“Away with the fairies”-fairy illness and blight

BF

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.’

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 Mythology, pp.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 countries, pp.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).

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.

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