Fairy lovers- passion and peril

Brian Froud, ‘The Leanan-Sidhe,’ from Faeries

As many humans have discovered, having a faery lover can prove to be a terrible burden and strain.  Although you might initially feel a great sense of joy, pride and accomplishment, this often vanishes as the true cost of your lover becomes apparent.

The attraction is simply explained.  Fairy women are renowned to be great beauties– which is why, in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the Roman general greets the Egyptian queen as a “great fairy” (IV, 8).  To describe her as a fae is the only way of doing justice to her looks.  As well as beauty, fairy lovers and wives can bring advantages, such as supernatural skills and knowledge, but they can be demanding and jealous lovers too.

The Manx female fairy called the lhiannan shee is a very good example of this.  Dora Broome (Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man 36) describes one such lhiannan shee.  She woes her chosen man by leaving him a chest full of gold and a golden length of mermaid’s hair, but she also hangs around his home, sighing and trying to catch his eye, which the man knows could be fateful for him.  He decides to get married, thinking that this will put her off, but the plan doesn’t work.  The fairy woman continues to hang around, disturbing the newly wed couple, until the husband eventually catches sight of the fairy’s lovely face looking through the window.  She was “more beautiful than moonlight on water or the first primrose in Spring.”  The man falls under her spell instantly and abandons his wife for seven years.  When he finally returns, his wife has remarried and her first husband has been reduced to a white haired, haggard wreck- and can never escape his fairy pursuer. 

Broome says that the charms against a lhiannan shee are to say the Lord’s prayer quickly if you glimpse her and to always carry with you a magical object, such as twig of cuirn (rowan or mountain ash) or a fish bone called a bollan.  Both are highly effective at repelling fairies, apparently.  Powerful protection is needed, though, because “the face of the Fairy Woman is lovelier than a dream and lonelier than a sea-bird’s cry.”   

In another story, The Fisherman and the Ben-Varrey, Broome describes how a mermaid with lovely blue eyes and golden hair has a similarly bewitching effect on a poor man.  She gives him a chest of old golden coins and the sound of her voice as she sings on the rocks on the shore is so enticing that he would join her and drown had it not been for his wife locking the door.  The money turns out to be a curse, because everyone assumes it must be stolen, whilst the family end up poorer than ever because the fisherman stops fishing, believing he has wealth for life.  By luck, all the money is lost- which lifts the spell- but it’s clear that sooner or later the ben-varrey would have claimed him.

The lhiannan shee’s influence upon a man can be malign, causing him to waste away and to lose his wits and friends.  For example, a large burly man took up with a fairy woman.  He started to share all his food and drink with her, often putting his cup behind him so that she could drink (even though no-one else saw her).  As time passed, he began to laugh and talk to himself when alone (or so it seemed to others).  He also became paranoid about people trying to listen in to his conversations with her- although he claimed that the shee girl was telling him when he was being spied upon. It is particularly dangerous to speak to one, as it puts you at her mercy: in late Victorian times a man described meeting one in the fields near Rushen on Man and being very tempted to chat to her because she was so charming and lovely, but he knew not to do so because a friend of his had done this and had then been haunted by her, with the shee woman even following him into pubs and drinking his beer.

In 1904, a Manx author was able to identify at least half a dozen known lhiannan shees on the island. One at Glendowan was living with a man; another at Sorby had been seen chasing her husband and several others had been sighted wandering (or prowling) on their own, for example at Port Erin, where she was seen walking up the mountain.

The lhiannan shee is especially notable for the fact that she pursued and attached herself to men.  This proximity often came to be termed ‘haunting’ because it was too intense and obsessive and, both on Man and in the Highlands, there are stories of men who fled overseas to escape their fairy lovers, only to find that they had followed them across oceans. The Scottish and Manx shee women are extreme cases, but any fairy relationship can prove burdensome and demanding for the human partner. In Wales, as is known from numerous stories, winning the fae woman in the first place can be difficult (see the accounts about tempting them with bread) and the marriage is almost always subject to strict obligations or taboos. Normally, these involve keeping iron away from the fairy female, but there’s a very similar tale told of Dolgellau pool. A fairy would bathe there on summer evenings and Hugh Evans dared to spy on her- and fell in love. She consented to marry on the stipulation that he would allow her to continue to go off alone at nights and never interfere or ask questions about this. He agreed, but then became consumed with curiosity and tried to follow her one night. Hugh fell and broke his leg doing this and, once she had nursed him back to health, she left him forever.

