Fairies and Bread- the significance of baking in fairyland

baker

When we think of baking and fairies today, cupcakes and treats with pink icing for little girls’ parties tend to come to mind.  Even if we put these to one side, that homely substance, bread, seems far too ordinary and basic a product to have any supernatural aspects, but the folklore reveals that fairies have a strange relationship to the substance.

It might, in fact, be more accurate for us to talk about baked products in this posting, as we are by no means solely concerned with loaves made of wheat flour.  For example, throughout Scotland oatcakes (rather than loaves) were thought to have protective powers: a bannock hung over a cottage threshold would protect a mother and her new-born child inside and burning an oatcake would drive off the faeries.

Home Baking

“And, for thy food, eat fairy bread.”

(The Convert Soule, 1620)

The fairies are widely known to bake their own bread.  Tantalisingly, one Scottish writer has described faery bread as tasting like a wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine; apparently, it will last for a week at least without going stale.  Cornish woman Anne Jefferies, who was imprisoned for suspected witchcraft, was fed by the faeries during her captivity and a person who tasted the bread they gave her described it as “the most delicious … I ever did eat, either before or afterward.”

The fairies will share their baked products with humans, sometimes, although (as with all fairy food) it may not be all it seems.  In Breconshire the belief is that gifts of bread from the tylwyth teg, if not eaten immediately and in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.  A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them.  After this ordeal, they gave him meat and bread to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”

Bread Protects from Faeries

There seems to be something mysterious and semi-magical about bread when it comes to fairies. It can both protect people or bestow supernatural powers.

In one Scottish story a man who has stolen from the faeries is pursued by them and they cry out “You wouldn’t be so fast if it wasn’t for the hardness of your bread.”  In a similar tale, a Perthshire man was troubled by faery cattle eating his crops, but was unable to catch them until one day, as he chased a dun cow around his fields, a faery woman appeared and advised that he’d do better if he ate barley bannocks turned on the griddle and milk from black goats. He followed her advice, caught the faery cow and thereafter had the best milk herd in the district.  This bread magic can work both ways though: in an incident from the Hebrides a captive mermaid manages escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him would have been luckier had it not been for the dryness of his bread- if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.

Bread somehow works to protect people from faery ill-will.  It was widely believed throughout Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influence, especially from being pixie-led.  Stuart poet Robert Herrick wrote that:

“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.”

The verse seems to imply that, originally, people must have carried a piece of consecrated host, but eventually any sort of bread was thought to be as good.  The Scottish Highland equivalent to this protection is to have oatmeal in your pocket or sprinkled over your clothes when travelling.

New babies are believed to be especially vulnerable to faery abduction, but bread products are a particularly effective at safeguarding them.  From Cornwall comes a belief that a child can be protected from being taken by baked goods: a mother must take a cake with her to her baby’s baptism and then give it to the first person she meets in the road.  This guarantees her child’s safety from the pixies.  There’s an identical practice in Sutherland in Scotland, involving oatcake and cheese, whilst on the Isle of Man the practice was to provide ‘blithe meat’ (bread and cheese) for people who came to visit a mother and her new-born child.  A portion of this would be scattered around for the unseen visitors, too- partly perhaps to win their favour as ‘godmothers’ and partly to guard against the risk of abduction.

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Bread Attracts Faeries

Confusingly, as I have described before when discussing fairy farming, fairies also seem to grow wheat and other grains so they can bake their own bread.  What’s more, they seem to like human loaves just as much as their own.  Traditionally, fairy helpers on farms, such as brownies, boggarts and others, are paid in bread.  Very frequently fairies will come to farmhouses to ask to borrow flour or meal when their own supplies have run low.  Bread can also be used to attract fairies to you in summoning charms and it seems to help appease faery animosity: at Wooler, in Northumberland, sickly children would be dipped in a well’s waters and bread and cheese would be left as an offering to the fairies, hoping for a cure.

