I’ve posted several times on faery motion and movement, such as their use of whirlwinds; here I want to look at ways they may be transported by other beings. Although, these days, we tend to assume that faeries fly everywhere, there’s no trace of wings or of fluttering flight in the traditional records. They can, magically, ‘teleport‘ themselves from place to place or enchant items to carry them, it’s perfectly true, but most of the time they get around in very prosaic ways: on their own two feet, or on something else’s four feet.
It’s pretty well known that the faes ride horses (just as the surrounding human population would have done in times past) and these animals are always described as being proportionate to their size. If they’re the size of children, they’ll be mounted on ponies; if they’re seen smaller, the steeds might be as big as greyhounds. Just like humans, too, the faeries will use their horses for all suitable activities: they go out on their annual ‘rades’ in processions of horses, but they’ll also hunt on them, exactly as would human gentry and nobles. The horses are reputed to be very swift (“as fast as the wind”) and to be highly prized, being richly caparisoned when they are taken out.
Needless to say, it’s often easier to make use of someone else’s animals- that way you don’t have to stable or feed them, and it is widely known that faeries do just this, taking horses from farmer’s stables at night and riding them until they’re worn out. This process is frequently accompanied by the knotting of the horses’ manes and tails, at least some of this done ostensibly to provide the diminutive riders with reins and stirrups. These are necessary not just because the riders are often so much tinier than their mounts, but because they like to drive the horses at frenetic pace across the fields and moors. These exertions leave the horses exhausted and covered in a foam of sweat, much to the dismay of their human owners.
So far, so familiar, but it doesn’t stop there. If horses aren’t available, other four-legged beasts will do. On the Isle of Anglesey it was reported that the local tylwyth teg rode donkeys or (to be exact) they gave a mortal man one to ride when he travelled with them; this might, conceivably, have been some sort of joke or put down on their part: they got well-bred steeds and he got a bad tempered ass. Very definitely proportionate to the smaller breed of fae, in Nithsdale in southern Scotland the elves were reported to ride on cats. One assumes they used magic to control their mounts. On Shetland, the trows rode the farmers’ cows. When the cattle were released into the pastures in Spring, if any of them were found to be weak- or collapsed, frothing at the mouth- it was known to be because the trows had been riding it.
Unlikely as cats sound, they are at least four legged. However, as we know, even two legged victims will do and there are reports from around the Britain Isles of unfortunate human victims being saddled and mounted to act as steeds for faeries overnight. Usually they are forced to carry riders around, although there is one report of a man taken and used as a cart horse in one Scottish sithean. According to the poem, Montgomerie’s Flyting of Polwarth, some of the Scottish elves were known to ride other two legged creatures: “Sum saidlit ane scho aip all grathit into green” (some saddled a she-ape, all clad in green).
Modern fantasy art shows faes riding birds and other wildlife. Pretty as these images are, and despite the fact that we are attracted to them because they emphasise the unity of the faeries with their environment, there is not very much traditional support for the idea. As we’ve just seen, we hear of the elves riding apes, but they must be few and far between in any part of Britain; it’s also reported that the Highland hag, the cailleach bheur, and her follower rides on wolves and swine. The Gyre Carling, another name for the faery queen in Fife, was also said to ride a pig: in one poem she “schup her on ane sow and is her gaitis gane” (she settled herself on a sow and went her ways). Making use of more common mammals and fowls is not reported.
Much of this suggests that the faeries are stuck in a pre-modern world- often our view of them. We like to romanticise their pre-industrial, rural aspects, whereas the evidence indicates that they move with the times just as their human neighbours do. Faery industry is known- dyeing and milling (for which see my How Things Work in Faery) but more pertinently, contemporary reports indicate that they will use cars, buses and aeroplanes to get around (see Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies for such sightings). Humans no longer need to employ horse power, although they will use them for special occasions and special purposes; the same would seem to be true of the faes.
This posting is a further collection of material I have collected during my researches since I completed the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery: Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts.
The black dog is a faery beast that seems to be very typical of the southern half of Britain- that is England, Wales and Cornwall, plus the Channel Islands. They have been reported since the Middle Ages.
The black dog phenomenon
These creatures can be supernatural beings that appear sometimes in hound form, sometimes as other animals (or objects), or they may only ever be seen as terrifying hounds.
For example, on the Cotswold Hills black dog apparitions are very common. Some seem to be the ghosts of humans (often murdered), some are dogs, many are evil and a few are even helpful, such as that at Birdlip Hill which guides lost travellers. Far more representative of the species is the black dog that was sighted periodically during the nineteenth century at Barton Lane, Headington, Oxford. This large hound had glowing eyes the size of saucers, something that’s a common (and highly alarming) trait of the species.
Many of these black phantom dogs have no special name, but in East Anglia they are often called ‘shugs,’ reflective of their shaggy appearance, whilst in the North of England there are several types of the species recognised, which go by the names of padfoot, guytrash, barguest and skriker. I will deal with these northern types in a forthcoming posting.
On the Channel Island of Guernsey there is the black dog called Tchi-co, or La bete de la Tour. It haunts the streets of St Peter Port and has the unearthly cry and huge flaming eyes typical of its kind. These are combined with another regular feature, the sound of chains being dragged along the ground. La bete is the size of a bear or a large calf but is sometimes invisible, its presence being indicated by the unearthly clanking and howling. Several other such phantom dogs are known on the island: Le Chien Bodu is a black dog that portends death; another, pulling its chains along, prowls the Forest Road and can cause death by the shock it inflicts on witnesses.
Unfortunately, people have found that you can’t chase these creatures off, like normal dogs. A man tried to strike a white hound he saw at Horbury in Yorkshire in 1880; his stick went straight through it and he received such a shock that he returned home, took to his bed, and died (see Magical Folk 55). A headless hound that haunts Ville au Roi on Guernsey is similar: although it can be felt brushing past night-time travellers, it has no substance if you try to strike it.
The Pembrokeshire Herald in March 1853 carried a fascinating report of an encounter between a Church of England clergyman and a spectral hound. The account summarises most of the characteristics described so far- but adds something new and troubling. To begin with the dog was invisible, and the minister heard only its panting and the padding of its paws behind him as he walked. Then he felt it brush past him and it revealed itself; it was blue, the size of a young calf and had eyes like glowing coals. As just discussed, his reaction was to try to strike it with his walking stick- which passed through the beast harmlessly. Luckily for the vicar, a coach happened to pass just that moment, so he flagged it down and boarded. Given his lucky escape, he took a moment to close his eyes and calm down- only to discover that the dog was under the seat opposite him and was then see prowling outside his home. Luckily, probably, this ‘stalking’ trait is unique amongst these hounds.
Generally, terror is the main result of an encounter with one of the black dogs. However, ‘Hairy Jack’ at Grayingham in Lincolnshire was one of those that attacked solitary passers-by and the black hound of Rodway Hill in the Quantocks in Somerset left a man paralysed for the remainder of his life after it brushed against him.
Generally, religious ritual seems to be the only way of dealing with these hounds. The black dog of Wilcote Wood near Wychwood on the Cotswolds was laid in an elaborate manner. A new born baby and two clappers (bird scarers) were acquired. A priest prayed over the baby and then threw one of the clappers in one pond and the other in a second pond nearby. As long as the two are kept apart, it is said, the dog will never reappear. In another version of this story, the clapper was taken from a bell and the two parts put in the two ponds. If, for some reason, the two are ever reunited, the hound will rise again.
Jacob Allies, in his 1852 description of the folklore of Worcestershire, described a fairly typical black dog that haunted a deep and gloomy lane near Alfrick. It might be seen as a dark hound lying by the road, which would cause horses to freeze on the spot, but it also appeared to manifest as a wagon drawn by four black horses, a dark rider or a large crow, all of which could be accompanied by the sound of a terrible, hollow hammering. The barguest of Glassensikes, near Darlington, is seen as a black dog that howls at midnight before a calamity, but it also manifests as a headless man or woman, a white cat or a rabbit. The ‘bargest’ of Northorpe in Lindsey, Lincolnshire, haunted the graveyard there, reinforcing the ‘hell’ hound aspect of this species.
The black dogs are often confused or mingled with the aerial hell-hounds, known as the whist hounds, gabriel ratchets or dandy dogs. In Wales there are the packs of the cwn bendith y mamau (fairy dogs), which were still heard on the slopes of Preseli a century ago, and the solitary ci bal, which ranges across the whole southern part of the country. If it pursues you, you can escape by crossing running water (a way of escaping many faeries).
Another name used for these Welsh hounds was cwn annwn, or hell hounds, which have been described in one report as small and either black with red spots- or red with black spots. Those witnessed in Glamorgan are said to be blood red and dripping with gore; they howl in the air as if lamenting. The related cwn wybir are reported to be heard at night in desolate spots (mountains and moorland) baying and yelling in the air. They don’t seem to do any harm to mortals, as their prey is the spirits of the dead.
Similar creatures are also found in the South-West of Britain. On Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, the dandy dogs are said to hunt the souls of the damned at night. Further west, the ‘goblin hounds’ have been heard hunting hares across the downs between Truro and Redruth. In Devon the wish hounds are silent black dogs seen in a pack that seem to threaten the living. Children can be protected from them by putting bread under their pillows.
Other faery beasts
There are many other fae beasts, albeit ones that seem consistently to keep to one form. There is, for example, a white hare that is seen on the quays of the Cornish fishing village of Polperro. It is harmless, but it predicts a coming storm. White hares and rabbits are often seen in Lincolnshire and, significantly perhaps, it is said in Yorkshire and Worcestershire that if one crosses your path at night it is a sign of impending death. For example, in 1891 one writer reported the case of a stonemason who had seen a white rabbit whilst out at night catching sparrows. He was overcome with such terror that he went home, took to his bed and died (see Magical Folk 54-55).
At Finstock in the Cotswolds, the awful apparition is a nanny goat that drags a chain along. At North Leigh in Oxfordshire, a headless calf is seen. The white calf at Lackey Causey (causeway) in Lincolnshire is one of a number found in that county: it hid, or lived, in a drain under a bridge, from which it would emerge to try to lure travellers into the brook.
In all these cases, the fae beast is an animal that would, in normal circumstances, be regarded as harmless- even endearing- by a person who met it. However, in their faery form they have features which both betray their supernatural origin and can be distressing to the witness.
From the Isle of Man there is a report of a very alarming fairy cat. One night, a man was about to shut and lock his cottage door when he saw a white cat sitting just outside. He went to shoo it away, but it would not move. He then, unwisely, tried to kick it, in response to which it stood up and then swelled up to an enormous size, almost blocking out the sky. Fortunately, it then walked away, leaving the cottager terrified…
This is by no means an isolated account. Margaret Alexander was accused of witchcraft at Livingston in Scotland in March 1647. She confessed that she had been “mightily troubled in her house at night with a rumbling and many kats had resorted there.” Confirming the faery nature of these visitors, she recalled how, forty years earlier, a number of “kats” as big as sheep had appeared before her in one of the streets of the town. They had then turned into men and women, some of whom were dead and some alive- implying strongly that they were faery beings.
A great deal less sinister was a kitten encountered by a gypsy family in a snowstorm on the Cotswolds. It advised them to follow the sound of church bells and, by that means, they got to shelter out of the blizzard. They were sure this benign creature was of supernatural origin (as it had to be- it spoke to them…)
Faery Pets and Livestock
It’s worthwhile just reminding ourselves that the fae are known to keep their own dogs (for guarding and hunting), cattle and horses (for riding and hunting). These beasts have their distinctive characteristics, but they are quite distinct from the creatures described here. The various monstrous I have described here animals operate autonomously, whereas the fairies’ hounds and herds are definitely under their control.
I have discussed fairy cattle previously; here, I’ll add a little more about the fairies’ hounds. There is often something to identify them as being out of the ordinary: for instance, the cu sith or fairy dog of the Scottish Highlands is the size of a two year cow and is green- or even multi-coloured, with yellow feet, black sides and red ears. The fae have been seen riding with their dogs, or processing on foot with them going two by two. This suggests that they’re well-trained and obedient animals, whatever their appearance. This isn’t always borne out by experience, however.
In one Welsh story a man walking in his garden was attacked by a fairy dog that looked like a greyhound. It ran between his legs and carried him off at great speed, charging through bushes and hedges as it went. Eventually, the unwilling rider managed to get off and stumbled home- only to discover that he’d been gone for two weeks. In another example, a farmer from Sutherland in the north of Scotland was resting in his field after completing his ploughing when he heard the horns of a fairy hunting party nearby. Suddenly, two large and threatening dogs advanced upon him, sniffing his knees. Luckily, a disembodied voice called them off.
I’ve provided links to some of my previous postings on faery beasts and several chapters of Beyond Faery are devoted to the hounds and other animals.
John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s lake, 1866, Tate Gallery
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
(Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5).
In January this year the Fairy Investigation Society published a Fairy Census covering 2014-2017. The document makes fascinating reading and I will be examining its contents over a couple of posts. Here, I want to raise the intriguing question of what, exactly, we understand by the word ‘fairy’ in the early 21st century.
The data for the census comes from individuals across the world, although primarily from Britain, Ireland and the USA. They submitted descriptions of their fairy experiences to the Society and these give us an opportunity to consider what today is popularly understood to be ‘a fairy.’
We all think we know what a fairy looks like: we envisage either a fluttering girl or a small pixie in green. Whatever the detail, the fundamental assumption is that they are humanoids, closely resembling us. Nevertheless the Census, along with Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, confronts us with a body of sightings which within themselves are consistent and which challenge our conventional ideas. Some fairies apparently do not look like fairies at all.
It is not unusual to hear of fairies and pixies being described as particularly hirsute and shaggy, with dark and unkempt hair, but a small number of encounters have been with mammalian beings that display human-like characteristics. Marjorie Johnson gathered together several of these.
During the summer of 1920 fairy seer Tom Charman spent nine weeks in the New Forest and repeatedly met with small cat-like creatures. Similar beings were described to Johnson by witnesses from Kent, Essex and Cheshire, but she also received a comparable report from Indiana- of a cat standing on its hind legs and wearing brown trousers. When disturbed, it ran away ‘like a rabbit.’
In his valuable little book, Somerset fairies and pixies (2010), Jon Dathen interviewed a Somerset farmer who recounted a sighting from his childhood, some seventy years earlier. Late at night he had sneaked downstairs to find a small person “like a hare done up in clothes” sitting in front of the farmhouse fire. He had long ears, whiskers and buck teeth, but he could speak- explaining he had come in to escape the cold. Later in his life, the farmer had heard of other hare-type pixies being sighted in the county.
John Anster Fitzgerald, The storm.
A handful of reports take furriness even further. A woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described how she regularly met some cliff dwelling pixies; both were about two feet in height. The male was a small human with some distinctive features but the female was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, somewhat like a bee.
Two other accounts are even more surprising. During the early 1940s in Kent one woman was on a country walk when she saw a furry tennis ball rolling up a slope towards her. It briefly opened when it drew close to where she was sitting to reveal a pixie within- and then disappeared. Returning to Cornwall in the 1930s, a final witness on a coastal walk sighted a pisky who then changed into “a long furry black roll, which gambolled about on the grass and then disappeared.”
John Anster Fitzgerald, The painter’s dream.
Over the last hundred and fifty years the identification of fairies with the environment and natural processes has become more and more commonplace. Some fairies are seen dressed in garments made from leaves and flowers, but it may not be especially surprising to find that supernatural beings are met with who appear to be more vegetative than animal. These are creatures whose body seems to be composed of vegetable matter; they may perhaps be subdivided into ‘ents,’ walking trees, and smaller hybrid entities.
The tree-beings can be tall, seven feet high or more, perhaps with faces showing in the bark of their ‘bodies.’ The smaller vegetation fairies appear to be far more mixed in their appearance. Some have bodies made of animated leaves and sticks, some are composed of a mixture of plant and insect elements, some are tiny leaf-like creatures. With more evidence it may very likely be possible to analyse these types further.
Charles Altamont Doyle, A creeper.
Last of all, there is a collection of witness accounts that tests our conceptions of fairies to the limits. There are strange hybrid creatures: a dragonfly-fish, a frog-sparrow or a butterfly-bird. There are also semi-human forms: beings that are part human and part insect, reptile, dog, spider or frog, as well as fairies that seem to be a combination of traditional fairy and mermaid features. Some fays have appeared as huge tadpoles, another as an ape dressed in leaves.
Some other less conventional forms
There are various other classes of sighting which, whilst fitting within the conventional imagery of fays, still display some unique features.
The boundaries between ‘aliens’ and ‘fairies’ are increasingly uncertain and permeable, it seems. In Seeing fairies a tiny number of witnesses mentioned beings with pronounced pointed faces or slit/ black eyes. The proportion of such sightings was distinctly higher in the Census, suggesting that the now-standard concept of a ‘grey alien’ may be shaping fairy experiences.
Although the commonest fay form is human, they are sometimes said to be noticeably disproportionate, being too tall or having overlong limbs. This is occasionally hinted at in Johnson’s reports, but spindly or gangly bodies are considerably more frequent in the Census, with bodies described as being very slender, long-limbed or above normal height.
The luminosity of fairies is often mentioned, but the last transformation is the eradication of the body altogether: the fairy is reduced to a point of light, which is often seen darting about. Johnson’s witnesses experienced this only a handful of times. In the Census fourteen per cent of cases were sightings of bright lights, of which nearly three quarters were moving. We may suspect here the influence of J. M. Barrie‘s stage representation of Tinkerbell in the minds of those having the experience.
John Anster Fitzgerald, The stuff that dreams are made on (detail).
On their own, these reports are so anomalous as to make no sense, but grouped together some sort of pattern does appear to emerge and it is possible to identify certain ‘species’ that are regularly sighted. Perhaps they are so different from the standard idea of fairy to demand a new name, but at present ‘faery’ is the only category to which we may assign them.
A number of domesticated beasts are also associated with fairies, showing how often their society imitated and paralleled our own. Sometimes this livestock was imagined as being its normal size, so as to match human sized fairies; on other occasions the creatures were diminutive, just like their supernatural owners. Some of the creatures were larger than their counterparts in the human world, enhancing the fear associated with their unearthly origins.
We find regular reference to:
goats– I have discussed fairy goats before. They were very well known in Wales, but the Cornish were also aware of the link. For example, William Bottrell recorded that wherever goats preferred to graze would be certain to be places frequented by the pixies. In the Highlands of Perthshire it was believed that the fairies lived on goat’s milk.
horses– fairies liked hunting and processing and for this horses were nearly essential. In the poem Sir Orfeo the fairy king arrives to seduce the knight’s wife with his ladies and retainers, “Al on snowe white stedes.” In the Scottish poem Young Tamlane the fairies process on black, brown and white mounts whilst in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen appears astride a ‘palfrey.’ We also hear of Welsh fairies hunting on grey horses and- from an old woman in the Vale of Neath in 1827- an account of fairies seen riding white horses ‘no bigger than dogs.’ These Welsh fairies were said to ride in the air, never coming to ground. Appropriately, fairy horses were renowned for their swiftness. In contrast to these generally small and pale-hued steeds, a horse that collected a midwife to attend a fairy labour near Tavistock was coal black with eyes ‘like balls of fire’… John Campbell in Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands suggested that the fairy horses might not be real, at all, but just enchanted ragweed stems, on which fairies so often flew through the air like broomsticks. This might indeed have been the case in the north of Scotland, at least.
deer– in the Highlands fairies were especially associated with the red deer and, indeed, it was believed by some that they were their only cattle. It was also alleged that fairy women could transform themselves into deer and might be captured in this guise.
dogs- for the fairies’ great sport of hunting, hounds are required. Searching to recover his wife, Sir Orfeo meets the king of fairy riding out “with hundes berkyng.” Likewise in Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen is met with “hir greyehundes” and “Hir raches.” The latter are ‘rachets’- specially bred hunting dogs. The Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) of Welsh legend were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven. They dashed through the air on stormy nights, terrifying the mortals below. More dainty, perhaps, were the “milk white hounds” that accompanied the elfin ladies of the lakes. In stark contrast, the ‘people of peace’ of the Scottish Highlands possessed dogs the size of bullocks, which were dark green (though paling towards their feet). These hounds’ tails either curled tightly on their backs or appeared flat, even plaited. They were kept as ferocious watchdogs for the fairy knolls and were said to move by gliding in straight lines.
cats: fairy felines were apparently the size of human dogs, black with a white spot on their chests, their backs constantly arched and their fur bristled.
cattle– Irish fairy cattle are famed for their distinctive appearance: they are white with red ears. In Britain, though, such distinctive characteristics are not so regularly recorded, but in Wales the “comely milk white kine” were definitely famed. These were the gwartheg y llyn, the ‘lake cattle’, that were frequently brought to marriages with human males by the beautiful and mesmerising lake maidens. Alternatively they might mingle and interbreed naturally with human herds (and are clearly envisaged as being of normal proportions and appearance). If (when) the fairy wife is later rejected or insulted, her departure will also inevitably mean the departure of the fairy beasts from her husband’s herd. The same is bound to occur if the human farmer tries to slaughter the fairy cattle, as this too will be interpreted as demonstrating a want of respect for the owners/ donors. In the Scottish Highlands fairy cattle typically were dun coloured and hornless, but on Skye they were red speckled and could cross the sea.
other livestock– In British goblinsWirt Sikes says that the Welsh fairies may appear in the shape of sheep, poultry and pigs. It is not wholly clear from his account whether these are fairy animals or fairies in the form of animals. Whatever the exact situation, these creatures were often reported as being seen flying or rising from pastures up into the sky.
In summary, there seem to be a number of common features to fairy animals. They are very commonly pure white- a sure sign of their supernatural nature- and most commonly airborne (another clear indication of their enchanted nature). Although in many respects, their behaviour was identical with that of normal farm beasts, they were prone to appear and disappear unpredictably. As with all fairy gifts, poor treatment of them guarantees their loss.