A Medieval Faeryland Underground

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry– April

There is a fascinating glimpse of medieval English views of faerie to be found in a very unexpected place, a Middle English poem called A Disputison By-twene A Cristenemon and a Jew (A Disputation between a Christian and a Jew), which seems to have been written in South West England in the late 1300s.  The religious subject matter sounds unpromising and, given the date and period, the content is what we might expect- a sectarian attack on the Jewish faith and an attempt to convert the fictional Jew of the story (which is successful).

What interests us is that the two disputants are imagined to visit the Jewish heaven.  As the author essentially knew nothing of the Jewish faith (apparently not a disqualification from writing the text), he substituted the next best thing- his ideas on fairyland.  What is depicted, therefore, is how Faery was imagined in the late-fourteenth century.

So, in verse 10, we read that:

fforth heo wenten on the ffeld, To an hul thei bi-heold.

The eorthe cleuet as a scheld, On the grounde grene.”

(They went out into the fields to a hill they saw.  There the green ground broke open before them) .  This idea of a hill opening up to reveal the underground dwelling place of the fairies within, and in particular splendid halls and places of feasting, is very common to British literature and folklore.  In this case they are spared any long entry through tunnels or passages.  Instead, it is a short and comfortable stroll from the earth surface to their destination.

Sone fond thei a stih; thei went ther-on radly;

The Cristene mon hedde ferly, What hit mihte mene.”

(Soon, they found a path and followed it quickly, the Christian man wondering the while what it all might mean.)

After that stih lay a strete, Clene I-Pavet with grete.

Thei fond a maner that was meete, With Murthes ful schene, 

Wel coruen and wrouht, With halles heighe uppon loft.

To a place weore thei brouht, As paradys the clene.

(The path led them to a street, well surfaced with gravel.  They next came across a fine manor-house, full of pleasing delights, very well made and carved and with high halls.  They were brought to a place that seemed as pure as Paradise to them.)

In this hall there are birds singing joyfully and many rich furnishings of expensive cloths and precious metals.  The Christian man is especially impressed by the “Wyndouwes i the walle, Was wonderli I-wrouht.” (Well wrought windows in the walls)  He’d never seen as fine a place on the earth surface, certainly.

Outside this mansion there are wonders too.  “Ther was erbes growen grene, Spices springynge bi-twene” the like of which he’d also never seen.  A thrush was singing sweetly in the garden, amongst the fair flowers that were blooming.  In fact, he sees King Arthur’s round table there: “Hit was a wonderful siht.”  The relationship of Arthur to fairyland is well-established and is something I’ve examined before.

The pair are then invited to dine at a nunnery, where there are fine ladies and squires, all dressed in most fashionable and expensive clothes, and the two visitors agree to stay there and hear tell of adventures.  They wash and go to sit down at tables laid with clean, fresh cloths and:

Riche metes was forth brouht, To alle men that good thouht ;

The Cristen mon wolde nouht, Drynke nor ete.

Ther was wyn ful clere, In mony a feir Maseere,

And other drynkes that weore dere, In Coupes ful gret.

Sithe was schewed hem bi, Murthe and Munstralsy...”

(Rich foods were served, but the Christian man would neither drink nor eat, even though he was offered wine in fair goblets and other drinks in great cups, and there was mirth and minstrelsy in the hall.)  This, of course, is a classic idea: don’t eat the food whilst you’re in Faery or else you’ll never be able to get back.

After this, the story reverts to its anti-Semitic polemic, but it has nevertheless given us a fascinating little glimpse into late medieval fairyland.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry- January

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.

 

 

 

On My Fairy Bookshelf: ‘Fairies- A Dangerous History’ and others

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On a recent visit to Glastonbury I picked up a couple of fairy texts in Labyrinth Books.

Fairies- A Dangerous History

The first was Fairies- A Dangerous History by Richard Sugg (2018).  This is a handy general history of the subject and Sugg writes in a very stylish and enjoyable manner.  There was not a great deal in the book that was new to me, but there were nonetheless some new facts and cases as well as new perspectives on familiar subjects, that made me reconsider those in a fresh light.  That alone can make a book worthwhile.  The content is selective, rather than comprehensive, but he has chosen interesting angles to illustrate his topic.

As a researcher in this subject, I was (I must confess) somewhat vexed by the fact that Sugg gives no footnotes.  Indeed, although there is a reading list at the end, he often seems to refer in the book to texts that he doesn’t mention in his final bibliography.  This is a little trying, although armed with Google, some creative thinking and some patience, you can track most things down on the world wide interweb.

Other than that (rather specialist) gripe, this is an entertaining and informative book and good value, too.  Sugg also wrote a chapter on the Cottenham fairies in Magical Folk, by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook.  Simon recommended the book in the newsletter of the Fairy Investigation Society, which encouraged me to make the purchase.

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Hikey Sprites

At the same time in Labyrinth Books, I found Ray Loveday’s Hikey Sprites- the Twilight of a Norfolk Tradition (2009).  Loveday is a Norwich man and he has conducted a personal survey of the surviving fairy beliefs in his home county, interviewing witnesses himself (as well as illustrating the book with charming line drawings).  It’s only 40 pages long, but it’s a fascinating little study into this quite obscure East Anglian spirit, a being that’s got characteristics in common with both wills of the wisp and bogies.  It’s a bit ‘nursery-sprite,’ a bit ‘Hobby lantern’ and a bit goblin.  The booklet was a pleasure to read.

Suffolk Fairylore

Lastly, by mail order, I decided to get Suffolk Fairylore by Francis Young (Lasse Press, 2019); also recommended by Simon Young in the FIS newsletter.  Francis Young is a more academic writer to the previous two (which means, for the fussy amongst us, that the book is fully annotated!) and he provides a thorough analysis of fairy lore in another East Anglian county.

The focus might seem too specialised or limiting, but there are many fascinating stories to be told (such as the Green Children of Woolpit) and Young provides lots of well informed analysis, setting Suffolk fairy lore in a wider context.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, as well as finding it very useful.

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Further Reading

I’ll conclude with a shameless plug: my own new book, Faery: a Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk will be issued by Llewellyn Worldwide in April 2020.  This builds upon the information contained in my British Fairies and offers an even more comprehensive survey of faery folk in the British Isles.  See a full list of my faery titles here.

‘Elf addled’- the ill effects of faery contact

froud, somethign wicked

Brian Froud, ‘Something evil this way comes’

I take the title of this posting from one of the Anglo-Saxon herbals or Leechbooks.  Our forebears diagnosed a number of ailments which they ascribed to malign fairy intervention; one of these was called ælfadl (which we may roughly translate as elf- addle today).  Its nature is uncertain- it appears to involve some degree of internal physical pain- but I have co-opted it to describe the mental health effects of contact with our fairy neighbours.

Physical risks of fairyland

It’s pretty widely known that a visit to fairyland can have serious physical consequences. Because time may pass more slowly in Faery, the returning visitor may discover that their few hours away were really years or centuries, so that they return to a land wholly unfamiliar to them and where they often crumble away to dust as soon as they have contact with the food or soil of the mortal world. The ill-effects may be less drastic than this, but nevertheless contact with the otherworld can lead to permanent disablement by the fairies.

Psychological risks of faery

Less well-reported are the psychological ill-effects of a sojourn with the fays.  We can piece together the evidence from various sources across the centuries.  In seventeenth century England John Aubrey collected a story concerning a shepherd, employed by a Mr Brown of Winterbourne Basset in Wiltshire, who had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played.  As Aubrey observed of such visitors, they would “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.” (Briggs, Fairies in Tradition, p.12).

Later the same century the Reverend Robert Kirk met a woman who had come back from Faery; she ate very little food and “is still prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly seen ever to laugh.  Her natural Heat and radical Moisture seem to be equally balanced, lyke an unextinguished Lamp, and going in a circle, not unlike the faint Lyfe of Bees and some Sort of Birds that sleep all the Winter over and revive in the Spring” (Kirk, Secret commonwealth chapter 15).  The ‘half-life,’ withdrawal or hibernation that Kirk seems to be describing here is mentioned elsewhere in Scotland.  On Shetland it was believed that the trows might steal part of new mother, that part that remained at home seeming ‘pale and absent.’  (Magical folk, p.132)

The Shetland trows would also take children for a while, but released them at puberty.  Back with human society, they always maintained “an unbroken silence regarding the land of their captivity.”  Indeed, that silence could be physically enforced: in Ireland it was believed that “the wee folk puts a thing in their mouth that they can’t speak.” (Spence, Fairy tradition, p.262)

W. B. Yeats was fascinated by this condition and reported that those who’d been ‘away’ were always pining with sorrow over their loss of fairy bliss.  They had a cold touch and a low voice.  They seemed to have lost part of their humanity and would be queer, distraught and pale, ever restless with a desire to be far away again.  Yeats was told by one woman from the Burren that:

“Those that are away among them never come back, or if they do they are not the same as they were before.” (Unpublished prose, vol.1, p.418 & vol.2, p.281)

The symptoms of having been ‘away’ are a dazed look, vacant mind, fainting fits, trances, fatigue, languor, long and heavy sleeping and wasting away.

Sometimes it is hard to determine whether the after-effects are psychological or physiological (though one may lead to the other).  The Reverend Edmund Jones in his history of Aberystruth parish in Wales described a neighbour and good friend who had been absent with the fairies for a whole year.  When he came back,  “he looked very bad.” (p.70)  Likewise Jones wrote in another book on spirit apparitions in Wales that the experience was debilitating and left the revenant sickly and disturbed; often the person would fade away and died not long after their return home (The appearance of evil paragraphs 68 & 82).  In Welsh belief of the time, in fact, even seeing fairies might prove to be a premonition of the person’s death (paras 56, 62, and 69).

Cornish case study

An example of being elf-addled comes from the well-known story of the House on Selena Moor, in Bottrell’s Traditions and hearthside stories of the West of Cornwall (1873, pp.94-102).  Pixie led on the moor, a Mr Noy finds a farmhouse at which a celebration is taking place.  As he approaches, he meets a former lover whom he thought dead, but who has actually been captured and enslaved by the fairies.  She warns him not to touch the fairy food and drink, as she had done, and tells him something of the fairy life.  The experience of seeing the fairies, and of knowing his lost love still to be alive in fairyland, deeply affected him:

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail), or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

Noy had had no physical contact with Grace nor had he partaken of the fairy fruit and beer- otherwise he would never have been able to return home at all.  Nevertheless, what he saw and heard was enough to blight the brief remainder of his life.

It’s worth recalling here too that prolonged physical contact with the fairies- a sexual relationship with a supernatural lover, perhaps in the course of a prolonged partnership or marriage- can have both physiological and psychological consequences.  It can often be fatal, whether almost immediately or over time.

Summary

A visit to fairyland need not be harmful.  Many travellers come and go unscathed. Some are even transformed for the better by the experience.  As alluded to earlier, girls might be abducted by the Shetland trows but returned to their homes when they reached adulthood.  They would be restored to their families “in maiden prime with a wild unearthly beauty and glamour on them.” (Magical folk p.132)

To close, time spent in faery must always be viewed as potentially perilous.  Even if the person is not enslaved or entrapped, they can still be affected long term by the experience, both physically and mentally.

Further reading

Morgan Daimler has posted on fairy possession on her blog, looking particularly at the Anglo-Saxon and old Irish evidence for the problem and its treatment.  See also my posting ‘Some kind of joy’ which looks at the positive aspects of fairy encounters.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faery, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in March 2020.

‘A geography of trees’- wood elves in myth and popular culture

 

Female_HalfElf

“… like a wind out of fairy-land
Where little people live
Who need no geography
But trees.”           (Hilda Conkling [1910-86], Geography, 1920)

Today probably most people, if asked, would imagine elves and fairies gambolling in a woodland setting.  This appears to have become a very strong convention within our popular visual culture, yet it is not traditional to British fairy lore (despite a few links between fairies and particular trees, most notably in Gaelic speaking areas where the fairy thorn has particular power and significance- see for examples poems of this name by Samuel Ferguson and Dora Sigerson Shorter). I wish therefore in this posting to examine how this prevalent image came about.

Shakespeare

Although the fairy king Oberon is met in a forest in the thirteenth century romance epic Huon of Bordeuax, but I believe the primary source of our close association between fairies and forests is Shakespeare, both the ‘wood near Athens’ which features in Midsummer night’s dream and in which Titania, Oberon, Puck and the other fairies make their home, and the open woodland of Windsor Great Park that features in the Merry Wives of Windsor and which is the scene of Falstaff’s believed encounter with the fairy queen and her train.  Whilst their ultimate roots may lie with the dryads and hamadryads of classical myth, it was these theatrical presentations of fairies that first really fixed the woodland elf in the English speaking public’s imagination.  Much subsequent literature and visual art has cemented the pairing to the extent that it appears inevitable, but there is little trace of it in older sources or in British folklore.

British fairy homes

The British fairy, according to older writers, could be found in a variety of locations.  They frequented mountains, caverns, meadows and fields, fountains, heaths and greens, hills and downland, groves and woods.  Generally, they were more likely to be found in ‘wild places.’ Residence underground- whether in caves or under hills- is a commonly featured preference and I have often mentioned the presence of fairies under knolls and barrows.  Woods feature in these sources, it’s perfectly true, but they are far from the most commonly mentioned locations.  (I have considered here Reginald Scot, Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy, Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares and a few medieval texts.)  The South English legendary of the thirteenth or fourteenth century is especially interesting reading in this connection: elves are seen, we are informed, “by daye much in wodes… and bi nightes ope heighe dounes…”- in other words, they frequent woods during the day (presumably for concealment from human eyes) but resort to open hill tops at night for their revelries.

A particularly relevant source is the Welsh minister, the Reverend Edmund Jones. In his 1780 history of the superstitions of Aberystruth parish he recorded the contemporary views locally on the most likely locations for seeing fairies.  They did not like open, plain or marshy places, he reported, but preferred those that were dry and near to or shaded by spreading branches, particularly those of hazel and oak trees (The appearance of evil, para.56).  Jones’ description fits the open oak parkland of Windsor perfectly, where Falstaff is duped by those merry wives and their gang of children disguised as elves.  It’s also notable that Wirt Sikes in his British goblins locates the Welsh elves (ellyllon) in groves and valleys.  In Wales at least, then, an open wooded landscape was believed in popular tradition to be the fairies’ preferred habitat.

EnchantedForest_Fitzgerald

John Anster Fitzgerald, The enchanted forest

Woodland fays

Woods were one of the favoured resorts for the fairy folk, then, but not their sole preserve.  It seems to be in Victorian times that woodland elves became the cliche that we encounter today.  I have (for better or ill) read a lot of Victorian fairy verse and certain stereotyped images are very well worn: moonlight, dancing in rings, woodland glades.  Here are just a few examples to indicate what you’ll see ad nauseam.  The connection begins to appear in the eighteenth century (see for example the “fairy glade” of Sir James Beattie’s The minstrel and The palace of fortune by Sir William Jones, 1769). References multiply throughout the next hundred years and into the last century: the “sylvan nook where fairies dwell” of Janet Hamilton’s Pictures of memory; Ann Radcliffe’s “woodlands dear” and “forest walks” in Athlin and The glow-worm; the “woodways wild” of Madison Julius Cawein’s Prologue and the “fairy wood” in his Elfin; the “woodland fays” that appear in George Pope Morris’ Croton Mode.  By then well-established, these fays persisted into the twentieth century, in “some dark and mystic glade” of Tennessee Williams’ Under April rain or the “nymphs of a dark forest” of Edna St Vincent Millay.  All of this imagery transferred to the visual arts, too, especially to the illustrations of children’s books.

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Margaret Tarrant, ‘The fairy way’

Tolkien’s elves

Once this image was embedded in the culture, it proved almost impossible to eradicate.  J. R. R. Tolkien absorbed it and the Silvan or Wood Elves of Lord of the Rings are the result; Galadriel is one of the Galadhrim (the tree people) of Lorien.  Tolkien’s influence in recent decades has been extensive and powerful.  An example might be Led Zeppelin, whose own highly influential Stairway to heaven invokes images of fairyland where “the forests shall echo with laughter.”  The pervasive idea was that the natural habitat of the fairy is the forest.

It might not be inappropriate to conclude with more lines from infant prodigy Hilda Conkling.  In If I could tell you the way she described how-

“Down through the forest to the river
I wander…
Fairies live here;
They know no sorrow.
Birds, winds,
They are the only people.
If I could tell you the way to this place,
You would sell your house and your land
For silver or a little gold,
You would sail up the river,
Tie your boat to the Black Stone,
Build a leaf-hut, make a twig-fire,
Gather mushrooms, drink spring-water,
Live alone and sing to yourself
For a year and a year and a year!”

