“Some war with reremice for their leathern wings”- the facts on fairy violence

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It has become a widespread belief that fairies are wholly benevolent and peaceable beings, to whom violence and antagonism towards humankind is anathema.  This view of the supernatural realm would surprise our predecessors, who had a very different and more complex view of faery.  Older folk lore portrays an other-world very similar to our own, with its own internal conflicts and with a range of responses to human-kind, from friendly to hostile.

  • fairy warfare– it seemed entirely reasonable to earlier generations that the fairies would disagree profoundly and might engage in armed conflict amongst themselves. The Reverend Kirk said that “These Subterraneans have Controversies, Doubts, Disputes, Feuds and Sidings of Parties … they transgress and commit Acts of Injustice and Sin.”  As a result, they have “many disastrous Doings of their own, as … Fighting, Gashes, Wounds and Burialls…”  As evidence of these conflicts, there is a Glamorganshire tradition of a fairy battle fought in the air between Aberdare and Merthyr.  In the Hebrides Evans Wentz reported that it was believed that the fairy hosts always fought at Halloween, as evidence of which a red liquid produced by lichens after frost was believed in fact to be the blood of the fairy fallen.  John Campbell, in his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, provides detail of a similar phenomenon.  He describes a substance called elf-blood (fuil siochaire) which is found on the shores of the Hebrides; it is like a dark red stone and is full of holes.  These bloodstones are connected to the red skies of the aurora borealis, which themselves are termed the ‘pool of blood’ and are a sign of fairy fighting above.
  • retributive violence–  I have already in several postings referred to the fact that fairies were believed to impose a strict code of morals and conduct upon humans and to enforce this by forceful means.  There seemed to be little hesitation about battering and injuring those of whom they disapproved.  Offending individuals could certainly expect to be pinched mercilessly; they might also be jostled, assaulted, lamed and (for the offence of seeing through the fairy glamour) blinded.
  • thrashing-  John Campbell recorded a series of curious tales about the conduct of fairy women, which I reproduce here:

“A herdsman at Baile-phuill, in the west end of Tiree, fell asleep on Cnoc Ghrianal, at the eastern base of Heynish Hill, on a fine summer afternoon. He was awakened by a violent slap on the ear. On rubbing his eyes, and looking up, he saw a woman, the most beautiful he had ever seen, in a green dress, with a brooch fastened in at the neck, walking away from him. She went westward and he followed her for some distance, but she vanished, he could not tell how…

A man in Mull, watching in the harvest field at night, saw a woman standing in the middle of a stream that ran past the field. He ran after her, and seemed sometimes to be close upon her, and again to be as far from her as ever. Losing temper he swore himself to the devil that he would follow till he caught her. When he said the words the object of his pursuit allowed herself to be overtaken, and showed her true character by giving him a sound thrashing. Every night after he had to meet her. He was like to fall into a decline through fear of her, and becoming thoroughly tired of the affair, he consulted an old woman of the neighbourhood, who advised him to take with him to the place of the appointment the ploughshare and his brother John. This would keep the Fairy woman from coming near him. The Fairy, however, said to him in a mumbling voice, “You have taken the ploughshare with you to-night, Donald, and big, pock-marked, dirty John your brother,” and catching him she administered a severer thrashing than ever. He went again to the old woman, and this time she made for his protection a thread, which he was to wear about his neck. He put it on, and instead of going to the place of meeting, remained at the fireside. The Fairy came, and, taking him out of the house, gave him a still severer thrashing. Upon this, the wise woman said she would make a chain to protect him against all the powers of darkness, though they came. He put this chain about his neck, and remained by the fireside. He heard a voice calling down the chimney, ‘I cannot come near you to-night, Donald, when the pretty smooth-white is about your neck.’…

A man in Iona, thinking daylight was come, rose and went to a rock to fish. After catching some fish, he observed he had been misled by the clearness of the moonlight, and set off home. On the way, as the night was so fine, he sat down to rest himself on a hillock. He fell asleep, and was awakened by the pulling of the fishing rod, which he had in his hand. He found the rod was being pulled in one direction, and the fish in another. He secured both, and was making off, when he heard sounds behind him as of a woman weeping. On his turning round to her, she said, “Ask news, and you will get news.” He answered, “I put God between us.” When he said this, she caught him and thrashed him soundly. Every night after he was compelled to meet her, and on her repeating the same words and his giving the same answer, was similarly drubbed. To escape from her persecutions he went to the Lowlands. When engaged there cutting drains, he saw a raven on the bank above him. This proved to be his tormentor, and, as usual, she thrashed him. He resolved to go to America. On the eve of his departure, his Fairy mistress met him and said, “You are going away to escape from me. If you see a hooded crow when you land, I am that crow.” On landing in America he saw a crow sitting on a tree, and knew it to be his old enemy. In the end the fairy dame killed him.”

These are odd accounts and a little difficult to explain.  The man is compelled against his will to meet the fairy woman, but is then apparently beaten for doing so.  The battery appears to be either a means of ensuring his obedience by instilling fear- and a hint that the fairy lover does not trust her charms- or it is a punishment for his temerity.  Either way it suggests that fairies can be vindictive and contemptuous, even towards those they favour in some way.

  • cautionary violence– again, in an earlier post I have mentioned those spirits whose primary purpose seems to have been to scare and discipline children so as to encourage them to avoid dangerous locations such as ponds or river banks.  Jenny Greenteeth and Peg Powler weren’t just names, though, nor would they merely give an errant child a fright: they would drag the disobedient infant beneath the water and drown them,
  • unprovoked violence– some supernaturals were malicious by nature and human encounters with them would almost invariably prove fatal.  These include the Highland water horses, the each uisge/ aughisky, the kelpie and the shoopiltree of Shetland, all of which would lure people into mounting them and would then career at speed into a river or lake or into the sea, where the humans would be drowned and/ or devoured.  There were other non-equine but equally maleficent and dangerous water spirits in Scotland, such as the fideal, the fuath, the peallaidh, the muilearteach and the cearb (the killer).  In Wales the llamhigyn y dwr (the water leaper) and the afanc were known.  All of these made a habit of tearing their unfortunate victims to pieces beneath the waves.

A broader perspective on fairy conduct confirms the impression of a fractious, rough and sometimes vicious society.  Many aspects of their culture depended upon violence to some degree:

  • population: as described previously, human children and wives might be taken by force to supplement the fairy race;
  • subsistence: a significant portion of the food and drink consumed in faery was stolen,  usually by stealth but sometimes coercively- for example, in cases where livestock were stolen and then butchered; and,
  • leisure: the fairy idea of fun often involved tormenting people or their livestock- for example, the habit of ‘riding’ horses at night, a practice which left them weak and distressed in the mornings.

As this catalogue shows, traditional folk belief was a great deal less confident in the good nature of fairy kind than is the case with some contemporary commentators.  The best counsel would be to approach with care- or better still to protect oneself with charms and to seek to avoid the ‘good neighbours’ altogether, to be on the safe side. Fairies were regarded as being as variable, unpredictable and potentially vicious as any imperfect human being.

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