A Fae’s Anatomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Rackham- girlies and goblins

The pretext for writing this post is that, working with publisher Green Magic on some new faery books, we decided to ‘rebrand’ all the titles they’d issued with new covers using artwork by Arthur Rackham. Rackham is instantly recognisable to many readers, his work is topical and attractive- and it’s largely out of copyright!

I’ve discussed aspects of Rackham‘s work before, both on this blog and in my book Faery Art of the Twentieth Century; what I want to focus on here is the way that art can shape our perceptions. Firstly, as my title suggests, there are essentially two sorts of faery-being featured in all of Rackham’s faery illustrations. There is a slender young female with long hair, dressed in flowing robes (or sometimes nothing)- a faery- and there is a small ugly man in quasi-medieval clothes- a pixie, goblin or gnome. The new cover of British Pixies gives a good idea of the latter. Some of Rackham’s nude, juvenile nymphs are to be seen on the cover of my Love and Sex in Faeryland.

Regular visitors to this blog will be aware that Rackham’s bipartite arrangement of the Faery world is not reflected by British tradition. There are, of course, attractive female faeries and surly looking pixies, but the faery clans of the British Isles are far more complex than that: every region has its particular family, race or species of fae being and there is little reason to suppose that males take just the one form and females another.

At the same time, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Rackham wasn’t creating his designs without foundation. What he drew upon, though, was not folklore but literature. We need only think of the sexy faery women of medieval romances such as Sir Launfal or the small and misshapen faery kings of Huon of Bordeaux or King Herla to understand where he found his models. As an illustrator of faery tales and legends, this is to be expected.

The dichotomy of type that Rackham established so effectively through the commercial and artistic success of his designs was taken on in turn by many of the children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century- artists such as Rosa Petherick, Susan Pearse or Agnes Richardson- and the iconography came to be embedded in our collective psyche. Because of Rackham, I suggest, we can now only think of faeries within these parameters, divided into these two rough categories- elegant, pretty and girly/ ugly, stunted and male. This is something of an exaggeration, but not a huge one. More recently, the Middle Earth elves of Peter Jackson’s film have contributed the blonde, noble warrior elf as well; but in a sense this is just an elaboration of Rackham’s largely female faery clan.

These images are pervasive and persistent. That might sound improbable again, but consider this. A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), found that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from images and ideas in books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairy series, that adult pagans had seen and absorbed as children.

We get very similar evidence from the Fairy Census (2014-17). When witnesses reached for adjectives to describe what they saw, they often chose to make comparisons with popular representations of faery-kind. Five people likened the beings they saw to Disney characters; four referred to pictures by Brian Froud. One tree spirit was said to have looked like Gollum (i.e. in the films). Looking further back, terms borrowed from Paracelsus were co-opted- sylph and, especially, gnome. Favourite films and beloved books make a powerful impression, very possibly shaping in advance what we expect to see. Of course, they provide a vocabulary, a point of reference, which is why witnesses often allude to the creatures they see looking like leprechauns, goblins, brownies and “the classic gnome” even though they may be using labels that are alien to place where the sighting occurred, mistaken, imprecise or simply unhelpful. Goblins and brownies are good examples here, in that the traditional descriptions of these tend to be of very large and hairy beings; often, now, the words are chosen to denote a small, brown pixie type being, one who is often the personification of Paracelsus’ very unhelpful ‘gnome’ character. The interaction between what we expect to see and what we may then actually see is a complex psychological well beyond my comfort zone, but it is at least clear how mass market imagery, especially that absorbed at an impressionable age, will enter our subconscious.

The new books, Manx Faeries and The Faery Lifecycle, are due to be published later this month.

Fairy cures and potions

I have previously paid some attention to fairy healing, but I’ve recently gathered together a range of evidence on the types of cures and medicines that people have got from the fairies and it made sense to sort and arrange these to give a you a full idea of the sorts of methods and ingredients used.

There are a number of key elements or procedures regularly found in the cures, which are as follows.

Herbs

As a primarily rural people, it is far from surprising that the fays tend to use commonly found plants to make their potions.  Frequently we’re only told that ‘herbs’ were used, made into drinks and salves, but sometimes we are given more detail than just reading that they were “divers green herbs” which doesn’t help much at all.  Suspected witch, Isobel Stirling, used rowan in her cures; Elspeth Reoch used yarrow to cure nosebleeds; Bessie Dunlop was given something like the root of a beet by her fairy adviser and was told to cook it and make it into a salve or dry it and powder it.  Katherine Cragie was tried on Orkney in 1643 for both curing and inflicting illnesses; she treated those stricken by the trows with an application of foxglove leaves (the plant was called ‘Trowis Glove’ on Orkney at this time; it is not a practice to be imitated given the toxicity of the plant).  Nonetheless, Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried in May 1658, also treated a dumb man with foxglove leaves in water from a south running stream.  Isobel Haldane of Perth was tried in 1623 for making charms, a skill she claimed to have been taught by the fairies.  She attempted to drive out a ‘shargie bairn’ (a changeling) using a drink made from ‘sochsterrie’ leaves (possibly star-grass); the infant died (which may or may not have been a successful cure). Lastly, in 1716, Farquhar Ferguson of Arran was tried before a church court for practising charms: one of his medicinal drinks was made from agrimony.

A range of illnesses would be treated with herbs.  For such maladies as “ane evill blast of wind” or being “elf-grippit” (having a fairy attack or seizure) Bessie Dunlop had a variety of cures.  She would mix assorted herbs together to feed to sick cattle; illnesses in people might be cured by ointments or by powders (which were presumably ingested); during her examination in court she added that if the patient “sweated out” the treatment, they would not recover.  Just like Bessie, Jonet Morrisone from the isle of Bute healed a little girl who’d been ‘blasted with the faryes’ using herbs.  Rather like Bessie, too, she told the court at her trial in 1662 that treatment in time should guarantee recovery, but if she was consulted too late, the patient might still “shirpe” (shrivel or wither) away.

Alesoun Peirsoun treated the Bishop of St Andrews for trembling fever, palpitations, weakness in the joints and the flux with a herbal ointment which she rubbed into his cheeks, neck, breast, stomach and side.  Alesoun had spent seven years visiting the faery court in Elfame and had seen the ‘good neighbours’ making their salves in pans over fires, using herbs they had picked before sunrise.

Herbs seemed to do more than cure illness in livestock and people, though.  Janet Weir of Edinburgh told her trial in April 1670 that her fairy helper, a woman who would intercede on Janet’s behalf with the fairy queen, also gave her a piece of tree or herb root which allowed her to “doe what she should desyre.”

A Visit to the Witch 1882 | Edward Frederick Brewtnall | oil painting
Edward Frederick Brewtnall, A visit to the witch

Food

The herbal remedies just discussed as often hard to separate from those involving food stuffs, some everyday ingredients, others rather more expensive and harder to come by.  For instance, Alesoun Peirsoun also treated the Bishop with a medicinal broth made from ewe’s milk, wood-ruff and other herbs, claret and the liquor of boiled hen, which he had to drink over two successive days- a quart at a time.  Bessie Dunlop made a similar preparation.  She was approached for help by a young gentlewoman who suffered from ‘cold blood’ and fainting fits, for which she prescribed a potion made from ginger, cloves, aniseed and liquorice mixed in strong ale and taken with sugar in the mornings before eating.  Margaret Dicksone of Pencaitland used eggs and meal to drive out a changeling- perhaps more of a charm than a cure, just as was the case with the aforementioned Elspeth Reoch.  She acquired the second sight by means of boiling an egg on three successive Sundays and using the ‘sweat’ that formed on the egg to wash her hands and then rub on her eyes.

The vicar of Warlingham in Surrey in the early seventeenth century recorded a range of cures that had apparently been taught to him “by the fayries.”  Some of them involved the shedding and use of blood (quite common in magical remedies), others used food and herbs together.  For example:

  • To cure boils, blotches and carbuncles, take the ripe berries of ivy growing on a north facing wall, dry them, powder them and then give as much as will cover a groat coin in a glass of wine. The patient should be rubbed til they sweat and then put to bed in fresh sheets and clothes.  They will be well by morning;
  • To make a tooth fall out- mix wheat meal with spurge and put the paste in the hollow of the tooth. Given that spurge sap is acidic, this would certainly have had some sort of effect; and,
  • For those who are forespoken or bewitched- take three sprigs of rosemary, two comfrey leaves, half a handful of succory, half a handful of thyme and three sprigs of herb grace. Seethe these in a quart of water taken from a stream and then strain.  Flavour with nutmeg, ginger, mace and sugar and drink warm, followed by five almonds.

