Huon meets King Oberon, by Henry Ford
What do fairies believe in? This may seem like a nonsensical question for at least two reasons:
- firstly, if you subscribe to the belief that our current fairies are the diminished remnants of former pagan gods and goddesses of nature, then it is illogical to propose that an erstwhile divinity should worship another deity; or,
- secondly, because the fairy code of morality is so distinctive and so deliberately selfish (see my earlier post or chapters 2 and 18 of my British fairies): fairies are not concerned with good works; they are concerned with furthering their own interests.
These objections are quite valid, yet our predecessors (at least before the Reformation) almost unconsciously assumed that these creatures would be Christians just like them. Our medieval ancestors had absolutely no hesitation in accepting fairies as just another god-fearing creation of the Christian deity. This is revealed, in passing, in many of the earlier stories. The fairy king in King Herla’s tale exclaims “God be my witness;” the Green Children of Woolpit came from a place called St Martin’s Land and professed themselves to be good Christians. Oberon, the king of faery in Huon of Bordeaux, for example exclaims “God keepe you all! I desire you to speake with mee, and I conjure you thereto by God Almightie and by the Christendome that you have received and by all that God hath made” (chapter 21). In several Scottish ballads, including that of Thomas the Rhymer, the fairy queen points out to the hero the roads leading to heaven and hell, which lead from faery.
Thomas the Rhymer, by Thomas Canty
This uniform certainty in the orthodoxy of fairy kind received severe blows during the sixteenth century. Two events undermined the formerly unshakeable conviction in their godliness. One was the Reformation, which, as we shall see, initiated attacks upon all forms of superstition. The second key factor was the settlement of the Americas. Christians were confronted with continents and civilisations unheard of by the Bible and who knew nothing of the church or Christ. The question arose how these peoples were to be accommodated in the existing world view and whether they had souls capable of salvation. These debates must in turn have given rise to doubts over the position of fairies in the Christian creation.
Some people persisted in the older beliefs and still simply accepted fairies as another Christian race. In a spell to conjure the fairy Elaby Gathen, Elias Ashmole reminded the spirit that “thou doest feare the heavy wrath and judgment” and demanded that the being “should be obedient or judged to eternal damnation with the demons in hell.” As a magi, Ashmole very likely believed fairies to be a form of spiritual being closely related to angels, so their godly nature was something he took for granted. More surprising are the recorded beliefs of Scottish minister Robert Kirk, who felt that the elves and fairies were less sinful than men, “but yet are in ane imperfect State, and some of them making better Essays for heroic Actions than others; having the same Measure of Vertue and Vice as wee, and still expecting an advancement to a higher and more splendid State of Lyfe.”
The Reverend Kirk believed that the fairies had the same prospect of judgment and salvation as any Christian man or woman. In fact, a number of related theories emerged as to the place of the fairies in the Christian universe. One name for the fairies was ‘the Hidden Folk;’ the origin of this is explained in a Carmarthenshire story told to Evans-Wentz:
“Our Lord, in the days when He walked the earth, chanced one day to approach a cottage in which lived a woman with twenty children. Feeling ashamed of the size of her family, she hid half of them from the sight of her divine visitor. On His departure she sought for the hidden children in vain; they had become fairies and had disappeared.” (Evans-Wentz, p.153)
Another widespread belief was that the fairies were fallen angels who had followed Satan in his rebellion but who had not yet reached hell when God commanded that the gates of haven and hell be closed. They were left stranded between and hid in holes in the earth (Evans-Wentz, pp.85, 105, 109, 116, 129-30 & 205). They will finally be released from this intermediate status on the day of judgment. Lastly, there are Europe wide stories telling of incidents in which anxious fairies approach humans begging for reassurance that they too will be saved. Generally, the answer is no, to the fairies’ great dismay (see Spence, British fairy origins, p.165 & the story of the ‘Minister and the Fairy‘ printed in Folk-lore and legends: Scotland, 1898).
Fairies and devils
At the same time, in some quarters there was a clear conviction that fairies could never be good Christians, because they were either demonic delusions wrought by the devil or they were deceits of the Roman Catholic church (which to many godly Puritans amounted to the same thing anyway). Certainly, fairies, elves and the like were hard to accommodate within the strict terms of the Bible. Whether they were genuine malign entities or just an invention of the Papist clergy- and thus a minor distraction to reformers- was never fully resolved, but the different positions are very well evidenced.
For Thomas Heyrick, fairies were nothing but vain stories:
“Dotage, the Vice of ancient years …
Listens to each Fabulous Legend, every story
of Relicks, Exorcisms and Purgatory,
of Fairy Elves and Goblins, wakeful Sprights
That rouze the drowsie Monks to Beads at Nights!”
(The new Atlantis, 1687, p.15)
Likewise, for George Chapman, they were a product of a more credulous past: “Fairies were but in times of ignorance, not since the true light hath been revealed, and that they come from heaven I scarce believe.” (A humorous day’s mirth, 1591). Fairies and witches were nothing but conceits “whereby the Papists kept the ignorant in awe” (T. Cooper, The mystery of witchcraft, 1617, p.123), they were the worthless recipients of reverence from “silly people” (John Penry, The aequity of a humble supplication, 1587).
In contrast, others saw real harm and spiritual peril in the fays. For Thomas Jackson, there was no question of distinguishing good and bad fairies because “it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both” (A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, 1625, p.178). Fairies and elves were nothing more or less than “infernal deities” (Henry Smith, Christian religion’s appeal, 1675, p.45); they brought disease and madness (Mirror for magistrates, 1575, line 215; William Vaughan, The soul’s exercise, 1641, p.113) and they had to be cast out in the same manner an any evil spirit: “Gang hence to Hell or to the Farie” (Philotus- a comedy, 1568). One common explanation of the taking of children as changelings was that the fairies had to pay a tithe to the devil every seven years and, understandably, preferred to do so with a human life instead of one of their own kind. Ironically, the truth is that the Catholic church had much the same opinion as the Puritans: the fourteenth century Fasciculus morum, for example, condemned all belief in fairies and elves as “only phantoms displayed by an evil spirit.” As I have described in discussing witchcraft and fairies, the result of this kind of thinking was to mix up belief in fairies and in witches, with serious consequences for those professing a faith in our ‘good neighbours.’
It must the penetration of popular culture by such ideas that led to accounts describing the fairies’ strong aversion to bells and churches. I have mentioned these before in a my postings on the departure of the fairies and on fairy building, but the stories are common: for example, in Dorset at Portland, Cadbury and Withycombe church bells drove off the local pixies, whilst at East Chelborough the resident sprites objected to the site chosen for a new church and removed it bodily.
“But the king who sits on your high church steeple/ Has nothing to do with us fairy people!” (Charlotte Mew, The changeling)
One definite effect of the post-Reformation debates was to create the widespread popular belief that fairies were repelled by anything Christian. Possession of a copy of the Bible or some pages from it alone could be efficacious, as could saying grace, making the sign of the cross and a number of other actions. This is the aspect of fairy nature we recall today- not the earlier views.
All of this brings us full circle. It came to be said that fairy belief was on the wane in Britain because the fairies were less and less frequently seen and the reason for this was that they were Catholics and had deserted British shores since the break with Rome. See, for example, Richard Corbet’s Farewell, rewards and fairies:
“Lament, lament, old Abbeys,
The Fairies’ lost command…
But now alas, they are all dead,
Or gone beyond the seas,
Or farther from Religion fled,
Or else they take their ease.”
(see too my British fairies chapter 6 and appendix)
Corbet’s allegation is that with the fairies’ went ceremony and dancing, and, more seriously, justice and equity too.
Much of this discussion has been concerned with whether the fays were Catholic or Protestant, or whether they were pure evil incarnate- demons and servants of Satan.
There is, though, a hint of another view, one that may appeal more to many contemporary readers. In William Bottrell’s story of The house on Selena Moor fairy abductee Grace makes this remarkable statement about her pixie captors:
“For you must remember they are not of our religion,” said she, in answer to his surprised look, “but star-worshippers.”
If this truly represents Cornish belief of the late nineteenth century, it might be a relic of older ideas about the fays and- perhaps- a connection that was made between them and ‘The Druids.’ This need not necessarily be a much older idea- it might have emerged in the previous century or so- yet it may be a tantalising hint of theories relating the pixies to worship at Cornwall’s many ancient monuments.
See too my postings on the relationship between fairies and the dead and on the process of laying, or exorcising, fairies. As my postings on the fairies’ preferred days and times of the year suggest, there is some antipathy towards the church and some inclination towards older, ‘pagan’ feasts.
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.