“A votaress of my order”- offerings to fairies

One of the explanations of the belief in fairies is that they are the degraded remnants of former gods, the traces of ancient pantheistic belief in Britain.  The habit of making offerings of one description or another to these beings lends support to this theory but, as we shall see, the evidence presents a confusing picture of what people understood themselves to be doing.  The recorded practices could be worship, or they could even be something akin to a commercial transaction.

The offerings take several forms.  The first is a general gift made to ‘the fairies’ as a sign of respect and propitiation.  Several examples of this come from Scotland: in the Highlands and Islands it was common for milk to be poured on stones with hollows in them in order to ensure the protection of the herds of cattle.  On top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, there was  the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  If we see the fairies as once having been gods, then these marks of honour aimed at appeasing the ‘good neighbours,’ averting ill fortune and ensuring their continuing good will, appear to be strong confirmation of divine origins.

Similarly, on Lewis farmers would wade out into the waves and pour beer into the sea, invoking the water-spirit Shoney and asking for a good harvest of seaweed for the fields. Comparable conduct was found in the South West of England: miners would give up a portion of their lunches to the ‘knockers’ in the mine, hoping that they would then be led to the best lodes of tin, and at Newlyn the pixies living between low and high water mark, the bucca, would be offered a ‘cast’ of three fish so as to guarantee a good catch in the nets.  These ‘sacrifices’ made with a view to a specific outcome are a very familiar aspects of human interactions with divinities.  They also imply that the fairies possessed some kind of control over the sea and its contents.  This is not a typical fairy attribute, although the Cornish spriggans were said to have power over the weather and could call on thunder and lightning when they wished to.

In England there is an example of a more direct exchange between human and fairy.  There was a belief that elder trees were inhabited by the ‘old lady of the elder tree.‘  If a person wished to cut some branches from a bush, a vow had to be made: ‘Old Lady, if you let me take some of your wood now, you can take some of mine when I’m a tree.’  Omission of this promise could lead to disaster- fire or illness in the household.

Secondly, there are examples of offerings being made in return for which a gift of money might be expected from the fairies.  An example comes from Llanberis, in Snowdonia, from the 1750s: the practice was for farm maids to place a jug of fresh sweet milk and a clean towel on a stone in the morning.  When they later returned, the jug would have been emptied by the Tylwyth Teg and a handful of coins would have been left.  This kind of exchange between humans and fairies is very closely associated with the reports of fairies leaving small sums of silver for chosen people- albeit on the strict condition that they maintain secrecy as to the source of their new found prosperity.  Violation of this would inevitably terminate the fairies’ good favour.  These practices clearly are a kind of bargain as much as an oblation.  An interesting variant on this practice comes from Wirt Sikes in British goblins (p.22).  He tells of  a “servant girl who attended to the cattle on the Trwyn farm, near Abergwyddon, [who] used to take food to ‘Master. Pwca,’ as she called the elf. A bowl of fresh milk and a slice of white bread were the component parts of the goblin’s repast, and were placed on a certain spot where he got them. One night the girl, moved by the spirit of mischief, drank the milk and ate most of the bread, leaving for Master Pwca only water and crusts. Next morning she found that the fastidious fairy had left the food untouched. Not long after, as the girl was passing the lonely spot where she had hitherto left Pwca his food, she was seized under the arm pits by fleshly hands (which, however, she could not see), and subjected to a castigation of a most mortifying character. Simultaneously there fell upon her ear in good set Welsh a warning not to repeat her offence on peril of still worse treatment.”  This might be read as either divine punishment for disrespect or simply revenge for a practical joke.

