Deliberate leading astray is a fairy habit almost exclusively found in South West Britain. It is reported about as often in Cornwall and Devon, with about twenty-five per cent of cases taking places in other counties (Dorset and Somerset) and slightly fewer in Wales. Because it is primarily a phenomenon of South-West England, I will use the term pixie-led as a label for the process.
Here I’m only going to describe those fairy beings who, amongst their other activities, enjoy misleading humans. Those supernaturals that appear as moving lights and whose sole function is to mislead- wills of the wisp, Jack o’ Lanterns, Goblin Lanterns and such like- will not be my concern here. This reflects a fairly clear subdivision of types, but it is not perfect or binding. Pucks and Pooks in England and South Wales can often appear in all respects like a will of the wisp, although we know them to be more complex characters in addition to this (see for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, 23).
Pixie-leading is a longstanding fairy practice that is well attested in literature. It can be traced back to the early fourteenth century. Jeremy Harte in Exploring Fairy Traditions (p.26) records a preacher’s sermon that describes one who has been “led at nyght with gobelyn, and erreth hider and thider.” The references multiply from the seventeenth century, for example from Francis Rous, who in his religious text Meditations of Instruction of 1616 compared those who pursue material wealth to:
“they [that] shall stumble into the same ditches, wherein they have seene many of their neighbours wallowing. This makes sport for the divel, and thus is man most truly fayry-led, even led aside by the spirits of darknesse…”
In an identical tone, Thomas Heyrick, in The New Atlantis of 1687, mentioned those who “Vainly like wilder’d men should wander round/ Be lost in senceless shapes on fairy ground” (p.51). Likewise, Beaumont and Fletcher in their play Wit at Several Weapons (c.1620), have a character complain:
“My ways are goblin led and the night elf still draws me from my home.” (II, 2)
Writing in the first half of the 1600s, poet Robert Herrick, a Devonshire parson, advised:
“If ye feare to be affrighted
When ye are (by chance) benighted,
In your Pocket for a trust
Carrie nothing but a Crust:
For that holy piece of Bread,
Charmes the danger, and the dread.”
Christopher Clobbery, who wrote in 1659, warned of “fairy elves who thee mislead … in to the mire, then at thy folly smile/ Yea, clap their hands for joy.” The remedy he advised was simple: “Old country folk, who pixie-leading fear/ Bear bread about them, to prevent harm.”
In the English Midlands, we know from Jabez Allies that you were not pixie-led but ‘poake-ledden,’ something which seems to be confirmed by the experience of Bishop Richard Corbet (author of the poem Rewards and Fairies), who became lost near Bosworth in 1640. He and his party were advised then to “Turne your cloakes/ … for Pucke is busy in these oakes./ If ever wee at Bosworth will be found/ Then turn your cloakes, for this is fairy ground.”
What is Pixie-Leading?
To be pixie-led is a very well-known phrase, but what does it actually entail? There are, in fact, at least half a dozen different experiences which are classed under this heading.
Changing the landscape or hiding the path
Using glamour so that the human victim no longer recognises where they are is the commonest way to confuse and lead astray a person. A few accounts will exemplify this: Once a Week magazine in 1867 reported how a young farmer was pixie-led one evening in an orchard, where he was trapped for two hours. In a Welsh incident, two young women returning to Llandysul from Lampeter fair were led in a field next to their home. They were lost for hours on a bright moonlit night, yards from their house. Lastly, a Cornish man called Glasson, making the short walk from Ludgvan to Gulval near Penzance, got completely lost and went in circles. In all these cases, and more, a familiar place became strange; land marks disappeared and panic set in.
Sometimes, the change made is to conceal the gate out of a field. Often, again, the enclosed space is very familiar to the victim and the moon may be shining, but the means of escape seems to vanish. To add to this, in several Cornish accounts the pixies also frustrate their victims’ attempts to get free by raising the field hedge whenever he finds a lower part he might have been able to climb over (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.1, p.57 and Enys Tregarthen, Folklore Tales, ‘The Enchanted Field’ (1911)).
In one case, something similar happened inside a house. A Welsh man woke up to see fairies in his bedroom dancing and eating. He tried to wake his wife, but couldn’t, and for four hours just had to watch the festivities. Eventually, the fairies left and he got out of bed to try to see where they had gone. However, he couldn’t find the bedroom door; it was only when he cried out in panic and woke the rest of his family that the spell was broken. For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.
Mist and Fog
The pixies are known for their ability to control the weather and this can be used as a way of trapping victims. Men travelling across Dartmoor from Crediton to Exeter were advised that, if a cloud descended, they should strip and sit on their clothes for half an hour or so. The pixies would in due course raise the fog thrown around them. Patience is evidently important in such cases. A woman on the Quantocks became demented with terror when the pixies caused an evening mist to rise suddenly around her, so that she was lost in a field minutes away from her home. For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.
The pixies may lure people away from their route with music, thereby getting them lost. This has been reported in Devon and in North Wales.
Just as a person may become trapped in a familiar field, they may step into a fairy ring and fall into the fairies’ power. A Somerset farmer coming home from market was led like this until he ended up exhausted by a briar bush that grew in three counties- a plant which magical properties that seems to have broken the spell he was under. Cornish fairy author Enys Tregarthen has called rings ‘Spriggan Traps.’
Perhaps related to this phenomenon is that of following a ‘piskey-path.’ Enys Tregarthen also described how these mysterious green paths can be seen on cliffs or meandering across the moors, still verdant when the bracken is dry and brown. Writing in 1630 in his View of Devonshire, Thomas Westcote mentioned how a person who got lost on Dartmoor would be “led in a pixy-path.” Here there is some definite, if unclear, link between these paths and being pixie-led.
In one Cornish story a man called Nicholas Annear was punished by the pixies for always rushing and hurrying. One day, he set out for market with his horse and cart. The pixies made it appear that the church tower at his destination was ahead, but he never got there. He drove his cart all day and never arrived.
Who do they pixies do this? They seem to have several motivations. Above all, there’s their love of mischief; they need no reason as such, other than the pleasure in mildly tormenting humans. However, they may feel the person needs to be punished for some reason (as in the case of Nicholas Annear above). If they have been insulted by a person, s/he will be targeted in revenge. For example, a North Yorkshire man who declared that he’d catch a fairy in a bottle was led astray for two hours as a result of his foolhardy boldness. Someone who has taken the fairies’ property will suffer too. A man from Bishop’s Lydeard in the Quantock Hills picked up a fairy grindstone as he was out walking and decided to keep it. A mist descended upon him and he was led through brambles all night. A woman from Selworthy parish on the Exmoor coast of Somerset saw a group of pixies; they were so upset by her intrusion that they led her all over the moor and through the woods. Any trespass upon the fairies’ privacy is bitterly resented.
An isolated example of retribution for trespass comes from Orkney, at the diametrically opposite end of the British Isles to Devon and Cornwall, where most of the accounts are located. In Redland parish on the mainland of Orkney there was a grass ‘gait’ (or path) used by the trows when passing from their hill to the sea shore at twilight. Two men in search of a midwife crossed the path one evening; for this disrespectful act one of them was led far astray by the trows.
Predictably, the pixie attitude to leading someone out of their way is great amusement. They are often said to be heard laughing or, even, clapping their hands with glee. They might sometimes be seen jumping about in front of the victim, mocking their situation (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 184). A clear indication of the blurring of differences between wills of the wisp and pixie-leading fairies is a description of the Dorset Jack o’ Lantern, who is seen as a ball of light hopping before a person and which sniggers and laughs if a victim is successfully lured into a pond; something very similar was described in Cornish story by Enys Tregarthen (Why Jen Pendogget Changed his Mind (1940)).
As for the human victims, how do they react? Inevitably, they will end up exhausted, frustrated and panic-stricken. They are often said in Cornwall to be left “mizzy-mazey” (Enys Tregarthen, The Enchanted Field). In Devon, the victim is said to be ‘mazed’ as a result, a neat term that is suggestive of being both amazed and lost (in a maze).
The consequences of being pixie-led can be much more serious, though. We’ve heard about terror and a loss of wits. A man who was pixie-led on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset had to be rescued after he was lured into a bog. He was ill for quite some time after this experience. A Devonshire man crossing Dartmoor near Chudleigh was pixie-led by the sound of music. He wandered for hours, trying to locate the source, and eventually collapsed in a faint. When he came round the next morning, he was able to make his way home, but he took to his bed, never rose again and soon afterwards died. In like manner a Welsh man, John Jacob of Bedwellty, was led astray by the fairies one night, following shapes that appeared and then vanished. At last he came to a neighbour’s house and was saved, but he was rendered mute by the experience and soon sickened and died.
If you are pixie-led, what can you do to free yourself? There are several tried and tested remedies.
Turning your clothes
The best known and easiest remedy is to turn an item of clothing- a hat might be turned back to front or a coat, pocket, glove or stocking might be turned inside out. It seems likely that this is effective because it changes your appearance and throws the pixies off the scent or releases you from the enchantment that traps you in a fairy ring. Wise travellers turn their clothes before they set out, so that they will be safe from enchantment throughout their journey. It’s worth adding, though, that in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Who Rode in a Pocket, the pixie’s presence in the victim’s clothing is the cause of their wandering astray- and the spell is only broken when she turns her pockets, thereby ejecting the mischievous passenger.
Making a Noise
Attracting the attention of other people who’ve not fallen under the pixie spell will work. This is effective in two ways. Either the rescuer calls out in reply to help guide the victim to safety or the pixie-led person makes a noise which attracts rescuers to where she or he is stranded. For instance, Abraham Stocke in Somerset had said that he had no time for pixies. They led him into a swamp one night when he was walking home from brass band practice. Luckily, he had his euphonium with him and was able to play it to alert his family and guide them to him. A person simply coming along and startling the victim out of their bemusement can often be enough to release them (for examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies).
It can help to carry something with you to protect yourself against pixie charms during your travels. This could be a cross made from rowan wood, a piece of bread (as we’ve seen already) or a sprig of the plant greater stitchwort. Rowan, or mountain ash, are also well-known for repelling supernaturals beings of all kinds (witches included). The stitchwort is more unusual and seems to be a uniquely Devonian remedy. The flower is called ‘pixies’ in the county and it is believed to be the special property of the pixies. Picking it will upset them, but apparently carrying it with you somehow has the effect of deflecting rather than attracting their ill-will.
Water (as often) can release the bewildered person. Drinking the water from Fitz’s Well, near Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, dispels the glamour cast by the local pixies. Apparently any running water may have the same effect and, in fact, it is possible that falling in a stream might be sufficient to break the spell.
Summary & Further Reading
Pixie-leading is only really something to be concerned about if you’re out walking in unfamiliar places in Cornwall or Devon. The open moors are the likeliest locations, places where getting lost is, in any case, a considerable risk unless you’re well equipped with a map and compass. Outside this area, it is a remote risk: as we’ve seen from the folklore, there are only isolated cases from North Wales, North Yorkshire and Orkney.
In many ways, as I’ve described, the fairies can treat humans like their playthings and pixie-leading is one of the most acute examples of this. Unlike abductions, though, it is generally a very short-term and harmless experience. People can occasionally be led to perilous spots, such as marshes or cliff tops, and a few react very seriously to the stress of the experience, but for most it is an annoyance and a bit of a fright, but no more.
For another examination of the subject, see Simon Young’s article Pixy Led in Devon and the South West, which is available through Academia.com. I have, of course, read this, but in writing this posting I deliberately sought to reach my own conclusions based on the evidence that I had uncovered. Simon had access to a range of other sources and therefore reaches other useful conclusions on the subject. My posting on Glamour Houses deals with a related phenomenon, though admittedly a deception by the fairies undertaken for benign purposes. My book, British Pixies, also examines the theme of pixy-leading in detail and in the wider context of pixie behaviour overall.