Fairies- explaining the unexplained


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.


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 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.

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