“Wrap around your dreams”- faery lovers & dreams

Henry Fuseli, Queen Mab, 1814

As Mercutio described in his famous speech in Romeo and Juliet, Queen Mab would bring to lovers dreams of those they adored- and perhaps prognostications of future spouses. John Anster Fitzgerald shows such a scene in his painting below. I’ve described before how Mab might also physically appear to young men and women in their beds and seduce them; however here I’m more interested in how the faeries might use dreams as a means of contact and seduction.

A Scottish shepherd once heard faery pipes playing and felt compelled to try to track down the source of the sound. He followed the music for weeks, months, seasons, living on whatever he could forage along the way- berries and roots. In time he ceased to hear the music, but he had arrived on a shore where a boat was pulled up on the beach, so he climbed aboard and sailed wherever it took him. In due course the shepherd reached an island where a green man with bagpipes met him and invited him to join the sith folk and to accept the love of a faery girl who had seen the mortal man one day when he was tending his flocks and had fallen for him. Unwisely (perhaps) the shepherd fled this offer, and struggled back home over many months. He married a local woman and settled down, but the sith woman never gave him rest: he used to wander in his dreams ever after.

Although, as Fleetwood Mac said in Dreams, “Women, they will come and they will go,” this frequently tends not to be the case with faery lovers. I have described before how the Scottish leannan sith and Manx lhiannan shee can physically haunt the human males they batten upon, albeit frequently they are invisible to everyone else. As the tale of the shepherd demonstrates, a tangible presence isn’t required.

I’ve also described before how Queen Mab can come as a type of succubus to ride young lovers at night. We assume she physically manifests to the young men and women she seduces, but it could just be a very vivid erotic dream that they experience. It’s notable as well how in several folklore accounts faery lovers appear beside the human’s bed, suggesting that the ‘dream-lover’ is actually quite a common form of contact.

The first instance I’ll describe seems to be a fairly straightforward example of dream communication. A man from Caernarfonshire discovered a mermaid on the seashore. They became friendly and she encouraged his interest by bringing him treasure from under the sea. Then, she visited him as he slept in his bed at night and told him to meet her the next day. When he did, the mermaid was present in human form, wearing a dress, and apparently willing to come on to the land and live with him. Eventually they married and had children together.

In a second example, from the Isle of Man, a man from Derbyhaven called Mickleby was picked up by a shee woman at a dance he stumbled across when walking home one night. Thereafter, he was never able to shake her off; she would appear beside his bed at night. This sounds like a physical appearance in the room with him and, without question, what had led him to be tied to her in this way was very corporeal. After dancing with her, Mickleby had wiped the sweat from his face on part of her dress and it seems that this ‘exchange’ of bodily fluids had tied the pair together. What’s more, he could only get rid of this lhiannan shee by throwing an unbleached linen sheet over the two of them, something which appears to indicate that the ‘marital’ bed somehow formed a key to their link, with a suggestion that clean sheets came between them whereas soiled ones formed part of their bond.

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.

However, in other cases, sleep or dreams seem to make humans highly vulnerable to faery contact. A herdsman from Tiree fell asleep one warm summer afternoon on a small hill. He was rudely woken by a violent slap on his ear. On rubbing his eyes and looking up, he saw a woman in a green dress, the most beautiful female he had ever seen, walking away from him. She headed westward and he followed her for some distance, until she suddenly vanished. This woman was plainly a faery- judging by her dress and by her travel towards the west, known as the faery direction in the Highlands. The slap she gave him could have been punishment for sleeping on what must have been a sithean, a faery hill, but there was clearly more to it than that, even though the story is abruptly curtailed.

Considering the fate of a male from Iona, we might judge that the Tiree herdsman was actually very lucky just to have received a slap. Thinking that it was dawn, the Iona man got up early one morning and went out fishing. After catching some fish, he realised that bright light of a full moon had fooled him into thinking it was day, so he decided to return home. On the way, he sat down to rest on a hillock and fell asleep. He was awakened by a tugging at the fishing rod, which was still in his hand. The rod was being pulled one way and the fish he’d caught another. Next, he heard the sound of a woman weeping. He suspected she was a faery and tried to get away from her but she caught him and thrashed him soundly. Then, every night after that, he was compelled to meet her and could never again escape her.

