“Where should this music be? i’ the air or the earth?”- fairy pastimes

msn-fairy-orchestra

As has been discussed in previous posts, the residents of fairyland were conceived to spend a good deal of their time tormenting humans, either maliciously or mischievously, some in thievery from hapless mortals and a little in honest commerce.  The impression gained from folklore though, is that mostly the fairy life was one of leisure, with nothing to do but have fun.

Again and again the sources connect the fairies with pleasure and revelry, and in particular:

  • dancing appears to have been their chiefest delight and one of their commonest attributes (for example, see Macbeth, IV, 1- “Like elves and fairies in a ring.”). Most often this is said to take place by moonlight and usually in open places- in grassy fields, meadows, pastures and near megalithic monuments.  The fondness for moonlight is a widespread preference recorded in literature, including Milton in Comus- “Now to the moon in wavering morrice move…” (lines 115-117), Lyly, Fletcher and, of course, Shakespeare, who mentions ‘moonshine revels’ in both Midsummer Night’s Dream (II, 2) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (V, 5).   In Cornwall fairies are said to dance at their fairs, although again these are most likely to be held in open spaces (Wentz p.171).  The dances would invariably be in a circle, in one late nineteenth century case on the Isle of Skye being around a bonfire (see Briggs, Fairies in tradition p.20), and the inevitable consequence of this was the well-known ‘fairy rings’ on the grass.  This is noted by Prospero in The Tempest (V, 1) who invokes “Ye elves … that/ By moonshine do the green-sour ringlets make/ Whereof the ewe not bites.”  Many other writers also allude to the same habit and phenomenon, including Ben Jonson, Lyly, Milton, Brown, John Aubrey and Thomas Nashe.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins was told that the fairies prefer (reasonably enough) to dance in dry places, preferentially under oak trees; there they leave reddish circles- most often under the female oaks (p.106).  Humans might be lured to join these ‘wanton’ dances and would have great trouble escaping, as I have described before.

fairy-ring

  • “Most dainty music”- music naturally accompanied the dancing, both instrumental and vocal; for example Thomas Brown in The Shepherd’s pipe describes fairies dancing to piping in meadows or in fields of yellow box.  In Scotland the bagpipes appear to have been preferred. John Dunbar of Invereen told Wentz’ informants that the sidh were “awful for the bagpipes” and often were heard playing them (p.95).   Fairies are frequently associated with particular pipes and chanters in the Highlands (Wentz pp.86 & 111) and it is also notable that their musical skills might be bestowed upon fortunate humans (p.103).  Equally, it is said, several folk tunes are originally fairy airs, heard and memorised by attentive players. To human ears the fairy music was invariably found to be ‘soft and sweet’ and nearly irresistible- especially to the young (Rhys pp.53, 86, 96 & 111; Wentz p.159).   Throughout Shakespeare’s Tempest “heavenly music” is a central element to the enchantments used by Prospero and Ariel,  lending it a magical as well as pleasurable aspect.  Humans, it seems, are welcome to join in fairy songs (just as with dances) so long as they are polite and, possibly even more importantly, musical, so that their contribution is harmonious and positive.  Woe betide the poor vocalist: in one Scottish case a hump back who sang well and enhanced a song was rewarded by having his hump taken away;  a jealous imitator who tried to repeat this spoiled the rhyme and was punished by bestowal of the hump (Wentz p.92);
  •  feasting too went along with the the enjoyment of song and dance.  Banqueting, wine and ale are frequently alluded to (in the Cornish stories of Selena Moor and Miser on the Gump, for instance).  A Zennor girl came upon pixy ‘junketting’ in an orchard near Newlyn, Wentz was told (p.175).  In many of the instances when fairy hills are seen to open up it is to reveal a fine feast within (for example William of Newborough, Book I, c.28 & Keightley p.283).
  • riding provided the other major pastime.  The ‘fairy rade’ or procession features in a large number of stories, for example Allison Gross and Tam Lin.  These processions are described as being richly caparisoned and very stately.  Mounted fairies also liked to hunt, although these outings tend to be far noisier and wilder affairs.  We are never surely told what is was that the fairies preferred to chase, but we often hear of their abandoned gallops across the countryside with their hounds.
  • mischief might also be said to be a fairy entertainment.  The taunting of humans was a primary source of pleasure for several types of fairy- especially the pucks and hobgoblins, and this is exemplified by Thomas Haywood in his Hierarchie of the blessed angels (1636, p.574) when he describes how they enjoy gambolling at night on a household’s shelves and settles, making a noise with the pots and pans and waking up the sleeping inhabitants.

