‘Fy nhy, eich ty’: my house, your house

Florence Anderson, The Artist at Home

The faeries are remarkably attracted to our homes.  For a people who (we are frequently told) have an aversion to all aspects of human civilisation- the noise and pollution, the electric lighting, the religion- there are still numerous examples of them being drawn to using our buildings.  Mills (both operational and disused) are popular, but our houses are even more attractive.

There are, of course, some fairies who live and work with us- the brownies, boggarts and hobs– but what I’m interested in here is the ‘wild,’ non-domesticated faeries who have their own homes and yet still choose to come and use ours.  It may be that our buildings are better than theirs: on this, the evidence is conflicting.  We hear plenty of accounts of people who visit palaces and grand mansions below ground, with halls that accommodate feasts and fine furnishings, but we also hear about dilapidated hovels.  For example, in 1910 a Welsh district nurse reportedly attended a birth in a fairy dwelling.  The room where the woman in labour was lying was formed of bushes; her bed was made of moss (Welsh Outlook, 1931). We can never be sure how much the finery is just glamour that disguises the much more humble reality.

Whatever the exact situation (and perhaps it’s just a matter of class and wealth), there are plenty of accounts of faeries entering our houses and making their presence felt there.

Firstly, the fairies tend to be very particular about the manner in which premises should be prepared for their uninvited nocturnal visits.  They like to find hearths swept, floors washed, good fires built up and water and towels set out for them to wash.  If all is in order, people might hope to be rewarded with small coins; if householders or their servants neglect these preparations, they can expect to be pinched or pulled out of their beds.  For example, a Mrs Owen on Anglesey described in 1886 how her mother used to ready the house for its night time visitors.  She had to set out two chairs, a candle, a basin of clean water, a towel and soap for them.  Then, when the family were in bed, the tylwyth teg would come down the chimney and would spend the entire night bathing.  In the morning, though, the towel would have been washed and dried, the basin would have been emptied and placed on the table and there would be gold sovereigns inside. (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886)

On Shetland, the trows seem even more fussy.  An untidy home might be cursed for a year and a day; the water that is left out has to come from particular wells.  Conversely, sometimes the visitors (as on the island of Guernsey) might come and do unfinished household chores– although they’ll expect a bowl of porridge in return.

Once the fairies have arrived, their presence is frequently burdensome.  The Manx fairies seem to treat local houses with great familiarity.  They will enter at night, bank up the fires and make use of the spinning wheels.  They too expect bread and water to be left out for them.  In particular, it was accepted on the island that on dark and stormy nights the little folk would need to be able to shelter somewhere and people would go to bed early to make way for them.  In The Fairy Faith, Evans Wentz records a witness saying that his grandfather’s family would sometimes be visited by a little white dog on cold winter’s nights. This was a fairy dog, and was a sign that the fairies themselves were on their way.  The family would then stop whatever they were doing and make the house ready (fire stoked and fresh water set out) before hurrying off to bed. (Wentz 122)

In Buckhaven in Fife, the fairies used to be very troublesome indeed, dancing around the chimneys, running through houses and (of course) stealing babies.  A Welsh man was asleep in his home at Bwlch y ddar, near Llangedwyn, outside Oswestry, when he awoke to find a small man fiddling and others dancing in the room.  He asked who the intruders were, and was told “Yspriddion yr awyr” (spirits of the air).  Then he asked why they were there, and was told that they planned to dance that night and the next.  He swore they wouldn’t- and they vanished.  Perhaps a better response came from one elderly Manx resident, whose house was used regularly at night for faery dancing. The old man was unable to sleep because of the racket, but one evening, hearing the fiddles being tuned downstairs, he got out of bed, descended and asked the fairies if he might join in with their dancing. He was invited to enjoy himself and participated in a couple of reels before finding himself so tired that he slept soundly the rest of the night. Thereafter, he was never troubled again, and wise people in the neighbourhood praised his actions: if he’d stormed in shouting, he’d have been cursed for life, but his friendly attitude won him the esteem of the little people.

Returning to Wales, it was reported in Edwardian times that one Glamorgan neighbourhood was “infested with fairies.”  In one farmhouse, the supernatural visitors annoyed the family continually and gave them no peace: if the occupants were in the kitchen, the fairies would be gambolling in the dairy; if they were in the cow byre, the faes would be dancing in the kitchen.  When the household sat down to a meal, they would be disturbed by noise in the next room.  Eventually, the fairies had to be exorcised (Rhondda Leader, 17/9/1904).

It should be plain that the best policy is to be tolerant and accommodating. The fairies will get into our homes and other buildings whatever we do- they can’t be locked out- so it seems only sensible to make them welcome and to make the best of their company. This attitude is likely to be rewarded; showing exasperation and meanness will only be viewed as disrespect– and will be punished suitably.

Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse

Fayerie

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, another annotated anthology entitled Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  Hot on the heels of Victorian Fairy Verse, this offers an annotated selection of poetry from the period along with a detailed introduction.

The Tudor and Stuart period in Britain, the time of Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, Drayton, Herrick and many others, was a time when fairies featured repeatedly in poetry and drama. The new book is a detailed examination of the fairies of the era, as they are depicted in the verse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Contents

The book’s divided into three parts. The first part surveys the medieval background- how fairies were portrayed in the romances, poems and other literary works of the Middle Ages. Particular attention is paid to ideas of fairyland and to the kings and queens of Faery.

