“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.
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