The legacy of Cottingley

elsie and frances

Elsie Wright & Frances Griffiths, by t’beck.

The photographs of fairies taken one hundred years ago by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths at Cottingley, West Yorkshire have a significant place in fairy-lore.   They represented a severe dent in the reputation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but possibly made the careers of his collaborators Geoffrey Hodson and Edward Gardner.  Since the pictures were exposed as fakes, the story of credulous grown men being outwitted by photos taken by teenagers armed only with some card, hat pins and a box brownie camera has been readily deployed to suggest the wider gullibility and foolishness of those adults who choose to believe in fairies.

Some also contend that belief in fairies was killed outright by the incident- and that this happened as far back as the early 1920s when the pictures first appeared. The much more recent exposure of images as false therefore came as little surprise to anyone.  In a 1994 article in History workshop journal Alex Owen described the Cottingley case as “one of the last manifestations of a glorious Victorian and Edwardian fairy tradition.” Rosa Lyster, writing on Quartz.com,  remarked that “Eventually, people stopped caring about the fairies. Interest in the supernatural was on the wane, and Doyle was looking increasingly unhinged. The girls produced no more photographs, and the public moved on.”

All of this comment is of a piece with the oft-argued contention that fairies never existed in the first place and that fairy belief, in the modern age, is dead and buried.  Except, of course, that it’s not- and any search of the internet or of books for sale on Amazon will amply prove this (witness the present blog and my own book British fairies).

elsie 1915

Elsie in 1915

We know now that Elsie and Frances copied their pictures from Princess Mary’s Gift Book and cut them out on Windsor and Newton board.  We know it was all a hoax- but still people are producing their versions and imitations of the Cottingley pictures.  These may just be an homage to a famous photographic forgery, but they are also defiant celebrations of continued belief in the face of what some might regard as fatally damning evidence.  The fact that Cottingley wasn’t real doesn’t matter at all; it portrayed something which lots of people remain convinced is real.  Richard Sugg has recently put it this way:

“With the 1983 confessions of both women, many might have assumed that the fairy tale was over… But the cousins somehow created a new kind of fairy folklore… Some stories are tough.  They manage continually to recreate and re-energise themselves; and the Cottingley affair did just that.” (Magical folk, 2017, p.62)

Richard might equally well have observed that the fairies too are tough and can continually regenerate and survive.  The modern manifestations of the Cottingley images are proof of that.

frances

Frances and the fairies, 1917

The paradox of the Cottingley pictures is that, although they look dodgy and now are known to be so, this does not seem to discourage anyone.  They retain their own unique mystique because they remain a powerful symbol of something evanescent that numerous people long to experience.  Frances and Elsie were impelled by a wish to recreate their dreams and no-one thinks the less of them for that.  In fact, lots of people today still want to imitate them.

Fraud busters

It’s interesting to see how many people have been inspired to copy the Cottingley images and their stated reasons for doing so.  Some certainly are commenting upon the Cottingley story itself, such as Manuel Carballal on his blog El ojo critico (The critical eye), who experimented with the techniques used to explore how the pictures were faked:

Marcos Carballal

It’s notable, though,  how unimportant this aspect of the story seems to many.  There’s a fascinating narrative to be had concerning two country lasses’ ability to make fools of older and purportedly wiser establishment men like Doyle, but the majority of imitators are not inspired by that.  Of course, deception was never the girls’ intention.  They made the pictures for themselves and it was a chain of wholly unforeseeable events triggered by Elsie’s mum that gave the images their publicity and notoriety.  What seems to attract people is not so much the international publicity, but the original innocent motivation- the yearning for contact with the supernatural.

Imitation and flattery

It’s fascinating to note how closely most of the modern image makers have stuck to the original pictures.  They depict a single person encountering a fae in natural surroundings.  As will be seen below, and on the separate Cottingley gallery page, Nonchalant Concern even used the same titles for the photographs as in the published versions of those by Frances and Elsie.  At the same time, though, none of these pictures are direct imitations and- very definitely- none are presented to us as actual fairy snaps.  Just as with the originals- before Gardner, Doyle and the rest got involved, that is- the pictures have been taken for the amusement of the makers and those with whom they choose to share them.  They are knowingly faked- forgeries of forgeries, if you like- but somehow that only serves to demonstrate the lasting mystique of the originals.

Queen Mary's gift book

illustration from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, c.1914

One thing that most of the pictures do have in common is the fairies themselves.  Many of the creators seem to have taken the trouble to copy the feminine Edwardian period fairies utilised by Frances and Elsie (there are quite a few Cicely Mary Barker flower fairies in evidence).  It’s probably a significant comment upon our fairy iconography (and on the power of the Cottingley story) that winged, female fays in frocks continue to be our accepted idea of a fae, even a century later.  In one case, though, there is a slightly more contemporary feel: it seems possible that, in one of her photographs of her friend Elodie, Eleonore Bridge has used one of Alan Lee’s faeries from his joint book of that titled published with Brian Froud in 1978.

Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that almost without exception the models are female and that so too, predominantly, are the photographers.  This may tell us something either about fairy belief or about amateur photography (or both, I won’t commit myself).  The preference for white dresses is noticeable; this may have a good deal to do with improving the contrast in a black and white image, but there are of course echoes of the 1910s outfits worn by Frances and Elsie as well, too, as suggestions of girlish innocence and simplicity- part and parcel, perhaps, of a belief in fays?  Bows and flowers in the hair add to the period and juvenile feel.

A fairy tale- and a true story

At Notley Green School, Essex, in January 2018 the Year Two pupils studied the Cottingley story.  I was surprised to learn this has a place in the National Curriculum, but it turns out that the organisation Film Education has produced Years 1 and 2 study materials linked to the film Fairy tale- a true story.  The kids then produced their own imitations-

 

The Film Education module is aimed at primary school kids and takes the film as a starting point for asking questions such as ‘where do fairies come from?’ and ‘what do people believe about them?’  The material addresses such issues as the risks of visiting fairyland and the differing theories on fairy origins.  It discusses some fairy traditions and looks at the Cottingley events, as well as encouraging the children to make their own cut out fairies and fairy photos.  I was impressed; anything that promotes interest in the subject has to be welcomed.

