“Of Brownyis and of Boggles, full is this beuk”- the helpful fairies

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For all that has been said in my past posts about the divine, fearsome and sometimes vengeful nature of British fairies, I have mentioned – and many readers will be familiar with- a species of helpful household beings.  This category of supernaturals is often labelled ‘brownies’ but this is one regional variation (of eastern and northern England and the Scottish Lowlands) of a wider class which, as the above quote for Gawain Douglas indicates, includes the hobgoblins, hobs and lobs.  There are also those fairies that are made useful to humans by reason of scaring recalcitrant children (Tom Dockin, Tom Poker, Tommy Rawhead et al)- see my separate post on these nursery sprites.  Here we are concerned with those beings that render aid voluntarily and devotedly.

These solitary fairies were more or less domesticated, being attached to a family or place.  They were all linked with human habitations and human activities, but the degree of association varied.  There were, for example,:

  • herding fairies like the Highland urisk who cared for cattle and worked in the fields, but lived in or near pools.  Some herded sheep or looked after poultry and the Cornish Browney gathered up bee swarms;
  • barn and household fairies which included the likes of Robin Roundcap of East Yorkshire; Dobie, Dobby and Master Dobbs of the Borders, Northern England and Sussex respectively; the Welsh bwca and bwbachod; the bodachan sabhail of the Highlands, and Old Man Crook and John Tucker of Devon.  These fairies would grind, mow, churn, sweep and wash, riddling corn and sieving flour in the pantry, thresh, run errands (such as fetching a midwife) and give advice- or they would untidy that which was already tidy!  There was a saying ‘Master Dobbs has been helping you’ meaning that a person had done more work than had been expected of them;
  • buttery sprites  and cellar ghosts who guard larders from thieving servants;
  • housework helpers like Habetrot and Scantlie Mab who assisted with spinning and weaving; and,
  • mine fairies: Milton knew of “the swart faery of the mine” by which he meant the knockers and coblynau who help and guide miners (see for example Ritson pp.37-38 Dissertation on fairies).

Most of these creatures were small and hairy, perhaps at most clad in rags.  They worked hard and energetically and expected no direct reward except some clean water, cream, honeycomb or bread left out before the fire, discretely and without announcement.  Any attempt to give clothes (or at least cheap clothes) was never appreciated and could either drive a brownie away or convert it into a boggart, a nuisance brownie who behaved like a poltergeist with mischievous tricks.  Brownies reacted the same way to criticism of their work (see Briggs, Tradition and literature p.34) or if their name was discovered (or an unwanted human name given).

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Brownies could become too attached and too devoted to households.  In Ben Jonson’s The silent woman Dauphine complains that “they haunt me like fairies and give me jewels here; I cannot be rid of them” (Act V scene 1).  This might seem inexplicable were it not for Professor John Rhys , who notes a Cardiganshire belief that:

“once you come across one of the fairies you cannot easily be rid of him, since the fairies were little beings of a very devoted nature.  Once a man had become friendly with one of them, the latter would be present with him almost everywhere he went, until it became a burden to him.” (Celtic folklore p.250).

They might then overstep the mark, stealing from neighbouring farms to supply their own.  Sometimes they exposed lazy servants, but equally they might defend them, as in the instance recounted by Briggs where the brownie left until servants dismissed for laziness by letting him do all the work were reinstated (Briggs, Tradition and literature p.38).

Boggarts and brownies could become such a nuisance to households that a farmer might decide to ‘flit’ to try to escape from one.  There are widespread versions of this tale in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumberland.  The decision might be made to move house; the contents would be packed and loaded and the family would set off, only to find that the brownie was with them- so they might as well turn round and stay put (See Keightley pp.307-8).

Finally, we should note that Brownies are now junior girl-guides.  The name was taken from Juliana Horatia Ewing’s story of The brownies (1870), in which two children learn that they can be either helpful brownies or lazy boggarts.  Original Baden-Powell had chosen the name of ‘Rosebuds’, so perhaps it was wisely replaced.

Spirits related to those described here are those that warn humans of danger, such as the Cornish hopper and the Isle of Man houlaa, who both alerted fishermen to approaching storms and the skriker of Yorkshire and Lancashire who warned of death.

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‘Peaseblossom and mustard seed’- fairy plants

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‘Mother mushroom and her children’ by Edward Okun.

A range of plants have fairy associations, both good and bad.  It is convenient to divide them into three broad types for our discussion.

