Fairy ointment

fairy-onitment

I have written in previous posts about the effect of fairy ointment in dispelling the glamour used by the fairies to disguise and hide themselves.  The usual tale is of a human midwife or wet nurse who is called to assist with a fairy birth and who then accidentally touches an eye with the salve, thereby revealing the true nature of fairy kind.  When this regrettable slip is revealed, the unfortunate victim is blinded one way or another and their privileged view of faery is ended.  Before, I have recounted these tales from the human perspective and what I want to do here is to examine why this ointment was needed by the fairies in the first place.

As just mentioned, the typical account involves a mortal caring for a fairy newborn. Part of this person’s duties includes anointing the child with a special ointment and it is this task which gives rise to the revelation that all is not what it seems- that magic is being used to disguise the hovel in which the supernaturals actually live or to conceal their non-human nature.  This cream clearly has an important function in the story relative to the human being; its significance to the fairies who provide it tends to be overlooked or taken for granted.  Nevertheless, it is obviously even more vital to them than it is to the human helper.  Why does the newly born infant need to have this treatment applied? We are never clearly told, but there seem to be a couple of likely explanations:

  • it confers the fairies’ magical powers- the ointment (or, sometimes, an oil) is most frequently applied to the eyes of the neonate- and of course it is unintentional application to the human’s eyes which leads to ejection from fairyland or blinding. This implies that the power to see through fairy illusion or invisibility is what is being conveyed.  That said, from time to time the treatment prescribed is to rub the baby all over with the potion (there are examples from Wales and Cornwall of this). This obviously indicates that a more general alteration of the child’s physical nature is intended and that not just a power of concealment or disguise but a range of other magical abilities- to fly, to transform objects and the like- are being passed on;
  • it confers immortality: In a revealing statement from the Cornish story of The fairy dwelling on Silena Moor, an abducted woman tells her former fiancee that she was taken by the fairies to nurse “their mortal babies.”  This does not seem to refer to changelings, but to fairy offspring themselves, as she goes on to observe that they “are not so strong as before.”  This strongly suggests that fairy babies are just like human infants in terms of lifespan and that some intervention may be required to bestow immortality.  There are a few brief mentions in verse and folk lore of a fairy practice of dipping changelings in order to liberate them from human mortality.  In the Welsh story of Eilean of Garth Dolwen it is notable that Eilean is a human captive in fairyland and that it is her half-human, half-fairy child who has to be treated by the midwife, perhaps to free it of its maternally inherited human frailties.  Comparable is the evidence of the fairy story of Child Rowland, in which the King of Elfhame uses a blood-red potion to revive two knights that he has slain.  He achieves this by touching the corpses’ eyes, ears, lips, nostrils and fingertips with the liquid.  In Milton’s poem Comus a similar ritual is described.  Delia has been enchanted and trapped by Comus; Sabrina, spirit of the River Severn, releases her from her captivity with drops from her ‘fountain pure’ which are applied to Delia’s breast, lips and finger tips.  In all these stories, then, a magical liquid confers life- either defeating death or reversing it.

It might have been imagined that the qualities just discussed were inherent in fairy-kind, central to their non-human nature, but it seems not.  These attributes need to be specifically conveyed, failing which- presumably- the child would be little different to any other.  That fairies’ magical powers are not necessarily inborn is a concept not wholly alien to fairy lore.  According to a Tudor ballad, Robin Goodfellow (admittedly the half-human son of the king of faery) was granted his father’s supernatural powers through a magical scroll.

Pursuing this thought to its logical conclusion, it seems possible that a human who gets hold of sufficient of the ointment (or who is able to manufacture it) would be able to apply it to his/her own body and thereby bestow upon him/herself quasi-supernatural powers.  Evidence that fairy abilities were quite easily transferable comes from two sources.  In one set of stories, a human is able to fly through the air with the fairies simply by overhearing and repeating the spells they use.  There are several examples of such incidents from the Highlands.  Secondly, and directly relevant to the current discussion, there are accounts from Wales and from Cornwall in which a human’s ability to see through the glamour is derived not directly from the oil or ointment applied to the infant but from the water in which a fairy babe has been washed; again, inadvertent splashing of the bath water onto the eye bestows the power to penetrate the enchantment.  It appears, though, that fairy magic very easily washes (or rubs) off.

In light of what has just been proposed, particularly, we must consider what the constituents of this ointment might be.  The tale of Cherry of Zennor informs us that it is green in colour.  Also from Cornwall, we have evidence from a Mr Maddern of Penzance that was provided in 1910 for Evans Wentz’ Fairy faith in the Celtic countries.  The interviewee stated that a green fairy salve that bestowed invisibility when rubbed on the eyes could be made from certain herbs found on Kerris Moor, outside Paul, near Newlyn, in Penwith (Wentz p.175).  Four-leaf clovers were renowned for their quality of dispelling fairy spells and it seems very likely that this plant will form the main constituent of the salve. It may be that other plants may be added to the mixture- likely candidates might include broom, ragwort and cowslip, amongst others.  It might be anticipated that spells are spoken over the mixture, but this doesn’t appear to be the case: mere accidental possession of a four leaf clover would be enough for a person to see the fairies, we are told.

To summarise, then, the evidence presented seems to suggest that fairy-kind and human-kind are not that different.  Our closeness in physiology, our ability to interbreed, is entirely understandable, given that what separates us is not any profound physical or mental differences but the application of an ointment that bestows magical powers.  This may seem a surprising conclusion, but it is what we are driven to deduce from the stories.  This may detract from the mysterious otherness of faery, but at the same time it puts it within tantalising reach: with the correct recipe for the salve, we could all aspire to pass into another dimension.  Kerris Moor seems to be a good place to go; a bigger problem may be picking enough four-leaf clovers to make sufficient ointment…

Fairyland and the dead

selena

One of the theories of fairy origins is that they represent the spirits of ancestral dead- the departed have been transformed into immortal beings.  For example, in the West Country pixies are believed to be the souls of unbaptised children or of druids and other heathens.  The association of the pixies with standing stones, long barrows and stone circles naturally reinforces this particular idea.

Others have argued that the fairy preference for green is symbolic of death and decay rather than vibrant and vigorous growth, as is most commonly supposed (and which is another origin theory: for example, William Blake in the preface to the Descriptive catalogue prepared for his solo exhibition in Soho in 1809 observed that the fairies of both Shakespeare and Chaucer are “rulers of the vegetable world.” Blake’s own fairies had a similar animating function).  The so-called Green Children of Woolpit, when initially found, ate only green beans, which Katherine Briggs suggested might again link them with death.

paton

Sir Joseph Noel Paton, ‘The fairy rade- carrying off a changeling, Midsummer Eve– Kelvingrove Gallery, Glasgow; note the stone circle in the background

In the surviving folklore, the evidence as a whole is not conclusive on the theory that fairies represent departed ancestors: the dead are definitely present in fairy land, but these deceased persons are not the fairies themselves and, in fact, they may not actually be dead at all.

In the Cornish story of the ‘fairy dwelling on Silena moor’ a farmer called Noy gets lost on the moor and comes upon a party in a house.  He meets a girl who turns out to be a former fiancee of his, someone who had apparently died three or four years previously. His lost love warns Noy not to eat the food at the feast- she herself had done so and had as a result been rendered into a state in which she appeared to be dead to the human world, when in fact a sham body (a stock) was left behind whilst she had been kidnapped and taken to serve the fairies.  Similar examples include Katherine Fordyce of Unst on Shetland, who was believed to have died in child-birth but who had really been taken to act as a nurse maid to the Trows.  Katherine ate fairy food and so became trapped with them.  Lastly, in the tale of the ‘Tacksman of Auchriachan’, the tacksman (tenant farmer) stumbles upon a strange house in the hills in which a woman whom he knows to be very recently deceased is discovered by him acting as a housekeeper for the fairies.  Campbell recorded the widespread Highland belief that men, women and children were regularly carried off underground by the fairies, which explained why in Scottish folk tales people long dead were so often seen in the fairies’ company (Popular tales of the West Highlands, 1890, vol.2, p.65).

In the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo the knight visits the castle of the fairy king in search of his abducted wife.  There he sees many people “thought dead, and nere nought” (‘and yet not’).  Some of these were headless, some lacked limbs, some were badly wounded, mad, drowned, burned, had choked on food or had died in child birth.  Of all of them, the poet states “Eche was thus in this world ynome/ With fairi thither ycome” (‘Each was thus taken from this world and had come there by enchantment’).

Magic is used to steal away humans by the illusion of their deaths.  They are then trapped in the supernatural realm by consuming food and drink there.  It has been argued that this element of the folk tales confirms the ‘land of the dead’ theory: in some early cultures, offerings of food were made to deceased ancestors and so partaking of these transforms the living person and transports them to the realm of the dead (see Dr Henry Bett, English myths and legends, c.1).  However, the permanent state of earthly death need not apply to the those abducted to faery.

The fairy enchantment can be overcome, all the same, it seems.  An account from Skye reveals that wetting your left eye with spit will dispel the fairy glamour and defeat the captivity (Wentz p.97).  The woman in this story escapes, but it must be confessed that she is uniquely lucky.  Mostly, a sojourn of any duration in fairyland will change the body so that it cannot revert to its old life.  This is the result either of the differential passing of time in fairyland or physical alterations to the body.  The subsequent cause of death may be simple grief when the returning captive finds that everyone s/he knew and loved has died during the prolonged absence, however short it may have seemed to the abductee; alternatively, death is a reaction to touching human food, which is now effectively poisonous.

To conclude, the status of visitors to faery remains uncertain.  They sometimes are found underground (as if interred), but by no means always- they can be encountered in ordinary seeming houses too.  They are not met with dressed all in green like their hosts/ captors, which might have signified a change of status, and they continue with mundane tasks like cleaning and cooking. Travel to fairyland therefore is not death- it just looks like it to those left behind. Those transported remain alive, but in a place which will transform them, so that they are never able to return to their old life.

 

“Al on snowe white stedes” – fairy animals

gwartheg

A number of domesticated beasts are also associated with fairies, showing how often their society imitated and paralleled our own.  Sometimes this livestock was imagined as being its normal size, so as to match human sized fairies; on other occasions the creatures were diminutive, just like their supernatural owners.  Some of the creatures were larger than their counterparts in the human world, enhancing the fear associated with their unearthly origins.

We find regular reference to:

  • goats– I have discussed fairy goats before.  They were very well known in Wales, but the Cornish were also aware of the link.  For example, William Bottrell recorded that wherever goats preferred to graze would be certain to be places frequented by the pixies.  In the Highlands of Perthshire it was believed that the fairies lived on goat’s milk.

254

  • horses– fairies liked hunting and processing and for this horses were nearly essential.  In the poem Sir Orfeo the fairy king arrives to seduce the knight’s wife with his ladies and retainers, “Al on snowe white stedes.”  In the Scottish poem Young Tamlane the fairies process on black, brown and white mounts whilst in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen appears astride a ‘palfrey.’ We also hear of Welsh fairies hunting on grey horses and- from an old woman in the Vale of Neath in 1827- an account of fairies seen riding white horses ‘no bigger than dogs.’  These Welsh fairies were said to ride in the air, never coming to ground.  Appropriately, fairy horses were renowned for their swiftness.  In contrast to these generally small and pale-hued steeds, a horse that collected a midwife to attend a fairy labour near Tavistock was coal black with eyes ‘like balls of fire’…  John Campbell in Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands suggested that the fairy horses might not be real, at all, but just enchanted ragweed stems, on which fairies so often flew through the air like broomsticks.  This might indeed have been the case in the north of Scotland, at least.
  • deer– in the Highlands fairies were especially associated with the red deer and, indeed,  it was believed by some that they were their only cattle.  It was also alleged that fairy women could transform themselves into deer and might be captured in this guise.
  • dogs- for the fairies’ great sport of hunting, hounds are required.  Searching to recover his wife, Sir Orfeo meets the king of fairy riding out “with hundes berkyng.”  Likewise in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen is met with “hir greyehundes” and “Hir raches.”  The latter are ‘rachets’- specially bred hunting dogs.  The Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) of Welsh legend were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven. They dashed through the air on stormy nights, terrifying the mortals below.  More dainty, perhaps, were the “milk white hounds” that accompanied the elfin ladies of the lakes.  In stark contrast, the ‘people of peace’ of the Scottish Highlands possessed dogs the size of bullocks, which were dark green (though paling towards their feet). These hounds’ tails either curled tightly on their backs or appeared flat, even plaited.  They were kept as ferocious watchdogs for the fairy knolls and were said to move by gliding in straight lines.
  • cats: fairy felines were apparently the size of human dogs, black with a white spot on their chests, their backs constantly arched and their fur bristled.
  • cattle– Irish fairy cattle are famed for their distinctive appearance: they are white with red ears.  In Britain, though, such distinctive characteristics are not so regularly recorded, but in Wales the “comely milk white kine” were definitely famed.  These were the gwartheg y llyn,  the ‘lake cattle’, that were frequently brought to marriages with human males by the beautiful and mesmerising lake maidens.  Alternatively they might mingle and interbreed naturally with human herds (and are clearly envisaged as being of normal proportions and appearance).  If (when) the fairy wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts from her husband’s herd.  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.  In the Scottish Highlands fairy cattle typically were dun coloured and hornless, but on Skye they were red speckled and could cross the sea.
  • other livestock– In British goblins Wirt Sikes says that the Welsh fairies may appear in the shape of sheep, poultry and pigs.  It is not wholly clear from his account whether these are fairy animals or fairies in the form of animals.  Whatever the exact situation, these creatures were often reported as being seen flying or rising from pastures up into the sky.

