Fairy Sexuality

f

Working on my next book (on faery beasts)with my publishers, the question of ‘hetero-normativity’ was raised by my editor with respect to fairy sexuality.  All the examples of relationships I gave were male and female: were there no gay fays?

This is a valid question- and perhaps a surprising one in that we are all aware that ‘fairy’ has come to be used as another word for gay.  The latter share a common history, too, in that they originated as insults (gay used to be used of prostitutes and suggested promiscuity; fairy implied an effeminate male) but have since been adopted with pride.

If we rely on the folklore record, all we’ll find is heterosexual fairies and merfolk.  Does this reflect actual folk belief or the beliefs of those recording folktales?  I strongly suspect that the latter is the case. Many of the early recorders of fairy-lore were clergymen, who undertook it as a suitable hobby.  It is hardly surprising, especially where those church ministers were Scottish Presbyterian, that anything in the least morally suspect would be suppressed.   In a sense, it is surprising that any information about the lhiannan-shee, the fairy lover, was preserved, but perhaps her loose morals and malign effect upon her victims was worth recording as an example of demonic corruption.  Beyond that was asking too much, even so.

Other early folklorists came from academia, and I suspect that a keen sense of academic and social propriety may once again have encouraged them to draw a veil over any stories they considered ‘unfit’ to print (if they were told such stories by their informants at all).  All in all, a variety of factors probably conspired to conceal the less ‘acceptable’ elements in folklore.

I was fascinated, then, to read Maurice Hewlett’s Lore of Proserpine. Although published in 1913, in his final ‘Summary Chapter’ he described fairy relationships:

“Love with them is a wild and wonderful rapture in all its manifestations, and without regard necessarily to sex.  I never, in all my life, saw a more beautiful expression of it than in the two females whom I saw greet and embrace on Parliament Hill.  Their motions to each other, their looks and their clinging were beyond expression tender and swift.”

Hewlett refers to an incident in his earlier chapter ‘The Soul at the Window.’  Out one night on Hampstead Heath, he saw a group of fairies meet, and:

“I saw one greeting between two females.  They ran together and stopped short within touching distance.  They looked brightly and intently at each other, and leaning forward approached their cheeks til they touched.  They touched by the right, they touched by the left.  Then they took hands and drew together.  By a charming movement of confidence, one nestled to the side of the other and, resting her head, looked up and laughed.  The taller embraced her with her arm and held her for a moment.  The swiftness of the act and its gracefulness were beautiful to see.  Then they ran hand in hand to the others…”

Hewlett’s book is fiction, but he could acknowledge same sex devotion between fairies a century ago.

g
Sir Ian McKellen, ‘Gandalf,’ as a Fairy Queen

In an earlier post, A fay of colour- diversity in Faery I questioned the very powerful presumption that faes are predominantly white and fair haired.  Plentiful evidence suggests that earlier generations made no such assumptions and that, indeed, Tudor and Stuart beliefs could encompass some radically different concepts of faery.  Just as in race, so in sexuality: what we have is a silence in our sources, not a denial.

 

Gwenhidw- Mermaid Queen of Wales

mmd

Many readers will be familiar with The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, by Walter Evans-Wentz.  They might even recall that, in his investigation of Welsh fairy lore, he spoke to a Welsh Justice of the Peace from Carmarthen called David Williams, who proved a rich source of faery facts, despite his sober and respectable position.  In particular, he told Evans-Wentz about the king and queen of the tylwyth teg, whom he named as Gwydion ab Don and his wife Gwenhidw.  Gwydion is a character straight out of the Mabinogion, and he is said to live amongst the stars in Caer Gwydion, one of several magical faery fortresses that are mentioned in Welsh legend.  His wife, meanwhile, is connected to the fluffy white clouds that appear in fine weather and which are called ‘the sheep of Gwenhidw.’

This is a very pretty image, and Evans-Wentz goes on to speculate that this queen has some connection to King Arthur’s queen Guinevere, who is properly Gwenhwyfar, ‘the white ghost’ or spirit.  Ghostly ‘white ladies’ are very common in British folklore, often associated with wells and streams.

The real Gwenhidw

Mr David Williams JP gave Evans-Wentz a very useful lead, but what he had learned as a boy from his mother was a very confused version of the authentic tradition.

Gwenhidw (or Gwenhidwy/ Gwenhudwy) is well known in Welsh folklore.  She is, actually, a morforwyn- a mermaid.  Her name means ‘white enchantment’ or ‘white spell.’ In modern stories she owns a herd of white horses that run along the crests of the waves.  In older versions of the tale, the foaming waves were her ewes and every ninth wave was the ram of the flock.  This conception of the incoming tide is preserved in a sixteenth century poem by Rhys Llywd ap Rhys ap Rhicert in which he described a boat trip to the monastic island of Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) from the Lleyn Peninsula.  The passage is notoriously choppy and he described the sea as:

“haid o ddefaid Gwenhudwy/ a naw hwrdd yn un a hwy”

(a flock of ewes of Gwenhidwy and nine rams with them.”

Another poem of a comparably early date refers to Gwenhidw growing a beard (Ni adaf mal Gwenhudwy/  Ar vy min dyfu barf mwy– “Like G., I no longer grow a beard on my lip.”)  This seems to be an example of the quite widespread British tradition that mermaids are (contrary to popular misconceptions) pretty unattractive to look at- and possibly not even very different to tell from mermen.

Elsewhere in Welsh tradition a flood is termed ‘Gwenhudwy’s oppression’ and the sea is called her ‘plain.’  Lastly, an Elizabethan poem contrasts a man called Rhys Cain to our heroine, saying that he is a ‘feeble magician’ compared to her (wan hydol i Wenhidw).  

Conclusions

What can we conclude from these scattered references?  It emerges that Gwenhidw was once well-known in Wales as a powerful and fearsome mermaid, someone to be dreaded and respected.  If insulted, her vengeance might be savage.

Figuratively, at least, Gwenhidw had flocks of sheep.  At some point (though perhaps only in the family of David Williams JP) a misconception arose and the rolling breakers of the angry sea were substituted by benign fair weather clouds.  This, along with her  marriage to Gwydion, demoted Gwenhidw, but she deserves to be restored to her far more prominent position as sorceress and queen.

mmd3

Further Reading

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.

Victorian Fairy Verse

Gurdon

A shameless little bit of self-promotion.  I’ve had the idea in my head for a while to pull together a lot of the Victorian poems I’d collected during my research and I’ve finally now published it.

There’s plenty written on Victorian fairy paintings (Christopher Wood, Jeremy Maas and Beatrice Philpotts), and plenty on the literature of Shakespeare’s time (Latham, DeLattre and Halliwell), but strangely nothing on the outpouring of fairy verse in the 19th century that matched the visual art.  That oversight is now corrected.

The Victorian era saw a peak of popular interest in fairies- in art, literature, popular entertainments and in children’s books. Whilst there are several studies that examine Victorian fairy painting, that have been none that are devoted to the fairy poetry of the era. This book showcases the richness and complexity of this genre of nineteenth century verse.

The book contains an introduction to the subject, followed by a brief survey of fairy poetry from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries- writers such as Drayton, Herrick and William Blake. The fairy verse of the nineteenth century is then surveyed in themed chapters, which examine good and bad fairies, mermaids, Irish fairy verse, North American poetry and the twentieth century legacy of these writings. Each chapter includes a brief introduction, biographies of the poets and notes and discussion on each of the poems.Over eighty poets are included, from well-known names such as Ruskin, Tennyson and Rossetti to a host of much less well-known fairy writers.

Some of the poems are sickly sweet- as we might well expect, but some are dramatic or dark.  Writers portrayed the more scary side of faery- the taking of children, the abduction of women, the deadly side of mermaid nature- just as much as they depicted wings and wands.  I’ve discussed the austere and haunting poetry of Scot Fiona Macleod before; here’s a complete contrast, ‘The Sick Fairy’ by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman:

“Brew some tea o’ cowslips, make some poppy-gruel,

Serve it in a buttercup—ah, ’tis very cruel,

That she is so ailing, pretty Violetta!

Locust, stop your violin, till she’s feeling better.”

This is from her collection Once Upon a Time and Other Child Verses, published in 1897 with illustrations by Etheldred Barry, whose plate to accompany the fairy poem ‘Once Upon a Time’ is reproduced here.  Plainly, we’re a long way here from the sadness and magic of Macleod’s fairy nobility.  Nevertheless, I see Freeman’s poem as being just as valid an expression of Victorian fairy beliefs as anything by the more ‘serious’ writers like MacLeod, Yeats or AE.  Her poems still have something important to tell us about how the Victorians saw fairies.

once-upon-a-time-chasing-fairies

I’ve included a few works by Tennyson and Rossetti, but mostly I wanted to feature lesser known writers, some of whom were prolific in the genre.  As we’re dealing too with English language verse, I’ve included Irish and North American authors as well.  The former shared many aspects of fairy culture with Britain (as well as being part of the same country at the time); US and Canadian writers drew very heavily on British and Irish roots- to the extent, in fact, that as black literary figures emerged, they too adopted the fairy conventions lock, stock and barrel.

I’ve illustrated the book with line drawing by contemporary artist Gertrude Thomson.  She was a friend of Lewis Carroll, who helped him with his life drawing technique as well as finding child models for him to sketch.  In 1898 she illustrated his book of poems Three Sunsets.

The book’s available now from Amazon/ KDP, £7.50 for the e-book and £14.00 for the paperback.

Victorian Fairy Verse: An Annotated Anthology by [Kruse, John]

See a list of my faery publications (present and planned) here.

 

A Medieval Faeryland Underground

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry– April

There is a fascinating glimpse of medieval English views of faerie to be found in a very unexpected place, a Middle English poem called A Disputison By-twene A Cristenemon and a Jew (A Disputation between a Christian and a Jew), which seems to have been written in South West England in the late 1300s.  The religious subject matter sounds unpromising and, given the date and period, the content is what we might expect- a sectarian attack on the Jewish faith and an attempt to convert the fictional Jew of the story (which is successful).

What interests us is that the two disputants are imagined to visit the Jewish heaven.  As the author essentially knew nothing of the Jewish faith (apparently not a disqualification from writing the text), he substituted the next best thing- his ideas on fairyland.  What is depicted, therefore, is how Faery was imagined in the late-fourteenth century.

So, in verse 10, we read that:

fforth heo wenten on the ffeld, To an hul thei bi-heold.

The eorthe cleuet as a scheld, On the grounde grene.”

(They went out into the fields to a hill they saw.  There the green ground broke open before them) .  This idea of a hill opening up to reveal the underground dwelling place of the fairies within, and in particular splendid halls and places of feasting, is very common to British literature and folklore.  In this case they are spared any long entry through tunnels or passages.  Instead, it is a short and comfortable stroll from the earth surface to their destination.

Sone fond thei a stih; thei went ther-on radly;

The Cristene mon hedde ferly, What hit mihte mene.”

(Soon, they found a path and followed it quickly, the Christian man wondering the while what it all might mean.)

After that stih lay a strete, Clene I-Pavet with grete.

Thei fond a maner that was meete, With Murthes ful schene, 

Wel coruen and wrouht, With halles heighe uppon loft.

To a place weore thei brouht, As paradys the clene.

(The path led them to a street, well surfaced with gravel.  They next came across a fine manor-house, full of pleasing delights, very well made and carved and with high halls.  They were brought to a place that seemed as pure as Paradise to them.)

In this hall there are birds singing joyfully and many rich furnishings of expensive cloths and precious metals.  The Christian man is especially impressed by the “Wyndouwes i the walle, Was wonderli I-wrouht.” (Well wrought windows in the walls)  He’d never seen as fine a place on the earth surface, certainly.

Outside this mansion there are wonders too.  “Ther was erbes growen grene, Spices springynge bi-twene” the like of which he’d also never seen.  A thrush was singing sweetly in the garden, amongst the fair flowers that were blooming.  In fact, he sees King Arthur’s round table there: “Hit was a wonderful siht.”  The relationship of Arthur to fairyland is well-established and is something I’ve examined before.

The pair are then invited to dine at a nunnery, where there are fine ladies and squires, all dressed in most fashionable and expensive clothes, and the two visitors agree to stay there and hear tell of adventures.  They wash and go to sit down at tables laid with clean, fresh cloths and:

Riche metes was forth brouht, To alle men that good thouht ;

The Cristen mon wolde nouht, Drynke nor ete.

Ther was wyn ful clere, In mony a feir Maseere,

And other drynkes that weore dere, In Coupes ful gret.

Sithe was schewed hem bi, Murthe and Munstralsy...”

(Rich foods were served, but the Christian man would neither drink nor eat, even though he was offered wine in fair goblets and other drinks in great cups, and there was mirth and minstrelsy in the hall.)  This, of course, is a classic idea: don’t eat the food whilst you’re in Faery or else you’ll never be able to get back.

After this, the story reverts to its anti-Semitic polemic, but it has nevertheless given us a fascinating little glimpse into late medieval fairyland.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry- January

Further Reading

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.

 

 

 

On My Fairy Bookshelf: ‘Fairies- A Dangerous History’ and others

s

On a recent visit to Glastonbury I picked up a couple of fairy texts in Labyrinth Books.

Fairies- A Dangerous History

The first was Fairies- A Dangerous History by Richard Sugg (2018).  This is a handy general history of the subject and Sugg writes in a very stylish and enjoyable manner.  There was not a great deal in the book that was new to me, but there were nonetheless some new facts and cases as well as new perspectives on familiar subjects, that made me reconsider those in a fresh light.  That alone can make a book worthwhile.  The content is selective, rather than comprehensive, but he has chosen interesting angles to illustrate his topic.

As a researcher in this subject, I was (I must confess) somewhat vexed by the fact that Sugg gives no footnotes.  Indeed, although there is a reading list at the end, he often seems to refer in the book to texts that he doesn’t mention in his final bibliography.  This is a little trying, although armed with Google, some creative thinking and some patience, you can track most things down on the world wide interweb.

Other than that (rather specialist) gripe, this is an entertaining and informative book and good value, too.  Sugg also wrote a chapter on the Cottenham fairies in Magical Folk, by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook.  Simon recommended the book in the newsletter of the Fairy Investigation Society, which encouraged me to make the purchase.

h

Hikey Sprites

At the same time in Labyrinth Books, I found Ray Loveday’s Hikey Sprites- the Twilight of a Norfolk Tradition (2009).  Loveday is a Norwich man and he has conducted a personal survey of the surviving fairy beliefs in his home county, interviewing witnesses himself (as well as illustrating the book with charming line drawings).  It’s only 40 pages long, but it’s a fascinating little study into this quite obscure East Anglian spirit, a being that’s got characteristics in common with both wills of the wisp and bogies.  It’s a bit ‘nursery-sprite,’ a bit ‘Hobby lantern’ and a bit goblin.  The booklet was a pleasure to read.

Suffolk Fairylore

Lastly, by mail order, I decided to get Suffolk Fairylore by Francis Young (Lasse Press, 2019); also recommended by Simon Young in the FIS newsletter.  Francis Young is a more academic writer to the previous two (which means, for the fussy amongst us, that the book is fully annotated!) and he provides a thorough analysis of fairy lore in another East Anglian county.

The focus might seem too specialised or limiting, but there are many fascinating stories to be told (such as the Green Children of Woolpit) and Young provides lots of well informed analysis, setting Suffolk fairy lore in a wider context.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, as well as finding it very useful.

sf

Further Reading

I’ll conclude with a shameless plug: my own new book, Faery: a Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk will be issued by Llewellyn Worldwide in April 2020.  This builds upon the information contained in my British Fairies and offers an even more comprehensive survey of faery folk in the British Isles.  See a full list of my faery titles here.

‘The hair of the dog’- fairies & dogs

 

cwn

Cwn annwn by Cinnamon Stix on Deviant Art

Fairies have a curious relationship to dogs.  They have their own breeds, known as the cu sith in Scottish Gaelic whilst, separately from this, some supernaturals appear in dog form- primarily the black dogs and yeth hounds of English folk tradition.  The faery relationship with dogs domesticated by humans is far less happy however.

Cu Sith

The fairy dogs of the Scottish Highlands are distinctive in appearance: they are green on their back and sides, with a tail that coils over their backs and paws the size of a man’s hands.  Their bark is very loud, capable of scaring cattle to death, and they sound like horses galloping when they run.  Although they can instil terror in a human, to the fairies themselves they are beloved household pets and guard dogs.

Once some men on Barra were guarding their cows when they saw a large dog in the vicinity.  Fearing for the herd’s safety, they tried to strike the dog to scare it off (although one in the group suspected the true nature of the hound and warned against hurting it).  The man who hit the dog was paralysed in his hand and arm and had to be carried home in great pain.  Luckily, a local wise-woman diagnosed the fact that he was suffering fairy revenge and was able to advise on a cure.

Fairy dogs are expert hunters and one human who was favoured by two fairy women was given a fine dog from which nothing ever escaped.  This, of course, is a far less favourable trait where the human is the prey and there are several versions of a story where a woman forcibly retrieves a borrowed cooking pot from the local fairy knoll.  The dogs are set on her and she is hard put to get home in one piece.

fd

Fairy hounds by Roger Garland

Canine Conflict

There is a strong antipathy existing between the dogs kept by humans and the fairies.  It is not clear exactly why this should be so: sometimes the dog is protecting its owner, in other accounts it just seems to be drawn to chase and fight the supernatural being.  Perhaps part of the dislike, which is returned amply by the faeries, is the fact that dogs seem, naturally, to be imbued with the second sight.  In one story from Northumberland, for example, a man’s dog would ‘point’ the fairies which were invisible to its master (although he could hear their music).

Reasonable as this explanation sounds, there is one report that runs counter.  It’s said in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that the sith folk can induce female dogs and horses to attack their human owners.  The way to render the hounds harmless in such cases of ‘fairy possession’ is to either take blood from their ears or to collar them with a garter.  Similar, perhaps, is the belief in the outer Hebrides that you should never call your dogs by name at night, otherwise a fuath (an evil bogie spirit) will come and summon both the dogs and the owner to follow it.

Mostly, though, the dogs will chase the fairies or fight with them, even to the death.  They seem to have an aversion to every type of supernatural and to be so provoked by them that they cannot be restrained.  Nevertheless, the fairies may be able to thwart the dogs by very simple means: Scottish folklorist J. G. Campbell tells a story about a dog called Luran who tried to stop the sith stealing his master’s crops.  The fairies get away, mockingly saying that he would have caught them if he’d been fed on porridge.  The farmer hears this and changes his dog’s diet.  Still, the farmer’s defeated though, because the hound likes the new food so much that he overeats and is too full up to run- so that still the fairies make their escape, laughing derisively.  A related story from Craignish has the escaping fairy thieves scattering bread behind them, which the pursuing hound stops to gobble up.

Hair off the dog

At Glenmoriston, near Loch Ness, there dwells a hag called the Cailleach a’ Craich.  She haunted a wild, high area where she would waylay and kill road users in a rather curious way.  She would seize the person’s bonnet and dance on it until a hole was worn through- at which point the victim died.  A dog could protect the traveller, but it would be nearly flayed in the process and the owner would be left sick for months.  In a related story (of which several variants survive) a man called Donald, son of Patrick, was sitting by his fire one night when a hideous hag asked for shelter.  She was very large, with one huge tooth, and it was plain that if he fell asleep he would be doomed.  Luckily, his hounds kept her at bay until dawn.

The fairy female called the glaistig induced a similar response from hounds.  A man called Ewan Cameron was crossing some hills at night and got lost.  He saw a light in a hut and approached it, but inside there was a woman, drying herself by the fire and combing her hair. She asked him in but something warned him to decline.  Her invitations got progressively more threatening and, eventually, he decided the only way he could escape was to set his four dogs upon her.  He then managed to flee home.  His three terriers were never seen again; only his greyhound returned to him and it was completely hairless.  Two brothers from Onich, on Loch Linnhe, had a similar experience with a glaistig who visited them at a summer bothy.  She was always troublesome and, one time, tried to grab one of the men.  Their dogs defended them and chased her off; one returned later with only a few tufts of hair on its ears and the other “was like a plucked hen.”  A comparable tale comes from Arran, in which the dog saves its mistress from a hooved woman (very possibly a glaistig) and is mangled and scalped in the process.

The bogies of the Highlands are likewise hated by dogs.  In a story from the Isle of Mull, two men in a shieling hear a terrible screaming in the night, steadily drawing nearer to them.  They go outside armed with sticks but can see nothing.  A dark shape then passes them by and the sound fades.  Their dog, however, makes chase and returns hairless- except for its ears.  The animal’s coat never grew back properly- being replaced by a sort of down.  On Islay a spectre called a fuath lurked in a notorious dell.  One man’s dog fought it, lost all its hair and soon expired.  A bocan (or baucan) that haunted a lonely spot on Arran could be kept at bay with a dog, too.

c2

Cwn annwn by Autumn Estuary

The fearsome Highland water horse, the kelpie, that lived in the River Shin in the north west Highlands could also be beaten and killed by a dog, but (as we’re familiar with now) this would be at the cost of the creature losing all its fur.

Lastly, the fairies themselves might be savaged by hounds- and give as good as they got.  Some men were minding the cow herds at Cornaigbeg on Tiree.  They heard strange noises on the road, which made their dog very agitated.  Something passed them by, sounding like the trampling of a herd of sheep (and which I assume to be the fairy host, the sluagh).  The dog pursued it, but returned with all its hair scraped off and its skin bare and white, except for a few torn and bloody spots. It died very soon afterwards.  In a related incident on Mull, a man travelling after midnight saw a light up in the hills and heard music.  His dog ran off and he continued to his destination, where he arrived, too scared to eat.  Within a short while the dog turned up, but (as ever) it was completely hairless.  It lay down at his feet and promptly died.  On Arran a piper descended into the King’s Caves with his dog; it seems he encountered the fairies there and was overcome.  He never returned, although the dog did, completely bald.

Summary

It’s not wholly clear why encounters with faeries have such a drastic effect on dogs.  Probably the loss of the entire coat is symbolic of the violence of the struggle of the faithful pet against the malign supernatural forces.  Whatever the exact explanation, the consistency of these accounts only serves to stress to us the dangerous nature of any such meetings: not only humans can suffer from contact with the fae, but their pets can too.