The exchanges just described were made in the open air or in uninhabited or deserted buildings.  Throughout Britain, though, there was a very similar practice of householders leaving out bread, milk or clean, warm water for the fairies at night.  Once again, a small gift might be anticipated in the morning.  Sometimes, the coins were more like a reward- a clean and neat house was appreciated by the nocturnal visitors and was acknowledged by a couple of coppers.  Some writers were in no doubt as to the nature of these interactions.  Robert Burton, in Anatomy of melancholy (1621), understood fairies to be erstwhile deities “which have been in former times adored with much superstition, with sweeping their houses and setting of a pail of clean water, good victuals and the like, and then they should not be pinched but find money in their shoes and be fortunate in their enterprises.”  Avoidance of punishment was a clear motivation: John Aubrey noted that, until the reign of King James I, country folk were “wont to please the fairies, that they might do no shrewd turnes, by sweeping clean the Hearth and setting by it a dish of fair water and halfe sadd bread, whereon was set a messe of milke sopt with white bread.  And on the morrow they should find a groat” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaism, 1687 pp.29 & 125).

The last kind of fairy offering we should note is that made to known individual beings- most commonly the brownies and  other domestic hobgoblins of English and lowland Scottish folklore.  A kind of bargain is again involved in these cases.  The brownie undertakes some “drudgery work” in the house or on the farmstead (threshing, mowing, cleaning) and gets remuneration. However, it was fundamental to the transaction that this gift of cream, milk or cake did not seem like a direct payment.  The items were ‘left out’, available for the brownie to find and consume, but they were not explicitly given to the hobgoblin in return for the labours undertaken.  If the offering was too plainly intended for the spirit- the worst  examples being specially-made clothes to cover their hairy nakedness- then the brownie would take offence and would either leave the holding in a huff or, worse still, remain but as a malevolent presence.

An example of this tradition is found in Scot’s Discoverie of witchcraft (1584): “your grandams maides were woont to sett a boll of milke before … Robin Good Fellow for grinding of the malt or mustard and sweeping the house at midnight: and you have heard that he would chafe exceedingly if the maide or the goodwife of the house, having compassion on his nakedness, laid anie clothes for him, besides his messe of white bread and milke which was his standing fee” (Book IV, c.X).   Milton, in L’Allegro, gives a similar account of the country dweller’s stories of brownies:

“Tells how the drudging goblin sweat,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath thresh’d the corn
That ten day-labourers could not end;
Then lies him down, the lubber fiend,
And stretch’d out all the chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings.”

the_brownies_and_other_tales_

A curious example of domestic interaction between humans and fairies which sits somewhere between the brownie and ‘neatness rewarded’ is a story from Stowmarket in Suffolk, recorded in the mid-nineteenth century.  An old man in the town was regularly visited by the ‘ferriers’ or ‘ferrishers’ (as they were termed in the county) who used to meet in his home; he recalled that they wore long green coats and yellow shoes.  He kept his house scrupulously clean for them and in return the ferriers supplied faggots which they put in his oven and, from time to time, would leave a shilling for him under a chair leg.  When he spoke about these visits, he lost their favour.  It’s hard to say in this account who is more beholden to whom- there’s an equality of exchange which obscures any suggestion of devotion.

The exact relationship between fairies and humans is, on the evidence of these examples, confused and ill-defined.  This need not be too surprising, given that such uncertainty exists as to the origins of the fairy belief.  In the first examples, maintaining the benevolence of the supernatural realm was a key element in the folk customs.  The later examples, though, whilst made in propitiative guise, should really be seen as bargains.  In return for labour or for food a payment is made; the pretence is that these are offerings but actual truth appears to be that the fairies are the supplicants, a relationship that Katherine Briggs identified when she spoke of the ‘dependence of the fairies’ upon humans.

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“Fear of little men”-or, ‘How the fairy got her wings’

In William Allingham’s poem The fairies (1883) he gives late expression to a formerly common attitude to fairies:

“Up the airy mountain,/ Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/    For fear of little men;/ Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together;”

fuseli-puck

The traditional terror of fairies and the change in attitudes in more recent times is something I have touched upon before and which I wish to analyse in some more detail.

