke at the loss of maidenheads:
And, all behung with these, pure pearls,
Dropp’d from the eyes of ravish’d girls
Or writhing brides ; when (panting) they
Give unto love the straiter way.
For music now, he has the cries
Of feigned lost virginities;
The which the elves make to excite
A more unconquered appetite.
The king’s undrest ; and now upon
The gnat’s watchword the elves are gone.
And now the bed, and Mab possess’d
Of this great little kingly guest;
We’ll nobly think, what’s to be done,
He’ll do no doubt ; this flax is spun.”

The Victorians and later

Despite the bawdy example of their predecessors, and despite the excess of nubile flesh in their painting, Victorian writers were more circumspect. There is little in nineteenth century literature to match the visual art.  Like much of his fairy-themed verse, John KeatsBelle dame sans merci is suggestive of sexual passion: a young man encounters a beautiful, wide-eyed maid, a fairy child, who enchants with a song of love before:

“She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes-
So kissed to sleep.

And there we slumbered on the moss…”

This coy ‘slumber’ is in stark contrast to the explicitness of Sir Launfal.  Christina Rossetti’s Goblin market is also notable for its intense and sensual tone, but its evocations of sisterly incest do not involve the hideous and violent goblins.

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Brian Froud, Nippers in the orchard

Twentieth century fays

During the twentieth century, whilst the art has more recently become more adult and explicit, fairy verse has largely fallen from favour (except for the consumption of children).  About the only ‘adult’ example of which I’m aware is from The temptation by American poet Clark Ashton Smith, an undeniably erotic verse:

“Exile fays with childish bosoms,
And their undevirginate
Vulvas wrought like budding blossoms
Cool and small and delicate…”

As you’ll see from the entire poem, Smith was plainly fantasising about faery as bacchanalian orgy.  Some of this mood is to be found reflected in the crowded pictures of Brian Froud.   His fays are cheerfully and unashamedly sexual.  In addition, whilst representations of fairyland are often images of youth and perfection, Froud prefers imperfection- age, maturity and non-classical variety.

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Fairies and mushrooms, Brian Froud- I need hardly point out the phallic mushrooms and the (seemingly) drug-addled girl

Diversity in faery

Even so, alongside the wide hips and pendulous breasts, alongside the range of ages, there are still plenty of nymphs in our imaginary faery, bevies of adolescent and petite beauties who conform to more classical conceptions as well as being accommodated by with more contemporary and liberal views.  As stated earlier, the question must be, here, whether these nymphs represent a primal innocence or whether they speak of a more complex sexuality.

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Alan Lee, Faerie, 1978

The modern faery can be a living community, with young and old.  The situation in nineteenth century art was, by contrast, rather more puzzling.  Many Victorian painters filled their scenes with a variety of sizes and types of fairy.  Whilst some were grotesques, these figures were mostly adult males and females, albeit of a range of statures; examples will be found in the paintings of Richard Dadd, John Simmons, Robert Huskisson and Noel Paton (to name but a few), all of whom imagined a vast variety of forms and sizes of fairy.  Sometimes infants are present, but these are often more like cherubs than real children (as in Midsummer Eve by E. R. Hughes for instance) and as such these figures indicate the classical origins of much of the Victorian style.  Richard Doyle was one of the very few who included definite children in his pictures; they appeared mostly as pages to the fairy court, though, and were accordingly very tiny.   It is only in more recent fairy art work that identifiably juvenile and teenaged faeries have appeared.

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Alan Lee, a bluebell faery

Faery has always been sexualised by humans.  The Victorians, in their different theatrical representations of fairyland, went further and juvenilised it.  What was then seen only on the stage has in recent decades appeared in painting and illustration. Froud and Lee offer us strikingly distinct visualisations of such a world.  Lee’s actually quite demure fays are black eyed and alarming in their self absorption; there is a ferocity and menace in their solitary nakedness- and even that nakedness must be a warning, when we consider the deathly blue skin of the bluebell fay above.  They are a visual reminder that contact with fairies, and especially contact with a fairy lover, could be fatal.

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Alan Lee, the cover illustration to Faeries, 1978.

Froud’s world is, on the whole, more whimsical, but there are perturbing undercurrents. His vision is frequently crowded and carnal; the atmosphere is febrile.  It is an environment where sexuality is flaunted and voluptuous; sexual awareness is pervasive and it does not seem to be the preserve of the maturer members of the fleshly throng. Everything here is promiscuous, polyamorous and uninhibited.  It’s also notable that a higher proportion of his fays seem to be female- self-possessed and confident, perhaps, as you might expect a fairy queen to be.

