Regular readers of the blog will have noticed that, over the last few years, I have frequently made use of faery examples from the Isle of Man (although, strictly, it’s stretching my rule of sticking only to British folklore). However, the Manx ‘little people’ are too fascinating and too numerous to ignore- and it’s not just faery folk, either, we have the fynoderee, the glashtyn, the buggane, the tarroo ushtey (water bull), mermaids (the ben varrey) and other faery beasts to study as well. I have examined many of them as part of my wider studies of Faery (for example in 2020’s Beyond Faery), but it struck me earlier this year that it could be helpful to pull all this unique island material together into a single volume- and so Manx Faeries- The Little People of the Isle of Man has recently been published by Green Magic. There has been no comprehensive attempt to gather all the Manx faery lore into a single devoted volume and- given the richness of Manx tradition- this seemed to me to need to be done.
Many of the Manx creatures are parallel to British faery types, without being exactly identical. The faery horses and bulls resemble those of the Scottish Highlands, whilst having their own individual characteristics. The bugganeand the fynoderee are comparable to British mainland beings such as the bogies, boggarts and hobgoblins, but they are again separate and different. There are, nonetheless, many similarities of behaviour: a love of dancing and hunting, a taste for causing mischief, a habit of abducting babies children and adults. The fatal faery lover, the lhiannan shee, is an especially notable feature of human-faery interactions on the island.
What’s more, Manx faery lore offers lots of additional information and perspectives on the nature of Faery in the British Isles as a whole. Within quite a small surface area, the island comprises a microcosm of British Faery, encompassing individuals from across the wide spectrum of the supernatural family, yet it also has some utterly unique and fascinating types. I have posted fairly recently about the strange ‘burning wheel‘ faes that are a feature most notably of Manx lore; to these I might add the curious faery dogs, cats, pigs and sheep, the odd spectral horses and the multi-form glashtyn. There is plenty to absorb and amaze us.
Manx Faery Verse
Back in 2019, I self-published Victorian Fairy Verse, which gathered fairy poetry in English from Britain, Ireland and the USA. I overlooked the Isle of Man, however, and have rectified that oversight in the new book. A handful of Manx residents preserved the native folklore, not just by collecting stories and experiences but by composing poetry with faery themes. Here is an additional example, a 1901 poem called The Phynnodderee by Rev. Drummond Brown- which I have copied from the Manx Literature site on Flickr (it’s pretty long and, to be frank, I couldn’t quite face typing it all out from scratch- so please excuse and tolerate the cut and pasted page copies).
As I’ve said, the fynoderee of Manx tradition (there are several spellings, distinguished by more or less consonants) is akin to the English hobgoblin: it’s large and strong and helps around farms, but it’s also a bit dim. The fynoderee can become very attached to some people and may show them great kindness; the species are also associated with individual farms or holdings, to which they are tied as ‘spirits of the land.’ Whilst they reside there, they guarantee the fertility of the soil and the animals living on it. If they leave, it can mean ruin. Very much like English and Scottish brownies and hobs, it is unfortunately the case that the fynoderee can be touchy and easily offended. If a farmer takes pity on their hairy, naked state and provides a gift of clothes, they can be so upset as to disappear for ever. Mainland brownies and hobs seem peeved by the mere idea of clothing– or sometimes by the quality of the garments presented; the Manx fynoderee, by contrast, objects to them because he knows they will make him ill (a more comprehensible response, at least). It has been said that the agriculture of the island as a whole has been in decline for at least a century because of the thoughtless alienation of the various fynoderee.
In his poem, Drummond Brown has romanticised the creature considerably, not just with his elegant romantic verse but with his story of its origin. He starts with a good summary of the fynoderee‘s characteristics, but then alleges that he was once a handsome faery knight, punished for loving a mortal.
The Reverend Drummond Brown also wrote a poem about a musician abducted under a hill to a faery dance (a very common folklore theme). You can read this too on the same Manx website.
Britain is full of bogles, bogies and such like (and similarly named) creatures. They can often be hard to classify, as was remarked by an anonymous writer in 1833, discussing the works of Sir Walter Scott. The bogle called ‘the greetin bairn of the lake’ from the lowlands of Scotland was described by this author as part fairy, part ghost and part brownie- a puzzling mix.
Types of boggle
Boggles are creatures that can take a range of forms, as well as names. For instance, at Bryn-yr-Ellyllon (Elf Hill) near Mold in Clwyd, it was reported in the mid-nineteenth century that a skeleton dressed in gold had been seen, seated on the mound. This was hardly your typical ‘elf’ plainly.
James Nicolson, describing Shetland folklore in 1981, added to his discussion of trows and mermaids a general list of ‘hard to classify’ supernatural beasts, which included:
The skekill, a sort of trow that rode a horse that was black with white spots and had fifteen tails;
The marool, a fish with a crest of flame and eyes all over its head; and,
Tangie, who whipped up storms and tried to abduct girls.
Duncan MacInnes, describing Argyllshire, adds to this list a giant, or fuath, with seven heads, seven humps and seven necks.
Besides these assorted monsters, there were many beings that accorded better with our standard categorisation of the Faery world. On the Scottish borders lived the Brown Man of the Muirs, who protected the wildlife of the moors and took revenge upon those who ignored his warnings. This being appears to have been a type of duergar, or dwarf.
Slightly further south, in county Durham in the north-east of England, we encounter the Hedley Kow. The name might make us anticipate a bovine beast, but its nature was actually very fluid. It was a supreme shape-shifter: in one version of its story, in Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales, the Kow is successively seen as a pot full of gold coins, a lump of silver, a lump of iron, a stone and, finally, a horse- which galloped off laughing at the hapless victim of its pranks.
In the same area we find the brags, which are also shape-shifting beings. The Humbleknow brag, for example, was not visible, but would sound as if all the livestock on a farm had got loose- or else would sound like all the doors and windows in a house being driven in by a violent storm. It was awful to experience, but harmless. The Hylton Lane brag, by way of contrast, was visible- and appeared at night as a dog, calf, pony or woman, that would accompany any person walking between Sunderland and Hylton for a short distance before vanishing. Again, this was disconcerting, but not dangerous.
As may be observed, many of these beings have names that must share a common root- bugs, bogies, boggarts, bugganes and such like. A Welsh example is the bwgan. The bwgan of Nant y Cythraul in the north of the country is a very interesting example of the species. It is said to be the spirit of a fifteenth century monk who surrendered his soul to the devil and he can shapeshift, appearing in a number of surprising forms. These include a hare that is being hunted by the cwn annwnand a dog that will run alongside you- before disconcertingly bursting into flames.
The boggarts of northern England generally can take on the role of domestic brownies, doing household and farm chores, but they can just as easily appear as nuisance- or malign- shapeshifters. Henry More, in The Pre-Existency of the Soul (1647) describes aerial devils (as he terms them) who can endlessly change their form. “One while a man, after a comely maid… A snarling Dog or bristled Boar or a jug of milk if you’re thirsty.”
Various Victorian newspaper reports from Lancashire confirm the shape-shifting abilities of the boggart- as well as their close links to ghosts. The Copp Lane Boggart was seen as a headless woman, a white lady, a lady in brown silk who glided ahead of witnesses, a donkey and a large dog with a white neck and a tail like a sheaf of corn that curled over its back as far as its shoulders. The Spo Boggart was either a girl in a bonnet- not alarming at all- or a man dressed in black with cloven feet. A Whitegate Lane in Fylde, near Blackpool, the boggart was a white calf or decapitated woman who carried her head under her arm. Lastly, at Blackley, a boggart plagued a house with terrible noises- like a hen cackling, a steam whistle or a like child screaming- but only if you stood upon a certain flagstone. This stone was lifted and a jug containing bones was found beneath, following which the ghost was silenced. However, the occupants of the house still suffered from other nightly noises and saw an apparition of a young woman.
These creatures, when they live in close proximity to men, can become intolerable nuisances, which will often drive human households to try to escape them. Simple flight to another place never seems to work: there are numerous stories that culminate with the ‘punch-line,’ “Aye, we’re flitting,” in which a family try to move to a new house to get away from the boggart, only to find that it’s moving with them. More drastic measures are therefore required in many cases.
I’ve described before the practice of ‘laying,’ or exorcising boggarts. Here are two more examples. A ‘goblin’ was ‘put down’ at Llanwddyn Parish, Montgomeryshire, by means of trapping it in a quill and sealing that under a large boulder in a river. The Barcroft Hall boggart in Lancashire was driven off by the simple expedient of giving it a pair of clogs. This was done for the best reasons, because it had been seen barefoot and had been pitied, but it took the present as an insult and abandoned the farm. As many readers will immediately remember, the gift of clothes is one of the main means of driving away brownies and hobs (whether intentionally or not), a fact which underlines the close ties between boggarts and these other beings.
The Isle of Man has several bogle like beings. There, if you are unlucky, you may encounter:
This creature is invariably mischievous, if not malicious. The least of his misbehaviour is blowing smoke back down chimneys, pulling thatch off roofs and pushing sheep over cliffs. He travels around in a form resembling a spinning wheel, laughing all the while at humans’ misfortunes. Luckily, they’re not very bright and can fairly easily be outwitted and beaten. They are, nonetheless, terrifying creatures. The buggane of St Trinians is as big as a house with green hair and blazing eyes, but he can shape-shift, shrinking to the size of a beetle or a mouse, appearing like a large, dark calf or tearing off his head and throwing it at people like a blazing ball. Sometimes, the buggane can be entirely shapeless, just a black mist that engulfs and chokes a person.
The buggane seen at Ballakillingham was fairly representative of its kind in that it appeared as a large grey bulldog with an awful howl. It would lurk in the shadows, alarming travellers (much like the black dogs of England). However, this particular spirit had another quality. If your pig was sickly, if you collected dust from where the buggane walked at night and rubbed it on the pig’s back (along with saying the right charm) the pig would be healed.
Other buggane guises include a sack of chaff; a black monster the size of a haystack that fills the entire width of a road; a small creature the dimensions of a cat that can suddenly swell to the size of a horse and, even, a hybrid being that’s a man with a horse’s head and glowing eyes.
Various brave but foolhardy Manx men have tried to fight bugganes- almost always without success. Their ability to change size and shape makes them nearly impossible to defeat. The best way of dealing with one is to speak the absolute truth to it- something it apparently respects.
There is a strong belief on Man that connects bugganes to those who have been murdered or who have died unfairly. They seem to be the ghosts of those who have died without receiving justice- including, in one case, a man who was wrongfully executed for a murder he did not commit. Although they are generally said to inhabit caves, the bugganes that are some sort of ghost will be found haunting the site of their death.
The fynoderee is something like the mainland British brownie or hobgoblin, and will help out with heavy tasks on farms in return for just a little grain and a bowl of cream. He is generally helpful rather than dangerous, even though he is very strong and has shaggy black hair and fiery eyes.
In one Manx story, the fynoderee even took pity on a lonely man who had been cheated upon by his girlfriend and had fought with- and accidentally killed- his rival. The man lived in a cave and the fynoderee would leave him food and gather fire-wood for him. As the man grew older and less mobile, the spirit even planted a plantation of trees near to his shelter to make life easier for him.
The fynoderee can also be a solitary creature living in elder trees. He can cure sickness in animals, and can be summoned by humans using the right words and charms. The correct protocol is to take off your headgear and say to the being in the tree:
“Fynoderee, fynoderee,/ Come you down, for I can see.”
Then you must cross yourself three times. Getting the words wrong or neglecting to cross yourself can lead to disastrous consequences.
Although generally benign, if he’s vexed, the fynoderee can just as easily steal away a farm’s entire livestock, enchanting them rather like the god Pan. They can be subdued by singing, but driven off by the singing of hymns or (like a brownie) by being given clothes.
This creature can have two forms: human-like or a horse. In the shape of a handsome (if rather hairy) young man he will try to lure away young women with strings of pearls, very much like the Scottish kelpie or each uisge, but his intentions are not romantic but fatal. His true nature is often revealed by his pointed ears and his sharp, pointed teeth. One in horse form was revealed by his tail, which was three yards long.
Glashtins tend to live in deep pools in isolated rivers or behind water falls but, because of their predatory nature, they can be a severe nuisance that communities need to expel. In one story this was done by a man disguising himself as a woman and sitting spinning in his home until a number of young glashtins had gathered, interested in this new girl in the neighbourhood. He then surprised them by pelting them with burning turves, a shock that was sufficient to drive them off permanently.
There is another form of the glashtin who will assist on farms much like a fynoderee. They will thresh corn and sometimes take the form of a lamb to play amongst the flocks. The glashtin even may be seen as something like a tarroo-ushtey. These glashtins seem to be generally good-natured, for all their might, but they are dim and coarse and can take offence very easily.
My forthcoming book Beyond Faery examines all of these strange beings in details. The examples detailed here are more recent evidence I’ve turned up since the text of the new book was completed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I explore all of these further in my books Faeryand (especially) in Beyond Faery (forthcoming) which examines in detail the full range of faery beasts, goblins and hags.
Following my recent remarks upon the authentic origins of Dobby and the other house-elves of the Harry Potter series, in this post I’m offering a few more thoughts and comments upon some of Joanne Rowling’s words and characters.
We’ll start with Muggles, non-magic folk. There are several websites out there offering perfectly reasonable theories as to where she derived this from. One site, for example, proposes a word with a very long pedigree that has meant tail, young woman and, more recently, ‘joint.’ None of these have any magical or supernatural connotations, plainly.
However, it is well known that Rowling did thorough research whilst writing the Potter series. Perhaps she came across this tale from the West of Scotland, recorded by J. G. Campbell and also printed by Lewis Spence. A boy who was believed to be a changeling was sent by one household to seek the loan of a corn sieve from neighbours. He met the son of that household, who was also a fairy changeling. The latter told him to make his request in ‘honest language’ (i.e. fairy speak) as they thought they were alone together. The child sent on the errand therefore said:
“The muggle maggle wants the loan of the black luggle laggle, to take the maggle from the grain.”
If his first words describe his ‘mother’ back at home, then perhaps we see her being identified as a ‘muggle (that is, human or non-fairy) woman/ housewife.’ This little story doesn’t have much at all to tell us about fairy language, but it might suggest a source for Rowling’s usage.
As for boggarts, we are on much firmer ground here. The boggart is a well known type of British fairy creature. It is one of a larger class known by a variety of related names- bogies, bogles and bugs. Boggarts are probably amongst the more pleasant of the breed. They are all solitary fairies, but boggarts tend to live like brownies in close proximity to human households. Unlike brownies, they don’t seem to do much work around the farmstead but rather occupy themselves by being a nuisance, making noises and causing disturbance much like a poltergeist. Rowling’s boggarts are shape-shifters and, on the whole, more malevolent. She seems to have borrowed these characteristics, but not the name, from the boggarts close relatives. Bogies range in behaviour from mischievous through frightening to downright dangerous. They can change their appearance and often torment humans. Bogles are evil goblins, although at least one is known to focus upon punishing petty criminals. Bogg beasts are also a malicious kind of goblin, almost a demon in behaviour. As readers will have seen, J. K. Rowling used traditional fairy characteristics, but preferred to apply the boggart name to the particular creature she imagined.
Bogles causing mischief, by Arthur Rackham
In The prisoner of Azkaban in Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts his class learns about hinky-punks in their ‘Defence against the dark arts’ lessons with Remus Lupin. These creatures are again borrowings by J. K. Rowling from authentic British tradition. They are a form of will-of-the-wisp found around the Somerset/ Devon borders and they will lead night-time travellers astray, sometimes luring them into bogs and ponds. The hinky-punk is believed to have only one leg and one eye.
Is it possible to generalise meaningfully upon the character of a people? There are, of course, popular conceptions of nations such as the British, Welsh, Irish and Cornish, but how valid are these stereotypes? Turning to supernatural realms, is it any easier to delineate temperament? Our ancestors apparently thought so, with the denizens of faery treated as predictably uniform in their conduct and reactions rather than being individuated.
Folk imagination detected distinctly discernible traits to the different ‘species’ of fairies. Certain identifiable types possessed very simple characters indeed, possessed of only a couple of features. For example:
brownies or house elves, which were attached to specific houses or estates, were generally amenable to human proximity and were hard workers, being content with a regular bowl of gruel or fresh milk or water. Robin Goodfellow is cast in this role in Samuel Rowland’s More knaves yet of 1613. Robin helps the country wenches “To wash the dishes for some fresh-cheese hier:/ Or set their Pots and Kettles bout the fier.” Brownies only became upset when presented with a more material reward, such as a suit of clothes, a mistaken kindness which would so offend that they would desert the holding or, sometimes, haunt it destructively like a poltergeist; or,
boggarts, bogies and bogles and similar spirits are consistently ill-tempered, tending to mischief that shades into downright malice. By and large this is their only function- to trick, annoy and to scare, although on occasion there is a moral aspect to the treatment: the Dorset colepexy was a red-eyed goblin colt that would lead wanderers astray into marshes. Sometimes this was a punishment for malefaction, such as sealing from orchards. Hobgoblins, personalised in the character of Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer night’s dream (from whence the title of this post: Act II, scene i), traditionally inhabit the border between brownies and bogies. They are mischievous creatures, but are generally well-disposed toward humankind and all our frailties.
See too my discussion of the ‘fairy races’ in my post on the Two tribes.
Midsummer Night’s Dream, a fairy meets puck.
The pixies and other trooping fairies, which usually take human form and often are of human stature, have more complex characters than those fairies so far described. Nevertheless, their moods, manners and motivations were conceived to be fairly constant, so consistent indeed that the personality descriptions that follow might almost serve as a human’s guide to dealing with Faery- what conduct to prefer, what to avoid.
The most typical fairy traits were:
a secretive, private disposition. Spying and intrusion are resented and so is often chastised, frequently by pinching, as befell John Aubrey’s former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, when he intruded upon a fairy dance on the downs near Chippenham. Any risk of disclosure of their presence is hated by fairies, so that they conceal themselves with the magical power of ‘glamour’ and will punish severely those who breach this. A very common story across the British Isles is of the human who is midwife, nursemaid or fosterer to a fairy child. S/he is given balm with which to anoint the fairy infant’s eyes, but is cautioned not to put it upon their own. The inevitable violation accidentally occurs, revealing the true nature of the fairy residence (frequently a ruin or charnel house). Later the fairies are met at the market and greeted, in response to which the eye touched with glamour is promptly blinded.
an aversion to human untidiness and a preference for neatness. To breach these standards usually leads to a merciless pinching. For example, Rowland has his Robin Goodfellow “bepinch the lazie queane” and John Marston in The Mountebank’s Mask of 1618 alludes to the risk that “lustie Doll, maide of the Dairie,/ Chance to be blew-nipt by the fairie.” Robert Herrick, in his poem The fairies, succinctly encapsulates the fairy prejudices in their entirety-
“If ye will with Mab find grace/ Set each Platter in his place:/ Rake the fier up, and get/ Water in, ere sun be set./ Wash your Pailes and clense your Dairies;/ Sluts are loathsome to the Fairies:/ Sweep your house: who doth not so,/ Mab will pinch her by the toe.”
Herrick also hints at another less well-known fairy character trait: a respect for Christian superstition. In the verse Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve he warns maidservants to remove all the greenery that had bedecked the Christmas hall before that date otherwise “So many Goblins shall you see.”
resentment of meanness and rudeness whilst, conversely, generosity and good manners will be rewarded. However, presumption is also disliked. Taking fairy gifts for granted, for example, or disclosing a person’s good fortune to others, will invariably lead to the withdrawal of fairy favour and the loss of the benefits they had bestowed. The obligation to be circumspect about the source of one’s good luck is reflected in the words of Ben Jonson’s Entertainment at Althorpe. Fairies presented a gift to the queen but then admonished her “Utter not/ We implore you/ Who did give it, nor wherefore/ And whenever you restore/ Yourself to us, you shall have more.” Massinger expressed this same warning with greater foreboding in The fatal dowry (IV, 1):“But not a word of it- ’tis fairies’ treasure,/ Which but revealed brings on the blabber’s ruin.”
an esteem for a fair and generous nature, honesty and oath keeping, a preparedness to lend and share and a cheerful disposition on the part of human beings.
It will be observed that the code of conduct imposed upon humans is one of opposites and that the fairy nature is likewise a combination of polar contrasts. For fortunate humans of the desired disposition, though, the fairies will be grateful and kind (subject to the conditions of discretion already specified).
Lastly, it will be noted that the more modern type of fairy (small, winged, associated with flowers) is a far more benign kind of nature spirit altogether. They are reserved and timid, gentle, kind, harmless and helpful. The iconography reflects this, with girlish imagery replacing wizened old men as the ‘typical’ fairy.
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).
I’ve always been fascinated by the fairy foxes of Japan. Foxes had always seemed mysterious to me as a child (because they were rarely and fleetingly seen- not so now that I am living in London!) and when I discovered the kitsune, the shape shifting supernatural foxes of Japanese mythology, I was immediately hooked. These fairy foxes can speak, they can trick people, they can morph into human form or assume other, sometimes inanimate, shapes. That unearthly wailing and yelping that foxes produce only confirmed and explained to me their reputation in the Orient and puzzled me as to why we did not tell similar stories.
In the British Isles, we have a tradition of fairy beasts, but it is not so strong. The creatures tend to be solitary and do not have the scheming, magical nature of the kitsune. The beasts are, nevertheless, antagonistic to human beings, by and large, a feature they definitely share with their eastern counterparts. An encounter with a fairy beast is almost always perilous. Meeting a fairy steed or hound at night will at least lead to a severe fright, if not an actual fatality. They will chase the hapless wanderer, or seek to carry him off and drown him.
-dogs- such as the English barguest and gally trot;
cattle- like the Dun Cow of Kirkham;
‘bogies’ such as the brag, trash, shock and Hedley Kow, monstrous beings that resemble dog/horse crosses; and,
selkies– the Highland seal folk who can take the form of seals but also appear as human-like by divesting their skins. It is perhaps these latter that most resemble the Japanese foxes, although they are generally far less openly dangerous and are more often at risk from men rather than the other way round.
We often conceive of fairies as exclusively anthropomorphic, but even a brief review of the folklore reveals that they come in a variety of forms, including shape-shifters. This serves to emphasise the fact that the boundary between conventionally conceived fairies and ghosts, spirits, giants and monsters is fluid and uncertain. By its nature, folk belief is not rigidly categorised; perhaps only the supernatural nature and undercurrent of peril are common to all these creatures.