Until at least the early seventeenth century,  the conventional view of fairy kind was that they were as dangerous as they were intriguing and enticing.   For example, the eller maids of Denmark were beautiful, but also deadly: anyone lured into dancing with them would be danced to death; they would never be able to stop and would perish from exhaustion. Fairies were the causes of disease and stole human children, food and possessions, as I have previously described.

What I wish to examine here is how these fearsome and sometimes fatal creatures could deteriorate into something cloyingly cute and eminently suitable for little girls to imitate. In Religion and the decline of magic (1971) Keith Thomas prefaces his discussion of fairy beliefs by observing that “Today’s children are brought up to think of fairies as diminutive beings of a benevolent disposition, but the fairies of the Middle Ages were neither small nor particularly kindly” (p.724). When was our fearful respect for the fairies replaced by a simpering, indulgent affection?

I have dated the change, as I suggest, to around 1600.  Shakespeare provides us with some evidence of the shift in popular perceptions.  Some commentators view him as the sole culprit, but this is to imbue him with far greater influence and respect than he had at the time.  He may now be seen as a genius and cultural icon, but that was not his status in his lifetime; as a playwright he did not shape views, but he certainly does reflect them.

Take, for example, Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On the one hand there is Puck, whose magic interventions in human affairs might be dismissed as farcically inept, but who should probably best be viewed as mischievous, if not malignant, in his conduct.  He admits to revelling in his tricks, for certain.  At another extreme are the fairies introduced by Titania to Bottom, called Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed; here we have a first hint of the tiny and harmless beings with whom we are so familiar today.  A sense of these fairies’ size is conveyed by their use of glow-worms as lanterns and their hiding in acorn cups to escape Oberon’s fury.  By contrast, there is the encounter in The Merry Wives of Windsor between Sir John Falstaff and some children disguised as fairies.  They may be small, but that does not in the least detract from the horror he feels: “They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: I’ll wink and couch: no man their works must eye” (Act V scene 5).  Lack of stature, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, still did not of necessity denote weakness or an amenable nature.

What exactly changed, then?  I think that there is a number of causes.  The growth of science and industry, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, removed the justification for and threat of fairies.  Previously, as Geoffrey Parrinder remarked, “they helped explain many of the curious happenings of life” (Witchcraft, Pelican, 1958, p.70). By the later 1600s, this function was being superseded as John Aubrey wrote:

Old wives tales-  Before printing old wives’ tales were ingenious, and since Printing came into fashion, til a little before the Civil-Warres, the ordinary Sort of People were not taught to read; nowadayes bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good bookes, and a variety of Turnes of affaires; have putt all the old Fables out of doors and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin Goodfellow and the Fayries” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaisme, 1687-89, p.68).

When they were no longer required to explain illness, they were left as merely decorative and un-threatening.  That said, if fairies had become redundant in this environment, their social function could be preserved by transporting them to other worlds.  This appears to be what has happened: green clad goblins have been translated into the ‘little green men’of science fiction.

Secondly, rationalism and religious scepticism has had a role.  Disbelief in a spirit world is sufficient to kill off fairies entirely, but it has also stopped them being taken seriously.  Once this had happened, their descent into cuteness and whimsy was easy.

Fairy belief for a long time was treated as a thing of the previous generation.  For instance, John Aubrey recalled that “when I was a Boy, our Countrey people would talke much of them…” meaning  ‘Faieries.’  His contemporary, Sir William Temple, said much the same thing, suggesting that fairy belief had only really declined over the previous thirty years or so (i.e. during the mid-seventeenth century).  Robert Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy in 1621, shared these opinions:  fairies had been “in former times adored with much superstition” but were now seen only from time to time by old women and children.

