“All was delusion, nought was truth”- Faery Glamour

Charles Robinson, illustration for Evelyn Sharp, The Story of the Weathercock, Blackie & Son, [1907].

The faery power of conjuring delusion is usually termed ‘glamour.’ It’s worth knowing something about the origins and etymology of this word, because this tells us a good deal about our ancestors’ understanding of the nature and use of this form of magic.

The word is originally Scots and was introduced into the literary English by Sir Walter Scott. It’s a corrupt form of the word ‘grammar’ and is related to the noun ‘gramarye’ (which sometimes appears in texts as ‘glomery’) and thence to the French grimoire.  The latter is a spell book, which clearly shows us that ‘glamour’ was originally conceived as being a form of verbal spell or charm.

Originally, glamour was not considered to be unique to faery kind.  It could be cast by witches, wizards and, most intriguingly, by gypsies.  One early example of its use is in the eighteenth-century ballad Johnny Faa (first printed by Ritson in Scottish Songs (1794) vol.2, 177): “As soon as they saw her well far’d face, They coost the glamer o’er her.”  Johnny Faa is the king of gypsies who is best known today from the folk song the Raggle Taggle Gypsies.  Other uses are found in works by Allan Ramsay, for instance the 1720 poem The Rise & Fall of Stocks:

“Like Belzie when he nicks a witch,

Wha sells her saul she may be rich;

He, finding this the bait to damn her,

Casts o’er her e’en his cheating glamour:”

In the 1721 Glossary to his poems, Ramsay gives this definition of the word: “When devils, wizards or jugglers deceive the sight, they are said to cast glamour o’er the eyes of the spectator.”  At the end of the same century, Robert Burns confirmed the associations seen so far: “Ye gipsy-gang that deal in glamor, And you, deep-read in hell’s black grammar, Warlocks and witches.” (R. Burns Poems, 2nd edition, 1793, vol.2, 220)  

The Paisley poet Ebenezer Picken used an interesting compound term in 1813, referring to a ‘glamour gift:’

“May be some wily lass has had the airt,

Wi’ spells, an’ charms, to win our Robin’s heart;

An’ hauds him, wi’ her Glaumour gift, sae fell.” 

(Picken, Misc. Poems, vol.1, 21) 

This would seem to imply an innate talent rather than something acquired, whether by learning or reading.

Despite these frequent Scots uses in published works, it was really Sir Walter Scott that popularised the term to the entire British reading public.  In 1805, in the Lay of Last Minstrel (Canto 3, verse 9), he gave an extended illustration of the word in close association with an elf, thereby irrevocably linking the two:

“The iron band, the iron clasp,

Resisted long the elfin grasp:

For when the first he had undone

It closed as he the next begun.

Those iron clasps, that iron band,

Would not yield to unchristen’d hand

Till he smear’d the cover o’er

With the Borderer’s curdled gore;

A moment then the volume spread,

And one short spell therein he read:

It had much of glamour might;

Could make a ladye seem a knight;

The cobwebs on a dungeon wall

Seem tapestry in lordly hall;

A nut-shell seem a gilded barge,

A sheeling seem a palace large,

And youth seem age, and age seem youth:

All was delusion, nought was truth.”

Here, glamour is a ‘might,’ a power possessed by the character.  Scott expanded upon the nature of glamour further in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft of 1830, when in letter three he wrote that “This species of Witchcraft is well known in Scotland as the glamour, or deceptio visus, and was supposed to be a special attribute of the race of Gipsies.” 

Gladys Checkley, Fairies in the Orchard

The word was now established in the wider English tongue.  In 1832, US author John Pendleton Kennedy used it in his novel, Swallow Barn (c.30): “It was like casting a spell of ‘gramarie’ over his opponents.”  In 1859, Lord Tennyson took up the term in the poem Enid in Idylls of King, when making reference to Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion: “That maiden in the tale, Whom Gwydion made by glamour out of flowers.”

The nature of glamour is to deceive or to defeat humans’ sense of vision.  In the ballad Hind Etin, the eponymous faery hero abducts a woman using a spell: “He’s coosten a mist before them all/ And away this lady has ta’en.”  However, although much of the evidence indicates that glamour is purely to do with visual illusions, there is one incident, recorded by Evans Wentz, which suggests that it is a more complete deception of human senses.  The story was related to him one Christmas Day morning by a Mrs Dinah Moore of Glen Meay on the Isle of Man:

“I heard of a man and wife who had no children. One night the man was out on horseback and heard a little baby crying beside the road. He got off his horse to get the baby, and, taking it home, went to give it to his wife, and it was only a block of wood. And then the old fairies were outside yelling [in Manx] at the man: “Eash un oie, s’cheap t’ou mollit!” (Age one night, how easily thou art deceived!).”

Fairy Faith p.127

Typical faery deployments of glamour are to make people believe that they are in grand homes or halls, that they’ve been offered delicate and delicious food or that they have been given faery gold.  What they will have really experienced is, respectively, a cave, some dung or some dried leaves.  The example given by Evans-Wentz would appear to imply that glamour is more than a superficial disguise but can alter the very fabric of an item so that it is no longer its natural self but takes on all the characteristics of whatever substance or object the faeries wish it to resemble.

Using their power of “mirage,” as Lewis Spence termed it, the fae seem to be able to transform the look and feel of physical items for as long as they wish.  Very typically, though, the delusion will be withdrawn in an instant- the purported palace or fine feast vanishing suddenly.  In Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, he recounts the story of The Daughter of the King of Underwaves, in which the fairy woman conjured up a magnificent castle where she and Diarmuid, the mortal man who had fallen for her, lived contentedly for several days.  He, however, began to pine for his friends and his hunting hounds, so she abandoned him, taking away the illusion in a moment.  Diarmuid was left lying in a damp mossy hole on the moor, just as happens to Welsh men who have visit what I’ve called the ‘glamour houses’ of the tylwyth teg. (J. F. Campbell, Popular Tales, vol.3, 421)

Rene Cloke, Fairy Artists

6 thoughts on ““All was delusion, nought was truth”- Faery Glamour

    1. Thanks for the comment- and happy new year to you too. I don’t think I (or my writing anyway) have ever been called glamorous before. But then, it’s never too late to be fabulous, is it?


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