Still Ill? Diseases caused by faeries

babies

I have described in other posts the various ways in which the faeries can prejudice human health. Here, I want to draw these together and add details of a few other illnesses ascribed to the supernatural causes.

Fairy Blights

The fairies blight and debilitate in a variety of ways.  Overall, medical practitioners recognised that a patient might suffer from being “haunted by fairies” and that she or he might have been “stricken with some ill spirit.” (John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches, 1646, 49).  These malign attentions might manifest in various ways, depending upon the exact causes.  People might sicken and fade away, having been shot with elf-arrows; they might display similar but much more sudden symptoms after abduction and they might fall victim to paralysis.

In the Scottish Highlands, if a fairy breathed upon a person, they might be covered in huge blisters. A lesser version of these symptoms, the rash called ‘hives,’ was known in the region as the ‘fairy-pox’ or a’ bhreac-sith.  

Fairy Nips

The fairies are well known for their pinching, and severe and persistent symptoms of this were treated as a condition in its own right.  In his attack on the idea of witchcraft, A Candle in the Dark, which was written in 1655, Thomas Ady noted that:

“There are often found in Women with Childe certain spots black and blew, as if they were pinched or beaten, which some ignorant people call Fairy Nips.”

Another book of 1672, a satirical attack on Catholicism, mentions the stigmata and sneers that,  although one priest does not bear the holy marks, “he may have fairy nips, which are as bad.”

In 1671, playwright Henry Carey hinted in the epilogue to his play, The Generous Enemies, at a belief that even greater harm might be suffered by younger victims of this condition:

“like children, just alive,/ Pinched by the fairies, never after thrive.”

On Shetland, there was a condition known as ‘dead man’s nip’ which manifested as a small discoloured spot somewhere on a person’s body. It could be healed by the application of churchyard earth or by brushing with a bible.  This seems very likely to be a northerly version of the English illness, not least because fairies and the dead are often intimately associated, and most especially so in Scotland.

Elf-Cakes

Enlargement of the spleen was also believed to have been inflicted by vengeful fairies.  Thomas Lupton in 1579 made reference to “hardnes of the syde, called the Elfe-cake.” Herbalist William Langham in his 1597 book The Garden of Health prescribed certain ‘simples’ to “heale elfe cake and the hardnesses of the side.”  In these cases the word ‘cake’ seems to be used in the sense of a congealed mass, rather as in ‘cake of soap.’

Cures

Very fortunately, as I have described several times, the fairies often supply the cure as frequently as they inflict a blight.  The remedies to fairy illness are as numerous as the illnesses they cause, ranging from using belts and girdles to cure to the many herbal treatments I have described.

For further information on sickness and healing, see chapters 12 and 13 of my Faery (2020).  see too my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side

‘An Ill Wind’- Faery Paralysis and Other Blights

Sleigh- Phylis & Demoophoon, Phantastes
Bernard SleighPhyllis & Demoophoon

People can be rendered completely incapable of movement by the fairies.  This is generally inflicted as some sort of punishment and can be a short-term measure to remedy a temporary problem- or a long-term state, which is indicative of a completely different state of affairs.  Long lasting paralysis is often a sign of fairy abduction.

Frozen on the Spot

A lazy, drunken farm labourer from the Cotswold area of England sneaked away from the harvest work in the fields to drink beer in the sun.  He chose a small mound with a hawthorn growing on top as comfortable spot and settled down to relax.  However, a crowd of small green beings appeared in front of him.  Despite his fear, he found he was completely unable to move.  After a while, they disappeared and he recovered the use of his limbs; he needed a drink, but found that all the beer in his flask had also disappeared.

It seems very clear from this account that the shirker had chosen a fairy hill to laze upon.  The incident might simply be a case of the fairies stealing alcohol because they fancied their own binge, but it seems more likely that this is an incident of a trespass being punished and- at the same time- a human being chastened for infringing the fairies’ moral code.  Whilst the story doesn’t say it explicitly, I reckon we may infer that the shock was such that the man rarely drank afterwards.

Incursion upon the fairies’ reserved places seems constantly to be the cause of cases of paralysis.  A farmer of Ffridd Uchaf was returning from Beddgelert fair in Snowdonia. He saw a company of fairies dancing and, whilst he lay in hiding watching them, he fell asleep. As he slumbered, they bound him so tightly that he could not move, after which they covered him over with a veil of gossamer, so that nobody would see him in case he cried out for help. As the man did not return home, his family made a thorough search for him, but in vain. Fortunately, about the same time the next night the fairies returned and freed him and, a little while later, he awoke after sleeping a whole night and a day. He had no idea where he was, and wandered about on the slopes of the Gader and near the Gors Fawr until he heard a cock crow, when he finally realised he was less than a quarter of a mile from his home.  This case is comparable to the story of ‘Miser on the Gump at St Just.’  An old man set out one moonlit night to Woon Gumpus, near the village of St Just, where he had heard that the fairies assembled and where he thought he might be able to steal some fairy treasure.  The whole fairy court emerged from under ground for a feast and the man hoped to steal some of their gold and silver plates.  He was so preoccupied with the precious metals that he neglected to notice that he had been surrounded by spriggans.  They threw hundreds of tiny ropes around him and pulled him to the ground, where he was pinched and stung by the entire fairy multitude.  At dawn they vanished, leaving him bound with cobwebs on the open moor.

