Always going, never gone- the reality of the ‘vanishing’ fairy

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe

“I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo…”

(Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Tale)

An abiding aspect of accounts of Faery is that the fairies aren’t around anymore and that fairy belief is fading; it was once strong, but not any more.  This sort of account has been given repeatedly for the last five hundred years or so.  Fairy-lore expert Katherine Briggs to some extent subscribed to this view when she called her 1978 book The vanishing people, although she herself collected some modern modern sightings as well.

Fairies have always been going, but they have never finally and completely gone.  In Farewell to the fairies, the final chapter of her book Strange and secret people- fairies and the Victorian subconscious, Carole Silver observed that:

“The fairies have been leaving England since the fourteenth century but have never quite left despite the rise of the towns, science, factories and changes of religion.”

Two processes were believed to be working in parallel.  There was an active departure of the fairies combined with a growing disbelief amongst the human population.  Combined, these factors convinced observers again and again that our good neighbours had deserted us.  Sometimes the departure was the the fairies moving away from a vicinity, other times it appears that they were vanishing completely.

“Robin Goodfellow is a knave”- the sixteenth century & before

Chaucer was the first to declare that the fays had disappeared, and there has been a constant chorus of lamenting voices ever since.  These were strengthened, from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, by a belief that it was the Reformation which had driven out the supernaturals, the fairies’ Christian faith being inimical to that of Luther and Calvin.

By the late sixteenth century Reginald Scot felt able to declare that “Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared.” Elsewhere in The discovery of witchcraft he noted that “By this time all Kentish men know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave.”  In 1591 George Chapman had a character in his play A humorous day’s mirth query whether “fairies haunt the holy greene, as ever mine auncesters have thought.”  The fairy faith was increasingly seen as a thing of the past, or at the very least as a matter for an older generation and for less well educated and more superstitious folk.  For instance, writing in 1639, Robert Willis described how-

“within a few daies after my birth… I was taken out of the bed from [my mother’s] side and by my sudden and fierce crying recovered again, being found sticking between the beds-head and the wall and, if I had not cried in that manner as I did, our gossips had a conceit that I had been carried away by the Fairies…” (Mount Tabor p.92)

Doyle, triumphal march of the elf king 1870

Richard Doyle, The triumphant march of the elf king, 1870

“Out of date and out of credit”- the 1600s & 1700s

These early sources would suggest that fairy belief was over and done with by the start of the seventeenth century.  That was far from being the case.  As late as 1669, it seems, a spirit called ‘Ly Erg’ had haunted Glen More in the Highlands. Describing the Hebrides in 1716, Martin Martin averred that “it is not long since every Family of any considerable Substance in these Islands was haunted by a Spirit they called Browny…”  Speaking of Northumberland in 1729 the Reverend John Horsley felt that “stories of fairies now seem to be much worn, both out of date and out of credit.”  In 1779 the Reverend Edmund Jones alleged that, in the parish of Aberystruth, the apparitions of fairies had “very much ceased,” although the tylwyth teg had once been very familiar to the local people.  In other words, there had been belief but it was dwindling, or had died out.

“A winter evening’s tale”

The fairy faith was still apparently on the wane, or only just faded, during the next century too.  This was particularly believed to be the case in Scotland.  Shepherd poet James Hogg described the experiences of William Laidlawe, also called Will O’Phaup, who had been born in 1691 and who was “the last man of this wild region who heard, saw and conversed with the fairies; and that not once but at sundry times and seasons.”  Will lived on the edge of Ettrick Forest which was “the last retreat of the spirits of the glen, before taking their final leave of the land of their love…”  The fays’ departure was a regular theme for Hogg.  For example, in The queen’s wake he claimed that “The fairies have now totally disappeared… There are only a very few now remaining alive who have ever seen them.”  In 1820 Sir Walter Scott announced that “The fairies have abandoned their moonlight turf.” Writing of the Tay basin in 1831 James Knox agreed that “during the last century the fairy superstition lost ground rapidly and, even by the ignorant, elves are no longer regarded, though they are the subject of a winter evening’s tale.”

In a description of the Highlands in 1823 it was said that brownies had become rare, but that once every family of rank had had one.  Likewise Alan Cunningham, a lowland Scot, said that in Nithsdale and Galloway “there are few old people who have not a powerful belief in the influence and dominion of the fairies…”  Several accounts of the fairies’ departure from the Scottish Highlands can be dated to about 1790, although a lingering faith persisted with some into the middle of the next century.  A Galloway road-mender refused to fell a local fairy thorn in 1850, for example.

Also in the early 1820s, the fairies of the Lake District were declared extinct. Further south still, but at almost the same time, Fortescue Hitchens pronounced that in Cornwall-

“the age of the piskays, like that of chivalry, is gone.  There is perhaps hardly a house they are reputed to visit… The fields and lanes are forsaken.”

halt in the fairy procession

John Anster Fitzgerald, A halt in the fairy procession

“Credulous times”?- vanishing Victorian fays

Of Northamptonshire in 1851 it was said that “the fairy faith still lingers, but is in the last stages of decay.”  Nevertheless in 1867 John Harland could write that “the elves or hill folk yet live among the rural people of Lancashire.”  Speaking of his youth in the first half of the century, Charles Hardwick stated that, fairies had then been “as plentiful as blackberries-” but this no longer seemed to be the case to him considering the Lancashire of the 1870s.  Researching Devon folklore in the same year, Sir John Bowring interviewed four old peasants on Dartmoor who told him that “the piskies had all gone now, although there had been many formerly.”  Even so he was told a version of the common story of pixies caught stealing grain from a barn, something that had apparently happened as recently as three years before.

According to John Brand, describing Shetland in 1883, “not above forty or fifty years ago every family had an evil spirit called a Browny which served them…”  Writing about the same islands in the same year, Menzies Fergusson said that:

“credulous times are long, long gone by and we can see no more of the flitting sea trow… Civilisation has crept in upon all the fairy strongholds and disenchanted the many fair scenes in which they were wont to hold their fair courts.”

Recounting Cornish folk belief in 1893 Bottrell cited a verse to the effect that “The fairies from their haunts have gone.” In Herefordshire in 1912 a Mrs Leather of Cusop, just outside Hay on Wye, recalled fairies being seen dancing under foxgloves in Cusop Dingle: a vision that was within the memory of people still living, she recorded.

Sims-Charles-1900.-The-Beautiful-is-Fled

Charles Sims, The beautiful is fled, 1900

“Not utterly extinct?”- fairies in the twentieth century

Twentieth century writers echoed their predecessors.  Speaking of Wales in 1923 folklorist Mary Lewes recorded a-

“practically universal belief among the Welsh country folk into the middle of the last century [which] is scarcely yet forgotten.”

She blamed education and newspapers for having quenched the people’s spirits: “mortal eyes in Cambria will no more behold the Fair Folk at their revels.”  She lamented that “even the conception of fairies seems to have been lost in the present generation.”  A couple of years later, reflecting on Western Argyll in the 1850s, another writer reminisced over the “dreamland” people had inhabited before “the fierce eye of bespectacled modern omniscience” had dispelled belief.  “These were the days of elemental spirits, of sights and sounds relegated by present day sceptics to the realm of superstition or imagination.”  By the 1920s only old people recalled the wealth of folktales.  The fairy faith was also felt to be going or gone by this time from Herefordshire, Shropshire and from the Lake District.

Towards the end of last century, describing Sussex folk belief, Jacqueline Simpson declared that:

“Although it is most improbable that a belief in fairies is seriously entertained by any adult of the present generation, it was a different matter of the nineteenth century… Even one generation ago, it was not utterly extinct.”

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, The fairy way

The fairies travel yet?

Continually, then, it seemed to investigators to be the case that fairy belief had been strong until a generation or so ago, but had since expired.  This was asserted every few decades, and little in substance really separates the remarks of Reginald Scot from those of Jacqueline Simpson.  For this reason, when Robin Gwyndaf alleged in 1997 that “fairy belief persisted in Wales until the late 1940s or early 1950s,” how confident should we be in the red line he seeks to draw?  Plenty of writers have done the same before, and have found themselves subsequently contradicted.  Equally, too, there have been writers- perhaps wiser, certainly more cautious-  who have not been so ready to pronounce the fairies’ obituary.

As already noted, the fairies were declared dead and gone from the Lake District in both 1825 and the early twentieth century.  Another observer was not so pessimistic: “The shyness of the British fairy in modern times has given rise to a widespread belief that the whole genus must be regarded as extinct,” wrote a Mrs Hodgson, yet she felt confident specimens could still be found in remote Cumberland and Westmorland neighbourhoods.  In the 1870s Francis Kilvert was told by David Price of Capel-y-ffin that “We don’t see them now because we have more faith in the Lord and don’t think of them.  But I believe the fairies travel yet…”  In 1873 William Bottrell confidently wrote that, in West Cornwall, “belief in the fairies is far from being extinct…”  On the Isle of Man it has been said that the fairies have retreated from the noise and disturbance of modern human life- but that they are still there, in the remote glens and moors.

Conclusions

Have the fairies disappeared?  It seems that it all depends on who does the asking and who they’re talking to.  The evidence of the recent Fairy Census, and of Marjorie Johnson’s collection of sightings in Seeing fairies, suggests that- contrary to all reports- the fairies are still present and active.

The scattered, individual accounts may give a contemporary observer the impression that the fairy faith is lost.  Nonetheless, with a little perspective, with the passage of a few years, a glance back will reveal that witnesses are still meeting our Good neighbours: they may be less willing to speak publicly about these experiences than once would have been the case, but the anonymity of an on-line survey permits confessions that seem to confirm that, indeed, ‘the fairies travel yet.’

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moths and pixies

hopley

Edward Hopley, Puck and a moth

In this post I want to explore some persistent and intriguing connections between fairies and moths.  They are very scattered, but fascinating nonetheless.

CupidpursuingPsyche

John Gibson (1790-1866), Cupid pursuing Psyche

Fluttering faes

A lot of the material linking fairies with moths is highly romantic and literary.  As we began to conceive of tiny winged fairies from the eighteenth century onwards, the association between fays and pretty insects made more and more sense.

We might date this connection from as early as Midsummer night’s dream and the fairy ‘Moth’ although Dr Beachcombing on the Strange history website has argued that this is really a misreading for ‘mote.’

The pairing subsequently manifested itself in several ways:

  • fairies acquired moth and butterfly wings– as we see in many pictures including the illustration by Warwick Goble included below. Another source for these may come from classical representations of winged nymph Psyche (see above);
  • instead of riding horses, fairies started to be imagined riding moths and flies.  Julius Cawein tells us in ‘Dream road’ that “the moths they say the fairies use as coursers;” Alice Cary in ‘Fairy folk’ described fairies travelling “in coaches/ That are drawn by butterflies”;
  • as the poetic faes drew closer to nature, they started to care for insects and other wildlife.  In Menella Bute Smedley’s poem ‘The butterfly and the fairies’ it’s the fays that make the butterfly’s gorgeous painted wings whilst in Peter John Allan’s ‘The dead butterfly’ Faery seems to be the lepidoptera heaven, where the deceased insect goes to dance with the ‘elfin band.’

doyle-fary-queen

Richard Doyle, The fairy queen takes an airy drive

These conceits were taken to an extreme in the anonymous poem ‘The fairies fancy ball,’ published in 1832, in which the vernacular names of every species of butterfly and moth are played upon in a dream of a dance put on by the fairy queen.

This evolution of the ‘artistic faery,’ as we might call it, directly informs our thinking today.  If, for example, we look at the encounters reported in the recent Fairy Census, small flying fays are very common indeed and insect wings are a feature of quite a number of reports (see below).

J G Naish- eleves & fairies MSND

John George Naish, Midsummer fairies

Pixies and the dead

The rather disparate folklore evidence is very partial, but it’s far more interesting than the cute literary conceptions, I would say.

Our starting point is a brief remark by Robert Hunt in his Popular romances of the West of England (1865, p.82):

“Mr Thoms has noticed that in Cornwall ‘the moths which some regard as departed souls, others as fairies, are called Pisgies.’ This is somewhat too generally expressed; the belief respecting the moth, so far as I know, is confined to one or two varieties only. Mr Couch informs us that the local name, around Polperro, of the weasel is Fairy. So that we have evidence of some sort of metempsychosis amongst the elf family. Moths, ants, and weasels it would seem are the forms taken by those wandering spirits.”

The Mr Thoms mentioned by Hunt wrote about ‘The folklore of Shakespeare’ in The Athenaeum in 1847 (no.1041, p.1055).  In this article he says little more than Hunt repeats, except to say that the moths as pixies was the belief in the Truro area of mid-Cornwall and adding that it was thought that when the moths were very numerous, there would be great mortality to follow.  It’s also fascinating to learn that in Yorkshire the night flying moth Hepialis humali was called ‘the soul’  and that, in the Lake District too, moths were traditionally regarded as a sign of death.

There seems to be a link with death then, which is probably quite unsurprising if you think of a ghostly white moth seen at night.  Equally, as I’ve described previously, there are strong associations between fairies and death and it’s another Cornish belief that unbaptised infants may become piskies.

There are some other fragments of folk belief to add to these tantalising remnants.  According to J. Henry Harris, Cornish mothers would also tell their children that the little brown pisgie moth will play tricks on them in their sleep (Cornish saints and sinners, 1907, c.20).  In her story of ‘The little cake bird’ North Cornish author Enys Tregarthen says that the belief around St Columb is that the fairies will pass over your nose and arrange your dreams whilst you sleep.  We know that Queen Mab is the midwife of dreams, so all of this seems to be interrelated.

At St Nun’s Well near Looe on the south coast of the Cornish peninsula, there is a tradition of leaving a bent pin as an offering.  If you fail to do this, you will be followed home by a cloud of the pisgey moths.  We looked at fairy wells in a previous posting and this particular local tradition underscores both that connection and the need to show proper respect by making respectful offerings to the fairies.

Lastly, in a story from the Blackdown Hills of Somerset, a woman is brushed across her brow by a large moth and thereby receives the ‘pixy-sight’ which enables her to see an old pixy man who has come to ask for her skill in nursing his sick wife.  We know fairy powers can be transferred by touch, so this again fits in with other lore, although the medium of the moth is unusual.

warwick goble

Some modern evidence

The recent Fairy Census confirms that there is still felt to be some common association between fairies and lepidoptera.  Some beings seen in Ohio flying around flowers were described as being “Small, pale, with long limbs and wings similar to moths.”  A man waiting for a train in Scotland saw a small ball of light hovering around one of the platform lights:

“At first I thought it was a moth being illuminated but then realised that it was too big to be a moth and also it was very, very bright. It hovered for a few moments then shot across the platform and it joined another ball of light opposite.”

He assumed it had to be a fairy because this was the “first thought that came into my head after I realised it wasn’t moths.” (Census numbers 169 & 350).  Several other witnesses made comparisons too to butterflies: consider for instance a Texan sighting of “a beautiful butterfly with a lovely body of a lady” or “bright, white light about five foot long with wings like a butterfly and a short dress” or “like a white butterfly” (numbers 375, 419 & 435).

Conclusions

This posting is just a first outline of this subject.  Doubtless with further reading other examples will be found and we will form a surer picture of the link, but it seems clear even at this preliminary stage that diminutive size, nocturnal habits, ghostly colours and some sort of spiritual aspect are all combined in this group of beliefs.

Further reading

Readers may be interested to note that the Scottish mythical and mystical poet Fiona Macleod makes considerable use of moth imagery.  They are often equated with spirits, perhaps ghosts: “In the grey-gloaming where the white moth flies” or “Not even the white moth that loves death flits through her hair.”  It is a a mysterious and silent symbol.

Fairies- explaining the unexplained

loaf

A ‘fairy loaf’- a fossil sea urchin

“The naturalists of the Dark Ages owed many obligations to our fairies, for whatever they found wonderful and could not account for, they easily got rid of by charging to their account.” (Brand, Popular antiquities, vol.2 p.285)

In earlier times fairies were regularly used to explain phenomena for which we had no scientific theory, such as fairy rings, fossils and archaeological artefacts.  This tendency was exacerbated by the habit of applying the word ‘fairy’ to anything that was mysterious and/ or small.  A good example might be old clay pipe stems, which readily became ‘fairy pipes’- even in places where they had been manufactured- Broseley in Shropshire for instance.  This is a curious testimony to the power of mythology over factual knowledge.

mudlark_fairy_pipe_15May2015

A sample ‘fairy pipe’

There is a particular fitness to this tendency, because of the convention that fairies themselves are small and, perhaps, delicate, but why link the faeries with ancient monuments such as fortifications and burial mounds?  This has been done across Britain, from Shetland to Penwith in Cornwall.  Very commonly, these sites are rural, frequently remote and of great antiquity; they were built for purposes unknown by persons unknown and this inevitably has invited speculation.  How they were built is likewise unknown and this can enhance the aura of mystery or miraculousness.  The physical and imaginative distance separating us from these structures makes it easy to see them as products of Faerie.

Cissbury

Cissbury Ring hillfort

The kinds of sites that have been given names linking them to fairyland include barrows, standing stones, hillforts, flint workings and- even- Roman ruins.  Some examples of the folk lore associations follow:

  • Iron Age hillforts– in Sussex the fairies are known to dance at Torberry Hill and Cissbury forts;
  • the motte and bailey at Pulborough in the same county was the scene of a fairy funeral; and,
  • the ancient flint mines and earth works at Harrow Hill in Sussex have been identified by the some as the fays’ last home in England;
  • barrows at Batcombe and Stoney Littleton in Somerset are known as ‘fairy toots.’  In the same county fairy gold is buried at Cadbury hillfort and fairy pipes are found at Dolbury camp.  At the barrow called Pudding Pie Hill in North Yorkshire it’s said that if you run around it nine times and then stick a knife in the top, you will hear the fairies inside;
  • Hoarstones stone circle in Shropshire is a fairy ring in which six fairy women dance on moonlit nights;
  • burial cists on Shetland are ‘trow haunted’- they are places where the “peerie [tiny] Hillmen” will be encountered;  brochs as well as standing stones on the island are the same;
  • at the Roman sites at Bolitree and Kenchester in Herefordshire are also haunted by fairies and fairy money (Roman coins?) have been found there.  In one case a Roman mosaic pavement that was discovered in the county was promptly covered over again for fear of offending the fays.  In Oystermouth (Ystum Llwynarth) on Gower during the 1860s local people would not collect tesserae, the fragments of a Roman mosaic floor, found in the churchyard of All Saints church for fear that the fairies would haunt or torment them.

stoney littleton chamber

Stoney Littleton barrow- the ammonite fossil at the entrance

It’s particularly curious to note the Norman motte at Pulborough amongst these prehistoric monuments.  It must have been reasonably apparent that this site was a castle, yet a veneer of age and mystery seems to have been enough to attract the fairies.  In the remainder of the cases, the fay link is likely to have been engendered by several clear associations:

  • many of these sites were underground or the material came from beneath the soil.  As it’s well-known that fairyland is subterranean- a place of the dead perhaps- it made eminent sense to assume that they were fairy lairs;
  • fairies are well known to give money to their favourites and sometimes the coins are of unknown origin. Heavy Roman and Celtic currency would very obviously have been mistaken for fairy gold;
  • as the fairies have their own monarchy and court, they will need suitably grand locations to inhabit.  The ruins of old forts and palaces that we can see in the mortal world presumably have a supernatural form where the fairies dwell in feasting and revelry;
  • if fairies are the ancestral spirits of the land- its original inhabitants, perhaps- then all old burial sites and ceremonial structures must be their responsibility; and,
  • there is an age-old association between the fays and buried treasure and fairy gold is frequently related to ancient sites.  That at Dolebury sinks deeper of you try to dig for it.  In contrast, at Bury Ditches fort near Clun in Shropshire a pot of gold was buried by fairies, attached to which is a thin gold wire to help guide seekers to the treasure.  Intriguingly, on Blea Moor on the Pennines there once lived the Lile Hob.  This being was linked to buried treasure known to be in the area; when three silver armlets were discovered on the Moor, the hob disappeared forever.

Further reading

In a world lacking a truly historical sense and without the science of archaeology, the known world of the fairies was readily at hand to explain features and finds that otherwise were wholly without a place in the world as it was then conceived and understood.  They gave structure and sense to our predecessors and at the same time enchanted the land around them, giving its significance and even a sense of the sacred. They represented the spirit of the land- a potent source of imagery.

See too my postings on fairies and the past and fairies and megaliths.

Look to the future: fairy prophesy

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

We are very familiar with fairies’ magical powers of creating glamour and, to a lesser extent, of shape-shifting, but they also have more oracular or psychic abilities.  They can detect lost or hidden items and they have the ability to see into the future and, if they wish, to make this knowledge known to humans.  For example, the Brownie of Castle Lachlan of Stralachan in Argyllshire was known for his prophetic powers.  The Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.

There are several ways in which prognostications might be revealed to humankind.

Actions disclose fate to clan or village

Firstly, the foreknowledge might be disclosed to a family, a household or a community by the fairy’s actions.  For instance, the glaistig of Island House on Tiree, was known to begin to work extra hard in advance of the arrival of unexpected visitors.  This additional effort alerted the household to advent of likely guests.

Another example of this kind of warning comes from those fays whose actions would foretell a death or tragedy.  The Scottish banshee and the related caointeach (keener) and bean-nighe are well known for this well known for this.  By their howls, or by washing winding sheets in rivers, they signify imminent death, but they are not alone.  The Ell Maid of Dunstaffnage Castle would cry out to warn of impending joy, or woe; on the Borders the powrie or dunter haunted old peel towers and made a noise like the pounding of flax or grain.  When this was louder than usual, or went on for longer, it was a sure sign of coming death or misfortune.

In South Wales the Reverend Edmund Jones reported related activities.  A man in a field in Carmarthenshire saw a fairy funeral procession pass by, singing psalms.  Soon afterwards a human funeral followed exactly the same route in the same manner.  At Aberystruth in about 1770 two men mowing in a field saw a marriage company processing by; another man passing at the same time saw nothing even though he was actually seen to meet with the wedding party.  The event turned out to presage the death of the third man’s employer and the marriage of his daughter.

froud bean nighe

Brain Froud, The bean-nighe

Actions reveal to individuals

Elsewhere the Reverend Jones wrote that the fairies “infallibly knew when a person was going to die.”  It follows from this that sometimes, rather than a general warning of a coming death, the fairies would appear to the victim him or herself.  Jones gives examples of this.  A man was travelling near Abertillery when he heard people talking.  He paused to listen, then heard the sound of a tree falling and a moan.  It soon transpired that what he had witnessed was the fairies predicting his own death by a fall from a tree.  In a very similar account, Jones described a young man at Hafod-y-dafel who saw a procession headed for the church.  Walking with the fairies were a child and a young adult male who suddenly vanished.  This proved to be a premonition: first the witness’ child fell ill and died; then he too sickened and passed away.

A very similar story is told in Lancashire.  Two men encountered a fairy funeral taking place at the church of St Mary near Penwortham Wood.  The fays were dressed in black and carrying a tiny coffin containing a doll like corpse which looked exactly like one of the two witnesses.  This man reached out to try to touch one of the mourners, causing the apparition instantly to vanish.  Within a month, he fell from a haystack and was killed.

Love foretold

As well as predicting individuals’ deaths, the fays could more happily disclose their future spouses to them.  The best example of this is the Borders brownie called Kilmoulis.  This being lived in mills by the grain kilns; on Halloween they would foretell love.  If a person threw a ball of thread into a pot and then started to rewind it into another ball, a point would come near the end of the yarn when Kilmoulis would hold on and stop the winding.  If you then asked “who holds?”, the brownie would name your spouse to be.  In East Yorkshire, some ‘fairy stones’ stood near Burdale (near Malton) and it was said that if a person visited these during the full moon, they would glimpse their future partner.

Conclusion

It seems that, living in two dimensions, the fairies have access to knowledge that is unavailable to mortals.  They can see through the material world and through time as it’s perceived by us to bring us knowledge we might not wish to acquire.

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

“In the likeness of a crab”- fairy shape shifters

paton_-_puck_and_fairies_from_a_midsummer_nights_dream

Joseph Noel Paton, Puck and the fairies

Although the ability to shape-shift is often reckoned to be a standard fairy attribute, it is actually very rare amongst the fairies of Britain.  Part of the reason for its prominence in popular imaginings is that it has one very well-known practitioner.

Glamour & invisibility

We ought perhaps to start with some definition of terms.  We’re not talking here about the fairies’ power of invisibility.  This appears to be pretty much universal, for British fairies at least; they can all vanish at will.  Secondly, shape shifting should not be confused with the regular fairy use of ‘glamour’ whereby magic can conceal the real identity of supernatural beings.  A good example arises in the stories of midwives taken at night to grand mansions to attend rich ladies in their childbirth.  It’s only when the midwife accidentally touches some fairy ointment to her eye that her vision penetrates through the illusion to see that she’s really surrounded by misshapen elves in a cave.

Thirdly, by shape-shifting I’m not really concerned so much with the ability of spriggans to change their size.  An example of this comes from the Cornish story ‘Cherry of Zennor.’  Cherry is approached by a gentleman to work for him; they reach his home after a long and slightly mysterious journey, which appears to be a passage into fairyland.  All goes well until Cherry looks into a well where she sees many tiny fairies dancing- and her new master shrunk to the same size.  Fascinating as this is, in this posting I’m really only interested in a complete change of form.

Hobgoblins and sweet Puck

In 1584 in his horror novella Beware the cat, William Baldwin wrote what’s probably our first clear statement of the fairies’ shape-shifting habits:

“I have read that … the ayry spirits which wee call Demones, of which kinde are Incubus and Succubus, Robin Good Fellow the Fairy and Goblins, which the Miners call Telchines, could at their pleasure take upon them any other sortes.”

Robin Goodfellow is our particular interest here.  Also called Puck, this hobgoblin is the consummate master of transformation, as immortalised in Midsummer night’s dream, Act II, scene 1 in which Puck boasts to a fairy about his pranks:

“When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,/ Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:/ And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,/ In the very likeness of a roasted crab;/ And when she drinks, against her lips I bob/ And on her withered dewlap pour the ale./ The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,/ Sometimes for three foot stool mistaketh me;/ Then slip I from her bum, down topples she…”

All Shakespeare does here is give immortal form to the traditional character of Puck.  Other texts of about the same time give other examples of his tricks- these are The life of Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests (1628) and a poem called The pranks of Puck that has been attributed to Ben Jonson. In these works Robin is endowed with his shape-shifting power by his fairy father Oberon, who tells him:

“Thou hast the power to change thy shape/ To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape./ Transformed thus, by any meanes,/ See none thou harm’st but knaves and queanes.”

In the course of the stories Puck dispenses rough justice and has simple slapstick fun in a huge variety of forms- for example:

  • livestock such as a horse, a dog and an ox,
  • wild animals including a fox, a hare, a bear and a frog;
  • birds, including a crow, an owl and a raven;
  • various spirits including a will of the wisp and a ghost; and,
  • various people, including a cripple, a soldier, a young maid and fiddler.

Fairies as birds

There are two brief mentions of British fays who can transform to birds.  The hyter sprite, an obscure fairy of East Anglia, can also appear in the shape of a sandmartin and, from the Cornish story of The fairy dwelling on Silena Moor we learn that pixy abductee Grace Hutchens is more reconciled to her captivity by the fact that she can transform into a small bird and fly near to her former lover, Mr Noy.  It’s perhaps also worth observing that these fairies’ wings are acquired by transformation, here, as they evidently don’t normally possess them…

There’s a catch to the Cornish pixies’ ability to transform, though.  They can only change into birds and it seems each transformation shrinks the sprite so that eventually they dwindle away to virtually nothing.

meeting the kelpie by camelid

Meeting the kelpie by Camelid on DeviantArt

Kelpies

Evidently Puck can become whatever he likes.  Most other fairies are strictly limited in what they can become.  The Scottish kelpie/ each uisge may appear either in male or horse form.  In the former guise, he is a handsome young man who seeks to seduce young women and lure them to their doom; the lucky ones spot the telltale signs of his real nature- the sand or water weed caught in his hair, and make their escape.   The others are carried off into a loch or the sea and drowned.

Conclusion and further reading

To finish, we can see how rare the power to change form is.  In England it’s really just limited to Puck, although we have to note the interesting fact that a couple of the South Western fairies do have some special powers.

Elsewhere I’ve posted about fairies’ physical forms and the solidity and reality of fays.  I discuss fairy magic generally in chapter 10 of my British fairies, 2017.