‘Adar Rhiannon’- fairy birds

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Adar Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

In Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins you will find the story of Shon ap Shenkin:

“Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin [in Carmarthenshire]. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning, he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farm-house which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never before seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. ‘What do I want here?’ ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; ‘that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?’ ‘In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?’ ‘Under the tree!-music! what’s your name?’ ‘Shon ap Shenkin.’ ‘Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!’ cried the old man. ‘I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.’ With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.” (Sikes pp.92-94)

In several respects this is a typical story about the differential passage of time in Faery and the mortal risks faced by a human returning home.  Such accounts date back to King Herla in the Middle Ages.  Of course, Shon is not aware of any journey to Faery at all; he simply sat in the shade by the roadside, but somehow was transported from this world.

However, what interests me in the tale are two of the details- the tree and the bird.  The tree is said to be a sycamore, which is unusual; it would not have surprised me to learn that it was a hawthorn (or perhaps an elder).  These are notorious fairy trees with which the Good Folk and magical properties have always been closely associated; sycamores don’t seem to have these traditional associations.

The other feature is the bird.  I have discussed the faery nature of certain insects (bees and moths) and fairies fleeing a human’s presence have not infrequently been compared to birds, but the evidence of a fairy nature is much harder to find in the fairylore of the British Isles.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

Scraps of evidence are present, nonetheless.  Evans Wentz mentions Breton fairies who take the form of ducks, swans and magpies (an especially significant bird in British folklore) whilst in Ireland fairies and some of the goddesses of the Tuatha de Danaan appear as crows.  (Fairy Faith pp.200 & 305-7)  From the Isle of Man, there is a fascinating little story about a notorious fairy woman whose beauty was deadly to local men.  She would bewitch them with her charms and then lead groups of them together int the sea, where they drowned.  The people resolved to end this slaughter and plotted to catch and kill her.  To escape, the fairy took the form of a wren.  She survived, but every New Year’s Day she must become a wren once more and face being hunted and killed in a traditional January 1st ceremony.

From Oxfordshire there comes the story of True John and Greedy Jack, a tale that pits a man favoured by the fairies against a jealous neighbour.  Both farmers had apple trees, but John’s produced abundant fruit and were always full of crowds of small green birds whilst, at night, small lights were seen in the branches, accompanied by singing and perfume.  Jack was envious and one day tried shooting at the trees with a shot gun to scare off the birds and damage the fruit.  Instead, it was his own fruit that were peppered with shot and the birds pecked at his face.  After this, Jack lost all his luck.  When John died, Jack cut down the bounteous tree hoping to drive the birds to live in his own, but instead a mighty wind arose and flattened his orchard.  Neither the birds nor the lights were seen again.  Both for their colour and for their close association to the lights, these are very obviously faery birds, a fact that should have been clear to Jack.  From that, it should have been clear in turn that he could not force the fairies into favouring him over his rival.  His downfall followed inexorably.  The protective role of faeries towards apple trees is something I’ve commented upon in several previous posts, too.

Lastly, as Sikes himself records, there is the ancient Welsh legend of the Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon). Rhiannon is one of the goddesses or fairy women of Welsh myth.  Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep.”  In a clear sign of their magical or faery nature, the birds can be remote but sound as if they are very near.

This legend appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). Seven men only had escaped from a large force that had followed King Bran across the sea to fight the Irish.  Bran himself had died of his wounds, but had commanded the survivors to cut off his head and bury it under Tower Hill in London. On their way there, the men paused at Harlech in North Wales to rest and feast. Three birds came and began singing to them so sweetly that all the songs they had ever heard before seemed unpleasant in comparison.  The feast and birdsong were so enchanting, they remained listening for seven years.  (see Sikes p.2 and Evans Wentz pp.329 & 334)

The sweetness of song and the dislocation of time (for a period of years of considerable magical significance) are found in the Welsh myth just as in the story of Sion ap Senkin.  It seems clear from these scattered remnants that there was once a much completer knowledge of the nature and powers of faery birds, something that we have sadly lost with the passage of the years.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

For more on fairy animals generally, see my recently published book Faery.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Fairy Friends- desirable or not?

