Tempters of the night

froud msnd

Brian FroudMidsummer night’s dream

Nowadays we might wish a child a goodnight and hope that they ‘sleep tight and that the bed bugs don’t bite.’  For earlier ages the risks of the hours of sleep were far more acute and justified much stronger invocations of protection: night was the time of fairies and spirits.

Night time is fairy time

Robert Herrick’s Bellman prays that “Mercie secure ye all, and keep/ The Goblin from ye, while ye sleep;” in the play Cymbeline by William Shakespeare, the character Imogen asks the gods that they “From fairies and the tempters of the night/ Guard me!”  Night time is indissolubly linked to the realm and activities of fairies.  For example, we have A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which all the mischief of Titania, Oberon and their court occur over a single night.  Puck declares in Act V scene 2 that:

“Now it is the time of night

That the graves, all gaping wide,

Everyone lets forth his spirit

In the churchway paths to glide:

And we fairies, that do run

By the triple Hecate’s team

From the presence of the sun

Following darkness like a dream

Now are frolic…”

Soon after this Oberon commands that “Now until the break of day/ Through this house each fairy stray…”  Throughout the play the consciousness of the approach of dawn and the limit upon the fairies’ powers is stressed.  It is only at Christmas, it seems, that the dangers of the darkness are diminished: “The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,/ No fairy takes or witch hath power to charm…” (Hamlet, Act I, scene 1).

Other poets confirm the close link with night time and fairies’ aversion to daylight.  Milton in Ode on the Nativity (line 235) describes how “the yellow skirted Fayes/ Fly after the night steeds, leaving their moon loved maze.”  In Paradise Lost too Milton pictures:

“Fairy elves,

Whose midnight revels by a forest side

Or fountain, some belated peasant sees, or dreams he sees,

While overhead the moon

Sits arbitress.” (line 781)

John Lyly in the Maydes Metamorphosis of 1600 (Act II) has the fairies declare “By the moon we sport and play/ With the night begins our day” and Fletcher in the Faithful Shepherdess observes too how “The nimble footed fairies dance their rounds/ By the pale moonshine.”  We can be left in little doubt that, after sunset, the preferred activity of fairy folk is to dance in circles.  In the Merry Wives of Windsor (Act V scene 5) Dame Quickly addresses her pretend elves thus:

“Fairies black, grey, green and white/ You moon-shine revellers and shades of night…”

“And nightly, meadow fairies, look you sing, … in a ring.”

Prospero further confirms in The Tempest that elves “By moonshine do the green-sour ringlets make,/ Whereof the ewe not bites.” This all sounds quite charming and harmless, but let us remind ourselves that not all the nocturnal activity might be so innocuous: Shakespeare’s King Henry IV wishes “That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle clothes our children where they lay.”

Additionally we should note the traditional association between brownies and their performance of domestic chores for human households during the hours of darkness- typically when the family are asleep and can neither witness nor disturb their supernatural helpers.

Fear of the dark

What are the reasons for this fundamental association?  One may simply be a natural and instinctive human aversion to darkness.  In the Rape of Lucrece Shakespeare invokes “Sable night, mother of dread and fear” (line 17).  In his cultural history, At days’ close- a history of night time (2005), Roger Ekirch devotes the first chapter to the ‘Terrors of the night’, stressing how for earlier generations the nocturnal hours would have consistently engendered anxieties over the proximity of the devil, the spirits of the dead and fairies.  Without sunlight we feel less secure, more vulnerable, more prey to troubled imaginings.

Seeing fairies

In more purely fairy terms, there may be a simple physical explanation of the link with dusk and dark.  Kirk in the opening chapter of his Secret Commonwealth informs us that fairies have “light changeable Bodies (like those called Astral), somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud and best seen in Twilight.”  Later he described these “chamaeleon like” creatures as being formed of “congealed air.”  A belief in the crepuscular or nocturnal appearance of fairies was widespread.  The informants interviewed for Evan Wentz’s Fairy faith in Celtic countries (1911) consistently gave evidence that elves and pixies were to be seen at dusk or dawn (pp.108, 154, 158 & 180), after darkness had fallen (pp.139, 143 & 184) and in moonlight- when they danced (pp.142, 146, 159 & 181). It may simply be that, in bright sunlight, we were felt to be less aware of the fairy presence or- even more probably, perhaps- they came out at night because then it was safer to indulge in their pastime of thieving from humans!

Whatever the explanation, poets have always exploited and played with the nocturnal association.  In Oberon’s Palace, Robert Herrick imagined Queen Mab to be “moon-tanned” whilst Simon Steward in A description of the King and Queen of Fayries (1635) imagined Oberon setting his horn to his “moone-burnt lippes.” John Lyly in Endimion called a fairy “the Queen of Stars.”

froud queen of night

Brian FroudQueen of the night

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have also discussed times of day for seeing fairies more broadly in a more recent post

6 thoughts on “Tempters of the night

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s