Traditional material in the Fairy Census

Cottingley harebell posie Elsie

Elsie Wright presented with a posy of harebells

The Fairy Investigation Society‘s recent Fairy Census, published in January this year and covering 2014-2017, is a fascinating snapshot of contemporary perceptions of the fairy realm.  As I have already discussed, there is much that is new in modern fairy sightings, but there is also much that seems to come straight from traditional folklore sources, mixed up with the more contemporary and anomalous experiences.  There are quite a few experiences which would be very familiar to our ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although the examples of each are all quite limited in number.

The sorts of aspects of Faery I’m discussing here tend to be those that sit less well with the benign image of fays that has become so prevalent now.  Here are a few examples:

  • Hiding or moving things– the mischievous removal or concealment of personal possessions, often keys or jewellery, was reported a few times;
  • Pixie-led– in a second manifestation of fairy mischief, there was a handful of cases in which individuals found themselves lost or going in circles in a familiar place or within a small area where the exits were nearby and clear;
  • Abductions– in only ten cases (1% of the total) there seemed to have been an attempt to abduct a person (half involved adults and half children). Several times a strong feeling of compulsion was reported, often tempered by a sense of fear- even in situations where the fairies’ conduct was not in itself threatening: for example, they seemed to be dancing or playing;
  • Time distortion– it’s well known that time can pass very differently in Faery and this was mentioned in several reports. Most often hours were lost or unaccounted for.  Memorably, one witness described the sensation as “time felt twisty” (no.225);
  • Music– traditional accounts very frequently link music and dancing with fairy sightings. In the Census music was heard in only 11% of cases.  In half of these bells the music came from bells, although sounds like pipes, voices and drums were also reported.  Six of the witnesses compared what they heard to Irish or ‘Celtic’ music. As regular readers may recall, ceol sidhe is an especially Irish phenomenon;
  • Dancing– once the commonest pastime of our good neighbours, this was mentioned but in only 3% of the modern cases;
  • Conventional terms were often resorted to as a frame of reference or as a label for what the person experienced. Mention is quite often made in the Census of pixies, dryads, elves, gnomes, dwarves, leprechauns, brownies and goblins.  The traditional dress associated with these were reasonably common too- clothes of green, red and brown and caps, quite often pointed.  The most interesting of these accepted fairy ‘types’ were the four mentions of ‘banshees.’  The being’s hollow, mourning cry was what provoked the identification; in two of the cases, a death was felt to be directly related to the premonition; and,
  • Fairy temperament– many contemporary writers describe faes as kind, friendly and helpful- full of good will to humans and to the natural world. The older idea of fairy character was generally a lot darker and echoes of this are to be found in some of the Census cases.  Witnesses sensed anger, hostility and even outright malice in about 3% of cases; they felt fear in 6%.  In one instance in the Census- and one in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies– there was an impression that the fairy was mocking the human for some reason (Census no.475; Johnson p.24).  Balancing these negative emotions, there were also a few reports in which the human sensed the fairy’s interest or curiosity in them or what they were doing.

Cottingley 3

Elsie Wright again

The Census therefore presents us with an intriguing combination of traditional and wholly novel elements.  Only a few of the encounters involve interaction, so that the majority are descriptions of brief sightings (frequently of flying beings).  Nevertheless we come away with the impression that fairy encounters are an evolving body of law, with new perceptions or reactions added to the older understandings.

See too my posting on who believes in fairies for some further discussion of the Census statistics and their breakdown by age and gender.

Cottingley 2

 

Some Welsh Otherworlds

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Caer Sidi by Sirsur on Deviant Art

In a post last summer I discussed the Welsh tendency to portray fairyland as an island, especially an offshore island that appeared and disappeared unpredictably.  In this post I’m returning to the subject of the Celtic ideas of Faery,  but with a wider perspective.

We have to start with some background.  In Welsh mythology Annwn (Old Welsh Annwfyn) is the commonest term used for the Otherworld, the supernatural dimension.  The word occurs most notably in the title of a poem found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’ and dated roughly to the late 800s- early 1100s- ‘The spoils of Annwn’ (Preiddau Annwn).  This poem describes a journey by King Arthur and three ships full of his men to seize a magical cauldron from Annwn.  The verse touches on many important themes:  there is the Celtic idea of the special food vessel (perhaps a forerunner of the Grail);  the cauldron’s cooking fire is kindled by the breath of nine maidens, a group we must irresistibly associate with Morgan le Fay and the nine virgin priestesses of the Isle de Sein off the Breton coast; there is the use of the magic number seven (only seven men return with Arthur from his voyage- just as only seven men return to Britain with Bran the Blessed in the story ‘Branwen, daughter of Llŷr‘ in the Mabinogion)- and there is the idea of a a fairy fortress, my particular interest here.

Caer Sidi

Arthur’s quest takes him to a stronghold that has various names in the poem.  It is first called Caer Sidi (or Siddi), but it’s also the four-cornered fort, the fort of numbness, the fort of obstruction and the Glass Fort (Caer Wydyr).  Those of us interested in the Arthurian legends could easily be distracted by this last name, which takes us to other mythological sites in the Matter of Britain: to Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass, and thence to Glastonbury and Avalon (but that’s another story).

Back to Caer Sidi; this name is translated variously as the Otherworld fort, the spiral fortress and, importantly for us here, the Fairy Fort.  That interpretation derives from a link made between Sidi and the Gaelic sidhe, meaning the Tuatha De Danann, the fairy folk.  Now, it has to be admitted that sidhe properly means ‘peace’ and that it has come to mean ‘fairy’ because it’s an abbreviation of ‘people of peace,’ one of those euphemisms regularly used by people to avoid naming Them directly that I’ve examined before.  It’s not a wholly secure chain of etymology, therefore, but it’s a generally accepted translation and (as I’m no Celtic scholar) I’m content to accept it.

Another Taliesin poem, Kerd Veib am Llyr (Song before the sons of Llyr) also refers to Caer Sidi.  The poet declares that

“Complete is my chair in Caer Sidi/ No-one will be afflicted with disease or old age that may be in it/… Around its borders are the streams of ocean.”

These lines appear to imply that this chair (kadeir- meaning a throne or seat of precedence) is situated on an island and that either the seat or the site confer some sort of eternal youth- that it is a paradise.

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Caer Arianrhod

Magical, or supernatural, forts are popular with the Welsh poets.  Another example that’s worth mentioning is Caer Arianrhod.  This location features in the story of Math fab Mathonwy, also in the Mabinogion.  Arianrhod herself is one of the children of the goddess figure Don, the Welsh equivalents of the Irish goddess Danu and her offspring, the Tuatha De Danann.  The mythology is all very complicated and it’s easy to get lost, but for present purposes it will suffice us to say that forts and fairies seem to be intimately related in Celtic myth.  Another ancient Welsh poem, Kadeir Kerritwen (the Chair of Ceridwen), describes how the River Enfnys flows around Arianrhod’s court: it is, once again, an island, depicted as being physically separated from the rest of the mortal world as a metaphor for its spiritual separation.  I may add that Caer Arianrhod is also a name for the constellation of the Northern Crown, the Corona Borealis.

Now, we’re not talking here about Caernarfon castle- let’s bear that it mind.  These legends were formulated in the ‘Dark Ages’ when there were no stone medieval castles.  Even Norman motte and bailey strongholds of wood and earth would have been too advanced for the period, so what we have to imagine for all of these locations is a traditional British hill fort, somewhere like Maiden Castle or Hambledon Hill.  Of course, as I’ve only recently discussed, there are longstanding fairy associations with ancient sites, whether hill forts, stone circles or barrows.  That’s why, therefore, in my story Albion awake!I had the main characters meet the fairy queen Maeve atop the tumulus on the summit of Hambledon Hill.

So, to return to our theme, Fairyland for the Welsh appears always to have been associated with some identifiable feature in the landscape, whether a prehistoric fortification or an island.  The ‘otherness’ and inaccessibility of each particular site presumably derived from its physical features (man-made or natural)  and also from the aura of mystery attached to it: Iron Age hillforts or Neolithic causewayed camps would have been ancient and inexplicable presences, haunted by the spirits of poorly understood ancestors. Possibly too some memories are preserved of the sacredness of lakes and other bodies of water in Iron Age Celtic worship.  There was a gulf in time, as well as some geographical barrier, that separated the observer from the fairy place.

To conclude, then, the Welsh faerie is somewhere near to us, yet faraway.  It might be found either:

  • on a high hilltop (and you might be reminded here of Arthur Machen’s story The hill of dreams);  and/ or,
  • on an enchanted island in the sea or in an inland lake.  We know that King Arthur sails to Annwn in his ship Prydwen, indicating that Caer Sidi must be doubly remote and inaccessible.  This idea is not uniquely Welsh.  I’ll close with a story from the Scottish Highlands.  In the far north west in Gairloch lies Loch Maree and in that loch there is Eilean Sithain (the fairy island).  On that island is another loch, and in that loch a further island, on which- under a tree- sits the fairy queen, receiving from her people their kain (tithe or tribute) which is paid every seven years to the devil (it was said).  (see J. H. Dixon, Gairloch in North west Ross-shire, 1885, p.159).

Some further reading

I’ve mentioned Robert Graves’ White Goddess before and in it, chapters 5 and 6, he examines the mythology behind the two caers at some length (make what you will of it).

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

 

Fairy kings of Britain

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Joseph Noel Paton, Oberon & Titania

In a previous posting I questioned the need for faery royalty, but here I accept the existence of the institution (in literature at least) and discuss some individual kings.

“Jealous Oberon”

Most readers will be familiar with the name of Oberon as the king of Faerie.  Shakespeare is responsible for this, but he did not invent the name.  Rather he borrowed it from the medieval French romance Huon of Bordeaux.  In that story Oberon / Auberon appears as a magical fairy king.  Auberon is a french name, an affectionate diminutive form of Aubert, which in turn is derived the Frankish/ Germanic Alberic (in Anglo-Saxon Aelfric), which means no more than ‘elf rule.’  In other words, this is not really a name at all, it’s just a job title- ‘King of the Elves.’

Oberon is now accepted as the archetypal fairy king and, it’s true, he clearly has Old English roots, but he’s come to us by way of literature and is not really a true folklore figure.  For the British, though, this doesn’t matter because they’ve had their own fairy king all along, whose name is Arthur.

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“In this world he changed his life”

King Arthur long ago ceased to be merely a Dark Age hero or monarch of the Round Table: he was transformed into a supernatural being and a resident of Faery.

After Arthur was mortally wounded fighting his nephew Mordred he was carried away to be healed by the fay maidens Morgan and Nimue.  From this myth of fairy salvation, a closer link to fairy nature evolved.  Layamon, in his Brut of around 1190, recorded that:

“The British believe yet that he is alive,

And dwells in Avalon with the fairest of all the elves.”

Holinshed, in 1578, told much the same story.  People believed that “King Arthur was not dead, but carried away by the fairies into some pleasant place…” (Chronicles, Book V, c.14).  In the romance of Huon of Bordeaux Arthur even succeeds King Oberon to the fairy throne.

Lydgate in the fifteenth century developed the situation even further, though, and has the fairy king return to rule us (The fall of princes, Book VIII, c.24):

“He is a king y-crowned in Faërie,

With his sceptre and pall, and with his regalty,

Shalle resort, as lord and sovereigne,

Out of Faërie and reign in Bretaine,

And repair again the oulde Rounde table.”

By being taken to Faery, Arthur (perhaps by consuming the food and drink there) has become immortal himself and now awaits the call to return to save his former kingdom.

In fact, fairy glamour now envelopes him completely.  According to the romance Brut de la Montaigne, all fairy haunted places belong to Arthur (Verses XXX & XXXI), whilst in Gerbert’s Romance of Percival, the ‘siege perilous’ at the Round Table was bestowed upon Arthur by “la fée de la roche menor” (the fairy of the menhir).  Many of his knights too, such as Gawain and Lancelot, have fairy origins: Lancelot, for example, is raised by the mere maid the Lady of the Lake.  Moreover, the time of Arthur’s rule came to be seen as one especially favourable to the fairy presence in Britain, during which, far and wide, they danced openly on heaths and greens (e.g. John Dryden, The wife of Bath- her tale; Thomas Parnell (1679-1718), A fairy tale).

The conjunction of fairy stories and Arthurian myths remains compelling to us now because it combines magic and mystery along with a promise of redemption and restoration.  The once and future king will return from Faery to assist us in our greatest struggle and to ensure our salvation.

Other contenders?

I’ll close with a brief mention of one or two other candidates for the throne.   I have before mentioned Welsh fairy king Gwyn ap Nudd, who was said to hold court under Glastonbury Tor and who ruled over the tylwyth teg.  According to the Welsh Triads, Gwyn has great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and can predict the future from them.

Very much less well known is the mysterious King Eveling of Ravenglass in Cumbria.  He was said to hold court at Lyon’s Yards, the ruined Roman bath-house that stands near the small seaside town, but other than that little is known of him.  This fairy king is an intriguing figure because of his mythological connections: his name may very well be connected to Avalloc, putative ruler of the island of Avalon; both have some connection to Evelake, King of Sarras, found in the later French romances of Arthur.  He was, then, a significant figure at one time, but almost all details of him have been lost, in addition to which both he and Gwyn have been eclipsed first by Arthur and then by Oberon.

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Gwyn ap Nudd by Thalia Took

Further Reading

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my books Famous Fairies and Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.