Fairies and elder trees

elderflower

Cicely Mary Barker, from Flower fairies of the trees, 1961

In one of my earliest postings, I discussed the curious link between fairies and elder trees.  I’d like to return to that with some fresh evidence, mainly drawn from the Isle of Man.

Elder trees are widely seen as having some sort of magical or spiritual properties.  For example, in Herefordshire there was a taboo upon burning elder wood for fear of bringing misfortune, whilst its inner rind was used to cure cows of jaundice.  Witches were said to dislike the tree, so its pith was fed to those believed to have been bewitched.   In Shropshire elder was never used as firewood as it would bring misfortune, even death, to the household.  The wood shouldn’t even be brought into the house, as it could cause a cow to lose its calf, nor should cattle be driven with an elder stick.  The juice of the plant would be used to protect the threshold and the hearth.

On the Isle of Man,  the same ideas prevailed as on the British mainland.  Whilst the tree was said to be the haunt of the fairies, it repelled witches and, accordingly, there was hardly to be found an old well (tholtan in Manx) near which there didn’t grow an elder tree, according to Agnes Herbert in a guide to the island written in 1909.  If you carried elder leaves with you, the islanders believed, you would be protected against witchcraft.

These are but the first indications of the supernatural associations of the tramman tree on the island.  The fairies live in the trees and when the branches of the trees are seen to bend in the wind at night, it is in fact the fairies riding upon them.  Given their status as fairy residences, interference with the trees can be dangerous.  Evans Wentz heard the story of a woman from Arbory parish who one dark night accidentally collided with a tramman.  She was instantly smitten with a terrible swelling which all her neighbours agreed was the consequence of offending the fays by her clumsiness.  Another local account told of a man who cut down an elder and was driven to suicide by the aggrieved fairies, Walter Gill recorded in 1932.

The Manx fairies living in the ‘tramman’ are plainly very similar to the Old Lady of the Elder tree that I described before.  It’s not clear, though, whether or not they’re identical.  The Old Lady seems to personify the tree in some way- to be its spirit- whilst the Manx fays live in, or at least gather in, the elders, but may not actually embody them.  Regardless of the detail, the supernatural associations are very clear and persistent and- what’s more-  can be seen across Northern Europe from Denmark to the British Isles.

elderberry

Cicely Mary Barker, The elderberry fairy, from Flower fairies of the autumn, 1926

Eco-fairies- some thoughts

tarrant pink flower fairy

Margaret Tarrant, Pink flower fairy

Nowadays, the association between fairies and the natural world seems obvious and fundamental to their character.  I think this belief is relatively new and that it derives from two sources.

Nature spirits

Firstly, during the last century or so the conception has emerged of fairies as nature spirits, beings whose purpose is to motivate and to shape the processes of nature, most especially the growth of plants.  As such, it might be added, they tend to lose some of their individual personality and become incorporated into those natural systems themselves.

A rural community

The other origin of our idea of ‘nature fairies’ is a great deal older.  Human representations of faery kind have always tended to mirror our own society, hence to medieval people it seemed obvious that the fae would live in a world much like their own, with the same organisation and occupations.  There were fairy kings and queens, and the fairy court went out hunting deer with hounds.  In the Middle Ages, too, we all lived much closer to nature, far more in contact with the cycles of growth, with the seasons and with woods and wildlife.  The fairies accordingly were no different- and whilst human society has rapidly developed in recent centuries, our perceptions of faery have tended to remain rather more fixed.

Be that as it may, it seems right and proper to us that fairies should live in forests and be intimately associated with flowers, trees and springs.  I have discussed these associations in a couple of my own postings on plants and fairy authority Morgan Daimler has also written on aspects of this subject on her own blog.  Reading her thoughts sparked further musings of my own.

fairy dance in a clearing doyle

Richard Doyle, A fairy dance in a clearing.

