Faery gold by Amy Brown
“White money, Puck, white fairie money…” (The Mask at Cole Orton, 1618)
There is much speculation and confusion about the nature of fairy wealth- or the need of fairies for it. Their economy often seems to function without the need for currency at all: rather, they transact all commerce solely on the basis of barter. At the same time, it was alleged to Evans-Wentz that the fairies ‘have plenty of money at their command, which they could bestow on people whom they liked.’ (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, p.142)
The sources of faery wealth
Where exactly all the coins that are given to human favourites come from is an interesting question. We might conclude that the money they leave is actually stolen, lost by people or perhaps comes from a hidden hoard the faeries have discovered- which may explain the ancient or unknown coins that are sometimes received by way of payment (on the Welsh Borders finds of Roman coins were often thought to be fairy money). In Wales it has been alleged that the tylwyth teg steal from the rich to assist the poor- like Robin Hood- and there is no denying the evidence that they have assisted those in need.
There are other possible sources of their wealth, though. One Stuart period text casts the faes in a less favourable light that the Welsh view just mentioned; instead, they were reputed to lend money to the poor- and to be tough when timely repayment wasn’t made. Alternatively, the fays have been known to enter into contracts with humans- for example, for building work, for which they have agreed payment (admittedly, though, they sometimes set their terms after the event, doing the work first and then demanding recompense from the obligated human). They have also been known to make ‘profit sharing’ agreements with humans- usually miners. In one highly anomalous report, Crossing described how Dartmoor pixies were left coins by cottagers to persuade them to tidy their houses. This runs directly counter to the usual arrangement whereby a coin is left in recognition of a home being made clean and tidy for when the fairies visit at night. Although this would provide our pixies with a source of ready cash, you can’t help but think that someone got this story mixed up (Tales of Dartmoor Pixies, c.3).
Avalon’s gold by Linda Ravenscroft
The uses of faery wealth
The fairies have coin, it appears, because they have dealings with humans and because they know that- to us- hard cash is important. For this reason, they acquire money in order to pay people for services rendered to them (such as caring for a changeling child) or to reward those whom they choose to favour (for instance, a man who played football with them was left with the football- full of gold coins). They may be very generous in these cases, for example giving a life time’s supply of gold or a purse that never empties.
In contrast to these cases, there are plenty where money received from the fairies does not turn out to be all that it seemed. Payments or gifts turn out later to be shells, withered leaves, dead flowers, paper or horse dung. Sometimes there’s a reason for this: the recipient has betrayed fairy confidences or has been rude or ungrateful; sometimes the transformation doesn’t appear to be deserved and the fairies just seem to be mean. The opposite transformation may take place as well, though. Change given as leaves or pebbles may turn out to be gold.
Fairy Jewels, by Helen Jacobs
The perils of faery wealth
“I see you labour with some serious thing,/ And think (like fairies’ treasure) to reveal it,/ Will cause it to vanish.” (Nathan Field, Woman is a Weathercock, (1609), Act I, scene i)
As has already been suggested, fairy money can be conditional upon discretion. Almost always, as soon as the source of unexplained wealth is confessed, it is lost forever and cannot be regained. This is a consistent and very well-known folklore theme: for example, in Beaumont and Fletcher’s play The Honest Man’s Fortune, a character warns, “For when they talk once, ‘tis like fairy money, They get no more…”(Act V, 1). In the most serious cases, the person who betrays the confidence might die.
A story about the need to be discrete about the source of your fairy gold also gives another clue as to the nature of fairy money itself. A Norfolk ploughman one day found a brand-new silver shilling at the end of a furrow. Next day there were two- and then three and so forth. He then faced a two-fold problem- he had to account for his new found and exponentially increasing wealth and he had to explain why all this money seemed to be freshly minted. Local traders began to refuse his suspect cash and his employer dismissed him. Finally, the ploughman admitted to his wife where it was all coming from, knowing at the same time that his confession would terminate their riches forever. Fairy money can be a curse as well as a favour then- and there is a least a hint that the fairies themselves might be illegal coiners.
A final intriguing twist upon this theme comes from a Scottish folktale told about a midwife from Lochranza on the northern tip of the Isle of Arran who was taken to attend the fairy queen. The boy who fetches her is a human enslaved under an enchantment for twenty-one years; he is able to give her various warnings how to behave when she is in Faery. He particularly tells her not to accept payment in either gold or silver from the faes and to throw away any gifts they may give her. She obeys his instructions, casting away the presents made to her after she has left the fairy hill. The items explode into flames- and would have burned her home down had she kept them.
From the Water babies, by Warwick Goble.
In my last post I examined fairies access to buried treasure in detail; see too my essays on faery metal working skills, which may explain how they can mint fresh coinage, and on the fairy economy more generally.
This subject is also discussed in detail in my 2021 book, How Things Work in Faery.