 

Hilda Cowham, The surprise
Hilda Cowham, The Surprise’

Fairies can rarely be described as genuinely friendly to human kind, it is sad to report.  They will be lovers and parents of children, it is true, and they may take a liking to an individual and bestow gifts upon them, but the commonest interactions tend to be antagonism or avoidance, as I’ve often described.  Amicable relations are very infrequently described, which is why I’ve gathered together the scattered references here.

Domestic Companions

As might be expected, we are most likely to become acquainted with those faes who live closest to us.  In the British Library there’s a seventeenth century manuscript that deals with spirits such as the brownies, hobgoblins and Robin Goodfellows.  It explains how these are:

“more familiar and domestical that the others … [which] abide in one place more than another so that almost never depart from some particular houses, as though they were their proper mansions, making in them sundrie noises, rumours, mockeries, gawds and jests, without doing any harm at all, and some have heard them play at gitterns and Jew’s harps and ring bells and to make answer to those that call to them, and speake with certain signes, laughters and merry gestures, so that those of the house come at last to be so familiar and well acquainted with them that they fear them not all.” (MS Harleian 6482)

This comfortable familiarity is reflected in two other stories of such spirits.  The first dates from the reign of Richard I, from Dagworth in Suffolk.  The manor house of Sir Osbern de Bradwell became the home of a being called Malekin, a small changeling girl who had apparently been abducted from her home in nearby Lavenham by the fairies.

“At first, the knight’s wife and his whole family were exceedingly terrified by her conversation, but having become accustomed to her words and the ridiculous things she did, they talked to her confidently and familiarly, asking her about many things.  She spoke in English, according to the dialect of the region, but occasionally even in Latin and discoursed on the Scriptures to the knight’s chaplain… She could be heard and felt, but hardly ever seen, except once when she was seen by a chamber maid in the shape of a very tiny infant who was dressed in a kind of white tunic…”

Malekin also consumed food and drink that was left out for her and was evidently very much a part of the household.  Much more recently, something similar is told about Yorkshire farmer George Gilbertson and his family, who shared their home with a boggart (although it was never seen).  It was practical joker, as is the way with boggarts, but the children of the house found that it would play happily with them- if they pushed items through a knot hole in a cupboard, the boggart would immediately pop them back out again.  The children called this ‘laiking [playing, in Yorkshire dialect] wi’ t’boggart.’ (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.307)

Faeries can, therefore, be quite pleasant house guests, as long as you can put up with their high spirits and practical sense of humour.  They are often most friendly with domestic staff: Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft described how they would “sport themselves in the night by tumbling and fooling with servants and shepherds in country houses” and Robin Goodfellow (or Puck) was particularly known for his friendliness towards maids, performing their chores for them at night- although this was generally done secretly and anonymously without any suggestion of an amicable, social relationship as well (Scot, 1584, Book III, c.4)

Grace Jones, Fairies' Good night 1924
Jones, The Fairies’ Goodnight, 1924

Faery Playmates

There’s also evidence of faeries befriending lonely servants and farm maids and entertaining them with music, dance and company.  I’ll cite three cases, all from the West of Britain.  John Rhys tells the story of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, near Carmarthen.  She was hired by an elderly couple to help on their farm.  Eilian got into the habit of spinning outside in a meadow by moonlight, where the tylwyth teg would visit her and sing and dance as she worked.  Eventually, the girl disappeared with the fairies and it later turned out that she had been taken to be a fairy wife. (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 211-212).

Very close to this story is that of Shui Rhys of Cardiganshire.  She looked after her parents’ cows and often stayed out in the fields very late.  She was told off by her mother and blamed the spirits: little people in green would come to her, dance and play music around her and speak to her in a language she couldn’t understand.  These contacts were allowed to continue, for fear of offending the fairies, but it was a risky strategy and, eventually, Shui disappeared just like Eilian (Sikes, British Goblins 67-69).

The story of Anne Jeffries from Cornwall is comparable to these.  She had deliberately gone out, trying to make contact with the fairies by repeating little verses to summon them, and eventually they came to her in her garden.  Six little men in green appeared to her one day, showered her with kisses- and then carried her off to Faery.  She stayed there only a short while, until a violent dispute arose over her affections, after which she was ejected, but the fairies continued to favour her with healing knowledge and a supply of food.

These examples have to be viewed more ambivalently, as the fairies’ great friendliness to these isolated girls seem to have been a pretext for lulling their suspicions prior to abducting them.  These ulterior motives may well sound rather more familiar and fit rather better with the impression of fairy character that most folk accounts give.

Summary

Fairies will be amicable and accommodating, therefore, but it seems that it is often done with a view to what might be received in return.  Fairy authority Katharine Briggs, in her 1978 book Vanishing People, gave this rather harsh summary of the fairy temperament:

“the kindness of the fairies was often capricious and little mercy mingled with their justice… We are dealing with a pendulous people, trembling on the verge of annihilation, whose mirth is often hollow and whose beauty is precarious and glamorous.  From such, no great compassion can be expected.” (p.161)

Fairy friendship is available, therefore, but it should always be approached with caution.  Their amity towards humans may not be as open and free as we would expect from other people.

 

 

‘A geography of trees’- wood elves in myth and popular culture

 

Female_HalfElf

“… like a wind out of fairy-land
Where little people live
Who need no geography
But trees.”           (Hilda Conkling [1910-86], Geography, 1920)

Today probably most people, if asked, would imagine elves and fairies gambolling in a woodland setting.  This appears to have become a very strong convention within our popular visual culture, yet it is not traditional to British fairy lore (despite a few links between fairies and particular trees, most notably in Gaelic speaking areas where the fairy thorn has particular power and significance- see for examples poems of this name by Samuel Ferguson and Dora Sigerson Shorter). I wish therefore in this posting to examine how this prevalent image came about.

Shakespeare

Although the fairy king Oberon is met in a forest in the thirteenth century romance epic Huon of Bordeuax, but I believe the primary source of our close association between fairies and forests is Shakespeare, both the ‘wood near Athens’ which features in Midsummer night’s dream and in which Titania, Oberon, Puck and the other fairies make their home, and the open woodland of Windsor Great Park that features in the Merry Wives of Windsor and which is the scene of Falstaff’s believed encounter with the fairy queen and her train.  Whilst their ultimate roots may lie with the dryads and hamadryads of classical myth, it was these theatrical presentations of fairies that first really fixed the woodland elf in the English speaking public’s imagination.  Much subsequent literature and visual art has cemented the pairing to the extent that it appears inevitable, but there is little trace of it in older sources or in British folklore.

British fairy homes

The British fairy, according to older writers, could be found in a variety of locations.  They frequented mountains, caverns, meadows and fields, fountains, heaths and greens, hills and downland, groves and woods.  Generally, they were more likely to be found in ‘wild places.’ Residence underground- whether in caves or under hills- is a commonly featured preference and I have often mentioned the presence of fairies under knolls and barrows.  Woods feature in these sources, it’s perfectly true, but they are far from the most commonly mentioned locations.  (I have considered here Reginald Scot, Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy, Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares and a few medieval texts.)  The South English legendary of the thirteenth or fourteenth century is especially interesting reading in this connection: elves are seen, we are informed, “by daye much in wodes… and bi nightes ope heighe dounes…”- in other words, they frequent woods during the day (presumably for concealment from human eyes) but resort to open hill tops at night for their revelries.

A particularly relevant source is the Welsh minister, the Reverend Edmund Jones. In his 1780 history of the superstitions of Aberystruth parish he recorded the contemporary views locally on the most likely locations for seeing fairies.  They did not like open, plain or marshy places, he reported, but preferred those that were dry and near to or shaded by spreading branches, particularly those of hazel and oak trees (The appearance of evil, para.56).  Jones’ description fits the open oak parkland of Windsor perfectly, where Falstaff is duped by those merry wives and their gang of children disguised as elves.  It’s also notable that Wirt Sikes in his British goblins locates the Welsh elves (ellyllon) in groves and valleys.  In Wales at least, then, an open wooded landscape was believed in popular tradition to be the fairies’ preferred habitat.

EnchantedForest_Fitzgerald

John Anster Fitzgerald, The enchanted forest

Woodland fays

Woods were one of the favoured resorts for the fairy folk, then, but not their sole preserve.  It seems to be in Victorian times that woodland elves became the cliche that we encounter today.  I have (for better or ill) read a lot of Victorian fairy verse and certain stereotyped images are very well worn: moonlight, dancing in rings, woodland glades.  Here are just a few examples to indicate what you’ll see ad nauseam.  The connection begins to appear in the eighteenth century (see for example the “fairy glade” of Sir James Beattie’s The minstrel and The palace of fortune by Sir William Jones, 1769). References multiply throughout the next hundred years and into the last century: the “sylvan nook where fairies dwell” of Janet Hamilton’s Pictures of memory; Ann Radcliffe’s “woodlands dear” and “forest walks” in Athlin and The glow-worm; the “woodways wild” of Madison Julius Cawein’s Prologue and the “fairy wood” in his Elfin; the “woodland fays” that appear in George Pope Morris’ Croton Mode.  By then well-established, these fays persisted into the twentieth century, in “some dark and mystic glade” of Tennessee Williams’ Under April rain or the “nymphs of a dark forest” of Edna St Vincent Millay.  All of this imagery transferred to the visual arts, too, especially to the illustrations of children’s books.

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, ‘The fairy way’

Tolkien’s elves

Once this image was embedded in the culture, it proved almost impossible to eradicate.  J. R. R. Tolkien absorbed it and the Silvan or Wood Elves of Lord of the Rings are the result; Galadriel is one of the Galadhrim (the tree people) of Lorien.  Tolkien’s influence in recent decades has been extensive and powerful.  An example might be Led Zeppelin, whose own highly influential Stairway to heaven invokes images of fairyland where “the forests shall echo with laughter.”  The pervasive idea was that the natural habitat of the fairy is the forest.

It might not be inappropriate to conclude with more lines from infant prodigy Hilda Conkling.  In If I could tell you the way she described how-

“Down through the forest to the river
I wander…
Fairies live here;
They know no sorrow.
Birds, winds,
They are the only people.
If I could tell you the way to this place,
You would sell your house and your land
For silver or a little gold,
You would sail up the river,
Tie your boat to the Black Stone,
Build a leaf-hut, make a twig-fire,
Gather mushrooms, drink spring-water,
Live alone and sing to yourself
For a year and a year and a year!”

MWT-G3804-330 Fairies Market

Margaret Tarrant, The fairies market, 1921

Further reading

For a wider consideration of the relationship between fays and trees, see Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.  See my other postings for thoughts on eco-fairies and fairies at the bottom of your garden.

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

 

 

“A witchery of sound”- ‘ceol sidhe’ or fairy music

ceol sidhe

‘Flute fairy’ by Svetlana Chezhina

“There’s many feet on the moor to-night, and they fall so light as they turn and pass,
So light and true that they shake no dew from the featherfew and the hungry grass.
I drank no sup and I broke no crumb of their food, but dumb at their feast sat I;
For their dancing feet and their piping sweet, now I sit and greet till I’m like to die.

Oh kind, kind folk, to the words you spoke I shut my ears and I would not hear!
And now all day what my own kin say falls sad and strange on my careless ear;
For I’m listening, listening, all day long to a fairy song that is blown to me,
Over the broom and the canna’s bloom, and I know the doom of the Ceol-Sidhe.

I take no care now for bee or bird, for a voice I’ve heard that is sweeter yet.
My wheel stands idle: at death or bridal apart I stand and my prayers forget.
When Ulick speaks of my wild-rose cheeks and his kind love seeks out my heart that’s cold,
I take no care though he speaks me fair for the new love casts out the love that’s cold.

I take no care for the blessed prayer, for my mother’s hand or my mother’s call.
There ever rings in my ear and sings, a voice more dear and more sweet than all.
Cold, cold’s my breast, and broke’s my rest, and oh it’s blest to be dead I’d be,
Held safe and fast from the fairy blast, and deaf at last to the Ceol-Sidhe!”

This poem, ‘The fairy music’ by Nora Chesson Hopper, captures the enchantment and other worldliness that it is associated with fairy music.  Previously I have discussed the fairies’ liking for music and song and what seems to be the generally pleasure-seeking nature of their existence (see my earlier posting on  fairy pastimes as well as chapter 11 of my British fairies).  According to John Dunbar of Invereen, one of folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz’ Highland informants, the fairies were “awful for music, and used to be heard often playing the bagpipes.” (The fairy faith in Celtic countriesp.95)

Fairy musical skill

What I would like to do now in this posting is to discuss the actual nature and sound of that fairy music, based upon the first hand testimonies of those who have claimed to have been fortunate enough to have heard it.  Nonetheless, there are a number of themes associated with fairy music which we may quickly recap:

  • the music is often heard coming from particular knolls, hills or barrows, in which the fairies are taken to reside.  This is a very common local story and it can be found from the Fairy Knowe on Skye to the ‘music barrows’ of southern England, for example at Bincombe Down and Culliford Tree in Dorset and Wick Moor, near Stogursey in Somerset.
  • fairy musical skills and even instruments can be granted to fortunate humans.  There are several sets of bagpipes in Scotland alleged to be fairy gifts.  Fairy musical ability could be a blessing that made a man and his heirs rich (Evans- Wentz p.103). It could also be a curse, too: the favoured one might die young, being taken back by the fairies to play for them (Evans-Wentz p.40).
  • conversely, talented human musicians were from time to time abducted to satisfy the powerful fairy need for music and dance.  Almost always they met the fate of all who tarry in Faery.  They believed that they had played for just a night, but find all transformed on their return home.
  • fairy music can have magical or enchanting power- for example, from Ireland come stories of those who, on hearing it, felt compelled to dance- and then had to continue until they dropped from sheer exhaustion (Evans-Wentz p.69).  Coleridge in his poem The eolian harp described “Such a soft floating witchery of sound/ As twilight Elfins make;”  deliberately or not, a spell seemed to be cast upon the listening human; and,
  • occasionally, humans are able to commit a fairy tune to memory and contribute it to the mortal repertoire.  One such is Be nort da deks o’ Voe from Shetland. Two Welsh examples are Cân y tylwyth teg and Ffarwel Ned Pugh (see Wirt Sikes, British goblins c.7 and also Evans Wentz Fairy faith pp.118 & 131- two examples from Man).

The last two points are of particular significance into an enquiry into what fairy music actually sounds like.  Most of our older sources are not very helpful on this.  In his history of Aberystruth parish, the Reverend Edmund Jones in 1779 is typical of the vague descriptions normally found: “everyone said [the music] was low and pleasant, but none could ever learn the tune.”  Gathering evidence for his book The fairy faith in Celtic countriesEvans-Wentz was told that fairy music consisted of tunes not of this world, unlike anything a mortal man ever heard (pp.124 & 24), being the finest, grandest and most beautiful kind (pp.32, 47 & 57).  Evans-Wentz was informed that it often continued over an extended period- an hour or even a whole night.

Ninfa

‘A little night music’ by David Delamare

The sound of fairy music

Evidently the otherworldly nature of the music gave witnesses problems when they later tried to describe their experiences.  The testimony of those of a more artistic temperament might therefore prove more enlightening.  Poet and mystic George Russell (AE) told Evans-Wentz that he first listened to the music in the air on a hillside in County Sligo.  He heard “what seemed to be the sound of bells, and was trying to understand these aerial clashings in which wind seemed to break upon wind in an ever-changing musical silvery sound.” (p.61)  This leads us much closer to the reality and, in fact, the best account comes from a close friend of Russell and his wife, the visionary writer Ella Young.  Over the summer of 1917 and into 1918 she repeatedly heard the ceol sidhe, which in her opinion surpassed human symphonies.  Interestingly the very same description was used on the Isle of Man in the 1720s (Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook, Magical folk, 2018p.173).

The fairy music was, Young said, “orchestral and of amazing richness and complexity.”  The melodies could be exquisite, sometimes like very fast reels, at others slow and wistful.  On August 27th 1917 she described “a certain monotony like slow moving waves with a running melody on the crests.”  Interwoven with this might be voices singing in an unknown tongue, either solo or resembling Gregorian chant.  Young noted “delicate and intricate rhythms” in a variety of tempos, including “music of stricken anvils.”  She heard a “myriad, myriad instruments” among which she mentioned cymbals, bells (both silvery tinkling and deep tolling), trumpets, harps, violins, drums, pipes, organs and bagpipes.  Several times, though, she could not compare the sound to anything she knew from earthly ensembles; she heard “very high notes- higher than any human instrument could produce,” “something like a Jew’s harp” and “a curious reedy instrument.”  Again, Young was not alone in this: George Waldron recorded that on Man in the 1720s islanders would hear “Musick, as could proceed from no earthly instruments” (Magical folk, p.173).

Despite her eloquence and sensitivity, Young struggled to give a clear account; it was “not music I can describe… it is beyond words.”   Moreover, she found it “difficult to recall this music and the sensation it creates.”  Nevertheless, she wrote (in terms similar to Russell’s) that the orchestral sound resembled a “wave or gush of wind” and that its effect was to create “a sense of freedom and exultation.”

Young harboured some doubts over her aural visions.  She wrote on September 9th 1917 that “my head has been for several days quite normal,” but then she heard the sounds again and concluded “I think the singing in my head was really astral.” In other words, its origin was aethereal and unearthly.  She believed that all could hear the same if only they drew closer to nature and had a peaceful and patient heart.

It is difficult to know quite what to make of this.  Young herself admitted concerns over her own sanity, but at the same time W. B. Yeats and both AE and his wife heard the same “faery chimes” and “solemn undertone” of song.  Furthermore, as noted earlier, these experiences could last for hours; this lessens the likelihood that they can be dismissed as temporary auditory delusions.  Either these witnesses all hallucinated together or these highly detailed and circumstantial experiences record some actual sensations.  The consensus, at least amongst poets, was certainly to confirm that pipes and, particularly, bells were characteristic of fairy music (see for example Ceol sidhe by Francis Ledwidge or Fairy ring by Abbie Farwell Brown).

cicely-mary-barker-fairy orchestra

Cicely Mary Barker, ‘Fairy orchestra’

The soft low music of the tribe

In conclusion, whatever its nature, the idea of fairy music has always had an aura of mystery and enchantment and, as such, has always attracted poets.  The opening verse from Nora Hopper embodied this, but even a poet like Rose Fyleman, whose fairy verse was generally very anodyne and was aimed at a junior audience, could still suggest a little of that magical strangeness; here’s her poem ‘Fairy music’:

“When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.

When birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din-
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.

When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals,
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.

Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope- these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.”

Perhaps our best response is to hope to share Ella Young’s experiences and to know for ourselves that “This astral music is very much in sound delicately beautiful.”  As Irish poet William Sharp wrote in his verse The nine desires, it is “The desire of the poet, the soft, low music of the Tribe of the Green Mantles.”

Further reading

There are words to accompany this music, too, and I describe Young’s experience of that in a separate post on fairy speech and song.

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

 

 

On my fairy bookshelf

cover

I have created a recommended fairy books page to complement my website list, this time offering a guide to what I consider to be the best books on fairy-lore available.

Naturally, I would urge you all to purchase a copy of my own British fairies (and to read my three fairy novels!), but should you want to read more broadly and more deeply, click here to read more about what you should be reading more about!

See also my own faery publications here as well as my list of useful fairy websites.

Faery goats

The Goat and the Vine
The Goat and the Vine. Aesop ‘s Fables. 1933 edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

I could have chosen quite a number of beasts to discuss, as many wild and domesticated breeds have been seen as fairy animals, but I have a decades old affection for goats.  I’ve never yet owned or cared for one of the creatures, but I’ve always wanted to and I’ve not given up my aspirations yet!

There’s something about a goat (its inquisitive nature, its toughness, its cheekiness, its omnivorous taste for chewing anything- including your clothes-  and the way they sneeze on the pollen in meadows) that draws you and gives them a character that sheep wholly lack.  Our forebears appreciated this too and so goats have fairy associations all over the British Isles.

R Doyle, Girls combing goats beards

Richard (Dickie) Doyle, Girls combing goats’ beards.

Evidence

Whilst the association made between fairies and goats is to be encountered in folklore from Highland Scotland all the way down to West Cornwall (what we might call the ‘Celtic fringe’) some of the best evidence is from Wales, as set out in Sikes’ British Goblinschapter 4.

The bad-natured female fairies, the gwyllion, were closely linked with goats, which were themselves esteemed for their occult knowledge and powers.  The Tylwyth Teg were said to comb goats’ beards every Friday so as to make them presentable on Sunday (a curious notion that says more about Welsh religiosity than the faith of the fairies).  In the tale of Cadwaladr’s goat, Jenny the female goat turned out to be a fairy maiden in disguise, who led Cadwaladr to the court of the fairy goat king.

Keightley gives the Highland tale of the Tacksman of Auchriachan.  It is a story of fairy theft from the tacksman (tenant farmer).  He hears the fairies in their knoll planning their pilfering whilst he is far away from his home “in search of our allies, the goats.”

Symbolism

There may be a connection here with the devil; the horned goat is a well-known symbol of Satan.  It is notable, too, that in Highland Scotland, at least, there was a belief (reported by some of Evans Wentz’ informants) that the origin of fairies was as fallen angels whose descent ended on the earth surface rather than in hell.  Additionally, in western symbolism the goat represents lust and lubricity, so that it may be a trope for fairy wantonness.  The horns might also denote supernatural power (see J. C. Cooper, An illustrated encyclopaedia of traditional symbols, Thames & Hudson).

Whatever the exact nature of the goat’s supernatural affinities, I decided to make use of them in my children’s story, The Derrick.  Set in Dorset, there is a strong tradition in Britain, and in the South-West of England in particular, of being ‘pixy-led’ astray by either the Will of the Wisp or by mischievous pixies. Turning an item of clothing inside out is often the only remedy to find your right way home again.  In my story the main characters. Thom and his brother, are led astray one evening by faery goats.  They are the first sign that the farm where the boys are spending their holiday is under the spell of faery.

arthurrackham-goats

Arthur Rackham, The wolf and the seven kids.

“Even lovers drown”- mermaids and faery

Rackham Mermaids

Arthur Rackham, ‘They have sea green hair’ from ‘Three Golden Apples’

“A mermaid found a swimming lad,

Picked him for her own,

Pressed his body to her body,

Laughed; and plunging down

Forgot in cruel happiness

That even lovers drown.”

W. B. Yeats, ‘The mermaid’ from The Tower, 1928

It is not, of course, possible to undertake a serious taxonomy of imaginary beasts, but personally I have never considered mermaids to be fairies: they cannot disappear, they have no magical powers (mostly) and they are often at the mercy of humans.  They seem too solid and physical; fairies are terrestrial whilst mermaids are marine.  They are semi-human, with some supernatural qualities, but they are not in the same dimension are fairies, I would contend.

Types of sea spirit

As stated, a phylogeny of creatures that are the products of mythology rather than biology is futile, but we can still offer some sort of classification and analysis:

  • mermaids and mermen are part human, part fish and are found around the coasts of England and Wales;
  • seal people including the selkies of Orkney and Shetland and the roane of the Highlands and islands are humans who can assume a seal skin to move through the sea.  Comparable are the merrows of Ireland.

Mermaids and seal people are often captured and made into the wives of human males, the mermaids by being stranded at low tide and the seal maidens by having their seal skins found and hidden after they have shed them on the shore.  These wives always pine for the sea and, eventually, escape back to it.

Ashore, mermaids are usually helpless and are at the mercy of the men who find them.  If they are assisted back into the sea, they may well grant magical protection to their saviours; if aid is refused, the men may be cursed.

Mermaid wisdom

The lure of mermaids for men appears to be their semi-naked state, their beauty- and most notably their hair- and their strange gnomic sayings, which added to their mysterious aura.  One of the more comprehensible sayings is recorded as follows: a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore.  She called out-

“If they wad drink nettles in March/ And eat muggons in May/ Sae mony braw maidens/ Wadna gang to the clay.” (R. Chambers, Popular rhymes of Scotland, 1870, p.331)

The advice in this case seems sound: nettles, taken as tea or soup, are diuretic and are a good source of minerals and vitamins; mugwort is both a tonic and vermifuge.

Doubtless mermaids and fairies both were invented by our ancestors to explain sudden and inexplicable illness (see too my next post) and storms, drownings and disappearances.  There must, too, be some measure of anthropomorphising of seals, glimpsed floating in the waves and mistaken for humans.

Generally, mermaids lack magical abilities, although their deaths may provoke (or be avenged by) storms.  In some cases they can control the waves by their words; in other instances their power is not innate but derives from an article such as a cap or a leather mantle.

Some mermaids, beautiful as they may seem, are in truth monsters who lure fishermen to their deaths.  For Yeats, as seen in the verse above, this may be through a combination of accident and neglect.  Sometimes, too, these unions need not be tragic, as with the mermaid of Zennor in Penwith who lured away Mathey Trewella to live with her; he was lost to his human friends and relations but apparently did not perish.  Indeed, Cornish mermaids are generally more fairy-like in their attributes.  In the story of ‘Lutey and the mermaid’ a fisherman of Cury on the Lizard was granted three wishes by a stranded mermaid whom he rescued.  Likewise in the ‘Old man of Cury’ a mermaid found and returned to the waves at Kynance Cove provided a magical comb by which she could be summoned to provide arcane knowledge to her saviour.  For these stories see Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England.

Fresh water beasts

Mermaids and selkies are strictly salt water beings.  A variety of fresh water spirits or monsters are identified by folklore, such as Jenny Greenteeth who drags children into ponds, and kelpies.  There are also marine monsters (see my earlier post on fairy beasts).  All of these have only one characteristic- destroying human life- and they lack any personality and society like fairies ‘proper.’  That said, in north-west England is found the Asrai, an aquatic fairy occasionally dredged in nets from pools and lakes, but which melts away in the air very quickly.  In Wales the Gwragedd Annwn are lake maidens who emerge from inland waters and occasionally marry young men- but always on their own terms and subject to their own conditions, which are ultimately always breached by their husbands, causing the water fairy to return home forever.

Froud MM

Brian Froud, A mermaid

Further reading

Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880) devotes his third chapter to the gwragedd annwn, recounting various folk tales and, in passing, observing that these fresh water sprites exist in the absence of mermaids in Welsh mythology.  Katherine Briggs provides full details of all these stories and others concerning selkies in her Dictionary of fairies ; she also directs readers to Sea enchantresses by Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh (London 1961).  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have posted more recently on freshwater mere-maids, on the asrai, a particularly vulnerable type of British fresh water fairy, and on the variety of supernatural water beasts.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see too my post on mermaid wisdom.

Lastly, Charles Kingsley in The water babies had his own unique slant on the idea of the marine fairy and I have examined this separately.