In these accounts, the fact that the victim falls asleep seems more than just incidental or superfluous detail. Rather, it appears to be a central element in the entrapment by the faery lover. Perhaps sleep is a time when a person is vulnerable, when it is possible for faeries to use dreams to pass into the mortal world and to make contact. Without question, the fact that humankind was particularly at risk during the hours of darkness and sleep was widely understood; the collection of Scottish Gaelic prayers and verses known as the Carmina Gadelica contains numerous charms invoking the protection of the trinity and the saints overnight. Closely comparable is a charm explicitly defending homes at night against faeries from the Isle of Man, which calls on St Columb to protect “each window and each door/ And every hole admitting moonlight.”

For more detail, see my recently published Faery Mysteries from Green Magic Publishing.

Faery Saviours- Helping the Weak & Vulnerable

Frederick George Cotman, Spellbound

I’ve mentioned before the tendency of faeries to help humans who are poor and oppressed- what I’ve termed ‘Robin Hood‘ faeries. These charitable works extend as well to those whom we might class as weak and ill-suited by age or sickness to help themselves.

For example, on the isle of Skye a boy walking home on a stormy night found that the burn that crossed his path had swollen so much he couldn’t cross it. There was no alternative route for him and he faced being trapped outside all night on the wrong side of the watercourse, until a faery helped carry him across.

Rather similar is the case of an elderly woman on the island of Yell, who faced a long journey walking home on a very dark night. Suddenly, hands gripped hers: the trows had come to assist her. They made the dark night bright and guided her all the way to her door, before vanishing.

Of course, there is often an intersection between poverty and vulnerability. An old woman neglected by her son at Barncorkerie in Galloway was helped by the faeries- who at the same time deprived him of goods, food and drink in order to support her. A widow at Barnasketaig on Skye couldn’t afford to pay labourers to harvest her oat crop, so the local faeries did it all for one night, cutting and binding the oats in sheaves. Also on Skye, a man who had been unfairly deprived of his only cow (I assume by some unjust form of legal seizure), the sole source of milk for the family, was given a replacement by the local sith folk. It came to his farm covered with water weeds, and plainly one of the crodh mara or crodh sith, the faery cows, but it fattened and produced rich milk on his grazing. (You might also recall that magical cows might be sent by the faeries to aid human communities struck by drought or famine- examples of helping whole villages of people rather than one needy individual).

Rather similar to the last Skye case is an incident from Clackmannanshire, involving a farmer called Crawford. He had previously been helpful to the local fae- and such acts are always remembered and appreciated. Accordingly, when drought struck the area and three of his cows died, he was provided with a purse of gold with which to buy two new cows. The faeries even helped Crawford drive the cattle home from market and then guided him to a hidden but very rich area of pasture.

A very poor shoemaker of Pathfoot, in the Ochil Hills, one night gave shelter to a faery fiddler when they barely had enough for themselves. This man had been banished from faery, he said, and had supported himself for years by playing his fiddle at human gatherings. Now, he was to be allowed to return to his people, but he could not take his earnings with him. In return for their hospitality, therefore, the fiddler gave them the bag of containing all the human money he’d been paid, a huge sum sufficient to provide ample dowries for both their daughters and to ensure prosperous marriages for them.

What’s especially notable here (beside the faeries helpfulness towards particular mortals) is their distinct streak of paternalist intervention with people’s welfare. They are evidently believers in active charitable assistance.

A Celebration for the Elf Queen- Cliff Richard & Galadriel

The fact that Sir Cliff Richard once sang a song about “Galadriel, Spirit of Starlight” may astound many readers, especially those in the UK who may be more familiar with his work. Although the young Harry Webb came to fame in the late 1950s as a daring and vaguely raunchy rock and roller, subsequent decades have seen him become a staple of the pop charts. Given his well-known Christian faith and his increasingly ‘national treasure’ image (for example, singing at Eurovision in 1968 & 1973), a song of praise for one of the elf queens of Middle Earth may seem rather unexpected- and yet, Frodo of the Shire, it came to pass.

The song was originally composed by Hank Marvin and John Farrar and was included on their Marvin and Farrar album of 1973. The track subsequently formed the B-side to a single, ‘Small and Lonely Light’ which was issued in August 1975. As a tune for acoustic guitar, strings and choir, it bears a discernible lineal descent from Led Zeppelin‘s Stairway to Heaven and has layered vocals and other production effects that make it seem pretty hippy and trippy. Frankly, I personally prefer the slightly more restrained original version– untypical as this might have been for the guitarist for the Shadows, Sir Cliff’s backing band, and the composer of Apache. It’s got some fine psychedelic moments and, I’m sure, at the time sounded pretty in tune with the spirit of the times. Tolkien’s book was at the height of its (first) popularity and the cartoon version of the story was still three years away.

Ten years later, Cliff sang of his adoration for the elf queen. Galadriel is “reading the signs” and “searching for a new life.” The singer celebrates his burning love and devotion to her:

“She’s a light to guide me through the fray…
Eagle and dove gave birth to thee…
You are my love and earth to me…”

The last line might sound faintly unexpected given Sir Cliff’s faith, yet there he was in tuxedo and bow tie, declaring his love for one of Faery kind.

The track was released on Sir Cliff’s 1983 live album, Dressed for the Occasion, which was recorded at the sober and respectable Royal Albert Hall, accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to mark his twenty-fifth year in the music industry. At a distance of forty years, the performance of the song could strike us as rather out of time (as well as out of character) and- to some extent- it was: but not to the degree that one might initially suspect.

Certainly, Lord of the Rings was no longer in vogue as it had been a decade earlier when the song was written- but the choice was (I strongly suspect) a gesture to Sir Cliff’s old friend Hank Marvin. As for the orchestral setting, this concert is- in fact- a late manifestation of something that had been quite popular in rock over the previous fifteen years or so. Witness, for instance, Concerto for Group and Orchestra, a live album by heavy rock band Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded (once again) at the Royal Albert Hall, in September 1969. Nor should we forget Justin Hayward’s War of the Worlds or several albums by Rick Wakeman, such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974). Equally, I guess, Sir Cliff might have pointed to the lush orchestration of bands like ABC on the Lexicon of Love to suggest that this was actually very hip. The verse has a definite haunting quality that seems rather appropriate; the rousing chorus with its backing choir puts me in mind (a bit) of the elven lament for Gandalf in the first Lord of the Rings film.

Conditioned as we are, these days, to associating Tolkien-based music with heavy metal bands, a more mainstream handling of its characters strikes us now as quite surprising. There’s no real justification for this, of course, and what Sir Cliff’s performance of ‘Galadriel, Spirit of Starlight’ does definitively demonstrate is how pervasive Lord of the Rings has been in our culture, with its characters becoming part of everyday discourse- rather as Titania and Oberon were in Victorian times..

For more on this and other chart topping faery hits, see my posts on Queen and Marc Bolan, and my book, The Faery Faith in British Music.

Bad Breath? A source of faery magic

Brian’s Froud’s Bully Bogey

In his 1998 book, Good Fairies, Bad Fairies, artist Brian Froud invented numerous humorously intended faery types, amongst which he included the ‘Bully Bogey,’ a being presumably in part derived from the bull-beggar of British tradition. His character is manipulative and contagious; he “loiters in lonely places and sullenly waits for his prey. His fetid breath inspires brutality and oppressive actions.”

In fact, I’m not concerned here in this post with halitosis, but with an intriguing facet of faery magic- the ability to change things simply by blowing upon them. We tend, to day, to be attached to the idea of faeries carrying wands, but they don’t actually need them. Just their breath alone can transfer their glamour. For example, at Arisdale on the Shetland island of Yell, an old woman travelling home late one dark night was helped by the trows: they blew into the air and it became as light as day. In Dumfriesshire, a woman living at Auchencreath helped a faery neighbour one day by lending her some oatmeal. In return, the faery breathed over the mortal woman’s meal chest, saying that it would never be empty again.

These examples demonstrate the application of faery magic for good, helping those the faeries favour- often those who’ve helped them. They can, of course, curse as well as bless by the very same means. Very common indeed is the treatment of midwives and nurses who have inadvertently given themselves second sight by touching their eyes with the green ointment that they’re meant to be using to anoint the faery baby. Once it is discovered, the second sight is almost always promptly taken away by the faeries. This may be by violent blinding, depriving the human of their sight completely, but breathing on the eye to return it to its original state is also known. Examples of this are found in accounts from Scotland down to Wales.

Such treatment of midwives is, naturally, preferable to poking sticks or fingers in the eyes, and it underlines the fact that very little is needed by the fae to wield their magical power. Intention alone (perhaps combined with some spell recited in the head) is sufficient to achieve the purpose. A comparison might be made to their ability to fly (without wings) simply by holding a bundle of straws and pronouncing the correct words. Whatever the exact nature and source of their magical powers, it needs only the lightest of physical contacts to be conferred.

Queen, Richard Dadd and the Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke

Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, Tate Britain

During the early 1970s, progressive rock- a music with clear literary and intellectual (as well as musical) aspirations- repeatedly tackled myth, legend and faerylore. We might note Rick Wakeman’s 1975 album, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur, or the Dane, Bo Hansson’s ambitious attempt to capture Lord of the Rings in one LP. Certainly, in discussing this topic, we can hardly ignore the early albums of Queen.

