The fairy as conceived by British folk tradition was effected- and not for the better- by the revival of classical learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this post I wish to trace the course and impact of this rebirth of Roman and Greek knowledge in the specific context of British fairy lore.
The very earliest sign of classical influence comes from Chaucer, in the Merchants Tale. He refers there to “Pluto, that is the king of fayerye/ And many a lady in his companye/ Folwinge his wyf, the quene Prosperpyne.” This can be dated to about 1390 and is probably more a sign of Chaucer’s own education and reading than any real indicator of the spread of new thinking from Italy, where the rinascimento was at that time still in its infancy.
I suggest a more significant start date is the appearance of Gavin Douglas’ 1513 translation of Ovid’s Aeneid, in which he chose to refer to “nymphis and faunis apoun every side/ Quhilk Fairfolkis or than Elfis clepen we…” This linking of nymphs and elves remains consistent then for the next 150 years; for example, Thomas Nash makes this analogy: “The Robin Goodfellows, Elfs, Fairies, Hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former days and the fantastical world of Greece ycleped Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads and Hamadryads…” Latterly, Milton in Comus from 1630 spoke of fairies and elves as equivalent to nymphs. Of this work, Floris Delattre observed that “the now trite assimilation of English fairies to classical nymphs gains … a fresh beauty” thanks to the poet’s “refined language” (English fairy poetry, 1908, p.165).
Translations of Ovid soon spread other classical concepts: for example Thomas Phaer in his 1550 version of the Aeneid mentioned fauns, nymphs and the fairy queen whilst Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses of 1565 described “nymphes of faery.” The process could work in reverse as well, with native terms being used to explain classical ones. For example, Golding felt that the best translation he could make was to describe the “Chimaera, that same pouke.”
Nymphs and fairies
The easy reference to classical deities then became habitual. Nymphs and fairies were inseparable. Drayton in Poly-Olbion treats “Ceres nymphs” as interchangeable with fairies (Song XXI) and also marries a nymph to a fay and has dryads, hamadryads, satyrs and fauns dance with fairies in his Nymphals 8 & 6. Other Greek and Roman figures also begin to insinuate themselves. Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (1584) mentions “satyrs, pans, fauns, sylvans, tritons, centaurs…” in his list of fairy beings (Book VII c.XV) and he names the fairy queen variously as Sibylla, Minerva, Diana and Herodias. For King James VI in Daemonologie Diana and her court are synonymous with ‘Phairie.’ Ben Jonson’s Masque of Oberon from 1610 carelessly mixes the “coarse and country fairy” with satyrs and sylvans. Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy in 1621, listed such “Terrestrial devils [as] lares, genii, fauns, satyrs, wood nymphs, foliots, fairies…” Spenser meanwhile introduced the Graces to the company of fairies in both The Fairy queen and Epithalamium.
It may be helpful to provide a summary of the various Greek and Roman gods and spirits with whom parallels were so freely drawn. It must be acknowledged that there are undeniable parallels and comparisons between some British fairies and some Mediterranean deities, analogies sufficiently strong to justify a few of the identifications made. This is, of course, due to the fact that all of these supernatural beings derive ultimately from the same Indo-European sources and are responses to the same natural processes and features. Nonetheless, each culture had developed differently and whilst there were links to be made (as, for example, was done in works such as Frazer’s Golden Bough) these beings had evolved separately for centuries and, whilst comparable, were very far from being identical.
Writers freely made reference to:
- Abundantia- who was the Roman goddess of fortune and prosperity. She evolved into a beneficent spirit and, ultimately, into Habundia, queen of the witches and fairies;
- Ceres- she was a goddess of the growth of plant foods. Insofar as she had vegetative associations, there was some tenuous link with British fairies;
- Diana– who was goddess of childbirth, of nature and of the moon. Queen Mab was a midwife, as testified by Andro Man, accused of witchcraft in 1598, and fairies often danced in the moonlight, so that Diana’s transfer to Britain makes some sense;
- Dryads– nymphs of trees and woods and so comparable to elves;
- Fauns– a faun is a rural deity who bestows fruitfulness on fields and cattle. He can also have prophetic powers. His influence over natural processes suggested the analogy with elves;
- Genii– are clan spirits and perhaps therefore allied to brownies, banshees and the like;
- Graces- these were Greek goddesses of fertility in fields and gardens and accordingly comparable to elves and fairies;
- Hecate- was the goddess of magic and spells; she was linked to the moon and was a goddess of childbirth and the night. Through Queen Mab she was therefore associated with fairies and witches;
- Herodias– was mother of Salome and was reputed to be head of a witch cult. She became linked to fairies through the witch craze and was identified with Habundia, queen of Elfame. By circuitous routes, therefore, Heywood ended up equating sibils and fees, white nymphs, Nightladies and Habundia their queen;
- Lares- are tutelary deities of fields and homes and are accordingly similar to boggarts, brownies and such like;
- Minerva- was linked to the arts and crafts and had no real identity with British fairies;
- Nymphs- these are minor deities linked to fertility, growth, trees and water (streams, lakes and the seas). As such they are clearly comparable to elves and fairies. For example, the nymphs tended to protect specific locales so that there may be some analogy to be made between the water naiads and British sprites like Grindylow and Peg Powler;
- Pan- was a deity of Arcadia, part-goat, part-human. He haunted the high hills and brought fertility to the flocks and herds, but not to agriculture. He could send visions and dreams. He has a vague resemblance to pucks and hobgoblins, but no more;
- Satyrs– were envisaged as half-man and half-beast; they were brothers to the mountain nymphs and akin to fauns. As such, they resembled pucks, brownies and hobgoblins to some extent;
- Sibylla– was a prophetess, and so became linked to fairies through the witch craze;
- Sylvans– these are woodland deities, readily associated with fairies.
Some of the classical names used had no relevance at all to British fairies; some denoted distantly related beings. All were facile and ultimately uninformative and unhelpful. The use of the classical comparisons diluted and disrupted more accurate knowledge of genuine British traditions, inhibiting rather than encouraging study. They were superficial displays of learning which detracted from a deeper and more valuable investigation of the ‘national fairies’ as Floris Delattre termed them. Classical references added nothing of value to the verse- rather it obscured the nature of insular tradition and accelerated its decline by promoting false analogies and parallels. The Greek and Roman figures had character traits and qualities unknown before, with notions of hierarchy, worship and relationships that were alien and inapplicable to British folklore. All in all, therefore, the impact of the Renaissance learning was in this instance entirely negative.
Nymphs in literature
Nymphs have always been popular characters, in poetry in particular, and have been possessed of a distinct character and attributes. They are associated inextricably with fairies in the earliest quote, from Melusine, of around 1500:
“Ye should have ben out of the handes of the Nymphes and of the fairees.”
Their physical attractiveness was their primary feature, as this string of quotations demonstrates:
“O nymph of beauty’s train, The onely cause and easer of my paine.” (Thomas Lodge, The delectable history of Forbonius and Prisceria, 1584)
Lodge hammered home his idea of ‘nimphs’ in many other lines of verse, in which they were lauded as ‘gorgeous’, ‘faire’, ‘lovelie’, ‘heavenly,’ ”tender’ and ‘sweet’ (Glaucus and Scilla; Euphues’ golden legacy). The effect of such attractiveness was predictable:
“he hath seen some beautiful Nymph, and is growen amorous.” (Euphues)
It was perhaps Edmund Spenser who was most especially devoted to the celebration of their charms:
“Ye silvans, fawns and satires that among these thickets oft have daunst,/ Ye nymphs and nayades with golden heare.” (A pastoral eclogue upon the death of Sir Philip Sydney, 1595).
He placed them securely within a classical, woodland landscape, describing variously a swain “”who in these woods amongst the nymphs dost wonne” and invoking:
“O flocks, O faunes, and O ye plesaunt springs/ Of Tempe, where the country Nymphs are rife…” (Virgil’s gnat)
Their unspoiled, rural nature is a trait that was to appeal to poets for centuries. Their physical attractiveness was undeniable and irresistible. In Colin Clout’s come home again Spenser mentions “the nymph delitious” and declares that “a fairer nymph yet never saw mine eie.” These praises reach their natural conclusion in verses from The Fairy Queen:
“As if the love of some new nymphe late seene/ Had in him kindled youthful fresh desire…” (Canto VIII, stanza XI)
“Finding the nymph asleepe in secret wheare/ As he by chance did wander the same way,/ Was taken with her love, and by her closely lay.” (Canto IV, stanza XIX)
Lastly, it will have been seen that other terms are sometimes employed. Spenser grouped his nymphs with naiads and these divinities occasionally appear in verse, the earliest being Lydgate’s Troyyes Book of 1495, in which he refers comprehensively to-
“Water nymphs, nor this nayades, Satiry, nouther driades, that goddesse bene of wode and wildernesse.”
Spenser elsewhere speaks of “Fayre Naiades” (Virgil’s gnat, 1597) and Milton charmingly imagines them as being “flowrie-kirtl’d” (Comus, 1637). Finally, we may note that Nabokov was by no means originator of the term ‘nymphet.’ In the Polyolbion of 1612 Michael Drayton makes mention “of the Nymphets sporting there, In Wyrrall and in Delamere.” (XI, Argument 171)
Progressively over time, as I have argued in another post, the nymph and the fairy drew ever closer together- the fairy assimilating to the nymph and becoming younger and more feminised.
To conclude, we must first concede that British fairy lore was already a hybrid, containing elements of Celtic, Saxon and French myth; Morgan le Fay mixed with Germanic elves and Cornish pixies to create complex and many layered stories. Classical themes added nothing to this. References to nymphs and fauns were a learned and literary graft upon native roots and served only to stunt further development of the tradition. Whatever the wider enriching qualities of the Renaissance, it only did damage to British folk lore.
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017). See too my posting Not all nymphs are nice for some alternative approaches to our classical inheritance, in which I discuss nymphs in the work of Arthur Machen, and also his influence on the depiction of nymphs and fairies in early twentieth century classical music.
See my more recent book, dealing solely with nymphs and nymphets, Nymphology (2020).