I recently read an academic article which suggested that the idea of the fairy godmother, so prevalent is our contemporary views of Faery, was a relatively recent introduction to existing tradition, something derived from the Brothers Grimm and from stories like Pinocchio and Cinderella, and since reinforced by popular films, rather than it being a long-standing element of folklore belief. In this posting I want to challenge that idea and to argue instead that it is one of the oldest recognised aspects of faery behaviour.
One of the pastimes or habits of medieval faeries was to either bless or torment humans. According to the historian Layamon, for example, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (this is, by far, our earliest faery godmother account, as the writer was born around 1200). In the 13th century French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, too, there is a reference to a healing horn that’s presented to faery king Oberon by four faery ‘godmothers.’ Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly.
The fourteenth century romance of Ogier the Dane mixes fairy material with the ‘Matter of Britain,’ the stories of King Arthur and the exploits of the knights of the Round Table. At his birth, Ogier is endowed with gifts and qualities by six fairy women; the last of these, Morgana, declares “I claim you as my own. You shall not die until you have visited me in Avalon.” After many adventures serving King Charlemagne, Ogier is shipwrecked on a strange island that turns out to be Morgana’s realm. He falls under her seductive spell and passes a hundred years in bliss, not ageing a day, until by accident he recovers his memory and wishes to return to France. On doing so, Ogier finds a new king, Hugh Capet, on the throne, whilst the language spoken has changed during his long absence. After more noble deeds, Morgana reclaims Ogier for herself and takes him back to Avalon- where he is still alive today, alongside King Arthur.
Amongst the christening gifts made by fairies is very famous song indeed of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman. It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life. Each verse of the song had a different tune. For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the latest baby heir.
In Tudor times the belief still lingered that some children might be endowed with talents and good fortune at their birth, as in these lines by John Milton (At a Vacation Exercise in the Colledge):
“Good luck befriend thee Son; for at thy birth,
The Faiery Ladies daunc’t upon the hearth;
Thy drowsie Nurse hath sworn she did them spie
Come tripping to the Room where thou didst lie;
And sweetly singing round thy Bed,
Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping Head…”
These conceptions of course persist for modern readers in the fixed character of the ‘fairy godmother,’ but in Tudor and Stuart times it seems that the favour of the fairy kingdom more generally was envisaged by Ben Jonson (The Silent Woman, Act V, scene 1):
“To what strange fortune, friend, some men are born…
Surely, when thou wert young,
The fairies dandled thee.”
In Victorian verse the idea of fairy godmothers and of three wishes was greatly elaborated, most notably with mermaids, thereby embedding it in our consciousness. See for example, The Fairy Gift, The Fairy and the Three Wishes & The Farmer and the Magic Ring, all by John Godfrey Saxe, The Fairy’s Gift, Margaret Elizabeth Munson Sangster, in Poems of the Household (1893), 242 and Wise Sarah & The Elf, Elizabeth Coatsworth. Generally, see my Victorian Fairy Verse.
Fairies are reputed to ride a variety of creatures. As the illustrations to this post show, artists at least have allowed themselves considerable latitude in the sorts of steeds deemed possible- great fun being had with notions of the tiny size of the faes and the kinds of steed that might therefore be suitable.
It is very well known from the folklore that fairies and pixies like to take horses from stables and ride them at night, returning the steeds distressed, sweating and exhausted in the morning. Often, too, their manes will be fiendishly knotted to make stirrups and panniers for their faery riders. A witch-stone or hag-stone (a naturally holed stone) hung just above the animals in their stalls will prevent this. Sprays or crosses of birch put over a stable door will bar the faeries from entering at night.
Be warned, though: if the faeries want to go out riding and there are no suitable steeds to hand, they can use us instead. Especially on the Isle of Man, people have been known to be taken and ridden all night. They feel no weight on their backs during the experience, but they become tired from loss of sleep and thin and weak from their exertions. Luckily, it is said that taking the precaution of wearing a suitable flower or herb to scare off the faeries (rowan blossom say) should be enough to prevent this.
From the Isle of Arran, we hear of a woman who suddenly fell ill and became very tired and sleepy. Her family suspected that this was no ordinary fatigue and watched her at night. They discovered that the fairies were coming when the house was asleep and turning her into a horse, which they then used for their carting. A search of the garden the next morning uncovered a hidden harness, which helped break the spell cast upon her.
Also from Scotland, we have the confession of suspected witch Isobel Gowdie that she had gone out with the fairy host, the sluagh, to shoot elf-bolts at hapless humans. Of these random victims she said:
“we may shoot them dead at owr pleasour. Any that ar shot be us, their sowell will goe to Hevin, bot ther bodies remain with us, and will flie as horsis to us, as small as strawes.”
These straw-like beings were used by the witches to ride upon, just like horses. They sat astride them, pronounced ‘horse and hattock’ and then travelled in a whirlwind. This mode of travel is a trait of witches (see too the testimony of Bessie Flinkar, tried in 1661, who travelled to covens this way); but it was a power of those with the second sight and is, of course, exactly what the fairies were very commonly known to do.
We’ve looked previously at the fae tendency to move in whirlwinds. That they travel in this manner is a widespread belief in Britain, from the Forest of Dean all the way north to Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. There, for example, the band of fairies called Friday’s People (Muintirr Fhionlaidh) would travel on calm days in whirlwinds, occasionally picking up those found asleep en route and carrying them a short distance.
Another Scottish witch suspect, Jonet Morrison of Bute, confessed in 1662 that the way the fairies ‘blasted’ those against whom they had a grudge was with “a whirlwind that the fayries raises about that person quhich they intend to wrong and, that tho ther were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot quhom they were set for.” I’ve written about fairy whirlwinds in other posts on their movement.
In former times it was widely believed that wasting illness and perpetual tiredness (symptoms we might now ascribe to a poor diet or to underlying health conditions) were actually the result of being ‘hag ridden’- turned into horses by witches, or fairies, and ridden at night or, alternatively, because the person was being carried off nightly to dance under the fairy hill. Either way, their energy was being drained and they received no rest when they seemed to be asleep.
To conclude, therefore: we must not be complacent. Almost any available object can be employed by the faeries to travel about. Plant stems are regularly enchanted with their glamour, they keep their own horses, but will just as readily take steeds kept by humans from their stables and, most alarmingly, they will even cast a spell on us and exploit us.
It is well known that fairies try to steal new born babies and that they leave changelings behind in their place. Here, I want to examine the evidence for the abduction of children older than toddlers and how this is achieved. Babies can be snatched from their cradles; how are less helpless juveniles abducted?
There seem to be three broad strategies employed by the fairies in taking infants. They kidnap them, they trick them or they lure them away. There are ample examples to illustrate all of these ploys. It was believed that the fairies were always on the lookout for chances to abduct infants (see, for example, Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 150).
Obviously, it is easiest to kidnap children if they come willingly. It is perfectly possible to achieve this by friendly means. In one Scottish example, a little girl used to regularly play with the faeries under the Hill of Tulach at Monzie. One day they cut a lock of her hair and told her that next time she visited she would stay with them for ever. Fortunately, the child told her mother what had happened and she immediately worked various charms and never let her daughter out to play again. A boy from Borgue in Kirkcudbrightshire used regularly to make extended visits to the Good Folk underground in the same manner; he was protected by suspending a crucifix blessed by a Catholic priest around his neck. Indeed, in one case from Orkney, a little girl so pestered the local trows with repeated visits to their underground homes that, in their irritation, they breathed on her and paralysed her for life.
The Scottish ballad of Leesom Brand fits with the friendly visit pattern of journey to Faery. A boy aged ten finds his way to “an unco’ land where wind never blew and no cocks ever crew.” There he meets with and falls for a woman who is only eleven inches tall. It is at this point that this story takes a slightly uncomfortable turn. Despite her small statute this lady was “often in bed with men I’m told” and the young boy, despite his tender years, is no exception; he gets her pregnant, too, and it is this scandal that forces them both the flee back to the human world.
Simply opening the door to a human child might be enough to tempt it in, then. More often, some additional inducement was necessary. It might be nothing more than playing upon the child’s curiosity, as in the Welsh medieval case of Elidyr. He had run away from home after an argument and had hidden for two days on a river bank. Two little men then appeared to him and invited him to go with them to “a country full of delights and sports.” That was all he required to persuade him to go with them. Somewhat comparable is the tale of a boy from St. Allen in Cornwall who was led into a Faery by a lovely lady. He first strayed into a wood following the sound of music and after much wandering feel asleep. When he awoke, a beautiful woman was with him and guided him through fantastic palaces. Eventually he was found by searchers, once again asleep. Fascinatingly, Evans Wentz has a modern version of the Elidyr story, told to him near Strata Florida (see Fairy Faith 148; Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 86, ‘The Lost Child’).
Some children require more material temptation. On the Isle of Man, a girl was walking over a bridge when three little men appeared to her and offered her a farthing to go with them. She wisely refused, knowing that consent would place her in their power for ever. In Northumberland, at Chathill Farm near Alnwick, there was a well-known fairy ring. It was reputed that, if a child danced around it nine times, she or he would be in the fairies’ control. To encourage children to do this, the fairies used to leave food and other gifts at the ring and parents, in response, would tie bags containing the age-old remedy of peony roots and seeds around their infants’ necks as a protection against fairy harm. Elsewhere in the north of England, it has been reported that the fairies would leave out fairy butter as bait for children.
These inducements to stray start to merge into out and out tricks. For example, a boy lost on Dartmoor was found by his mother seated under an oak tree known to be a pixie haunt. He told her that “two bundles of rags” had led him away- evidently, pixies in disguise so as to attract his attention and lull his suspicions. As soon as the lights of his mother’s lantern appeared, these rags vanished (Hunt, Popular Romances, 96).
The kidnap can be covered by means of a changeling put in the abductee’s place. The son of a blacksmith on the island of Islay, aged fourteen, suddenly fell ill and wasted away. It was revealed to the father that, in fact, he had been taken by the fairies and a changeling left behind. This the father exposed with the trick of brewing in egg shells and then violently expelled. However, he had then to go to the fairy knoll to recover his son rather than the boy being automatically returned (as is the usual practice). He was working for the fairies there as a blacksmith, which may explain their reluctance to part with him.
Some children are snatched without ceremony. In one case from the Isle of Man a boy sent to a neighbour’s house to borrow some candles at night was chased on his way home by a small woman and boy. He ran, but only just kept ahead of them, and when he was back at his home, he had lost the power of speech and his hands and feet were twisted awry. He remained this way for a week. This could almost be a changeling story (see Evans Wentz 132).
Waldron tells of a ten-year-old girl from Ballasalla on the Isle of Man who had a lucky escape from such a kidnap attempt. Out on an errand one day, she was detained by a crowd of little men. Some grabbed hold of her and declared their intention to take her with them; others in the party objected to the idea. A fight broke out amongst the fairies and, because she had incited this discord, they spanked her but let her get away. The truth of her account was seen in the little red hand prints marking her buttocks.
I have assumed so far, naturally, that parents would not wish to see their offspring taken to fairyland. One incident contradicts this. A woman from Badenoch in the Highlands was given shelter overnight in a fairy hill but, the next morning, she had to promise to surrender her child to them so as to be set free. She agreed, but was to visit her daughter in the hill. After a while, with no sign of things changing, the infant complained that she had been abandoned by her mother. The woman scolded the girl for suggesting this and the fairies ejected her from the hill and never allowed her in again. This suggestion that fairy abduction might sometimes be a boon for the child is confirmed by another source. The verse ‘The Shepherd’s Dream,’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England, reveals that changelings were taken from mothers who beat or otherwise abused their progeny.
Going with the fairies need not be prolonged nor unpleasant, fortunately. Many stories indicate that children will be well cared for in Faery. A game keeper and his wife lived at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor. This couple had two children, and one morning when the wife had dressed the eldest she let her run away to play while she dressed the baby. In due course, father and mother realised that the child had disappeared. They searched for days with help from their neighbours, and even bloodhounds, without finding her. One morning a little time later some young men went to pick nuts from a clump of trees near the keeper’s house, and at there they came suddenly on the child, undressed, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.
There are, therefore, many ways of luring children into fairyland- some are friendly and almost consensual, others are more underhand and forcible. The child’s treatment once in Faery will also vary: some will be well cared for and treated as fairy playmates; others may find themselves put to work in menial roles. I discuss all the many aspects of these abductions and how to avoid them in my recently published book Faery.
There are two sorts of fairy cattle: there are the supernatural ‘water beasts,’ the water bulls of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man, which are magical and live under water (but are relatively harmless) and there are the less magical herds of cattle kept by the faes themselves.
Crodh mara & crodh sith
The fairies’ own livestock are the crodh mara, the fairy sea cows of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the fairy cattle or crodh sith of the Scottish mainland and the gwartheg y llyn, the Welsh ‘lake cattle’, that are frequently brought to marriages with men by the beautiful lake maidens- and just as frequently are taken away again by them when the relationship ends or when some taboo is breached. These beasts may be livestock belonging to fairies, but they are by and large without any fairy characteristics of their own. The dividing line between fairy cattle as simple chattels and fae beasts, as otherworld creatures, is a very fine one, though; here are two examples.
Victorian fairy expert Crofton Croker gathered some very interesting information on ‘elf-bulls.’ He described how, in Scotland at the end of harvest, the farmers’ cattle would be gathered into the cleared fields to graze the ‘aftermath.’ They might be seen to run about, bellowing, without apparent or visible cause. However, if a person cared to take the risk, they might look through a knot hole in a piece of wood or through the hole made in a cow’s hide by the strike of an elf-bolt (both well-attested ways of penetrating fairy glamour) and the source of the disturbance would be revealed. An elf bull would be seen, fighting with the strongest bull in the herd and mating with the cows. The price of this revelation was the loss of sight in the eye used, however. As I’ve described previously, the cows are naturally able to see the fairy beings, the second sight being innate.
Elf bulls are smaller than conventional ones, mousy in colour with upright ears, short horns and legs, and hair that is short, smooth and glossy like an otter’s pelt. They are supernaturally strong and courageous and linger around rivers, grazing on the banks at night.
Catching a Fairy Cow
These creatures, as I’ve said, may voluntarily mix with farm livestock and leave their hybrid offspring amongst those herds as well. They can be trapped too. At Shewbost on the Hebrides the crodh mara used to come ashore to graze and the local people were able to catch them and add them to their own stock by the simple measure of sprinkling maistir(stale urine) across their path back to the sea, as I’ve described previously.
On Skye, the cattle were known only to graze in certain spots on land and it was common to hear their fairy owners calling them home again at night. They could be caught by strewing earth across their route back to the sea; soil taken from a churchyard being especially favoured.
How to Lose a Fairy Herd
One Scottish farmer had a cow that, every May, would suddenly leave the herd in its pasture and make her way to the adjacent river bank. She would swim across to a small island in the stream and stay there for a few hours before returning. In due course a calf would be born, displaying many of the characteristics of an elf-bull. This went on for many years, but eventually one Christmas the farmer, sitting by the fire with his family, suggested that the time had come to cull her. She had given many years of milk and calves, but she was ageing and less productive. The cow, however, heard their plans- and had understood. She bellowed, broke out of the cowshed and charged down to the river bank, where she swam to the island and disappeared forever. Even worse, she took all her offspring with her.
Nearly identical events are told involving a couple on the Scottish island of Pabbay: they found there an abandoned cow and from it bred their entire herd. Once again, after some years had passed, they decided that the time had come to slaughter their original cow. It overheard and left with all its daughters, vanishing into the sea. The ‘abandoned’ beast had in fact been one of the crodh mara. In both these accounts the cow’s comprehension and its ability to vanish clearly set it aside from normal members of a herd. Unlike many of the gwartheg y llyn in the Welsh stories, these cattle are not called away by their fairy owners- rather they leave of their own accord.
‘The Wild Calf’
A very attractive story, related to the preceding ones, concerns the ‘Wild Calf’ of the Highlands. This was an invisible cow that would visit farms at night. If the farmer went out to his byre in darkness and embraced the supernatural calf, he would gain great good fortune in cattle keeping: he’d become a very successful cattle breeder, he would always have healthy and productive herds and he would become very rich. However, one farmer was visited by the Calf sometime during the mid-nineteenth century and was too scared of the dark to go out to his byre without a candle. Because he took the light, he breached that fairy condition of secrecy that attached to the rewards he would have received. The Calf vanished- and was never seen again.
As we know, the fairies aren’t just great lovers of milk and cream; they are very active beef and dairy farmers. I also discuss fairy livestock in chapter 5 of my recently published book, Faery. My next book, Beyond Faery, which is also to be published by Llewellyn, specifically examines the magical water bulls and horses of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Man.
In Ben Jonson’s masque of 1610, Oberon the Fairy Prince, two satyrs discuss celebrations organised by Oberon. One asks if they shall “Tie about our tawny wrists/ Bracelets of the fairy twists?” What is this referring to? What on earth does it imply?
It seems that knots and twists are something intimately linked to fairies. They will, of course, twist animal and human hair. The faeries like to take and ride human horses at night, at the same time tightly knotting their manes into ‘pixy locks.’ These knots seem to function in part as stirrups and bridles, but they also seem to be a sign of fairy control. For example, a Perthshire man who was taken from his garden by the faeries was returned three days later with his hair all in knots- visible, physical evidence of his abduction. The knots have a practical function, therefore, but they appear to represent more than that.
Knot Magic & Healing
Scottish fairies are reported to dance around a fire at Halloween, throwing knotted blue ribbons over their left shoulders with their left hands. Those who then pick up the ribbons will fall into the fairies’ power and may be abducted by them at any moment.
These actions are plainly some sort of magic spell. The tying and releasing of knots is a long-established means of binding sickness to a person, or of freeing them from it. It is seen very often in folk medicine and in witchcraft and the Scottish witch trials of the seventeenth century supply several examples.
Jonet Morrison of the Isle of Bute, who was tried in 1662, cured a sick baby by tying a knotted and beaded string around it for forty-eight hours, which was then removed and placed on a cat. The cat instantly died, proving that the illness had been transferred from the child to it. The power of knots for protecting or cursing is revealed most powerfully in the account of a woman condemned as a witch at St Andrews in 1572. She faced the usual punishment for such an offence- strangling at the stake and burning- but she had betrayed no fear or alarm about her fate until her jailers removed from her a white cloth “like a collore craig [a collar or neck cloth] with stringes, whair on was mony knottes.” After this was taken away, she despaired. We may compare the fact that accused witch, Isobel Haldane, from Orkney, had been found to have “thrie grassis bound in a knot” in her home, a circumstance that only added to the weight of evidence against her.
Isobel Gowdie, of Auldearn near Nairn, was investigated for witchcraft in 1662. She gave a fulsome and lengthy confession that included a couple of uses of knotted threads. To steal milk from sheep and cows, she told her inquisitors that she and the other witches in her coven would take their tethers and “pull the tow and twyn it and plait it in the wrong way… and we draw the tedder (sua maid) [so made] in betwixt the cowes hinder foot and owt between the cowes forder foot and thereby take the milk.”
Secondly, the witches interfered with the dyeing vats of Alexander Cummings of Auldearn. They took “a thread of each cullor of yairne… and did cast thrie knots on each thread… and did put the threidis in the fatt, withersones abowt in the fatt [stirring anti-clockwise] and thairby took the heall strength of the fatt away, that it could litt [dye] nothing bot onlie blak, according to the culor of the Divell.”
These practices made their way into Scots verse as well. Alexander Montgomerie composed the Flyting of Polwart in the early 1580s as a ritualised mocking of Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth. The latter was extravagantly insulted, amongst other things being accused of being born of an elf and then abandoned. His baptism proceeded in this manner, with the child being bound to Hecate:
“Syne bare-foot and bare-leg’d to babtize that bairne
Till a water they went be a wood side,
They fand the shit all beshitten in his awin shearne [faeces],
On three headed Hecatus to heir them they cryde
As we have found in the field this fundling forfairne,
First his faith he forsakes in thee to confyde,
Be vertue of thir words and this raw yearne,
And whill this thrise thretty knots on this blew threed byd…”
Another verse was provoked by the trial of accused witch Alison Peirson in 1588. She was discovered to have treated the Bishop of St Andrews, amongst other sick persons, and poet Robert Sempill subsequently attacked the bishop for his ungodly conduct, accusing him of “sorcerie and incantationes,” amongst which were spells involving “south rinning wellis” and “knottis of strease [straws].”
Curing with Hoops
What I regard as a related curing practice involved passing people through loops of yarn; the idea of release seems to be shared between the two. Janet Trall, of Blackruthen, admitted in 1623 that she had cured a man called Robert Soutar in such a way. She passed him through a “hesp of yarn, and afterwards cut it in nine parts, and buried it in three lords’ lands.” Janet had learned these skills from the fairies, she said. Thomas Geace from Fife also passed patients through yarn, in one case burning the thread afterwards.
There are plenty of other Scottish examples. Andro Man from Aberdeen would administer cures by passing patients nine times through “ane hespe of unvatterit [undyed] yarn” and by then passing a cat nine times through in the opposite direction. Once again, the illness passes to the unfortunate cat, which promptly dies. A number of Edinburgh women, tried as witches in 1597, had treated patients by passing them through garlands made of green woodbine. Some did this three times, others nine times. One woman went through three times on three occasions twenty-four hours apart; in another instance the garland was cut up into nine pieces and burned after the ritual.
Knots & Knowledge
We have previously discussed the fairies’ power of seeing what is to come and to tell fortunes, and there is also a little evidence that knots and threads were used to foretell the future. In this there must be a strong echo, or imitation, of the Greek Fates. Whatever the exact source, in Alexander Montgomerie’s mocking poem, The Flyting of Polwart, his target or victim Polwart is alleged to have been raised by the hag Nicneven, who:
“With chairmes from Cathness and Chanrie of Ross,
Whais [whose] cunning consistis in casting a clew…”
‘Casting a clew’ seems to refer to reading the future in threads.
Lastly, knotted threads could inflict or transfer harm, but they could also guard against it. In the Scottish Highlands, threads called snaithean were used to protect children and livestock from attack by fairies or witches. Lengths of wool, coloured either red or black, would be tied around the neck or a beast’s tail accompanied by a prayer and a charm that invoked aid from the trinity, Mary and various saints.
Much of this seems to come together in the ballad Willy’s Lady:
The forthcoming edition of Enchanted Living magazine (formerly Faerie Magazine) will be a Pre-Raphaelite special issue. I suspect that, when it’s published, it’ll prove to be not quite what they promised in the sense that it won’t limit itself purely to the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: the term is nowadays used rather freely to describe almost any Victorian art, especially any fairy painters (such as Paton, Dadd or Doyle) or those who depicted mythological scenes, which might include J. M. Waterhouse, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham. All of these are very fine artists, and have often been used to illustrate this blog, but they were not members or even associates of the PRB- so I set myself the small task of enumerating the faery work of that select group of painters.
On the face of it, Pre-Raphaelite faeries ought to be a contradiction in terms. The Brotherhood was founded in late 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais with the aim of pursuing “absolute and uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained in working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.” This commitment to microscopic realism and ‘Truth to Nature’ can be seen very well in the background to Millais’ painting above: the rather Victorian garden scene is depicted with painstaking care- every leaf and stem is picked out- but if these painters were fully dedicated to representing the natural world as they encountered it, there were clearly problems showing fairies, which (I’ll dare to say) none had ever seen. In fact, a continual problem in the movement was the parallel wish to combine aestheticism with pictures that had some sort of moral or spiritual message.
The Brotherhood’s dedication to the Italian painters of the Renaissance who preceded Raphael (Fra Angelico, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, for example), encouraged a general medievalism in their art. Many of the scenes they painted are drawn from the literature or history of the Middle Ages, and the legends of King Arthur in particular were favourites, especially with Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Here too, of course, their art recommends itself to those of us who share their taste for the magic, vaguely ‘Celtic’ mysteries of these stories.
Interestingly, Faery helped to get several of the most Pre-Raphaelite artists started in their careers. In 1855 Millais, Rossetti and Arthur Hughes were employed to illustrate an edition of the collected poems of William Allingham titled The Music Master. Allingham is very well known for his 1850 poem The Fairies, which remains a favourite today. Hughes supplied seven plates for The Music Master, Millais and Rossetti one each, but the latter’s illustration to ‘The Maids of Elfen Mere’ proved highly influential for its haunting, supernatural style. Meanwhile, at the very same time, a young Edward Burne-Jones was commissioned to illustrate The Fairy Family by Archibald Maclaren. Slightly later, as well, Rossetti illustrated his sister’s dark and brooding poem, Goblin Market. He chose to represent the goblins as humanoid animals, which only adds to their menace (see below).
Inspiration came to the Pre-Raphaelites from slightly more recent literary classics as well as Mallory and Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France. Shakespeare’s Tempest, for example, provided the basis for Millais’ weird rendering of Ariel and Ferdinand, illustrated at the start of this posting. The painting was criticised at the time: the dealer who commissioned it then rejected the finished canvas because of “the greenness of the fairies” and critics saw it as a rather eccentric (and failed) product of laborious effort. Perhaps we’re more tolerant of these lurid goblins today than our predecessors: I like the evil looking little creatures, which seem quite authentic to me, whilst the feminine Arielseems highly appropriate to Shakespeare’s text. John Keats’ haunting 1819 poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, inspired Arthur Hughes and very many painters thereafter. The fatal faery woman, beautiful yet deadly, has always proved irresistible to (male) poets and painters.
To conclude, what exactly is a Pre-Raphaelite fairy? Despite my art historical quibbles at the outset, I’d say we can definitely identify such a creature. She is, very likely, a willowy, red-haired maiden in voluminous medieval robes- a young, pale, woman very familiar to us all now. Without doubt- albeit probably unintentionally- Rossetti and then Burne-Jones and classicist Waterhouse bequeathed us an archetype whom we all instantly recognise and whom many continue to imitate (see below). As I’ve argued before, faeries are an abiding and very influential theme within our culture. Faery images and faery texts are embedded in our thoughts.
I’m very pleased to announce that my new book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk, has now been published by Llewellyn Worldwide and is available through all the usual channels.
The new book builds on my last, British Fairies, as well as on the postings on this blog. What I have aimed to offer is a complete statement of our knowledge of the life, culture, personality, temperament and habits of the Good Folk, often trying to understand the faery perspective on these matters to better appreciate why and how they behave. Of course, everything has to be seen from the human standpoint: it’s only through our interactions with the faeries that we can experience their world. Furthermore, this relationship between humans and supernaturals has always had its points of friction. In the book, I don’t shy away from examining the perils of faery contact: they are more powerful and more complex than popular culture often allows and they have to be approached with caution and respect.
The new book is based upon extensive research in hard to find folklore sources and brings readers a wealth of new information they might not otherwise discover.
In chapter 13 of the book, I examine the magical methods for contacting and summoning the fae (something I’ve also touched on in a posting on this blog). Given that the new book is all about bringing us closer to Faery and improving our understanding of our Good Neighbours, I’ll add here another ritual procedure that I recently unearthed.
This is taken from the Rosicrucian text, Le Comte de Gabalis, by Abbé Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars (1635–1673). The book builds on the work of Paracelsus, whom I’ve had occasion to criticise in a previous post, but it provides us with a further interesting insight into the magical methods practiced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to contact the supernatural world. Villars makes the process sound quite straightforward (Gabalis, Discourse II):
“One has only to seal a goblet full of compressed Air, Water, or Earth and to leave it exposed to the Sun for a month. Then separate the Elements scientifically, which is particularly easy to do with Water and Earth. It is marvellous what a magnet for attracting Nymphs, Sylphs, and Gnomes, each one of these purified Elements is. After taking the smallest possible quantity every day for some months, one sees in the Air the flying Commonwealth of the Sylphs, the Nymphs coming in crowds to the shores, the Gnomes, the Guardians of the Treasures, parading their riches. Thus, without symbols, without ceremonies, without barbaric words, one becomes ruler over these Peoples. They exact no worship whatever from the Sage, whose superiority to themselves they fully recognise. Thus venerable Nature teaches her children to repair the elements by means of the Elements. Thus harmony is re-established. Thus man recovers his natural empire, and can do all things in the Elements without the Devil, and without Black Art.”
Readers will recall that Paracelsus envisaged four classes of beings to accompany the four elements comprising the world. Salamanders are the fire beings and:
“If we wish to recover empire over the Salamanders, we must purify and exalt the Element of Fire which is in us, and raise the pitch of that relaxed string. We have only to concentrate the Fire of the World in a globe of crystal, by means of concave mirrors…”
Humans’ ability consistently to see fairies is poor and has to be acquired- either by ritual, contact with an endowed person or, sometimes, by descent. In contrast, puzzlingly, animals seem to be far better at this than we are; many seem naturally to be gifted with this ability. We know this from the reactions of pets and livestock- but have to assume that wild creatures are equally as aware of the supernatural beings around them.
In one story from Northumberland, for example, a man’s hunting dog would ‘point’ the fairies which were invisible to its master (although he could hear their music). Instinctively he saw them and responded to them as prey. It seems, then, that for dogs at least there is no inherent awareness of any supernatural nature nor any risk. Previously, I have written about dogs that detected the presence of supernatural beings and then chased or attacked them, faithful to their duties of guarding their human owners. Sadly, these hounds’ encounters with faeries seldom finished well for them. Dogs may sense the ‘stranger’ status of the beings, but they lack any instinctive fear.
Cattle are aware, but seem to have no aversion to the creatures. For instance, the well-known story of ‘The Little People’s Cow’ from Cornwall encapsulates many of the key aspects of the situation. The dairy maid only sees the fairies when she accidentally includes a four-leaf clover in her ‘wise,’ the cushion of grass on which she rested the milk pail on her head. Then she witnessed:
“A great number of little beings- as many as could get under Rosy’s udder at once- held butter-cups, and other handy flowers or leaves, twisted into drinking vessels, to catch the shower of milk that fell among them, and some sucked it from clover-blossoms. As one set walked off satisfied, others took their places. They moved about so quickly that the milkmaid’s head got almost ‘light’ whilst she looked at them. “You should have seen,” said the maid afterwards- how pleased Rosy looked, as she tried to lick those on her neck who scratched her behind her horns, or picked ticks from her ears; whilst others, on her back smoothed down every hair of her coat. They made much of the calf, too; and, when they had their fill of milk, one and all in turn brought their little arms full of herbs to Rosy and her calf- how they licked all up and looked for more!”
The human can only see the fairies with magical aid; the cow does not require this (unless, we might speculate, she has the benefit of eating the clover) and there is apparently a mutually rewarding relationship between cow and fays.
Horses, in contrast to cattle, seem to be alarmed by fairies. In Yorkshire there was a tradition that boggarts would disguise themselves as stones on moorland tracks, deliberately to trip up passers-by. Horses, in particular, were able to see them better than people could- and often when they reared up unexpectedly it’s because they had ‘taken the boggart’- they’d spotted one, even if it didn’t look like a boggart.
Something similar is reported from the Isle of Man. Here, there was once no bread delivery at Orrysdale in the north-west of the island because the baker’s boy said that his cart horse was able to see the fairies after dark and would take fright. On this particular occasion, as it was getting near dusk, the boy decided not to risk the horse rearing or bolting- and had accordingly gone home instead of completing his round.
As these 1930s postcards indicate, it has become customary for us to assume that the faes are allied with woodland creatures. This is very much a development of the last 175 years or so. Victorian poets such as Madison Cawein and twentieth century writers such as Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter elaborated these ideas, but the older evidence implies a more complex and less harmonious relationship. We shouldn’t forget, for example, that our medieval forebears accepted without question the notion that the faeries would be out in the woods, not gambolling happily with squirrels and bunnies, but hunting them with hawks and hounds. On this basis, it’s understandable that some animals might exhibit a measure of caution, if not fear.