In all of the above, it will be noted, the fairies mirrored the activities of earthly royal courts and noble houses.  At the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, we are told that Oberon “doth keep his revels here tonight.”  Overall, in fact, the strong impression gained from a study of the accounts (both traditional and literary) is that the fairies’ time was mainly filled with pleasure and mischief, and that there was only a very a scanty ‘work ethic.’  This is echoed in a comment on the Anglesey fairies recorded by one of Evans Wentz’ interviewees.  The woman observed with some disapproval that “all the good they ever did was singing and dancing.”

1920s-fairies

‘When the fairies came,’ Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, 1888- 1960

 

Advertisements

“All the power this charm doth owe”- fairy magic

arthur_rackham_fairy-changeling

Athur Rackham, a fairy steals the changeling boy (Midsummer Nights Dream)

Magic and enchantment are integral to conceptions of the nature of the fairy realm in traditional British folklore, but the actual form of these powers is less often explicitly discussed.  This posting will start to do this.  ‘Faerie’ and enchantment were widely understood to be identical.  A few quotes from medieval and early modern literature will demonstrate this:

“To preve the world, alwey, iwis,/ Hit nis but fantum and feiri.” from Pancoast and Spaeth, Early English Poems, 1911, p.134:  the world is nothing but illusion or deception;

“That thou herdest is fairye” Romance of Kyng Alisaundre, (1438) 6, 324; spoken after the king hears a dire prophecy pronounced by a stone trough;

“This is faiery gold, boy.” Winter’s Tale, III, 3- in other words, the gold discovered by the characters is really just dried leaves; it is an illusion.

The folklore sources indicate that fairies possess a variety of magical powers by which humans may be deceived or confused.  The following supernatural abilities are reported:

  • shape-shifting- fairies have the innate power to change their shapes.  However, not all fairies can do this.  Some have only two shapes available between which they are able to switch (for instance between man and horse) but bogies, pucks and the like can choose to appear in whatever form they wish.  Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream delights in this (II, 1):

“I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough.”

  • the perils of shape-shifting- in Cornish fairy lore there is an unusual price to pay for the magical ability to change physical form.  It is said that every time one of the Pobel Vean (the little people) do this, becoming a bird or such like, they get permanently smaller, until they reach a point that they have shrunk to the size of a muryan (an ant) and so effectively disappear.
  • vanishing– controlling their visibility is one of the major fairy attributes.  This is widely accepted across Britain, from the Highlands to Cornwall (Wentz pp.100, 102, 114, 138, 141, 144, 145 & 176).  Interestingly, Bessie Dunlop of Lynn in Ayrshire,on trial for witchcraft in 1576, stated that the fairies’ disappearances were accompanied by a “hideous ugly howling sound, like that of a hurricane.”  It possible too to extend this power to humans and make them disappear (Wentz p.100).  The fairies can choose whether and when to reveal themselves to mortals, appearing and disappearing at will. However, in some circumstances, this can be overridden by human action.  A four leaf clover can give the power to see (see for example Evans Wentz p.177) as can being in the company of an uneven number of people (Sikes p.106); looking through a knot hole in timber can confer visibility; application of fairy ointment (see next paragraph) to the eyes has the same effect and, of course, there are some who are born with the ‘second sight’ and who are able from birth to see our good neighbours.  The Reverend Kirk described how this innate ability could then be communicated to another who was not gifted by mere contact; either the seer could place his/her foot upon that of the ungifted person, or rest a hand on the other’s shoulder- alternatively, the mortal with ordinary senses could look over the seer’s right shoulder (Section 12).  Evans Wentz describes very similar beliefs and practices in Wales (pp.139 & 153).  Invisibility can also be achieved using fern seed, although this can only be seen and collected on St John’s Eve according to Walter Scot.
  • glamour- this is the power of enchantment or disguise in its purest form.  How it is imparted is not analysed, but it seems to comprise a spell that disguises the true nature of the enchanted thing or place.  The word itself comes either from the Icelandic glamr, meaning a ghost or spirit, or instead from the old Scots English gramarye, denoting the spell or enchantment that bestows the disguise.  As I have described in previous posts, the application of an ointment to the eyes (usually forbidden and accidental) frequently enables a human to dispel the glamour.  This idea is widespread throughout the island of Britain- see for example Keightley pp.311-12 or Wentz p.175.  This ointment invariably has to be applied by a human midwife attending a fairy birth and will be subject to an injunction that the midwife does not anoint herself.  Her breach of this will lead to the loss of her sight or at least of her second sight.  Violation of the glamour in these midwife stories results in harsh retribution.  We will end this paragraph on a more cheerful note.  One very particular example of fairy illusion relates to cases where a person is deceived into believing that they have visited a fine house, or inn, or outdoor celebration, and enjoyed feasting, drinking and dancing in good company.  These pleasure filled nights end with the human retiring to sleep in a luxurious bed, only to find themselves out on the open moor in the morning, asleep in a sheepfold or stretched out on the heather or rushes.  These adventures are harmless enough, given the all too common risk of being abducted by dancing fairies;
  • elf-shots- in an earlier posting I described how fairies can blight and injure by means of arrows and the like (“Away with the fairies”-fairy illness and blight).  These wounds and plagues are understood to be inflicted either by physical weapons, with which cursed or charmed missiles are fired, or by more plainly magical means.  As just described in the previous paragraph, human helpers to the fairies can sometimes unwittingly penetrate the glamour by smearing a balm on one or both eyes.  This violation of the fairies’ secrecy is normally punished by blinding- a jab in the eye with a stick; but sometimes a mere puff of breath in the face will have the same effect- a more obviously magical retribution for a magical transgression.  The Reverend Kirk expresses it thus: “if any Superterraneans be so subtile, as to practice Slights by procuring a Privacy to any of their Misteries, (such as making use of their ointments, which … makes them invisible, or casts them in a trance, or alters their Shape, or makes Things appear at a vast Distance), they smite them without Paine, as with a Puff of Wind…” (s.4).  John Rhys tells how a fairy spitting in a woman’s face deprived her of her ability to see through the glamour (p.248);
  • levitation– in recent centuries fairies have grown wings that enable them to get around.  Before that, their means of transport was much more obviously magical: for example, according to Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of witchcraft of 1584, “hempen stalks” plucked in the fields would be used as horses (Book II c.4).  The fairies could also travel about on ragwort stems, or in whirling clouds of dust, using a spoken hex to get themselves airborne (Keightley p.290; Evans Wentz p.87 & see too p.152- the Tylwyth Teg can move or fly about at will).  Powers of flight could be imparted to inanimate objects too, so that a building that attracted fairy ire could be moved elsewhere;
  • magical names- as I discussed previously, power over a fairy can be gained by possession of his/her concealed name, which in this context becomes a spell in itself (They who must not be named).

