The Seelie and Unseelie Courts

The Seelie Court by Amarenth

The seelie and unseelie courts of Scottish fairies are a particular feature of the folklore of that country; the clear separation of the faes into good and bad groupings that’s entailed is almost unique in folklore.  Moreover, the notion of the two courts has, in recent years, attracted considerable attention and popularity- notwithstanding the fact that they are not mentioned in the majority of the Scottish faery-lore texts and collections.  Probably the majority of recorded Scottish folklore relates to the Highlands and Islands, the Gaelic (and Norse) speaking regions, which may explain why we have relatively little material documenting the two courts.

The Scots word ‘seelie’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon (ge)sælig/ sællic meaning ‘happy’ or ‘prosperous.’  The evolution of the word in Middle English and Scots seems to have been in two directions.  One sense was ‘pious,’ ‘worthy,’ ‘auspicious’ or ‘blessed.’  The second development extended the meaning incrementally through ‘lucky,’ ‘cheerful,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘simple,’ from whence it was a short final step to ‘simple-minded,’ as the modern English ‘silly’ denotes.  Because of this evolution, as well as because of the dialectical differences between English and Scots, it is preferable to use ‘seelie’ rather than to try to translate it.  In passing, we might observe that Scots is in many cases far nearer to original Anglo-Saxon than modern English, which has imported so many French and Latin words.

By late medieval and early modern times, ‘seelie’ or ‘seely’ in Scots meant happy or peaceable, as in ‘seely wights,’ and the ‘seely court,’ which was the ‘happy or pleasant court.’  It followed from this that ‘unseelie’ or ‘unsilly’ described something that was unhappy or wretched.  The poet Dunbar referred to Satan’s “unsall meyne” (his “wretched troop of followers”), a phrase which could be a very appropriate term for the fairies; even more significantly, Montgomerie’s description of the fairy court mentioned how “an elf on an ape an unsel begat”- in other words, the pairing gave birth to a wretch or monster.  (Dunbar, Evergreen, i 106; Montgomerie, The Flyting of Polwart)

Scots is the language of Lowland Scotland, and this gives us a sense of the realm of the seelie and unseelie courts.  The unseelie court, therefore, might be expected to include such creatures as the red caps, shellycoat, the brown man of the muirs, the powrie, the dunter, and perhaps a hag like Gentle Annis; the seelie court, meanwhile, included the elves, the brownies and the doonie (see my Beyond Faery for details of many of these). 

The Unseelie Court by Ameluria

Most of our records of the usage of seelie and unseelie courts are not very old.  We are told about them in McPherson’s Primitive Beliefs of North East Scotland (1929) and earlier in Charles Rogers’ Scotland, Social and Domestic (1884); surprisingly, perhaps, there is no mention of the terms in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Borders (1802) or Letters on Demonology (1830) nor does Cromek allude to the concepts in his Remains of Nithsdale Song (1810).  The ballad Allison Gross refers to the ‘Seelie Court’ but this song was only recorded in 1783- although it might not be unreasonable to see it as being at least two hundred years older. 

A very early example of the use of seelie is to be found in a poem of 1584 by Robert Sempill, entitled Heir Followis the Legend of the Bishop of St. Androis Lyfe, Callit Mr. Patrick Adamsone, Alias Cousteane.  The poem is a biting satire upon the high- ranking churchman of St Andrews, who became a target for criticism and mockery after he used the services of a healer called Alison Pearson to treat various ailments.  She was later convicted as a witch.  Sempill describes at one point:

“Ane carling of the Quene of Phareis,

That ewill win geir to elphyne careis;

Through all Braid Abane scho hes bene,

On horsbak on Hallow ewin;

And ay in seiking certayne nyghtis,

As scho sayis, with sur sillie wychtis…”

This servant of the fairy queen is a ‘carline’ or ‘carling’- a stout and bad-tempered woman and (by extension) a witch.  She is seen riding out across Scotland (Albany) at Halloween with her loyal “sillie wychtis,” making it virtually certain that these ‘seelie wights’ are other members of the queen’s court.

‘Carling’ entered Northern Middle English (and Scots) from Old Norse kerling. The related word in southern English is ‘churl’ (directly from the Anglo-Saxon ceorl with only a minor vowel change).  The hard initial consonant of ‘carline’ indicates the word’s Norse source- and might even imply an origin in the far north, in the Viking kingdom of Orkney and Shetland.

Whilst we’re debating questions of etymology, it’s also useful to consider what ‘court’ may have implied in Scots.  Certainly, it meant the royal court and could, therefore, in context refer to the establishment of the king and queen of Elphame.  The word also meant a retinue, company or troop- perhaps some formal assembly of individuals as against a mere mob.  Andrew Wyntoune, for example, in his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland (1420) described birds and wild beasts eating carrion as a “fey court”- a ‘doomed company,’ perhaps.

What do these two courts do to earn their names and reputations?  The Gude Fairies or seelie court comprised elves whose numbers were augmented by babies who died of parental abuse, those who fell fighting in just battles and all other good and worthy folk who had, perhaps just the once, lapsed in some way and so could not access heaven.  These good faeries help mankind: they provide bread to the poor and aged, seed corn to the hardworking but unlucky, and gifts to those they favoured- especially those who had themselves helped out the fairies with loans or gifts.  If they are called on to assist a person, the seelie court will do so and will help with daily tasks.  They cheer those afflicted and in despair. 

The ranks of the unseelie court are made up with those who had given themselves up to the devil, bad men who died fighting, unmarried mothers stolen during childbirth and unbaptised babies.  The wicked fairies are always ready to inflict harm and loss.  They might shave victims out of spite, abduct people who placed themselves in their power, steal goods and kill cattle with elf shot.

Be warned, however, that we should not overstate the benignity of even the seelie court.  For example, in the Ballad of Mary O’Craignethan, her father curses the seelie court after his daughter is abducted by a fairy man.  He threatens to cut down their groves in revenge.  The father is advised how to recover his child magically but at the same time he’s warned how unwise it is to make such threats.  He manages to retrieve the young woman, in scenes very like the rescue of Tam Lin, but he soon dies, because “nane e’er curs’d the Seelie Court/ And ever after thrave.”  It was well known in Scotland that conduct like that of Mary’s father could only mean that the person would pine away, having seen all their affairs go to ruin.  An identical fate would befall any person who ploughed up a fairy ring.

The Unseelie Court in Shadowhunters

For further consideration of this subject, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

Tam Lin & escapes from faeryland

The Fairy Host in Tam Lin by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

A number of Scottish ballads suggest that for human captives in fairyland to escape their captivity can be a violent and terrifying process- especially for the person trying to save them.  There are three primary examples to consider, all of which share close resemblances. 

In the ballad, The Faery Oak of Corriewater, a young man called Elph Irving has been captured by the queen of Elfland to be her cupbearer.  He is said to be “the fairest that earth may see” and, for his seven years’ service, she says that “his wage is a kiss of me” which seems to make it fairly clear that he is as much a sex slave as a domestic servant. It’s notable too that his name is prefixed ‘Elph,’ suggestive of some kind of assimilation to faery-kind through his residence with them. As we know, for humans to eat faery food can lead to a permanent physical change which prevents their return to the mortal world.

Irving’s sister comes to save him.  The fairies are alerted to her approach (“For here comes the smell of some baptised flesh,/ And the sounding of baptised feet”- humans can be smelt by fairies just as much as we can detect them by their distinctive fairy smell) and try to make a getaway on their steeds.  The sister, however, is too fast:

“She linked her brother around,

And called on God, and the steed with a snort

Sank into the gaping ground.

But the fire maun [must] burn, and I maun quake,

And the time that is gone will no more come back.

And she held her brother, and lo! he grow

A wild bull waked in ire;

And she held her brother, and lo! he changed

To a river roaring higher;

And she held her brother, and he became

A flood of the raging fire;

She shrieked and sank, and the wild elves laughed

Till the mountain rang and mire.”

To save her brother, she must be brave and not be intimidated by the transformations he goes through under the power of faery glamour. Sadly, the sister’s courage fails at last moment when Irving turns into the blaze of elfin fire and her chance to save him is lost forever.

Erica Leveque

The story of Tam Lin is very similar to that of the Faery Oak, but the ending is much happier.  Tam is a human boy who, as before, has been taken by the faery queen- perhaps once again for carnal reasons, as he describes himself as “fat and fair of flesh.”  This may, alternatively, relate to the fact that the fairies seem to intend to sacrifice him as their teind (tithe) to the devil.  This fate arises in part from his good looks, but it is also likely to reflect his part-human status; although Tam also states that he too has undergone some sort of transformation and that he is now “a fairy, lyth and limb,” he’s still not entirely one of them and, as such, is easier for the community to lose.

A girl called Janet falls for Tam after she meets him in a wood and gets pregnant.  She wants to rescue him from the fairies, so that she has a father for her child, and he instructs her when, where and how to do it.  She has to snatch him from his horse as the fairy court is out on its Halloween rade- and she must then be prepared for the transformations that will follow:

“They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and a snake;

            But had [hold] me fast, let me not pass,

            Gin ye wad be my maik [lover/ partner].

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and an ask;

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A bale that burns fast.

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A red-hot gad o’ airn;

            But haud me fast, let me not pass,

            For I’ll do you no harm.

First dip me in a stand o’ milk,

            And then in a stand o’ water;

            But had me fast, let me not pass,

            I’ll be your bairn’s father.

And next they’ll shape me in your arms

            A toad but and an eel;

            But had me fast, nor let me gang,

            As you do love me weel.

            ‘They’ll shape me in your arms, Janet,

            A dove but and a swan,

            And last they’ll shape me in your arms

            A mother-naked man;

            Cast your green mantle over me,

            I’ll be myself again.”

When Janet has rescued Tam, the fairy queen curses her for taking away the bonniest knight in her company: “Shame betide her ill-far’d face,/  And an ill death may she die.”  At the same time, too, the queen wishes she had taken steps to stop Tam’s fancy from straying.  She regrets that she had not taken out his heart, and replaced it with a stone, and that she had not “taen out thy twa grey een,/ Put in twa een o tree” (“Taken out your two grey eyes/ And put in two of wood.”)  This desire to blind Tam so he can’t see humans is an interesting detail of the ballad, because of its comparison to the faery practice of blinding those humans (usually midwives) who have got ointment on their eyes and as a result can see the fairies through their glamour.

Tam Lin by wylielise on deviantart

Our last example of a perilous escape from faery concerns a female captive who is rescued by her father.  The Ballad of Mary o’ Craignethan sees Mary stolen away under the fairy knoll by a fae man.  Her father seeks expert counsel and is advised on the ritual he has to follow to bless (sain) and then release her.  He must go to the fairy oak and there blow his horn three times.  At the first blast, the tree will bend and fall; at the second a silence will fall and an eldritch laugh will ring out.  At the third, a loathsome fiend will appear with “wauchie cheek and wauland ye” (‘a sallow cheek and wildly rolling eyes’). This will be Mary- and her father has to grasp her tightly by the wrists and make the sign of a cross over her:

“syne an ugsome ask in his han’ sho kyth’t

Owerspread wi’ lapper’t blude.”

She’ll appear next as a fearsome newt in his hand, covered in clotted blood.  He mustn’t quail but should then make the sign of the cross again and:

“Syne a sneeran’ [hissing] snake she turn’d roun’ his arm

And ower his bosom slade;

When he the thirden time she sain’t

A burnan bale she grew;

He nam’d ower her the halie name

An’ she flichter’t a milk-white dou [fluttered like a white dove].

He nam’d ower her the halie name

In his han’ was a lily rare;

He nam’d ower her the halie name,

In his han’ was his Mary fair.”

As you’ll have noticed, several transformations are common to all these stories.  Snakes, newts and burning bales seem to have been mentioned because they are likely to scare the rescuer into releasing their loved one; birds will flap wildly to try to escape- and it’s likely, I guess, that the snakes and newts will slither and, once again, alarm the rescuer. What is very clear, though, is that the rescue requires a lot of the human: she or he must not only know the necessary words and ritual; they must also have a very steady nerve and be able to see through the faeries’ glamour and realise that the deadly creatures in their arms are only illusion, and pose no real threat.

Tamlaine by Robert Macnair

Mixed Race Faery Families

babies

I have written several times about the sexual allure of fairies and about sexual relationships between fairies and humans.  Inevitably, many of these unions will result in children and in this posting I examine the evidence on mixed race families and the fate of their offspring.

Hybrid Children

Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs observed in her book The Fairies in Tradition and Literature that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (p.95). Mixed race families are entirely possible and there seems neither doubt nor surprise about this in the folklore.  When we learn about human-faery offspring, it is generally because there has been some problem in the relationship.  Of course, our view of these matters is skewed, as we usually only hear about cases where partnerships went wrong- not those matches where the couple ‘live happily ever after.’  We very occasionally get glimpses of these: human girls are quite often abducted to become fairy brides and every now and then we catch sight of them later on.  For example, in the Welsh story of Eilian, she is met again by the woman she worked for when the latter is called out as midwife to the fairy hill- only to discover that it is her former farm maid who is the mother brought to child bed.

Fairy Family Life

Admitting that we only tend to see the failed matches, what can we say about fairy parenting?  Probably the fairest conclusion is that fairies are just as good, and as bad, as husbands, wives and parents as humans.

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed to the court a decades long relationship with the fairy queen.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had enjoyed regular sexual contact with her and the couple had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.  These children were brought up by the mother, but at the same time Man was not entirely absent from their lives.

A reversal of this arrangement is seen with Katharine Jonesdochter of Shetland, tried for witchcraft in 1616.  She confessed to a forty-year affair with a fairy man whom she called ‘the bowman.’  He first came to her when she was a teenager (a “young lass” as she described herself) and they had a child together.  A relative recalled that she had seen “ane little creatour in hir awin hus amongst hir awin bairns quhom she callit the bowmanes bairn.”  In this case the child stayed with the (human) mother and the (fairy) father was seen once or twice a year- at Halloween and on Holy Cross Day (September 14th)- when he visited her for sex.

Both these cases seem to say more about gender roles in human and fairy society than they do about defaults or qualities of fairy-kind as mothers and fathers.  There is, of course, no reason to assume that males are any less loving toward their spouses and children than females.  For example, in the ballad Leesom Brand, the eponymous hero’s fairy wife and baby both die during child birth, but he is able to find magical means to revive them.

bowerley mermum and babe
Amelia Bowerley

All the same, an exception may have to be made for merfolk.  The folklore record indicates that they are very often wanting in basic familial instincts and make very poor parents indeed.  In the ballad of the Selkie of Sule Skerry, the selkie father has first of all made a woman pregnant and abandoned her; then he returns grudgingly upon hearing her complaints and gives her gold to ‘buy’ the child from her (what he calls a ‘nurse-fee’)- taking the boy away to raise him as a selkie in the sea.

In many stories, a mermaid is the parent as the result of being captured by a human male on the shore.  He has managed to find, and withhold from her, the seal skin or tail that she has shed temporarily, thereby preventing her from rejoining her people.  The mermaid is forced to become her captor’s wife and children inevitably follow over the succeeding years.  Eventually, one of those infants comes across the seal skin hidden somewhere on the farm and mentions the discovery to the mother- who without hesitation leaves immediately to return to the sea.

Whether male or female, therefore, merfolk generally set a poor example as parents.  The best that can be said for most mermaids is that they were akin to captives and unwilling partners, which may excuse (a little) their readiness to abandon their children.

There are, though, a couple of stories that are happy exceptions to this rather poor record.   The famous mermaid of Zennor took a human husband who (unusually) went to live with her beneath the sea.  We know the marriage appeared to thrive because, several years later, the skipper of a boat was hailed by the mermaid complaining that his anchor was blocking the door to her home, preventing her returning to her husband and their offspring or, in some accounts, preventing her taking her children to church.  From Orkney, we hear of Johnny Croy who managed to secure a mermaid wife by snatching her precious golden comb.  To win it back, she struck a bargain with him- that she would live with him on his farm for seven years and that he would then go with her to visit her family beneath the waves.  They had seven children together, and the entire family disappeared forever under the sea when the initial seven years were up.  The family bonds in these two cases seem strong and lasting, with the human husband prepared to give up his home and society in order to stay with his supernatural wife and children.

The Welsh lake maidens, the gwragedd annwn, also have a reputation for abandoning their husbands and families, although in these cases they would excuse themselves and blame the husbands for what happened.  They are wooed in conventional manner by the human males and consent freely to marriage, but conditions or taboos are always imposed which- just as predictably- are violated in time by their husbands.  These mothers are driven away from their families, therefore, they are not fleeing like the mermaids.

baby & Fs

Fairy Inheritance

As we might expect, having fairy parents or ancestors does have some benefits for the children.

John Rhys quotes in his Celtic Folklore from William Williams’ Observations on the Snowdon Mountains, of 1802, in which he discusses:

“A race of people inhabiting the districts about the foot of Snowdon, were formerly distinguished and known by the nickname of Pellings, which is not yet extinct. There are several persons and even families who are reputed to be descended from these people …. These children and their descendants, they say, were called Pellings, a word corrupted from their [faery] mother’s name, Penelope… there are still living several opulent and respectable people who are known to have sprung from the Pellings. The best blood in my own veins is this fairy’s.” (Rhys, vol.1, p.48, citing Williams pp.37-40)

Rhys also mentions several times people living in the Pennant Valley in North Wales who are noted for their very good looks- flax yellow hair and pale blue eyes- which are said to be derived from a fairy ancestor called Bella (vol.1, pp.96, 106, 108, 220 & 223; vol.2 p.668)

As well as physical charms, fairy parents can bestow significant gifts upon their part-human offspring.  The faery wife of Llyn y Fan Fach is a typical Welsh ‘lake maiden’ who is driven off by her husband’s violation of her taboos.  Nonetheless, she keeps in regular contact with her three sons, teaching them marvellous healing skills so that they become the famous physicians of Myddfai.  In the Tudor Ballad of Robin Goodfellow, Robin is the son of Oberon, fathered upon a maid to whom he took a fancy.  The father provides materially for his son’s upbringing (although he is absent) and, when the boy reaches his teens, Oberon comes to him and reveals his true nature and magical powers:

“King Oberon layes a scrole by him,

that he might understand

Whose sonne he was, and how hee’d grant

whatever he did demand:

To any forme that he did please

himselfe he would translate;

And how one day hee’d send for him

to see his fairy state.”

Finally, the offspring of matches with merfolk are generally readily identifiable.  There are accounts from the Scottish islands of children conceived with human fathers who have webs between their fingers and toes.  One mermaid mother tried to trim these away but they regrew repeatedly until a horny crust developed- a feature that is still be seen amongst some island people today and which can limit the manual tasks they can undertake.

Further Reading

I discuss other aspects of fairy families, childcare and healing in my recently published book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).  See too the discussion in my Faery Lifecycle, a complete study of faery anatomy and physiology.

faery-lifecycle-cover

‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’- John Keats’ greatest faery poem

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)
John Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1893

In one of the very first posts on this blog, I discussed the use of faeries in the verse of English poet John Keats (1795-1821).  Here I’m going to focus on one of his greatest poems, and one of the greatest fairy poems of all.  I want to examine its meaning and how it has inspired other works of art.

cowper, belle dame
Frank Cadogan Cowper, Belle Dame, 1926

Here’s the text of Keats’ poem, which was written in 1819:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
       And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
       With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
       Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
       And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
       And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
       And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
       A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
       And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
       ‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
       And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
       With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
       And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
       On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
       Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
       Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
       With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
       On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
       Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.

Henry Meynell Rheam, Belle Dame
Henry Meynell Rheam, La Belle Dame, 1901

Like many faery writers and painters, Keats immediately locates his poem in the past: we have a knight riding on horse-back- we know we’re in the Middle Ages, when faeries were much nearer to people than today (or so we always say- see my previous post on this perpetual relegation of the faes to the previous generation).  Simultaneously, the medieval context gives Keats’ verse an extra weight and authority.  He’s placing himself alongside Malory, Spenser and other poets who’ve written about faery themes, adding to the ‘authenticity’ of what he writes.

Walter_T._Crane_-_La_belle_Dame_Sans_Merci_(1865)
Walter Crane, La Belle Dame, 1865

Then we meet the faery woman- and she is everything that I’ve described in preceding posts on this blog: she’s beautiful, she’s sexually appealing, she’s also unearthly and deadly.  Instantly, it would seem, the knight falls under her spell: making garlands for her in most un-knightly fashion, bearing her on his horse and becoming obsessed entirely with her.  She sings to him- and this seems to be part of the spell that she works.  Her alien nature is betrayed by her every aspect: her strange speech, her songs, her wild looks.  Yet despite these warning signs, and the precipitate nature of their declared love for each other, the knight abandons caution and submits without resistance to her charms.

Dicksee La_Belle_Dam_Sans_Merci 1902
Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame, 1902

Two fateful incidents follow quickly.  Firstly, the knight eats the food the fairy woman prepares for him; as I have described, consumption of fairy food – and the partaking of fairy nature that comes with it- can often have dire consequences for the human.  Secondly, (although Keats is circumspect about this, given the date and style of his poem) the knight has sex with the fae woman in her ‘grot’- her cave or underground home.  He has doubly surrendered his body to her power now.

hughes, La belle dame sans merci
Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame, 1863

The consequence of the knight’s close contact with faery nature is serious.  He dreams his ‘latest,’ his last, dream and (it would seem) he finds himself no longer in the faery woman’s cave but abandoned and alone on a hillside-a common conclusion to stories of fairy encounters: the glamour evaporates and the human is left solitary and bewildered in the wilderness.  The knight sees visions of those who have before him fallen under the faery’s spell and he is warned- far too late- of the peril he was in.  These cautions are useless to him now, though: he is either ‘elf-addled‘- made sick by his intimate association with the faery- or he is, in fact, dead.  The others, certainly, are starved with gaping mouths, and the hapless knight is left ‘alone and palely loitering,’ looking fevered and haggard.  He cannot return to or settle back to his earthly life, he cannot escape the fairy woman’s ‘thrall.’  In this state of exile or alienation from his former condition, the knight closely resembles the fairy-abductee Kilmeny, of James Hogg’s nearly contemporary poem of the same name.  After her visit to Faery and her return to our world:

“But all the land were in fear and dread,
For they kendna [knew not] whether she was living or dead.
It wasna her hame, and she couldna remain;” (Hogg, Kilmeny1813)

Keats’ Belle Dame epitomises some of the aspects of Faery we often downplay.  It is common in folklore accounts to find faeries, and mermaids too, taking advantage of humans for their own benefit.  This can frequently have dire implications for the human involved, ranging from subjection to terminal decline; the best that might be said of these cases is that the outcome may not be intentional- the fairies’ solipsistic nature may simply fail to register the impact on the mortal party.  However, there are plenty of traditional examples of supernatural beings- ranging from boggarts and goblins through to kelpies- whose deliberate aim is to cause harm and injury.  Keats’ Belle Dame is one of these- we need look no further than the title of the poem to know this, of course: she is ‘sans merci,’ without mercy.

fishman bd2
Fishman. La Belle Dame

As the illustrations to this posting demonstrate, Keats’ poem has inspired successive generations of artists.  Two stages of the poem are illustrated: either the knight succumbing to the charms of the maiden, or the aftermath of his deadly seduction.  The version of this by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1959), an English painter often called the ‘last Pre-Raphaelite’ for his richly coloured historical and legendary paintings which regularly feature captivating, fay-like women, shows the faery maiden arranging her hair whilst the knight lies prostrate before her.  She looks wonderfully, callously unconcerned, sitting on the river bank in her glorious dress patterned with red poppies.  The blooming poppies that surround the couple suggest a possible origin for his unconsciousness.  Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920), depicts a similar scene, except that ghostly figures of previous victims are shown hovering behind the rather self-satisfied looking faery.  Other artists have focused instead the irresistible allure of the fairy maid, who seems superficially pretty and defenceless.  Frank Dicksee’s painting perhaps best encapsulates this first stage of the poem.  The fascination of Keats’ work persists even today, as we see from the two canvases by US based fantasy artist, Marc Fishman (b.1971).  He emphasises the dangerous sexual allure of the fae woman, with her gauzy, see-through gowns and her wild, perfumed, intoxicating hair.  Her emergence from a pool in the first of these also links her to the deadly meremaids I have discussed in the past.

Lastly, the Mediaeval Baebes have arranged the poem to music, in a haunting rendition (they have done the same too for Kilmeny,  and for the Scots ballad of Tam Lin for that matter).  For a more general discussion of fairy themes and iconography in nineteenth century poetry, see my recent book, Victorian Fairy VerseFor a detailed examination of the psychological and physical effects of faery contact, see my recently published Faery.

fishman belle dame
Fishman, La Belle Dame

The Pied Piper of Elfame: fairy abductions of children

paton-fact-and-fancy-such-tricks-hath-strong-imagination 1863
Noel Paton, Fact and Fancy, 1863

It is well known that fairies try to steal new born babies and that they leave changelings behind in their place.  Here, I want to examine the evidence for the abduction of children older than toddlers and how this is achieved.  Babies can be snatched from their cradles; how are less helpless juveniles abducted?

There seem to be three broad strategies employed by the fairies in taking infants.  They kidnap them, they trick them or they lure them away.  There are ample examples to illustrate all of these ploys.  It was believed that the fairies were always on the lookout for chances to abduct infants (see, for example, Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 150).

Muriel Dawson
Muriel Dawson, Welcome to Fairyland

Obviously, it is easiest to kidnap children if they come willingly.  It is perfectly possible to achieve this by friendly means.  In one Scottish example, a little girl used to regularly play with the faeries under the Hill of Tulach at Monzie.  One day they cut a lock of her hair and told her that next time she visited she would stay with them for ever.  Fortunately, the child told her mother what had happened and she immediately worked various charms and never let her daughter out to play again.  A boy from Borgue in Kirkcudbrightshire used regularly to make extended visits to the Good Folk underground in the same manner; he was protected by suspending a crucifix blessed by a Catholic priest around his neck.  Indeed, in one case from Orkney, a little girl so pestered the local trows with repeated visits to their underground homes that, in their irritation, they breathed on her and paralysed her for life.

The Scottish ballad of Leesom Brand fits with the friendly visit pattern of journey to Faery.  A boy aged ten finds his way to “an unco’ land where wind never blew and no cocks ever crew.”  There he meets with and falls for a woman who is only eleven inches tall.  It is at this point that this story takes a slightly uncomfortable turn.  Despite her small statute this lady was “often in bed with men I’m told” and the young boy, despite his tender years, is no exception; he gets her pregnant, too, and it is this scandal that forces them both the flee back to the human world.

girl with faes

Simply opening the door to a human child might be enough to tempt it in, then. More often, some additional inducement was necessary.  It might be nothing more than playing upon the child’s curiosity, as in the Welsh medieval case of Elidyr.  He had run away from home after an argument and had hidden for two days on a river bank.  Two little men then appeared to him and invited him to go with them to “a country full of delights and sports.”  That was all he required to persuade him to go with them.  Somewhat comparable is the tale of a boy from St. Allen in Cornwall who was led into a Faery by a lovely lady.  He first strayed into a wood following the sound of music and after much wandering feel asleep.  When he awoke, a beautiful woman was with him and guided him through fantastic palaces. Eventually he was found by searchers, once again asleep.  Fascinatingly, Evans Wentz has a modern version of the Elidyr story, told to him near Strata Florida (see Fairy Faith 148;  Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 86, ‘The Lost Child’).

Some children require more material temptation.  On the Isle of Man, a girl was walking over a bridge when three little men appeared to her and offered her a farthing to go with them.  She wisely refused, knowing that consent would place her in their power for ever.  In Northumberland, at Chathill Farm near Alnwick, there was a well-known fairy ring.  It was reputed that, if a child danced around it nine times, she or he would be in the fairies’ control.  To encourage children to do this, the fairies used to leave food and other gifts at the ring and parents, in response, would tie bags containing the age-old remedy of peony roots and seeds around their infants’ necks as a protection against fairy harm.  Elsewhere in the north of England, it has been reported that the fairies would leave out fairy butter as bait for children.

margetson, fairy captive
Hester Margetson

These inducements to stray start to merge into out and out tricks.  For example, a boy lost on Dartmoor was found by his mother seated under an oak tree known to be a pixie haunt.  He told her that “two bundles of rags” had led him away- evidently, pixies in disguise so as to attract his attention and lull his suspicions.  As soon as the lights of his mother’s lantern appeared, these rags vanished (Hunt, Popular Romances, 96).

The kidnap can be covered by means of a changeling put in the abductee’s place.  The son of a blacksmith on the island of Islay, aged fourteen, suddenly fell ill and wasted away.  It was revealed to the father that, in fact, he had been taken by the fairies and a changeling left behind.  This the father exposed with the trick of brewing in egg shells and then violently expelled.  However, he had then to go to the fairy knoll to recover his son rather than the boy being automatically returned (as is the usual practice).  He was working for the fairies there as a blacksmith, which may explain their reluctance to part with him.

f1

Some children are snatched without ceremony.  In one case from the Isle of Man a boy sent to a neighbour’s house to borrow some candles at night was chased on his way home by a small woman and boy.  He ran, but only just kept ahead of them, and when he was back at his home, he had lost the power of speech and his hands and feet were twisted awry.  He remained this way for a week.  This could almost be a changeling story (see Evans Wentz 132).

sarah stilwell weber water babies
Sarah Stilwell Weber, Water Babies

Waldron tells of a ten-year-old girl from Ballasalla on the Isle of Man who had a lucky escape from such a kidnap attempt.  Out on an errand one day, she was detained by a crowd of little men. Some grabbed hold of her and declared their intention to take her with them; others in the party objected to the idea.  A fight broke out amongst the fairies and, because she had incited this discord, they spanked her but let her get away.  The truth of her account was seen in the little red hand prints marking her buttocks.

I have assumed so far, naturally, that parents would not wish to see their offspring taken to fairyland.  One incident contradicts this.  A woman from Badenoch in the Highlands was given shelter overnight in a fairy hill but, the next morning, she had to promise to surrender her child to them so as to be set free.  She agreed, but was to visit her daughter in the hill.  After a while, with no sign of things changing, the infant complained that she had been abandoned by her mother.  The woman scolded the girl for suggesting this and the fairies ejected her from the hill and never allowed her in again.  This suggestion that fairy abduction might sometimes be a boon for the child is confirmed by another source.  The verse ‘The Shepherd’s Dream,’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England, reveals that changelings were taken from mothers who beat or otherwise abused their progeny.

Going with the fairies need not be prolonged nor unpleasant, fortunately.  Many stories indicate that children will be well cared for in Faery.  A game keeper and his wife lived at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor. This couple had two children, and one morning when the wife had dressed the eldest she let her run away to play while she dressed the baby. In due course, father and mother realised that the child had disappeared. They searched for days with help from their neighbours, and even bloodhounds, without finding her. One morning a little time later some young men went to pick nuts from a clump of trees near the keeper’s house, and at there they came suddenly on the child, undressed, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.

Ezio Anichini, Peter Pan

There are, therefore, many ways of luring children into fairyland- some are friendly and almost consensual, others are more underhand and forcible.  The child’s treatment once in Faery will also vary: some will be well cared for and treated as fairy playmates; others may find themselves put to work in menial roles.  I discuss all the many aspects of these abductions and how to avoid them in my recently published book Faery.  The abduction of children is just one aspect of the Darker Side of Faery, a subject explored in detail in my book of that title, published in 2021darker side.

The Perils of Fairy Passion- sex & power

Linda R 2
Fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

I have described in previous posts the widely known physical attractiveness of fairies.  In Stuart verse, for example, we find praise for “the matchless features of the Fairy Queen” and for her “gracious eyes.”

Fairy partners were extremely attractive, but love for a fairy could be portrayed as obsessive, something that caused the human to sicken and to pine, as we see from Robert Armin’s The Valiant Welshman (1615, Act II, scene 5):

“Oh, the intolerable paine that I suffer from the love of the fairy Queen!  My heeles are all kybde [bruised] in the very heate of my affection, that runnes down into my legges; methinks I could eat up a whole Baker’s shoppe at a meale, to be eased of this love.”

Fairies were desirable partners simply because of their physical beauty.  However, a fairy’s lover could hope for great favour still- and the lover of the fairy queen (the most beauteous of all her kind) would naturally be even more highly honoured and rewarded.  At the same time, though, these supernaturals could prove to be possessive and demanding lovers- and vengeful if they felt neglected or slighted.

The trade-off between sex and gain, passion and pain, was therefore a difficult one, as we see from both folklore record and from romantic fiction.

JohnSimmons_Titania_
John Simmons, ‘Titania’

The Scottish Evidence

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed a relationship with the fairy queen that involved both her worship (he and others assembled and kissed her “airrs” in reverence) but also regular sexual contact.  He said of her:

“the queen is very plesand, and wilbe auld and young quhen scho pleissis; scho mackis any king quhom she pleisis and leyis with any scho lykis.”

One of those whom the queen liked was Man.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had “conversit with hir bodily.” In other words, he ‘lay with her’ and, as a result of these “carnal dealings” they had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.

Over and above these numerous infants, Man had gained materially: he learned to diagnose and cure diseases in cattle and humans and he was taught charms to steal milk and corn, or to protect his neighbours’ fields against such fairy thefts.

Sex with a fairy often appears to have been the price (and the conduit) for supernatural powers.  Isobell Strathaquin, also from Aberdeen, was tried in the January of the previous year to Andro Man; she told the court that she acquired powers in this manner: she “learnit it at [from] ane elf man quha lay with hir.”

Elspeth Reoch of Orkney also gained the second sight from two fairy men, but it involved sexual harassment by one of them.  She told her 1616 trial that two men had approached her and called her “ane prettie” before giving her a charm to enable her to see the faes.  Later “ane farie man” called John Stewart came to her on two successive nights and ‘dealt with her,’ not allowing her to sleep and promising a “guidly fe” is she agreed to have sex with him.  She held out against his blandishments until the third night, when he touched her breast and them seemed to lie with her.  The next day she was struck dumb (in order to conceal the source of her prophetic powers) and had to wander the town and beg for her living, offering people the knowledge she received through her second sight.

Sometimes, it has to be admitted, boasting can come into these accounts.  Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn near Nairn, was tried as a witch in 1662.  During her confession she seems to mock or tease her accusers with her account of the huge proportions of the devil’s ‘member.’  They were pressing her for confessions and they got them, with Isobel all the while expressing her modesty and Christian timidity over describing such shocking acts.

Sex in the Stories

The exchange of sex and skill is common between fairy and mortal.  In the poem and ballads of the same name, Thomas of Erceldoune was relaxing outside in the sunshine one day when he was approached by the gorgeous fairy queen.  After some resistance, she consented to lie with him “And, as the story tellus ful right, Seven tymes be hir he lay.”  Thomas is moved to these prodigious feats by her physical desirability (and, no doubt, by his own youthful vigour) but there’s a price to pay.  Initially after intercourse, the queen loses her beauty and becomes a hideous hag; secondly, her looks and youth may only be restored by her lover agreeing to spend seven years in Faery.  Thomas seems to have very little choice about this and has to leave immediately- although on the plus side, his travelling companion is restored to her former loveliness.  Once there, the riches start to flow to Thomas.  He is elegantly clothed and lives a life of luxurious leisure; what’s more, at the end of his time in Faery, he is endowed by the queen with special abilities.  In some versions of the tale, he becomes a skilled harper; in others he gains second sight.

The romance of Sir Launfal is comparable for the trade off between sex and wealth.  The fairy lady Tryamour summons the young knight to her in a forest.  She is reclining semi-naked in the heat and offers him a rich feast, followed by a sleepless night of sex.  The next morning, though, the nature of their transaction becomes clear: she promises to visit him regularly in secret but there are two conditions: “no man alive schalle me se” and, even more onerous:

“thou makst no bost of me…

And, yf thou doost, y warny the before,

Alle my love thou hast forlore.”

Assenting to the terms, he is given fine clothes, horses, armour and attendants and returns to the court of King Arthur.  Before, he had been poor and of no account, but now he is rich and gains status and respect.

In due course (albeit for honourable reasons) Launfal discloses his secret lover.  As with fairy money, this indiscretion might normally be expected to lose him Tryamour’s affections instantly and irreparably, but in this case she comes to Arthur’s court and carries him off to faery forever.

Summary

Fairy love and fairy magical abilities may be bestowed upon the lucky human, but that good fortune is plainly qualified.  The gifts are in fact an exchange; there must be a surrender on the part of the mortal recipient, which may be the loss of some of their independence or which may require a complete abandonment of their home, friends and family.   Perhaps the prize of fairy love and fairy knowledge are worth paying highly for, but, in earlier times, the cost of the bargain often turned out to be excessive, for fairy contact could prove fatal if revealed to the church and state.

A Note on the Scottish Witch Cases

As I highlighted before in my discussion of Ronald Hutton’s book, The Witch, I still harbour reservations about using the testimony from the Scottish witch trials.  I say above that Isobel Gowdie was ‘pressed’ for incriminating evidence.  This was literally true: boards were placed on suspects’ legs and piled with rocks.  We have a record of one victim of this crying out for it to stop and agreeing to confess whatever the court wanted.

Once these individuals had fallen into the authorities’ hands, their fate was pretty much sealed.  The sentence that almost all faced was to be ‘wyrrit and burnit,’ which means that they were tied to a stake, strangled and then burned.  For Elspeth Reoch, for example (NB Orcadian readers!) she was taken to the top of Clay Loan in Kirkwall where there is still a small area of grass; several local women suffered the same horrible fate on this spot.  We know too that one woman leaped from the top of a high prison tower in Perth to avoid execution.

Faced with the same circumstances, you too might agree to say whatever your inquisitors wanted you to say if it ended the misery.  How much can we trust this evidence then?  My feeling is that, whilst these might not be personal experiences, they still reflect what society as a whole believed to be the structure and conduct of the fairy folk.  If it did not convince the torturers, they might not have accepted it.  These confessions reflect the wider understanding of Faery in those days and need not be dismissed out of hand as the individual fantasy of a person desperate to stop the torture.

Finally: I have quite often quoted from the confessions of these individuals.  Whenever you read their names, spare a thought for them.  The worst that most did was to try to cure people and livestock at a time when medicines and health care were hugely limited.  To most of us, I’m sure these hardly sound like crimes, let alone capital offences.

This 16th-century woodcut depicts King James VI at the North Berwick witch trials, the case that first sparked his obsession with hunting. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Witches examined before King James I/VI

Fairy Ballads and Rhymes

Ballads

Hot on the heels of Fayerieanother new book- this time, on the traditional British ballads and rhymes concerned with Faery.  In the course of writing Fayerie, I made particular use of the early modern English and Scots ballads, songs such as Young Tamlane, Thomas Rhymer and the Elfin Knight, and realised that there was no one book which brought together all of those lyrics concerned just with the supernatural.  Now there is.

Britain is rich in its heritage of traditional ballads, most of which date from the seventeenth century or earlier. Around twenty of these take fairies and fairyland as their primary theme. Accordingly, these songs are valuable sources of information on late medieval and early modern fairy beliefs. This new book provides an overview of fairy lore in the ballads, accompanied by edited texts for all the key lyrics, supplemented by notes that put each narrative in its wider context.

In addition, British traditional rhymes dealing with fairy-lore are collected together, along with a selection of verses and songs ascribed to the fairies themselves.  We are all familiar with little couplets like ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks;’ these little catchphrases stick in our memories, quite deliberately, because they were designed to do just that: children in particular needed to be alerted to the places in the landscape where dangerous fairies lurked and punchy little verses did the trick.  There are lots recorded but, once again, they have not before been collected together.  The same is true of the subject of the third chapter of the new book; this features songs and poems composed by fairies themselves.  Once again, bringing them together emphasises the degree to which verse is central to fairy discourse.  These texts are often overlooked as a body of literature in their own right, but this book takes the opportunity to focus upon them and what they can tell us about human and faery society.

The book is a companion to my other volumes of fae poetry, ‘Victorian Fairy Verse‘ and ‘Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.’  It reveals a world that is harsher than we might anticipate.  The book is available as a paperback or e-book through Amazon/KDP.

RGF