Red winter rose fairy by Rachel Anderson
The older literature often mentions fairies of varying colours: white, red, green and others. Is this just a matter of clothing- or does it go deeper? As an illustration, in the Elizabethan play Buggbears we are told that there are “sondry names by which we do call them [i.e. the fairies]; some are called … the whyte and red fearye.” (1565, line 47) From Camden’s Britannia we learn of a cunning woman’s charm used in Ireland to treat the sickness called ‘esane’:
“Against all maladies and mischiefs whatsoever the women have effectual enchantments or charms, as they suppose, divided and parted amongst them, each one her several enchantment, and the same of divers forces: unto whom every man according as his mischance requireth speedeth himself for help. They say alwaies both before and after their charms a Pater Noster, and an Ave Maria. [If a man has a fall and becomes sick] there is sent a woman skilful in that kind unto the said place, and there she saith on this wise: ‘I call thee P. from the East and West, South and North, from the forests, woods, rivers, meeres, the wilde wood-fayries, white, red, black etc.’ and withal bolteth out certain short prayers. Then returneth she home unto the sick party, to try whither it be the disease called Esane, which they are of opinion is sent by the Fairies, and whispereth a certain odd prayer with a Pater Noster into his ear, putteth some coles into a pot full of fair water, and so giveth more certain judgment of the disease than many of our physicians can.” (Britannia vol.4 p.470).
The question I want examine in this post is this: is this merely a matter a choice of fairy clothing (which I’ve posted about before) or are the colours of these fairies more significant and symbolic?
Fairy clothing colours
As many readers will know, the archetypal fairy colour is green and it is primarily a matter of dress. Some variation is admitted; for example Mary Lewes has said that in North Wales the fairies wear scarlet (Queer side of things, p.119) and elsewhere she said that they wore white, but green for special occasions (Stranger than fiction p.160). Certainly, so synonymous is green with the fays that it’s said to be bad luck for humans to wear the colour, as they might face fairy reprisals. This is why Sir Walter Scott asked in Alice Brand “who may dare on wold to wear/ The fairies’ fatal green?” In his book Goblin tales of Lancashire Victorian folklorist James Bowker recorded that the local name for the fairies was ‘The Greenies’ or the Hill Folk. This probably relates to their dress, although not conclusively.
Analysis of recent sightings in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, and in the 2017 Fairy Census, reveals that around one third of fairies seen are dressed in green. Twenty per cent wear brown, twelve per cent red and ten per cent white or cream. A scattering of other colours- blue, yellow, black- account for the rest. These results seem fairly consistent with the written sources, all of which suggest that fairies are mostly seen in ‘earth tones.’ For example, in the Merry wives of Windsor, Shakespeare enumerated “fairies black, grey, green and white” and also “Fairies white and green.” (Acts V, 5 & IV, 4).
Although we instantly think of dwarves and gnomes in scarlet, red doesn’t actually feature very often in reports. We have Mary Lewes’ mention and Sidney Addy’s statement that fairies (and witches) wear a red mantle with a hood that completely covers them (Household tales p.134). In older material red is often found, in fact, as the colour that repels fairies- for example, red threads are tied round the necks of children and cattle to protect them and in one lowland Scottish ritual, a suspected changeling child is wrapped in red cloth and held over a rowan fire to drive it out (Aitken p.12). I wonder if part of the prominence of red in our minds now comes from Scandinavian sources on tomte and nisse. Nevertheless, pixies are believed to be red-headed (Tongue Somerset folklore p.113) and it may be in this sense that other fays are ‘red.’
Cicely Mary Barker, White bindweed fairy, from ‘Flower fairies of the wayside’
“Poor little greenie…”
The possibility that the colour refers to complexion and not clothing is an important one, yet it can’t always be satisfactorily resolved from the sources. Hugh Miller described a ‘green woman’ with a goblin child who went door to door bathing her babe in human infants’ blood and another ‘green lady’ who spread small pox (Scenes and legends p.15). As already remarked, in Goblin tales of Lancashire James Bowler calls the ‘hill folk’ of that county ‘the greenies.’ Something more sinister starts to creep in, though. Janet Bord tells the story of a lost fairy child found at Middleton in Teesdale who has green clothes and red eyes and it is also reported that Shetland fairies are of a yellow complexion, with red eyes and green teeth. These latter faes are, by the way, dressed uniformly in grey with brown mittens (it is, after all, a long way north).
Thirdly, a comparable account comes from the Isle of Man. A boy woke up one night hungry and decided to sneak into the kitchen to steal a freshly baked ‘bonnag’ (bannock). Sitting before the fire, warming his hands, was a hideous fairy man with claw like hands and staring red eyes; the child ran swiftly back to bed.
Turning to pale fairies, the references are numerous in literature and folk lore. Heywood had ‘white nymphs’ and Ben Jonson ‘white fays.’ In Shropshire and Somerset ‘white ladies’ haunted various locations- often watery. Donald MacKenzie tells a Scottish wonder tale of a war between the White and Black Fairies on the Spey. Much more than with Shakespeare, we seem to have a good/bad dichotomy symbolised here. It may have antecedents in the Norse Edda’s light and dark elves, the former being pure of colour and dressed in white and silver garments. Much, much later Thomas Keightley was informed by a country girl that the Norfolk ‘frairies’ always wore white.
As Mary Lewes already stated, white is a colour very often associated with the clothing of the Welsh tylwyth teg. Fairies sighted at Frenifawr in Pembrokeshire rode small white horses and were dressed in white or red; a charming story from Aberaeron on Cardigan Bay tells how a pipe player called John Davies met a group of fairy women one night and almost married one. He could tell they were fays because they were all in white and their dresses (this was in 1860) came only to their knees (!) Sadly he was interrupted and they all disappeared down some stairs leading underground before the nuptials could be agreed. These women sound charming and harmless, but there’s more to white garments than just clean clothing.
A story dated 1903 from the Welsh borders suggests this. An old woman living at Trellech described the fairies as being fairly small with “queer complexions.” They were the size of a six year old child, barefoot, dressed in white with lovely white skin, but also white hair and white eyes too. From some earlier point in Victorian times there comes the story of John Jones, a farm labourer of Perthrhys farm near Aberystwyth. Walking home across Rhosrhydd Moor one moonlit night he realised two boys were following him. Although it was late, he at first assumed they were just local youths messing around. However, the boys then quit the road and started to dance in an “unearthly” manner. Jones realised that they were both “perfectly white.” Perhaps these white fays go some way to explaining the full significance of the ‘white spirit’ with which accused witch Joan Willimot claimed she had cursed the Earl of Rutland’s son. The ‘mere-maids’ labelled ‘white ladies’ might also be less benign than they initially sound.
These last images (like the red eyed fays in Teesdale and on Man and Shetland) are naturally disturbing to us, rendering the fairies instantly more monstrous and threatening. Whilst (as my choice of illustrations show) we tend to think of ‘red’ as sexual or dangerous and ‘white’ as pure and innocent, the contrast might just as reasonably be between ‘living’ and ‘dead.’ Perhaps deliberately, both connotations are evoked by the traditional fairy green, suggestive of vibrant growth and of decay. The fairy colours are, I’m sure, significant- and are symbolic of many attributes- danger, violence, sexuality and mortality.