Puckwudgie and European influence

Recently I was researching another faery subject entirely when I was led to refer to the chapter on North American faery beings in Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook’s Magical Folk (2018). Peter Muise there describes the ‘Puritans and Pukwudgies’ of New England, arguing that the European invaders largely lost their own faery lore as they crossed the Atlantic, but discovered the rich supernatural world of Native American belief- which was slowly assimilated.

This isn’t the whole story, as two other chapters in Magical Folk make clear. Later Irish and Scottish settlers, especially in Atlantic Canada, did import their faery belief with them- and I know from my own reading of British sources that there are several Scottish stories that explicitly discuss Highland faes, such as the leannan sith and the bochan, who travel with emigrants to North America. It might be better to say that the English settlers were less likely to carry their faery folk with them- and Muise discussed why this might be so.

A second point concerns the pukwudgie/ puckwudgie. This spirit is now probably the best known of the North American ‘faeries’ and modern sightings seem to be on the increase, as Muise has described. However, as his chapter title indicates, most of this modern lore comes from New England, to which the pukwudgie is, strictly, a stranger. He is a spirit of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes area- not of New England, which had its own indigenous beings (which are known about and which survive- amongst the indigenous population still and, to a degree, amongst the offcomers). Various writers, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seem to have been responsible for popularising the pukwudgie and extending his range. Literary uses of faery lore often do this- spreading beings such as pixies and leprechauns far beyond their natural habitats and (arguably) obscuring the local differences.

Be that as it may (and you can read the chapter in Magical Folk, which is highly recommended for your book shelves) what struck me was the strong similarities between North American faery behaviour and that of the British faes. Here are a few examples, taken from Muise:

  • pukwudgies and other Algonquian spirits have magical powers and can shape shift or make themselves invisible;
  • they can act as wills of the wisp (often seen as balls of light) and lead people into swamps or over cliffs;
  • they have a nasty habit of pestering women and girls, luring them into forests where they seduce them. Once a human female has been involved with a faery male, she can never settle back into society and marry;
  • they shoot poisoned arrows at victims;
  • they are immortal– unless killed by humans;
  • their gaze can blight a person and cause the victim to sicken and die;
  • they can grant three wishes;
  • they have high pitched voices;
  • they steal human goods but can be appeased with gifts of food;
  • they don’t like to be talked about by humans and will take revenge if they know this has happened; and,
  • they are skilled in healing using herbs.

All these characteristics and habits can be found in British folklore. I have provided links to posts I’ve made in the past on exactly these subjects. Now, there seem to be two explanations for these remarkably close parallels. One is that faery temperament, physiology and powers are pretty much the same the whole world over. As such, we shouldn’t expect any real difference between a pukwudgie and a boggart, just as we wouldn’t dream of imagining there would be any differences (except of culture) between- say- an Inuit, a European and an aboriginal Australian. The other explanation is that there has- in fact- been a great deal more immigration of European faeries into North America than we realised. The least sign of this, perhaps, is the optional spelling of Puck-wudgie: does this reveal an almost unconscious identification between the pucks of the English midlands with the Ojibwe sprite?

This is a big subject and one in which I have too little knowledge to make pronouncements. Nevertheless, the similarities of supernatural behaviour are notable and demand examination and explanation. Perhaps all North American faery survivals have really been crossbred with British faes from East Anglia and the South West, with the faery population being swamped and colonised just as much as the aboriginal possessors, or perhaps they’re really all one race, despite superficial differences, just as humans are.

The pukwudgie by Kitty-Grim on Deviant Art

Final trivia fact: I got to thinking about this after I came across the 1972 song ‘Puckwudgie‘ by cor-blimey Cockney comedian of the 1950s and ’60s, Charlie Drake. British readers of a certain age may recall Charlie from comedy specials and black and white films shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; I never anticipated a faery link, but there you go. I might well say the same of David Bowie- yet we have The Laughing Gnome to contend with. That- and Drake’s song- bear strong similarities.

Still Ill? Diseases caused by faeries

babies

I have described in other posts the various ways in which the faeries can prejudice human health. Here, I want to draw these together and add details of a few other illnesses ascribed to the supernatural causes.

Fairy Blights

The fairies blight and debilitate in a variety of ways.  Overall, medical practitioners recognised that a patient might suffer from being “haunted by fairies” and that she or he might have been “stricken with some ill spirit.” (John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches, 1646, 49).  These malign attentions might manifest in various ways, depending upon the exact causes.  People might sicken and fade away, having been shot with elf-arrows; they might display similar but much more sudden symptoms after abduction and they might fall victim to paralysis.

In the Scottish Highlands, if a fairy breathed upon a person, they might be covered in huge blisters. A lesser version of these symptoms, the rash called ‘hives,’ was known in the region as the ‘fairy-pox’ or a’ bhreac-sith.  

Fairy Nips

The fairies are well known for their pinching, and severe and persistent symptoms of this were treated as a condition in its own right.  In his attack on the idea of witchcraft, A Candle in the Dark, which was written in 1655, Thomas Ady noted that:

“There are often found in Women with Childe certain spots black and blew, as if they were pinched or beaten, which some ignorant people call Fairy Nips.”

Another book of 1672, a satirical attack on Catholicism, mentions the stigmata and sneers that,  although one priest does not bear the holy marks, “he may have fairy nips, which are as bad.”

In 1671, playwright Henry Carey hinted in the epilogue to his play, The Generous Enemies, at a belief that even greater harm might be suffered by younger victims of this condition:

“like children, just alive,/ Pinched by the fairies, never after thrive.”

On Shetland, there was a condition known as ‘dead man’s nip’ which manifested as a small discoloured spot somewhere on a person’s body. It could be healed by the application of churchyard earth or by brushing with a bible.  This seems very likely to be a northerly version of the English illness, not least because fairies and the dead are often intimately associated, and most especially so in Scotland.

Elf-Cakes

Enlargement of the spleen was also believed to have been inflicted by vengeful fairies.  Thomas Lupton in 1579 made reference to “hardnes of the syde, called the Elfe-cake.” Herbalist William Langham in his 1597 book The Garden of Health prescribed certain ‘simples’ to “heale elfe cake and the hardnesses of the side.”  In these cases the word ‘cake’ seems to be used in the sense of a congealed mass, rather as in ‘cake of soap.’

Cures

Very fortunately, as I have described several times, the fairies often supply the cure as frequently as they inflict a blight.  The remedies to fairy illness are as numerous as the illnesses they cause, ranging from using belts and girdles to cure to the many herbal treatments I have described.

For further information on sickness and healing, see chapters 12 and 13 of my Faery (2020).  see too my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side

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.  

The faery personality- and their relations with humans

ovenden evil fairy
EnEvil fairy by Graham Ovenden

“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk/ Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine/ Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles/ But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.” (Henry Terrell,  The wee folk of Menteith, p.46)

Some months ago I posted about my personal views of the nature and conduct of fairy-kind.  I’d like to say a little more about my view of their general character and interaction with human kind, as I think it will inform an understanding of my own approach to the subject in these postings.

All things nice?

I’ve written in the past about certain modern, cute manifestations of fairy kind: Santa’s elves for example and the Tooth Fairy.  As those of you who read these comments will no doubt have detected, I have little time for such sugary figures.  I have an affection for the flower fairy art of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant, and even (sometimes) the plump cuddly creations of Mabel Lucy Atwell, but my own conception of their identity and activities is very different.

The genre of imagery shown below is part of our problem with fairies: because of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors, we have come to see them as cuddly and sweet and ideally suited to little girls.  This is a gross underestimation and misconception.  Perhaps Graham Ovenden’s painting at the head of this post is most appropriate: there’s beauty, but there’s something beneath, in that distracted self-absorbed look.

Attwelll Changeling
Mabel Lucy Attwell, The Changeling.Enter a caption

A darker view?

My view of Faery is rather darker and I’d summarise their main personality traits as follows.  I’ll use some characters from my own books to illustrate these convictions, or preconceptions (or prejudices!) of mine:

  • the fairies are a serious and scary people.  I don’t conceive of them as small, either physically or in their activities.  This will be apparent from my postings on this site and from all my fictional creations, but most strongly, perhaps, in the person of Maeve in Albion awake!  I’d hesitate to antagonise or patronise her: I may have imagined her as smaller of stature, but there’s no doubting her formidable determination;
  • they can’t be taken for granted and must be treated with all due respect and caution.  Their good will can’t be bought;
  • their resemblance to us should not be mistaken for affinity.  They may look like us physically, but they are unlike us and any resemblance should not put us off our guard;
  • they are strong and independent.  They have their own agenda and their own rules by which they live.  We shouldn’t presume to know their plans or to have much hope of changing them;
  • they are reserved and won’t reveal themselves readily;
  • they are content to live separately from us- indeed, they would prefer to do so- but sometimes necessity obliges them to make contact.  We should not imagine that they want to ‘help’ us or that they ‘love’ humankind.  To my mind that sort of attitude tends towards complacency and overconfidence.  In Albion awake!, for example, main character John Bullen is permitted to call upon Maeve’s assistance in times of great need, but no more.  That doesn’t inhibit her in appearing in his flat whenever she has need to make use of him, though; and that’s the core of the human/fairy interaction, to my mind.  They make use of us and they may grant us the occasional favour, but there is an notable imbalance of power.  In my novel The elder queen the fairies (‘the sky children’) show kindness to Darren Carter, but I’d probably conceive that as pity for the shambling wreck that he makes of his life towards the midpoint of the book- he’s drug addicted, divorced and indebted, homeless and jobless.  He’s an object of their charity; there’s a good deal of condescension but little of the equality of friends.

Key to the fairy character is their mutability.  How a particular individual human may be treated seems often to be a matter of whim; a fay’s mood is seldom predictable.  (I’d argue that this apparent lack of consistency may be more to do with our ignorance of their habits and thinking than any waywardness on their part).  Possible interactions with humans therefore cover a complete spectrum from good to bad.  The fairy may be:

  • evasive and secretive- or at the very least indifferent.  Whether this arises from fear of humankind, or contempt for mortals, is debatable;
  • generous and helpful.  Certain favourites may, inexplicably, be adopted and given regular gifts of money or valuable skills or rewards (such as a never ending supply of flour or beer);
  • even-handed and scrupulously fair.  Sometimes faes will ask to borrow some household item or provision; they will always return it and, if a food stuff has been loaned, they will insist upon a full and equivalent restitution, and occasionally more than that;
  • cruel and spiteful.  A human may deserve their bad treatment, possibly because of some conceived slight to or neglect of the fairies; alternatively, there may be little explanation for the maltreatment dished out- other than it amuses the faeries.

The last category of interaction is naturally the most concerning, as it can be unheralded and undeserved torment- sometimes culminating in death.  If I’m being cautious in my advice on approaches to fairies, I would always advise that you proceed on the assumption that the response you will get may be a rebuff or worse.  If I was asked to summarise the most negative aspects of faery character, I would say that they were exploitative.  Humankind are very often viewed as a resource, something to be used.  They may take our foodstuffs, they may make use of our possessions or occupy our homes.  Parasitic might be an even harsher adjective.  Fairy-kind can bake, churn, spin, forge metals and all the rest; but why labour when people have done the work already?  In this frame of mind, we can interpret changeling children as cuckoos: why look after the weak and infirm when you can take a healthy infant and leave the really hard care to a human?

Further reading

I expand upon many of these traits in my other postings and in my 2017 book British fairies.  My general advice, though, would always be to approach our Good Neighbours with great caution: if they are friendly and bountiful, count your blessings and enjoy your good luck (keeping it strictly secret).  If they do not seem approachable, accept it and keep a respectful distance.  Don’t pester, don’t expect, don’t assume.  Don’t mix up smaller size and beautiful looks with cuteness and harmlessness; as I titled a previous post- not all nymphs are nice.

My forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn Worldwide, will delve even further into the complex nature of the fae personality.

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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Anglo-Saxon elves

alf

The Norse universe- showing Alfheim where the elves live

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

Sources

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

Norse Alfheim

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

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

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

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

Elf shot

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

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

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

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Elves in a fairy knoll

Common elvish traits

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

I have considered the early medieval fairy lore of Wales and the fairies of post-Norman England in other posts.

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