I have written several times about the sexual allure of fairies and about sexual relationships between fairies and humans. Inevitably, many of these unions will result in children and in this posting I examine the evidence on mixed race families and the fate of their offspring.
Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs observed in her book The Fairies in Tradition and Literature that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (p.95). Mixed race families are entirely possible and there seems neither doubt nor surprise about this in the folklore. When we learn about human-faery offspring, it is generally because there has been some problem in the relationship. Of course, our view of these matters is skewed, as we usually only hear about cases where partnerships went wrong- not those matches where the couple ‘live happily ever after.’ We very occasionally get glimpses of these: human girls are quite often abducted to become fairy brides and every now and then we catch sight of them later on. For example, in the Welsh story of Eilian, she is met again by the woman she worked for when the latter is called out as midwife to the fairy hill- only to discover that it is her former farm maid who is the mother brought to child bed.
Fairy Family Life
Admitting that we only tend to see the failed matches, what can we say about fairy parenting? Probably the fairest conclusion is that fairies are just as good, and as bad, as husbands, wives and parents as humans.
Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed to the court a decades long relationship with the fairy queen. Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had enjoyed regular sexual contact with her and the couple had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame. These children were brought up by the mother, but at the same time Man was not entirely absent from their lives.
A reversal of this arrangement is seen with Katharine Jonesdochter of Shetland, tried for witchcraft in 1616. She confessed to a forty-year affair with a fairy man whom she called ‘the bowman.’ He first came to her when she was a teenager (a “young lass” as she described herself) and they had a child together. A relative recalled that she had seen “ane little creatour in hir awin hus amongst hir awin bairns quhom she callit the bowmanes bairn.” In this case the child stayed with the (human) mother and the (fairy) father was seen once or twice a year- at Halloween and on Holy Cross Day (September 14th)- when he visited her for sex.
Both these cases seem to say more about gender roles in human and fairy society than they do about defaults or qualities of fairy-kind as mothers and fathers. There is, of course, no reason to assume that males are any less loving toward their spouses and children than females. For example, in the ballad Leesom Brand, the eponymous hero’s fairy wife and baby both die during child birth, but he is able to find magical means to revive them.
All the same, an exception may have to be made for merfolk. The folklore record indicates that they are very often wanting in basic familial instincts and make very poor parents indeed. In the ballad of the Selkie of Sule Skerry, the selkie father has first of all made a woman pregnant and abandoned her; then he returns grudgingly upon hearing her complaints and gives her gold to ‘buy’ the child from her (what he calls a ‘nurse-fee’)- taking the boy away to raise him as a selkie in the sea.
In many stories, a mermaid is the parent as the result of being captured by a human male on the shore. He has managed to find, and withhold from her, the seal skin or tail that she has shed temporarily, thereby preventing her from rejoining her people. The mermaid is forced to become her captor’s wife and children inevitably follow over the succeeding years. Eventually, one of those infants comes across the seal skin hidden somewhere on the farm and mentions the discovery to the mother- who without hesitation leaves immediately to return to the sea.
Whether male or female, therefore, merfolk generally set a poor example as parents. The best that can be said for most mermaids is that they were akin to captives and unwilling partners, which may excuse (a little) their readiness to abandon their children.
There are, though, a couple of stories that are happy exceptions to this rather poor record. The famous mermaid of Zennor took a human husband who (unusually) went to live with her beneath the sea. We know the marriage appeared to thrive because, several years later, the skipper of a boat was hailed by the mermaid complaining that his anchor was blocking the door to her home, preventing her returning to her husband and their offspring or, in some accounts, preventing her taking her children to church. From Orkney, we hear of Johnny Croy who managed to secure a mermaid wife by snatching her precious golden comb. To win it back, she struck a bargain with him- that she would live with him on his farm for seven years and that he would then go with her to visit her family beneath the waves. They had seven children together, and the entire family disappeared forever under the sea when the initial seven years were up. The family bonds in these two cases seem strong and lasting, with the human husband prepared to give up his home and society in order to stay with his supernatural wife and children.
The Welsh lake maidens, the gwragedd annwn, also have a reputation for abandoning their husbands and families, although in these cases they would excuse themselves and blame the husbands for what happened. They are wooed in conventional manner by the human males and consent freely to marriage, but conditions or taboos are always imposed which- just as predictably- are violated in time by their husbands. These mothers are driven away from their families, therefore, they are not fleeing like the mermaids.
As we might expect, having fairy parents or ancestors does have some benefits for the children.
John Rhys quotes in his Celtic Folklore from William Williams’ Observations on the Snowdon Mountains, of 1802, in which he discusses:
“A race of people inhabiting the districts about the foot of Snowdon, were formerly distinguished and known by the nickname of Pellings, which is not yet extinct. There are several persons and even families who are reputed to be descended from these people …. These children and their descendants, they say, were called Pellings, a word corrupted from their [faery] mother’s name, Penelope… there are still living several opulent and respectable people who are known to have sprung from the Pellings. The best blood in my own veins is this fairy’s.” (Rhys, vol.1, p.48, citing Williams pp.37-40)
Rhys also mentions several times people living in the Pennant Valley in North Wales who are noted for their very good looks- flax yellow hair and pale blue eyes- which are said to be derived from a fairy ancestor called Bella (vol.1, pp.96, 106, 108, 220 & 223; vol.2 p.668)
As well as physical charms, fairy parents can bestow significant gifts upon their part-human offspring. The faery wife of Llyn y Fan Fach is a typical Welsh ‘lake maiden’ who is driven off by her husband’s violation of her taboos. Nonetheless, she keeps in regular contact with her three sons, teaching them marvellous healing skills so that they become the famous physicians of Myddfai. In the Tudor Ballad of Robin Goodfellow, Robin is the son of Oberon, fathered upon a maid to whom he took a fancy. The father provides materially for his son’s upbringing (although he is absent) and, when the boy reaches his teens, Oberon comes to him and reveals his true nature and magical powers:
“King Oberon layes a scrole by him,
that he might understand
Whose sonne he was, and how hee’d grant
whatever he did demand:
To any forme that he did please
himselfe he would translate;
And how one day hee’d send for him
to see his fairy state.”
Finally, the offspring of matches with merfolk are generally readily identifiable. There are accounts from the Scottish islands of children conceived with human fathers who have webs between their fingers and toes. One mermaid mother tried to trim these away but they regrew repeatedly until a horny crust developed- a feature that is still be seen amongst some island people today and which can limit the manual tasks they can undertake.
I discuss other aspects of fairy families, childcare and healing in my recently published book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).