Trees

Certain trees have strong links to fairies.  Thorn trees are magical throughout Britain and Ireland.  For instance, Northumbrian fairies are said particularly to prefer dancing around thorns.  From across the border comes a Scottish story of a man ploughing a field who made a special effort to protect an old hawthorn, known to be a fairy meeting place- by leaving an unploughed circle of turf around it- was rewarded with a fairy banquet and a life time’s luck and wisdom in consequence.  I have mentioned before the Old Lady of the Elder Tree as well as the special status of oaks as places for dancing or even as homes.

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Rowan trees, in contrast, repel fairies.  Rowan set over your door will allow you to watch the fairies riding past without being drawn into their procession and a rowan cross worn about your person will prevent the fairies seizing you.  Both gorse and holly acted as protective barriers to fairies around a home, although it has to be confessed that they keep out humans just as well!

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Flowers

Fairy blooms include yellow flowers such as cowslips, broom, primroses and ragwort; the stems of the latter are used like witches’ broomsticks.  Blue bells are protected by fairies, and lone children picking them in woods risk being abducted. Fox gloves are known in Wales as menyg ellyllon, elves’ gloves.  The fairies also favour red campion, forget-me-not, scabious, wild thyme and, more unusually, tulips.  A strange tale from Devon describes how pixies near Tavistock loved to spend their nights in an old woman’s tulip bed and the flowers thrived from their beneficial presence.  When she died her flower bed was converted by the next residents in the cottage to growing parsley and the pixies blighted it.  An unknown plant was used by Dartmoor fairies to heal a servant maid they had previously lamed for refusing to put out water for them at night.  In a similar dual role, it is said that foxglove juice can expel a changeling and cure a child who is suffering from ‘the feyry’- that is, one who has been elf-struck.

The primary protective plant against fairies is St John’s Wort, although verbena is also effective and four-leaf clovers can dispel glamour.

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Fungi

Fairy butter (y menyn tylwyth teg) is a fungus found deep underground in limestone crevices and elf food (bwyd ellyllon) is a poisonous toadstool.  In Northumberland, fairy butter is a soft orange fungus found around the roots of old trees.

The linking of fungi with goblins and elves is well known and of longstanding. Perhaps it partly derives from the dual nature of the mushrooms- they may be edible or poisonous. They are, of course, linked to fairy rings and indicate where the elves have been dancing. One of these is the ‘Fairy Cake Hebeloma’, which is poisonous; another is the highly edible Fairy Ring Champignon.  The sudden appearance of toadstools may seem magical and mysterious.  Their red colouring (for the traditionally red and white spotted fly agaric toadstool) may link them to red fairy clothes whilst their diminutive size may also explain the connection. Robert Herrick in his poem Oberon’s feast imagines “A little mushroom table spread” for the tiny fairy diners and in The fairies’ fegaries “Upon the mushroome’s head/ Our table cloth we spread.”

Puff balls have been called ‘Puck’s fist’ and, in his Fairy mythology, Keightley suggests that ‘Elf’s fist’ was an old Anglo-Saxon name for the mushrooms found in rings.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins relates a Breconshire belief that gifts of fairy bread by the Tylwyth Teg, if not eaten immediately in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.

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The rules of fairy love

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(image by Brian Froud)

The rules of fairy love are, as we might expect from such beings, contradictory and unfair.  There is one set of rules for humans and another, laxer set for the fairies.

Fairies demand various virtues and qualities of human beings.  True love is the first of these.  Lovers are expected to be devoted and honourable and to follow four key rules.

  1. Respect true love- The fairies punish attempts to interfere in the course of true love between young couples. Hobgoblin Puck declares “I love true lovers” whilst disliking wanton wives and cuckolders.  In one story he uses his magic powers to save a young woman from the unwanted advances of her lecherous uncle, allowing her to marry her young suitor whilst at the same time reforming the old man’s morals.
  2. Love is given, not taken- The use of force is punished. Seventeenth century poet John Fletcher warned that if anyone is found “Forcing of a chastity” a horn will be sounded and the fairies all will run to pinch the violator to the bone until his lustful thoughts are gone.
  3. Encourage lovers- In aid of true love, the fairy queen chastised women who did not take pity on their pining lovers. Elizabethan poet Thomas Campion told how fairies would be sent to pinch the unkind ladies, whilst to those “that will hold watch with love” the fairy queen would bestow beauty and greater adoration.  Conversely, “they that have not fed/ On delight amorous/ She vows that they shall lead/ Apes in Avernus”- in other words, they shall suffer sexual frustration because they lacked devotion.
  4. Promote wedded bliss- Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream provides the best examples of fairies promoting the virtues of true love. After toying with Titania and Bottom and with the Athenian lovers, fairy king Oberon brings “joy and prosperity” to the triple weddings that crown the play.  He blesses the bridal beds, promising true love and constancy to the couples, as well as children who shall “ever be fortunate” and free of deformity.

Midsummer Night’s Dream ends on this reassuring note; there is marital harmony in both middle earth and Faery and the guarantee of a prosperous future for the newlyweds.  However, these gifts come from Oberon, a notoriously unfaithful seducer.  When we first meet him in the play, he is accused by his wife Titania of stealing away from fairy land and “versing love/ To amorous Phillida,” an accusation he fails to deny.  Worse still, he is revealed elsewhere to have fathered Puck after seducing an innocent girl.  This is the other side of Faery: high standards are demanded of humans but are not applied to supernaturals.

The rules of love for fairies are:

  1. Have fun- In his description of Oberon’s Palace poet Robert Herrick depicts the fairy king in the worst possible light. After a feast he goes to Queen Mab’s bed ready “For Lust and action.”  Their chamber is hung about with pearls made from the tears of “ravished Girles/ Or writhing Brides.”  The music is provided by elves who imitate “the cries/ Of fained-lost Virginities” so as to “excite/ A more unconquered appetite.”  This is probably the more authentic Faery: it is natural and uninhibited.
  2. Take what you want- Oberon was not alone in his predatory behaviour. Women were often stolen as brides, a good example being in the story of Sir Orfeo whose wife is enchanted and kidnapped by the king of fairy.  Sadly, she was not alone.
  3. Enjoy love on your own terms- Fairy maidens can be as predatory as the men. They can abduct and seduce hapless youths using their renowned beauty and allures.  In an early English poem, Round Table knight Launval encounters fairy lady Tryamour.  She is found in a pavilion, nearly naked in the heat and lying on a couch- “white as the lily in May/ or snow that snows on a winter’s day.”  Launval is instantly obsessed, and soon they are in bed and “For play, little they slept that night.”  There is a sting in the tail though.  Fairies demand honesty of humans but fairy lovers almost always insist that they are asked no questions and that their relationship is concealed.  Launval- like all such human lovers- breaches this vow of silence by boasting of his partner and “all that he had before won/ Melted away, like snow in the sun.”  He loses his lover and all her rich gifts because he is unable to prevent himself blabbing.
  4. The human pays the price- There is nearly always a price to pay for the pleasure and privilege of loving a fairy. If it is not abandonment, the lover will instead sicken and die for longing, will be trapped in fairy land for ever or, after enjoying great pleasure with the maiden, will return home to find that not hours and days have passed as he imagined, but years and decades; all those he knew are married or dead and the world is changed irrevocably.

These, then, are the fairy rules of love.  Humans must be chaste and faithful, whereas fairies may be passionate, cruel, inconstant and selfish.

“Fairies or devils- whatsoe’er you be’-the belief in witches and fairies”

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Fairies and witches have long been seen as linked and comparable, as the title quotation from Thomas Dekker’s The Spanish Moor’s Tragedy illustrates (Act III scene 2).  In his book on witchcraft, Geoffrey Parrinder observed that “there is undoubtedly much similarity between the activities ascribed to fairies and to witches.”  These included the ability to fly, their preference for night time, their thefts of children and the foyson of food and their ability to kill remotely.

These links and crossovers are of longstanding.  For example Chaucer in The Merchants Tale mentions “Pluto, that is the king of faerie” (i, 10101) and Dunbar in The Golden terge also alludes to “Pluto, that elricke incubus/ In cloke of grene…”  One of the charges made by the English against Jean d’Arc was that she had frequented the Fairy Tree at Dompre and had joined in the fairies’ dances.

By the sixteenth century the two beliefs were very confused and intermixed.  Old women were accused of being witches and of flying in the air or dancing with the fairies, even though, as Reginald Scot pointed out, their age and lameness could make them “unapt” for such activities (Discovery of witchcraft Book V c.IX and Book XII c.III).  Fairies attended the witches sabbats and left rings on the grass  whilst the witches would visit the fairy queen in her hill (Daemonologie c.V).  Hecate, the mother witch and the queen of fairy all became compounded in the popular mind, as with the Gyre-Carlin or Nicnevin of Lowland Scotland; she rode at night with her court of ‘nymphs’ and incubi (Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy, ‘On fairies’ IV).  Oberon became the ‘king of shadows’ in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was believed that the habit of taking of changelings was because the fairies had to pay a tithe of souls to Hell each year.  In George Peele’s Battle of Alcazar “You bastards of the Night and Erebus, Fiends, fairies, hags” are summoned (Act IV, scene 2) and in Spenser’s Epithalamion it is prayed “Ne let the Pouke, nor other evil sprights/ Ne let mischievous witches with their charms/ Ne let hob Goblins, names whose sense we see not/ Fray us with things that be not” (lines 340-3).  Witches obeyed the commands of the fairy queen, Diana or Herodias, according to Scot (Book III c.XVI).  In summary, hell and fairyland became essentially identical and for Reginald Scot the terms fairy and witch were interchangeable.  Likewise for John Lyly, writing Endimion in 1585: for him fairies were synonymous with ‘hags’ and ‘fayre fiendes’ (Act IV, scene 3).

To this mix the Reformation added another layer of confusion and prejudice.  Puritans had two objections to faery.  Firstly, it had to be accommodated with scripture and, as the fairies weren’t angels, they had to be devils.  Secondly, fairies were one of the impositions of Rome.  King James VI condemned the belief as “one of the sortes of illusiones … of Papistrie” (Daemonologie, c.V).  In Richard Corbet’s Rewards and fairies “the fairies were of the old profession/ Their songs were Ave Maries/ Their dances were procession.”  Dr Samuel Harsenet, Archbishop of York, in his 1603 Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures called Mercury ‘Prince of the fairies’ and asked “What a world of hel-worke, devil-worke and Elve-worke, had we walking amongst us heere in England” when the Popish mists had fogged our eyes?  Later he declared “These are the times wherein we are sicke, and mad of Robin Goodfellow and the devil, to walke again amongst us…” (pp.134 & 166).

A rational few, such as Reginald Scot, dismissed the belief in witches as delusion and knavery, just as much as the dwindling belief in fairies, and felt sure that in time to come both would be equally ‘derided and contemned’ (Book VII c.II).

Sadly, such rationality was slow to establish itself and in the short term the witch craze swept Britian between about 1550 and 1650.  Diane Purkiss, in The witch in history (1996), has observed how fairy beliefs were converted into witch beliefs and were reproduced in the accusations and confessions of witches.  In fact, a range of materials were recycled by people- plays, ballads, news gossip, chapbooks- to create their own stories and to reflect their own agendas, concerns and conflicts.  For example, Joan Tyrrye applied the common ‘fairy midwife’ story to herself, saying that she was blinded in one eye by a fairy she met in Taunton market.  Others spoke of witches appearing dressed in green, the fairy colour.  The problem was that, in the prevailing intellectual climate, old wives’ tales of fairyland were no longer credible and were instead interpreted as accounts of demons.

Some ‘cunning folk’ (Healers and herbalists) tried to argue that through the fairies they only practiced white magic and that the supernatural help they received was only to cure and to do good.  For example, Bessie Dunlop of Ayrshire was accused in 1578 of sorcery and witchcraft.  She admitted that the fairies had helped her heal sick people (and cattle) and to find lost things.  Likewise, Alison Pearson of Byrehill faced similar charges in 1588: she pleaded that a green man had introduced her to the fairy court and that the fairies had taught her remedies.  Joan Tyrrye of Somerset swore that the fairies gave her only good and godly powers and showed what herbs would rid folk of witchcraft.  John Walsh of Dorset said that he too was taught by the fairies under the hills to recognise and treat those bewitched.

These justifications were often advanced; other examples are Isobel Haldane of Perth in 1623, Agnes Hancock of Somerset in 1438, Andro Man of Aberdeen in 1597, Christian Livingstone of Leith in 1557 and, in 1616, Elspeth Rioch and Katharine Jonesdochter of Orkney.  All claimed to have been taught by the fairies, in Man’s case by the fairy queen herself.  Such a defence seldom helped the accused, even when the supernatural powers acquired were used to alleviate the effects of witchcraft or fairy affliction.  Sir Walter Scott observed sadly that “the Scottish law did not acquit those who accomplished even praiseworthy actions, such as remarkable cures, by mysterious remedies” (Demonology letter VI).  For the accusers there were no ‘good spirits’; the suspected witches had consorted with the devil and there could be but one conclusion: Rioch, Jonesdochter,  Dunlop and Pearson, for instance, were all burned.  In the climate of the time, any contact with fairies rendered the person automatically a witch.  Communication with the fairy court was a primary charge against Alison Pearson and against Jean Weir of Dalkeith in 1670.

It is to be noted that gifts of healing and prophecy are not traditionally associated with faery.  There are a couple of Highland examples of endowment with musical abilities and there is the fictional account of True Thomas the Rhymer, who was given seer’s powers by the fairy queen (despite, as Sir Walter Scott puts it, his objections to “this inconvenient and involuntary adhesion to veracity, which would make him, as he thought, unfit for church or for market, for king’s court or for lady’s bower”).  That these supernatural attributes are ascribed to fairies only in witch trials is a strong indicator that they were being turned to as a less serious justification for the accused’s former activities.

Witches were believed to have familiars who guided and assisted them.  Academic and writer Diane Purkiss has suggested that stories told of brownies and other household fairies were reformulated by those suspicious of witchcraft and were understood instead to be accounts of demonic familiars (see The witch in history pp.135-138 and Troublesome things pp.153-4).  This is definitely explicit in a pamphlet from 1650, The strange witch at Greenwich, that described the mischievous tricks of a particular spirit, such as throwing utensils and clothing around, along with “other such reakes and mad merry pranks,as strange as ever Hobgoblins, pinching fairies and Robin Goodfellow acted in houses in old times among Dairy Wenches and kitchen Maides.”

The records show that these often seemed to have ‘traditional fairy’ names such as Robin, Piggin, Hob and Puckle.  Admitting regular contacts with a fairy would be interpreted and condemned as possessing a familiar.  For example, Joan Willimot of Rutland had a spirit called Pretty blown into her mouth in the shape of a fairy.  It subsequently visited her weekly and identified to her those of her neighbours who were “stricken and forespoken” (i.e. bewitched).  Anne Jefferies of St Teath, Cornwall, was carried off the fairyland by six tiny green men and was given ointment to cure “all distempers, sicknesses and sores” (such as the falling sickness and broken bones) and was also granted the power to make herself invisible at will.  When she was arrested, it was alleged that these fairies were in fact her imps or familiars.  She denied this, saying rather that they quoted scripture to her.

In some cases the supernatural contact seemed more obviously evidence of black magic.  Katherine Munro, Lady Fowlis, “made us of the artillery of Elf-land to destroy her stepson and sister in law” (Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter V).  Elf-bolts (flint arrow heads) were fired at pictures or her two victims.  Similarly, Isobel Goudie of Nairn visited the fairy queen’s court and saw Satan and the elves making the arrow heads with which Goudie and other witches then slew various people.  Other such instances from Scottish witch trials are Katherine Ross, 1590, Christiane Roiss, 1577 and Marion McAlester, 1590.  We can see here how fairy beliefs had become interchangeable with witch beliefs, so that elf-shot had been converted into bewitching.

Conclusion

To conclude, it is convenient to quote Sir Walter Scott in his sixth letter on demonology:

“With the fairy popular creed fell, doubtless, many subordinate articles of credulity in England, but the belief in witches kept its ground. It was rooted in the minds of the common people, as well by the easy solution it afforded of much which they found otherwise hard to explain, as in reverence to the Holy Scriptures, in which the word witch, being used in several places, conveyed to those who did not trouble themselves about the nicety of the translation from the Eastern tongues, the inference that the same species of witches were meant as those against whom modern legislation had, in most European nations, directed the punishment of death. These two circumstances furnished the numerous believers in witchcraft with arguments in divinity and law which they conceived irrefragable. They might say to the theologist, Will you not believe in witches? the Scriptures aver their existence;—to the jurisconsult, Will you dispute the existence of a crime against which our own statute-book, and the code of almost all civilized countries, have attested, by laws upon which hundreds and thousands have been convicted, many or even most of whom have, by their judicial confessions, acknowledged their guilt and the justice of their punishment? It is a strange scepticism, they might add, which rejects the evidence of Scripture, of human legislature, and of the accused persons themselves.”

This rational analysis did many poor creatures little good: the Bible commanded that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and those clinging to older traditional beliefs and practices could find themselves trapped and accused.  In the early modern period the frame of belief had shifted and no space remained for benign spirits.  Thomas Heywood captured this in Hierarchy of the blessed angels (1635), when he spoke of:

“…wicked spirits, such as we call/ Hobgoblins, Fairies, Satyrs, and those all/ Sathan by strange illusions doth employ…”

Fortunately for the hapless victims of the witch hunts, humanism and scientific rationality eventually displaced Protestant scaremongering.  Nonetheless, once established, the associations between fairy and sorcery were hard to sever: it is surely no coincidence that Shelley labelled his Queen Mab as “queen of spells” in his eponymous poem.