Arthur Rachkam- ‘They will mischief you’ from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
The open use of proper names for fairies- whether personal or collective names- is universally frowned upon and frequently punished. I want briefly to examine in this post the nature of this rule and its motivations.
Expert writer Katharine Briggs has described this superstition as the use of ‘euphemistic’ names for the fairy folk; I think that apotropaic may be a slightly more accurate term. The primary purpose of this allusiveness, I believe, is to turn away displeasure and ill-fortune.
Indirect names are used, I think, for several related purposes. The first is with a view to complimenting the fairy folk. Examples include the Good People, the Good Neighbours, the Honest Folk, The Fair Family (Tylwyth teg), The Gentry, the People of Peace and the Seelie Court (that is, the ‘blessed court’, which is matched by Seelie Wicht, a ‘blessed soul’). Some names avoided impolitic directness but were simply descriptive, as with the Cornish an pobel vean, the little people.
The polite and honorary addresses often conceal a second motivation- and perhaps the most important- which is to avert the unfavourable attentions of the fairies. The invocation of goodness and peaceable conduct in part seek to ensure such a state of affairs: if you are respectful to them, they won’t be so inclined to harm you. This is perhaps clearer in such names as Bendith y mamau, the mothers’ blessing; a name surely aimed at deflecting the risk that the fairies will steal a human child and replace it with a changeling. The term is, in a sense, a spell to ward off the risk of abduction and the substitution of a sickly or demanding stock.
A final, very significant, element in this must be a desire to avoid using proper names directly. Across of the globe in very many cultures it is known that a person’s proper name has special powers and that it should never be used directly or without permission- for example, in Arabia the jinns are referred to as mubarakin, ‘the blessed ones.’ Names are a form of property with magical qualities; renowned folklorist John Rhys, writing in Evans Wentz’s The fairy faith in Celtic countries, observed that a fairy would be “baffled” if his proper name was discovered (p.137) . This explains many of the vaguely descriptive phrases employed- the Green Coaties or Green Gowns, White Nymphs, People of the Hills, The Strangers and Themselves.
This respectful avoidance of secret or personal names is best exemplified by the fairy tales featuring this theme. Rumplestiltskin is now the best known, thanks to the Brothers Grimm, but it is a German story, not a British one. Insular folklore has its direct parallels: the tales of Tom Tit Tot, Whuppity Stourie, Terrytop (Cornwall) and Trwtyn Tratyn from Wales. Possession of a being’s concealed name gives control over that individual, hence the efforts to hide and to discover it. In one Welsh example cited by John Rhys in Celtic folklore, possession of the fairy maiden’s name constrained her to marry a man (p.45).
Some readers may, of course, quite properly object that I have violated these rules in my story The Elder Queen- the faery folk there are free with personal and collective names, I must confess. My defence is this: it is for the Folk themselves to decide what is revealed; they can choose to make themselves visible and what personal information to vouchsafe to a human. In my story Darren is favoured- but then they want something from him- his virility and his child- so perhaps it is not a fair exchange at all. Bargains with fairies seldom are balanced and mutually rewarding…
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).