In a recent posting I highlighted the widespread British tradition of propitiating fairies with offerings and sacrifices– very much suggestive of a attitude of worship (or perhaps fear) towards the faery folk. It could even be presented as a sort of ‘protection money’ to keep on the right side of neighbours who are strict and unpredictable. This might give the impression of a one-way and non-reciprocal relationship, which would be misleading. Some people will receive spontaneous gifts of money; others are assisted in their domestic or farm work voluntarily by the fairies- or for minimal payment in kind for their labour. The faeries are also very ready to spontaneously acknowledge acts of good will be humans.
The famous poem by Bishop Corbet, ‘Rewards and Fairies,’ shows the strong link between the performance of good deeds towards fairies and personal gain for the individual that results- a transaction that has been recognised since the early seventeenth century- at the very least. It need hardly be remarked that the fairies’ reputation is by no means universally so good: on the Isle of Man the fairies were blamed for all misfortunes- for falling down or tripping and for items that go missing and such like- whilst in Devon it has been said that the Dartmoor pixies were held liable for “a great deal of trouble and plague.”
Some of the types of good deed that are widely known to attract faery favour will already be familiar to us. These include such actions as:
- Preparing the house for fairy visitors at night, with swept hearths, clean floors, blazing fires, food and drink laid out, iron implements put away and water for washing provided- for which small gifts of money are typically given; or,
- Repairing a broken tool- for which food is very often the reward- very typically (but not consistently) because what has broken is some sort of baking implement.
Examples of rather more unusual acts that will attract material thanks have included:
- A man giving up his shirt to wrap a new-born fairy baby;
- Saving a fairy girl who had got trapped part way down a cliff; or,
- Carrying a stranded mermaid back to the sea- she brought her saviour silver and gold from the sea bed. In another case the mermaid guaranteed the rescuer’s householder pain free childbirths from that date onwards.
A number of more unusual instances are worth specific attention. At Bewcastle, in Cumberland, there is a fairy stone to which you can whisper your secret wishes in the secure knowledge that the fairies will answer them. It is also not uncommon for rescued mermaids to offer their human helpers three wishes– as happened in the famous cases from the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall.
Rather more sinister, in one of the Scottish witch trials a woman called Margaret Barclay of Irvine was told by a man who had met that King of Pharie that, if she followed and adhered to the fairies just as he did, she would be rewarded with “geir aneuch” (‘gear enough’- or plenty of goods). This, of course, sounds rather more like selling your soul to the devil than the generous gifts so far described.
We’ll conclude with the much more cheerful story of ‘Shilo,’ from Devonshire. A farmer from near Ottery St Mary was walking through his fields when he heard a voice crying out that he’d lost his Shilo. The farmer looked over the hedge and saw a little old man whom he knew straightaway to be a pixie. Soon after, the farmer came across a tiny baby lying near one of his hay ricks and crying feebly. He took the foundling home to his wife, who revived it with bread soaked in warm cider. They realised that the baby must be the missing Shilo for whom the pixie had been searching, so the man returned the infant to the spot where he’d found it. He then called out and quickly the old pixy appeared and carried off the babe, without saying a word to the human. The couple feared they’d face punishment for removing the child, but the next morning they awoke to find their house swept, the fire lit and breakfast ready for them and laid out on the table. Outside, the corn was threshed and the day’s work was already done. This continued everyday after that and the pair became well off and comfortable.
Our interaction with the Good Folk is therefore complex. They will trade with us, they will steal from us; they demand respect, but they will be interfering and intrusive in our lives; they expect certain standards of behaviour from us and the sharing of our food and our homes; they like to be private, but they don’t like to be ignored- or taken for granted. Some fairies will form symbiotic relationships with us- living in our homes and helping us; others will resent intrusions and curiosity. They will act unexpectedly with generosity and kindness- and probably, as a guide to our own behaviour, this is the best advice: if you can do anything to help the fairies, do it cheerfully and readily. This will win their favour.