There are many aspects of human behaviour to which fairies take exception, such as meanness, rudeness and untidiness, but spying upon their activities is especially enraging to them. They value their privacy above all things. Although I recently noted how much the faeries hate those who doubt or mock their existence, it seems that the opposite is just as unwelcome: being too interested in them is disliked just as much as disbelief. Striking the right balance can be very hard indeed for us humans (consider here the story of a Manx midwife who was offered two cakes to eat by the faeries, one broken and one whole; she was told to eat as much as she liked, so long as it wasn’t the cake that was broken- or the whole one… Evans Wentz 127). A handful of examples of faery reactions to spying is offered here.
Many reports of the fairies’ vicious reactions to discovering that their private activities have been overlooked come from the Isle of Man. For example, some men riding home at night saw a light in an old kiln. One looked inside and saw a great crowd assembled but, almost instantly, the light went out and the witness was seized with sickness and found he could not walk. A similar Manx account ends even more unfortunately. Two men were walking home over the mountains at night when they passed an old, ruined cottage that was then being used as a cattle byre. However, on that night they heard music emanating from the house. The windows had been blocked up with turfs so one of the men peered through the keyhole of the door instead. He saw fairies dancing- but was seen himself almost immediately. The fiddler at the gathering jabbed the spy in his eye with his bow- and he was blinded from that date.
Such reactions were by no means unique to the Manx fairies. A Hertfordshire folktale, The Green Lady, concerns a girl who set out to seek her fortune and is given work as a housemaid by the fairy woman of the title (the story bears close resemblances to the Cornish story of Cherry of Zennor– and the several related accounts). The maid is warned not to eat the food in the house and not to spy on the activities of her mistress. The girl proves too nosey, though, and (like the Manx traveller) looks through the keyhole of one of the rooms on the woman’s house. Inside, the Green Lady is dancing with a bogey– and the maid loses her sight for this violation (although in this story she is able to restore her vision with a magic well in the grounds of the property).
In the Scottish Highlands, near Braemar, there lies the Big Stone of Cluny. This has always been known to be a gathering place of the sith folk and, one night, a man saw a number of tiny figures dancing on top of the stone. He watched for some time, as his fancy was taken by one fairy girl in particular, but she sensed his presence and flew at him in fury. He only just had time to say a prayer and protect himself from what could have been permanent injury. At Beddgelert in Snowdonia, another man spied upon the fairies when they were dancing. This time, though, he fell asleep where he was concealed and, whilst he slumbered, was bound with ropes and covered with gossamer. Search parties who looked for him the next day couldn’t see him and it was only the next night that the tylwyth teg freed him, after he had slept for a day and a half.
However much the faeries live in proximity to us- and are prepared to invade our homes and other buildings to use for their own purposes- they apply different rules and principles to themselves. Trespass upon human property, and constant listening in to human conversations, are perfectly acceptable, but the reverse is intolerable, whether it arose accidentally or deliberately. These dual standards, and the need constantly to keep on the right side of our Good Neighbours, has been a constant feature of British faerylore across the centuries.
The faeries’ adverse reactions to anything they consider to be incursions upon their rights and their privacy are described further in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):
“Wheel’s on fire Rolling down the road Just notify my next of kin This wheel shall explode”
Bob Dylan/ Rick Danko
Faery kind need not always appear in anthropomorphic form. I have described before the Scottish kelpies and each uisge and the shape shifting capabilities of several supernatural beings, such as Puck and the Isle of Man bogie called the buggane.
Transformations into animals might still seem relatively understandable, given the British tradition of semi-fish-like mermaids and selkies or the very widespread idea of the ‘Black Dog.’ However, fairies can sometimes take completely non-animal forms. I was inspired to examine these by Simon Young’s article on the Rolling Wool Bogie and in my book Beyond Faery I described the variety of ‘soft’ apparitions (looking like jelly, or balls or bales of wool or grass) as well as some very bizarre ‘hard’ forms that have been adopted.
