“Poor Little Greenie:” Faeries and Little Green Men

The colour green has always been strangely linked to fairies. Older texts often refer to the Good Folk as being green, but in fact this almost always denotes their clothing colour- just as calling a faery ‘red’ or ‘black’ generally refers to their hair colour rather than saying anything about flesh tone. For example, the Devonshire pixies are reported “to be” green in colour but the same witness also went on to state that, if you wear green, “you’ll soon be mourning,” pretty clearly indicating that she was discussing the pixies’ clothing.

Green garments are a constant in faerylore across Britain and across time. In the Lincolnshire Fens in the east of England, for instance, the local nature spirits were called (amongst other things) the ‘Green Coaties.’  A similar term was used in Lancashire as well- see the references to the ‘Greenies’ in Bowker’s Goblin Tales.

In the Western Isles of Scotland, it was said that it was not advisable to sleep in a house where water for washing had not been put out at night for the fairies.  This was because the “slender one of the green coat” would come with her baby at night and wash it in the milk instead.  What’s notable is not only that the fairy woman (bean sith) is dressed in green but that (as is quite common in Gaelic speaking areas) she is described as “slender.”  This adjective often describes fairy females, perhaps indicating part of their believed allure: their willowy, juvenile bodies (or was it really an allusion to their emaciated, dangerously hungry bodies?) The association with green was especially strong in the Highlands. For instance, in Gaelic songs and prayers we may also find reference to the “slender woman of the green kirtle” (bean chaol a chota uaine) and, more generally, to the “tribe of the green mantles” (luchd nan trasganan uaine);

The trows of Shetland are described as looking like children of three or four years of age, small and ‘pirjink’ (neat) about the legs and clothed in tight green garments with green tapered caps. In Galloway, the story is told of two small boys dressed in green who were born from eggs.  They were said to have looked something like brownies, or mongrel fairies, but sadly they quickly vanished before much more could be learned about them.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Turning to Wales, the Green Lady of Caerphilly was a beautiful woman dressed in green who was met one day at the castle in the town by a man called Ieuan Owen.  She led him underground and along a very lengthy passage before they emerged beside a lake in a cavern.  There the green lady vanished, but another faery maiden then appeared and led Owen beneath the lake to a wonderful subterranean land.

My last example gives a rather different impression though, and perhaps opens up the possibility of something more sinister. In a Scottish story collected from an old nurse maid, she told how her mother had once nearly been drowned by a fairy being after she had fallen asleep beside a river.  The nurse’s mother awoke from her nap when she felt a tugging at her hair, as if someone or something trying to pull her into the water.  She leapt up, and then saw something “howd (bob) down the water like a green bunch of potato shaws (stalks).”  We can only note and puzzle over this account, which resembles nothing else I know of.  Perhaps the nurse’s mother saw the hair of a water sprite akin to Jenny Greenteeth, or the mane of a kelpie, or perhaps we have a sighting of some unique river faery.

As I have described previously, the greenness of British fairies goes right back to their early medieval origins and the Green Children who were discovered during the twelfth century at Woolpit in Suffolk. In that case, their greenness seemed to relate to their exclusively vegetarian, leguminous diet: Katharine Briggs speculated that their skin tone was the colour of death- although it might equally as well be the colour of Spring growth (if we have to read any symbolism at all into the preference). It might, too, represent their wild, rural nature- as with Robin Hood and his men in ‘Lincoln green.’ Whatever the truth, viridity seems to be a core part of British faery nature.

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