Fairies and megaliths

Landscape of the Threshold 1962 by Cecil Collins 1908-1989

Cecil Collins, ‘The landscape of the threshold,’ 1962

There is a longstanding association between the fairies and barrows and megaliths, not just in Britain but across Europe.  In earlier ages the fairy label was habitually chosen for these unexplained monuments.  It may just have been a name- for instance, the Fairy Toot, in Somerset, Elf Howe near Folkton in Yorkshire, Fairy Knowe on Orkney, the Pookeen stone circle (the place of fairies/ pucks) at Clodagh, Co. Cork or the Fairy Stone (La Grand Menhir Brisee) in Brittany- but not infrequently fairies would be regarded as being more actively involved in the making of a site. The Champs les Roches stone rows in Brittany were made by fairies dumping stones they had been carrying; similarly,  Tregomar menhir was dropped by a passing fairy.  The allee couverte at Coat Menez Guen bears the marks of fairy fingers on two of its stones.

The extent of the fairy associations could vary:

  • music and dancing- at Athgreany stone circle in Co. Wicklow the fairies play their pipes there at midnight; the fairies are also said to dance around the Hurle Stane in Northumberland.  Numerous Dorset tumuli are remembered as ‘music barrows’ where, if you sit at midday, you will hear fairy music within- for example at Bottlebrush Down, near Wimbourne and also at Ashmore, Culliford Tree, Bincombe Bumps and Whitcombe;
  • healing- the healing powers ascribed to the unusual holed stone arrangement at Men an Tol, Penwith, derive from the pisky linked to the site; and,
  • dwellings: under stones- most commonly, ancient stones are sites of supernatural habitation, in one way or another.  Passage graves are dwellings themselves- for example in Brittany at Barnenez, La roche aux fees and at La grotte aux fees, which they deliberately wrecked; a Cornish fogou near Constantine was called ‘the pixie house’ and in Ireland several stone circles are classified as lios, fairy forts, for example Grange in Limerick and Lissyviggeen in Kerry.  The Irish legend is, in fact, that after their defeat by the invading Milesians, the fairy tribe of the Tuatha De Danaan retreated into an enchanted kingdom beneath raths and stones- such places as Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth in the Boyne valley now being their abodes.  Ancient stones marking the access to fairyland are a common account throughout the British Isles- a hole or stairs beneath a menhir would lead to the faery realm-see for example my earlier post on fairy dwellings.  The Humberstone in Leicestershire is a fairy dwelling, as too is St John’s Stone in Leicester itself.
  • dwellings: under burial mounds- various ancient burial mounds are recalled in folk memory as the fairies’ homes: examples are to be found on Cley Hill in Wiltshire, at Cauldon Low and Long Low in Staffordshire (upon both of which the fairies were also known to dance,  at the latter on Christmas Eve) and at Hob Hurst’s House, Deepdale and Monsal Dale in Derbyshire.  It may be noted in passing that some of the stones linked with the fairies are in fact the remaining internal elements of tumuli- the so-called cromlechs such as Pentre Ifan in Wales and (it has been suggested) Men an Tol in Penwith.

Given the supernatural link to stones and tumuli, it was inevitable that people would invest the sites with magical powers.  We have seen the curative properties of Men an Tol; conversely in Ireland and Scotland interference with or damage to stones was avoided through fear of fairy revenge.  In Ireland the belief persists that disturbance could lead to crops or the home burning; in the Highlands Rev. Kirk recorded a prohibition upon taking turf or wood from a sithbruaich (a fairy hill).

Standing stones themselves have also been invested with spiritual power.  Whether this is ascribed to their siting upon ley lines, or to fairy residents, it is still an element of our beliefs about standing stones.  This posting is illustrated with a painting by English neo-romantic artist Cecil Collins, one of several works of his in which stones are anthropomorphised (see too Hymn, 1946 and 1956).  These figures could well represent the fairy dwellers within the stones.

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“I conjure thee, Sybilia, o gentle virgin of fairies”- how to see fairies

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Arthur Rackham, ‘He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes,’ Grimms’ fairy tales

In a recent post I considered ways of protecting oneself from supernatural attention. Some people, of course, have always actively wished to attract fairies to themselves and to be able to see them.  Folk tradition recommends a number of ways of doing this:

  • being born with the gift- some people have a natural ability to see fairies.  One of Evans Wentz’ informants felt it was fairly common- one in three people- whereas the Reverend Kirk presented  endowment with the second sight as a far rarer attribute.  In The secret commonwealth he described the ‘tabhaisver’ or seer as having more acute or ‘exalted’ vision than most.  This was “a native Habit in some, descended from their Ancestors, and acquired as ane artificiall Improvement of their natural Sight in others; … for some have this Second Sight transmitted from Father to Sone thorow the whole Family, without their own Consent or others teaching, proceeding only from a Bounty of Providence it seems, or by Compact, or by a complexionall Quality of the first Acquirer” (c.12).  Even with this power though, the seer could only observe fairies provided s/he did not blink.
  • being in touch with nature– Tom Charman, resident of the New Forest, told Arthur Conan Doyle in the early 1920s that his gift of seeing fairies depended upon his being close to nature.  He had seen them as a child but had then lost the gift for some time as he reached adulthood.
  • using a four leaf clover–  as described in an earlier post, a four leaf clover can protect against fairies but it can also reveal them, by dispelling their ‘glamour.’  For example, Evans Wentz was told by an old woman how her nursemaid was able to see ‘scores’ of fairies swarming around her if she slipped a clover leaf into the grass pad used to carry a milk pail on her head (p.177);
  • being in an odd numbered group of people- Wirt Sikes was told by a Monmouth schoolteacher that uneven numbers people were more likely to see fairies and that men were more likely than women (p.106);
  • looking through an ‘elf-bore’– a piece of wood from which a knot has fallen out, leaving a hole through, is an ideal tool for seeing fairies.  Hold the ‘elf-bore’ to your eye and, again, the glamour is dissipated.  Kirk also recommended that the person look backwards through the fir knot (c.12);
  • certain light conditions– as I have described in an earlier post, a person is more likely to see fairies at twilight, allegedly for physiological reasons.  Gathering material in Wales in the late nineteenth century, John Rhys also learned on the Lleyn Peninsula that there was a greater chance of meeting the Tylwyth Teg on days when it was a little misty- when there was a light drizzle called gwlithlaw (dew-rain).  The cynical might remark that this means that most days will be good for seeing fairies in Wales…(!); what is not clear is whether these light conditions are favourable because they make faery more visible or because the Fair Folk prefer a little concealment;
  • physical contact– being in contact either with the fairy or with a seer will transfer their magical sight.  One might place a foot on that of the fairy- John Rhys tells the tale of a Welsh farmer who was accosted outside his home by a fairy male complaining that  the human household’s waste was draining down his chimney and into his house; when the farmer placed his foot on the others, he was able to see below ground a house and a street of which he had never before been aware (p.230).  Alternatively one could touch the seer in some way: Kirk describes how “the usewall Method for a curious Person to get a transient Sight of this otherwise invisible Crew of Subterraneans, (if impotently and over rashly sought,) is to put his [left Foot under the Wizard’s right] Foot, and the Seer’s Hand is put on the Inquirer’s Head, who is to look over the Wizard’s right Shoulder, (which hes ane ill Appearance, as if by this Ceremony ane implicit Surrender were made of all betwixt the Wizard’s Foot and his Hand, ere the Person can be admitted a privado to the Airt;) then will he see a Multitude of Wight’s, like furious hardie Men, flocking to him hastily from all Quarters, as thick as Atoms in the Air” (c.12);
  • spells– magic was the last certain means by which to be able to observe fairies.  it could be used both to attract and then to ‘bind’ them- that is, to stop them disappearing again. In The discoverie of witchcraft Reginald Scot helpfully provides a selection of spells and procedures for these purposes (Book XV, chapter 8 & 9).  Sibylia, the fairy queen, is commanded to appear quickly, and without deceit or tarrying, in a chalk circle before the summoner, “in the form and shape of a beautiful woman in bright and vesture white, adorned and garnished most fair…”  If at first she does not appear, repeat the spell, ‘for doubtless she will come.’  I’ll leave it up to readers to decide whether or not to give this a go…

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“From fairies … guard me!”- talismans against faery folk

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In the modern age, with the prevalent view of fairies as attractive and benign beings with whom we wish to make contact and commune, the concept of charms to protect ourselves from supernatural interference seems alien.  However, as I have described previously, the view of faery was once very far from favourable and prophylactics were widely known.

The folklore evidence offers a variety of means of keeping oneself safe from fairy visitations.  The recorded methods are:

  • iron and steel– the supernatural race cannot abide forged metal in any form: the Reverend Kirk expressed it thus- “Iron hinders all the Opperations of those that travell in the Intrigues of these hidden Dominions.”  In fact, metal is a double protection: the presence of iron items will prevent harm; touching with iron will drive fairies away.  A scythe placed sharpened edge uppermost in a chimney will repel fairies; pins in the swaddling clothes, scissors hung over, or tongs laid upon, a cradle will prevent the substitution of a changeling (partly because the open blades will create a cross shape- see later); an iron bolt or lock on a door will guard a house, an axe placed under the pillow will protect the sleeper and striking a fairy with iron will result in its instant disappearance.  In Wales the story of the fairy wife lost by accidentally striking her with the iron bit on a bridle was extremely common; contact with metal in these cases lost a loved one.  Welsh folklore also records that if iron is thrown at a changeling or at a clinging fairy, the unwelcome presence will instantly be repelled (Rhys pp.23 & 250).  From time to time fairy hills will open and the sound of music will lure humans in; the best protective against never escaping is to place an knife at the exit so that the door cannot close again.  If a person has been lured into dancing with the fairies in a ring, one way of recovering him or her is a touch with iron.  Despite this widely attested aversion to ironmongery, it is curious to note that fairies will be found using metal items- John Rhys records them borrowing griddles and pots in Wales and there are regular stories of fairies asking humans to mend their implements.  For example, a ploughman working in a field at Onehouse, just outside Stowmarket in Suffolk, was approached by a ‘sandy-coloured’ fairy for help mending his ‘peel.’  This was the long handled flat iron used for removing loaves from an oven.  The ploughman easily repaired the broken handle and was very soon rewarded with hot cake fresh from the oven.
  • salt and fish– in Popular romances of the West of England, Robert Hunt records an interesting tale from Cornwall of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk.  When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice form a local cunning woman who advised that the pobel vean could not abide the smell of fish or the savour of salt or grease.  Her recommendation was to rub the cows udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving.  The advice worked, but the cow pined for her supernatural friends.  Oddly, as mentioned in an earlier post, fishermen in nearby Newlyn appeased the spriggans with an offering of fish, indicating that the revulsion was not consistent.  In Wales it was said that one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire (Rhys p.103);
  • turning clothes– a consistently deployed protection was to ‘turn your coat’, to turn a garment inside out as a way of defending oneself from fairy tricks.  Two Cornish examples from Hunt illustrate the effectiveness of the remedy.  A Mr Tresillian, returning late at night from Penzance to his home in St Levan, came upon the piskies dancing in their rings.  He felt compelled to join them, at which point they swarmed upon him, stinging like bees.  He retained enough presence of mind to turn his glove inside out and threw it at them, which instantly caused the throng to disappear. Secondly, an old widow living at Chy-an-wheal, above Carbis Bay, found that her home was favoured by the thievish spriggans of nearby Trencrom Hill.  They resorted to her cottage to divide up their plunder and rewarded her tolerance of this by leaving her a coin after each visit.  She hatched a plan to get more from them and, one night, secretly turned her shift inside out whilst the spriggans were present.  This enabled her to seize a gold cup from them.  The widow became a wealthy woman as a result, but she could never wear that shift again because, if she did, she suffered agonies.
  • herbs– certain plants are effective in repelling fairies.  These include St John’s Wort, red verbena, daisies, ash, four leaf clover (this plant has the virtue both of dispelling glamour and enabling a person to see fairy folk as well as repelling them), and rowan. For example, a branch of mountain ash will help pull a trapped person out of a fairy ring, as the fairies dread the tree (Rhys pp.85 & 246).  Katherine Briggs suggests that it is the red berries of the plant which have given it its reputation for warding off evil, but it has much wider magical power than this, as Robert Graves explained in The White Goddess chapter 10.  Lastly, Wirt Sikes records in British goblins that a gorse hedge is an excellent protection against unwelcome visitors.
  • running water– fairy folk are unable to cross streams and rivers, so in any pursuit leaping from bank to bank will be a sure escape for the hunted human.  Water courses running south are said to be especially efficacious.  Oddly, nevertheless, fairies seem to have no objection to still water.  They actively seek it out for washing themselves and they are from time to time associated with wells.  For example John Rhys in Celtic foljklore (1901, p.147 & chapter 6) notes the existence of several ‘fairy wells’in Wales which demanded attention from local people, in the absence of which they would overflow or flood.
  • faith– according to suspected witch John Walsh, when he was examined in prison in 1576, fairies only have influence over those whose Christian faith is weak or absent.  It may be questionable how much to rely upon this statement given the position he was in: he understandably wished to deflect the accusations made against him and, accordingly, he wanted to present himself as an orthodox individual resistant to any satanic temptations.  Be that as it may, it was widely known that the sign of the cross would dispel supernatural threats.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins  (p.63) gives an interesting summary of the Welsh beliefs in this respect: “There are special exorcisms and preventive measures to interfere with the fairies in their quest of infants. The most significant of these, throughout Cambria, is a general habit of piety. Any pious exclamation has value as an exorcism; but it will not serve as a preventive.”
  • self-bored stones– according to John Aubrey, if a person could locate stones through which natural erosion had created a hole (sometimes called ‘hag-stones’), they could protect their horses from night-riding by fairies by hanging the stones over each horse’s manger in the stables- or by tying the stone to the stable key.  The fairies would not then be able to pass underneath.
  • touching grass– in his Celtic folklore  John Rhys records a couple of Welsh traditions that a person may save themselves from fairy abduction by seizing hold of grass, apparently because the Tylwyth Teg are prevented from severing blades of grass.