A man who unwittingly stumbled upon a fairy market on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset was mishandled in a similar way. He tried to ride through the crowd of fairies gathered around the numerous stalls and was “crowded and thrust, as when one passes through a throng of people… He found himself in pain and so hastened home; where, being arrived, lameness seized him all on one side, which continued with him as long as he lived, which was for many years…” Although the writer here, Richard Bovet, calls it ‘lameness,’ it seems apparent that the man suffered some sort of paralysis on one side of his body (Pandaemonium 207).

Our last example comes from Torrington in North Devon.  One day at the very beginning of June, 1890, a man was working in a wood.  At the end of the day he separated from his companions to collect a tool he had left nearby.  On bending down to pick it up, a strange feeling came over him; he was unable to move and he heard pixies laughing.  He realised he was at their mercy.  When he had not returned home by ten o’clock that night, his wife became very alarmed and went out to look for him.  She met the man emerging from the wood, soaked to the skin.  He explained he had been held under the pixies’ spell for nearly five hours, capable only of crawling along on his hands and knees.  It was dark and he had no idea where he was, as a result of which he fell into a stream, which broke the spell.  The wood was apparently known for pixie-leading, although this is not really the right term for the man’s experience, which was much more akin to a paralysis.

Several features unite these cases: an action which somehow incurs fairy displeasure and their sanction, which is a loss of bodily function that may vary in terms of its extent and/ or duration.  I have called this fairy paralysis; our forebears seem to have called it something else- ‘fairy blast.’

soper spell
Eileen Soper, The Spell That Went Wrong

Fairy Blast

Roughly speaking, there are two main ways in which the fairies make humans sick.  One is to shoot us with arrows (elf-shot), which leaves the victim elf-struck (suffering from a stroke).  The other is to blast them with an ‘ill-wind’- a condition also sometimes called the evil eye.

The condition was recognised in England, and was often termed ‘the Faerie’ but it is from Scotland that we have the better records of the illness and its cure. The evidence mainly comes from the trial of women suspected of being ‘witches,’ although in reality what they had usually been involved in was folk healing, using herbs, of the sickness caused by fairies and witches.  For example, Jonet Andersone of Stirling was tried in 1621: using a shirt worn by the patient and an iron knife, she had diagnosed that the illness had come from ‘a blast of ill wind.’  Likewise, Janet Boyman of Edinburgh told a mother than her child had been blasted with an evil wind by the fairies when they found it in its cradle, unblessed by the mother and therefore unprotected from faery malignity.

In 1662 Jonet Morrisone of Bute was tried for witchcraft.  Amongst the evidence against her was an incident where she had told a man that his daughter was paralysed and unable to speak because of “blasting with the faryes,” something she cured with herbs.  She had treated at least two others in the same way.  Janet Trall of Perth treated a baby that had got “a dint of evil wind” by bathing the infant with water from a south-flowing well.   I’ve discussed before the crucial role of water in curing fairy illness and in cures provided to us by the fairies.

On Shetland and Orkney, the trows were also said to cause identical illnesses. The islanders said that an ‘ill wind’ in the face could lead to languor, stupor and loss of appetite.

There were two explanations as to how blasting happened.  Healer Catie Watson of Stow explained in 1630 that people were “blasted with the breath of the fairy.”  Jonet Morisone, though, said that “blasting is a whirlwind that the fayries raise about that persone quhich they intend to wrong and that, tho’ there were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot him quhom they were set for.”  She went on to explain that the effect of the wind gathered in one place in the body and, unless treated in a timely manner, would cause the victim to ‘shirpe’ (shrivel) away.   Janet Boyman in 1572 expanded a little on this: the purpose of the blasting was, in her opinion, to enable the fairies (the “sillyie wychts” as she called them) to abduct the victim.  She saw blasting as part of a longer term strategy, therefore, rather than as an immediate response to some offence.

Some close contact was evidently necessary for the blast to be inflicted.  I’ll end this discussion with a mention of a Highland Scottish belief that cattle could be paralysed by the so-called ‘fairy mouse.’  The luch-sith was the name for the shrew and it was believed that its presence in pastures could lead to livestock being struck down with the marcachd sith, (fairy riding), a paralysis of the spine brought on by the shrew running across the backs of the cattle when they lay down.

For more on this aspect of the faery character, see my 2021 book The Darker Side of Faery:

Faeries and Water- healing and diagnosis

hm2
Hester Margetson

I have written before about fresh and marine water spirits and about the connections between the faeries and rivers and wells; in this post I want to pull together various scattered strands and highlight the magical power that seems to link faeries and water.

Healing Properties

Water is very often seen being used for its ability to heal disease inflicted by or associated with the faeries.  As I have described previously, water that runs in a southerly direction- whether that’s a river or stream or the outflow from a spring or well- is deemed to be especially effective in curing sickness.  It may have to be collected in silence and it may be used to a patient or that person’s shirts or blouse, but it was regularly prescribed by Scottish witchcraft suspects- presumably because of its perceived efficacy.

As well as treating faery inflicted disease, water also could have a role in diagnosing the cause of a person’s infirmity.   Katharine Craigie, who was tried on Orkney in 1640, had told a sick man that she could discover whether he was afflicted by “ane hill spirit, a kirk spirit or a water spirit,” which are probably different types of trow.  She did this by placing three stones in the household’s fire all day; these were then left under the house’s threshold overnight and, in the morning, were dropped separately into a bucket of water. The stone that “chirned and chirled” when it was dropped in the water indicated that a kirk spirit (probably a trow living in a nearby church yard) was the cause of the malady.  Craigie used this technique to diagnose affliction by a hill spirit in a second case and, in 1617, Orkney woman Katharine Caray had diagnosed a sea spirit in the same manner.  James Knarstoun, another Orkney healer, in 1633 also used three stones for the same purpose.  He brought one from the shoreline, one from a hill (surely a fairy knoll) and one from a kirk yard and promised that, once the spirit was revealed, it could be “called home again.”

Isobell Strauthaquinn was tried for witchcraft in 1597.  Her mother had learned her healing skills from her fairy lover.  Amongst the techniques she seems to have passed on to Isobell was curing people with water in which the bones of the dead had been washed.

hm1
Hester Margetson

What’s puzzling and contradictory in all this is the fact that very often the healer’s abilities derived from the fairies in the first place.  In Perth in 1623 three women, Isobel Haldane, Janet Trall and Margaret Hormscleugh, were all accused of witchcraft.  They had healed using south running water and all three claimed to have started their careers as healers after visiting the fairies in their hills and, through this, being endowed with their medical knowledge.  Also in Perth, in 1640, a man called John Gothray was presented before the Presbytery for his use of charms to heal townspeople.  He too claimed to have been abducted by the fairies when he was younger and, since then, to have been visited monthly by his changeling brother (who’d been stolen when he was barely one month old), who taught him how to make medicines using various herbs mixed with water from a local spring.

Diagnostic properties

In Gothray’s case, the spring water seemed to have unique healing properties. Many such sites were known across Britain.  Often, too, the water was in some way able to predict the outcome of the illness.  Near Fodderty in Ross and Cromarty, there was a well called Tom na domhnuich; its water would be collected before sunrise and the patient bathed in it, if it then looked clear they would recover- if brown, they would die.  In 1839 we have a record of a woman going there to collect water for her sickly child.  She had the fascinating experience of seeing a “creature with glaring eyes” diving into the well (some sort of black dog or bogle apparition, apparently).  She decided to collect the water anyway and, after washing her child, it fell soundly asleep- something which was unusual and looked hopeful for its recovery.  Sadly, it then died.  The water in the same well might also predict death or recovery by the way it turned- clockwise for health, anti-clockwise for death.

At the well of Kirkholme, the rising of the water indicated recovery; at Muntluck if the water was low, it was a bad sign and if you drank from one Dumfries well and then vomited, recovery was impossible.

James Knarstoun, the Orkney healer, was able to determine what was afflicting Patrick Hobie’s daughter using water collected from St Mary’s Well on the island.  It had to be fetched only between midnight and cockcrow- for, as is well known, with the coming of dawn the fairies’ power weakens and they have to flee the earth surface.

cloke well

Recovering Children

Wells have another curious link with faeries.  At Sùl na bà near Nigg, in Ross and Cromarty, there was a spring where local people would leave changeling children overnight, along with gifts for the fairies.  The hope was that these would be accepted as sufficient to persuade the faes to restore the stolen child by the next morning.  A number of such sites were once recognised- some springs, but others fairy hills and the like.

Seeing Faeries

Lastly, water could be instrumental in helping you to see the fairies.  As I have mentioned before, it was customary in many parts of the country to leave out water for the faes to wash in overnight.  In the Bodleian Library in Oxford there is a seventeenth century spell book containing various magical charms to summon fairies.  One involves a lengthy ritual focused around collecting faery washing water.  Performed around the time of a new moon, clean water was set out by a clean hearth with a clean towel.  By the morning a white rime or grease would be seen on the water which was removed with a silver spoon.  This grease was then to be used the next evening to anoint your eyes before sitting up all night before a table set out with fresh bread and ale.  Fairies would come to eat the food and the watcher would be able to see them because of the grease on their eyes.  Fairy expert Katharine Briggs explains that this must work because the fairies will have washed their children and, in so doing, will have washed from them some of the special ointment with which they’re anointed to give them the faery second sight.

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of the links between the faes and water. For more on faery medicine, see my Faery Lifecycle, 2021:

faery-lifecycle-cover

The Perils of Fairy Passion- sex & power

Linda R 2
Fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

I have described in previous posts the widely known physical attractiveness of fairies.  In Stuart verse, for example, we find praise for “the matchless features of the Fairy Queen” and for her “gracious eyes.”

Fairy partners were extremely attractive, but love for a fairy could be portrayed as obsessive, something that caused the human to sicken and to pine, as we see from Robert Armin’s The Valiant Welshman (1615, Act II, scene 5):

“Oh, the intolerable paine that I suffer from the love of the fairy Queen!  My heeles are all kybde [bruised] in the very heate of my affection, that runnes down into my legges; methinks I could eat up a whole Baker’s shoppe at a meale, to be eased of this love.”

Fairies were desirable partners simply because of their physical beauty.  However, a fairy’s lover could hope for great favour still- and the lover of the fairy queen (the most beauteous of all her kind) would naturally be even more highly honoured and rewarded.  At the same time, though, these supernaturals could prove to be possessive and demanding lovers- and vengeful if they felt neglected or slighted.

The trade-off between sex and gain, passion and pain, was therefore a difficult one, as we see from both folklore record and from romantic fiction.

JohnSimmons_Titania_
John Simmons, ‘Titania’

The Scottish Evidence

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed a relationship with the fairy queen that involved both her worship (he and others assembled and kissed her “airrs” in reverence) but also regular sexual contact.  He said of her:

“the queen is very plesand, and wilbe auld and young quhen scho pleissis; scho mackis any king quhom she pleisis and leyis with any scho lykis.”

One of those whom the queen liked was Man.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had “conversit with hir bodily.” In other words, he ‘lay with her’ and, as a result of these “carnal dealings” they had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.

Over and above these numerous infants, Man had gained materially: he learned to diagnose and cure diseases in cattle and humans and he was taught charms to steal milk and corn, or to protect his neighbours’ fields against such fairy thefts.

Sex with a fairy often appears to have been the price (and the conduit) for supernatural powers.  Isobell Strathaquin, also from Aberdeen, was tried in the January of the previous year to Andro Man; she told the court that she acquired powers in this manner: she “learnit it at [from] ane elf man quha lay with hir.”

Elspeth Reoch of Orkney also gained the second sight from two fairy men, but it involved sexual harassment by one of them.  She told her 1616 trial that two men had approached her and called her “ane prettie” before giving her a charm to enable her to see the faes.  Later “ane farie man” called John Stewart came to her on two successive nights and ‘dealt with her,’ not allowing her to sleep and promising a “guidly fe” is she agreed to have sex with him.  She held out against his blandishments until the third night, when he touched her breast and them seemed to lie with her.  The next day she was struck dumb (in order to conceal the source of her prophetic powers) and had to wander the town and beg for her living, offering people the knowledge she received through her second sight.

Sometimes, it has to be admitted, boasting can come into these accounts.  Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn near Nairn, was tried as a witch in 1662.  During her confession she seems to mock or tease her accusers with her account of the huge proportions of the devil’s ‘member.’  They were pressing her for confessions and they got them, with Isobel all the while expressing her modesty and Christian timidity over describing such shocking acts.

Sex in the Stories

The exchange of sex and skill is common between fairy and mortal.  In the poem and ballads of the same name, Thomas of Erceldoune was relaxing outside in the sunshine one day when he was approached by the gorgeous fairy queen.  After some resistance, she consented to lie with him “And, as the story tellus ful right, Seven tymes be hir he lay.”  Thomas is moved to these prodigious feats by her physical desirability (and, no doubt, by his own youthful vigour) but there’s a price to pay.  Initially after intercourse, the queen loses her beauty and becomes a hideous hag; secondly, her looks and youth may only be restored by her lover agreeing to spend seven years in Faery.  Thomas seems to have very little choice about this and has to leave immediately- although on the plus side, his travelling companion is restored to her former loveliness.  Once there, the riches start to flow to Thomas.  He is elegantly clothed and lives a life of luxurious leisure; what’s more, at the end of his time in Faery, he is endowed by the queen with special abilities.  In some versions of the tale, he becomes a skilled harper; in others he gains second sight.

The romance of Sir Launfal is comparable for the trade off between sex and wealth.  The fairy lady Tryamour summons the young knight to her in a forest.  She is reclining semi-naked in the heat and offers him a rich feast, followed by a sleepless night of sex.  The next morning, though, the nature of their transaction becomes clear: she promises to visit him regularly in secret but there are two conditions: “no man alive schalle me se” and, even more onerous:

“thou makst no bost of me…

And, yf thou doost, y warny the before,

Alle my love thou hast forlore.”

Assenting to the terms, he is given fine clothes, horses, armour and attendants and returns to the court of King Arthur.  Before, he had been poor and of no account, but now he is rich and gains status and respect.

In due course (albeit for honourable reasons) Launfal discloses his secret lover.  As with fairy money, this indiscretion might normally be expected to lose him Tryamour’s affections instantly and irreparably, but in this case she comes to Arthur’s court and carries him off to faery forever.

Summary

Fairy love and fairy magical abilities may be bestowed upon the lucky human, but that good fortune is plainly qualified.  The gifts are in fact an exchange; there must be a surrender on the part of the mortal recipient, which may be the loss of some of their independence or which may require a complete abandonment of their home, friends and family.   Perhaps the prize of fairy love and fairy knowledge are worth paying highly for, but, in earlier times, the cost of the bargain often turned out to be excessive, for fairy contact could prove fatal if revealed to the church and state.

A Note on the Scottish Witch Cases

As I highlighted before in my discussion of Ronald Hutton’s book, The Witch, I still harbour reservations about using the testimony from the Scottish witch trials.  I say above that Isobel Gowdie was ‘pressed’ for incriminating evidence.  This was literally true: boards were placed on suspects’ legs and piled with rocks.  We have a record of one victim of this crying out for it to stop and agreeing to confess whatever the court wanted.

Once these individuals had fallen into the authorities’ hands, their fate was pretty much sealed.  The sentence that almost all faced was to be ‘wyrrit and burnit,’ which means that they were tied to a stake, strangled and then burned.  For Elspeth Reoch, for example (NB Orcadian readers!) she was taken to the top of Clay Loan in Kirkwall where there is still a small area of grass; several local women suffered the same horrible fate on this spot.  We know too that one woman leaped from the top of a high prison tower in Perth to avoid execution.

Faced with the same circumstances, you too might agree to say whatever your inquisitors wanted you to say if it ended the misery.  How much can we trust this evidence then?  My feeling is that, whilst these might not be personal experiences, they still reflect what society as a whole believed to be the structure and conduct of the fairy folk.  If it did not convince the torturers, they might not have accepted it.  These confessions reflect the wider understanding of Faery in those days and need not be dismissed out of hand as the individual fantasy of a person desperate to stop the torture.

Finally: I have quite often quoted from the confessions of these individuals.  Whenever you read their names, spare a thought for them.  The worst that most did was to try to cure people and livestock at a time when medicines and health care were hugely limited.  To most of us, I’m sure these hardly sound like crimes, let alone capital offences.

This 16th-century woodcut depicts King James VI at the North Berwick witch trials, the case that first sparked his obsession with hunting. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Witches examined before King James I/VI

Fairy cures and potions

I have previously paid some attention to fairy healing, but I’ve recently gathered together a range of evidence on the types of cures and medicines that people have got from the fairies and it made sense to sort and arrange these to give a you a full idea of the sorts of methods and ingredients used.

There are a number of key elements or procedures regularly found in the cures, which are as follows.

Herbs

As a primarily rural people, it is far from surprising that the fays tend to use commonly found plants to make their potions.  Frequently we’re only told that ‘herbs’ were used, made into drinks and salves, but sometimes we are given more detail than just reading that they were “divers green herbs” which doesn’t help much at all.  Suspected witch, Isobel Stirling, used rowan in her cures; Elspeth Reoch used yarrow to cure nosebleeds; Bessie Dunlop was given something like the root of a beet by her fairy adviser and was told to cook it and make it into a salve or dry it and powder it.  Katherine Cragie was tried on Orkney in 1643 for both curing and inflicting illnesses; she treated those stricken by the trows with an application of foxglove leaves (the plant was called ‘Trowis Glove’ on Orkney at this time; it is not a practice to be imitated given the toxicity of the plant).  Nonetheless, Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried in May 1658, also treated a dumb man with foxglove leaves in water from a south running stream.  Isobel Haldane of Perth was tried in 1623 for making charms, a skill she claimed to have been taught by the fairies.  She attempted to drive out a ‘shargie bairn’ (a changeling) using a drink made from ‘sochsterrie’ leaves (possibly star-grass); the infant died (which may or may not have been a successful cure). Lastly, in 1716, Farquhar Ferguson of Arran was tried before a church court for practising charms: one of his medicinal drinks was made from agrimony.

A range of illnesses would be treated with herbs.  For such maladies as “ane evill blast of wind” or being “elf-grippit” (having a fairy attack or seizure) Bessie Dunlop had a variety of cures.  She would mix assorted herbs together to feed to sick cattle; illnesses in people might be cured by ointments or by powders (which were presumably ingested); during her examination in court she added that if the patient “sweated out” the treatment, they would not recover.  Just like Bessie, Jonet Morrisone from the isle of Bute healed a little girl who’d been ‘blasted with the faryes’ using herbs.  Rather like Bessie, too, she told the court at her trial in 1662 that treatment in time should guarantee recovery, but if she was consulted too late, the patient might still “shirpe” (shrivel or wither) away.

Alesoun Peirsoun treated the Bishop of St Andrews for trembling fever, palpitations, weakness in the joints and the flux with a herbal ointment which she rubbed into his cheeks, neck, breast, stomach and side.  Alesoun had spent seven years visiting the faery court in Elfame and had seen the ‘good neighbours’ making their salves in pans over fires, using herbs they had picked before sunrise.

Herbs seemed to do more than cure illness in livestock and people, though.  Janet Weir of Edinburgh told her trial in April 1670 that her fairy helper, a woman who would intercede on Janet’s behalf with the fairy queen, also gave her a piece of tree or herb root which allowed her to “doe what she should desyre.”

A Visit to the Witch 1882 | Edward Frederick Brewtnall | oil painting
Edward Frederick Brewtnall, A visit to the witch

Food

The herbal remedies just discussed as often hard to separate from those involving food stuffs, some everyday ingredients, others rather more expensive and harder to come by.  For instance, Alesoun Peirsoun also treated the Bishop with a medicinal broth made from ewe’s milk, wood-ruff and other herbs, claret and the liquor of boiled hen, which he had to drink over two successive days- a quart at a time.  Bessie Dunlop made a similar preparation.  She was approached for help by a young gentlewoman who suffered from ‘cold blood’ and fainting fits, for which she prescribed a potion made from ginger, cloves, aniseed and liquorice mixed in strong ale and taken with sugar in the mornings before eating.  Margaret Dicksone of Pencaitland used eggs and meal to drive out a changeling- perhaps more of a charm than a cure, just as was the case with the aforementioned Elspeth Reoch.  She acquired the second sight by means of boiling an egg on three successive Sundays and using the ‘sweat’ that formed on the egg to wash her hands and then rub on her eyes.

The vicar of Warlingham in Surrey in the early seventeenth century recorded a range of cures that had apparently been taught to him “by the fayries.”  Some of them involved the shedding and use of blood (quite common in magical remedies), others used food and herbs together.  For example:

  • To cure boils, blotches and carbuncles, take the ripe berries of ivy growing on a north facing wall, dry them, powder them and then give as much as will cover a groat coin in a glass of wine. The patient should be rubbed til they sweat and then put to bed in fresh sheets and clothes.  They will be well by morning;
  • To make a tooth fall out- mix wheat meal with spurge and put the paste in the hollow of the tooth. Given that spurge sap is acidic, this would certainly have had some sort of effect; and,
  • For those who are forespoken or bewitched- take three sprigs of rosemary, two comfrey leaves, half a handful of succory, half a handful of thyme and three sprigs of herb grace. Seethe these in a quart of water taken from a stream and then strain.  Flavour with nutmeg, ginger, mace and sugar and drink warm, followed by five almonds.

Water

I’ve discussed before how water can have magical properties. For example, from Shetland there come several accounts of trows using ‘kapps’ (wooden bowls) to pour water over patients during healing ceremonies.  The implement and the liquid were both important apparently (Saxby, Shetland traditional lore, p.151).

This is very often seen in the fairy-taught healing procedures.  Margaret Alexander from Livingstone used well water combined with charms to cure sick people.  Likewise, Isobel Haldane, who lived in Perthshire, took water from wells and burns and in it washed the shirts of her patients.   A woman called Jonet Boyman from Edinburgh would also diagnose sickness using a patient’s shirt, taking it to a well on Arthur’s Seat just outside the city.  Jonet had first acquired her healing skills by going to the well and raising a whirlwind, from which emerged a fairy man who taught her.

Earlier I mentioned Jonnet Miller, from Kirkcudbright, and it’s worth repeating here that one of her remedies (at least) required water taken from a stream that ran southwards.  Stein Maltman of Stirling told his 1628 trial that he made several different uses of water in his cures.  He boiled elf-shot in water from a south flowing stream and either had a patient drink it or bathe in it; in another case he had a man bathe himself in such a stream having first diagnosed his illness by reciting charms over one of the man’s shirts. Margaret Dicksone, mentioned just now, also treated a suspected changeling child by washing it- and its shirt- in a south-flowing stream.

Rituals and other items

Our last category involves a mixture of odd materials that were considered to have medicinal effect.  Catharine Caray from Orkney diagnosed and cured the sick using thread, charms and stones to cure physical and spiritual illnesses. For example, the thread might be tied on with an invocation of the holy trinity and the words “’bone to bone, synnew to synnew, and flesche to flesche, and bluid to bluid.”  Threads, often red in colour, were regularly used to protect cattle and children from fairy attacks.  Bessie Dunlop, for example, was given a green silk thread by her fairy helper, Thom Reid, with which she assisted women in childbirth.

Suspected witch Andro Man was tried at Aberdeen in 1598.  He used several methods to cure animals: he hit them with birds but he also employed salt and black wool.  A sick man was cured by passing him nine times through a length of yarn, and then transferring the illness from that to a cat.  He would invoke St John and use other holy words in Latin borrowed from Catholic liturgy; he stopped oxen from running away using ‘lax water’ (possibly water from a salmon stream or in which salmon had been cooked).  Lastly, he protected fields of corn by placing four stones at each corner.

Treatment by passing patients through hanks of yarn was also practised by Isobel Haldane, by Janet Trall from near Perth- who then cut up the yarn into nine parts and buried it in three different places- and by Thomas Geace of Fife, who burned the yarn afterwards.  I assume that this has some relation to the use of girdles in diagnosing sickness.

Stein Maltman, mentioned in the last section, had learned his healing skills from the “fairie folk,” whom he often saw, and they supplied him with a repertoire of cures.  He rubbed some patients with elf-shot; over others he waved a drawn sword, on the basis that the naked iron would scare the malignant fairies away; finally he advised some of those who consulted him to return to the spots where they felt they had picked up their infections, there to pray for healing.

waterhouse_destiny

J M W Waterhouse, Destiny

For more on faery medicines and cures, see the discussion in my ‘Faery Lifecycle’ (2021):

Mermaid wisdom

-a-mermaid-combing-her-hair-goble

Warwick Goble,  A mermaid combing her hair

Mermaids are best known for their captivating beauty, a quality that can sometimes prove fatal to human lovers, and sometimes they display magical powers- they can predict the future, make curses and conjure up storms- but they are not usually thought of as founts of wisdom.  All the same, quite a few traditional folklore stories show that mermaids do have oracular powers.  Also, like oracles, it can sometimes be pretty hard to make sense of what they’re saying.

Cookery advice

Mermaids seem to have strong opinions about two matters in particular, human health and human cuisine.  The latter is especially surprising seeing as mermaids aren’t likely to cook anything at all and certainly not much that would be eaten by humans.  This doesn’t seem to stop them expressing their views, even so.  For instance, a mermaid caught in a fishing net off the Isle of Man was held captive for three weeks by the boat’s crew.  She refused to speak, eat or drink until they finally relented and took her down to the beach to set her free.  Other merfolk came to meet her at the sea’s edge and when she was asked what men were like, she said:

“Very ignorant- they throw away the water eggs are boiled in.”

Another mermaid, caught in nets near Fishguard in West Wales, advised:

“Skim the surface of the pottage before adding sweet milk.  It will be whiter and sweeter and less of it will do.”

This is probably very good advice, but how a mermaid would know about making soup with dairy products is anybody’s guess.

An incident from the Hebrides involves a mermaid escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him his failure can be ascribed to the dryness of his bread- whereas if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.

In one case the advice concerns the preparation of fish, which at least we can accept a mermaid might know about.  A mermaid had been trapped on the land by the magical means of sprinkling stale urine across her path (this works with fairies too).  She spoke only once in the week she spent ashore, to warn a woman gutting fish:

“Wash and clean well, there’s many a monster in the sea.”

In another case a mermaid has something to say about the preparation of fish, but in this case her words don’t seem to be about kitchen hygiene but instead are either a prediction or a grant of good fortune.  The mermaid had been caught on a hook by some Shetland fishermen; she begged to be freed and promised to grant them anything they wished for.  They returned her to the water and, before she sank beneath the waves, she declaimed a verse ending with the advice “Skoom well your fish.” One of the crew of the boat paid attention to her words and carefully skinned the next fish he caught.  He found a large and valuable pearl inside.

 

WarwickGoble_TheSea Fairies
Goble, Sea fairies

Cures & remedies

Mermaids also seem to know a good deal about human diseases and their treatment with herbal remedies.  In one Scottish case, a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore and called out:

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

A very similar story has the mermaid tell a sick girl’s lover about the mugwort remedy in good time; he makes a juice from the flower tops which saves his beloved.  There may well be some sound advice on herbal medicine being dispensed here, though once again quite what a sea dweller knows about weeds growing on dry land is another matter altogether.

warwick-goble-sea sprites

Goble, Sea sprites

Cryptic comments

Lastly, some of the mermaid sayings seem so cryptic it’s hard to make much sense at all of them.  Just before she dived out of sight beneath the waves, a mermaid who had been discovered sitting on a rock near Porth y Rhiw in South Wales said simply:

“Reaping in Pembrokeshire and weeding in Carmarthenshire.”

Another, who had become stranded on the beach as the tide went out at Balladoole on the Isle of Man called out to her rescuers:

“One butt in Ballacaigen is worth all of Balladoole.”

It’s may be possible to extract some sense from this, if the ‘butt’ refers to a barrel of fish.  If this is right, she may have been saying that the herring catch at the first location would always be better than that off the beach where she was found- a helpful hint for the men who saved her.

Summary

There’s a tendency to forget these days that mermaids are more than a pretty face (and figure) and that they have a society and a character as rounded and complex of that of the faeries.  They can be wise, they can be bewitching– and they can be deadly and dangerous.  I have tried to cover this in a succession of previous posts.

The material will appear in expanded form in a forthcoming book, ‘Fairy beasts,’ that is currently in preparation.

Goble mermaid

Goble, A mermaid

 

 

 

 

 

Fairy wells

Goblin harvest amelia bowerley

Goblin harvest by Amelia Bowerley

“The Fairy Well of Lagnanay-
Lie nearer me, I tremble so,
Una, I’ve heard wise women say
(Hearken to my tale of woe)-
That if before the dews arise,
True maiden in its icy flow
With pure hand bathe her bosom thrice,
Three lady-brackens pluck likewise,
And three times round the fountain go,
She straight forgets her tears and sighs.”

The fairy well of Lagnanay, Samuel Ferguson

I have discussed in a previous post how some fairies have an aversion to running water.  In contrast, though, still water has strong faery and magical properties and is, as hitherto described, the home of quite a few (largely fearsome) fays- the ‘meremaids’ of pools and lakes.

I want to look at the supernatural nature of ponds and wells in this posting.  A folklore example of this that comes from East Yorkshire records how a troublesome bogle in Holderness was banished to a well, since called Robin Round Cap Well.  In lowland Scotland the story was told of a girl who sat spinning wool on a distaff by a well when she looked in a saw a pot of gold beneath the surface.  She marked the spot with her spindle and ran to tell her father.  He suspected it was just fairy glamour intended to trap and drown her and, sure enough, when they returned to the place, the moor was covered in distaffs.  Nonetheless, twelve men in green appeared and returned her original spindle with its wool all spun.  Author Rose Fyleman was aware of the fay powers of water and, in The second adventure of the rainbow cat, the cat is given a bottle of fairy water from a magic well that bestows the ability to see through walls.

me_fairy_well

Writer and designer Feral Strumpet at the holy well at Mount Grace Priory, Osmotherly.

Holy (fairy) wells

Britain once was covered with ‘holy’ wells, many of which had no Christian association at all.  They were wishing wells, places of prediction, and very many are likely to have been so regarded for millenia. These sites often still exist, but their supernatural links are now mostly forgotten; they are muddy springs in fields or neglected wells by roadsides.  They still have a strong attraction for many, nonetheless.

Respect was shown to fairy wells in various ways.  Offerings of pins were made at Bradwell in Derbyshire on Easter Sunday and at Wooler in Northumberland, whenever a person wanted a wish to come true.  At various sites in Scotland, both buttons and pins were left.  Perhaps the most famous of these was the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ on top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  Given the fays’ well known liking for dairy products, such offerings seem entirely appropriate; the same can’t be said about the pins, though, as iron is always regarded as an effective way of repelling our good neighbours.

eichler nixe
Reinhold Maximilian Eichler, The Nixie (from Jugend magazine, 1898)

Healing wells

The wells had health giving properties, too, so that if a child had gone into a decline and was no longer thriving (it was ‘shargie’ and had been afflicted by ‘the fairy’) leaving a child overnight near a well would cure it.  At Wooler, too, sickly children would be dipped in the well’s waters and bread and cheese left as an offering.  If it was suspected that the child had in fact been substituted for a fairy changeling, well water might again be part of the remedy.  At Chapel Euny in West Cornwall the way to expel a changeling and restore a human child was to dip the suspect infant in the well on the first three Wednesdays in May.  Both the time of day and the time of year are particularly fay, as has been described before.

Given the supernatural properties of well water, it is unsurprising that they should be used to imbue the human children abducted by the fairies with fay properties.  This is only evidenced in literature rather than folklore, but an excellent example is in the Scottish verse Kilmeny by James Hogg.  She’s dipped in the waters of life to ensure that her youth and beauty never fade.  

hannah-titania-jewelry-fairy-well-222531971

Poet, artist, musician Hannah Titania at her fairy well

Conclusions

There’s a complex and (as ever) contrary relationship between the faeries and water.  It can be the medium in which they live, it can be protective against them and it can be used by them for magical purposes.

Many of us instinctively sense the links between fays, wells and some sort of supernatural presence.  Fairies’ association with natural features may be part of this; perhaps the mysterious appearance of fresh water from underground had mysterious and magical qualities that also encouraged links to the Good Folk.  The Tiddy Mun of the East Anglian fens, for example, was believed to control the flood waters and had to be propitiated with offerings of water.  Fresh water can be both potion and poison; which will apply seems unpredictable and to depend very much upon place and personality.

Further reading

See my posting on the Sennen fairies for an example of a sighting at a well.

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