I have exploited several of these traditional magical traits in my own fairy-tales.  In The Elder Queen the fairies use force remotely and appear and disappear at will.  In Albion awake! Maeve the fairy queen has similar capabilities and also uses levitation on herself and on her human companions.  Lastly, in both stories a key theme is the seduction of a man by a fairy maid.  Folklore has always ascribed irresistible beauty to fairy women (especially the gwragedd annwn of the Welsh lakes).  This allure may well be a form of enchantment in itself, giving the fairy power over a weak human.  Certainly, I would suggest that the impaired volition suffered by John Bullen in Albion awake! is more than just carnal lust!

Pursuing this theme to its logical conclusion, we may finally note the interesting fact that the products of fairy/ human relationships do not automatically possess their supernatural parents’ abilities.  In the pamphlet Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests, published in 1628, Robin Goodfellow (Puck) is revealed to be a half-human sprite.  He needs to be formally granted his father’s powers by means of a scroll, although it seems apparent that the potentiality was there from birth, waiting to be released.  Once acquired, this power enables Robin to obtain anything he wishes for and to change himself “to horse, to hog, to dog, to ape…”

 

William Blake and fairy origins

blake_mhh

I recently discussed William Blake’s conceptions of the nature of fairies.  It was pointed out to me by one reader (Dr9mabuse- whom I wish to thank) that I had overlooked another possible Blake reference, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Illustrated above is plate 11 from that poem.  The text reads as follows:

“The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects
with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and
adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers,
mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their
enlarged & numerous senses could percieve.”

I think it would be perfectly reasonable to regard this as an allusion to Blake’s treatment of fairies as animating spirits of nature.  He, of course, went far beyond this, elaborating this thought considerably in the Four Zoas, but in its original conception it coincided exactly with one of the commonest theories on the source of fairy beliefs.

There are two books which particularly discuss the development of popular ideas on fairies.  The first is the classic British Fairy Origins by Lewis Spence, published in 1946.  Spence, who had a life long interest in the occult and mythology, set out a number of sources which he felt jointly fed into the fairy belief.  These are that fairies were:

  • elementary spirits– they are the spirits of natural features;
  • spirits of the dead– fairies are, in a sense, simply ghosts.  They haunt burial tumuli, the deceased are often found amongst their number (explicitly in The fairy dwelling on Selena moor) and time spent with them can age the visitor;
  • ancestral spirits– more than just being the dead, fairies were the dead of a particular family- the protective spirits of their predecessors;
  • aboriginal races– this theory postulates that fairies are a recollection of former inhabitants of Britain who were pushed to the margins by later settlers.  It is a garbled derivative of Darwin’s ideas of evolution as set out in The Descent of Man: the elusive pygmy races are our ape-like ancestors.  Of course, there is no evidence at all that Britain and Ireland were ever settled by any other than races of full stature and this is by far the least convincing of these origin theories;
  • former pagan gods– it seems widely accepted, for example, that the fairies of Ireland are the much-diminished survivors of the ancient Tuatha de Danaan;
  • totemic– the fairies are symbols of tribal kinship with certain animals; or,
  • fallen angels– they were cast out of heaven with Lucifer, but did not plummet all the way into hell (a widespread belief in Scotland on the evidence of Evans Wentz).

More recently, Katherine Briggs laid out the competing (or intermingled) theories in her book Fairies in tradition and literature.  Her list is very similar to Spence’s- fairies derive from:

  • forgotten gods and nature spirits– they are the seasons personified and the spirits of trees and water.  Amongst these Briggs includes fairies which may have been intended to act as warnings to children to avoid harmful places such as rivers, standing water and orchards- for example, Jenny Greenteeth, the spirit who lurked beneath the grass-like scum on pools, waiting to drag down unwary infants;
  • the ‘hosts of the dead‘, such as the ‘Wild Hunt’;
  • fallen devils;
  • giants and monsters; and,
  • tutelary spirits which comprise ancestral spirits attached to a particular family (most notably the banshees of Scotland who warn of family tragedy) and brownies and the like which serve a particular farm or household.

 

crane

Walter Crane, Dryads & Naiads

In each list I have given priority to fairies as nature spirits.  This animistic idea is part of what Blake seems to have been referring to in the verse quoted.  The classical nymphs of wood and well, the dryads and naiads, are plainly the ‘geniuses of woods, rivers and lakes’ mentioned by Blake and very evidently contributed something to his thought and to our more general understanding of faery.  For British writers, at least, the different spirits were interchangeable.  For example Gavin Douglas, the Scots poet, in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, makes a direct substitution of one for the other.  In tackling Virgil’s lines “Haec nemora indigenae fauni nymphaique tenebant…” he gives us the following (my highlighting):

“Thir woddis and schawis all, quod he,

Sum tyme inhabyt war and occupyit

With nymphis and faunis apoun every side,

Qwhilk Farefolkis or than Elfis clepen we,

That war engendryt in this sam cuntrie…

Furth of ald stokkis and hard runtis of treis…”

Aeneid Book 8, chapter 6, line 4 et seq.

Nevertheless, these supernatural beings have developed their own local and distinct features and characters, in British folklore as well as in Blake’s poetry.  As I described previously, in William Blake’s personal mythology fairies were spiritual beings investing natural features, but they took on other functions and aspects.  Likewise, the British fairy tradition was woven from many strands and imbued fairies with multiple powers  and meanings.

In my recently published Albion awake!the fairy queen Maeve has some of these close associations with the land and with its well-being; she has a general role as a guardian of fertility for the Isle of Albion.  I have made further posts related to the book separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com, offering a background reading list and picture gallery.

‘Mysterious Albion’- William Blake and the matter of Albion

dadd-comeunto-these-yellow-sands

Richard Dadd, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’

This post strays a little from my chosen theme of fairy lore into wider British folklore.  However, given the recent publication of my new fairy tale Albion awake!, I wished to set William Blake’s ‘fairies of Albion’ in a fuller mythological context.

What and where is this land of Albion?  How has this mere geographical name become imbued with so much symbolism?  Author Peter Ackroyd has written that today Albion “is not so much a name as the echo of a name.”  To understand how the term became freighted with significance, we need to travel back centuries to its origins.

The name appears to be derived from one of three proto-Celtic stems.  It may mean ‘world’, as in the Gaulish/ Galatian albio (see modern Welsh elfydd, early Welsh elbid meaning ‘earth, world, land, country or district’).  Secondly it may denote ‘white’ (as in Latin albus), though not in the sense of the white cliffs of Dover, as is often suggested, but more likely to suggest the world of light above the surface  of the earth as contrasted to the dark underworld.  Lastly, Albion may mean simply ‘hill’ or ‘highland’.  It would then be linked to the root of the word ‘Alp’ and also to the Gaelic Alba, the name for Scotland.

Whatever the exact origin, the place name was commonly known throughout Europe from a very early date. The first reference is in Avienus’ Ora maritima which dates to the late 4th century BC.  Various other Latin and Greek writers used the term until it was displaced in Roman times by Britannia as the preferred name for the British Isles.  Nevertheless, King Athelstan in 930 chose to term himself ‘Rex … totus Albioni regnis’ whilst his successor Edgar went further, declaring himself ‘Totus Albionis imperator.’

The name Albion therefore has a long and distinguished toponymic pedigree and was for many centuries a sober and unremarkable label.  It was only in the early 12th century that it gained its legendary associations, thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  In his History of the kings of Britain,  Geoffrey alleged that the island was called Albion prior to its conquest and renaming by Brutus, who fled the fall of Troy (Book I, 16).  Subsequent writers propagated a tale that the island was inhabited by giants and that their queen, Albina, gave it its name.  This story of giants settling the land was repeated by successive authors, including Wace, Layamon, Holinshed, Camden and Spenser in The Faerie Queen (IV, 11, 16).  John Milton told the story in his History of Britain (1670) .  In Book I he recounts that the land was “subdu’d by Albion a Giant, Son of Neptune; who call’d the Iland after his own name, and rul’d it 44 Years. ”  He adds that the island was later settled by some sisters and that “The Eldest of these Dames in thir Legend they call Albina; and from thence, for which cause the whole Scene was fram’d, will have the name Albion deriv’d.”  The effect of these works was to transform the perception of ‘Albion.’  No longer was it merely a name- it had become redolent of national myth and stirring legend.

It is probably from Milton, or perhaps Spenser, that William Blake derived his knowledge of the legends of the giant Albion.  In his hands the figure is progressively elaborated. Initially Albion is representative for Blake of primeval man, an ancestor or patriarchal figure, ‘father of all mankind.’  Subsequently Albion became husband of Britannia and father to Jerusalem.  His rejection of Luvah leads to the diminution of his senses, his sickness and his sleep.  In the poem Milton Albion’s awakening is linked to revolution.  As such, Albion as a personification of Britain is shown rejoicing in his political awakening and liberty in the illustration Glad day.  For Blake, the ‘sleep of Albion’ was the suppression of the imagination by materialism; when Albion awakes he has been freed and transformed by the possibilities suggested by the American and French rebellions.  For more detail see S. Foster Damon, A Blake dictionary (available on GoogleBooks.

It was Blake that imbued Albion with a fresh and radical sense and it was his conception of Albion as a political entity that resurfaced in the 1960s and 1970s.  The ‘Albion Free State’ was a libertarian and hippy conception, in favour of free love, free festivals, natural birthing and much more.  For the Windsor Free Festival, on August bank holiday 1974, a free state newspaper was produced which contained a draft national anthem for the new polity.   It begins thus:

“Giants built Stonehenge,/ Giants built this land,/ Let’s spurt up like mushrooms/ And seize the upper hand.”

For the October 1974 general election Albion Free State produced what they self-deprecatingly labelled their “kind of Alternative State manifesto.” It called for Blake’s head to replace that of the queen on bank notes and declared that “Albion is the other England of Peace and Love which William Blake foresaw in vision- a country freed of dark satanic mills and Big Brother machinations…”  The writers of the manifesto wanted to create “a network … of independent collectives and communities federated together to form the Albion Free State.”  Life would be organised at local level, by neighbourhoods and workers.  The new nation would take over waste land and waste buildings for “diverse needs,” the manifesto noting that “The ‘true levellers’ in 1649 grew corn by taking over common land.”  This may at first glance have sounded like the product of a bunch of stoned hippies, but the authors had plainly read their literature and their history and they understood both their antecedents and the value and power of deep rooted cultural symbols.

In my recently published fairy tale, Albion awake!, I make use of both Blake’s conception of the sick isle of Albion and its need for salvation and the 1960s radical project for a polity within a polity.  This is still not an obsolete idea: on April 7th 2012 the Albion Free State was launched as a self declared anarchist community with permanent territories within the British Isles, in Scotland and west Yorkshire.  The aspiration to live in a leaderless community that is self-determining and free continues to have vitality, just as does the vision and poetry of William Blake, which can provide the basis for boundless inspiration and interpretation (see https://mw.micronation.org/wiki/Free_State_of_Albion for more information).