Water

I’ve discussed before how water can have magical properties. For example, from Shetland there come several accounts of trows using ‘kapps’ (wooden bowls) to pour water over patients during healing ceremonies.  The implement and the liquid were both important apparently (Saxby, Shetland traditional lore, p.151).

This is very often seen in the fairy-taught healing procedures.  Margaret Alexander from Livingstone used well water combined with charms to cure sick people.  Likewise, Isobel Haldane, who lived in Perthshire, took water from wells and burns and in it washed the shirts of her patients.   A woman called Jonet Boyman from Edinburgh would also diagnose sickness using a patient’s shirt, taking it to a well on Arthur’s Seat just outside the city.  Jonet had first acquired her healing skills by going to the well and raising a whirlwind, from which emerged a fairy man who taught her.

Earlier I mentioned Jonnet Miller, from Kirkcudbright, and it’s worth repeating here that one of her remedies (at least) required water taken from a stream that ran southwards.  Stein Maltman of Stirling told his 1628 trial that he made several different uses of water in his cures.  He boiled elf-shot in water from a south flowing stream and either had a patient drink it or bathe in it; in another case he had a man bathe himself in such a stream having first diagnosed his illness by reciting charms over one of the man’s shirts. Margaret Dicksone, mentioned just now, also treated a suspected changeling child by washing it- and its shirt- in a south-flowing stream.

Rituals and other items

Our last category involves a mixture of odd materials that were considered to have medicinal effect.  Catharine Caray from Orkney diagnosed and cured the sick using thread, charms and stones to cure physical and spiritual illnesses. For example, the thread might be tied on with an invocation of the holy trinity and the words “’bone to bone, synnew to synnew, and flesche to flesche, and bluid to bluid.”  Threads, often red in colour, were regularly used to protect cattle and children from fairy attacks.  Bessie Dunlop, for example, was given a green silk thread by her fairy helper, Thom Reid, with which she assisted women in childbirth.

Suspected witch Andro Man was tried at Aberdeen in 1598.  He used several methods to cure animals: he hit them with birds but he also employed salt and black wool.  A sick man was cured by passing him nine times through a length of yarn, and then transferring the illness from that to a cat.  He would invoke St John and use other holy words in Latin borrowed from Catholic liturgy; he stopped oxen from running away using ‘lax water’ (possibly water from a salmon stream or in which salmon had been cooked).  Lastly, he protected fields of corn by placing four stones at each corner.

Treatment by passing patients through hanks of yarn was also practised by Isobel Haldane, by Janet Trall from near Perth- who then cut up the yarn into nine parts and buried it in three different places- and by Thomas Geace of Fife, who burned the yarn afterwards.  I assume that this has some relation to the use of girdles in diagnosing sickness.

Stein Maltman, mentioned in the last section, had learned his healing skills from the “fairie folk,” whom he often saw, and they supplied him with a repertoire of cures.  He rubbed some patients with elf-shot; over others he waved a drawn sword, on the basis that the naked iron would scare the malignant fairies away; finally he advised some of those who consulted him to return to the spots where they felt they had picked up their infections, there to pray for healing.

waterhouse_destiny

J M W Waterhouse, Destiny

For more on faery medicines and cures, see the discussion in my ‘Faery Lifecycle’ (2021):

The fairies’ whirl

Arthur John Black, Fairies' whirl

Arthur John Black, The fairies’ whirl

As I’ve described before, fairies traditionally travel in whirlwinds.  This mode of travel can act partly as a cover for human abductions and partly as a form of concealment.  It appears to have been considered essentially faery, so much so that the magic necessary to achieve it might even be imparted to whoever or whatever is carried along in the fairy eddy: for example, a farmer living on the island of Tiree saw one of his sheep being whirled up into the sky by a gust of wind.  He was so certain that the fairies had done this that, when the sheep came to be slaughtered, he refused to eat any of its meat- plainly because he considered it tainted in some manner.

We know, too, that one of the fairies’ favourite and most distinctive pastimes is their circle dancing.  It follows, therefore, that there are some grounds for arguing that a spinning motion may be inherent in fairy movement.  There is more explicit evidence that this may be the case.

Some older evidence

My earliest example is from mid-Wales in 1862.  Two carters, David Evans and Evan Lewis, were travelling from Brecon to New Quay in Ceredigion with wagon-loads of timber.  At Maestwynog, one August afternoon, they saw some small people climbing to the top of a distant hill.  There they danced in a circle for a while, but then began to spiral into the centre, “like a gimblet screw.”  Then, successively, the figures disappeared into the ground.  The dancing beforehand reinforces the sense that circular motion may be especially fay, but this sighting takes the matter further.

A changeling child who had been exposed at Sorbie in Galloway was put in a basket over the cottage fire to drive it away and retrieve the human baby that the fairies had taken.  The changeling shrieked and cursed and spat- and then spiralled up through the smoke hole in the roof “like a corkscrew.”

In Victorian times, two men were out walking one night on the Isle of Man when they saw the figure of a woman dressed all in white standing in the angle of the wall just opposite a church gate. When one of the two man went across to speak to her she took him by the arm and spun him round and round till he was dizzy, and then let go of him so suddenly that he nearly fell down on the road. The marks of her fingers remained on his arm up to the day of his death as dark imprints on the biceps.  In another Manx example, a very troublesome buggane was described as “whirling like a spinning wheel” on top of a mountain.  He then came to meet an old woman who had expressed the opinion that he ought to be chastened for his many pranks “whirring like a spinning wheel.” [‘Old Nance and the Buggane’- see http://www.feegan.com]

Modern examples

Much more recent sightings suggest that this corkscrew motion was not unusual.  A woman from Monmouthshire twice saw fairies- in 1945 and 1949- and each time they appeared to her as a whirling shape before the individual fairy was visible.  The fays have also been seen to “spin round and round at a tremendous speed, and then vanish at the peak.”  Some others did the same “spiralling upwards with a sound like the soughing of the wind.”  The spinning motion can be imparted to objects they’re standing on too (such as a bowl of tulips).  [Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies, pp.47, 106, 155, 212 & 297]

The more traditional whirlwinds are still seen too, out on country roads but also in modern urban environments. An art school student from North Carolina saw a figure inside a tiny vortex only one foot high and a factory security guard saw them in dust devils as a child. [Seeing fairies, p. 229 and Fairy Census numbers 346 & 419]

Summary

In previous posts I’ve addressed the question of how fairies move about: do they rely upon magic, for instance, or do they use their own forms of transport?  The few cases discussed here open up some intriguing new avenues for investigation.  Other examples of spinning motion have probably been recorded; perhaps readers know of others?

Grace Jones, fairy dance c.1920

Grace Jones, The fairy dance, c.1920

For more on the anatomy and physiology of faery kind, see my book The Faery Lifecycle, published in 2021.

faery-lifecycle-cover

“Those white and blue fairies”- fairy faces

dark fairy
Dark fairy by Maiarcita on http://www.deviantart.com

Reading Minor White Latham’s Elizabethan fairies recently, I was struck by his argument that Tudor and Stuart conceptions about the race and colour of fairies might have been quite different our own assumptions.  I’ve argued before that there’s a good deal of evidence of  ethnic diversity in Faery  Let’s not forget, for example, that in Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy court has connections with the far east, Titania and Oberon disputing over a boy “stolen from an Indian king” whose mother was a “votaress” of Titania’s, the pair sitting together gossiping in the “spiced Indian air, by night.”  Likewise, Milton in Paradise Lost imagined a “Pygmean race beyond the Indian mount.”   African and Asian fairies ought not to surprise us at all, then, but Latham goes considerably further than this.

Masks for masques

The Tudors and Stuarts loved performing as faes in masques and plays, and to do so they put on masks.  For example, in George Gascoigne’s 1565 comedy The Buggbears there’s reference to spirits played by actors in “visars like devills,” to going “a-sprityng with this face and that” and “buggbears with vysardes.”  Latham’s argument is that the colour of these masks reflects conceptions about what he calls the ‘complexion’ of the fairies.  A very good starting point for an exploration of this argument is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.

In the Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare returned to a fairy theme for comic effect.  Fairies often appeared on the English stage as a vehicle for cheating or tricking characters, and that is their purpose in this play.  A plot is hatched to make a fool of Falstaff by dressing up some children as fairies and scaring him.  Mrs Anne Page decides her daughter Nan, her young son and three or four more of his age group shall “dress / Like urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white,” holding candles and rattles (IV, 4).  Nan is to be the fairy queen in a white silk dress and it’s very evident from the line quoted above that the others will be wearing green and white too.  Mrs Page’s friend, Mrs Ford, then says “I’ll go buy them vizards.”  In a slightly later scene (IV, 6), in which the women go over their plans again, it’s agreed that the children should be “mask’d and vizarded.”  They’ll be in disguise, then; their faces will be covered.  As a consequence, when Falstaff is confronted by Nan as the fairy queen (V, 5) and she calls forth “Fairies, black, grey, green and white” there’s a good deal of support for Latham’s suggestion that these colours relate not to their clothes (which we already know about) but to the colour of their masks (faces).

melancholicheart.deviantart.com Red-Faerie
Red Faerie by melancholicheart.deviantart.com

Support for Latham’s contention comes from the text of a masque performed for Queen Elizabeth at Woodstock in 1575.  The entertainment began with the monarch being approached by the ‘Queen of Fayry’ who presents herself by declaring that her love for Elizabeth had drawn her out of her woodland retreat and “caused me transforme my face/ and in your hue to come before your eyne/ now white, then blacke, your frend the fayery Queene.”  Black and white were the colours of the English queen, but at the same time it did not appear to be considered odd that her supernatural counterpart might have a black face.

Red, black & white spirits

In light of these examples, I’d return to other evidence I cited for you in an previous post on red and white fairies, and argue more confidently that those citations weren’t descriptions of clothes but of skin colour.  There are further examples to consider.

Reginald Scot in his Discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits mentions “white spirits and black spirits, grey spirits and red spirits” (c.33); in Macbeth the three witches meet with Hecate and “Like elves and Fairies in a ring” summon up “Black spirits.” The 1618 masque at Cole-Orton featured a character asking Puck about “ye faries, those little ring-leaders, those white and blew faries.”  In his play, Monsieur Thomas, John Fletcher has a character attempting to conjure spirits of earth and air, whom he addresses thus: “Be thou black or white or green, be thou heard or seen.” (c.1637, Act V, scene 9)  Lastly, Joan Willimot, accused of witchcraft in 1618, had a fairy woman called Pretty as her spirit guide, who would advise her on those who had been cursed.  She told Joan that the Earl of Rutland’s son had been “stricken with a white spirit.”  This is very suggestive of a white fairy, akin to those ‘white ladies’ who are often seen haunting springs or old houses.

All in all, it seems to me that we have pretty strong evidence for the fact that English people of the early modern period conceived of their fays as being quite alien in appearance- red, green, blue, grey, jet black and snow white.

anime fairy

Further reading

My posts on diversity in fairy and on fairy colours touch on closely related topics; my post on fairy stature examines another convention of the fairy drama of Shakespeare’s time.

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.  There’s more too on faery anatomy and physiology in my Faery Lifecycle published in 2021:

faery-lifecycle-cover

Fairy cleanliness

iro bath

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Here’s a question not often asked: how- and how often- do fairies keep themselves clean? We know that they have very strong opinions on the cleanliness of human homes, and that they will punish or reward maids and housewives according to what they find, but does this extend to their own dwellings and, for that matter, to their own persons?

When you start to look, you find that the evidence exists in some quantity- so here are the best conclusions I can reach.  The need for the fairies to wash themselves and their clothes was accepted without question by our ancestors- for example, on the Isle of Man the saying was that “If rain falls when it’s sunny, the fairies are washing.”

Bathing faes

“Til after long time myrke, when blest were windows, dares and lights,

And pales were fill’d, and hathes were swept, ‘gainst Farie Elves and sprits:”

(William Warner, Albion’s England, 1586, Book V, c.XXV)

There are plenty of reports that demonstrate that fairies do, definitely, wash themselves.  As an outdoor people, living in woods and meadows, a lot of this bathing took place in natural bodies of water.  For example, in Northamptonshire certain ‘faery pools’ are known where the faeries swim at night; at Brington, in fact, bathing faeries were seen by witnesses as recently as 1840.  On the Isle of Man, beside the Gretch River, there’s a spot called the Fairy Ground where fairy mothers dressed in red used to be seen washing their babies.

It’s inevitable that encounters with fays are likely to occur at these bathing places.  A Northumberland tale records how a little girl gathering primroses by the River Wear came upon some faeries washing in the river.  In revenge for this invasion of their ablutions, she was abducted by them that same night and her father then had to follow a very complex ritual to be able to recover her.  Sometimes, it’s the faery who’s vulnerable. From North Yorkshire comes a story of a faery girl found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale.  A woman took the child home and made her warm and fed her but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she’d been found and where it was believed that the faeries bathed, in the hope that her parents would return for her (Bord, Fairies, Appendix, p.206).

In due course the faeries, who are ever a people alert to their own convenience and advantage, realised that they could wash themselves with far greater comfort in people’s homes.  Initially the fays may have used water collected around human farms: there is one Welsh account of them bathing in a moat; but it then became the practice for them to enter the dwellings and to require that fresh water be left out in front of the fire or kiln for them.  This may be seen as dependence- as Latham does in Elizabethan Fairies (p.118) but it probably should more properly be seen as proof of the fairies’ canny nature.  Even so, if the householders did comply, they could generally anticipate a few silver coins being left behind for them in thanks.  Perhaps this is why some even started to provide soap and towels to their supernatural visitors- less for reasons of kindness than greed (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886, p.196).

This habit must have started many centuries ago, because the provision of water has become established as- to all intents and purposes- a fairy right. Mrs Bray tells the story of a couple of maids in a house near Tavistock who forgot to put out a bucket for the pixies one night.  Their response on finding the empty pail was to immediately go upstairs, enter the girls’ room by the keyhole and then surround their bed, loudly debating the best punishments for their laziness and neglect.  The enraged pixies considered pinching, spoiling the maids’ best clothes, sending a tooth-ache or inflicting a red nose.  One of the maids heard this and suggested getting up to put matters right; the other refused to stir ‘for all the pixies in Devonshire.’  The first maid did get up and fill the bucket- and was rewarded with silver pennies; the other was lamed for her obstinacy and rudeness (Bray, Tamar and Tavy, pp.188-9).

There is widespread testimony to the custom from across the British Isles, most frequently from the Isle of Man and from Wales. Sometimes hot water was preferred but, very curiously, it’s also reported that the tylwyth teg would choose to wash their children in the water in which human children have already been cleaned whilst in the Highlands the water used for washing men’s feet was most desirable (Rhys, Celtic Folklore 56, 110, 137, 151, 198 & 240).

Once established as a perquisite of the good neighbours, it was generally advisable to give them what they wanted, for fear of what they’d use instead.  Householders need to be warned that the fays may wash in any liquid they find available (even if this is meant by the humans for cooking or drinking).  Although they may not sound ideal for the purpose, fairies have taken revenge if no water was put out by bathing their infants in kit, the water in which oats were soaked in the Highlands, or in milk.  In one incident on Shetland, trows entered a house at night to bathe a baby and found no water left out.  Muttering “Mukka, mukka, dilla do,” they made use instead of the ‘swotts’ -or water in which sowens or oat-husks were steeped- to wash the child and its clothes, before pouring the liquid back into the keg from which it had been taken…

Whilst we’d never think of drinking water deliberately put out for washing, we might not expect or realise that cooking liquids would be used- and this could prove risky.  In a case from Dunadd in Argyll, the fays one night washed a stolen child in milk left out for them by a farmhouse fire.  This milk was wisely thrown away by the farmer the next morning, but his sheep dog lapped it up- and instantly died.

