The fae relationship with the humble and everyday candle is rather more complex and magical than we might initially imagine. Four examples illustrate different aspects of this.
Fae beings are sometimes compared to candles- that is, when they appear in the form of points of light and especially when seen as the will of the wisp– looking like a lantern to lead travellers astray. In such a form they have often been compared explicitly to candle flames . In the form of the canwyll corph (corpse candle) in Wales, they appear to predict an imminent death. For both phenomena, see c.12 of my Beyond Faery(2020).
Faeries also make normal everyday use of the light that candles provide- for example, the lhiannan shee of the Isle of Man performs the role of a washer woman akin to the bean nighe of the Scottish Highlands. She will be seen at night, washing clothes in a river by the light of a taper. Perhaps, too, just like humans, faeries can be comforted by the homely light. At Manor Farm, East Halton, in Lincolnshire, the resident hob was something of a nuisance, because he could use his great strength for pranks as well as undertaking chores. The residents of the farm were said to leave a candle lit in a window every night ‘to keep the Hob quiet.’
Candles have more magical properties, though. In County Durham, there was once a great fear of pregnant women and unbaptised babies being stolen by the ever watchful faeries (as nurse maids and as changelings), so the practice was to leave a candle burning all night in the same room as the cradle. Some explanation of the reasoning behind this might come from an incident reported on the Isle of Man. A confined mother was being watched over at night by two women. They kept feeling drowsy and, as soon they started to fall asleep, the candle in the room would dim. The pair would then awaken with a start, brought on by their fear of the little folk, and the flame would flare up again. This happened several times until they awoke to find the expectant mother out of bed and an argument taking place outside. The fairies had been in the act of taking her but the women’s waking had disturbed and defeated them. These examples suggest that candle light can have some power to dispel faery power, or to keep them at bay, and it may in fact be this that was being exploited against the hob on Manor Farm.
In Arkengarthdale in North Yorkshire, a man laid a bogle in his cottage by opening his bible, lighting a candle and then pronouncing the injunction “Now then, you can read, or dance, or die as you like.” The bogle was observed to vanish in the form of a grey cat and wasn’t seen again for many years. However- as is often the case- the banishment was not permanent. One day the man met the bogle again on the stairs of his house- and this spelled his doom. Shortly after the encounter he left home to go to his work in a local mine, and died in an accident. This use of the candle as part of the exorcism ceremony may have simply relied upon the precedent of church practices, of course, but the flame might also have had special properties against the bogle.
A poor widow from Reeth (the neighbouring parish to Arkengarthdale) suffered inconvenience and loss when her neighbour stole some candles from her. The thief soon found himself haunted by a bogle; he tried shooting it but it had no body that could be wounded (of course). The next day it came to him, warning “I’m neither bone nor flesh nor blood, thou canst not harm me. Give back the candles, but I must take something from thee.” It plucked an eyelash, which may seem harmless enough, except that his eye ‘twinkled’ for ever after that day. The protection given to the poor woman may indicate faery morality, but perhaps the particular concern over candles suggests an extra, magical dimension to the story.
Lastly, we have a record of magical candles being used by Scottish faeries. A man’s wife was abducted into the faery hill at Pollochaig in Inverness-shire. Another local man had been given some enchanted wax candles by the sith folk, the sort they use to light their nocturnal dances (although more poetic and romantic accounts of such festivities tend to describe them using glow-worms for illumination) . This favoured individual lent the husband one but warned that the Good Neighbours would use tricks to try to steal it back and defeat him. Just as predicted, the husband lost the candle. He borrowed one after another, making repeated (failed) attempts to enter the sithean until he finally succeeded and got his wife back, but- sadly- by this point all those magical candles had been used up.
To sum up, the faery interaction with candles seem to be threefold. They can use them for conventional lighting purposes but tapers may also be used magically, both against the faes and by them. The exact significance of this is still hard to determine: our limited folklore evidence illustrates the situations but doesn’t presently provide quite enough detail for us to really understand the dynamics.
Recently I was researching another faery subject entirely when I was led to refer to the chapter on North American faery beings in Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook’s Magical Folk (2018). Peter Muise there describes the ‘Puritans and Pukwudgies’ of New England, arguing that the European invaders largely lost their own faery lore as they crossed the Atlantic, but discovered the rich supernatural world of Native American belief- which was slowly assimilated.
This isn’t the whole story, as two other chapters in Magical Folk make clear. Later Irish and Scottish settlers, especially in Atlantic Canada, did import their faery belief with them- and I know from my own reading of British sources that there are several Scottish stories that explicitly discuss Highland faes, such as the leannan sith and the bochan, who travel with emigrants to North America. It might be better to say that the English settlers were less likely to carry their faery folk with them- and Muise discussed why this might be so.
A second point concerns the pukwudgie/ puckwudgie. This spirit is now probably the best known of the North American ‘faeries’ and modern sightings seem to be on the increase, as Muise has described. However, as his chapter title indicates, most of this modern lore comes from New England, to which the pukwudgie is, strictly, a stranger. He is a spirit of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes area- not of New England, which had its own indigenous beings (which are known about and which survive- amongst the indigenous population still and, to a degree, amongst the offcomers). Various writers, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seem to have been responsible for popularising the pukwudgie and extending his range. Literary uses of faery lore often do this- spreading beings such as pixies and leprechauns far beyond their natural habitats and (arguably) obscuring the local differences.
Be that as it may (and you can read the chapter in Magical Folk, which is highly recommended for your book shelves) what struck me was the strong similarities between North American faery behaviour and that of the British faes. Here are a few examples, taken from Muise:
pukwudgies and other Algonquian spirits have magical powers and can shape shift or make themselves invisible;
they can act as wills of the wisp (often seen as balls of light) and lead people into swamps or over cliffs;
they have a nasty habit of pestering women and girls, luring them into forests where they seduce them. Once a human female has been involved with a faery male, she can never settle back into society and marry;
All these characteristics and habits can be found in British folklore. I have provided links to posts I’ve made in the past on exactly these subjects. Now, there seem to be two explanations for these remarkably close parallels. One is that faery temperament, physiology and powers are pretty much the same the whole world over. As such, we shouldn’t expect any real difference between a pukwudgie and a boggart, just as we wouldn’t dream of imagining there would be any differences (except of culture) between- say- an Inuit, a European and an aboriginal Australian. The other explanation is that there has- in fact- been a great deal more immigration of European faeries into North America than we realised. The least sign of this, perhaps, is the optional spelling of Puck-wudgie: does this reveal an almost unconscious identification between the pucks of the English midlands with the Ojibwe sprite?
This is a big subject and one in which I have too little knowledge to make pronouncements. Nevertheless, the similarities of supernatural behaviour are notable and demand examination and explanation. Perhaps all North American faery survivals have really been crossbred with British faes from East Anglia and the South West, with the faery population being swamped and colonised just as much as the aboriginal possessors, or perhaps they’re really all one race, despite superficial differences, just as humans are.
Final trivia fact: I got to thinking about this after I came across the 1972 song ‘Puckwudgie‘ by cor-blimey Cockney comedian of the 1950s and ’60s, Charlie Drake. British readers of a certain age may recall Charlie from comedy specials and black and white films shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; I never anticipated a faery link, but there you go. I might well say the same of David Bowie- yet we have The Laughing Gnometo contend with. That- and Drake’s song- bear strong similarities.
Worryingly, for those interested in faerylore, it seems that faery-kind possess the ability to kill humans without necessarily intending to do so and/ or without any direct or violent measures against them. I will give various examples of this.
Sometimes, simply being ion the faery’s presence can be fatal. For instance, a woman in Ross-shire one time came across a bean nighe (a faery washerwoman) cleaning clothes in a stream. The bean offered to row the woman across the nearby loch, help she accepted gratefully, but she was dead within a year. (As you may recall if you have read my book Beyond Faery, the bean nighe is seen as predicting imminent deaths, but here she is the medium as well). In a similar Highland account, a girl met a green lady beside a loch. The colour of the woman’s clothes would immediately have raised alarm, yet all that happened was that she asked the girl if the water there was deep. Soon after this faery encounter, the girl was dead. Elsewhere in Ross-shire, the belief in the fatal effects of faery conversation were underlined. One witness described how there were two types of little people- land and sea faeries. If the latter speak to you, you will soon drown; if the former addressed you, you know you will be short-lived.
Faery touch might be fatal too. A Shetland man was returning from fishing one night when he saw a trow hillock open and dancing within. He was invited in and had a great time. On departing, one of the trows clapped the fisherman on the shoulder in a friendly way. The spot turned sore and, within a short time, he was dead.
Most curious of all are several stories of Scottish faery beings that reveal a macabre and alarming power to kill remotely, without needing to touch or be in the presence of the victim.
The first concerns a bauchan or bogan that haunted a human farm at Lochaber. There was a powerful love-hate relationship between the faery and the farmer and they often fought. One time, after the farmer had had a confrontation with the bauchan, he realised that he’d lost his best handkerchief. He searched for it and came across the bauchan sitting, rubbing the cloth on a rough stone. Challenged, the bauchan remarked “It’s well you’ve come, Callum: I’d have been your death if I’d rubbed a hole in this.”
This curious incident is not entirely isolated. Glenmoriston, at the southern end of Loch Ness, was haunted by a hag called the Cailleach a’ Craich. Her habit was to waylay solitary travellers, pull of their caps, and then dance on these on the highway until a hole had been worn through- which would prove fatal to the owner (see my Beyond Faery, c.7).
A third case concerns a man called Donald who was celebrating his wedding to his neighbour’s daughter. The party ran out of whisky so Donald went to get some more. Returning home, he was crossing a bridge when a small woman appeared to him in a flash of light. She pulled of his scarf or neckerchief and then proceeded to wash this in the river below, cackling to herself. Donald returned to the party but started to feel weak. He was advised that what the woman was doing was rubbing a hole in his heart and that he had to retrieve his scarf from her, although this had to be done without violence. He recovered the item, but he struck the faery with a stick whilst doing so, which cursed him then to nightly fights with her for the next seven years.
Why is it that damaging an item of clothing might kill its former wearer? The reasoning seems to be that something of the person’s spirit or life force is transferred to the garment and can be accessed and destroyed through it. The same sort of thinking lies behind one of the folk healing techniques that was often viewed as ‘sorcery’ in the Scottish witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of these purported witches (individuals who had often acquired their healing knowledge from the faes) were able to diagnose and then treat illnesses and afflictions using people’s shirts and blouses. These were often washed in south-flowing streams and put on again, the sickness or evil influence being washed away and the charmed water having a beneficial effect on the patient.
I discuss this subject as well in my recently published book, The Darker Side of Faeries, available directly from Green Magicand the usual outlets. As the name indicates, it’s a close look at all the more dangerous aspects of the faery character.
Regular readers of the blog will have noticed that, over the last few years, I have frequently made use of faery examples from the Isle of Man (although, strictly, it’s stretching my rule of sticking only to British folklore). However, the Manx ‘little people’ are too fascinating and too numerous to ignore- and it’s not just faery folk, either, we have the fynoderee, the glashtyn, the buggane, the tarroo ushtey (water bull), mermaids (the ben varrey) and other faery beasts to study as well. I have examined many of them as part of my wider studies of Faery (for example in 2020’s Beyond Faery), but it struck me earlier this year that it could be helpful to pull all this unique island material together into a single volume- and so Manx Faeries- The Little People of the Isle of Man has recently been published by Green Magic. There has been no comprehensive attempt to gather all the Manx faery lore into a single devoted volume and- given the richness of Manx tradition- this seemed to me to need to be done.
Many of the Manx creatures are parallel to British faery types, without being exactly identical. The faery horses and bulls resemble those of the Scottish Highlands, whilst having their own individual characteristics. The bugganeand the fynoderee are comparable to British mainland beings such as the bogies, boggarts and hobgoblins, but they are again separate and different. There are, nonetheless, many similarities of behaviour: a love of dancing and hunting, a taste for causing mischief, a habit of abducting babies children and adults. The fatal faery lover, the lhiannan shee, is an especially notable feature of human-faery interactions on the island.
What’s more, Manx faery lore offers lots of additional information and perspectives on the nature of Faery in the British Isles as a whole. Within quite a small surface area, the island comprises a microcosm of British Faery, encompassing individuals from across the wide spectrum of the supernatural family, yet it also has some utterly unique and fascinating types. I have posted fairly recently about the strange ‘burning wheel‘ faes that are a feature most notably of Manx lore; to these I might add the curious faery dogs, cats, pigs and sheep, the odd spectral horses and the multi-form glashtyn. There is plenty to absorb and amaze us.
Manx Faery Verse
Back in 2019, I self-published Victorian Fairy Verse, which gathered fairy poetry in English from Britain, Ireland and the USA. I overlooked the Isle of Man, however, and have rectified that oversight in the new book. A handful of Manx residents preserved the native folklore, not just by collecting stories and experiences but by composing poetry with faery themes. Here is an additional example, a 1901 poem called The Phynnodderee by Rev. Drummond Brown- which I have copied from the Manx Literature site on Flickr (it’s pretty long and, to be frank, I couldn’t quite face typing it all out from scratch- so please excuse and tolerate the cut and pasted page copies).
As I’ve said, the fynoderee of Manx tradition (there are several spellings, distinguished by more or less consonants) is akin to the English hobgoblin: it’s large and strong and helps around farms, but it’s also a bit dim. The fynoderee can become very attached to some people and may show them great kindness; the species are also associated with individual farms or holdings, to which they are tied as ‘spirits of the land.’ Whilst they reside there, they guarantee the fertility of the soil and the animals living on it. If they leave, it can mean ruin. Very much like English and Scottish brownies and hobs, it is unfortunately the case that the fynoderee can be touchy and easily offended. If a farmer takes pity on their hairy, naked state and provides a gift of clothes, they can be so upset as to disappear for ever. Mainland brownies and hobs seem peeved by the mere idea of clothing– or sometimes by the quality of the garments presented; the Manx fynoderee, by contrast, objects to them because he knows they will make him ill (a more comprehensible response, at least). It has been said that the agriculture of the island as a whole has been in decline for at least a century because of the thoughtless alienation of the various fynoderee.
In his poem, Drummond Brown has romanticised the creature considerably, not just with his elegant romantic verse but with his story of its origin. He starts with a good summary of the fynoderee‘s characteristics, but then alleges that he was once a handsome faery knight, punished for loving a mortal.
The Reverend Drummond Brown also wrote a poem about a musician abducted under a hill to a faery dance (a very common folklore theme). You can read this too on the same Manx website.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘A Ballad of Dreamland’
In his introduction to the 1974 reprint of Alfred Watkins’ ley line classic, The Old Straight Track, John Michell noted how both Watkins and the Reverend Francis Kilvert invoked the “same genius terrae britannicae” of the red Herefordshire earth. This genius, the ‘spirit of the British land,’ is very much what we are describing when we discuss British fairies.
The painter Paul Nash sought to discover and free the imprisoned spirit of the land, the motive power that animated the British landscape. He deeply felt that a spirit of place, a genius loci, inhabited the soil and scenery and that certain poets in particular sensed it. William Blake, he felt, “perceived among many things the hidden significance of the land he always called Albion” (Personal Statement, Unit One, 1934). Poet Herbert Read described Nash as having “profound intuitions” that enabled him to “reveal the immemorial values in the landscape.” He saw “an animistic landscape, the sacred habitation of familiar spirits” in which many natural elements were synthesised in a “druidic ritual” (Read, Paul Nash, Penguin Modern Painters, 1944). Through his strong sense of the character and spirit of individual places, Nash felt that he could witness “another aspect of the accepted world…” In this, he saw himself merely to be continuing a tradition initiated by Wordsworth, who had built up a mythology founded upon a “systematic animation of the inanimate, which attributes life and feeling to non-human nature.”
Intriguingly, Nash repeatedly drew analogies between human life and the lives of trees: he was keenly aware of how the tree was rooted in the soil and dependent upon earth and landscape. In a letter written in August 1912 the painter even went so far as to declare that he painted trees as though they were human because “I sincerely love and worship trees and know that they are people- and wonderfully beautiful people.” These ideas make his comments upon Ivinghoe Beacon, on the Chiltern Hills, more fascinating: it was, he recalled, “an enchanted place… where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad.” The woodland spirits were alive and active for Nash.
Elsewhere, Nash wrote that “The idea of giving life to inanimate objects is as old as almost any record of fable. It has varied in its conception throughout very different histories,” which included fairy lore and mythology. This “endowment of natural objects, organic but not human, with active powers or personal influences” lies at the core of faery belief, I also believe (Nash, ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object,’ Country Life, May 1st 1937). The artist had recently visited the Avebury megaliths for the first time and “the holy stones of the Great Circle” had evidently impressed him deeply. He continued that “it is not a question of a particular stone being the house of the spirit- the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive.” This idea of animating inanimate objects was very old indeed, “a commonplace in fairy tale and which occurs quite naturally also in most mythologies.”
Sketching at Silbury Hill near Avebury, Nash recalled that:
“I felt that I had divined the secret of that paradoxical pyramid. Such things do happen in England, quite naturally, but they are not recognised for what they are- the true yield of the land, indeed, but also works of art; identical with the intimate spirit inhabiting these gentle fields, yet not the work of chance or the elements, but directed by an intelligent purpose ruled by an authentic vision.”
Nash’s revelation at Silbury encouraged him to intensify his search for “A character which frankly disclosed a national inspiration, something whose lineaments seemed almost redolent of place and time within the limits of these shores.”
As well as the Avebury complex, Nash was especially devoted to the twin Oxfordshire hills called the Wittenham Clumps, which he returned to paint throughout his life. The legends attached to the Clumps enhanced their mystery for him: one of the hills was an ancient fort where it was said that treasure was buried, guarded by a phantom raven. Beneath the hills were long barrows and an ancient forest. The place had, he said, “a compelling magic.”
Earlier writer Maurice Hewlett had had the same perception as Nash. In his 1913 novella The Lore of Proserpine, he recorded how “I have seen spirits, beings… and have observed them as part of the landscape, no more extraordinary than grazing cattle or wheeling plover.” A little later, he added that he regarded them as a “natural fact… a part of the landscape” (‘The Soul at the Window,’ The Lore of Proserpine, 1913).
As we just saw, Nash discussed the ‘yield’ of the land when describing Silbury. Earlier investigators had (incredibly) dismissed the stone circle and avenues as purely natural features, but he rightly saw them as more than a simple geological formation. Elsewhere he discussed how his art would become preoccupied with “one landscape [and the] flowers and fungi which it yields.” This suggests that, almost like crops or the native fauna and flora, the faery folk are a natural outgrowth of the soil. I think we can usefully borrow a further term from English land law and talk about the ‘burden’ of the land: this is a term denoting certain costs or obligations that come with a certain body of land. In faery terms, these will be their right and expectation to be given a share of food products, to be able to use the occupiers’ homes and other buildings and (even) to have certain areas of land set aside and preserved solely for them. They are a continual presence on the land- and a continual influence upon its usage and meaning.
I feel, therefore, that British fairies are in many respects bound up and directly expressive of the landscape within which they live. Pixies, the tylwyth teg, the ‘yarthkins‘ of East Anglian, they are a part of the terrain in which they reside, they are the animating spirit of those moors, mountains and fens. The wild and aggressive spriggans, buccas and piskies of the south-west arguably manifest the rugged nature of the region they inhabit; so too the tiddy ones or yarthkins of the Fens, rising as they do from the waterways and peaty soils of that region. They are the original and most fundamental yield of the land.
To conclude, I need hardly say that these ideas are not by any means uniquely mine. Well known faery artist Brian Froud, for example, has said that “Faeries are the inner nature of each land and a reflection of the inner nature of our souls.” The people of each nation are shaped by their environment; so too are the supernatural beings of that country and, as a result, there is a continual circular interaction between them all.
Further reading: see too my previous posting on genii loci discussing other aspects of this subject.
I’m delighted to say that Green Magic has recently published my examination of the Faery Lifecycle, a birth to death study of the physiology and anatomy of fairy-kind. In this post, I want to add a few additional examples to those that I included in the text.
All aspects of faery biology and health are examined in the new book, so here are a few examples of the issues that I’ve examined.
Height: much of our folklore evidence indicates that faeries are, normally, about the height of human children. For example, in Lanbestan parish, Wales in 1902 it was reported that snow was found marked by a dance of the tylwythteg– “as if formed by hundreds of children in little pump shoes.”
Plentiful other evidence confirms this junior stature: seven or eight faeries dressed in green who were seen on Jura were estimated to be about three feet high; on Islay about twenty unknown children dressed in green were seen playing on a hill by some kids going home. They did not know who the strangers were and it was assumed that could only have been sith. On the Shetland island of Yell “peerie” (tiny) men the size of dolls were seen dancing on the tips of docks and reeds.
Physique– in build and form, the faeries are generally believed to be exactly like us, but there are occasional exceptions to this, such as the statement by Scottish witch suspect Janet Boyman that she had once seen a faery man near an “elrich well” who looked fine from the front, but who from the rear was “wasted like a stick.” The Danish elle maids are also said to be strangely hollow at the back.
Disability amongst faes is not unknown, as with Oberon, king of the fairies in the romance Huon of Bordeaux. This powerful monarch is “of height but three fote and crokyd shulderyd.” At a very much later date, Hugh Miller described the last faeries seen in northern Scotland as being “stunted, misgrown, ugly creatures with unkempt locks.”
The faeries’ status as physical or spiritual beings has remained uncertain for centuries. John Gregorson Campbell, in Superstitions of the Highlands, describes them as “the counterparts of mankind, but substantial and unreal, outwardly invisible.” I’ve added the emphasis to stress their paradoxical nature.
Sex and children: there has long been a debate about whether or not faeries can reproduce- whether, indeed, they have a physical body capable of any such contact. I have described before long-term sexual relationships between humans and faeries, something which seems decisively to settle these doubts, but there are still those who assert that faeries have no need to breed, being immortal, and- in fact- cannot do so. I have already described many cases in which faeries have indeed been killed deliberately or accidentally; their life spans seem to be very long, but not eternal.
All in all, they seem to be very much like us- with one problematic exception. Campbell reports that faery women cannot breast feed their own children, which is why they will so often abduct women recently delivered of babies as wet nurses or, at the very least, will beg for a feed for their babies from a breast feeding mother.
Cleanliness and health: I have examined this issue in a previous post, but we know for certain that the faes keep themselves clean by bathing themselves and by washing their clothes- as was the case in a cave near Llanymynech in Wales.
Faery diet: in Wales, the tylwyth teg are said to subsist upon fruit, flowers, nuts, honey and cream. The latter is left for them by humans, the rest they can forage for themselves in the countryside- fresh and organic. The faeries are so much like us that they enjoy alcohol too- and have even been discovered by humans in a state of intoxication.
Illness & cures: for all their healthy diet and care over cleanliness, the faes can get sick and, in response, they have developed a considerable knowledge of the healing properties of many wild plants. Such is the faeries knowledge that humans have been known frequently to try to steal their knowledge or their actual medicines. Campbell tells the story of ‘Callum Clerk and his sore leg.’ Clark was a bully and nuisance in his community:
“Some six generations ago there lived in Port Bhissta, on Tiree, a dark, fierce man, known as Big Malcolm Clark (Callum mor mac-a-Cheirich). He was a very strong man, and in his brutal violence produced the death of several people… When sharpening knives, old women in Tiree said, “Friday in Clark’s town” (Di-haoine am baile mhic-a-Chleirich), with the object of making him and his the objects of fairy wrath. One evening, as he was driving a tether-pin into a hillock, a head was popped up out of the ground, and told him to take some other place for securing his beast, as he was letting the rain into `their’ dwelling. Some time after this he had a painfully sore leg. He went to the shi-en, where the head had appeared, and, finding it open, entered in search of a cure for his leg. The fairies told him to put `earth on the earth.’ He applied every kind of earth he could think of to the leg, but without effect. At the end of three months, he went again to the hillock, and when entering put steel in the door. He was told to go out, but he would not, nor would he withdraw the steel till told the proper remedy. At last, he was told to apply the red clay of a small loch in the neighbourhood (criadh ruadh lochan ni’h fhonhairle). He did so, and the leg was cured.”
This knowledge could be extorted from the faeries, or it might be granted willingly. Alleged witch Alison Pearson saw the elves making their ointments in pans on the fire and was taught to make the same cures by them- as a poem quoted by Sir Walter Scott in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders shows:
“For ony herb scho likes to luke; It will instruct her how to tak it, In saws and sillubs how to mak it; With stones that meikle mair can doe, In leich craft, where scho lays them toe: A thousand maladeis scho hes mendit;”
Cornish servant Anne Jeffries was another such beneficiary for, as Scott described:
“[Anne’s mistress] accidentally hurt her leg, and, at her return, Anne cured it, by stroking it with her hand. She appeared to be informed of every particular, and asserted, that she had this information from the fairies, who had caused the misfortune. After this, she performed numerous cures, but would never receive money for them… She had always a sufficient stock of salves and medicines, and yet neither made, nor purchased any; nor did she ever appear to be in want of money… The report of the strange cures which she performed, soon attracted the attention of both ministers and magistrates. The ministers endeavoured to persuade her, that the fairies by which she was haunted, were evil spirits, and that she was under the delusion of the devil.”
The reaction of her community- and outcome- is typical of the period (the mid seventeenth century).
What may be apparent is that we are able to speak with some clarity on virtually all aspects of the physiology and anatomy of the faery folk. There are a few areas of debate, although even in these the balance of the evidence we have from folklore tends to favour one view of other pretty definitely. This means that we can confidently describe the faery lifecycle from birth to death and so more fully understand how our Good Neighbours work.
“Bewitching, like the wanton mermaid’s song” Shakespeare, Venus & Adonis
By analogy with sirens, we are led to believe that mermaids have beautiful and enticing singing voices. Most of the British folklore evidence actually contradicts this: they are certainly alluring, though it seems to be their hair, their good looks and their topless state that generally draws men towards them.
Welsh folklorist Professor John Rhys was certain that mermaids were no singers. For example, he recounts the story of a Caernarfonshire fisherman who came across a mermaid in a cave. Translating (rather freely) from the original Welsh version published in Cymru Fu, Rhys describes how “at first she screeched wildly” when the man discovered her, but then calmed down and entered into a relationship with the human. The couple had children, but she never lost her close link to the sea, meaning that one time when they were out in a boat that was overtaken by a storm she was able to calm it by whispering to the waves. The storm was evidently of more than meteorological origin, because it was accompanied by “the most unearthly screeches and noises.”
Recounting the fate of a mermaid who became stranded on the shore at Conway and was left to die of exposure by the locals, Rhys quotes from a rhyme: “Y forforwyn ar y traeth/ Crio gwaeddu’n arw wnaeth.” He translates this as “The stranded mermaid on the beach/ Did sorely cry and sorely screech,” though the literal and less poetic version is “The mermaid on the beach / Crying, crying loudly.” (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 1901, 117-119 & 199)
Rhys was evidently firmly convinced that mermaids are tuneless shriekers. This seems to have some echoes in an account from the Scottish island of Mull. In the waters around Mull there lives a ‘water witch’ (an cailleach uisge), a malign creature who is consciously contrasted in folklore to the mermaid (maighdean mara), a being who meant no harm. The cailleach is old and dresses in weeds, but her voice, apparently, sounds young. She ensures that she always sits with the light behind her, dazzling the observer, so that she seems young and attractive to that person. She is accompanied by two seal familiars, one black and one white (these would seem to be selkies, because one caught in the late eighteenth century fought her way out of the fishing net, leaving strands of a woman’s hair behind). If any man laughs at the cailleach’s song, the seals will upset his boat.
Whatever their musical accomplishments, on the Channel Island of Sark it was believed that the local mermaids would sit on rocks offshore and sing just before storms blew in, their voices attracting ships to veer too close to the coast. Conversely, there is a newspaper report I quote in my book Beyond Faery that described how mermaids were to be seen nightly at the mouth of the River Dee in Aberdeen, singing “harmonious lays” in their “charming, sweet, melodious voices.” Their performances concluded with God Save the King. Given that this was in 1688, the year of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution,’ in which Protestant William of Orange dethroned Catholic James II, we must strongly suspect that a political statement was being made here under cover of a miraculous sighting. Whether the mermaids were Jacobite supporters isn’t clear.
The Sark tales, linking the songs to shipwrecks, are far more authentic sounding. For all their physical charms, mermaids tend to be deadly. Here are three Scottish examples of this. A Shetland man did a deal with a selkie, in which he would get a mermaid wife in return for giving the selkie a knife. The new wife was delivered, but she promptly drowned the man, whilst the selkie used the blade to cut all the fishing lines in the harbour.
On South Uist, a fishing crew spotted a mermaid. The Hebridean tradition was to throw items to her and Domhnall threw his knife. She caught this and dived out of sight. By taking his sacrifice, it was a sign that Domhnall would drown within the year- which he did. Lastly, on North Uist, a man walking home came across a mermaid on the shore who told him that he had to answer a question for her- or she would kill him. She asked “When were you in greatest danger?” He replied that there had been two occasions: when he was born and when he first learned to walk. Perhaps by boldly refusing to acknowledge that he was at that present moment in great peril, it seems he broke the spell. He was able to drive the mermaid off- very strangely and inexplicably by throwing a large round cheese at her head…
Alluring as they may be, the best advice always with the merfolk is to steer clear (often quite literally). Their love and their gifts are almost always perilous pleasures to enjoy; they may look like charming playmates- but beware…
The pretext for writing this post is that, working with publisher Green Magic on some new faery books, we decided to ‘rebrand’ all the titles they’d issued with new covers using artwork by Arthur Rackham. Rackham is instantly recognisable to many readers, his work is topical and attractive- and it’s largely out of copyright!
I’ve discussed aspects of Rackham‘s work before, both on this blog and in my book Faery Art of the Twentieth Century; what I want to focus on here is the way that art can shape our perceptions. Firstly, as my title suggests, there are essentially two sorts of faery-being featured in all of Rackham’s faery illustrations. There is a slender young female with long hair, dressed in flowing robes (or sometimes nothing)- a faery- and there is a small ugly man in quasi-medieval clothes- a pixie, goblin or gnome. The new cover of British Pixiesgives a good idea of the latter. Some of Rackham’s nude, juvenile nymphs are to be seen on the cover of my Love and Sex in Faeryland.
Regular visitors to this blog will be aware that Rackham’s bipartite arrangement of the Faery world is not reflected by British tradition. There are, of course, attractive female faeries and surly looking pixies, but the faery clans of the British Isles are far more complex than that: every region has its particular family, race or species of fae being and there is little reason to suppose that males take just the one form and females another.
At the same time, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Rackham wasn’t creating his designs without foundation. What he drew upon, though, was not folklore but literature. We need only think of the sexy faery women of medieval romances such as Sir Launfal or the small and misshapen faery kings of Huon of Bordeaux or King Herla to understand where he found his models. As an illustrator of faery tales and legends, this is to be expected.
The dichotomy of type that Rackham established so effectively through the commercial and artistic success of his designs was taken on in turn by many of the children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century- artists such as Rosa Petherick, Susan Pearse or Agnes Richardson- and the iconography came to be embedded in our collective psyche. Because of Rackham, I suggest, we can now only think of faeries within these parameters, divided into these two rough categories- elegant, pretty and girly/ ugly, stunted and male. This is something of an exaggeration, but not a huge one. More recently, the Middle Earth elves of Peter Jackson’s film have contributed the blonde, noble warrior elf as well; but in a sense this is just an elaboration of Rackham’s largely female faery clan.
These images are pervasive and persistent. That might sound improbable again, but consider this. A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), found that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from images and ideas in books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairy series, that adult pagans had seen and absorbed as children.
We get very similar evidence from the Fairy Census (2014-17). When witnesses reached for adjectives to describe what they saw, they often chose to make comparisons with popular representations of faery-kind. Five people likened the beings they saw to Disney characters; four referred to pictures by Brian Froud. One tree spirit was said to have looked like Gollum (i.e. in the films). Looking further back, terms borrowed from Paracelsus were co-opted- sylph and, especially, gnome. Favourite films and beloved books make a powerful impression, very possibly shaping in advance what we expect to see. Of course, they provide a vocabulary, a point of reference, which is why witnesses often allude to the creatures they see looking like leprechauns, goblins, brownies and “the classic gnome” even though they may be using labels that are alien to place where the sighting occurred, mistaken, imprecise or simply unhelpful. Goblins and brownies are good examples here, in that the traditional descriptions of these tend to be of very large and hairy beings; often, now, the words are chosen to denote a small, brown pixie type being, one who is often the personification of Paracelsus’ very unhelpful ‘gnome’ character. The interaction between what we expect to see and what we may then actually see is a complex psychological well beyond my comfort zone, but it is at least clear how mass market imagery, especially that absorbed at an impressionable age, will enter our subconscious.
The new books, Manx Faeries and The Faery Lifecycle, are due to be published later this month.
I have suggested in the past that faery lovers such as the Scottish leannan sith can have a pretty possessive and pitiless attitude towards their human partners. Poor attitudes to potential lovers are by no means something unique to fairy-kind’s treatment of humans. Human males can be equally as bad in their attitudes towards faery females.
Numerous examples of this sort of behaviour come from Wales and can be found in the first volume of Professor John Rhys’ Celtic Folklore. Almost always, these involve the tylwyth teg dancing in a faery ring. Now, it’s perfectly true to say that although the faes very evidently greatly enjoy dancing and spend a lot of time engaged in it, one of the reasons for conducting their dances publicly in the open air seems to be to attract humans to them, so that they can be swept up in the excitement and then carried off to Faery. Rhys has plenty of examples of this. He also has plenty of examples of a human male- very typically a shepherd boy or farmer- who spots an attractive faery girl in the ring and, simply, kidnaps her- taking her against her will to be his ‘spouse.’
Here’s an example:
“One fine evening in the month of June a brave, adventurous youth… went to the banks of the Gwyrfai, not far from where it leaves Cwellyn Lake, and hid himself in the bushes near the spot where the folks of the Red Coats- the fairies- were wont to dance. The moon shone forth brightly without a cloud to intercept her light; all was quiet save where the Gwyrfai gently murmured on her bed, and it was not long before the young man had the satisfaction of seeing the fair family dancing in full swing. As he gazed on the subtle course of the dance, his eyes rested on a damsel, the most shapely and beautiful he had seen from his boyhood. Her agile movements and the charm of her looks inflamed him with love for her, to such a degree that he felt ready for any encounter in order to secure her to be his own. From his hiding place he watched every move for his opportunity; at last, with feelings of anxiety and dread, he leaped suddenly into the middle of the circle of the fairies. There, while their enjoyment of the dance was at its height, he seized her in his arms and carried her away to his home at Ystrad. But, as she screamed for help to free her from the grasp of him who had fallen in love with her, the dancing party disappeared like one’s breath in July. He treated her with the utmost kindness, and was ever anxious to keep her within his sight and in his possession. By dint of tenderness, he succeeded so far as to get her to consent to be his servant at Ystrad. And such a servant she turned out to be!”
In due course, he wins her over further and she consents to marry him. (Rhys, 44-45). This is just one of at least half a dozen examples where the girl is forcibly seized or snatched from amongst her friends, family and people (see too Rhys pages 85, 86, 90, 126 & 128).
Now, these violent takings are justified by the passionate love of the young man, but these are very weak excuses. Rhys also recounts several stories where relationships develop more normally- a couple are attracted to each other, start to meet and slowly fall in love (see, for example, on pages 54, 61, 91 & 97). Very plainly, kidnapping is not the only way of getting a faery lover.
Nonetheless, these methods have been used for centuries. At page 71 of his book, Rhys retells the story of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who snatches a faery lake woman to be his wife. This affair is retold from Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialum which was written in the twelfth century. Earlier still is the account of Wild Edric of Shropshire, who also bodily carried off a faery woman he spotted dancing with her sisters.
For that matter, it isn’t just faeries who are treated this way. As I’ve described previously, mermaids and selkies are also trapped on land by men against their will and are made to become the men’s ‘wives.’ In almost all these cases, though, the marriages don’t last very long. The selkies find their seal skins that the men had hidden from them with the clear intention of preventing their escape from the ‘marriage,’ which is plainly rather more like sexual slavery. As soon as they have the means, these wives will return home to the sea. In the Welsh cases, the woman’s consent to stay is conditional upon not being struck by her husband- usually with iron. This is always breached and the faery vanishes instantly- not infrequently, taking her children and the cattle she brought as a dowry with her.
Why do human men think they can just capture supernatural partners? To a great extent, no doubt, the folklore accounts reflect the attitudes and behaviours operating within human communities at the time they were recorded. The faes are assumed to be sexist because the humans were. The faery women are taken as something akin to slaves: they provide sexual services and- as we saw in the example I quoted- they are frequently extremely good around the house too.
It may be that desperate measures are employed by the human male because he can’t think of any other way of bridging the gap between our dimension and the faery’s- and perhaps, too, he is worried that he might have only the one chance to see and to seize this girl. This may be a factor, but I suspect that a stronger element in this litany of bad conduct is a feeling of contempt and lack of empathy for individuals from another race or species. They seem to be regarded as being there for the taking, without opinions or rights of their own. It’s an extremely unattractive dynamic but, as I remarked at the outset, it cuts both ways, to be honest: human girls are as likely to be carried off as unwilling wives/ sex slaves to Faery as the other way round.
I have discussed before the book The Lore of Proserpine by Maurice Hewlett. In this post I return to Hewlett’s opinions about the nature of fairies and fairy society. The book is a curious read, in that it is a work of fiction that seems to be a collection of reports of cases and personal experiences, somewhat akin to Evans-Wentz’ Fairy Faith. It is, therefore, a set of loosely linked short stories and a quasi-scientific or folklore study of faery kind- yet it rejects the examinations of folklore written by the Grimm Bothers and others:
“Grimm and his colleagues started with a prejudice, that Gods, fairies and the rest have never existed and don’t exist. To them the interest of the inquiry is not what is the nature, what are the laws, of such beings, but what is the nature of the primitive people who imagined the existence of such beings? I very soon found out that Grimm and his colleagues had nothing to tell me.”
This is a rejection by Hewlett of the ‘folklore’ approach to faeries. Rather like this blog, he prefers a different approach and his book is presented as a dissertation on faery ways based upon a lifetime’s personal contacts with fairies. It should be noted though that Hewlett, as a British public-school boy, knows as much about the classical gods of Greece as he does about Puck and Mab. The former are the “Gods” of the last paragraph. His mythology can seem quite heterodox and confused, but- as I’ve discussed before- that is quite typical of much British folklore.
A significant part of the book is concerned with sightings of nymphs- and by ‘nymphs’ Hewlett seems to mean the classical beings and not female fairies by another name. Hewlett (or, rather, the narrator of the book) claims that the open-minded and less sceptical part of his mind has seen naiads and the rest. As a young teenager, he has a vision in an English wood:
“I believed that I was now looking upon a Dryad. I was looking certainly at a spirit informed. A being, irradiate and quivering with life and joy of life, stood dipt to the breast in the brake; stood so, bathing in the light; stood so, preening herself like a pigeon on the roof-edge, and saw me and took no heed.”
A whole chapter is given over to a succession of encounters with Oreads (mountain or hill nymphs) at Broad Chalke in Wiltshire. Where these events took place can be identified exactly on a map, making the whole episode that much more compelling and real. Quite where nymphs blend into ‘hill fairies’ or such like, is hard to say.
Most of the book is concerned with beings Hewlett expressly calls fairies. Rather like the Reverend Kirk (to whom he refers several times), Hewlett has a very well-developed conception of their nature, life style and morals.
To begin with, fairies are “born whole and in a flash,” they don’t grow up. They come from another dimension:
“Of this chain of being, then, of which our order is a member, the fairy world is another and more subtle member, subtler in the right sense of the word because it is not burdened with a material envelope. Like man, like the wind, like the rose, it has spirit; but unlike any of the lower orders, of which man is one, it has no sensible wrapping unless deliberately it consents to inhabit one. This, as we know, it frequently does.”
Seen with humans, they don’t fit in, they’re not the same yet, faeries are part of the natural world and belong entirely within it:
“Now, it is a curious thing, accepted by all visionaries, that a supernatural being, a spirit, fairy, not-human creature, if you see it among animals, beasts and birds, on hills or in the folds of hills, among trees, by waters, in fields of flowers, looks at home and evidently is so. The beasts are conscious of it, know it and have no fear of it; the hills and valleys are its familiar places in a way which they will never be to the likes of us. But put a man beside it and it becomes at once supernatural. I have seen spirits, beings, whatever they may be, in empty space, and have observed them as part of the landscape, no more extraordinary than grazing cattle or wheeling plover. Again, I have seen a place thick with them, as thick as a London square in a snow-storm, and a man walk clean through them unaware of their existence, and make them, by that act, a mockery of the senses.”
They are nature spirits: “the fairy kind are really the spirit, essence, substance (what you will) of certain sensible things, such as trees, flowers, wind, water, hills, woods, marshes and the like, that their normal appearance to us is that of these natural phenomena; but that in certain states of mind, perhaps in certain conditions of body, there is a relation established by which we are able to see them on our own terms, as it were, or in our own idiom, and they also to treat with us to some extent, to a large extent, on the same plane or standing-ground.”
These nature spirits have no language, their songs have no words, and they communicate by telepathy. They may look physically human, but they are utterly different from us in their temperament and consciousness. They live entirely in the present moment, they don’t dwell on the past or try to peer into the future:
“The whole nature of the creature was strung to one issue only, to that point when she could fling headlong into activity- an activity in which every fibre and faculty would be used. A comparison of the fairy-kind with human beings is never successful, because into our images of human beings we always import self-consciousness. They know what they are doing. Fairies do not. But wait a moment; there is a reason. Human creatures, I think, know what they are doing only too well, because performance never agrees with desire. They know what they are doing because it is never exactly what they meant to do, or what they wanted to do. Now, with fairies, desire to do and performance are instinctive and simultaneous. If they think, they think in action. In this they are far more like animals than human creatures, although the form in which they appear to us, their shape and colouring are like ours, enhanced and refined.”
Hewlett’s fairies have no souls; if you look into their eyes you see the “far, intent, rapt gaze of a wild animal.” They don’t have a morality we’d recognise, therefore:
“Literature will tell him that fairies are benevolent or mischievous, and tradition, borrowing from literature, will confirm it. The proposition is ridiculous. It would be as wise to say that a gnat is mischievous when it stings you, or a bee benevolent because he cannot prevent you stealing his honey… That is the pathetic fallacy again; and that is man all over. Will nothing, I wonder, convince him that he is not the centre of the Universe?”
It is, Hewlett asserts, “often said that fairies of both sexes seek our kind because we know more of the pleasure of love than they do.” However, he warns that “it certainly appears like a standing fact of Nature that when the beings of one order come into commerce with those of another the result will be tragic.”
“Love with them is a wild and wonderful rapture in all its manifestations, and without regard necessarily to sex… It must be remembered that I am dealing with an order of Nature which knows nothing of our shames and qualms, which is not only unconscious of itself but unconscious of anything but its immediate desire; but I am dealing with it to the understanding of a very different order, to whom it is not enough to do a thing which seems good in its own eyes, but requisite also to be sure of the approbation of its fellow-men. I should create a wrong impression were I to enlarge upon this branch of my subject; I should make my readers call fairies shameful when as a fact they know not the meaning of shame, or reprove them for shamelessness when, indeed, they are luckily without it. I shall make bold to say once for all that as it is absurd to call the lightning cruel, so it is absurd to call shameful those who know nothing about the deformity. No one can know what love means who has not seen the fairies at their loving…”
In summary, Hewlett calls them “swift, beautiful and apparently ruthless creatures.”
As for their government, Hewlett recognises that they have figures called kings and queens but he states that these are not rulers as such. They recognise the authority of greater spirits but, in essence, theirs is an anarchy: “The fairies are of a world where Right and Wrong don’t obtain, where Possible and Impossible are the only finger-posts at cross-roads; for the Gods themselves give no moral sanction to desire and hold up no moral check.”
The narrator of this book has encountered very many fairies, but he recognises that he is unusual and very lucky. “The laws which govern the appearance of fairies to mankind or their commerce with men and women seem to be conditioned by the ability of men to perceive them. The senses of men are, figuratively speaking, lenses coloured or shaped by personality.” In other words, we see what we are conditioned to see- what we expect. There is a second complication too, which is the fact that “manifestation is not always mutual, [so] that a man may see a fairy without being seen, and conversely, a fairy may be fully aware of mankind or of some man or men without any suspicion of theirs.”
This fundamental soul-less and animal-like quality explains much of the unbridgeable gap that lies between our two species- and why the faeries can seem to act in heartless or inhuman ways. As beings of nature, they are entirely absorbed within their environment, accepting cold as a fact and tolerating it; enjoying pleasure in the moment when they find it. One of his first sightings, ‘The Boy in the Wood,’ involves a faery spotted throttling a rabbit. This is being done, slowly and cruelly, just for the pleasure of being able to kill the animal. Hewlett’s fairies don’t worry about the impact of their actions- in consequence of which, in the account of ‘Beckwith’s Case,’ we see a fairy steal a little girl away from her family. Even though the girl’s father had rescued the fairy and cared for her for many months, she has no qualms about befriending and then abducting the daughter.
This is the harsh world of Hewlett’s faery- and, truth to tell, it’s not far at all from many of the traits of fae nature we see in the traditional folklore. As I’ve described before, his stories are told with beauty and sensitivity and I can only recommend the book again.