“Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt”- fairy physiology



Brian Froud, a ‘frog fairy’

Our ancestors believed in a form of life called ‘fairy’; but how exactly did they conceive these beings? What was their physical form and nature (if they had one?)

Astral bodies

Robert Kirk, in his Secret commonwealth, describes them variously as “astral” with “light, changable Bodies somewhat of the Nature of a condensed cloud” (s.1) and as being composed of “congealed Air,” which meant that they could not be physically wounded in the “fluid, active, aethereal Vehicles” which held them (s.7).  Kirk was Scottish and it seems that the general Highland belief  was that sidh were not flesh and blood but spirits who looked like men and women, albeit smaller in stature (see Evans-Wentz, The fairy faith in Celtic countries, pp.102, 104, 105, 109 & 114).  They had no solidity and a hand could pass straight through them, as if through a ghost.  The same was true in Wales (Wentz pp.138, 140 & 144); the popular conception was that the fairies didn’t have physical bodies and so could be caught.  They lived in a materially different sort of world which would change any human who visited (Wentz pp.144-145).  One Welsh account depicts them dancing on the tips of rushes, evidently being both tiny and insubstantial.

In more recent times perceptions have moved us even further away from the idea of fairies having a fixed, solid body.  The medieval fay steadily became more ethereal until we arrived at a point today where quite a few authorities say that they have no inherent form and simply borrow their appearance from whatever preconceptions they viewer carries in his her mind.  The fairies are purely ‘thought forms‘ who look just as we expect them to look.

Fairy babies

This being so, it is strange then that it was accepted that ordinary mortals could have physical contact with fairies- dancing with them, nursing their babies and, indeed, fathering babies upon them.  Katharine Briggs wrote that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (see her The fairies in tradition and literature p.95). Maybe there was some distinction between the physical nature of the human sized and smaller fairies.  Maybe there were regional differences or simply some inconsistency in understanding.  Generally, the idea seems to be that faery folk are as real and tangible as we are: they can jostle and pinch humans, they can fire projectiles at them; in other words, faery is a parallel or neighbouring world that is just as corporeal as our own.

Fairy food

It is also notable that fairies would steal human food (and children), so presumably they ate the same things as we did.  We know that fairies drank wine and cider and made their own food such as cakes and bread.  David Parry-Jones in his Welsh Legends even records the fairies operating their own inn near Pwllheli.  Nonetheless, contrary beliefs were also held: in Cymbeline (III, 6) it is said of Imogen “But that it eats our victuals, I should think/ Here were a fairy.”

Unfairly, it appears that fairies can eat human food without injury, whereas a human tasting their food could be entrapped for ever- see for example the Cornish tale of the Fairy dwelling on Selena moor, in which a bite of a plum or a sip of cider would be fateful. Fairies can be fussy about human culinary efforts, however.  John Rhys presents a series of stories in which  lake maidens (gwraggedd annwn) repeatedly rejected human suitors because the bread they offered was either overbaked or underbaked- too hard or too soft (John Rhys, Celtic folklore pp.4, 28 & 30).  It took a fine judge of baking times to win a faery heart.  The fairies had a particular preference for dairy products, leading to speculations that they are vegetarian.

Fairy fertility

This Cornish story of Selena Moor also points up another physiological fact: fairies appear to be poor breeders.  The captive maid in the story, Grace, says that only very occasionally is a fairy child born, which then is a cause of great rejoicing.  A similar account is given by Angus McLeod of Harris in Wentz (p.116) who sadly remarked that “There is not a wave of prosperity upon the fairies of the knoll, no, not a wave.  There is no growth or increase, no death or withering upon the fairies.  Seed unfortunate they!”  It is to reinforce the weak fairy gene pool that babies are stolen as changelings and that human lovers are taken- a theme I exploited in my own fairy story The Elder Queen.

Actual physical appearance varied from one ‘species’ or type of fairy to another.  Some were envisaged as old men, some as ugly, hairy creatures, and some as tall and beautiful women.  Some were average human height, some were the size of children and some were very small indeed, minute enough to dance around a glow-worm according to one Welsh account; another describes them as being the size of guinea pigs (!).  Angus Macleod of Harris eulogised as follows: “Their heavy brown hair was streaming down to their waist and its lustre was of the fair golden sum of summer.  Their skin was as white as the swan of the wave, and their voice was as melodious as the mavis of the wood, and they themselves were as beauteous of feature and as lithe of form as a picture, while their step was as lithe and stately and their minds as sportive as the little red hind of the hill.” (Wentz p.116)

Fairy defects

Whatever the irresistible beauty of fairy maidens, we should be aware of the fact that fairy folk sometimes bore bodily defects that disclosed their supernatural identities. This is marked in Scandinavian folklore- for example, the elle maidens dancing near the elder thickets had alluring faces but were hollow behind (see too The white goddess & the elder queen) and the huldre folk had cow’s tails.  In Britain, this is a less common theme but, for example, Highland glaistigs wore long dresses to cover their hooves; a few other Scottish fairies were similarly marked and their true natures betrayed.

Immortal fairies?

Lastly, it is natural to enquire as to life span.  The Reverend Kirk expressed the opinion in section 7 of his Secret Commonwealth that “they are not subject to sore sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain period, all about ane Age.”  In other words, the fairies are not immortal.  It is certain that they fight wars and can slay each other.

In Cornish tradition the fairies’ exercise of their shape-shifting power had a serious side effect: each time they resumed their normal appearance they got smaller, so that over time they dwindled away until they reached the size of ants and were, essentially, lost.  It is worth observing in this connection that in Cornwall and the South west of England, the pixie or pisky was always considered in any case to be a diminutive being: the Cornish term was an pobel vean- the little people. Accordingly, they started at a disadvantage before they even employed their magic powers!

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have here mainly concentrated on our ideas about fairy bodies- size, shape, weight, etc; in several separate postings I discuss how we have conceived fairy beauty– their age and their sexuality.  I’ve also examined fairy shape-shifting as well as the debate over the extent to which fairies look like we expect them to.

Faery goats

The Goat and the Vine
The Goat and the Vine. Aesop ‘s Fables. 1933 edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

I could have chosen quite a number of beasts to discuss, as many wild and domesticated breeds have been seen as fairy animals, but I have a decades old affection for goats.  I’ve never yet owned or cared for one of the creatures, but I’ve always wanted to and I’ve not given up my aspirations yet!

There’s something about a goat (its inquisitive nature, its toughness, its cheekiness, its omnivorous taste for chewing anything- including your clothes-  and the way they sneeze on the pollen in meadows) that draws you and gives them a character that sheep wholly lack.  Our forebears appreciated this too and so goats have fairy associations all over the British Isles.

R Doyle, Girls combing goats beards

Richard (Dickie) Doyle, Girls combing goats’ beards.


Whilst the association made between fairies and goats is to be encountered in folklore from Highland Scotland all the way down to West Cornwall (what we might call the ‘Celtic fringe’) some of the best evidence is from Wales, as set out in Sikes’ British Goblinschapter 4.

The bad-natured female fairies, the gwyllion, were closely linked with goats, which were themselves esteemed for their occult knowledge and powers.  The Tylwyth Teg were said to comb goats’ beards every Friday so as to make them presentable on Sunday (a curious notion that says more about Welsh religiosity than the faith of the fairies).  In the tale of Cadwaladr’s goat, Jenny the female goat turned out to be a fairy maiden in disguise, who led Cadwaladr to the court of the fairy goat king.

Keightley gives the Highland tale of the Tacksman of Auchriachan.  It is a story of fairy theft from the tacksman (tenant farmer).  He hears the fairies in their knoll planning their pilfering whilst he is far away from his home “in search of our allies, the goats.”


There may be a connection here with the devil; the horned goat is a well-known symbol of Satan.  It is notable, too, that in Highland Scotland, at least, there was a belief (reported by some of Evans Wentz’ informants) that the origin of fairies was as fallen angels whose descent ended on the earth surface rather than in hell.  Additionally, in western symbolism the goat represents lust and lubricity, so that it may be a trope for fairy wantonness.  The horns might also denote supernatural power (see J. C. Cooper, An illustrated encyclopaedia of traditional symbols, Thames & Hudson).

Whatever the exact nature of the goat’s supernatural affinities, I decided to make use of them in my children’s story, The Derrick.  Set in Dorset, there is a strong tradition in Britain, and in the South-West of England in particular, of being ‘pixy-led’ astray by either the Will of the Wisp or by mischievous pixies. Turning an item of clothing inside out is often the only remedy to find your right way home again.  In my story the main characters. Thom and his brother, are led astray one evening by faery goats.  They are the first sign that the farm where the boys are spending their holiday is under the spell of faery.


Arthur Rackham, The wolf and the seven kids.

Goblin market- the fairy economy



Goblin market, Arthur Rackham

“Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy.”

Goblin market, Christina Rossetti.

Faery was imagined in many respects as mirroring human society: brownies undertook house work, farm labour and other domestic chores like spinning and sewing, whilst the ‘trooping fairies’ and pixies had their own king and queen, a royal court, dances and hunts.  These parallels extended to frequenting fairs and markets.

Fairy theft

On one hand, this mirroring of human commerce seems incongruous: one notorious fairy trait was to steal human food products (or, at least) the nourishment within them.  In his Secret commonwealth Robert Kirk described how the fairies fed on “the Foyson or substance of Corns and Liquors or corn itself that grows on the Surface of the Earth” (s.2).  As a result, he said, “When we have plenty, they have Scarcity at their Homes” meaning that “We then … do labour for that abstruse People, as weill as for ourselves” (s.3).  Milk from which the goodness has been extracted floats like a cork on water, he alleged.

The fairies stole these products by a variety of methods:

  • in a hazel switch (for milk);
  • by stealthy theft- corn, Kirk said, “these Fairies steal away, partly invisible, partly preying on the Grain as do Crowes and Mice.”
  • by ropes- “What Food they extract from us is conveyed to their Homes by Secret Paths, as sume skilfull Women do the Pith and Milk from their Neighbours Cows into their own Cheife-hold thorow a Hair-tedder, at a great distance, by Airt Magic…;”
  • by leaving a stock in place of a stolen cow (as in the story The Tacksman of Auchriachan) or by leaving an old man rolled in a cow skin; and,
  • by thieving from market stalls.  The fairies are sometimes encountered in a market place, invisible to all but the person who has touched fairy ointment on an eye and who thereby is no longer fooled by fairy glamour.  The punishment for observing the fairies at work is loss of sight in the eye effected.

Fairy trade

Nonetheless, fairies are also said to indulge in labour and trade just like humans.  One Welsh tale reports them mining and undertaking farming tasks such as mowing and herding, just like their human neighbours. They build extensively and they manufacture cloth.  These are just other instances of the close parallels between our society and theirs.

Fairies participated enthusiastically in commerce.  The famous fair on the Blackdown Hills featured pewterers, pedlars and fruit and ale sellers (Keightley, Fairy mythology pp.294-5).  Another well-known fair was held by the pixies near Breage in Cornwall (Wentz Fairy faith in Celtic countries p.171). Kirk also states that the industrious sidh women spin, dye, weave and embroider and that they bake bread and strike hammers in their hills. John Rhys in Celtic folklore records fairies attending markets and fairs all over Wales and paying good prices for the wares (though sometimes they are spotted stealing, too).  He also noted the skill of fairies in spinning, weaving, mining and cobbling.  Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (pp.9 and 10) likewise recorded that the fairy folk living on islands off the Pembroke and Carmarthen coast (the Plant Rhys Dwfn) regularly visited the markets at Laugharne and Milford Haven, at which they always paid the exact price and never spoke to the stall holders.  An informant providing evidence to John Rhys observed that the fairies’ chatter at night always peaked when the prices were high at Llangefni market (Wentz p.139).

Fairy gold

Some folk tales certainly indicate that fairies possess their own independent wealth, in the form of gold, silver and cattle, though it must be conceded that this may originally have been stolen from humans, as pilfering was consistently reported to be a key element in the elvish economy (Wentz pp.106. 144, 147 & 151).  An odd account from Wales records the fairly common practice of fairies leaving gold in return for a water left out by humans- except in this case the coins were said to be of unknown provenance, not British currency but unfamiliar pieces marked with a harp on one side (John Rhys, Celtic folklore p.6).