MWT-G3804-330 Fairies Market

Margaret Tarrant, The fairies market, 1921

Further reading

For a wider consideration of the relationship between fays and trees, see Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.  See my other postings for thoughts on eco-fairies and fairies at the bottom of your garden.

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

 

 

Contrary fairies

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Arthur Rackham, The fairies have a tiff with the birds

One thing that any regular reader of these pages- or of any materials on fairy-lore- will soon notice is that Faery is a place where contradictions are rife. Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs seems to have recognised this problem when she wrote that “it is possible for most people to keep two quite irreconcilable beliefs alive at the same time.” (The anatomy of Puck, p.5)  Morgan Daimler has recently said something very similar: ”

“When it comes to Fairy the only generality we can make is that we can’t easily make any generalities.” (Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk p.173)

Inconsistency and uncertainty seem par for the course in fairy studies.  There is a distinct lack of consensus as to the appearance of the fays (their height, their facial features, the presence or absence of wings) or regarding their dress.  I have discussed the range of opinion on these matters before on this blog and in chapters 1, 5 and 28 of my book British fairies.  Of course, one might fairly observe that a non-human, presented with a selection of humans of varying age, ethnicity and dressed in their traditional, indigenous costume, might be equally puzzled to determine what the ‘typical’ human looks like.  There are many sorts of fairies, so the lack of consistency in reports need not trouble us.

Non-believers will say that inconsistency in accounts is hardly remarkable, given that we’re discussing a wholly imaginary set of beings.  The believer, in contrast, may explain the contradictions  by pointing to the variety of fairy forms, their magical abilities and their well-known sense of mischief.  Janet Bord argues as much in her book Fairies: real encounters with the little people: discrepancies in descriptions of fairies’ height may all be put down to their use of glamour and illusion.  The agnostic researcher, wishing to take a more ‘scientific’ approach, and to aiming to discover the reason and logic behind fairy belief, might search for social and psychological explanations.

The biggest problem for any form of rational analysis of fairy accounts is the existence of downright irreconcilable differences between descriptions.  I shall highlight just four here to demonstrate my point.

Iron taboo

Iron is well-known as a material that repels fairies. A child in a cradle can be protected by scissors hung over it; shears placed in a chimney prevent fairy incursions by that route and a wise traveller will carry metal with them, even something as small as a pin, as a defence against supernatural encounters.  Tales are often told of rescues of abducted spouses from fairy hills; the rescuer will place his knife at the threshold in order to stop the entrance to the hill re-closing and trapping him.  This list could be extended considerably, but the principle is very well established. However, how do we explain fairies using metal tools- which they often do, as evidenced in the stories of human help being sought to repair demanded pails, pick axes and the like?  Even more aberrant, perhaps, there is a Shetland story of an abducted boy who returns home skilled in making scythes, a craft he has learned whilst living with the trows (see for example Magical folk pp.38, 133 & 135).

The fairies’ faith

Religion is another source of contraries, as I have mentioned in a recent posting.  The fairies are generally regarded as being heathens, or at least irreligious.  On that basis, charms that are just as efficacious as a piece of iron include a page from the Bible, the sign of the cross or the invocation of God or the saints.  Prompt baptism of a newborn will guard against its theft as a changeling.  This all seems quite reasonable, until it is set alongside other traditions that treat the fairies as being perfectly orthodox Christian folk, conducting christenings and the like, or as beings concerned for their place in creation and worried over whether they will share in the Christian salvation. Once again, both cannot apply, but a compromise is almost impossible (see Magical folk pp.120, 127 & 135).

Time in fairyland

The passing of time is a significant feature of many stories of fairyland.  I have alluded to this previously and it is pretty well known that time in Faery can pass at a different rate to time in the mortal world.  A night spent under a fairy knoll may transpire to have been a year or ten, or a century, in the ‘real’ world.  As might be imagined, the consequence of this for the returning visitor can be disastrous and tragic.  And yet- this is not always a problem.  Some visitors come and go without ill-effects; a midwife may be taken to attend a fairy birth and return home the same night; a husband may go to rescue his wife from the beneath the fairy hill and will do so in ‘real time.’  The fairies themselves may come and go from our world without difficulty.

Fairy food

I have remarked before that fairies can be described both as vegetarians and as keen hunters.  Lastly, still on the issue of diet, how about fairy attitudes to bread?  This may sound bizarre, but it was widely believed in Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influences.  Witness Robert Herrick’s brief rhyme:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

This may perhaps relate originally to carrying consecrated host, but it seems that ultimately any old slice of Hovis would do.  Now contrast the situation in Wales.  John Rhys tells of lake maidens (gwragedd annwn) lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are fussy though: not any old piiece of bara brith will do.  First the bread is too hard “Cras dy fara“, then too soft “Llaith dy fara,” until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3-6 & 27-30).

Inconclusions

It is not possible to be didactic, especially on the subject of beings who are invisible and secretive.  Contacts with them are rare and always fleeting, so any impressions formed will always be uncertain and unconfirmed.  As I’ve suggested, the want of congruity throughout the reports may seem to give excellent grounds for rejecting them all as fictions.  What is odd, though, is that these tales derive from a period when there was a genuine and widespread belief in (and fear of) fairies.  This being so, you might expect the folk stories to provide listeners with consistent and coherent statements about the supernaturals, so that audiences might be forewarned and forearmed.  The lack of correspondence between accounts might even be argued to be an indicator of authenticity.

We’ll summarise with the words of some fairy experts. Brian Froud, renowned fairy artist, was interviewed by Signe Pike for her 2010 book Faery tale.  He described to Pike his reaction to his first investigations into faery:

“At first I thought, I don’t know… all this sounds a bit weird… and at the same time, a lot of it sounded like common sense.  It’s very typical of faery, actually.  In one way it simplified everything for me, and at the same time, it suddenly made everything very complicated.” (p.86)

Fairies are often regarded as being creatures of the ‘betwixt and between’ (see for example Storm Faerywolf’s book on the fairy tradition of that title).  If this is so, it’s only fitting that our knowledge about them should, in the same way, be indeterminate and unsettled.  It’s typical too of the fairies to want to withhold something from us- whether it’s their name or full knowledge of their personalities.  I’ll conclude this brief survey of contrariety with some very fitting words from the first paragraph of the first chapter of Morgan Daimler’s recent bookNoting the conflicting descriptions of fairies, she states:

“None of them are wrong, and none of them are exactly right either, and that’s your first lesson about Fairy: it is in all ways and always a contradiction.”

The tooth fairy- a modern myth

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A typical tooth fairy image…

At Christmas I wrote about the origins of Santa’s elves; in this posting I want to look at that other modern fairy myth, the tooth fairy.  The tooth fairy belief in the Western and in Western-influenced cultures tells that, when a child loses one of their baby teeth, they should place it under their pillow before bed and the tooth fairy will visit while they sleep, replacing the lost tooth with a small payment.

Norse origins

In northern Europe, there is an ancient tradition of tand-fé or tooth fee, which was paid when a child lost its first tooth.  This  is recorded as early as the Icelandic Poetic Edda, in which there is reference in verse 5 of Grimnismol (‘The sayings of Grimnir’) to a ‘tooth gift’- in this case, Freyr was given Alfheim by the gods (which certainly beats our 6d under the pillow).

Later, in medieval England, children were encouraged to burn their milk teeth so as to protect themselves from hardship in the afterlife. It was believed that children who did not do so would spend eternity searching for the teeth after death; a related idea was that (as with any shed bodily part) if a witch were to get hold of a shed tooth, it could give them power over the former owner, therefore its destruction was advisable.

Viking warriors are said to have paid children for their shed milk-teeth: these, and other articles belonging to infants, were believed to bring good luck in battle and so were strung around their necks. There is some evidence that trolls may have been blamed for toothache in Finland and Scandinavia.

It is clear that from a very early date there was a supernatural association with an infant’s first teeth.  This may have been related to the process of maturing and the child’s loss of dependence and innocence; the teeth themselves may have been believed to have carried with them some sort of spiritual power that could protect or be used for evil.  There was personal and social value in this.

The modern tooth fairy

The modern version of these traditions, in which a fairy rewards the infant, has been dated to the twentieth century. However, amongst the earliest references is an entry written by in the ‘Household Hints’ section of the Chicago Daily Tribune during 1908:

Tooth Fairy:  Many a refractory child will allow a loose tooth to be removed if he knows about the Tooth Fairy. If he takes his little tooth and puts it under the pillow when he goes to bed the Tooth Fairy will come in the night and take it away, and in its place will leave some little gift. It is a nice plan for mothers to visit the five cent counter and lay in a supply of articles to be used on such occasions.”

Earlier still, in 1902 American poet Amos Russel Wells (1862-1933) published a poem Tom’s tooth on the subject, indicating that there was already an association between fairies and teeth in North America by the close of the nineteenth century:

“The word went forth in Fairyland,
(From ugly fays, in sooth!)
“Young Tom’s had too much candy;
He needs an aching tooth!”

So Fever hurried from the south,
And from the west came Grumps,
And from the east came Puffy Face,
And from the north came Thumps.

They quickly spied a hollow tooth
(Where Tom had failed to brush);
They clapped their little, impish hands,
And made a silent rush.

They thumped the tooth, they banged the tooth,
The mocking, cruel crew;
They rasped the nerve, they ground the nerve,
They pierced it through and through.

From nine o’clock till twelve o’clock
They racked the groaning child,
Till Tom was “almost crazy,”
His mother, “fairly wild.”

At length between his moans and cries
Young Tom was heard to say,
“I’ll give my teeth less candy,
And brush them twice a day.”

Bang, bang! The impish fairy four
Each dealt a parting thwack,
Then off they flew, east, west, north, south,
And nevermore came back.”

What is the tooth fairy?

The fairy is generally conceived of as a small winged female being.  Its function appears to be to comfort a child for the pain and distress involved in the loss of teeth.  It may be clear to regular readers of this blog that this conjunction of ideas can only really have occurred in the nineteenth century when the tiny, winged, friendly fay had become well-established, and probably only in the USA where a variety of existing European traditions might meet each other and be mixed together.

It seems from research that children tend to realise that the tooth fairy is an imaginary being around the ages of five and seven years old.  This maturing attitude often affects belief in similar gift bearing beings like Santa Claus and the Easter bunny at the same time.  However the cultural and commercial forces that served to propagate the story during the last century also serve to perpetuate it as a pleasant childhood myth.

In other (south) European countries there seems to be a relatively recent story of a rodent (rat or mouse) exchanging milk teeth for money or some other gift.  World-wide, too, related ceremonies mark the loss of milk teeth.

Overall, the tooth fairy, and most particularly its very close association with children of a young age, demonstrates the way that fairy belief has been devalued and disarmed. These modern nursery fairies are wholly beneficent and friendly; they are to be welcomed, not feared; they are saccharine confections vastly removed from the original folk beliefs related to milk teeth and from the nature of traditional fairies.  Nonetheless, perhaps the tooth fairy deserves some sort of grudging respect from us for her ability to spread globally and her tenacious survival in the modern wold, where other fairy species have weakened and disappeared.

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Another delightful tooth fairy, from Colourbox.

 

‘Something in that witching face’- kelpies and mermaids

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Caffieri, ‘Young siren’

A long time ago, in an early posting on this blog, I discussed mermaids; I want now to return to the subject with some further reflections and information.

The little mermaid

Just like fairies, elves and pixies, it is very notable how the popular image of mermaids has improved and how they are coming to be regarded as wholly cute and attractive figures of myth.  The illustrations to this posting by Hector Caffieri demonstrate an early stage in this trend; perhaps the best known contemporary example might be Disney’s Ariel, the little mermaid.  In passing, it may be worthwhile making an additional observation on visual conventions.  The cartoon Ariel, for one, is sanitised and winsome.  Caffieri’s ‘Siren’ above is likewise a small girl, but it’s notable how the standard image has changed in the last century or so.  Today, the fish scales extend to the waist; in Victorian times (as can be seen) they often started somewhat lower, requiring a more discrete treatment (or perhaps a chance for a little titillation).

Today, mermaids are viewed wholly as figures suitable for children to like, draw and to imitate, with mermaid tails being a widely available form of fun beach wear.  It seems very likely that this more benign idea is derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story of The little mermaid.  The main character in this is presented as a model of Christian self sacrifice and goodness and has doubtless had a pervasive influence commensurate with the story’s popularity.  For modern generations, the aforementioned cartoon version of the story from Disney has profoundly influenced popular views of marine supernaturals since its release in 1989.  Other symptoms of these revised views of merfolk may be the 1984 film Splash starring Daryl Hannah and the very recent appearance of female entertainers playing mermaids for parties and corporate events.

Folklore mermaids

Whilst terrestrial fairies have been the subject of prettification and miniaturisation since the late sixteenth century,  this process has only been applied to mermaids during the last century and a half.  The consequence is that a great deal more of the older folklore attitudes survive, both in stories and in poetry.  Mermaids are still supernatural creatures deserving of awe, fear and mistrust.  Kindliness was never one of the mermaid’s traditional traits and it is still not how other supernatural water beasts are perceived.  In this respect, the dependable J K Rowling gives us a depiction more observant of folklore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (there called grindylows).  It may be easier for us to identify with and to find attractive qualities in a being that lives solely on land; mermaids live in a different element in which a human cannot survive and this important distinction may help to preserve their distance from us and our healthy respect for that difference.

caffieri-hector-1847-1932 a-young-siren

Caffieri,  ‘Siren’ (Bonhams)

It’s also inescapable that most mermaids are depicted as young, beautiful, naked women.  There’s probably a lot of psychology here if you’d like to find it.  This iconography may tell us about relations between men and women: the separation between elements may be a metaphor for the difference between the sexes.  It may equally just have something to say about sex more generally- that physical attraction is powerful, but dangerous; that we are entering a new and exposing environment when we entrust ourselves to another individual; that the lure of the strange and mysterious is strong but perilous.   As with all supernatural partners, love for mermaids is enticing but full of risk: what is placed in jeopardy may be long term happiness, your present way of living and connections or, even, life itself.

Irish poet Francis Hackett (1883-1962) captured many of the conventional traits of the mermaid in his poem Sea dawn:

“From Wicklow to the throb of dawn
I walked out to the sea alone
And by the black rocks came upon
A being from a world unknown.

As proud she sat as any queen
On high, and naked as the air:
Her limbs were lustrous, and a sheen
Of sea-gold flowed from her flowing hair.

And as the spreading sea did swell
With dawns strange and brimming light
Her little breasts arose and fell
As if in concord with the sight.

Faint was the sea sound that she made
Of little waves that melt in sand
While with her honey hair she played
And arched the mirror in her hand.”

This evocation of adolescent allure may well now trigger thoughts of the recent controversy concerning J. M. Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the nymphs and its temporary removal from the walls of Manchester City Art Gallery.  Both the picture and Hackett’s verse are of a piece and represent one powerful current of thought on mermaids and their nature.

Common mermaid themes

Across the world, there are several themes common to tales of merfolk.  The principal of these are as follows:

  • they can predict the future (see John Rhys, Celtic folklorethough very often this knowledge is dispensed in cryptic terms;
  • they can grant magical powers to those they favour (see for example The old man of Cury in Hunt’s Popular romances of the West of England);
  • they can punish those who offend them or who injure those whom they protect (see Hunt’s stories of the mermaid in Padstow Harbour and of The mermaid’s vengeance);
  • they can assume normal human form by magical means; and,
  • they can become involved in love affairs with mortals, whether that involves living for a while on land with the human or luring the human beneath the waves.  The outcomes are seldom good (see Matthew Arnold, The merman’s lament).

As is the case in contact with all supernatural beings, involvement with merfolk is generally risky and involves an imbalance of power.  Romantic attachments can be fatal whilst any information or ability gained from them is only obtained through coercion, whether that is bribery or physical force.

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An art nouveau mermaid or water sprite

Water monsters

To repeat, as with the improvement in the character of fairies, the changed perception of merfolk is a relatively recent amelioration.  Evidence of the earlier, much more dangerous, nature of these beings is still to be found in the Scottish accounts of water horses (associated with salt water), water bulls and other water beasts like kelpies, which are found in freshwater lochs.  Their main occupation, it seems, is seducing mortals and luring them to their doom.  James Hogg’s 1819 poem The mermaid is representative of this:  the Maid of the Crystal Wave lures a young man to ‘places he should not have been and sights he should not have seen’ and it proves to be his ruin.  Similarly in Charles Mackay’s 1851 ballad The Kelpie of Corryevreckan a handsome stranger on a horse rides off with love-struck Jessie, but then plunges beneath the waves with her, so that she is found drowned the next day.  Poet Joseph Rodman Drake in his verse, To a friend, described travellers being terrorised by “the kelpie’s fang.”

It is notable that whilst mermaids might accidentally drown their lovers, it is not generally their intention, whereas the character of the water beasts is specifically to seek out humans in order to destroy them.  In light of this, there is perhaps a case for excluding the latter from the category of ‘fairies.’ Mermaids are semi-human in form; the kelpie can take on human form whilst the water horses appear as animals alone and may be better described as monsters.

Lastly, what is particularly notable is the Highland Scottish link between water creatures and horses.  Exactly why this should have been made is far from clear, but it is to be found across Northern Europe in Scandinavian folklore, from Iceland through to Denmark.  It seems very likely that Viking settlement introduced this idea into the north of Scotland.

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J W Waterhouse, ‘Sketch for a mermaid’, 1892.

Further reading

As mentioned, I posted before on the risks of loving mermaids and water beasts and I have also discussed catching the fleeting and vulnerable asrai.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see my post on mermaid wisdom and my posting on Gwenhidw, the Welsh mermaid queen. See too my discussion of freshwater mere-maids and of of Charles’ Kingsley’s famous novel, The water babies.  

‘Come unto these yellow sands’- seaside fairies

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Thomas Maybank, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1906)

It is generally (perfectly correctly) our assumption that fairies and elves are beings of woodland and groves.  They may from time to time be found out on rough moorland (pixies and spriggans in the south west of England) or even in human homes and farm buildings (brownies) but we very rarely imagine them at the seaside.  This is mistaken; they have been sighted there and this post presents the scattered evidence for this.

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Richard Dadd, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1841)

Shakespearean fairies

Although in classical mythology the Nereids and Oceanids were marine nymphs, there is only a little traditional British material locating supernaturals on the seashore (for example, at Newlyn in Cornwall the bucca living on the strand had to be offered a share of the catch by fishermen hoping for success) and it is probably Shakespeare in The Tempest who first created the association in the popular mind.  In Act 1 scene 2, Ariel famously sings:

“Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark, hark!”

Here we have the conventional fairy circle dance transposed from a glade or meadow, where a fairy ring springs up, to the strand-a novelty that appears to be almost entirely the playwright’s invention.  Milton seems to have imitated this scene in Comus: “And on the Tawny Sands and Shelves, Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves” (lines 117-118).  Without doubt, Shakespeare’s song has provided inspiration to painters ever since, as is illustrated here, and it seems to have created a lasting acceptance that fairies might quite properly be encountered so far from their normal haunts.  Scenes from The Tempest and, of course, Midsummer Night’s Dream were standard fare for Victorian fairy artists, but also we find seashore sprites unconnected with these famous plays.

Yellowsands_Huskisson
Robert Huskisson, ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’ (1847)

Victorian fairies

From the early nineteenth century we have the painting Fairies on the seashore by Henry Howard (see below).  What exactly this tropical scene illustrates is uncertain; it may be his own idea, it may be drawn from literature: Ann Radcliffe in The mysteries of Udolpho (1794) wrote some lines about a sea nymph, who sings:

“Where e’er ye are who love my lay/ Come when red sunset tints the wave,

To the still sands, where fairies play,/ There in cool seas, I love to lave.”

Around the same time Elizabeth Landon wrote an entire poem entitled Fairies on the seashore, which features flower, rainbow and music fairies as well as a sea fairy riding in a nautilus shell in the moonlight.

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Yeats and the seaside sidhe

In the late nineteenth century it seems likely that W. B. Yeats drew upon native Irish tradition, rather than any English literary or artistic works, when in 1889 he wrote his famous poem The stolen child.  It is voiced by fairies who are abducting a human infant- they tempt the child to accompany them to where:

“the moon glosses/ The dim grey sands with light/ Far off by furthest Rosses/ We foot it all the night,/ Weaving olden dances.”

The scene is Rosses Sands in County Sligo, a place known as a “great fairy locality” according to Yeats himself.  It would be easy enough to assume that these lines were simply the work of a great poetic imagination, but this would be mistaken.  Yeats, like his friends William Russell (AE) and Ella Young, actually met fairies. In his collected letters he tells of an encounter at the Rosses that took place about the time that the verse was composed, when he met and conversed with the queen of fairy and her troop.  In this respect, Yeats prefigures our last evidence by several decades.

fairies on sea shore henry howard

Seashore fairies, Henry Howard (1769-1847)

Fays on holiday?

Finally, in the twentieth century, we have actual sightings of fairies on the beach recorded, incidents which appear to exactly replicate Thomas Maybank’s 1906 version of Ariel’s song (rather than Margaret Tarrant’s more Peter Pan-ish and homely image).  In July 1921 Geoffrey Hodson saw some “queer little elf-like forms” playing on the beach at Blackpool.  They had elfish faces, large heads and ears, little round bodies, short thin legs with webbed feet and were three to six inches tall.  They played amongst the seaweed and stones, but did not go in the water; they seemed unconcerned by the presence of human holidaymakers (Fairies at work and playchapter 1).  In Conan Doyle’s Coming of the fairies, published in the same year, he reproduced an account by Mrs Ethel Wilson of Worthing of seeing fairies on the beach on sunny days: they were like little dolls with beautiful bright hair, she told him.  Unlike Hodson’s elves, these beings played in the sea and rode on the waves, constantly moving and dancing about.  These are fascinating sightings, though it is inescapable that the fays seem to have travelled to the coast very much in tandem with British day-trippers.

Much more recent sightings have confirmed that this link persists, rare as it is.  A Mrs Clara Reed was on holiday at Looe in Cornwall in 1943 when she saw a sea fairy, dressed in a skirt of shells with a bodice of seaweed and shells round her neck.  She spoke with the fairy at the water’s edge, and was told the future: that her sick husband would not die.  A flying fairy being was also seen hovering on the beach in British Columbia during the 1970s (Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.125; Fairy Census no.194).

To conclude, the evidence is patchy and much of it is from literature rather than folklore, but the indication is that fairies might be found in any natural scene, from the sea shore to the mountain top.  If we conceive of them as nature spirits, this would of course be exactly what we would expect.

Further reading

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

Review- ‘Folk’ by Zoe Gilbert

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As soon as I saw the cover of this new book, I knew I wanted to read it.  The gothic William Morris design in bold red, black and yellow grabbed my eye and convinced me, even before I’d picked it up, that it would be of interest.

I was right.  The story concerns the fictional island of Neverness and the small community living there.  Told in a succession of brief episodes that gradually intertwine and- it becomes apparent- stretch out over decades, the novel has a strange aura of mystery and magic, yet these are at the same time deeply incorporated into the everyday lives of the island dwellers.

It’s not exactly a fairy story nor is it about fairies, but there is a supernatural presence throughout.  There’s a witch, talk of changelings, a shadowy ‘Gorse Mother’ lurking deep in the thickets, there are hallucinatory drugs and there’s a ‘water bull,’ the scary and dangerous taroo-ushtey of the Isle of Man and tarbh uisge of Highland Scotland.  This supernatural water creature seduces and carries off one of the local girls.  His love is intoxicating, irresistible- and fatal.

The story is beautifully told, fast paced and enjoyable.  Worth a read.

See a list of my own faery titles, here.

 

When to meet the fays: the best days and times

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Folk tradition is insistent upon the fact that there are certain days when fairies are more likely to be abroad in the world.  We can be certain, then, that there are more auspicious days in the week for seeing our good neighbours- the practical problem for us is the absence of consensus over which days.

The best days

The earliest account we have is from Wales, written by Richard Penry in his polemic The aequity of a humble supplication in 1587.  He asserts that certain soothsayers and enchanters claim “to walk on Tuesday and Thursday at night with the fairies, of which they brag themselves to have their knowledge.” In 1880, Wirt Sikes published British goblins, an account of fairy belief in Victorian Wales.  He identified Friday as the fairies’ day in South Wales, “when they have special command over the weather, and it is their whim to make the weather on Friday differ from that of other days of the week.” (p.268; see too Edmund Jones, The appearance of evilpara.116)  This may of course just be the nature of British weather and not evidence of any supernatural intervention….

In Scotland Friday was also identified as the day when misfortune was in the air and fairies roamed the human world.  To speak of them could attract them, as Sir Walter Scott described in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Bordersso that a highlander:

“Will on a Friday morn look pale,/ If asked to tell a fairy tale.” (Scott, Marmion, Introduction to Canto IV)

In fact, so great was the fear engendered by the superstition, that even naming the day was to be avoided.  Accordingly, Fridays were only mentioned as “the day of yonder town.”  By way of contrast, it was believed that the fairy folk could do no harm on Thursdays.

From Ireland comes evidence to confuse us if we believed some sort of pattern had been emerging from ourevidence.  One Irish researcher was told to avoid mention of the fairies on Mondays (Leland Duncan, writing of Leitrim in Folklore, vol.7, p.174).  Lady Wilde, though, was advised not to mention the sidhe folk on Wednesdays and Fridays (Ancient legends of Ireland, p.72), with the latter day being especially perilous.

There is a lot less evidence for England, but the Denham Tractsa collection of folklore for Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, record that Wednesday is “the fairies’ Sabbath or holiday.” (pp.86 & 115)

So, there we are: be on your guard on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and/ or Friday, but most especially on the latter day.  We might add that, on Shetland at least, Saturdays were also regarded as unfavourable as this was the day when the trows emerged and entered people’s homes.  It is probably understandable why Sundays are not ‘fairy days’ given the prevalent modern idea of an antipathy between Christian faith and Faery (see my recent post).  As for the fairies’ preference for Fridays, as Wirt Sikes observed, it was traditionally believed to be the day of the crucifixion by the church and so was a day thought to be subject to malign influences.

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Margaret Tarrant, The enchantress

The best times

“the fairy hour, the twilight shade of evening” (Ann Radcliffe, Athlin)

Not only did the fairies have favourite days on which to venture forth, they also favoured certain times of day.  Examined on suspicion of witchcraft in August 1566, Dorset healer John Walsh admitted that he had made contact with the local pixies, visiting the hills in which they dwelled “between the houres of twelve and one noon or at midnight.”  The Reverend Edmund Jones’ account of the fairy beliefs he had found in Aberystruth parish in Gwent in the 1770s echoed Walsh- to some extent.  The fairies had been encountered by parishioners at all hours of the night and day, but more at night than in the daytime and more in the morning and evening than at noon (p.69).  As I have described before, the link between fairies and the night time is especially strong and well established, invoking as it does our fear of the dark as well as more benign images of fays skipping in rings by moonlight (see my post on night-time and the fairies and my British fairies c.17).

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Margaret Tarrant, Twilight fairy

Further reading

See too my companion post on the best fairy festivals and seasons.  An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.