There are quite a few examples of the ‘hard’ manifestations, from all around the British Isles. At Hellsgill, Nether Auchinleck, in Clydesdale, a sprite in the shape of the outer rim of a cartwheel would come bounding down the brae, heading straight for any night time traveller. Just as it looked to be about to collide with its victim, the wheel would vanish with an eldritch laugh. Other such Scottish ‘wheels’ have been reported. A man called Alexander, of Buaile Mor on South Unst, was fishing in a stream one night when he saw a figure approaching downstream. He called to the stranger to step away from the water so as not to frighten the fish; the man complied but then Alexander realised something like a mill-wheel was rolling towards him. Hurriedly, he gathered up his catch and gear and made off. The fish he’d caught he hid under a rock and then headed for the nearest house. Crossing the moor, however, he was repeatedly thrown down. The next morning, returning to collect his catch, Alexander found that all had gone save for one he had ripped the head off by standing on it during his hurried departure the night before.
At Lag nam Bocan (Bogle’s Hollow), on South Uist, a woman saw an iron car wheel rim rolling along the road. A comparable- and equally inexplicable- incident occurred at Mynydduslwyn in Gwent: a reddish grey object, round like a bowl, was encountered rolling back and forth across a lane. The witness believed it was a living thing, because it grew larger and smaller as it moved; he enquired what in God’s name it was, and the apparition instantly disappeared. Perhaps it’s significant too that the Orkney monsters, the nuggle and the shoopiltee, are said to have tails resembling a water-wheels.
Two comparable examples from the Isle of Man, which were regarded as manifestations of the buggane, are described in Manx Notes and Queries for 1904:
“A man, when he was young, was seeing the girls home late in the night, and when coming to the end of beyr yn clagh glass (the grey stone road), he beard a great noise, and he looked in every direction, but could see nothing, and the noise was coming nearer. He did not know what to do, so he got over the hedge, but the noise was just over him, and he looked up and saw a thing like a big wheel of fire. It was going round at a great speed, and went towards Ballacurry and when it was near that place it vanished, and he saw no more of it
Second Account– A man was coming along the grey stone road in Ballakillowey, and he met a big wheel of fire, going around at a fearful rate, but remaining in the same place, and he could not get past, so he went back and took another road, but he met the wheel again at the next opening, and he went across the fields to shun it, but when he came to the high road the wheel was there again, but he ventured to pass it and got away. It made a great noise with whirling round.”
As I described in my book Beyond Faery, published last year, faery kind are capable of taking quite unexpected and baffling forms. That book argued for an expansion of ‘faery’ to include a range of supernatural beings in animal (rather than humanoid) form, but it will be clear that we actually need to expand our horizons far more broadly to encompass all the potential manifestations that have been encountered.
It definitely is not wise to doubt the existence of fairies- and to voice that disbelief too loudly or too forcefully. Here are a few examples of your likely fate if you do.
Disbelief in the face of tangible proof of the faeries’ existence and capabilities is especially hated by them. Very common are stories of humans who win faery favour by mending their broken tools, and a regular element in these is the companion who doubts and mocks any such assistance. In a Sussex version of the story of the ‘broken peel,’ a ploughman mends the baking implement but his mate scorns the whole idea- and dies a year to the day later. In alternative versions, a gift of food is given in return for the repair and the companion refuses to eat it- and suffers as a result.
Death may seem a disproportionate response, but it’s not unusual. A Shetland girl who had spoken lightly of the trows one night was drowned as she travelled home; a West Yorkshire man who mocked the boggarts instantly collapsed and died of a heart attack at Lumbutts, near Todmorden.
The Leeds Mercury for May 13th 1852 carried the story of an unbelieving butcher who was met one night by two female goblins. One jumped up behind him on his horse and the other ran alongside as he cantered. He was so terrified by the experience that, as soon as he made it home, he went to bed and expired. Another sceptic went to a well-known haunt of a boggart and called out mockingly, asking where it was. It replied that it would be with him shortly, once its shoe had been tied and, before he had a chance to think better of things and flee, it jumped out, grabbed him, and dragged him through bogs and briars until his clothes and skin were shredded and the pound of candles he had had in his pocket were reduced to the wicks alone. He was left in a ditch, barely more alive than dead.
