‘Reach out and touch me’- the physical transmission of magical power

fairy touch

Fairy touch, by Carol Armstrong

I have written here before about fairy magic (and see chapter 10 of my British fairies) and about the properties of fairy ointment.  In this post I want to home-in on another aspect of our good neighbours’ magical powers- their ability to convey these by mere touch.

The most significant consequence of this aspect of their magic is that it demonstrates that their abilities seem not necessarily to be innate; they may be learned from grimoires or they may be transferred by supernatural means- they are capable of being passed simply and quickly from person to person. In this respect the situation resembles the ointment which I discussed previously. Magical ability is, we might say, a commodity to be acquired by anyone, regardless of birth or status.

Receipt of magic vision is demonstrated from several sources.  Seers (those endowed with the second sight) can admit others to their visions by means of mere contact.  The Reverend Kirk in chapter 12 of The secret commonwealth tells us about this:

“The usewall Method for a curious Person to get a transient Sight of this otherwise invisible Crew of Subterraneans, (if impotently and over rashly sought,) is to put his [left Foot under the Wizard’s right] Foot, and the Seer’s Hand is put on the Inquirer’s Head, who is to look over the Wizard’s right Shoulder, (which hes ane ill Appearance, as if by this Ceremony ane implicit Surrender were made of all betwixt the Wizard’s Foot and his Hand, ere the Person can be admitted a privado to the Airt;) then will he see a Multitude of Wights, like furious hardie Men, flocking to him haistily from all Quarters, as thick as Atoms in the Air…”

Those with second sight are, of course, humans who are privileged to be able to see the supernaturals surrounding us which are invisible to most.  Those fairy beings have the same power, nonetheless.  In various Scottish ballads and poems we hear of an identical process.  In the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer the hero meets the fairy queen who tells him:

“Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies [wonders] three.”

The same is recounted in Thomas of Erceldoune and in the Queen of Elfland’s nourice:

“O nourice lay your head
Upo my knee:
See ye na that narrow road
Up by yon tree?
. . . . .
That’s the road the righteous goes,
And that’s the road to heaven.
An see na ye that braid road,
Down by yon sunny fell?
Yon’s the road the wicked gae,
An that’s the road to hell.”

You may notice that all these examples are of Scottish provenance, but the conception is not exclusively from the north of Britain.  John Rhys tells a tale of a Gwynnedd farmer:

“who lived not long ago at Deunant, close to Aberdaron. The latter used, as is the wont of country people, to go out a few steps in front of his house every night to–before going to bed; but once on a time, while he was standing there, a stranger stood by him and spoke to him, saying that he had no idea how he and his family were annoyed by him. The farmer asked how that could be, to which the stranger replied that his house was just below where they stood, and if he would only stand on his foot he would see that what he said was true. The farmer complying, put his foot on the other’s foot, and then he could clearly see that all the slops from his house went down the chimney of the other’s house, which stood far below in a street he had never seen before. The fairy then advised him to have his door in the other side of his house, and that if he did so his cattle would never suffer from disease. The result was that the farmer obeyed, and had his door walled up and another made in the other side of the house: ever after he was a most prosperous man, and nobody was so successful as he in rearing stock in all that part of the country.” (Celtic folklore, p.230)

Lastly, we may note that this idea has a long history.  In the Life of Bartholomew of Farne, which is published as an appendix to Simeon of Durham’s Works (vol.1, Appendix 2, CUP reprint 2002) there’s a story about how the devil showed the hermit Bartholomew spirits in the form of sheep.  It was only when he put his foot on the other’s that the holy man saw through the deception and realised they were actually demons.

What can we conclude from all this?  Well, the process of transference by touch certainly suggests the considerable power of the magic involved, yet at the same time it implies that magical ability is not unique.  Anyone can acquire it provided that they have the right materials (to make ointment) or the right acquaintances.  It suggests too that there may not be a huge gulf between humans and fairies: they seem to be closely related and the distance between us is narrow and easily bridged.  All we need then is luck, the right contacts and/or determination and commitment (for example, to gather enough four leaf clover to be able to produce a usable quantity of the magic ointment).

 

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Girdle measuring and fairy healing- some curious folk beliefs

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As I have described in previous posts and in chapter 20 of my 2017 book British fairies, it was widely accepted in the British Isles that fairies could inflict harm upon humans, whether by striking them with illness or disability or by abducting them.  This illness was so familiar as to be known as ‘the fairy;’ the symptoms might also be described as being ‘fairy- taken’ or ‘haunted by a fairy.’  This being the case, medical practitioners had to be able to respond to the condition.

In 1677 John Webster in his book The displaying of supposed witchcraft  had this to say on the belief:

“… the common people, if they have any sort of Epilepsie, Palsie, Convulsions, and the like do presently perswade themselves they are bewitched, fore-spoken, blasted, fairy-taken or haunted with some evil spirit and the like…” (p.323)

Clearly a range of maladies might be ascribed to supernatural causes, but it appears that ‘fairy-taken’ often had a more precise identity.  Speaking of Ireland, W. B. Yeats described how in the late-nineteenth century men and women would be ‘taken.’  This very often happened to women soon after childbirth, but it was also common for sufferers to take to their beds, perhaps for weeks, for years (frequently for the magically significant period of seven years, but sometimes for decades) or for the remainder of their lives, lying in a state of unconsciousness, as if in a dream or trance.  During this time they were believed to be living in Faery.  (Yeats, note 39 to Lady Gregory’s Visions and beliefs in the West of Ireland pp.287-8).

I’m not in any position to diagnose this coma-like state but it seems to have had consistent, recognisable symptoms.  Yeats’ description also helps to explain a detail of the record of the accusation made against Isobel Sinclair, an alleged witch, who was tried on Orkney in 1633.  The court heard that she had been “six times controlled with the fairy.”  In light of the above, we may conclude she had half a dozen periods of illness when she was unconscious and assumed by her family and neighbours to have been abducted to ‘Elfame.’

Healers offered to diagnose and treat cases of ‘taken’ individuals.  Very frequently this was done by means of ‘measuring.’  This was an ancient practice worldwide, but in Western Europe  it can be traced back at least to the time of Pliny.  It was used in England until the late sixteenth century and in parts of Wales into the nineteenth century.  A change in the size of a girdle or belt could indicate that a person had been invaded by a fairy or evil spirit; clearly there are suggestions of demonic possession in this.  Charms and prayers could exorcise the spirit, although the belt might also be cut up as part of the cure.  In Ireland headaches were treated by measuring the sufferer’s head, whilst in Wales a range of conditions including depression, jaundice, nervous complaints, consumption and witchcraft were all detected by means of ritual measurement from the elbow to finger tip or by tying a cloth or rope around the body or limbs.

Girdle measuring was definitely used to identify and to help cure those taken by the fairies.  Here are a few examples:

  • in 1438 Agnes Hancock in Somerset was treating children afflicted with ‘feyry’ by inspecting their girdles or shoes;
  • in 1566 Elizabeth Mortlock of Pampesford, Cambridgeshire did the same.  She repeated a series of Catholic prayers, and then measured the child’s girdle from her elbow to her thumb, asking god to confirm if the girl was haunted with a fairy.  If the girdle or belt was shorter than usual, the affliction was clear and she had assisted several children in this manner.
  • Lady Gregory (see citation above, p.237, but see generally her chapter IV, ‘Away’) told a story of a changeling child that seemed to be thriving until a neighbour called into the house.  She proposed to measure her child and the changeling with the string from her apron.  From that point on the infant did not thrive and was always screaming.

‘Santa’s little helpers’ – the origins of the Christmas elves

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Norman Rockwell, Santa with elves, 1922

Santa’s elves are the result of the combination of a number of traditions. Santa Claus himself is of course much older, deriving from the historical figure of St. Nicholas of Myra but with attributes added from several European Christmas traditions, particularly the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas. The association of Christmas presents with elves has precedents in Swedish and Danish folklore.

The Christmas elf as such first appeared in literature in 1850 when Louisa May Alcott completed, but never published, a book entitled Christmas elves.  The American political magazine Harper’s Weekly (1857-1916) featured in its Christmas edition for 1857 a poem The wonders of Santa Claus which recounts that he:

“Keeps a great many elves at work/ All working with all their might/ To make a million of pretty things/ Cakes, sugar-plums and things/ To fill the stockings, hung up you know,/ By the little girls and boys…”

The image of the elves in the workshop was popularised by Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American women’s magazine published 1830-1878.  The front cover illustration of its 1873 Christmas issue showed Santa surrounded by toys and elves with the caption, “Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time.” At this time Godey’s magazine played a major role in influencing the Christmas traditions that were developing in the USA: for example, the cover of its 1850 Christmas issue featured the first widely circulated picture of the modern Christmas tree. Additional impetus was given to the idea of Christmas elves by Austin Thompson’s 1876 play The House of Santa Claus: a Christmas fairy show for Sunday schools.  In fact, in Clement Clarke Moore’s earlier poem of 1823, A visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known today as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), Santa Claus himself was described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”

These literary and commercial strands mingled with Scandinavian ideas brought to North America by immigrants.  Prior to the influence of St. Nicholas in Sweden, the job of giving out gifts had been done by the Yule Goat. By 1891, however, the saint had become so well known that he could no longer be excluded from the festival; he became merged with the tomten, which were supernatural farm guardians closely akin to the British brownie, dobby or hob (tomte means ‘homestead man’).

jultomte_and_horse

A jultomte & horse

tomte, or nisse, is a Nordic mythological creature that closely associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season.  It’s generally described as being a small male, about 90 cm/ 36 inches tall, with a long white beard and a conical or knitted cap in red or some other bright colour. Their appearance is rather like our modern convention of the garden gnome. In Swedish and Danish folklore the creatures are solitary, residing in the pantry or barn, and tend to be mischievous.  However, they are also very hardworking, being responsible for the protection and welfare of a farmstead and, particularly, caring for the livestock.  The nisse/ tomte was a very familiar creature in Scandinavian folklore and, with the romanticising and collection of folklore during the 19th century, it gained even greater popularity.  (NB: nisse derives from Nils/ Nicholas, further underlining the intermingling of traditions.)

Jultomten_1895

As already mentioned, in the Nordic folklore traditions associated with Christmas the tomte is often accompanied by the Yule goat (julbocken). The pair appeared on Christmas Eve, knocking on doors and handing out presents. The nisse also delivered gifts at the door, but was more commonly seen with a pig, another popular Christmas symbol in Scandinavia.  It is customary to leave out a bowl of porridge with butter in gratitude for the services rendered by the creature. Then, in the 1840s, the farm nisse became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called julenisse (Yule Nisse).

jenny nystrom

Tomten & gingerbread, by Jenny Nystrom.

In 1881, the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning published Viktor Rydberg’s poem Tomten, illustrated by Jenny Nyström.  She took the traditional Swedish folk character and turned it into a friendly white-bearded, red-capped figure that has come to be associated with Christmas ever since. Shortly afterwards, and obviously influenced by the emerging Father Christmas traditions as well as by the new Danish tradition, a variant of the nisse/tomte, called the jultomte in Sweden and julenisse in Norway, started delivering Christmas presents in those countries, taking over the role from the traditional julbock.

Still today in Scandinavia the nisse/ tomte are pictured on Christmas cards, calendars and house and garden decorations, often with a horse or cat, or riding on a goat or in a sled pulled by a goat. The julenisse tends now to be adult sized , rather than being the height of a child, as was the older tradition.

Glædelig_Jul,_ca_1917

Also caught up in this legend making was another myth, that of ‘Santa’s little helper.’  This seems to be derived from the German companions to Santa Claus, who include Knecht Ruprecht (boy Rupert).  The idea of a child assistant has become mingled with that of fairy bringers of presents to help produce our present ideas.

In the USA these varied concepts also became mixed with the less rustic and more childlike images of fairies and elves derived from more recent British tradition.  The result was that Santa Claus’ elves steadily lost their beards and became more infantile and saccharine.  Walt Disney’s 1932 cartoon Santa’s workshop was a stage in this process, depicting ‘Santa’s little helpers’ as white bearded elves in green hats and costumes.  An autonomous body of lore has begun to accrue around these creatures now, with their ‘traditional’ names purporting to include such dismal examples as Alabaster Snowball, Bushy Evergreen and (I regret to say) Sugarplum Mary.  There is of course very little traditional material in these current stories: the whole idea is alien to the British tradition as it was imported into North America and it has evolved a long way beyond the Nordic elements. Nevertheless, the image has developed a life of its own with such films as Elf (2003) and it continues to evolve, as much through popular as commercial influence.

Glædelig_Jul,_1885

 

 

“Builded all of burnished gold”- fairy buildings

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An elven city, by Nagare-Boshi

It may seem to run counter to our intuition to think of fairies as building physical structures.  I have described fairy dwellings previously, mostly implying that they were natural features like caves and hills (see too chapter 4 of my British fairies).   This is the case, but our predecessors readily assumed and accepted that a great deal more could be achieved by their supernatural neighbours.  Indeed, fairy-kind seemed to excel at constructing grand accommodation for themselves.  Here are a few early examples.

In the poem of Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas enters fairyland and sees a “faire castell” next to a town and tower; “In erthe es none lyke theretill.”  In the twelfth century story of King Herla the fairy king occupies a ‘splendid mansion.’  These tales convey some general impression of what the fairies could build, but the poem Sir Orfeo provides much more detail (what follows is J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of the Middle English text):

“A castle he saw amid the land
princely and proud and lofty stand;
the outer wall around it laid
of shining crystal clear was made.
A hundred towers were raised about
with cunning wrought, embattled stout;
and from the moat each buttress bold
in arches sprang of rich red gold.
The vault was carven and adorned
with beasts and birds and figures horned;
within were halls and chambers wide
all made of jewels and gems of pride;
the poorest pillar to behold
was builded all of burnished gold.”

These beliefs in a parallel world of splendid palaces and fortifications persisted into the nineteenth century.  Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices.

These fairies were building for themselves in their own realms, but they would interact with humans in construction projects too.  There seem to be three different situations in which fairies got involved in building structures in the human world. Firstly, this occurred under duress.  There are several instances where fairies were compelled, against their will, to carry out tasks for a human.  Michael Scot, a stone mason, drank a magic potion and thereby got control over the fairies.  He commanded them to build roads and bridges around Scotland.  A similar tale is told of Donald Duibheal Mackay.  On the Isle of Skye the Great Barn of Minguinish was roofed by the sidh as a ransom for a captured companion (see my post on captured fairies).  Lastly, a fairy queen banished some troublesome elves from Cnoc-n’an-Bocan (Bogle-knowe, or Hobgoblin-hill, near to Menteith) into a book, The red book of Menteith.  The condition was that they would only be released when the laird of Menteith opened the volume.  Eventually, this happened by mistake.  Instantly, fairies appeared before him demanding work. Not knowing what work to set them to, his lordship hit upon the plan of making a road onto the island where his castle stood. They began, but the Earl realised that, if they continued, his hitherto impregnable retreat would be made vulnerable, so instead he asked them to make for him a rope of sand. They began this latter task without finishing the former, and finding their new work too much for them, they resolved to abandon that part done and depart, to the relief of the Earl.

Secondly, a large number of Scottish sites claim to have been built by fairies.  One, the Drocht na Vougha (fairy bridge) in Sutherland, was for their own convenience to shorten the journey time around Dornoch Firth; however, it benefited humans too and, when one traveller blessed the builders,  the bridge sank beneath the waves.  Many other places are alleged to have been built by fairies- sometimes in a night, such as the castles at Dunscaith and Duntulm- or by such laborious means as passing the stones from person to person over a great distance (Corstophine church and Abernethy tower). Other fairy buildings include Glasgow cathedral, Linlithgow palace, Peebles bridge and the castles at Dunstanburgh and Edinburgh.  All this effort to create edifices only used by humans might seem puzzling, but we are told that the church of St Mary’s at Dundee was built for gold, so that the good neighbours’ motivation in these labours might actually be very familiar indeed.

Lastly, there are numerous sites where the fairies did not build, as such, but objected to the site chosen and moved the assembled masonry blocks elsewhere by supernatural means overnight.  These appear exclusively to be churches.  Those at Rochdale, Samlesbury, Winwick, Newchurch in Rossendale, Burnley, Ince, Gadshill, Isle of Wight, Holme on the Wolds and Hinderwell are all associated with legends that the original location selected proved unacceptable to the fairies and that, eventually, after repeated efforts, the humans had to choose a new site.  Sometimes the fairies appeared in human form to do this, sometimes as pigs.

There are several comments to make on these records.  Firstly, it’s notable how most are Scottish or come from the north of England.  It seems that the more northerly fairies were the skilled stone masons, though why this should be we simply can’t speculate. Secondly, whilst we can understand why they should wish to build for themselves or hinder  building at places to which they had some special attachment, their willingness to work for humans (even for gold) is less comprehensible, especially as that included buildings for religious purposes- something to which they normally violently objected (as seen at Drocht na Vougha).

Perhaps part of the association in story tellers minds was between the magic of faery and particularly remarkable buildings. Palaces and churches might possibly have seemed so grand and impressive in their scale and decoration that they seemed, metaphorically and romantically, the work ‘of fairy hands.’

The other consideration that must be noted is the possibility that much of what was seen (especially during visits to fairyland) was simply ‘glamour‘- it had no physical reality.  We are familiar with stories of midwives taken to assist fairy women in labour who believe that they are in fine houses until they accidentally touch their eyelids with ointment intended for the fairy newborn and see that, in reality, they are in a ruined building or a cave.  Given their magical powers, indeed, one wonders why the good folk would bother at all with the labour of actually piling stone on stone when it could (presumably) all be achieved by the wave of a hand (or wand).

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Fairy Bridge, Isle of Man

Catching fairies- human abductions of fairy kind

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from the series ‘Catching fairies’ by Matt Collishaw

“The fairies have lost a fairy,
They don’t know what to do;
The rumours about her vary,
And all of them can’t be true.
They say she stood on a lily,
And fell in its depths immense;
But I don’t think she’d be so silly,
For she was a fairy of sense!”

Trial by Jury by Menella Bute Smedley

We are very familiar with the idea of fairy folk stealing humans, whether that is infants swapped for changelings or older men and women taken as lovers, wet-nurses and midwives (see the earlier posting on abductions or chapter 21 of my British fairies). There is also some evidence of the reverse process- for fairies being captured by humans.

As might be expected, fairies are captured extremely rarely and when it happens it seems to be a combination of extremely good luck, cunning and agility.  In two poems, Europe and The fairy, William Blake describes catching fairies in his hat.  In the former verse, he does this “as boys knock down a butterfly.”  Blake used the same butterfly simile in the latter poem, which describes how:

“So a Fairy sung/ From the leaves I sprung/ He leaped from the spray, to flee away/ But in my hat I caught/ He shall soon be taught.”

Speed and surprise are essential to catching a magical creature, as is reiterated in the poem, The opal dream cave by Katherine Mansfield, which also demonstrates that the long term outcome can be tragic or disappointing:

“In an opal dream cave I found a fairy:
Her wings were frailer than flower petals –
Frailer far than snowflakes.
She was not frightened, but poised on my finger,
Then delicately walked into my hand.
I shut the two palms of my hands together
And held her prisoner.
I carried her out of the opal cave,
Then opened my hands.
First she became thistledown,
Then a mote in a sunbeam,
Then–nothing at all.
Empty now is my opal dream cave. “

These incidents of fairy capture break down into three types, depending upon their outcomes:

  1. the captive fairy dies- Keeping fairies as playthings in the human world is cruel and dooms them, attractive as it may sound-I’d like to tame a fairy/ To keep it on a shelf” (The child and the fairies).  In the Suffolk story ‘Brother Mike’ a fairy is caught by a farmer in the act of stealing corn from his barn.  He puts the creature in his hat and takes back to the farmhouse for the amusement of his children.  The captive is tethered to the kitchen window and there he pines away and dies, refusing all food. This compares to the story of the Green Children, also from Suffolk.  These two infants strayed from faery into the human world; the boy of the pair soon died of grief. From Cheshire and Shropshire come tales of the water fairy called the asrai. This mysterious being, in the form of a young, naked woman, is from time to time dredged in fishing nets from lakes and meres.  When exposed to the air they never last long, simply melting away in the bottom of the fishing boat before it reaches the shore.
  2. the captive fairy is forced to act against her will- Near Lochaber in Scotland a man somehow captured a malevolent glaistig that had haunted the neighbourhood.  He imprisoned it in an outhouse and, as a condition of its release, made it swear to leave the area and to no longer molest the population.  He and his family were thereafter cursed with bad luck for his  efforts.  A Welsh story from Llanberis concerns a lake maiden, a gwrag annwn, who is lured ashore with an apple and caught by a man.  She agrees under compulsion to marry him, but the marriage is subject to conditions which, as always happens in these stories, were eventually breached.  Lastly, from the Isle of Skye there comes an account of mass compulsion. A builder was asked to construct a byre to hold 365 cows at Minguinish.  When he had finished the walls, he realised that he knew of no way of roofing over the vast space.  Heading home, he encountered and caught a fairy.  He was immediately besieged by other fairies seeking to release their companion; the terms of his ransom were that they roofed the Great Byre, which they did overnight.
  3. the captive fairy escapes- the most numerous of these accounts culminate in the fairy’s return home.  Sometimes, as with the Green Children, the fairy is simply lost and is taken in by humans.  This is the case in the Cornish story of Coleman Gray.  The pixie boy is found wandering and distressed and is cared for by a human family, until one day he hears his mother calling and returns to her.  More often the fairy is caught, although not always intentionally.  An account from Dartmoor describes how a woman returning from market met a pixie gambolling on the path in front of her.  She snatched it up, put it in her empty basket and latched the lid. For a while he complained loudly in a strange tongue.  When he fell silent, she opened the lid to check on him and found that he had disappeared.  From Lancashire there comes a story of two poachers who were out ferreting and who, instead of rabbits, flushed two fairies from a burrow into their sacks.  They were so alarmed by the voices crying out from inside the sacks that they dropped them and ran home.  The next day the sacks were retrieved, empty and neatly folded.  It seems that the fairies bore no ill will for the incident; likewise in the story of Skillywidden, a pixie captured at Treridge near Zennor, the fairy does not seem too put out by his ordeal.  A farmer was cutting furze when he spotted the young pixie asleep.  He scooped it up and took it home where it played contentedly by the hearth with his children.  However, one day when they all slipped outside to play, the pixie’s parents appeared searching for him and he readily went home with them.  Readers may note that there is a farm called Skillywadden to the south of Trendrine Hill where this incident took place; this may therefore be prime fairy catching country…

It is also notable from these examples how often it is the case that a juvenile fairy is caught.  Presumably the reason for this is quite simply that they are less cautious and less alert to danger than their parents.  Secondly, whilst contact with fairies is generally something to be discouraged, in most of these cases there are no ill consequences for the captors; in fact, in several cases the human children play with the fairy child on terms of amity and equality.  In some of the other cases, it appears that the fairies may have accepted that it was their own want of care or simple bad luck that led to their capture and, as a result, no vengeance is exacted.

asrai

An asrai, by Clayscence

Cobwebs and cloth- fairy spinning and weaving

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A witch conjures a storm with her distaff

“Swiftly turn the murmuring wheel!
Night has brought the welcome hour,
When the weary fingers feel
Help, as if from faery power;
Dewy night o’ershades the ground;
Turn the swift wheel round and round!”

William Wordsworth, Song of the spinning wheel

I have written previously on the fairy economy on this blog and in my book British fairies (chapter 9) but there is one craft activity that seems to be particularly associated with the denizens of faery: this is the making of thread and the weaving of garments.

I have recently been reading Hobgoblin and sweet puck, a book by Gillian Edwards from 1974, which examines fairylore through the origins of names and terminology.  It’s an interesting and entertaining book if you can track down a copy.  She noted that the fairies may be traced back through early medieval fees/ fatae to the original Three Fates of classical mythology.  They spin and sever the threads of our lives, so creating an ancient link between cloth making and the supernatural.

Much later, the Reverend Kirk has this to say of the sidh folk’s skill:

“Ther Women are said to Spine very fine, to Dy, to Tossue, and Embroyder: but whither it is as manuall Operation of substantiall refined Stuffs, with apt and solid Instruments, or only curious Cob-webs, impalpable Rainbows, and a fantastic Imitation of the Actions of more terrestricall Mortalls, since it transcended all the Senses of the Seere to discerne whither, I leave to conjecture as I found it.” (Secret Commonwealth c.5)

spinning-straw-into-gold

Quite a few other sources confirm the connection.  Brownies performing household tasks will often undertake stages of the cloth making process, for instance dressing hemp (though at the same time their aversion to linen is to be recalled), carding wool and spinning tow (coarse hemp fibres used for ropes and the like).  The fairies are said to spin with mountain flax (according to Addy in Household Tales).

In his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands (p.15) J. G. Campbell recorded that typical activities within the fairy ‘brughs’ included spinning and weaving.  In Evans Wentz (Fairy faith p.98) there is an account from Skye of fairies heard ‘waulking’ (that is, fulling) some cloth and singing as they do so.  At Green Hollow in Argyllshire there was reputed to be a cloth dying factory operated by the fairies of Lennox.  When humans tried to steal the secrets of their natural plant dyes, it is said that the cloth workers concealed all their materials and fled.  The hidden materials still stain the waters of a local pool.

The loireag is a Highland fairy specifically responsible for overseeing the making of cloth through all its stages, from loom to fulling. She was a stickler for the traditional methods and standards, apparently.  Offerings of milk were made by home producers to propitiate her.  Another Scottish spirit, the gyre-carlin, had comparable links to cloth-making.  It was said that, if unspun flax was not removed from the distaff at the end of the year, she would steal it all.  Conversely, if asked by a woman for the endowment of skill in spinning, she would enable the recipient to do three to four times as much work as other spinners.

Logically, of course, fairies had to be able to manufacture cloth and garments.  Their royal courts and nobility are marked for their sumptuary splendour and robes, gowns and other costumes of green are central to many accounts.  It is only really the Dobbies who are habitually naked or dressed in rags.

Nonetheless, this skill is not what might be anticipated, as it seems too settled and domesticated for the wild fairies of uninhibited Nature.  Perhaps the transformation of raw plant or animal materials successively into thread and then into garments was remarkable and impressive enough at some stage to give it an almost magical mystique.  There are sources which lend some support to such a theory.  In Hobgoblin and sweet Puck Gillian Edwards notes that in Sweden the word dverg means both dwarf and spider.  The dwarves too are said to have been famed for their spinning and weaving skills and to have taught these to humans.  The gossamer webs seen in autumn are further evidence of their craft, she suggests.  The miser who spied on the fairies at the Gump near St Just in Cornwall was overpowered and tied up; in the morning he found himself on the moor covered in spiders’ gossamer threads.  From the Isle of Man comes a story of a woman who went to a river bank and called upon the spiders to help her with spinning clothes (Briggs, Dictionary, p.138).  There appears to be here some equation between the almost miraculous manufacture of webs by unseen creatures and fairy abilities.  There could too be some aspect of fairy ‘glamour’ in all this.

Thread and cloth making are not only marvellous, the process may also be perilous according to fairy tales.  On the one hand, fairies may enter your home to carry out these tasks.  Such an intrusion is not just a trespass, but risks too close a contact with these unpredictable beings, and measures had to be taken to prevent it.  Several Manx tales warn how a failure to disengage the drive band on a spinning wheel before retiring to bed enables the fairies to come into a house overnight to use it for their own purposes. By inviting them in, albeit indirectly, you are placing potentially yourself in the power of the ‘Li’l fellas.’ In the Highlands, this precaution was Christianised and it was said that the band should be disengaged on a Saturday night to prevent fairy spinning early on a Sunday (Sabbath) morning.  It was believed to be the solitary female creatures the glaisteag and the gyre-carlin who would most commonly attempt to enter human homes to spin, causing nuisance and considerable noise through the night.