Thackley school in Bradford obviously undertook a similar project, but using Photoshop instead of paper cutouts.

thackley

‘Where dreams merge with reality’

A brief examination of Cottingley related images on the internet will of course reveal that far more adults are fascinated than children.  Many are deliberately undertaking photography projects that honour and echo the original pictures. For example,   Katherine Alcock says that she wanted to create not fantasy but realistic fairy images, if that’s not entirely contradictory!

alcock

Katherine converted the image to black and white and manipulated it digitally to make it appear more grainy and vintage.  TekMagica on Flickr went even further to produce some strikingly ‘authentic’ looking images, which are helped by the girls’ clothes, which look appropriate to the fifties or sixties.

Eleonore Bridge is a fairy believer herself, as well as a keen photographer, and her motivation was to record “A magical moment where dreams merge with reality with hopes of creating a future where there is no contesting that fairies really do exist.”

elodie 1

elodie 3

elodie 2

Plenty of people, like the school children, just wanted to have fun with these pictures.  Here’s a selection- with more featured in a separate Cottingley gallery.

plastic hippo

Plastic Hippo on Pinsdaddy

bondart

Image by Bondart

frances_anf_the_fairies_by_nonchalantconcern

Frances and the fairies by Nonchalant Concern (see the original above)

fairy_tracking_by_hazelcurse-

Fairy tracking by Hazel Curse
cottingley_fairie_by_dark__shepherd-d365k5e
Cottingley fairie by Dark Shepherd

cottingley_fairies_14_

from a Cottingley series by Victoria Emma Thompson

remember_cottingley_i_by_japanfanzz-d2yb7k8

Remember Cottingley by Japan Fanzz

the_cottingley_fairies_by_marschons

The Cottingley fairies by Marschons

the_meeting_by_shutterbugsteff

The meeting by Shutterbug Steff

Kelli

The Cottingley fairies by Kelli, entry for DP Challenge

kelliali_full_

Promotional photo for ‘One day at a time’ by Kelli Ali

soot sprite

By Soot Sprite

cat

Finally- the stuff of horror: a cat attacks some fays on a bed of four leaf clover.  For this hilarious nightmare we must thank Susan Sanford at artsparktheatre.blogspot.com.

Do you believe in fairies?

What unites these Cottingley inspired images, I believe, is not just an underlying wish for the whole story to have been true but also a playful and celebratory spirit.  We know we’re dealing with deliberate fakes, but people are enjoying their creativity and the chance to engage imaginatively with fairies.  There are, of course, plenty of other photographs of fairies available online, but the status of most of these is never so clear.  I’ll restrict myself to one example, which is quite well-known as it has been used as an illustration in Janet Bord’s book, Fairies- real encounters with little people.  It’s another black and white image, in the tradition of Cottingley perhaps, but it much more deliberately presents itself as genuine: it shows a nude young woman in a wood meeting what appear to be two naked Action Men at the foot of a tree.  The website strange history analyses the background to this picture and pretty comprehensively demolishes its credibility.

The Cottingley replicas illustrated here and in the gallery are immune to this sort of debunking.  Thereby they demonstrate the demonstrate the resilience of myth and our need for fantasy and escape.

Advertisements

Only simpletons believe…?

goldsmith

Beatrice Goldsmith, Watching the fairies, 1925

One longstanding response to fairy belief is to allege that it is the habit of the immature and the weak minded.  Only children, fools and the elderly accept that fairies exist, but by their very nature they are uniformly credulous and silly and their opinions deserve no respect.  In fact, their views demonstrate why these groups need to be looked after by wiser and cleverer men.  Not the least of the reasons for this is that, with their uncritical and simple view of the world, they will be uniquely liable to being tricked and cheated.

Old wives’ tales

This sort of argument has been advanced since the late sixteenth century.  Parallel with it until the late seventeenth century was a comparable but separate argument that fairy belief was the product of Roman Catholic superstition and, as such, the faeries had been banished by rational Protestant faith.  This was linked closely to the belief in witches.  I’ve discussed these sectarian controversies in other posts and needn’t say more about the matter here.

The prevailing view of fairy believers was set out very early on.  In 1584 in The discovery of witchcraft Reginald Scot alleged that:

“these bugs speciallie are spied and feared by sicke folkes, children, women, and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare…” (Book VII, chapter XV)

This summarises the prejudices against believers concisely.  Fairies were a delusion of the “common people” and of “manie foolish folke,” as Scot added in the Epistle to his book.  The ‘rational’ view of the situation hasn’t altered much since.  John Penry, describing Wales in 1587, attacked the reverence of the “silly people” for the tylwyth teg.  King James in his Daemonologie of 1597 likewise condemned the beliefs of ‘the innocent sort’ and ‘sundry simple creatures’ (chapter V).  The sort of person meant by this was predominantly female and old: for example, George Puttenham in The arte of English poesie (1589) alludes to “the opinion of Nurses” who thought that fairies swapped babies for changelings.

Into the next century the prejudice remained the same.  Only the “ignorant” would hold such views, alleged Thomas Cooper in The mystery of witchcraft (1617).  John Webster, writing in 1677, agreed in blaming “the superstitious credulity and ignorant fancies of the People.” (The displaying of supposed witchcraft, p.279).  Writing in 1605 Thomas Heywood has a character in his play, If you know not me, you know nobody, reminisce in these terms:

“Ha, ha! I smile at my owne foolery/ Now I remember mine old grandmother/ Would talk of fairies and hobgoblins.”

In Leviathan in 1651 Hobbes summarised these views succinctly: the fairy belief was all a matter of old wive’s fables and-

“the fairies have no existence but in the fancies of ignorant people.”

This attitude- that only the simple and poorly educated would be taken in by fairy tales- has persisted right up to the present.  It’s often found in the Victorian folklore collections, perhaps dressed up as a reference to the ignorance  ‘country people’ or ‘peasants’ (many of whom will necessarily be ‘old’) without the implicit assumptions about such folk being spelled out or, as in William Thornber’s history of Blackpool from 1837 there’s reference to “the heated imaginations of the credulous” with the exactly same connotations.

Fairy frauds

The outcome of such impressionable stupidity did not seem in doubt to sophisticated writers- or to some cynical criminals.  In The alchemist of 1610 Ben Jonson has a dandy called Dapper stripped of his “worldly pelf” by the confidence trickster Subtle; he is convinced he is meeting the fairy queen, but is told that he cannot enter her presence bearing any money or jewellery.  The same plot theme was used by Robert Amin in his play The valiant Welshman which appeared in 1615.  Once again a dupe is divested of his finery, his doublet, rapier, cloak and hose, before he can meet the fairy queen.  Her majesty runs off with it all.

These plays may seem like witty inventions, but they reflect reality.  Judith Phillips in the early 1590s robbed and humiliated various people in the Winchester area by claiming that the fairy queen could guide them to hidden treasure (see The Brideling, Sadling and Ryding of a Rich Churle in Hampshire, 1594).  Early in the next century a London couple called the Wests for a number of years successfully operated a racket tricking greedy and gullible clients out of money and goods with stories of winning the favour of the king and queen of fairy- provided they laid on banquets and supplied sufficiently rich gifts for them in advance (see The cozenages of the Wests, 1613).

richard_doyle_fairy_tree_

Richard Doyle, The fairy tree.

A more recent example of fairy belief being used to dupe the unwary comes from Jacqueline Simpson’s Folklore of the Welsh Border (1976).  She mentions that one highway-man devised a method of horse-theft that relied upon beliefs in fairy music played in underground dwellings.  The robber would lie with his ear to the ground by the road; when a horseman came past he would ask what was wrong and be told that the prostrate figure was listening to  the fairies dancing.  The rider would dismount to listen too and, of course, as soon as he was stretched on the turf, he would find that his horse was being ridden off full speed (p.50).

Another view

In the opinion of many worldly wise men, then, fairy belief is a matter for weak-minded females and for those who need to be protected from themselves.  These prejudices plainly persist and are still powerful enough to ruin the reputation of esteemed public figures- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being a good example following his involvement in the Cottingley fairy photo case.

It is possible, nevertheless, to express these opinions differently.  It has often been said that it is children who are best suited to seeing fairies because of their innocence and openness.  For example in his poem, For a child, American author Joyce Kilmer explains how a little boy “sees with eyes by ignorance made keen/ The fauns and elves whom older eyes disperse…”

It is also a fact that females are more likely to experience fairy encounters.  Drawing upon recent evidence such as Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies and the Fairy census 2014-2017, it’s possible to calculate that females are twice as likely to see fairies as males, although this varies according to age group.  Amongst children girls three times more frequently report seeing fairies than boys; amongst adults just over sixty per cent of sightings are by women.  Now, it’s probably reasonable to suggest that gender stereotyping and social pressure may have a good deal to do with the imbalance in reporting; women may not ‘naturally’ be more inclined to see fairies, but they may feel fewer inhibitions about sharing their experiences, whereas men may feel that such admissions are neither ‘rational’ nor ‘manly.’  For the same reasons, women might perhaps be more willing to label an anomalous experience as a fairy encounter than some men might. Contributions to the recent Fairy census were from females in seventy per cent of cases and it was also noticeable that the proportion of children reporting sightings was higher than in earlier surveys- although this may have to do more with use of digital media than with frequency of encounters with fay folk.

In the 1920s Welsh author Mary Lewes made a further argument for taking fairy belief seriously.  In the pleasingly titled The queer side of things she suggested that there had to be real grounds for so persistent and consistent a concept.  She couldn’t accept that all the witnesses were hallucinating or exaggerating.  To me, this seems a reasonable stance to take.  People have shared these experiences for centuries and, for that reason alone, the phenomenon needs to be taken seriously.

To conclude, the sixteenth and seventeenth century dismissals of fairy sightings may contain more truth than their authors knew.  I am sure that neither I nor any of my readers will consider themselves silly, foolish or gullible for their interest in fairy phenomena.

Further reading

My posting on the physical or psychical nature of fairies touches on some of the same issues as this one.

Elsie Gregory, Children watching fairies dancing

elsie-gregory-children-watching-fairies-dancing

 

 

 

Floatiness- movement of fay people?

IRO f with bunnies

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Fairy with bunnies and flower skipping rope

“Oh, band of mischievous fairies,/ That flicker and float about;”

(Old Donald, Menella Bute Smedley)

As many readers will know very well indeed, the Irish and Scottish Gaelic name for the fairies is sidh.  One of the derivations of this term is from the word for ‘peace.’  Translations of the name therefore give us ‘the People of Peace,’ the ‘still folk’ or ‘the silently moving folk.’  One interpretation of ‘peace’ is that it is a euphemistic name– an expression of hope as much as a description, a form of wish or charm that the fays will be peaceful in their conduct and leave us mortals in peace, just as use of the ‘Good Neighbours’ aspires to a state of amity between supernaturals and humans.

Silent movement

I want in this post to discuss the other understanding of the phrase- the suggestion that the ‘peace’ in question is not an absence of conflict (either with humans or between the fairies themselves) but is descriptive of the manner of their movement.

“And in the fields of martial Cambria…/ Where light foot fairies skip from bank to bank.”  (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594, attributed to Shakespeare)

Now, just how fairies might get about is generally take for granted and seldom remarked upon.  We assume that they’ll walk, that they might ride their own faery horses or that they might fly with those pretty butterfly and dragonfly wings that they’ve so recently acquired.  Perhaps rather more often than fluttering, fairies are taken to ‘teleport’ from one spot to another: witness Ariel in The Tempest, putting a girdle about the earth in forty minutes.

iro yellow fay

Movement through the air is particularly likely to be soundless, which may indeed explain the ‘people of peace’ epithet.  John Gregorson Campbell believed that this was entirely appropriate in the circumstances:

“Sound is a natural adjunct of the motions of men, and its entire absence is unearthly, unnatural, not human.  The name sith without doubt refers to ‘peace’ or silence of Airy motion, as contrasted to the stir and noise accompanying the movements and actions of men.  The German ‘still folk’ is a name of corresponding import… They seem to glide or float along, rather than to walk.” (Superstitions of the Highlands and islands p.4).

Campbell compared the sound of the fairies’ movement to a rustling noise, like that of a gust of winds, or a silk gown, or a sword drawn sharply through the air.

“In they swept with a rustling sound/ Like dead leaves blown together.”

The fairies’ cobbler, Rosamond M. Watson

The soundlessness of fairy movement seems to be confirmed by an account collected by Welsh minister Edmund Jones.  A girl of Trefethin parish told him how she had come across some fairies dancing under a crab tree.  Regularly for three or four years after that time, either when she was going to or coming home from school, she would meet with them to dance in a barn.  She recalled that they wore green and blue aprons, were of small stature and looked “oldish.” Most notable, though, was she never heard their feet whilst she was dancing with them; she took off her own shoes too to make no noise as it seemed displeasing to them.

Skipping and speeding

Other authorities believe that fairy motion was typified by its great speed, which is achieved without perceptible effort.  The fays’ hands and feet may move so fast that they aren’t visible and they seem to glide through the air without touching the ground.  A man who met some Scottish fairies on Halloween described to poet James Hogg how “their motions were so quick and momentary he could not well say what they were doing.”  Supporting this, an account of Broonie the trow king from Orkney describes him as ‘gliding’ from farmstead to farmstead.  Nonetheless, another witness reported how she saw a trow getting about by skipping- backwards (County folklore, vol.3 ,Shetland and Orkney).

iro the acrobats

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The acrobats

Swimming in the air

Is there anything else distinctive about fairy motion that can be gleaned from the sources?

There are a few intriguing mentions of unusual or characteristic movement.  In The secret commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk describes how, with their bodies of “congealled Air” the sidh folk are “some tymes caried aloft” and that they “swim in the Air near the Earth” (c.1).  Welsh Rev. Edmund Jones relates how Edmund Daniel of Arail saw fairies at Cefn Bach: they were “leaping and striking the air” in an undulating motion (The appearance of evil no.59).  Lastly, a nineteenth century Yorkshire account describes the fays as being seen, early on summer mornings, in “rapid, confused motion.”  These latter descriptions are so individual and unique as to lend them considerable authenticity.

Catch us if you can

The same man who told James Hogg about the fairies on Halloween also had another supernatural experience, when he saw a crowd of fays travelling up Glen Entertrony.  At first he thought they were neighbours returning from the fair and tried to catch up with them to get the latest news.  Although they were only twenty paces ahead of him, and he was running, he was never able to reach them- and all the time they seemed to him to be standing still in a circle.  This puts me in mind of an incident from the Mabinogion.  In the story of Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed, Pwyll is seated on top of a fairy hill when he sees fairy princess Rhiannon riding past.  He tries to pursue her, but can never catch her up however hard he spurs his horse.

In the Scottish Highlands it is also believed that, when ‘the folk’ move about in groups, they travel in eddies of wind.  In Gaelic such an eddy is known as `the people’s puff of wind’ (oiteag sluaigh) and its motion ‘travelling on tall grass stems’ (falbh air chuiseagan treorach).  John Rhys recorded in Celtic folklore that the Welsh tylwyth teg were said to dance on the tops of rushes, again suggestive of a light and floating motion.

Whilst we’re talking about fairy movement, it may be worth mentioning here a curious observation by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor in his folk lore guide, The peat fire flame.  He records the Highlands belief that fairies always approach from the West.  My guess is that this is the direction associated with sunset and so, by extension, with death, and that it reflects the association of fairies with the dead, even if they are not ghosts or the dead themselves.

What can we conclude from this brief survey of allusive hints?  The best we can probably say is that one way that fairies might be identified is by their particular gliding, floating movements.

IRO Dragonfly fairy

Killing fairies- the unpleasant truth

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

It’s a widespread belief that fays are immortal.  In fact (and surprisingly) the folklore evidence- scattered as it is- clearly contradicts this.  Fairies are mortal and, it follows, they can be killed.

Fairies’ life spans are considerably longer than ours, which probably explains the common misconception, but nonetheless they do die eventually, something the Reverend Robert Kirk expressed with his usual style:

“They are not subject to sore Sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain Period, all about ane Age.” (Secret Commonwealth, chapter 7)

Another Scottish account of fairy life-spans states that they live through nine ages, with nine times nine periods in each:

“Nine nines sucking the breast,
Nine nines unsteady, weak,
Nine nines footful, swift,
Nine nines able and strong,
Nine nines strapping, brown,
Nine nines victorious, subduing,
Nine nines bonneted, drab,
Nine nines beardy, grey,
Nine nines on the breast-beating death,
And worse to me were these miserable nine nines
Than all the other short-lived nine nines that were.”

That the fays will eventually sicken and pass away is confirmed by a couple of pieces of evidence.  Firstly, fairy funerals have been witnessed.  William Blake most famously described one, but his account is probably more poetic than authentic.  Other people have however stumbled upon fairy funeral processions (for example, that of the Fairy Queen at Lelant in Cornwall) and the Reverend Edmund Jones, living in Monmouthshire in the late eighteenth century, told of several such funerals seen which foretold deaths in the mortal world, quite often that of the witness.

Secondly, there are a few allusions to fairy cemeteries.  One was believed to be at Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland;  generally in the north of England it used to be said that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground.

So, despite great longevity, age and sickness will ultimately overtake even the fairies.  This is sad, but not necessarily shocking.  More disturbing is the evidence that fairies can be killed prematurely.  I have discussed fairy warfare in a previous post; it’s almost unavoidable that blood will be spilt in such conflict, but we might still not think it so remarkable that one magical being can slay another.  The truth is, though, that humans can murder supernaturals.

Nymphocide (I’ve just invented this word, by the way) may occur accidentally.  One version of the story from Brinkburn is that it was the ringing of the bells of the church that killed them (Denham Tracts, p.134).  I’ve mentioned before fairies aversion to church bells; this particular story takes that theme to extremes.

