Faes and the Natural World

Cicely Bridget Martin, The Fairy in the Meadow, 1909

As I observe in my latest book, Faeries in the Natural World, there is a strong prevailing view at present that the faes are intimately connected to the environment and are actively concerned about pollution and habitat degradation, sometimes working with human intermediaries to mitigate harm and to reverse changes. This view has been around since the 1960s, when the environmental movement first began to appear.

An early literary example of the developing sense that human industrialisation and pollution could actively injure faery kind comes from Alan Garner’s Moon of Gomrath (1963). The elves of this story suffer from “smoke sickness.” They complain that “it is the dirt and ugliness and unclean air that men have worshipped these two hundred years that have driven the lios-alfar [the light elves of Norse myth] to the trackless places and the broken lands… You should hear their lungs. That is what men have done.” This is a clear indictment of human society in the wake of the first environmental classic, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in September 1962.

Even before that, though, there was a strong belief that there was antipathy between faes and modern life. Numerous writers from the mid-Victorian period onwards alleged that trains, noise, smoke and general encroachment on the countryside was steadily driving faeries into the remoter and less inhabited spots; Welsh writers in particular argued this, but any more rural location where commerce trespassed- quarrying or mills in the Lake District, the Highlands and on the Isle of Man or Shetland, for example- was recognised as antithetical to the faery and trow populations. The 1909 painting at the head of this post is another illustration; we might be surprised that such a sensitivity comes from the Edwardian period, but there it is: the British artist, Cicely Bridget Martin (1879-1947), could see the contradiction between faery life and the litter left behind by human picnickers. A hundred years later, though, and we would pretty much take such a barbed comment on waste and wildlife damage for granted.

None of this withstanding, the folklore evidence that associates the faeries with an environmentalist position is a good deal more limited than we might anticipate. That’s not to say that evidence for “eco-faeries” doesn’t exist (pixies are described protecting foxes from hunts or caring for wildlife in winter, for example, as well as their sometimes intimate associations with certain trees and flowers) but it can be found alongside the faeries setting up their own mines, mills and dye works and such like (see my recent book, How Things Work in Faery for full details of this). Victorian poets and painters delighted in emphasising the faes’ links to nature: suggesting that they paint butterflies’ wings, for instance, and it is very likely that these images have been influential in shaping subsequent generations’ views of the place of the faeries in the natural world. As much as anything, their ‘green’ credentials derive from the fact that they live in the woods and fields- from which we assume that they must want to defend the natural world. I’d say a fairer reading would be to say that they want to defend their homes and resources from human disruption and invasion; they want to carry on using that land themselves as they choose. As they happen to be have fairly non-industrialised and non-intensive economy, this gives the impression that they are all for sustainability, low carbon and rewilding. I suspect this is really a matter of us humans applying our labels to their motives: coupled with a large degree of guilt.

Certainly, the latter half of the last century saw a steep rise in the perception that the faeries were alarmed over the climate crisis and the degradation of ecosystems- and that they wanted to recruit humans to help halt the damage they were doing. Quite often too, for that matter, Pan and the nymphs of the natural world- and the devas of the Theosophists- were also heard to deliver the same messages. However we may wish to interpret this (as warnings from the supernatural world or, perhaps, as expressions of the human witnesses’ own unconscious worries) the import is the same: the situation is urgent and humans need to take into account the welfare of those beings that can’t express their distress.

Eileen Soper, Silky and the Snail

For fuller discussion of all aspects of the faery relationship to the natural world, see my latest book from Green Magic Publishing. This looks not only at the environmentalism of the faes, but also examines how Faery affects the fertility of humans as well as their livestock, considers how faeries influence the weather, how they interact with a range of wild animals, plants, trees and fungi and the locations with which they are most closely associated in the natural world- not just faery rings but wells, high places and ancient sites.

Faeries and candles: some curious facts

Mike Cockrill- Blue Christmas- The Christmas Fairy

The fae relationship with the humble and everyday candle is rather more complex and magical than we might initially imagine. Four examples illustrate different aspects of this.

Fae beings are sometimes compared to candles- that is, when they appear in the form of points of light and especially when seen as the will of the wisp– looking like a lantern to lead travellers astray. In such a form they have often been compared explicitly to candle flames . In the form of the canwyll corph (corpse candle) in Wales, they appear to predict an imminent death. For both phenomena, see c.12 of my Beyond Faery (2020).

Faeries also make normal everyday use of the light that candles provide- for example, the lhiannan shee of the Isle of Man performs the role of a washer woman akin to the bean nighe of the Scottish Highlands. She will be seen at night, washing clothes in a river by the light of a taper. Perhaps, too, just like humans, faeries can be comforted by the homely light. At Manor Farm, East Halton, in Lincolnshire, the resident hob was something of a nuisance, because he could use his great strength for pranks as well as undertaking chores. The residents of the farm were said to leave a candle lit in a window every night ‘to keep the Hob quiet.’

Candles have more magical properties, though. In County Durham, there was once a great fear of pregnant women and unbaptised babies being stolen by the ever watchful faeries (as nurse maids and as changelings), so the practice was to leave a candle burning all night in the same room as the cradle. Some explanation of the reasoning behind this might come from an incident reported on the Isle of Man.  A confined mother was being watched over at night by two women.  They kept feeling drowsy and, as soon they started to fall asleep, the candle in the room would dim.  The pair would then awaken with a start, brought on by their fear of the little folk, and the flame would flare up again.  This happened several times until they awoke to find the expectant mother out of bed and an argument taking place outside.  The fairies had been in the act of taking her but the women’s waking had disturbed and defeated them. These examples suggest that candle light can have some power to dispel faery power, or to keep them at bay, and it may in fact be this that was being exploited against the hob on Manor Farm.

In Arkengarthdale in North Yorkshire, a man laid a bogle in his cottage by opening his bible, lighting a candle and then pronouncing the injunction “Now then, you can read, or dance, or die as you like.” The bogle was observed to vanish in the form of a grey cat and wasn’t seen again for many years. However- as is often the case- the banishment was not permanent. One day the man met the bogle again on the stairs of his house- and this spelled his doom. Shortly after the encounter he left home to go to his work in a local mine, and died in an accident. This use of the candle as part of the exorcism ceremony may have simply relied upon the precedent of church practices, of course, but the flame might also have had special properties against the bogle.

A poor widow from Reeth (the neighbouring parish to Arkengarthdale) suffered inconvenience and loss when her neighbour stole some candles from her. The thief soon found himself haunted by a bogle; he tried shooting it but it had no body that could be wounded (of course). The next day it came to him, warning “I’m neither bone nor flesh nor blood, thou canst not harm me. Give back the candles, but I must take something from thee.” It plucked an eyelash, which may seem harmless enough, except that his eye ‘twinkled’ for ever after that day. The protection given to the poor woman may indicate faery morality, but perhaps the particular concern over candles suggests an extra, magical dimension to the story.

Lastly, we have a record of magical candles being used by Scottish faeries. A man’s wife was abducted into the faery hill at Pollochaig in Inverness-shire. Another local man had been given some enchanted wax candles by the sith folk, the sort they use to light their nocturnal dances (although more poetic and romantic accounts of such festivities tend to describe them using glow-worms for illumination) . This favoured individual lent the husband one but warned that the Good Neighbours would use tricks to try to steal it back and defeat him. Just as predicted, the husband lost the candle. He borrowed one after another, making repeated (failed) attempts to enter the sithean until he finally succeeded and got his wife back, but- sadly- by this point all those magical candles had been used up.

To sum up, the faery interaction with candles seem to be threefold. They can use them for conventional lighting purposes but tapers may also be used magically, both against the faes and by them. The exact significance of this is still hard to determine: our limited folklore evidence illustrates the situations but doesn’t presently provide quite enough detail for us to really understand the dynamics.

Cicely Mary Barker, The Christmas Tree Fairy

Puckwudgie and European influence

Recently I was researching another faery subject entirely when I was led to refer to the chapter on North American faery beings in Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook’s Magical Folk (2018). Peter Muise there describes the ‘Puritans and Pukwudgies’ of New England, arguing that the European invaders largely lost their own faery lore as they crossed the Atlantic, but discovered the rich supernatural world of Native American belief- which was slowly assimilated.

This isn’t the whole story, as two other chapters in Magical Folk make clear. Later Irish and Scottish settlers, especially in Atlantic Canada, did import their faery belief with them- and I know from my own reading of British sources that there are several Scottish stories that explicitly discuss Highland faes, such as the leannan sith and the bochan, who travel with emigrants to North America. It might be better to say that the English settlers were less likely to carry their faery folk with them- and Muise discussed why this might be so.

A second point concerns the pukwudgie/ puckwudgie. This spirit is now probably the best known of the North American ‘faeries’ and modern sightings seem to be on the increase, as Muise has described. However, as his chapter title indicates, most of this modern lore comes from New England, to which the pukwudgie is, strictly, a stranger. He is a spirit of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes area- not of New England, which had its own indigenous beings (which are known about and which survive- amongst the indigenous population still and, to a degree, amongst the offcomers). Various writers, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seem to have been responsible for popularising the pukwudgie and extending his range. Literary uses of faery lore often do this- spreading beings such as pixies and leprechauns far beyond their natural habitats and (arguably) obscuring the local differences.

Be that as it may (and you can read the chapter in Magical Folk, which is highly recommended for your book shelves) what struck me was the strong similarities between North American faery behaviour and that of the British faes. Here are a few examples, taken from Muise:

  • pukwudgies and other Algonquian spirits have magical powers and can shape shift or make themselves invisible;
  • they can act as wills of the wisp (often seen as balls of light) and lead people into swamps or over cliffs;
  • they have a nasty habit of pestering women and girls, luring them into forests where they seduce them. Once a human female has been involved with a faery male, she can never settle back into society and marry;
  • they shoot poisoned arrows at victims;
  • they are immortal– unless killed by humans;
  • their gaze can blight a person and cause the victim to sicken and die;
  • they can grant three wishes;
  • they have high pitched voices;
  • they steal human goods but can be appeased with gifts of food;
  • they don’t like to be talked about by humans and will take revenge if they know this has happened; and,
  • they are skilled in healing using herbs.

All these characteristics and habits can be found in British folklore. I have provided links to posts I’ve made in the past on exactly these subjects. Now, there seem to be two explanations for these remarkably close parallels. One is that faery temperament, physiology and powers are pretty much the same the whole world over. As such, we shouldn’t expect any real difference between a pukwudgie and a boggart, just as we wouldn’t dream of imagining there would be any differences (except of culture) between- say- an Inuit, a European and an aboriginal Australian. The other explanation is that there has- in fact- been a great deal more immigration of European faeries into North America than we realised. The least sign of this, perhaps, is the optional spelling of Puck-wudgie: does this reveal an almost unconscious identification between the pucks of the English midlands with the Ojibwe sprite?

This is a big subject and one in which I have too little knowledge to make pronouncements. Nevertheless, the similarities of supernatural behaviour are notable and demand examination and explanation. Perhaps all North American faery survivals have really been crossbred with British faes from East Anglia and the South West, with the faery population being swamped and colonised just as much as the aboriginal possessors, or perhaps they’re really all one race, despite superficial differences, just as humans are.

The pukwudgie by Kitty-Grim on Deviant Art

Final trivia fact: I got to thinking about this after I came across the 1972 song ‘Puckwudgie‘ by cor-blimey Cockney comedian of the 1950s and ’60s, Charlie Drake. British readers of a certain age may recall Charlie from comedy specials and black and white films shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; I never anticipated a faery link, but there you go. I might well say the same of David Bowie- yet we have The Laughing Gnome to contend with. That- and Drake’s song- bear strong similarities.

Remote Killing- an unwelcome faery skill

Bean nighe by Energiaelca1 on Deviant Art

Worryingly, for those interested in faerylore, it seems that faery-kind possess the ability to kill humans without necessarily intending to do so and/ or without any direct or violent measures against them. I will give various examples of this.

Sometimes, simply being ion the faery’s presence can be fatal. For instance, a woman in Ross-shire one time came across a bean nighe (a faery washerwoman) cleaning clothes in a stream. The bean offered to row the woman across the nearby loch, help she accepted gratefully, but she was dead within a year. (As you may recall if you have read my book Beyond Faery, the bean nighe is seen as predicting imminent deaths, but here she is the medium as well). In a similar Highland account, a girl met a green lady beside a loch. The colour of the woman’s clothes would immediately have raised alarm, yet all that happened was that she asked the girl if the water there was deep. Soon after this faery encounter, the girl was dead. Elsewhere in Ross-shire, the belief in the fatal effects of faery conversation were underlined. One witness described how there were two types of little people- land and sea faeries. If the latter speak to you, you will soon drown; if the former addressed you, you know you will be short-lived.

Faery touch might be fatal too. A Shetland man was returning from fishing one night when he saw a trow hillock open and dancing within. He was invited in and had a great time. On departing, one of the trows clapped the fisherman on the shoulder in a friendly way. The spot turned sore and, within a short time, he was dead.

Most curious of all are several stories of Scottish faery beings that reveal a macabre and alarming power to kill remotely, without needing to touch or be in the presence of the victim.

The first concerns a bauchan or bogan that haunted a human farm at Lochaber. There was a powerful love-hate relationship between the faery and the farmer and they often fought. One time, after the farmer had had a confrontation with the bauchan, he realised that he’d lost his best handkerchief. He searched for it and came across the bauchan sitting, rubbing the cloth on a rough stone. Challenged, the bauchan remarked “It’s well you’ve come, Callum: I’d have been your death if I’d rubbed a hole in this.”

This curious incident is not entirely isolated. Glenmoriston, at the southern end of Loch Ness, was haunted by a hag called the Cailleach a’ Craich. Her habit was to waylay solitary travellers, pull of their caps, and then dance on these on the highway until a hole had been worn through- which would prove fatal to the owner (see my Beyond Faery, c.7).

A third case concerns a man called Donald who was celebrating his wedding to his neighbour’s daughter. The party ran out of whisky so Donald went to get some more. Returning home, he was crossing a bridge when a small woman appeared to him in a flash of light. She pulled of his scarf or neckerchief and then proceeded to wash this in the river below, cackling to herself. Donald returned to the party but started to feel weak. He was advised that what the woman was doing was rubbing a hole in his heart and that he had to retrieve his scarf from her, although this had to be done without violence. He recovered the item, but he struck the faery with a stick whilst doing so, which cursed him then to nightly fights with her for the next seven years.

Why is it that damaging an item of clothing might kill its former wearer? The reasoning seems to be that something of the person’s spirit or life force is transferred to the garment and can be accessed and destroyed through it. The same sort of thinking lies behind one of the folk healing techniques that was often viewed as ‘sorcery’ in the Scottish witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of these purported witches (individuals who had often acquired their healing knowledge from the faes) were able to diagnose and then treat illnesses and afflictions using people’s shirts and blouses. These were often washed in south-flowing streams and put on again, the sickness or evil influence being washed away and the charmed water having a beneficial effect on the patient.

A Cailleach

I discuss this subject as well in my recently published book, The Darker Side of Faeries, available directly from Green Magic and the usual outlets. As the name indicates, it’s a close look at all the more dangerous aspects of the faery character.

Manx Faeries- folklore & poetry

The fynoderee by Brian Froud

Regular readers of the blog will have noticed that, over the last few years, I have frequently made use of faery examples from the Isle of Man (although, strictly, it’s stretching my rule of sticking only to British folklore). However, the Manx ‘little people’ are too fascinating and too numerous to ignore- and it’s not just faery folk, either, we have the fynoderee, the glashtyn, the buggane, the tarroo ushtey (water bull), mermaids (the ben varrey) and other faery beasts to study as well. I have examined many of them as part of my wider studies of Faery (for example in 2020’s Beyond Faery), but it struck me earlier this year that it could be helpful to pull all this unique island material together into a single volume- and so Manx Faeries- The Little People of the Isle of Man has recently been published by Green Magic. There has been no comprehensive attempt to gather all the Manx faery lore into a single devoted volume and- given the richness of Manx tradition- this seemed to me to need to be done.

Many of the Manx creatures are parallel to British faery types, without being exactly identical. The faery horses and bulls resemble those of the Scottish Highlands, whilst having their own individual characteristics. The buggane and the fynoderee are comparable to British mainland beings such as the bogies, boggarts and hobgoblins, but they are again separate and different. There are, nonetheless, many similarities of behaviour: a love of dancing and hunting, a taste for causing mischief, a habit of abducting babies children and adults. The fatal faery lover, the lhiannan shee, is an especially notable feature of human-faery interactions on the island.

What’s more, Manx faery lore offers lots of additional information and perspectives on the nature of Faery in the British Isles as a whole. Within quite a small surface area, the island comprises a microcosm of British Faery, encompassing individuals from across the wide spectrum of the supernatural family, yet it also has some utterly unique and fascinating types. I have posted fairly recently about the strange ‘burning wheel‘ faes that are a feature most notably of Manx lore; to these I might add the curious faery dogs, cats, pigs and sheep, the odd spectral horses and the multi-form glashtyn. There is plenty to absorb and amaze us.

Manx Faery Verse

Back in 2019, I self-published Victorian Fairy Verse, which gathered fairy poetry in English from Britain, Ireland and the USA. I overlooked the Isle of Man, however, and have rectified that oversight in the new book. A handful of Manx residents preserved the native folklore, not just by collecting stories and experiences but by composing poetry with faery themes. Here is an additional example, a 1901 poem called The Phynnodderee by Rev. Drummond Brown- which I have copied from the Manx Literature site on Flickr (it’s pretty long and, to be frank, I couldn’t quite face typing it all out from scratch- so please excuse and tolerate the cut and pasted page copies).

As I’ve said, the fynoderee of Manx tradition (there are several spellings, distinguished by more or less consonants) is akin to the English hobgoblin: it’s large and strong and helps around farms, but it’s also a bit dim. The fynoderee can become very attached to some people and may show them great kindness; the species are also associated with individual farms or holdings, to which they are tied as ‘spirits of the land.’ Whilst they reside there, they guarantee the fertility of the soil and the animals living on it. If they leave, it can mean ruin. Very much like English and Scottish brownies and hobs, it is unfortunately the case that the fynoderee can be touchy and easily offended. If a farmer takes pity on their hairy, naked state and provides a gift of clothes, they can be so upset as to disappear for ever. Mainland brownies and hobs seem peeved by the mere idea of clothing– or sometimes by the quality of the garments presented; the Manx fynoderee, by contrast, objects to them because he knows they will make him ill (a more comprehensible response, at least). It has been said that the agriculture of the island as a whole has been in decline for at least a century because of the thoughtless alienation of the various fynoderee.

In his poem, Drummond Brown has romanticised the creature considerably, not just with his elegant romantic verse but with his story of its origin. He starts with a good summary of the fynoderee‘s characteristics, but then alleges that he was once a handsome faery knight, punished for loving a mortal.

The Reverend Drummond Brown also wrote a poem about a musician abducted under a hill to a faery dance (a very common folklore theme). You can read this too on the same Manx website.