“With white wands swinging”- fairy queens and magic wands

hester margetson

Magic wands

Wands have been symbols of power for millennia.  They denote civic office and, since at least the 1300s, they have symbolised and conveyed magic power.  In the grimoire The Oathbound book of Honorius, hazel and laurel staffs are used for magical operations such as summoning demons.  They are four sided with names and figures written upon them.  In the fourteenth century Italian text, The Key of Solomon, demons are conjured and lost items are found with procedures which involve the use of wands and staffs.  The former are made from hazel or other nut wood, the staffs from elder, cane or rosewood.  They must be of one year’s growth only and must be cut with a single stroke on a propitious day at sunrise.  They should be inscribed with figures on a similarly suitable day and at an auspicious time.  The text recommends that wands should be long enough for a person to draw a circle around themselves.

In the ballad of the same name, the witch Allison Gross makes her magic with a conjurer’s staff:

“Then out she has taken a silver wand
She’s turned her three times round and round
She muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm.”

In the ballad The Laily Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea, a silver wand is used to reverse the spell and to turn the worm back into a gentle knight.

Both William Lilly and Elias Ashmole, whose rituals for conjuring fairies have been preserved for us, make ample reference to the use of wands in their ceremonies.  Reginald Scot records similar practices in Discourse on witches.

iro- fair flys through night sky

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, A fairy flies through the night sky.

Fairy wands

Given these magical associations, it was inevitable that those fairies being summoned should acquire their own wands too and this image has certainly become embedded in our iconography and therefore, so it would seem, in our visions of them.

Wands are not mentioned very much in traditional British folklore, but Evans Wentz mentions a Breton tale in which a white fairy wand is used to enter Faery: it is struck twice against a rock in a cross shape in order to open the portal to fairyland. Wentz also suggests that the faes’ wands may be derived from those believed to have been used by druids.  (Fairy faith pp.202 & 343-4; Luzel, Contes popularies, vol.1, p.3 ‘La fille qui se maria un mort’)

The fairy wand makes a central appearance in the traditional story ‘Kate Crackernuts’ which is from Orkney.  Princess Kate was victim of a jealous stepmother, who used magic to cover her good looks with a sheep’s head.  Her stepsister, also called Kate, was angry at what her mother had done; together the two escape from their palace and go to live in another kingdom.   There stepsister Kate discovers that the prince of the realm lies sick in his bed because he goes to dance under the hill with the fairies every night and, even more importantly, that a fairy child in the knoll possesses a wand which will cure her sister.  By rolling hazelnuts, she is able to distract the little boy and seize the wand, enabling her to free her sister of the sheep’s head.  Faithful Kate then cures the elf-addled prince and everyone (of course) then marries and lives happily ever after.

However, Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provides us with a dozen modern examples of faes wielding wands.  The wand is often the attribute of an individual fairy identified as a fairy queen by witnesses, a distinguished person who will often wear a crown or coronet as well- though in one sighting in a Nottingham dentist’s surgery, a group of ballet dancing fairies each waved a wand.  It should be remarked that the crowns and tiaras seen on the brows of these faery queens may be another human interpolation: as with wands, there’s no necessary reason why the fays should imitate our indicators of rank- nor that these regalia should signify the same things to them, even if they do.

The wands seen by Johnson’s witnesses are noted as being made of silver, gold or crystal; a couple emit light; a quarter of them have stars on the end.  In one case, the wand produces magic- a twist of it by the fairy queen fills a room with other dancing fairies.

The wand seems to have become inseparable from the fairy in the minds of many.  Literature, art and supernatural experiences all reinforce each other.  We perhaps expect to see a wand, meaning that- whatever the fae may actually be holding- there’s a tendency for it to be labelled as a wand regardless.

Here’s Fairy led by English poet Mary Webb (1881-1927) as a closing example of what has shaped our perceptions so powerfully:

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

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There’s more on faery magic and its deployment (and a great deal less about pretty girls in lip gloss and eye shadow wielding wands) in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side

Fairy names

 

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Previously I have discussed fairy language in the context of conversation with humans and in fairy song; I want here to consider fairy names.  I have recently been reading Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies (2014) and my examples are mostly drawn from that book.

To recap previous discussions, there are several aspects to the human experience of fairy speech.  Sometimes there is a complete barrier and no communication at all is possible: for example, in Canada in the early 1920s a little man “made an effort to talk to [a girl aged eleven] but she could not understand what he said” (p.34) or a three year old in Liverpool talked at length with some pixies “in a language her mother could not follow” (p.279).  More often the fays seem quite at home in the local tongue, whether that is English, Welsh or whatever.  Still, their speech will be distinctive for its tone: repeatedly fairy voices are reported to be “high pitched,” “bell-like or chirpy,” clipped and very quick” and like “a melodious twittering” (pp.44, 51, 59, 255).  This chirping, tinkling nature might in itself cause some problems of comprehension.

There are some lists of names in the early seventeenth century literature which are not to be taken seriously.  In The life of Robin Goodfellow we read of Pinch, Patch, Gull, Grim, Sib, Tib, Licke and Lull.  From Drayton’s Nimphidia come Hop, Mop, Dryp, Pip, Trip, Skip, Fib, Tib, Pinch, Pin, Tick, Quick, Jil, Jin, Tit, Nit, Wap and Win.  These are just alliterative play, plainly, although Katherine Briggs suggests that there may be a “hint of scurrility” here too, with wap and win at least being sexual slang.

une fee d'automne

How are fairies named then?  We have both contemporary and historical evidence on this:

  • Elias Ashmole recorded various spells for conjuring fairies in the seventeenth century.  Knowing a name was an important part of gaining control over the fay, and he identified two- Elabigathan and Margaret Barrance. The former is suitably exotic, the latter sounds like any goodwife Ashmole might have met in contemporary Oxford;
  • There are traditional/classical names, such as ‘Sybilia‘- one of the fairy queens, and rulers of the elemental beings known as Paralda (air), Niksa (water), Ghob (earth) and Djinn (fire).  The names of these kings can be found widely in contemporary writing (see, for example, Ted Andrews, Enchantment of the faerie realm) but they derive from Eliphas Levi, The conjuration of the four elements, and (perhaps) beyond that from Kabbalist sources;
  • Doreen Virtue records an encounter with a small pink, long-haired fairy called Lilitte (Fairies 101, pp.12-13);
  • Robery Ogilvie Crombie (Roc) of Findhorn met a faun in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens whose name was Kurmos; and,
  • from amongst Marjorie Johnson’s informants we learn of Trindy and Frieta, two fairies who lived in a cairn in a garden in Cornwall (p.65), Puck and Parry, two Cornish pixies met in Liverpool (p.279), a male fay in Shropshire named Hartha and, lastly, a tiny Welsh fairy called Veronica (p.272).  We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the mildly exotic, to the traditional.

What emerges seems to be a mixture of classical inherited names, conventional contemporary names and some which might be dismissed as made up or might  alternatively be thought of as examples of genuine fairy appellations.  It is a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus over fairy dress and appearance.  Perhaps what we can identify are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken: sometimes it is familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown.

outhwaite

Further reading

I’ve also looked at the topic of names in other posts on fairy naming, fairy songs and fairy speech.

 

“And now the charm’s wound up…”: some spells for elvish enchantment

magic book

This posting offers a small selection of practical fae-related magic for readers.  I have discussed before fairy magic and the composition of the ointment applied to fairy babes.  The major drawback to the recipe I suggested was that it is composed of four leaf clover; finding enough of these to produce a quantity sufficient to anoint even an infant is likely to be difficult. Here are some other, perhaps more practical, spells and potions.

Elias Ashmole’s manuscript (MS1406) which is dated around 1600 has a recipe for an unguent for eyes for use when you wish to summon fairies or when your vision of them is not perfect.

“Take one pint of salad oil and put it into a glass vial, but first wash [mix?] it with rose water and marigold water (the flowers to be gathered towards the east).  Wash it till the oil comes white, then put it into the glass vial and then put into it the buds of hollyhock and young hazel, the flowers of marigold and the tops or flowers of wild thyme.  The thyme must be gathered near the side of a hill which fairies frequent. Add, too, some grass picked from a fairy throne found there.  All these put into the oil in the glass and set it to dissolve three days in the sun, and then keep it to thy use.” (Halliwell-Phillips Fairy mythology p.62.)

Most of these ingredients are readily and cheaply available, but there are two catches:

  • You need to be sure that the knoll where you pick your thyme is a favourite haunt of the fairy folk. Sites that are traditionally such spots are a safe bet, naturally, otherwise your own experience and investigation may be required.
  • I confess that I don’t know what a fairy throne is (yet). I assume it is a place on the hill which appears to be a seat where the fairy queen may sit during revels.  Poetry describes such occasions- for example William Browne in Britannia’s pastorals Book I song 2 mentions “A hillock rise, where oft the fairy queen/ At twilight sat, and did command her elves…”  If your confirmed fairy knoll has such a feature too, you’re definitely in business.

Halliwell-Phillips in Fairy mythology of a Midsummer night’s dream also gives a selection of spells from a manuscript in his possession (p.63).  Here is a charm for invisibility which appears very simple:

“Take water and power it on an anthill and immediately look after it and you shall find a stone of divers colours sent from the fairy.  This bear in your right hand and you shall go invisible.”

Another charm is to a summon a fairy, a Latin and English invocation much like that for Oberon described below.  There is a similar spell for expelling fairies from a place where buried treasure is found.  These depend upon magical words combined, most likely with the proper personal preparations (bodily and spiritual purification) and the creation of a chalk circle.  Ashmole’s manuscript has similar very lengthy summoning charms (see Halliwell-Phillips p.62-3).

Faustus-gerahmt

A ‘magical miscellany’ contained manuscript in the Bodleian library in Oxford dated to the early seventeenth century [Bod.MS e Mus 173 f.72 V-R] has a similar spell to conjure Oberon into a crystal seeing stone, using Catholic prayers in Latin.  It also has a spell to conjure other fairies employing the ‘rime’ found on a bowl of water which has been left out overnight for the fairies to bathe in (once a common practice, especially in Wales).  I have not provided this, in part because I have not seen the manuscript myself and because it presupposes a key ingredient which- rather like four leaf clover- is in the first place very hard to acquire.  First get your fairies to come and bathe themselves and their children; then hope that it’s a frosty night and the bowl freezes over.

sigillum-dei-ameth

Further reading

There are other posts examining spell books and other charms such as their magic hand gestures that might be employed with our Good Neighbours.  Sometimes, though, nothing more is needed than to be in contact with a fairy.

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