James Herbert MacNair, Tamlaine, 1905
I return to a subject that has an abiding fashion for many visitors to the blog- and apparently me too: fairy sexuality and sensuality.
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.”