Fairy touch, by Carol Armstrong
I have written here before about fairy magic (and see chapter 10 of my British fairies) and about the properties of fairy ointment. In this post I want to home-in on another aspect of our good neighbours’ magical powers- their ability to convey these by mere touch.
The most significant consequence of this aspect of their magic is that it demonstrates that their abilities seem not necessarily to be innate; they may be learned from grimoires or they may be transferred by supernatural means- they are capable of being passed simply and quickly from person to person. In this respect the situation resembles the ointment which I discussed previously. Magical ability is, we might say, a commodity to be acquired by anyone, regardless of birth or status.
Receipt of magic vision is demonstrated from several sources. Seers (those endowed with the second sight) can admit others to their visions by means of mere contact. The Reverend Kirk in chapter 12 of The secret commonwealth tells us about this:
“The usewall Method for a curious Person to get a transient Sight of this otherwise invisible Crew of Subterraneans, (if impotently and over rashly sought,) is to put his [left Foot under the Wizard’s right] Foot, and the Seer’s Hand is put on the Inquirer’s Head, who is to look over the Wizard’s right Shoulder, (which hes ane ill Appearance, as if by this Ceremony ane implicit Surrender were made of all betwixt the Wizard’s Foot and his Hand, ere the Person can be admitted a privado to the Airt;) then will he see a Multitude of Wights, like furious hardie Men, flocking to him haistily from all Quarters, as thick as Atoms in the Air…”
Those with second sight are, of course, humans who are privileged to be able to see the supernaturals surrounding us which are invisible to most. Those fairy beings have the same power, nonetheless. In various Scottish ballads and poems we hear of an identical process. In the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer the hero meets the fairy queen who tells him:
“Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies [wonders] three.”
The same is recounted in Thomas of Erceldoune and in the Queen of Elfland’s nourice:
“O nourice lay your head
Upo my knee:
See ye na that narrow road
Up by yon tree?
. . . . .
That’s the road the righteous goes,
And that’s the road to heaven.
An see na ye that braid road,
Down by yon sunny fell?
Yon’s the road the wicked gae,
An that’s the road to hell.”
You may notice that all these examples are of Scottish provenance, but the conception is not exclusively from the north of Britain. John Rhys tells a tale of a Gwynnedd farmer:
“who lived not long ago at Deunant, close to Aberdaron. The latter used, as is the wont of country people, to go out a few steps in front of his house every night to–before going to bed; but once on a time, while he was standing there, a stranger stood by him and spoke to him, saying that he had no idea how he and his family were annoyed by him. The farmer asked how that could be, to which the stranger replied that his house was just below where they stood, and if he would only stand on his foot he would see that what he said was true. The farmer complying, put his foot on the other’s foot, and then he could clearly see that all the slops from his house went down the chimney of the other’s house, which stood far below in a street he had never seen before. The fairy then advised him to have his door in the other side of his house, and that if he did so his cattle would never suffer from disease. The result was that the farmer obeyed, and had his door walled up and another made in the other side of the house: ever after he was a most prosperous man, and nobody was so successful as he in rearing stock in all that part of the country.” (Celtic folklore, p.230)
Lastly, we may note that this idea has a long history. In the Life of Bartholomew of Farne, which is published as an appendix to Simeon of Durham’s Works (vol.1, Appendix 2, CUP reprint 2002) there’s a story about how the devil showed the hermit Bartholomew spirits in the form of sheep. It was only when he put his foot on the other’s that the holy man saw through the deception and realised they were actually demons.
Summary and further reading
What can we conclude from all this? Well, the process of transference by touch certainly suggests the considerable power of the magic involved, yet at the same time it implies that magical ability is not unique. Anyone can acquire it provided that they have the right materials (to make ointment) or the right acquaintances. It suggests too that there may not be a huge gulf between humans and fairies: they seem to be closely related and the distance between us is narrow and easily bridged. All we need then is luck, the right contacts and/or determination and commitment (for example, to gather enough four leaf clover to be able to produce a usable quantity of the magic ointment).
There are many ways to acquire the fairies’ magic powers- fern seed may also be laboriously collected (like clover), a spell book might be acquired or a person may learn their magic hand gestures their spells and their conjurations. These have all been examined in separate postings.
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.