When I consider Froud’s images, I am reminded of those backgrounds to Peter Blake’s fairy scenes, where less distinct figures cavort and celebrate in the murk in comparable abandon.  The latter’s pictures are very nearly contemporary with the first designs from the former, so that it seems unlikely that Blake inspired Froud directly, but the parallel is striking nonetheless and may say something about contemporary ideas.  Both painters referred to the crammed nature of their canvases too: in 1997 Blake described how-

“As the fairies ooze to the front of the picture, they hear who’s looking at the painting and they stop and look out.  A group of them stare straight out at you, involving the viewer.”

Interviewed by Signe Pike for her book Faery tale in 2009, Froud said something very similar: there is-

“typically a central figure… and around the edges of the picture come crowding all of these faces.  It’s like they all want to be in the painting.  They don’t jostle… but they all sort of… get in.” (p.89)

There’s a more direct engagement here than in many of the Victorian pictures.  We are being invited, seduced, into their world.

Doyle fairy & elf kissing

Dicky Doyle, A fairy and an elf kissing, British Library.

Duality in fairy

To conclude, there seem today to be two main styles for the representation of faery by visual artists.  One is in the tradition Victorian painter Richard Doyle and the later children’s book illustrators: it is a vision of fairy as a place of charming, harmless pleasure, and of sexless innocence.  The fays are often little girls and everything is pretty and safe.  Josephine Wall’s intricate and kaleidoscopic paintings might fall into this category.

It also strikes me here how often we read in contemporary books how it is children, because of their innocence, who are most likely to be able to see fairies.  This thinking has prevailed since at least the time of the Cottingley fairy photographs: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was anxious to obtain further pictures from the two girls because he feared that their encroaching adolescence might soon mean that they would lose their clairvoyance.  Edward Gardner wrote to Doyle  expressing his concern that one of them might soon fall in love and then “hey presto!”, the fairy encounters would be at an end.  How curious it is that sex could become the antithesis of faery, rather than than one of its defining features, as seen repeatedly in earlier art and literature.

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Josephine Wall, The wood fairy

In contrast, as discussed at length here, there is a darker, more traditional and more sensual vision: we are lured in with enticing looks, but indulging ourselves may be a risk.  A contemporary artist who embodies much of what has been discussed- the frames crowded with figures, the nudity, the atmosphere of pagan mystery- may be Mia Araujo.

Further reading

I have also discussed questions of sexuality in fairyland in various earlier posts, including consideration of sex and sexuality in the poetry of William Blake and John Keats, some thoughts on ideas of fairy beauty, on representations of sex in the art of Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud and a wider discussion of our evolving views of gender and age in Faery.  For those desirous of an actual sexual encounter with a fay, I recommend a look at my posting on the fairy rules of love.

Fairies and culture

 

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‘Ferdinand and Ariel,’ by John Millais

Whatever our view of the existence of fairies and of a supernatural realm, there can be no denying the profound impact of faery (or the idea of it) upon our art and culture.  The reason for all this creativity, it seems to me, is that faery as a subject is so rich and complex.  Fairies can offer artists every emotion- sexual obsession, love, fear, jealousy, unbounded joy, mystery and mysticism- the list is lengthy.

Fae themes have been persistently rich sources of inspiration for a range of artists, whether in literature, song or the visual arts.  I’ll present a few examples, though I’m sure that proof is scarcely needed:

  • On the stage– whether inspiring the high art of Shakespeare or pantomimes and popular plays such as Peter Pan;
  • Novels and short stories (for both adults and children), from Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald through Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter and E. M. Nesbit to Tolkien to Alan Garner;
  • Romance and myth– fairy themes are strong throughout many of the Arthurian myths and related stories, including the Welsh Mabinogion;
  • Poetry– from Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton through Keats and Blake to Walter de la Mare and Ivor Gurney;
  • Painting- from Fuseli to Froud;
  • Illustration– from Rossetti and Burne-Jones through Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Henry Justice Ford to Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant;
  • Sculpture– for example the puppets of Wendy Froud or the wire creations of Robin Wright;
  • Film and cartoon–  we have both fictional films, such as Disney’s Peter Pan or The Dark Crystal, as well as documentaries and ‘factual’ stories based upon the Cottingley case; and,
  • Music– ranging from ballet, opera, ballads, light opera (Gilbert and Sullivan) to contemporary rock (Led Zeppelin or Sigur Ros).

Of course, the additional value of all of the above is that they are a supplement to the folklore evidence.  Just as much as traditional stories of fairies gathered by folklorists in the field, these various media give us a view of contemporary beliefs on the conduct and appearance of the fays.

What’s more, fairy works have inspired other fairy art.  For example Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream has inspired many works of art (by Paton, Dadd, Millais and many others).  In particular, it inspired a painting by Thomas Stothard,  Titania and Oberon, which in turn inspired a poem by Elizabeth Landon, The fairy queen sleeping.  In just the same way in 1825 Louisa Anne Meredith wrote The enchanted island in response to seeing the painting of the same name by Francis Darby; “’Tis the fairies’ home” the verse declares.

I’ll make a radical suggestion: even were fairies not to exist, their impact upon human culture would be almost undiminished.  We might even propose that, even if fairies did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent them to provide ourselves with such rich and fruitful veins of imagery and ideas.

The fairies have inspired our creativity for centuries, whether the source of that inspiration is our own imaginations or is an external supernatural force.  The power of this creative stimulus is expressly acknowledged by artists working in this genre.  It is not just a matter of the work produced, but of the transformative impact upon the artists themselves.   Interviewed by Signe Pike in Faery talepainter Brian Froud said that many of his readers and fans feel that with a rediscovery of their fairy faith:

“they feel they are coming home. They tell me they want to go away and write, or make something…”

His wife agreed: “often people have a creative response to our work.”  She starts her puppet workshops with meditation, within which “you do actually, genuinely, touch faeryland- you’re in it, whether you realise it or not.  So when you come back, and make a figure, it’s imbued with its own personality.”  In the act of imaginative creation, it would seem, there is a re-creation of the creator (Pike, 2010, pp.86-66).

In his introduction to David Riche’s Art of faery (2003), Froud argued that “Fairies mediate art, the mysterious moments of our creative relationship with the world.”  Whilst the twentieth century had emphasised our alienation from the world, the resurgence of visionary fairy art in its last decades and into the new millennium suggests the reversal of this and through that “the beginning of a spiritual journey. To paint fairies is not childish- but it could certainly said to be childlike- in its openness to creative and emotional impulses.”

Our culture is richer for fairies; we are richer for fairies….

Further reading

Neil Rushton on his dead but dreaming blog on WordPress provides a very useful overview of the entire world history of fairy art.

Is there a fairy queen?

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Queen Titania, by John Simmons

This question may seem a shocking challenge to accepted conventions, but reflecting recently upon a couple of postings concerning the queens of elfland made on Living liminally by Morgan Daimler, I suddenly began to wonder whether we really mean the words we use when we so casually discuss the ‘fairy kingdom,’ the ‘faery realm,’  the seelie and unseelie ‘courts‘ and the king and queen of fairy.

Elsewhere, in her recent book Fairies, Morgan observes that “the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by Kings and Queens.” (p.61)    This is quite true, but as I have suggested before in my post on woodland elves, the idea of fairy royalty is very much a projection of medieval structures by medieval writers.  The idea was first seen in such poems as Huon of Bordeaux, King Herla, Sir Orfeo and in the verse of Chaucer: Sir Thopas and the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale.  Two centuries later, Spenser, Shakespeare and Herrick cemented the idea in our culture.  Neil Rushton has recently reiterated this interpretation in a posting on his ‘Dead but dreaming’ blog, Faeries in the Arthurian landscapein which he observes that:

“The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems.”

As Neil implies, when we think of fairies now we almost unconsciously and automatically conjure images of Arthurian knights and ladies and all the structures of precedence and privilege that go with them.  This is habit, but is it any more than that?

Fairy reign

We are very used, then, to thinking of Queen Mab and of Oberon and Titania.  But what need, though, do the faes really have of rulers?  In the Middle Ages, monarchs were required to perform several purposes within their simpler states:

  • to lead the people in armed conflict- as I have described previously, war amongst the fairies may jar with our conventional views of them, but the possibility is mentioned in a few sources and might therefore justify some sort of war chief;
  • to dispense justice- we are aware of no laws as such in Faery, although there are clearly codes of behaviour that they impose (upon humans at least) and the infringement of which (by humans) is subject to sanction.  Parallel with this distinct morality, there is a general atmosphere of unrestrained impulsiveness;
  • to organise society- it’s hard to tell what, if any, structure there is within fairy society.  If we regard them as nature spirits, then they are all at the level of worker bees, it would appear.  A few authorities have proposed hierarchies, although this normally seems to involve different forms of supernatural beings as against different ranks: see for example Geoffrey Hodson or two interviews with ‘Irish seers’ conducted by Evans-Wentz- one with George William Rusell (AE) and a second with an unnamed Mrs X of County Dublin (Fairy faith in Celtic countries pp.60-66 and 242-3).  You’ll see the differences in size in John Simmons’ painting below;
  • to act as some sort of religious leader or high priest(ess).  I explored the puzzling matter of fairy religion not long ago; it is an area of considerable doubt.

None of these functions seem especially essential to Faery as we generally conceive it.  Is the title of ‘queen’ therefore redundant, or at best merely a convenient honorary title?

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There sleeps Titania, by John Simmons

Secret commonwealth

Let’s consider the views of the Reverend Robert Kirk, who certainly seems to have been well placed to know what he was talking about.  Writing in the late 1680s, he titled his justly famous book The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies.  A ‘commonwealth’ can merely denote a nation state or polity, but it can also more narrowly have the meaning of ‘republic.’  Given that he cannot but have been aware of the English Parliamentary ‘Commonwealth’ that succeeded the execution of Charles I in 1649, I think it’s inescapable that this was the connotation intended by Kirk when he chose to describe his subject matter.  That seems undeniable when we read at the head of chapter 7 that “They are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love or Devotion towards God…  they disappear whenever they hear his Name invocked…”   We note Kirk’s belief in their aversion to church and religion, but also his conviction that they inhabit some sort of democracy regulated by rules of conduct of some description.

Rank or honour?

Perhaps those termed king and queen in Faery are simply those of the most distinguished character or the greatest magical power.  This was my conception of Queen Maeve in my story Albion awake!  In chapter 9, in response to being called Fairy Queen, Maeve replies:

“So you call me- but if I am a queen, I have no dominion.  I have powers, but I do not reign.  My people are a commonwealth- a secret commonwealth.”

Plainly I’ve stolen her phrase here!  Later she calls her people her ‘Nation Underground.’  I’ll let you track that reference down yourselves!

In conclusion, the main influence upon our conceptions of Faery as a stratified and monarchical society, with a royal family, a court, nobility and attendants, seems to be European society during the medieval period, channeled through contemporary literature.  Whether we are thinking of mythical Iron Age Ireland, Chaucer’s England or the France of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France, their aristocratic society provided a model that was unthinkingly imposed upon fairyland.  It seems unlikely that the ‘common folk’ necessarily shared this; indeed, a large number of fairies were independent and individual characters or were conceived as members of their own, very local community.  Should we continue to talk of kings and queens then, or is it simply habit?  Do the terms have anything to do with contemporary perceptions of fairy?  What do readers think?

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‘Queen Mab,’ Henry Meynell Rheam

Vampire fairies? some first thoughts

 

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Gothic Vampire Fairy Fantasy Fine Art Print by Molly Harrison ~ “Twilight Wandering”

I have written several times about fairy blights and the perils of contact with fairies.  I want in this post to draw your attention to a couple of references suggestive of an even more sinister aspect to the character of some fairies.

Breath

Firstly, a few lines from Shakespeare’s Comedy of errors.  In Act 2 scene 2 the character Dromio of Syracuse exclaims:

“This is the fairyland.  O! The spite of spites,/ We talk with goblins, owls and elvish sprites: If we obey them not, this will ensue, They’ll suck our breath, or pinch us black and blue.”

I hope many of you will be familiar (at least by now) with the idea of pinching as a regular punishment; it is a fairly harmless sanction for the relatively minor transgression of poor housekeeping. But, “suck our breath”? This is far more deadly sounding, and for many will conjure up thoughts of dementors in the Harry Potter series.  I think we have to assume that Shakespeare knew whereof he wrote in these lines: he seemed to draw on authentic folklore for much of his fairy material, so this presumably reflects something he’d encountered.

Blood

Then we have a chilling tale of fairy vampirism from the Highlands of Scotland.  Four hunters on the Braes of Lochaber stayed overnight in a bothy.  Shortly after each had lamented the absence of their girlfriends, the women entered the hut.  Whilst the others were in their lovers’ arms, one man was suspicious and held off his alleged sweetheart with his knife and by playing a (metal) Jew’s Harp.  The women disappeared at cockcrow; they had not been girls but glaistigs and his three companions lay dead, their throats cut and their bodies drained of blood.

In fact, Lewis Spence devoted a whole section of his book, The fairy tradition is Britain, to the subject of the ‘Vampirical attributes of fairies’ (chapter XIV, pp.268-269).  If fairies are indeed the dead, their desire for the lifeblood of mortals would make complete sense.  It was said in both Scotland and the Isle of Man that water was left out for the fairies overnight not so much as a courtesy, but to give them something to quench their thirsts so that they would not take the sleeper’s blood.  Consumption was believed in Scotland and Ireland to be the progressive result of such fairy bleeding.  In Cromarty it was believed that the ‘lady in green‘ carried her child from cottage to cottage at night, bathing it in the blood of the youngest inhabitant (Hugh Miller, Scenes and legends of the north of Scotlandp.15)  There are similar Highland tales of bird-like green women who crack bones and drink blood; there is, finally, a tale from Skye similar to that of the four men of Lochaber: eight girls tending cattle were attacked by an ‘old woman’ who sucked the blood of all but one.

Now, we know that some fay beasts exist solely to catch and consume hapless humans.  I have described kelpies and water bulls elsewhere.  The vampire-like faery maidens just described are somewhat different, and they are using their physical allure for novel ends.  Again, seduction by fays with a view to abduction to faery is a familiar enough theme, but this is gruesomely different.

vampire fairy

Further reading

This subject has also been examined on the strange history site..  In this article Beachcomber critically dissects Spence’s section on vampires in detail- and largely rejects the evidence he presents.  Readers can click the link and draw their own conclusions; my response is that the writer is correct in his case, but that he achieves this by his own manipulation of categories.  He criticises Spence for this but then isolates so-called ‘trooping fairies’ from other supernaturals when I think such hard and fast boundaries (although useful) are hard to maintain in individual cases.  In any event, the ‘trooping fairy’ is really an Irish and Highland concept and not something found in most of mainland Britain south of (?) Perth.  In addition, the line from the play indicates that there may be a little more substance to the idea of stealing the life force than Beachcomber had realised.

Have readers any other examples of vampirism to add?

Trevor brown

A vampire fairy by Trevor Brown

Eco-fairies- some thoughts

tarrant pink flower fairy

Margaret Tarrant, Pink flower fairy

Nowadays, the association between fairies and the natural world seems obvious and fundamental to their character.  I think this belief is relatively new and that it derives from two sources.

Nature spirits

Firstly, during the last century or so the conception has emerged of fairies as nature spirits, beings whose purpose is to motivate and to shape the processes of nature, most especially the growth of plants.  As such, it might be added, they tend to lose some of their individual personality and become incorporated into those natural systems themselves.

A rural community

The other origin of our idea of ‘nature fairies’ is a great deal older.  Human representations of faery kind have always tended to mirror our own society, hence to medieval people it seemed obvious that the fae would live in a world much like their own, with the same organisation and occupations.  There were fairy kings and queens, and the fairy court went out hunting deer with hounds.  In the Middle Ages, too, we all lived much closer to nature, far more in contact with the cycles of growth, with the seasons and with woods and wildlife.  The fairies accordingly were no different- and whilst human society has rapidly developed in recent centuries, our perceptions of faery have tended to remain rather more fixed.

Be that as it may, it seems right and proper to us that fairies should live in forests and be intimately associated with flowers, trees and springs.  I have discussed these associations in a couple of my own postings on plants and fairy authority Morgan Daimler has also written on aspects of this subject on her own blog.  Reading her thoughts sparked further musings of my own.

fairy dance in a clearing doyle

Richard Doyle, A fairy dance in a clearing.

Fairy rings

Morgan has written about fairy trees and about fairy rings.  She highlights some interesting points which I had overlooked or downplayed.  As is well known, the rings are linked to fairy dancing.  If you read a lot of the British poetry, especially that of the nineteenth century, you would get the impression that dancing in rings is, in fact, pretty much all that fairies do: it’s their defining characteristic, their main habit, their primary purpose or occupation even.  Here are a couple of examples of this genre of verse, which had international appeal:

  • Thomas Hood, English poet, described the fairies as night time revellers who emerge from their flowery chambers-

“With lulling tunes to charm the air serener/ Or dance upon the grass to make it greener.” (The Midsummer fairies)

  • American poet Paul Dunbar likewise pictured how: “nightly they fling their lanterns out, / And shout and shout, they join the rout,/ And sing and sing, within the sweet enchanted ring.”

Now, usually it is said that it is the passing of fairy feet that makes the marks, but Morgan ponders whether instead the fays are drawn to dance by the clearly visible mycelium circles in the grass rather than the causation being the other way round.   This certainly seems just as probable an explanation.

Charming as the sight of fairies tripping all in a circle might be, Morgan rightly emphasises that they are places of danger.  The rings should never be damaged and she  warns that spying on the dances, or joining in with them, may actually be perilous.  These circles may even be traps, she suggests, deliberately set to lure in humans and to abduct them forever- or for extended periods.  Morgan discusses too the disparity in the passage in time between faery and the mortal world; the captive dancer spins at a different rate to the human globe and may return to find their old life long passed.