The pixies of the South West of Britain seem to be especially touchy about doubters and there are several stories of people punished by them for scepticism- usually by pixy-leading them.
In William Bottrell’s story of Uter Bosence and the Piskey, the man is drunkenly making his way home one night. He has laughed at stories of pixies and is regarded by other local people as an “unbelieving heathen” as a result. A fog arises and he becomes trapped in a field, unable to find the way out. Uter decides to rest in a ruined chapel until the weather improves or dawn comes, but instead, he is confronted with a band of spriggans and a terrible goat-like being with blazing eyes and paws instead of hooves, which tries to dance with him. Then he’s knocked over and dragged across the moor- an experience from which he never fully recovers.
A Somerset man returning from the pub found himself misled and lost because he had sneered at the possibility of pixies. He was rescued by a local farmer who heard his cries of distress and, in response to the experience, the man worked on his saviour’s farm for free, saying that he did this to please the pixies, so that they wouldn’t give him a “gude lammin’” the next time they came across him alone at night.
In Enys Tregarthen’s 1940 story, Why Jan Pendogget Changed His Mind, the main character is another disbeliever who unwisely is too vocal about his contempt for such childish ideas as pixies. He attends St Columb fair one day- and his mother advises him to avoid crossing Undertown Meadow on his way home because the pisky folk have been making rings there. He ignores this, of course, and is pixy-led. He can’t find the gate out of the field and then can’t locate the one he entered by either. He sees lights bobbing and hears the pixies laughing- and is trapped all night until dawn.
Cornish miner called Tom Trevorrow doubted the existence of the knockers in mines. He refused to share his food with them and ignored the warnings of their displeasure at his disrespect (falls of stones in the workings), so finally they caused a roof collapse that buried the lode he had been working, along with all his tools.
One of the least violent of these types of tale may be the Dartmoor story of Nanny Norrish, whose scepticism is answered one night when she meets the pixies piled up before her in a pyramid and all chattering loudly. Nanny appears to have got off lightly, considering what we’ve already seen and given that another Devon folklorist averred that the pixies’ “malevolence will know no end” towards one who’s spoken ill of them.
In a previous posting I looked at the influence of British folklore and myths on musician Marc Bolan, as well as mentioning his personal devotion to the Great God Pan. Here I offer another brief glimpse of mythology and legend at work in contemporary rock.
The first album released by Pink Floyd in August 1967 was Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The title is taken from chapter seven of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, a strange, slightly hallucinogenic episode in which Ratty and Mole meet the Great God Pan on an island, isolated at the end of a side branch of the river where they live. It’s dawn and they are drawn inexorably into his presence, struck dumb with awe and reverence.
As late as July that year, the intended title of the album was Projection, but frontman Syd Barrett decided instead to borrow the name from one of his favourite books. Moreover, Barrett claimed to have had a dream, or vision, in which he met Pan (and other characters from the book) and the Great God had disclosed to him the secrets of the workings of Nature. To some extent, even, he believed that this encounter had resulted in him being an earthly embodiment of the deity.
The album tracks themselves didn’t refer to Pan, but there were still mythological references. The song Matilda Motherdescribes a child being read to in bed and the impact the fairy stories and their imagery have on his/ her imagination:
“Wandering and dreaming The words have different meaning Yes they did
For all the time spent in that room The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume And fairy stories held me high on Clouds of sunlight floating by Oh mother, tell me more Tell me more”
Secondly, we have Barrett’s song The Gnome, apparently drawing upon Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the work of J R R Tolkien, but full of traditional faery images and conventions. It concerns:
“A gnome named Grimble Gromble And little gnomes stay in their homes Eating, sleeping Drinking their wine He wore a scarlet tunic A blue green hood, it looked quite good He had a big adventure Amidst the grass, fresh air at last Wining, dining Biding his time…”
As is well known, Barrett succumbed to drug use and was ejected from Pink Floyd before becoming a virtual recluse. Reading the lyrics, this may not entirely surprise us, but the songs also confirm the persistent and powerful influence of Pan and Faery in the British imagination, especially during the late 1960s and early ’70s.
For more on Faery in rock music, see my 2022 book The Faery Faith in British Music is available from Amazon, either as an e-book (£5.95) or a paperback (£7.95).