Fairy rings

Morgan has written about fairy trees and about fairy rings.  She highlights some interesting points which I had overlooked or downplayed.  As is well known, the rings are linked to fairy dancing.  If you read a lot of the British poetry, especially that of the nineteenth century, you would get the impression that dancing in rings is, in fact, pretty much all that fairies do: it’s their defining characteristic, their main habit, their primary purpose or occupation even.  Here are a couple of examples of this genre of verse, which had international appeal:

  • Thomas Hood, English poet, described the fairies as night time revellers who emerge from their flowery chambers-

“With lulling tunes to charm the air serener/ Or dance upon the grass to make it greener.” (The Midsummer fairies)

  • American poet Paul Dunbar likewise pictured how: “nightly they fling their lanterns out, / And shout and shout, they join the rout,/ And sing and sing, within the sweet enchanted ring.”

Now, usually it is said that it is the passing of fairy feet that makes the marks, but Morgan ponders whether instead the fays are drawn to dance by the clearly visible mycelium circles in the grass rather than the causation being the other way round.   This certainly seems just as probable an explanation.

Charming as the sight of fairies tripping all in a circle might be, Morgan rightly emphasises that they are places of danger.  The rings should never be damaged and she  warns that spying on the dances, or joining in with them, may actually be perilous.  These circles may even be traps, she suggests, deliberately set to lure in humans and to abduct them forever- or for extended periods.  Morgan discusses too the disparity in the passage in time between faery and the mortal world; the captive dancer spins at a different rate to the human globe and may return to find their old life long passed.

Round about our coal fire

head piece to chapter VI, ‘Round about our coal fire,’ 1734

One thing is undeniable: and that is that fairies and mushrooms/ toadstools have become an inseparable pairing in the popular imagination.  The earliest example I’ve found is an illustration from the 1734 edition of Round about our coal fire, which incorporates all the key elements of the imagery (dancers, fly agaric, fairy knoll, moonlight).  Little has changed since, although arguably the connection was strengthened considerably during the middle of last century when (it seemed) almost every children’s illustrator produced some variation on the theme.  There are too many to reproduce, but the example by Florence Anderson below repeats many of the key motifs.  The idea has been ramified in various directions too: the poet Madison Cawein, for example, saw toadstools as pixy houses and also imagined “The vat like cups of fungus, filled/ With the rain that fell last night” (Pixy wood).  It’s said in Welsh folklore that the parasol mushrooms act as umbrellas to keep the fairies’ dance-sites dry (Robin Gwyndaf in Narvaez, Good people, 1991).

anderson fairy revels

Florence Mary Anderson, ‘Fairy revels’

Fairy trees

On the subject of fairy trees, Morgan examines the possibility that at least some fairies are tree spirits (or dryads) before turning to look at trees which simply have fairy associations.  As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the question as to whether fairies are plants, or live in plants, or simply prefer to frequent glades and meadows is still a matter of debate.  I have a particular attachment to the old lady of the elder tree, so I was fascinated to read that in Ireland elder sap is believed to grant a second sight of the fairy rade.  Elders and hawthorns both have strong fairy associations and their heady, musky, green sappy scents certainly serve as a sort of incense for me.  Morgan also notes the dual role of the rowan- a spray of foliage can act as a charm against fairy intrusion but also as a means of seeing the good neighbours passing.  I’ve discussed this in another post, but it’s a good example of the ‘contrary’ nature of many fairy things.

Finally, I’ve been flicking through my copy of Evans-Wentz’ Fairy faith in Celtic countries again and I noticed an intriguing little fairy tree fact.  On page 176 he discusses the Cornish fairy that haunts the rock outcrop known as the Newlyn Tolcarne.  The manner in which this spirit was summoned was to pronounce a charm whilst holding three dried leaves in your hand.  These were one each from an ash, an oak and a thorn.  Now, as some of you may instantly cry out: that’s the exclamation used by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck in Puck of Pook’s Hill (and in ‘Tree song‘ in the chapter in the book, Weland’s Forge).  This story predates Evans-Wentz by just a few years, and it seems unlikely that either the old nurse to whom this story is ascribed, or Mr Maddern, a Penzance architect,  who tells it, are likely to be recycling Kipling’s story.  I’m not aware that Kipling ever visited Penwith, so that there’s at least some basis to suppose that these might be traces of a very ancient belief, surviving in both Sussex and Cornwall.  Morgan debates in her recent book Fairies (pp.176-8) whether or not this is an authentic tradition or is one example of a trend she identifies for popular culture to create folklore: if the Cornish example is genuine and is not just the architect mixing up something he’d recently read with something his nurse told him decades earlier, then it seems that ‘oak, ash and thorn’ is far older than Morgan suspected.

frontispiece

The frontispiece to Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1908

Further reading

See too Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.  See too my later comments on the links between fairies and gardens.

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….!

 

“A votaress of my order”- offerings to fairies

The-Cheese-Well

The cheese well

One of the explanations of the belief in fairies is that they are the degraded remnants of former gods, the traces of ancient pantheistic belief in Britain.  The habit of making offerings of one description or another to these beings lends support to this theory but, as we shall see, the evidence presents a confusing picture of what people understood themselves to be doing.  The recorded practices could be worship, or they could even be something akin to a commercial transaction.

Offerings to fairies

The offerings take several forms.  The first is a general gift made to ‘the fairies’ as a sign of respect and propitiation.  Several examples of this come from Scotland: in the Highlands and Islands it was common for milk to be poured on stones with hollows in them in order to ensure the protection of the herds of cattle.  On top of Minchmuir, Peebles-shire, there was  the so-called ‘Cheese Well’ into which locals threw pieces of cheese for the guardian fairies.  If we see the fairies as once having been gods, then these marks of honour aimed at appeasing the ‘good neighbours,’ averting ill fortune and ensuring their continuing good will, appear to be strong confirmation of divine origins.

Similarly, on Lewis farmers would wade out into the waves and pour beer into the sea, invoking the water-spirit Shoney and asking for a good harvest of seaweed for the fields. Comparable conduct was found in the South West of England: miners would give up a portion of their lunches to the ‘knockers’ in the mine, hoping that they would then be led to the best lodes of tin, and at Newlyn the pixies living between low and high water mark, the bucca, would be offered a ‘cast’ of three fish so as to guarantee a good catch in the nets.  These ‘sacrifices’ made with a view to a specific outcome are a very familiar aspects of human interactions with divinities.  They also imply that the fairies possessed some kind of control over the sea and its contents.  This is not a typical fairy attribute, although the Cornish spriggans were said to have power over the weather and could call on thunder and lightning when they wished to.

In England there is an example of a more direct exchange between human and fairy.  There was a belief that elder trees were inhabited by the ‘old lady of the elder tree.‘  If a person wished to cut some branches from a bush, a vow had to be made: ‘Old Lady, if you let me take some of your wood now, you can take some of mine when I’m a tree.’ Omission of this promise could lead to disaster- fire or illness in the household.

Secondly, there are examples of offerings being made in return for which a gift of money might be expected from the fairies.  An example comes from Llanberis, in Snowdonia, from the 1750s: the practice was for farm maids to place a jug of fresh sweet milk and a clean towel on a stone in the morning.  When they later returned, the jug would have been emptied by the Tylwyth Teg and a handful of coins would have been left.  This kind of exchange between humans and fairies is very closely associated with the reports of fairies leaving small sums of silver for chosen people- albeit on the strict condition that they maintain secrecy as to the source of their new found prosperity.  Violation of this would inevitably terminate the fairies’ good favour.  These practices clearly are a kind of bargain as much as an oblation.  An interesting variant on this practice comes from Wirt Sikes in British goblins (p.22).  He tells of  a “servant girl who attended to the cattle on the Trwyn farm, near Abergwyddon, [who] used to take food to ‘Master. Pwca,’ as she called the elf. A bowl of fresh milk and a slice of white bread were the component parts of the goblin’s repast, and were placed on a certain spot where he got them. One night the girl, moved by the spirit of mischief, drank the milk and ate most of the bread, leaving for Master Pwca only water and crusts. Next morning she found that the fastidious fairy had left the food untouched. Not long after, as the girl was passing the lonely spot where she had hitherto left Pwca his food, she was seized under the arm pits by fleshly hands (which, however, she could not see), and subjected to a castigation of a most mortifying character. Simultaneously there fell upon her ear in good set Welsh a warning not to repeat her offence on peril of still worse treatment.”  This might be read as either divine punishment for disrespect or simply revenge for a practical joke.

Domestic offerings

The exchanges just described were made in the open air or in uninhabited or deserted buildings.  Throughout Britain, though, there was a very similar practice of householders leaving out bread, milk or clean, warm water for the fairies at night.  Once again, a small gift might be anticipated in the morning.  Sometimes, the coins were more like a reward- a clean and neat house was appreciated by the nocturnal visitors and was acknowledged by a couple of coppers.  Some writers were in no doubt as to the nature of these interactions.  Robert Burton, in Anatomy of melancholy (1621), understood fairies to be erstwhile deities “which have been in former times adored with much superstition, with sweeping their houses and setting of a pail of clean water, good victuals and the like, and then they should not be pinched but find money in their shoes and be fortunate in their enterprises.”  Avoidance of punishment was a clear motivation: John Aubrey noted that, until the reign of King James I, country folk were “wont to please the fairies, that they might do no shrewd turnes, by sweeping clean the Hearth and setting by it a dish of fair water and halfe sadd bread, whereon was set a messe of milke sopt with white bread.  And on the morrow they should find a groat” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaism, 1687 pp.29 & 125).

Offerings to brownies

The last kind of fairy offering we should note is that made to known individual beings- most commonly the brownies and  other domestic hobgoblins of English and lowland Scottish folklore.  A kind of bargain is again involved in these cases.  The brownie undertakes some “drudgery work” in the house or on the farmstead (threshing, mowing, cleaning) and gets remuneration. However, it was fundamental to the transaction that this gift of cream, milk or cake did not seem like a direct payment.  The items were ‘left out’, available for the brownie to find and consume, but they were not explicitly given to the hobgoblin in return for the labours undertaken.  If the offering was too plainly intended for the spirit- the worst  examples being specially-made clothes to cover their hairy nakedness- then the brownie would take offence and would either leave the holding in a huff or, worse still, remain but as a malevolent presence.

An example of this tradition is found in Scot’s Discoverie of witchcraft (1584): “your grandams maides were woont to sett a boll of milke before … Robin Good Fellow for grinding of the malt or mustard and sweeping the house at midnight: and you have heard that he would chafe exceedingly if the maide or the goodwife of the house, having compassion on his nakedness, laid anie clothes for him, besides his messe of white bread and milke which was his standing fee” (Book IV, c.X).   Milton, in L’Allegro, gives a similar account of the country dweller’s stories of brownies:

“Tells how the drudging goblin sweat,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath thresh’d the corn
That ten day-labourers could not end;
Then lies him down, the lubber fiend,
And stretch’d out all the chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings.”

the_brownies_and_other_tales_

A curious example of domestic interaction between humans and fairies which sits somewhere between the brownie and ‘neatness rewarded’ is a story from Stowmarket in Suffolk, recorded in the mid-nineteenth century.  An old man in the town was regularly visited by the ‘ferriers’ or ‘ferrishers’ (as they were termed in the county) who used to meet in his home; he recalled that they wore long green coats and yellow shoes.  He kept his house scrupulously clean for them and in return the ferriers supplied faggots which they put in his oven and, from time to time, would leave a shilling for him under a chair leg.  When he spoke about these visits, he lost their favour.  It’s hard to say in this account who is more beholden to whom- there’s an equality of exchange which obscures any suggestion of devotion.

The exact relationship between fairies and humans is, on the evidence of these examples, confused and ill-defined.  This need not be too surprising, given that such uncertainty exists as to the origins of the fairy belief.  In the first examples, maintaining the benevolence of the supernatural realm was a key element in the folk customs.  The later examples, though, whilst made in propitiative guise, should really be seen as bargains.  In return for labour or for food a payment is made; the pretence is that these are offerings but actual truth appears to be that the fairies are the supplicants, a relationship that Katherine Briggs identified when she spoke of the ‘dependence of the fairies’ upon humans.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).