Faery Charms- Magical Deeds and Words

‘I saw the banshee flying, wild in the Wind of March…’ Florence Susan Harrison, 1912

I recently described how we can use a variety of substances and objects as charms against fairies.  In this posting, I look at how some actions and words can have a like effect.

Some of the effective actions will be familiar to readers from wider magical practice.  For example, drawing a circle around yourself- especially if an iron or steel point is used to do this- will guard an individual from a range of harms, including malign fairies  Making the sign of the Christian cross is widely believed to be effective in the same manner as, of course, are Christian prayers or the invocation of holy names, typically the trinity, but also individual saints.

Some actions are less explicable.  For example, there is a very peculiar (and frustratingly incomplete) account recorded in Charles Rogers Social Life in Scotland (1886).  He describes how the fairies abducted the wife of the miller of Menstrie but how, when riddling meal one day at the door of his barn, he stood in a particular stance or posture that had the effect of breaking the spell and recovering his spouse.  Rogers doesn’t expand on this, leaving us desperate for details.

More typically, it was forms of words that were effective against the faes (over and above simply blessing yourself and calling on god).  Volume III of Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs) of 1900 contains a range of spoken charms that offer protection against fairies.  Many of these are addressed to individual saints, including as Brigit, Mary, Michael, Peter, James, John and Columba.  Their assistance is sought either against generalised perils or to help with specific threats.

For example, on waking in the morning you can pray to “Ward off the bane of the fairy women” (these ban sith were plainly seen as a persistent danger, as several prayers are concerned with them); the fairies of the knolls (siodach nan cnoc) are also mentioned.  The sith folk as a whole were seen as especially threatening on Thursdays (when a blessing could be intoned against them) and at the time of death, when a person might prayer to be shielded against the evil of the fairies (bho arrais nan sidh). 

More precisely identified risks include fairy arrows or darts (which are mentioned in several prayers) and the fairy host or sluagh.  One notably vivid prayer to Brigit seeks her blessing to ensure that:

“No seed of the fairy host shall lift me,

Nor seed of airy host shall lift me.”

“Cha tog siodach mi

Cha tog sluagach mi”

As well as people, household items and equipment might be protected, as in this blessing for a loom against gruagachs and fairy women: “Bho gach gruagach is ban-sith.”

William Mackenzie also recorded Gaelic Incantations that he heard on the Hebrides before 1895.  He came across a charm against injuries to the spleen and liver by fairies as well as more comprehensive charms guarding against the ‘nine slender fairies’ (‘s air naoi bean seang sithe) or against a more pervasive malign fairy influence:

“We repudiate their evil tricks,

(May) their back be to us,

May their face be from us,

Through merit of the passion and death of our saviour.”

The Mona Miscellany of 1873 records a very similar incantation from the Isle of Man that was to be said at night to protect a home from fairy incursions:

“The peace of God and the peace of man,

The peace of God on Columb Killey,

On each window and each door,

And on every hole admitting moonlight,

And on the place of my rest

And the peace of God on myself.”

Directly comparable to this is a grace that was recorded from a resident of Skye, Farquhar Beaton, during the 1840s, when he was one hundred years old.  Nightly he prayed for protection for the old and young, wives and children, sheep and cattle against the ‘power and dominion of the fairies’ (o churnhach agus cheannas nan sithichean).  Some might perhaps question the credulity of the people saying such prayers, but as Beaton himself said- “My own two eyes beheld them; my own two ears heard them” (Mo dhu shuil fein a chunnaic iad; mo dha chluas fein a chual iad.)  He’d seen the threat and he was taking no chances…

One thing to bear in mind with all of these charms, I am sure, is the need to repeat them in the exact form in which they have been formulated.  The Isle of Man also supplies a very good example of this, which is to be found in Dora Broome’s Fairy Tales of the Isle of Man.  A man wanted to find a fynoderee to help cure his sickly cow and his wife told him a charm to repeat to lure one out of a tree and into his power:

“Fynoderee, fynoderee

Come down, for I can see.”

The being would then follow the husband anywhere, but she warned him to cross himself three times immediately afterwards, for fear of butcheragh (witchcraft, or bad magic).  Of course, the husband forgot the gesture to go with the words, and bad luck followed: his cow recovered, but it then disappeared along with the fynoderee- and all the other animals and birds living on the farm.

A fynoderee, after Brian Froud

For more on protections against faeries, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021). My Manx Faeries examines the fynoderee and other beings from the Isle of Man in more detail.

Beyond Faery VII- Hags- and other horrid harpies

This posting is the last on the subject of my new book Beyond Faery.

Amongst the broad class of ‘faery beasts’ there is a clear category of female monsters, creatures we often label as hags. The dividing lines between hags, giantesses and witches are not always very clear and many of the Highland Scottish ‘hobgoblins,’ the gruagach, glaistig and uruisg, are primarily encountered as large, violent and unsightly females. In similar fashion, the dividing line between ‘hags’ and banshees is not exact- an important point to bear in mind when we realise that banshee (bean sith) means nothing more than ‘fairy woman.’ Likewise, the closely related bean nighe is nothing more or less than a ‘washer woman.’

In Scotland the best known ‘hag’ is the cailleach, a word generally glossed as ‘witch.’ For example, on the hills over Glendaruel there is a large stone called the cailleach-bhear, the ‘huge hag,’ which is said really to be a woman who herds cattle on the uplands. She has been described as the thunder personified; when she is angry she causes floods and, if cattle go missing during storms, it is because she has stolen them.

The banshee is best known popularly for singing at the time of a death. In the Scottish Highlands, this was particularly the role of the female being called the caointeach (the keener) but the bean nighe often marked impending death by washing the clothes or shrouds of those foredoomed to perish. Indicative of the combined, and complex, nature of these traditions is the Cowie of Goranberry Tower in Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders. This male being bore all the hallmarks of a broonie (brownie) in that he got in peat for the fires, herded the sheep, harvested the grain, cut up wood, spun wool and ground corn. However, if he lamented, it was the sign of an imminent death in the family.

All the examples given so far are Scottish, but the Isle of Man had its own cailleach, known as the Caillagh ny Groamagh who was linked (like the Scottish one) to bad weather and the changing seasons. Wales too had its own versions of the hags and the banshees (the latter being called the cyhyraeth). The latter would be encountered first as a fierce rushing sound in the air, followed by a shriek that was so loud and appalling that listeners might be thrown to the ground. The cyhyraeth‘s cry presages an imminent death and the sound is heard to travel from the doomed individual’s home to the place of burial. In addition, the creature is often heard in advance of bad weather and it cries out three times, each quieter than the last, dwindling to a death rattle. An encounter with the cyhyraeth recounted in the Carmarthen Journal during September 1831 described a woman with black, dishevelled hair, deeply furrowed cheeks and corpse-like skin, loose lips, long, black fangs and horrible gashes on her body. In a manner reminiscent of the bean-nighe, she splashed her hands in a stream and wailed for her husband. Understandably, the witness fainted away in terror.

Another Welsh type of hag is the gwrach y rhibin, a being in the form of an immense and very hideous girl. The name has been explained as meaning ‘the hag of the dribble,’ the dribble being a trail of stones that she releases from the apron in which she carries them. She had coarse, bright red hair, sharp cheeks, a pointed nose and chin and just a few long and jagged teeth. She would appear suddenly to people at crossroads or at sharp turns in paths, howling horribly “Woe is me!” She might also appear outside the home of a sick person, calling their name. Her presence foretold the death either of the witness or of a relative of that unfortunate person. The former was an especially likely outcome, because her sudden appearance could either give the person a fatal shock or drive them mad with fear.

Another description of this ‘queen of terrors’ describes her as tall and yellow-skinned with a few front teeth that are one foot long and hair that sweeps the ground. She uses her teeth to dig graves for her victims and her hair to brush the earth back into the hole.

Britain is well supplied by hideous and terrifying female spirits. The examples cited here are cases I’ve turned up since I finished writing the text of Beyond Faery. More detailed and lengthy treatments will be found in the book, which is now available from all good book sellers etc.

Exploring the Faery List in the ‘Denham Tracts’

 

nut fairy
Brian Froud, ‘Nut Fairy’

Michael Aislabie Denham (1801-1859) was an English merchant and collector of folklore.  In the early part of his life he conducted his business in Hull; later he set up as a general merchant at Piercebridge, Co. Durham.  He collected all sorts of local lore- sayings, songs and folktales- much of which he self-published.  After his death many of his works were collected together and republished by the newly established Folklore Society as ‘The Denham Tracts.’

Denham recorded many valuable scraps of material.  One of the most fascinating, found in the second volume of the Tracts, is this list of fairies and evil spirits.  He drew upon a list already compiled by Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), perhaps supplementing this with another list found in George Gascoigne’s play The Buggbears (1565), and then adding many additional terms of his own, to produce this encyclopaedic inventory.

“Grose observes, too, that those born on Christmas Day cannot see spirits; which is another incontrovertible fact. What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hob- goblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubusses, spoorns, men-in- the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, knockers, elves, raw- heads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprats, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yett-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag- foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraithes, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gally-beggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars’ lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, buggaboes, kows or cowes, nickies, nacks, [necks] waiths, miffies, buckles, gholes, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy -carlins [Gyre-carling], pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricanns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sjlvans, succubuses, black-men, shadows, banshees, lian-banshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sybils, nick-nevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and cross-roads, were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit! [See Literary Gazette, December 1848, p.849]”

This is a daunting catalogue, impressive (intimidating even) in its length and detail, and a little depressing in the sense that so many of the names now seem unfamiliar.  It’s clear how very rich the British fairy tradition once was, and how much has been lost in the last two hundred years.

Names We Know

In this discussion, I’d like to try to edit and order Denham’s rambling, and sometimes repetitive, list.  It’s possible, I think, to bring a greater sense of organisation to this jumble of names, the result of which will be (I believe) a clearer sense of the nature of British fairydom.  I’ll start by rejecting the words we know perfectly well, like brownies, hobgoblins and dobbies, Robin Goodfellow and puck (and puckle), knockers, pixies, elves/ ouphs, urchins, gnomes, changelings, dwarfs and the trows of Shetland and Orkney.   All of these have already had plentiful discussion on this blog.

Words I’ll Ignore

I’ll also reject foreign and/or classical material: the satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, lars, tritons, centaurs, and nymphs; the continental kobolds, korrigans, foletti, and trolls; the Irish leprechauns and clurichauns.  There are also a number of general magical or spirit related terms included that we can safely ignore: calcars (calkers or conjurors), sybils, wizards and witches.  Quite a few names for the devil have been excluded, too, such as mahound (a medieval derivation from Mohammed) and tantarrabob, and I’ve passed over a range of words that seem to denote demons or evil spirits, such as imp, spurn/ spoorn, Tom-tumbler, miffies, freiths and freits and mares (as in nightmares).

There is a class of ghostly or ghoulish being included in the list that doesn’t really belong with faeries and goblins.  These are the fetches, the spirit or double of a dying person, which are also called swaithes, wraithes, waffs, waiths and dopplegangers.  Although there is a definite crossover between apparitions of the dead and the Faery, these entities are distinct from faeries.  Denham’s thrummy-caps, and corpse lights or candles, belong in this category too.  The death-hearses and hell-wains are what we’d call headless coachmen today, I think, although it’s worth noting in passing that ‘Hellwain’ was used as the name of a witch’s familiar by Christopher Middleton in his play The Witch (Act I, scene 2), in a speech by Hecate which makes direct allusion to the notorious trial of the withes of St Osyth in Essex in 1582.  Other familiars invoked in this scene are Puckle and Robin (see the previous paragraph) and Pidgen, who strongly echoes the fairy Pigwiggen in Drayton’s Nymphidia.

Other ghost-like apparitions include scrags, break-necks, spectres, sprats (spirits or sprites) and kitty-witches.  With these I have also included the northern ‘silkies’ and ‘cauld-lads’, although in fact these ghost-like beings can be hybrid creatures, possessing several of the characteristics of brownies as well as sometimes acting as a guardian in spirit or, conversely, as a bogle.  The best known silky is that of Black Heddon in Northumberland and the most famous Cauld Lad was found at Hilton in the same county.

Denham also included in his inventory the names of supernatural creatures that very evidently aren’t fairies.  There are giants, but also snapdragons, and fire-drakes.  Fire-breathing serpents plainly don’t have any place in Faery.

A few final odds and ends remain.  Denham’s word ‘tutgot’ is not a noun, but an adjective- it means someone who has been seized or possessed by a ‘tut,’ a sort of Lincolnshire goblin.  ‘Chittiface’ means baby-faced; perhaps it was a sort of nursery bogie; the ‘gringe’ possibly is related to ‘grinch,’ which means a small thing- another small fiend perhaps.  A hudskin is a foolish or clownish fellow (in the Lincolnshire dialect); perhaps it’s in the list for the same reason that madcaps and patches were included.  A clabbernapper appears to be nothing more than a gossip; a ‘scrat’ is a Northern dialect term for a hermaphrodite.  From these last entries, it looks as though he also included some insults or derogatory terms.

This pruning performed, we can then start to sort out the list that remains.  Pre-industrial Britain was teeming with supernatural beings as we can tell, and Denham was possibly right to pity the person who possessed the second sight and who would have been afflicted by visions of hosts of faeries and goblins on all sides.  In particular, Denham mentions that those born at Christmas would have had this ability: other days or times of day are also auspicious, such as Sundays or early in the morning.

bogey
Arthur Rackham, ‘A Bogey’

Boggarts and Bogles

There is a large number of goblin-like beings listed, whose main attribute will be terrifying travellers and those visiting certain locations.  Sir Walter Scott characterised these creatures very well as “freakish spirit[s], who delight rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them.”  They include boggles, bugbears, boggy-boes, boggleboes, bogies, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, boguests, buckles, buggaboes, black-bugs, cutties (female bogles, from Scotland and the Border region), hobhoulards, tints, hodge-pokers, alholds, swarths and black-men (dark entities), mormos, dudmen and scar-bugs.  One thing that Denham’s enumeration emphasises is the fact that the element ‘bug’ or ‘bogey’ is particularly applied to these beings- and not just in English, but in Welsh, Gaelic and many other Indo-European languages as well.  What we can’t be certain about is how very different these many sprites may have been: Denham has indiscriminately thrown together names taken from all over Britain.  Many are very local, meaning that many fewer actual types of bogey may have been identified by our ancestors than this long tally suggests.

Needless to say, the terminology is also not scientifically precise.  For example, Denham’s ‘flay-boggarts’ are really a sort of domesticated spirit like a brownie or hobgoblin.  They are boggarts, whom we would normally regard as unfriendly, but they live and work on farms like brownies, receiving food and drink in return for their considerable labours.  Their willingness to undertake the hardest chores, such as threshing grain, is reflected in the name: the ‘flay-boggart’ is one with a flail, at work in the barn.

Another special category of boggart may be the phantasmal beasts that appear to terrify users of the highway or near certain landmarks such as churches.  Amongst these are the numerous black dogs, barguests, old-shocks, pad-foots, pictrees and brags, shag-foals, kows or cowes, gytrashes, grants, gallytrots and gally-beggars. These creatures will appear at night in the form of hounds, calves, cows, donkeys, horses and large shaggy dark beasts of uncertain genus.

The black hounds just mentioned need to be distinguished from those types of hound that fly through the air and often foretell or mark a death. These include Denham’s Gabriel-hounds, yett-hounds and hell-hounds.

Wills of the Wisp

The phenomenon of the spirit light or ignis fatuus that leads people out of their way at night, getting them lost or luring them into bogs, is well-known across Britain and has attracted a variety of colourful local names.  Denham uncovered many of these: hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, kit-a-can-sticks, Jinny-burnt-tails, Jack-in-the-Wads, friars’ lanthorns, Meg-with-the-wads, hob-and-lanthorns, spunks and Jemmy-burties.

Shellycoat_alan_lee
Alan Lee, ‘Shellycoat’

Nursery and Cautionary Sprites

As I recently discussed in my post on Jenny Greenteeth, these creatures exist mainly to scare incautious or recalcitrant children into behaving better and/ or staying away from perilous places such as ponds and riverbanks.  They include bloody-bones, raw-heads, Tom-pokers, hob-headlesses, mum-pokers, bonelesses and tod-lowries.  Some of these sprites guard orchards and nut groves, amongst whom we reckon the melch-dicks and colt-pixies.

Denham enumerates quite a few fresh water spirits, living in rivers and pools.  These include nisses and nixies, Peg-powlers, nickies and nacks.  In this connection he quotes a verse from Keightley’s Fairy Mythology:

“Know you the nixies, gay and fair?

Their eyes are black, and green their hair,

They lurk in sedgy waters.”

The ‘white women’ he mentions frequently are spirits believed to be female that haunt springs and wells.

Scottish Sprites

There are some Scots beings in the list, such as the hags nick-nevin and the gyre carlin.  Scottish Highland creatures also appear, which include kelpies, shellycoats (a Lowland fresh-water bogle), banshees and lhiannan-shees (the fairy lovers).  This more sexual sort of supernatural also includes the incubus and succubus.

redcap
Redcap, by Alan Lee

Named Types

There are lastly, some individually named fairy types who deserve a little separate mention:

  • Dunnies are is a small brownie-like beings found on the Scottish borders, and especially in Northumberland. The most famous is the Hazlerigg Dunnie which has been known to take the form of a horse in order to trick a rider into mounting him, before galloping off and tipping the horseman in a bog. The dunnie is also said to disguise itself as a plough-horse, only to vanish when the ploughman takes him into the stable;
  • Men-in-the-oak– there are scattered traditional references to this class of faery being. Whether they are a separate class, or just an alternative name for faeries found living in oak woods, is not clear.  The ‘pucks’ were known to have frequented such forests, for example (see my Fairy Ballads), but more recently the oak-men have emerged as an independent fairy tribe, as in Beatrix Potter’s Fairy Caravan (1929);
  • Redcaps– wearing a red cap is a tell-tale sign of a faery across the British Isles, but Denham was probably thinking here of the ‘redcap’ of the Scottish Borders, a malevolent goblin said to dye its headwear in the blood of its victims;
  • Tom-thumbs– in the seventeenth century Tom Thumb was a small elf well-known to people in ballads and rhymes. Since then, he has been caught up by romance and fairy-tale and has lost almost all his supernatural nature.  See my discussion of this in Fayerie;
  • Hobbits– Denham gives us a fascinating and isolated mention of these beings. We know nothing more about them from British tradition, but a sharp-eyed young professor spotted the word at some point during the 1920s, and the rest is history…; and,
  • Redmen: these are small, solitary elves of Northamptonshire, often found living near wells or in dells. If caught, he can lead his captor to his hidden hoard of gold.

Denham’s list is a disorganised heap of names but, as can be seen, with a little effort it can be organised to reveal the richness of British faerylore and the many and varied categories of fairy being that have been recognised, with their different habitats and habits.  Although confirmation probably wasn’t wanting, all of this only goes to underline how complex British Faery is.  One of the Manx witnesses interviewed by Evans Wentz, John Davies of Ballasalla, told him that “There are as many kinds of fairies as populations in our world.”  Even when it has been edited and ordered, Denham’s list demonstrates how right Davies was.

Further Reading

I explore all of these further in my books Faery and (especially) in Beyond Faery (forthcoming) which examines in detail the full range of faery beasts, goblins and hags.

 

 

 

Look to the future: fairy prophesy

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

We are very familiar with fairies’ magical powers of creating glamour and, to a lesser extent, of shape-shifting, but they also have more oracular or psychic abilities.  They can detect lost or hidden items and they have the ability to see into the future and, if they wish, to make this knowledge known to humans.  For example, the Brownie of Castle Lachlan of Stralachan in Argyllshire was known for his prophetic powers.  The Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.

There are several ways in which prognostications might be revealed to humankind.

Actions disclose fate to clan or village

Firstly, the foreknowledge might be disclosed to a family, a household or a community by the fairy’s actions.  For instance, the glaistig of Island House on Tiree, was known to begin to work extra hard in advance of the arrival of unexpected visitors.  This additional effort alerted the household to advent of likely guests.

Another example of this kind of warning comes from those fays whose actions would foretell a death or tragedy.  The Scottish banshee and the related caointeach (keener) and bean-nighe are well known for this well known for this.  By their howls, or by washing winding sheets in rivers, they signify imminent death, but they are not alone.  The Ell Maid of Dunstaffnage Castle would cry out to warn of impending joy, or woe; on the Borders the powrie or dunter haunted old peel towers and made a noise like the pounding of flax or grain.  When this was louder than usual, or went on for longer, it was a sure sign of coming death or misfortune.

In South Wales the Reverend Edmund Jones reported related activities.  A man in a field in Carmarthenshire saw a fairy funeral procession pass by, singing psalms.  Soon afterwards a human funeral followed exactly the same route in the same manner.  At Aberystruth in about 1770 two men mowing in a field saw a marriage company processing by; another man passing at the same time saw nothing even though he was actually seen to meet with the wedding party.  The event turned out to presage the death of the third man’s employer and the marriage of his daughter.

froud bean nighe

Brain Froud, The bean-nighe

Actions reveal to individuals

Elsewhere the Reverend Jones wrote that the fairies “infallibly knew when a person was going to die.”  It follows from this that sometimes, rather than a general warning of a coming death, the fairies would appear to the victim him or herself.  Jones gives examples of this.  A man was travelling near Abertillery when he heard people talking.  He paused to listen, then heard the sound of a tree falling and a moan.  It soon transpired that what he had witnessed was the fairies predicting his own death by a fall from a tree.  In a very similar account, Jones described a young man at Hafod-y-dafel who saw a procession headed for the church.  Walking with the fairies were a child and a young adult male who suddenly vanished.  This proved to be a premonition: first the witness’ child fell ill and died; then he too sickened and passed away.

A very similar story is told in Lancashire.  Two men encountered a fairy funeral taking place at the church of St Mary near Penwortham Wood.  The fays were dressed in black and carrying a tiny coffin containing a doll like corpse which looked exactly like one of the two witnesses.  This man reached out to try to touch one of the mourners, causing the apparition instantly to vanish.  Within a month, he fell from a haystack and was killed.

Love foretold

As well as predicting individuals’ deaths, the fays could more happily disclose their future spouses to them.  The best example of this is the Borders brownie called Kilmoulis.  This being lived in mills by the grain kilns; on Halloween they would foretell love.  If a person threw a ball of thread into a pot and then started to rewind it into another ball, a point would come near the end of the yarn when Kilmoulis would hold on and stop the winding.  If you then asked “who holds?”, the brownie would name your spouse to be.  In East Yorkshire, some ‘fairy stones’ stood near Burdale (near Malton) and it was said that if a person visited these during the full moon, they would glimpse their future partner.

Conclusion

It seems that, living in two dimensions, the fairies have access to knowledge that is unavailable to mortals.  They can see through the material world and through time as it’s perceived by us to bring us knowledge we might not wish to acquire.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

Traditional material in the Fairy Census

Cottingley harebell posie Elsie

Elsie Wright presented with a posy of harebells

The Fairy Investigation Society‘s recent Fairy Census, published in January this year and covering 2014-2017, is a fascinating snapshot of contemporary perceptions of the fairy realm.  As I have already discussed, there is much that is new in modern fairy sightings, but there is also much that seems to come straight from traditional folklore sources, mixed up with the more contemporary and anomalous experiences.  There are quite a few experiences which would be very familiar to our ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although the examples of each are all quite limited in number.

The sorts of aspects of Faery I’m discussing here tend to be those that sit less well with the benign image of fays that has become so prevalent now.  Here are a few examples:

  • Hiding or moving things– the mischievous removal or concealment of personal possessions, often keys or jewellery, was reported a few times;
  • Pixie-led– in a second manifestation of fairy mischief, there was a handful of cases in which individuals found themselves lost or going in circles in a familiar place or within a small area where the exits were nearby and clear;
  • Abductions– in only ten cases (1% of the total) there seemed to have been an attempt to abduct a person (half involved adults and half children). Several times a strong feeling of compulsion was reported, often tempered by a sense of fear- even in situations where the fairies’ conduct was not in itself threatening: for example, they seemed to be dancing or playing;
  • Time distortion– it’s well known that time can pass very differently in Faery and this was mentioned in several reports. Most often hours were lost or unaccounted for.  Memorably, one witness described the sensation as “time felt twisty” (no.225);
  • Music– traditional accounts very frequently link music and dancing with fairy sightings. In the Census music was heard in only 11% of cases.  In half of these bells the music came from bells, although sounds like pipes, voices and drums were also reported.  Six of the witnesses compared what they heard to Irish or ‘Celtic’ music. As regular readers may recall, ceol sidhe is an especially Irish phenomenon;
  • Dancing– once the commonest pastime of our good neighbours, this was mentioned but in only 3% of the modern cases;
  • Conventional terms were often resorted to as a frame of reference or as a label for what the person experienced. Mention is quite often made in the Census of pixies, dryads, elves, gnomes, dwarves, leprechauns, brownies and goblins.  The traditional dress associated with these were reasonably common too- clothes of green, red and brown and caps, quite often pointed.  The most interesting of these accepted fairy ‘types’ were the four mentions of ‘banshees.’  The being’s hollow, mourning cry was what provoked the identification; in two of the cases, a death was felt to be directly related to the premonition; and,
  • Fairy temperament– many contemporary writers describe faes as kind, friendly and helpful- full of good will to humans and to the natural world. The older idea of fairy character was generally a lot darker and echoes of this are to be found in some of the Census cases.  Witnesses sensed anger, hostility and even outright malice in about 3% of cases; they felt fear in 6%.  In one instance in the Census- and one in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies– there was an impression that the fairy was mocking the human for some reason (Census no.475; Johnson p.24).  Balancing these negative emotions, there were also a few reports in which the human sensed the fairy’s interest or curiosity in them or what they were doing.

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Elsie Wright again

The Census therefore presents us with an intriguing combination of traditional and wholly novel elements.  Only a few of the encounters involve interaction, so that the majority are descriptions of brief sightings (frequently of flying beings).  Nevertheless we come away with the impression that fairy encounters are an evolving body of law, with new perceptions or reactions added to the older understandings.

See too my posting on who believes in fairies for some further discussion of the Census statistics and their breakdown by age and gender.

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