Beyond Faery VII- Hags- and other horrid harpies

This posting is the last on the subject of my new book Beyond Faery.

Amongst the broad class of ‘faery beasts’ there is a clear category of female monsters, creatures we often label as hags. The dividing lines between hags, giantesses and witches are not always very clear and many of the Highland Scottish ‘hobgoblins,’ the gruagach, glaistig and uruisg, are primarily encountered as large, violent and unsightly females. In similar fashion, the dividing line between ‘hags’ and banshees is not exact- an important point to bear in mind when we realise that banshee (bean sith) means nothing more than ‘fairy woman.’ Likewise, the closely related bean nighe is nothing more or less than a ‘washer woman.’

In Scotland the best known ‘hag’ is the cailleach, a word generally glossed as ‘witch.’ For example, on the hills over Glendaruel there is a large stone called the cailleach-bhear, the ‘huge hag,’ which is said really to be a woman who herds cattle on the uplands. She has been described as the thunder personified; when she is angry she causes floods and, if cattle go missing during storms, it is because she has stolen them.

The banshee is best known popularly for singing at the time of a death. In the Scottish Highlands, this was particularly the role of the female being called the caointeach (the keener) but the bean nighe often marked impending death by washing the clothes or shrouds of those foredoomed to perish. Indicative of the combined, and complex, nature of these traditions is the Cowie of Goranberry Tower in Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders. This male being bore all the hallmarks of a broonie (brownie) in that he got in peat for the fires, herded the sheep, harvested the grain, cut up wood, spun wool and ground corn. However, if he lamented, it was the sign of an imminent death in the family.

All the examples given so far are Scottish, but the Isle of Man had its own cailleach, known as the Caillagh ny Groamagh who was linked (like the Scottish one) to bad weather and the changing seasons. Wales too had its own versions of the hags and the banshees (the latter being called the cyhyraeth). The latter would be encountered first as a fierce rushing sound in the air, followed by a shriek that was so loud and appalling that listeners might be thrown to the ground. The cyhyraeth‘s cry presages an imminent death and the sound is heard to travel from the doomed individual’s home to the place of burial. In addition, the creature is often heard in advance of bad weather and it cries out three times, each quieter than the last, dwindling to a death rattle. An encounter with the cyhyraeth recounted in the Carmarthen Journal during September 1831 described a woman with black, dishevelled hair, deeply furrowed cheeks and corpse-like skin, loose lips, long, black fangs and horrible gashes on her body. In a manner reminiscent of the bean-nighe, she splashed her hands in a stream and wailed for her husband. Understandably, the witness fainted away in terror.

Another Welsh type of hag is the gwrach y rhibin, a being in the form of an immense and very hideous girl. The name has been explained as meaning ‘the hag of the dribble,’ the dribble being a trail of stones that she releases from the apron in which she carries them. She had coarse, bright red hair, sharp cheeks, a pointed nose and chin and just a few long and jagged teeth. She would appear suddenly to people at crossroads or at sharp turns in paths, howling horribly “Woe is me!” She might also appear outside the home of a sick person, calling their name. Her presence foretold the death either of the witness or of a relative of that unfortunate person. The former was an especially likely outcome, because her sudden appearance could either give the person a fatal shock or drive them mad with fear.

Another description of this ‘queen of terrors’ describes her as tall and yellow-skinned with a few front teeth that are one foot long and hair that sweeps the ground. She uses her teeth to dig graves for her victims and her hair to brush the earth back into the hole.

Britain is well supplied by hideous and terrifying female spirits. The examples cited here are cases I’ve turned up since I finished writing the text of Beyond Faery. More detailed and lengthy treatments will be found in the book, which is now available from all good book sellers etc.

Beyond Faery

I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faery which they released in April this year.

As its full title indicates, in Beyond Faery- Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts, we’ve gone beyond the conventional boundaries and perceptions of the faes- as winged, female beings- to explore a much wider and wilder world of supernatural creatures. Many of these are far more dangerous- but perhaps, as a result, rather more predictable- that the humanoid fairies about whom I normally write.

The faery beasts that are the subject of this book share a number of traits that differentiate them from the more familiar members of fairy-kind. Firstly, they are- without exception- of conventional, human-world size. There are continual debates about the size of the human-like faes (as you’ll read in several of posts), but there is never any dispute that mermaids are the same size as we are and that the other creatures that resemble the mammals of this world- the dogs, horses, bulls and so on- are all the same size as their domesticated equivalents- if not somewhat bigger.

Secondly, the faery beasts have next to no conception of working with human beings to either assist them or to improve the natural world. Whilst the ‘eco-fairy’ has gained some vogue in recent decades, the faery beasts are far less complex creatures- or, we might say, more single minded in their purpose. Very many of them have one of two intentions: to scare us and/ or to kill and eat us. Mermaids are a bit different from this: they can enter into relationships with humans and raise families, but there is seldom any suggestion of any wider co-operation with us. They live in their world, we live in ours; they are in different dimensions- and the merfolk like to keep it that way.

These beasts are faery, then, in terms of their supernatural nature and their magical powers. They may look like the livestock or pets that we’re familiar with, but their behaviour is very different: their purpose and their powers are nothing like the ordinary dog’s or cow’s. In many ways, we might call them monsters.

Contents

The book’s chapters cover, firstly, the various water beasts: the mermaids, mere-maids (fresh water mermaids), river sprites, kelpies, water horses and water bulls and other less well-known creatures, such as the njugl and the shoopiltee. Then I turn to the land beasts, amongst whom I number the ‘hags,’ the banshees and similar; the hobs and goblins; the bogies, boggarts, brags and bugganes; the black daemon dogs; the fearsome faery beasts such as fae cats and bunnies and, lastly, the wills of the wisp.

Controversy?

I have already given readers a taste of what’s covered in the book in my recent postings, in which I’ve made use of material I’ve come across since the manuscript of Beyond Faery was finalised earlier this year. Those new examples supplement what you’ll find discussed in more detail in the chapters of the book. The text’s 270 pages long, including a glossary and a full bibliography.

I was a little surprised to note that Google has designated my book ‘controversial literature’- as, indeed, was the case for the previous book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk, too. On consideration, I quite like the thought of having written two controversial books. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think it’s as subversive as this might suggest!

Look to the future: fairy prophesy

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

We are very familiar with fairies’ magical powers of creating glamour and, to a lesser extent, of shape-shifting, but they also have more oracular or psychic abilities.  They can detect lost or hidden items and they have the ability to see into the future and, if they wish, to make this knowledge known to humans.  For example, the Brownie of Castle Lachlan of Stralachan in Argyllshire was known for his prophetic powers.  The Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.

There are several ways in which prognostications might be revealed to humankind.

Actions disclose fate to clan or village

Firstly, the foreknowledge might be disclosed to a family, a household or a community by the fairy’s actions.  For instance, the glaistig of Island House on Tiree, was known to begin to work extra hard in advance of the arrival of unexpected visitors.  This additional effort alerted the household to advent of likely guests.

Another example of this kind of warning comes from those fays whose actions would foretell a death or tragedy.  The Scottish banshee and the related caointeach (keener) and bean-nighe are well known for this well known for this.  By their howls, or by washing winding sheets in rivers, they signify imminent death, but they are not alone.  The Ell Maid of Dunstaffnage Castle would cry out to warn of impending joy, or woe; on the Borders the powrie or dunter haunted old peel towers and made a noise like the pounding of flax or grain.  When this was louder than usual, or went on for longer, it was a sure sign of coming death or misfortune.

In South Wales the Reverend Edmund Jones reported related activities.  A man in a field in Carmarthenshire saw a fairy funeral procession pass by, singing psalms.  Soon afterwards a human funeral followed exactly the same route in the same manner.  At Aberystruth in about 1770 two men mowing in a field saw a marriage company processing by; another man passing at the same time saw nothing even though he was actually seen to meet with the wedding party.  The event turned out to presage the death of the third man’s employer and the marriage of his daughter.

froud bean nighe

Brain Froud, The bean-nighe

Actions reveal to individuals

Elsewhere the Reverend Jones wrote that the fairies “infallibly knew when a person was going to die.”  It follows from this that sometimes, rather than a general warning of a coming death, the fairies would appear to the victim him or herself.  Jones gives examples of this.  A man was travelling near Abertillery when he heard people talking.  He paused to listen, then heard the sound of a tree falling and a moan.  It soon transpired that what he had witnessed was the fairies predicting his own death by a fall from a tree.  In a very similar account, Jones described a young man at Hafod-y-dafel who saw a procession headed for the church.  Walking with the fairies were a child and a young adult male who suddenly vanished.  This proved to be a premonition: first the witness’ child fell ill and died; then he too sickened and passed away.

A very similar story is told in Lancashire.  Two men encountered a fairy funeral taking place at the church of St Mary near Penwortham Wood.  The fays were dressed in black and carrying a tiny coffin containing a doll like corpse which looked exactly like one of the two witnesses.  This man reached out to try to touch one of the mourners, causing the apparition instantly to vanish.  Within a month, he fell from a haystack and was killed.

Love foretold

As well as predicting individuals’ deaths, the fays could more happily disclose their future spouses to them.  The best example of this is the Borders brownie called Kilmoulis.  This being lived in mills by the grain kilns; on Halloween they would foretell love.  If a person threw a ball of thread into a pot and then started to rewind it into another ball, a point would come near the end of the yarn when Kilmoulis would hold on and stop the winding.  If you then asked “who holds?”, the brownie would name your spouse to be.  In East Yorkshire, some ‘fairy stones’ stood near Burdale (near Malton) and it was said that if a person visited these during the full moon, they would glimpse their future partner.

Conclusion

It seems that, living in two dimensions, the fairies have access to knowledge that is unavailable to mortals.  They can see through the material world and through time as it’s perceived by us to bring us knowledge we might not wish to acquire.

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

Fairies and flowing water

Siegfried & The Rhinemaidens
Arthur Rackham, Rhine maidens

One curious aspect of fairy lore is the antipathy that some fairies have for water.  This only applies in certain situations, however, and may not be a general rule.

Water as a fairy necessity

Fairies, like humans, require water for basic necessities.  It’s pretty certain that they drink it: they are reputed to drink dew at the very least.  Without doubt they use water for bathing: there are numerous folk lore records of fairies expecting householders to leave out bowls of fresh water for them at night so that they and children may wash: plenty of examples are to be found in Rhys, Celtic folklore  (pp.56, 110, 151, 198, 221 & 240).  There’s also a story of fairies surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley.

According to the seventeenth century pamphlet, Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests, if no clean water was left out for the fairies’ night time ablutions, the usual reprisal would follow:

“we wash our children in their pottage, milk or beer or whatever we find: for the sluts that have not such things fitting we wash their faces and hands with a gilded child’s clout or else carry them to some river and duck them over head and ears.”

Similar stories are found across the country as far north as the Scottish Highlands: for example, in one Shetland example a trow mother washes her baby’s nappies in the water in which barley is soaking.

It hardly need be said that certain fairies live in water and plainly cannot have any objection to their natural environment.  Both fresh and salt water are inhabited, as I’ve discussed in previous posts on inland and marine mermaids.

Another fay link with water is found in the Scottish bean-nighe (the washer woman) and the related caointeach (the keener).  Both foretell deaths by washing clothes or winding sheets at fords or in streams; plainly they are not adverse to contact with running fresh water.   In fact, it’s said that power can be gained over the bean-nighe if you are able to come between her and the stream, indicating that her magic potential in some way derives from the water course.

Lastly, it’s worth recalling the fragments of evidence that children taken by the fairies can be somehow imbued with fairy magic not just by the application of green ointment but by dipping in certain springs and pools.

Fairy fear of water

Nevertheless, there is also evidence of fairies objecting to water that is flowing.  This is confirmed  by Evans-Wentz (p.38) for Ireland and for South West Scotland at least by J. F. Campbell in Popular tales of the west Highlands (volume 2, page 69).   The hideous nuckelavee of Orkney is a venomous creature, part human and part horse, but it couldn’t abide fresh water, meaning that it never came out in the rain and could be escaped by leaping a burn.  A dramatic example of this aversion comes from North Yorkshire: in Mulgrave Wood near Whitby lived a bogle or boggart by the name of Jeanie.  One day she chased a farmer who was riding by.  He galloped desperately for the nearest brook to escape her: just as she caught up with him and lashed out with her wand, his steed leapt the river.  Jeanie sliced the horse in half.  The front part, bearing the rider, fell on the far side and was safe, whilst Jeanie had to make do with the hind legs and haunches.

Any flowing watercourse will form an insurmountable barrier, it seems, but even more antithetical to the fays is water that flows in a southerly direction.  This is shown from a couple of accounts.  One way of expelling a changeling and recovering a human child from the fays that was practiced in the north east of Scotland was to wash the infant’s clothes in a south draining spring and then lay them to dry in the sun; if the clothes disappeared it meant that the fairies had accepted them and that the child would have been restored.  Secondly, in a previous post I have discussed the diagnosis of fairy-inflicted illnesses by ‘girdle-measuring.’  One practitioner I mentioned, Jennet Pearson, would wash the girdle in a south-flowing stream before treating the sick person.

There is also evidence that the high tide line on a beach had a similar barring effect on supernatural pursuers.  In the Highland story of Luran, he stole a goblet from the sith and escaped his angry pursuers by making for the shore.

There are contradictions to this, though.  In Superstitions of the Highlands J. F. Campbell expressed his opinion that running water was no barrier to fairies (p.50); a possible compromise position is Evelyn Simpson’s idea that it is only bad fairies who are obstructed, whilst well-intentioned ones may pass over unhindered (see Folklore in lowland Scotland, p.107).  Sometimes, too, it appears that even plain water can repel our good neighbours.  George Henderson has recounted a folk-tale from the isle of Uist in the Scottish Highlands in which the fairies are depicted calling at the door of a house for a ‘cake’ to come out to them: the inmates threw water on the cake, and it replied: ‘I can’t go, I am undone.’ (Survivals of belief amongst the Celts, 1911, p.219)  Here plain water seems enough to dispel the fairies’ magic.

I’ve written before about the contrary nature of much fairy lore.  It seems that there’ll always be exceptions to any rule we try to identify, but even so we may say that, in most cases, a river or stream will provide an effective barrier between you and supernatural harm.

undine
Arthur Rackham, Undine

Further reading

See too my post on fairies and wells.  An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.