A number of documents from the sixteenth century include spells for conjuring up fairy women for sex. This may strike us as shocking and surprising, but the fact that a several separate texts have survived suggests that it was an activity in which a number of magicians were interested.
Spells to gain power over human women are known, as are spells to control spirits; the combination of the two activities is therefore not wholly unpredictable, especially given the well-known desirability of faery women to which I have made reference in numerous other postings.
There seem to be a number of motivating factors involved in these conjurations. Undeniably, possession and control over a supernatural beauty for the purposes of sexual enjoyment are top of the list, doubtless intertwined with a very male attitude to females and towards being able to boast about your magical (and sexual) skills. Once conjured, though, the fairy women could provide other benefits, because they had supernatural knowledge that could enrich the magician. In this, they can be rather like faery brides- though as will become clear, those casting the spells discussed here don’t seem to have been interested in any sort of long-term relationship.
Balancing this, nonetheless, it is very clear that the risks inherent in such operations were well known and that the need for careful management of the interaction- and fairly prompt dismissal of the faery- were fully appreciated.
The spells are surrounded by the typical precautions that many magicians employed: chalk circles may be drawn; the magus will have bathed and abstained from alcohol or sex for a period of time beforehand; clean linen will be laid on a table bearing a candle and (in this particular instance) on the bed; incense or other perfumes will be employed. A wand or a crystal ball may also be required to assist in the ritual, and the proper day of the week, point in the lunar cycle and time must be observed.
The fairy is then summoned, invoking a variety of holy names and images that are meant to subdue and constrain the spirit. The king and queen of fairies may also be called upon to assist, through their powers and virtues and through the faith and obedience owed to them by the individual fairies, so that they rank equally alongside the Trinity and the Virgin Mary. Given the date- and that all of this is post-Reformation- is doubly surprising. Given that all these Christian trappings are being deployed just to have sex with a supernatural might be regarded as triply surprising.
Three separate magical operations have been preserved. The first is to be found in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584. After the ritual preparations, the magus sits in a circle and proceeds as follows:
“… then beginne your conjuration as followeth here, and saie: I conjure thee Sibylia, O gentle virgine of fairies, by the mercie of the Holie-ghost, and by the dreadfull daie of doome, and by their vertues and powers; … and by the king and queene of fairies, and their vertues, and by the faith and obedience that thou bearest unto them… I conjure thee O Sibylia, O blessed and beautifull virgine, by all the riall words aforesaid; I conjure thee Sibylia by all their vertues to appeare in that circle before me visible, in the forme and shape of a beautifull woman in a bright and vesture white, adorned and garnished most faire, and to appeare to me quicklie without deceipt or tarrieng, and that thou faile not to fulfill my will & desire effectuallie. For I will choose thee to be my blessed virgine, & will have common copulation with thee. Therefore make hast & speed to come unto me, and to appeare as I said before: to whome be honour and glorie for ever and ever, Amen.”
Discoverie of Witchcraft Book 13, c.8.
This may have to be repeated as many as four times until Sibylia appears, but Scot assures us she will, after which she must be bound by the holy names not to leave or become invisible until she is given leave to do so. Then, as Scot describes, she is asked by the conjurer “to give me good counsell at all times, and to come by treasures hidden in the earth, and all other things that is to doo me pleasure, and to fulfill my will, without anie deceipt or tarrieng; nor yet that thou shalt have anie power of my bodie or soule, earthlie or ghostlie, nor yet to perish so much of my bodie as one haire of my head.”
The other spells all resemble Scot’s, more or less. A second is to be found in a manuscript in the British Library. It recommends performing the spell on a Friday and that the magus should draw two touching chalk circles, in one of which is “a faire bed with new washed shetes, swet and well smyllinge.” A clean table stands in the other circle, on which is fresh water and bread. The virgin spirits Michel, Chicam and Burfee are then summoned to appear and to obey the magician’s will. One of them is commanded to lie on the bed.
