‘Up Hill and Down Dale’- Pixy-Led in the West Country: a study of pixy tricks

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Robert Anning Bell, The Will of the Wisp

Deliberate leading astray is a fairy habit almost exclusively found in South West Britain.  It is reported about as often in Cornwall and Devon, with about twenty-five per cent of cases taking places in other counties (Dorset and Somerset) and slightly fewer in Wales.  Because it is primarily a phenomenon of South-West England, I will use the term pixie-led as a label for the process.

Here I’m only going to describe those fairy beings who, amongst their other activities, enjoy misleading humans.  Those supernaturals that appear as moving lights and whose sole function is to mislead- wills of the wisp, Jack o’ Lanterns, Goblin Lanterns and such like- will not be my concern here.  This reflects a fairly clear subdivision of types, but it is not perfect or binding.  Pucks and Pooks in England and South Wales can often appear in all respects like a will of the wisp, although we know them to be more complex characters in addition to this (see for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, 23).

History

Pixie-leading is a longstanding fairy practice that is well attested in literature.  It can be traced back to the early fourteenth century.  Jeremy Harte in Exploring Fairy Traditions (p.26) records a preacher’s sermon that describes one who has been “led at nyght with gobelyn, and erreth hider and thider.”  The references multiply from the seventeenth century, for example from Francis Rous, who in his religious text Meditations of Instruction of 1616 compared those who pursue material wealth to:

“they [that] shall stumble into the same ditches, wherein they have seene many of their neighbours wallowing.  This makes sport for the divel, and thus is man most truly fayry-led, even led aside by the spirits of darknesse…”

In an identical tone, Thomas Heyrick, in The New Atlantis of 1687, mentioned those who “Vainly like wilder’d men should wander round/ Be lost in senceless shapes on fairy ground” (p.51).  Likewise, Beaumont and Fletcher in their play Wit at Several Weapons (c.1620), have a character complain:

“My ways are goblin led and the night elf still draws me from my home.” (II, 2)

Writing in the first half of the 1600s, poet Robert Herrick, a Devonshire parson, advised:

“If ye feare to be affrighted

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your Pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

Christopher Clobbery, who wrote in 1659, warned of “fairy elves who thee mislead … in to the mire, then at thy folly smile/ Yea, clap their hands for joy.”  The remedy he advised was simple: “Old country folk, who pixie-leading fear/ Bear bread about them, to prevent harm.”

In the English Midlands, we know from Jabez Allies that you were not pixie-led but ‘poake-ledden,’ something which seems to be confirmed by the experience of Bishop Richard Corbet (author of the poem Rewards and Fairies), who became lost near Bosworth in 1640.  He and his party were advised then to “Turne your cloakes/ … for Pucke is busy in these oakes./  If ever wee at Bosworth will be found/ Then turn your cloakes, for this is fairy ground.”

What is Pixie-Leading?

To be pixie-led is a very well-known phrase, but what does it actually entail?  There are, in fact, at least half a dozen different experiences which are classed under this heading.

Changing the landscape or hiding the path

Using glamour so that the human victim no longer recognises where they are is the commonest way to confuse and lead astray a person.  A few accounts will exemplify this: Once a Week magazine in 1867 reported how a young farmer was pixie-led one evening in an orchard, where he was trapped for two hours.  In a Welsh incident, two young women returning to Llandysul from Lampeter fair were led in a field next to their home.  They were lost for hours on a bright moonlit night, yards from their house.  Lastly, a Cornish man called Glasson, making the short walk from Ludgvan to Gulval near Penzance, got completely lost and went in circles.  In all these cases, and more, a familiar place became strange; land marks disappeared and panic set in.

Hiding Gates

Sometimes, the change made is to conceal the gate out of a field.  Often, again, the enclosed space is very familiar to the victim and the moon may be shining, but the means of escape seems to vanish.  To add to this, in several Cornish accounts the pixies also frustrate their victims’ attempts to get free by raising the field hedge whenever he finds a lower part he might have been able to climb over (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.1, p.57 and Enys Tregarthen, Folklore Tales, ‘The Enchanted Field’ (1911)).

In one case, something similar happened inside a house.  A Welsh man woke up to see fairies in his bedroom dancing and eating.  He tried to wake his wife, but couldn’t, and for four hours just had to watch the festivities.  Eventually, the fairies left and he got out of bed to try to see where they had gone.  However, he couldn’t find the bedroom door; it was only when he cried out in panic and woke the rest of his family that the spell was broken.  For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.

Mist and Fog

The pixies are known for their ability to control the weather and this can be used as a way of trapping victims.  Men travelling across Dartmoor from Crediton to Exeter were advised that, if a cloud descended, they should strip and sit on their clothes for half an hour or so.  The pixies would in due course raise the fog thrown around them.  Patience is evidently important in such cases.  A woman on the Quantocks became demented with terror when the pixies caused an evening mist to rise suddenly around her, so that she was lost in a field minutes away from her home.  For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.

Music

The pixies may lure people away from their route with music, thereby getting them lost.  This has been reported in Devon and in North Wales.

Fairy Rings

Just as a person may become trapped in a familiar field, they may step into a fairy ring and fall into the fairies’ power.  A Somerset farmer coming home from market was led like this until he ended up exhausted by a briar bush that grew in three counties- a plant which magical properties that seems to have broken the spell he was under.  Cornish fairy author Enys Tregarthen has called rings ‘Spriggan Traps.’

Perhaps related to this phenomenon is that of following a ‘piskey-path.’  Enys Tregarthen also described how these mysterious green paths can be seen on cliffs or meandering across the moors, still verdant when the bracken is dry and brown.  Writing in 1630 in his View of Devonshire, Thomas Westcote mentioned how a person who got lost on Dartmoor would be “led in a pixy-path.”  Here there is some definite, if unclear, link between these paths and being pixie-led.

Never Arriving

In one Cornish story a man called Nicholas Annear was punished by the pixies for always rushing and hurrying.  One day, he set out for market with his horse and cart.  The pixies made it appear that the church tower at his destination was ahead, but he never got there.  He drove his cart all day and never arrived.

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Alan Lee

Pixie Motives

Who do they pixies do this?  They seem to have several motivations.  Above all, there’s their love of mischief; they need no reason as such, other than the pleasure in mildly tormenting humans.  However, they may feel the person needs to be punished for some reason (as in the case of Nicholas Annear above).  If they have been insulted by a person, s/he will be targeted in revenge.  For example, a North Yorkshire man who declared that he’d catch a fairy in a bottle was led astray for two hours as a result of his foolhardy boldness.  Someone who has taken the fairies’ property will suffer too.  A man from Bishop’s Lydeard in the Quantock Hills picked up a fairy grindstone as he was out walking and decided to keep it.  A mist descended upon him and he was led through brambles all night.  A woman from Selworthy parish on the Exmoor coast of Somerset saw a group of pixies; they were so upset by her intrusion that they led her all over the moor and through the woods. Any trespass upon the fairies’ privacy is bitterly resented.

An isolated example of retribution for trespass comes from Orkney, at the diametrically opposite end of the British Isles to Devon and Cornwall, where most of the accounts are located.  In Redland parish on the mainland of Orkney there was a grass ‘gait’ (or path) used by the trows when passing from their hill to the sea shore at twilight.  Two men in search of a midwife crossed the path one evening; for this disrespectful act one of them was led far astray by the trows.

Pixie Pleasures

Predictably, the pixie attitude to leading someone out of their way is great amusement.  They are often said to be heard laughing or, even, clapping their hands with glee.  They might sometimes be seen jumping about in front of the victim, mocking their situation (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 184).  A clear indication of the blurring of differences between wills of the wisp and pixie-leading fairies is a description of the Dorset Jack o’ Lantern, who is seen as a ball of light hopping before a person and which sniggers and laughs if a victim is successfully lured into a pond; something very similar was described in Cornish story by Enys Tregarthen (Why Jen Pendogget Changed his Mind (1940)).

Human Responses

As for the human victims, how do they react?  Inevitably, they will end up exhausted, frustrated and panic-stricken.  They are often said in Cornwall to be left “mizzy-mazey” (Enys Tregarthen, The Enchanted Field).  In Devon, the victim is said to be ‘mazed’ as a result, a neat term that is suggestive of being both amazed and lost (in a maze).

The consequences of being pixie-led can be much more serious, though.  We’ve heard about terror and a loss of wits.  A man who was pixie-led on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset had to be rescued after he was lured into a bog.  He was ill for quite some time after this experience.  A Devonshire man crossing Dartmoor near Chudleigh was pixie-led by the sound of music.  He wandered for hours, trying to locate the source, and eventually collapsed in a faint.  When he came round the next morning, he was able to make his way home, but he took to his bed, never rose again and soon afterwards died.  In like manner a Welsh man, John Jacob of Bedwellty, was led astray by the fairies one night, following shapes that appeared and then vanished.  At last he came to a neighbour’s house and was saved, but he was rendered mute by the experience and soon sickened and died.

Remedies

If you are pixie-led, what can you do to free yourself?  There are several tried and tested remedies.

Turning your clothes

The best known and easiest remedy is to turn an item of clothing- a hat might be turned back to front or a coat, pocket, glove or stocking might be turned inside out.  It seems likely that this is effective because it changes your appearance and throws the pixies off the scent or releases you from the enchantment that traps you in a fairy ring.  Wise travellers turn their clothes before they set out, so that they will be safe from enchantment throughout their journey.  It’s worth adding, though, that in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Who Rode in a Pocket, the pixie’s presence in the victim’s clothing is the cause of their wandering astray- and the spell is only broken when she turns her pockets, thereby ejecting the mischievous passenger.

Making a Noise

Attracting the attention of other people who’ve not fallen under the pixie spell will work.  This is effective in two ways.  Either the rescuer calls out in reply to help guide the victim to safety or the pixie-led person makes a noise which attracts rescuers to where she or he is stranded.  For instance, Abraham Stocke in Somerset had said that he had no time for pixies.  They led him into a swamp one night when he was walking home from brass band practice.  Luckily, he had his euphonium with him and was able to play it to alert his family and guide them to him.  A person simply coming along and startling the victim out of their bemusement can often be enough to release them (for examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies).

Other Remedies

It can help to carry something with you to protect yourself against pixie charms during your travels.  This could be a cross made from rowan wood, a piece of bread (as we’ve seen already) or a sprig of the plant greater stitchwort.  Rowan, or mountain ash, are also well-known for repelling supernaturals beings of all kinds (witches included).  The stitchwort is more unusual and seems to be a uniquely Devonian remedy.  The flower is called ‘pixies’ in the county and it is believed to be the special property of the pixies. Picking it will upset them, but apparently carrying it with you somehow has the effect of deflecting rather than attracting their ill-will.

Water (as often) can release the bewildered person.  Drinking the water from Fitz’s Well, near Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, dispels the glamour cast by the local pixies.  Apparently any running water may have the same effect and, in fact, it is possible that falling in a stream might be sufficient to break the spell.

Summary & Further Reading

Pixie-leading is only really something to be concerned about if you’re out walking in unfamiliar places in Cornwall or Devon.  The open moors are the likeliest locations, places where getting lost is, in any case, a considerable risk unless you’re well equipped with a map and compass.  Outside this area, it is a remote risk: as we’ve seen from the folklore, there are only isolated cases from North Wales, North Yorkshire and Orkney.

In many ways, as I’ve described, the fairies can treat humans like their playthings and pixie-leading is one of the most acute examples of this.  Unlike abductions, though, it is generally a very short-term and harmless experience.  People can occasionally be led to perilous spots, such as marshes or cliff tops, and a few react very seriously to the stress of the experience, but for most it is an annoyance and a bit of a fright, but no more.

For another examination of the subject, see Simon Young’s article Pixy Led in Devon and the South West, which is available through Academia.com.  I have, of course, read this, but in writing this posting I deliberately sought to reach my own conclusions based on the evidence that I had uncovered.  Simon had access to a range of other sources and therefore reaches other useful conclusions on the subject.  My posting on Glamour Houses deals with a related phenomenon, though admittedly a deception by the fairies undertaken for benign purposes.

 

 

 

‘Adar Rhiannon’- fairy birds

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Adar Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

In Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins you will find the story of Shon ap Shenkin:

“Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin [in Carmarthenshire]. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning, he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farm-house which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never before seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. ‘What do I want here?’ ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; ‘that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?’ ‘In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?’ ‘Under the tree!-music! what’s your name?’ ‘Shon ap Shenkin.’ ‘Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!’ cried the old man. ‘I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.’ With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.” (Sikes pp.92-94)

In several respects this is a typical story about the differential passage of time in Faery and the mortal risks faced by a human returning home.  Such accounts date back to King Herla in the Middle Ages.  Of course, Shon is not aware of any journey to Faery at all; he simply sat in the shade by the roadside, but somehow was transported from this world.

However, what interests me in the tale are two of the details- the tree and the bird.  The tree is said to be a sycamore, which is unusual; it would not have surprised me to learn that it was a hawthorn (or perhaps an elder).  These are notorious fairy trees with which the Good Folk and magical properties have always been closely associated; sycamores don’t seem to have these traditional associations.

