“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 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.
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.
Nonetheless, fairies are also said to indulge in labour and trade just like humans. One Welsh tale reports them mowing, herding and mining, just like their human neighbours. This is just another instance 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 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).
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.
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).