In one Scottish story, the relentlessness of the fairy attachment is starkly revealed. A shepherd heard pipes playing and had to follow the sound of music. He was drawn onwards for weeks, months, seasons, living on roots and berries as he wandered. Finally he crossed the sea and, on the far shore, was met by a piper dressed in green who invited him to accept the love of a faery girl who had seen him with his flocks and had lured him to this place.

Many of the faery lovers I have described in previous posts can seem more passive, assigned the sorts of roles and attitudes allocated to women in the past.  On the surface this may be true, but it underestimates their power and planning.

Hans Zatzka

I have several times before mentioned the fairy women Tryamour in the story of Sir Launfal.  She is not unique.  In the Lay of Graelent, for example, the young knight is riding in a forest one May day when he comes upon a naked maiden bathing in a fountain, with her clothes hanging nearby on a bush.  He seizes them, in response to which she calls him by name and asks him to at least leave her shift. Graelent relents and allows her to come out of the water and dress, but then he’s overcome with lust and “did with her what he pleased.”  After what amounts to a rape, he begs her pardon, which she grants, before revealing that she had gone to the forest with the express intention of meeting him.  She then offers him fine clothes and money on condition that he binds himself to her and keeps their relationship secret.  Ultimately, the lady raises Graelent from death and disappears with him (strongly suggestive of Arthur and Morgan le Fay and clearly indicative of her fairy nature). This final departure to fairyland is repeated in Sir Launfal.

The Lay of Guingamor is quite similar.  The knight is hunting in a forest when he finds a maiden bathing in a spring and combing her hair (rather like a mermaid).  She is “long limbed and softly rounded” and, once again, he snatches her clothes to bring her within his power.  As before, though, it seems that her presence is far from accidental.  She addresses him by name and promises him love and gifts.  Guingamor then accompanies her to her palace, where a stay of three days lasts for three hundred years in human time.  These distortions in time as a familiar feature of passage between dimensions.

Finally, the lay called Le chevalier qui fist parler les cons et les culs involves another hunting knight discovering three nymphs bathing in a fountain.  They are “so seeming wise and beautiful, one might surmise that they were fairies in mortal guise.”  As soon as the knight’s squire sees the fays’ “white charms, their pretty bosoms, haunches, arms” he (yet again) snatches their clothes and rides off.  It is his master who restores their dresses to them, in return for which he is granted three powers- to be welcome everywhere and to be able to make “parler les cons et les culs” (to make cunts and arses talk…). A bizarre gift, but there you go…

It will have been noted from the previous paragraphs that fairy lovers are, in the British Isles, predominantly female.  Whereas Ireland has the gean cannah, the love talker, as a male equivalent to the leanan-sidhe, there are really no equivalent terrestrial beings in Britain.  There is, however, the northern Scottish tradition of male selkies, who will form sexual relationships with human women and father children.  Often, though, these relationships are brief and, not uncommonly, they’re non-consensual.  Selkie men seem prone to impregnating human women and abandoning them (see my posting on the chapter on selkies in my book Beyond Faery and, too, the ballad the Selkie of Sule Skerry).

Further Reading

There’s more discussion and examples of the lhiannan shee in my book Faery whilst in Beyond Faery I give extended consideration to the problems of human relationships with merfolk. My new book, Love and Sex in Faeryland, examines this subject at length.

‘Leanan Sidhe’ by Starfire-666 on Deviant Art, after Brian Froud in Good Faeries, Bad Faeries.

9 thoughts on “Fairy lovers- passion and peril

  1. Forgive me for asking here but, I could not find your E-Mail address on the site.

    The other day I found a page on your site johnkruseblog.wordpress.com or maybe Briushfairies that had a list of all your books but, I didn’t bookmark it. Today I checked both sites and can not find the book page anywhere? Could you please post a link to the web page with a list of your books.

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    1. Gerard

      The books page is, technically, a ‘page’ rather than a ‘post’ on WordPress, so it’s not visible to the public and can only be reached through links in posts. If you find any post that mentions one of my books, it should include a link to the ‘hidden’ and mysterious ‘John’s Books’ page…!

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  2. Thanks for sharing this!!! It seems, to me, that the female fairies and their allure carries a certain discrimination against women and reflects certain stereotypical ideas about the two sexes typical of the era where these stories/poems/lays/ballads were popular. The female fairy is portrayed as a seductress, a femme fatale who tempts men and lures them away from the safety of their wives and homes, literally driving them out of their mind. So, it’s not their fault if they stray from their spouses because they succumbed to the female glamour, unable to exercise any willpower.

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    1. I think you’re perfectly right about this. The medieval ballads in particular are heavily shaped by the attitudes of the time and the faery women seem to hover between two extremes: passive partner or crazed and dangerous nymphomaniac using magical powers for her own gain.

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