Edmund Dulac, ‘Elves and fairies’ (The Tempest)
“It was told me that I should be rich by the fairies” Winter’s Tale, Act III, scene 3.
“although their gifts were sometimes valuable, they were usually wantonly given and unexpectedly resumed.” (Sir Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter IV)
In a previous on offerings to the fairies I noted that the divining line between worship and bargain was a difficult one to define with precision. I wish to return to this area, discussing here definite gifts from fairykind to humans.
Folklore writer Christine Emerick has pointed out the curious contrast between Celtic fairy gifts and those of the Teutonic elves. The former look valuable but prove to be worthless, whilst the latter are the reverse. In British folktales, there is a blending of these extremes.
This unprovoked benevolence could take a variety of forms:
- Regular gifts of food or money might be found by a lucky individual- for instance, at Willie How barrow in Yorkshire a local man was told he would find a guinea coin on top of the burial mound everyday, so long as he did not disclose his good fortune;
- A skill might be conferred upon a fortunate recipient, such as the ability to play the bagpipes;
- A helpful deed might be rewarded: in one Welsh story a farmer removed a rooks nest from a tree near his crops. It had also overshadowed a fairy ring and they rewarded him for his act. Providing bathing water for fairy families would likewise receive more than its due;
- The provision of a service- such as carrying out a repair on a tool or acting as midwife- could be rewarded with more than the payment commensurate with the job. In another Welsh example, a midwife received a life time’s supply of money for her assistance to the mother. A curious tale from Ipstones in Staffordshire describes a woman whose child was substituted for a changeling. Unlike most such maternal victims, she accepted the fairy child imposed upon her and cared for it as her own. In return, whenever she wished for money, it would appear. This bounty ceased when the infant sickened and died;
- As indicated by the last example, a gift or gifts might be given, or the lucky individual might more generally enjoy good luck and prosperity, with good fortune and bounty taking many forms in their lives. For instance, a highlander who gave his plaid to wrap a newborn fairy baby enjoyed good luck ever afterwards. A supply of inexhaustible food is variant upon this;
- there could be the gift of health and healing. Several sites are linked associated with this: passing a child through the men an tol in Cornwall could cure rickets; a well at Bugley in Wiltshire relieved sore eyes and the Hob Hole in North Yorkshire was beneficial against whooping cough in children. These properties might be conceived of as fairy beneficence or, perhaps, proof of their magic powers; and,
- lastly, there is the very old concept of the fairy godmother and her gifts to the newborn. This is recorded as early as the twelfth century in Layamon’s Brut: when King Arthur was born “alven hine ivengen; heo bigolen that child mid galdere swithe stronge”- ‘elves took him; they enchanted that child with magic most strong:’ the fairies gave him riches, long life, prowess and virtues. These stories remained current in the seventeenth century, when Milton wrote how “at thy birth, the fairy ladies daunc’t upon the hearth/ And sweetly singing round about thy bed/ Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping head” (Vacation exercise).
Gifts were made to children as well as adults; anyone could attract the fairies’ favour and there did not need necessarily to be a specific reason, although exercise of the fairies’ esteemed virtues of generosity and hospitality tended to attract favourable attention: if a human is prepared to give freely s/he may enjoy the same in return. It did help, though, to accept the first gift readily and without conditions. Reginald Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (Book III, c.iV) recorded the tradition that fairies would favour servants and shepherds in country houses, “leaving bread, butter and choose sometimes with them, which if they refuse to eat, some mischief shall undoubtedly befall them by means of these fairies…” Two stories confirm this belief. A man given some food for mending a fairy’s spade was rewarded with food. His companion counselled against eating it; the other cheerfully partook and benefitted for the rest of his life as a consequence of his spontaneous and trusting nature. Similar accounts come from Pensher, County Durham (plough horses die because the farmer refuses to eat the bread and butter left for him) and from Lupton in Westmorland, where the horse that ate the fairy food lived and the other which refused to do so perished.
Problems with fairy gifts
Sometimes fairy generosity can become excessive, in that they will steal from others to benefit the preferred person. Neighbours’ barns and granaries may be emptied in order to fill that of the blessed one.
“[they] give me jewels here… oh, you must not tell though.” (Ben Jonson, The silent woman.)
However, fairy gifts are made subject to a strict rule that they are respected and are not disclosed. In all the cases so far mentioned, boasting about money from the fairies would guarantee that the bounty would terminate. In one sad case, a boy who found regular small sums of money was beaten by his father on suspicion of being a thief. He finally confessed, which instantly ended the family’s good fortune, much to the parents’ bitter regret (Rhys Celtic folklore pp.37-38). Loss of the bounty could be the least of the penalties inflicted for want of discretion though: Massinger in The fatal dowry warns “But not a word of it- ’tis fairies treasure/ Which but revealed brings on the blabber’s ruin” (Act IV, scene 1) whilst in The Honest Man’s Fortune we are likewise reminded of this fact: “fairy favours/ Wholesome if kept, but poison if discovered.”
Closely related to this condition are the gwartheg y llyn, the lake cattle, which are frequently brought to marriages by lake maidens or which mingle and interbreed with human herds. If (when) the wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts. The same is bound to occur if the human farmer tries to slaughter the fairy cattle, as this too will be interpreted as demonstrating a want of respect for the owners/ donors.
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).