A Fae’s Anatomy

I’m delighted to say that Green Magic has recently published my examination of the Faery Lifecycle, a birth to death study of the physiology and anatomy of fairy-kind. In this post, I want to add a few additional examples to those that I included in the text.

All aspects of faery biology and health are examined in the new book, so here are a few examples of the issues that I’ve examined.

Height: much of our folklore evidence indicates that faeries are, normally, about the height of human children. For example, in Lanbestan parish, Wales in 1902 it was reported that snow was found marked by a dance of the tylwyth teg– “as if formed by hundreds of children in little pump shoes.”

Plentiful other evidence confirms this junior stature: seven or eight faeries dressed in green who were seen on Jura were estimated to be about three feet high; on Islay about twenty unknown children dressed in green were seen playing on a hill by some kids going home. They did not know who the strangers were and it was assumed that could only have been sith. On the Shetland island of Yell “peerie” (tiny) men the size of dolls were seen dancing on the tips of docks and reeds.

Physique– in build and form, the faeries are generally believed to be exactly like us, but there are occasional exceptions to this, such as the statement by Scottish witch suspect Janet Boyman that she had once seen a faery man near an “elrich well” who looked fine from the front, but who from the rear was “wasted like a stick.” The Danish elle maids are also said to be strangely hollow at the back.

Disability amongst faes is not unknown, as with Oberon, king of the fairies in the romance Huon of Bordeaux. This powerful monarch is “of height but three fote and crokyd shulderyd.” At a very much later date, Hugh Miller described the last faeries seen in northern Scotland as being “stunted, misgrown, ugly creatures with unkempt locks.”

The faeries’ status as physical or spiritual beings has remained uncertain for centuries. John Gregorson Campbell, in Superstitions of the Highlands, describes them as “the counterparts of mankind, but substantial and unreal, outwardly invisible.” I’ve added the emphasis to stress their paradoxical nature.

Sex and children: there has long been a debate about whether or not faeries can reproduce- whether, indeed, they have a physical body capable of any such contact. I have described before long-term sexual relationships between humans and faeries, something which seems decisively to settle these doubts, but there are still those who assert that faeries have no need to breed, being immortal, and- in fact- cannot do so. I have already described many cases in which faeries have indeed been killed deliberately or accidentally; their life spans seem to be very long, but not eternal.

All in all, they seem to be very much like us- with one problematic exception. Campbell reports that faery women cannot breast feed their own children, which is why they will so often abduct women recently delivered of babies as wet nurses or, at the very least, will beg for a feed for their babies from a breast feeding mother.

Cleanliness and health: I have examined this issue in a previous post, but we know for certain that the faes keep themselves clean by bathing themselves and by washing their clothes- as was the case in a cave near Llanymynech in Wales.

Faery diet: in Wales, the tylwyth teg are said to subsist upon fruit, flowers, nuts, honey and cream. The latter is left for them by humans, the rest they can forage for themselves in the countryside- fresh and organic. The faeries are so much like us that they enjoy alcohol too- and have even been discovered by humans in a state of intoxication.

Illness & cures: for all their healthy diet and care over cleanliness, the faes can get sick and, in response, they have developed a considerable knowledge of the healing properties of many wild plants. Such is the faeries knowledge that humans have been known frequently to try to steal their knowledge or their actual medicines. Campbell tells the story of ‘Callum Clerk and his sore leg.’ Clark was a bully and nuisance in his community:

“Some six generations ago there lived in Port Bhissta, on Tiree, a dark, fierce man, known as Big Malcolm Clark (Callum mor mac-a-Cheirich). He was a very strong man, and in his brutal violence produced the death of several people… When sharpening knives, old women in Tiree said, “Friday in Clark’s town” (Di-haoine am baile mhic-a-Chleirich), with the object of making him and his the objects of fairy wrath. One evening, as he was driving a tether-pin into a hillock, a head was popped up out of the ground, and told him to take some other place for securing his beast, as he was letting the rain into `their’ dwelling. Some time after this he had a painfully sore leg. He went to the shi-en, where the head had appeared, and, finding it open, entered in search of a cure for his leg. The fairies told him to put `earth on the earth.’ He applied every kind of earth he could think of to the leg, but without effect. At the end of three months, he went again to the hillock, and when entering put steel in the door. He was told to go out, but he would not, nor would he withdraw the steel till told the proper remedy. At last, he was told to apply the red clay of a small loch in the neighbourhood (criadh ruadh lochan ni’h fhonhairle). He did so, and the leg was cured.”

This knowledge could be extorted from the faeries, or it might be granted willingly. Alleged witch Alison Pearson saw the elves making their ointments in pans on the fire and was taught to make the same cures by them- as a poem quoted by Sir Walter Scott in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders shows:

“For ony herb scho likes to luke;
It will instruct her how to tak it,
In saws and sillubs how to mak it;
With stones that meikle mair can doe,
In leich craft, where scho lays them toe:
A thousand maladeis scho hes mendit;”

Cornish servant Anne Jeffries was another such beneficiary for, as Scott described:

“[Anne’s mistress] accidentally hurt her leg, and, at her return, Anne cured it, by stroking it with her hand. She appeared to be informed of every particular, and asserted, that she had this information from the fairies, who had caused the misfortune. After this, she performed numerous cures, but would never receive money for them… She had always a sufficient stock of salves and medicines, and yet neither made, nor purchased any; nor did she ever appear to be in want of money… The report of the strange cures which she performed, soon attracted the attention of both ministers and magistrates. The ministers endeavoured to persuade her, that the fairies by which she was haunted, were evil spirits, and that she was under the delusion of the devil.”

The reaction of her community- and outcome- is typical of the period (the mid seventeenth century).

What may be apparent is that we are able to speak with some clarity on virtually all aspects of the physiology and anatomy of the faery folk. There are a few areas of debate, although even in these the balance of the evidence we have from folklore tends to favour one view of other pretty definitely. This means that we can confidently describe the faery lifecycle from birth to death and so more fully understand how our Good Neighbours work.

Look to the future: fairy prophesy

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

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

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

Actions disclose fate to clan or village

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

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

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

froud bean nighe

Brain Froud, The bean-nighe

Actions reveal to individuals

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

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

Love foretold

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

Conclusion

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

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

Killing fairies- the unpleasant truth

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

It’s a widespread belief that fays are immortal.  In fact (and surprisingly) the folklore evidence- scattered as it is- clearly contradicts this.  Fairies are mortal and, it follows, they can be killed.

Fairies’ life spans are considerably longer than ours, which probably explains the common misconception, but nonetheless they do die eventually, something the Reverend Robert Kirk expressed with his usual style:

“They are not subject to sore Sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain Period, all about ane Age.” (Secret Commonwealth, chapter 7)

Another Scottish account of fairy life-spans states that they live through nine ages, with nine times nine periods in each:

“Nine nines sucking the breast,
Nine nines unsteady, weak,
Nine nines footful, swift,
Nine nines able and strong,
Nine nines strapping, brown,
Nine nines victorious, subduing,
Nine nines bonneted, drab,
Nine nines beardy, grey,
Nine nines on the breast-beating death,
And worse to me were these miserable nine nines
Than all the other short-lived nine nines that were.”

That the fays will eventually sicken and pass away is confirmed by a couple of pieces of evidence.  Firstly, fairy funerals have been witnessed.  William Blake most famously described one, but his account is probably more poetic than authentic.  Other people have however stumbled upon fairy funeral processions (for example, that of the Fairy Queen at Lelant in Cornwall) and the Reverend Edmund Jones, living in Monmouthshire in the late eighteenth century, told of several such funerals seen which foretold deaths in the mortal world, quite often that of the witness.

Secondly, there are a few allusions to fairy cemeteries.  One was believed to be at Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland;  generally in the north of England it used to be said that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground.

So, despite great longevity, age and sickness will ultimately overtake even the fairies.  This is sad, but not necessarily shocking.  More disturbing is the evidence that fairies can be killed prematurely.  I have discussed fairy warfare in a previous post; it’s almost unavoidable that blood will be spilt in such conflict, but we might still not think it so remarkable that one magical being can slay another.  The truth is, though, that humans can murder supernaturals.

Nymphocide (I’ve just invented this word, by the way) may occur accidentally.  One version of the story from Brinkburn is that it was the ringing of the bells of the church that killed them (Denham Tracts, p.134).  I’ve mentioned before fairies aversion to church bells; this particular story takes that theme to extremes.

Other fairy murders are just that- deliberate and premeditated killings.  One case from Shropshire concerns some nuisance boggarts in a farmhouse.  The story follows the pattern of the “we’re flitting too” type of tale, in which the human family try to escape their unwelcome companions by moving house, only to find that the boggart comes with them.  In most versions the humans reconcile themselves to their unwanted housemates, often giving up the move entirely.  In the Shropshire version, the humans take matters to their logical conclusion.  Unable to give the boggarts the slip, they trick them into sitting in front of a blazing fire in the hearth of the new home and then topple them into the flames, where they’re held in place with forks and brooms until they’re consumed.

Some other nymphocides at least seem to be crimes of passion or are committed in the heat of the moment or in self defence.  On the Hebridean island of Benbecula a mermaid was accidentally slain by a stone thrown at her head during an attempt by some fishermen to capture her.  In the ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elf-knight, the heroine lulls to sleep the fairy who plans to kill her and then stabs him to death; in another version she drowns him- but the ability to kill is the point.  J. F. Campbell relays a story concerning the killing of a gruagach with a sword (Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.1, p.7).  The Reverend Robert Kirk also mentions a man with second sight who, during a visit to faerie, “cut the Bodie of one of those People in two with his Iron Weapon.”  All of these raise tales the possibility that it is the iron of the weapons that is significant.  We know that iron is a good defence against fairies and it seems only reasonable that it should be fatal for them too.

This evidence may surprise and shock some readers, but it fits with the general tenor of traditional fairy lore.  If the fairies are dangerous and untrustworthy beings, it seems inevitable that sometimes a person will conclude that the only safe and permanent solution will be to do away with the perceived threat.

A related, but separate, procedure is the ‘laying’ of a supernatural- normally a boggart- which involves permanently banishing or exorcising the creature.  Perhaps this will be the subject of a future posting…

IdaRentoulOuthwaite

Further reading

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