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.

More Flaming Faeries…

Arthur Hughes, Jack o’ Lantern, 1872

Following up my April posting on faes that look like ‘Wheels on Fire,’ I’ve recently been researching the faerylore of the Channel Islands, and have come across some more strange manifestations of faery-kind.

The Guernsey phenomenon called le faeu boulanger (the rolling fire, but literally the ‘baker’s fire’) is something like a will of the wisp, but yet has its own unique features. Like the will, le faeu can indicate where treasure is buried, but islanders also say that it’s a spirit in pain, always wandering and seeking a delivery from its plight through suicide. It’s surprising to us, perhaps, to think of a supernatural desiring mortality– or even being able to kill itself- but the evidence confirms that this seems to be the case. If a knife is left with its haft stuck in the ground and the blade pointing up, le faeu will attack it and plunge itself repeatedly onto the blade, leaving drops of blood in the morning.

Behaving more like a will of the wisp, le faeu will pursue people, and the only solution then is to turn your coat (just as when you’re being pixy-led). One evening during the 1920s a man called Le Sauvage was walking home one night when he- and the lane along which he was passing- were bathed in a strange red glow. He then saw a ball of fire bounding across a field towards him. Despite the shock, he tore off his cap, pulled it inside out and jammed it on again. The fire vanished, as did the pervading glow. Le Sauvage then staggered home, but was so shocked that he could barely stir from a chair for the next twenty four hours.

In the late 1960s or early ’70s a man encountered an oval ball of light at Piemont on Guernsey. It was a couple of metres ahead of him and floating about 30cms off the ground. He was terrified and felt trapped, but discovered that if he took one step forward, the ball retreated by the same amount. He was able, very slowly therefore, to make his way towards his home until the light vanished. Other sightings of le faeu were also reported in the early 1970s, two on the beach and another in a field.

On the island of Jersey there is a related apparition, called the Wotho. This is a round ball, about 45cms in diameter. One man who saw it described how it rolled backwards and forwards in the road at his feet, stopping him advancing. This account puts me in mind of an experience relayed by the Reverend Edmund Jones in his book, A Relation of the Appartion of Spirits in the County of Monmouth (1813). Jones described an incident that occurred in the parish of Bedwas (pages 39-40):

“Mr Henry Llewellyn, having been sent by me… to fetch a load of Books… and coming home by night, towards Mynydduslwyn, having just passed by Clwyd yr Helygen ale-house, and being in dry, fair part of the lane, the Mare which he rode stood still, and would go no farther, but drew backward ; and presently he could see a living thing
round like a bowl, rolling from the right hand to the left, crossing the lane, moving sometimes slow, and sometimes very swift, swifter than a bird could fly, though it had neither wings nor feet ; altering also its size : it appeared three times, lesser one time than another; it appeared least when near him, and seemed to roll towards the Mare’s belly. The Mare then would go forward, but he stopped her to see more carefully what it was. He stayed, as he thought, about three minutes, to look at it ; but fearing to see a worse sight, thought it time to speak to it, and said, “What seekest thou, thou foul thing? In the Name of the Lord Jesus go away!” and, by speaking this it vanished, as if it sunk in the ground near the Mare’s feet. It appeared to be of a reddish colour with a mixture of an ash colour.”

These are very odd accounts indeed, but they remind us to be much more open to experiences than we are perhaps conditioned to be by the conventional preconception of the fairy as a tiny, winged female. Readers may also recall similar sightings reported in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies (2014). During the early 1940s a woman on a country walk in Kent saw a furry tennis ball rolling up a slope towards her. It briefly opened when it drew close to where she was sitting to reveal a pixie within- and then disappeared. Another woman, visiting Cornwall in the 1930s, saw a pisky who changed into “a long furry black roll, which gambolled about on the grass and then disappeared.”

Two other anomalous descriptions from Seeing Fairies are worth citing, just to confirm the very wide and unpredictable range of forms that supernatural beings may assume. As a child, a Miss Rosalie Fry lived at Glydach outside Swansea. Playing with her sister inside the house one day, they both saw “something they could only describe as being like a piece of the finest white chiffon, about eighteen inches square, [that] floated very slowly down into view… moving in an extraordinarily graceful, flowing manner and then, as slowly, wafted away up out of sight” and vanished. Johnson herself, along with her sister, had a similar experience in at home in Nottingham in 1971. In the street outside their house they saw what seemed to be “several white crinkled paper balls, but which, if viewed from the right angle, could have been wide, frilly dresses or tutus worn by tiny beings.” For some time they rolled and walked and danced in the road. A man walking his dog passed by, oblivious to the shapes (although his dog was not). After a while, the curious assembly vanished.

As I’ve said before, Faery can be a lot more mysterious than we allow ourselves to imagine…

Richard Doyle, A Poacher Encountering a Will of the Wisp, 1845

Further reading

The Channel Island accounts are from Marie de Garis, Folklore of Guernsey, 1975, and John L’Amy, Jersey Folklore, 1927. See also Johnson, Seeing Fairies, 2014, pages 28 and 236. The Fairy Census 2017 is also a very good source of unexpected faery forms.

Children’s encounters with faeries- folklore & art

time
Postcard, by Agnes Richardson

It’s frequently said that children are especially able to see the fairies- perhaps because of their innate innocence, perhaps because they are endowed with a sort of second sight and so are open to wonder and magic and are not closed off mentally by rationality and ‘good sense,’ as adults can be.

Children’s Second Sight

The folklore evidence as to the existence of special powers in children is equivocal.  The sheer number of accounts that could be analysed mean that a statistical test of this is impractical, so I rely on my anecdotal impression of all the reports I’ve read to say that there’s no special bias towards infants: any one of any age and any sex is liable to see the Good Folk, it seems from the folk stories.  However, we can be a bit more scientific about the more recent reports.  Consolidating the cases of sightings from the Fairy Census  and from Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies,  it’s possible to say that around a third of witnesses were children.  Of these, about 80% were girls.

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Margaret Tarrant, Fairy Secrets

girl with fairies, rabbits, and cupid  vintage postcard by Agnes Richardson

What do the above statistics tell us?  Well, for developed countries, the proportion of children seems high.  In the UK, those under 18 make up about 21% of the population; in the USA it’s 24%, whilst 14% of the German population are 17 and under.  It seems, then, that children are indeed now slightly more likely to experience a fairy encounter; and girls are obviously significantly more likely.  Whether this is reflective of genuine differences, or of a sexist tendency for it to be acceptable for female children to express such ideas, and for boys not to do so, is much less clear.

fairy parachutes

Acquiring Second Sight

On the whole, though, age appears to be much less a factor in seeing fairies than other influences.  Doubtless a pre-existing predisposition to belief- even an expectation that a fairy might be seen- must help.  In earlier generations, other explanations for being able to see supernaturals were advanced.  For example, those born on a Sunday were said to be more prone to second sight (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.81); others said that it was those born early in the morning who acquired the gift (Spence, British Fairy Tradition, p.160).  Some people might be genetically more likely to have these experiences; others may acquire the second sight as a gift from the fairies.Browse all of the Margaret Tarrant Fairies photos, GIFs and videos. Find just what you're looking for on Photobucket

by Margaret Tarrant (1888 - 1950) Little girl playing the flute with fairies and pixies.

The fact seems to be that some people are lucky enough to have the second sight and the majority of others are not.  The ability does not discriminate by any physical factors.  For example, Martin Martin, touring the Hebridean islands in the eighteenth century, reported the local belief that not only children, but horses and cows as well, were all believed to be endowed with the ability to see the sith folk

The Brownie's Dream - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Brownie’s dream

MARGARET TARRANT The Magic Pool Original Vintage Children's Print 1927 - 87 year old - Matted - Ready to Frame
Tarrant, Girls and fairies at magic pool

The differential nature of the gift is demonstrated very well in an account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland.   In 1937 an old woman told a folklorist how, as a small girl, she had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field.  The little girl was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing.  Very possibly, however, if the mother had held her daughter’s hand, she would have seen the Good Folk- it’s very common for the sight to be easily transferred by contact in this manner.

Margaret Tarrant, On Primrose Hill
Tarrant, On Primrose Hill

Sightings by Children

Now, to turn to my illustrations, which are largely taken from postcards and books of the 1920s and 1930s.  What will be apparent instantly is that the authors and artists of this period were quite blase about the experience of contact with the faes.  Although, as I have explained several times in previous postings, people (especially children) are very vulnerable to abduction, you might know nothing of this danger from these pictures.  Instead, it’s all rather charming and lovely.  Kids- and in particular girls- are encouraged to hope for these encounters and to plunge into them without hesitation.

The Elfin Band - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Elfin Band

Suggesting to anyone, especially guileless infants, that a free and easy approach to fairy contact is advisable seems- in light of all the folklore evidence- to be extremely unwise, even reckless.  Clearly, by the interwar period, the fairies had been reduced in the minds of many to harmless and probably unreal little beings- just perfect for amusing little girls.  Margaret Tarrant- presumably in a play upon the name of the junior girl guiding organisation, the Brownies, and the domestic fairies of British tradition, also called brownies– seems to actively promote contact as a harmless pastime for young Guides. The human Brownies were so-called (I assume) because they were encouraged and expected to undertake lots of little household chores for mother (just like their supernatural counterparts); the risk is, of course, that they’ll be kidnapped and made into slaves for the fairies.

The Brownie's Clock by Margaret Winifred Tarrant
Tarrant, Brownie’s clock

There’s seldom a hint in all these images that any wariness is required.  A few suggest a hesitation on the child’s part, or a sensible inclination to spy from a place of concealment, but most of the subjects make no attempt to protect themselves, or appear to experience any apprehension.  All I can say is- you have been warned….

Nearly There - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Nearly there

Queen of the Brownies by Margaret Tarrant. Margaret Winifred Tarrant was an English illustrator specializing in depictions of fairy-like children and religious subjects. She began her career at the age of 20, and painted and published into the early 1950s. Wikipedia
Tarrant, Queen of the Brownies

Last thoughts

The fairy themed children’s books and postcards that were so abundant during the interwar period enriched our visual culture immensely- I’m thinking especially of the work of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and their flower fairy illustrations but, as this post shows, many other artists were active during those decades as well.

However, these artists showed little awareness of or respect for British folk tradition and the fairies they promoted to the card buying public were almost exclusively sweet and harmless.  Nevertheless, others (such as Marjorie Johnson) maintained actual contact with Faery and, as some of the recent encounters in the Fairy Census demonstrate, the Good Folk are still temperamental and potentially perilous.

For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century and also follow the links to earlier posts in the text and see too chapter 12 of my book Faery.

adorable Margaret Tarrant picture. I loved Margaret Tarrant books when I was young! Wish I'd kept them!
Tarrant, Angelina in the garden

Florence Choate

I wonder where Angelina is? - Counted cross stitch pattern in PDF format by Maxispatterns on Etsy
Hilda Cowham, I wonder where Angelina is?

Fairy Playdate Greeting Card
A ‘Fairy Playdate’ invitation card by Dorothy Wheeler

Fairy home. Dorothy Wheeler I had never seen this but she is just like my shining face in the tree
Fairy Home by Dorothy Wheeler

Vintage
‘The Fairy Queen’ from the ABC Book

Muriel Dawson

Beatrice Goldsmith (1895-1947), "Little Girl with Fairy"
Beatrice Goldsmith, Little Girl with Fairy

1940s Vintage Fairies by Helen Jacobs
A fairy abduction, by Helen Jacobs

"A Moonlight Party" F. Harrison (Artist), The Story Hour Book , Blackie and Son Circa 1922
Florence Harrison, A Moonlight Party

In the Fairy Ring, frontispiece by HARRISON, Florence Susan - Jonkers Rare Books
Florence Harrison, In the Fairy Ring

Florence Harrison / Elfin Song
Florence Harrison, Elfin Song

Susan Beatrice Pearse (British, 1878–1980), "A Girl Meets the Fairies"
Susan Beatrice Pearce, A girl meets the fairies

Fairies and bees

Carse, bees

Duncan Carse

There is some strange connection between the faes and bees which, rather like their associations with the cuckoo, are now no longer as clear to us as once may have been the case.

The Voice of the Beehive

There is certainly a similarity in terms of appearance and sound between honey bees and faeries.  For example, a man on Arran was out cutting bracken one day when the fairy host flew over him.  He reported that he saw “something like a swarm of bees,” into which he threw his reaping hook.  The iron tool caused the faes to drop his wife, whom they had abducted, leaving a ‘stock’ behind in her bed.

This comparison to a flock of small creatures is common in eye-witness reports.  A man at Benbecula in the Hebrides heard the sluagh go over- it sounded to him ‘like a flock of plovers.’  A man living near Harrogate once got up early to hoe his turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green.  As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled like flocks of partridges.  In another Yorkshire report from Ilkley, fairies surprised whilst bathing in the spa there made a noise “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” when disturbed by the caretaker.

The noise of the fairies, as well as their appearance, might resemble that of a hive of bees.  John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass) on the Wiltshire downs and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion on their dancing and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  A fairy host described on the Isle of Man sounded first like humming bees, then like a waterfall and lastly like a marching and murmuring crowd as they drew progressively nearer to the witness. (Sophia Morrison, Manx Fairy Tales, ‘Billy Beg, Tom Beg & the Fairies.)

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Florence Anderson, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’

Bee-like Faes

Modern sightings have often compared fairies to insects (though admittedly butterflies, moths and dragonflies rather than bees) but ‘buzzing’ is a term used to describe their motion.  One woman in Florida saw a fairy riding a bee (for example Fairy Census no.s 5, 5A, 320, 400, 417, 475 & 251).  The weirdest sighting comes from Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies:  a woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described meeting a female cliff-dwelling pixie, who was about two feet in height and was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, very much resembling a bumblebee (p.53).

Returning to the Manx faes, another traditional belief was that ‘bumbees’ are actually misbehaving fairies who have been turned into insects as a punishment by others in their community.  In Ireland, in the 1850s, a folklore collector was told that bees are fairies, who are in turn the souls of those deceased, a notion that connects us back to the longstanding ties between fairyland and the land of the dead.  The identity between fairies and bees is attested from Wales, too.  In British Goblins Wirt Sikes describes how those trying to destroy ancient megalithic monuments would face supernatural opposition, amongst which might be “swarms of bees, which are supposed to be fairies in disguise.”  (Notes & Queries, vol.10, 1854, p.500; Sikes p.383)

Lastly, mention ought to be made of the spirit called Browney, a Cornish fairy whom you’ll find listed by Katherine Briggs amongst others.  Simon Young (of the Fairy Investigation Society) has written an article, Against Taxonomy: The Fairy Families of Cornwall, which argues quite convincingly that this sprite- who was allegedly summoned to settle a swarm- was the product of confusion and misremembered stories, and never existed at all.

Further Reading

The fairy associations with moths is the subject of an earlier posting on this blog.  The fae ability to fly is also related to this, as is the existence (or not) of fairy wings. For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021).

hester margetson

Natural World

Gnomes and gardens

tomte

‘Midsummer tomte’ from The Midsummer Tomte & the Little Rabbits by Ulf Stark & Eva Eriksson

Introduction

I’m going to start controversially.  The theme of this post is gnomes, but the fact is that gnomes don’t exist.  The word ‘gnome’ was made up by the sixteenth century German physician Paracelsus to describe a concept of his own invention, an earth dwelling nature spirit.  It wasn’t quite like the dwarves or kobolds of his native Germanic folklore and it isn’t really related to anything in the folklore of the British Isles either. A substitute term from English might be ‘goblin’ or (even better) the word ‘mannikin’ which was adopted by Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s.

Who’s a gnome?

Arguments about terminology aside, its very clear that people see gnome-like beings all the time and that they are closely tied to nature.  The book Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and the Fairy Census 2017 are both full of sightings which give us a very good idea of their appearance and habits.

I should start with a word of warning.  Some of the modern accounts give rise to a suspicion that preconceptions about the appearance and conduct of gnomes, derived from literature and popular art, have shaped people’s perception of what they witnessed.  For example, a mother’s toddler saw a “funny little man” in their Nottinghamshire garden; she questioned him as to what exactly he had seen and he gave “a fair description with what she associated with a dwarf or gnome.”  What the very young infant experienced is channelled through an adult’s interpretation, therefore (Johnson p.17).  The mother, and possibly the child too, will have had their vision pre-formed by Enid Blyton, Walt Disney and other such powerful influences.  In another instance, the figures seen wore “the recognised garb of gnomes”- as if there is some sort of supernatural uniform (Johnson p.185).

At the same time, though, many people struggle to label what they have witnessed, so that I have sorted out the accounts on the basis of my own prejudices applied to their descriptions and perhaps included some examples that were not gnomic.  Some of the beings sighted were called ‘gnomes,’ in one case the witness wasn’t sure whether to best call them gnomes or brownies and a few people resorted to Hodson’s term ‘mannikin’ (Johnson pp.45, 169 & 177).

froud gnome

Brian Froud, a gnome

What’s a gnome?

Whilst we may have doubts about classification, we can be rather more definite in describing the ‘typical’ gnome.  They are likely to be seen wearing jackets and trousers, very often hats and boots.  The clothes are predominantly green, though often brown.  Red is sometimes seen and a variety of other colours have been reported from time to time: grey, blue, yellow and even mauve.  As we might anticipate, gnomes’ hats are very frequently pointed and most commonly red.  Green brown, yellow and blue headgear have also been seen and hats may also resemble mushrooms and acorns or be broad brimmed or peaked.

Gnomes don’t tend to be tall.  About half of those sighted were under twelve inches in height; roughly equal numbers measured between twelve and eighteen inches high, between eighteen and twenty-four inches and taller than that, up to about five feet high in just two examples.  Beards were quite frequently reported; white hair or aged features were not uncommon.

Given the total number of cases recorded in the Census, Seeing fairies and a few other sources I used, gnomes don’t seem to constitute a large part of the fairy population.  They represent about 13% of the total sightings.

To summarise this information so far: gnomes look like gnomes.  They tend to be small, bearded, in tall pointy caps.  One witness in Liverpool saw a little being “of the tubby sort;” two others described what they saw as being like ‘traditional gnomes.’  I assume once again that they are comparing the creatures seen to an image of an ‘archetypal gnome’ that they held in their imaginations (Johnson pp.323, 172 & 261).

Given their habitual association with gardens and greenery, we have to add that gnomes may well smell distinctively of loam and damp vegetation.  Witnesses in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies report gnomes with “an odour like fungus” or a “strange earthy smell;” there seems to be a particular association with mushrooms and fungus.  (Johnson pp.33, 36 & 186)

Garden gnomes

Where were gnomes seen?  This analysis is actually far more interesting than the information on appearance, which in the main is quite stereotypical.  Surprisingly, 37% of the beings labelled as gnomes by those who saw them were seen inside houses.  That means that the majority, 67%, were seen outside (as we might expect), but the locations varied.  Not quite half the gnomes were seen in gardens, but they were also spotted in woods (some even apparently living in trees), in open grassy areas and, in three cases, walking along a road.

Gnomish deeds

What were these gnomes up to?  Many did fit with our conventional view of gnomes as gardeners and cultivators.  They have been seen busily engaged in a range of garden tasks, including working with green beans in a vegetable patch, tending fruit and flowers- both outside and in greenhouses and the like- sawing and chopping wood, moving plants around and carrying horticultural implements like wheelbarrows, baskets, buckets, brooms, forks, rakes and spades.  For example, in 1940 a Mrs Small living in Nottingham had accidentally pruned away the main shoots of some tomatoes.  She saw some gnomes, who were about twelve inches high, looking very concerned about the condition of the plants.  A little later they came to her carrying a basket filled with green tomatoes and conveyed to her (without words) that she should put them to ripen in a dark place.  The same witness also saw a gnome in her garden looking very cross about a piece of rope tied around a tree: it seems that gnomes may be quite possessive about the places they live, or at least have very clear ideas about good and bad horticulture.

The gnomes don’t always need tools to do their work of cultivation and propagation.  In one instance that took place at Stapleford in Nottinghamshire, a woman was struggling to weed and hoe a very parched patch of earth.  She spotted a gnome watching her with amusement and, when she challenged him for laughing at her instead of lending a hand, he dived beneath the ground surface and very quickly turned over the soil.  Gnomes have also been seen in gardens acting as general ‘protectors’ to the plants, for example guiding people towards the best times to pick plants.

Other gnomes are just as busy, but with more general tasks.  A couple were seen carrying a heavy bundle; in another encounter, that took place in a snowy Devon lane, a car driver saw six little figures, about eight inches high, transporting a ladder along the road.  His appearance led to a hurried scramble to haul the ladder through the hedge and out of sight.  Cobbler gnomes in leather aprons and carrying their tools and materials were met by one person.  Some gnomes are seen just taking their leisure: in one instance they were dancing, in another doing gymnastics; in a third sighting about a dozen were witnessed racing tiny ponies and traps around a field in rural Derbyshire.

Homely gnomes

The domestic gnomes are possibly the most surprising: they are quite at home in human houses (and flats)- sitting on the stove, for example, and they seem particularly fascinated by machinery such as sewing machines.  One gnome encountered by Geoffrey Hodson quite reasonably spent the summer in his garden in Letchworth, but moved inside the house as winter came on.

Conclusions

We end with a conundrum, then.  Our ancestors would not have seen gnomes, because they had never heard of them.  They might very well have seen goblins, imps, and even dwarves (duergars) in the North-East of England and the Scottish Borders; they might very well have seen fairies and elves hard at work in their vegetable patches, but it seems to have been a far more recent development that these sightings came to be labelled using Paracelsus’ invented term.  This received widespread diffusion through the Theosophists and related groups from the late nineteenth century onwards and the word has become embedded in our language- very possibly because it met a need and provided a convenient term to describe a class of supernatural beings.

jultomte-JN2

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

“That strange tongue”- fairy names and speech

blake-puck

Sir Peter BlakePuck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth & Mustardseed, 1984

I’ve discussed fairy language and fairy names several times before, but in this posting I want to return again to the theme, considering specifically whether or not it may be possible to learn something more about fairy speech by a study of fairy names.

Of course, most traditional fairies are anonymous- they guard their names from a humans as a source of power.  The spinning stories in which a fairy’s name has to be guessed (Rumpelstiltskin, Perrifool etc) are examples which demonstrate magical conservation of a name combined with a fascinating sample of fairy names.

NB: I take the title of this post from a line in Thomas Randolph’s play, Amyntas, of around 1632.  In Act III character Dorylas instructs his “Bevy of Fairies” to “sing here a Fairy catch/ In that strange tongue I taught you.”  The ditty that follows is “Nos beata fauni proles” (We, happy children of fauns); evidently Latin is a fairy language (for more on which, see later).

Language

The manner in which fairies will be named will, of course, reflect the language they habitually use (unless, of course, fairy speech is preserved for use between themselves, and for their names, whilst they stick to our tongue with us).  Some new examples from the Isle of Man give us a bit more insight into this area.

It appears that, a lot of the time at least, the Manx fairies spoke Manx, what the native islanders called Gaelg. A few accounts recorded in the collection Yn Lioar Manninagh confirm that the fairies were heard conversing in “yallick.”  This seems to have been taken rather for granted, but all the same there are other reports in which they are said to speak “a foreign tongue.”  They may sometimes be overheard talking together at night, but they cannot be understood.

Manx folklore expert Charles Roeder, in his book Skeealyn Cheeil Chiolee (Manx Folk Tales), 1913, reported this theory about their speech:

“I have not heard anything about the fairies this long time.  There is no-one hearing them but the woman in the little shop.  She heard them at midnight one winter night in an elder tree, speaking a language she couldn’t understand.  As she drew near, they whispered in her ear- but she couldn’t understand.  Perhaps they were foreign fairies, visiting the Isle of Man, for in old tales the fairies speak Manx.  The Manx fairies have gone, or they have changed their language- like the people. Perhaps the fairies couldn’t understand English so they changed their language out of spite: they can be spiteful when offended.” (para.2)

Another witness suggested to him: “perhaps this [unknown] language is the language of fairyland, but whether that’s above or below earth no-one can tell.” (para.3)

Fairies may be bilingual in human languages too, it seems.  In 1910 two boys on the isle of Muck in the Hebrides met two tiny green boys on the beach.   These fairies spoke to them in both Gaelic and English.  We could speculate at length whether either was their native language or whether they had mastered both simply for the convenience of talking to the local humans.  The fairies informed the boys that they would be leaving the island for good soon, but that other fairies would be arriving.  We might therefore even go as far as to suggest that the fays next ‘posting’ was in an English speaking area, hence their skill.

peaseblossom

Names

In the catalogue of recorded fairy names, what’s fictional and fanciful is entangled and entwined with what’s derived from tradition and personal encounters. It’s very hard to separate out the jokey, made-up names, the ones that are modelled on classical Greek or Roman or Biblical sources, the everyday human names and those few that are left that don’t sound like anything familiar at all- and so, perhaps, are the most authentic.

The classical type of name was especially popular in Renaissance times.  Reginald Scot mentions three fairy sisters, Milia, Archilia and Sibylia, who might assist magicians in their conjuring.  His near contemporary William Lilly one time tried to conjure the queen of fairies, whom he called Micol and which sounds very like Hebrew.

From Stornoway on Shetland we hear a number of Gaelic names, many of which seem to be nicknames or perhaps names used to avoid saying the fay’s true name: there are Deocan nam Beann (milkwort), Popar, Peulagan and Conachay (little conch).  The trows of the northern isles have a variety of names, some of which retain hints of Viking Norse whilst others just sound like nicknames: Gimp, Kork, Tring, Tivla, Fivla, Hornjultie, Peester-a-leeti, Skoodern Humpi, Bannock Feet and Hempie the Ferry-louper.  On the Isle of Man we hear of a fairy king called (prosaically) Philip and his queen, Bahee, which is at least exotic enough to sound more authentic.

Meaning maybe hidden in names which are not English.  There is a group of Welsh fays, especially connected with weaving and spinning, whose names are alliterative but may imply more than that.  These include Sili Ffrit, Sili Go Dwt, Trwtyn Tratyn, Gwarwyn a Throt and Jili Ffrwtan.  The last is a well known amorous fairy: her first name seems to be just another representation of the sili (shili) of the first two names; ffrwtan, as you may guess, appears to be related to the word ‘fruit’ though ffrwtian means ‘spluttering.’  Sili may be derived from the word sil meaning spawn or small fry and so denotes something tiny- possibly very apt for a fay.  Professor John Rhys suggested that the “throt” name relates to similar spinning fairies elsewhere in Britain like Tom Tit Tot and Habetrot.  Equally likely, they may all just be nonsense names, chosen for their pleasing sounds.  What we can say with greater certainty is that they’re going to be names applied by humans to the tylwyth teg rather than chosen by the fays themselves.

The prettification of fays that has set in since the Mustardseed and Peaseblossom of Shakespeare has also given us the Moonbeam and Dewdrop mentioned in Bowker’s Goblin Tales; similar whimsy and a sense of harmony are produced by Modilla and Podilla, the names of pixies encountered at Brent on Dartmoor (Crossing, Tales of Dartmoor Pixies, 1890).

Spiritualist Daphne Charters met a vast number of nature spirits, amongst whom were Normus, Gorgus, Myrris, Movus, Mirilla, Namsos, Sirilla, Nuvic, Nixus, Lyssis, Tanchon and Persion.  She also encountered two Chinese fairies who rejoiced in the fairly un-Oriental names of Perima and Sulac.  Her great friend and supporter, Air Chief Marshall Dowding, was puzzled by the Latin sounding names of many of these fays, but are much thought concluded that the simple explanation was this: that the Romans had adopted fairy names, not the other way around!  Given what we saw in the play Amyntas earlier, we might conclude that the Air Chief Marshall knew what he was talking about…

Our newest evidence comes from the recently completed Fairy Census.  The names recorded by witnesses are, like those in Marjorie Johnson’s book, Seeing fairies (see my earlier post on Fairy Names), a mix of the conventional and bizarre.  Faeries variously identified themselves as Effeny, Sylvizz, La Belle Courtland, Goldenrod, Zee and Specia (Census numbers 117, 244, 307, 326, 383 and 438).  Two beings, which were either gnomes or brownies, were called Snodgrass and Grosswart (no.164).

We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the traditional, to the mildly exotic.  What emerges seems to be a mixture of classical inherited names, conventional contemporary names and some which might be dismissed as made up or might alternatively be thought of as examples of genuine fairy appellations.  It’s a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus we find amongst witnesses over fairy dress and appearance.

Perhaps what we can identify in this catalogue are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken by faes: sometimes it’s familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown and hard to understand.  There may well be problems for us humans reproducing the sounds and combinations we hear in fairy names, causing us to substitute something more familiar and pronounceable.

“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk,

Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine,

Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles,

But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.”

As a final thought, if you do come to know the name of a fairy, it should always be treated with the utmost respect and care, like a closely guarded secret.  Fairy names are a taboo subject: they are a source of power and they must be handled circumspectly.

m clark

Fairy names for humankind

Whilst we’re discussing terminology and labels, we may as well just glance at what fairies call us.  Manx fairies are recorded as referring to us as “middle world men” which is a very neutral, purely descriptive name.  In the ballad of Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen refers to Thomas as a “man of mould” and in later Welsh folklore we read similar terms: “dead man” or “man of earth.”  For the fays, plainly, what distinguishes us from them is our mortality- or rather, our shorter life spans because, as I have discussed before in the context of killing fairies, they are not actually immortal but endure much longer than we do.

Further Reading

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve addressed the question of fairy language and speech several times on this blog; see too my posting on silence in Faery: the cases when the faes take speech away from their favourites and abductees.

 

“Ray of light”- Tinkerbell and luminous fairies

dame-autumn-hath-a-mournful-face-1871 grimshaw

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Dame Autumn hath a mournful face, 1871

Ever since Peter Pan appeared on the stage in 1904, the idea of fairies as flitting points of light has been fixed in the popular imagination.  This post looks at the facts and the fiction of these perceptions of faery.

Tinkerbell

In contrast to her theatrical representation, in his book of the story of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie imagined Tinkerbell as a full physical creature. For example, she is described as being-

“exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.

Tink is very evidently not just solid- she’s sexy, she’s sexual and she’s possessive.

However, in the stage-play the fairy was reduced to a flickering light and a tinkle of bells.  The light “darts about” using language that is variously furious, acerbic, shrill and impudent- we are told.  But it all sounds the same to us; Tinkerbell is a presence that can hardly be seen and barely understood except through the mediation of Peter.

This image of a flickering light caught hold though, despite its insubstantial nature, and is noticeably strong in the evidence of contemporary witnesses.

Grimshaw iris

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Iris.

Traditional fays

Is this all Barrie’s fault and invention, though?  By and large, traditional sightings don’t have much to say about glowing lights- except for the will o’the wisp, who was nothing but a flitting light.  These fairy apparitions have only one purpose, though, to lure travellers out of their way into bogs and mires; they are not fully rounded characters like Tink and most faeries.  Nevertheless, despite the paucity of evidence, there is an interesting report from Dartmoor published in 1876 which describes the pixies.

“The pixies are never really seen, but in some cases white spots are seen moving about in the dark and then they are heard- although you can’t understand their words.” (Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol.8, 1876, p.57)

Secondly, from Evans Wentz’ Fairy faith in Celtic countries, there comes a sighting on the Isle of Man dating from about the 1860s.  The witness, a member of the island’s legislature at the time of recording his experience, had been walking home at night with a friend when he saw across a small brook:

“a circle of supernatural light… The spot where the light appeared was a flat space surrounded on the sides away from the river by banks formed by low hills; and into this space and the circle of light, from the surrounding sides apparently, I saw come in twos and threes a great crowd of little beings smaller than Tom Thumb and his wife.  All of them, who appeared like soldiers, were dressed in red.  They moved back and forth amid the circle of light as they formed into order like troops drilling.” (Wentz p.133)

The witness’ companion declined to get any nearer and, after a while, struck a wall with his walking stick, thereby causing the fairies and their ‘aura’ to vanish instantaneously.

Lastly, Walter Gill recorded in his Second Manx Scrapbook of 1932 that fairies might be seen far off at night on the Isle of Man, as sparks or little flames dancing on hilltops.

These three are  intriguing, if rather isolated, reports.

grimshaw midsummer eve

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Midsummer Eve.

Contemporary fays

In the more recent witness reports of Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies and, even more so, in the Fairy Census 2017, the luminosity of fairies is often mentioned, so it’s worth analysing the figures a little.

Movement is the most noticeable feature of the sightings in the modern period.  In the Census there’s total of 69 cases of luminous fays (14% of the total); Johnson meanwhile has 34 instances.  Whilst 15% of the Census lights were stationary, 73% were in motion.  Sometimes a fairy body will be seen with the light, or the fairy is said to have ‘an aura’ but they can too be simple points of light: 28% of the Census witnesses described the fairy as a ball of light.  We may very well suspect here the influence of J. M. Barrie‘s stage representation of Tinkerbell in the minds of those having the experience.  This seems to be confirmed by a woman from Michigan describing an experience during the 1990s.  She wrote that:

“They were like little lights. Like Tinker Bell while she’s flying. A little pixie light. Several of them.”

Another witness told Johnson about “a Tinker Bell light.”

There’s more to say though.  A variety of effects have been associated with the bright fairies.  Some give off flashes of light, others sparkle (“as though speckled with stardust”). Some  produce a noise (for example, a high pitched buzz or humming) and some also wax and wane in their brilliance:

“the whole area of trees seemed to glow as though there were a lot of lights in that area of the woods. The light seemed to pulsate, growing brighter and growing dimmer again. I watched closely and saw the light changing colour. There were several different colours, blue, red and orange and they all seemed to blend together.  ” (Census no.6, England, 2014)

“a ball of energy that looked like a sparkler.” (Census no.349)

“a light appeared on or from within a half dead pecan tree. It swirled around the trunk from ground level to about twenty five feet or so high. At its highest point the light appeared to come from within the tree … It then swirled around the trunk again losing brightness until it faded.” (Census no.414, US, 1990s)

A variety of colours are seen.  Blue, white and multi-coloured are most common, but a full spectrum of hues from pink and violet through green to silver and gold have been reported.

In Johnson’s reports 25% of the fairies had an aura.  For example, one was “a lovely little fairy dressed in silver and green and it floated before her, lighting the way.”  (p.37)  A woman and her child in Cornwall saw a patch of mist in the garden, which-

“gradually cleared to light like neon-lighting, but ball-shaped and then, fascinated, she watched what she called the ‘glitter of the fairies’, mauve, blue, green, orange, yellow, red and white lights brighter than any gems, going round in a little circle and then darting backwards and forwards.” (p.168)

Another witness on the Scottish island of Iona in 1954 saw a mass of light shaped into small clouds and another being with a ‘halo’ of spring green and sunset pink around the head (p.226)

As already seen in some of the quotations, 20% of the Census cases the fairy lights are associated with trees, bushes and other foliage.  Today, of course, we very much conceive of greenery as the natural abode of the fays but nonetheless it is an interesting association.

People may of course see lights for a variety of reasons.  Their eyes may be dazzled; there may be some physiological problem that has yet to be diagnosed.  Even so, many of the experiences on the Census don’t seem capable of explanation by such means and the witnesses themselves are frequently critical and cautious of ascribing supernatural origins.  For example, they will often consider other explanations, such as insects.  The comparison may be made to a firefly, but there will be something to make it clear that it is not an insect that has been seen- generally the size of the being.  One of Johnson’s correspondents described seeing in Spain in the mid-1950s “quantities of small lights- which were too big for glow worms- flitting about.” (p.313)

Final thoughts

The experience of bright, flitting fairies is now so common that we may have to regard it as one of the features of the species.  Despite the paucity of older sources recounting similar effects, darting lights now seem to be a determining element for deciding what a witness has seen.  These sightings may be very puzzling, but they are persistent and consistent, so we may need to revise our preconceptions about the supernatural and how it appears to us.

Always going, never gone- the reality of the ‘vanishing’ fairy

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe

“I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo…”

(Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Tale)

An abiding aspect of accounts of Faery is that the fairies aren’t around anymore and that fairy belief is fading; it was once strong, but not any more.  This sort of account has been given repeatedly for the last five hundred years or so.  Fairy-lore expert Katherine Briggs to some extent subscribed to this view when she called her 1978 book The vanishing people, although she herself collected some modern modern sightings as well.

Fairies have always been going, but they have never finally and completely gone.  In Farewell to the fairies, the final chapter of her book Strange and secret people- fairies and the Victorian subconscious, Carole Silver observed that:

“The fairies have been leaving England since the fourteenth century but have never quite left despite the rise of the towns, science, factories and changes of religion.”

Two processes were believed to be working in parallel.  There was an active departure of the fairies combined with a growing disbelief amongst the human population.  Combined, these factors convinced observers again and again that our good neighbours had deserted us.  Sometimes the departure was the the fairies moving away from a vicinity, other times it appears that they were vanishing completely.

“Robin Goodfellow is a knave”- the sixteenth century & before

Chaucer was the first to declare that the fays had disappeared, and there has been a constant chorus of lamenting voices ever since.  These were strengthened, from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, by a belief that it was the Reformation which had driven out the supernaturals, the fairies’ Christian faith being inimical to that of Luther and Calvin.

By the late sixteenth century Reginald Scot felt able to declare that “Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared.” Elsewhere in The discovery of witchcraft he noted that “By this time all Kentish men know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave.”  In 1591 George Chapman had a character in his play A humorous day’s mirth query whether “fairies haunt the holy greene, as ever mine auncesters have thought.”  The fairy faith was increasingly seen as a thing of the past, or at the very least as a matter for an older generation and for less well educated and more superstitious folk.  For instance, writing in 1639, Robert Willis described how-

“within a few daies after my birth… I was taken out of the bed from [my mother’s] side and by my sudden and fierce crying recovered again, being found sticking between the beds-head and the wall and, if I had not cried in that manner as I did, our gossips had a conceit that I had been carried away by the Fairies…” (Mount Tabor p.92)

Doyle, triumphal march of the elf king 1870

Richard Doyle, The triumphant march of the elf king, 1870

“Out of date and out of credit”- the 1600s & 1700s

These early sources would suggest that fairy belief was over and done with by the start of the seventeenth century.  That was far from being the case.  As late as 1669, it seems, a spirit called ‘Ly Erg’ had haunted Glen More in the Highlands. Describing the Hebrides in 1716, Martin Martin averred that “it is not long since every Family of any considerable Substance in these Islands was haunted by a Spirit they called Browny…”  Speaking of Northumberland in 1729 the Reverend John Horsley felt that “stories of fairies now seem to be much worn, both out of date and out of credit.”  In 1779 the Reverend Edmund Jones alleged that, in the parish of Aberystruth, the apparitions of fairies had “very much ceased,” although the tylwyth teg had once been very familiar to the local people.  In other words, there had been belief but it was dwindling, or had died out.