Rather like Marc Bolan, whom I’ve described before, there was a clear commitment in rock to mythical themes and some attempt to construct a fantasy realm. For instance, on Queen I from 1973, there is ‘The Seven Seas of Rhye’ and the explicitly fae song ‘My Fairy King.’ This is set in a land where horses are born with eagle wings and the honey bees have lost their stings, an Edenic place where the rivers flow with wine, there is perpetual singing, and lions lie down with deer. The land is controlled by an omnipotent and omniscient monarch:

“My fairy king can see things…
That are not there for you and me…
My fairy king can do right and nothing wrong.”

However, evil men threaten to destroy this paradise:

“… someone has drained the colour from my wings,
Broken my fairy circle ring,
And shamed the king in all his pride…”

As can be seen, Mercury’s vision of Faery was, in fact, rather more like a heaven threatened by Satan than any fairyland of folk tradition. Nonetheless, he demonstrated his knowledge of faery-lore by incorporating elements from folktales (the faery rings and prophetic powers) as well as more literary elements (the faery king’s wings).

Richard Dadd, Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854-58)

The mystical imagery of the first album was taken even further on the band’s second LP, Queen II, released in March 1974. The record is divided into white and black sides, the latter comprising what Freddie Mercury termed “little fairy stories.” The presence of Faery is very apparent in several tracks, including ‘White Queen’ (white side) and, on the black side, ‘Ogre Battle’ and ‘The March of the Black Queen.’

The ‘black’ side also features the track ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke,’ which is nothing more or less than a word-picture description of the painting of that title by Victorian artist Richard Dadd, now in the Tate Gallery in London. It’s reported that Mercury repeatedly visited the Tate to study the picture and that he insisted that his fellow band members also did the same.

Richard Dadd, Titania Sleeping

Dadd had been a promising young painter, but a trip to the Middle East and Egypt in 1842 seems to have destabilised his mind. On his return home, his mental health deteriorated further, culminating in summer 1843 with his family taking him to a village in the Kent countryside to rest and recuperate. Tragically, Dadd murdered his father during this holiday. He was committed to a ward for the criminally insane in Bethlem (or Bedlam) psychiatric hospital, from which he was subsequently transferred to the newly established Broadmoor Hospital. Here he was allowed to resume his painting, and produced a series of memorable faery canvases, including Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (above) and the Fairy Feller (1852).

These pictures were by no means Dadd’s first faery images. He had already shown considerable interest in the subject, with images of The Haunt of the Fairies, Puck, Titania Sleeping (1841), and Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1842). As the latter three titles indicate, Dadd (like so many other Victorian faery painters) drew his inspiration primarily from Shakespeare (Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest). In all respects, his art at this point was quite unexceptional.

Dadd, The Haunt of the Fairies

Following his committal, the painter’s style changed quite radically, becoming almost microscopically and obsessively detailed. Perhaps psychologists might have something to say about this fact- although the meticulous intricacy of the paintings may just reflect the almost endless time he had to devote to working on them. Shakespearean themes remain (Oberon and Titania) but he also crafted his own unique vision. The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke is Dadd’s most famous painting, a dream-like glimpse through grass stems of a secret faery incident. There is virtually no spatial depth to the picture, so that we have a crowd of faeries almost heaped upon each other. The faery world he creates here is entirely his own (rather like those imagined much later by Marc Bolan and Mercury).

Dadd wrote a very long poem to explain the imagery of his work. Dated ‘January 1865, Broadmoor secure hospital,’ it is titled ‘Elimination [presumably, Illumination] of a picture and its subject- called the Feller’s Master Stroke.’ It appears that Freddie Mercury was very well acquainted with this verse and that he borrowed numerous elements from it for his own lyrics.

Despite his own serious mental health problems, the verse indicates that Dadd realised that his densely crowded picture needed some sort of guide or key. Rather like the picture itself, the poem is convoluted and rambling, entirely lacking the “sense as terse/ As poets jam into a measured line” that Dadd apparently sought. The painting originated in “pure fancy,” he stated, based not any fairy story or folk tradition (although there are many authentic elements present- such as a faery dairy maid and Queen Mab herself). Rather, the scene is fantastical, created “as in a trance-” for “common nature is not true.” Dadd then proceeded to describe all the characters he had painted, who comprise the entire spectrum of faery society. He even identifies amongst them a satyr and a dandy with a nymph- all of them very “queer.”

Even where he was not quoting directly, Mercury paraphrased and condensed Dadd’s words:

“He’s a fairy feller
The fairy folk have gathered ’round the new moon shine
To see the feller crack a nut at night’s noon time…”

Dadd’s picture is a dense image of multiple faery figures of different sizes and wildly varied dress, from Oberon and Titania down to the humblest of the faery realm. Mercury followed Dadd’s lead and examined all of these characters with rapt attention, the rapid and layered lyrics reflecting the crammed nature of the canvas itself:

“a satyr peers under lady’s gown, dirty fellow
What a dirty laddio…
Fairy dandy tickling the fancy of his lady friend;
The nymph in yellow…
What a quaere fellow…”

In his history of glam rock, Shock and Awe, rock journalist Simon Reynolds has made a convincing case to the effect that Fairy Feller may be read as a declaration of gay identity by Freddie Mercury. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that the ‘fairy feller’ and the ‘queer fellow’ of the lyrics refer to the vocalist himself, discretely expressing his sexuality under cover of artistic code. Nonetheless, much of the lyric derives from Dadd (chosen, I presume, precisely because it did seem so congenial to Mercury) and I think that the song can still be regarded in itself as one of the greatest expressions of Faery in modern rock.

With its choral backing vocals, exaggerated operatic enunciation and harpsichord-like accompaniment, the track is very clearly written by the group that would compose ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in a couple of years’ time. As an attempt to set a Victorian faery painting to music, it is, needless to say, utterly unique.

This posting is a condensed version of part of a chapter from my Faery Faith in British Music.

Welcome to the Nymphaeum

Roelant Savery (1576-1639), Nymphs & Satyr near a Temple.

I’ve just completed my third book on nymphs, which is entitled The Woods are Filled with Gods- Dryads, Centaurs & Satyrs. Rather like its predecessor about water nymphs, its not so much a nymphal history (unlike 2020’s Nymphology) as a book about art and literature.

My primary interest is how we’ve used these minor divinities in our poetry, novels and painting over the last two hundred years or so. Why do these deities of ancient Greece still fascinate us? Why, for example, did J. K. Rowling populate the Forbidden Forest around Hogwarts school with centaurs? Accordingly, after a brief survey of the background myths of these beings, my focus is on the use made of them by painters, sculptors, illustrators and poets. I think that for modern people they symbolise two fundamental aspects of our being: our troubled connection with the natural world (a mixture of regret, longing and guilt) and our often uneasy accommodation with our own animal natures- our baser instincts, our violence, our sexualities- and the tensions that arise between these and our ‘higher,’ more intellectual or spiritual sides.

To mark the publication of the book on Amazon/ KDP, I’ve decided to establish a dedicated blog in parallel to British Fairies. Nymphal matters will from now on have a home at the nymphology blog.

Faery Brewers

The Beer Fairy, Paul Morgan, 2012

I wrote recently about faeries overindulging in alcohol, but , as I said, they are brewers themselves and certainly have no objection to strong drink.

A regular faery habit is to magically appear in wine cellars, there to consume the vintages available for free. A typical example of this is the Cornish story of young man from Porthallow who had been sent to buy some items in Polperro. Walking back home after dark, he fell in with some high spirited pixies who were travelling up and down the coast by the simple means of crying out “I’m for [for instance] Seaton Beach”- words which would instantly carry them where they wanted. A cry of “I’m for the King of France’s cellar” took the party to a large and well-stocked wine cellar, where they enjoyed the finest products of French viticulture. Before he flew home to Porthallow Green, the boy had the presence of mind to steal a goblet to prove his adventures. In his Miscellanies, John Aubrey recorded a nearly identical story told of a member of the Duffus clan from Morayshire, who flew to Paris with the sith folk after pronouncing the spell “Horse and Hattock.” His experience was different, though, as he got very drunk, was abandoned by his faery companions, and was discovered the next day by the King’s servants, passed out on the cellar floor. Despite his plight, the king set him free with the gift of a silver cup, presumably because the presence of a Scottish boy with a hangover in your wine cellar could only be explained by faeries…

As well as the occasional thieving visitor, some faeries more permanently haunted wine stores. The ‘abbey lubbers’- most famously Friar Rush- and the secular ‘buttery spirits’ were sprites who haunted the cellars of monasteries and inns respectively. Often their drinking was a form of criticism and punishment of the excesses of the premises in which they lived. Monks lived luxurious lives in defiance of their vows of poverty, whilst the buttery spirits particularly targeted either taverns that cheated customers (by watering the ale or using substandard ingredients) or domestic houses where the poor were refused food and drink (or the servants were unruly and lazy). These individuals, despite their often inebriated state, had a clear social justice element to their characters.

