Who is Titania?

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Vivien Leigh as Titania in Midsummer night’s dream

For many of us today, Titania has become the archetype of the fairy queen, if not of female fairies as a class.  Her origins seem to be Elizabethan.  In 1590 Edmond Spenser made his Faerie Queen a descendant of Titania, but the character was most explicitly and effectively introduced into fairy-lore by William Shakespeare in Midsummer night’s dream.  She was not a traditional character of British folklore (as her name might, in any case, suggest) and the playwright was certainly very well aware of the British equivalent: Queen Mab features prominently in a famous speech by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which was first performed in 1597. The Dream was written in 1605; did Shakespeare merely want a bit of variety or did he have other motives for creating a new faery monarch?

Diana

Somewhat like the name of her consort Oberon, Titania’s name is more descriptive than personal.  ‘Titania’ simply means that she is born of Titans- though this naturally begs some very important questions.  Roman writer Ovid tells us in The Metamorphoses that Titania is another name or aspect of the goddess Diana.  The latter was the Roman deity responsible for childbirth and, as such, there are some parallels with Queen Mab the midwife.  The Romans also linked Diana to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was primarily a goddess of nature, particularly of springs and water courses (she was, for example, known as Limnaia, ‘lady of the lake’, a name which for us now is freighted with resonances of Morgan le Fay and other fay maidens and such like nymphs).  In her guise as goddess of woods and water, Artemis had obvious parallels with native nature spirits and the association makes considerable sense.  However, Shakespeare had already used ‘Diana’ as a character in All’s well that ends well, five years previously to The dream, so perhaps again he merely sought variety- or had pursued the links even more deeply.

Edwin_Landseer Titania_and_Bottom

Edwin Landseer, Titania and Bottom, 1851

The Titans

Diana was descended from Titans, a heritage which takes us back to the roots of Greek mythology.  The Titans were a race of giants born of Uranus and Ge (heaven and earth).  Amongst their numbers were the male gods Oceanus, Cronus, Hyperion, Prometheus and Atlas; amongst the goddesses were numbered Thea, Phoebe and Rhea.  The inter-relationships and identities of these beings are far from fixed in the myths, but we need not be concerned with the detail.  It is the general tenor of the stories that’s significant: they contain a variety of fruitful themes and concepts.

Cronus is often seen as the chief of the Titans.  He led a revolt against Zeus and the Olympian gods and was defeated and displaced, being banished with all his kind to imprisonment in Tartarus.  It’s said that Cronus now sleeps eternally on some Western island, and as such his myth has very likely contributed to the growth of the story of King Arthur sleeping in Avalon.  The sister of Cronus was Rhea, but she was also his wife and so mother of a pantheon including Zeus, Poseidon, Hera and others.  In this role Rhea is commonly identified with another goddess, Cybele, who was in turn worshipped across the ancient world as the Great Mother Goddess.  She is another deity of nature, fertility and wild places and, as such, fairly readily linked to a fairy queen of groves and springs.

The daughter of the famous Titan Atlas was the equally well-known Calypso, nymph of the island of Ogygia.  It was she who detained Odysseus for seven years and tried to prevent him ever returning home with promises of immortality.   The time-scale and the reward must trigger for us thoughts of detention in fairyland.

In summary then, these divine female Titans all have attributes and rich associations which provoke thoughts of British equivalents and which tie local beings into a wider and more powerful mythology.  It may be for these reasons that Shakespeare chose the name Titania: she brought with her connotations of power and antiquity.

Shakespeare’s fairy queen

Rather like Artemis/ Diana, Shakespeare’s fairy queen is intimately associated with the natural environment.  Her quarrel with Oberon disrupts the weather and the growing of the crops.  This is summarised by Titania when she tells Bottom that:

“I am a spirit of no common rate./ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene i)

She rules over the seasons and they follow her moods.

In due course, naturally, the character of Titania took on a life of her own.  The name was taken up by others and became accepted as the appropriate appellation: for example, in Thomas Dekker’s play The whore of Babylon in 1607.

The new queen inherited much of the wanton sexuality of fairies generally and especially that of Queen Mab, giving us the erotically tinged imagery of Fuseli and Simmons as illustrated below.  The buxom wenches of the paintings are ironic given the fact that Artemis, one of Titania’s forms, was also known as a goddess of chastity who was in conflict with Aphrodite (who, in fact, is also of Titan ancestry).

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John Simmons, There sleeps Titania

Titania and Bottom c.1790 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Titania and Bottom c.1790 Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Further reading

This posting was inspired by a reading of Geoffrey Ashe’s excellent Camelot and the vision of Albion.  Robert Graves in The white goddess also has a good deal to say about Cronus and the rest.  See too my consideration of the identity of Shakespeare’s Ariel.

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.

The legacy of Cottingley

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Elsie Wright & Frances Griffiths, by t’beck.

The photographs of fairies taken one hundred years ago by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths at Cottingley, West Yorkshire have a significant place in fairy-lore.   They represented a severe dent in the reputation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but possibly made the careers of his collaborators Geoffrey Hodson and Edward Gardner.  Since the pictures were exposed as fakes, the story of credulous grown men being outwitted by photos taken by teenagers armed only with some card, hat pins and a box brownie camera has been readily deployed to suggest the wider gullibility and foolishness of those adults who choose to believe in fairies.

Some also contend that belief in fairies was killed outright by the incident- and that this happened as far back as the early 1920s when the pictures first appeared. The much more recent exposure of images as false therefore came as little surprise to anyone.  In a 1994 article in History workshop journal Alex Owen described the Cottingley case as “one of the last manifestations of a glorious Victorian and Edwardian fairy tradition.” Rosa Lyster, writing on Quartz.com,  remarked that “Eventually, people stopped caring about the fairies. Interest in the supernatural was on the wane, and Doyle was looking increasingly unhinged. The girls produced no more photographs, and the public moved on.”

All of this comment is of a piece with the oft-argued contention that fairies never existed in the first place and that fairy belief, in the modern age, is dead and buried.  Except, of course, that it’s not- and any search of the internet or of books for sale on Amazon will amply prove this (witness the present blog and my own book British fairies).

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Elsie in 1915

We know now that Elsie and Frances copied their pictures from Princess Mary’s Gift Book and cut them out on Windsor and Newton board.  We know it was all a hoax- but still people are producing their versions and imitations of the Cottingley pictures.  These may just be an homage to a famous photographic forgery, but they are also defiant celebrations of continued belief in the face of what some might regard as fatally damning evidence.  The fact that Cottingley wasn’t real doesn’t matter at all; it portrayed something which lots of people remain convinced is real.  Richard Sugg has recently put it this way:

“With the 1983 confessions of both women, many might have assumed that the fairy tale was over… But the cousins somehow created a new kind of fairy folklore… Some stories are tough.  They manage continually to recreate and re-energise themselves; and the Cottingley affair did just that.” (Magical folk, 2017, p.62)

Richard might equally well have observed that the fairies too are tough and can continually regenerate and survive.  The modern manifestations of the Cottingley images are proof of that.

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Frances and the fairies, 1917

The paradox of the Cottingley pictures is that, although they look dodgy and now are known to be so, this does not seem to discourage anyone.  They retain their own unique mystique because they remain a powerful symbol of something evanescent that numerous people long to experience.  Frances and Elsie were impelled by a wish to recreate their dreams and no-one thinks the less of them for that.  In fact, lots of people today still want to imitate them.

Fraud busters

It’s interesting to see how many people have been inspired to copy the Cottingley images and their stated reasons for doing so.  Some certainly are commenting upon the Cottingley story itself, such as Manuel Carballal on his blog El ojo critico (The critical eye), who experimented with the techniques used to explore how the pictures were faked:

Marcos Carballal

It’s notable, though,  how unimportant this aspect of the story seems to many.  There’s a fascinating narrative to be had concerning two country lasses’ ability to make fools of older and purportedly wiser establishment men like Doyle, but the majority of imitators are not inspired by that.  Of course, deception was never the girls’ intention.  They made the pictures for themselves and it was a chain of wholly unforeseeable events triggered by Elsie’s mum that gave the images their publicity and notoriety.  What seems to attract people is not so much the international publicity, but the original innocent motivation- the yearning for contact with the supernatural.

Imitation and flattery

It’s fascinating to note how closely most of the modern image makers have stuck to the original pictures.  They depict a single person encountering a fae in natural surroundings.  As will be seen below, and on the separate Cottingley gallery page, Nonchalant Concern even used the same titles for the photographs as in the published versions of those by Frances and Elsie.  At the same time, though, none of these pictures are direct imitations and- very definitely- none are presented to us as actual fairy snaps.  Just as with the originals- before Gardner, Doyle and the rest got involved, that is- the pictures have been taken for the amusement of the makers and those with whom they choose to share them.  They are knowingly faked- forgeries of forgeries, if you like- but somehow that only serves to demonstrate the lasting mystique of the originals.

Queen Mary's gift book

illustration from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, c.1914

One thing that most of the pictures do have in common is the fairies themselves.  Many of the creators seem to have taken the trouble to copy the feminine Edwardian period fairies utilised by Frances and Elsie (there are quite a few Cicely Mary Barker flower fairies in evidence).  It’s probably a significant comment upon our fairy iconography (and on the power of the Cottingley story) that winged, female fays in frocks continue to be our accepted idea of a fae, even a century later.  In one case, though, there is a slightly more contemporary feel: it seems possible that, in one of her photographs of her friend Elodie, Eleonore Bridge has used one of Alan Lee’s faeries from his joint book of that titled published with Brian Froud in 1978.  (We should recall too that Froud and Lee created a few of their own Cottingley photos as an appendix to the 1978 book, something Froud did again in Lady Cottington’s pressed fairy book in 1994).

Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that almost without exception the models are female and that so too, predominantly, are the photographers.  This may tell us something either about fairy belief or about amateur photography (or both, I won’t commit myself).  The preference for white dresses is noticeable; this may have a good deal to do with improving the contrast in a black and white image, but there are of course echoes of the 1910s outfits worn by Frances and Elsie as well, too, as suggestions of girlish innocence and simplicity- part and parcel, perhaps, of a belief in fays?  Bows and flowers in the hair add to the period and juvenile feel.

A fairy tale- and a true story

At Notley Green School, Essex, in January 2018 the Year Two pupils studied the Cottingley story.  I was surprised to learn this has a place in the National Curriculum, but it turns out that the organisation Film Education has produced Years 1 and 2 study materials linked to the film Fairy tale- a true story.  The kids then produced their own imitations-

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The Film Education module is aimed at primary school kids and takes the film as a starting point for asking questions such as ‘where do fairies come from?’ and ‘what do people believe about them?’  The material addresses such issues as the risks of visiting fairyland and the differing theories on fairy origins.  It discusses some fairy traditions and looks at the Cottingley events, as well as encouraging the children to make their own cut out fairies and fairy photos.  I was impressed; anything that promotes interest in the subject has to be welcomed.

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Thackley school in Bradford obviously undertook a similar project, but using Photoshop instead of paper cutouts.

thackley

‘Where dreams merge with reality’

A brief examination of Cottingley related images on the internet will of course reveal that far more adults are fascinated than children.  Many are deliberately undertaking photography projects that honour and echo the original pictures. For example,   Katherine Alcock says that she wanted to create not fantasy but realistic fairy images, if that’s not entirely contradictory!

alcock

Katherine converted the image to black and white and manipulated it digitally to make it appear more grainy and vintage.  TekMagica on Flickr went even further to produce some strikingly ‘authentic’ looking images, which are helped by the girls’ clothes, which look appropriate to the fifties or sixties.