A Latin incantation is repeated three times, after which the three faery women will appear, bearing food and wine. Nonetheless, the magician is warned:
“eate not with them. But thou shalle se oneof them that is fayrest and she shall make ye no chere. Then pryvily put thy sceptre to the hight of hir face and stand in the circle and kisse hir and say to hir… I conjure you, virgin, by the sceptre and the truth by virtue of which you have come here that you hasten to give to me a ring of invisibility and to approach this bed without delay and lie down nude by that venerable name which you discern in my sceptre… and, unless you make every assuagement you can without fraud or harm or illusion or bodily wound, that you do not depart from me until I desire to give you the licence and loose you by my own volition…”
The magus is warned to take the ring from the faery before lying down with her, otherwise he will not be able to receive it (it seems because he will no longer be pure). The other faeries are sent away then, after which the man is advised to “go naked to bede. Ly on the righte side of the bed and she on the lyfte sid of the bed and do what yow wilt. But aske note whether she be a Spirit or a woman, for then she well spaeke no mor to the. And she shall do thee no harm. Then lycans hir in the mornyng to go and she will com agayn when thou callst hir.”
The third magical operation is set out in a manuscript now to be found in Folger Library in Washington. It is very similar to the others, except that it is a lot more detailed and is concerned with conjuring the presence of “the seven sisters of the fairies,” who are called Lilia, Hestilia, Fata, Sola, Afrya, Julia and Venulla.
There are four spells. The first summons the sisters into the magician’s presence and constrains them to bring him treasure as well as to give him information as to the location of buried treasure and how to destroy any beings guarding that. They are also all required to “have bountiful copulation” with him as he chooses, without having any power over his body or being able to delude him.
The second spell enables the conjurer to call one of the fairy virgins to his bed whenever he wants to have pleasure with her. The ritual requires chalk circles and a freshly made bed and summons a “bountiful maid and virgin before me in a green gown and beautiful apparel, who will not fail to fulfil my will and desire effectually.” She is ordered to “Come quickly” because he wants carnal copulation with her.
The third spell deals with the faery once she has appeared. She is required to lie down on the bed “quietly and gently without fraud, hurt or guile” and without doing any harm to him, as well as departing when she’s told to do so. When the faery is present, the man is advised (once again) to lie down on her left-hand side and to do whatever he pleases (or can). The magician is reassured that, now she has been bound, the faery is just a woman and that he need not fear her. Even more importantly, he’s assured that he will never have encountered “so pleasant a creature or lively a woman in bed.” The magician is then advised that, having “fulfilled thy will and desire with her, thou mayst reason with her of any manner of things thou desirest to and in all kind of questions you list to demand of her.” As we see again, physical pleasure can be combined with the acquisition of wisdom and material wealth. Even so, the man is warned not to ask her any questions about herself, or to speak to anyone else about their contacts- or to otherwise disclose them. However fantastic the sex, great self-control must be exercised in this respect.
The fourth spell sends the faery back where she came from, there to rest until the magician fancies seeing her again.
A number of elements in these texts should be very familiar to readers: there’s the allusion to the danger of consuming faery food, the link between faeries and buried treasure, the need to keep quiet about the benefits derived from association with a faery and, lastly, the distinguishing green robe that she wears (albeit briefly, of course…)
The spells are at the same time both risibly adolescent and depressingly chauvinist. On the one hand, there’s the emphasis placed upon the fairy being a virgin: Scot, for example, is particularly concerned with conjuring “the blessed virgins,” the fairies Sibylia, Milia and Achilia and, interestingly, the British Library manuscript is also concerned with a trinity of faery virgins. I presume that the deflowering of the faery is part of her subjugation to the human magus. Alongside this repeated emphasis upon her purity, the faery lover is still guaranteed to be the best lover he will ever have gone to bed with: “For beauty and bounty neither queen nor empress in all the whole world is able to countervail her, for I have diverse times proved her and had her with me.” Even so, there is an odd note of bathos, too- an admission of reality perhaps- when the author of the text states that the magician will be able to do “with her whatsoever you please or canst do…” It seems that aspiration may run ahead of performance for those possibly too young or too old…
Sources & Further Reading
If you’d like to know more about these conjurations, you can consult the original texts which are reproduced as follows: