What’s in a Name? Using the right terms for the faeries

Recently I’ve been researching the pixies of south-west Britain for my book, British Pixies, and, in so doing, encountered serious problems in pinning down the basic terminology used by authors such as Robert Hunt and William Borlase and (presumably) their local Cornish sources.  There are at least five terms used to label the fairy folk of the south-west: pixies, pobel vean (little people), spriggans, knockers and buccas.  A couple of these words seem to be Cornish and, we might be tempted to suggest, are older and more authentic than some of the other terms.  The word pixie/ pisky would seem to be a later import, if we are correct in supposing that it is related to the pucks of England and the pwcca of Wales and is (probably) a Germanic word originally.  The bucca certainly seems to be an identical being.  Some of the folklore writers tried to make distinctions between this multiplicity of words: for instance, the pobel vean were said to be smaller and more beautiful; the knockers lived in mines; the spriggans were ugly and evil.  The truth is, though, that reading the sources, we find the words being used interchangeably, so that Cornish witnesses can speak of knockers as buccas or can use the latter word to denote both pixies and the pobel vean.

Precision seems both impossible and, very probably, unnecessary.  This example is reflective of a wider problem within the British Isles, where successive layers of incoming speech have led to an overlapping vocabulary, which can tempt us into imagining differences (or even similarities) that don’t exist.  Over and above this, of course, there is the additional problem of the faeries not wanting us to know what they really call themselves, for fear of giving us power over them). Here are a few other instances of the taxonomic confusion.

Isle of Man: the island’s fairies are often called the ferrish (singular)/ ferrishyn (plural)This could be a Manx word, but compare it with authentically Manx Celtic terms like mooinjer veggy or sleigh beggey, meaning the little people.  Ferrishyn seems suspiciously similar, to me, to the terms ferishers, feriers, fraries and, even, farisees/ pharisees used in Norfolk and Suffolk in the east of England.  On Orkney and Shetland you might encounter the pronunciation ferries. Recalling the Highland Gaelic tendency to turn a final ‘s’ into ‘sh,’ this could indicate the route by which Manx speakers arrived at ferrish.  Whatever the exact derivation, these are all dialect versions of ‘fairies’ and, as such, aren’t themselves hugely old.  Katherine Briggs drew a comparison with the feorin of the English North West, but, as Simon Young has demonstrated, this is most probably derived from ‘fear’- something that scares you. 

Wales: there seem to be several good, genuine, Welsh words in use, many of them euphemisms. These include tylwyth teg, bendith y mamau (the mother’s blessings), y dynion mwyn (the kind people), y teulu (the tribe), gwragedd anwyl (the beloved women), yr elod (‘the intelligences’- perhaps, the ‘wise’ or ‘all-knowing’ ones), pwcca and ellyllon.  All’s not what it seems, however.  As already mentioned, pwcca could just be a borrowing across the border.  Likewise, ellyllon is simply the Welsh rendering of the English ‘elves’ and even tylwyth teg, ‘the fair folk’ may be a mistaken rendering of fairies, based on the assumption that the core of the English word was ‘fair’ as in good-looking. I need hardly say that y goblin bach, the little goblin, is not a deeply authentic Welsh label.

England: the foregoing sections suggest the invasive power of the English language (which is true) but let’s not forget that Anglo-Saxon was itself steadily overwhelmed by subsequent influxes of Romance and other languages.  Old English ‘elf’ still survives, especially in lowland Scotland, but it generally plays second best to a French import, fay/ fairy, a word which has been adopted as a handy, catch-all labelOther continental importations include goblin, from the French gobelin, and Scandinavian troll (which is the root of the trows of Orkney and Shetland too).  Both goblin and trow seem to have been required because there wasn’t a decent English equivalent.  Anglo-Saxon had used the word dweorg, meaning a small, malicious elf-like being. This vanished from standard English- along with any concept of ‘dwarves’ as a species of supernatural entity.  In Dorset, there is still the derrick, a name that’s derived from dweorg and which is now applied to a little man who’s often said to be a local kind of pixie… 

Much more recently, as I’ve described before, we’ve imported Latin and Greek words like nymph, naiad and siren as extra terms to use in parallel with fairy, elf and mermaid.  We’ve also adopted entirely made-up names, such as gnome and sylph.  As mentioned in a previous posting, these were dreamed up by Paracelsus, but they’ve assumed a place in the language, to the extent that gnomes have even been accepted as a separate genus of fairy being.

These imported names can add variety to texts- and I’m as guilty as any of switching from one to another just to avoid monotony- but they can also create the impression that the landscape is peopled with a dense confusion of different types of being, whereas we may, in most instances, be dealing with only a handful of types.  Broadly, in Britain, we can probably narrow matters down to fairies/ elves and brownies/ hobs/ boggarts.  The rest is probably just a matter of differences of terminology (and this is before we’ve even considered all the very local names that exist: dobbies, powries, dunters, red caps, piskies etc etc)…. 

Emmeline Richardson

My fairy philosophy

As regular visitors or long term readers of this blog may know, I have written three novels with a supernatural/ fairy theme.  Considering about these, I thought it might be helpful for me to be explicit about my approach to the subject- to outline some of the fundamental ideas that lie behind my postings.  Indeed, I realised that when I wrote the three novels (all of which predate British fairies, my factual study of the subject published last summer), I had not clearly or systematically expressed even to myself what exactly it was that I believed.

elder queen

As a preamble, the stories in question are The elder queenwhich is set in present day Devon and involves encounters between unemployed farm labourer Darren Carter and Saran, the eponymous ‘fairy queen’; Albion awake! a fantasy that mingles time travel to meet William Blake, Gerard Winstanley and other radical figures alongside contact with the Fairy Queen Maeve; and lastly a children’s story, The Derrickconcerning a summer holiday meeting in Dorset between a boy and members of the local fairy ‘tribe’ called Derricks.

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So, surveying what I have written, what are my fundamental preconceptions about fairy kind? What assumptions and prejudices may I be carrying over into my interpretation of the folklore sources?  The key features that come out seem quite consistent:

  • fairies are present here and now.  All my books have contemporary settings and the fae folk I have imagined are resident amongst us (if perhaps in more marginal areas) but they are not of the present.  Their speech and material culture is all slightly adrift from ours and there can be misunderstanding on both sides as a consequence;
  • fairies are like humans– they are of the same stature and form- no wings, therefore- although they may be marked out by the colour of their hair or their eyes.  Their lifespan is very different, however: in Albion awake! Maeve, whilst appearing to be a woman in her late thirties, is actually at least 5000 years old.  The Derrick is likewise ancient: you may recall how changelings are caught out with the ‘brewery of egg shells,’ causing them to exclaim how they have seen forests grown from acorns and die again.  Such are the timescales I imagine for my fay protagonists;
  • fairies are prepared to interact with humans- socially, intellectually and, quite often, sexually.  There may well be an element of exploitation by them in this- especially as-
  • they like to protect their privacy- fairies will tolerate contact with humans on their terms and at the times and places of their choosing.  Nonetheless, they wish to hold themselves apart from us, and resent any uninvited intrusion;
  • they are not to be antagonised or ignored– it follows from the above that trespasses into fairy territory may be punished (as Darren Carter discovers when he stumbles upon a fairy dance).  Attracting the antipathy of fairy kind is to be avoided because:
  • they are powerful- they have magical powers and they will not hesitate from using force against offending humans.  Darren experiences this, against himself and against others who threaten to disturb the fairy’s world.  In The Derrick an attempt to steal fairy gold leads to devastating retribution.  In Albion awake! Maeve can enable humans to travel through time and space.  Manipulating the human world is a matter of course to them;
  • the fairies have their own aims, objectives and agenda- this follows from what has already been said.  Interaction with humans is undertaken for their own ends.  It may be pleasurable (the sex) but it serves other, greater purposes too;
  • fairies expect respect and compliance with their wishes;
  • the fairies are a timeless part of the land.  It seems to come naturally to me to associate them with standing stones, burial mounds and other monuments and this is a feature repeated in all three stories: in The Elder Queen Darren meets Saran in an ancient ’round;’ in Albion awake! we variously encounter Maeve at Hambledon Hill hillfort, at the London Stone and at Boudicca’s Grave on Hampstead Heath.   The action of The Derrick is focused around yet another Iron Age fortification.  This intimate tie with the land and with ancient features of the landscape extends into the fairies’ attitude to pollution and environmental change.  Predictably, they don’t like it.  Queen Maeve concerns herself with preventing an extension to the runway of Heathrow Airport; Saran and her people forcibly disrupt attempts at fracking. My fairies are, it seems, eco-warriors.

That’s a summary of the key themes and characteristics that I realise unite all three books.  Unavoidably, too, they will shape my approach to my non-fiction writing too.

Central to all of the above is respect for tradition, as recorded in folklore and fairy tales.  My recommended bookshelf of fairy books describes what I think of as some of the essential texts you should have.

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‘Local fairies for local folk’

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I have just published my new fairy tale, The Derrickwhich is a story aimed primarily at children.  Its title character is a traditional fairy from Dorset and Hampshire.  In this posting I want to explore a little further this theme of local fairy types.

Regional fairies

There is a great variety of fairies in the British Isles; some are found across the country, but many differ regionally or across regions and some can be very local indeed.  They seem often to be adapted to a specific environment or social niche.  Here are a few examples:

  • Derricks- these only occur along the south coast; the Hampshire Derricks are apparently friendlier and more helpful than those of Dorset;
  • many brownies, hobs and similar house elves are tied to particular houses, farms or caves, as I have discussed in my post on brownies;
  • orchards of the south-west- various fairy spirits, such as Awd Goggy, exist to guard orchards and the like from thieves and children (see my post on cautionary fairies);
  • the Lincolnshire fens– this unique region is home to the Tiddy Ones, also called the Yarthkins, the Strangers and the Greencoaties.  They are rooted in the local soil and act as fertility spirits, helping the growth and ripening of plant life; as such they received tribute or offerings from the local people- the first fruits and the first taste of any meal or drink.  If neglected, these beings could be vindictive, affecting harvests, yields and even the birthrate.  They have been described as being a span high with thin limbs and over-sized hands, feet and heads.  They have long noses, wide mouths and make odd noises.  They danced on large flat stones in the moon light.  One particular spirit, the Tiddymun, seemed to control the flood waters in the days before the Fens were drained.  From time to time, he appeared from pools at night and might drag victims back into them, but generally he was sympathetic to local people.  His close ties to the management of water levels emphasise his local nature and function;
  • East Anglia- in Norfolk and Suffolk people spoke of the ferishers/ feriers/ frairies/ farisees.  These local fairies were known to be very small and very secretive.  They lived underground and were seldom seen.  This was perhaps fortunate as, above ground, they could be dangerous to humans; certainly, they rode cattle and horses at night. Also found in East Anglia is the little known hyter sprite, a small and benevolent fairy;
  • spriggans- pixies are well known to be localised in the south-west peninsula; so too are the spriggans.  They are described as dour and ugly; their particular role seems to be protecting other fairies from intrusions or insults by humankind (see the stories of The Miser on the Fairy Gump or The Fairies on the Eastern Green, both from Penwith in Cornwall).  They were very closely linked to ancient sites, such as hill-forts, where they guarded buried gold.  In this the spriggans seem to be linked to the Redshanks or Danes of Somerset (I borrowed this idea for The Derrick).  The localisation of spriggans on distinctive sites in the region is especially notable; and,
  • the asrai of the meres of Cheshire and the North West, which I discuss in another post.

If certain fairies have indeed adapted to local conditions and features, it may come as little surprise to learn that a symbiotic relationship with the human denizens of those areas has likewise evolved.  Two examples (once again from the south-west) are worthy of mention:

  • the Newlyn bucca is given fish by local fishermen in order to get good weather and good shoals;
  • knockers in the tin mines were given food in return for help locating the best lodes.

Obviously in these cases the human-fairy relationship  had adapted to local conditions.  It was, moreover, self-reinforcing- placid seas and a good haul of mackerel ensured further offerings for the bucca.

There is a tendency to generalise on fairy types and characteristics (of which, of course, I can be guilty in this blog) but many fairies were very restricted in their distribution, very individual in their behaviour and very local in their interests and preoccupations.

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