‘Smells like earth spirit’

CS1866789-02A-BIG

English writer John Aubrey, in his Miscellanies (1695), has the following record for 1670:

“Not far from Cirencester was an apparition.  Being demanded whether a good spirit or a bad, returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume- and a most melodious twang.  M. W. Lilly believes it was a fairie.”

That there might be a peculiar odour (and sound) associated with faery is a rare aspect of the folk lore accounts, but there are traces of suggestive evidence.  In his Second Manx Scrapbook W. W. Gill advises that the upper parts of glens are the best places to see, hear and smell Manx fairies.  What you will encounter is “a stale, sour smell”, apparently.  The nature of this odour may be explained by an Irish tale.  Biddy Mannion was abducted to act as nurse to the sickly infant of the king and queen of faerie.  After successfully caring for the child she was permitted to return home- but not before an ointment was rubbed on her eyes.  This revealed that she was in a frightful cave full of dead men’s bones, which had “a terribly musty smell.”  I have mentioned before the association of fairies with the dead, of which this is another demonstration.

Additionally, and for the purposes of comparison, I was interested to read that, in the Philippines, it is said that the smell of damp earth on a hot day, as it there had just been a downpour, is a sign of the presence of supernaturals.  In Tagalog this is called maalimuom or masangsang (Jaime Licauco,  Dwarves & other nature spirits, 2005, p.8).

Twentieth century spiritualist Edward Gardner has something to say on these matters.  He is quoted in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1921 book on the Cottingley fairy incident, The coming of the fairies.  In chapter VIII Garner provides the theosophical view on the nature of fairies and states that they have no language as such (or none that mortal ears can hear, anyway), but communicate by means of sound and music.  More conventional fairy lore stresses the fairies love of music and dancing for entertainment- as I have discussed before.  Musical tones generated by the fairies themselves is a rather different concept- but perhaps some witnesses assumed the sounds heard came from instruments and not the fairy beings themselves.

Secondly, both Gardner and his colleague, Geoffrey Hodson, linked fairies intimately with flowers.  They saw fairies as nature spirits whose function was to help plants and flowers grow and reproduce.  This being the case, if any scent could be linked to these elementals, it would be that of blossom. Hodson  perceived the smell of flowers as akin to musical chords.

The evidence is sparse, but what little there is certainly gives us a new and intriguing perspective on the denizens of Faery.  The best that can be said is that, for some at least, the experience of encountering supernaturals is not solely a visual impression.

sd24

An image from the photo shoot for the 1993 album ‘Siamese Dream’ by Smashing Pumpkins.  The (reissued) album cover features at the top; it’s not Nirvana, I know, but it’s the same era and genre, it’s got fairy wings and it’s one of my favourite albums, so why not….?

Advertisements

‘Local fairies for local folk’

tiddy-mun

I have just published my new fairy tale, The Derrickwhich is a story aimed primarily at children.  Its title character is a traditional fairy from Dorset and Hampshire.  In this posting I want to explore a little further this theme of local fairy types.

There is a great variety of fairies in the British Isles; some are found across the country, but many differ regionally or across regions and some can be very local indeed.  They seem often to be adapted to a specific environment or social niche.  Here are a few examples:

  • Derricks- these only occur along the south coast; the Hampshire Derricks are apparently friendlier and more helpful than those of Dorset;
  • many brownies and hobs are tied to particular houses, farms or caves, as I have discussed separately;
  • orchards of the south-west- various fairy spirits, such as Awd Goggy, exist to guard orchards and the like from thieves and children (see earlier posting);
  • the Lincolnshire fens– this unique region is home to the Tiddy Ones, also called the Yarthkins, the Strangers and the Greencoaties.  They are rooted in the local soil and act as fertility spirits, helping the growth and ripening of plant life; as such they received tribute or offerings from the local people- the first fruits and the first taste of any meal or drink.  If neglected, these beings could be vindictive, affecting harvests, yields and even the birthrate.  They have been described as being a span high with thin limbs and over-sized hands, feet and heads.  They have long noses, wide mouths and make odd noises.  They danced on large flat stones in the moon light.  One particular spirit, the Tiddymun, seemed to control the flood waters in the days before the Fens were drained.  From time to time, he appeared from pools at night and might drag victims back into them, but generally he was sympathetic to local people.  His close ties to the management of water levels emphasise his local nature and function;
  • East Anglia- in Norfolk and Suffolk people spoke of the ferishers/ feriers/ frairies/ farisees.  These local fairies were known to be very small and very secretive.  They lived underground and were seldom seen.  This was perhaps fortunate as, above ground, they could be dangerous to humans; certainly, they rode cattle and horses at night;
  • spriggans- pixies are well known to be localised in the south-west peninsula; so too are the spriggans.  They are described as dour and ugly; their particular role seems to be protecting other fairies from intrusions or insults by humankind (see the stories of The Miser on the Fairy Gump or The Fairies on the Eastern Green, both from Penwith in Cornwall).  They were very closely linked to ancient sites, such as hill-forts, where they guarded buried gold.  In this the spriggans seem to be linked to the Redshanks or Danes of Somerset (I borrowed this idea for The Derrick).  The localisation of spriggans on distinctive sites in the region is especially notable.

If certain fairies have indeed adapted to local conditions and features, it may come as little surprise to learn that a symbiotic relationship with the human denizens of those areas has likewise evolved.  Two examples (once again from the south-west) are worthy of mention:

  • the Newlyn bucca is given fish by local fishermen in order to get good weather and good shoals;
  • knockers in the tin mines were given food in return for help locating the best lodes.

Obviously in these cases the human-fairy relationship  had adapted to local conditions.  It was, moreover, self-reinforcing- placid seas and a good haul of mackerel ensured further offerings for the bucca.

There is a tendency to generalise on fairy types and characteristics (of which, of course, I can be guilty in this blog) but many fairies were very restricted in their distribution, very individual in their behaviour and very local in their interests and preoccupations.

41shsdAAUnL

Fairy lore and The Mabinogion

coranyeit

As many readers are likely to be aware, The Mabinogion is the collection of early medieval Welsh stories that connects us to ancient Celtic mythology and gives us the first literary mentions of later Romantic hero, King Arthur.  Much could be written (and has been) about the connections between these stories and the works of Chretien de Troyes, Marie de France and Malory; yet more can be said about the links between the Welsh myths and the Irish stories of Cuchulain and others.  Here, I wish solely to focus upon the traces of fairy-lore in these accounts.

It is fair to say that The Mabinogion is steeped in magic.  Fairy glamour- the use of concealment, deception and transformation- is a theme that runs throughout the different stories of the collection.  The ‘glamorous’ quality of the tales is so fundamental to them and so subtle that we might almost overlook it.  Nonetheless, the integral otherworldly quality of many of the stories shares a nature and a source with faery.  These are fairy-tales just as much as they are hero stories, pseudo-history or courtly romances.

There are several features that can be identified which more explicitly demonstrate the fairy presence in The Mabinogion.  These include:

  • mounds- in several tales the action takes place, or characters are discovered seated upon, mounds.  In Pwyll and Manawyddan the gorsedd at Narberth has a particularly central role, but see too the stories of Owein and of Peredur- in the latter one mound is also explicitly stated to be a barrow, reminding us of the link between fairies and ancient sites.  Regular readers will further recall that grassy knolls are a typical fairy haunt;
  • magical ointment- in an incident in the story of Peredur, an ointment is used to revive knights killed in combat.  This quality of bestowing immortality or overcoming mortality recalls my recent discussion of the properties of fairy ointment;
  • fairy hounds- at the very start of the story Pwyll, the eponymous hero comes across Arawn, lord of Annwfn, who is out hunting with archetypal supernatural hounds– white with red ears.  This is very plainly a fairy pack and Arawn appears to be the lord of fairyland;
  • in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen, the many members of King Arthur’s court are listed.  Amongst them is his messenger Sgilti Light Foot who can run over forests on the tops of the trees and over mountains on the tips of the reeds. This skill is directly paralleled by a fairy trait recorded at Llanberis in North Wales by John Rhys; the Tylwyth Teg were said to be so light and agile that they could dance on the tips of the rushes (Celtic folklore p.83);
  • characters in the tales can travel with a tell-tale gliding motion, most notably Rhiannon in the story of Pwyll; she cannot be pursued either slowly or quickly, but always mysteriously moves ahead of those following her. This gait is distinctively fairy and is a feature of the ‘fairy rades’ often commented upon.
  • lastly, we must address the identity and nature of the people called Coranyeit/ Corannyeid (modern Welsh coraniaid) who bring plague to Britain in the story of Llud and Llevelys.  The episode requires a lengthier consideration.  

The people called Coranyeit appear to be fairies of some description- or, at least, strangers with magical powers.  Their name is etymologically linked to Welsh corr/ corrach (dwarf/ stunted), suggestive of diminutive fairies, and to the Breton fairies called korriganed.  The latter closely resemble the pixies of the British south-west, but it is hard to identify any clear parallels between korrigans and coranyeit.  All we do know is that the troublesome beings of the Welsh story are said to have come from Asia (Triad 36).

The Coraniaid are classed as one of the three gormessoedd (foreign oppressions or invasions) of Wales; this is because they have an unfortunate gift- they can hear anything that is said, however hushed the voice, provided that the wind catches it.  As a result, no-one could plot against them and they could seemingly never be harmed.  This trait perhaps is linked to the need to refer to the fairies by pseudonyms, such as Tylwyth Teg, Bendith y Mamau or ‘good neighbours’ so as not to insult or antagonise them.

The Corannyeid are eliminated from the realm by mashing insects in water and sprinkling this upon the assembled people.  The humans present are unharmed and the intruders are destroyed.  This detail is very puzzling and has never had any satisfactory explanation; some commentators have suggested that Spanish fly may be involved. The Welsh word used in the story (pryvet; Modern Welsh pryfed) is of very limited assistance in solving the mystery as it simply means ‘insects’ in a general sense. Nothing is clear, then, but there is some parallel at least to the use of various plants like rowan or of substances like stale urine to repel fairies.  These may be distasteful to humans, but they are none of them fatal.

In the Coraniaid‘s size, their malevolence and their supernatural senses there is plainly a good deal of fairy nature.

korrigan

Fairy ointment

fairy-onitment

I have written in previous posts about the effect of fairy ointment in dispelling the glamour used by the fairies to disguise and hide themselves.  The usual tale is of a human midwife or wet nurse who is called to assist with a fairy birth and who then accidentally touches an eye with the salve, thereby revealing the true nature of fairy kind.  When this regrettable slip is revealed, the unfortunate victim is blinded one way or another and their privileged view of faery is ended.  Before, I have recounted these tales from the human perspective and what I want to do here is to examine why this ointment was needed by the fairies in the first place.

As just mentioned, the typical account involves a mortal caring for a fairy newborn. Part of this person’s duties includes anointing the child with a special ointment and it is this task which gives rise to the revelation that all is not what it seems- that magic is being used to disguise the hovel in which the supernaturals actually live or to conceal their non-human nature.  This cream clearly has an important function in the story relative to the human being; its significance to the fairies who provide it tends to be overlooked or taken for granted.  Nevertheless, it is obviously even more vital to them than it is to the human helper.  Why does the newly born infant need to have this treatment applied? We are never clearly told, but there seem to be a couple of likely explanations:

  • it confers the fairies’ magical powers- the ointment (or, sometimes, an oil) is most frequently applied to the eyes of the neonate- and of course it is unintentional application to the human’s eyes which leads to ejection from fairyland or blinding. This implies that the power to see through fairy illusion or invisibility is what is being conveyed.  That said, from time to time the treatment prescribed is to rub the baby all over with the potion (there are examples from Wales and Cornwall of this). This obviously indicates that a more general alteration of the child’s physical nature is intended and that not just a power of concealment or disguise but a range of other magical abilities- to fly, to transform objects and the like- are being passed on;
  • it confers immortality: In a revealing statement from the Cornish story of The fairy dwelling on Silena Moor, an abducted woman tells her former fiancee that she was taken by the fairies to nurse “their mortal babies.”  This does not seem to refer to changelings, but to fairy offspring themselves, as she goes on to observe that they “are not so strong as before.”  This strongly suggests that fairy babies are just like human infants in terms of lifespan and that some intervention may be required to bestow immortality.  There are a few brief mentions in verse and folk lore of a fairy practice of dipping changelings in order to liberate them from human mortality.  In the Welsh story of Eilean of Garth Dolwen it is notable that Eilean is a human captive in fairyland and that it is her half-human, half-fairy child who has to be treated by the midwife, perhaps to free it of its maternally inherited human frailties.  Comparable is the evidence of the fairy story of Child Rowland, in which the King of Elfhame uses a blood-red potion to revive two knights that he has slain.  He achieves this by touching the corpses’ eyes, ears, lips, nostrils and fingertips with the liquid.  In Milton’s poem Comus a similar ritual is described.  Delia has been enchanted and trapped by Comus; Sabrina, spirit of the River Severn, releases her from her captivity with drops from her ‘fountain pure’ which are applied to Delia’s breast, lips and finger tips.  In all these stories, then, a magical liquid confers life- either defeating death or reversing it.

It might have been imagined that the qualities just discussed were inherent in fairy-kind, central to their non-human nature, but it seems not.  These attributes need to be specifically conveyed, failing which- presumably- the child would be little different to any other.  That fairies’ magical powers are not necessarily inborn is a concept not wholly alien to fairy lore.  According to a Tudor ballad, Robin Goodfellow (admittedly the half-human son of the king of faery) was granted his father’s supernatural powers through a magical scroll.

Pursuing this thought to its logical conclusion, it seems possible that a human who gets hold of sufficient of the ointment (or who is able to manufacture it) would be able to apply it to his/her own body and thereby bestow upon him/herself quasi-supernatural powers.  Evidence that fairy abilities were quite easily transferable comes from two sources.  In one set of stories, a human is able to fly through the air with the fairies simply by overhearing and repeating the spells they use.  There are several examples of such incidents from the Highlands.  Secondly, and directly relevant to the current discussion, there are accounts from Wales and from Cornwall in which a human’s ability to see through the glamour is derived not directly from the oil or ointment applied to the infant but from the water in which a fairy babe has been washed; again, inadvertent splashing of the bath water onto the eye bestows the power to penetrate the enchantment.  It appears, though, that fairy magic very easily washes (or rubs) off.

In light of what has just been proposed, particularly, we must consider what the constituents of this ointment might be.  The tale of Cherry of Zennor informs us that it is green in colour.  Also from Cornwall, we have evidence from a Mr Maddern of Penzance that was provided in 1910 for Evans Wentz’ Fairy faith in the Celtic countries.  The interviewee stated that a green fairy salve that bestowed invisibility when rubbed on the eyes could be made from certain herbs found on Kerris Moor, outside Paul, near Newlyn, in Penwith (Wentz p.175).  Four-leaf clovers were renowned for their quality of dispelling fairy spells and it seems very likely that this plant will form the main constituent of the salve. It may be that other plants may be added to the mixture- likely candidates might include broom, ragwort and cowslip, amongst others.  It might be anticipated that spells are spoken over the mixture, but this doesn’t appear to be the case: mere accidental possession of a four leaf clover would be enough for a person to see the fairies, we are told.

To summarise, then, the evidence presented seems to suggest that fairy-kind and human-kind are not that different.  Our closeness in physiology, our ability to interbreed, is entirely understandable, given that what separates us is not any profound physical or mental differences but the application of an ointment that bestows magical powers.  This may seem a surprising conclusion, but it is what we are driven to deduce from the stories.  This may detract from the mysterious otherness of faery, but at the same time it puts it within tantalising reach: with the correct recipe for the salve, we could all aspire to pass into another dimension.  Kerris Moor seems to be a good place to go; a bigger problem may be picking enough four-leaf clovers to make sufficient ointment…

Fairyland and the dead

selena

One of the theories of fairy origins is that they represent the spirits of ancestral dead- the departed have been transformed into immortal beings.  For example, in the West Country pixies are believed to be the souls of unbaptised children or of druids and other heathens.  The association of the pixies with standing stones, long barrows and stone circles naturally reinforces this particular idea.

Others have argued that the fairy preference for green is symbolic of death and decay rather than vibrant and vigorous growth, as is most commonly supposed (and which is another origin theory: for example, William Blake in the preface to the Descriptive catalogue prepared for his solo exhibition in Soho in 1809 observed that the fairies of both Shakespeare and Chaucer are “rulers of the vegetable world.” Blake’s own fairies had a similar animating function).  The so-called Green Children of Woolpit, when initially found, ate only green beans, which Katherine Briggs suggested might again link them with death.

paton

Sir Joseph Noel Paton, ‘The fairy rade- carrying off a changeling, Midsummer Eve– Kelvingrove Gallery, Glasgow; note the stone circle in the background

In the surviving folklore, the evidence as a whole is not conclusive on the theory that fairies represent departed ancestors: the dead are definitely present in fairy land, but these deceased persons are not the fairies themselves and, in fact, they may not actually be dead at all.

In the Cornish story of the ‘fairy dwelling on Silena moor’ a farmer called Noy gets lost on the moor and comes upon a party in a house.  He meets a girl who turns out to be a former fiancee of his, someone who had apparently died three or four years previously. His lost love warns Noy not to eat the food at the feast- she herself had done so and had as a result been rendered into a state in which she appeared to be dead to the human world, when in fact a sham body (a stock) was left behind whilst she had been kidnapped and taken to serve the fairies.  Similar examples include Katherine Fordyce of Unst on Shetland, who was believed to have died in child-birth but who had really been taken to act as a nurse maid to the Trows.  Katherine ate fairy food and so became trapped with them.  Lastly, in the tale of the ‘Tacksman of Auchriachan’, the tacksman (tenant farmer) stumbles upon a strange house in the hills in which a woman whom he knows to be very recently deceased is discovered by him acting as a housekeeper for the fairies.  Campbell recorded the widespread Highland belief that men, women and children were regularly carried off underground by the fairies, which explained why in Scottish folk tales people long dead were so often seen in the fairies’ company (Popular tales of the West Highlands, 1890, vol.2, p.65).

In the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo the knight visits the castle of the fairy king in search of his abducted wife.  There he sees many people “thought dead, and nere nought” (‘and yet not’).  Some of these were headless, some lacked limbs, some were badly wounded, mad, drowned, burned, had choked on food or had died in child birth.  Of all of them, the poet states “Eche was thus in this world ynome/ With fairi thither ycome” (‘Each was thus taken from this world and had come there by enchantment’).

Magic is used to steal away humans by the illusion of their deaths.  They are then trapped in the supernatural realm by consuming food and drink there.  It has been argued that this element of the folk tales confirms the ‘land of the dead’ theory: in some early cultures, offerings of food were made to deceased ancestors and so partaking of these transforms the living person and transports them to the realm of the dead (see Dr Henry Bett, English myths and legends, c.1).  However, the permanent state of earthly death need not apply to the those abducted to faery.

The fairy enchantment can be overcome, all the same, it seems.  An account from Skye reveals that wetting your left eye with spit will dispel the fairy glamour and defeat the captivity (Wentz p.97).  The woman in this story escapes, but it must be confessed that she is uniquely lucky.  Mostly, a sojourn of any duration in fairyland will change the body so that it cannot revert to its old life.  This is the result either of the differential passing of time in fairyland or physical alterations to the body.  The subsequent cause of death may be simple grief when the returning captive finds that everyone s/he knew and loved has died during the prolonged absence, however short it may have seemed to the abductee; alternatively, death is a reaction to touching human food, which is now effectively poisonous.

To conclude, the status of visitors to faery remains uncertain.  They sometimes are found underground (as if interred), but by no means always- they can be encountered in ordinary seeming houses too.  They are not met with dressed all in green like their hosts/ captors, which might have signified a change of status, and they continue with mundane tasks like cleaning and cooking. Travel to fairyland therefore is not death- it just looks like it to those left behind. Those transported remain alive, but in a place which will transform them, so that they are never able to return to their old life.

 

“Al on snowe white stedes” – fairy animals

gwartheg

A number of domesticated beasts are also associated with fairies, showing how often their society imitated and paralleled our own.  Sometimes this livestock was imagined as being its normal size, so as to match human sized fairies; on other occasions the creatures were diminutive, just like their supernatural owners.  Some of the creatures were larger than their counterparts in the human world, enhancing the fear associated with their unearthly origins.

We find regular reference to:

  • goats– I have discussed fairy goats before.  They were very well known in Wales, but the Cornish were also aware of the link.  For example, William Bottrell recorded that wherever goats preferred to graze would be certain to be places frequented by the pixies.  In the Highlands of Perthshire it was believed that the fairies lived on goat’s milk.

254

  • horses– fairies liked hunting and processing and for this horses were nearly essential.  In the poem Sir Orfeo the fairy king arrives to seduce the knight’s wife with his ladies and retainers, “Al on snowe white stedes.”  In the Scottish poem Young Tamlane the fairies process on black, brown and white mounts whilst in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen appears astride a ‘palfrey.’ We also hear of Welsh fairies hunting on grey horses and- from an old woman in the Vale of Neath in 1827- an account of fairies seen riding white horses ‘no bigger than dogs.’  These Welsh fairies were said to ride in the air, never coming to ground.  Appropriately, fairy horses were renowned for their swiftness.  In contrast to these generally small and pale-hued steeds, a horse that collected a midwife to attend a fairy labour near Tavistock was coal black with eyes ‘like balls of fire’…  John Campbell in Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands suggested that the fairy horses might not be real, at all, but just enchanted ragweed stems, on which fairies so often flew through the air like broomsticks.  This might indeed have been the case in the north of Scotland, at least.
  • deer– in the Highlands fairies were especially associated with the red deer and, indeed,  it was believed by some that they were their only cattle.  It was also alleged that fairy women could transform themselves into deer and might be captured in this guise.
  • dogs- for the fairies’ great sport of hunting, hounds are required.  Searching to recover his wife, Sir Orfeo meets the king of fairy riding out “with hundes berkyng.”  Likewise in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen is met with “hir greyehundes” and “Hir raches.”  The latter are ‘rachets’- specially bred hunting dogs.  The Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) of Welsh legend were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven. They dashed through the air on stormy nights, terrifying the mortals below.  More dainty, perhaps, were the “milk white hounds” that accompanied the elfin ladies of the lakes.  In stark contrast, the ‘people of peace’ of the Scottish Highlands possessed dogs the size of bullocks, which were dark green (though paling towards their feet). These hounds’ tails either curled tightly on their backs or appeared flat, even plaited.  They were kept as ferocious watchdogs for the fairy knolls and were said to move by gliding in straight lines.
  • cats: fairy felines were apparently the size of human dogs, black with a white spot on their chests, their backs constantly arched and their fur bristled.
  • cattle– Irish fairy cattle are famed for their distinctive appearance: they are white with red ears.  In Britain, though, such distinctive characteristics are not so regularly recorded, but in Wales the “comely milk white kine” were definitely famed.  These were the gwartheg y llyn,  the ‘lake cattle’, that were frequently brought to marriages with human males by the beautiful and mesmerising lake maidens.  Alternatively they might mingle and interbreed naturally with human herds (and are clearly envisaged as being of normal proportions and appearance).  If (when) the fairy wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts from her husband’s herd.  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.  In the Scottish Highlands fairy cattle typically were dun coloured and hornless, but on Skye they were red speckled and could cross the sea.
  • other livestock– In British goblins Wirt Sikes says that the Welsh fairies may appear in the shape of sheep, poultry and pigs.  It is not wholly clear from his account whether these are fairy animals or fairies in the form of animals.  Whatever the exact situation, these creatures were often reported as being seen flying or rising from pastures up into the sky.

In summary, there seem to be a number of common features to fairy animals. They are very commonly pure white- a sure sign of their supernatural nature- and most commonly airborne (another clear indication of their enchanted nature). Although in many respects, their behaviour was identical with that of normal farm beasts, they were prone to appear and disappear unpredictably.  As with all fairy gifts, poor treatment of them guarantees their loss.

cnn-annwn

Anglo-Saxon elves

alf

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

llyn

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.

grassholm-1-vw-copyright

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’

satyr

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

b1

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).

b2

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.

b3