Faery Charms- Magical Objects

Hag-stone by Hermitchild on Deviant Art

A study of the folklore records reveals that a range of objects, many of them extremely ordinary, have been found to be efficacious as charms that ward off or repel fairy harm.  They fall into several broad categories, although most of them are natural materials.

Minerals

A number of commonly occurring rocks and such like substances seem to dispel the fairy presence.  Iron is by far the most famous of these, being effective in any shape- whether a knife, a horse shoe, a pin or needle, pairs of tongs or the bolt of a door, but other less well-known (yet equally potent) materials include:

  • A hot coal thrown in a vat of brewing ale, which will prevent the fairies spoiling it. Likewise, live (that is burning) coals carried by travellers will prevent them being misled or abducted during their journey;
  • Amber beads sewn into a child’s clothes will prevent its abduction;
  • Salt will certainly drive off the fairies, scattered around or put into food stuffs that you don’t want stolen (I’ve discussed the power of salt separately);
  • In the Highlands, calves’ ears were smeared with tar just before May Day to protect them against theft;
  • The last, rather well known, natural object in this category is the so called adder stone, a naturally holed stone that could be worn around the neck to protect an individual or might be hung over a byre or stable to safeguard the livestock. When not in use, the stones were often kept safe in iron boxes which stopped the fairies trying to interfere with them. The antiquarian Edward Lhuyd, visiting Scotland in 1699, recorded that these ‘self-bored’ stones were also known as snake buttons, cock-knee stones, toad stones, snail stones and mole stones.
‘Elder at Walberswick’ by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 1915

Plants

It is pretty well known that sprigs of rowan repels faeries; other plants equally repulsive to the faes are:

  • Fresh nettles, which, if laid on a milk churn will stop them hindering the churning (according to Manx belief).  In this connection, see Guilpin’s play Skialaetheia (1598) in which a character says “I applaud myself, for nettle stinging thus this fayery elfe”;
  • Vervane and dill can dispel evil influences, as can milkwort and mugwort.  Other handy herbs are mistletoe, nightshade, yarrow, groundsel, rue and the sap of ash trees. Burnt bindweed would safeguard a baby in a cradle, as would four leaved clover;
  • In Wales, meanwhile, it was said that a four leaved clover (combined, apparently, with nine grains of wheat) helped you to see the fairies- which would certainly enable you to avoid them if need be;
  • On the Hebrides, St John’s Wort and pearl wort both granted a general protection to cattle and people;
  • Sugar water, especially if it was served from a silver spoon or cup (or at least, from a receptacle containing a silver coin) would help ensure that a mother and her new born baby were safe from unwelcome faery attention. Even humble tea apparently drove fairies away in one Welsh case;
  • On Skye, oat cakes were said to have a protective effect.  Quite whether this derives from the oats themselves or from the fact that they have been processed by baking and very possibly salted is less certain;
  • In county Durham, an elder branch was said to guard against witches and fairies. On the Isle of Man the fairies were said to dwell in elder trees, but elder springs could also be carried to ward off the faes- and even to strike them;
  • Also on Man, a willow cross would protect against bugganes and fynoderees, but how much efficacy derived from the wood and how much from the religious significance of the shape, I can’t tell (see later for religious items).
The Crosh Bollan & Thor’s Hammer

Animal Products

I’ve described the effects of stale urine before, but an odd variety of animal parts and by-products could prove revolting to fairies- some understandable, some more surprising:

  • Drawing blood was believed to drive off the fairies on Orkney and Shetland;
  • On the Isle of Man, two special animal bones were found to have powerful effect.  These were the crosh bollan, which is the upper part of the palate of the wrass fish, and the so-called Thor’s Hammer, which is in fact from a sheep’s mouth and prevents fairy leading. Manx fishermen would carry the crosh bollan for protection at sea;
  • Burning leather repelled fairies from houses (see next section) as did the presence of a black cockerel;
  • Near Stirling, in central Scotland, it was recorded in 1795 that new born calves would be forced to eat a little dung as this would prevent both witches and elves harming or stealing them.

Cloth Items

It’s quite well-known that red threads are effective against fairies, for example tied around a child’s throat to protect them from taking or woven into the hair of a cow’s tail to prevent the fairies stealing its milk.  If you wanted to double your protection, securing a spring of rowan to someone or something with a red thread was recommended.

A burning rag carried round a woman in childbirth three times would stop the fairies taking her and her new born baby, it was said on Orkney and Shetland. It’s also reported that, when the trows smelled the smoke from the rag, they would express their displeasure in a rhyme: “Wig wag, jig jag,/ Ill healt so weel/ Thu wes sained/ Wi’ a linen rag.” To be fair, though, the smell of the smouldering material was probably the really effective part of this ceremony- for comparison, burning peats were also carried around farms on Shetland at Yule to ward off the trows. The combination of the smoke plus the flame (recall the lit coals earlier) appear to have been what discouraged the trows.

Wells & Well Water

As I have described previously, faery kind have an ambivalent relationship to wells, sometimes inhabiting them, sometimes avoiding them, sometimes giving their waters healing properties. In Wales, wells would be protected from the fairies by circling them with stones painted white; however the water from some springs was reputed to keep the fairies at bay- for example, St Leonards Well at Sheep’s Tor on Dartmoor.

Religious items

Linked to the possibly erroneous belief that fairies are fallen angels or emissaries of the devil and, as such, innately antithetical to all aspects of Christian religion, items such as bibles, psalm and prayer books were constantly regarded as sure remedies against fairy threat.  Even a few pages torn from a holy book could work, it was said in Scotland. It was found that an open bible could be especially potent, if carried around the person or place to be blessed and protected. On Shetland, plaiting crosses out of straws or the livestock’s tail hairs was a further precaution undertaken.

***

As will be seen, a variety of items carried with you can provide excellent protection against fairy interference and abduction. Properly equipped, you should not need to fear being pixie-led or being taken. Luckily, too, although some of these items are quite rare, many are readily available to all.

For further discussion, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

Fairies and Salt

Medieval wall-painting of demons interfering with butter churning

It’s quite well-known that, amongst the varied substances to which fairies object, everyday, ordinary salt is one of the most repellent for them. I wish here to examine the details of this and to try to understand what the objection may be.

An immediate observation must be that not all faery beings have the same difficulty. It probably need not be pointed out that merfolk, living in the ocean, have no such aversion- and the same applies to the Scottish water horse (the each uisge) and the Manx tarroo-ushtey or water bull, both of which tolerate both fresh and salt water. For land dwelling fairies, however, salinity can be abhorrent, meaning that they cannot enter or cross the sea (just as a flowing stream can be a barrier). Perhaps for the same reason, in the Scottish islands the area below high tide line, which is washed regularly by the sea, is seen as being safe from fairy intrusion.

The fairies’ loathing of salt can work in two related ways. It can be used as a deliberate defence against them, or it can unwittingly prevent them handling human goods.

Amongst the means used by midwives and neighbours to protect mothers in labour was sprinkling salt around the house and, after the baby was safely delivered, it could be guarded against abduction by putting salt in the newborn’s mouth. Related to this, there were several ways of expelling a changeling.  In Wales, one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire.

One of James Brown’s Household Fairies, with salt sellar…

Quite a lot of the best evidence on the protection of property comes from the Isle of Man. There, for example, it used to be said that salt thrown into- or at least placed underneath- a milk churn would avoid any interference by the fairies with the butter making process (salt was also placed beneath querns on the island). Compare to this the Cumberland belief that you should sprinkle salt on the fire whilst churning milk to prevent the fairies interfering.

Likewise, the Manx belief is that, if you’re carrying milk in a pail, you should add a small pinch of salt to it, which will ensure that the fairies don’t steal or spoil the contents during the journey. A very curious example of this situation was reported around 1882-85. A Manx woman had killed and butchered one of her calves and decided to send her son with a cut of the meat as a gift to a poor neighbour. In her hurry, however, the mother forgot to protect the joint by sprinkling salt on it. As the boy walked over to the friend’s house, the local fairies realised that the meat was vulnerable and they followed the youth- licking him until he was sore over his entire body. When he got home, his mother had to wash him all over in salt in order to dispel the fairies’ magic. It’s a little hard to explain exactly what happened here: perhaps in licking the ‘goodness’ out of the meat the fairies also touched the boy’s bare arms, legs and face, thereby subjecting him to their power with their spit…

An account from Cornwall tells of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk.  When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice from a local cunning woman who advised the maid to rub the cow’s udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving, as the pobel vean (the little folk) couldn’t abide the smell or taste of fish or salt.

These protections may prove a double edged sword, however, as frustrating the fairies’ will can rebound against you. A Cumbrian farmer had left a churn of milk outside his cottage overnight to keep it cool.  Next morning a little of the milk was missing and he guessed the fairies had filched some.  Annoyed, he fetched some of the salt he kept in his cottage to ward off evil spirits and threw it into the churn.  When the fairies sampled the milk the next night they were outraged by his response and retaliated by spitting it out all over his smallholding.  Wherever they sprayed the salty milk, the grass died and would not regrow.

As I have mentioned previously, fairies love human loaves, but they are wary of our seasoning. A Manx woman was walking on the road when she heard music and followed the sound. She came upon the source, a group of fairies (whom she could hear but not see), who asked her what she was carrying in her pannier. She had bread with her and offered to share it with them, placing part of the oat cake on a nearby hedge. As the bread was made without salt, they accepted it and, in return for her generosity, promised her that she would never be without bread thereafter.

There are, however, a few accounts which contradict this fairly consistent evidence. The residents of a farm at Gorsey Bank, in Shropshire, suffered constant disturbance from two boggarts that lived there.  Worn down by this, the farmer decided to move to escape them.  This was done, but the family were dismayed to find that the boggarts followed them, bringing a salt box that had been left behind. On the Scottish Borders, people would offer salt to the water sprite of the River Tweed to ensure a good catch of fish each year.  Finally, in Gerald of Wales’ account of the fairy abductee Elidyr, amongst the faery vocabulary that the youth was able to recall years after his experience was the phrase Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt.’ Contact is not always anathema therefore.

oh dear…

Finally, a report from Airlie, near Dundee in Scotland, tells of a shepherd’s family that moved into a new cottage. One day, despite there being no other houses anywhere nearby, a small woman appeared at the door asking to borrow a little salt. She returned an equivalent amount of salt the following day and, as she left, the shepherd’s wife watched her. The mysterious woman disappeared behind a tree and the family assumed she was a fairy. After a pattern of regular borrowing and returning items had developed, the supposition was confirmed when, one day, the old woman asked the wife to stop pouring away her waste water near the tree, as it ran down into the old woman’s house. The story is interesting for the details of the subterranean home, but the fairy woman’s willingness to handle salt is the notable aspect for our purposes here.

Katharine Briggs, in her Dictionary of Fairies, argues that salt is disliked by our Good Neighbours because it is a “universal symbol of preservation, eternity and of goodwill.” In alchemy, it can represent the earthly human body, thus perhaps opposing it to the fairies’ ‘astral’ forms, but I suspect the real derivation of our ideas about salt is from Graeco-Roman culture, in which salt was placed on the lips of neonates to ward off evil spirits. This seems to have been inherited by the Christian church in giving salt to a child before baptism and this ancient power of protection thereby passed into British folk traditions.

Fairies and Bread- the significance of baking in fairyland

baker

When we think of baking and fairies today, cupcakes and treats with pink icing for little girls’ parties tend to come to mind.  Even if we put these to one side, that homely substance, bread, seems far too ordinary and basic a product to have any supernatural aspects, but the folklore reveals that fairies have a strange relationship to the substance.

It might, in fact, be more accurate for us to talk about baked products in this posting, as we are by no means solely concerned with loaves made of wheat flour.  For example, throughout Scotland oatcakes (rather than loaves) were thought to have protective powers: a bannock hung over a cottage threshold would protect a mother and her new-born child inside and burning an oatcake would drive off the faeries.

Home Baking

“And, for thy food, eat fairy bread.”

(The Convert Soule, 1620)

The fairies are widely known to bake their own bread.  Tantalisingly, one Scottish writer has described faery bread as tasting like a wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine; apparently, it will last for a week at least without going stale.  Cornish woman Anne Jefferies, who was imprisoned for suspected witchcraft, was fed by the faeries during her captivity and a person who tasted the bread they gave her described it as “the most delicious … I ever did eat, either before or afterward.”

The fairies will share their baked products with humans, sometimes, although (as with all fairy food) it may not be all it seems.  In Breconshire the belief is that gifts of bread from the tylwyth teg, if not eaten immediately and in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.  A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them.  After this ordeal, they gave him meat and bread to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”

Bread Protects from Faeries

There seems to be something mysterious and semi-magical about bread when it comes to fairies. It can both protect people or bestow supernatural powers.

In one Scottish story a man who has stolen from the faeries is pursued by them and they cry out “You wouldn’t be so fast if it wasn’t for the hardness of your bread.”  In a similar tale, a Perthshire man was troubled by faery cattle eating his crops, but was unable to catch them until one day, as he chased a dun cow around his fields, a faery woman appeared and advised that he’d do better if he ate barley bannocks turned on the griddle and milk from black goats. He followed her advice, caught the faery cow and thereafter had the best milk herd in the district.  This bread magic can work both ways though: in an incident from the Hebrides a captive mermaid manages escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him would have been luckier had it not been for the dryness of his bread- if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.

Bread somehow works to protect people from faery ill-will.  It was widely believed throughout Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influence, especially from being pixie-led.  Stuart poet Robert Herrick wrote that:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

The verse seems to imply that, originally, people must have carried a piece of consecrated host, but eventually any sort of bread was thought to be as good.  The Scottish Highland equivalent to this protection is to have oatmeal in your pocket or sprinkled over your clothes when travelling.

New babies are believed to be especially vulnerable to faery abduction, but bread products are a particularly effective at safeguarding them.  From Cornwall comes a belief that a child can be protected from being taken by baked goods: a mother must take a cake with her to her baby’s baptism and then give it to the first person she meets in the road.  This guarantees her child’s safety from the pixies.  There’s an identical practice in Sutherland in Scotland, involving oatcake and cheese, whilst on the Isle of Man the practice was to provide ‘blithe meat’ (bread and cheese) for people who came to visit a mother and her new-born child.  A portion of this would be scattered around for the unseen visitors, too- partly perhaps to win their favour as ‘godmothers’ and partly to guard against the risk of abduction.

bake 2

Bread Attracts Faeries

Confusingly, as I have described before when discussing fairy farming, fairies also seem to grow wheat and other grains so they can bake their own bread.  What’s more, they seem to like human loaves just as much as their own.  Traditionally, fairy helpers on farms, such as brownies, boggarts and others, are paid in bread.  Very frequently fairies will come to farmhouses to ask to borrow flour or meal when their own supplies have run low.  Bread can also be used to attract fairies to you in summoning charms and it seems to help appease faery animosity: at Wooler, in Northumberland, sickly children would be dipped in a well’s waters and bread and cheese would be left as an offering to the fairies, hoping for a cure.

That the faeries have a taste for human baking is confirmed by several stories from Wales, in which lake maidens are lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are very fussy about the bake of their loaves though: first the bread offered will be judged too hard, then too soft, until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms.  In another of these Welsh stories, concerning the maiden of Llyn y Fan Fach, a man uses bread to bait a fishing hook so he can catch himself a faery wife.  Once again, he tries first with a hunk from a well-baked loaf- and fails- and then tries with half-baked bread and lands his bride.  We may compare evidence from the isle of Man to these Welsh stories.  At Casstruan on the island the mermaids were said to have been very plentiful offshore and the local fishermen would befriend them by throwing them bread, butter and oatcakes.

What’s more, it’s doesn’t just appear to be the quality of the bake that seems to matter: the faeries don’t like salt in their loaves.  As a general rule, it’s a substance they can’t abide, something which comes out in Manx one story.  A woman was out walking when she heard music ahead of her on the road.  She followed the sound and caught up with a group of fairies.  They asked what she had in her basket, to which she replied bread, offering to share it with them.  She broke one of the oatcakes she had with her and placed it on a hedge.  They accepted her offer after checking that there was no salt in the mix.  Because of her generosity, she was promised always to have bread.

In fact, such is the liking of the faes for human bread that they will steal it if it can’t be got by gift or in exchange for an honest night’s work.  One Scottish story tells how the trows living under a cottage stole freshly baked oatcakes simply by slyly raising a floor slab and snatching them away as they cooled; on the Isle of Man the practice certainly was to leave the last cake of a batch behind the ‘turf-flag’ for the little people.

All the same, the fairies seem to have an ambiguous relationship to human baking.  The Welsh tylwyth teg are said to enter kitchens and to ‘robin’ bread dough- that is, to make it too sticky and stringy to rise.  The Cornish pixies too are said to spoil bread in the oven, making it come out full of ‘pixy-spits.’  Probably these examples are just examples of their mischievous nature getting the better of their appetites.

Two stories from the Isle of Man underline the importance of bread to the fairies.  In one, a servant girl at Bride was baking one day and forgot to share the cake she made with the fairies.  When she got into bed that night, she received a blow in the face that made her see stars.  She was a sensible young woman and readily understood what it meant- that the fairies were offended and vengeful- and she instantly got up and baked another cake, which she divided with them.  In another account, a woman lying sick in bed at Barrule was visited by ‘the Bishop of the fairies,’ a man in an old-fashioned three-cornered hat, who stood before her, broke a cake and gave her half.  The report does not really explain what this incident meant, but perhaps the fact that she recovered to tell the story indicates that she was favoured by the faes and had been healed.

Why Bread?

As noted already, part of the perceived power of bread must come from its use by the Christian church in the host.  The idea that a holy item will repulse the ‘evil’ forces of Faery is very common.  What would be effective, then, is its sanctified nature rather than the fact that it’s a leavened wheat product.  It may be simply confusion on the part of humans that, now, any old bit of bread would seem to do.

Another explanation might be that the fairies object to bread because it is a product of settled human civilisation- along with iron, for example.  This doesn’t really explain the situation, though, for two reasons: one that fairies make their own bread (and iron) and because they consume- and like- human bread.

In conclusion, then, in fairyland bread is far more magical and mysterious a food stuff than we might ever have supposed. For something so everyday and unremarkable, it holds great power.

For more on this, see my recently published book Faery.

‘Up Hill and Down Dale’- Pixy-Led in the West Country: a study of pixy tricks

Bell WoW
Robert Anning Bell, The Will of the Wisp

Deliberate leading astray is a fairy habit almost exclusively found in South West Britain.  It is reported about as often in Cornwall and Devon, with about twenty-five per cent of cases taking places in other counties (Dorset and Somerset) and slightly fewer in Wales.  Because it is primarily a phenomenon of South-West England, I will use the term pixie-led as a label for the process.

Here I’m only going to describe those fairy beings who, amongst their other activities, enjoy misleading humans.  Those supernaturals that appear as moving lights and whose sole function is to mislead- wills of the wisp, Jack o’ Lanterns, Goblin Lanterns and such like- will not be my concern here.  This reflects a fairly clear subdivision of types, but it is not perfect or binding.  Pucks and Pooks in England and South Wales can often appear in all respects like a will of the wisp, although we know them to be more complex characters in addition to this (see for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, 23).

History

Pixie-leading is a longstanding fairy practice that is well attested in literature.  It can be traced back to the early fourteenth century.  Jeremy Harte in Exploring Fairy Traditions (p.26) records a preacher’s sermon that describes one who has been “led at nyght with gobelyn, and erreth hider and thider.”  The references multiply from the seventeenth century, for example from Francis Rous, who in his religious text Meditations of Instruction of 1616 compared those who pursue material wealth to:

“they [that] shall stumble into the same ditches, wherein they have seene many of their neighbours wallowing.  This makes sport for the divel, and thus is man most truly fayry-led, even led aside by the spirits of darknesse…”

In an identical tone, Thomas Heyrick, in The New Atlantis of 1687, mentioned those who “Vainly like wilder’d men should wander round/ Be lost in senceless shapes on fairy ground” (p.51).  Likewise, Beaumont and Fletcher in their play Wit at Several Weapons (c.1620), have a character complain:

“My ways are goblin led and the night elf still draws me from my home.” (II, 2)

Writing in the first half of the 1600s, poet Robert Herrick, a Devonshire parson, advised:

“If ye feare to be affrighted

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your Pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

Christopher Clobbery, who wrote in 1659, warned of “fairy elves who thee mislead … in to the mire, then at thy folly smile/ Yea, clap their hands for joy.”  The remedy he advised was simple: “Old country folk, who pixie-leading fear/ Bear bread about them, to prevent harm.”

In the English Midlands, we know from Jabez Allies that you were not pixie-led but ‘poake-ledden,’ something which seems to be confirmed by the experience of Bishop Richard Corbet (author of the poem Rewards and Fairies), who became lost near Bosworth in 1640.  He and his party were advised then to “Turne your cloakes/ … for Pucke is busy in these oakes./  If ever wee at Bosworth will be found/ Then turn your cloakes, for this is fairy ground.”

What is Pixie-Leading?

To be pixie-led is a very well-known phrase, but what does it actually entail?  There are, in fact, at least half a dozen different experiences which are classed under this heading.

Changing the landscape or hiding the path

Using glamour so that the human victim no longer recognises where they are is the commonest way to confuse and lead astray a person.  A few accounts will exemplify this: Once a Week magazine in 1867 reported how a young farmer was pixie-led one evening in an orchard, where he was trapped for two hours.  In a Welsh incident, two young women returning to Llandysul from Lampeter fair were led in a field next to their home.  They were lost for hours on a bright moonlit night, yards from their house.  Lastly, a Cornish man called Glasson, making the short walk from Ludgvan to Gulval near Penzance, got completely lost and went in circles.  In all these cases, and more, a familiar place became strange; land marks disappeared and panic set in.

Hiding Gates

Sometimes, the change made is to conceal the gate out of a field.  Often, again, the enclosed space is very familiar to the victim and the moon may be shining, but the means of escape seems to vanish.  To add to this, in several Cornish accounts the pixies also frustrate their victims’ attempts to get free by raising the field hedge whenever he finds a lower part he might have been able to climb over (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.1, p.57 and Enys Tregarthen, Folklore Tales, ‘The Enchanted Field’ (1911)).

In one case, something similar happened inside a house.  A Welsh man woke up to see fairies in his bedroom dancing and eating.  He tried to wake his wife, but couldn’t, and for four hours just had to watch the festivities.  Eventually, the fairies left and he got out of bed to try to see where they had gone.  However, he couldn’t find the bedroom door; it was only when he cried out in panic and woke the rest of his family that the spell was broken.  For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.

Mist and Fog

The pixies are known for their ability to control the weather and this can be used as a way of trapping victims.  Men travelling across Dartmoor from Crediton to Exeter were advised that, if a cloud descended, they should strip and sit on their clothes for half an hour or so.  The pixies would in due course raise the fog thrown around them.  Patience is evidently important in such cases.  A woman on the Quantocks became demented with terror when the pixies caused an evening mist to rise suddenly around her, so that she was lost in a field minutes away from her home.  For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.

Music

The pixies may lure people away from their route with music, thereby getting them lost.  This has been reported in Devon and in North Wales.

Fairy Rings

Just as a person may become trapped in a familiar field, they may step into a fairy ring and fall into the fairies’ power.  A Somerset farmer coming home from market was led like this until he ended up exhausted by a briar bush that grew in three counties- a plant which magical properties that seems to have broken the spell he was under.  Cornish fairy author Enys Tregarthen has called rings ‘Spriggan Traps.’

Perhaps related to this phenomenon is that of following a ‘piskey-path.’  Enys Tregarthen also described how these mysterious green paths can be seen on cliffs or meandering across the moors, still verdant when the bracken is dry and brown.  Writing in 1630 in his View of Devonshire, Thomas Westcote mentioned how a person who got lost on Dartmoor would be “led in a pixy-path.”  Here there is some definite, if unclear, link between these paths and being pixie-led.

Never Arriving

In one Cornish story a man called Nicholas Annear was punished by the pixies for always rushing and hurrying.  One day, he set out for market with his horse and cart.  The pixies made it appear that the church tower at his destination was ahead, but he never got there.  He drove his cart all day and never arrived.

lee
Alan Lee

Pixie Motives

Who do they pixies do this?  They seem to have several motivations.  Above all, there’s their love of mischief; they need no reason as such, other than the pleasure in mildly tormenting humans.  However, they may feel the person needs to be punished for some reason (as in the case of Nicholas Annear above).  If they have been insulted by a person, s/he will be targeted in revenge.  For example, a North Yorkshire man who declared that he’d catch a fairy in a bottle was led astray for two hours as a result of his foolhardy boldness.  Someone who has taken the fairies’ property will suffer too.  A man from Bishop’s Lydeard in the Quantock Hills picked up a fairy grindstone as he was out walking and decided to keep it.  A mist descended upon him and he was led through brambles all night.  A woman from Selworthy parish on the Exmoor coast of Somerset saw a group of pixies; they were so upset by her intrusion that they led her all over the moor and through the woods. Any trespass upon the fairies’ privacy is bitterly resented.

An isolated example of retribution for trespass comes from Orkney, at the diametrically opposite end of the British Isles to Devon and Cornwall, where most of the accounts are located.  In Redland parish on the mainland of Orkney there was a grass ‘gait’ (or path) used by the trows when passing from their hill to the sea shore at twilight.  Two men in search of a midwife crossed the path one evening; for this disrespectful act one of them was led far astray by the trows.

Pixie Pleasures

Predictably, the pixie attitude to leading someone out of their way is great amusement.  They are often said to be heard laughing or, even, clapping their hands with glee.  They might sometimes be seen jumping about in front of the victim, mocking their situation (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 184).  A clear indication of the blurring of differences between wills of the wisp and pixie-leading fairies is a description of the Dorset Jack o’ Lantern, who is seen as a ball of light hopping before a person and which sniggers and laughs if a victim is successfully lured into a pond; something very similar was described in Cornish story by Enys Tregarthen (Why Jen Pendogget Changed his Mind (1940)).

Human Responses

As for the human victims, how do they react?  Inevitably, they will end up exhausted, frustrated and panic-stricken.  They are often said in Cornwall to be left “mizzy-mazey” (Enys Tregarthen, The Enchanted Field).  In Devon, the victim is said to be ‘mazed’ as a result, a neat term that is suggestive of being both amazed and lost (in a maze).

The consequences of being pixie-led can be much more serious, though.  We’ve heard about terror and a loss of wits.  A man who was pixie-led on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset had to be rescued after he was lured into a bog.  He was ill for quite some time after this experience.  A Devonshire man crossing Dartmoor near Chudleigh was pixie-led by the sound of music.  He wandered for hours, trying to locate the source, and eventually collapsed in a faint.  When he came round the next morning, he was able to make his way home, but he took to his bed, never rose again and soon afterwards died.  In like manner a Welsh man, John Jacob of Bedwellty, was led astray by the fairies one night, following shapes that appeared and then vanished.  At last he came to a neighbour’s house and was saved, but he was rendered mute by the experience and soon sickened and died.

Remedies

If you are pixie-led, what can you do to free yourself?  There are several tried and tested remedies.

Turning your clothes

The best known and easiest remedy is to turn an item of clothing- a hat might be turned back to front or a coat, pocket, glove or stocking might be turned inside out.  It seems likely that this is effective because it changes your appearance and throws the pixies off the scent or releases you from the enchantment that traps you in a fairy ring.  Wise travellers turn their clothes before they set out, so that they will be safe from enchantment throughout their journey.  It’s worth adding, though, that in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Who Rode in a Pocket, the pixie’s presence in the victim’s clothing is the cause of their wandering astray- and the spell is only broken when she turns her pockets, thereby ejecting the mischievous passenger.

Making a Noise

Attracting the attention of other people who’ve not fallen under the pixie spell will work.  This is effective in two ways.  Either the rescuer calls out in reply to help guide the victim to safety or the pixie-led person makes a noise which attracts rescuers to where she or he is stranded.  For instance, Abraham Stocke in Somerset had said that he had no time for pixies.  They led him into a swamp one night when he was walking home from brass band practice.  Luckily, he had his euphonium with him and was able to play it to alert his family and guide them to him.  A person simply coming along and startling the victim out of their bemusement can often be enough to release them (for examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies).

Other Remedies

It can help to carry something with you to protect yourself against pixie charms during your travels.  This could be a cross made from rowan wood, a piece of bread (as we’ve seen already) or a sprig of the plant greater stitchwort.  Rowan, or mountain ash, are also well-known for repelling supernaturals beings of all kinds (witches included).  The stitchwort is more unusual and seems to be a uniquely Devonian remedy.  The flower is called ‘pixies’ in the county and it is believed to be the special property of the pixies. Picking it will upset them, but apparently carrying it with you somehow has the effect of deflecting rather than attracting their ill-will.

Water (as often) can release the bewildered person.  Drinking the water from Fitz’s Well, near Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, dispels the glamour cast by the local pixies.  Apparently any running water may have the same effect and, in fact, it is possible that falling in a stream might be sufficient to break the spell.

Summary & Further Reading

Pixie-leading is only really something to be concerned about if you’re out walking in unfamiliar places in Cornwall or Devon.  The open moors are the likeliest locations, places where getting lost is, in any case, a considerable risk unless you’re well equipped with a map and compass.  Outside this area, it is a remote risk: as we’ve seen from the folklore, there are only isolated cases from North Wales, North Yorkshire and Orkney.

In many ways, as I’ve described, the fairies can treat humans like their playthings and pixie-leading is one of the most acute examples of this.  Unlike abductions, though, it is generally a very short-term and harmless experience.  People can occasionally be led to perilous spots, such as marshes or cliff tops, and a few react very seriously to the stress of the experience, but for most it is an annoyance and a bit of a fright, but no more.

For another examination of the subject, see Simon Young’s article Pixy Led in Devon and the South West, which is available through Academia.com.  I have, of course, read this, but in writing this posting I deliberately sought to reach my own conclusions based on the evidence that I had uncovered.  Simon had access to a range of other sources and therefore reaches other useful conclusions on the subject.  My posting on Glamour Houses deals with a related phenomenon, though admittedly a deception by the fairies undertaken for benign purposes.  My book, British Pixiesalso examines the theme of pixy-leading in detail and in the wider context of pixie behaviour overall.

Mermaid wisdom

-a-mermaid-combing-her-hair-goble

Warwick Goble,  A mermaid combing her hair

Mermaids are best known for their captivating beauty, a quality that can sometimes prove fatal to human lovers, and sometimes they display magical powers- they can predict the future, make curses and conjure up storms- but they are not usually thought of as founts of wisdom.  All the same, quite a few traditional folklore stories show that mermaids do have oracular powers.  Also, like oracles, it can sometimes be pretty hard to make sense of what they’re saying.

Cookery advice

Mermaids seem to have strong opinions about two matters in particular, human health and human cuisine.  The latter is especially surprising seeing as mermaids aren’t likely to cook anything at all and certainly not much that would be eaten by humans.  This doesn’t seem to stop them expressing their views, even so.  For instance, a mermaid caught in a fishing net off the Isle of Man was held captive for three weeks by the boat’s crew.  She refused to speak, eat or drink until they finally relented and took her down to the beach to set her free.  Other merfolk came to meet her at the sea’s edge and when she was asked what men were like, she said:

“Very ignorant- they throw away the water eggs are boiled in.”

Another mermaid, caught in nets near Fishguard in West Wales, advised:

“Skim the surface of the pottage before adding sweet milk.  It will be whiter and sweeter and less of it will do.”

This is probably very good advice, but how a mermaid would know about making soup with dairy products is anybody’s guess.

An incident from the Hebrides involves a mermaid escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him his failure can be ascribed to the dryness of his bread- whereas if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.

In one case the advice concerns the preparation of fish, which at least we can accept a mermaid might know about.  A mermaid had been trapped on the land by the magical means of sprinkling stale urine across her path (this works with fairies too).  She spoke only once in the week she spent ashore, to warn a woman gutting fish:

“Wash and clean well, there’s many a monster in the sea.”

In another case a mermaid has something to say about the preparation of fish, but in this case her words don’t seem to be about kitchen hygiene but instead are either a prediction or a grant of good fortune.  The mermaid had been caught on a hook by some Shetland fishermen; she begged to be freed and promised to grant them anything they wished for.  They returned her to the water and, before she sank beneath the waves, she declaimed a verse ending with the advice “Skoom well your fish.” One of the crew of the boat paid attention to her words and carefully skinned the next fish he caught.  He found a large and valuable pearl inside.

 

WarwickGoble_TheSea Fairies
Goble, Sea fairies

Cures & remedies

Mermaids also seem to know a good deal about human diseases and their treatment with herbal remedies.  In one Scottish case, a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore and called out:

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

A very similar story has the mermaid tell a sick girl’s lover about the mugwort remedy in good time; he makes a juice from the flower tops which saves his beloved.  There may well be some sound advice on herbal medicine being dispensed here, though once again quite what a sea dweller knows about weeds growing on dry land is another matter altogether.

warwick-goble-sea sprites

Goble, Sea sprites

Cryptic comments

Lastly, some of the mermaid sayings seem so cryptic it’s hard to make much sense at all of them.  Just before she dived out of sight beneath the waves, a mermaid who had been discovered sitting on a rock near Porth y Rhiw in South Wales said simply:

“Reaping in Pembrokeshire and weeding in Carmarthenshire.”

Another, who had become stranded on the beach as the tide went out at Balladoole on the Isle of Man called out to her rescuers:

“One butt in Ballacaigen is worth all of Balladoole.”

It’s may be possible to extract some sense from this, if the ‘butt’ refers to a barrel of fish.  If this is right, she may have been saying that the herring catch at the first location would always be better than that off the beach where she was found- a helpful hint for the men who saved her.

Summary

There’s a tendency to forget these days that mermaids are more than a pretty face (and figure) and that they have a society and a character as rounded and complex of that of the faeries.  They can be wise, they can be bewitching– and they can be deadly and dangerous.  I have tried to cover this in a succession of previous posts.

The material will appear in expanded form in a forthcoming book, ‘Fairy beasts,’ that is currently in preparation.

Goble mermaid

Goble, A mermaid

 

 

 

 

 

Contrary fairies

fairies-have-tiff-with-birds

Arthur Rackham, The fairies have a tiff with the birds

One thing that any regular reader of these pages- or of any materials on fairy-lore- will soon notice is that Faery is a place where contradictions are rife. Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs seems to have recognised this problem when she wrote that “it is possible for most people to keep two quite irreconcilable beliefs alive at the same time.” (The anatomy of Puck, p.5)  Morgan Daimler has recently said something very similar: ”

“When it comes to Fairy the only generality we can make is that we can’t easily make any generalities.” (Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk p.173)

Inconsistency and uncertainty seem par for the course in fairy studies.  There is a distinct lack of consensus as to the appearance of the fays (their height, their facial features, the presence or absence of wings) or regarding their dress.  I have discussed the range of opinion on these matters before on this blog and in chapters 1, 5 and 28 of my book British fairies.  Of course, one might fairly observe that a non-human, presented with a selection of humans of varying age, ethnicity and dressed in their traditional, indigenous costume, might be equally puzzled to determine what the ‘typical’ human looks like.  There are many sorts of fairies, so the lack of consistency in reports need not trouble us.

Non-believers will say that inconsistency in accounts is hardly remarkable, given that we’re discussing a wholly imaginary set of beings.  The believer, in contrast, may explain the contradictions  by pointing to the variety of fairy forms, their magical abilities and their well-known sense of mischief.  Janet Bord argues as much in her book Fairies: real encounters with the little people: discrepancies in descriptions of fairies’ height may all be put down to their use of glamour and illusion.  The agnostic researcher, wishing to take a more ‘scientific’ approach, and to aiming to discover the reason and logic behind fairy belief, might search for social and psychological explanations.

The biggest problem for any form of rational analysis of fairy accounts is the existence of downright irreconcilable differences between descriptions.  I shall highlight just four here to demonstrate my point.

Iron taboo

Iron is well-known as a material that repels fairies. A child in a cradle can be protected by scissors hung over it; shears placed in a chimney prevent fairy incursions by that route and a wise traveller will carry metal with them, even something as small as a pin, as a defence against supernatural encounters.  Tales are often told of rescues of abducted spouses from fairy hills; the rescuer will place his knife at the threshold in order to stop the entrance to the hill re-closing and trapping him.  This list could be extended considerably, but the principle is very well established. However, how do we explain fairies using metal tools- which they often do, as evidenced in the stories of human help being sought to repair demanded pails, pick axes and the like?  Even more aberrant, perhaps, there is a Shetland story of an abducted boy who returns home skilled in making scythes, a craft he has learned whilst living with the trows (see for example Magical folk pp.38, 133 & 135).

The fairies’ faith

Religion is another source of contraries, as I have mentioned in a recent posting.  The fairies are generally regarded as being heathens, or at least irreligious.  On that basis, charms that are just as efficacious as a piece of iron include a page from the Bible, the sign of the cross or the invocation of God or the saints.  Prompt baptism of a newborn will guard against its theft as a changeling.  This all seems quite reasonable, until it is set alongside other traditions that treat the fairies as being perfectly orthodox Christian folk, conducting christenings and the like, or as beings concerned for their place in creation and worried over whether they will share in the Christian salvation. Once again, both cannot apply, but a compromise is almost impossible (see Magical folk pp.120, 127 & 135).

Time in fairyland

The passing of time is a significant feature of many stories of fairyland.  I have alluded to this previously and it is pretty well known that time in Faery can pass at a different rate to time in the mortal world.  A night spent under a fairy knoll may transpire to have been a year or ten, or a century, in the ‘real’ world.  As might be imagined, the consequence of this for the returning visitor can be disastrous and tragic.  And yet- this is not always a problem.  Some visitors come and go without ill-effects; a midwife may be taken to attend a fairy birth and return home the same night; a husband may go to rescue his wife from the beneath the fairy hill and will do so in ‘real time.’  The fairies themselves may come and go from our world without difficulty.

Fairy food

I have remarked before that fairies can be described both as vegetarians and as keen hunters.  Lastly, still on the issue of diet, how about fairy attitudes to bread?  This may sound bizarre, but it was widely believed in Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influences.  Witness Robert Herrick’s brief rhyme:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

This may perhaps relate originally to carrying consecrated host, but it seems that ultimately any old slice of Hovis would do.  Now contrast the situation in Wales.  John Rhys tells of lake maidens (gwragedd annwn) lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are fussy though: not any old piiece of bara brith will do.  First the bread is too hard “Cras dy fara“, then too soft “Llaith dy fara,” until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3-6 & 27-30).

Inconclusions

It is not possible to be didactic, especially on the subject of beings who are invisible and secretive.  Contacts with them are rare and always fleeting, so any impressions formed will always be uncertain and unconfirmed.  As I’ve suggested, the want of congruity throughout the reports may seem to give excellent grounds for rejecting them all as fictions.  What is odd, though, is that these tales derive from a period when there was a genuine and widespread belief in (and fear of) fairies.  This being so, you might expect the folk stories to provide listeners with consistent and coherent statements about the supernaturals, so that audiences might be forewarned and forearmed.  The lack of correspondence between accounts might even be argued to be an indicator of authenticity.

We’ll summarise with the words of some fairy experts. Brian Froud, renowned fairy artist, was interviewed by Signe Pike for her 2010 book Faery tale.  He described to Pike his reaction to his first investigations into faery:

“At first I thought, I don’t know… all this sounds a bit weird… and at the same time, a lot of it sounded like common sense.  It’s very typical of faery, actually.  In one way it simplified everything for me, and at the same time, it suddenly made everything very complicated.” (p.86)

Fairies are often regarded as being creatures of the ‘betwixt and between’ (see for example Storm Faerywolf’s book on the fairy tradition of that title).  If this is so, it’s only fitting that our knowledge about them should, in the same way, be indeterminate and unsettled.  It’s typical too of the fairies to want to withhold something from us- whether it’s their name or full knowledge of their personalities.  I’ll conclude this brief survey of contrariety with some very fitting words from the first paragraph of the first chapter of Morgan Daimler’s recent bookNoting the conflicting descriptions of fairies, she states:

“None of them are wrong, and none of them are exactly right either, and that’s your first lesson about Fairy: it is in all ways and always a contradiction.”