Round about our coal fire

head piece to chapter VI, ‘Round about our coal fire,’ 1734

One thing is undeniable: and that is that fairies and mushrooms/ toadstools have become an inseparable pairing in the popular imagination.  The earliest example I’ve found is an illustration from the 1734 edition of Round about our coal fire, which incorporates all the key elements of the imagery (dancers, fly agaric, fairy knoll, moonlight).  Little has changed since, although arguably the connection was strengthened considerably during the middle of last century when (it seemed) almost every children’s illustrator produced some variation on the theme.  There are too many to reproduce, but the example by Florence Anderson below repeats many of the key motifs.  The idea has been ramified in various directions too: the poet Madison Cawein, for example, saw toadstools as pixy houses and also imagined “The vat like cups of fungus, filled/ With the rain that fell last night” (Pixy wood).  It’s said in Welsh folklore that the parasol mushrooms act as umbrellas to keep the fairies’ dance-sites dry (Robin Gwyndaf in Narvaez, Good people, 1991).

anderson fairy revels

Florence Mary Anderson, ‘Fairy revels’

Fairy trees

On the subject of fairy trees, Morgan examines the possibility that at least some fairies are tree spirits (or dryads) before turning to look at trees which simply have fairy associations.  As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the question as to whether fairies are plants, or live in plants, or simply prefer to frequent glades and meadows is still a matter of debate.  I have a particular attachment to the old lady of the elder tree, so I was fascinated to read that in Ireland elder sap is believed to grant a second sight of the fairy rade.  Elders and hawthorns both have strong fairy associations and their heady, musky, green sappy scents certainly serve as a sort of incense for me.  Morgan also notes the dual role of the rowan- a spray of foliage can act as a charm against fairy intrusion but also as a means of seeing the good neighbours passing.  I’ve discussed this in another post, but it’s a good example of the ‘contrary’ nature of many fairy things.

Finally, I’ve been flicking through my copy of Evans-Wentz’ Fairy faith in Celtic countries again and I noticed an intriguing little fairy tree fact.  On page 176 he discusses the Cornish fairy that haunts the rock outcrop known as the Newlyn Tolcarne.  The manner in which this spirit was summoned was to pronounce a charm whilst holding three dried leaves in your hand.  These were one each from an ash, an oak and a thorn.  Now, as some of you may instantly cry out: that’s the exclamation used by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck in Puck of Pook’s Hill (and in ‘Tree song‘ in the chapter in the book, Weland’s Forge).  This story predates Evans-Wentz by just a few years, and it seems unlikely that either the old nurse to whom this story is ascribed, or Mr Maddern, a Penzance architect,  who tells it, are likely to be recycling Kipling’s story.  I’m not aware that Kipling ever visited Penwith, so that there’s at least some basis to suppose that these might be traces of a very ancient belief, surviving in both Sussex and Cornwall.  Morgan debates in her recent book Fairies (pp.176-8) whether or not this is an authentic tradition or is one example of a trend she identifies for popular culture to create folklore: if the Cornish example is genuine and is not just the architect mixing up something he’d recently read with something his nurse told him decades earlier, then it seems that ‘oak, ash and thorn’ is far older than Morgan suspected.

frontispiece

The frontispiece to Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1908

Further reading

See too Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.

Hand charms and faery

enchantment

Henry Justice Ford, The enchantment, 

The above image is an illustration to the ‘Story of Ciccu’ in Andrew Lang’s Pink fairy book of 1897.  Henry Justice Ford chose to illustrate a scene in which three sleeping brothers are endowed with gifts by three fairy women who come upon them.  You will observe the fairies’ curious hand gestures.

These put me in mind of lines from Tennyson’s poem Merlin and Vivien, which forms part of his Idylls of the King.  The young woman, Vivien/ Nimue, wishes to learn the elderly magician’s skills from him, especially one charm of “woven paces and waving hands.”  She slowly wears him down with promises of her love until he is “overtalked and overworn” and, against his better judgment, tells her the charm she wishes so much to know.  Almost immediately she employs it to imprison him for infinity in an oak tree.

In both these examples we have fairy women “waving hands” to cast spells.  I know that various individual gestures and movements  have magical or spiritual power.  These are very often now labelled in Hindi ‘mudras’ and ‘bandhas’- terms borrowed from yoga practice when surely there must be native equivalents (?).  I have been able to find less about series of gestures with both hands at once.  It appears that the technique may involve creating certain significant or powerful shapes, or tracing certain signs in the air. Mostly what I have encountered relates to static positions, rather than to the  “waving of hands” described by Nimue.

Can readers add to this? Has anyone encountered other faery examples of this practice?

Further reading

Other ways of working charms and/ or acquiring or wielding fairy magic include fern seed, spell books, incantations and other verbal charms, ointment and simple touch.

‘A geography of trees’- wood elves in myth and popular culture

 

Female_HalfElf

“… like a wind out of fairy-land
Where little people live
Who need no geography
But trees.”           (Hilda Conkling [1910-86], Geography, 1920)

Today probably most people, if asked, would imagine elves and fairies gambolling in a woodland setting.  This appears to have become a very strong convention within our popular visual culture, yet it is not traditional to British fairy lore (despite a few links between fairies and particular trees, most notably in Gaelic speaking areas where the fairy thorn has particular power and significance- see for examples poems of this name by Samuel Ferguson and Dora Sigerson Shorter). I wish therefore in this posting to examine how this prevalent image came about.

Shakespeare

Although the fairy king Oberon is met in a forest in the thirteenth century romance epic Huon of Bordeuax, but I believe the primary source of our close association between fairies and forests is Shakespeare, both the ‘wood near Athens’ which features in Midsummer night’s dream and in which Titania, Oberon, Puck and the other fairies make their home, and the open woodland of Windsor Great Park that features in the Merry Wives of Windsor and which is the scene of Falstaff’s believed encounter with the fairy queen and her train.  Whilst their ultimate roots may lie with the dryads and hamadryads of classical myth, it was these theatrical presentations of fairies that first really fixed the woodland elf in the English speaking public’s imagination.  Much subsequent literature and visual art has cemented the pairing to the extent that it appears inevitable, but there is little trace of it in older sources or in British folklore.

British fairy homes

The British fairy, according to older writers, could be found in a variety of locations.  They frequented mountains, caverns, meadows and fields, fountains, heaths and greens, hills and downland, groves and woods.  Generally, they were more likely to be found in ‘wild places.’ Residence underground- whether in caves or under hills- is a commonly featured preference and I have often mentioned the presence of fairies under knolls and barrows.  Woods feature in these sources, it’s perfectly true, but they are far from the most commonly mentioned locations.  (I have considered here Reginald Scot, Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy, Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares and a few medieval texts.)  The South English legendary of the thirteenth or fourteenth century is especially interesting reading in this connection: elves are seen, we are informed, “by daye much in wodes… and bi nightes ope heighe dounes…”- in other words, they frequent woods during the day (presumably for concealment from human eyes) but resort to open hill tops at night for their revelries.

A particularly relevant source is the Welsh minister, the Reverend Edmund Jones. In his 1780 history of the superstitions of Aberystruth parish he recorded the contemporary views locally on the most likely locations for seeing fairies.  They did not like open, plain or marshy places, he reported, but preferred those that were dry and near to or shaded by spreading branches, particularly those of hazel and oak trees (The appearance of evil, para.56).  Jones’ description fits the open oak parkland of Windsor perfectly, where Falstaff is duped by those merry wives and their gang of children disguised as elves.  It’s also notable that Wirt Sikes in his British goblins locates the Welsh elves (ellyllon) in groves and valleys.  In Wales at least, then, an open wooded landscape was believed in popular tradition to be the fairies’ preferred habitat.

EnchantedForest_Fitzgerald

John Anster Fitzgerald, The enchanted forest

Woodland fays

Woods were one of the favoured resorts for the fairy folk, then, but not their sole preserve.  It seems to be in Victorian times that woodland elves became the cliche that we encounter today.  I have (for better or ill) read a lot of Victorian fairy verse and certain stereotyped images are very well worn: moonlight, dancing in rings, woodland glades.  Here are just a few examples to indicate what you’ll see ad nauseam.  The connection begins to appear in the eighteenth century (see for example the “fairy glade” of Sir James Beattie’s The minstrel and The palace of fortune by Sir William Jones, 1769). References multiply throughout the next hundred years and into the last century: the “sylvan nook where fairies dwell” of Janet Hamilton’s Pictures of memory; Ann Radcliffe’s “woodlands dear” and “forest walks” in Athlin and The glow-worm; the “woodways wild” of Madison Julius Cawein’s Prologue and the “fairy wood” in his Elfin; the “woodland fays” that appear in George Pope Morris’ Croton Mode.  By then well-established, these fays persisted into the twentieth century, in “some dark and mystic glade” of Tennessee Williams’ Under April rain or the “nymphs of a dark forest” of Edna St Vincent Millay.  All of this imagery transferred to the visual arts, too, especially to the illustrations of children’s books.

