Faery Charms- Magical Objects

Hag-stone by Hermitchild on Deviant Art

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

Minerals

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

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

Plants

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

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

Animal Products

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

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

Cloth Items

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

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

Wells & Well Water

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

Religious items

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

***

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

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

“The swart fairy of the mine”- industrial elves

lee dwarfs

Alan Lee, Dwarfs, from Faeries

There’s lots of evidence for fairies being just as active as humans in extracting the earth’s resources and in manufacturing.  This may jar somewhat with the notion of winged flower fairies, but that convention forgets the fact that gnomes, as first imagined by Paracelsus, are very intimately connected to the mineral riches of the earth.  Fairies can seem just as interested as humans in money and treasure, so it’s worth considering where these riches might come from.

Going underground

There are two principal industrial activities in which fairies are involved.  These are metal working and mining.  The fays mine for both coal and ores and they have been associated with the tin mines of the South West of England, the lead mines of the Long Mynd in Shropshire and with the copper mines of Cumberland and North Yorkshire.

There are two principal types of mine fairy- the knockers of the South West of England (also called ‘nuggies,’ ‘bockles,’ ‘gathons’ or ‘buccas’) are very well known.  In the coal and metal ore mines of Wales, we find the coblynau (i.e. goblins).  Other named mine spirits are the Blue-Cap of the Northumberland coalmines, a very strong being who moved the wheeled coal tubs on the underground railways, and the Cutty Soams of County Durham, who were mine bogles, known for their vengeful mischief- which included such pranks as cutting the traces (or ‘soams’) on the underground coal wagons.

Appearance

Despite the differing regional names, it seems safe to treat most of these beings as one underground species.  The knockers and coblynau are very hard working sprites who are frequently heard but very seldom seen; the sounds of their picks, their wheelbarrows and the falls of stone they cause is heard deep in mines.  Occasionally they may be spotted working or lounging near the entrances to mines, and those who have seen them describe beings the size of a one or two-year-old child (about eighteen inches high), with large heads and ugly old men’s faces; they are dressed just like human miners.

Early in the last century, a girl called Carol George was on the beach at Porthtowan, on the north coast of Cornwall, when she saw in the mine adit that opened onto the beach a group of small people, only six inches high and dressed in white.  They disappeared almost as soon as they were spotted, but sound more like pixies than knockers (Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.93)

Blue Cap apparently has no physical form, but his presence is indicated by a light blue flame which settles on the wagons he moves.  The other exception is the mine pixy ‘gathon’ (if Mrs Bray is to be believed, at any rate).  She describes him as naked and fat, with large ears and a long bushy tail (Peeps at Pixies, p.10).

Activities

The mine sprites have diminutive tools and equipment matching that of the human miners and labour tirelessly- digging, transporting and winding their coal and ore to the surface.  In the masque The fairies’ farewell, presented at Coleorton on Candlemas Day 1618, we hear a further description of the fairies’ labours:

“blacke faeries … ye dancing spiritts of the Pittes: … helpe them hole & drive sharp theire Picks & their moindrils, keepe away the dampe & keepe in theire Candles, draine the Sough & hold them out of ye hollows…”

Wirt Sykes, in British Goblins (p.24)claimed that all this frenetic subterranean labour  was just for show but accomplished nothing at all. The writer of A pleasant treatise of witches (1673) explained that this was because these mine elves “busy themselves chiefly in imitating the operations men … these seem to laugh, to be cloathed like workmen, to dig the earth, and to do many things they do not, mocking sometimes the workmen but seldome or never hurting them.”

These views might be correct- or it might instead be the case that human observers never saw any evidence of tangible results in this world.  Blue-Cap is the exception here, as he assisted the human miners and, perfectly reasonably, expected to be paid for his work at the same rate as every other ‘putter’ who moved the coal around the tramways.  Rather like fairies borrowing flour from householders, he insisted upon being given the exact agreed sum and would refuse underpaid wages or leave behind any surplus.  Evidently, Blue Caps were not brownies and neither toiled for free nor accepted very modest payment in kind.

Though often heard at night (in the North Yorkshire lead mines this earned them the name of the ‘Ghostly Shift’), these spirits never worked in the mines on Saturdays or on Christian holidays and, in respect for this, the miners too would avoid working on the same days.  The sprites also objected to whistling and to use of the sign of the cross, which were therefore proscribed.

The knockers will guide favoured miners to good seams or lodes by various means.  Where no excavation has yet been started they may indicate promising places to dig.  The sprites may dance in rings to indicate spots where men will strike rich ore.  Digging wherever a will o’ the wisp is seen is also reputed to lead you to a profitable lode.  The Reverend Edmund Jones of Gwent gives a very interesting account of a version of this habit.  One morning a William Evans of Hafod-y-dafel in the parish was crossing the Beacon Mountain when he saw an opencast coal mine where none existed.  The fairies were cutting coal, filling sacks and loading horses.  This vision is unexplained and, on the face of it, is merely a kind of fairy pantomime, serving no discernible purpose.  However, another report from Wales suggests a different interpretation.  Lewis Morris, a correspondent of the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1754, described how, before Esgair y Mwyn lead mine was discovered near Pontrhydfendigaid in Cardiganshire, the local fairies had been observed (and heard) by many people to be hard at work, both day and night.  When the mine was established in 1751, though, they disappeared.  The same was also the case at Llwyn Llwyd lead mine near Ysbyty Ystwyth, not far from Esgair y Mwyn.  These two cases suggest that the Brecon Beacons vision may well have been an indication of a rich coal seam just beneath the surface (a prediction similar to the incident of the fairy railway sighted on the Isle of Man that I mentioned in a recent post).

Once a new mine has been started, through their tapping underground the fairies point the way to mineral riches.  They will also warn of impending disaster- often by making three distinct knocks against the rock.  Generally, then, their presence is welcomed by miners- their noises are not found alarming and it’s said to be good luck to see the pixies dancing in the adit of a mine.

The sounds made by knockers can be prolonged and are not easily explained by other means.  For example, at Llwyn Llwyd voices, blasting, clearing spoil, levelling roadways, boring, pick-axeing and (most notably) pumping were all heard- when there were no pumps working within a mile of the shafts and when, in any case, pumps were very quiet when in operation.  Although they may sometimes be heard just once a month or once a year, in 1799 in some mines on Anglesey the knockers were heard repeatedly over a period of weeks.

As with all supernatural helpers, the knockers are averse to humans being too inquisitive.  Although the sounds of their work indicate how and where to dig, if miners stop their work to listen to the knockers, they will also cease their labours.  If they’re overlooked, they may pelt stones at the spies- or simply vanish.  The sounds of their excavations may point to rich veins of ore- or they may just be mischievous and meant to mislead.

As with many fairy types, those who offend them or try to take advantage of them will be punished and those miners who betray the source of their good fortune will lose the knockers’ favour.  At the same time, they claimed a share of human property.  This might just be a small portion of the miners’ food or of their candle tallow, but there are also accounts of bargains struck whereby the knockers were promised some of the profits of a rich vein in return for guidance locating it.  It hardly needs to be said that reneging on such deals would lead to ruin and even death, whilst boasting of fairy aid in finding rich seams of ore will guarantee that the good fortune is lost.  Mrs Bray’s mine pixy, Gathon, is depicted as a typical prank-playing sprite, but he also helps the oppressed and the poor, a not uncommon fairy trait.

The fairies may also be found in coal pits; from Scotland we have a report that from time to time they would leave their tiny tools behind as physical evidence of their labours.  We have one account from Derbyshire in the nineteenth century of the colliers of Curbar leaving a share of the coal they dug for the fairies to ensure good luck.

In some way, then, whether they were mining themselves or simply oversaw the shafts, these local fairies had a close interest in the industry.

Heavy metals

Despite Sykes’ doubts about the productiveness of fairy labours, it seems very reasonable to suppose that ore and coal were extracted and that these formed the raw materials of other enterprises in fairyland.

In The Secret Commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk reports that the fairies “strike Hammers, and do such lyke Services within the little Hillocks they most haunt” (chapter 1).  The trows of Shetland are particularly renowned for their skills working brass, iron and other metals and they have been known to pass on these skills to fortunate human children who have been taken to live with them ‘under the hill.’  As I’ve noted before, it’s a curious contradiction that we can have reports of these metalworking abilities at the same time as being repeatedly assured that fairies loath and avoid items made of iron.

The only way of reconciling these two accounts is to assume that man-made iron is anathema to them but that their own products, imbued in some way with Faery properties, are harmless.  Certainly we hear of fairies having cutlery for eating and drinking vessels of precious metals- and of course brownies will undertake all sorts of farm tasks for humans- such as reaping corn and hay- that unavoidably involve the use of iron and steel tools.

Conclusion

As I’ve argued before, fairy society is a good deal more complex and more industrious than we might initially assume.  Whether they’re farming, mining or at market, trading the fruits of those labours, the fays can work just as hard as humans and be just as interested in commerce.

For more detail on this subject, see my book How Things Work in Faery (2021).

gnome

Brian Froud, A gnome.