One curious aspect of fairy lore is the antipathy that some fairies have for water. This only applies in certain situations, however, and may not be a general rule.
Water as a fairy necessity
Fairies, like humans, require water for basic necessities. It’s pretty certain that they drink it: they are reputed to drink dew at the very least. Without doubt they use water for bathing: there are numerous folk lore records of fairies expecting householders to leave out bowls of fresh water for them at night so that they and children may wash: plenty of examples are to be found in Rhys, Celtic folklore (pp.56, 110, 151, 198, 221 & 240). There’s also a story of fairies surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley.
According to the seventeenth century pamphlet, Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests, if no clean water was left out for the fairies’ night time ablutions, the usual reprisal would follow:
“we wash our children in their pottage, milk or beer or whatever we find: for the sluts that have not such things fitting we wash their faces and hands with a gilded child’s clout or else carry them to some river and duck them over head and ears.”
Similar stories are found across the country as far north as the Scottish Highlands: for example, in one Shetland example a trow mother washes her baby’s nappies in the water in which barley is soaking.
It hardly need be said that certain fairies live in water and plainly cannot have any objection to their natural environment. Both fresh and salt water are inhabited, as I’ve discussed in previous posts on inland and marine mermaids.
Another fay link with water is found in the Scottish bean-nighe (the washer woman) and the related caointeach (the keener). Both foretell deaths by washing clothes or winding sheets at fords or in streams; plainly they are not adverse to contact with running fresh water. In fact, it’s said that power can be gained over the bean-nighe if you are able to come between her and the stream, indicating that her magic potential in some way derives from the water course.
Lastly, it’s worth recalling the fragments of evidence that children taken by the fairies can be somehow imbued with fairy magic not just by the application of green ointment but by dipping in certain springs and pools.
Fairy fear of water
Nevertheless, there is also evidence of fairies objecting to water that is flowing. This is confirmed by Evans-Wentz (p.38) for Ireland and for South West Scotland at least by J. F. Campbell in Popular tales of the west Highlands (volume 2, page 69). The hideous nuckelavee of Orkney is a venomous creature, part human and part horse, but it couldn’t abide fresh water, meaning that it never came out in the rain and could be escaped by leaping a burn. A dramatic example of this aversion comes from North Yorkshire: in Mulgrave Wood near Whitby lived a bogle or boggart by the name of Jeanie. One day she chased a farmer who was riding by. He galloped desperately for the nearest brook to escape her: just as she caught up with him and lashed out with her wand, his steed leapt the river. Jeanie sliced the horse in half. The front part, bearing the rider, fell on the far side and was safe, whilst Jeanie had to make do with the hind legs and haunches.
Any flowing watercourse will form an insurmountable barrier, it seems, but even more antithetical to the fays is water that flows in a southerly direction. This is shown from a couple of accounts. One way of expelling a changeling and recovering a human child from the fays that was practiced in the north east of Scotland was to wash the infant’s clothes in a south draining spring and then lay them to dry in the sun; if the clothes disappeared it meant that the fairies had accepted them and that the child would have been restored. Secondly, in a previous post I have discussed the diagnosis of fairy-inflicted illnesses by ‘girdle-measuring.’ One practitioner I mentioned, Jennet Pearson, would wash the girdle in a south-flowing stream before treating the sick person.
There is also evidence that the high tide line on a beach had a similar barring effect on supernatural pursuers. In the Highland story of Luran, he stole a goblet from the sith and escaped his angry pursuers by making for the shore.
There are contradictions to this, though. In Superstitions of the Highlands J. F. Campbell expressed his opinion that running water was no barrier to fairies (p.50); a possible compromise position is Evelyn Simpson’s idea that it is only bad fairies who are obstructed, whilst well-intentioned ones may pass over unhindered (see Folklore in lowland Scotland, p.107). Sometimes, too, it appears that even plain water can repel our good neighbours. George Henderson has recounted a folk-tale from the isle of Uist in the Scottish Highlands in which the fairies are depicted calling at the door of a house for a ‘cake’ to come out to them: the inmates threw water on the cake, and it replied: ‘I can’t go, I am undone.’ (Survivals of belief amongst the Celts, 1911, p.219) Here plain water seems enough to dispel the fairies’ magic.
I’ve written before about the contrary nature of much fairy lore. It seems that there’ll always be exceptions to any rule we try to identify, but even so we may say that, in most cases, a river or stream will provide an effective barrier between you and supernatural harm.
See too my post on fairies and wells. An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.