What’s in a Name? Using the right terms for the faeries

Recently I’ve been researching the pixies of south-west Britain for my book, British Pixies, and, in so doing, encountered serious problems in pinning down the basic terminology used by authors such as Robert Hunt and William Borlase and (presumably) their local Cornish sources.  There are at least five terms used to label the fairy folk of the south-west: pixies, pobel vean (little people), spriggans, knockers and buccas.  A couple of these words seem to be Cornish and, we might be tempted to suggest, are older and more authentic than some of the other terms.  The word pixie/ pisky would seem to be a later import, if we are correct in supposing that it is related to the pucks of England and the pwcca of Wales and is (probably) a Germanic word originally.  The bucca certainly seems to be an identical being.  Some of the folklore writers tried to make distinctions between this multiplicity of words: for instance, the pobel vean were said to be smaller and more beautiful; the knockers lived in mines; the spriggans were ugly and evil.  The truth is, though, that reading the sources, we find the words being used interchangeably, so that Cornish witnesses can speak of knockers as buccas or can use the latter word to denote both pixies and the pobel vean.

Precision seems both impossible and, very probably, unnecessary.  This example is reflective of a wider problem within the British Isles, where successive layers of incoming speech have led to an overlapping vocabulary, which can tempt us into imagining differences (or even similarities) that don’t exist.  Over and above this, of course, there is the additional problem of the faeries not wanting us to know what they really call themselves, for fear of giving us power over them). Here are a few other instances of the taxonomic confusion.

Isle of Man: the island’s fairies are often called the ferrish (singular)/ ferrishyn (plural)This could be a Manx word, but compare it with authentically Manx Celtic terms like mooinjer veggy or sleigh beggey, meaning the little people.  Ferrishyn seems suspiciously similar, to me, to the terms ferishers, feriers, fraries and, even, farisees/ pharisees used in Norfolk and Suffolk in the east of England.  On Orkney and Shetland you might encounter the pronunciation ferries. Recalling the Highland Gaelic tendency to turn a final ‘s’ into ‘sh,’ this could indicate the route by which Manx speakers arrived at ferrish.  Whatever the exact derivation, these are all dialect versions of ‘fairies’ and, as such, aren’t themselves hugely old.  Katherine Briggs drew a comparison with the feorin of the English North West, but, as Simon Young has demonstrated, this is most probably derived from ‘fear’- something that scares you. 

Wales: there seem to be several good, genuine, Welsh words in use, many of them euphemisms. These include tylwyth teg, bendith y mamau (the mother’s blessings), y dynion mwyn (the kind people), y teulu (the tribe), gwragedd anwyl (the beloved women), yr elod (‘the intelligences’- perhaps, the ‘wise’ or ‘all-knowing’ ones), pwcca and ellyllon.  All’s not what it seems, however.  As already mentioned, pwcca could just be a borrowing across the border.  Likewise, ellyllon is simply the Welsh rendering of the English ‘elves’ and even tylwyth teg, ‘the fair folk’ may be a mistaken rendering of fairies, based on the assumption that the core of the English word was ‘fair’ as in good-looking. I need hardly say that y goblin bach, the little goblin, is not a deeply authentic Welsh label.

England: the foregoing sections suggest the invasive power of the English language (which is true) but let’s not forget that Anglo-Saxon was itself steadily overwhelmed by subsequent influxes of Romance and other languages.  Old English ‘elf’ still survives, especially in lowland Scotland, but it generally plays second best to a French import, fay/ fairy, a word which has been adopted as a handy, catch-all labelOther continental importations include goblin, from the French gobelin, and Scandinavian troll (which is the root of the trows of Orkney and Shetland too).  Both goblin and trow seem to have been required because there wasn’t a decent English equivalent.  Anglo-Saxon had used the word dweorg, meaning a small, malicious elf-like being. This vanished from standard English- along with any concept of ‘dwarves’ as a species of supernatural entity.  In Dorset, there is still the derrick, a name that’s derived from dweorg and which is now applied to a little man who’s often said to be a local kind of pixie… 

Much more recently, as I’ve described before, we’ve imported Latin and Greek words like nymph, naiad and siren as extra terms to use in parallel with fairy, elf and mermaid.  We’ve also adopted entirely made-up names, such as gnome and sylph.  As mentioned in a previous posting, these were dreamed up by Paracelsus, but they’ve assumed a place in the language, to the extent that gnomes have even been accepted as a separate genus of fairy being.

These imported names can add variety to texts- and I’m as guilty as any of switching from one to another just to avoid monotony- but they can also create the impression that the landscape is peopled with a dense confusion of different types of being, whereas we may, in most instances, be dealing with only a handful of types.  Broadly, in Britain, we can probably narrow matters down to fairies/ elves and brownies/ hobs/ boggarts.  The rest is probably just a matter of differences of terminology (and this is before we’ve even considered all the very local names that exist: dobbies, powries, dunters, red caps, piskies etc etc)…. 

Emmeline Richardson

Hairy fairies

young girl among the faeries

Young Girl Among The Fairies by Brian Froud

What’s fairies’ hair like?  We have a few scraps of evidence on the matter, which gives us some quite surprising answers.

Our tendency today is to envisage beautiful fays with gorgeous locks- and these ideas are not solely a product of our more recent benign and lovely image of our Good Neighbours.  It’s been said that the faes have a preference for taking fair-haired human children and this predilection seems to have been transferred to the abductors as well as the abductees.

In Victorian times, for example, Angus Macleod of Harris eulogised as follows:

“Their heavy brown hair was streaming down to their waist and its lustre was of the fair golden sun of summer.  Their skin was as white as the swan of the wave, and their voice was as melodious as the mavis of the wood, and they themselves were as beauteous of feature and as lithe of form as a picture, while their step was as lithe and stately and their minds as sportive as the little red hind of the hill.” (see Wentz, p.116)

One Welsh story informs us that the tylwyth teg ideal of beauty is red-hair and many of the more romantic accounts of fairy troops and fairy queens portray them with flowing, glossy manes.  This isn’t the whole story, though.

Shaggy Sith

In 1792 an account of the parish of Liberton in Edinburgh described the local fairy women as being “girls of diminutive size, dressed in green with dishevelled hair, who frequented sequestered places and at certain times conversed with men.”  Presumably those men weren’t put off the fairy lovers by the state of their hair.

A second contemporary report from Kirkmichael in Banffshire likewise described fairy women appearing to travellers, “with dishevelled hair floating over their shoulders and with faces more blooming than the vermeil blush of a summer morning.”  Perhaps the attraction for humans indeed is the fresh, natural look of the faes.

Lastly, Scottish writer Hugh Miller recorded a famous account of the ‘departure of the fairies.’  Two children saw a cavalcade of fairies riding away from Burn of Eathie on the Black Isle.  They were unattractive creatures dressed in old fashioned clothes and, from under their caps, “their wild uncombed locks shot out over their cheeks and foreheads.” (Miller, Old Red Sandstone, 1841, p.215)

This uncombed state may reflect nothing more than the fact that these are wild country dwellers who may have neither the leisure nor the lifestyle for much grooming.  Perhaps, in the circumstances, dread-locked fays are what really we ought to expect.  Even so, the state of the fairies’ hair frequently seems to reflect the character and attractiveness of the being as a whole.  The brownies and the less friendly goblins and hags almost always seem to be described as having shaggy, coarse, dark hair.  For human witnesses, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a malign entity that, at the same time, has sleek, groomed locks; our minds unconsciously reject such a pairing.  Nonetheless, some modern witnesses have described seeing faes with feathers growing in their hair- or even with feathers instead of hair. (See for instance John Dathen, Somerset Fairies and Pixies, p.30)

iro waterfall fairy

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Waterfall Fairy

Silky Selkies?

Let’s turn now to mermaids, creatures who traditionally have been renowned for their long hair (if only to preserve their womanly modesty).  Sightings of mermaids have described them variously as having short dark hair, flowing red locks, coarse hair, curly but oily green hair, and (most often) that flowing fair hair in which they take such great pride, sitting for hours on rocks combing it and admiring themselves in mirrors.