Eleonore Bridge is a fairy believer herself, as well as a keen photographer, and her motivation was to record “A magical moment where dreams merge with reality with hopes of creating a future where there is no contesting that fairies really do exist.”

elodie 1

elodie 3

elodie 2

Plenty of people, like the school children, just wanted to have fun with these pictures.  Here’s a selection- with more featured in a separate Cottingley gallery.

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Plastic Hippo on Pinsdaddy

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Image by Bondart

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Frances and the fairies by Nonchalant Concern (see the original above)

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Fairy tracking by Hazel Curse
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Cottingley fairie by Dark Shepherd

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from a Cottingley series by Victoria Emma Thompson

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Remember Cottingley by Japan Fanzz

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The Cottingley fairies by Marschons

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The meeting by Shutterbug Steff

Kelli

The Cottingley fairies by Kelli, entry for DP Challenge

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Promotional photo for ‘One day at a time’ by Kelli Ali

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By Soot Sprite

cat

Finally- the stuff of horror: a cat attacks some fays on a bed of four leaf clover.  For this hilarious nightmare we must thank Susan Sanford at artsparktheatre.blogspot.com.

Do you believe in fairies?

What unites these Cottingley inspired images, I believe, is not just an underlying wish for the whole story to have been true but also a playful and celebratory spirit.  We know we’re dealing with deliberate fakes, but people are enjoying their creativity and the chance to engage imaginatively with fairies.  There are, of course, plenty of other photographs of fairies available online, but the status of most of these is never so clear.  I’ll restrict myself to one example, which is quite well-known as it has been used as an illustration in Janet Bord’s book, Fairies- real encounters with little people.  It’s another black and white image, in the tradition of Cottingley perhaps, but it much more deliberately presents itself as genuine: it shows a nude young woman in a wood meeting what appear to be two naked Action Men at the foot of a tree.  The website strange history analyses the background to this picture and pretty comprehensively demolishes its credibility.

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A photograph of a member of a Cornish coven meeting some fairies…

The Cottingley replicas illustrated here and in the gallery are immune to this sort of debunking.  Thereby they demonstrate the demonstrate the resilience of myth and our need for fantasy and escape.

Only simpletons believe…?

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Beatrice Goldsmith, Watching the fairies, 1925

One longstanding response to fairy belief is to allege that it is the habit of the immature and the weak minded.  Only children, fools and the elderly accept that fairies exist, but by their very nature they are uniformly credulous and silly and their opinions deserve no respect.  In fact, their views demonstrate why these groups need to be looked after by wiser and cleverer men.  Not the least of the reasons for this is that, with their uncritical and simple view of the world, they will be uniquely liable to being tricked and cheated.

Old wives’ tales

This sort of argument has been advanced since the late sixteenth century.  Parallel with it until the late seventeenth century was a comparable but separate argument that fairy belief was the product of Roman Catholic superstition and, as such, the faeries had been banished by rational Protestant faith.  This was linked closely to the belief in witches.  I’ve discussed these sectarian controversies in other posts and needn’t say more about the matter here.

The prevailing view of fairy believers was set out very early on.  In 1584 in The discovery of witchcraft Reginald Scot alleged that:

“these bugs speciallie are spied and feared by sicke folkes, children, women, and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare…” (Book VII, chapter XV)

This summarises the prejudices against believers concisely.  Fairies were a delusion of the “common people” and of “manie foolish folke,” as Scot added in the Epistle to his book.  The ‘rational’ view of the situation hasn’t altered much since.  John Penry, describing Wales in 1587, attacked the reverence of the “silly people” for the tylwyth teg.  King James in his Daemonologie of 1597 likewise condemned the beliefs of ‘the innocent sort’ and ‘sundry simple creatures’ (chapter V).  The sort of person meant by this was predominantly female and old: for example, George Puttenham in The arte of English poesie (1589) alludes to “the opinion of Nurses” who thought that fairies swapped babies for changelings.

Into the next century the prejudice remained the same.  Only the “ignorant” would hold such views, alleged Thomas Cooper in The mystery of witchcraft (1617).  John Webster, writing in 1677, agreed in blaming “the superstitious credulity and ignorant fancies of the People.” (The displaying of supposed witchcraft, p.279).  Writing in 1605 Thomas Heywood has a character in his play, If you know not me, you know nobody, reminisce in these terms:

“Ha, ha! I smile at my owne foolery/ Now I remember mine old grandmother/ Would talk of fairies and hobgoblins.”

In Leviathan in 1651 Hobbes summarised these views succinctly: the fairy belief was all a matter of old wive’s fables and-

“the fairies have no existence but in the fancies of ignorant people.”

This attitude- that only the simple and poorly educated would be taken in by fairy tales- has persisted right up to the present.  It’s often found in the Victorian folklore collections, perhaps dressed up as a reference to the ignorance  ‘country people’ or ‘peasants’ (many of whom will necessarily be ‘old’) without the implicit assumptions about such folk being spelled out or, as in William Thornber’s history of Blackpool from 1837 there’s reference to “the heated imaginations of the credulous” with the exactly same connotations.

Fairy frauds

The outcome of such impressionable stupidity did not seem in doubt to sophisticated writers- or to some cynical criminals.  In The alchemist of 1610 Ben Jonson has a dandy called Dapper stripped of his “worldly pelf” by the confidence trickster Subtle; he is convinced he is meeting the fairy queen, but is told that he cannot enter her presence bearing any money or jewellery.  The same plot theme was used by Robert Amin in his play The valiant Welshman which appeared in 1615.  Once again a dupe is divested of his finery, his doublet, rapier, cloak and hose, before he can meet the fairy queen.  Her majesty runs off with it all.

These plays may seem like witty inventions, but they reflect reality.  Judith Phillips in the early 1590s robbed and humiliated various people in the Winchester area by claiming that the fairy queen could guide them to hidden treasure (see The Brideling, Sadling and Ryding of a Rich Churle in Hampshire, 1594).  Early in the next century a London couple called the Wests for a number of years successfully operated a racket tricking greedy and gullible clients out of money and goods with stories of winning the favour of the king and queen of fairy- provided they laid on banquets and supplied sufficiently rich gifts for them in advance (see The cozenages of the Wests, 1613).

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Richard Doyle, The fairy tree.

A more recent example of fairy belief being used to dupe the unwary comes from Jacqueline Simpson’s Folklore of the Welsh Border (1976).  She mentions that one highway-man devised a method of horse-theft that relied upon beliefs in fairy music played in underground dwellings.  The robber would lie with his ear to the ground by the road; when a horseman came past he would ask what was wrong and be told that the prostrate figure was listening to  the fairies dancing.  The rider would dismount to listen too and, of course, as soon as he was stretched on the turf, he would find that his horse was being ridden off full speed (p.50).

Another view

In the opinion of many worldly wise men, then, fairy belief is a matter for weak-minded females and for those who need to be protected from themselves.  These prejudices plainly persist and are still powerful enough to ruin the reputation of esteemed public figures- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being a good example following his involvement in the Cottingley fairy photo case.