In the second part I examine Tudor and Stuart fairy knowledge in detail. Drawing on the many plays and poems of the period, a picture is built up of how contemporary people understood and interacted with their fairy neighbours. The book then considers how new ideas were beginning to change fairy belief at this time: changes in religion, science and culture were taking place (most notably the Reformation and the Renaissance) and these had a major impact on popular perceptions of fairies. Lastly in this part of the book, two specific questions are examined: how big were the fairies thought to be and what colour were their clothes- and their bodies?

The third part of the book is an annotated anthology of selected Tudor and Stuart fairy verse. Work is included by Thomas Churchyard, Simeon Steward, Robert Herrick, Michael Drayton and William Warner, amongst others. Overall, rather than just relying on Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton, the book draws on a very wide range of authors, both English and Scots, and includes many little known plays and poems.

Robin Good-fellow, or Puck

Tudor and Stuart Ideas

There is continuity in British fairy belief right through from the twelfth century to present times.  Many of the concepts accepted in the Middle Ages are still perfectly recognisable today.  These ideas were transmitted to us by the Tudor and Stuart periods, and the elements of their faery faith are very familiar.  Here are few examples of core aspects of their belief which are still applicable.

It was well known that fairies were especially beautiful: in a verse written to celebrate the first staging of Massinger’s play The Emperor of the East in 1631, the “matchless features of the Fairy Queen” are praised.  Naturally, sexual desire was involved: “that little fairy,/ ‘T has a shrewd, tempting face” says a character in Middleton’s The Spanish Gipsy (1621, I, 5).

Caution was needed in such affairs, though.  People of the period well knew that the faes were changeable: you could speak about “that hopeful Elf/ Thy dear, dainty Duckling” but also “that elf/ Of sin and darkness.”  The faes could even be invoked to inflict revenge:

“Nay, then, revenge, look big! Elf and Fairy/ Help to revenge the wronged ‘pothecary!”  (Massinger, The Picture, II, 1; Middleton, The Triumphs of Truth and The Family of Love, IV, 4)

As I have discussed many times, the fairies would reward diligent servants and housewives (“I have sometimes found money in old shoes” Middleton, The Witch, IV, 1) and would viciously chastise those felt to be lazy and dirty.  Pinching was the preferred punishment:

“pricked and pinched me like an urchin” (Middleton, More Dissemblers Besides Women, III, 1)

“The nips of fairies upon maids’ white hips,/ Are not more perfect azure.” (The Witch, I, 2)

Lastly, when not tormenting us mortals, it was very well known that the fairies would dedicate themselves to pleasure: “Fine dancing in such fairy rings” and “sung and danced about me like a fairy.” (Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters, V, 2 & IV, 4).

Further detail

Fayerie is an ideal companion to my other new book, Fairy Ballads and RhymesIt is published through Amazon/KDP and is available as an e-book at £7.50 or as a paperback at £12.00.  For details of all my faery books (fiction and non-fiction), please see my book page.

The fairies’ whirl

Arthur John Black, Fairies' whirl

Arthur John Black, The fairies’ whirl

As I’ve described before, fairies traditionally travel in whirlwinds.  This mode of travel can act partly as a cover for human abductions and partly as a form of concealment.  It appears to have been considered essentially faery, so much so that the magic necessary to achieve it might even be imparted to whoever or whatever is carried along in the fairy eddy: for example, a farmer living on the island of Tiree saw one of his sheep being whirled up into the sky by a gust of wind.  He was so certain that the fairies had done this that, when the sheep came to be slaughtered, he refused to eat any of its meat- plainly because he considered it tainted in some manner.

We know, too, that one of the fairies’ favourite and most distinctive pastimes is their circle dancing.  It follows, therefore, that there are some grounds for arguing that a spinning motion may be inherent in fairy movement.  There is more explicit evidence that this may be the case.

Some older evidence

My earliest example is from mid-Wales in 1862.  Two carters, David Evans and Evan Lewis, were travelling from Brecon to New Quay in Ceredigion with wagon-loads of timber.  At Maestwynog, one August afternoon, they saw some small people climbing to the top of a distant hill.  There they danced in a circle for a while, but then began to spiral into the centre, “like a gimblet screw.”  Then, successively, the figures disappeared into the ground.  The dancing beforehand reinforces the sense that circular motion may be especially fay, but this sighting takes the matter further.

A changeling child who had been exposed at Sorbie in Galloway was put in a basket over the cottage fire to drive it away and retrieve the human baby that the fairies had taken.  The changeling shrieked and cursed and spat- and then spiralled up through the smoke hole in the roof “like a corkscrew.”

In Victorian times, two men were out walking one night on the Isle of Man when they saw the figure of a woman dressed all in white standing in the angle of the wall just opposite a church gate. When one of the two man went across to speak to her she took him by the arm and spun him round and round till he was dizzy, and then let go of him so suddenly that he nearly fell down on the road. The marks of her fingers remained on his arm up to the day of his death as dark imprints on the biceps.  In another Manx example, a very troublesome buggane was described as “whirling like a spinning wheel” on top of a mountain.  He then came to meet an old woman who had expressed the opinion that he ought to be chastened for his many pranks “whirring like a spinning wheel.” [‘Old Nance and the Buggane’- see http://www.feegan.com]