The lovely blonde mermaid in the sea is a cliché, but she’s not alone.  In Scottish rivers lives the freshwater mere-maid called the ceasg, a creature of great beauty (once you have reconciled yourself to the fact that she is half woman and half salmon).  Her hair has been described as being “long and flossy,” which I take to mean that it is very pale and silky- the name itself signifies a tuft of wool, linen or silk.

There are some much less appealing examples, though.  The Cornish water sprite, the bucca, has been said to have seaweed for hair.  One mermaid seen at Birsay on the Orkney mainland was recorded as being ‘covered in brown hair’, though whether this meant long hair covering her modesty or an actual covering of fur is not wholly clear.  This sighting brings us to the final curious case I’ll mention.  It’s another case from Orkney, of a man from Sourie in Sandwick who was carried off by the trows to Suleskerry, a rock outcrop in the sea fifty miles offshore.  The trows kept him there for what seemed to him like a few hours, before carrying him home again.  In fact, he’d been away for seven years.  This, in itself, meant that people had difficulties recognising him, a problem compounded by the fact that he was, it was said, “he was grown all over with hair on his return which so altered his appearance that his neighbours had some difficulty in recognising him.”  This may just be seven years without a barber, or it may perhaps be some more malign effect of fairy contact.  If it is the latter, it would be a particularly odd effect of close fairy contact.  It can also act as a reminder that not all fairies are quite what we anticipate- and that some of them can be furry beings, much against our expectations.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J M W Waterhouse

 

 

 

 

 

‘Local fairies for local folk’

tiddy-mun

I have just published my new fairy tale, The Derrickwhich is a story aimed primarily at children.  Its title character is a traditional fairy from Dorset and Hampshire.  In this posting I want to explore a little further this theme of local fairy types.

Regional fairies

There is a great variety of fairies in the British Isles; some are found across the country, but many differ regionally or across regions and some can be very local indeed.  They seem often to be adapted to a specific environment or social niche.  Here are a few examples:

  • Derricks- these only occur along the south coast; the Hampshire Derricks are apparently friendlier and more helpful than those of Dorset;
  • many brownies, hobs and similar house elves are tied to particular houses, farms or caves, as I have discussed in my post on brownies;
  • orchards of the south-west- various fairy spirits, such as Awd Goggy, exist to guard orchards and the like from thieves and children (see my post on cautionary fairies);
  • the Lincolnshire fens– this unique region is home to the Tiddy Ones, also called the Yarthkins, the Strangers and the Greencoaties.  They are rooted in the local soil and act as fertility spirits, helping the growth and ripening of plant life; as such they received tribute or offerings from the local people- the first fruits and the first taste of any meal or drink.  If neglected, these beings could be vindictive, affecting harvests, yields and even the birthrate.  They have been described as being a span high with thin limbs and over-sized hands, feet and heads.  They have long noses, wide mouths and make odd noises.  They danced on large flat stones in the moon light.  One particular spirit, the Tiddymun, seemed to control the flood waters in the days before the Fens were drained.  From time to time, he appeared from pools at night and might drag victims back into them, but generally he was sympathetic to local people.  His close ties to the management of water levels emphasise his local nature and function;
  • East Anglia- in Norfolk and Suffolk people spoke of the ferishers/ feriers/ frairies/ farisees.  These local fairies were known to be very small and very secretive.  They lived underground and were seldom seen.  This was perhaps fortunate as, above ground, they could be dangerous to humans; certainly, they rode cattle and horses at night. Also found in East Anglia is the little known hyter sprite, a small and benevolent fairy;
  • spriggans- pixies are well known to be localised in the south-west peninsula; so too are the spriggans.  They are described as dour and ugly; their particular role seems to be protecting other fairies from intrusions or insults by humankind (see the stories of The Miser on the Fairy Gump or The Fairies on the Eastern Green, both from Penwith in Cornwall).  They were very closely linked to ancient sites, such as hill-forts, where they guarded buried gold.  In this the spriggans seem to be linked to the Redshanks or Danes of Somerset (I borrowed this idea for The Derrick).  The localisation of spriggans on distinctive sites in the region is especially notable; and,
  • the asrai of the meres of Cheshire and the North West, which I discuss in another post.

If certain fairies have indeed adapted to local conditions and features, it may come as little surprise to learn that a symbiotic relationship with the human denizens of those areas has likewise evolved.  Two examples (once again from the south-west) are worthy of mention:

  • the Newlyn bucca is given fish by local fishermen in order to get good weather and good shoals;
  • knockers in the tin mines were given food in return for help locating the best lodes.

Obviously in these cases the human-fairy relationship  had adapted to local conditions.  It was, moreover, self-reinforcing- placid seas and a good haul of mackerel ensured further offerings for the bucca.

There is a tendency to generalise on fairy types and characteristics (of which, of course, I can be guilty in this blog) but many fairies were very restricted in their distribution, very individual in their behaviour and very local in their interests and preoccupations.

41shsdAAUnL

“A votaress of my order”- offerings to fairies

The-Cheese-Well

The cheese well

One of the explanations of the belief in fairies is that they are the degraded remnants of former gods, the traces of ancient pantheistic belief in Britain.  The habit of making offerings of one description or another to these beings lends support to this theory but, as we shall see, the evidence presents a confusing picture of what people understood themselves to be doing.  The recorded practices could be worship, or they could even be something akin to a commercial transaction.

Offerings to fairies

The offerings take several forms.  The first is a general gift made to ‘the fairies’ as a sign of respect and propitiation.  Several examples of this come from Scotland: in the Highlands and Islands it was common for milk to be poured on stones with hollows in them in order to ensure the protection of the herds of cattle.  On top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, there was  the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  If we see the fairies as once having been gods, then these marks of honour aimed at appeasing the ‘good neighbours,’ averting ill fortune and ensuring their continuing good will, appear to be strong confirmation of divine origins.

Similarly, on Lewis farmers would wade out into the waves and pour beer into the sea, invoking the water-spirit Shoney and asking for a good harvest of seaweed for the fields. Comparable conduct was found in the South West of England: miners would give up a portion of their lunches to the ‘knockers’ in the mine, hoping that they would then be led to the best lodes of tin, and at Newlyn the pixies living between low and high water mark, the bucca, would be offered a ‘cast’ of three fish so as to guarantee a good catch in the nets.  These ‘sacrifices’ made with a view to a specific outcome are a very familiar aspects of human interactions with divinities.  They also imply that the fairies possessed some kind of control over the sea and its contents.  This is not a typical fairy attribute, although the Cornish spriggans were said to have power over the weather and could call on thunder and lightning when they wished to.

In England there is an example of a more direct exchange between human and fairy.  There was a belief that elder trees were inhabited by the ‘old lady of the elder tree.‘  If a person wished to cut some branches from a bush, a vow had to be made: ‘Old Lady, if you let me take some of your wood now, you can take some of mine when I’m a tree.’ Omission of this promise could lead to disaster- fire or illness in the household.

Secondly, there are examples of offerings being made in return for which a gift of money might be expected from the fairies.  An example comes from Llanberis, in Snowdonia, from the 1750s: the practice was for farm maids to place a jug of fresh sweet milk and a clean towel on a stone in the morning.  When they later returned, the jug would have been emptied by the Tylwyth Teg and a handful of coins would have been left.  This kind of exchange between humans and fairies is very closely associated with the reports of fairies leaving small sums of silver for chosen people- albeit on the strict condition that they maintain secrecy as to the source of their new found prosperity.  Violation of this would inevitably terminate the fairies’ good favour.  These practices clearly are a kind of bargain as much as an oblation.  An interesting variant on this practice comes from Wirt Sikes in British goblins (p.22).  He tells of  a “servant girl who attended to the cattle on the Trwyn farm, near Abergwyddon, [who] used to take food to ‘Master. Pwca,’ as she called the elf. A bowl of fresh milk and a slice of white bread were the component parts of the goblin’s repast, and were placed on a certain spot where he got them. One night the girl, moved by the spirit of mischief, drank the milk and ate most of the bread, leaving for Master Pwca only water and crusts. Next morning she found that the fastidious fairy had left the food untouched. Not long after, as the girl was passing the lonely spot where she had hitherto left Pwca his food, she was seized under the arm pits by fleshly hands (which, however, she could not see), and subjected to a castigation of a most mortifying character. Simultaneously there fell upon her ear in good set Welsh a warning not to repeat her offence on peril of still worse treatment.”  This might be read as either divine punishment for disrespect or simply revenge for a practical joke.

Domestic offerings

The exchanges just described were made in the open air or in uninhabited or deserted buildings.  Throughout Britain, though, there was a very similar practice of householders leaving out bread, milk or clean, warm water for the fairies at night.  Once again, a small gift might be anticipated in the morning.  Sometimes, the coins were more like a reward- a clean and neat house was appreciated by the nocturnal visitors and was acknowledged by a couple of coppers.  Some writers were in no doubt as to the nature of these interactions.  Robert Burton, in Anatomy of melancholy (1621), understood fairies to be erstwhile deities “which have been in former times adored with much superstition, with sweeping their houses and setting of a pail of clean water, good victuals and the like, and then they should not be pinched but find money in their shoes and be fortunate in their enterprises.”  Avoidance of punishment was a clear motivation: John Aubrey noted that, until the reign of King James I, country folk were “wont to please the fairies, that they might do no shrewd turnes, by sweeping clean the Hearth and setting by it a dish of fair water and halfe sadd bread, whereon was set a messe of milke sopt with white bread.  And on the morrow they should find a groat” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaism, 1687 pp.29 & 125).

Offerings to brownies

The last kind of fairy offering we should note is that made to known individual beings- most commonly the brownies and  other domestic hobgoblins of English and lowland Scottish folklore.  A kind of bargain is again involved in these cases.  The brownie undertakes some “drudgery work” in the house or on the farmstead (threshing, mowing, cleaning) and gets remuneration. However, it was fundamental to the transaction that this gift of cream, milk or cake did not seem like a direct payment.  The items were ‘left out’, available for the brownie to find and consume, but they were not explicitly given to the hobgoblin in return for the labours undertaken.  If the offering was too plainly intended for the spirit- the worst  examples being specially-made clothes to cover their hairy nakedness- then the brownie would take offence and would either leave the holding in a huff or, worse still, remain but as a malevolent presence.

An example of this tradition is found in Scot’s Discoverie of witchcraft (1584): “your grandams maides were woont to sett a boll of milke before … Robin Good Fellow for grinding of the malt or mustard and sweeping the house at midnight: and you have heard that he would chafe exceedingly if the maide or the goodwife of the house, having compassion on his nakedness, laid anie clothes for him, besides his messe of white bread and milke which was his standing fee” (Book IV, c.X).   Milton, in L’Allegro, gives a similar account of the country dweller’s stories of brownies:

“Tells how the drudging goblin sweat,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath thresh’d the corn
That ten day-labourers could not end;
Then lies him down, the lubber fiend,
And stretch’d out all the chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings.”

the_brownies_and_other_tales_

A curious example of domestic interaction between humans and fairies which sits somewhere between the brownie and ‘neatness rewarded’ is a story from Stowmarket in Suffolk, recorded in the mid-nineteenth century.  An old man in the town was regularly visited by the ‘ferriers’ or ‘ferrishers’ (as they were termed in the county) who used to meet in his home; he recalled that they wore long green coats and yellow shoes.  He kept his house scrupulously clean for them and in return the ferriers supplied faggots which they put in his oven and, from time to time, would leave a shilling for him under a chair leg.  When he spoke about these visits, he lost their favour.  It’s hard to say in this account who is more beholden to whom- there’s an equality of exchange which obscures any suggestion of devotion.

The exact relationship between fairies and humans is, on the evidence of these examples, confused and ill-defined.  This need not be too surprising, given that such uncertainty exists as to the origins of the fairy belief.  In the first examples, maintaining the benevolence of the supernatural realm was a key element in the folk customs.  The later examples, though, whilst made in propitiative guise, should really be seen as bargains.  In return for labour or for food a payment is made; the pretence is that these are offerings but actual truth appears to be that the fairies are the supplicants, a relationship that Katherine Briggs identified when she spoke of the ‘dependence of the fairies’ upon humans.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).