Previously I have discussed fairy language in the context of conversation with humans and in fairy song; I want here to consider fairy names. I have recently been reading Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies (2014) and my examples are mostly drawn from that book.
To recap previous discussions, there are several aspects to the human experience of fairy speech. Sometimes there is a complete barrier and no communication at all is possible: for example, in Canada in the early 1920s a little man “made an effort to talk to [a girl aged eleven] but she could not understand what he said” (p.34) or a three year old in Liverpool talked at length with some pixies “in a language her mother could not follow” (p.279). More often the fays seem quite at home in the local tongue, whether that is English, Welsh or whatever. Still, their speech will be distinctive for its tone: repeatedly fairy voices are reported to be “high pitched,” “bell-like or chirpy,” clipped and very quick” and like “a melodious twittering” (pp.44, 51, 59, 255). This chirping, tinkling nature might in itself cause some problems of comprehension.
There are some lists of names in the early seventeenth century literature which are not to be taken seriously. In The life of Robin Goodfellow we read of Pinch, Patch, Gull, Grim, Sib, Tib, Licke and Lull. From Drayton’s Nimphidia come Hop, Mop, Dryp, Pip, Trip, Skip, Fib, Tib, Pinch, Pin, Tick, Quick, Jil, Jin, Tit, Nit, Wap and Win. These are just alliterative play, plainly, although Katherine Briggs suggests that there may be a “hint of scurrility” here too, with wap and win at least being sexual slang.
How are fairies named then? We have both contemporary and historical evidence on this:
- Elias Ashmole recorded various spells for conjuring fairies in the seventeenth century. Knowing a name was an important part of gaining control over the fay, and he identified two- Elabigathan and Margaret Barrance. The former is suitably exotic, the latter sounds like any goodwife Ashmole might have met in contemporary Oxford;
- There are traditional/classical names, such as ‘Sybilia‘- one of the fairy queens, and rulers of the elemental beings known as Paralda (air), Niksa (water), Ghob (earth) and Djinn (fire). The names of these kings can be found widely in contemporary writing (see, for example, Ted Andrews, Enchantment of the faerie realm) but they derive from Eliphas Levi, The conjuration of the four elements, and (perhaps) beyond that from Kabbalist sources;
- Doreen Virtue records an encounter with a small pink, long-haired fairy called Lilitte (Fairies 101, pp.12-13);
- Robery Ogilvie Crombie (Roc) of Findhorn met a faun in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens whose name was Kurmos; and,
- from amongst Marjorie Johnson’s informants we learn of Trindy and Frieta, two fairies who lived in a cairn in a garden in Cornwall (p.65), Puck and Parry, two Cornish pixies met in Liverpool (p.279), a male fay in Shropshire named Hartha and, lastly, a tiny Welsh fairy called Veronica (p.272). We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the mildly exotic, to the traditional.
What emerges seems to be a mixture of classical inherited names, conventional contemporary names and some which might be dismissed as made up or might alternatively be thought of as examples of genuine fairy appellations. It is a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus over fairy dress and appearance. Perhaps what we can identify are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken: sometimes it is familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown.