I have written before 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.
Four leaf clover ointment
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…
Seeing fairies can result from a number of factors combined: the ointment ought to be a a guarantee, but the use of charms or spell books may work, as may by learning their magic hand gestures or simply being in the right place at the right season or the right time.