The other feature is the bird.  I have discussed the faery nature of certain insects (bees and moths) and fairies fleeing a human’s presence have not infrequently been compared to birds, but the evidence of a fairy nature is much harder to find in the fairylore of the British Isles.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

Scraps of evidence are present, nonetheless.  Evans Wentz mentions Breton fairies who take the form of ducks, swans and magpies (an especially significant bird in British folklore) whilst in Ireland fairies and some of the goddesses of the Tuatha de Danaan appear as crows.  (Fairy Faith pp.200 & 305-7)  From the Isle of Man, there is a fascinating little story about a notorious fairy woman whose beauty was deadly to local men.  She would bewitch them with her charms and then lead groups of them together int the sea, where they drowned.  The people resolved to end this slaughter and plotted to catch and kill her.  To escape, the fairy took the form of a wren.  She survived, but every New Year’s Day she must become a wren once more and face being hunted and killed in a traditional January 1st ceremony.

Lastly, as Sikes himself records, there is the ancient Welsh legend of the Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon). Rhiannon is one of the goddesses or fairy women of Welsh myth.  Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep.”  In a clear sign of their magical or faery nature, the birds can be remote but sound as if they are very near.

This legend appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). Seven men only had escaped from a large force that had followed King Bran across the sea to fight the Irish.  Bran himself had died of his wounds, but had commanded the survivors to cut off his head and bury it under Tower Hill in London. On their way there, the men paused at Harlech in North Wales to rest and feast. Three birds came and began singing to them so sweetly that all the songs they had ever heard before seemed unpleasant in comparison.  The feast and birdsong were so enchanting, they remained listening for seven years.  (see Sikes p.2 and Evans Wentz pp.329 & 334)

The sweetness of song and the dislocation of time (for a period of years of considerable magical significance) are found in the Welsh myth just as in the story of Sion ap Senkin.  It seems clear from these scattered remnants that there was once a much completer knowledge of the nature and powers of faery birds, something that we have sadly lost with the passage of the years.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

For more on fairy animals generally, see my recently published book Faery.

 

Underground, Overground

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In this post I look at one of the places with which fairies are often associated- ancient sites– and then consider exactly how they are linked to these monuments.

Barrows and Standing Stones

There is a very longstanding link between faeries, megalithic structures and ancient burial tumuli.  Its exact nature, nevertheless, is a little hazy.  It’s not always clear if the faes are merely present at these sites from time to time (usually to dance) or whether they actually reside at- or under- them.

For example, at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, the faeries have been seen dancing- but also disappearing down a hole by the King Stone- implying that they were accessing their underground home by that route.  The Hurle Stane, near Chillingham in Northumberland, was a well-known site of faery assemblies.

On the Isle of Arran, faeries meet at the various stone circles on the island, but are especially closely linked to the megalithic complex at Machrie Moor: one of the stone circles here is a double ring called Fion-gal’s Cauldron Seat.  A faery or brownie was said to live below it- who was propitiated by pouring milk into a hole in the side of one of the stones.

suidhe core fhionn
Suidhe Coire Fhionn, Machrie Moor

It isn’t just single or grouped standing stones, though.  Prehistoric barrows also have very strong faery associations.  The round barrow at Carn Gluze, St Just, Cornwall, is the place of faery dances and burning lights at night.  A long barrow at Butcombe in Somerset is called the Fairy Toot; another barrow in the same county at Stoke Courcy is known as the Pixies’ Mound and another on Beaulieu Heath in Hampshire is called the Pixies’ Cave.  All these names strongly imply that our Good Neighbours were known to live beneath the mounds.  I have very often noted the presence of faes beneath natural ‘knolls’ or ‘knowes,’ so it makes sense for them to take up residence in man-made features too.  Many such sites are recognised in Scotland, too, often being sitheans (places were the sith people live).  Examples are found at Fowlis Wester, Perth (a barrow and stone circle), Carmylie, Forfar and at Kinross.

Part and parcel of this group of ideas is an instinctive respect- even reverence- that many people have had for ancient sites in their vicinity.  An Elgin man called Andro Man was accused in 1649 of setting up a standing stone and taking off his bonnet to it.  He insisted to the kirk presbytery that it was merely a boundary marker, but they made him break up the monolith all the same.  What’s most impressive about this case is how very late an expression of respect for menhirs this was.  Older beliefs were still found amongst rural populations until comparatively recently, though.  George Tyack, in his 1899 book on The Lore and Legend of the English Church, noted a belief on the Isle of Man that, if you pastured your sheep amidst a ‘druidic’ circle, the flock was bound to succumb to disease.  In his Second Manx Scrapbook, Walter Gill mentioned standing stones at Germans and Michael on the island that are called ‘white ladies’ and which were white washed to emphasise their ghostly significance.  ‘White ladies’ are most commonly spirits associated with springs and streams, so this is a fascinating merger of ideas.

The reason for treating stones respectfully is simple: if you fail to, the fairies using or living at the sites will have their revenge.  In British Goblins, Wirt Sikes tells the story of a Dark Age inscribed pillar standing on a tumulus at Banwan Bryddin, near Neath, which was removed by Lady Mackworth to adorn a grotto she was constructing in the grounds of her home.  Her workmen were unhappy over this, because the mound was well known to be a faery site, but the Lady had her way.  Soon after the grotto was completed, a terrible storm raged over the Neath Valley and a landslip completely buried her expensive new grotto.  The tylwyth teg had spoken.

AR fairy market

Faery Hillocks

As I have described, the faeries took up residence in barrows and other ancient sites found in prominent and/ or raised places- hillforts and other enclosures- because they were already familiar with living in distinctive or isolated hills.  Take, for example, a conical hill with a flat top near Strachar called Sian Sluai, the fairy hill of the host (sluagh); the home of the fairy queen at sith-chaillin near Fortingal, Perth; the many sioth-duns (fairy hills) around Buchanan, Perth, or the conical knoll called Harry’s Hill (Tom Eanraic) near Ardesier in Inverness, where the fairies met at night and where changeling children would be left overnight, in the hope of retrieving the stolen human baby.

Across Britain, in fact, fairies have been seen dancing on hills and disappearing into hills.  It is wholly unsurprising, therefore, to discover that many of the healers who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made their contact with the faes in hilly places.

Katharine Jonesdochter of Orkney in 1616 described how she saw the trows “on the hill called Greinfall at monie sindrie tymes.” Thomas Leys of Aberdeen, and his lover Elspeth Reid, told their 1597 trial that they knew of a hill where they could raise a spirit in any likeness they chose.  Katherine Ross said in 1590 that she “wald gang in Hillis to speik to the elf folk.”  John Stewart of Irvine regularly met with the fairies at Halloween on top of two hills near to the town (1618).  Isobel Haldane, from Perth, was carried from her bed one night to “ane hill-syde: the hill oppynit and scho enterit in” (1623).  Katharine Caray wandered amongst the hills of Caithness “at the doun going of the sun [and] ane great number of fairie men mett her” (1616).