Other fairy murders are just that- deliberate and premeditated killings.  One case from Shropshire concerns some nuisance boggarts in a farmhouse.  The story follows the pattern of the “we’re flitting too” type of tale, in which the human family try to escape their unwelcome companions by moving house, only to find that the boggart comes with them.  In most versions the humans reconcile themselves to their unwanted housemates, often giving up the move entirely.  In the Shropshire version, the humans take matters to their logical conclusion.  Unable to give the boggarts the slip, they trick them into sitting in front of a blazing fire in the hearth of the new home and then topple them into the flames, where they’re held in place with forks and brooms until they’re consumed.

Some other nymphocides at least seem to be crimes of passion or are committed in the heat of the moment or in self defence.  On the Hebridean island of Benbecula a mermaid was accidentally slain by a stone thrown at her head during an attempt by some fishermen to capture her.  In the ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elf-knight, the heroine lulls to sleep the fairy who plans to kill her and then stabs him to death; in another version she drowns him- but the ability to kill is the point.  J. F. Campbell relays a story concerning the killing of a gruagach with a sword (Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.1, p.7).  The Reverend Robert Kirk also mentions a man with second sight who, during a visit to faerie, “cut the Bodie of one of those People in two with his Iron Weapon.”  All of these raise tales the possibility that it is the iron of the weapons that is significant.  We know that iron is a good defence against fairies and it seems only reasonable that it should be fatal for them too.

This evidence may surprise and shock some readers, but it fits with the general tenor of traditional fairy lore.  If the fairies are dangerous and untrustworthy beings, it seems inevitable that sometimes a person will conclude that the only safe and permanent solution will be to do away with the perceived threat.

A related, but separate, procedure is the ‘laying’ of a supernatural- normally a boggart- which involves permanently banishing or exorcising the creature.  Perhaps this will be the subject of a future posting…

IdaRentoulOuthwaite

Traditional material in the Fairy Census

Cottingley harebell posie Elsie

Elsie Wright presented with a posy of harebells

The Fairy Investigation Society‘s recent Fairy Census, published in January this year and covering 2014-2017, is a fascinating snapshot of contemporary perceptions of the fairy realm.  As I have already discussed, there is much that is new in modern fairy sightings, but there is also much that seems to come straight from traditional folklore sources, mixed up with the more contemporary and anomalous experiences.  There are quite a few experiences which would be very familiar to our ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although the examples of each are all quite limited in number.

The sorts of aspects of Faery I’m discussing here tend to be those that sit less well with the benign image of fays that has become so prevalent now.  Here are a few examples:

  • Hiding or moving things– the mischievous removal or concealment of personal possessions, often keys or jewellery, was reported a few times;
  • Pixie-led– in a second manifestation of fairy mischief, there was a handful of cases in which individuals found themselves lost or going in circles in a familiar place or within a small area where the exits were nearby and clear;
  • Abductions– in only ten cases (1% of the total) there seemed to have been an attempt to abduct a person (half involved adults and half children). Several times a strong feeling of compulsion was reported, often tempered by a sense of fear- even in situations where the fairies’ conduct was not in itself threatening: for example, they seemed to be dancing or playing;
  • Time distortion– it’s well known that time can pass very differently in Faery and this was mentioned in several reports. Most often hours were lost or unaccounted for.  Memorably, one witness described the sensation as “time felt twisty” (no.225);
  • Music– traditional accounts very frequently link music and dancing with fairy sightings. In the Census music was heard in only 11% of cases.  In half of these bells the music came from bells, although sounds like pipes, voices and drums were also reported.  Six of the witnesses compared what they heard to Irish or ‘Celtic’ music. As regular readers may recall, ceol sidhe is an especially Irish phenomenon;
  • Dancing– once the commonest pastime of our good neighbours, this was mentioned but in only 3% of the modern cases;
  • Conventional terms were often resorted to as a frame of reference or as a label for what the person experienced. Mention is quite often made in the Census of pixies, dryads, elves, gnomes, dwarves, leprechauns, brownies and goblins.  The traditional dress associated with these were reasonably common too- clothes of green, red and brown and caps, quite often pointed.  The most interesting of these accepted fairy ‘types’ were the four mentions of ‘banshees.’  The being’s hollow, mourning cry was what provoked the identification; in two of the cases, a death was felt to be directly related to the premonition; and,
  • Fairy temperament– many contemporary writers describe faes as kind, friendly and helpful- full of good will to humans and to the natural world. The older idea of fairy character was generally a lot darker and echoes of this are to be found in some of the Census cases.  Witnesses sensed anger, hostility and even outright malice in about 3% of cases; they felt fear in 6%.  In one instance in the Census- and one in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies– there was an impression that the fairy was mocking the human for some reason (Census no.475; Johnson p.24).  Balancing these negative emotions, there were also a few reports in which the human sensed the fairy’s interest or curiosity in them or what they were doing.

Cottingley 3

Elsie Wright again

The Census therefore presents us with an intriguing combination of traditional and wholly novel elements.  Only a few of the encounters involve interaction, so that the majority are descriptions of brief sightings (frequently of flying beings).  Nevertheless we come away with the impression that fairy encounters are an evolving body of law, with new perceptions or reactions added to the older understandings.

See too my posting on who believes in fairies for some further discussion of the Census statistics and their breakdown by age and gender.

Cottingley 2

 

Some Welsh Otherworlds

sidi

Caer Sidi by Sirsur on Deviant Art

In a post last summer I discussed the Welsh tendency to portray fairyland as an island, especially an offshore island that appeared and disappeared unpredictably.  In this post I’m returning to the subject of the Celtic ideas of Faery,  but with a wider perspective.

We have to start with some background.  In Welsh mythology Annwn (Old Welsh Annwfyn) is the commonest term used for the Otherworld, the supernatural dimension.  The word occurs most notably in the title of a poem found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’ and dated roughly to the late 800s- early 1100s- ‘The spoils of Annwn’ (Preiddau Annwn).  This poem describes a journey by King Arthur and three ships full of his men to seize a magical cauldron from Annwn.  The verse touches on many important themes:  there is the Celtic idea of the special food vessel (perhaps a forerunner of the Grail);  the cauldron’s cooking fire is kindled by the breath of nine maidens, a group we must irresistibly associate with Morgan le Fay and the nine virgin priestesses of the Isle de Sein off the Breton coast; there is the use of the magic number seven (only seven men return with Arthur from his voyage- just as only seven men return to Britain with Bran the Blessed in the story ‘Branwen, daughter of Llŷr‘ in the Mabinogion)- and there is the idea of a a fairy fortress, my particular interest here.

Caer Sidi

Arthur’s quest takes him to a stronghold that has various names in the poem.  It is first called Caer Sidi (or Siddi), but it’s also the four-cornered fort, the fort of numbness, the fort of obstruction and the Glass Fort (Caer Wydyr).  Those of us interested in the Arthurian legends could easily be distracted by this last name, which takes us to other mythological sites in the Matter of Britain: to Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass, and thence to Glastonbury and Avalon (but that’s another story).

Back to Caer Sidi; this name is translated variously as the Otherworld fort, the spiral fortress and, importantly for us here, the Fairy Fort.  That interpretation derives from a link made between Sidi and the Gaelic sidhe, meaning the Tuatha De Danann, the fairy folk.  Now, it has to be admitted that sidhe properly means ‘peace’ and that it has come to mean ‘fairy’ because it’s an abbreviation of ‘people of peace,’ one of those euphemisms regularly used by people to avoid naming Them directly that I’ve examined before.  It’s not a wholly secure chain of etymology, therefore, but it’s a generally accepted translation and (as I’m no Celtic scholar) I’m content to accept it.

Another Taliesin poem, Kerd Veib am Llyr (Song before the sons of Llyr) also refers to Caer Sidi.  The poet declares that

“Complete is my chair in Caer Sidi/ No-one will be afflicted with disease or old age that may be in it/… Around its borders are the streams of ocean.”

These lines appear to imply that this chair (kadeir- meaning a throne or seat of precedence) is situated on an island and that either the seat or the site confer some sort of eternal youth- that it is a paradise.

corona-borealis-fred-espenak-sq

Caer Arianrhod

Magical, or supernatural, forts are popular with the Welsh poets.  Another example that’s worth mentioning is Caer Arianrhod.  This location features in the story of Math fab Mathonwy, also in the Mabinogion.  Arianrhod herself is one of the children of the goddess figure Don, the Welsh equivalents of the Irish goddess Danu and her offspring, the Tuatha De Danann.  The mythology is all very complicated and it’s easy to get lost, but for present purposes it will suffice us to say that forts and fairies seem to be intimately related in Celtic myth.  Another ancient Welsh poem, Kadeir Kerritwen (the Chair of Ceridwen), describes how the River Enfnys flows around Arianrhod’s court: it is, once again, an island, depicted as being physically separated from the rest of the mortal world as a metaphor for its spiritual separation.  I may add that Caer Arianrhod is also a name for the constellation of the Northern Crown, the Corona Borealis.

Now, we’re not talking here about Caernarfon castle- let’s bear that it mind.  These legends were formulated in the ‘Dark Ages’ when there were no stone medieval castles.  Even Norman motte and bailey strongholds of wood and earth would have been too advanced for the period, so what we have to imagine for all of these locations is a traditional British hill fort, somewhere like Maiden Castle or Hambledon Hill.  Of course, as I’ve only recently discussed, there are longstanding fairy associations with ancient sites, whether hill forts, stone circles or barrows.  That’s why, therefore, in my story Albion awake!I had the main characters meet the fairy queen Maeve atop the tumulus on the summit of Hambledon Hill.

So, to return to our theme, Fairyland for the Welsh appears always to have been associated with some identifiable feature in the landscape, whether a prehistoric fortification or an island.  The ‘otherness’ and inaccessibility of each particular site presumably derived from its physical features (man-made or natural)  and also from the aura of mystery attached to it: Iron Age hillforts or Neolithic causewayed camps would have been ancient and inexplicable presences, haunted by the spirits of poorly understood ancestors. Possibly too some memories are preserved of the sacredness of lakes and other bodies of water in Iron Age Celtic worship.  There was a gulf in time, as well as some geographical barrier, that separated the observer from the fairy place.

To conclude, then, the Welsh faerie is somewhere near to us, yet faraway.  It might be found either:

  • on a high hilltop (and you might be reminded here of Arthur Machen’s story The hill of dreams);  and/ or,
  • on an enchanted island in the sea or in an inland lake.  We know that King Arthur sails to Annwn in his ship Prydwen, indicating that Caer Sidi must be doubly remote and inaccessible.  This idea is not uniquely Welsh.  I’ll close with a story from the Scottish Highlands.  In the far north west in Gairloch lies Loch Maree and in that loch there is Eilean Sithain (the fairy island).  On that island is another loch, and in that loch a further island, on which- under a tree- sits the fairy queen, receiving from her people their kain (tithe or tribute) which is paid every seven years to the devil (it was said).  (see J. H. Dixon, Gairloch in North west Ross-shire, 1885, p.159).

Some further reading

I’ve mentioned Robert Graves’ White Goddess before and in it, chapters 5 and 6, he examines the mythology behind the two caers at some length (make what you will of it).

 

Fairy kings of Britain

paton msnd

Joseph Noel Paton, Oberon & Titania

In a previous posting I questioned the need for faery royalty, but here I accept the existence of the institution (in literature at least) and discuss some individual kings.

“Jealous Oberon”

Most readers will be familiar with the name of Oberon as the king of Faerie.  Shakespeare is responsible for this, but he did not invent the name.  Rather he borrowed it from the medieval French romance Huon of Bordeaux.  In that story Oberon / Auberon appears as a magical fairy king.  Auberon is a french name, an affectionate diminutive form of Aubert, which in turn is derived the Frankish/ Germanic Alberic (in Anglo-Saxon Aelfric), which means no more than ‘elf rule.’  In other words, this is not really a name at all, it’s just a job title- ‘King of the Elves.’