The danger of spinning can be greater still, though.  A number of fairy stories pair fairies’ spinning skills with a task imposed upon a human that can be both impossible and fatal if it is not completed.  The British examples are:

  • in Habetrot a girl must prove her female skill at the spinning wheel or face some unspecified punishment by her mother.  A fairy woman named Habetrot (whom Briggs calls the patron spirit of spinning) appears and assists her, along with a team of helpers including Scantlie Mab;
  • in Tom-Tit-Trot a girl has to spin a large quantity of yarn overnight or face beheading by the king.  The imp Tom-Tit-Trot helps her on condition that she belongs to him unless she can guess his name.  Fortunately she overhears it and is saved;
  • Sili-go-Dwt, Trwtyn-Tratyn, Terry-Top, Perrifool and Whuppity-Stoorie are all similar tales in which an elf helps with spinning and demands a forfeit unless its name is guessed;
  • Evans-Wentz relays a tale (p.97) of a girl who is abducted by the sidh folk under a hillock and is told that she will be held there until she has spun all the wool in a large sack and eaten all the meal in a huge chest.  Neither diminish and she faces eternal confinement and labour until another captive soul tells her to rub spit on her left eyelid every morning.  By so doing, she makes daily inroads into the wool and meal and finally escapes;
  • in the story if Welsh girl Eilian (told by John Rhys, Celtic folklore p.212), she was obliged to become the wife of a fairy man when she failed to finish the large quantity of wool he had demanded that she spin.  This would have meant she was trapped in Faery forever and could never have returned home to her family;
  • Addy in Household tales has a couple of similar impossible tasks imposed upon young women.  In one, a cruel old woman imprisons girls to work for her.  One is required to make twenty one shirts in a day- or face being “clammed” (dialect for pinched, that quintessential fairy punishment).  She is assisted by a kindly fairy, who later helps her escape; and,
  • lastly, readers may recall the Grimm’s comparable story of Rumplestiltskin.  A girl is imprisoned by the king in a tower and has to spin straw into gold on pain of death. The eponymous sprite helps her, first in return for her necklace and then demands her first born child- unless she can guess his name.

There is also a curious Scottish ballad called The elfin knight in which the fairies appear to be associated with superlative mastery of the tailoring craft.  A human maid is told that the only way she has any hope of marrying the fairy knight is:

“Thou must shape a serk to me/ Without any cut or heme, quoth he/ Thou must shape it knife and sheerlesse/ And also sew it needle-threedlesse.”

This impossible task is combined with a comparable demand to sow and harvest a field subject to unachievable conditions.  Needless to say the shirt is never made and the girl doesn’t get the boy.

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The stories listed above link two curious themes.   One is the power of knowing a fairy being’s personal name.  If you possess it, you can overcome and escape the creature; if not, you face perpetual subjection (see too chapter 19 of my British fairies).  Intertwined with this is the obligation to perform an almost unattainable feat on pain of death (or, again, of fairy enslavement).  Quite how these came to be involved with spinning skills is rather hard to explain.  Perhaps there is some notion of exacting a high fee for the teaching of the fairies’ remarkable craft knowledge.

One might offer a Marxist interpretation of these stories, arguing that we have in these stories a critique of the loss of artisan craft-skills through the imposition of mass production and commercial deadlines.  Individuality is lost as the worker is subjected to the anonymous discipline of the factory proletariat, with sanctions for failing to meet the capitalist’s production targets…  There may be some fun to be had here.  Certainly it seems significant that these accounts feature some of the very few individuated and named fairy characters.

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Habetrot

Two tribes- good and bad fairy folk

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Nils Blommer, Fairies of the meadow,1850

There are many types of fairy creature, but what are conventionally imagined when we think of fairies are what have been called the communal, mound or sometimes trooping fairies.  Many of the other, solitary fairies, have a tendency to be antagonistic to humans- if not downright fatal.  Folk lore evidence also indicate that there is a broad dichotomy within the communal fairies between good and evil.

This distinction can be traced back to the earliest times.  In the Viking Age the Scandinavians spoke of two classes of elf inhabiting Alfheim (literally ‘elfhome’- that is, fairy land).  These were the liosalfar (the fair or light elves) and the dockalfar (the dark elves).  The latter lived underground and were said to be ‘blacker than pitch.’  Their temperaments reflected their colouring.  There are also references to svartalfar (another species of ‘dark elf’ going by the name alone- svart = swarthy) but these appear in fact to be dwarves rather than elves.

In much later Scottish fairy lore a clear distinction is recognised between the seelie and unseelie courts.  The seelie court comprises the kindly, benevolent fairies who help the the elderly and the poor, assist the hard working, comfort the distressed and reward good deeds.  These ‘guid fairies’ can, nonetheless, act vindictively against humans if they feel that they have been slighted.

Secondly, there is the unseelie court, which is made up of the host of the unsanctified dead.  They catch stray humans and make them fire elf shots at other people or at cattle.  These ‘wicked wichts’ inflict harm unprovoked and will carry off unbaptised children.  They might harshly shave men they caught and the particularly resented those who dressed in the fairy colour of green.  Some of the solitary and deadly Scottish fairy beasts seem to be numbered amongst the unseelie court.

John Rhys said that the Welsh tylwyth teg could be both good and bad.  Investigating the beliefs of the area north west of Snowdon, he was told that around Nant y Bettws the fairies “were thieves without their like.”  They would steal milk, cheese and butter from farms and would pick pockets at the local markets.  Alongside them, though, there lived another branch of the ‘fair family’ who were distinctly more beautiful and who always treated their human neighbours with honesty and goodness (Celtic folklore p.83).

In England there is some small trace of such a tradition, though it is only to be found in a couple of allusions in literature. The Reverend Thomas Jackson, in A treatise concerning the original of unbelief (1625), wrote this (although he ascribed all such tales to satanic delusion):

“Thus are Fayries, from difference of events ascribed to them, divided into good and bad, when as it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both…”

His indication of two differing temperaments is also reflected in George Gascoigne’s The Buggbears published in 1565:

“… the white and read fearye… some lovely and amyable, some felowly and friendly, some constant, some mutable, of hylls, wodes and dales, of waters and brookes, we coonyng in that art can ken them by their lookes.”

Lewis Spence (Fairy tradition in Britain p.130) derives the British division into good and bad fairies from the distinction made in Ireland between the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fomorians.  It seems to me more likely that the influence of the Norse myths as recorded in Gylfaginning above was just as strong, if not more significant.  Perhaps the Gaelic and Norse strands combined in Scotland, resulting in the persistence of belief in the two distinct courts or tribes.

The other point to stress is that all fairies are potentially mischievous or malicious.  Some only act in this manner; others will be well-disposed most of the time but may be swift to be offended or irritated.  Plainly caution and good manners are required in any dealings with the supernatural, as I have warned before (see previous posts and my book British Fairies).

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One of the liosalfar, by Zephyrant

Of muggles and boggarts- and other fantastic beasts

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The bogles in the courtyard, by Arthur Rackham

Following my recent remarks upon the authentic origins of Dobby and the other house-elves of the Harry Potter series, in this post I’m offering a few more thoughts and comments upon some of Joanne Rowling’s words and characters.

We’ll start with Muggles, non-magic folk.  There are several websites out there offering perfectly reasonable theories as to where she derived this from.  One site, for example,  proposes a word with a very long pedigree that has meant tail, young woman and, more recently, ‘joint.’  None of these have any magical or supernatural connotations, plainly.

However, it is well known that Rowling did thorough research whilst writing the Potter series.  Perhaps she came across this tale from the West of Scotland, recorded by J. G. Campbell and also printed by Lewis Spence.  A boy who was believed to be a changeling was sent by one household to seek the loan of a corn sieve from neighbours.  He met the son of that household, who was also a fairy changeling.  The latter told him to make his request in ‘honest language’ (i.e. fairy speak) as they thought they were alone together.  The child sent on the errand therefore said:

“The muggle maggle wants the loan of the black luggle laggle, to take the maggle from the grain.”

If his first words describe his ‘mother’ back at home, then perhaps we see her being identified as a ‘muggle (that is, human or non-fairy) woman/ housewife.’  This little story doesn’t have much at all to tell us about fairy language, but it might suggest a source for Rowling’s usage.

As for boggarts, we are on much firmer ground here.  The boggart is a well known type of British fairy creature.  It is one of a larger class known by a variety of related names- bogies, bogles and bugs.  Boggarts are probably amongst the more pleasant of the breed.  They are all solitary fairies, but boggarts tend to live like brownies in close proximity to human households.  Unlike brownies, they don’t seem to do much work around the farmstead but rather occupy themselves by being a nuisance, making noises and causing disturbance much like a poltergeist.  Rowling’s boggarts are shape-shifters and, on the whole, more malevolent.  She seems to have borrowed these characteristics, but not the name, from the boggarts close relatives.  Bogies range in behaviour from mischievous through frightening to downright dangerous.  They can change their appearance and often torment humans.  Bogles are evil goblins, although at least one is known to focus upon punishing petty criminals.  Bogg beasts are also a malicious kind of goblin, almost a demon in behaviour.  As readers will have seen, J. K. Rowling used traditional fairy characteristics, but preferred to apply the boggart name to the particular creature she imagined.

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Bogles causing mischief, by Arthur Rackham

In The prisoner of Azkaban in Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts his class learns about hinky-punks in their ‘Defence against the dark arts’ lessons with Remus Lupin.  These creatures are again borrowings by J. K. Rowling from authentic British tradition.  They are a form of will-of-the-wisp found around the Somerset/ Devon borders and they will lead night-time travellers astray, sometimes luring them into bogs and ponds.  The hinky-punk is believed to have only one leg and one eye.