From what we can tell, the faeries lived in prehistoric sites on hills; I’ll give a few examples from Wales.  The Iron Age hill fort known as Bryn y Pibion is definitely a faery dwelling, as it features in a ‘midwife’ story; the headland of Dinllain, defended by ancient earthworks, was a place for fairy dancing, after which they would raise a sod of earth and descended underground.  Another midwife attended a fairy birth here too.  Fairies gathered at the hillfort of Moeddin dressed in green to celebrate Mayday and, lastly, the prominent rock known as Ynys Geinon was connected to Craig y Nos castle by an underground passage, which the fairies reached by descending a golden ladder.

Conclusion

To conclude, therefore, we seem to have a double conjunction of associations.  The faeries were drawn to and lived beneath ancient stones and mounds; if those were also raised on hills- so much the better, as with the barrow called the Fairy Hillock at Carmylie in Forfar, which stands on the top of a hill.

‘Seek and you shall not find’- chance in fairy encounters

girl & Fs

Is it feasible to go searching for fairies?  Many authorities on the subject say not.  Janet Bord, in Fairies- Encounters with Little People, wrote that:

“Very often, people who see fairies come across them suddenly and unexpectedly; certainly they are not thinking about them at the time of the encounter. It may be that a certain detachment of mind may be a prerequisite to having what is clearly some kind of psychic experience, and the lone traveller is well placed to be in a receptive condition.” (p.35)

Seventeenth century antiquary John Aubrey agreed with this modern opinion.  He wrote in his Natural History of Wiltshire that:

“indeede it is saide they seldom appeare to any persons who go to seeke for them.”

The fairies choose whether and when to reveal themselves to mortals, appearing and disappearing at will.

In light of these comments, it’s very interesting to note an aspect of supernatural belief from the Scottish Highlands.  A very useful charm against fairy magic is the herb called mothan in Gaelic (pearlwort), but for it to be effective it had to be gathered “gun iarraidh” (‘without searching’- literally, ‘without asking’).  Another authority on Highland folklore confirms this, recording that another plant used to protect livestock from fairy blight, St John’s Wort, had to be picked whilst repeating the following charm:

“Unsearched for and unsought/ For luck of sheep I pluck thee.”

Lastly, Cornish fairy writer Enys Tregarthen, in her 1911 story Hunting Fairies, indicates that a human will never find pixie gold by deliberately searching for it.  Having failed to locate treasure by watching for pixies digging, her character Carveth throws away his pick axe carelessly.  He is told to dig wherever it happens to fall- and by this means he finds a crock of coins.

What can we learn from these scraps of information?  As we know very well, the fairies are a secretive and private people who don’t like to be intruded or spied upon.  We can’t petition them, praying for them to give us things or to make our wishes come true. They may choose for their own reasons to do this for those they decide to favour, but they aren’t to be begged or imprecated.  They are in control, over those whom they help and those to whom they reveal themselves.

It’s all about luck, therefore.  Randomness rules.  If you hunt them- they’ll elude you; if you take what comes- you may be rewarded.

b'fast Fs

Wedgwood Fairyland

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I have argued before that faery has had a profound influence on many aspects of culture, especially in the visual arts.  I have illustrated my posts with a wide range of images, from oil paintings to postcards, but not previously ceramics.  However, pottery also proved a popular vehicle for fairy imagery, from the ‘Boo-Boos’ of Mabel Lucie Attwell to some very high quality pieces produced by the famous Wedgwood company.

‘Fairyland lustre ware’ is one of Wedgwood’s best-known (and most highly collectable) ceramic ranges. It was the project of one designer, Daisy Makeig-Jones.  The contemporary fashion was for geometric Art Deco designs, but Jones’ work seemed  to  appeal to a public wearied and depressed by the First World War.

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The Artist

Susannah Margaretta ‘Daisy’ Makeig-Jones (1881–1945) was born in Wath-upon-Dearne near Rotherham, Yorkshire, the eldest of seven children. As a child, she was taught by a governess at home before attended a boarding school near Rugby, where her artistic talent was identified and encouraged. When her family moved to Torquay, she entered the town’s school of art. She then moved to London to live with an aunt whilst attending Chelsea art school.

Jones wanted to develop an independent career as an artist but had to wait until her late twenties to realise this.  An introduction from a relative to the managing director of Wedgwood encouraged in Jones the hope that she might train to become a ceramic designer. She was immediately enthusiastic about this idea and wrote to Wedgwood, who were at first reluctant.  To become a successful designer she would first have to learn the basic principles and processes of ceramic manufacture, which would mean working on the factory floor. The long apprenticeship and the social gulf between Jones, a doctor’s daughter, and the factory hands were both concerns to the company’s management. Nonetheless, she was not to be discouraged and her persistence secured her a position. In 1909, at the age of twenty-eight, she travelled to Staffordshire to begin training as an apprentice pottery painter.

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Jones showed great promise and was promoted to the permanent staff in August 1911. For a while she designed nursery ware in the studio of the company’s art director (using illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen as a model) but in January 1914 she finally achieved her ambition to become a designer with a studio of her own.

Jones was attracted to fanciful designs and began to produce imitations of Oriental dragon patterns in 1913 in what was called ‘ordinary lustre ware.’ She moved on to her signature Fairyland Lustre design in 1915. In creating these new patterns on bone china (also new to Wedgwood), Jones was influenced by illustrations in children’s story books, such as H J Ford’s pictures for Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books, which she had loved as a girl, as well as illustrations by Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and Kay Nielsen.  She rarely drew fairies herself, using other artists’ figures within an overall decorative scheme of her own devising.  Jones also drew upon the rich colours and designs of old oriental porcelain. Daisy produced fantasy landscapes peopled by magical figures such as fairies and elves, all in glowing, jewel-like colours picked out with gold.

Jones’ promotion within Wedgwood was unusual not only because she was a woman, but also because she rose from within the company’s ranks, an exception to their usual practice of bringing in well-known and established designers from outside.  Apparently, this rapid success was not good for Jones’ character.  She became self-important and domineering and would not take advice from her employers; this personal trait was compounded by her higher social standing and family links to the Wedgwood family.  Some staff alleged that she seemed more interested in fairies and elves and mythical worlds rather than the real one of harsh economic facts.  She was not prepared or able to change her way of working and, eventually, in April 1931, she was asked to retire.  She initially refused and carried on working in her studio.  A confrontation followed, of course, and Jones left Wedgwood in a fury, having had all her designs smashed.  Her career was over and she returned to Devon to live with her family.  Jones died in 1945.

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Fairyland Lustre

The Fairyland line was a boon to the Wedgwood company, as business had fallen off with the outbreak of war, a loss of revenue compounding a range of pre-existing financial difficulties.   The new Fairyland Lustre series proved extremely popular because, New York antiques dealer Nicholas Dawes has surmised, “Many Europeans were looking for something to escape from the horrors of war,” and Jones’ designs were “escapist [and] fantastical.”  This may be correct: we have seen previously how artists responded to the Great War: some by taking shelter in fairyland (such as Algernon Blackwood and Edward Elgar,  Bernard Sleigh, Estella Canziani, Robert Graves, J R R Tolkien, Rose Fyleman and Francis Ledwidge), others by confronting it and recruiting faery to the war effort.

A large part of the success of the Fairyland lustreware range was the beautiful effects that Jones achieved by combining modern technical innovations and an ancient glazing technique that mixed gold, silver and copper metallic oxide pigments in oil before painting them onto the pottery. After firing, the metal melts into a very thin, lustrous, reflective film that produces an iridescent effect. The complexity of the process and the cost of the raw materials meant that, at the time, the pieces were considered expensive, but were still a commercial success for the company.

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A trade booklet titled Wedgwood Fairyland Ware from 1921 described the line in these terms:

“The doors of Fairyland are many but hard to find. Some are hidden in hollow trees or caves, others are in wells or lakes, or at the bottom of the sea. It’s possible to get there by climbing up a rainbow, a sunbeam, a moonbeam or by getting a leprechaun to make you a pair of fairy shoes.”

Fairyland Lustre line proved immensely popular across in the United States during the 1920s, providing Wedgwood with a popular and expensive product with which to penetrate the lucrative American market. Soon, however, Jones’ Art Nouveau fairies faded from fashion as tastes changed and the line was progressively discontinued from 1929.  Wedgwood hired a new art director and moved on to more austere modern styles, abandoning the expensive multi-coloured glazes as the world entered economic depression.

The range comprised sixty-two patterns made until 1931 or available by special order until 1941.  Its contemporary popularity is attested by the fact that it was quickly imitated. Besides its artistic significance, it is highly collectable today and can command very high prices.

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‘Spirits of another sort’- Fairy Immortality

monge, white faery
Jean-Baptiste Monge, White Fairy

Although I have discussed previously the evidence that fairies can be murdered, the general view of fairy-kind is that they’re immortal.  Certainly, literary representations describe faery characters in these terms- and it’s reasonable to assume that authors mostly just reflected the prevailing beliefs of their time.

Immortal faes

The situation is well illustrated in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The dispute between Titania and Oberon that’s central to the plot arises over an orphaned human child.  Titania tells us that his mother “being mortal, of that boy did die” and that, “for her sake, I do rear up her boy.”  Oberon quarrels with her over possession of the child and the land is blighted “The human mortals want their winter here” the queen says (II, 1).  Later, Peaseblossom addresses Titania’s new lover, Bottom, with a cry of “Hail mortal!” (III, 1) It’s very evident from all three lines that the faeries see a stark distinction between their state and ours.  The boy’s mother died in childbirth; although they may need to assistance of human midwifes, this could never happen to a fairy woman.  Oberon simply confirms this difference when he declares to Puck “we are spirits of another sort” (III, 2).

The medieval poem, Thomas of Erceldoune, expresses the distinction between the faery state and ours in one simple phrase.  Thomas meets the fairy queen and wants to have sex with her; she knows this will impair her unearthly beauty and exclaims to him:

“Man of molde, thou will be merre (mar)”

Thomas is a mortal being of Middle Earth and will inevitably return to the dust from which he came.  This sharp contrast in our natures is brought out in the stories of those humans taken for many years into Faery and who, upon finally returning home, crumble into dust as soon as they touch another mortal or consume earthly food.  In his account of Welsh folklore from 1896, it is fascinating to read that Elias Owen was told that, in just the same way, the tylwyth teg call us humans ‘dead men’ or ‘men of earth’ (Welsh Folklore, p.11).  Humans are also sometimes called ‘children of Eve,’ indicative, at the very least, of our different lines of descent.

There is, also, a little evidence that fairies seek to make their human captives immortal like themselves.  In Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess we are told how the elves dance at night beside a well:

“dipping often times

Their stolen children, so to make them free

From dying flesh and dull mortality.” (Act I, scene 2)

monge bf
Monge, Blue Fairy

Faery fatalities

How do we square this conviction of faery deathlessness with the evidence of faeries being killed quite easily by men?  One explanation is, simply, that the faeries are mortal but that their life spans are very much longer than ours- so extended, in fact, that they are for all intents and purposes immortal.  This was certainly the view that the Reverend Robert Kirk took in The Secret Commonwealth.

The other explanation is one that Tolkien endorsed.  As is very clear from Lord of the Rings, disease and age cannot kill an elf, but they can die in battle- and therefore can be murdered.  This qualified state may well seem a lot less desirable than any idea of perpetual youth and health.  We find a depiction of it in another literary treatment of supernatural immortality- in Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso.  The ‘sorceress’ Manto explains how:

“We are so born that all ills we sustain,

Save only death; but you must realise

Our Immortality is tinged with pain

As sharp as death and all that it implies.”  (Book 43, stanza 98)

We may set against this the statement by Cornish author Enys Tregarthen that the pobel vean (the little people) showed their age by getting younger and fairer- or, at least, the fairy royalty did (The Pisky Purse, 1905).

Summary & Further Reading

In conclusion, we humans, with our mayfly lives, just can’t be sure as to the truth about fairy mortality.  We read of fairy funerals witnessed by humans from time to time; perhaps these are best interpreted as ceremonies for those who have finally reached the end of their very long lives or for those who have been the unfortunate victims of assassination and war.

For more discussion of fairy life and mortality, see my recently published Faery.

 

 

 

 

Glamour houses- a strange faery illusion

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A Band of Fairies, by John Philip Wagner

A man was lost in the dark in deep snow on top of the Cotswold Hills near Dursley in Gloucestershire.  Unexpectedly, and to his relief, he came across an inn where he found a room for the night.  He slept well and found an excellent breakfast laid out for him the next morning.  When he was ready to leave, he could not find any staff around so he placed two guineas in payment for his accommodation on the counter before continuing his journey.  Arriving at his destination, he told his friends of his good fortune the previous night, but they said there was no such inn in the place he described.  Returning to the spot to settle the argument, he found no sign of the tavern, but his coins were lying in the snow.

This story is one of the most interesting examples of what I’m calling ‘glamour houses,’ grand buildings that are created by the fairies to accommodate humans, but which disappear by the following morning.  I’ll describe the various accounts we have and then consider why the fairies should go to this trouble.

The Phenomenon

The ‘glamour house’ phenomenon seems to be a feature of the fairies of Wales and the borders of England.  The vast majority of the examples come from North Wales.  All of the cases take place at night; in several the human is lost in bad weather.

In a couple of examples, the traveller is a farmer returning from a fair (one at Pwllheli in Lleyn; the other at Beddgelert near Snowdon).  This fact may, of course, make us suspicious that each had been drinking after a good day buying and selling.  The same might be said of a man called Ianto, who was returning home very late after a wedding.  The rest of the cases don’t give grounds for such doubts, though.  A shepherd from Cwm Llan, near Beddgelert, went out onto the mountain to search of his flock and got lost in mist;  a harpist setting out from his home at Ysbyty Ifan to walk to Bala was also caught by mist and lost his way so that he fell in a bog; people returning home after peeling rushes at Llithfaen, near Llanaelhaearn on Lleyn, came across a fairy dance.

However they find themselves far from home in the dark, the usual experience of the ‘glamour house’ is to be invited in, either to receive shelter or even to join in festivities, whether that may be a wedding celebration or simply communal singing and dancing.  The traveller is made welcome, fed, warmed and, eventually, given a comfortable bed for the night, in which they sleep well after their wandering and the good company they’ve enjoyed.  The sequel is always the same: they awake next morning to find the house or tavern vanished.  The man returning from Pwllheli awoke on a pile of ashes; more commonly, the man finds himself lying on heather or rushes, perhaps with a clump of moss for his pillow.  The Bala harpist found himself in a sheepfold, with his dog licking his face.  Ianto had the luckiest escape, for after being ‘pixy-led’ by music through bogs and thickets, he awoke not in a fine house but on the very edge of a precipice.

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Arthur Rackham, Kensington Gardens

Key Features

To summarise the experiences then, people are out wandering very late at night; they may be lost or they may be in danger from fog or a blizzard.  They are given somewhere warm to sleep and, generally, awake outside under blue skies the next day.  The Dursley story is slightly different in that the illusion persists well into the next day, after the man has ridden off to meet his friends in Stroud. The only major departure from this pattern is an account from Llyn Bwch in the north of Ynys Mon (Anglesey).  Here young people would regularly go out on moonlit nights to see the fairies celebrating.  They would find a grand palace standing where none existed during the day time and would see the fairies there, dancing and enjoying themselves.  In the mornings afterwards, the palace would have vanished but fairy rings might be seen and fairy money might often be found.

Motivations

Who do the fairies do this? To begin with, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the fairies are perfectly capable of building such structures in reality- whether for themselves or for human customers.  Secondly, their magical powers are such that they can easily construct the simulacrum of a house, inn or palace that appears to a visitor to be physical and real but yet which is nothing but glamour.  A good example of this comes from the ballad of the Wee Wee Man.  The narrator of the song meets the fairy man of the title when he is out walking.  He is invited to visit the fairy’s ‘bonny bower’ which stands on a nearby green:

“… we cam to a bonny ha’;/  The roof was o’ the beaten gowd,/ The flure was o’ the crystal a’. / When we cam there, wi’ wee wee knichts/   War ladies dancing, jimp and sma’,/  But in the twinkling of an eie,/ Baith green and ha’ war clein awa’.”

The Wee Wee Man creates the illusion of a splendid hall, built of sumptuous materials, but it can vanish in an instant.  This exactly what we see in these stories of transitory inns.

We might say that this is an excellent way to lure humans into your clutches and an elaborate form of pixy-leading and, it is true, Ianto ends up in the fine house where he sleeps after vainly following fairy music and voices for miles in the dark. There is some mischief involved, but very little, and no-one is ever harmed or abducted in these incidents.

On the whole, though, deliberate deception does not seem to be the aim.  Whilst it’s correct to observe that none of the splendid rooms the people see, the luxurious beds in which they sleep, the food they eat or the pleasant people they meet are really there, or are what they seem, the aim nonetheless appears to be to help or even protect a lost traveller. At the very least they are given free entertainment and food.

All of this may seem to be a strange and elaborate way of behaving, but the fairies can be extravagant with their favourites.  The practice is, in this way, related to the habit of the fairies to adopted favoured humans and to grant them money– in light of which it’s interesting to note that the lost shepherd from Cwm Llan found silver coins in his shoes when he awoke and, weekly for a long time after that, he would find a coin between two stones at the spot where he had slept (until he told someone about his luck, of course).

 

‘Genii loci’- fairies as spirits of place

Irina Sushelnitskaya
Irina Sushelnitskaya

No-one wants to see their home interfered with and no-one wants to damage a fairy’s house.  Unfortunately, given their habit of living under hills or even directly beneath human dwellings, the faeries are in a situation where their properties may be unwittingly damaged.  The problem for the human who does this is that the consequences might be serious.

Farmers, leave those knolls alone

For example, men building a new house on the Scottish island of Tiree took a stone from a nearby sithean or fairy hill.  They had ample warning to desist as the stone kept returning to the spot where they had found it- but they kept removing it again.  Eventually, one of the builders fell ill, at which point they realised their error, reburied the stone and gave up.

A comparable incident is reported from County Durham in northern England.  Soil was being dug from an old motte and bailey castle near Bishopton when a voice was heard to ask- “Is all well?”  The excavators confirmed that it was, to which the voice replied “Then keep well when you’re well and leave the Fairy Hill alone.”  This seems as unambiguous a warning as you could want- but in this case the men carried on digging regardless. Surprisingly, perhaps, they found a buried chest which, upon opening, was found to contain nothing but nails.  No disaster followed in this case, but perhaps there might have been gold or other treasure unearthed had they paid more attention to the fairy words.

The Durham men seem to have been very lucky when other examples are considered.  An Orkney farmer who dug into a fairy mound was confronted by a little grey man who angrily told him that, if he took another spadeful, six of his cows would die and, if he still persisted, there would be six funerals in the family.  The man went on- with predictable results.  In a comparable incident from Perthshire, three men set out to strip turf from the top of a fairy hill.  When they got there, they all felt suddenly exhausted and lay down for a nap.  On awakening later, each had been carried off some distance from the knoll, one finding himself a quarter of a mile away in a pool.  In Sutherland, a mill was destroyed and the miller chased off by the fairies because he had taken earth to construct the mill dam from a nearby knoll.

Fairy knolls really ought to be obvious places to avoid: in an incident I’ve mentioned before, a man who hammered a peg into a knoll to tether a horse was met with complaints from inside that he had made a hole that was letting the rain in.  He wisely and immediately agreed to tether his animal elsewhere.

chabas jeune naiade
Paul Chabas, Jeune Naiade

Subterranean Neighbours

Sometimes, rather than being under a prominent hill, the fairy dwelling will be found directly beneath your own.  John Rhys tells a tale of a Gwynedd farmer who used to go outside his house to relieve himself every night before bed.  One evening, a stranger appeared beside him complaining about his annoying behaviour. The farmer asked how he could be upsetting a man he’d never seen before, to which the stranger replied that his house was just below where they stood and, if the farmer placed his foot on the stranger’s, he would see this. The farmer complied and saw clearly that all the slops from his house went down the chimney of the other’s home, which stood far below in a street he’d never seen before. The fairy advised him to put his door in the other side of the house and that, if he did so, his cattle would never suffer from disease. The farmer obeyed and after that time he became prosperous man.  There are several versions of stories like this: in one, the grateful fairy later saves the householder’s life.

This proximity can cause problems for the fairy dwellers ‘downstairs’ but there can be inconvenience for the folk upstairs too.  In one Scottish story a housewife was troubled by fairy women suddenly appearing at her cottage asking to borrow items or, unbidden, undertaking household tasks for her.  A local wise man advised that the only way to escape the nusiance of this over-familiarity would be to demolish the existing house and rebuild it elsewhere.  The thatch and rafters were, however, to be left behind and burned, after sprinkling nine dishes of sea water upon them.  Later some men quarrying near the spot found bones buried, confirming for them that the place was frequented by ancestral spirits.

Spirits of Place

The fairies here seem very clearly to be genii loci- spirits of place.  In another example, they almost seem to be so intimately associated with a location that they are part of the fabric of a building itself.  Returning to the Scottish island of Tiree, there was once a house that was plagued by fairies.  They used to sit on the rafters in swarms and they would sometimes drop down and steal a potato from the pot over the fire.  Eventually, the tenant decided to move.  He built a new home some distance away but, unluckily, ran out of materials before he’d finished.  He took a stone from the old house to complete the job- which meant that the fairies came too.

Fascinatingly, in this connection, Samuel Hitchins in his 1824 History of Cornwall, had this to say of fairy belief in the county.  He felt that the fairy faith was fading, except amongst the aged and ‘unenlightened’ (i.e. ignorant!), but still:

“By some, even the places of their resort is still pointed out, and particular fields and lanes are distinguished as spots which they were accustomed to frequent.  To these bushes and hedges, near which they were presumed to assemble, some degrees of veneration are still attached.  An indefinite species of sanctity is still associated with their beaten circles [i.e. fairy rings where they danced] and it is thought unlucky to injure their haunts or throw any obstacle in their way.”

Hitchins noted too the Borlase, in his Antiquities, also observed how the Cornish still saw the spriggans and fairies as real beings and paid them a kind of veneration.  In other words, certain spots were treated almost as shrines because the pixies were linked so powerfully with them.  As I have speculated before, they may be viewed as being a part of the land itself.

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of  faery places and faery homes.

Summoning Faeries- spells and practices

Canziani Good morning
Good Morning‘ by Estella Canziani

In a much earlier post on summoning spells, I examined some of the methods that have been used to bring fairies before you.  During my researches, I’ve come across a few more, which are presented here now.

Broadly, there seem to be two ways in which it is possible to summon fairies into your presence.  One involves the use of a crystal ball and the conjuring of the faery with the correct words; the other exploits the faeries’ own magic or glamour to override their invisibility and expose them to our view.

Crystal Balls

The first method was the one adopted by many magicians and seers, especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when efforts to contact spirits of different kinds by these means seem to have been at their peak.  One of the leading English practitioners was William Lilly, who describes some of the methods used in his History of His Life and Times.  He tells us that he knew two skilled seers.  One was a woman called Sara Skelhorn who practiced in the Gray’s Inn Road in London.  She contacted beings she described as angels through her crystal ball and gained information from them.  In fact, Sara seems to have been rather too good at this.  Late in her life, she complained to Lilly how the angels wouldn’t go away, but followed her around her house until she was weary of their presence.

The other conjurer he knew was a woman called Ellen Evans, who summoned up the fairy queen using her ball and a summoning spell, that began “O Micol! O Micol! Regina pigmeorum veni…”  (Micol, come, queen of the pygmies [fairies]).  This line is evidently the start of a much longer invocation, and I have discussed before the sorts of lengthy charm that was usually required.  You’ll also note that it seemed necessary to invoke the faes in Latin; I’ve examined the question of fairy language several times before- and there’s little basis for thinking they spoke as the Romans did- but Latin as a learned language seemed very suitable for these charms at the time.

Here’s an example summoning ritual from Percy’s Reliques (III, 263).  It’s titled “an excellent way to get a fayrie.” :

“First, get a broad square christall or Venice glasse, in length and breadth three inches. Then lay that glasse or christall in the blood of a white henne, three Wednesdayes or three Fridayes. Then take it out and wash it with holy aqua [water], and fumigate it. Then take three hazle sticks, or wands, of an yeare groth ; pill [peel] them fayre and white ; and make them soe longe as you write the spiritt’s name, or fayrie’s name, which you call three times on every stick being made flatt on one side. Then bury them under some hill, whereat you suppose fayries haunt, the Wednesday before you call her : and the Friday followinge take them uppe and call her at eight, or three, or ten of the clocke, which be good planetts and houres for that turne ; but when you call be in cleane life and turne thy face towards the East, and when you have her bind her in that stone and glasse”

At this point Lilly goes on to warn readers that the spirits won’t appear for everyone.  They prefer people of “strict diet and upright life,” which is what he means by his reference to “cleane life:” a ritual cleansing in advance is recommended.  Moreover, even if they do appear, it will often transpire that the magician is not suited to the experience.  As Lilly says, even those of undaunted character and firm resolution can be astonished and trembling “nor can many endure their glorious aspects.”  However much you may desire to see the faery queen, therefore, the reality may be overwhelming.

Anning Bell Cupid_s_visit

Glamour

The second way to see fairies is to use their magic against them.  A seventeenth century spell book in the Bodleian library in Oxford contains a variety of faery related spells, including ‘To call Oberon into a crystal stone’ but the one I wish to discuss is called ‘Experimentum optimum verissimum for the fairies.”  It sets out a lengthy and complex procedure, which I reproduce for you here:

“In the night before the newe moone, or the same night, or the night after the newe moone, or els the night before the full moone, the night of the full, or the night after the full moone, goe to the house where the fairies mayds doe use and provide you a fayre and cleane buckett, or payle cleane washt, with cleere water therein and sett yt by the chimney syde or where fyre is made, and having a fayre newe towel or one cleane washt by, and so departe till the morning; then be thou the first that shall come to the buckett or water before the sonne ryse, and take yt to the light, that you find upon the water a whyte ryme, like rawe milk or grease, take yt by with a silver spoone, and put yt into a cleane sawcer; then the next night following come to the same house agayne before 11 of the clocke at night, making a good fire with sweet woods and sett upon the table a newe towel or one cleane washt and upon yt 3 fyne loaves of new mangett [fine wheat bread], 3 newe knyves with whyte haftes and a newe cuppe fulle of newe ale, then sett your selfe downe by the fyre in a chaire with your face towards the table and anonynt your eyes with the same creame or oyle aforesaid.  Then you shall see come by you thre fayre maydes, and as they passe by they will obey you with becking their heads to you, and like as they doe to you, so doe you to them, but saye nothing.  Suffer the first, whatsoever she be, to passe, for she is malignant, but to the second or third as you like best reache forth your hand and pluck her to you, and with fewe words aske her when she will apoynt a place to meete you the next morning for to assoyle such questions as you will demand of her; and then, yf she will graunt you, suffer her to depart and goe to her companye till the houre appointed, but misse her not at the tyme and place; then will the other, in the mean tyme whyle you are talking with her, goe to the table and eat of that ys ther, then will they depart from you, and as they obey you, doe you the like to them saying nothinge, but letting them depart quyetlye.  Then when youre houre is come to meete, say to her your mynde, for then will she come alone.  Then covenant with her for all matters convenient for your purpose and she wilbe always with you, of this assure yourselfe for it is proved, ffinis [the end].”

The process is reasonably straightforward, as you will have seen.  You will need to have acquired some fresh fine loaves, some new ale, some clean buckets filled with clean water and clean towels, but none of these items ought to be too hard to come by.  The tricky part is knowing whether a house is one “where the fairies mayds doe use,” in other words, a place that is frequented by female fairies on a regular basis.  Provided that you’re sure you’ve correctly identified the place, everything else will apparently fall into place like clockwork.

How does this ritual work?  Well, as fairy expert Katharine Briggs explained, the unspoken assumption lying behind it is as follows: overnight the fairies will enter the house to wash themselves and their children in the fresh water.  As I’ve described before, fairy babies are anointed with an ointment that gives them their second sight and powers of glamour and (it seems) reinforces their immortal fairy nature.  Some of this salve will, it seems, be washed off during the ablutions and it is this that forms the rime on the surface of the bucket.  You then simply lift it off with your silver spoon and you have acquired the key to faery.

All that remains is to wish you good luck- and to remind you to read other postings discussing some of the potential downsides of any encounter.

Naked fairies- nudity in fairyland

mush fae

In a book published in 2017, American art historian Susan Casteras contributed a chapter on Victorian fairy painting.  She perceptively remarked how nudity, which is very far from being an inherent element in folklore, became something that the Victorians chose to exaggerate in their visions of fairyland.  Many paintings of the period, she rightly observed,  were all about “flaunting nudity for its own sake rather than as a supposedly accurate transcription of faery lore.”  (S. Casteras, ‘Winged Fantasies: Constructions of Childhood, Adolescence and Sexuality in Victorian Fairy Painting’ in Marilyn Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, c.8, 127-8)

simmons fairy lying on a leaf
John Simmons, A Fairy on a Leaf

Looking at John Simmons’ painting above, you cannot help but agree with the second part of Casteras’ comment- although Simmons was a particular offender, producing a number of ‘pin-up’ canvases.  What about the folklore evidence, though?  Victorian pictures- and more recently the work of Alan Lee, Brian Froud and Peter Blake– have habituated us to the idea of a Faery full of frolicking nudes, but how traditional is this?

The honest answer has to be that there’s very little sign of nudity in the older accounts of Faery.  In my post on fairy abductions of children, I mentioned the story of a girl who temporarily went missing in Devon.  A game keeper and his wife living at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor, had two children, and one morning the eldest girl went out to play while her mother dressed her baby sister. In due course, the parents realised that the older child had disappeared and several days of frantic and fruitless searching followed. Eventually, after hope had nearly been lost, the girl was found quite near to her home, completely undressed and without her clothes, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.

Now, this girl was a human infant and there may have been several reasons why the pixies might have taken off all her clothes.  They may have objected to human things; they may have thought a ‘natural’ state was healthier and preferable.  Whatever the exact explanation, it’s one of the few instances where there’s a suggestion that nudity might be the normal condition in Faery.

The other evidence is all qualified in one way or another. Mermaids don’t have clothes, but that’s for very obvious reasons.  Men are forever falling in love at first sight with these creatures, but you may well suspect that coming across a uninhibited and naked female is a pretty strong draw in any case.

Some fairies don’t ‘need’ clothes at all because they’re naturally very hairy: the brownies, hobgoblins and the Manx fynoderee are all examples of these.  Their shaggy pelts were covering enough.  It’s almost always this kind of faery that is the subject of a story in which a reward of clothes for services rendered alienates the helpful being.  Typically, a brownie or boggart with work faithfully on a farm, threshing grain, carrying hay and tending the livestock, all for very little reward except some bread and milk left out ta night.  After a while, the curiosity of the farmer overcomes good sense and the creature’s labours are spied upon.  It’s seen to be (at the very best), dressed in tattered rags and (at the worst) completely naked.  Pity is taken and new clothes are made in recognition of its hardwork, but all that’s achieved is to offend the fae, who recites a short verse- and leaves forever.

Lastly, the only other definite example of bare fairy flesh is one I’ve discussed several times previously and one in which ulterior motives are very important.  In the medieval romance of Sir Launval, the young knight is summoned into the presence of the fairy lady, Tryamour.  She’s found in a pavilion in a forest, relaxing on a couch on a hot summer’s day.

“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.””

“because of the heat, she’d undone her dress nearly to her waist; she lay uncovered; she was as white as a lily in May, or snow falling on a winter’s day; he’d never seen anyone so pert.”

Tryamour’s plan is to seduce Launval and, plainly, lying there topless and available is a pretty good scheme for winning his attention.  It’s not normal behaviour in Faery, though, anymore than it is on the earth surface.  Most of the accounts we have of the appearance of fairies describe their clothes– their style and their colour; we are not told that they are provocatively naked.

Nude fairies, therefore, seem to be a Victorian obsession; they are the soft porn of their day.  As has been described before, it was acceptable to display bare breasts in art, but only so long as it was justifiable and/ or distant from the present day.  Painting classical nymphs, oriental harems and fairyland let artists get away with it.  they seized the opportunity- regardless of the fact that the folklore provided almost no basis for this.