It is possible, nevertheless, to express these opinions differently.  It has often been said that it is children who are best suited to seeing fairies because of their innocence and openness.  For example in his poem, For a child, American author Joyce Kilmer explains how a little boy “sees with eyes by ignorance made keen/ The fauns and elves whom older eyes disperse…”

It is also a fact that females are more likely to experience fairy encounters.  Drawing upon recent evidence such as Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies and the Fairy census 2014-2017, it’s possible to calculate that females are twice as likely to see fairies as males, although this varies according to age group.  Amongst children girls three times more frequently report seeing fairies than boys; amongst adults just over sixty per cent of sightings are by women.  Now, it’s probably reasonable to suggest that gender stereotyping and social pressure may have a good deal to do with the imbalance in reporting; women may not ‘naturally’ be more inclined to see fairies, but they may feel fewer inhibitions about sharing their experiences, whereas men may feel that such admissions are neither ‘rational’ nor ‘manly.’  For the same reasons, women might perhaps be more willing to label an anomalous experience as a fairy encounter than some men might. Contributions to the recent Fairy census were from females in seventy per cent of cases and it was also noticeable that the proportion of children reporting sightings was higher than in earlier surveys- although this may have to do more with use of digital media than with frequency of encounters with fay folk.

In the 1920s Welsh author Mary Lewes made a further argument for taking fairy belief seriously.  In the pleasingly titled The queer side of things she suggested that there had to be real grounds for so persistent and consistent a concept.  She couldn’t accept that all the witnesses were hallucinating or exaggerating.  To me, this seems a reasonable stance to take.  People have shared these experiences for centuries and, for that reason alone, the phenomenon needs to be taken seriously.

To conclude, the sixteenth and seventeenth century dismissals of fairy sightings may contain more truth than their authors knew.  I am sure that neither I nor any of my readers will consider themselves silly, foolish or gullible for their interest in fairy phenomena.

Further reading

My posting on the physical or psychical nature of fairies touches on some of the same issues as this one.

Elsie Gregory, Children watching fairies dancing

elsie-gregory-children-watching-fairies-dancing

 

 

 

Floatiness- movement of fay people?

IRO f with bunnies

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Fairy with bunnies and flower skipping rope

“Oh, band of mischievous fairies,/ That flicker and float about;”

(Old Donald, Menella Bute Smedley)

As many readers will know very well indeed, the Irish and Scottish Gaelic name for the fairies is sidh.  One of the derivations of this term is from the word for ‘peace.’  Translations of the name therefore give us ‘the People of Peace,’ the ‘still folk’ or ‘the silently moving folk.’  One interpretation of ‘peace’ is that it is a euphemistic name– an expression of hope as much as a description, a form of wish or charm that the fays will be peaceful in their conduct and leave us mortals in peace, just as use of the ‘Good Neighbours’ aspires to a state of amity between supernaturals and humans.

Silent movement

I want in this post to discuss the other understanding of the phrase- the suggestion that the ‘peace’ in question is not an absence of conflict (either with humans or between the fairies themselves) but is descriptive of the manner of their movement.

“And in the fields of martial Cambria…/ Where light foot fairies skip from bank to bank.”  (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594, attributed to Shakespeare)

Now, just how fairies might get about is generally take for granted and seldom remarked upon.  We assume that they’ll walk, that they might ride their own faery horses or that they might fly with those pretty butterfly and dragonfly wings that they’ve so recently acquired.  Perhaps rather more often than fluttering, fairies are taken to ‘teleport’ from one spot to another: witness Ariel in The Tempest, putting a girdle about the earth in forty minutes.

iro yellow fay

Movement through the air is particularly likely to be soundless, which may indeed explain the ‘people of peace’ epithet.  John Gregorson Campbell believed that this was entirely appropriate in the circumstances:

“Sound is a natural adjunct of the motions of men, and its entire absence is unearthly, unnatural, not human.  The name sith without doubt refers to ‘peace’ or silence of Airy motion, as contrasted to the stir and noise accompanying the movements and actions of men.  The German ‘still folk’ is a name of corresponding import… They seem to glide or float along, rather than to walk.” (Superstitions of the Highlands and islands p.4).

Campbell compared the sound of the fairies’ movement to a rustling noise, like that of a gust of winds, or a silk gown, or a sword drawn sharply through the air.

