I’ve posted several times on faery motion and movement, such as their use of whirlwinds; here I want to look at ways they may be transported by other beings. Although, these days, we tend to assume that faeries fly everywhere, there’s no trace of wings or of fluttering flight in the traditional records. They can, magically, ‘teleport‘ themselves from place to place or enchant items to carry them, it’s perfectly true, but most of the time they get around in very prosaic ways: on their own two feet, or on something else’s four feet.
It’s pretty well known that the faes ride horses (just as the surrounding human population would have done in times past) and these animals are always described as being proportionate to their size. If they’re the size of children, they’ll be mounted on ponies; if they’re seen smaller, the steeds might be as big as greyhounds. Just like humans, too, the faeries will use their horses for all suitable activities: they go out on their annual ‘rades’ in processions of horses, but they’ll also hunt on them, exactly as would human gentry and nobles. The horses are reputed to be very swift (“as fast as the wind”) and to be highly prized, being richly caparisoned when they are taken out.
Needless to say, it’s often easier to make use of someone else’s animals- that way you don’t have to stable or feed them, and it is widely known that faeries do just this, taking horses from farmer’s stables at night and riding them until they’re worn out. This process is frequently accompanied by the knotting of the horses’ manes and tails, at least some of this done ostensibly to provide the diminutive riders with reins and stirrups. These are necessary not just because the riders are often so much tinier than their mounts, but because they like to drive the horses at frenetic pace across the fields and moors. These exertions leave the horses exhausted and covered in a foam of sweat, much to the dismay of their human owners.
So far, so familiar, but it doesn’t stop there. If horses aren’t available, other four-legged beasts will do. On the Isle of Anglesey it was reported that the local tylwyth teg rode donkeys or (to be exact) they gave a mortal man one to ride when he travelled with them; this might, conceivably, have been some sort of joke or put down on their part: they got well-bred steeds and he got a bad tempered ass. Very definitely proportionate to the smaller breed of fae, in Nithsdale in southern Scotland the elves were reported to ride on cats. One assumes they used magic to control their mounts. On Shetland, the trows rode the farmers’ cows. When the cattle were released into the pastures in Spring, if any of them were found to be weak- or collapsed, frothing at the mouth- it was known to be because the trows had been riding it.
Unlikely as cats sound, they are at least four legged. However, as we know, even two legged victims will do and there are reports from around the Britain Isles of unfortunate human victims being saddled and mounted to act as steeds for faeries overnight. Usually they are forced to carry riders around, although there is one report of a man taken and used as a cart horse in one Scottish sithean. According to the poem, Montgomerie’s Flyting of Polwarth, some of the Scottish elves were known to ride other two legged creatures: “Sum saidlit ane scho aip all grathit into green” (some saddled a she-ape, all clad in green).
Modern fantasy art shows faes riding birds and other wildlife. Pretty as these images are, and despite the fact that we are attracted to them because they emphasise the unity of the faeries with their environment, there is not very much traditional support for the idea. As we’ve just seen, we hear of the elves riding apes, but they must be few and far between in any part of Britain; it’s also reported that the Highland hag, the cailleach bheur, and her follower rides on wolves and swine. The Gyre Carling, another name for the faery queen in Fife, was also said to ride a pig: in one poem she “schup her on ane sow and is her gaitis gane” (she settled herself on a sow and went her ways). Making use of more common mammals and fowls is not reported.
Much of this suggests that the faeries are stuck in a pre-modern world- often our view of them. We like to romanticise their pre-industrial, rural aspects, whereas the evidence indicates that they move with the times just as their human neighbours do. Faery industry is known- dyeing and milling (for which see my How Things Work in Faery) but more pertinently, contemporary reports indicate that they will use cars, buses and aeroplanes to get around (see Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies for such sightings). Humans no longer need to employ horse power, although they will use them for special occasions and special purposes; the same would seem to be true of the faes.
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 Faeryfor 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.
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.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘A Ballad of Dreamland’
In his introduction to the 1974 reprint of Alfred Watkins’ ley line classic, The Old Straight Track, John Michell noted how both Watkins and the Reverend Francis Kilvert invoked the “same genius terrae britannicae” of the red Herefordshire earth. This genius, the ‘spirit of the British land,’ is very much what we are describing when we discuss British fairies.
The painter Paul Nash sought to discover and free the imprisoned spirit of the land, the motive power that animated the British landscape. He deeply felt that a spirit of place, a genius loci, inhabited the soil and scenery and that certain poets in particular sensed it. William Blake, he felt, “perceived among many things the hidden significance of the land he always called Albion” (Personal Statement, Unit One, 1934). Poet Herbert Read described Nash as having “profound intuitions” that enabled him to “reveal the immemorial values in the landscape.” He saw “an animistic landscape, the sacred habitation of familiar spirits” in which many natural elements were synthesised in a “druidic ritual” (Read, Paul Nash, Penguin Modern Painters, 1944). Through his strong sense of the character and spirit of individual places, Nash felt that he could witness “another aspect of the accepted world…” In this, he saw himself merely to be continuing a tradition initiated by Wordsworth, who had built up a mythology founded upon a “systematic animation of the inanimate, which attributes life and feeling to non-human nature.”
