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.
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.