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, ‘The fairy way’

Tolkien’s elves

Once this image was embedded in the culture, it proved almost impossible to eradicate.  J. R. R. Tolkien absorbed it and the Silvan or Wood Elves of Lord of the Rings are the result; Galadriel is one of the Galadhrim (the tree people) of Lorien.  Tolkien’s influence in recent decades has been extensive and powerful.  An example might be Led Zeppelin, whose own highly influential Stairway to heaven invokes images of fairyland where “the forests shall echo with laughter.”  The pervasive idea was that the natural habitat of the fairy is the forest.

It might not be inappropriate to conclude with more lines from infant prodigy Hilda Conkling.  In If I could tell you the way she described how-

“Down through the forest to the river
I wander…
Fairies live here;
They know no sorrow.
Birds, winds,
They are the only people.
If I could tell you the way to this place,
You would sell your house and your land
For silver or a little gold,
You would sail up the river,
Tie your boat to the Black Stone,
Build a leaf-hut, make a twig-fire,
Gather mushrooms, drink spring-water,
Live alone and sing to yourself
For a year and a year and a year!”

MWT-G3804-330 Fairies Market

Margaret Tarrant, The fairies market, 1921

Further reading

For a wider consideration of the relationship between fays and trees, see Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.

 

 

Fairy taboos- reflections on some posts by Morgan Daimler

watching the fairies, beatrice goldsmith

Beatrice Goldsmith, Watching the fairies, 1925

On her blog Living liminally, Morgan has written a useful series of posts giving guidelines to interaction between humans and faery.  I encourage readers to have a look at these and also at my own post on fairy temperament.  I’ll only offer a few supplementary remarks here.

Thanking fairies

Morgan’s first fairy taboo is never to say thank you.  This isn’t just a matter of avoiding verbal gratitude: gifts to fairies that acknowledged some obligation- or even suggest some reciprocity may exist between our two worlds- are as likely to offend.  I have mentioned before the inadvisability of giving clothes to brownies– this can at the very least drive them away, at the worst antagonise them to such a degree that become a blight upon a household.

Privacy

Morgan’s second post is on the taboo of privacy, something that is clearly closely related to the former.  All the evidence confirms that discretion in respect of fairy contact is the only advisable approach: they do not like boasting or talkativeness on the part of humans.  Perhaps it suggests that they are taken for granted; it certainly betrays their own secrecy and privacy.  As I have alluded to several times, disclosure by a person that they are favourites of the fairies almost invariably results in the termination of that favour.

Names

The proper and respectful use of names is the third taboo Morgan has covered.  Fairies’ names are a source of power and must be handled circumspectly.  As a rule it is better to avoid references that may draw their attention to you; if the fairies must be mentioned, euphemisms that are complimentary seem to be preferable.  As Morgan rightly observes, some of the labels chosen are merely descriptive, whether of the appearance of the supernatural being or of the location in which s/he is found; this neutral approach may well be safest.  It’s also worth emphasising, as she does in a separate post on the power of names, that keeping back your own name from the fairies is just as important (something illustrated by the Ainsel series of stories, such as that of Meg Moulach).  Fairies withhold their names from us to stop us getting power over them and the reverse is just as true; put simply, if they have a grievance against you, it’s harder for them to find you if they don’t have your name!  Nonetheless, I’ve always felt rather uncomfortable about this strand of thought about the fays.  On the one hand it seems to suggest that humans are cleverer than their good neighbours and that a bit of cunning can outwit them or can trick them into betraying their names themselves.  At the same time, it introduces an element of deceit into the relationship, a want of openness and honesty that runs directly counter to other precepts on promoting good relations with fairies.

Food

Most recently Morgan has discussed food taboos and fairies.  This is a complex area: partaking of food (much like joining in a fairy dance) can be a way of succumbing to their magic.  At the same time, the faes often seem dependent upon human provisions (whether these are acquired as offerings or stolen).  As I’ve debated before, quite whether some of these gifts these represent propitiation or some sort of bargain is never wholly clear.  What we can say for certain is that they particularly like to consume dairy produce such as cream.

Etiquette

In a separate post dated May 4th 2017 Morgan makes the interesting suggestion that our past use of fairy as a derogatory term denoting a loose woman or a gay man might be the cause of our Good Neighbours’ dislike for the word.  This is certainly a very interesting suggestion; I had tended to see it the other way round: that the sense of unashamed and uninhibited sexuality on the part of the fairies was transferred to human conduct, but became derogatory in the process.

Generally, Morgan places considerable stress upon proper etiquette in our relations with the fair folk.  As I’ve repeated myself here and in several other posts, this is eminently good advice.  Given that they are a powerful people, mostly hidden from us and working to their own undisclosed agenda, conduct that propitiates or, at the very least, does not antagonise the fae surely is the only sensible course of action.