Oberon is now accepted as the archetypal fairy king and, it’s true, he clearly has Old English roots, but he’s come to us by way of literature and is not really a true folklore figure.  For the British, though, this doesn’t matter because they’ve had their own fairy king all along, whose name is Arthur.

King-Arthur-Winchester-Round-Table-closeup-WEB

“In this world he changed his life”

King Arthur long ago ceased to be merely a Dark Age hero or monarch of the Round Table: he was transformed into a supernatural being and a resident of Faery.

After Arthur was mortally wounded fighting his nephew Mordred he was carried away to be healed by the fay maidens Morgan and Nimue.  From this myth of fairy salvation, a closer link to fairy nature evolved.  Layamon, in his Brut of around 1190, recorded that:

“The British believe yet that he is alive,

And dwells in Avalon with the fairest of all the elves.”

Holinshed, in 1578, told much the same story.  People believed that “King Arthur was not dead, but carried away by the fairies into some pleasant place…” (Chronicles, Book V, c.14).  In the romance of Huon of Bordeaux Arthur even succeeds King Oberon to the fairy throne.

Lydgate in the fifteenth century developed the situation even further, though, and has the fairy king return to rule us (The fall of princes, Book VIII, c.24):

“He is a king y-crowned in Faërie,

With his sceptre and pall, and with his regalty,

Shalle resort, as lord and sovereigne,

Out of Faërie and reign in Bretaine,

And repair again the oulde Rounde table.”

By being taken to Faery, Arthur (perhaps by consuming the food and drink there) has become immortal himself and now awaits the call to return to save his former kingdom.

In fact, fairy glamour now envelopes him completely.  According to the romance Brut de la Montaigne, all fairy haunted places belong to Arthur (Verses XXX & XXXI), whilst in Gerbert’s Romance of Percival, the ‘siege perilous’ at the Round Table was bestowed upon Arthur by “la fée de la roche menor” (the fairy of the menhir).  Many of his knights too, such as Gawain and Lancelot, have fairy origins: Lancelot, for example, is raised by the mere maid the Lady of the Lake.  Moreover, the time of Arthur’s rule came to be seen as one especially favourable to the fairy presence in Britain, during which, far and wide, they danced openly on heaths and greens (e.g. John Dryden, The wife of Bath- her tale; Thomas Parnell (1679-1718), A fairy tale).

The conjunction of fairy stories and Arthurian myths remains compelling to us now because it combines magic and mystery along with a promise of redemption and restoration.  The once and future king will return from Faery to assist us in our greatest struggle and to ensure our salvation.

Other contenders?

I’ll close with a brief mention of one or two other candidates for the throne.   I have before mentioned Welsh fairy king Gwyn ap Nudd, who was said to hold court under Glastonbury Tor and who ruled over the tylwyth teg.  

Very much less well known is the mysterious King Eveling of Ravenglass in Cumbria.  He was said to hold court at Lyon’s Yards, the ruined Roman bath-house that stands near the small seaside town, but other than that little is known of him.  This fairy king is an intriguing figure because of his mythological connections: his name may very well be connected to Avalloc, putative ruler of the island of Avalon; both have some connection to Evelake, King of Sarras, found in the later French romances of Arthur.  He was, then, a significant figure at one time, but almost all details of him have been lost, in addition to which both he and Gwyn have been eclipsed first by Arthur and then by Oberon.

gwynapnudd

Gwyn ap Nudd by Thalia Took

 

What exactly is a fairy? The Fairy Census 2017

The Fairy's Lake ?exhibited 1866 by John Anster Fitzgerald 1819-1906

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s lake, 1866, Tate Gallery

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

(Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5).

In January this year the Fairy Investigation Society published a Fairy Census covering 2014-2017.  The document makes fascinating reading and I will be examining its contents over a couple of posts.  Here, I want to raise the intriguing question of what, exactly, we understand by the word ‘fairy’ in the early 21st century.

The data for the census comes from individuals across the world, although primarily from Britain, Ireland and the USA.  They submitted descriptions of their fairy experiences to the Society and these give us an opportunity to consider what today is popularly understood to be ‘a fairy.’

We all think we know what a fairy looks like: we envisage either a fluttering girl or a small pixie in green. Whatever the detail, the fundamental assumption is that they are humanoids, closely resembling us.  Nevertheless the Census, along with Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, confronts us with a body of sightings which within themselves are consistent and which challenge our conventional ideas.  Some fairies apparently do not look like fairies at all.

Small animals

It is not unusual to hear of fairies and pixies being described as particularly hirsute and shaggy, with dark and unkempt hair, but a small number of encounters have been with mammalian beings that display human-like characteristics.  Marjorie Johnson gathered together several of these.

During the summer of 1920 fairy seer Tom Charman spent nine weeks in the New Forest and repeatedly met with small cat-like creatures.  Similar beings were described to Johnson by witnesses from Kent, Essex and Cheshire, but she also received a comparable report from Indiana- of a cat standing on its hind legs and wearing brown trousers.  When disturbed, it ran away ‘like a rabbit.’

In his valuable little book, Somerset fairies and pixies (2010), Jon Dathen interviewed a Somerset farmer who recounted a sighting from his childhood, some seventy years earlier. Late at night he had sneaked downstairs to find a small person “like a hare done up in clothes” sitting in front of the farmhouse fire.  He had long ears, whiskers and buck teeth, but he could speak- explaining he had come in to escape the cold.  Later in his life, the farmer had heard of other hare-type pixies being sighted in the county.

Storm-

John Anster Fitzgerald, The storm.

Furry shapes

 A handful of reports take furriness even further.  A woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described how she regularly met some cliff dwelling pixies; both were about two feet in height.  The male was a small human with some distinctive features but the female was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, somewhat like a bee.

Two other accounts are even more surprising.  During the early 1940s in Kent one woman was on a country walk when she saw a furry tennis ball rolling up a slope towards her.  It briefly opened when it drew close to where she was sitting to reveal a pixie within- and then disappeared.  Returning to Cornwall in the 1930s, a final witness on a coastal walk sighted a pisky who then changed into “a long furry black roll, which gambolled about on the grass and then disappeared.”

The_artists_dream

Fitzgerald, The painter’s dream.

‘Ent fays’

Over the last hundred and fifty years the identification of fairies with the environment and natural processes has become more and more commonplace.  Some fairies are seen dressed in garments made from leaves and flowers, but it may not be especially surprising to find that supernatural beings are met with who appear to be more vegetative than animal.  These are creatures whose body seems to be composed of vegetable matter; they may perhaps be subdivided into ‘ents,’ walking trees, and smaller hybrid entities.

The tree-beings can be tall, seven feet high or more, perhaps with faces showing in the bark of their ‘bodies.’ The smaller vegetation fairies appear to be far more mixed in their appearance.  Some have bodies made of animated leaves and sticks, some are composed of a mixture of plant and insect elements, some are tiny leaf-like creatures.  With more evidence it may very likely be possible to analyse these types further.

stuff that dreams are made of

John Anster Fitzgerald, The stuff that dreams are made on (detail).

Monsters

Last of all, there is a collection of witness accounts that tests our conceptions of fairies to the limits.  There are strange hybrid creatures: a dragonfly-fish, a frog-sparrow or a butterfly-bird.  There are also semi-human forms: beings that are part human and part insect, reptile, dog, spider or frog, as well as fairies that seem to be a combination of traditional fairy and mermaid features. Some fays have appeared as huge tadpoles, another as an ape dressed in leaves.

Some other less conventional forms

There are various other classes of sighting which, whilst fitting within the conventional imagery of fays, still display some unique features.

Aliens 

The boundaries between ‘aliens’ and ‘fairies’ are increasingly uncertain and permeable, it seems.  In Seeing fairies a tiny number of witnesses mentioned beings with pronounced pointed faces or slit/ black eyes.  The proportion of such sightings was distinctly higher in the Census, suggesting that the now-standard concept of a ‘grey alien’ may be shaping fairy experiences.

Humanoids 

Although the commonest fay form is human, they are sometimes said to be noticeably disproportionate, being too tall or having overlong limbs.  This is occasionally hinted at in Johnson’s reports, but spindly or gangly bodies are considerably more frequent in the Census, with bodies described as being very slender, long-limbed or above normal height.

Lights 

The luminosity of fairies is often mentioned, but the last transformation is the eradication of the body altogether: the fairy is reduced to a point of light, which is often seen darting about.  Johnson’s witnesses experienced this only a handful of times.  In the Census fourteen per cent of cases were sightings of bright lights, of which nearly three quarters were moving.  We may suspect here the influence of J. M. Barrie‘s stage representation of Tinkerbell in the minds of those having the experience.

Conclusions

On their own, these reports are so anomalous as to make no sense, but grouped together some sort of pattern does appear to emerge and it is possible to identify certain ‘species’ that are regularly sighted.  Perhaps they are so different from the standard idea of fairy to demand a new name, but at present ‘faery’ is the only category to which we may assign them.

 

Fairy child care- a different story

lee gille

Alan Lee, Ghillie dhu

The standard account of the fairies’ dealings with human children is a sombre one: they steal infants and leave changelings in their place, bringing grief to mortal families.  Reassuringly, this is not the whole story.

Our Good Neighbours have been known to help children in need, much against their accepted character.  In addition, the changeling phenomenon might perhaps be something of an exaggeration, albeit for purely practical reasons: Catherine Dawson Scott, writing in the Fairy Investigation Society journal for 1929 on the subject of Cornish pixies and spriggans, had this to say on fears of infant theft:

“I think a human baby would be too big for a fairy to manage. After all they are only little folk, at the most, two feet high and a baby would be a giant to them. It would grow and grow, it would want food, it would scream. Altogether it would be more of a nuisance than a joy. Whatever else the fairies may do, I fancy they would draw the line at burdening themselves with a baby – so you need not worry about that.”

Perhaps Dawson Scott is right, but in any event there is evidence of a kindlier nature than her rational explanation allows for.

From Norfolk come the little known hyter (or hikey) sprites.  They are small and elusive fairies, but they are said to be favourable to humans and will return home lost children they come across (and stray donkeys too).  Oddly, the threat of the sprites was actually more frequently deployed by parents as a sort of nursery bogie to get children to behave.

hikey

A similar report is made of the Scottish Highland spirit called the gille dubh (the black boy).  His hair is black and he dresses in moss and leaves, haunting the woods at the southern end of Loch a Druing near Gairloch.  He was well known and often seen in the latter half of the eighteenth century and once found a girl called Jessie MacRae wandering at night in the woods.  He looked after her kindly and took her home in the morning.  Jessie was, in fact, the only person to whom the Gille was ever known to have spoken.  More generally, Campbell reported in his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1900, c.1, p.40) that Scottish fairies would “sometimes take care of children whom they found forgotten.”  Whether he only referred to the gille dubh is unclear.

Lastly, we have the story of Bettie Stoggs from Cornwall.  Robert Hunt reported in Popular Romances of the West of England that throughout the ‘high countries’ of Penwith (the parishes of Morvah, Zennor and Towednack) it was said that the fairies would take poorly cared for children and clean them.  This was Stogs’ experience: she drank, and neglected both her home and her child, but the pixies removed the infant, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers.

Setting aside the fairies’ traditional wish to acquire human infants, it was widely accepted that those children would be well-cared for when they were in fairyland.  That being so, it is not improbable that they might on occasion extend the same care and affection to children in (or sundered from) their own home.

 

 

The fairies of Albion

pn

Paul Nash- Earth home or The fortress

A quick plug for my other WordPress blog.  On johnkruseblog I write about archaeology, art, history, landscape, theatre, film and anything else that takes my fancy.

A long term theme has been the idea of Albion as a parallel or alternative identity for Britain- a mythical, mystical counterpart.  I’ve just posted a discussion on the fairies of Albion, examining how our local fays may be seen as an expression of the spirit of the land and of the people.

This posting ties in with some thoughts I’ve looked at here, especially the links between fays and our ancient landscape and the theories of William Blake.

Click on over to johnkruseblog and have a look!