Nevertheless, doubt seems to have been well established by the 1580s at least.  The best evidence for this is Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft (1584).  The book is an assault upon belief in witches, but he compares this extensively with the parallel belief in a supernatural race of beings.  In his introduction ‘To the reader’ Scot remarks that:

“I should no more prevail herein [i.e., in persuading his audience] than if a hundred years since I should have entreated your predecessors to believe that Robin Goodfellow, that great and ancient bull-beggar, had been a cozening merchant and no devil indeed.  But Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared…”

Once again, the fairy faith is a thing of the (distant) past.  Later Scot comments that “By this time all Kentishmen know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave” (Book XVI, c.7).  Scot’s theme is that such credulity is not just old-fashioned; it is now the preserve of the simple and weak.  He repeats these allegations throughout his text: “the feare of manie foolish folke, the opinion of some that are wise, the want of Robin Goodfellow and the fairies, which were woont to mainteine chat and the common people’s talke in this behalfe … All which toies take such hold upon men’s fansies, as whereby they are lead and entised away from the consideration of true respects, to the condemnation of that which they know not” (The Epistle); likewise- “we are so fond, mistrustful and credulous that we feare more the fables of Robin Goodfellow, astrologers and witches and beleeve more things that are not than things that are.  And the more unpossible a thing is, the more we stand in feare thereof” (Book XI, c.22).

Talk of fairies then, was in Scot’s opinion only fit for “yoong children” and its only purpose was to “deceive and seduce.”  Scot is concerned how many in the past were “cousened and abused” by such tales and he admonishes his readers to remember this:

“But you shall understand that these bugs speciallie are spied and feared of sicke folke, children, women and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare… But in our childhood our mothers maids have so terrified us with … urchins, elves, hags, fairies… that we are afraid of our own shadowes” (Book VII, c.15).

Scot remained confident in the advance of reason, however:

“And know you this, by the waie, that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin were as terrible and also as credible to the people as hags and witches be now, and in time to come a witch will be as derided and contemned, and as plainlie perceived, as the illusion and knaverie of Robin Goodfellow…” (Book VII, c.2)

King James I/VI in his Daemonologie (1597) was just as scornful as Scot of any belief in ‘Phairie’ but he did not ascribe it to mere foolishness.  For him, it was more sinister- it was a deception of the devil who had “illuded the senses of sundry simple creatures, in making them beleeve that they saw and harde such thinges as were nothing so indeed.” Although the fairy faith was “one of the illusiones that was risest in the time of Papistrie” it was thankfully in decline in Presbyterian Scotland at the time that he wrote (c.V).

Thirdly, fairy belief dwindled as the natural world was increasingly explored, surveyed and quantified.  When every acre of land was being assessed for its productive value and as a capital asset, the fairies were mapped and measured out of existence.  On a crowded island, no space was left for anything except the tiniest of beings to survive.  In fact, even as early as the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Michael Drayton could equate smallness with fairy nature: in his Eighth Nymphal he declares “Why, by her smallness you may find/ That she is of the fairy kind.”

rape-of-the-lock

The cumulative effect of these societal changes was, as Keith Thomas wrote, that “By the Elizabethan age, fairy lore was primarily a store of mythology rather than a corpus of living beliefs” (Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.726).  Deprived of its rationale, the decay set in quickly.  There is a suggestion of flight in Drayton’s Poly-Olbion- “The frisking fairy there, as on the light air borne” (1613, Song XXI) but explicit winged flight is first mentioned in The Rape of the Lock from 1712, in which Alexander Pope imagined fairies “Some to the sun their insect wings unfold/ Waft on the breeze or sink in clouds of gold.”   When, in 1798, Thomas Stothard illustrated Pope’s book with fairies with butterfly wings, the trend was confirmed.  Contemporaneously, we may note a bat winged Puck by Fuseli from 1790 and a tiny winged fairy creature in his illustration of Titania awakening with Bottom dated to 1794. This quickly seems to have become the convention: in subsequent Victorian images fairies are predominantly winged creatures; these wings are either gauzy like dragonflies’ or patterned like butterflies’.

henry-fuseli-titania-awakes-surrounded-by-attendant-faries-1794

All the same, folk belief could still lag well behind popular culture and artistic representations: Ivor Gurney wrote a poem in 1918 that must preserve older Gloucestershire beliefs.  Having waited in a lane at dusk for a lover to return home, he is alarmed by a bustle in the hedgerow:

“Until within the ferny brake/ Stirred patter-feet and silver talk/ That set all horror wide awake-/ I fear the fairy folk.”  (Girl’s Song, September 1918)

There have been stubborn resisters too to the sentimentalising tendency.  Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1908) made clear his feelings; Puck tells Dan and Una (p.14):

“Besides, what you call [fairies] are made up things the People of the Hills have never heard of- little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones… Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors?  Butterfly wings indeed!”

The ultimate result of this decline is some of the twee horrors to be found.  For Christmas, I received a card bearing an illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.  Along with Cicely Mary Barker, she is one of the prime offenders in the genre loathed by Kipling (and Puck). Amongst her pictures you will find fairies with perfect 1920s bobs and, worse still, gambling with koala bears at drinks parties…

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The resistance to the sentimentalising tendency continues (see for example the remarks of Cassandra Lobiesk on her website Fae folk: the world of fae- see my links page), but after at least a century, it may sadly be a losing battle.

 

“This enchanted isle”-Romantic visions of fairyland

paul-nash-landscape-of-the-megaliths

On a recent trip to Glastonbury, I visited Gothic Image bookshop in the High Street and picked up a reprinted edition of their publication, This enchanted isle by Peter Woodcock. Originally published in 2000, the book describes itself as a study of ‘the neo-romantic vision from William Blake to the new visionaries.’  Woodcock has written on art and literature and has an interest in the ‘shamanic’ tradition; in this book he traces the influence of William Blake and Samuel Palmer on later writers, artists and film-makers.

I discuss This enchanted isle and the neo-romantic movement in greater detail in an essay on one of my other blogs, johnkruseblog.wordpress.com.  Here, I want to focus solely on the fairy aspects of Woodcock’s subject.

As I have discussed in an earlier posting, William Blake saw all of natural life as being animated by fairies and he perceived elves and fairies filling the fields and hedgerows around his cottage at Felpham.  In this, his acolyte Samuel Palmer was very similar.  He was brought up on stories of fairies, witches and ghosts and imagined supernatural life filling the lanes and woods of rural Dulwich near his home in Walworth on the very edge of London.  Later he moved to Shoreham, the Kentish village which inspired his finest work.  As Palmer’s son, Albert Herbert, later recounted in his biography, Samuel Palmer- life and letters (1892), part of the attraction of the rural hamlet was that traditional folk beliefs  were still held by the residents there (and he preferred the older pastoral poets for the same reason- their close links to romantic rural life).  Palmer readily imagined goblins (that is, brownies) drudging in the thatched barns of Shoreham for the reward of a bowl of cream and happily listened to tales of fairies tripping across the domestic hearths.  There is more than a nod to Milton’s L’Allegro here, inevitable perhaps given Palmer’s great admiration for his verse.

The mystical landscape visions of Blake and Palmer were inherited by various twentieth century artists, foremost amongst whom was Paul Nash. His writings disclose similar responses to the  English countryside; he had a strong sense of the unique character of places and the power of those with links to antiquity.  Of Wittenham Clumps, which he painted repeatedly, he said:

“I felt their importance long before I knew their history…  [The landscape was] full of strange enchantment, on every hand it seemed a beautiful, legendary country, haunted by old gods long forgotten.”

wham-1935

Later in his life, Nash encountered the stones of Avebury.  Initially, he responded to the forms and colours of the stones, saying there was “no question of animism here.”  This changed, however, so that in his essay for Country Life written in May 1937, The life of the inanimate object, he was able to write “it is not a question of a particular stone being the house of the spirit- the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive.”  The idea of animating inanimate objects was very old indeed, “a commonplace in fairy tale and and occurs quite naturally also in most mythologies.”  In English culture, he wrote, the romantic poet Wordsworth payed a major role creating  mythology that gave ‘systematic animation to the inanimate.’

Sketching at Silbury Hill, he recalled that “I felt that I had divined the secret of that paradoxical pyramid.  Such things do happen in England, quite naturally, but they are not recognised for what they are- the true yield of the land, indeed, but also works of art; identical with the intimate spirit inhabiting these gentle fields, yet not the work of chance or the elements, but directed by an intelligent purpose ruled by n authentic vision.”  For Nash there was magic in ancient and significant places that was still real and tangible in the twentieth century.  His art tried to express and to contact those deep forces of the English landscape.

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Woodcock also links the Welsh born writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) with the neo-romantic movement.  Machen is best known for his Gothic horror novels, but like the others discussed, he believed that the humdrum world conceals a more mysterious and strange reality.  Fairylore was just one element of his wide reading that he combined into his vision.  In his second volume of autobiography, Things near and far, published in 1923, he acknowledges the rational explanations of fairy belief (later set out in detail by Lewis Spence in British fairy origins of 1946):

“I am well aware, of course, of the various explanations of the fairy mythology; the fairies are the goods of the heathen come down into the world: Diana becomes Titania.  Or the fairies are a fantasy on the small dark people who dwelt in the land before the coming of the Celts; or they are elementals- spirits of the four elements: there are all these accounts, and for all I know, may be true, each in its measure.”

Machen knew of these scientific interpretations, but he had little time for them.  In his work he is more interested in the mystic, pagan, occult and romantic aspects of faery. Elsewhere he wrote that “belief in fairies and belief in the Stock Exchange as bestowers of happiness were equally vain, but the latter was ugly as well as inept.”  His work is thoroughly imbued with an awareness of and awe for faery.  He repeatedly makes reference to fairy languages and dread power of our supernatural neighbours.

In Machen’s masterpiece, The hill of dreams, the hero Lucian becomes lost in a strange landscape: “all afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour, he had strayed in fairyland …like the hero of a fairy-book.”  Ultimately he wanders into “outland and occult territory.”  Ancient hill forts are described as ‘fairy-hills’ and ‘fairy raths’ whilst the capital is imagined as the site of “dolmen and menhir … gigantic, terrible.  All London was one grey temple of an awful rite, rung with a ring of wizard stones.”

Lucian’s preference is for alchemy, cabala and Dark Age history, for “a land laid waste, Britain deserted by the legions, the rare pavements riven by frost, Celtic magic still brooding on the wild hills and in the black depths of the forest…” He wonders whether “there were some drop of fairy blood in his body that made him foreign and strange to the world.”  Lucian is drawn to the ‘fairy bulwarks’ of a Roman camp (the ‘hill of dreams’) and becomes bewitched by a beautiful young woman called Annie who speaks “wonderful, unknown words”, apparently an unintelligible, possibly fairy language.  She dismisses it as “only nonsense that the nurses sing to the children” but it becomes apparent that there is more to it than that, that it is in fact some form of enchantment.

In Hill of dreams, Machen’s descriptions of the countryside near Gwent are vivid, intense and charged with otherworldly meaning.  Lucian follows an unknown lane “hoping he had found the way to fairyland.”  He scrambles up to the old Roman fort crowning a hill near his home and falls asleep on a hot summer’s afternoon, hearing “the old wood-whisper or … the singing of the fauns.”  This results, it seems, in his possession by fauns, nymphs or witches.  He realises that he was been watched by unknown figures and that “they” are a woman and “her awful companions, who had never grown old through all the ages.”  Hideous shapes in the wood “called and beckoned to him” and it is ultimately revealed that Annie is somehow Queen of the Sabbath and a moonlight enchantress.