“In they swept with a rustling sound/ Like dead leaves blown together.”

The fairies’ cobbler, Rosamond M. Watson

The soundlessness of fairy movement seems to be confirmed by an account collected by Welsh minister Edmund Jones.  A girl of Trefethin parish told him how she had come across some fairies dancing under a crab tree.  Regularly for three or four years after that time, either when she was going to or coming home from school, she would meet with them to dance in a barn.  She recalled that they wore green and blue aprons, were of small stature and looked “oldish.” Most notable, though, was she never heard their feet whilst she was dancing with them; she took off her own shoes too to make no noise as it seemed displeasing to them.

Skipping and speeding

Other authorities believe that fairy motion was typified by its great speed, which is achieved without perceptible effort.  The fays’ hands and feet may move so fast that they aren’t visible and they seem to glide through the air without touching the ground.  A man who met some Scottish fairies on Halloween described to poet James Hogg how “their motions were so quick and momentary he could not well say what they were doing.”  Supporting this, an account of Broonie the trow king from Orkney describes him as ‘gliding’ from farmstead to farmstead.  Nonetheless, another witness reported how she saw a trow getting about by skipping- backwards (County folklore, vol.3 ,Shetland and Orkney).

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Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The acrobats

Swimming in the air

Is there anything else distinctive about fairy motion that can be gleaned from the sources?

There are a few intriguing mentions of unusual or characteristic movement.  In The secret commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk describes how, with their bodies of “congealled Air” the sidh folk are “some tymes caried aloft” and that they “swim in the Air near the Earth” (c.1).  Welsh Rev. Edmund Jones relates how Edmund Daniel of Arail saw fairies at Cefn Bach: they were “leaping and striking the air” in an undulating motion (The appearance of evil no.59).  Lastly, a nineteenth century Yorkshire account describes the fays as being seen, early on summer mornings, in “rapid, confused motion.”  These latter descriptions are so individual and unique as to lend them considerable authenticity.

Catch us if you can

The same man who told James Hogg about the fairies on Halloween also had another supernatural experience, when he saw a crowd of fays travelling up Glen Entertrony.  At first he thought they were neighbours returning from the fair and tried to catch up with them to get the latest news.  Although they were only twenty paces ahead of him, and he was running, he was never able to reach them- and all the time they seemed to him to be standing still in a circle.  This puts me in mind of an incident from the Mabinogion.  In the story of Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed, Pwyll is seated on top of a fairy hill when he sees fairy princess Rhiannon riding past.  He tries to pursue her, but can never catch her up however hard he spurs his horse.

In the Scottish Highlands it is also believed that, when ‘the folk’ move about in groups, they travel in eddies of wind.  In Gaelic such an eddy is known as `the people’s puff of wind’ (oiteag sluaigh) and its motion ‘travelling on tall grass stems’ (falbh air chuiseagan treorach).  John Rhys recorded in Celtic folklore that the Welsh tylwyth teg were said to dance on the tops of rushes, again suggestive of a light and floating motion.

Whilst we’re talking about fairy movement, it may be worth mentioning here a curious observation by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor in his folk lore guide, The peat fire flame.  He records the Highlands belief that fairies always approach from the West.  My guess is that this is the direction associated with sunset and so, by extension, with death, and that it reflects the association of fairies with the dead, even if they are not ghosts or the dead themselves.

Conclusions

What can we conclude from this brief survey of allusive hints?  The best we can probably say is that one way that fairies might be identified is by their particular gliding, floating movements.

I examine other evidence on other means of locomotion in two other posts, one on fairies whirling and one on ‘Horse and Hattock.’

IRO Dragonfly fairy

Killing fairies- the unpleasant truth

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

It’s a widespread belief that fays are immortal.  In fact (and surprisingly) the folklore evidence- scattered as it is- clearly contradicts this.  Fairies are mortal and, it follows, they can be killed.

Fairies’ life spans are considerably longer than ours, which probably explains the common misconception, but nonetheless they do die eventually, something the Reverend Robert Kirk expressed with his usual style:

“They are not subject to sore Sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain Period, all about ane Age.” (Secret Commonwealth, chapter 7)

Another Scottish account of fairy life-spans states that they live through nine ages, with nine times nine periods in each:

“Nine nines sucking the breast,
Nine nines unsteady, weak,
Nine nines footful, swift,
Nine nines able and strong,
Nine nines strapping, brown,
Nine nines victorious, subduing,
Nine nines bonneted, drab,
Nine nines beardy, grey,
Nine nines on the breast-beating death,
And worse to me were these miserable nine nines
Than all the other short-lived nine nines that were.”

That the fays will eventually sicken and pass away is confirmed by a couple of pieces of evidence.  Firstly, fairy funerals have been witnessed.  William Blake most famously described one, but his account is probably more poetic than authentic.  Other people have however stumbled upon fairy funeral processions (for example, that of the Fairy Queen at Lelant in Cornwall) and the Reverend Edmund Jones, living in Monmouthshire in the late eighteenth century, told of several such funerals seen which foretold deaths in the mortal world, quite often that of the witness.

Secondly, there are a few allusions to fairy cemeteries.  One was believed to be at Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland;  generally in the north of England it used to be said that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground.

So, despite great longevity, age and sickness will ultimately overtake even the fairies.  This is sad, but not necessarily shocking.  More disturbing is the evidence that fairies can be killed prematurely.  I have discussed fairy warfare in a previous post; it’s almost unavoidable that blood will be spilt in such conflict, but we might still not think it so remarkable that one magical being can slay another.  The truth is, though, that humans can murder supernaturals.

Nymphocide (I’ve just invented this word, by the way) may occur accidentally.  One version of the story from Brinkburn is that it was the ringing of the bells of the church that killed them (Denham Tracts, p.134).  I’ve mentioned before fairies aversion to church bells; this particular story takes that theme to extremes.

Other fairy murders are just that- deliberate and premeditated killings.  One case from Shropshire concerns some nuisance boggarts in a farmhouse.  The story follows the pattern of the “we’re flitting too” type of tale, in which the human family try to escape their unwelcome companions by moving house, only to find that the boggart comes with them.  In most versions the humans reconcile themselves to their unwanted housemates, often giving up the move entirely.  In the Shropshire version, the humans take matters to their logical conclusion.  Unable to give the boggarts the slip, they trick them into sitting in front of a blazing fire in the hearth of the new home and then topple them into the flames, where they’re held in place with forks and brooms until they’re consumed.

Some other nymphocides at least seem to be crimes of passion or are committed in the heat of the moment or in self defence.  On the Hebridean island of Benbecula a mermaid was accidentally slain by a stone thrown at her head during an attempt by some fishermen to capture her.  In the ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elf-knight, the heroine lulls to sleep the fairy who plans to kill her and then stabs him to death; in another version she drowns him- but the ability to kill is the point.  J. F. Campbell relays a story concerning the killing of a gruagach with a sword (Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.1, p.7).  The Reverend Robert Kirk also mentions a man with second sight who, during a visit to faerie, “cut the Bodie of one of those People in two with his Iron Weapon.”  All of these raise tales the possibility that it is the iron of the weapons that is significant.  We know that iron is a good defence against fairies and it seems only reasonable that it should be fatal for them too.

This evidence may surprise and shock some readers, but it fits with the general tenor of traditional fairy lore.  If the fairies are dangerous and untrustworthy beings, it seems inevitable that sometimes a person will conclude that the only safe and permanent solution will be to do away with the perceived threat.

A related, but separate, procedure is the ‘laying’ of a supernatural- normally a boggart- which involves permanently banishing or exorcising the creature.  Perhaps this will be the subject of a future posting…

IdaRentoulOuthwaite

Further reading

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.