Fairy in Beer Mug by Hikarusasa on Deviant Art

Just as faeries can punish humans through interfering with their baking, they can inhibit their brewing as well. As a result, it used to be common around Britain, to appease the faeries or protect the vats with charms so that they would not interfere in beermaking

We hear from the Shetland, for example, of a man who annoyed his domestic brownie by reading the bible and, when he was brewing, by failing to make any offerings of milk and wort to the farm’s resident brownie by pouring them into a hole in the local brownie stone. An elderly woman of the family warned that there would be consequences- but the farmer carried on as before. In revenge for this disrespect, the brownie spoiled two brews “without any visible cause in the malt.” (M. Martin, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, 1716, 391-392)

After my last piece, a reader enquired if there was any actual supernatural connection between absinthe and its popular name of Green Faery. The answer seems to be- no. The name would appear to come from the wormwood spirit’s green colour and from the impact that consuming the 80% proof drink can have on your perceptions.

More generally, distilling doesn’t seem to be a faery thing; unlike fermentation, it’s not a spontaneous process that can occur in nature without intervention. As I’ve just described, the faes have some power or control over the living process of brewing and baking with yeast, but the more chemical creation of pure alcohols seems to be outside their natural scope. A possible preference for ‘naturally’ fermented drinks would also explain their well-known attachment to cider (especially the pixies of the south west of England) and also, perhaps, wine. This, we know, was a favourite at banquets- as is demonstrated in the story of a young Dumfries man who followed the sound of faery music and found himself invited to join a feast and dance inside a hill. At the end of the night’s celebrations, he was presented with a cup of wine and, what’s more, either this or his contact with the fae during the dancing gave him the second sight ever after.

A potential disinclination to distill doesn’t necessarily imply a dislike of the products of the distillery. We have records from Scotland of a liking for whisky (perhaps predictably!) Some ‘peerie men’ (tiny faeries or trows) on the Shetland island of Yell once drank whisky from a man’s palm; on Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides a changeling child revealed himself as really being an old faery by drinking whisky in the absence of ‘his’ human parents. There is some suggestion of faeries being engaged in smuggling in Cornwall, which would almost inevitably have involved spirits.

Lastly, we must recognise the persistent contrariness in faery nature. They may enjoy a tipple themselves, but they regularly show disapproval of human drunkenness- and its consequences. Several stories from the Ochil Hills in mid-Scotland show their antipathy (The Ochil Fairy Tales, 1912). A man from Ashintrool who had mocked the idea of faeries in the inn after Falkirk sheep market was found by the faeries after he’d fallen off his horse in a stupor. He had his nosed stretched in revenge. More intriguingly, a man from Parkhead got very drunk after attending Stirling market. As he staggered home late at night, the faeries waylaid him and carried him off to a brewhouse, where they forced him to drink more and more brew wort, finally tipping a whole vat of ale over him. Lastly, a surly and drunken old monk from Cambuskenneth, who was unkind to children, was captured one night and was beaten with sticks whilst whisky was poured down his throat. Strong drink can be a fault and part of the punishment, it would appear.

Witches’ imps, faery familiars

In recent years several folklore scholars have remarked that, before about 1560 in England, there was no record of any popular belief in the presence of the beings that came later to be called witches’ familiars or ‘imps.’  That being the case, as one author has observed, “It is hardly credible that imps were a distinct category of supernatural being in folklore whose existence was simply never recorded until the advent of the trials for witchcraft, and it is much more likely that they were an outgrowth, in some way, of fairylore.”  In other words, imps and familiars were one manifestation of the faery experience in England- and one that has since the seventeenth century largely been forgotten.

Plainly, a factor in this is that we use different terms. Imp and familiar seem to be quite a separate class of being from the faery or brownie- yet if we look at some older sources, we’ll find that the words appear to have been interchangeable. So, in August 1566, a Dorset man called John Walsh was examined on charges of sorcery.  He told the magistrates about his contacts with the “feries,” whom he met at midday or midnight on local hills.  He also lit candles inside circles he’d drawn to “raise the familiar spirit- of whom he would then ask for anything stolen and where the stolen thing was left, and thereby did know- and also by the Feries he knoweth who be bewitched.”  So, these familiars/ faeries tell him who’s been cursed and who’s stolen goods. Very similar was the case of a Leicestershire woman Joan Willimott, who was examined as a witch in 1618.  She claimed to have received a spirit named Pretty from a man called William Berry, who asked Joan “to open her mouth, and hee would blow into her a Fairy which should doe her good.” Pretty then appeared to Joan as a woman, telling her who in the neighbourhood had been cursed or bewitched.   Once again, a ‘fairy’ acts as a ‘familiar’ helping a witch.

The truth is, when we look, that imps do a lot of the things that we are familiar with faeries doing. Familiars very consistently appear in animal shape and- as we know- the fae can shape-shift into animal form as well (goats, birds, moths and the like); not infrequently taking on the very same forms that were used by familiars (cats, mice, dogs). Imps have a taste for malicious pranks, very much as the pixies do. For instance, they were known to have raised or removed hedges as appropriate in order to vex a victim. A related habit was for imps to make a nuisance of themselves in houses- turning the inhabitant out of their chair for example. Boggarts and brownies are also known for such antics.

Witches were often accused of sending their imps to strike cattle down with illness, or to kill them; the faery trait of ‘hunting’ cows with elf-bolts will be familiar to many readers. Imps- exactly like faeries- could disrupt and frustrate domestic activities, preventing the rising of bread or the brewing of beer. Again- just like faeries, brownies and hobgoblins- imps can undertake farm chores like reaping crops, and will do so in record time. For example, Victorian cunning man, George Pickingill, from Canewdon in Essex, claimed that his imps could harvest a field of grain for him in half an hour, whilst he relaxed and enjoyed a pipe of tobacco.

Imps guided witches to hidden gold or brought them small sums of money, faery habits that will be familiar from several previous postings. Some familiars enriched their witches with coins, others provided them with goods, typically livestock.

Exactly the same kinds of charm that would dispel faeries were effective against witches and their helpers: rowan wood, red thread, St John’s Wort, holy words, the sign of the cross, pages from religious texts, running water.

This is only the briefest of surveys of the subject, which I have examined at much greater length in my recent book, Faery Mysteries. Nonetheless, the many surprising parallels may already start to become clear- even though they may challenge our preconceptions. One of the themes of the book, though, is that our categorisation of ‘faeries’ can sometimes be too restrictive, and that their appearance and behaviour is often more varied than we tend to admit.

Intoxicated Pixies and Inebriated Elves

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Many readers will be well aware of the fact that the faeries enjoy feasting and banquets. It is often at such large events that humans encounter them: sometimes individuals are invited as guests, sometimes they are there to provide entertainment because they are skilled musicians, sometimes they simply stumble upon a wedding party or such like at night (the person sees a faery hill open and light streaming out and- very often- manages to make off with a valuable golden goblet after being offered a celebratory drink). As these last cases most directly indicate, drink is a big part of these festivities. Faeries are quite a capable of overindulgence as we are; this is what I want to discuss today.

There is very little doubt that the faeries enjoy alcohol.  They are known to make cider and to brew beer- including the famous heather ale of the Highlands. See, for instance, details of the Cornish pixies described in Bottrell’s Traditions & Hearthside Stories, vol.2, 95.  That the fae should brew with yeast is not at all surprising given their well-known baking skills

Absolute proof of the faery liking for alcohol is found in a comic story from Shetland.  At Yule there was a tradition for the trows to appear and to go freely from human home to home. One trow visited a large number of houses, stealing a drink at each as he went.  He ended up, naturally, highly inebriated and fell asleep in a house on the island of Yell, stretched out the bedroom window sill.  The occupants discovered him there and tried to catch him but, despite his presumably hungover condition, he was able to fend them off and make his escape (see the valuable website http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk, Dec.18th 1972).

The faeries’ preference for a good strong pint of ale is confirmed in an amusing anecdote from Alves, in Moray in Scotland.  The local minister there was told that it was tea that had driven the local faeries away.  Previously the people had celebrated special occasions with beer, but the influence of the church and the temperance movement led to a switch- and resulted in the deep unhappiness of the elves. An extension of their liking for beer seems to be an affection for or approval of beer-drinkers. Describing the Welsh brownie-type sprite called the bwbach, Wirt Sikes observed how the creature always “had a weakness in favour of people who sat around the hearth with their mugs of cwrw da [good ale] and their pipes…”  Exactly like their human neighbours, the faeries enjoy good company and all the bodily pleasures that enhance that: warmth, comfort and a mild intoxication (Sikes, British Goblins, 31).

There is also consistent evidence that the faeries enjoy smoking.  Most often, it has to be said, such reports relate to pixie or ‘gnome’ types and the image of a white haired and bearded character with a pipe in his mouth has become something of a stereotype.  Still, so well established is the association of pipe-smoking with faeries that fragments of very early (Tudor period) clay pipes have long been regarded as faery pipes because of their diminutive size; they are called cetyn y tylwyth teg in Welsh (see, for instance, Elias Owen’s Welsh Folklore, 1896, 109).

As I’ve often described, our Good Neighbours share many of the weaknesses and imperfections of us humans- and their liking for beer and tobacco is no exception to this. Life in a separate, magical dimension may very well be free of many of the burdens and problems of mortal life- but it seems that it can still benefit from a little extra stimulation from time to time…

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Faery Mysteries

Evocation, by Alexander Rothaug

In that Victorian classic, The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley (1863), the author mocks contemporary scientific attempts to analyse the world. The character Professor Ptthmllnsprts wants to prove that:

“that nymphs, satyrs, fauns, inui, dwarfs, trolls, elves, gnomes, fairies, brownies, nixes, wilis, kobolds, leprechaunes, cluricaunes, banshees, will-o’-the-wisps, follets, lutins, magots, goblins, afrits, marids, jinns, ghouls, peris, deevs, angels, archangels, imps, bogies, or worse, were nothing at all, and pure bosh and wind. And he had to get up very early in the morning to prove that, and to eat his breakfast overnight; but he did it, at least to his own satisfaction.”

Water Babies, chapter 4

This list may seem strangely familiar to some readers, and there’s a good reason for that, It closely resembles those written by Reginald Scot in the 1594 and by Michael Denham in the nineteenth century. Whether the contents are “pure bosh and wind” is another matter again. I’ve surveyed these matters in previous posts and I recently returned to the theme in a chapter in a new book, Faery Mysteries. In this, I’ve deliberately focussed on some of the aspects of faery lore which are the most challenging or uncharacteristic for us- if we approach the subject with the conventional stereotyped image of a faery in mind. Some of the creatures listed by Denham seem barely ‘faery-like’ at all. Likewise, their means of getting about, their pastimes and some of their functions (such as influencing our dreams and nightmares– including our most secret sexual fantasies) challenge our preconceptions as to what faeries are and what they do. This may seem especially so in the final chapter of the book, in which I trace some of the close parallels between faeries and witches’ familiars. I’ll return to this particular subject in a separate post, but suffice to say now it’s another indication of how complex the relationship is between faery-kind and witches.

Ludovic Alleaume, Incantation

We all share a tendency to attach ourselves to narrative that are familiar and comforting. With faeries, this has become the image of the Good Folk as small, winged, friendly, harmless and in harmony with nature. This probably says more about our own concerns than those of our Good Neighbours. In putting together the new book, I deliberately looked for the elements of their characters and habits which are most at the boundary of what we consider ‘fae.’ To some degree, it’s a call for more flexibility in our categorisations. Comparably, my 2020 book Beyond Faery deals with those classes of faery beast that present us with similar problems: where do we draw the line between ‘Faery’ and some other species of supernatural being? Arguably, the title if the second book is a misnomer, as I’d still include the mermaids, the kelpies, water bulls and the black dogs within a more broad and generous definition of fae. What’s indisputable, though, is that faerylore always has something to surprise us; the faeries are a complex and unpredictable people- just like us.

A practical example of faery complexity and multiplicity is the question of how they get around. The modern cliche is of the winged faery, something that’s largely a conceit of artists and is unknown to British folk tradition. Native faery lore has the faeries flying, it’s true, but this is by means of enchanting plant stems to ride on or merely by dint of a magic spell that’s pronounced, often including the intended destination (“Horse and hattock” etc). That’s all well and good, but then the Good Folk confound us by walking around, or riding, or using carriages and wagons, or by sailing in boats. They’ll sometimes even borrow a horse and cart from a human neighbour. Then again, they can travel inside whirlwinds or (it appears) move about by spinning their own bodies like tops. What determines the choice of motion- ‘type’ of faery, situation, weather conditions, personal preference- we just don’t know.

Such puzzling variety exists as well in the faery relationship to our own sleeping or dreaming states. According to accounts, a half-waking, half-drowsing consciousness is common for contact with the faeries; we are, perhaps, at a liminal point between levels of awareness or ‘dimensions’ and (it appears) more receptive to them. The faeries’ interventions subsequently can be multifarious. They may bring us dreams of what we desire (materially or romantically); they may communicate with us, bringing us messages or directing us towards hidden riches; most notoriously, they may physically intervene against the sleeper. Individuals asleep have been physically punished by the faeries for perceived offences against them, they have been the subjects of attempted abductions and (of course) they have been the victims of sexual assaults. Once again, the mechanisms and precise reasons for the faeries using one medium of contact rather than another is unclear. People are as often approached (and seduced) openly and face to face, so why some have these experiences whilst asleep is another mystery.

As promised, I will return soon to the subject of witches’ imps, but in the meantime, and for much more detail, see my Faery Mysteries (Green Magic Publishing, 2022).