“A winter evening’s tale”

The fairy faith was still apparently on the wane, or only just faded, during the next century too.  This was particularly believed to be the case in Scotland.  Shepherd poet James Hogg described the experiences of William Laidlawe, also called Will O’Phaup, who had been born in 1691 and who was “the last man of this wild region who heard, saw and conversed with the fairies; and that not once but at sundry times and seasons.”  Will lived on the edge of Ettrick Forest which was “the last retreat of the spirits of the glen, before taking their final leave of the land of their love…”  The fays’ departure was a regular theme for Hogg.  For example, in The queen’s wake he claimed that “The fairies have now totally disappeared… There are only a very few now remaining alive who have ever seen them.”  In 1820 Sir Walter Scott announced that “The fairies have abandoned their moonlight turf.” Writing of the Tay basin in 1831 James Knox agreed that “during the last century the fairy superstition lost ground rapidly and, even by the ignorant, elves are no longer regarded, though they are the subject of a winter evening’s tale.”

In a description of the Highlands in 1823 it was said that brownies had become rare, but that once every family of rank had had one.  Likewise Alan Cunningham, a lowland Scot, said that in Nithsdale and Galloway “there are few old people who have not a powerful belief in the influence and dominion of the fairies…”  Several accounts of the fairies’ departure from the Scottish Highlands can be dated to about 1790, although a lingering faith persisted with some into the middle of the next century.  A Galloway road-mender refused to fell a local fairy thorn in 1850, for example.

Also in the early 1820s, the fairies of the Lake District were declared extinct. Further south still, but at almost the same time, Fortescue Hitchens pronounced that in Cornwall-

“the age of the piskays, like that of chivalry, is gone.  There is perhaps hardly a house they are reputed to visit… The fields and lanes are forsaken.”

halt in the fairy procession

John Anster Fitzgerald, A halt in the fairy procession

“Credulous times”?- vanishing Victorian fays

Of Northamptonshire in 1851 it was said that “the fairy faith still lingers, but is in the last stages of decay.”  Nevertheless in 1867 John Harland could write that “the elves or hill folk yet live among the rural people of Lancashire.”  Speaking of his youth in the first half of the century, Charles Hardwick stated that, fairies had then been “as plentiful as blackberries-” but this no longer seemed to be the case to him considering the Lancashire of the 1870s.  Researching Devon folklore in the same year, Sir John Bowring interviewed four old peasants on Dartmoor who told him that “the piskies had all gone now, although there had been many formerly.”  Even so he was told a version of the common story of pixies caught stealing grain from a barn, something that had apparently happened as recently as three years before.

According to John Brand, describing Shetland in 1883, “not above forty or fifty years ago every family had an evil spirit called a Browny which served them…”  Writing about the same islands in the same year, Menzies Fergusson said that:

“credulous times are long, long gone by and we can see no more of the flitting sea trow… Civilisation has crept in upon all the fairy strongholds and disenchanted the many fair scenes in which they were wont to hold their fair courts.”

Recounting Cornish folk belief in 1893 Bottrell cited a verse to the effect that “The fairies from their haunts have gone.” In Herefordshire in 1912 a Mrs Leather of Cusop, just outside Hay on Wye, recalled fairies being seen dancing under foxgloves in Cusop Dingle: a vision that was within the memory of people still living, she recorded.

Sims-Charles-1900.-The-Beautiful-is-Fled

Charles Sims, The beautiful is fled, 1900

“Not utterly extinct?”- fairies in the twentieth century

Twentieth century writers echoed their predecessors.  Speaking of Wales in 1923 folklorist Mary Lewes recorded a-

“practically universal belief among the Welsh country folk into the middle of the last century [which] is scarcely yet forgotten.”

She blamed education and newspapers for having quenched the people’s spirits: “mortal eyes in Cambria will no more behold the Fair Folk at their revels.”  She lamented that “even the conception of fairies seems to have been lost in the present generation.”  A couple of years later, reflecting on Western Argyll in the 1850s, another writer reminisced over the “dreamland” people had inhabited before “the fierce eye of bespectacled modern omniscience” had dispelled belief.  “These were the days of elemental spirits, of sights and sounds relegated by present day sceptics to the realm of superstition or imagination.”  By the 1920s only old people recalled the wealth of folktales.  The fairy faith was also felt to be going or gone by this time from Herefordshire, Shropshire and from the Lake District.

Towards the end of last century, describing Sussex folk belief, Jacqueline Simpson declared that:

“Although it is most improbable that a belief in fairies is seriously entertained by any adult of the present generation, it was a different matter of the nineteenth century… Even one generation ago, it was not utterly extinct.”

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, The fairy way

The fairies travel yet?

Continually, then, it seemed to investigators to be the case that fairy belief had been strong until a generation or so ago, but had since expired.  This was asserted every few decades, and little in substance really separates the remarks of Reginald Scot from those of Jacqueline Simpson.  For this reason, when Robin Gwyndaf alleged in 1997 that “fairy belief persisted in Wales until the late 1940s or early 1950s,” how confident should we be in the red line he seeks to draw?  Plenty of writers have done the same before, and have found themselves subsequently contradicted.  Equally, too, there have been writers- perhaps wiser, certainly more cautious-  who have not been so ready to pronounce the fairies’ obituary.

As already noted, the fairies were declared dead and gone from the Lake District in both 1825 and the early twentieth century.  Another observer was not so pessimistic: “The shyness of the British fairy in modern times has given rise to a widespread belief that the whole genus must be regarded as extinct,” wrote a Mrs Hodgson, yet she felt confident specimens could still be found in remote Cumberland and Westmorland neighbourhoods.  In the 1870s Francis Kilvert was told by David Price of Capel-y-ffin that “We don’t see them now because we have more faith in the Lord and don’t think of them.  But I believe the fairies travel yet…”  In 1873 William Bottrell confidently wrote that, in West Cornwall, “belief in the fairies is far from being extinct…”  On the Isle of Man it has been said that the fairies have retreated from the noise and disturbance of modern human life- but that they are still there, in the remote glens and moors.

Conclusions

Have the fairies disappeared?  It seems that it all depends on who does the asking and who they’re talking to.  The evidence of the recent Fairy Census, and of Marjorie Johnson’s collection of sightings in Seeing fairies, suggests that- contrary to all reports- the fairies are still present and active.

The scattered, individual accounts may give a contemporary observer the impression that the fairy faith is lost.  Nonetheless, with a little perspective, with the passage of a few years, a glance back will reveal that witnesses are still meeting our Good neighbours: they may be less willing to speak publicly about these experiences than once would have been the case, but the anonymity of an on-line survey permits confessions that seem to confirm that, indeed, ‘the fairies travel yet.’

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moths and pixies

hopley

Edward Hopley, Puck and a moth

In this post I want to explore some persistent and intriguing connections between fairies and moths.  They are very scattered, but fascinating nonetheless.

CupidpursuingPsyche

John Gibson (1790-1866), Cupid pursuing Psyche

Fluttering faes

A lot of the material linking fairies with moths is highly romantic and literary.  As we began to conceive of tiny winged fairies from the eighteenth century onwards, the association between fays and pretty insects made more and more sense.

We might date this connection from as early as Midsummer night’s dream and the fairy ‘Moth’ although Dr Beachcombing on the Strange history website has argued that this is really a misreading for ‘mote.’

The pairing subsequently manifested itself in several ways:

  • fairies acquired moth and butterfly wings– as we see in many pictures including the illustration by Warwick Goble included below. Another source for these may come from classical representations of winged nymph Psyche (see above);
  • instead of riding horses, fairies started to be imagined riding moths and flies.  Julius Cawein tells us in ‘Dream road’ that “the moths they say the fairies use as coursers;” Alice Cary in ‘Fairy folk’ described fairies travelling “in coaches/ That are drawn by butterflies”;
  • as the poetic faes drew closer to nature, they started to care for insects and other wildlife.  In Menella Bute Smedley’s poem ‘The butterfly and the fairies’ it’s the fays that make the butterfly’s gorgeous painted wings whilst in Peter John Allan’s ‘The dead butterfly’ Faery seems to be the lepidoptera heaven, where the deceased insect goes to dance with the ‘elfin band.’

doyle-fary-queen

Richard Doyle, The fairy queen takes an airy drive

These conceits were taken to an extreme in the anonymous poem ‘The fairies fancy ball,’ published in 1832, in which the vernacular names of every species of butterfly and moth are played upon in a dream of a dance put on by the fairy queen.

This evolution of the ‘artistic faery,’ as we might call it, directly informs our thinking today.  If, for example, we look at the encounters reported in the recent Fairy Census, small flying fays are very common indeed and insect wings are a feature of quite a number of reports (see below).

J G Naish- eleves & fairies MSND

John George Naish, Midsummer fairies

Pixies and the dead

The rather disparate folklore evidence is very partial, but it’s far more interesting than the cute literary conceptions, I would say.

Our starting point is a brief remark by Robert Hunt in his Popular romances of the West of England (1865, p.82):

“Mr Thoms has noticed that in Cornwall ‘the moths which some regard as departed souls, others as fairies, are called Pisgies.’ This is somewhat too generally expressed; the belief respecting the moth, so far as I know, is confined to one or two varieties only. Mr Couch informs us that the local name, around Polperro, of the weasel is Fairy. So that we have evidence of some sort of metempsychosis amongst the elf family. Moths, ants, and weasels it would seem are the forms taken by those wandering spirits.”

The Mr Thoms mentioned by Hunt wrote about ‘The folklore of Shakespeare’ in The Athenaeum in 1847 (no.1041, p.1055).  In this article he says little more than Hunt repeats, except to say that the moths as pixies was the belief in the Truro area of mid-Cornwall and adding that it was thought that when the moths were very numerous, there would be great mortality to follow.  It’s also fascinating to learn that in Yorkshire the night flying moth Hepialis humali was called ‘the soul’  and that, in the Lake District too, moths were traditionally regarded as a sign of death.

There seems to be a link with death then, which is probably quite unsurprising if you think of a ghostly white moth seen at night.  Equally, as I’ve described previously, there are strong associations between fairies and death and it’s another Cornish belief that unbaptised infants may become piskies.

There are some other fragments of folk belief to add to these tantalising remnants.  According to J. Henry Harris, Cornish mothers would also tell their children that the little brown pisgie moth will play tricks on them in their sleep (Cornish saints and sinners, 1907, c.20).  In her story of ‘The little cake bird’ North Cornish author Enys Tregarthen says that the belief around St Columb is that the fairies will pass over your nose and arrange your dreams whilst you sleep.  We know that Queen Mab is the midwife of dreams, so all of this seems to be interrelated.

At St Nun’s Well near Looe on the south coast of the Cornish peninsula, there is a tradition of leaving a bent pin as an offering.  If you fail to do this, you will be followed home by a cloud of the pisgey moths.  We looked at fairy wells in a previous posting and this particular local tradition underscores both that connection and the need to show proper respect by making respectful offerings to the fairies.

Lastly, in a story from the Blackdown Hills of Somerset, a woman is brushed across her brow by a large moth and thereby receives the ‘pixy-sight’ which enables her to see an old pixy man who has come to ask for her skill in nursing his sick wife.  We know fairy powers can be transferred by touch, so this again fits in with other lore, although the medium of the moth is unusual.

warwick goble

Some modern evidence

The recent Fairy Census confirms that there is still felt to be some common association between fairies and lepidoptera.  Some beings seen in Ohio flying around flowers were described as being “Small, pale, with long limbs and wings similar to moths.”  A man waiting for a train in Scotland saw a small ball of light hovering around one of the platform lights:

“At first I thought it was a moth being illuminated but then realised that it was too big to be a moth and also it was very, very bright. It hovered for a few moments then shot across the platform and it joined another ball of light opposite.”

He assumed it had to be a fairy because this was the “first thought that came into my head after I realised it wasn’t moths.” (Census numbers 169 & 350).  Several other witnesses made comparisons too to butterflies: consider for instance a Texan sighting of “a beautiful butterfly with a lovely body of a lady” or “bright, white light about five foot long with wings like a butterfly and a short dress” or “like a white butterfly” (numbers 375, 419 & 435).

Conclusions

This posting is just a first outline of this subject.  Doubtless with further reading other examples will be found and we will form a surer picture of the link, but it seems clear even at this preliminary stage that diminutive size, nocturnal habits, ghostly colours and some sort of spiritual aspect are all combined in this group of beliefs.

Further reading

Readers may be interested to note that the Scottish mythical and mystical poet Fiona Macleod makes considerable use of moth imagery.  They are often equated with spirits, perhaps ghosts: “In the grey-gloaming where the white moth flies” or “Not even the white moth that loves death flits through her hair.”  It is a a mysterious and silent symbol.