Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Song
On this blog I’ve many times returned to what is, for me, the fascinating subject of fairy speech. As I’ve described previously, we expect to be able to communicate with our Good Neighbours and, most of the time, this happens without comment. From time to time, however, the incomprehensibility of the fairy tongue is remarked upon. We may draw several conclusions form this: either that they share- and have always shared- our speech with us, or that close proximity with us over centuries has made them bilingual- even though they may naturally, amongst themselves, speak another language entirely. British fairies have been heard to speak English, Gaelic, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon as well as wholly unknown tongues: according to one Scottish witch suspect, Anne Cairns (tried and executed at Dumfries in April 1659), the ‘fferie’ were “not earthen folkis” and so spoke “no earthly talkis” but rather conversed with “ane eldridge voyce.”
Rackham, Fairy song.
Silence is golden?
In this post I take a different tack: that contact with the fairies can require- or lead to- loss of one’s voice. From this perspective, silence is the result of being near the fays or it is the safest option when they are near.
Elspeth Reoch was a young Orkney woman tried for witchcraft in March 1616. She told her prosecutors that she had been in contact with the fairies on and off since she was twelve years old. There is much that is interesting in her confessions, but here we are interested solely in the fact that she lost her voice after she had sex with one of two fairy men who approached her; this was to protect her against people’s questions as to how she had gained the second sight. Elspeth lay with him and when she woke the next morning, she had “no power of her toung and could not speik.”
Diane Purkiss provides a full account of the case, along with considerable sociological and psychological theorising about Elspeth’s situation, in her book Troublesome Things. It looks as though Elspeth derived some income from begging as a mute and from telling fortunes, but that her own family were angry about her silence and allowed her brother to beat her quite severely to try to get her to speak. Purkiss’ speculations over gender roles and power may be justified, but let’s put Elspeth’s loss of voice in a wider context.
Barbara Bowndie of Kirkwall on Orkney was taken by the fairies for a day. She told her trial in 1644 that this experience left her speechless for a further twenty four hours- as well it might. Janet Morrison, a suspect witch from Bute, told her trial in 1662 that she had healed a girl who had been blasted by the ‘faryes.’ The child, daughter of a man called McPherson, was lying “without power of hand or foot and speechless.” Janet made her well with herbs. In both these cases, loss of use of the tongue is the consequence of fairy proximity- whether deliberately inflicted or not; it is one symptom of being ‘elf-addled‘.
John Stewart, tried for sorcery at Irvine in 1618, had acquired knowledge of palmistry from the fairies whilst in Ireland. One Halloween, he had met the king of faery and his court. The king had touched John on his forehead with his staff (wand), which had the effect of blinding him in one eye and making him dumb. Three years later he met the king again one Halloween and his sight and speech were restored. He then met the fays regularly and acquired his skills from them.
Silence might also be enjoined upon a person meeting the fays. The Reverend Robert Kirk stated that the “subterraneans [would] practice sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their mysteries.” Any humans who had spent time with the faes under the hill might be “smit… without pain as with a puff of wind… or they strick them dumb.” Bessie Dunlop is a very famous witch suspect, tried at Lyne in 1576. Once again, her confessions are a rich and fascinating source, but I am interested only in one aspect. A fairyman (or ghost) called Thom Read was her supernatural adviser, helping her with cures for sick people and cattle and locating lost and stolen goods. On one occasion, Thom introduced her to twelve handsome fairy folk; before they met Thom forbade her to speak to them. The ‘guid wichtis’ as Bessie called them greeted her and invited her to go with them to Faery/ Elfame. As instructed, she did not reply and then they conferred amongst themselves- she didn’t know what they said “onlie sche saw thair lippis move.” This suggests that they were audible when addressing her directly but when speaking privately amongst themselves they were inaudible, whether that was deliberate or just a feature of fairy speech.
It’s worth pointing out that in several modern cases witnesses have reported an identical experience: they see the fays speaking but they hear nothing (for example, see Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.48, 89 & 299). In this connection too, we should note the scattered but consistent reports on telepathic communication, in which the barriers of the spoken word are overcome entirely (Johnson pp.20, 80, 89, 111, 163 & 262).
A woman of Rousay in Orkney, whose child was taken by the trows, was instructed how to recover her infant by force. She had to break into the fairy lair, snatch back her baby and hit the fairy woman who’d abducted it with a bible, three times. Throughout this encounter, not a word was to be spoken, otherwise the rescue would fail.
Finally, on certain other occasions Bessie Dunlop saw Thom Reid in public- in the street and in the churchyard- but had been enjoined not to speak to him. She had been instructed that, on such occasions, she must never address him unless he had spoken to her first. This may be as much to do with concealment as with matters of confidentiality or communication between dimensions, it has to be remarked.
It may be significant too that speech can be a way of dispelling fairy enchantment. Those who are pixie-led or in the process of being taken by the fays can sometimes break the spell by crying out for help. For example, a Manx woman who was surrounded on the road and jostled in a direction she didn’t want to go managed to free herself by calling her son (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith p.126).
Lastly, the fairies could also help with curing loss of speech. Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried for witchcraft in May 1658, was a folk healer who diagnosed and treated a man whose tongue had been ‘taken’ by the fairies. She advised him to use foxglove leaves and water taken from a south-running stream. Likewise, the parson of Warlingham in Surrey during the 16th or 17th century made a manuscript collection of medicines and cures that were “taught him by the Fayries.” One of these was for loss of speech: “take wormwood, stamp it, temper it with water, strain it and out a spoonful in the mouth.”
Conclusions & further reading
So, to conclude, we have tantalising glimpses of a fresh perspective on the fairy world. Loss of speech may well be an integral part of that condition called ‘fairy blast,’ being ‘taken’ by the fairies or what I’ve termed ‘elf-addled.’ It may also be something that’s imposed or inflicted upon a person who has dealings with the fairies so as to ensure that their privacy is protected.