Modern examples

Much more recent sightings suggest that this corkscrew motion was not unusual.  A woman from Monmouthshire twice saw fairies- in 1945 and 1949- and each time they appeared to her as a whirling shape before the individual fairy was visible.  The fays have also been seen to “spin round and round at a tremendous speed, and then vanish at the peak.”  Some others did the same “spiralling upwards with a sound like the soughing of the wind.”  The spinning motion can be imparted to objects they’re standing on too (such as a bowl of tulips).  [Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies, pp.47, 106, 155, 212 & 297]

The more traditional whirlwinds are still seen too, out on country roads but also in modern urban environments. An art school student from North Carolina saw a figure inside a tiny vortex only one foot high and a factory security guard saw them in dust devils as a child. [Seeing fairies, p. 229 and Fairy Census numbers 346 & 419]

Summary

In previous posts I’ve addressed the question of how fairies move about: do they rely upon magic, for instance, or do they use their own forms of transport?  The few cases discussed here open up some intriguing new avenues for investigation.  Other examples of spinning motion have probably been recorded; perhaps readers know of others?

Grace Jones, fairy dance c.1920

Grace Jones, The fairy dance, c.1920

For more on the anatomy and physiology of faery kind, see my book The Faery Lifecycle, published in 2021.

faery-lifecycle-cover

Sennen fairies

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The fairy spring at Sennen

This inspiration for this posting comes from an article on a fairy sighting written by E. Westlake, ‘A Traditional Hallucination’, which was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychic Research vol. 11 (1904), pages 191-193 and was much more recently reproduced in the Fairy Investigation Society Newsletter (New Series) no. 2 July 2015- which is where I first read it.

The experience took place in about 1888 at Sennen Cove, in the far west of Cornwall, and immediately fascinated me- because I know the village and because I knew I would probably visit before too long.  Both I and my wife have Cornish roots, some of her family still live in the county and, as a result (as well as the beauty of the place), we often go down.  This Easter we visited and I knew it was time to make a pilgrimage to the pisky well described in the Victorian report.

The incident was recounted to Mr Westlake, who visited Sennen in 1895, by Grace Penrose, a local woman aged 25, who had been about eighteen when she had her fairy experience.  Westlake wrote it up in 1897 (using his notes of the conversation from 1895) and it finally made it into print another seven years later. Grace’s story of ‘Little people at Sennen’ was this:

“One evening in August, I think it was in 1888, but am not sure to a year, we wanted some water from the well. It was late and Minnie [her elder sister] was afraid to go by herself, and I went with her to keep her company. It was a splendid night. The moon and stars were shining as bright as could be: the moon was overhead and one could see the sands and cliffs quite plain. Minnie had got down into the well – the bottom of which was dry on the near side and was bending down dipping up the water with a cup from the back of the well, which is deeper. I was standing by the side nearest the house with my back to the rock facing the little green of grass, but was looking to the right and watching Minnie in the well. She had been down a minute dipping up the water into the pitcher, when I heard a squeaking like mice.

I looked round, and there on the grass and about five feet in front of me were three little things like dolls about as high as a chair seat, dancing round and round with hands joined as fast as they could go; they were covering I should say as much ground as a big tray. They were dressed in a very thin white stuff like muslin, drawn in at the waist, and thrown all over their heads like a bride’s veil, so that I could not see their faces, and coming down over their arms. Their arms were stretched out rather drooping from the shoulder, and their hands were joined. I saw their hands very plainly, but did not distinguish fingers. They were as white as snow, hands and all. They had very small waists, no larger than the neck of that jug [6.5 inches]. Their dresses swell[ed] out at the bottom from the dancing; they were very long, and I don’t think I saw their feet, but they appeared to be dancing with a movement as though they were working their legs. They did not glide around. They went round pretty fast, as fast as real people. I’ve played like it before now. I watched them a minute [Note: This estimate is probably too great, for I find the time taken by three girls dancing around ‘two or three times as fast as they can’ is not more than 10 to 15 seconds] not longer; and they went around two or three times at least, as they were going round as fast as they could. They went around in the direction of the hands of a watch; and as gently as possible, with no sound of footsteps or rustling of dresses, but the squeaking noise kept up all the time. It was a pretty sound for mice, and louder – quite loud – one could have heard it I should think at a little distance.
Minnie in the well said, ‘Oh! What’s that! What’s that?’ (she told me afterwards she had heard the same noise as I had), and I said ‘Look! Look!’ And then as if they were frightened, they all ran together as quick as lightning up against the rock and they were out of sight in a moment.

I was that frightened, and was as white as a ghost when I came in. We looked at the clock and it was twelve. I have never been there before or since at that time of night. Mr Webber, a German, was in the house; and Mr Carter, who told me they were pixies, fairies you know. I had never heard or read of any such things before. Mother has since said that things were seen there [at the well] in times gone by, but I did not know of that then.”

Grace insisted that she had never had any other paranormal experiences nor suffered hallucinations.  Several details are especially fascinating about her account:

  • the tiny size of the fays, which fits quite well with popular tradition.  The comparison to a doll is something you’ll often see in the more recent reports;
  • their white colour, which is unusual but by no means unique in folklore encounters;
  • their fast spinning dance.  We know the fays for dancing on moonlit nights, but these rapid gyrations are unusual, but again not unheard of.  We should note too that they dance clockwise- ‘sunwise’- a direction that is generally thought to have magical connotations;
  • their high pitched squeaks, which once again are not conventional but which certainly fit with other reports as to their speech;
  • their disappearance into a solid rock face is fairly typical of fay disappearances;
  • the apparent loss of time.  It’s not entirely clear from Grace’s account, but she seems to imply that some hours may have been inexplicably lost during the experience.  Unaccounted passages of time, and the different passing of time in faery and in the human world, are regular incidents in fairy encounters.

The Journal titled Westlake’s article ‘A Traditional Hallucination’ and suggested that it was “obviously founded” on traditional lore- but this isn’t really true.  Had Grace been hallucinating this experience based upon her general knowledge of pixies and fairies, gleaned from books and popular stories, it would probably have been a great deal more conventional than it is.  We have dancing certainly, but we don’t have wings, green clothing, wands and other such standard fairy attributes.  The anomalies in the account argue for its truth.  So too does the fact that both sisters shared the experience- plus the fact that they were so close to the beings they saw.  Grace says the figures danced five feet away.  The path itself little over a metre wide so they were bound to be pretty near and so able to get a very good look.

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Westlake described the well as a “cavity between some granite blocks, about a yard square and deep, into which water drips from the hillside.”  It was approached by a steeply sloping and quite narrow path from the north (that is, from the village).  Beyond, to the east (that is, further uphill), he said there was an open space.

The site identified by the two girls was easily located on the Ordnance Survey map, lying on a steep footpath which leads up from the sea front road that runs through the village.  There’s more housing here than was the case in 1888 and it’s a busy thoroughfare leading from the heart of Sennen up to newer housing higher up the cliff.  Possibly it’s no busier than it was then, albeit holiday makers now replace local farmers and fishermen going about their business.

I was at first pessimistic about identifying the well, as lower down the slope there seemed to be considerable modern development (and, indeed, in one place builders were actively in the process of excavating the hillside to create space for a new dwelling).  Nevertheless, a walk of a few metres further brought me to the large rock that Grace mentioned, its identity as the source of the spring being confirmed by the abundant presence of water flowing beside the path.  Needless to say, with the advent of piped drinking water the well has been completely neglected and, as my photos show, it is seriously overgrown and silted up.  All the same, there was plentiful water present and, mentally removing the accumulated earth and plant material of 130 years, it was very easy to imagine the well as described by Grace and Westlake.

So, there I was.  Was I aware of the pisky presence?  No, I regret not. A hot, sunny bank holiday Monday with other tourists regularly walking past was probably not the ideal time: Grace saw the fairies on a moonlit August night, let’s recall.  I’d probably have to stay in Sennen to have any hope of repeating her encounter or- alternatively- buy the house next to the well.  This happened to be on the market at the time of our visit so, if you fancy living (quite literally) at Land’s End, with stunning views out over the sea (but facing fully into Atlantic gales in the winter), this is the place for you.  Mind, though, that your neighbours may turn out to be piskies, if they’re still in the vicinity.  That may be a blessing- or it may turn out to be a curse.

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Lewis Carroll on pixies

pixie brian froud

One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.

In this post I feature a paragraph of juvenilia from the family journal ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ which was ‘published’ by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his brothers and sisters between 1850 and 1853 to entertain themselves and their parents.  The piece is of interest as an early work of fantasy by the future author of the Alice stories as well as being an example of Victorian ideas on pixies.

The text appears under the sub-title: ‘Zoological papers‘ and makes fun of the learned scientific, academic style (with footnotes).

Zoological papers: Pixies

“The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high (1), of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka (2) like winking.’

From an old English legend (3) which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &c. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject.

(1) So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.

(2) Or any other step.

(3) A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.”

Now, it seems very likely that Carroll must have been reading Mrs Bray.  Her book, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy , was published in 1836 and describes, in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey, the traditions, legends and superstitions that surround the North Dartmoor town of Tavistock.  This is the most likely source for most of Carroll’s information: Mrs Bray’s children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, didn’t appear until 1854.

His fairy lore is on the whole, sound (excepting, I think, the turnips… as he confesses himself)  We do know that there was longstanding animosity between the Dartmoor foxes and pixies, which led to an ever-increasing effort by the latter to protect themselves.  The foxes hunted the pixies, digging them out of their underground homes and devouring them.  The pixies  responded by making iron shelters- which may, indeed, as Carroll suggests, look like dog kennels (R. King, ‘Folklore of Devonshire,’ Fraser’s Magazine, vol.8, 1873, p.781).

We know very well the fairies’ partiality for dairy products such as butter and milk, and it had long been a poetic conceit that tiny rural beings would drink dew and nectar from flowers.  We are also very familiar with their love of dance.  The use of kettles and the like is quite conventional: one common set of stories involves fairies seeking human aid to mend some basic item of domestic equipment- a stool or a ‘ped’ used to remove loaves from ovens; they made their own butter as well as stealing ours and would have needed a fully equipped kitchen for these tasks.  Tales of fairies at markets are also well-known, although their habit is often to thieve from the stalls rather than to buy.  In the frequent accounts of midwives who have cared for a fairy baby and, in the process, touched an eye with fairy ointment, the women are exposed when they spy a fairy at the market, whether buying or shoplifting.  Fairies often had gold, it is true, whether to purchase goods or to make gifts to chosen favourites.  Many writers have speculated about its source: was this money merely leaves and pebbles disguised by glamour (as was not unknown) or was it real currency, perhaps discovered by the fays underground?  Fairies were said to have abilities to help humans locate buried treasure, certainly, and access to ancient hoards might explain the unusual coins that often made up their payments.

Carroll’s pixies coincide very much with tradition, then, and even his jokey invention of their foxy fur coats is not entirely unheard of, as we know from more recent fairy sightings.  Nevertheless, the winged pixy is something of a surprise (though see Brian Froud’s image below) as is the description of them as always jolly.  As readers will know, they have a great tendency to mischief- hence the term ‘pixy-led.’

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Another Froud pixie

Further reading

Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are classics and well worth reading if you’ve not already, albeit not fairy stories in any conventional sense.  I have also enjoyed reading Sean Conroy’s recent book, Alice in the Underground: Lewis Carroll and Alice in Modern Culturea book which examines many of the debated questions of Carroll’s life and work.  My own British Pixies (2021) looks at all aspects of the folklore of the pixies of South West England.

Dances with elves

walter jenks morgan, where rural fays and fairies dwell

Walter Jenks Morgan, Where rural elves and fairies dwell

“Following the footsteps
Of a rag doll dance
We are entranced
Spellbound…”

Siouxsie and the Banshees, 1981

We all know that fairies love dancing.  They have regularly been seen, dancing in meadows, glades, buildings and at wells.  Literary authority Minor White Latham even goes so far as to say that dancing “amounted almost to a natural means of locomotion” for them (Elizabethan fairies, p.100).  Fairy dances are known too as a primary way in which humans are enticed into fairyland and become lost to the mortal world.  In this posting, I want to examine why humans seem to fall again and again for the trick and what the consequences of this gullibility may be for them.

All reports agree that fairies are enthusiastic and talented dancers.  That being the case, people were often drawn inexorably to watch them.  There are several accounts from Wales indicating that a recognised community pastime was to go to see the tylwyth teg dancing.  For example, after Sunday evening service at the church at Corwrion, near Bethesda, members of the congregation would go to a place called Pen y Bonc to mingle with the fairies as they danced.  The same was the case around Llanberis, Penmachno and Beddgelert, although it was acknowledged that getting too close was risky.

The peril to be guarded against was being drawn into the dancing circle.  We know that fairy music in itself can be bewitching; combined with dancing in which you can also participate, it can be nigh on irresistible- and the sensation was addictive.  Edward Jones of Pencwm, Llanrhystid, one night saw a fairy dance on Trichrug Hill.  He described how “he felt his feet lifted up and his body light.”  A farmer living at Llwyn On in Nant y Bettws came across the tylwyth teg dancing in a meadow at Cwellyn Lake.  He found that

“little by little he was led on by the enchanting sweetness of their music, and the liveliness of their playing, until he had got with their circle.  Soon, some kind of spell passed over him so that he lost his knowledge of the place and found himself in a country, the most beautiful he’d ever seen, where everybody spent their time in mirth and rejoicing.  He had been there seven years, but it seemed but a night’s dream…”

Little wonder then that dancers can be seduced away and never return.

These are the joys of elvish dancing.  Given what we know about faerie, we must expect there to be woes- and there are.  As the previous passage has already implied, the differential passage of time in Faerie and the mortal world can be one of the most serious problems for the dancer.  Here are just a handful of examples of a very widely reported issue.

  • A Scottish man taken into a dance under a hill was rescued a year and a day later, but he thought he was still dancing his first dance. He was only convinced of the length of his absence by seeing how his clothes had been rubbed to rags by the barrel of whisky he’d been carrying on his shoulder.  In a comparable story from Bruan near Wick the man was only convinced of the duration of his absence by seeing how his baby had grown into a toddler.  Likewise, a Welsh dancer was baffled how his brand-new shoes had been worn away;
  • Two brothers from Strathspey heard fairy music from a sithean, a fairy hill. One wanted to enter, the other did not.  The one who joined the dance was lost and his brother was only able to rescue him a year and day later, protected by a rowan cross on his clothes.  The dancer thought he’d stayed only half an hour or a single reel;
  • two men on the Isle of Man joined a fairy dance in a house.  After a while one went outside to relieve himself against the wall of the cottage; it instantly disappeared- along with his companion inside- and he was only rescued seven years later, at which point he complained about having to go home so soon;
  • A man from Haven near Pembridge in Herefordshire was lost for twenty-three years in a fairy ring- but thought it just minutes; and,
  • A Perthshire man rescued after a year and a day declared he’d only had a single dance and was not yet tired. When he got outside the fairy hill, he collapsed with exhaustion.  A Welsh man who was rescued was reduced to a mere skeleton, but immediately asked after the lost cow he’d set out to find a year before.

As will also be apparent from these accounts, getting away is no simple matter either.  Friends and relatives will need determination and patience to recover the lost dancer.  Precise timing is essential; often the rescue must be effected a year and a day exactly after the disappearance and the rescuer must be protected so that he isn’t also taken: iron or some other magical material will be needed to stop the fairies seizing the person or sealing them within the fairy hill.  Other precautions include pages from the Bible sewn into the clothes and the ensuring that only one foot is put into the circle of the dance.  The fairies will resist strongly, so more than one helper may be needed to pull the victim out of the circle.

For many of those who return from the dance, there is a double disappointment of resumption of their everyday life after the heady pleasure of fairyland and, quite often, the shock of losses that have occurred whilst they have been away: parents may have died, loved ones may have married someone else.  Thus Scottish writer James Cririe captured the allure and the terror in his 1803 book, Scottish scenery:

“At times, around and on that verdant hill,/ If common fame in ought can be believed,/ What fairy forms illusive mock the eye,/ In airy rings alternate lost and seen./ All robed in green, they mix and sportive weave,/ The mazy dance to music’s melting sound;/ Their tiny forms seen by the silent moon/ With wonder fill the gazing swain aghast/ While fear with sweat his shaking limbs bedews,/ Lest chang’d his form and carried far away to distant climes or to fairy halls.”

yorinda and yoringel in the witch's wood, duncan

John Duncan, Yorinda and Yoringel in the witches’ wood

Traditional material in the Fairy Census

Cottingley harebell posie Elsie

Elsie Wright presented with a posy of harebells

The Fairy Investigation Society‘s recent Fairy Census, published in January this year and covering 2014-2017, is a fascinating snapshot of contemporary perceptions of the fairy realm.  As I have already discussed, there is much that is new in modern fairy sightings, but there is also much that seems to come straight from traditional folklore sources, mixed up with the more contemporary and anomalous experiences.  There are quite a few experiences which would be very familiar to our ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although the examples of each are all quite limited in number.

The sorts of aspects of Faery I’m discussing here tend to be those that sit less well with the benign image of fays that has become so prevalent now.  Here are a few examples:

  • Hiding or moving things– the mischievous removal or concealment of personal possessions, often keys or jewellery, was reported a few times;
  • Pixie-led– in a second manifestation of fairy mischief, there was a handful of cases in which individuals found themselves lost or going in circles in a familiar place or within a small area where the exits were nearby and clear;
  • Abductions– in only ten cases (1% of the total) there seemed to have been an attempt to abduct a person (half involved adults and half children). Several times a strong feeling of compulsion was reported, often tempered by a sense of fear- even in situations where the fairies’ conduct was not in itself threatening: for example, they seemed to be dancing or playing;
  • Time distortion– it’s well known that time can pass very differently in Faery and this was mentioned in several reports. Most often hours were lost or unaccounted for.  Memorably, one witness described the sensation as “time felt twisty” (no.225);
  • Music– traditional accounts very frequently link music and dancing with fairy sightings. In the Census music was heard in only 11% of cases.  In half of these bells the music came from bells, although sounds like pipes, voices and drums were also reported.  Six of the witnesses compared what they heard to Irish or ‘Celtic’ music. As regular readers may recall, ceol sidhe is an especially Irish phenomenon;
  • Dancing– once the commonest pastime of our good neighbours, this was mentioned but in only 3% of the modern cases;
  • Conventional terms were often resorted to as a frame of reference or as a label for what the person experienced. Mention is quite often made in the Census of pixies, dryads, elves, gnomes, dwarves, leprechauns, brownies and goblins.  The traditional dress associated with these were reasonably common too- clothes of green, red and brown and caps, quite often pointed.  The most interesting of these accepted fairy ‘types’ were the four mentions of ‘banshees.’  The being’s hollow, mourning cry was what provoked the identification; in two of the cases, a death was felt to be directly related to the premonition; and,
  • Fairy temperament– many contemporary writers describe faes as kind, friendly and helpful- full of good will to humans and to the natural world. The older idea of fairy character was generally a lot darker and echoes of this are to be found in some of the Census cases.  Witnesses sensed anger, hostility and even outright malice in about 3% of cases; they felt fear in 6%.  In one instance in the Census- and one in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies– there was an impression that the fairy was mocking the human for some reason (Census no.475; Johnson p.24).  Balancing these negative emotions, there were also a few reports in which the human sensed the fairy’s interest or curiosity in them or what they were doing.

Cottingley 3

Elsie Wright again

The Census therefore presents us with an intriguing combination of traditional and wholly novel elements.  Only a few of the encounters involve interaction, so that the majority are descriptions of brief sightings (frequently of flying beings).  Nevertheless we come away with the impression that fairy encounters are an evolving body of law, with new perceptions or reactions added to the older understandings.

See too my posting on who believes in fairies for some further discussion of the Census statistics and their breakdown by age and gender.

Cottingley 2

 

‘An ode to joy’- the fairies and the good old days

Prince-Arthur-and-the-Fairy-Queen

King Arthur and the Fairy Queen, by Henry Fuseli

It is often said that true happiness passed away with the departure of the fairies from our land.  In this posting I want to examine the traditional ties that exist between fairies and the myths Merry England.

Fairies are inextricably linked with joy and merry making in the English/ British tradition.  In many accounts their sole or main occupation is dancing in rings and one persistently identified characteristic of fairyland is joy.  The fairies take a simple, unalloyed pleasure in dance and music, so much so that circle-dancing in the moonlight has become a defining trait.  Accordingly, William Warner’s Albion’s England published in 1602 described how:

“The Elves and Faries, taking fists, did hop a merry Rounde…

The ayrie Sprites, the walking Flares, and Goblins great and small,

Had there good cheare, and companie, and sporte the Devill and all.”

In his 1611 masque Oberon the fairy Ben Jonson celebrates that:

“These are Nights,

Solemn to the shining Rites

Of the Fairy Prince and Knight:

While the Moon their Orgies light…

Stand forth bright Faies and Elves and tune your lays.”

In Milton’s Comus of 1632 we read how:

“And on the Tawny Sands and shelves,

Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves,

By dimpled Brook and Fountain brim,

The Wood-Nymphs deckt with Daisies trim,

Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:

What hath night to do with sleep?” (lines 117-122)

Fairies continued to be associated with innocent pastimes into the nineteenth century, for example in Ann Radcliffe’s poem Air the “Fays of lawn and glade” circle to the merry tabor sound and Paul Dunbar reassured his readers that the fairy rout still shouted, sang and danced their roundelays, even in late Victorian times (Dunbar (1872-1906), The discovery).

Fairies, therefore, may be said to have been synonymous with ‘merry England.’  Unfortunately, the general opinion emerged that those times were over- despite Dunbar’s promises that fairy glee persisted- and this, of course, necessitated the poet’s assurances to the contrary.  Most later writers felt that the fairies had departed, or at least fallen silent, and that Britain had become a less joyful place.  As early as the seventeenth century, indeed, Richard Corbet in Farewell rewards and fairies explicitly blamed the Reformation and the baneful effect of Puritan morality for this:

“At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.”

John Selden expressed the belief most memorably and succinctly: “There never was a merry World since the Fairies left Dancing and the Parson left conjuring” (Selden, Table talk, 1689, c.XCIX). Later the same century John Dryden, in his version of The wife of Bath’s tale, conveyed the same sentiment, but emphasised the intimate connection of the fairies to the British Isles:

“Above the rest our Britain they held dear,

More solemnly they kept their Sabbaths here,

And made more spacious rings, and revelled half the year.

I speak of ancient times, for now the swain

Returning late may pass the wood in vain,

And never hope to see the nightly train:”

The death of ‘Merrie England’ continued to be mourned long after the event.  Thomas Hood lamented that the “Fairies have broke their wands/ And wishing has lost its power!” (Hood (1799-1845), A lake and a fairy boat).  In the ‘Dymchurch flit’ Kipling’s fairies declared “we must flit out of this, for Merry England’s done” (Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1906). Folklorists on the Isle of Man in the nineteenth century heard the same stories of the fynoderee: “There has not been a merry world since he lost his ground” ( J. Train, Account of the Isle of Man, vol.2, p.138).  This supernatural Manx being is comparable to the British mainland brownie; he lives on a farmstead and is the source and guarantor of good fortune.  It follows that “The luck of the house is said to depart for ever with the offended phynnod-derree” (William Harrison, Mona miscellany, pp.173-174.)  The same of course is true in England and Scotland: there can be no happiness or contentment on a farm if the brownie is displeased or has disappeared.

To summarise, then, we can only hope to reconnect with joy and good luck if we re-establish contact with our good neighbours.  This was certainly the conviction of William George Russell (AE).  His poem The dream of the children describes how music and wonder are revived:

“For all the hillside was haunted/ By the faery folk, come again.”

Identification of elves with older, happier times holds out to us the hope that they may be restored.  Through the fairies we may recover our innocence, simplicity and sense of community.  The fairies’ unaffected love of dancing and music, their childlike joy in play, imply that our own ability to reconnect with a better, less complex world persists undiminished and may be revived.

http://www.john-howe.com/blog/2011/09/15/the-defining-of-dreams/

Further reading

As well as symbolising and linking us to a ‘merry England’ of the imagination, fairies had another historical role- to explain and contextualise monuments and prehistoric sites that were otherwise mysterious and anomalous.  See my posts on fairies and megaliths and on the use of fairy-lore to explain the past.

Anglo-Saxon elves

alf

The Norse universe- showing Alfheim where the elves live

It will be obvious that the Saxon immigrants to British shores in the sixth century brought with them an established body of belief on fairies and elves.  What I wish to do in this posting is to attempt to outline the core elements of what that belief might have been, before it interacted with existing insular British beliefs.

Sources

We can form some idea of what our Saxon ancestors might have believed from several sources.  There are their own literary productions- poems, stories and medical texts- which provide valuable information.  There are contemporary Norse texts which examine the Viking pantheon.  Lastly, we may compare more recent Scandinavian- especially Danish- folk beliefs with English fairy stories; where they share elements, we may suggest that these derive from an early, common mythology believed by all the continental Germanic tribes.  Of course, the potential flaw in this approach is that there was later contact through Danish and Norwegian Viking settlement in Britain.  If beliefs are widespread throughout all of England and lowland Scotland- and not limited to the Danelaw, this later influence may be discounted; equally, I might argue that we are still describing Saxon folklore, albeit the beliefs of the later Saxons after the Norse influx had been absorbed (!)  In fact, many of the ideas listed below are found in Wessex, the West Midlands and the North, the Borders and Scottish lowlands, beyond the Norse settlements, so that later imports may not be the best explanation.  Another approach could be to ascribe these common beliefs to a core of Indo-European thought, something that was not unique to Celts, Germans, Slavs or others.   There is, very likely, such a deep shared source: it is probably world wide and very ancient.  In this case, it is still likely that a good number of these ideas were incorporated in to early English belief and were carried into Britain at the time of the settlement.

Norse Alfheim

The old Norse Edda is a good starting point for this examination, as it provides a clear statement of northern Teutonic belief about the elves.  In the early 1200s in Iceland, scholar Snorri Sturluson compiled the so-called prose Edda, a record of the Norse myths and legends.  In Gylfaginning Gylfi describes the heavens and the many splendid places there:

“There is one place that is called Alfheim.  There live the folk called light-elves, but the dark-elves live down in the ground, and they are unlike them in appearance, and even more unlike them in nature.  Light-elves are fairer than the sun to look at, but dark-elves are blacker than pitch.”

These alfar are still active to this day.  Meanwhile, in later British belief we come across stories of Elfame from Lowland Scotland.  It seems inescapable that this ‘elf-home’ is a survival from the earliest English legends.  As for the division into light and dark, good and bad, elves, there are several later references to ‘white fays’ in English literature and one echo that may be particularly significant. Being interrogated on charges of witchcraft in 1566, John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset told his inquisitors “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black.  Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”  If the colours reflect more than mere choice of costume, there appears here to be a survival of the light/ dark opposition.  In this connection we should also note the Old English term aelfscyne which was applied to women in a couple of texts (Genesis A and the poem Judith).  The word seems to mean something like ‘elf-beautiful’ or even ‘enchantingly bright’; perhaps in the suggestion of light or shining there is a further hint of the light and dark elf dichotomy.

From this limited evidence it may be possible to postulate a basic Anglo-Saxon mythology of an Elf-home, divided between the good (white) elves and the bad (black) elves.  Beyond that, it is not safe to go. Several further varieties of elves- the sae, feld, beorg, dun and munt aelfen- are mentioned in Aelfric’s Glossary,  but it seems very likely that these are actually translations of classical terms such as naiad and hamadryad and that they are not genuine Saxon categories at all.  If this is so, this is a tenth century example of the deleterious effects of classical learning that I described in a previous post.

Elf shot

Luckily, we do possess some direct evidence of Saxon conceptions of the elvish race. They are mentioned in several medical texts as the causes of illnesses, mainly internal pains or mental disturbances.  A spell to cure ‘the stitch’ goes as follows:

“Loud were they, lo, loud, as they rode over the barrow/ … Out little spear, if herein it be/ … To them another I wish to send back/ … a flying dart against them in return./  …if it were gods’ shot, or it were elves’ shot/ Or it were witches’ shot, now I will help you/ This is the remedy…”

‘Elf-shot’ was a recognised cause of disease in later times and was a major diagnosis in the Saxon texts such as Lacnunga.  A selection of herbs were employed in treating both humans and livestock afflicted with these maladies.  The medical texts also refer to aelfsogetha- which appears to be something like bronchitis or heartburn- and to aelfsidenn, which literally means elf-enchantment and seems to be a night fever or nightmares.  There is too a cure for waeteraelfaedle (water-elf sickness) which is characterised by the patient’s livid nails, watering eyes and downcast looks.  This term may denote another subdivision of the elves: in later times in Scotland there was a clear distincton between land (or dressed) and water fairies (see Campbell, Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.2 p.64).  Equally, though, it might just as well be read as ‘watery elf-sickness’ and so be more concerned with the symptoms than the identity of the agent inflicting the disease.

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Elves in a fairy knoll

Common elvish traits

Turning to the comparative sources, the attributes shared by English fairies with those of the original English homelands seem to be extensive and to include:

  • living under hills, which will periodically rise or open up to reveal feasting and music within;
  • a love of singing and dancing;
  • a preference for dancing in circles in grassy places, leaving marks on the ground;
  • a love of cleanliness and tidiness, for which humans are rewarded (or punished);
  • causing disease in humans and livestock;
  • the inability to cross running water;
  • a preference for wearing green and red, especially red caps;
  • an aversion to loud noises, which may drive them away;
  • the magic power to make themselves invisible, change their shape, see the future or to confer prosperity;
  • the need to use human midwives;
  • magic power in their names, which must be concealed from humans;
  • a strong link to certain trees, especially oaks.  Elder trees also feature in Danish folklore, which tells of the Old Lady of the Elder Tree who must be appeased before taking wood.  This spirit also appears in Lincolnshire, very strongly suggesting that Danish settlers brought the belief with them to East Anglia;
  • residence in Elfame is perilous, because time passes differently and because their food is unsafe for humans;
  • fairies take children and leave changelings, which may be exposed by cooking tricks or by burning;
  • there is a species of fairy that resides with humans, doing farm-work, stealing fodder and grain from neighbours and becoming so attached to a household that it is impossible to escape them by trying to move away.  Nonetheless, if they are insulted, they will become a nuisance. These are of course the English and Lowland Scots brownies;
  • there are freshwater fairies that are part-horse;
  • there are marine fairies such as mermaids and seal people.

As suggested earlier, the considerable parallels between Danish fairy lore and English tales are indicative of a common source.  The question remains whether that was located in fifth century Angeln before the early English fared forth in their keels, or further back in time and further away in the homelands of the Indo-European peoples.

Anglo-Saxon elves seem to have been imagined as being human in size and shape, but having a semi-divine nature.  Scandinavian elves shared this character and were the subject of sacrifices, aelfblot.  For instance, in Kormaks Saga a wounded man was told to sacrifice a bull and then to take the beast to a mound “in which elves dwell … and redden the outside of the mound with the bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast with the flesh; and you will be healed.”  There are records of comparable practices in Britain.

The evidence indicates that a rich set of beliefs were imported to British shores, there to mingle with the mythology of the residual British population and to produce the complex and developed fairy-lore to which this blog is dedicated.

Further reading

I have considered the early medieval fairy lore of Wales and the fairies of post-Norman England in other posts.

For those readers who want a far more detailed and academic examination of this area, I recommend the work of Alaric Hall, lecturer in medieval English literature at Leeds University.  You will readily find online pdf copies of his book Elves in Anglo-Saxon England and of his PhD thesis from which the book derives.  As his job indicates, his approach is primarily literary and is written from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxonist. If your conversational Mercian is weak, you may not fancy it….!