So established was this practice that, in Gloucestershire on Christmas Eve, the faeries were formally invited into homes.  The fire was banked up and water was left out for their annual bath and, it was believed, if this was done good luck would be bound to follow for the next twelve months.

Fairies also noticed that humans built themselves places specially for bathing- and they’ve taken advantage of these too.  There’s a well-known story of faeries surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley:  when the caretaker William Butterfield arrived to open up he found at first that the key simply rotated in the lock without effect.  He then tried to push the door open, but felt resistance from the other side.  On finally forcing his way in, he was met with:

“whirr, whirr, whirr, such a noise and sight! All over the water and dipping into it was a lot of little creatures, all dressed in green from head to foot, none of them more than eighteen inches high, and making a chatter and a jabber thoroughly unintelligible.  They seemed to be taking a bath, only they bathed with all their clothes on.”

They scattered as soon as William appeared, leaving no trace behind (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, 133-4).

fairy laundry

Fairy laundry

Fairies wash their bodies then, albeit not that frequently, and, as we’ve just seen, they may save time and trouble by bathing fully clothed.  This example aside, there is again sufficient evidence to show that the fairies do their washing just like us.

At least one spring, the Claymore well near Kettleness in Yorkshire, has been identified as a place where the faes wash their clothes and, in the Middleton-in-Teesdale case cited earlier, the fairies were also said to wash their clothes in the river Tees there (Bord p.206).  J. G. Campbell has a very brief mention of a fisherman seeing green silk spread out to dry on the fairy knoll of Beinn Feall on Coll.  The colour of the cloth, let alone its location, confirm its supernatural ownership.

An interesting story comes from the Isle of Man dated to the early twentieth century.  A man reported that his father, when he was a boy, had come across the fairies doing their washing in the river at Glen Rushen.  They were beating the clothes on the rocks and then hanging them to dry on gorse bushes. The boy crept close and stole a little cap, which was too small even for a human child to wear.  He took it home to show his mother, but she told him to go straight back and replace it- which he did.

Several other spots on the same island are also sites of fairy laundering.  A flat stone used to be pointed out in the Rhenab River where the fairies were both heard and seen- at night and early in the morning- washing their clothes.  At an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard ” beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream” and, in another unidentified glen, children saw the fairies’ newly-washed linen spread out on a rock to dry according to a report in Chamber’s Journal from 1855.

Unsurprisingly, fairy clothes washing moved inside human homes, too.  A Shetland fisherman who had been dozing by his fire awoke to find a trow using his feet as a clothes horse for drying her child’s clothes.  When he shifted position and the washing fell in the ashes, she slapped his leg in irritation and, as a consequence, he and his descendants always limped.

The great unwashed?

I’ve discussed fairy smell previously and the question is obviously highly pertinent to the present topic.  A young Yorkshire woman in late Victorian times told her vicar that she’d never seen the faeries but she had smelt them.  Asked to describe the odour, she told him:

“If you have ever been a very crowded place of worship where the people have been congregated for some time, then you knew the smell.”

This very strongly suggests a sweaty, stale, unwashed smell and, of course, if they bathed but once a year that is only to be expected.  All the same, the prevailing concern with regular supplies of water and with cleanly human homes tends to indicate that they are not a noisome folk.  Perhaps fairies just smell different to humans, rather than dirty.

It’s also said that they object to bad smells in the human world (such as stale urine- a substance which was kept, ironically, for cleaning human clothes but which was a well-known fay-repellent). A very grubby fisherman from Port Erin on the Isle of Man was once forcibly washed by the fairies.  He’d spied them swinging on gorse bushes, but this punishment seems to have been about something more than his intrusion on their privacy.

Lastly, there is the well-known story of Bettie Stogs from Cornwall.  She and her husband were alcoholics and were neglecting themselves, their home and their baby. The pixies removed the infant, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers, by way of a salutary lesson to her.

For more discussion of faery physiology, anatomy and health, see my 2021 book ‘The Faery Lifecycle’: