“Those white and blue fairies”- fairy faces

dark fairy
Dark fairy by Maiarcita on http://www.deviantart.com

Reading Minor White Latham’s Elizabethan fairies recently, I was struck by his argument that Tudor and Stuart conceptions about the race and colour of fairies might have been quite different our own assumptions.  I’ve argued before that there’s a good deal of evidence of  ethnic diversity in Faery  Let’s not forget, for example, that in Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy court has connections with the far east, Titania and Oberon disputing over a boy “stolen from an Indian king” whose mother was a “votaress” of Titania’s, the pair sitting together gossiping in the “spiced Indian air, by night.”  Likewise, Milton in Paradise Lost imagined a “Pygmean race beyond the Indian mount.”   African and Asian fairies ought not to surprise us at all, then, but Latham goes considerably further than this.

Masks for masques

The Tudors and Stuarts loved performing as faes in masques and plays, and to do so they put on masks.  For example, in George Gascoigne’s 1565 comedy The Buggbears there’s reference to spirits played by actors in “visars like devills,” to going “a-sprityng with this face and that” and “buggbears with vysardes.”  Latham’s argument is that the colour of these masks reflects conceptions about what he calls the ‘complexion’ of the fairies.  A very good starting point for an exploration of this argument is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.

In the Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare returned to a fairy theme for comic effect.  Fairies often appeared on the English stage as a vehicle for cheating or tricking characters, and that is their purpose in this play.  A plot is hatched to make a fool of Falstaff by dressing up some children as fairies and scaring him.  Mrs Anne Page decides her daughter Nan, her young son and three or four more of his age group shall “dress / Like urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white,” holding candles and rattles (IV, 4).  Nan is to be the fairy queen in a white silk dress and it’s very evident from the line quoted above that the others will be wearing green and white too.  Mrs Page’s friend, Mrs Ford, then says “I’ll go buy them vizards.”  In a slightly later scene (IV, 6), in which the women go over their plans again, it’s agreed that the children should be “mask’d and vizarded.”  They’ll be in disguise, then; their faces will be covered.  As a consequence, when Falstaff is confronted by Nan as the fairy queen (V, 5) and she calls forth “Fairies, black, grey, green and white” there’s a good deal of support for Latham’s suggestion that these colours relate not to their clothes (which we already know about) but to the colour of their masks (faces).

melancholicheart.deviantart.com Red-Faerie
Red Faerie by melancholicheart.deviantart.com

Support for Latham’s contention comes from the text of a masque performed for Queen Elizabeth at Woodstock in 1575.  The entertainment began with the monarch being approached by the ‘Queen of Fayry’ who presents herself by declaring that her love for Elizabeth had drawn her out of her woodland retreat and “caused me transforme my face/ and in your hue to come before your eyne/ now white, then blacke, your frend the fayery Queene.”  Black and white were the colours of the English queen, but at the same time it did not appear to be considered odd that her supernatural counterpart might have a black face.

Red, black & white spirits

In light of these examples, I’d return to other evidence I cited for you in an previous post on red and white fairies, and argue more confidently that those citations weren’t descriptions of clothes but of skin colour.  There are further examples to consider.

Reginald Scot in his Discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits mentions “white spirits and black spirits, grey spirits and red spirits” (c.33); in Macbeth the three witches meet with Hecate and “Like elves and Fairies in a ring” summon up “Black spirits.” The 1618 masque at Cole-Orton featured a character asking Puck about “ye faries, those little ring-leaders, those white and blew faries.”  In his play, Monsieur Thomas, John Fletcher has a character attempting to conjure spirits of earth and air, whom he addresses thus: “Be thou black or white or green, be thou heard or seen.” (c.1637, Act V, scene 9)  Lastly, Joan Willimot, accused of witchcraft in 1618, had a fairy woman called Pretty as her spirit guide, who would advise her on those who had been cursed.  She told Joan that the Earl of Rutland’s son had been “stricken with a white spirit.”  This is very suggestive of a white fairy, akin to those ‘white ladies’ who are often seen haunting springs or old houses.

All in all, it seems to me that we have pretty strong evidence for the fact that English people of the early modern period conceived of their fays as being quite alien in appearance- red, green, blue, grey, jet black and snow white.

anime fairy

Further reading

My posts on diversity in fairy and on fairy colours touch on closely related topics; my post on fairy stature examines another convention of the fairy drama of Shakespeare’s time.

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.  There’s more too on faery anatomy and physiology in my Faery Lifecycle published in 2021:

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Fairy cleanliness

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Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Here’s a question not often asked: how- and how often- do fairies keep themselves clean? We know that they have very strong opinions on the cleanliness of human homes, and that they will punish or reward maids and housewives according to what they find, but does this extend to their own dwellings and, for that matter, to their own persons?

When you start to look, you find that the evidence exists in some quantity- so here are the best conclusions I can reach.  The need for the fairies to wash themselves and their clothes was accepted without question by our ancestors- for example, on the Isle of Man the saying was that “If rain falls when it’s sunny, the fairies are washing.”

Bathing faes

“Til after long time myrke, when blest were windows, dares and lights,

And pales were fill’d, and hathes were swept, ‘gainst Farie Elves and sprits:”

(William Warner, Albion’s England, 1586, Book V, c.XXV)

There are plenty of reports that demonstrate that fairies do, definitely, wash themselves.  As an outdoor people, living in woods and meadows, a lot of this bathing took place in natural bodies of water.  For example, in Northamptonshire certain ‘faery pools’ are known where the faeries swim at night; at Brington, in fact, bathing faeries were seen by witnesses as recently as 1840.  On the Isle of Man, beside the Gretch River, there’s a spot called the Fairy Ground where fairy mothers dressed in red used to be seen washing their babies.

It’s inevitable that encounters with fays are likely to occur at these bathing places.  A Northumberland tale records how a little girl gathering primroses by the River Wear came upon some faeries washing in the river.  In revenge for this invasion of their ablutions, she was abducted by them that same night and her father then had to follow a very complex ritual to be able to recover her.  Sometimes, it’s the faery who’s vulnerable. From North Yorkshire comes a story of a faery girl found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale.  A woman took the child home and made her warm and fed her but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she’d been found and where it was believed that the faeries bathed, in the hope that her parents would return for her (Bord, Fairies, Appendix, p.206).

In due course the faeries, who are ever a people alert to their own convenience and advantage, realised that they could wash themselves with far greater comfort in people’s homes.  Initially the fays may have used water collected around human farms: there is one Welsh account of them bathing in a moat; but it then became the practice for them to enter the dwellings and to require that fresh water be left out in front of the fire or kiln for them.  This may be seen as dependence- as Latham does in Elizabethan Fairies (p.118) but it probably should more properly be seen as proof of the fairies’ canny nature.  Even so, if the householders did comply, they could generally anticipate a few silver coins being left behind for them in thanks.  Perhaps this is why some even started to provide soap and towels to their supernatural visitors- less for reasons of kindness than greed (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886, p.196).

This habit must have started many centuries ago, because the provision of water has become established as- to all intents and purposes- a fairy right. Mrs Bray tells the story of a couple of maids in a house near Tavistock who forgot to put out a bucket for the pixies one night.  Their response on finding the empty pail was to immediately go upstairs, enter the girls’ room by the keyhole and then surround their bed, loudly debating the best punishments for their laziness and neglect.  The enraged pixies considered pinching, spoiling the maids’ best clothes, sending a tooth-ache or inflicting a red nose.  One of the maids heard this and suggested getting up to put matters right; the other refused to stir ‘for all the pixies in Devonshire.’  The first maid did get up and fill the bucket- and was rewarded with silver pennies; the other was lamed for her obstinacy and rudeness (Bray, Tamar and Tavy, pp.188-9).

There is widespread testimony to the custom from across the British Isles, most frequently from the Isle of Man and from Wales. Sometimes hot water was preferred but, very curiously, it’s also reported that the tylwyth teg would choose to wash their children in the water in which human children have already been cleaned whilst in the Highlands the water used for washing men’s feet was most desirable (Rhys, Celtic Folklore 56, 110, 137, 151, 198 & 240).

Once established as a perquisite of the good neighbours, it was generally advisable to give them what they wanted, for fear of what they’d use instead.  Householders need to be warned that the fays may wash in any liquid they find available (even if this is meant by the humans for cooking or drinking).  Although they may not sound ideal for the purpose, fairies have taken revenge if no water was put out by bathing their infants in kit, the water in which oats were soaked in the Highlands, or in milk.  In one incident on Shetland, trows entered a house at night to bathe a baby and found no water left out.  Muttering “Mukka, mukka, dilla do,” they made use instead of the ‘swotts’ -or water in which sowens or oat-husks were steeped- to wash the child and its clothes, before pouring the liquid back into the keg from which it had been taken…

Whilst we’d never think of drinking water deliberately put out for washing, we might not expect or realise that cooking liquids would be used- and this could prove risky.  In a case from Dunadd in Argyll, the fays one night washed a stolen child in milk left out for them by a farmhouse fire.  This milk was wisely thrown away by the farmer the next morning, but his sheep dog lapped it up- and instantly died.

So established was this practice that, in Gloucestershire on Christmas Eve, the faeries were formally invited into homes.  The fire was banked up and water was left out for their annual bath and, it was believed, if this was done good luck would be bound to follow for the next twelve months.

Fairies also noticed that humans built themselves places specially for bathing- and they’ve taken advantage of these too.  There’s a well-known story of faeries surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley:  when the caretaker William Butterfield arrived to open up he found at first that the key simply rotated in the lock without effect.  He then tried to push the door open, but felt resistance from the other side.  On finally forcing his way in, he was met with:

“whirr, whirr, whirr, such a noise and sight! All over the water and dipping into it was a lot of little creatures, all dressed in green from head to foot, none of them more than eighteen inches high, and making a chatter and a jabber thoroughly unintelligible.  They seemed to be taking a bath, only they bathed with all their clothes on.”

They scattered as soon as William appeared, leaving no trace behind (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, 133-4).

fairy laundry

Fairy laundry

Fairies wash their bodies then, albeit not that frequently, and, as we’ve just seen, they may save time and trouble by bathing fully clothed.  This example aside, there is again sufficient evidence to show that the fairies do their washing just like us.

At least one spring, the Claymore well near Kettleness in Yorkshire, has been identified as a place where the faes wash their clothes and, in the Middleton-in-Teesdale case cited earlier, the fairies were also said to wash their clothes in the river Tees there (Bord p.206).  J. G. Campbell has a very brief mention of a fisherman seeing green silk spread out to dry on the fairy knoll of Beinn Feall on Coll.  The colour of the cloth, let alone its location, confirm its supernatural ownership.

An interesting story comes from the Isle of Man dated to the early twentieth century.  A man reported that his father, when he was a boy, had come across the fairies doing their washing in the river at Glen Rushen.  They were beating the clothes on the rocks and then hanging them to dry on gorse bushes. The boy crept close and stole a little cap, which was too small even for a human child to wear.  He took it home to show his mother, but she told him to go straight back and replace it- which he did.

Several other spots on the same island are also sites of fairy laundering.  A flat stone used to be pointed out in the Rhenab River where the fairies were both heard and seen- at night and early in the morning- washing their clothes.  At an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard ” beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream” and, in another unidentified glen, children saw the fairies’ newly-washed linen spread out on a rock to dry according to a report in Chamber’s Journal from 1855.

Unsurprisingly, fairy clothes washing moved inside human homes, too.  A Shetland fisherman who had been dozing by his fire awoke to find a trow using his feet as a clothes horse for drying her child’s clothes.  When he shifted position and the washing fell in the ashes, she slapped his leg in irritation and, as a consequence, he and his descendants always limped.

The great unwashed?

I’ve discussed fairy smell previously and the question is obviously highly pertinent to the present topic.  A young Yorkshire woman in late Victorian times told her vicar that she’d never seen the faeries but she had smelt them.  Asked to describe the odour, she told him:

“If you have ever been a very crowded place of worship where the people have been congregated for some time, then you knew the smell.”

This very strongly suggests a sweaty, stale, unwashed smell and, of course, if they bathed but once a year that is only to be expected.  All the same, the prevailing concern with regular supplies of water and with cleanly human homes tends to indicate that they are not a noisome folk.  Perhaps fairies just smell different to humans, rather than dirty.

It’s also said that they object to bad smells in the human world (such as stale urine- a substance which was kept, ironically, for cleaning human clothes but which was a well-known fay-repellent). A very grubby fisherman from Port Erin on the Isle of Man was once forcibly washed by the fairies.  He’d spied them swinging on gorse bushes, but this punishment seems to have been about something more than his intrusion on their privacy.

Lastly, there is the well-known story of Bettie Stogs from Cornwall.  She and her husband were alcoholics and were neglecting themselves, their home and their baby. The pixies removed the infant, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers, by way of a salutary lesson to her.

For more discussion of faery physiology, anatomy and health, see my 2021 book ‘The Faery Lifecycle’:

A Cornish changeling

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The holy well at Carn Euny, April 2019 (note the strips of cloth tied to the tree as votive offerings)

Further to my last posting on the Sennen fairies, some more fairy reflections, based upon my recent visit to west Cornwall.

This story of a fairy changeling is taken from Bottrell’s Hearthside Tales vol. 2 pp.200-205.  I’ve edited it down to the most important details. It’s set in an attractive area at the heart of Penwith in West Cornwall.  Carn Brea is the first and last hill in the county, with stunning views around the coast to the north, west and south; on a clear day you can see the Isles of Scilly thirty miles off Land’s End. Brea hamlet lies just west of the hill and Brea Vean (‘little Brea’) just a short distance to the north.  A mile or so east is Bartinney Hill, topped by an Iron Age hillfort; on its south-east slopes lies Carn Euny, the site of the ruined chapel and holy wells, as well as a very well-preserved Iron Age village.  Further west still lie Sancreed village and church.

Here’s Bottrell’s account:

The Brea Vean changeling

“Hence, one might descend to the famous Chapel Uny Well, situated between Chapel Carn Brea and Bartine hills; the one crowned with its ruined chapel and the other with a castle. At Chapel Uny will be found a copious spring of as clear water as was ever seen. The only remains that can be identified, as having belonged to its ancient chapel, are a few dressed stones near the well. These, from their shape, would seem to have formed part of an arched door or window…

The Holy Well is, however, the most celebrated object in this vicinity; a few years ago, it was resorted to on the first three Wednesdays in May by scores of persons who had great faith in the virtue of its waters, which were considered very efficacious for curing most diseases incidental to childhood, and many ricketty babes are still bathed there at the stated times when the spring is believed to possess the most healing powers.  Belonging to this well and its neighbourhood there is a somewhat curious story, which we will relate just as it has often been told us by old people of the West Country.

A hundred years or more ago- one afternoon in harvest time- a woman called Jenny Trayer, who lived in Brea Vean (a little out-of-the-way place at the foot of Chapel Carn Brea) gave her baby suck, rocked it to sleep, then covered up the fire, turned down the brandis, placed fire-hook and furze-prong across the hearth for good luck, and, leaving the child alone, away she hastened over to Brea [for the celebration of the end of the harvest.  This went on very late and when Jenny returned home]  she opened her door, she saw, by the moonlight, that the cradle was overturned.  Straw and rags were on the floor, but no child was in sight.

Jenny groped round the room a long time; then, not finding any live embers among the ashes, she took the tinder-box and struck a light. “The more haste the worst speed.” It was a long time before she got the porvan (rush-wick) lit in the chill (iron lamp). In searching all the holes and corners, she came to the wood-corner and there among turves, ferns, and furze, she found the “cheeld,” fast asleep. Being very tired, she took up the child and went to bed. Next morning, when she looked at the babe, by daylight, it seemed to her that there was something strange about it—she didn’t know what—it was hearty enough, for it seemed never satisfied unless it was all the time sucking or eating it would roar like a bull if it hadn’t its will; and always wanted to be in her arms or eating pap.

The poor woman couldn’t do her “chars,” and had no rest of her life with the squalling, hungry brat. Yet, with all its sucking and eating, it seemed wasting to skin and bone. So it kept on all the winter—the more it ate the leaner it became. Many of the neighbours shook their heads when they saw it, and said they feared the “small people” had played her a trick that afternoon when she went to “neck-cutting.”

“Whether or no,” said they, “you can do nothing better, Jenny, than to bathe it in the Chapel Well as soon as May comes around.”

Accordingly, the first Wednesday in May she took it on her back and trudged away to Chapel Uny Well.  Three times she put it through the water from west to east, then dragged it three times round the well against the sun. Whether the bath made it any better or not she couldn’t tell in one week. The following Wednesday, however, the troublesome creature seemed to expect the jaunt, and to enjoy it as it rode away on her shoulder over hill and moor to the spring, where it had the same ducking again. The third Wednesday was a wet day; yet, not to spoil the spell, Jenny took the brat, placed it astride on her shoulder, held one foot in her hand, whilst he grasped her hair to keep himself steady, as they beat over the moors against wind and rain. The thing seemed to enjoy the storm, and crowed, like a cock, when the wind roared the loudest.

They had nearly passed round Chapel Carn Brea and were coming by some large rocks, near the open moor, when she heard a shrill voice, seemingly above her head, call out-

“Tredrill! Tredrill!  Thy wife and children greet thee well.”

Jenny was surprised to hear the shrill voice and nobody in sight. When she stopped an instant to look round, the thing on her shoulder cried out in a voice as shrill and loud-

“What care I for wife or child,
When I ride on Dowdy’s back to the Chapel Well,
And have got pap my fill?”

Frightened out of her senses, to hear the miserable little object talk like a man about his wife and his child, the poor woman cast it on the ground and there it lay sprawling, until she took courage, threw it across her shoulder, and ran back as fast as she could lay feet to ground till she came to Brea town. She stopped before some houses a little below Brea mansion, threw down the thing, that clung to her neck for dear life, on to a dung-heap beside the road.

The women of Brea all ran out to see what could be the matter. As soon as she recovered her breath, she told them what she had heard. “Ah,” exclaimed one, “didn’t I tell thee, months ago, that thee wert nussan a small body’s brat, ever since the neck-cuttan night, when thy child was spirited away, and that thing left in his place.”

“Shure enow,” said another, “anybody of common sense might see that. Only look at the thing there, sprawling upon his back in the mud. Did one ever see a Christian cheeld like that, with his goggle eyes, squinting one way; his ugly mouth drawn another, and his pinched-up nose all a-wry too?”

“And now, Jenny,” broke in the oldest crone, “’Tis lucky for ’e that I can tell ’e what you must do to get rid of this unlucky bucca [that is, a ‘puck’ or fairy], and get back thy own dear cheeld. Now there’s an old way, and I don’t know but it es the best; and that es to put the smale body upon the ashes’ pile and beat it well with a broom; then lay it naked under a church-way stile; there leave et, and keep out of sight and hearan till the turn of night; and, nine times out of ten, the thing will be took off and the stolen cheeld put in his place. There’s another plan but I never seed et tried—to make by night a smoky fire, with green ferns and dry. When the chimney and house are full of smoke as one can bear, throw the changeling on the hearth-stone; go out of the house; turn three times round; when one enters the right cheeld will be restored.”

The women of Brea- resolved to try what a beating on the ashes’ pile would do towards getting rid of the goblin- threw it on a heap near at hand and commenced belabouring it with their brooms. But they had scarcely touched it than it set up such a roar that it was heard in Brea mansion.  [The local landowner’s wife came and tried to stop them but the village women had little regard for their opinions as they were Quakers]

“who haven’t the grace,” said they, “to know anything about such creatures as spriggans, piskies, knackers (knockers of the mines) and other small folks, good or bad, that haunt our carns, moors, and mines; who can vanish or make themselves visible when and how they please, as all more enlightened folks know.”

The Brea women, in spite of the “unbelieving Quakers,” … determined to have their own way and waited till all was dark in the great house; then Jenny, with the bantling or spriggan, and another woman, who was very knowing about changelings, passed quietly up Brea town-place, and under a stile on the Church-way path crossing a field from Brea lane, they left the creature (then asleep) that had been such a plague to them.

Jenny returned to Brea Vean, and there stayed till morning. Being fatigued and worried she overslept herself, for it was nearly daybreak when she awoke and hurried away, between hopes and fears, to the stile; and there, sure enough, she found her own “dear cheeld,” sleeping on some dry straw. The infant was as clean, from head to foot, as water could make it, and wrapped up in a piece of old gay-flowered chintz; which small folks often covet and steal from furze-bushes, when it is placed there in the sun to dry.

Jenny nursed her recovered child with great care, but there was always something queer about it, as there always is about one that has been in the fairies’ power—if only for a few days. It was constantly ailing and complaining, and, as soon as it was able to toddle, it would wander far away to all sorts of out-of-the-way places… when he was about nine years of age the Squire took the changeling (as he was always called) into his service, but he was found to be such a poor simple innocent that he could never be trusted to work in the fields alone, much less with cattle, as a whim would take him, every now and then, to leave his work and wander away over hills and moors for days together. Yet he was found useful for attending to rearing cattle and sheep—then kept in great numbers on the unenclosed grounds of Brea. He was so careful of his master’s flock in lambing time that there was seldom any lost. Forsaken or weakly lambs were often given to him by the neighbours, and he contrived to rear them so well that, in a few years, he had a good flock of his own…

When he grew to man’s estate, however, he became subject to fits, and had to remain at home with his mother great part of his time. Yet, when the fits were over, nothing could restrain his propensity for wandering, and his sheep, goats, and even calves, always followed, and seemed equally to enjoy their rambles. He often talked to himself, and many believed that he was then holding converse with some of the fairy tribe, only visible to him, who enticed him to ramble among the earns, hills, and moors- their usual haunts.

When about thirty years of age he was missed for several days; and his flock had been noticed, staying longer than usual near the same place, on a moor between the Chapel Hill and Bartinné, and there- surrounded by his sheep- he was found, lying on a quantity of rushes which he had pulled and collected for making sheep-spans.  He lay, with his arm under his head, apparently in sweet sleep, but the poor changeling of Brea was dead.”

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Sancreed holy well, April 2019.  The glimmer inside is a night light candle we found on a ledge, along with a joss stick; note again the strips of cloth on the branches above.

The fairy well

I have written before about the magical properties of fairy wells, and several other accounts confirm the healing qualities of the Carn Euny well:

“Hither, on the first Wednesday in May, are still annually brought crippled or maimed children. At that period a bath is formed in front of the well by stopping up the course of the little stream with pieces of turf. Each child is stripped, and then made to drop a pin into the well itself, previously to being immersed three times in the bath. My informant, a native of the parish, told me that he had hardly, if ever, known the process to fail in giving relief. He also told me that the well was sometimes called the Giant’s Well- a title that seems inconsistent with the attribution of such great virtues.” (J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, Rambles in Western Cornwall by the Footsteps of the Giants, 1861).

Another account, from the mid-eighteenth century, states that:

“as a witness of its having done remarkable cures, it has a chapel adjoining to it, dedicated to St. Eunius, the ruins of which, consisting of much carved stone, bespeak it to have been formerly of no little note. The water has the reputation of drying humours as well as healing wounds…

The common people (of this as well as other countries) will not be content to attribute the benefit they receive to ordinary means; there must be something marvellous in all their cures. I happened, luckily, to be at this well upon the last day of the year, on which, according to vulgar opinion, it exerts its principal and most salutary powers. Two women were here who came from a neighbouring parish, and were busily employed in bathing a child. They both assured me that people who had a mind to receive any benefit from St. Euny’s well, must come and wash upon the first three Wednesdays in May. But to leave folly to its own delusion, it is certainly very gracious in Providence to distribute a remedy for so many disorders in a quality so universally found as cold is in every unmixed well water.” (William Borlase, Natural History of Cornwall, 1757, p.31)

Dr. Paris, in his Guide to Mount’s Bay, p.82, recorded that the water of the well was supposed to possess many miraculous virtues, especially in infantile mesenteric disease. Poorly children were dipped on the three first Wednesdays in May, and drawn through the pool three times against the sun and three times on the surrounding grass in the same direction.

Whatever the well’s properties, you’ll note that in this case the mother had to resort to far more unpleasant means to get rid of the changeling: he’s beaten (by all the local women) and then exposed, which was far from unusual (mis)treatment.  It’s also worthwhile emphasising the human boy’s physical and mental condition after his return from faery: he’s never well and he dies young, neither of which are unusual.

Gotch, Thomas Cooper, 1854-1931; A Golden Dream

A golden dream, Thomas Cooper Gotch

Sancreed well

The church of the parish here is that of Sancreed, which is just over two miles from Brea.  There too are the remains of an ancient chapel and a holy well (see above photo)- perhaps one of the largest and most impressive in Cornwall.  The church itself is an attractive building, but it is most notable for the fact that there are five Celtic crosses in the churchyard and because it is the resting place of several famous artists from the Newlyn school of painting.  Just to the south of the church are the graves of painters Stanhope Forbes, his wife Elizabeth Forbes and Thomas Cooper Gotch.  Whilst Stanhope Forbes mainly painted plein air scenes of Cornish farming and fishing life, his wife and Gotch both tended to prefer more mystical or mythical scenes.

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Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, The green knight, from ‘King Arthur’s Wood.’

Further reading

A much longer and more detailed discussion of changelings and of the effects of fairy contact will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.  See too chapter 16 of my British Fairies (2017).

 

 

Sennen fairies

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The fairy spring at Sennen

This inspiration for this posting comes from an article on a fairy sighting written by E. Westlake, ‘A Traditional Hallucination’, which was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychic Research vol. 11 (1904), pages 191-193 and was much more recently reproduced in the Fairy Investigation Society Newsletter (New Series) no. 2 July 2015- which is where I first read it.

The experience took place in about 1888 at Sennen Cove, in the far west of Cornwall, and immediately fascinated me- because I know the village and because I knew I would probably visit before too long.  Both I and my wife have Cornish roots, some of her family still live in the county and, as a result (as well as the beauty of the place), we often go down.  This Easter we visited and I knew it was time to make a pilgrimage to the pisky well described in the Victorian report.

The incident was recounted to Mr Westlake, who visited Sennen in 1895, by Grace Penrose, a local woman aged 25, who had been about eighteen when she had her fairy experience.  Westlake wrote it up in 1897 (using his notes of the conversation from 1895) and it finally made it into print another seven years later. Grace’s story of ‘Little people at Sennen’ was this:

“One evening in August, I think it was in 1888, but am not sure to a year, we wanted some water from the well. It was late and Minnie [her elder sister] was afraid to go by herself, and I went with her to keep her company. It was a splendid night. The moon and stars were shining as bright as could be: the moon was overhead and one could see the sands and cliffs quite plain. Minnie had got down into the well – the bottom of which was dry on the near side and was bending down dipping up the water with a cup from the back of the well, which is deeper. I was standing by the side nearest the house with my back to the rock facing the little green of grass, but was looking to the right and watching Minnie in the well. She had been down a minute dipping up the water into the pitcher, when I heard a squeaking like mice.

I looked round, and there on the grass and about five feet in front of me were three little things like dolls about as high as a chair seat, dancing round and round with hands joined as fast as they could go; they were covering I should say as much ground as a big tray. They were dressed in a very thin white stuff like muslin, drawn in at the waist, and thrown all over their heads like a bride’s veil, so that I could not see their faces, and coming down over their arms. Their arms were stretched out rather drooping from the shoulder, and their hands were joined. I saw their hands very plainly, but did not distinguish fingers. They were as white as snow, hands and all. They had very small waists, no larger than the neck of that jug [6.5 inches]. Their dresses swell[ed] out at the bottom from the dancing; they were very long, and I don’t think I saw their feet, but they appeared to be dancing with a movement as though they were working their legs. They did not glide around. They went round pretty fast, as fast as real people. I’ve played like it before now. I watched them a minute [Note: This estimate is probably too great, for I find the time taken by three girls dancing around ‘two or three times as fast as they can’ is not more than 10 to 15 seconds] not longer; and they went around two or three times at least, as they were going round as fast as they could. They went around in the direction of the hands of a watch; and as gently as possible, with no sound of footsteps or rustling of dresses, but the squeaking noise kept up all the time. It was a pretty sound for mice, and louder – quite loud – one could have heard it I should think at a little distance.
Minnie in the well said, ‘Oh! What’s that! What’s that?’ (she told me afterwards she had heard the same noise as I had), and I said ‘Look! Look!’ And then as if they were frightened, they all ran together as quick as lightning up against the rock and they were out of sight in a moment.

I was that frightened, and was as white as a ghost when I came in. We looked at the clock and it was twelve. I have never been there before or since at that time of night. Mr Webber, a German, was in the house; and Mr Carter, who told me they were pixies, fairies you know. I had never heard or read of any such things before. Mother has since said that things were seen there [at the well] in times gone by, but I did not know of that then.”

Grace insisted that she had never had any other paranormal experiences nor suffered hallucinations.  Several details are especially fascinating about her account:

  • the tiny size of the fays, which fits quite well with popular tradition.  The comparison to a doll is something you’ll often see in the more recent reports;
  • their white colour, which is unusual but by no means unique in folklore encounters;
  • their fast spinning dance.  We know the fays for dancing on moonlit nights, but these rapid gyrations are unusual, but again not unheard of.  We should note too that they dance clockwise- ‘sunwise’- a direction that is generally thought to have magical connotations;
  • their high pitched squeaks, which once again are not conventional but which certainly fit with other reports as to their speech;
  • their disappearance into a solid rock face is fairly typical of fay disappearances;
  • the apparent loss of time.  It’s not entirely clear from Grace’s account, but she seems to imply that some hours may have been inexplicably lost during the experience.  Unaccounted passages of time, and the different passing of time in faery and in the human world, are regular incidents in fairy encounters.

The Journal titled Westlake’s article ‘A Traditional Hallucination’ and suggested that it was “obviously founded” on traditional lore- but this isn’t really true.  Had Grace been hallucinating this experience based upon her general knowledge of pixies and fairies, gleaned from books and popular stories, it would probably have been a great deal more conventional than it is.  We have dancing certainly, but we don’t have wings, green clothing, wands and other such standard fairy attributes.  The anomalies in the account argue for its truth.  So too does the fact that both sisters shared the experience- plus the fact that they were so close to the beings they saw.  Grace says the figures danced five feet away.  The path itself little over a metre wide so they were bound to be pretty near and so able to get a very good look.

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Westlake described the well as a “cavity between some granite blocks, about a yard square and deep, into which water drips from the hillside.”  It was approached by a steeply sloping and quite narrow path from the north (that is, from the village).  Beyond, to the east (that is, further uphill), he said there was an open space.

The site identified by the two girls was easily located on the Ordnance Survey map, lying on a steep footpath which leads up from the sea front road that runs through the village.  There’s more housing here than was the case in 1888 and it’s a busy thoroughfare leading from the heart of Sennen up to newer housing higher up the cliff.  Possibly it’s no busier than it was then, albeit holiday makers now replace local farmers and fishermen going about their business.

I was at first pessimistic about identifying the well, as lower down the slope there seemed to be considerable modern development (and, indeed, in one place builders were actively in the process of excavating the hillside to create space for a new dwelling).  Nevertheless, a walk of a few metres further brought me to the large rock that Grace mentioned, its identity as the source of the spring being confirmed by the abundant presence of water flowing beside the path.  Needless to say, with the advent of piped drinking water the well has been completely neglected and, as my photos show, it is seriously overgrown and silted up.  All the same, there was plentiful water present and, mentally removing the accumulated earth and plant material of 130 years, it was very easy to imagine the well as described by Grace and Westlake.

So, there I was.  Was I aware of the pisky presence?  No, I regret not. A hot, sunny bank holiday Monday with other tourists regularly walking past was probably not the ideal time: Grace saw the fairies on a moonlit August night, let’s recall.  I’d probably have to stay in Sennen to have any hope of repeating her encounter or- alternatively- buy the house next to the well.  This happened to be on the market at the time of our visit so, if you fancy living (quite literally) at Land’s End, with stunning views out over the sea (but facing fully into Atlantic gales in the winter), this is the place for you.  Mind, though, that your neighbours may turn out to be piskies, if they’re still in the vicinity.  That may be a blessing- or it may turn out to be a curse.

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Tolkien, the Great War and Faerie

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Last night I went to see the new film, Tolkien, at our local cinema.  I read the 2003 book it’s based on, Tolkien and the Great War- the Threshold of Middle Earth, by Garth John, early last year and I was keen to see what they’d made of it.  It was a good film- but not a great one, I thought- which captured the essence of Tolkien’s fascination with languages and myths and the importance to him of his close friends at school, two of whom died in the war.  Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien was especially good but there were too some laughable bits: for example, the depiction of Sarehole Mill, Tolkien’s childhood home, as deep in the Worcestershire countryside, when it was in fact only just on the edge of Birmingham, and the scene in which the British cavalry charged from the frontline towards the German trenches (how exactly do you get a horse either into or out of a trench?)

Anyway, quibbles aside, as regular readers will know, I have several times examined the relationship between the Great War and artistic representations of faery- in postings on Bernard Sleigh and his Map of Fairyland and on the wartime fairy plays.  Tolkien too was powerfully affected by his wartime experiences, as the film seeks to portray.

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John Ronald himself

Goblin Feet

In his  early verse, Tolkien deployed some very fey and conventional Victorian imagery.  For instance, in April 1915, he wrote of Goblin feet:

“I am off down the road,

Where the fairy lanterns glowed…

O! I hear the tiny horns

Of enchanted leprechauns

And the passing of feet of many gnomes a-coming…”

 whilst in his poem Wood sunshine of July 1910, the young Tolkien had exclaimed:

“Come sing ye light fairy things tripping so gay,

Like visions, like glinting reflections of joy…”

At the same time as he wrote these verses, the author was also beginning to formulate the language of the elves.

Tolkien’s early verse is very much in the style of Victorian fairy poetry as a whole, but he was later to reject the kind of imagery he had employed in his youth. Tolkien’s later work is of course a distinct move away from garden sprites; it is the product of much wider reading and deeper thinking and of his experiences in the trenches in the First World War.  He reinvented his fairy world in the tarnished image of men.  Without doubt his service as an army signals officer played a role in changing his elves into something more flawed and serious.

Das Fronterlebnis

Tolkien’s mythological ideas had begun to form before the start of the war in August 1914 and he had started to compose his first “faërie” verse before his graduation and enlistment in summer 1915.  However, it is widely accepted that his experience of the Somme offensive in July of the next year had a lasting and identifiable impact on his writing.  From then on, the struggle between good and evil became a central theme of his stories, first seen in The fall of Gondolin written in December 1916.  This depicts mechanised warfare that creates vast slaughter and destruction.  Huge battles raging across continents and oceans are also found in the Song of Eriol of November 1917.  The influence of the war can be traced in other elements of his work too: in the theme of last-minute relief forces saving beleaguered troops; in uncoordinated attacks and over-ambitious advances; in the wastes of the Dead Marshes and the Desolation of Smaug.

There are further parallels between the psychological and physical effects of visiting faery, and the sense of the soldier that he cannot describe to civilians what he has witnessed and the feeling that ‘home’ can never seem the same again.  This alienation of the veteran from ordinary society is something experienced by Frodo on his return to the Shire, for example.  Tolkien’s work may be epic myth, then, but it embodies many of the realities of his service career.

Further Reading

My other postings on the Great War give a comprehensive feel for the fairy poetry and literature of the period; see too my posting on composer Rutland Boughton.

The passages above on Tolkien are taken from my as yet unpublished book The Modern Fairy Faith.

 

 

“Little they slept that night”- fairy love and fairy passion

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James Herbert MacNair, Tamlaine, 1905Enter a caption

I return to a subject that has an abiding fashion for many visitors to the blog- and apparently me too: fairy sexuality and sensuality.

Fae lovers

From the very earliest times, it seems, the idea of Faery was synonymous with irresistible beauty.  Elf-women were called ‘shining’ by the Anglo-Saxons (aelfsceone) and this idea by no means ended with the arrival of the Normans and of the fairy women of romance.  English writer Layamon in his history of Britain, The Brut, described the queen of Avalon, Argante, as the fairest of all maidens,  “alven swithe sceone” (an elf most fair).  The concept of radiant beauty persisted: the fairy queen who met Thomas the Rhymer at Huntlie bank was “a ladye bright” and, as late as Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, the faes’ royal lady is still “radiant” (Act V, scene 5).

Great beauty can provoke great passion, of course, and for many writers this response was amplified when a fairy lover was involved.  Sir Launfal is introduced to fairy lady Dame Tryamour whom he finds, stretched out in the heat with her clothes unfastened to her waist.  Lying on a bed of purple linen, “that lefsom lemede bright” (the lovely one gleamed).  She greets Launfal as her darling and he kisses her and sits beside her.  After a meal they go to bed immediately and “for play, litell they slepte that night.”

The fairy princess and her consort waste no time, evidently- and this looks to be a Faery trait.  In Spenser’s Faery Queen Prince Arthur, much like Sir Launfal, meets a fairy queen whilst he’s resting in a forest.  “Her dainty limbes full softly down did lay,” after which he was ravished by the delight that “she to me delivered all that night.” (Book I, canto IX, stanza 14).

It’s not solely fairy women who are passionate and impetuous.  In the Scottish ballad of Tamlane, the male hero (who is admittedly a human boy stolen away to fairyland by its queen) seems just as ardent.  He meets his lover Janet by a well and, taking her by the hand, leads her behind some nearby rose bushes so that “The green leaves were in between… What they did, I cannot say- [but] she ne’er returned a maid.”

As the romance of Sir Launfal has already indicated, fairy females can have a powerful effect on their human partners- at least in the minds of (male) medieval poets.  This is explicit in the story of Thomas of Erceldoune, which is dated to around 1425.  Thomas meets the fairy queen, another ‘lady shining bright’, and is so overcome with desire for her that “seven times he lay by her.”  Eventually she has literally to push him off, protesting “Man, you like your play… let me be!”

The lhiannan shee

Such are the aphrodisiac qualities of the fairy lover.  These feats are impressive (as well as improbable, perhaps) but there can be a downside to such consuming passions.  This is demonstrated by the leannan-shee of Celtic fairylore, whose activities were reported as a continuing menace even into Victorian times, though by then they were much rarer.  For example, describing Perthshire in 1810, one writer complained how:

“in our Highlands there be many fair ladies of this aerial order, which do often tryst with amorous youths, in the quality of succubi, or lightsome paramours or strumpets, called lean-nan-sith.” (Graham, Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery, p.275)

His words echo those of Reverend Kirk who, around 150 years earlier, had condemned the “abominable” goings on between fairies and humans.  His disapproval was probably not limited to the extra-marital sex.  Generally, relationships with supernaturals are difficult or perilous, for the simple reason that they span dimensions: for instance, marriages between men and mermaids are often short lived whilst men taken by mermaids almost invariably drown.

Visits by both male and female fairy lovers were thought once to have been common, and even in living memory of the late 19th century folklore collectors, there was a shoemaker in Tomantoul who claimed a leannan sith partner.  On the Isle of Man, the fairy lover, the lhiannan shee, was a very strong tradition.  They were believed to generally come at night, noiselessly, perhaps in the guise of a man’s wife, and they often haunted wells and pools.  They make the first advance and to reply to them is dangerous, for they will then attach themselves to a man and to haunt him constantly, whilst remaining invisible and inaudible to everyone else.  In at least one Manx case a lhiannan shee was inherited from a deceased brother.   In another, reported by Evans Wentz, a man met a strange woman at a dance and made the mistake of wiping the sweat from his face on part of her dress.  This created some connection between then and thereafter she would appear beside his bed at night.  Curiously, the only way of getting rid of her was to throw an unbleached linen sheet over the two: perhaps the pure, fresh state was significant?

Men would separate themselves from their family and friends to be with these fae lovers, who would visit them nightly and slowly exhaust them- both physically and mentally.  Obedience to the fairy mistress might be enforced by violence too- though sometimes the hapless human may have wondered whether he was being punished for daring to presume to love a fay or for neglecting or trying to escape her.  Eventually the leannan-shee would become an intolerable burden to their chosen partner and the men were frequently desperate to escape them, even emigrating to the other side of the world in an attempt to shake them off.  These efforts tended to fail- but oddly, whilst the fairy women appear to be undefeated by intervening oceans, at the same time they can’t cross streams.

As a general statement, fairy lovers are said to ruin their partners in body and soul.  Worse still, in one notorious case the fairy women were said to have bewitched all the males of the Isle of Man and to have lured everyone into the sea.  The male Manx  equivalents were generally seen as being equally dangerous, carrying women off forever.  Nonetheless, in the Scottish Highlands the gille sith (fairy boy) was renowned as a loving and attentive partner.

We should also add that fairy lovers can be the source of great advantage to their partners.  They can bring good luck and supernatural protection, bestow the skill of healing with herbs and grant the ability to foresee the future.  They can also assist their paramours with magical advice: an illustration is found in the tale of ‘the first MacIntyre.’  He was thrown out by his elder brother, who told him to leave the family farm taking only one white cow- and as many others as might follow her.  The younger brother had a fairy lover who gave him wise counsel in times of need.  She recommended that he pick up a sheaf of corn and then call the white cow.  When he did as instructed, most of the rest of the herd came too.

I’ll leave you with some of the verses of Irish poet Thomas Boyd’s poem The Leanan Sidhe (The fairy mistress) which capture many aspects of this legend:

“Where is thy lovely perilous abode?
In what strange phantom-land
Glimmer the fairy turrets whereto rode
The ill-starred poet band? …

And there … Trembling, behold thee lone,
Now weaving in slow dance an awful spell,
Now still upon thy throne?

Whether he sees thee thus, or in his dreams,
Thy light makes all lights dim;
An aching solitude from henceforth seems
The world of men to him.”