That the faeries have a taste for human baking is confirmed by several stories from Wales, in which lake maidens are lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are very fussy about the bake of their loaves though: first the bread offered will be judged too hard, then too soft, until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms.  In another of these Welsh stories, concerning the maiden of Llyn y Fan Fach, a man uses bread to bait a fishing hook so he can catch himself a faery wife.  Once again, he tries first with a hunk from a well-baked loaf- and fails- and then tries with half-baked bread and lands his bride.  We may compare evidence from the isle of Man to these Welsh stories.  At Casstruan on the island the mermaids were said to have been very plentiful offshore and the local fishermen would befriend them by throwing them bread, butter and oatcakes.

What’s more, it’s doesn’t just appear to be the quality of the bake that seems to matter: the faeries don’t like salt in their loaves.  As a general rule, it’s a substance they can’t abide, something which comes out in Manx one story.  A woman was out walking when she heard music ahead of her on the road.  She followed the sound and caught up with a group of fairies.  They asked what she had in her basket, to which she replied bread, offering to share it with them.  She broke one of the oatcakes she had with her and placed it on a hedge.  They accepted her offer after checking that there was no salt in the mix.  Because of her generosity, she was promised always to have bread.

In fact, such is the liking of the faes for human bread that they will steal it if it can’t be got by gift or in exchange for an honest night’s work.  One Scottish story tells how the trows living under a cottage stole freshly baked oatcakes simply by slyly raising a floor slab and snatching them away as they cooled; on the Isle of Man the practice certainly was to leave the last cake of a batch behind the ‘turf-flag’ for the little people.

All the same, the fairies seem to have an ambiguous relationship to human baking.  The Welsh tylwyth teg are said to enter kitchens and to ‘robin’ bread dough- that is, to make it too sticky and stringy to rise.  The Cornish pixies too are said to spoil bread in the oven, making it come out full of ‘pixy-spits.’  Probably these examples are just examples of their mischievous nature getting the better of their appetites.

Two stories from the Isle of Man underline the importance of bread to the fairies.  In one, a servant girl at Bride was baking one day and forgot to share the cake she made with the fairies.  When she got into bed that night, she received a blow in the face that made her see stars.  She was a sensible young woman and readily understood what it meant- that the fairies were offended and vengeful- and she instantly got up and baked another cake, which she divided with them.  In another account, a woman lying sick in bed at Barrule was visited by ‘the Bishop of the fairies,’ a man in an old-fashioned three-cornered hat, who stood before her, broke a cake and gave her half.  The report does not really explain what this incident meant, but perhaps the fact that she recovered to tell the story indicates that she was favoured by the faes and had been healed.

Why Bread?

As noted already, part of the perceived power of bread must come from its use by the Christian church in the host.  The idea that a holy item will repulse the ‘evil’ forces of Faery is very common.  What would be effective, then, is its sanctified nature rather than the fact that it’s a leavened wheat product.  It may be simply confusion on the part of humans that, now, any old bit of bread would seem to do.

Another explanation might be that the fairies object to bread because it is a product of settled human civilisation- along with iron, for example.  This doesn’t really explain the situation, though, for two reasons: one that fairies make their own bread (and iron) and because they consume- and like- human bread.

In conclusion, then, in fairyland bread is far more magical and mysterious a food stuff than we might ever have supposed. For something so everyday and unremarkable, it holds great power.

For more on this, see my recently published book Faery.

‘Finding a Fairy’- a forgotten fairy classic

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Eve with the fairy

There are several reasons for remembering the year 1917.  It was, of course, the third full year of the First World War and matters didn’t seem to be going well for anyone: there’d been the huge loss of life in the mud at Passchendaele and Russia had collapsed into revolution, for example.  Meanwhile, in the July sunshine in a village just outside Bradford, two girls messing around with a camera staged some fairy photos for a private joke- but saw matters spiral out of their control.  The Cottingley fairies are world famous now; strangely, though, we have almost entirely forgotten the second collection of fairy photographs published in November of that year.

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Finding a Fairy is a children’s book written by nature photographer and artist Carine Cadby and illustrated with thirty one photographs by her husband, Will Cadby- who was also a professional photographer.  The pair often worked together on artistic projects: they illustrated the 1920 edition of Walter de la Mere’s A Child’s Day with two line drawings and a series of photos of a little girl.  Carine and Will had already written Dogs and Doggerel (1902) and The Doll’s Day (1915), which had been illustrated with photos of the same girl seen in Finding a Fairy, but with dolls that were unashamedly dolls; they followed these up with Puppies and Kittens (1918), Topsy and Turvy- a Book of Holidays (about a dog and a kitten- 1919) and The Brownies in Switzerland (1923), which is sadly not about skiing fairies but concerns some young Girl Guides on holiday in the snow.  All these titles indicate the Cadby’s style and market: light-hearted, illustrated fiction for young children, with an emphasis on cuddly animals.

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The Cadbys lived on the edge of Platt Woods in Sussex, which were the scene for the illustrations for the book.  As well as using local scenery, they employed local people in the pictures.  The little girl ‘Eve’ who is heroine of the story was Pernel Wilson, daughter of a local architect and craftsman.  Her older brother posed as the young male in the pictures and the Cadby’s dog also appeared.  It’s all gently evocative of a rural lifestyle long since passed and none of it is meant very seriously.  For example, Eve/ Pernel has managed to climb into a tree in one of her best frocks and wearing a highly impractical but stylish pair of sandals with a heel…

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The book was published by Mills and Boon, a company still in business today but now irretrievably associated with a certain style of romantic fiction aimed at women.  In 1917, the story was greeted as a charming fantasy enlivened by equally attractive photographs.  Mills and Boon themselves described it as “a pleasant tale of a little girl who lived near a wood in which all sorts of pretty and wonderful things happened. The story is illustrated with photographs by Mr Will Cadby, who has been wonderfully successful in catching not only the grace of children, but bird life and the beauty of woodland scenery.” The woods are indeed attractive- the birds look like what they are- stuffed.  This quibble aside, their publicity aimed the book squarely at the “thousands” of children who had already enjoyed The Doll’s Day.

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The story of Finding a Fairy can be told quite quickly: the book is only 54 pages long.  Eve is a little girl of nine living with her grandfather, her aunt and their maid, Simmie.  Her mother and father are away on the other side of the world, we’re told.  She lives next to a wood and spends a lot of time playing there, making up fairy stories.  She believes wholeheartedly in the existence of fairies and her greatest wish is to meet one.

“She thought she knew exactly how they would look and exactly how they would be dressed.  Of course, they would be tiny, smaller than most dolls, and their little frocks would be made of cobwebs trimmed with dew-drops.  Their hair would be long and wavy, crowned with wreaths of the tiniest roses you ever saw” (pp.2-3).

Eve longs to meet a fairy to be able to ask it all the questions that fill her mind: what do they do when it rains; do they have toothbrushes; do they quarrel and what are their favourite birds?

In that very same wood lives a wood-fairy who wants to make friends with a little human girl.  Most fairies don’t bother much with people- especially not little girls, who are in bed when the fairies are out in the middle of the night- but this fairy wanted to meet someone different.  However, she feared the Fairy Queen would disapprove of the idea.  The fairy plays with the squirrels, rabbits and birds in the wood, but they are scared of people.  Her most promising friend is a dog, who looks after a number of people, including one nice little girl whom he promises to bring to see the fae.

eve and tip

The fairy is delighted to hear from the Fairy Queen that she is allowed to befriend a human child.  However, three conditions are imposed: the girl must be under ten, she must be ‘nice’ and she must believe in fairies.  The fairy knows that Eve satisfies these criteria: Tip the dog has said how nice she is and, one day, the fairy saw Eve telling a playmate Stella that the toadstools in a fairy ring were the fairies’ chairs, so she knows too that she is a believer.

The next day, Eve gets up early and, as it’s such a sunny day, she hurries to the wood to play, where she dances and sings until she’s tired out.  She lies down to sleep under a tree and is awoken by singing.  Her heart gives a thump when she sees a real fairy beside her “a beautiful little being wearing a gossamer dress and a wreath of tiny roses round her head” (p.22)  She doesn’t have a name (“we are just what you call us”) so Eve names her Marigold and they sit and talk.  The little girl is amazed to learn that the fairy can understand all the creatures in the wood, from the birds to the bumble-bees, who fly around grumbling about their work.  Marigold promises to bring her wand the next time they meet and to touch Eve’s lips and ears so that she can understand the creatures too.

eve

After a few days, the pair meet again and Marigold touches Eve with the wand, so that “Until the sun goes down on your tenth birthday, you shall be one of us and understand our language” (p.33) .  They then have a party with the woodland birds, the woodpecker, raven, magpie and kestrel; Eve wishes first she could fly like them- then she wishes she were a fairy.  Marigold promises to ask the Fairy Queen if this can be allowed; the raven warns against it, because Eve would have to leave those she loves, her friends and family, whilst fairies “have no hearts at all” (p.38)

The following day, after a shower of rain, Eve searches for Marigold in the wood and finds her in a sort of nest of bracken where she has sheltered from the downpour.  The Fairy Queen has decreed that Eve can indeed become a fairy, provided that she follows a strict procedure: she must watch the moon until it is full and fast for three days.  At the end of this, she must sneak out of her house at night and come to meet the fairies in the wood.  Eve isn’t too keen on the sound of this: she fears being very hungry- but the fairy knows nothing about hunger- and she worries about getting into trouble with her aunt and grandfather- but, as Marigold points out, once she has become a fairy, she won’t have aunts or parents.  Eve starts to feel doubtful about the idea.

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Meanwhile, the maid Simmie has lost a ring that her sailor boyfriend has given her.  Eve wants to help find it and knows that, as a fairy, she could do this.  However, she also learns that her mother and father are on their way home to join her, so she decides to stay as a girl and just have a fairy as a friend- one who can hopefully locate the missing ring.

Eve asks Marigold to assist, but again she struggles to comprehend Simmie’s worry and unhappiness: “fairies’ hearts are not made of stuff that gets fond of people” she explains (p.44).  Nonetheless, she discovers that the magpie stole the ring and Eve manages to persuade him to return it.  She tells him she’ll always be grateful- a promise he doubts.  The reason for this is that the next day is Eve’s tenth birthday and her best present will be the reunion with her parents.

The following day, just before she goes to the station to meet her mum, Eve sees Marigold for the last time in the wood.  The little fae tells her human friend that the fairy law is that, having turned ten, she must be made to forget that she ever met a fairy.  Eve begs her not to cast the spell because she doesn’t want to lose all recollection of her amazing friend.  Marigold agrees not to “blow cobwebs across her face” but warns that, even so, the memory will fade steadily until it seems just like a dream.  Eve accepts this, they kiss and they part.

When, later that day, she is cuddled by her mother again, Eve is glad that she chose to stay as a real flesh and blood girl who can love her mummy.

“Eyes of youth are strong and bold,

They a fairy may behold,

If they are not ten years old;

But when the birthday ten draws nigh,

Fairies have to say ‘goodbye.'”

eve 2

What I find attractive about the story is that fact that, although it is clearly a children’s book, it is far from sentimental.  Carine Cadby is faithful to the folklore in making the fairies quite heartless (or amoral) and unable to identify with human emotions.  For all her doll-like prettiness, ‘Marigold’ is quite self-centred and un-empathetic.  Cadby doesn’t hide this from her readership.  I’m put in mind of the Welsh story in which the fairy wife cries at a wedding and laughs at a funeral; Marigold the wood fairy is similarly devoid of the conventions of human social interactions.

That said, Finding a Fairy must have met a need and found an enthusiastic readership.  It was reprinted twice, in 1918 and in 1919, and, as we have seen, Carine Cadby felt it was worthwhile writing more children’s books- indicating that her royalties must have been enough to encourage her and her husband to spend more time on similar projects.

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As stated, publication coincided with the first disclosure of the Cottingley pictures, but it will be very clear that the Cadbys had no pretensions to supernatural revelation.  Their shots don’t try to look like anything other than a girl in a wood with a doll, but the parallels with the famous images are intriguing nevertheless.  They confirm the abiding interest in fairies and, perhaps, a wish to make them feel nearer and more real at that point in time.  Certain fundamental assumptions were shared too: that the faes would reveal themselves to a child (especially a girl), that they would be found in woodland and that they would be small.  What’s more, both at Cottingley and at Platt, the fairies dressed in versions of everyday Edwardian women’s wear.

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The conjunction of tiny, doll-like fairies and woodland scenes reappeared fifty years later in the notorious pictures of some Cornish witches that are well known from Janet Bord’s Fairies.  The girl in this instance has lost her clothes in the excitement of discovery, and the figures are smaller, but there’s a shared inspiration as well as a comparable stiffness and lifelessness in the apparitions of the Good Folk.

The Psyche Fairy Fake - Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog

Further Reading

The Platt village memorial hall has an excellent website with more details about the making of the book and about the life and history of this Sussex village as well.  See too my previous posting and page that examines the impact of the Cottingley photographs upon our faery iconography.

The inter-relationship between the Great War and the desire to believe in and see fairies is one I have addressed in a number of postings in which have looked at both the visual and literary responses to this impulse.  As I have described, works as disparate as orchestral music, poetryThe Lord of the Ringsopera and Finding a Fairy were the result of that need for comfort and help.

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Fairies and fertility

Cherry Blossom Fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

In East Anglia the local fairies are variously called the Yarthkins, the Tiddy Ones, the Strangers or the Greencoaties.  As the first name plainly shows, they are rooted in the local soil: ‘yarthkin’ derives from ‘earthkin’ and denotes a small spirit born from the land.  According to one witness interviewed by Victorian folklorist Mrs Balfour in the fens, the diminutive beings are so-called because “tha doolt i’ th’ mools” (‘they dwelt in the soft earth or mould’).  These ‘Strangers’ act as fertility spirits, helping the growth and ripening of plant life.  According to Mrs Balfour’s late nineteenth century account, in the spring they pinch the tree and flower buds to make them open and tug worms out of the earth; they help flowers bloom and green things grow and then, at harvest time, they make corn and fruits ripen.  Without their attention, the plants would shrivel, harvests would fail and people would go hungry.  In recognition of this, the Strangers receive tribute or offerings from the local people- the first share of any flowers, fruits or vegetables and the first taste of any meal or drink.  If neglected, these beings may be vindictive, affecting yields, making livestock sick and even causing children to pine away.  (see Folklore vol.2 1891)

In this posting I shall examine the fairies’ connection to plant growth and our reliance upon them for good harvests.  One theory about their origins popular with folklorists is that our modern fairies represent the minor fertility gods of Roman times and earlier (see for example Lewis Spence, British Fairy Origins).  Certainly, as the Yarthkins show, they can play a key role in fertility.

Examining the British records, you soon discover that there are plentiful indications that the fairies are intricately associated with the weather and plant growth and with the fertility of not just farm livestock but of people too.  They are, in general therefore, symbols of natural life in all its forms.

Midsummer Night’s Dream

The intimate links between the balance within Faery and the health of the human world is brought out in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Early in the play, Titania describes how her quarrel with Oberon has disrupted the natural world:

“Therefore, the winds, piping to us in vain,

As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

Contagious fogs; which falling in the land

Have every pelting river made so proud

That they have overborne their continents:

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,

The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn

Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;

The fold stands empty in the drowned field,

And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;

The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,

And the quaint mazes in the wanton green

For lack of tread are undistinguishable:

The human mortals want their winter here;

No night is now with hymn or carol blest:

Therefore, the moon, the governess of floods,

Pale in her anger, washes all the air,

That rheumatic diseases do abound:

And thorough this distemperature we see

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts

Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,

And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown

An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds

Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evils comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.” (Act II scene 1)

Summarising all of this in one phrase, Titania later tells Bottom that: “”I am a spirit of no common rate:/ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene 1)

These lines provide vivid descriptions of the woes that can befall Nature if the fairies do not lend their guiding hand and support.  We know, too, from other sources, of their powers to control the weather, whether this relates to mermaids, pixies or Scottish hags.  Most often in folklore accounts we find these powers wielded to punish or harm humans who have in some way offended or violated fairy kind (as in pixies bringing down fogs to mislead travellers), but it must follow that they are able to influence the seasons and the sprouting and ripening of crops (see my Faery).

The fairies’ relationship to human fertility is apparent from the very last scene of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The weddings of Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander have taken place and the newly married couples have gone to their beds.  At this point the fairies enter the palace and Oberon instructs them:

“Now, until the break of day,

Through this house each fairy stray.

To the best bride-bed will we,

Which by us shall blessed be;

And the issue there create

Ever shall be fortunate.

So shall all the couples three

Ever true in loving be;

And the blots of Nature’s hand

Shall not in their issue stand;

Never mole, hare lip, nor scar,

Nor mark prodigious, such as are

Despised in nativity,

Shall upon their children be…” (Act V, scene 2)

The fairies promise the new human families many healthy children, a scene that reminds us of the broader role played by the fays in human childbirth.  The traditional functions of fairy queen Mab, for example, included acting as a midwife and also as a domestic goddess, especially in the dairy (see my Fayerie).

Folklore Accounts

It seems clear that earlier generations understood that the fairies controlled the natural world and that, as a result, they could bring either prosperity or ruin to communities.  Given this power, their propitiation was fundamental to life and health.  We see instances of this from all around the British Isles.

In one case, a Dartmoor sheep farmer’s flock was plagued by disease.  He concluded that the only way of saving his stock and his livelihood was to go to the top of a tor and there to sacrifice a sheep to the pixies- a move which promptly alleviated the problem.

At Halloween, on the Hebridean island of Lewis, the population would attend a church ceremony that included pouring ale into the sea in the hope that the sprite called ‘Shony’ (Seonaidh) would guarantee a good supply of seaweed in the year ahead; so too on the remote isle of St Kilda, where shells, pebbles, rags, pins, nails and coins were thrown in the sea.  Seaweed may not seem very important to most of us today, but it was a vital fertiliser and source of winter fodder for cattle, so a plentiful supply of ‘sea ware’ on the beaches was essential to survival.  This is nicely demonstrated by the story of a ghillie of the MacDonald clan on the Isle of Skye who saw a bean nighe (a type of banshee) washing a shroud at Benbecula.  He crept up behind her and seized her, thereby entitling himself to three wishes.  That, of all the things he chose, was a guarantee that the loch near his home would be full of seaweed indicates the significance of humble kelp to the economy.

Other Scottish examples of the influence of the supernatural over the health and fertility of livestock are to be found in the widespread habit of offering milk to glaistigs, urisks and gruagachs.  As I have described before, these brownie-like creatures have a direct influence upon the well-being of farm animals and cheating or neglecting them could only lead to ruin (this will be dealt with in greater detail in my forthcoming book Beyond Faery).

Something similar is seen in England, too, in respect of fruit and nut trees.  As I have examined before in a separate post, orchards are haunted by sprites whose role is to bring life to the trees and to protect the crop from thefts.  These faeries go by various names, Owd Goggy, Lazy Lawrence, Jack up the Orchard, the grig and the apple tree man.  At harvest time a few apples should always be left behind for them- an offering called the ‘pixy-word’ (or hoard)- and, if this is offering is made, the faeries will bless the crop.  See too my recent book Faery.

Modern Encounters

It is common nowadays to speak of fairies as ‘nature spirits.’  This isn’t quite the same thing as controllers of fertility, necessarily, as the latter function is less restrictive and allows scope for the fae to get up to other things too.

All the same, a couple of twentieth century reports suggest the sorts of things we may encounter them doing.  In 1973 ‘Circumlibra’ wrote to the Ley Hunter to describe a meeting with a gnome near Alderwasley in Derbyshire.  They met on a small mound and conversed telepathically and the human learned from the gnome that “his work was in breaking down decaying materials into food for plants.”  Interestingly, this being regarded himself as another human and not as any sort of ‘elemental.’   Secondly, Scot Ogilvie Crombie met a fawn-like creature in Edinburgh in 1966 who said that he ‘helped the trees to grow’ (see Janet Bord, Fairies, 72). In both these cases, as we can see, the fairies are actively tending and feeding plant life.

Monarchy and Hierarchy in Faery

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from the Famous Fairies series by Lorna Steele

In Morgan Daimler’s latest book, A New Dictionary of Fairy- A 21st Century Exploration of Celtic and Related Western European Fairies, she remarks that “Fairy is a very feudal system… everything is tied together with debts and obligations and what’s owed to who.” (p.120)  This set me thinking once again about fairy monarchy and how exactly their society is organised, something I’ve tackled before in several postings.

The human societies of the High Middle Ages were, indeed, feudal, in that land was granted in return for services within a rigidly hierarchical and monarchic social structure, from the king down to the lowliest knight.  The system was pyramidal, with the ruler overseeing a multitude of tenants and subtenants across each realm.

How closely does Faery resemble this?  We know of fairy kings and queens, obviously, and we know too of the importance of promises and obligations in fairy relationships.  However- so far as we know- land, and rights over it, form no part of fairy social dynamics and the fairy hierarchy seems to be very flat- perhaps no more than two levels, comprising the monarch and subjects.

So far as we can tell, British fairy monarchs reigned over no highly structured nation nor over any court in which precedence or rank dominated.  Fairy kings and queens were remarkably free of airs and graces.  They undertook the most menial chores for themselves- so, for example, the elf king in the ballad Sir Cawline fights his own duels and does not rely on a champion.  These kings and queens were not averse to entering sexual relationships with the humblest of humans, either.  Margaret Alexander, from Livingston in Scotland, told her 1647 witchcraft trial that the fairy king had taken her as his partner and, even, “laye with her upone the brige” at Linton.  Al fresco sex in the highway with a human commoner is about as far from regal as we can imagine.

Sometimes, intermediaries with the human world might be employed, as was the case with Thom Reid who communicated with Bessie Dunlop on behalf of the fairy queen, but any more elaborate organisation than this seems to have been absent.  The only exception to this statement is the system of multiple ‘elphin courts’ that’s mentioned in some versions of the ballad of Tam Lin (Child versions D, K & G)In two, we read of three courts including a ‘head court’ that is dressed in green and accompanies the queen.  In the third of these renderings, the ranking is more complex, as Tam explains to his human lover, Margret:

“Then the first an court that comes you till

Is published king and queen;

The next an court that comes you till,

It is maidens mony ane.

The next an court that comes you till

Is footmen, grooms and squires;

The next an court that comes you till

Is knights, and I’ll be there.”

In this scheme, we have a very distinct and strict social ordering.  Usually, however, the most that we hear of is some servants, as in the ballad of Leesom Brand, in which the hero goes to the fairy court aged ten to act as a server at the king’s table. Of course, such domestic servants were once quite common in a range of households, and implied no great wealth or status.

Faery society is a very flattened pyramid, therefore, and its individual citizens have an almost compete autonomy- it seems.  Perhaps the problem is that we lack any adequate word to transliterate the fairy term: Donald McIlmichael, tried at Inverary in 1674, said that he had seen an old man inside the fairy hill he visited who “seemed to have preference above the rest” and “seemed to be chief.”  Perhaps there is seniority, priority and respect, but little more than that.

Nevertheless, regardless of the parties, interpersonal relationships in and with Faery are governed by reciprocity.  Good deeds should always be repaid, and to the same degree or value.  If a fairy loans you some flour, always give exactly the same quality and quantity back.  Debts are remembered and will be exacted, even decades later.  It will be obvious that you should never enter into any sort of deal with the fairies unless you are able and willing to fulfil your side.  Default is not an option.

For more information on fairy governance, see chapter 11 of my book, Faery.

Titania by Arthur Rackham