‘An Ill Wind’- Faery Paralysis and Other Blights

Sleigh- Phylis & Demoophoon, Phantastes
Bernard SleighPhyllis & Demoophoon

People can be rendered completely incapable of movement by the fairies.  This is generally inflicted as some sort of punishment and can be a short-term measure to remedy a temporary problem- or a long-term state, which is indicative of a completely different state of affairs.  Long lasting paralysis is often a sign of fairy abduction.

Frozen on the Spot

A lazy, drunken farm labourer from the Cotswold area of England sneaked away from the harvest work in the fields to drink beer in the sun.  He chose a small mound with a hawthorn growing on top as comfortable spot and settled down to relax.  However, a crowd of small green beings appeared in front of him.  Despite his fear, he found he was completely unable to move.  After a while, they disappeared and he recovered the use of his limbs; he needed a drink, but found that all the beer in his flask had also disappeared.

It seems very clear from this account that the shirker had chosen a fairy hill to laze upon.  The incident might simply be a case of the fairies stealing alcohol because they fancied their own binge, but it seems more likely that this is an incident of a trespass being punished and- at the same time- a human being chastened for infringing the fairies’ moral code.  Whilst the story doesn’t say it explicitly, I reckon we may infer that the shock was such that the man rarely drank afterwards.

Incursion upon the fairies’ reserved places seems constantly to be the cause of cases of paralysis.  A farmer of Ffridd Uchaf was returning from Beddgelert fair in Snowdonia. He saw a company of fairies dancing and, whilst he lay in hiding watching them, he fell asleep. As he slumbered, they bound him so tightly that he could not move, after which they covered him over with a veil of gossamer, so that nobody would see him in case he cried out for help. As the man did not return home, his family made a thorough search for him, but in vain. Fortunately, about the same time the next night the fairies returned and freed him and, a little while later, he awoke after sleeping a whole night and a day. He had no idea where he was, and wandered about on the slopes of the Gader and near the Gors Fawr until he heard a cock crow, when he finally realised he was less than a quarter of a mile from his home.  This case is comparable to the story of ‘Miser on the Gump at St Just.’  An old man set out one moonlit night to Woon Gumpus, near the village of St Just, where he had heard that the fairies assembled and where he thought he might be able to steal some fairy treasure.  The whole fairy court emerged from under ground for a feast and the man hoped to steal some of their gold and silver plates.  He was so preoccupied with the precious metals that he neglected to notice that he had been surrounded by spriggans.  They threw hundreds of tiny ropes around him and pulled him to the ground, where he was pinched and stung by the entire fairy multitude.  At dawn they vanished, leaving him bound with cobwebs on the open moor.

A man who unwittingly stumbled upon a fairy market on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset was mishandled in a similar way. He tried to ride through the crowd of fairies gathered around the numerous stalls and was “crowded and thrust, as when one passes through a throng of people… He found himself in pain and so hastened home; where, being arrived, lameness seized him all on one side, which continued with him as long as he lived, which was for many years…” Although the writer here, Richard Bovet, calls it ‘lameness,’ it seems apparent that the man suffered some sort of paralysis on one side of his body (Pandaemonium 207).

Our last example comes from Torrington in North Devon.  One day at the very beginning of June, 1890, a man was working in a wood.  At the end of the day he separated from his companions to collect a tool he had left nearby.  On bending down to pick it up, a strange feeling came over him; he was unable to move and he heard pixies laughing.  He realised he was at their mercy.  When he had not returned home by ten o’clock that night, his wife became very alarmed and went out to look for him.  She met the man emerging from the wood, soaked to the skin.  He explained he had been held under the pixies’ spell for nearly five hours, capable only of crawling along on his hands and knees.  It was dark and he had no idea where he was, as a result of which he fell into a stream, which broke the spell.  The wood was apparently known for pixie-leading, although this is not really the right term for the man’s experience, which was much more akin to a paralysis.

Several features unite these cases: an action which somehow incurs fairy displeasure and their sanction, which is a loss of bodily function that may vary in terms of its extent and/ or duration.  I have called this fairy paralysis; our forebears seem to have called it something else- ‘fairy blast.’

soper spell
Eileen Soper, The Spell That Went Wrong

Fairy Blast

Roughly speaking, there are two main ways in which the fairies make humans sick.  One is to shoot us with arrows (elf-shot), which leaves the victim elf-struck (suffering from a stroke).  The other is to blast them with an ‘ill-wind’- a condition also sometimes called the evil eye.

The condition was recognised in England, and was often termed ‘the Faerie’ but it is from Scotland that we have the better records of the illness and its cure. The evidence mainly comes from the trial of women suspected of being ‘witches,’ although in reality what they had usually been involved in was folk healing, using herbs, of the sickness caused by fairies and witches.  For example, Jonet Andersone of Stirling was tried in 1621: using a shirt worn by the patient and an iron knife, she had diagnosed that the illness had come from ‘a blast of ill wind.’  Likewise, Janet Boyman of Edinburgh told a mother than her child had been blasted with an evil wind by the fairies when they found it in its cradle, unblessed by the mother and therefore unprotected from faery malignity.

In 1662 Jonet Morrisone of Bute was tried for witchcraft.  Amongst the evidence against her was an incident where she had told a man that his daughter was paralysed and unable to speak because of “blasting with the faryes,” something she cured with herbs.  She had treated at least two others in the same way.  Janet Trall of Perth treated a baby that had got “a dint of evil wind” by bathing the infant with water from a south-flowing well.   I’ve discussed before the crucial role of water in curing fairy illness and in cures provided to us by the fairies.

On Shetland and Orkney, the trows were also said to cause identical illnesses. The islanders said that an ‘ill wind’ in the face could lead to languor, stupor and loss of appetite.

There were two explanations as to how blasting happened.  Healer Catie Watson of Stow explained in 1630 that people were “blasted with the breath of the fairy.”  Jonet Morisone, though, said that “blasting is a whirlwind that the fayries raise about that persone quhich they intend to wrong and that, tho’ there were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot him quhom they were set for.”  She went on to explain that the effect of the wind gathered in one place in the body and, unless treated in a timely manner, would cause the victim to ‘shirpe’ (shrivel) away.   Janet Boyman in 1572 expanded a little on this: the purpose of the blasting was, in her opinion, to enable the fairies (the “sillyie wychts” as she called them) to abduct the victim.  She saw blasting as part of a longer term strategy, therefore, rather than as an immediate response to some offence.

Some close contact was evidently necessary for the blast to be inflicted.  I’ll end this discussion with a mention of a Highland Scottish belief that cattle could be paralysed by the so-called ‘fairy mouse.’  The luch-sith was the name for the shrew and it was believed that its presence in pastures could lead to livestock being struck down with the marcachd sith, (fairy riding), a paralysis of the spine brought on by the shrew running across the backs of the cattle when they lay down.

For more on this aspect of the faery character, see my 2021 book The Darker Side of Faery:

Silence is golden- in Faery

fairy song

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Song

Speechless

On this blog I’ve many times returned to what is, for me, the fascinating subject of fairy speech.  As I’ve described previously, we expect to be able to communicate with our Good Neighbours and, most of the time, this happens without comment.  From time to time, however, the incomprehensibility of the fairy tongue is remarked upon.  We may draw several conclusions form this: either that they share- and have always shared- our speech with us, or that close proximity with us over centuries has made them bilingual- even though they may naturally, amongst themselves, speak another language entirely.  British fairies have been heard to speak English, Gaelic, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon as well as wholly unknown tongues: according to one Scottish witch suspect, Anne Cairns (tried and executed at Dumfries in April 1659), the ‘fferie’ were “not earthen folkis” and so spoke “no earthly talkis” but rather conversed with “ane eldridge voyce.”

a fairy song (2)

Rackham, Fairy song.

Silence is golden?

In this post I take a different tack: that contact with the fairies can require- or lead to- loss of one’s voice.  From this perspective, silence is the result of being near the fays or it is the safest option when they are near.

Elspeth Reoch was a young Orkney woman tried for witchcraft in March 1616.  She told her prosecutors that she had been in contact with the fairies on and off since she was twelve years old.  There is much that is interesting in her confessions, but here we are interested solely in the fact that she lost her voice after she had sex with one of two fairy men who approached her; this was to protect her against people’s questions as to how she had gained the second sight.  Elspeth lay with him and when she woke the next morning, she had “no power of her toung and could not speik.”

Diane Purkiss provides a full account of the case, along with considerable sociological and psychological theorising about Elspeth’s situation, in her book Troublesome Things.  It looks as though Elspeth derived some income from begging as a mute and from telling fortunes, but that her own family were angry about her silence and allowed her brother to beat her quite severely to try to get her to speak.  Purkiss’ speculations over gender roles and power may be justified, but let’s put Elspeth’s loss of voice in a wider context.

Barbara Bowndie of Kirkwall on Orkney was taken by the fairies for a day.  She told her trial in 1644 that this experience left her speechless for a further twenty four hours- as well it might.  Janet Morrison, a suspect witch from Bute, told her trial in 1662 that she had healed a girl who had been blasted by the ‘faryes.’  The child, daughter of a man called McPherson, was lying “without power of hand or foot and speechless.” Janet made her well with herbs.  In both these cases, loss of use of the tongue is the consequence of fairy proximity- whether deliberately inflicted or not; it is one symptom of being ‘elf-addled‘.

John Stewart, tried for sorcery at Irvine in 1618, had acquired knowledge of palmistry from the fairies whilst in Ireland.  One Halloween, he had met the king of faery and his court.  The king had touched John on his forehead with his staff (wand), which had the effect of blinding him in one eye and making him dumb.  Three years later he met the king again one Halloween and his sight and speech were restored.  He then met the fays regularly and acquired his skills from them.

Silence might also be enjoined upon a person meeting the fays.  The Reverend Robert Kirk stated that the “subterraneans [would] practice sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their mysteries.”  Any humans who had spent time with the faes under the hill might be “smit… without pain as with a puff of wind… or they strick them dumb.”  Bessie Dunlop is a very famous witch suspect, tried at Lyne in 1576.  Once again, her confessions are a rich and fascinating source, but I am interested only in one aspect.  A fairyman (or ghost) called Thom Read was her supernatural adviser, helping her with cures for sick people and cattle and locating lost and stolen goods.  On one occasion, Thom introduced her to twelve handsome fairy folk; before they met Thom forbade her to speak to them.  The ‘guid wichtis’ as Bessie called them greeted her and invited her to go with them to Faery/ Elfame.  As instructed, she did not reply and then they conferred amongst themselves- she didn’t know what they said “onlie sche saw thair lippis move.”  This suggests that they were audible when addressing her directly but when speaking privately amongst themselves they were inaudible, whether that was deliberate or just a feature of fairy speech.

It’s worth pointing out that in several modern cases witnesses have reported an identical experience: they see the fays speaking but they hear nothing (for example, see Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.48, 89 & 299).  In this connection too, we should note the scattered but consistent reports on telepathic communication, in which the barriers of the spoken word are overcome entirely (Johnson pp.20, 80, 89, 111, 163 & 262).

A woman of Rousay in Orkney, whose child was taken by the trows, was instructed how to recover her infant by force.  She had to break into the fairy lair, snatch back her baby and hit the fairy woman who’d abducted it with a bible, three times.  Throughout this encounter, not a word was to be spoken, otherwise the rescue would fail.

Finally, on certain other occasions Bessie Dunlop saw Thom Reid in public- in the street and in the churchyard- but had been enjoined not to speak to him.  She had been instructed that, on such occasions, she must never address him unless he had spoken to her first.  This may be as much to do with concealment as with matters of confidentiality or communication between dimensions, it has to be remarked.

It may be significant too that speech can be a way of dispelling fairy enchantment.  Those who are pixie-led or in the process of being taken by the fays can sometimes break the spell by crying out for help.  For example, a Manx woman who was surrounded on the road and jostled in a direction she didn’t want to go managed to free herself by calling her son (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith p.126).

Struck dumb?

Lastly, the fairies could also help with curing loss of speech.  Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried for witchcraft in May 1658, was a folk healer who diagnosed and treated a man whose tongue had been ‘taken’ by the fairies.  She advised him to use foxglove leaves and water taken from a south-running stream.  Likewise, the parson of Warlingham in Surrey during the 16th or 17th century made a manuscript collection of medicines and cures that were “taught him by the Fayries.”  One of these was for loss of speech: “take wormwood, stamp it, temper it with water, strain it and out a spoonful in the mouth.”

Conclusions & further reading

So, to conclude, we have tantalising glimpses of a fresh perspective on the fairy world.  Loss of speech may well be an integral part of that condition called ‘fairy blast,’ being ‘taken’ by the fairies or what I’ve termed ‘elf-addled.’  It may also be something that’s imposed or inflicted upon a person who has dealings with the fairies so as to ensure that their privacy is protected.

My other postings on this general subject include: That Strange Tongue, on fairy names and speech; A Hidden Tongue– fairy song and speech and Fairy Language.  

Fairy cures and potions

I have previously paid some attention to fairy healing, but I’ve recently gathered together a range of evidence on the types of cures and medicines that people have got from the fairies and it made sense to sort and arrange these to give a you a full idea of the sorts of methods and ingredients used.

There are a number of key elements or procedures regularly found in the cures, which are as follows.

Herbs

As a primarily rural people, it is far from surprising that the fays tend to use commonly found plants to make their potions.  Frequently we’re only told that ‘herbs’ were used, made into drinks and salves, but sometimes we are given more detail than just reading that they were “divers green herbs” which doesn’t help much at all.  Suspected witch, Isobel Stirling, used rowan in her cures; Elspeth Reoch used yarrow to cure nosebleeds; Bessie Dunlop was given something like the root of a beet by her fairy adviser and was told to cook it and make it into a salve or dry it and powder it.  Katherine Cragie was tried on Orkney in 1643 for both curing and inflicting illnesses; she treated those stricken by the trows with an application of foxglove leaves (the plant was called ‘Trowis Glove’ on Orkney at this time; it is not a practice to be imitated given the toxicity of the plant).  Nonetheless, Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried in May 1658, also treated a dumb man with foxglove leaves in water from a south running stream.  Isobel Haldane of Perth was tried in 1623 for making charms, a skill she claimed to have been taught by the fairies.  She attempted to drive out a ‘shargie bairn’ (a changeling) using a drink made from ‘sochsterrie’ leaves (possibly star-grass); the infant died (which may or may not have been a successful cure). Lastly, in 1716, Farquhar Ferguson of Arran was tried before a church court for practising charms: one of his medicinal drinks was made from agrimony.

A range of illnesses would be treated with herbs.  For such maladies as “ane evill blast of wind” or being “elf-grippit” (having a fairy attack or seizure) Bessie Dunlop had a variety of cures.  She would mix assorted herbs together to feed to sick cattle; illnesses in people might be cured by ointments or by powders (which were presumably ingested); during her examination in court she added that if the patient “sweated out” the treatment, they would not recover.  Just like Bessie, Jonet Morrisone from the isle of Bute healed a little girl who’d been ‘blasted with the faryes’ using herbs.  Rather like Bessie, too, she told the court at her trial in 1662 that treatment in time should guarantee recovery, but if she was consulted too late, the patient might still “shirpe” (shrivel or wither) away.

Alesoun Peirsoun treated the Bishop of St Andrews for trembling fever, palpitations, weakness in the joints and the flux with a herbal ointment which she rubbed into his cheeks, neck, breast, stomach and side.  Alesoun had spent seven years visiting the faery court in Elfame and had seen the ‘good neighbours’ making their salves in pans over fires, using herbs they had picked before sunrise.

Herbs seemed to do more than cure illness in livestock and people, though.  Janet Weir of Edinburgh told her trial in April 1670 that her fairy helper, a woman who would intercede on Janet’s behalf with the fairy queen, also gave her a piece of tree or herb root which allowed her to “doe what she should desyre.”

A Visit to the Witch 1882 | Edward Frederick Brewtnall | oil painting
Edward Frederick Brewtnall, A visit to the witch

Food

The herbal remedies just discussed as often hard to separate from those involving food stuffs, some everyday ingredients, others rather more expensive and harder to come by.  For instance, Alesoun Peirsoun also treated the Bishop with a medicinal broth made from ewe’s milk, wood-ruff and other herbs, claret and the liquor of boiled hen, which he had to drink over two successive days- a quart at a time.  Bessie Dunlop made a similar preparation.  She was approached for help by a young gentlewoman who suffered from ‘cold blood’ and fainting fits, for which she prescribed a potion made from ginger, cloves, aniseed and liquorice mixed in strong ale and taken with sugar in the mornings before eating.  Margaret Dicksone of Pencaitland used eggs and meal to drive out a changeling- perhaps more of a charm than a cure, just as was the case with the aforementioned Elspeth Reoch.  She acquired the second sight by means of boiling an egg on three successive Sundays and using the ‘sweat’ that formed on the egg to wash her hands and then rub on her eyes.

The vicar of Warlingham in Surrey in the early seventeenth century recorded a range of cures that had apparently been taught to him “by the fayries.”  Some of them involved the shedding and use of blood (quite common in magical remedies), others used food and herbs together.  For example:

  • To cure boils, blotches and carbuncles, take the ripe berries of ivy growing on a north facing wall, dry them, powder them and then give as much as will cover a groat coin in a glass of wine. The patient should be rubbed til they sweat and then put to bed in fresh sheets and clothes.  They will be well by morning;
  • To make a tooth fall out- mix wheat meal with spurge and put the paste in the hollow of the tooth. Given that spurge sap is acidic, this would certainly have had some sort of effect; and,
  • For those who are forespoken or bewitched- take three sprigs of rosemary, two comfrey leaves, half a handful of succory, half a handful of thyme and three sprigs of herb grace. Seethe these in a quart of water taken from a stream and then strain.  Flavour with nutmeg, ginger, mace and sugar and drink warm, followed by five almonds.

Water

I’ve discussed before how water can have magical properties. For example, from Shetland there come several accounts of trows using ‘kapps’ (wooden bowls) to pour water over patients during healing ceremonies.  The implement and the liquid were both important apparently (Saxby, Shetland traditional lore, p.151).

This is very often seen in the fairy-taught healing procedures.  Margaret Alexander from Livingstone used well water combined with charms to cure sick people.  Likewise, Isobel Haldane, who lived in Perthshire, took water from wells and burns and in it washed the shirts of her patients.   A woman called Jonet Boyman from Edinburgh would also diagnose sickness using a patient’s shirt, taking it to a well on Arthur’s Seat just outside the city.  Jonet had first acquired her healing skills by going to the well and raising a whirlwind, from which emerged a fairy man who taught her.

Earlier I mentioned Jonnet Miller, from Kirkcudbright, and it’s worth repeating here that one of her remedies (at least) required water taken from a stream that ran southwards.  Stein Maltman of Stirling told his 1628 trial that he made several different uses of water in his cures.  He boiled elf-shot in water from a south flowing stream and either had a patient drink it or bathe in it; in another case he had a man bathe himself in such a stream having first diagnosed his illness by reciting charms over one of the man’s shirts. Margaret Dicksone, mentioned just now, also treated a suspected changeling child by washing it- and its shirt- in a south-flowing stream.

Rituals and other items

Our last category involves a mixture of odd materials that were considered to have medicinal effect.  Catharine Caray from Orkney diagnosed and cured the sick using thread, charms and stones to cure physical and spiritual illnesses. For example, the thread might be tied on with an invocation of the holy trinity and the words “’bone to bone, synnew to synnew, and flesche to flesche, and bluid to bluid.”  Threads, often red in colour, were regularly used to protect cattle and children from fairy attacks.  Bessie Dunlop, for example, was given a green silk thread by her fairy helper, Thom Reid, with which she assisted women in childbirth.

Suspected witch Andro Man was tried at Aberdeen in 1598.  He used several methods to cure animals: he hit them with birds but he also employed salt and black wool.  A sick man was cured by passing him nine times through a length of yarn, and then transferring the illness from that to a cat.  He would invoke St John and use other holy words in Latin borrowed from Catholic liturgy; he stopped oxen from running away using ‘lax water’ (possibly water from a salmon stream or in which salmon had been cooked).  Lastly, he protected fields of corn by placing four stones at each corner.

Treatment by passing patients through hanks of yarn was also practised by Isobel Haldane, by Janet Trall from near Perth- who then cut up the yarn into nine parts and buried it in three different places- and by Thomas Geace of Fife, who burned the yarn afterwards.  I assume that this has some relation to the use of girdles in diagnosing sickness.

Stein Maltman, mentioned in the last section, had learned his healing skills from the “fairie folk,” whom he often saw, and they supplied him with a repertoire of cures.  He rubbed some patients with elf-shot; over others he waved a drawn sword, on the basis that the naked iron would scare the malignant fairies away; finally he advised some of those who consulted him to return to the spots where they felt they had picked up their infections, there to pray for healing.

waterhouse_destiny

J M W Waterhouse, Destiny

For more on faery medicines and cures, see the discussion in my ‘Faery Lifecycle’ (2021):

Fairy healers? Some further thoughts on Ronald Hutton’s ‘The witch.’

High_fairy_healer_mR4

High Fairy Healer, from the card game Rage of Bahamut

In his new book, The witch, Ronald Hutton argues for a close link between local cunning folk (what he prefers to call ‘service magicians’ who assist their local communities) and the fairies, who frequently taught these individuals their healing powers.  He cites numerous examples, most of witch come from Scottish witch trials (there is only a handful of English examples).

The evidence of fairy healing

As I have mentioned when discussing  witches and fairies, I am troubled by the fact that this evidence is from one very unique source or environment.  What is the folklore evidence of fairy healing other than that linked to witchcraft?  There seems to be very little.  I can think of only a handful of instances even remotely resembling what the accused healers described:

  • in Layamon’s Brut the elf queen Argante takes the wounded Arthur to Avalon to heal him- and the same history describes how elves bestowed upon Arthur the gifts of good luck and other qualities at his birth (acting as the original fairy god-mothers);
  • there are a couple of stories from Shetland of the healing abilities of the trows.  One relates an incident when they were seen treating a jaundiced trow infant by pouring water over it- a human stole the bowl used and was able then to cure jaundice in humans.  In another story ointment is stolen from the trows which proves efficacious for any human injury.  What is particularly notable about these accounts is that they are almost unique in describing fairies succumbing to illnesses and curing themselves;
  • the Welsh tale of the fairy wife of Llyn y Fan Fach follows the usual course of such tales.  The gwrag annwn is persuaded to marry a human male, but eventually he violates the conditions of their betrothal and she abandons him.  However, in this particular instance, she maintains regular contact with her three sons, to whom she teaches healing skills.  They became  the renowned physicians of Myddfai;
  • in the Cornish story of the old man of Cury, the hero of the title rescues a mermaid stranded by the tide.  In gratitude for carrying her back to the sea, the mermaid offers to give him any three things he cares to request.  He asked, not for wealth, but for the abilities to charm away sickness, to break the spells of witchcraft, and to discover thieves and restore stolen property;
  • in the ballad of The son of the knight of green vesture a cow herd is visited by a fairy maid and is offered various magical objects, each in exchange for a cow. He swaps one of his kine for a jewel that heals sores;
  • as I have discussed when examining  gifts from the fairies, there are a few sites around Britain which are associated with fairies and healing- wells and standing stones and such like.  For example, the ‘Hob Hole’ on the North Yorkshire coast was said to be inhabited by a ‘hob’ who could cure whooping cough if asked; the fairies’ ‘dripping cave’ at Craig-a-Chowie in Ross-shire could cure deafness.  A particularly interesting story attaches to the Fairies Well near Blackpool (from Spence, The fairy tradition in Britain, p.156).  The water of the well was known locally to be good for the treatment of weak eyes.  A mother whose daughter’s eyesight seemed to be failing went to the well to fill a bottle.  There she met a small green man who gave her a box of ointment to apply to the child.  Before treating her daughter, the mother put some of the salve on her own eye, without ill-effect.  She therefore applied it to the girl, who was cured.  So far, this is a happy tale of a benevolent fairy bestowing his healing power out of pure goodwill.  However, there is a sequel.  Some time later, the mother saw the same little man at the market.  She thanked him for the cure; he was angry and demanded to know with which eye she saw him.  She was promptly blinded, as happens in all such stories of midwives and wet nurses.  It appears, therefore, that her offence was to apply the ointment to anyone but the person for whom it was intended;
  • in the French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, which was only translated in English in the later sixteenth century, there is a reference to a healing horn given to fairy king Oberon by four fairy ‘godmothers.’  Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly; and,
  • much later Scottish sources describe the sidh folk giving certain craft and musical skills to favoured humans (see Evans-Wentz for the examples of this).

And that’s pretty much it.  There is some evidence of magical healing powers, therefore, but next to none of passing on these abilities to humans.  If we take out the literary instances, we have a very sparse list indeed: we are left with the ointment from Blackpool, the Cornish tale concerning a mermaid rather than a fairy and the story of the fairy mother teaching her children at Myddfai (all of which have unique elements to them) along with the examples of healing at wells and caves (none of which contain any suggestion that the resident sprite ever showed any inclination to pass on its knowledge of cures). Usually, fairies are associated with harming humans, with blighting livestock and with bringing ill-fortune (see too chapter 20 of my British fairies).

The witch trials

The other notable feature of the witch cases is that the healing power claimed to have been acquired from the fairies was frequently specifically an ability to cure fairy blights. Unlike the range of ills cured by fairy wells and such like, the fairies only passed on remedies to harm caused by their own actions.  This is odd, not to say traitorous, behaviour on the fairies’ part.  Once again it makes me suncomfortable about these claims.  Why then was it that the suspect witches mentioned this beneficial gift?

There are 23 cases of witchcraft listed by Hutton.  Of these half involve claims by the healers of fairy teaching.  He notes too that about 80% of the defendants are women.  He speculates whether women were more likely to identify with supernatural helpers, whether they were more likely to be taken to court or whether they were most likely to be local magicians.  We cannot answer these questions, sadly.  It is notable that these cases peaked in the early modern period and were in decline by the eighteenth century, by which time magicians were believed to learn not from the fairies but from books and from the masters.

There were incontestably ‘wise wives’ in Scotland, dynion hysbys in Wales and ‘cunning folk’ in England who acted generally as healers within their communities and who sometimes offered to treat those who had been ‘blasted’ or blighted by the fairies (or whose livestock had).  It is far from apparent to what extent these individuals claimed to have acquired their abilities or treatments as the result of some special compact with ‘the good neighbours.’

Looking at the cases themselves, it is striking that, as well as claiming supernaturally derived knowledge, the alleged witches also often gave accounts of being visited in their homes by fairies (sometimes even by the fairy queen herself) or, alternatively, they might visit the fairies under their hills.  These contacts often occurred at night and they not infrequently led to long term sexual relationships.  In these regular and deliberate contacts, the witchcraft suspects were unusually honoured.  The witch cases may be abnormal because of the insistence by the human partner upon these regular and intimate contacts over an extended period.  I wonder, in fact, if this may indicate something significant about this handful of defendants.

Fairy healing- faith or fear?

It seems to me that there may be two explanations for the statements made by the suspected witches.  The first may be that there was something distinctive about the individual claimants themselves.  They have departed from fairy-lore conventions in making themselves ‘stars of the show’ by claiming these special associations.  Might they have ended up under arrest and accused by their neighbours because they had a tendency to boast, even because they had some sort of mental health problem that attracted attention in their villages and small towns?  Claims of fairy favour and love might equally have been a way of claiming some sort of status in their communities and, as noted, most of the accused were women who may well have felt economically and socially disadvantaged within the strictures of a strictly Presbyterian, hierarchical and patriarchal society.

As stated, these cases are at odds with the overall trend of recorded fairy belief, which ought to make us cautious about the claims.  Given that our ‘good neighbours’ were known for their proclivity for afflicting humans, it was presumably not a great leap of imagination to propose that, with the proper propitiations and knowledge, the fairies could help take off those curses.  It is interesting, too, that only a few ventured to lay claim to such powers; they constitute a minority of a minority, from whose accounts it may not be safe to conclude that it was widely believed that fairies passed on whatever medical skills they possessed to humankind.

The explanation outlined in the last couple of paragraphs may at least explain some of the elaboration in these accounts.  My second proposed explanation for the claims to fairy-taught powers is a great deal simpler and may be far more probable.  Many of the cures used by these healers (drinking water in which ‘elf-arrows’ had been immersed, magic circles, use of metal blades) were very far from new; they can be traced right back to Anglo-Saxon cures for elf afflictions.  They appear therefore to be traditional cures handed down over generations.  If this is correct, the accused witches plainly learned their craft from someone else- a relative or skilled teacher.  Alleging that the fairies taught them their knowledge protected the real, living sources of their remedies.   Once they were in the hands of the authorities, the accused probably realised that their prospects of acquittal were limited; what could be more understandable then than to try to protect family members and others from the same fate?  The fairies were never going to be arrested and burned.  This may be a far better explanation of these anomalous claims.

Further reading

I still highly recommend The Witch for its survey of witch lore and fairy lore over the last millennium.  I have returned to the theme of fairy cures in a much later post, looking at the actual plants and practices used.

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