‘Hence to Hell or Faery’- the nature of fairy religion

huon

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-Thomas Canty

Thomas the Rhymer, by Thomas Canty

Reformation

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.”

Salvation?

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.

Pagan pixies

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.

Further reading

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.

 

 

20 thoughts on “‘Hence to Hell or Faery’- the nature of fairy religion

  1. Fascinating! It is interesting that the Reformations had such an effect. Hans Christian Andersen’s tales in the 19th century always incorporated fairies with Christian themes. Great posts, I love your entire blog! 🙂

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    1. Christine- thanks as ever for the encouragement. As far as religion goes, I think that for many people it was impossible to imagine the fairies as not being Christian, on the basis that they were sentient beings and part of Creation. It was only later when everything got very literal- ‘if it’s not mentioned in the Bible as good, it must be bad’ seems to have been the attitude- that attitudes changed and got more exclusive. Thanks too for the mention of Andersen- interestingly, quite a few of the stories of fairies worried about their salvation are Danish/ Scandinavian, so it seems to have been a particularly North European theme.

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      1. Yes. Tolkien’s writing is also known for being very Christian, yet Lord of the Rings is chock full of Scandinavian/ Norse elves who, like humans, have solid choices between good and evil.

        You probably know that during witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries, the accused witches began to report being in contact with fairies (rather than the Devil). It seems the courts eventually decided that fairies and devils were the same thing — the witches were selling their souls to evil entities. King James I even wrote a book about witchcraft in which he decided that fairies were evil.

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      2. You’re right about Tolkien- I recently read an autobiography in which it was said (I think) that his Middle Earth was peopled with highly moral beings, just without the formal religious system.

        Have you read Ronald Hutton’s new book on The Witch? I specifically got hold of it because of the section on fairies. As I’ve discussed in a posting, I feel very uncertain about the evidence of the witch trials because they are our primary source on fays granting powers to ‘witches,’ yet at the same time they are a very unique class of witnesses- subject to duress and very likely wanting to protect friends and associates from suspicion. I wonder if the fairies were used to deflect blame here and have been unfairly associated with witchcraft. Certainly, a lot of the time there was nothing ‘evil’ in what they apparently offered to their human favourites- healing and help finding lost items don’t seem inherently wrongful to me, anyway.

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      3. I agree. Fairies were, for the most part, not considered evil. Actually, witchcraft was not that evil either, before the Reformations. A lot of the magic was considered to be healing. It seems that during the Reformations, folks perhaps lost a lot of their stability regarding religion — things that they had previously believed were being questioned. So in that uncertainty, they became more suspicious, and started considering evil in things that had previously been benign. (Just my theory.)

        I have not yet read The Witch. Will have to check it out!

        I totally agree about Tolkien’s creations. Definitely full of morality, and by all accounts, that is what he intended. I read that he was very disappointed when the Hippie movement ( where folks were of “questionable” and “ambiguous” morals) began to adopt and promote his work. Of course they turned it into a franchise and he will never be forgotten, so maybe it wasn’t that bad 🙂

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      4. Christine- I like your idea of loss of stability; it makes a lot of sense. So as fairies go, my view of the Reformation and the witch trials has generally been to treat them as a bit of an aberration- a short period of hysteria when, like you suggest, lots of insecurities took over. I like to take a longer view of fairylore and try to find more constant and stable themes. My feeling is that a lot of what was written during the witch scare was too polemical and too paranoid to be relied upon! But may be that’s just my own prejudice…

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      5. I think under pressure and on trial, it is likely that a lot of the accused witches came up with wild stories. Historians are still trying to figure out why they said the things they did — but it was definitely a period of hysteria and insecurity. That period lasted roughly from 1450 – 1700, whereas fairy lore has been around for thousands of years. I too like the longer view. But I never entirely discount the witch stories, as some of them are really thought provoking! 🙂

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      6. Christine- you’re quite right I think not to discount the evidence of the witch trials entirely. Like you say, scared people under torture may well have said lots of things just to keep their accusers happy, but I guess it had to have some kernel of truth/ familiarity for it to seem feasible. All the same, given that (outside the witch trials) there’s very limited evidence for fairies teaching healing skills, you have to wonder how common people thought it really was.

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