Faeries and the Christian faith

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Fairy Passage

The relationship of the Christian religion to fairy-kind is a very ambiguous or ambivalent one.  On the whole, faeries are regarded as alien beings who stand wholly and permanently outside the Christian community.  This can be seen most clearly in the various origin myths that have been formulated to situate fairies within a Christian world view.

Lost Souls

One common explanation is that the fairies are fallen angels who followed Lucifer when he staged his rebellion in heaven.  They were, however, left in limbo.  When the gates of heaven and hell were sealed, some of the rebel angels were isolated between the two.  They went to hide amidst the rocks and trees of earth until judgment day and so have become the fairies (see, for example, Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2, 327). In one version of this account of fairy origins, the decreasing sightings of fairies are also explained. Rather than being driven away by electric light and aeroplanes, it seems that the fairies are seen less because, in the last century, god has taken pity on the outcasts and has begun to let them back into heaven for a last chance (Drever, The Lure of the Kelpie, 1937).

Reflecting this view, there is a widespread story in Britain concerning the fairies’ anxiousness over their ultimate salvation.  A Scottish version can be found in Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, under the title of The Fairy’s Inquiry.

“A clergyman was returning home one night after visiting a sick member of his congregation. His way led by a lake and, as he proceeded, he was surprised to hear most melodious strains of music. He sat down to listen. The music seemed to approach coming over the lake accompanied by a light. At length he discerned a man walking on the water, attended by a number of little beings, some bearing lights, others musical instruments. At the beach the man dismissed his attendants, and then walking up to the minister saluted him courteously. He was a little grey-headed old man, dressed in rather an unusual garb. The minister having returned his salute begged of him to come and sit beside him. He complied with the request, and on being asked who he was, replied that he was one of the Daoine Shi. He added that he and they had originally been angels, but having been seduced into revolt by Satan, they had been cast down to earth where they were to dwell till the day of doom. His object now was, to ascertain from the minister what would be their condition after that awful day. The minister then questioned him on the articles of faith; but as his answers did not prove satisfactory, and as in repeating the Lord’s Prayer, he persisted in saying wert instead of art in heaven, he did not feel himself justified in holding out any hopes to him. The fairy then gave a cry of despair and flung himself into the loch, and the minister resumed his journey.”

Keightley, pages 385-6

This story implies an unhappiness with their indeterminate position, but another account states that the fairies can sometimes be heard in their knolls, singing a song that celebrates that they are not of the seed of Adam and Abraham but rather are descended from the ‘Proud Angel.’  On the Isle of Man, in fact, the little people are called the cloan moyrney, the ‘proud clan,’ and there is a prayer “jee saue mee voish cloan ny moyrn” (‘God save me from the children of pride’).

Another (very bizarre) origin myth tells how Jesus was walking the world and, one day, visited a poor woman in her cottage.  She had a very large family and, when she realised who was at the door, she hid a number of her children from her visitor.  Jesus was offended by her subterfuge and, when he left, declared that the concealed children would not be seen again, because he had turned them into fairies.  The story fails to make much sense on several levels, and the disproportionate cruelty of the response to the mother’s embarrassment is impossible to justify (though I recall it’s not entirely out of character with some episodes in the New Testament).  Why the woman should be ashamed at the size of her family is not explained and we can only assume that the account reflects some deeper discomfort with natural sexuality and fertility within the religion.

Symons, Earthly Paradise, 1934

Holy Innocents

Lastly, there are origin myths that are rather more benign, in that they do not judge the fairy folk- although they still exclude them from the Christian community and the perceived benefits of the faith.  As I have described before, in Cornwall it was said that the pixies were either ghosts or the dead returned or they were the souls of children who were still-born or who died before baptism (see, for example, Evans Wentz Fairy Faith pp.172, 179 & 183).  In Wales the tylwyth teg were sometimes explained as being the spirits of virtuous Druids or the ghosts of prehistoric races (Evans Wentz pp.147 & 148). Lastly, in Highland Scotland, there was a belief in spirits called taran who were children who had died unbaptised and now wandered the woods and wastes, lamenting their fate.  These little beings were often seen and evidently bore a close relationship or resemblance to the sith folk (see Shaw, History of the Province of Moray, 1775).

This last category of beings plainly comprises spirits who are without sin in Christian terms: they never lived long enough to sin, or they lived ‘good’ lives in times before Christianity existed.  All the same, they are outside the fold of the church and beyond salvation in conventional eschatology.  This underlines how different fairies are: whatever physical similarities there may be, they are from another world, another dimension, and, as such, they can never participate spiritually in the same experience as humans.

People of Peace

It is very strange, therefore, to turn to some of the prayers and charms contained in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs).  I have described charms included in these volumes previously: people would pray to the trinity and the saints for protection against fairies and the hosts and all the harm that they could inflict. So far, so familiar.

Turn, then, to this prayer for peace, which seeks to be with Jesus Christ in the dwelling of peace, the paradise of gentleness-

“and in the fairy bower of mercy.” (ann an siothbrugh na h-iochd)

(vol.3, 177)

A second prayer for peace also seeks the “peace of fairy bowers” (sith nan siothbrugh). Elsewhere Mary and Brigit are described as a fairy swan and a fairy duck of peace (lacha shith Mhoire na sith) respectively (vol.3, 269 & vol.1, 317).  Possibly the latter images combine some sense of lightness, softness and a magical quality (?)

These references are surprising and confusing.  The ‘fairy bower’ seems to mean the fairies’ normal dwelling: elsewhere Carmichael refers to “the fairy bower beneath the knoll” (vol.2. 286) whilst in another charm ‘fairy wort’ is picked on top of the ‘fairy bower’ (bruth) (vol.2, 162).  The Gaelic word brugh has several meanings: it can denote a large house or mansion, an underground dwelling, a fairy mound and, lastly, a fortified tower, which we generally know today as a broch.  It appears that all these meanings are wrapped up together in the prayers and invocations cited.  Brochs are, for example, sites of fairy presence and power.  For example, at Houstry in Caithness in 1810 a man took building materials from a ruined broch near his farm.  This incurred the deep displeasure of the sith folk living there, and they inflicted a plague upon the cattle of everyone living in the neighbourhood.  Secondly, at around the same date on Shetland, a fiddle player called Hakki Johnson was passing the Broch of Houlland one night when he heard music being played inside by the trows.  He was able to memorise the tune, which has been passed down since as the Wast Side Trows Reel.  A man on Skye who demolished the ‘fairy bower’ of Dun Gharsain at Bracadale in order to build some pens for his livestock only escaped a disastrous revenge from the fairies because he had been drinking milk from a cow that had grazed on the protective herb mothan.  This ‘bower’ again is termed a bruth and is, very evidently, a broch, one of several found beside Loch Bracadale.

In conclusion, we have to reconcile ourselves top the contradictory evidence that ‘fairy’ was used both in a negative sense, implying a threat that required holy protection, and (at the very same time) the fairies were associated with peace and other heavenly qualities…

Fairies in Drag- and other curious stories

I’ve written before about the considerable evidence for diversity in Faery, both of race and of sexuality. Nevertheless, there are some suggestions of intolerance towards similar conduct by humans. There is a curiously inconclusive feeling story in Evans Wentz’ Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries that I have never been sure how to handle.  It’s set at Barra Head on the Isle of Barra in the Western Hebrides, and it tells how:

“a fairy woman used to come to a man’s window almost every night as though looking to see if the family was home. The man grew suspicious, and decided the fairy woman was watching her chance to steal his wife, so he proposed a plan. It was then (and still is) the custom after thatching a house to rope it across with heather-spun ropes, and, at the time, the man was busy spinning some of them; so he told his wife to take his place that night to spin the heather-rope, and said he would take her place at the spinning-wheel. They were thus placed when the fairy woman made the usual look in at the window, and she seeing that her intention was understood, said to the man, “You are yourself at the spinning-wheel and your wife is spinning the heather-rope.”

Fairy Faith, p.104.

It’s not at all clear from this brief account why the changes of place and work in the cottage foiled the fairy woman so successfully.  However, I recently got a clue from a story told by Edgar MacCulloch about a fairy incident on Guernsey (Guernsey Folklore, 215-7)  This concerns the baking activities of Le Grand and Le Petit Colin, who seem to have been two household fairies known on the island. 

The story goes as follows. A man and his wife occupied a small, simple cottage at St. Brioc. Both of them were kept very busy scraping a living together.  Amongst her occupations was spinning. Nightly, after her husband had already gone to bed, she would sit up late at her spinning wheel by the dim light of the “crâset” (cresset).

While thus occupied one night, she heard a knock at the door, and a voice enquiring whether the oven was hot, and whether a batch of dough might be baked in it. A voice from inside the house asked who was there, and, on hearing that it was Le Petit Colin, the door opened to let him in. She then heard the noise of the dough being placed in the oven, and a conversation between the two, from which she learned that the person already in the house with her was the fairy Le Grand Colin. After a time, the bread was taken out of the oven and the mysterious visitor departed, leaving behind him on the table a nicely baked cake, with an intimation that it was given in return for the use of the oven.

These visits were repeated frequently and at regular intervals and the woman at last mentioned them to her husband. He was immediately seized by a strong desire to witness the events, despite his wife begging him that he should leave them well alone. His will prevailed and it was settled that the next night the husband would take his wife’s place at the wheel, disguised in her clothes, and that she should go to bed. Knowing that her husband could not spin, she didn’t put any flax or wool on the distaff, so as to prevent her husband, in turning the wheel, from spoiling it. He’d not been long at his post, and was pretending to spin, when the expected visitor came. Although the man could see nothing, he heard one of the two say to the other:

“File, filiocque,

Rien en brocque,

Barbe à cé ser

Pas l’autre ser.”

“There’s flax on the distaff,

But nothing is spun;

Tonight, there’s a beard,

T’other night there was none.”

Upon which- both the fairies were heard to quit the house as if in anger, and were never again known to revisit it.

Once again, we have a role reversal, with the man undertaking a female task, and further compounding this action by wearing his wife’s clothes.  What are we to make of these two narratives?

It may be (possibly) that the fairies object to men in drag, but I think it’s really more about changes of appearance and identity defeating or frustrating them.  We know that one of the solutions to being pixie-led is to turn your coat or another garment.  As Katharine Briggs described, turning the clothes works as a change of identity, that frees the individual from the fairy enchantment.  The same theory seems to have been at play in the Scottish Highlands when boys were protected against being abducted by the fairies by means of disguising them in girl’s dresses (see Barbara Fairweather, Folklore of Glencoe and North Lorn, 1974). 

It appears to be the case that the fairies can, in certain circumstances at least, be fairly easily out-witted.  Perhaps, too, the simple action by the human target is an indication to the fairy that she or he knows what’s happening, at which point they decide to abandon their plan because they are likely now to meet resistance.

‘Adar Rhiannon’- fairy birds

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Adar Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

In Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins you will find the story of Shon ap Shenkin:

“Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin [in Carmarthenshire]. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning, he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farm-house which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never before seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. ‘What do I want here?’ ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; ‘that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?’ ‘In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?’ ‘Under the tree!-music! what’s your name?’ ‘Shon ap Shenkin.’ ‘Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!’ cried the old man. ‘I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.’ With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.” (Sikes pp.92-94)

In several respects this is a typical story about the differential passage of time in Faery and the mortal risks faced by a human returning home.  Such accounts date back to King Herla in the Middle Ages.  Of course, Shon is not aware of any journey to Faery at all; he simply sat in the shade by the roadside, but somehow was transported from this world.

However, what interests me in the tale are two of the details- the tree and the bird.  The tree is said to be a sycamore, which is unusual; it would not have surprised me to learn that it was a hawthorn (or perhaps an elder).  These are notorious fairy trees with which the Good Folk and magical properties have always been closely associated; sycamores don’t seem to have these traditional associations.

The other feature is the bird.  I have discussed the faery nature of certain insects (bees and moths) and fairies fleeing a human’s presence have not infrequently been compared to birds, but the evidence of a fairy nature is much harder to find in the fairylore of the British Isles.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

Scraps of evidence are present, nonetheless.  Evans Wentz mentions Breton fairies who take the form of ducks, swans and magpies (an especially significant bird in British folklore) whilst in Ireland fairies and some of the goddesses of the Tuatha de Danaan appear as crows.  (Fairy Faith pp.200 & 305-7)  From the Isle of Man, there is a fascinating little story about a notorious fairy woman whose beauty was deadly to local men.  She would bewitch them with her charms and then lead groups of them together int the sea, where they drowned.  The people resolved to end this slaughter and plotted to catch and kill her.  To escape, the fairy took the form of a wren.  She survived, but every New Year’s Day she must become a wren once more and face being hunted and killed in a traditional January 1st ceremony.

From Oxfordshire there comes the story of True John and Greedy Jack, a tale that pits a man favoured by the fairies against a jealous neighbour.  Both farmers had apple trees, but John’s produced abundant fruit and were always full of crowds of small green birds whilst, at night, small lights were seen in the branches, accompanied by singing and perfume.  Jack was envious and one day tried shooting at the trees with a shot gun to scare off the birds and damage the fruit.  Instead, it was his own fruit that were peppered with shot and the birds pecked at his face.  After this, Jack lost all his luck.  When John died, Jack cut down the bounteous tree hoping to drive the birds to live in his own, but instead a mighty wind arose and flattened his orchard.  Neither the birds nor the lights were seen again.  Both for their colour and for their close association to the lights, these are very obviously faery birds, a fact that should have been clear to Jack.  From that, it should have been clear in turn that he could not force the fairies into favouring him over his rival.  His downfall followed inexorably.  The protective role of faeries towards apple trees is something I’ve commented upon in several previous posts, too.

Lastly, as Sikes himself records, there is the ancient Welsh legend of the Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon). Rhiannon is one of the goddesses or fairy women of Welsh myth.  Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep.”  In a clear sign of their magical or faery nature, the birds can be remote but sound as if they are very near.

This legend appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). Seven men only had escaped from a large force that had followed King Bran across the sea to fight the Irish.  Bran himself had died of his wounds, but had commanded the survivors to cut off his head and bury it under Tower Hill in London. On their way there, the men paused at Harlech in North Wales to rest and feast. Three birds came and began singing to them so sweetly that all the songs they had ever heard before seemed unpleasant in comparison.  The feast and birdsong were so enchanting, they remained listening for seven years.  (see Sikes p.2 and Evans Wentz pp.329 & 334)

The sweetness of song and the dislocation of time (for a period of years of considerable magical significance) are found in the Welsh myth just as in the story of Sion ap Senkin.  It seems clear from these scattered remnants that there was once a much completer knowledge of the nature and powers of faery birds, something that we have sadly lost with the passage of the years.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

For more on fairy animals generally, see my recently published book Faery.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Fairy Rings- in folklore and popular art

margetson
Hester Margetson, Welcome to Fairyland

In this post I return once again to the subject of fairy rings.  I add a little more factual and folklore information to what I’ve written before and then turn to consider how popular twentieth century art has chosen to represent rings.

Margaret Tarrant aka M W Tarrant aka Margaret Winifred Tarrant (English, 1888-1959, b. Battersea, London, England) - Four Fairies  Drawings
Margaret Tarrant

Fungi & Fairies

The origins of fairy rings were extensively debated in the late eighteenth century.  The Gentleman’s Magazine, for a decade from 1788, carried an exchange of correspondence in which readers described and theorised about these curious features in their landscape.  Charles Broughton, writing in 1788, remarked upon the semi-circular marks that appeared consistently in his pasture land.  They had a base of about four yards, he reported, and were half a yard thick (across their width).  Another writer (‘JM’) in 1790 described the circles that appeared in the meadow-land near his home.  They were 6-8 inches broad with a diameter of six to twelve feet and were covered in champignon mushrooms.  He noted that the land hadn’t been ploughed for 19 years and that the cattle were turned in annually to eat the aftermath (the stubble left after cutting the hay). Another letter from 1792 remarked upon the many large fairy rings to be seen in the meadows between Islington and Canonbury, north of London.  The present day inhabitant of the capital will smile wryly over this, as the area is now overlain by Georgian squares and terraces, built not too long after the letter was written.

Both the writers just named ascribed the rings to mushrooms, but subsequent correspondents blamed the effect of horse dung, moles, lightning and, even, the Ancient Britons, who had dug defensive trenches on the sites.  What we can tell, certainly, is that these very noticeable features in the landscape excited public interest and speculation because they were so common and so distinctive.

Attwelll Changeling
Mabel Lucie Attwell, Fairy Changeling

Folklore

The learned gentlemen musing on the formation of the rings all dismissed the fairies as a cause, naturally.  Nonetheless, for generations it had been well-known that the Good Folk were in fact the makers of the marks.  In Devon it was said to be the hoof-marks of ponies that the fairies rode round and round in circles at night that made the circles;  generally though, across Britain, it was the action of dancing feet that was blamed.  For instance, Evans-Wentz (Fairy Faith p.181) was told about a spot near St Just in the far west of Cornwall, called Sea-View Green, where the piskies could regularly be seen dancing on moonlit nights, looking like little children dressed in red cloaks.  Another witness told Evans Wentz that the piskies preferred to ‘play’ in marshy locations and that these round places were locally called ‘pisky beds’ (p.184).

The rings were dangerous places, that was for sure.  Dew should not be gathered from them (as was sometimes done to improve the complexion) and the faes would counteract any magical quality it possessed anyway.  Anyone who stepped accidentally into a ring could be abducted by the fairies.  Great fear about this danger was instilled by parents into children, who retained the dread into their own adult years (see, for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, p.103 for just such a warning from an old Glamorganshire man and also Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, p.91).  The rings might be a place to which a person was ‘pixy-led’ and then trapped, as was recounted in the story of Einion ac Olwen (Evans Wentz p.161).  The same story notes the distinctiveness of ring too: “a hollow place surrounded by rushes where he saw a number of round rings.”

Margaret Tarrant-Midsummer Night
Margaret Tarrant, Midsummer Eve

Twentieth Century Popular Art

The consensus was that, for many reasons, fairy rings were perilous places.  The best thing was to avoid and respect them.  However, a child would never have learned that serious lesson from the pictures aimed at them in the early twentieth century.  The illustrators of children’s books, as well as printed ephemera such as postcards and greetings cards, all used toadstools as a convenient signifier of the presence of magical beings in their scenes and treated fairy rings- and their occupants- as benign and friendly beings, who only wished to play and dance with children.  Many of the most significant faery artists of the period, such as Margaret Tarrant, Hester Margetson and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite,  propagated this simpler and happier version of Faery.  The Good Folk themselves were reduced to girly winged fairies in dresses and cheeky pixies/ elves in pointed hats and almost all the complexity, peril and moral ambiguity of traditional faery lore was effaced.  Their pictures (and the whole race of flower fairies) remain attractive art even today, but as a guide to folk belief they are misleading.

Do You Believe in Fairies by Margaret Tarrant (1888- 1959)
Margaret Tarrant, Do you believe in fairies?

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of fairy rings and other fairy places.  For more on the art of Faery, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

Fairies Margaret Tarrant - Elfen & Boeken

Illustration by Margaret Tarrant  From "In Wheelabout and Cockalon"

Vintage Children's Print - Margaret Tarrant - Alice and her Fairy Dream - Fairy…
Tarrant, Alice’s Fairy Dream
Hester Margetson
Vintage Hester Margetson book illustration, via Etsy
Hester Margetson

 

Vintage Postcards 706
‘Animated mushrooms’ by Hilda Miller
Chocolate Rabbit Graphics:  Fairyland postcard Beryl Haig 1920.  Free to download for personal use. #free #children #fairy #fairies #fairyland #postcard #vintage #image #graphics #illustration #moon
Beryl Craig (one of a series of very similar images)
Illustration - 'Uninvited Guest' by Florence Mary Anderson c1930 Lots more vintage goodies at vintagebookillustrations.com
Florence Mary Anderson, Uninvited Guest
Grace Jones - "The Fairy Dance" (с.1920) by sofi01, via Flickr
Grace Jones, Fairy Dance, c.1920
画像
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Rosa Petherick  Goblins
Rosa Petherick, Goblins

*~❤•❦•:*´Molly Brett`*:•❦•❤~*

And lastly, a cigarette card from W D and H O Wills’ Cigarettes:

-fairy-ring-card

What causes Fairy Rings, from an antique cigarette trading card.

 

For more on faery rings and the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Fairy Nature in the Celtic Countries

Cinzia Marotta 2
by Cinzia Marotta

One of the staple texts for many of us interested in faery lore is Evans Wentz’ 1911 Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.  I have often cited from it in my postings, because it contains a wealth of interviews, carried out during the first decade of the last century, with elderly country people who were still close to fairy traditions.

Recently, I was referred back to this valuable book by something else I had been reading and reread a section I’d not examined so closely before.  A Welsh informant, John Jones, a bard from Ynys Mon (Anglesey), described the tylwyth teg as “a kind of spirit race from a spirit world.”  This phrase struck me and set me searching for all the views on the ‘Nature of Fairies’ that Evans Wentz had collected.

What I summarise here are the opinions of over four dozen individuals whom Evans Wentz interviewed when preparing his book.  I have included here only the witnesses from Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man and Cornwall, in line with my ‘British Fairies’ focus.  What emerges are differences between the different ‘Celtic’ nations, as well as various common ideas.  Almost everyone agreed that the fairies were a type of spirit, but beliefs as to their exact nature differed across Britain.  There were also some religious and ‘learned’ interpretations that were encountered everywhere in the British Isles.  I’ll deal with these briefly first.

Informed Opinion

A number of widely respected and accepted theories have explained fairy origins for several centuries.  Inevitably, they were repeated to Evans Wentz.

The Christian church proved surprisingly accommodating to fairy belief: in fact, one minister in Montgomeryshire suggested that “God allowed them to appear in times of great ignorance to convince people of the existence of an invisible world.” (p.146)

The idea that the fairies were the fallen angels trapped between heaven and hell when their gates were closed following Lucifer’s rebellion was a popular explanation mentioned to Evans Wentz by over half a dozen of his interviewees.  Another religious theory, that is often found in sources, was recounted to him by an elderly woman in Carmarthen: she understood that the fairies were members of a very large family that had been hidden from Jesus once when he visited their mother.  Because she had been ashamed that she had twenty children, and had concealed some of them, he turned them into fairies and they were never seen by her again (p.153).

John Davies of Ballasalla on Man, a herb doctor and seer, meanwhile told Wentz that the fairies were “the lost souls of the people who died before the flood.”  Summarising Davies’ evidence, Wentz said he was sure that his interlocutor’s visions were genuine, but that “whatever he may have seen has been very much coloured in interpretation by his devout knowledge of the Christian bible, and by his social environment.” (p.123)

Scientific explanations were also offered, reflecting the latest thinking of the period.  A couple of informants mentioned the theory of MacRitchie that fairies were memories of pygmy former races inhabiting Britain; another couple of the more middle class and better-read contacts described them as ‘astral’ beings, borrowing from contemporary Theosophy and Spiritualism.

Frances Tolmie, native of Skye, had this to say to Wentz on these sorts of ideas, though.  She believed the fairy faith was very ancient but that “With the loss of Gaelic in our times came the loss of folk-ideals.  The classical and English influences combined had a killing effect, so that the instinctive religious feeling which used to be among our people when they kept alive the fairy traditions is dead.  We have intellectually constructed creeds and doctrines which take its place.” (p.99)

Miss Tolmie was evidently pessimistic as well as very wise, but there was still plenty of traditional information to gather.

Cinzia Marotta 3
by Cinzia Marotta

Scotland

The general view in Scotland was that the sith are a tribe or race of spirits, who can appear to us in the likeness of men and women (p.105).  However, a clear distinction was made between the fairies living under the hills and those who are numbered amongst the aerial host or sluagh.  As Marian MacLean of Barra stated, “they are both spirits of the dead and other spirits not the dead.” (p.109) The sluagh comprises the souls or ghosts of the dead; the sith living under the knolls are spirits of another kind.  This is very clear and Sir Walter Scott seemed to say something very similar.  He recorded a story of a woman who was abducted and conveyed underground (“to secret recesses”) where she recognised someone ‘who had been mortal but had been trapped’ (by eating the food there).  Evidently this individual is not exactly, dead, nor fully living any longer (Scott, The Lady of the Lake, pp.107-111).

For Scottish witnesses, this dichotomy raised further questions: as I’ve described in a post on the fairy host, people are often snatched up by the sluagh or may enter a fairy hill and join a dance.  How, physically, did this work?  John MacNeil of Barra stated firmly “when they took people they took body and soul together.”  Murdoch MacLean, who lived on the same island, seemed to agree “the fairies had a mighty power of enchanting natural people, and could transform the physical body in some way.”  Humans, as corporeal beings, may enter a spirit world, but it needs magic to do so.  (pp.102 & 113)

Wales

It was agreed in Wales that fairies were a spirit race with human characteristics, who might be seen by some people, but not by others, and who might appear or disappear at will.

The Reverend Josiah Jones of Machynlleth described the tylwyth teg as “living beings halfway between something material and spiritual.”  Mr D. Davies-Williams of Montgomery said they were “a real race of invisible or spiritual beings living in an invisible world of their own.” (p.145) The Reverend T. M. Morgan, of Newhcurch near Carmarthen, also stated that they “live in some invisible world to which children on dying might go to be rewarded or punished, according to their behaviour on this earth.” We have to note the reverend gentleman’s rather unorthodox notion of heaven, here. (p.150)

Louis Foster Edwards of Harlech also tried to define Faery: “The world in which they lived was a world quite unlike ours, and mortals taken to it by them were changed in nature.” ( my italics; p.144) They were visitors only to our world, having no homes here, said David Williams JP of Carmarthen.  He also stated that the tylwyth teg were “aerial beings [who] could fly and move about in the air at will.  They were a special order of creation.”

This was the nature of the tylwyth teg; as for their origins, Wentz’ Welsh informants believed that they might be the spirits of virtuous Druids or the ghosts of prehistoric races. (pp.147 & 148)

Cinzia Marotta Reddish spirit
Reddish Spirit by Cinzia Marotta

Isle of Man

The spiritual nature of the ‘Little People’ (the mooinjer veggey) was accepted by Wentz’ Manx informants.  They were perhaps ghosts or the spirits of dead people; one witness termed them ‘Middle World Men,’ who weren’t good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell. This concept of ‘intermediate’ status closely echoes one of the reports from Wales (pp.117 & 124).

Cornwall

In Cornwall, too, the spiritual nature of the pixies was affirmed repeatedly to Evans Wentz.  There were several ideas as to their origins.  They were, perhaps, the souls of the ancient inhabitants of the land (pp.169 & 176), much as was proposed to him in Wales.  They may have been ghosts or the dead returned (pp.172 & 179); they may also have been the souls of children who were still-born (p.183).

Rather like in Wales, there was also evidence of the idea that the pixies did not really belong in our world.  John Guy, a fisherman from Sennen, recalled how his mother had said “they are a sort of people wandering about the world with no home or habitation.”  In the same vein, John Male of Delabole described them as “a race of little people who live out in the fields.” (pp.182 & 184).

Summary

 A number of important points emerge from this overview of the witnesses’ evidence.  It was widely understood throughout Britain that Faery was a separate and materially different place, or state, of being; it was seen to be a different dimension, as we might say today.

The major variation upon this was Scotland, as we’ve seen.  This ambivalence can, in fact, be detected as far back as the seventeenth century.  In various witch trials we hear the fairies described as- for example- the “earthles king and earthles quene” (Janet Anderson, Stirling, 1621) or “unearthlische creatures” or “uneardlie wights” (Stephen Maltman, Gargunnock, 1628).  Yet, at the same time, other accused persons could claim to have had bodily experiences such as “going with the farie twyse” (Marable Couper, Orkney, 1628) and the sexual relationships I have described before.

Following from the perception of fairies as beings of another world, people struggled to understand how contact with faery affected humans.  We have examined the risks of eating fairy food: how exactly was a physical being affected by the consumption of spirit sustenance?  It is clear that people who are taken by the fairies will experience some kind of transformation, at least temporarily; proximity to spirits and their spirit world can, however, have longer lasting effects, as I have described several times, which are both psychological as well as physiological.

The Pied Piper of Elfame: fairy abductions of children

paton-fact-and-fancy-such-tricks-hath-strong-imagination 1863
Noel Paton, Fact and Fancy, 1863

It is well known that fairies try to steal new born babies and that they leave changelings behind in their place.  Here, I want to examine the evidence for the abduction of children older than toddlers and how this is achieved.  Babies can be snatched from their cradles; how are less helpless juveniles abducted?

There seem to be three broad strategies employed by the fairies in taking infants.  They kidnap them, they trick them or they lure them away.  There are ample examples to illustrate all of these ploys.  It was believed that the fairies were always on the lookout for chances to abduct infants (see, for example, Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 150).

Muriel Dawson
Muriel Dawson, Welcome to Fairyland

Obviously, it is easiest to kidnap children if they come willingly.  It is perfectly possible to achieve this by friendly means.  In one Scottish example, a little girl used to regularly play with the faeries under the Hill of Tulach at Monzie.  One day they cut a lock of her hair and told her that next time she visited she would stay with them for ever.  Fortunately, the child told her mother what had happened and she immediately worked various charms and never let her daughter out to play again.  A boy from Borgue in Kirkcudbrightshire used regularly to make extended visits to the Good Folk underground in the same manner; he was protected by suspending a crucifix blessed by a Catholic priest around his neck.  Indeed, in one case from Orkney, a little girl so pestered the local trows with repeated visits to their underground homes that, in their irritation, they breathed on her and paralysed her for life.

The Scottish ballad of Leesom Brand fits with the friendly visit pattern of journey to Faery.  A boy aged ten finds his way to “an unco’ land where wind never blew and no cocks ever crew.”  There he meets with and falls for a woman who is only eleven inches tall.  It is at this point that this story takes a slightly uncomfortable turn.  Despite her small statute this lady was “often in bed with men I’m told” and the young boy, despite his tender years, is no exception; he gets her pregnant, too, and it is this scandal that forces them both the flee back to the human world.

girl with faes

Simply opening the door to a human child might be enough to tempt it in, then. More often, some additional inducement was necessary.  It might be nothing more than playing upon the child’s curiosity, as in the Welsh medieval case of Elidyr.  He had run away from home after an argument and had hidden for two days on a river bank.  Two little men then appeared to him and invited him to go with them to “a country full of delights and sports.”  That was all he required to persuade him to go with them.  Somewhat comparable is the tale of a boy from St. Allen in Cornwall who was led into a Faery by a lovely lady.  He first strayed into a wood following the sound of music and after much wandering feel asleep.  When he awoke, a beautiful woman was with him and guided him through fantastic palaces. Eventually he was found by searchers, once again asleep.  Fascinatingly, Evans Wentz has a modern version of the Elidyr story, told to him near Strata Florida (see Fairy Faith 148;  Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 86, ‘The Lost Child’).

Some children require more material temptation.  On the Isle of Man, a girl was walking over a bridge when three little men appeared to her and offered her a farthing to go with them.  She wisely refused, knowing that consent would place her in their power for ever.  In Northumberland, at Chathill Farm near Alnwick, there was a well-known fairy ring.  It was reputed that, if a child danced around it nine times, she or he would be in the fairies’ control.  To encourage children to do this, the fairies used to leave food and other gifts at the ring and parents, in response, would tie bags containing the age-old remedy of peony roots and seeds around their infants’ necks as a protection against fairy harm.  Elsewhere in the north of England, it has been reported that the fairies would leave out fairy butter as bait for children.

margetson, fairy captive
Hester Margetson

These inducements to stray start to merge into out and out tricks.  For example, a boy lost on Dartmoor was found by his mother seated under an oak tree known to be a pixie haunt.  He told her that “two bundles of rags” had led him away- evidently, pixies in disguise so as to attract his attention and lull his suspicions.  As soon as the lights of his mother’s lantern appeared, these rags vanished (Hunt, Popular Romances, 96).

The kidnap can be covered by means of a changeling put in the abductee’s place.  The son of a blacksmith on the island of Islay, aged fourteen, suddenly fell ill and wasted away.  It was revealed to the father that, in fact, he had been taken by the fairies and a changeling left behind.  This the father exposed with the trick of brewing in egg shells and then violently expelled.  However, he had then to go to the fairy knoll to recover his son rather than the boy being automatically returned (as is the usual practice).  He was working for the fairies there as a blacksmith, which may explain their reluctance to part with him.

f1

Some children are snatched without ceremony.  In one case from the Isle of Man a boy sent to a neighbour’s house to borrow some candles at night was chased on his way home by a small woman and boy.  He ran, but only just kept ahead of them, and when he was back at his home, he had lost the power of speech and his hands and feet were twisted awry.  He remained this way for a week.  This could almost be a changeling story (see Evans Wentz 132).

sarah stilwell weber water babies
Sarah Stilwell Weber, Water Babies

Waldron tells of a ten-year-old girl from Ballasalla on the Isle of Man who had a lucky escape from such a kidnap attempt.  Out on an errand one day, she was detained by a crowd of little men. Some grabbed hold of her and declared their intention to take her with them; others in the party objected to the idea.  A fight broke out amongst the fairies and, because she had incited this discord, they spanked her but let her get away.  The truth of her account was seen in the little red hand prints marking her buttocks.

I have assumed so far, naturally, that parents would not wish to see their offspring taken to fairyland.  One incident contradicts this.  A woman from Badenoch in the Highlands was given shelter overnight in a fairy hill but, the next morning, she had to promise to surrender her child to them so as to be set free.  She agreed, but was to visit her daughter in the hill.  After a while, with no sign of things changing, the infant complained that she had been abandoned by her mother.  The woman scolded the girl for suggesting this and the fairies ejected her from the hill and never allowed her in again.  This suggestion that fairy abduction might sometimes be a boon for the child is confirmed by another source.  The verse ‘The Shepherd’s Dream,’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England, reveals that changelings were taken from mothers who beat or otherwise abused their progeny.

Going with the fairies need not be prolonged nor unpleasant, fortunately.  Many stories indicate that children will be well cared for in Faery.  A game keeper and his wife lived at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor. This couple had two children, and one morning when the wife had dressed the eldest she let her run away to play while she dressed the baby. In due course, father and mother realised that the child had disappeared. They searched for days with help from their neighbours, and even bloodhounds, without finding her. One morning a little time later some young men went to pick nuts from a clump of trees near the keeper’s house, and at there they came suddenly on the child, undressed, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.

Ezio Anichini, Peter Pan

There are, therefore, many ways of luring children into fairyland- some are friendly and almost consensual, others are more underhand and forcible.  The child’s treatment once in Faery will also vary: some will be well cared for and treated as fairy playmates; others may find themselves put to work in menial roles.  I discuss all the many aspects of these abductions and how to avoid them in my recently published book Faery.  The abduction of children is just one aspect of the Darker Side of Faery, a subject explored in detail in my book of that title, published in 2021darker side.

Gwenhidw- Mermaid Queen of Wales

mmd

Many readers will be familiar with The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, by Walter Evans-Wentz.  They might even recall that, in his investigation of Welsh fairy lore, he spoke to a Welsh Justice of the Peace from Carmarthen called David Williams, who proved a rich source of faery facts, despite his sober and respectable position.  In particular, he told Evans-Wentz about the king and queen of the tylwyth teg, whom he named as Gwydion ab Don and his wife Gwenhidw.  Gwydion is a character straight out of the Mabinogion, and he is said to live amongst the stars in Caer Gwydion, one of several magical faery fortresses that are mentioned in Welsh legend.  His wife, meanwhile, is connected to the fluffy white clouds that appear in fine weather and which are called ‘the sheep of Gwenhidw.’

This is a very pretty image, and Evans-Wentz goes on to speculate that this queen has some connection to King Arthur’s queen Guinevere, who is properly Gwenhwyfar, ‘the white ghost’ or spirit.  Ghostly ‘white ladies’ are very common in British folklore, often associated with wells and streams.

The real Gwenhidw

Mr David Williams JP gave Evans-Wentz a very useful lead, but what he had learned as a boy from his mother was a very confused version of the authentic tradition.

Gwenhidw (or Gwenhidwy/ Gwenhudwy) is well known in Welsh folklore.  She is, actually, a morforwyn- a mermaid.  Her name means ‘white enchantment’ or ‘white spell.’ In modern stories she owns a herd of white horses that run along the crests of the waves.  In older versions of the tale, the foaming waves were her ewes and every ninth wave was the ram of the flock.  This conception of the incoming tide is preserved in a sixteenth century poem by Rhys Llywd ap Rhys ap Rhicert in which he described a boat trip to the monastic island of Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) from the Lleyn Peninsula.  The passage is notoriously choppy and he described the sea as:

“haid o ddefaid Gwenhudwy/ a naw hwrdd yn un a hwy”

(a flock of ewes of Gwenhidwy and nine rams with them.”

Another poem of a comparably early date refers to Gwenhidw growing a beard (Ni adaf mal Gwenhudwy/  Ar vy min dyfu barf mwy– “Like G., I no longer grow a beard on my lip.”)  This seems to be an example of the quite widespread British tradition that mermaids are (contrary to popular misconceptions) pretty unattractive to look at- and possibly not even very different to tell from mermen.

Elsewhere in Welsh tradition a flood is termed ‘Gwenhudwy’s oppression’ and the sea is called her ‘plain.’  Lastly, an Elizabethan poem contrasts a man called Rhys Cain to our heroine, saying that he is a ‘feeble magician’ compared to her (wan hydol i Wenhidw).  

Conclusions

What can we conclude from these scattered references?  It emerges that Gwenhidw was once well-known in Wales as a powerful and fearsome mermaid, someone to be dreaded and respected.  If insulted, her vengeance might be savage.

Figuratively, at least, Gwenhidw had flocks of sheep.  At some point (though perhaps only in the family of David Williams JP) a misconception arose and the rolling breakers of the angry sea were substituted by benign fair weather clouds.  This, along with her  marriage to Gwydion, demoted Gwenhidw, but she deserves to be restored to her far more prominent position as sorceress and queen.

mmd3

Further Reading

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

“Let me grab your soul away”- faeries, souls and the dead

fitzgerald Fairy_passage

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy passage

Fairies and the dead have always had some ill-defined relationship, but in an account of folk beliefs in North East Scotland, I came across this fascinating note:

“It is said that, if a person dies of consumption, the fairies steal the soul from the body and animate another person with it.” (Shaw, The history of the province of Moray, 1827, p.278)

In the far north of Scotland, fairy abductions of humans can include not just a physical kidnapping but the abstraction of a person’s vital essence, leaving an inanimate stock behind: their soul is in Faery and a lifeless shell remains.  Related to this may be the Shetland belief that trows can only appear in human form if they can find someone who’s not been protected by a ‘saining’ or blessing. There is one story in which two trows attend a Yule dance in the form of two small boys whose mother had forgotten to bless them before she went out for the night’s festivities.  When they were exposed for what they were, the trows vanished from the dance, but the boys didn’t return to their beds.  They were found the next day dead in a deep snowdrift.  Fairy ‘possession’ can lead to real or simulated death, then, as well as following on from it.

Virtuous Pagans?

This particular Scottish manifestation is unique, but the idea that fairies (or, at least, some of them) have an association with the souls of the dead is widespread in the British Isles.  It has been speculated that the pixies of the south-west might be the souls of unbaptised children, or those delivered stillborn, or perhaps the spirits of virtuous druids and other non-Christians.  The mine sprites (the ‘knockers’ in the South West) were the souls of ancient miners and there are traces of a belief that bees and moths were spirits in some form.  In Wales as well the tylwyth teg were thought to be the spirits of virtuous druids who had died in pre-Christian times, whilst on the Isle of Man the belief was that the fairies represented the souls of those who died before the Flood (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, pp.183, 169, 179, 177, 178, 147 & 123).

Faery Dogs

In Yorkshire, the supernatural hounds called the Gabriel Ratchets were believed to be the form taken by infants who died before baptism; they would circle their parents home overhead at night.  Other ‘faery beasts’ such as the black dogs, shugs and shocks were regarded as portents of death in the counties where they were seen.  The Welsh equivalent of these hounds, called the Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven.

Faery Limbo

Certain people- those who died early, unexpectedly or by violence- would go to live with the fairies in a sort of limbo.  This is a concept found across Britain in folklore, ballad and poetry from at least the Middle Ages.  Sir Walter Scott used it in his ballad ‘Alice Brand’ which is incorporated into his novel The Lady of the Lake.  Alice and her lover Richard are hiding in the greenwood; the Elfin King hears them cutting his trees and sends a goblin to chastise them:

“Up, Urgan, up! to yon mortal hie,

 For thou wert christen’d man:

For cross or sign thou wilt not fly,

 For mutter’d word or ban.”

When the goblin finds the pair, Alice confronts him and asks how he fell under the king’s power.  He replies:

“It was between the night and day,

 When the Fairy King has power,

That I sunk down in a sinful fray,

And ’twixt life and death, was snatch’d away

To the joyless Elfin bower.”

Alice is then able to release from this captive state by making the sign of the cross three times.

Witches’ Faery Helpers

What appeared so frequently in verse and story merely reflected genuine folk belief, as is confirmed by the evidence given by several Scottish witchcraft suspects.  For example, Alison Peirson told her inquisitors that several deceased members of her family were to be found in the court of Elphame, including her uncle William Simpson; Andro Man claimed that he knew “sindrie dead men in thair cumpanie” (one of whom was the late King James IV, who had died at the Battle of Flodden).  Bessy Dunlop revealed that the laird of Auchenreath, who had died nine years previously, was to be seen amongst the fairy rade whilst her particular ‘familiar,’ a man called Thom Reid, had fallen at the battle of Pinkie some 29 years earlier.  Elspeth Reoch’s fairy intermediary was a relative called John Stewart, who had been murdered at sunset- a violent and early death at a liminal time of day.

Lewis Spence examines some of the thought behind these folklore traditions in his classic British Fairy Origins.  The soul is often conceived as a small person and it is easy to understand how the little folk and the spirit homunculus might become confused.  Walter Evans-Wentz, in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, also espoused the theory that (some at least of) the fairies are the souls of the dead, something which he set within a wider Celtic ‘Legend of the Dead.’  He said that:

“the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and fairyland.” (Spence pp.68, 70 & 80; Evans Wentz pp.280 & 493)

The Reverend Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth goes so far as to argue that, whilst the bodies of the dead lie in their graves in the churchyard, their souls inhabit the fairy knowes that are so often found in proximity to Highland churches.  He confirmed that fairies were, therefore, believed by some with the second sight to be “departed souls, attending awhile in this inferior state, and clothed with Bodies procured through their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe… but if any were so impious as to have given no Alms, they say when the Souls of such do depart, they sleep in an unactive state till they resume the terrestrial Bodies again.”  Other seers believed that the souls of the dying people became wraiths, and the apparitions of black dogs which I mentioned earlier, and yet others were convinced that the fairies were “a numerous People by themselves, having their own polities.”  He mentioned too other beliefs that people’s “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged” and that some will “go to the Siths (or People at Rest, and in respect of us, in Peace) before the natural Period of their Lyfe expire…”  These ideas seem very clearly to be identical with the idea that those murdered or otherwise killed violently end up in faery.  Seventeenth century Scottish opinion on the nature of fairykind was divided then, but it was apparently as common to see them as some manifestation of human dead as it was to consider them to be a separate form of life.

Poet Robert Sempill put these ideas into verse, describing how one suspected witch:

“names our nyboris sex or sewin, (6 or 7)

That we belevit had bene in heawin.”

How heavy are fairies?

iro tulip

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite- Bubble fairy with tulip

There has been a long running debate about the physicality and corporeality of the faes. Some see the faes as being as solid and tangible as us; others conceive the fairies as verging on the weightless.  One witness from Newcastle upon Tyne has felt fairies dancing on her hair and clothing.  A Manx woman felt them walk on her, “as light as cats.”  It is well known that one Scottish word for the faes is the ‘sluagh’- the airborne host- one version of which is sluagh eutram- the light folk.

Others have taken this notion further, shrinking the fairies and reducing their weight correspondingly.  Staying in the Highlands, an alternative euphemism for the faes might be daoine beaga- the little people.  Another Manx witness confirmed that they were, indeed, “very little and very light.” A Hampshire woman described the flower fairies in her garden as:

“so tiny and so luminous that the very air seems lighter as I sense them.  They seem to me to have slight little bodies with gossamer wings.”

Famed Scottish painter of mythical and faery themes, John Duncan, met the faes repeatedly on the island of Iona.  During one encounter he noted that:

“Their feet did not bend the thick heather over which they walked and they made no sound as they passed close…”

John Rhys has published a very similar account from Wales, describing the tylwyth teg dancing on the tips of rushes (Celtic Folklore, p.83).

Fairies may be very small, but are they insubstantial? Can we put our hands through them? Can they pass through solid obstacles?  Some sightings suggest just this- that they can vanish into walls and banks and that we could never catch them because our bodies pass right through theirs. Evans Wentz relates the story of an Anglesey woman who walked with a fairy lady one night; she tried to touch her but her hand went right through (Fairy faith, p.141).

Definitely in the ‘aery nothings’ camp was Yorkshire writer Durant Hotham.  In chapter two of his Life of Jacob Behmen (1654) he observed that:

“nor is the Aery region disfurnisht of its Inhabitant Spirits; [which include] that far more numerous Progeny of Aerial Spirits, lodg’d in Vehicles of a thinner spun thread than is (otherwise than by condensation) visible to our dim sight.”

The Reverend Robert Kirk maintained much the same a few years later.  He said that fairies had “light changable Bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed Cloud.”  It is because these bodies of ‘congealed air’ are so pliable and subtle that the fairies can appear or disappear at pleasure (Secret commonwealth c.1).

fair seesaw

See-saw by Dorothy Wheeler- empirical proof that children weigh more than fairies…

Sightings

These general statements are complemented by the testimony of actual witnesses.  Fairies seen in dancing in the moonlight near Stowmarket in Suffolk during the 19th century were described as being “light and shadowy, not like solid bodies.”  The Reverend Edmund Jones, describing eighteenth century Gwent, told the story of a girl who used to dance in a barn with some of the tylwyth teg on her way to and from school.  She took off her shoes to do so, because otherwise she made a noise which seemed displeasing to them and because she never heard their feet when they were dancing.  These faes appear to be very light, therefore.  The same seems to be the case in our last example.  Two boys from the Isle of Man met a fairy man on the road once; he was only 5-6 inches tall and, when they tried to catch him, he flew off, leaving no footprints in the dust.  A Manx witness even went so far as to allege that the island fairies have “no body and no bones.”

Other witnesses attest on the contrary to the tangible solidity of fairies.  A girl from Kent met a fairy man leading a horse in her garden.  He put his hand on her wrist “and his touch was cool, not cold like a fish or a lizard but much cooler than a human touch.”  In a second incident told to Marjorie Johnson, a young woman walking her dogs near Minehead in Somerset surprised two pixies in an oak wood.  They ran away from her into a hollow in an oak tree and, in their haste to dart inside, they forgot to duck their heads.  Both knocked off their hats, which Miss Voss-Bark picked up and took home; they were tiny cones made of wood and permanent proof of her encounter.

Especially convincing is another account from the Isle of Man.  A woman from Ballasalla told George Waldron how her ten-year-old daughter had met a large crowd of little people up on the mountains.  Some had tried to abduct her, but others in the group had objected to this and had tried to protect her and the two sides had fallen to fighting.  Some of the other fairies then spanked her for causing dissension.  When she got home, she had distinct prints of tiny hands on her buttocks, visible proof of the veracity of her unhappy experience.

iro daisies

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Daisies

Implications

The answer to the debate over the solidity or insubstantiality of fairies will resolve many other puzzles over their nature.

Those who have claimed to have had sexual relationships with faes must, almost inevitably, be proponents of the ‘solid and fleshly’ view of fairy nature.  Likewise, I think, must be the case those who have acted as midwives or nurse maids to fairy infants- and the same for those children who were abducted as their playmates or the adults who were taken to act as cooks and suchlike domestic skivvies in fairyland.

Other such questions over physicality can have two resolutions.   For example, if we wonder what food they might eat, we can either accept that their diet is the same as ours- or instead we can tend to the view that they extract the substance (the foyson or toradh) without taking the foodstuff itself.

We are very familiar with the thought of fairies flying, but there are also reports of them gliding or floating, too; something which is strongly suggestive of lightness or even weightlessness.  For instance, in 1922 seven year old Penny Storey was living in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.  As she lay in bed one summer evening, a female being between twelve and thirteen inches high suddenly appeared and glided past her window.

“Her arms were outstretched sideways, and her feet gracefully together… No wings were visible… She simply floated, quite slowly, vertically downwards through the air.”

Jennifer George, from Cornwall, saw something comparable in her bedroom as a girl.  A bubble of steady yellow-white light floated about four feet above the floor before gliding out of the window and disappearing.

Some of these figures lack wings but still move effortlessly in the air: “They had no wings but still seemed to dive through the air at a good speed.”  Others possess them but do not need to employ them: ballet dancer Betty Lambert, as an adult and with an adult companion, saw a fairy in a bedroom “whose outstretched wings seemed motionless as it floated out into the night…”

Fairies don’t just drift about weightlessly, though.  A Mrs Shirley Eshelby of Carbis Bay in Cornwall witnessed a fay dancing in her bedroom early one morning: “although she appeared to me to be dancing in space, she was evidently stepping on something that was solid to her feet, because she never danced below a certain level.  When departing she skipped away, touching the invisible line with her tiny, naked feet.”  Other fairies, seen in the Home Counties in 1970, “ran on air as if on the ground…”  These examples are perhaps more indicative of the fays inhabiting a separate dimension than being incorporeal, but they do imply that, in this world, they do not experience gravity in the same way as we do.  (Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.46, 94, 167, 171, 182, 186 & 304)

The evidence is just as ambivalent when it comes to determining how fairies can vanish from our sight- as they do extremely frequently.  Is this is a process of physical dissolution- or is it just the application of glamour- or magical deception?  Have they gone, or have they simply rendered themselves invisible but are still there?

Contemporary accounts in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provide support for both schools of thought.  There are numerous mentions of faes simply disappearing.  However, in some cases they seem to melt away before witnesses’ eyes.  Those who saw fairies often said that they ‘faded away,’ a process suggestive of a less fleshly nature than our own.  One fay “dissolved into a sunbeam, slowly;” another “quivered away.”  It can be a gradual process: one man watched a group of fairies “grow lighter, insubstantial, and more like a cinema film” and it can involve the fay appearing and disappearing piece by piece. In one Manx account a crowd of fairies met on the road by three people in a horse-drawn cart simply “melted away” as the travellers got nearer.  (Johnson pp.173, 240, 299, 305 & 309; Evans Wentz p.126)

By contrast, there are also plenty of incidents reported to Johnson in which the fairy neither vanished nor dissolved.  Rather, in order to get away, they had to run.  We’ve already seen the incident with the pixies’ lost hats; fleeing into bushes, behind trees and through hedges are all mentioned.  Beings who need to make a dash for cover quite obviously are as solid and real as we are- and don’t have extensive magical abilities either.

Further reading

As well as my previous postings on fairy bodies and solidity, see too chapter 1 of my British fairies.  I also discuss fairy physiology in detail in my forthcoming book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide, early 2020).

iro- tightrope

 

Fairy sports

Molly BRETT - FAIRY Pixie Playthings Spinning Top

Pixie playthings, Molly Brett

We are familiar with the idea of fairies feasting and dancing, but they have other pastimes too which can make them seem very human indeed.

Hurling

In both Cornwall and (most frequently) in Ireland, huge hurling matches have been sighted, with hosts of players on either side. Coastal locations seem to be especially favoured for these: the earliest account of pixies seen in Cornwall dates from August 1657 and is a description of a fairy hurling match held in a field of corn at Boscastle.  A large number of white figures were seen taking part and the game surged back and forth until apparently disappearing over a cliff.  The crop was left completely unmarked.  In an Irish story a man called Patch Gallagher is recruited to join one team in a vast sidhe hurling match which ranges over a full sixty miles of Connaught coastline.  Evans Wentz also notes two Irish sightings of hurling matches (Fairy faith pp.41 & 51 and see Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.76).

fairy games molly brett

Football

There’s a story from the south of Northamptonshire of a man who joined a fairy game of football. He was, perhaps, a little over-enthusiastic, as he kicked their ball so hard it burst.  He fainted and the fays vanished, but when he recovered, he found that the deflated ball had been left behind and was full of gold coins.  Evans Wentz has an Irish sighting of a football game (p.76) as has Marjorie Johnson- an experience dating to the 1890s (p.86).

Curling & other ball games

It is reported that, during freezing weather in Scotland, the fairies may be heard at night curling on every sizeable sheet of ice.

The medieval Welsh tale of the boy Elidyr and his visit to a subterranean fairyland confirms that the faerie folk enjoyed ball games: Elidyr used to play with the king’s son before he made the dreadful mistake of trying to steal the golden ball they used.  One of Marjorie Johnson’s correspondents described seeing scores of tiny fairies playing ball in a ring under an oak tree, somewhere in mid-Wales (p.232).

f hockey

Hunting

The fairies love hunting with hounds, most particularly on the Isle of Man, where they are regularly heard at night coursing across the island. They are often dressed in green with red caps, in great numbers and accompanied by the loud sound of cracking whips.

Horse racing

Horses are often taken from stables and ridden at night until they are exhausted and foamed with sweat. It’s very likely that the fairies are racing against each other as well as enjoying the sheer exhilaration over steeple-chasing over fields and hedges.

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Rough and tumble play

Even if no competitive game is involved, it’s clear that the fays love to indulge in energetic and noisy play. Quite often, this is combined with mischief, disturbing human households with the noise they make.  Poet Thomas Heywood referred to them “keeping Christmas gambols all night long,” creating a racket that sounded as if furniture and pots were “about the Kitchen tost and cast/ Yet in the morning nothing found misplaced.”

This sort of revelry is not just seasonal, though: Drayton recorded in The Muse’s Elysium how the fairies would scramble around rooms, overturning stools and tables.  A Manx witness described how he saw fairies playing on beached fishing boats, clambering about in the rigging with great laughter.  George Waldron recounts another encounter on the island in which a man saw some boys playing in a field at about three or four o-clock in the afternoon when they should have been at school.  He went to tell them off but they disappeared as he approached them across the open land.  Much more recent witnesses have seen the fairies engaged in games of leapfrog, chase and playing ring o’ roses (Johnson pp.91, 161, 170, 192 & 258).  This last game, of course, starts to shade into the fairy habit of dancing in rings.

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