Anglo-Saxon elves

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It will be obvious that the Saxon immigrants to British shores in the sixth century brought with them an established body of belief on fairies and elves.  What I wish to do in this posting is to attempt to outline the core elements of what that belief might have been, before it interacted with existing insular British beliefs.

We can form some idea of what our Saxon ancestors might have believed from several sources.  There are their own literary productions- poems, stories and medical texts- which provide valuable information.  There are contemporary Norse texts which examine the Viking pantheon.  Lastly, we may compare more recent Scandinavian- especially Danish- folk beliefs with English fairy stories; where they share elements, we may suggest that these derive from an early, common mythology believed by all the continental Germanic tribes.  Of course, the potential flaw in this approach is that there was later contact through Danish and Norwegian Viking settlement in Britain.  If beliefs are widespread throughout all of England and lowland Scotland- and not limited to the Danelaw, this later influence may be discounted; equally, I might argue that we are still describing Saxon folklore, albeit the beliefs of the later Saxons after the Norse influx had been absorbed (!)  In fact, many of the ideas listed below are found in Wessex, the West Midlands and the North, the Borders and Scottish lowlands, beyond the Norse settlements, so that later imports may not be the best explanation.  Another approach could be to ascribe these common beliefs to a core of Indo-European thought, something that was not unique to Celts, Germans, Slavs or others.   There is, very likely, such a deep shared source: it is probably world wide and very ancient.  In this case, it is still likely that a good number of these ideas were incorporated in to early English belief and were carried into Britain at the time of the settlement.

The old Norse Edda is a good starting point for this examination, as it provides a clear statement of northern Teutonic belief about the elves.  In the early 1200s in Iceland, scholar Snorri Sturluson compiled the so-called prose Edda, a record of the Norse myths and legends.  In Gylfaginning Gylfi describes the heavens and the many splendid places there:

“There is one place that is called Alfheim.  There live the folk called light-elves, but the dark-elves live down in the ground, and they are unlike them in appearance, and even more unlike them in nature.  Light-elves are fairer than the sun to look at, but dark-elves are blacker than pitch.”

In later British belief we come across stories of Elfame from Lowland Scotland.  It seems inescapable that this ‘elf-home’ is a survival from the earliest English legends.  As for the division into light and dark, good and bad, elves, there are several later references to ‘white fays’ in English literature and one echo that may be particularly significant. Being interrogated on charges of witchcraft in 1566, John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset told his inquisitors “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black.  Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”  If the colours reflect more than mere choice of costume, there appears here to be a survival of the light/ dark opposition.  In this connection we should also note the Old English term aelfscyne which was applied to women in a couple of texts (Genesis A and the poem Judith).  The word seems to mean something like ‘elf-beautiful’ or even ‘enchantingly bright’; perhaps in the suggestion of light or shining there is a further hint of the light and dark elf dichotomy.

From this limited evidence it may be possible to postulate a basic Anglo-Saxon mythology of an Elf-home, divided between the good (white) elves and the bad (black) elves.  Beyond that, it is not safe to go. Several further varieties of elves- the sae, feld, beorg, dun and munt aelfen- are mentioned in Aelfric’s Glossary,  but it seems very likely that these are actually translations of classical terms such as naiad and hamadryad and that they are not genuine Saxon categories at all.  If this is so, this is a tenth century example of the deleterious effects of classical learning that I described in a previous post.

Luckily, we do possess some direct evidence of Saxon conceptions of the elvish race. They are mentioned in several medical texts as the causes of illnesses, mainly internal pains or mental disturbances.  A spell to cure ‘the stitch’ goes as follows:

“Loud were they, lo, loud, as they rode over the barrow/ … Out little spear, if herein it be/ … To them another I wish to send back/ … a flying dart against them in return./  …if it were gods’ shot, or it were elves’ shot/ Or it were witches’ shot, now I will help you/ This is the remedy…”

‘Elf-shot’ was a recognised cause of disease in later times and was a major diagnosis in the Saxon texts such as Lacnunga.  A selection of herbs were employed in treating both humans and livestock afflicted with these maladies.  The medical texts also refer to aelfsogetha- which appears to be something like bronchitis or heartburn- and to aelfsidenn, which literally means elf-enchantment and seems to be a night fever or nightmares.  There is too a cure for waeteraelfaedle (water-elf sickness) which is characterised by the patient’s livid nails, watering eyes and downcast looks.  This term may denote another subdivision of the elves: in later times in Scotland there was a clear distincton between land (or dressed) and water fairies (see Campbell, Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.2 p.64).  Equally, though, it might just as well be read as ‘watery elf-sickness’ and so be more concerned with the symptoms than the identity of the agent inflicting the disease.

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Turning to the comparative sources, the attributes shared by English fairies with those of the original English homelands seem to be extensive and to include:

  • living under hills, which will periodically rise or open up to reveal feasting and music within;
  • a love of singing and dancing;
  • a preference for dancing in circles in grassy places, leaving marks on the ground;
  • a love of cleanliness and tidiness, for which humans are rewarded (or punished);
  • causing disease in humans and livestock;
  • the inability to cross running water;
  • a preference for wearing green and red, especially red caps;
  • an aversion to loud noises, which may drive them away;
  • the power to make themselves invisible, change their shape, see the future or to confer prosperity;
  • the need to use human midwives;
  • magic power in their names, which must be concealed from humans;
  • a strong link to certain trees, especially oaks.  Elder trees also feature in Danish folklore, which tells of the Old Lady of the Elder Tree who must be appeased before taking wood.  This spirit also appears in Lincolnshire, very strongly suggesting that Danish settlers brought the belief with them to East Anglia;
  • residence in Elfame is perilous, because time passes differently and because their food is unsafe for humans;
  • fairies take children and leave changelings, which may be exposed by cooking tricks or by burning;
  • there is a species of fairy that resides with humans, doing farm-work, stealing fodder and grain from neighbours and becoming so attached to a household that it is impossible to escape them by trying to move away.  Nonetheless, if they are insulted, they will become a nuisance;
  • there are freshwater fairies that are part horse;
  • there are marine fairies such as mermaids and seal people.

As suggested earlier, the considerable parallels between Danish fairy lore and English tales are indicative of a common source.  The question remains whether that was located in fifth century Angeln before the early English fared forth in their keels, or further back in time and further away in the homelands of the Indo-European peoples.

Anglo-Saxon elves seem to have been imagined as being human in size and shape, but having a semi-divine nature.  Scandinavian elves shared this character and were the subject of sacrifices, aelfblot.  For instance, in Kormaks Saga a wounded man was told to sacrifice a bull and then to take the beast to a mound “in which elves dwell … and redden the outside of the mound with the bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast with the flesh; and you will be healed.”  There are records of comparable practices in Britain.

The evidence indicates that a rich set of beliefs were imported to British shores, there to mingle with the mythology of the residual British population and to produce the complex and developed fairy-lore to which this blog is dedicated.

 

For those readers who want a far more detailed and academic examination of this area, I recommend the work of Alaric Hall, lecturer in medieval English literature at Leeds University.  You will readily find online pdf copies of his book Elves in Anglo-Saxon England and of his PhD thesis from which the book derives.  As his job indicates, his approach is primarily literary and is written from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxonist. If your conversational Mercian is weak, you may not fancy it….!

 

“The Green Islands of the Ocean”- fairy isles

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view of Snowdon from Llyn y Dywarchen- 

“I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore”

W. B. Yeats, The white birds

Throughout Britain, fairyland has been conceived as a separate country, with its own landscape, rivers, agriculture, buildings and climate.  This belief was especially strong in England and Wales during the Middle Ages (see for example the stories of Elidyr and the golden ball or of The green children of Woolpit).  Steadily, the fairies’ realm tended to shrink, until they were squeezed into the corners of our world.  In some parts of Wales, though, the idea persisted in slightly altered form: Faery moved off-shore, so that it remained credible and occasionally visible, but rarely accessible.

Magical islands have a pedigree in Wales.  Gerald of Wales described a lake atop Snowdon which was notable for its floating islet (Book II, c.9).  Ever rational, he suggested that it was a piece of shore broken off but bound together by roots and buffeted back and forth by the winds at high altitude.  For Gerald, the wonder lay in the topography itself, but in a later tale a fairy dimension was added.  A maiden of the Tylwyth Teg had to separate from her human husband, yet she still contrived to see him from time to time, sitting on a buoyant turf whilst he sat of the shore of Llyn y Dywarchen (Rhys p.93).

Floating islands were not unique to inland waters.  In 1896 a sea captain reported seeing an unmarked isle, just below the waves, near to Grassholm in the Bristol Channel.  He said he had heard tell from old people of just such a land, that rose and fell periodically (Rhys pp.171-172).  This was reported in the Pembroke County Guardian and, indeed, it was from Dyfed (Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen) that the stories of supernatural realms offshore came.  These lands were called ‘Green Spots of the Floods’ and the ‘Green Meadows of the Sea’ or ‘Gwerddonau Llion.’   There was also a similar belief from across the channel in Somerset; there the mysterious isles were called ‘The Green Lands of Enchantment.’  Their exact location was not fixed and it is unclear how many enchanted isles were thought to exist between St Davids and the Lleyn peninsula, but there were consistent reports of sightings of verdant lands which appeared and disappeared from time to time.

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Grassholm

One account stated that an island off Milford Haven was reached by a tunnel.  The fairies used this to attend the markets at Laugharne and Milford (Sikes pp.9 & 10; Rhys p.161).  Comparable is a lake island at Llyn Cwm Llwch in the Brecon Beacons, which could be reached by a passage leading from a shoreline rock.  However, this rock only opened once a year whilst the ‘garden of the fairies’ amidst the waves was invisible unless you stood in the correct spot (Rhys pp.20-22).  It may be noted too that little clumps of flowers growing in inaccessible spots on the cliffs near Land’s End were known as the ‘sea piskies’ gardens.’

Returning to the coastal isles, they might only be seen by standing on a particular piece of turf- from St David’s churchyard or from Cemmes (? Cemmaes, near Machynlleth, although this is some miles inland and surrounded by hills?)  As soon as contact with the sod was broken, the vision was lost, so that the only sure way of reaching the islands was to sail with a piece of turf on board (Rhys pp.161-72 & Wentz p.147); otherwise, the islands would be invisible to the boatmen.  Such voyages were dangerous, though, as fairy time notoriously passes much more slowly than on land.  Generations might lapse in what seemed like mere days for the island visitors.

The residents of these elusive lands were the Tylwyth Teg, more specifically the Plant Rhys Dwfn– the children of Rhys the Deep.  His wisdom lay in protecting his land with magic herbs and in the strict moral code of honesty and good faith observed by his descendants (Rhys pp.158-160).

The motif of the enchanted isle is ideal for fairyland: it is a place that is periodically visible, familiar but enticing, near but always out of reach.  Only the very fortunate or clever may be able to see it, so that its reality or illusory quality are very hard to prove.

“Nymphes and faeries”- Renaissance influences upon the ‘national fairy’

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The fairy as conceived by British folk tradition was effected- and not for the better- by the revival of classical learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   In this post I wish to trace the course and impact of this rebirth of Roman and Greek knowledge in the specific context of British fairy lore.

The very earliest sign of classical influence comes from Chaucer, in the Merchants Tale. He refers there to “Pluto, that is the king of fayerye/ And many a lady in his companye/ Folwinge his wyf, the quene Prosperpyne.”  This can be dated to about 1390 and is probably more a sign of Chaucer’s own education and reading than any real indicator of the spread of new thinking from Italy, where the rinascimento was at that time still in its infancy.

I suggest a more significant start date is the appearance of Gavin Douglas’ 1513 translation of Ovid’s Aeneid, in which he chose to refer to “nymphis and faunis apoun every side/ Quhilk Fairfolkis or than Elfis clepen we…”  This linking of nymphs and elves remains consistent then for the next  150 years; for example, Thomas Nash makes this analogy: “The Robin Goodfellows, Elfs, Fairies, Hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former days and the fantastical world of Greece ycleped Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads and Hamadryads…” Latterly, Milton in Comus from 1630 spoke of  fairies and elves as equivalent to nymphs.  Of this work, Floris Delattre observed that “the now trite assimilation of English fairies to classical nymphs gains … a fresh beauty” thanks to the poet’s “refined language” (English fairy poetry, 1908, p.165).

Translations of Ovid soon spread other classical concepts: for example Thomas Phaer in his 1550 version of the Aeneid mentioned fauns, nymphs and the fairy queen whilst Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses of 1565 described “nymphes of faery.” The process could work in reverse as well, with native terms being used to explain classical ones.  For example, Golding felt that the best translation he could make was to describe the “Chimaera, that same pouke.”

The easy reference to classical deities then became habitual.  Nymphs and fairies were inseparable. Drayton in Poly-Olbion treats “Ceres nymphs” as interchangeable with fairies (Song XXI) and also marries a nymph to a fay and has dryads, hamadryads, satyrs and fauns dance with fairies in his Nymphals 8 & 6.  Other Greek and Roman figures also begin to insinuate themselves.  Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (1584) mentions “satyrs, pans, fauns, sylvans, tritons, centaurs…” in  his list of fairy beings (Book VII c.XV) and he names the fairy queen variously as Sibylla, Minerva, Diana and Herodias.  For King James VI in Daemonologie Diana and her court are synonymous with ‘Phairie.’  Ben Jonson’s Masque of Oberon from 1610 carelessly mixes the “coarse and country fairy” with satyrs and sylvans. Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy  in 1621, listed such “Terrestrial devils [as] lares, genii, fauns, satyrs, wood nymphs, foliots, fairies…”  Spenser meanwhile introduced the Graces to the company of fairies in both The Fairy queen and Epithalamium.  

It may be helpful to provide a summary of the various Greek and Roman gods and spirits with whom parallels were so freely drawn.  It must be acknowledged that there are undeniable parallels and comparisons between some British fairies and some Mediterranean deities, analogies sufficiently strong to justify a few of the identifications made.  This is, of course, due to the fact that all of these supernatural beings derive ultimately from the same Indo-European sources and are responses to the same natural processes and features.  Nonetheless, each culture had developed differently and whilst there were links to be made (as, for example, was done in works such as Frazer’s Golden Bough) these beings had evolved separately for centuries and, whilst comparable, were very far from being identical.

nymphs

Writers freely made reference to:

  • Abundantia- who was the Roman goddess of fortune and prosperity.  She evolved into a beneficent spirit and, ultimately, into Habundia, queen of the witches and fairies;
  • Ceres- she was a goddess of the growth of plant foods.  Insofar as she had vegetative associations, there was some tenuous link with British fairies;
  • Diana– who was goddess of childbirth, of nature and of the moon.  Queen Mab was a midwife, as testified by Andro Man, accused of witchcraft in 1598, and fairies often danced in the moonlight, so that Diana’s transfer to Britain makes some sense;
  • Dryads– nymphs of trees and woods and so comparable to elves;
  • Fauns– a faun is a rural deity who bestows fruitfulness on fields and cattle.  He can also have prophetic powers.  His influence over natural processes suggested the analogy with elves;
  • Genii– are clan spirits and perhaps therefore allied to brownies, banshees and the like;
  • Graces- these were Greek goddesses of fertility in fields and gardens and accordingly comparable to elves and fairies;
  • Hecate- was the goddess of magic and spells; she was linked to the moon and was a goddess of childbirth and the night.  Through Queen Mab she was therefore associated with fairies and witches;
  • Herodias– was mother of Salome and was reputed to be head of a witch cult.  She became linked to fairies through the witch craze and was identified with Habundia, queen of Elfame.  By circuitous routes, therefore, Heywood ended up equating sibils and fees, white nymphs, Nightladies and Habundia their queen;
  • Lares- are tutelary deities of fields and homes and are accordingly similar to boggarts, brownies and such like;
  • Minerva- was linked to the arts and crafts and had no real identity with British fairies;
  • Nymphs- these are minor deities linked to fertility, growth, trees and water (streams, lakes and the seas).  As such they are clearly comparable to elves and fairies.  For example, the nymphs tended to protect specific locales so that there may be some analogy to be made between the water naiads and British sprites like Grindylow and Peg Powler;
  • Pan- was a deity of Arcadia, part-goat, part-human.  He haunted the high hills and brought fertility to the flocks and herds, but not to agriculture.  He could send visions and dreams.  He has a vague resemblance to pucks and hobgoblins, but no more;
  • Satyrs– were envisaged as half-man and half-beast; they were brothers to the mountain nymphs and akin to fauns.  As such, they resembled pucks, brownies and hobgoblins to some extent;
  • Sibylla– was a prophetess, and so became linked to fairies through the witch craze;
  • Sylvans– these are woodland deities, readily associated with fairies.

Some of the classical names used had no relevance at all to British fairies; some denoted distantly related beings.  All were facile and ultimately uninformative and unhelpful.  The use of the classical comparisons diluted and disrupted more accurate knowledge of genuine British traditions, inhibiting rather than encouraging study.  They were superficial displays of learning which detracted from a deeper and more valuable investigation of the ‘national fairies’ as Floris Delattre termed them.  Classical references added nothing of value to the verse- rather it obscured the nature of insular tradition and accelerated its decline by promoting false analogies and parallels.   The Greek and Roman figures had character traits and qualities unknown before, with notions of hierarchy, worship and relationships that were alien and inapplicable to British folklore.  All in all, therefore, the impact of the Renaissance learning was in this instance  entirely negative.

To conclude, we must first concede that British fairy lore was already a hybrid, containing elements of Celtic, Saxon and French myth; Morgan le Fay mixed with Germanic elves and Cornish pixies to create complex and many layered stories. Classical themes added nothing to this.  References to nymphs and fauns were a learned and literary graft upon native roots and served only to stunt further development of the tradition.  Whatever the wider enriching qualities of the Renaissance, it only did damage to British folk lore.

“Of Brownyis and of Boggles, full is this beuk”- the helpful fairies

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For all that has been said in my past posts about the divine, fearsome and sometimes vengeful nature of British fairies, I have mentioned – and many readers will be familiar with- a species of helpful household beings.  This category of supernaturals is often labelled ‘brownies’ but this is one regional variation (of eastern and northern England and the Scottish Lowlands) of a wider class which, as the above quote for Gawain Douglas indicates, includes the hobgoblins, hobs and lobs.  There are also those fairies that are made useful to humans by reason of scaring recalcitrant children (Tom Dockin, Tom Poker, Tommy Rawhead et al)- see my separate post on these nursery sprites.  Here we are concerned with those beings that render aid voluntarily and devotedly.

These solitary fairies were more or less domesticated, being attached to a family or place.  They were all linked with human habitations and human activities, but the degree of association varied.  There were, for example,:

  • herding fairies like the Highland urisk who cared for cattle and worked in the fields, but lived in or near pools.  Some herded sheep or looked after poultry and the Cornish Browney gathered up bee swarms;
  • barn and household fairies which included the likes of Robin Roundcap of East Yorkshire; Dobie, Dobby and Master Dobbs of the Borders, Northern England and Sussex respectively; the Welsh bwca and bwbachod; the bodachan sabhail of the Highlands, and Old Man Crook and John Tucker of Devon.  These fairies would grind, mow, churn, sweep and wash, riddling corn and sieving flour in the pantry, thresh, run errands (such as fetching a midwife) and give advice- or they would untidy that which was already tidy!  There was a saying ‘Master Dobbs has been helping you’ meaning that a person had done more work than had been expected of them;
  • buttery sprites  and cellar ghosts who guard larders from thieving servants;
  • housework helpers like Habetrot and Scantlie Mab who assisted with spinning and weaving; and,
  • mine fairies: Milton knew of “the swart faery of the mine” by which he meant the knockers and coblynau who help and guide miners (see for example Ritson pp.37-38 Dissertation on fairies).

Most of these creatures were small and hairy, perhaps at most clad in rags.  They worked hard and energetically and expected no direct reward except some clean water, cream, honeycomb or bread left out before the fire, discretely and without announcement.  Any attempt to give clothes (or at least cheap clothes) was never appreciated and could either drive a brownie away or convert it into a boggart, a nuisance brownie who behaved like a poltergeist with mischievous tricks.  Brownies reacted the same way to criticism of their work (see Briggs, Tradition and literature p.34) or if their name was discovered (or an unwanted human name given).

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Brownies could become too attached and too devoted to households.  In Ben Jonson’s The silent woman Dauphine complains that “they haunt me like fairies and give me jewels here; I cannot be rid of them” (Act V scene 1).  This might seem inexplicable were it not for Professor John Rhys , who notes a Cardiganshire belief that:

“once you come across one of the fairies you cannot easily be rid of him, since the fairies were little beings of a very devoted nature.  Once a man had become friendly with one of them, the latter would be present with him almost everywhere he went, until it became a burden to him.” (Celtic folklore p.250).

They might then overstep the mark, stealing from neighbouring farms to supply their own.  Sometimes they exposed lazy servants, but equally they might defend them, as in the instance recounted by Briggs where the brownie left until servants dismissed for laziness by letting him do all the work were reinstated (Briggs, Tradition and literature p.38).

Boggarts and brownies could become such a nuisance to households that a farmer might decide to ‘flit’ to try to escape from one.  There are widespread versions of this tale in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumberland.  The decision might be made to move house; the contents would be packed and loaded and the family would set off, only to find that the brownie was with them- so they might as well turn round and stay put (See Keightley pp.307-8).

Finally, we should note that Brownies are now junior girl-guides.  The name was taken from Juliana Horatia Ewing’s story of The brownies (1870), in which two children learn that they can be either helpful brownies or lazy boggarts.  Original Baden-Powell had chosen the name of ‘Rosebuds’, so perhaps it was wisely replaced.

Spirits related to those described here are those that warn humans of danger, such as the Cornish hopper and the Isle of Man houlaa, who both alerted fishermen to approaching storms and the skriker of Yorkshire and Lancashire who warned of death.

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‘Peaseblossom and mustard seed’- fairy plants

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‘Mother mushroom and her children’ by Edward Okun.

A range of plants have fairy associations, both good and bad.  It is convenient to divide them into three broad types for our discussion.

Trees

Certain trees have strong links to fairies.  Thorn trees are magical throughout Britain and Ireland.  For instance, Northumbrian fairies are said particularly to prefer dancing around thorns.  From across the border comes a Scottish story of a man ploughing a field who made a special effort to protect an old hawthorn, known to be a fairy meeting place- by leaving an unploughed circle of turf around it- was rewarded with a fairy banquet and a life time’s luck and wisdom in consequence.  I have mentioned before the Old Lady of the Elder Tree as well as the special status of oaks as places for dancing or even as homes.

rowan

Rowan trees, in contrast, repel fairies.  Rowan set over your door will allow you to watch the fairies riding past without being drawn into their procession and a rowan cross worn about your person will prevent the fairies seizing you.  Both gorse and holly acted as protective barriers to fairies around a home, although it has to be confessed that they keep out humans just as well!

cowslip

Flowers

Fairy blooms include yellow flowers such as cowslips, broom, primroses and ragwort; the stems of the latter are used like witches’ broomsticks.  Blue bells are protected by fairies, and lone children picking them in woods risk being abducted. Fox gloves are known in Wales as menyg ellyllon, elves’ gloves.  The fairies also favour red campion, forget-me-not, scabious, wild thyme and, more unusually, tulips.  A strange tale from Devon describes how pixies near Tavistock loved to spend their nights in an old woman’s tulip bed and the flowers thrived from their beneficial presence.  When she died her flower bed was converted by the next residents in the cottage to growing parsley and the pixies blighted it.  An unknown plant was used by Dartmoor fairies to heal a servant maid they had previously lamed for refusing to put out water for them at night.  In a similar dual role, it is said that foxglove juice can expel a changeling and cure a child who is suffering from ‘the feyry’- that is, one who has been elf-struck.

The primary protective plant against fairies is St John’s Wort, although verbena is also effective and four-leaf clovers can dispel glamour.

primrose

Fungi

Fairy butter (y menyn tylwyth teg) is a fungus found deep underground in limestone crevices and elf food (bwyd ellyllon) is a poisonous toadstool.  In Northumberland, fairy butter is a soft orange fungus found around the roots of old trees.

The linking of fungi with goblins and elves is well known and of longstanding. Perhaps it partly derives from the dual nature of the mushrooms- they may be edible or poisonous. They are, of course, linked to fairy rings and indicate where the elves have been dancing. One of these is the ‘Fairy Cake Hebeloma’, which is poisonous; another is the highly edible Fairy Ring Champignon.  The sudden appearance of toadstools may seem magical and mysterious.  Their red colouring (for the traditionally red and white spotted fly agaric toadstool) may link them to red fairy clothes whilst their diminutive size may also explain the connection. Robert Herrick in his poem Oberon’s feast imagines “A little mushroom table spread” for the tiny fairy diners and in The fairies’ fegaries “Upon the mushroome’s head/ Our table cloth we spread.”

Puff balls have been called ‘Puck’s fist’ and, in his Fairy mythology, Keightley suggests that ‘Elf’s fist’ was an old Anglo-Saxon name for the mushrooms found in rings.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins relates a Breconshire belief that gifts of fairy bread by the Tylwyth Teg, if not eaten immediately in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.

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The rules of fairy love

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(image by Brian Froud)

The rules of fairy love are, as we might expect from such beings, contradictory and unfair.  There is one set of rules for humans and another, laxer set for the fairies.

Fairies demand various virtues and qualities of human beings.  True love is the first of these.  Lovers are expected to be devoted and honourable and to follow four key rules.

  1. Respect true love- The fairies punish attempts to interfere in the course of true love between young couples. Hobgoblin Puck declares “I love true lovers” whilst disliking wanton wives and cuckolders.  In one story he uses his magic powers to save a young woman from the unwanted advances of her lecherous uncle, allowing her to marry her young suitor whilst at the same time reforming the old man’s morals.
  2. Love is given, not taken- The use of force is punished. Seventeenth century poet John Fletcher warned that if anyone is found “Forcing of a chastity” a horn will be sounded and the fairies all will run to pinch the violator to the bone until his lustful thoughts are gone.
  3. Encourage lovers- In aid of true love, the fairy queen chastised women who did not take pity on their pining lovers. Elizabethan poet Thomas Campion told how fairies would be sent to pinch the unkind ladies, whilst to those “that will hold watch with love” the fairy queen would bestow beauty and greater adoration.  Conversely, “they that have not fed/ On delight amorous/ She vows that they shall lead/ Apes in Avernus”- in other words, they shall suffer sexual frustration because they lacked devotion.
  4. Promote wedded bliss- Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream provides the best examples of fairies promoting the virtues of true love. After toying with Titania and Bottom and with the Athenian lovers, fairy king Oberon brings “joy and prosperity” to the triple weddings that crown the play.  He blesses the bridal beds, promising true love and constancy to the couples, as well as children who shall “ever be fortunate” and free of deformity.

Midsummer Night’s Dream ends on this reassuring note; there is marital harmony in both middle earth and Faery and the guarantee of a prosperous future for the newlyweds.  However, these gifts come from Oberon, a notoriously unfaithful seducer.  When we first meet him in the play, he is accused by his wife Titania of stealing away from fairy land and “versing love/ To amorous Phillida,” an accusation he fails to deny.  Worse still, he is revealed elsewhere to have fathered Puck after seducing an innocent girl.  This is the other side of Faery: high standards are demanded of humans but are not applied to supernaturals.

The rules of love for fairies are:

  1. Have fun- In his description of Oberon’s Palace poet Robert Herrick depicts the fairy king in the worst possible light. After a feast he goes to Queen Mab’s bed ready “For Lust and action.”  Their chamber is hung about with pearls made from the tears of “ravished Girles/ Or writhing Brides.”  The music is provided by elves who imitate “the cries/ Of fained-lost Virginities” so as to “excite/ A more unconquered appetite.”  This is probably the more authentic Faery: it is natural and uninhibited.
  2. Take what you want- Oberon was not alone in his predatory behaviour. Women were often stolen as brides, a good example being in the story of Sir Orfeo whose wife is enchanted and kidnapped by the king of fairy.  Sadly, she was not alone.
  3. Enjoy love on your own terms- Fairy maidens can be as predatory as the men. They can abduct and seduce hapless youths using their renowned beauty and allures.  In an early English poem, Round Table knight Launval encounters fairy lady Tryamour.  She is found in a pavilion, nearly naked in the heat and lying on a couch- “white as the lily in May/ or snow that snows on a winter’s day.”  Launval is instantly obsessed, and soon they are in bed and “For play, little they slept that night.”  There is a sting in the tail though.  Fairies demand honesty of humans but fairy lovers almost always insist that they are asked no questions and that their relationship is concealed.  Launval- like all such human lovers- breaches this vow of silence by boasting of his partner and “all that he had before won/ Melted away, like snow in the sun.”  He loses his lover and all her rich gifts because he is unable to prevent himself blabbing.
  4. The human pays the price- There is nearly always a price to pay for the pleasure and privilege of loving a fairy. If it is not abandonment, the lover will instead sicken and die for longing, will be trapped in fairy land for ever or, after enjoying great pleasure with the maiden, will return home to find that not hours and days have passed as he imagined, but years and decades; all those he knew are married or dead and the world is changed irrevocably.

These, then, are the fairy rules of love.  Humans must be chaste and faithful, whereas fairies may be passionate, cruel, inconstant and selfish.

“Fairies or devils- whatsoe’er you be’-the belief in witches and fairies”

willimot

Fairies and witches have long been seen as linked and comparable, as the title quotation from Thomas Dekker’s The Spanish Moor’s Tragedy illustrates (Act III scene 2).  In his book on witchcraft, Geoffrey Parrinder observed that “there is undoubtedly much similarity between the activities ascribed to fairies and to witches.”  These included the ability to fly, their preference for night time, their thefts of children and the foyson of food and their ability to kill remotely.

These links and crossovers are of longstanding.  For example Chaucer in The Merchants Tale mentions “Pluto, that is the king of faerie” (i, 10101) and Dunbar in The Golden terge also alludes to “Pluto, that elricke incubus/ In cloke of grene…”  One of the charges made by the English against Jean d’Arc was that she had frequented the Fairy Tree at Dompre and had joined in the fairies’ dances.

By the sixteenth century the two beliefs were very confused and intermixed.  Old women were accused of being witches and of flying in the air or dancing with the fairies, even though, as Reginald Scot pointed out, their age and lameness could make them “unapt” for such activities (Discovery of witchcraft Book V c.IX and Book XII c.III).  Fairies attended the witches sabbats and left rings on the grass  whilst the witches would visit the fairy queen in her hill (Daemonologie c.V).  Hecate, the mother witch and the queen of fairy all became compounded in the popular mind, as with the Gyre-Carlin or Nicnevin of Lowland Scotland; she rode at night with her court of ‘nymphs’ and incubi (Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy, ‘On fairies’ IV).  Oberon became the ‘king of shadows’ in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was believed that the habit of taking of changelings was because the fairies had to pay a tithe of souls to Hell each year.  In George Peele’s Battle of Alcazar “You bastards of the Night and Erebus, Fiends, fairies, hags” are summoned (Act IV, scene 2) and in Spenser’s Epithalamion it is prayed “Ne let the Pouke, nor other evil sprights/ Ne let mischievous witches with their charms/ Ne let hob Goblins, names whose sense we see not/ Fray us with things that be not” (lines 340-3).  Witches obeyed the commands of the fairy queen, Diana or Herodias, according to Scot (Book III c.XVI).  In summary, hell and fairyland became essentially identical and for Reginald Scot the terms fairy and witch were interchangeable.  Likewise for John Lyly, writing Endimion in 1585: for him fairies were synonymous with ‘hags’ and ‘fayre fiendes’ (Act IV, scene 3).

To this mix the Reformation added another layer of confusion and prejudice.  Puritans had two objections to faery.  Firstly, it had to be accommodated with scripture and, as the fairies weren’t angels, they had to be devils.  Secondly, fairies were one of the impositions of Rome.  King James VI condemned the belief as “one of the sortes of illusiones … of Papistrie” (Daemonologie, c.V).  In Richard Corbet’s Rewards and fairies “the fairies were of the old profession/ Their songs were Ave Maries/ Their dances were procession.”  Dr Samuel Harsenet, Archbishop of York, in his 1603 Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures called Mercury ‘Prince of the fairies’ and asked “What a world of hel-worke, devil-worke and Elve-worke, had we walking amongst us heere in England” when the Popish mists had fogged our eyes?  Later he declared “These are the times wherein we are sicke, and mad of Robin Goodfellow and the devil, to walke again amongst us…” (pp.134 & 166).

A rational few, such as Reginald Scot, dismissed the belief in witches as delusion and knavery, just as much as the dwindling belief in fairies, and felt sure that in time to come both would be equally ‘derided and contemned’ (Book VII c.II).

Sadly, such rationality was slow to establish itself and in the short term the witch craze swept Britian between about 1550 and 1650.  Diane Purkiss, in The witch in history (1996), has observed how fairy beliefs were converted into witch beliefs and were reproduced in the accusations and confessions of witches.  In fact, a range of materials were recycled by people- plays, ballads, news gossip, chapbooks- to create their own stories and to reflect their own agendas, concerns and conflicts.  For example, Joan Tyrrye applied the common ‘fairy midwife’ story to herself, saying that she was blinded in one eye by a fairy she met in Taunton market.  Others spoke of witches appearing dressed in green, the fairy colour.  The problem was that, in the prevailing intellectual climate, old wives’ tales of fairyland were no longer credible and were instead interpreted as accounts of demons.

Some ‘cunning folk’ (Healers and herbalists) tried to argue that through the fairies they only practiced white magic and that the supernatural help they received was only to cure and to do good.  For example, Bessie Dunlop of Ayrshire was accused in 1578 of sorcery and witchcraft.  She admitted that the fairies had helped her heal sick people (and cattle) and to find lost things.  Likewise, Alison Pearson of Byrehill faced similar charges in 1588: she pleaded that a green man had introduced her to the fairy court and that the fairies had taught her remedies.  Joan Tyrrye of Somerset swore that the fairies gave her only good and godly powers and showed what herbs would rid folk of witchcraft.  John Walsh of Dorset said that he too was taught by the fairies under the hills to recognise and treat those bewitched.

These justifications were often advanced; other examples are Isobel Haldane of Perth in 1623, Agnes Hancock of Somerset in 1438, Andro Man of Aberdeen in 1597, Christian Livingstone of Leith in 1557 and, in 1616, Elspeth Rioch and Katharine Jonesdochter of Orkney.  All claimed to have been taught by the fairies, in Man’s case by the fairy queen herself.  Such a defence seldom helped the accused, even when the supernatural powers acquired were used to alleviate the effects of witchcraft or fairy affliction.  Sir Walter Scott observed sadly that “the Scottish law did not acquit those who accomplished even praiseworthy actions, such as remarkable cures, by mysterious remedies” (Demonology letter VI).  For the accusers there were no ‘good spirits’; the suspected witches had consorted with the devil and there could be but one conclusion: Rioch, Jonesdochter,  Dunlop and Pearson, for instance, were all burned.  In the climate of the time, any contact with fairies rendered the person automatically a witch.  Communication with the fairy court was a primary charge against Alison Pearson and against Jean Weir of Dalkeith in 1670.

It is to be noted that gifts of healing and prophecy are not traditionally associated with faery.  There are a couple of Highland examples of endowment with musical abilities and there is the fictional account of True Thomas the Rhymer, who was given seer’s powers by the fairy queen (despite, as Sir Walter Scott puts it, his objections to “this inconvenient and involuntary adhesion to veracity, which would make him, as he thought, unfit for church or for market, for king’s court or for lady’s bower”).  That these supernatural attributes are ascribed to fairies only in witch trials is a strong indicator that they were being turned to as a less serious justification for the accused’s former activities.

Witches were believed to have familiars who guided and assisted them.  Academic and writer Diane Purkiss has suggested that stories told of brownies and other household fairies were reformulated by those suspicious of witchcraft and were understood instead to be accounts of demonic familiars (see The witch in history pp.135-138 and Troublesome things pp.153-4).  This is definitely explicit in a pamphlet from 1650, The strange witch at Greenwich, that described the mischievous tricks of a particular spirit, such as throwing utensils and clothing around, along with “other such reakes and mad merry pranks,as strange as ever Hobgoblins, pinching fairies and Robin Goodfellow acted in houses in old times among Dairy Wenches and kitchen Maides.”

The records show that these often seemed to have ‘traditional fairy’ names such as Robin, Piggin, Hob and Puckle.  Admitting regular contacts with a fairy would be interpreted and condemned as possessing a familiar.  For example, Joan Willimot of Rutland had a spirit called Pretty blown into her mouth in the shape of a fairy.  It subsequently visited her weekly and identified to her those of her neighbours who were “stricken and forespoken” (i.e. bewitched).  Anne Jefferies of St Teath, Cornwall, was carried off the fairyland by six tiny green men and was given ointment to cure “all distempers, sicknesses and sores” (such as the falling sickness and broken bones) and was also granted the power to make herself invisible at will.  When she was arrested, it was alleged that these fairies were in fact her imps or familiars.  She denied this, saying rather that they quoted scripture to her.

In some cases the supernatural contact seemed more obviously evidence of black magic.  Katherine Munro, Lady Fowlis, “made us of the artillery of Elf-land to destroy her stepson and sister in law” (Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter V).  Elf-bolts (flint arrow heads) were fired at pictures or her two victims.  Similarly, Isobel Goudie of Nairn visited the fairy queen’s court and saw Satan and the elves making the arrow heads with which Goudie and other witches then slew various people.  Other such instances from Scottish witch trials are Katherine Ross, 1590, Christiane Roiss, 1577 and Marion McAlester, 1590.  We can see here how fairy beliefs had become interchangeable with witch beliefs, so that elf-shot had been converted into bewitching.

Conclusion

To conclude, it is convenient to quote Sir Walter Scott in his sixth letter on demonology:

“With the fairy popular creed fell, doubtless, many subordinate articles of credulity in England, but the belief in witches kept its ground. It was rooted in the minds of the common people, as well by the easy solution it afforded of much which they found otherwise hard to explain, as in reverence to the Holy Scriptures, in which the word witch, being used in several places, conveyed to those who did not trouble themselves about the nicety of the translation from the Eastern tongues, the inference that the same species of witches were meant as those against whom modern legislation had, in most European nations, directed the punishment of death. These two circumstances furnished the numerous believers in witchcraft with arguments in divinity and law which they conceived irrefragable. They might say to the theologist, Will you not believe in witches? the Scriptures aver their existence;—to the jurisconsult, Will you dispute the existence of a crime against which our own statute-book, and the code of almost all civilized countries, have attested, by laws upon which hundreds and thousands have been convicted, many or even most of whom have, by their judicial confessions, acknowledged their guilt and the justice of their punishment? It is a strange scepticism, they might add, which rejects the evidence of Scripture, of human legislature, and of the accused persons themselves.”

This rational analysis did many poor creatures little good: the Bible commanded that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and those clinging to older traditional beliefs and practices could find themselves trapped and accused.  In the early modern period the frame of belief had shifted and no space remained for benign spirits.  Thomas Heywood captured this in Hierarchy of the blessed angels (1635), when he spoke of:

“…wicked spirits, such as we call/ Hobgoblins, Fairies, Satyrs, and those all/ Sathan by strange illusions doth employ…”

Fortunately for the hapless victims of the witch hunts, humanism and scientific rationality eventually displaced Protestant scaremongering.  Nonetheless, once established, the associations between fairy and sorcery were hard to sever: it is surely no coincidence that Shelley labelled his Queen Mab as “queen of spells” in his eponymous poem.

Changelings: fairy thefts of human children

 

jennet-francis-struggles-with-the-fairies-for-her-baby

“Some night tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle clothes our children where they lay…” Shakespeare, Henry IV Part One, Act I, scene 1.

I have several times alluded to the very widespread belief in changelings, but I want to examine it more closely in this posting.  It was an article of the fairy faith throughout the British Isles that our ‘good neighbours’ were not averse to snatching human infants if the opportunity presented itself.  The fairy queen herself, is accused of this crime by Ben Jonson:

“This is she that empties cradles/ Takes out children, puts in ladles.” (Entertainment at Althorpe, 1603).

The fairies were believed to prefer infants with fair hair and pale skin and to take only boys (Rhys p.221; Wentz p.148).  We may recall the child over whom Titania and Oberon squabble in A midsummer night’s dream.  She has newly acquired a servant, “A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king; She never had so sweet a changeling.”  Oberon wants the youth as his ‘henchman,’ as a ‘knight in his train’ but Titania will not release him (Act II, scene 1).

In place of the stolen human child was left the ‘changeling’, a creature consistently identifiable because it looked like an old man- being ugly, deformed, small, weak and bad-tempered.  Whatever care it received, the substitute remained frail and did not grow, being peevish at all times.  In other words, in earlier times before medical knowledge had developed, if a newborn was discovered to be mentally disabled or defective, this was put down not to congenital or perinatal problems but to a supernatural intervention: the real child had been abducted and an ‘oaf’ (an elf) left in its place (the ‘ouphs’ of Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor are derived from the same source).  Drayton in Nymphidia sumarises the state of sixteenth century popular belief on pediatrics:

“…when a child haps to be got/ Which after proves an idiot/ When folke perceive it thriveth not/ The fault therein to smother;/ Some silly doting brainless caulf/ That understands things by the half/ Say that the fairy left this aulf/ And took away the other” (The court of fairy).

We may also note mention from Wales of a belief that the fairies might pay mortals to steal suitable children for them.  Rhys relates the story of an old woman from Cwm Tawe who was believed in her neighbourhood to abduct healthy babes and replace them with old urchins in return for fairy gold (Rhys p.255).She would enter homes begging for alms and then offer to rock the cradle. Whilst the mother’s back was turned, the fairy whelp hidden beneath her cloak would hastily be swapped for the healthy child and the crone would make her escape.

The stolen children seemed generally to be well cared for and to enjoy life at the fairy court, spending their time in feasting, dancing and music.  Hunt (Popular romances of the West of England) tends to support this in his story of Betty Stogs.  He said it was believed in the ‘high countries’ of Penwith (Morva, Zennor and Towednack) that the fairies would take poorly cared for children and clean them.  This was Stogs’ experience- she neglected her home and her child but the pixies removed it, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers.

There is, too, a little evidence that the fairies sought to make their captives immortal like themselves.  In The faithful shepherdess Fletcher describes how the elves danced at a well by “pale moonshine, dipping often times/ Their stolen children, so to make them free/ From dying flesh and dull mortality” (Act I, Scene 2). This belief may go some way to explain an odd account from Wales of a suspected changeling that had to be dipped daily for three months in a cold spring, the result of which was that it thrived, growing ‘as fast as a gosling’ (Rhys p.256).

The theft of healthy normal babies and their replacement by an aged elf or a defective fairy infant was perceived to be a very common problem, then (note as a further illustration the song The fairy boyby Samuel Lover, 1840, performed by Lucy Ward on her 2011 album Adelphi has to flyNavigator Records).  Children were especially vulnerable in the time before they were baptised and variety of protective measures were deployed.  These included placing bindweed or iron (for example tongs or shears) around the cradle, the burning of leather in the room or the administering to the baby of either milk from a cow grazed on pearl-wort or water in which had been steeped cinders from a fire over which the child had been passed (Wentz, Fairy faith in the Celtic countries, pp.87 & 91).  Sir Walter Scott in Borders minstrelsy reports that another protective was to weave wreathes from oak and ivy withies at the full moon in March.  These were kept for a year and any children showing signs of consumption would be passed thrice through the hoops, thereby ensuring them against further supernatural assaults.

The parents, once the presence of a changeling child had been realised, had to expose the substitute.  If it was an aged fairy, some trick would be performed to get it to reveal itself, such as brewing beer in an egg shell, which would provoke its curiosity.  It would exclaim that it had seen oaks grow from acorns and chickens from eggs, but it had never seen beer brewed in an egg shell (or pasties for the reapers mixed in a shell) .  Sometimes the preternatural knowledge of the changeling might be exposed by chance: Wentz relates one Highland case where the child was seen to leap from its cradle to play the bagpipes when the parents were away.

There were several other means of expelling a changeling.  Salt might be burned as a magical means of repelling it or a shovel might be heated and held before its face.  Magic was resorted to:  the Cornish used a four leafed clover placed upon the ‘winickey’ impostor to recover the abducted baby and from Wales we learn of a curious ritual involving a hen: the mother had to find a black hen without a single white feather and had to kill it; then every window and door in the home except one would be sealed and the whole hen would be set before a wood fire to bake.  At the point that all its feathers fell off, the crimbil child would leave and the rightful infant would have been returned (Rhys p.263).

If these attempts did not succeed and an infant elf was still suspected, far worse treatment could follow, typically placing the baby on a shovel over the fire- but throwing the child in a river, ducking it in cold water daily, neglecting its needs, throwing pieces of iron at it or, lastly, placing it outside at night or on the beach as the tide came in, might also be tried (Wentz pp.111, 146, 171 & 177).  The idea was that the changeling’s cries would summon the fairy parents who would save their child and return the stolen human infant.  Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880, c.5) discusses the Welsh tradition of the plentyn newid (the new child) and remarks disapprovingly upon the cruelties from time to time inflicted as a result of this changeling belief.

Some parents, however, accepted the ‘changeling’ as their own and cared for the disabled neonate just as much as they would be expected to do for a healthy baby.  I have mentioned before how a mother who behaved in this manner was rewarded financially by the fairies during the infant’s life.  Another example comes from a Scottish witch trial.  John Ferguson approached Jonit Andirson for advice on his ‘shag-bairn’,   a child the family suspected of being a changeling.  Andirson confirmed their diagnosis and advised that she could not retrieve their baby from the fairies; however, if they cared for the changeling as their own, ‘they would not want.’

changeling_rackham

We have seen Ben Jonson’s mention that a ladle would replace the abductee.  This suited his rhyme but is not traditional.  Sometimes, rather than a living being, a ‘stock’ was substituted- a log fashioned in the likeness of the missing person who was, in actuality, ‘away with the fairies.’  This motionless, speechless form (a “a lingering voracious Image” in Kirk’s words) was left at the home in bed to act as a cover for the fact that the man or woman had been taken to fairyland for some purpose- perhaps as a midwife or wet nurse to a fairy mother.  Some readers will recall that in Susanna Clark’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a bog-oak likeness is left in place of Lady Emma Pole who is abducted to dance at the fairy balls.

“From uncleannesse kept”- the cautionary function of fairy tales

shui-rhys-and-the-tylwyth-tegIn his book Religion and the decline of magic Keith Thomas astutely observed that “Fairy faith has a social function, enforcing certain conduct” and that “Fairy beliefs could help to reinforce some of the standards upon which the effective working of society depended” (pp.730 and 732).

There were two main targets for these warnings- children and servants/ wives.  The two groups shared subordinate social positions and could be the subject of rebukes and punishments.  One vehicle for such chastisement was supernatural.

Then, as now, children from time to time needed to be told what was best for them.  A fairy threat to enforce this, especially in situations when adults might be absent, was a valuable support to parents.  A variety of risks and dangers were given fairy personality in the hope of instilling an awed respect and nervous caution.  The perils given terrifying character included:

  • rivers– for example ‘Peg Powler’ on the river Tees, who might drag incautious children from the banks under the waves;
  • ponds– similar drowning dangers, as well as that of lawn-like mats of pond weed, were given identities: Jenny Greenteeth in Lancashire and Cumbria, Grindylow in Yorkshire, Nelly Longarms and the widespread Rawhead and Bloodybones.  In East Anglia the ‘freshwater mermaid’ was especially well known.  There are records of these perilous creatures in the River Gipping in Suffolk and in ponds, pools and meres at Fordham, Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk at Rendlesham and most notably at the Mermaid Pits, Fornham All Saints;
  • unripe fruit in trees– to discourage theft and upset stomachs, infants were warned of Awd Goggie, Lazy Lawrence and the Colt Pixy in orchards; Churnmilk Peg and Melsh Dick guarded Yorkshire nut groves and the Gooseberry Wife, in the form of a huge caterpillar, lay in wait amidst the fruit bushes on the Isle of Wight;
  • domestic store rooms– dangers in the home were protected by Tom Poker in Suffolk and Bloody Bones elsewhere.

Bogies also had the function of getting children to behave themselves and to go to bed. Amongst these so-called nursery bogies were Tankerabogus, Mumpoker and Tom Dockin.

Adults undertaking domestic duties would be chastened by fairy retribution too.  The so-called ‘buttery sprites’ existed as the grownup equivalent to the creatures deployed to terrify children.  A range of chores were policed by supernatural means.  This theme is comprehensively summarised in the Fairies fegaries of 1635:

“And if the house be foule/ Or platter, dishe or bowle/ Up stairs we nimbly creepe/ And finde the sluts asleepe:/ Then we pinch their arms and thighs/ None escapes nor none espies./ But if the house be swepte/ And from uncleannesse kept/ We praise the house and maid/ And surely she is paid:/ For we do use before we go/ To drop a tester in her shoe.”

Servants were warned not to sit up late gossiping but to keep their houses tidy, floors and hearths swept and the embers raked up, dairies spotless and decked with mint, the shelves dusted, the benches wiped down and their pewter well scoured.  Those “foul sluts” who neglected their chores did so on pain of physical punishment: they would be pinched black and blue all over, whilst the obedient and dutiful would be rewarded with a coin in a shoe or pail (see for example Thomas Churchyard, A handful of gladsome verses, 1592 or William Browne, Britannia’s pastorals, Book 1, song 2).  Neglect of the proper domestic offerings to fairies- clean water, milk, bread and the like- led to infliction of the same penalties.

In summary then, fairy beliefs were not just a source of entertainment or explanation of puzzling events; they had a regulatory function.

“Rewards and fairies”- gifts from the Good Neighbours

dulac-elves-fairies

Edmund Dulac, ‘Elves and fairies’ (The Tempest)

“It was told me that I should be rich by the fairies” Winter’s Tale, Act III, scene 3.

“although their gifts were sometimes valuable, they were usually wantonly given and unexpectedly resumed.” (Sir Walter Scott, Letters on demonology, letter IV)

In a previous posting I discussed offerings to fairies and noted that the divining line between worship and bargain was a difficult one to define with precision.  I wish to return to this area, discussing here definite gifts from fairykind to humans.

Folklore writer Christine Emerick has pointed out the curious contrast between Celtic fairy gifts and those of the Teutonic elves.  The former look valuable but prove to be worthless, whilst the latter are the reverse.  In British folktales, there is a blending of these extremes.

This unprovoked benevolence could take a variety of forms:

  • Regular gifts of food or money might be found by a lucky individual- for instance, at Willie How barrow in Yorkshire a local man was told he would find a guinea coin on top of the burial mound everyday, so long as he did not disclose his good fortune;
  • A skill might be conferred upon a fortunate recipient, such as the ability to play the bagpipes;
  • A helpful deed might be rewarded: in one Welsh story a farmer removed a rooks nest from a tree near his crops.  It had also overshadowed a fairy ring and they rewarded him for his act.  Providing bathing water for fairy families would likewise receive more than its due;
  • The provision of a service- such as carrying out a repair on a tool or acting as midwife- could be rewarded with more than the payment commensurate with the job.  In another Welsh example, a midwife received a life time’s supply of money for her assistance to the mother.  A curious tale from Ipstones in Staffordshire describes a woman whose child was substituted for a changeling.  Unlike most such maternal victims, she accepted the fairy child imposed upon her and cared for it as her own.  In return, whenever she wished for money, it would appear.  This bounty ceased when the infant sickened and died;
  • As indicated by the last example, a gift or gifts might be given, or the lucky individual might more generally enjoy good luck and prosperity, with good fortune and bounty taking many forms in their lives.  For instance, a highlander who gave his plaid to wrap a newborn fairy baby enjoyed good luck ever afterwards.  A supply of inexhaustible food is variant upon this;
  • there could be the gift of health and healing.  Several sites are linked associated with this: passing a child through the men an tol in Cornwall could cure rickets;  a well at Bugley in Wiltshire relieved sore eyes and the Hob Hole in  North Yorkshire was beneficial against whooping cough in children.  These properties might be conceived of as fairy beneficence or, perhaps, proof of their magic powers; and,
  • lastly, there is the very old concept of the fairy godmother and her gifts to the newborn.  This is recorded as early as the twelfth century in Layamon’s Brut: when King Arthur was born “alven hine ivengen; heo bigolen that child mid galdere swithe stronge”- ‘elves took him; they enchanted that child with magic most strong:’ the fairies gave him riches, long life, prowess and virtues.  These stories remained current in the seventeenth century, when Milton wrote how “at thy birth, the fairy ladies daunc’t upon the hearth/ And sweetly singing round about thy bed/ Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping head” (Vacation exercise).

Gifts were made to children as well as adults; anyone could attract the fairies’ favour and there did not need necessarily to be a specific reason, although exercise of the fairies’ esteemed virtues of generosity and hospitality tended to attract favourable attention: if a human is prepared to give freely s/he may enjoy the same in return.  It did help, though, to accept the first gift readily and without conditions.  Reginald Scot in The discovery of witchcraft (Book III, c.iV) recorded the tradition that fairies would favour servants and shepherds in country houses, “leaving bread, butter and choose sometimes with them, which if they refuse to eat, some mischief shall undoubtedly befall them by means of these fairies…”  Two stories confirm this belief.  A man given some food for mending a fairy’s spade was rewarded with food.  His companion counselled against eating it; the other cheerfully partook and benefitted for the rest of his life as a consequence of his spontaneous and trusting nature.  Similar accounts come from Pensher, County Durham (plough horses die because the farmer refuses to eat the bread and butter left for him) and from Lupton in Westmorland, where the horse that ate the fairy food lived and the other which refused to do so perished.

Sometimes fairy generosity can become excessive, in that they will steal from others to benefit the preferred person.  Neighbours’ barns and granaries may be emptied in order to fill that of the blessed one.

“[they] give me jewels here…  oh, you must not tell though.” (Ben Jonson, The silent woman.)

However, fairy gifts are made subject to a strict rule that they are respected and are not disclosed.  In all the cases so far mentioned, boasting about money from the fairies would guarantee that the bounty would terminate.  In one sad case, a boy who found regular small sums of money was beaten by his father on suspicion of being a thief.  He finally confessed, which instantly ended the family’s good fortune, much to the parents’ bitter regret (Rhys pp.37-38).  Loss of the bounty could be the least of the penalties inflicted for want of discretion though: Massinger in The fatal dowry warns “But not a word of it- ’tis fairies treasure/ Which but revealed brings on the blabber’s ruin” (Act IV, scene 1) whilst in The Honest Man’s Fortune we are likewise reminded of this fact: “fairy favours/ Wholesome if kept, but poison if discovered.”

Closely related to this condition are the gwartheg y llyn,  the lake cattle, which are frequently brought to marriages by lake maidens or which mingle and interbreed with human herds. If (when) the wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts.  The same is bound to occur if the human farmer tries to slaughter the fairy cattle, as this too will be interpreted as demonstrating a want of respect for the owners/ donors.