Apparently, if one is polite and respectful, it is even possible for humans to trade with the fairies at their own markets. Ruth Tongue heard such an account in Somerset, the most interesting aspect of which is that change given in dry leaves became gold and silver at home the next day- contrary to the normal nature of fairy ‘gold’ (County folklore- Somerset, vol.8, p.112).  This amenability to a human presence is rare though- normally the intrusion is resented.

Fairy dependence

Despite all this evidence of a separate fairy economy, there was also a constant theme in folklore of the fair folk being to some degree dependent upon humans for the provision of basic items.  Frequently, they might rely upon people to provide them with heated water for bathing; they also seemed to lack various basic domestic items and skills to satisfy which they had to resort to human aid.  For example a broken plough or baking ‘peel’ would have to be repaired by a man and the fairies regularly borrowed kitchen gear from their mortal neighbours.  Recompense in the form of food was generally made (Rhys pp.63, 220, 221, 227, 228, 229 & 241).


Finally, in Rossetti’s imagining the market was used as a way of luring in innocent humans and as such is another version of the abduction theme in fairy lore. It is however anomalous to the tradition of fairy markets, though, and in truth Goblin market is a product of literature rather than folk imagination.  In the poem, Jeanie had tasted the goblins’ fruits and “pined and pined away/ Sought them by night and day,/ Found them no more but dwindled and grew grey.”


In summary, one’s assessment of the balance of the faery economy between booty and barter in large measure will depend upon whether or not you regard them as primarily malign or benign.  A detailed discussion of the fairy temperament will be reserved for a later post.  For earlier generations, it will be obvious that the concept of thieving fairies provided a ready explanation of poor harvests, declining yields and lost or mislaid items.  Our ‘good neighbours’, meanwhile, might be expected to prefer pilfering to purchasing as it involved a great deal less effort to live on the fruits of others’ labours; moreover, they were considerably aided in their larceny by their ability to disappear.  One final consideration obtrudes itself: according to John Rhys (Celtic folklore c.VII) fairies can only count to five, the total fingers on one hand.  This greatly limited their numerical skills, plainly, and might incline one more to the belief that theft would be preferred to honest trade…

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017); for an extended and far more detailed discussion, see my 2021 book How Things Work in Faery.  See too my posting on Cakes and cream on the fairy diet and my separate discussions of faery money and faery treasure.

“Away with the fairies”-fairy illness and blight



Brian Froud, a ‘bad faery’

“Be thee a spirit of health or goblin damned,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell…” Hamlet, Act I, scene 4.

Our forebears had to have some way of explaining sudden illness and death, or the birth of a child which gradually was revealed to have mental disabilities.  The cause ascribed for these afflictions, before the development of medical science, was the malign intervention of supernatural beings.  It was the fairies that made people (and their livestock) ill; the benefit of this explanation was that it gave an understanding of an otherwise inexplicable malady and pointed to a solution- the propitiation of the ‘good folk.’

Fairy injuries

It is possible to identify a range of means by which injury was believed to be inflicted:

  • pinching– the slovenly housewife or maid who failed to do her chores and keep the home clean would be punished by the pixies pinching and taunting her; for example in Nimphidia Drayton notes of the house elves that “These make our Girles their sluttery rue/ By pinching them both blacke and blew.”   Hence the source of bruises and cramps might be attributed- in a highly judgmental way!  In Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor the elves are commanded to “pinch the maids as blue as bilberry” wherever fires unraked or hearths unswept were found-“Our radiant Queen hates sluts and sluttery.”  In the same play pinching is the fate to be meted out to Falstaff when he transgresses on the pretended fairy concourse (Act IV scene 3 & V scene 5).
  • jostling and bumping– in a slightly more aggressive version of the former, a person who strayed into fairy precincts or who violated their privacy might be pushed and misused in this manner, perhaps leading to at least partial paralysis.  This was the fate of a farmer who invaded the fairy market on the Blackdown Hills and was left lamed on one side for the remainder of his life (Keightley, Fairy Mythologypp.294-5);
  • a fairy blast or whirlwind might paralyse or be fatal;
  • wasting sickness– afflictions such as consumption might be ascribed to the sufferer being ‘away with the fairies.’ Instead of sleeping in his or her bed, at night the victim would in fact be dancing with the fairies.  This ceaseless energetic activity sapped the strength and led to the person’s decline and death.  It was also believed that sadness at being parted from the fairies during the daytime contributed to the disease’s progress and malignancy.  John Aubrey recorded this belief whilst the Reverend Robert Kirk  describes a woman whom he personally met who, after her encounter with the fairies, was “prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly ever seen to laugh” (Secret Commonwealth of Elves and Fairies section 15);
  • abduction by means of dancing in fairy rings was a very common explanation of sudden disappearance.  The victim might be lost for ever, might be danced to death (as just described) or might return after a lapse of time (see later).  If the cause of the disappearance was deduced, the person could be rescued from the fairy ring on the anniversary of their disappearance, perhaps by force or by touching with iron;
  • physical assault– a human might be shot with fairy arrows, resulting in total or partial paralysis and/ or death.  These ‘elf bolts’ were the neolithic flint arrow heads turned up by cultivation, thereby giving context to otherwise mysterious artifacts.  Robert Kirk remarked on the use of flint darts against livestock in the Highlands: the cattle would be injured internally without there being any outward sign of a wound, the blow by these elf bolts having “something of the Nature of Thunderbolt subtilty” (s.8).  The resultant paralysis might be used to extract the “purest substance” of the beast for the fairies’ consumption, or might help abduct an individual, as was also the case with the next form of assault-
  • ‘fairy stroke’– the modern ‘stroke’ was then interpreted as the magical wounding of a person.  Rather than attacking with darts, a curse or spell inflicted epilepsy or paralysis and, once again, facilitated the abduction of the victim’s soul.  Kirk described how the fairies would smite “without Paine, as with a Puff of Wind” (s.4);
  • changelings– the specific theft of a human baby and its replacement by an aged elf or a defective fairy infant was perceived to be a very common problem; children were especially vulnerable in the time before they were baptised and variety of protective measures were deployed.  These included bindweed or iron around the cradle, the burning of leather in the room or the administering to the baby of either milk from a cow grazed on pearl-wort or water in which had been steeped cinders from a fire over which the child had been passed (Wentz, Fairy faith in the Celtic countriespp.87 & 91).  If the newborn was discovered to be mentally disabled or defective, this was put down not to congenital or perinatal problems but to a supernatural intervention: the real child had been abducted and an ‘oaf’ (an elf) left in its place (the ‘ouphs’ of Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor are derived from the same source).  The parents, once the presence of a changeling had been realised, had to expose the substitute.  If it was an aged fairy, some trick would be performed to get it to reveal itself, such as brewing beer in an egg shell, which would provoke its curiosity.  Salt might be burned as a magical means of repelling it.  If these attempts did not succeed and an infant elf was still suspected, far worse treatment could follow, typically placing the baby on a shovel over the fire (or at least heating the shovel in its presence)- but throwing the child in a river, ducking it in cold water daily, neglecting its needs, throwing pieces of iron at it or, lastly, placing it outside at night or on the beach as the tide came in, might also be tried.  The least objectionable method was the Cornish use of a four leaf clover to recover the abducted baby (Wentz pp.111, 146, 171 & 177).  The idea was that the changeling’s cries would summon the fairy parents who would save their child and return the stolen human infant.  Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880, c.5) discusses the Welsh tradition of the plentyn newid (the new child) and remarks disapprovingly upon the cruelties from time to time inflicted as a result of this changeling belief.  Sometimes, rather than a living being, a ‘stock’ was substituted- a log fashioned in the likeness of the missing person who was, in actuality, ‘away with the fairies.’  This motionless, speechless form (a “a lingering voracious Image” in Kirk’s words) was left at the home in bed to act as a cover for the fact that the man or woman had been taken to fairyland for some purpose- perhaps as a midwife or wet nurse to a fairy mother.  Some readers will recall that in Susanna Clark’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a bog-oak likeness is left in place of Lady Emma Pole who is abducted to dance at the fairy balls.

Finally, it should be noted that a number of other illnesses might also be blamed on fairies, including painful deformities, impetigo, childlessness and certain cattle pests.  For example in the Highlands the spinal paralysis called marcadh sidh was believed to be engendered by fairies riding the livestock at night; indeed in Wales almost any livestock complaint was ascribed to the tylwyth teg (Wentz pp.86, 144 & 158).  It seems that in the late middle ages, a time of high infant mortality, ‘feyry’ was synonymous with childhood illness (see Keith Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.217).

Time in faery

The passage of time in fairyland was different to that experienced on the earth. Abductees might find, for example, that:

  • a few minutes with the fairies were in truth hours away from their friends- five minutes might turn out to be a year and a day and two hours two generations;
  • a night was equivalent to one year, seven years, twenty years or many generations;
  • a day in faery was in fact, on earth, a a year and a day or even fifty years.

A long absence in fairyland brought many dangers:

  • they might suffer the grief of finding parents deceased and former lovers married in their absence;
  • they might perish as soon as human food passed their lips; or,
  • they might crumble way to dust as soon as they touched a mortal.

These perils emphasise the risks of being ‘away with the fairies’ and how very different fairyland can be to the world of mortal men.  That said, there is no consistency in the stories; there is no standard equivalent between earth time and fairy time and, for some, the time difference did not apply.  Midwives could attend upon fairy mothers and return home the same evening; others who had friendly dealings with the fairy court could come and go at will, just as if they were visiting human friends in their homes.

In conclusion, in the absence of effective medical treatments, earlier generations had little to protect themselves from, or as remedies against, these conditions.  What they did have available were the desperate measures of child abuse described above, traditional herbal medicines and religion.  The Reverend Kirk somewhat scathingly observed how congregations would swell periodically as local people attended church to “sene or hallow themselves, their Corns and Cattell, from the Shots and Stealth of these wandering Tribes.”  In confirmation of this statement, suspected witch John Walsh told his inquisitors in 1566 that fairies only had power over those who lacked religious faith (see Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, p.724).  The Reverend Kirk also observed that he local country folk called the fairies Sleagh Maith (the Good People), in a further attempt “to prevent the Dint of their ill Attempts” and to deflect “these Arrows that fly in the Dark” (Kirk section 2 and see my previous posting ‘They who must not be named‘). Resort might also be made to local ‘cunning’ folk for a cure.  Just as fairies could cause illness, it was thought that they could grant healing powers to some.  There are recorded witchcraft cases in which the accused ascribed their abilities to such supernatural aid (see Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, p.317).

Our transition to the modern, rational world has deprived us of many facets of our ancestors’ lives- their intimate knowledge or animals and plants and their intense sense of community, for example- but those losses are balanced in some measure by an improved appreciation of the workings of nature and of history.  Those puzzling flint arrow heads which so puzzled our forebears are now instantly assessed as ‘Stone Age’ by most people and placed easily within a geological timescale of millennia, divesting them of much of their mystery- if not their fascination.  When a serving girl working for Alexander Carmichael felt a flint dart fly past her as she crossed the farmyard at night in the 1900s, her instinct was instantly blamed the nefarious sidh- even when naughty boys might have been a better explanation (see Wentz p.88)!

Lastly, the degree to which illness and death might be ascribed to fairies in considerable measure related to the popular assessment of fairy temperament.  If they were seen as preternaturally ill-disposed towards humankind, almost anything might be blamed upon them.  I will return to the issue of fairy character in a later posting.

Want to know more?

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  See too my more recent post on the psychological consequences of fairy abduction.

“Even lovers drown”- mermaids and faery

Rackham Mermaids

Arthur Rackham, ‘They have sea green hair’ from ‘Three Golden Apples’

“A mermaid found a swimming lad,

Picked him for her own,

Pressed his body to her body,

Laughed; and plunging down

Forgot in cruel happiness

That even lovers drown.”

W. B. Yeats, ‘The mermaid’ from The Tower, 1928

It is not, of course, possible to undertake a serious taxonomy of imaginary beasts, but personally I have never considered mermaids to be fairies: they cannot disappear, they have no magical powers (mostly) and they are often at the mercy of humans.  They seem too solid and physical; fairies are terrestrial whilst mermaids are marine.  They are semi-human, with some supernatural qualities, but they are not in the same dimension are fairies, I would contend.

Types of sea spirit

As stated, a phylogeny of creatures that are the products of mythology rather than biology is futile, but we can still offer some sort of classification and analysis:

  • mermaids and mermen are part human, part fish and are found around the coasts of England and Wales;
  • seal people including the selkies of Orkney and Shetland and the roane of the Highlands and islands are humans who can assume a seal skin to move through the sea.  Comparable are the merrows of Ireland.

Mermaids and seal people are often captured and made into the wives of human males, the mermaids by being stranded at low tide and the seal maidens by having their seal skins found and hidden after they have shed them on the shore.  These wives always pine for the sea and, eventually, escape back to it.

Ashore, mermaids are usually helpless and are at the mercy of the men who find them.  If they are assisted back into the sea, they may well grant magical protection to their saviours; if aid is refused, the men may be cursed.

Mermaid wisdom

The lure of mermaids for men appears to be their semi-naked state, their beauty- and most notably their hair- and their strange gnomic sayings, which added to their mysterious aura.  One of the more comprehensible sayings is recorded as follows: a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore.  She called out-

“If they wad drink nettles in March/ And eat muggons in May/ Sae mony braw maidens/ Wadna gang to the clay.” (R. Chambers, Popular rhymes of Scotland, 1870, p.331)

The advice in this case seems sound: nettles, taken as tea or soup, are diuretic and are a good source of minerals and vitamins; mugwort is both a tonic and vermifuge.

Doubtless mermaids and fairies both were invented by our ancestors to explain sudden and inexplicable illness (see too my next post) and storms, drownings and disappearances.  There must, too, be some measure of anthropomorphising of seals, glimpsed floating in the waves and mistaken for humans.

Generally, mermaids lack magical abilities, although their deaths may provoke (or be avenged by) storms.  In some cases they can control the waves by their words; in other instances their power is not innate but derives from an article such as a cap or a leather mantle.

Some mermaids, beautiful as they may seem, are in truth monsters who lure fishermen to their deaths.  For Yeats, as seen in the verse above, this may be through a combination of accident and neglect.  Sometimes, too, these unions need not be tragic, as with the mermaid of Zennor in Penwith who lured away Mathey Trewella to live with her; he was lost to his human friends and relations but apparently did not perish.  Indeed, Cornish mermaids are generally more fairy-like in their attributes.  In the story of ‘Lutey and the mermaid’ a fisherman of Cury on the Lizard was granted three wishes by a stranded mermaid whom he rescued.  Likewise in the ‘Old man of Cury’ a mermaid found and returned to the waves at Kynance Cove provided a magical comb by which she could be summoned to provide arcane knowledge to her saviour.  For these stories see Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England.

Fresh water beasts

Mermaids and selkies are strictly salt water beings.  A variety of fresh water spirits or monsters are identified by folklore, such as Jenny Greenteeth who drags children into ponds, and kelpies.  There are also marine monsters (see my earlier post on fairy beasts).  All of these have only one characteristic- destroying human life- and they lack any personality and society like fairies ‘proper.’  That said, in north-west England is found the Asrai, an aquatic fairy occasionally dredged in nets from pools and lakes, but which melts away in the air very quickly.  In Wales the Gwragedd Annwn are lake maidens who emerge from inland waters and occasionally marry young men- but always on their own terms and subject to their own conditions, which are ultimately always breached by their husbands, causing the water fairy to return home forever.

Froud MM

Brian Froud, A mermaid

Further reading

Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880) devotes his third chapter to the gwragedd annwn, recounting various folk tales and, in passing, observing that these fresh water sprites exist in the absence of mermaids in Welsh mythology.  Katherine Briggs provides full details of all these stories and others concerning selkies in her Dictionary of fairies ; she also directs readers to Sea enchantresses by Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh (London 1961).  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have posted more recently on freshwater mere-maids, on the asrai, a particularly vulnerable type of British fresh water fairy, and on the variety of supernatural water beasts.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see too my post on mermaid wisdom.

Lastly, Charles Kingsley in The water babies had his own unique slant on the idea of the marine fairy and I have examined this separately.