Intriguingly, Nash repeatedly drew analogies between human life and the lives of trees: he was keenly aware of how the tree was rooted in the soil and dependent upon earth and landscape. In a letter written in August 1912 the painter even went so far as to declare that he painted trees as though they were human because “I sincerely love and worship trees and know that they are people- and wonderfully beautiful people.” These ideas make his comments upon Ivinghoe Beacon, on the Chiltern Hills, more fascinating: it was, he recalled, “an enchanted place… where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad.” The woodland spirits were alive and active for Nash.
Elsewhere, Nash wrote that “The idea of giving life to inanimate objects is as old as almost any record of fable. It has varied in its conception throughout very different histories,” which included fairy lore and mythology. This “endowment of natural objects, organic but not human, with active powers or personal influences” lies at the core of faery belief, I also believe (Nash, ‘The Life of the Inanimate Object,’ Country Life, May 1st 1937). The artist had recently visited the Avebury megaliths for the first time and “the holy stones of the Great Circle” had evidently impressed him deeply. He continued that “it is not a question of a particular stone being the house of the spirit- the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive.” This idea of animating inanimate objects was very old indeed, “a commonplace in fairy tale and which occurs quite naturally also in most mythologies.”
Sketching at Silbury Hill near Avebury, Nash recalled that:
“I felt that I had divined the secret of that paradoxical pyramid. Such things do happen in England, quite naturally, but they are not recognised for what they are- the true yield of the land, indeed, but also works of art; identical with the intimate spirit inhabiting these gentle fields, yet not the work of chance or the elements, but directed by an intelligent purpose ruled by an authentic vision.”
Nash’s revelation at Silbury encouraged him to intensify his search for “A character which frankly disclosed a national inspiration, something whose lineaments seemed almost redolent of place and time within the limits of these shores.”
As well as the Avebury complex, Nash was especially devoted to the twin Oxfordshire hills called the Wittenham Clumps, which he returned to paint throughout his life. The legends attached to the Clumps enhanced their mystery for him: one of the hills was an ancient fort where it was said that treasure was buried, guarded by a phantom raven. Beneath the hills were long barrows and an ancient forest. The place had, he said, “a compelling magic.”
Earlier writer Maurice Hewlett had had the same perception as Nash. In his 1913 novella The Lore of Proserpine, he recorded how “I have seen spirits, beings… and have observed them as part of the landscape, no more extraordinary than grazing cattle or wheeling plover.” A little later, he added that he regarded them as a “natural fact… a part of the landscape” (‘The Soul at the Window,’ The Lore of Proserpine, 1913).
As we just saw, Nash discussed the ‘yield’ of the land when describing Silbury. Earlier investigators had (incredibly) dismissed the stone circle and avenues as purely natural features, but he rightly saw them as more than a simple geological formation. Elsewhere he discussed how his art would become preoccupied with “one landscape [and the] flowers and fungi which it yields.” This suggests that, almost like crops or the native fauna and flora, the faery folk are a natural outgrowth of the soil. I think we can usefully borrow a further term from English land law and talk about the ‘burden’ of the land: this is a term denoting certain costs or obligations that come with a certain body of land. In faery terms, these will be their right and expectation to be given a share of food products, to be able to use the occupiers’ homes and other buildings and (even) to have certain areas of land set aside and preserved solely for them. They are a continual presence on the land- and a continual influence upon its usage and meaning.
I feel, therefore, that British fairies are in many respects bound up and directly expressive of the landscape within which they live. Pixies, the tylwyth teg, the ‘yarthkins‘ of East Anglian, they are a part of the terrain in which they reside, they are the animating spirit of those moors, mountains and fens. The wild and aggressive spriggans, buccas and piskies of the south-west arguably manifest the rugged nature of the region they inhabit; so too the tiddy ones or yarthkins of the Fens, rising as they do from the waterways and peaty soils of that region. They are the original and most fundamental yield of the land.
To conclude, I need hardly say that these ideas are not by any means uniquely mine. Well known faery artist Brian Froud, for example, has said that “Faeries are the inner nature of each land and a reflection of the inner nature of our souls.” The people of each nation are shaped by their environment; so too are the supernatural beings of that country and, as a result, there is a continual circular interaction between them all.
Further reading: see too my previous posting on genii loci discussing other aspects of this subject. See too my book, Faeries and the Natural World (2021):
The pretext for writing this post is that, working with publisher Green Magic on some new faery books, we decided to ‘rebrand’ all the titles they’d issued with new covers using artwork by Arthur Rackham. Rackham is instantly recognisable to many readers, his work is topical and attractive- and it’s largely out of copyright!
I’ve discussed aspects of Rackham‘s work before, both on this blog and in my book Faery Art of the Twentieth Century; what I want to focus on here is the way that art can shape our perceptions. Firstly, as my title suggests, there are essentially two sorts of faery-being featured in all of Rackham’s faery illustrations. There is a slender young female with long hair, dressed in flowing robes (or sometimes nothing)- a faery- and there is a small ugly man in quasi-medieval clothes- a pixie, goblin or gnome. The new cover of British Pixiesgives a good idea of the latter. Some of Rackham’s nude, juvenile nymphs are to be seen on the cover of my Love and Sex in Faeryland.
Regular visitors to this blog will be aware that Rackham’s bipartite arrangement of the Faery world is not reflected by British tradition. There are, of course, attractive female faeries and surly looking pixies, but the faery clans of the British Isles are far more complex than that: every region has its particular family, race or species of fae being and there is little reason to suppose that males take just the one form and females another.
At the same time, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Rackham wasn’t creating his designs without foundation. What he drew upon, though, was not folklore but literature. We need only think of the sexy faery women of medieval romances such as Sir Launfal or the small and misshapen faery kings of Huon of Bordeaux or King Herla to understand where he found his models. As an illustrator of faery tales and legends, this is to be expected.
The dichotomy of type that Rackham established so effectively through the commercial and artistic success of his designs was taken on in turn by many of the children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century- artists such as Rosa Petherick, Susan Pearse or Agnes Richardson- and the iconography came to be embedded in our collective psyche. Because of Rackham, I suggest, we can now only think of faeries within these parameters, divided into these two rough categories- elegant, pretty and girly/ ugly, stunted and male. This is something of an exaggeration, but not a huge one. More recently, the Middle Earth elves of Peter Jackson’s film have contributed the blonde, noble warrior elf as well; but in a sense this is just an elaboration of Rackham’s largely female faery clan.
These images are pervasive and persistent. That might sound improbable again, but consider this. A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), found that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from images and ideas in books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairy series, that adult pagans had seen and absorbed as children.
We get very similar evidence from the Fairy Census (2014-17). When witnesses reached for adjectives to describe what they saw, they often chose to make comparisons with popular representations of faery-kind. Five people likened the beings they saw to Disney characters; four referred to pictures by Brian Froud. One tree spirit was said to have looked like Gollum (i.e. in the films). Looking further back, terms borrowed from Paracelsus were co-opted- sylph and, especially, gnome. Favourite films and beloved books make a powerful impression, very possibly shaping in advance what we expect to see. Of course, they provide a vocabulary, a point of reference, which is why witnesses often allude to the creatures they see looking like leprechauns, goblins, brownies and “the classic gnome” even though they may be using labels that are alien to place where the sighting occurred, mistaken, imprecise or simply unhelpful. Goblins and brownies are good examples here, in that the traditional descriptions of these tend to be of very large and hairy beings; often, now, the words are chosen to denote a small, brown pixie type being, one who is often the personification of Paracelsus’ very unhelpful ‘gnome’ character. The interaction between what we expect to see and what we may then actually see is a complex psychological well beyond my comfort zone, but it is at least clear how mass market imagery, especially that absorbed at an impressionable age, will enter our subconscious.
The new books, Manx Faeries and The Faery Lifecycle, are due to be published later this month.
As I have discussed in previous posts, you may be able to identify a fairy by their physical appearance (by examining their hair, their eyes, or their physique– whether small or wizened) but they may also be given away by their clothes.
Faery clothing is often highly distinctive. Here are a few descriptions from around Britain which may help spotting fairies. In Yorkshire the fairies are said to be small and to wear short jackets and petticoats, to have bands of red ‘cuddy’ crossed around their legs rather like puttees, and to wear pointed caps like sugar loaves. I have been unable to find ‘cuddy’ with certainty in dictionaries- my best guess is that it is a dialect version of cude cloth, a sort of fine white material used for wrapping babies at baptism.
The Manx fairies have been sighted several times dressed all in green or in green with red caps- that may be peaked, made of leather and which are adorned with fairy lace. In one case a ‘fairy bishop’ visited a woman living at South Barrule on the island. He wore a tricorn hat of the eighteenth-century fashion. The taste for slightly old-fashioned clothes seems rather common: the fairies encountered at their famous market on the Blackdown Hills wore “old country garb” of red, blue or green and “high crowned hats” (presumably the sort of tall, broad brimmed hats we associate with Puritan and Cavaliers). The Cornish pobel vean “dressed in bright green nether garments, sky-blue jackets, three cornered hats on the men and pointed ones on the ladies, all decked out with lace and silver bells.”
Shetland fairies, meanwhile, have been seen in tight green clothes with green tapered caps. West Highland fairies too have been described as wearing “sharp caps like [those] which children make of rushes” which rise in a high conical shape.
Some Welsh fairies have been reported as being dressed in red and white, the men with a red triple cap, the women with a light headdress. Another description is even more elaborate: the tylwyth teg were said to be “beautiful little people,” the girls wearing dresses like rainbows with ribbons in their hair and the males in red triple caps (whatever these may be, exactly). The same account also said that the women might appear in white, scarlet or in blue petticoats. In south-east Wales, certainly, in Montgomeryshire, the fairies are known as the ‘old elves of the blue petticoats’ (or trousers), so characteristic were their garments and their colour.
Some other Welsh faeries, seen as recently as 1910, were said to be of the stature of children aged about eight or ten, with brown withered faces and hands like tiny claws. They wore russet red, some having conical close-fitting caps, others having handkerchiefs tied around their heads. Interestingly, a widely reproduced story of some fairies seen dancing in Denbighshire in the late 1750s closely resembles details of this. One summer’s day four children saw some dancers in a field. There were fifteen or sixteen, dressed in red with red handkerchiefs spotted with yellow on their heads. The children tried to get nearer, but were scared off when one of the dancers ran towards them with a very fierce expression (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, 414).
The pixies of the south-west of England seem especially prone to wearing antiquated clothes. For example, a male seen at Shaugh Bridge, on the south west edge of Dartmoor, in 1897 was dressed in a pointed hat, doublet and “short knicker things” coloured blue and red; four seen on Dartmoor in 1960 wore similar outfits: red doublets, red pointed caps and long green hose or stockings. The Cornish pixies adopt similar styles: at Penberth Cove the pixie women appeared very grandly in hooped petticoats with furbelows (pleated borders) and trains, fans and feathers. A group seen in 1830 at St Kea were dressed in red cloaks and tall, black sugar loaf hats of an ‘old-fashioned style.’ William Bottrell recorded that the pobel vean wore three cornered hats and the women were seen in very pointed headwear, all decorated with lace and silver bells.
What seems to tie all these accounts together is, firstly, the bright colours that are preferred. Most reports originate from country areas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when garments for most ordinary folk would have been fairly drab. The colourful costumes bespeak an earlier age and a richer class. Secondly, the headwear stands out, primarily because it is old-fashioned, whether of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; some of its sounds distinctly odd to us today, but was probably far less unusual to the witnesses. Even so, the fairies appear to come to us from another dimension and dressed as if they are an aristocracy of another age.
This is anachronistic style of dress is still reflected (to some extent) in the popular renderings of faeries- as illustrated by the pictures included here. Both artists have opted for medieval peasant style hoods with long trailing points or curious ‘ears.’ These allow for some amusing suggestions of faery ears whilst also underlining their essential otherness. If you have read my book from last year, Faery Art of the Twentieth Century, you may recall that this sort of faux-medieval garment became a common indicator of fairies in children’s illustrations from the 1920s onwards.
So, to conclude, how can you spot a faery? Well, the trite and unhelpful answer seems to be: they’ll look like one (!) Their clothing will stand out as peculiar and old fashioned, even if everything else about them blends in. Watch out…
Today, the name of writer John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) will be unfamiliar to most people. He was, nevertheless, a prolific writer of novels and poetry and was (and is) highly regarded by those who know his work. Part of his fall from favour may be related to the fact that none of his novels seem to be under 500 pages in length (although that’s never been a problem with Tolkien…)
The landscape, history and mythology of Wessex are at the centre of much of Powys’ work (despite his Welsh-ness). The supernatural penetrated his thinking and, even, his everyday life. Powys was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex (the counties of Dorset, Somerset and western Hampshire) and he celebrated the region’s inherent mystery and antiquity- for example, one of his novels is Maiden Castle (1936), named after the Iron Age hillfort south of Dorchester. In the novel, this site is where is the character Uryen tries to raise the ancient gods. The fort is huge and impressive and has inspired other artists- for example, composer John Ireland‘s 1921 orchestral work Mai Dun and photographs and paintings by Paul Nash. The latter called the fort “the largest and most perfect earthwork in the world. To say it is the finest in Dorset is, perhaps, enough, for in no part of any country, I believe – not even in Wiltshire, where Avebury stands – can be found so complete a sequence of hill architecture…” He sensed its powerful aura too- its unsettling spirit of place- “Its presence to-day, after the immense passage of time, is miraculously undisturbed; the huge contours strike awe into even the most vulgar mind; the impervious nitwits who climbed on to the monoliths of Stonehenge to be photographed, slink out of the shadow of the Maiden uneasily.”
Returning to John Cowper Powys, the author had a highly intimate relationship with faery-lore. Admittedly, he wrote a good deal of poetry that was very conventional in its approach. For example, in To Thomas Hardy he described how “fairy fingers ring the flowery bells,” he demanded in On the Downs- “Squeeze out the cowslip wine, O fairy hands!” and in To W B Yeats he imagined a time “when woods were free/ To elfin feet and fairy minstrelsy.”
In these poems Powys’ fairies are the very familiar faes of late Victorian verse: they are tiny, winged and frail (he addresses a straw blown in the wind as a “wandering elf”- although this image also brings to mind the habit of Highland Scottish fairies of travelling in small whirlwinds). The fae beings of Powys’ verse care for nature (clearing slugs and snails from blackthorn leaves in Fairies’ Song) and they are both inspiration and illusion.
However, there was a deeper and more powerful undercurrent in his verse. In his Autobiography, published in 1934, Powys described Wordsworth’s “cerebral mystical passion for young women.” He saw this as being intimately bound up with the Romantic poet’s abnormally sensual sensitivity to the elements and, Powys declared, Wordsworth wanted his girls to be “elemental.”