In summary, there seem to be a number of common features to fairy animals. They are very commonly pure white- a sure sign of their supernatural nature- and most commonly airborne (another clear indication of their enchanted nature). Although in many respects, their behaviour was identical with that of normal farm beasts, they were prone to appear and disappear unpredictably.  As with all fairy gifts, poor treatment of them guarantees their loss.

cnn-annwn

Anglo-Saxon elves

alf

It will be obvious that the Saxon immigrants to British shores in the sixth century brought with them an established body of belief on fairies and elves.  What I wish to do in this posting is to attempt to outline the core elements of what that belief might have been, before it interacted with existing insular British beliefs.

We can form some idea of what our Saxon ancestors might have believed from several sources.  There are their own literary productions- poems, stories and medical texts- which provide valuable information.  There are contemporary Norse texts which examine the Viking pantheon.  Lastly, we may compare more recent Scandinavian- especially Danish- folk beliefs with English fairy stories; where they share elements, we may suggest that these derive from an early, common mythology believed by all the continental Germanic tribes.  Of course, the potential flaw in this approach is that there was later contact through Danish and Norwegian Viking settlement in Britain.  If beliefs are widespread throughout all of England and lowland Scotland- and not limited to the Danelaw, this later influence may be discounted; equally, I might argue that we are still describing Saxon folklore, albeit the beliefs of the later Saxons after the Norse influx had been absorbed (!)  In fact, many of the ideas listed below are found in Wessex, the West Midlands and the North, the Borders and Scottish lowlands, beyond the Norse settlements, so that later imports may not be the best explanation.  Another approach could be to ascribe these common beliefs to a core of Indo-European thought, something that was not unique to Celts, Germans, Slavs or others.   There is, very likely, such a deep shared source: it is probably world wide and very ancient.  In this case, it is still likely that a good number of these ideas were incorporated in to early English belief and were carried into Britain at the time of the settlement.

The old Norse Edda is a good starting point for this examination, as it provides a clear statement of northern Teutonic belief about the elves.  In the early 1200s in Iceland, scholar Snorri Sturluson compiled the so-called prose Edda, a record of the Norse myths and legends.  In Gylfaginning Gylfi describes the heavens and the many splendid places there:

“There is one place that is called Alfheim.  There live the folk called light-elves, but the dark-elves live down in the ground, and they are unlike them in appearance, and even more unlike them in nature.  Light-elves are fairer than the sun to look at, but dark-elves are blacker than pitch.”

In later British belief we come across stories of Elfame from Lowland Scotland.  It seems inescapable that this ‘elf-home’ is a survival from the earliest English legends.  As for the division into light and dark, good and bad, elves, there are several later references to ‘white fays’ in English literature and one echo that may be particularly significant. Being interrogated on charges of witchcraft in 1566, John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset told his inquisitors “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black.  Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”  If the colours reflect more than mere choice of costume, there appears here to be a survival of the light/ dark opposition.  In this connection we should also note the Old English term aelfscyne which was applied to women in a couple of texts (Genesis A and the poem Judith).  The word seems to mean something like ‘elf-beautiful’ or even ‘enchantingly bright’; perhaps in the suggestion of light or shining there is a further hint of the light and dark elf dichotomy.

From this limited evidence it may be possible to postulate a basic Anglo-Saxon mythology of an Elf-home, divided between the good (white) elves and the bad (black) elves.  Beyond that, it is not safe to go. Several further varieties of elves- the sae, feld, beorg, dun and munt aelfen- are mentioned in Aelfric’s Glossary,  but it seems very likely that these are actually translations of classical terms such as naiad and hamadryad and that they are not genuine Saxon categories at all.  If this is so, this is a tenth century example of the deleterious effects of classical learning that I described in a previous post.

Luckily, we do possess some direct evidence of Saxon conceptions of the elvish race. They are mentioned in several medical texts as the causes of illnesses, mainly internal pains or mental disturbances.  A spell to cure ‘the stitch’ goes as follows:

“Loud were they, lo, loud, as they rode over the barrow/ … Out little spear, if herein it be/ … To them another I wish to send back/ … a flying dart against them in return./  …if it were gods’ shot, or it were elves’ shot/ Or it were witches’ shot, now I will help you/ This is the remedy…”

‘Elf-shot’ was a recognised cause of disease in later times and was a major diagnosis in the Saxon texts such as Lacnunga.  A selection of herbs were employed in treating both humans and livestock afflicted with these maladies.  The medical texts also refer to aelfsogetha- which appears to be something like bronchitis or heartburn- and to aelfsidenn, which literally means elf-enchantment and seems to be a night fever or nightmares.  There is too a cure for waeteraelfaedle (water-elf sickness) which is characterised by the patient’s livid nails, watering eyes and downcast looks.  This term may denote another subdivision of the elves: in later times in Scotland there was a clear distincton between land (or dressed) and water fairies (see Campbell, Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.2 p.64).  Equally, though, it might just as well be read as ‘watery elf-sickness’ and so be more concerned with the symptoms than the identity of the agent inflicting the disease.

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Turning to the comparative sources, the attributes shared by English fairies with those of the original English homelands seem to be extensive and to include:

  • living under hills, which will periodically rise or open up to reveal feasting and music within;
  • a love of singing and dancing;
  • a preference for dancing in circles in grassy places, leaving marks on the ground;
  • a love of cleanliness and tidiness, for which humans are rewarded (or punished);
  • causing disease in humans and livestock;
  • the inability to cross running water;
  • a preference for wearing green and red, especially red caps;
  • an aversion to loud noises, which may drive them away;
  • the power to make themselves invisible, change their shape, see the future or to confer prosperity;
  • the need to use human midwives;
  • magic power in their names, which must be concealed from humans;
  • a strong link to certain trees, especially oaks.  Elder trees also feature in Danish folklore, which tells of the Old Lady of the Elder Tree who must be appeased before taking wood.  This spirit also appears in Lincolnshire, very strongly suggesting that Danish settlers brought the belief with them to East Anglia;
  • residence in Elfame is perilous, because time passes differently and because their food is unsafe for humans;
  • fairies take children and leave changelings, which may be exposed by cooking tricks or by burning;
  • there is a species of fairy that resides with humans, doing farm-work, stealing fodder and grain from neighbours and becoming so attached to a household that it is impossible to escape them by trying to move away.  Nonetheless, if they are insulted, they will become a nuisance;
  • there are freshwater fairies that are part horse;
  • there are marine fairies such as mermaids and seal people.

As suggested earlier, the considerable parallels between Danish fairy lore and English tales are indicative of a common source.  The question remains whether that was located in fifth century Angeln before the early English fared forth in their keels, or further back in time and further away in the homelands of the Indo-European peoples.

Anglo-Saxon elves seem to have been imagined as being human in size and shape, but having a semi-divine nature.  Scandinavian elves shared this character and were the subject of sacrifices, aelfblot.  For instance, in Kormaks Saga a wounded man was told to sacrifice a bull and then to take the beast to a mound “in which elves dwell … and redden the outside of the mound with the bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast with the flesh; and you will be healed.”  There are records of comparable practices in Britain.

The evidence indicates that a rich set of beliefs were imported to British shores, there to mingle with the mythology of the residual British population and to produce the complex and developed fairy-lore to which this blog is dedicated.

 

For those readers who want a far more detailed and academic examination of this area, I recommend the work of Alaric Hall, lecturer in medieval English literature at Leeds University.  You will readily find online pdf copies of his book Elves in Anglo-Saxon England and of his PhD thesis from which the book derives.  As his job indicates, his approach is primarily literary and is written from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxonist. If your conversational Mercian is weak, you may not fancy it….!