Elsewhere in the same book, Powys confessed to being a “nympholept or sylpholept” himself. He was powerfully attracted to slim, sylph-like young females and he was perfectly open in his books about this “erotic obsession.” His ideal sylph had long, slender thighs, narrow boyish hips and “ankles of ravishing perfection”- “as fragile as wild anemones.” Sylphs are, of course, the elemental beings of the air who form part of the mythology of Paracelsus. For Powys, these faery beings were a constant source of desire and distraction. His poem Blasphemy is addressed to a “fairy form [and] flower-like face” with “piteous tender breast.” He asks her “Why did you come with your childish grace/ And trouble my heart’s rest?” A verse written To my friends curses them because they “have driven the fairies far away/ Lest their white limbs should hide the heavenly crown.” For Powys, the fairies truly were succubi or lhiannan shee, supernatural lovers who haunted and possessed their human lovers.
This desire for thin nymphets is entwined with Powys’ perception that the great god Pan and all his retinue are still present and active in the world. A poem about Montacute House in Somerset assures us that “Here, undisturbed may dusky Dryads dream/ That Pan with all his music haunteth still…” Of course, Pan is alive still in Arcadia in Greece as well: his pipes are heard by all that heed, for “the beautiful must always last/ Secure from change” (Odi Profanum). For Powys, Pan is the god of lusty passion for nymphs (indeed, in his poem The Truth? he called on people to drop their masks and to admit that they were all, really, “satyrs shamelessly/ Goblins, Imps and Elves”). At the same time, though, Pan is also the deity of the natural world, found in plants, clouds and waters, driving life and fertility in everything.
One of the major perils of crossing the fairies is that they can be very likely to seek vengeance. They have a vindictive streak, something which is not alleviated at all by their generally indifferent or uncaring attitude towards humankind. We must add to this the problem that they are immortal: the fairies can wait to get their own back, not just through the perpetrator’s lifetime, but far down the generations (as Professor John Rhys described in Celtic Folklore vol.I, c.VII & vol.II pp.420-25). He speculated whether this delayed gratification was the result of their deathlessness or because some spell prevented prompter action; either way, the fairies can wait and innocent descendants can pay the price for an ancestor’s folly.
Rhys illustrated the vengeful aspect of the faery character with an account from Pantannas, near Beddgelert. A farmer sought to banish the tylwyth teg from his farm by ploughing up all the areas of grass sward (so that, effectively, they had nowhere left to dance). The man immediately began to see apparitions, or hear voices, threatening that Dial a ddaw, ‘Vengeance is coming.’ Soon after, all the farmer’s supply of corn was destroyed by fire, but serious as this loss was, the fairies declared it to be only the beginning of their inexorable and inflexible revenge. The farmer restored the grassy areas and pleaded with the fairies for mercy, and they returned to the land, but the threat of further action was not lifted- it was only postponed to his descendants. A century later, the warning voices were heard again (‘Dial a ddaw‘) and, soon enough, the vengeance was exacted. The son of the family disappeared at night, presumed to have been taken by the tylwyth teg at a fairy ring, and he was not seen again for several generations. When he finally returned, the world was changed and his name was only a dim memory and- as so often happens in Welsh stories- as soon as he touched something in the mortal world, he crumbled away to dust. What we gather from this is that the fairies won’t forget and that, to make matters worse, they are patient, leading to what seems to us humans like harsh and wholly unreasonable punishment meted out against future generations, who may not even understand why they are suffering.
A variety of offences will incur the fairies’ wrath. I’ve already mentioned their adverse response to disbelief in their existence; other misdemeanours against them include:
Attacking the fairies: this is easily the most understandable case, perhaps. A Norman knight who came upon fairies dancing at Beddgelert sets his hounds upon the happy throng. His fate was first to get lost. Then, when he managed to return home, he found his wife with her lover; the two men fought and the malicious knight died (Welsh Outlook, no.11, Nov.1st 1915, 431-2);
Even insults to fairies can elicit a severe response: a drunken man on the Isle of Man met some fairies dancing at Laxey. He swore at them and they chased him away by pelting him with gravel. This wasn’t sufficient though: soon his horse and cow died and, within six weeks, he died himself. I’ve mentioned before the Ballad of Mary O’Craignethan, in which a father rescues his kidnapped daughter from the fairy king. This happy outcome is marred, though, by the fact that- in his grief and rage- the father cursed the fairy folk. He is warned that “nane e’er cursed the Seelie Court and ever after thrave.” As predicted, the father dies soon after recovering his beloved Mary;
Trespassing on fairy ground: the fairies have been known (at the very least) to blunt farmers’ scythes if they try to mow the grass growing on a fairy ring. In a case reported from South-west Scotland, a farmer’s cow was killed because it had been annoying the fairies by standing on top of their house. Somewhat comparable may be the story of the walnut tree that once grew at Llandyn Hall, Llangollen, around which the faeries met at night to hold their wedding ceremonies. When it was cut down in the nineteenth century, the faeries took their revenge, it was believed: one of the workmen involved in the felling was killed by a falling branch;
Damaging faery goods– usually we read stories in which humans are rewarded for mending broken faery tools. A Devonshire story reverses this. A boy found a pixie peel (baking implement) in a field. He broke it, saying “The pixies won’t bake any more bread.” He was instantly attacked and pinched, and couldn’t open his eyes for days (Folklore, vol.11, 213);
Spying: the faeries are notoriously secretive and retiring. A girl given a job as a housemaid by a ‘Green Lady,’ a fairy woman, was warned never to spy on her activities. Of course, the girl did- peeping through a keyhole at her mistress dancing with a bogey- and for this she was blinded (Folklore, vol.7);
Kidnapping: at Rudha Ban in Tarbet the wife of the head of the Macfarlane clan fell ill after the birth of a child and couldn’t nurse her baby. Her husband kidnapped the wife of a local urisk and made her act as wet nurse. In revenge for this affront, the urisk mutilated the family’s milkmaid. In turn, he was hanged (Winchester, Traditions of Arrochar and Tarbet, 1916);
For attempted murder: at Hawker’s Cove, near Padstow, local man Tristram Bird discovered a mermaid one day whilst he was out hunting seals. She was sat on a rock, combing her hair and looking as alluring as mermaids can; he instantly desired her and asked her to marry him. She rejected the proposal and mocked him. He threatened to shoot her, and she warned him he’d be sorry if he did. He did- and he was. Her fired at her and in response she cursed the harbour. A storm blew up- and a sandbar blocked access from Padstow to the sea;
Failing to leave water out for them at night and to make them welcome in your home: when a family forgot one night to put out water, soap and towels for the visiting tylwyth teg, as was habitual, the peeved fairies overturned their stacks of peat outside (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886);
For meanness: a couple out walking on the Isle of Man met a small, crippled man begging. Whilst the wife would have helped, the husband refused to give him any money, for which he was cursed. They had a number of children subsequently- all the girls were born without disabilities, but all the boys were disabled just like the beggar (Manx Folklore, 1882-5). In another Manx story, a man realised that the someone was stealing potatoes from his field after dark. He decided to sit out all night to catch the culprit. He discovered it was the fairies and, by the next morning, he was white and shaking and only able to struggle home and get into his bed, where he soon died. This was the penalty for begrudging a few spuds. A further Manx story concerns a girl baking at Bride. She forgot the custom of sharing the resulting oat cake with the fairies but when she went up to sleep and got into bed, she received a blow to her face. She knew this was a message from the fairies, so she went straight back down, baked a new cake and shared it with the Little People (Yn Lioar Manninagh, vol.2).
Some of these incidents are comprehensible, as acts of violence are met with violence. In the later cases, though the response seems disproportionate to the incitement- but no-one ever suggested that fairies are proportionate people. The best policy is the utmost caution- and the utmost respect: be generous, share with them and at the same time don’t intrude.
This new book is a short study of the pixie populations of the South West of England, of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, looking at all aspects of their nature and behaviour- their appearance, clothes, habits and tricks. They are particularly notorious for pixie leading, as I have discussed before.
Here I include a poem I found quite recently, The Pisky Gleaner by Nora Hopper Chesson, which was published in the Cornhill Magazine, vol.9, issue 51, September 1900.
The verse is unusual for the view it presents of the pisky/ pixie, which is essentially to treat it as a sort of puck or brownie, labouring on a human farm in return for a share of human food. It seems to do this for love of a human female, an unusual vision of faery in which it is far more likely for a desired person to be abducted into Faery than the other way round. The idea of the pisky being banished by his own kind for loving a mortal is not Chesson’s invention: on the Isle of Man one explanation of the origin of the fynoderee, a hairy hob type creature who works on human farms, is that he was expelled from Faery for just such a passion. The fynoderee is transformed into a beast as part of his punishment; the pisky of the poem seems to have taken on human form as a disguise. Chesson’s pisky is somewhat saddened and subject to human control, very much unlike the bulk of his race, who are independent, carefree and wild (although there are traces, in Cornwall, of a so-called ‘brown piskie’ who lived and worked in human mills and farms).
Chesson’s pisky has some similarities to those drawn by Rene Cloke and Lorna Steele, in the accompanying postcards, which reflect the benign and friendly view of pixies which has tended to prevail for the last century or more. As I describe in the new book, though, though, they are a far more robust- even cruel- folk who treat humans very much as a source of fun rather than the object of romantic attachment. Worse still are those fiercer pixies called the spriggans, who jealously and violently guard their hoards of gold amongst the ancient standing stones of west Cornwall. The authentic pixie folklore is really a great deal more complex, and more interesting, than the tourist souvenir pixie that we tend to encounter today.
Although they only came to wider public attention with the writings of Mrs Anne Bray in mid-Victorian times (Peeps at Pixies etc), the pixies are a distinct and fascinating family of faeries with a longstanding tradition in their homelands and they are highly deserving of close study. British Pixiesis out now from all good vendors of fine literature…
In a previous posting I looked at the influence of British folklore and myths on musician Marc Bolan, as well as mentioning his personal devotion to the Great God Pan. Here I offer another brief glimpse of mythology and legend at work in contemporary rock.
The first album released by Pink Floyd in August 1967 was Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The title is taken from chapter seven of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, a strange, slightly hallucinogenic episode in which Ratty and Mole meet the Great God Pan on an island, isolated at the end of a side branch of the river where they live. It’s dawn and they are drawn inexorably into his presence, struck dumb with awe and reverence.
As late as July that year, the intended title of the album was Projection, but frontman Syd Barrett decided instead to borrow the name from one of his favourite books. Moreover, Barrett claimed to have had a dream, or vision, in which he met Pan (and other characters from the book) and the Great God had disclosed to him the secrets of the workings of Nature. To some extent, even, he believed that this encounter had resulted in him being an earthly embodiment of the deity.
The album tracks themselves didn’t refer to Pan, but there were still mythological references. The song Matilda Motherdescribes a child being read to in bed and the impact the fairy stories and their imagery have on his/ her imagination:
“Wandering and dreaming The words have different meaning Yes they did
For all the time spent in that room The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume And fairy stories held me high on Clouds of sunlight floating by Oh mother, tell me more Tell me more”
Secondly, we have Barrett’s song The Gnome, apparently drawing upon Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the work of J R R Tolkien, but full of traditional faery images and conventions. It concerns:
“A gnome named Grimble Gromble And little gnomes stay in their homes Eating, sleeping Drinking their wine He wore a scarlet tunic A blue green hood, it looked quite good He had a big adventure Amidst the grass, fresh air at last Wining, dining Biding his time…”
As is well known, Barrett succumbed to drug use and was ejected from Pink Floyd before becoming a virtual recluse. Reading the lyrics, this may not entirely surprise us, but the songs also confirm the persistent and powerful influence of Pan and Faery in the British imagination, especially during the late 1960s and early ’70s.
A number of documents from the sixteenth century include spells for conjuring up fairy women for sex. This may strike us as shocking and surprising, but the fact that a several separate texts have survived suggests that it was an activity in which a number of magicians were interested.
Spells to gain power over human women are known, as are spells to control spirits; the combination of the two activities is therefore not wholly unpredictable, especially given the well-known desirability of faery women to which I have made reference in numerous other postings.
There seem to be a number of motivating factors involved in these conjurations. Undeniably, possession and control over a supernatural beauty for the purposes of sexual enjoyment are top of the list, doubtless intertwined with a very male attitude to females and towards being able to boast about your magical (and sexual) skills. Once conjured, though, the fairy women could provide other benefits, because they had supernatural knowledge that could enrich the magician. In this, they can be rather like faery brides- though as will become clear, those casting the spells discussed here don’t seem to have been interested in any sort of long-term relationship.
Balancing this, nonetheless, it is very clear that the risks inherent in such operations were well known and that the need for careful management of the interaction- and fairly prompt dismissal of the faery- were fully appreciated.
The spells are surrounded by the typical precautions that many magicians employed: chalk circles may be drawn; the magus will have bathed and abstained from alcohol or sex for a period of time beforehand; clean linen will be laid on a table bearing a candle and (in this particular instance) on the bed; incense or other perfumes will be employed. A wand or a crystal ball may also be required to assist in the ritual, and the proper day of the week, point in the lunar cycle and time must be observed.
The fairy is then summoned, invoking a variety of holy names and images that are meant to subdue and constrain the spirit. The king and queen of fairies may also be called upon to assist, through their powers and virtues and through the faith and obedience owed to them by the individual fairies, so that they rank equally alongside the Trinity and the Virgin Mary. Given the date- and that all of this is post-Reformation- is doubly surprising. Given that all these Christian trappings are being deployed just to have sex with a supernatural might be regarded as triply surprising.
Three separate magical operations have been preserved. The first is to be found in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584. After the ritual preparations, the magus sits in a circle and proceeds as follows:
“… then beginne your conjuration as followeth here, and saie: I conjure thee Sibylia, O gentle virgine of fairies, by the mercie of the Holie-ghost, and by the dreadfull daie of doome, and by their vertues and powers; … and by the king and queene of fairies, and their vertues, and by the faith and obedience that thou bearest unto them… I conjure thee O Sibylia, O blessed and beautifull virgine, by all the riall words aforesaid; I conjure thee Sibylia by all their vertues to appeare in that circle before me visible, in the forme and shape of a beautifull woman in a bright and vesture white, adorned and garnished most faire, and to appeare to me quicklie without deceipt or tarrieng, and that thou faile not to fulfill my will & desire effectuallie. For I will choose thee to be my blessed virgine, & will have common copulation with thee. Therefore make hast & speed to come unto me, and to appeare as I said before: to whome be honour and glorie for ever and ever, Amen.”
Discoverie of Witchcraft Book 13, c.8.
This may have to be repeated as many as four times until Sibylia appears, but Scot assures us she will, after which she must be bound by the holy names not to leave or become invisible until she is given leave to do so. Then, as Scot describes, she is asked by the conjurer “to give me good counsell at all times, and to come by treasures hidden in the earth, and all other things that is to doo me pleasure, and to fulfill my will, without anie deceipt or tarrieng; nor yet that thou shalt have anie power of my bodie or soule, earthlie or ghostlie, nor yet to perish so much of my bodie as one haire of my head.”
The other spells all resemble Scot’s, more or less. A second is to be found in a manuscript in the British Library. It recommends performing the spell on a Friday and that the magus should draw two touching chalk circles, in one of which is “a faire bed with new washed shetes, swet and well smyllinge.” A clean table stands in the other circle, on which is fresh water and bread. The virgin spirits Michel, Chicam and Burfee are then summoned to appear and to obey the magician’s will. One of them is commanded to lie on the bed.
A Latin incantation is repeated three times, after which the three faery women will appear, bearing food and wine. Nonetheless, the magician is warned:
“eate not with them. But thou shalle se oneof them that is fayrest and she shall make ye no chere. Then pryvily put thy sceptre to the hight of hir face and stand in the circle and kisse hir and say to hir… I conjure you, virgin, by the sceptre and the truth by virtue of which you have come here that you hasten to give to me a ring of invisibility and to approach this bed without delay and lie down nude by that venerable name which you discern in my sceptre… and, unless you make every assuagement you can without fraud or harm or illusion or bodily wound, that you do not depart from me until I desire to give you the licence and loose you by my own volition…”
The magus is warned to take the ring from the faery before lying down with her, otherwise he will not be able to receive it (it seems because he will no longer be pure). The other faeries are sent away then, after which the man is advised to “go naked to bede. Ly on the righte side of the bed and she on the lyfte sid of the bed and do what yow wilt. But aske note whether she be a Spirit or a woman, for then she well spaeke no mor to the. And she shall do thee no harm. Then lycans hir in the mornyng to go and she will com agayn when thou callst hir.”
The third magical operation is set out in a manuscript now to be found in Folger Library in Washington. It is very similar to the others, except that it is a lot more detailed and is concerned with conjuring the presence of “the seven sisters of the fairies,” who are called Lilia, Hestilia, Fata, Sola, Afrya, Julia and Venulla.
There are four spells. The first summons the sisters into the magician’s presence and constrains them to bring him treasure as well as to give him information as to the location of buried treasure and how to destroy any beings guarding that. They are also all required to “have bountiful copulation” with him as he chooses, without having any power over his body or being able to delude him.
The second spell enables the conjurer to call one of the fairy virgins to his bed whenever he wants to have pleasure with her. The ritual requires chalk circles and a freshly made bed and summons a “bountiful maid and virgin before me in a green gown and beautiful apparel, who will not fail to fulfil my will and desire effectually.” She is ordered to “Come quickly” because he wants carnal copulation with her.
The third spell deals with the faery once she has appeared. She is required to lie down on the bed “quietly and gently without fraud, hurt or guile” and without doing any harm to him, as well as departing when she’s told to do so. When the faery is present, the man is advised (once again) to lie down on her left-hand side and to do whatever he pleases (or can). The magician is reassured that, now she has been bound, the faery is just a woman and that he need not fear her. Even more importantly, he’s assured that he will never have encountered “so pleasant a creature or lively a woman in bed.” The magician is then advised that, having “fulfilled thy will and desire with her, thou mayst reason with her of any manner of things thou desirest to and in all kind of questions you list to demand of her.” As we see again, physical pleasure can be combined with the acquisition of wisdom and material wealth. Even so, the man is warned not to ask her any questions about herself, or to speak to anyone else about their contacts- or to otherwise disclose them. However fantastic the sex, great self-control must be exercised in this respect.
The fourth spell sends the faery back where she came from, there to rest until the magician fancies seeing her again.
A number of elements in these texts should be very familiar to readers: there’s the allusion to the danger of consuming faery food, the link between faeries and buried treasure, the need to keep quiet about the benefits derived from association with a faery and, lastly, the distinguishing green robe that she wears (albeit briefly, of course…)
The spells are at the same time both risibly adolescent and depressingly chauvinist. On the one hand, there’s the emphasis placed upon the fairy being a virgin: Scot, for example, is particularly concerned with conjuring “the blessed virgins,” the fairies Sibylia, Milia and Achilia and, interestingly, the British Library manuscript is also concerned with a trinity of faery virgins. I presume that the deflowering of the faery is part of her subjugation to the human magus. Alongside this repeated emphasis upon her purity, the faery lover is still guaranteed to be the best lover he will ever have gone to bed with: “For beauty and bounty neither queen nor empress in all the whole world is able to countervail her, for I have diverse times proved her and had her with me.” Even so, there is an odd note of bathos, too- an admission of reality perhaps- when the author of the text states that the magician will be able to do “with her whatsoever you please or canst do…” It seems that aspiration may run ahead of performance for those possibly too young or too old…
Sources & Further Reading
If you’d like to know more about these conjurations, you can consult the original texts which are reproduced as follows: