“Some kind of joy”- the meaning of fairy encounters

frederick cotman, spellbound

Frederick Cotman, Spellbound

How does contact with the fairies affect us?  I have often mentioned the more negative aspects of meeting fairies on human health- the consequences, both physical and psychological, associated with being ‘elf addled.’

Shock & awe

These adverse outcomes can be real and life changing- here are two further examples from the Isle of Man: a man who spied on fairies dancing in an old kiln was taken ill, and was left unable to walk for the remainder of his life, whilst another who watched fairies dancing through the keyhole of a deserted cottage was blinded for his impertinence.  These are the extreme outcomes.  Definitely, the common responses are terror, bewilderment and, naturally, surprise.  In Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies we read these not untypical accounts:

“The physical reaction was that Mr X’s wife was so completely unnerved as to be almost hysterical… The boy said he felt ‘weird.'” (p.115)

“He said he was stunned by the sight and one occasion had gone into a kind of swoon… he seemed partially ‘fairy-struck.'” (p.116)

Some people certainly can find fairy encounters very draining and are left ill and exhausted for some time afterwards.

Very understandably, many people will be amazed, awed, entranced and fascinated by what is happening to them.  One man wrote in 1973 of a meeting with a gnome which made him “neither disturbed nor excited, just curious to know more about him.” (Janet Bord, Fairies, p.72)

Elation

However, in this posting I’m going to focus upon the pleasant and spiritual results of a fairy encounter.  Beyond the natural astonishment and shock, there are far more positive responses.

For instance, some men walking along a road on the Isle of Man one night met three huge fairies coming the other way.  As they passed them, they felt a curious sensation, ‘as if lifted up.’  This reaction is very far from unique.  We find it echoed in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies by witnesses who describe their elation, exhilaration and sense of enhanced health.  One felt “as light as air” afterwards; another “had a rather exciting feeling like being on a great height, but I was in no way afraid.”  (pp.31, 144, 156, 192, 251, 254 & 296)

hutton lear glimpse

Hutton Lear, A glimpse of the fairies

Calm

Also from Man comes the following experience, recounted by a Mr J H Kelly to Evans Wentz (Fairy Faith p.134).  The witness was walking back from Laxey to Douglas one moonlit night when he heard voices and “was conscious of being in the midst of an invisible throng.”  The strange feeling continued for the distance of a mile or so “There was no fear or emotion or excitement, but perfect calm on my part” he recalled.  Eventually he turned off the main road and “there was a sudden and strange quietness and a sense of isolation came over me, as though the joy and peace of my life had departed with the invisible throng.”  He was left convinced of the reality of the fairy folk.  In Seeing Fairies several witnesses mentioned the sense of peace or calm they felt.

Confirmation

As in the Laxey case, and as is quite predictable, a fairy encounter will often create a true believer.  For example, Dorothy Tompkins saw a flying being in her garden and said to herself:

“This is not a butterfly or anything else, it is a fairy.  I am absolutely sure, and nothing and nobody must ever make me doubt it.”

Another of Johnson’s informants described the sighting as an “enlightening experience.  I knew something first hand, which I had not known before.” (pp.44, 46, 66, 112, 181 & 318)

Similar was the experience of Cynthia Montefiore, recorded in 1977.  She was with her mother in the family garden in Somerset, when they both saw a fairy hovering in a rose bush.  “We went back to the house astonished and enriched by our mutual experience…” (Bord p.69)

Even if the witness isn’t changed, the encounter will very often stay with them for the remainder of their lives: “one of the most vivid experiences of my life” said one.  Equally, there can be sadness to have seen a fairy and then never to see one again, and a longing to go back to an age when we might have been more open to such visions.

Comfort and joy

Many of the first hand accounts sent to Marjorie Johnson recount the happiness, even joy, that the sightings gave.  Often, too, the individuals derived comfort from the encounters.  Several had been sad or worried before, but afterwards felt restored and reassured (for example, pp.45, 223 or 254).

These sensations can stay with you, too.  Consider for example the words of a Welsh woman who spoke to researcher Robin Gwyndaf (in Narvaez, The Good People, 1997, p.181).  She described how her knowledge of the reality of the tylwyth teg made her feel: “it gives you some kind of joy to think about it,” she told him.

Friendly

A Hampshire woman called Sylvia Pigeon saw a fairy in her garden.  She recalled that:

“She felt love and compassion coming from the creature, that ‘it was looking at me with some delight, I would say… I had a feeling of love and friendliness.’” (Bord p.71)

An assurance of friendliness was communicated to several of those who described their fairy encounters to Johnson.

Mccubbin, what the little girl saw in the bush

McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush

“Like seeing beyond this world”

These sensations of happiness, love and personal development must surely be part of the reason why people so often connect fairy encounters with religious meaning.  Not only are they in touch with an otherworld- they feel uplifted and enhanced by it.

The end of the experience may also abruptly terminate the feelings of joy, though.  We saw this in the earlier account from the Isle of Man; something similar was felt by two boys who met two fairy youths and their mother on a beach on the island of Muck in about 1910.  They spoke to the fairies for some time and even shared their food.  After a while the Scottish boys’ sister arrived and spoke to them- “the spell was broken and immediately they became fearful, though before they had felt happy.” It is fascinating how often the intrusion of an external individual is necessary to break the fairy enchantment, although this is usually the welcome release from being pixy-led: for example, a woman unable to find her way out of a field in Cornwall was only rescued when a farm boy came wandering past; an Irish woman being led off by a crowd of fairies could only escape them by calling to her son and a Welsh man who had awoken at night to find fairies dancing and feasting in his bedroom could only find his way out of the room by crying out in panic and awakening the rest of his family (Bord, pp.15, 123 & 128).

Faery music

A special mention should be made here of the impression caused by hearing fairy music.  I have described before the impact the ceol sidhe can have and it’s worth repeating now.  The combination of contact with supernatural forces, conveyed in a form that naturally affects the human senses and emotions, can be extremely powerful.  For example, one of Johnson’s witnesses said that hearing the high and plaintive sound of undines signing was: “so alluring that I was filled with a strange longing.” Another told her that the sweet, unearthly music “will never be effaced from my memory.” (pp.328 & 329)

Further Reading

I have discussed in several posts the beneficial influence of fairy belief upon human culture; I also examine the broader ‘psychological’ aspects in my books British Fairies (Green Magic, 2017) and Faery (Llewellyn, March 2020).

elsie-gregory-children-watching-fairies-dancing

 

“From fairies … guard me!”- talismans against faery folk

ar-rowan

In the modern age, with the prevalent view of fairies as attractive and benign beings with whom we wish to make contact and commune, the concept of charms to protect ourselves from supernatural interference seems alien.  However, as I have described previously, the view of faery was once very far from favourable and prophylactics were widely known.

Protecting against fairies

The folklore evidence offers a variety of means of keeping oneself safe from fairy visitations.  The recorded methods are:

  • iron and steel– the supernatural race cannot abide forged metal in any form: the Reverend Kirk expressed it thus- “Iron hinders all the Opperations of those that travell in the Intrigues of these hidden Dominions.”  In fact, metal is a double protection: the presence of iron items will prevent harm; touching with iron will drive fairies away.  A scythe placed sharpened edge uppermost in a chimney will repel fairies; pins in the swaddling clothes, scissors hung over, or tongs laid upon, a cradle will prevent the substitution of a changeling (partly because the open blades will create a cross shape- see later); an iron bolt or lock on a door will guard a house, an axe placed under the pillow will protect the sleeper and striking a fairy with iron will result in its instant disappearance.  In Wales the story of the fairy wife lost by accidentally striking her with the iron bit on a bridle was extremely common; contact with metal in these cases lost a loved one.  Welsh folklore also records that if iron is thrown at a changeling or at a clinging fairy, the unwelcome presence will instantly be repelled (Rhys Celtic folklore pp.23 & 250).  From time to time fairy hills will open and the sound of music will lure humans in; the best protective against never escaping is to place an knife at the exit so that the door cannot close again.  If a person has been lured into dancing with the fairies in a ring, one way of recovering him or her is a touch with iron.  Despite this widely attested aversion to ironmongery, it is curious to note that fairies will be found using metal items- John Rhys records them borrowing griddles and pots in Wales and there are regular stories of fairies asking humans to mend their implements.  For example, a ploughman working in a field at Onehouse, just outside Stowmarket in Suffolk, was approached by a ‘sandy-coloured’ fairy for help mending his ‘peel.’  This was the long handled flat iron used for removing loaves from an oven.  The ploughman easily repaired the broken handle and was very soon rewarded with hot cake fresh from the oven.
  • salt and fish– in Popular romances of the West of EnglandRobert Hunt records an interesting tale from Cornwall of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk.  When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice form a local cunning woman who advised that the pobel vean could not abide the smell of fish or the savour of salt or grease.  Her recommendation was to rub the cows udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving.  The advice worked, but the cow pined for her supernatural friends.  Oddly, as mentioned in my earlier post on offerings to fairies, fishermen in nearby Newlyn appeased the spriggans with an offering of fish, indicating that the revulsion was not consistent.  In Wales it was said that one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire (Rhys p.103);
  • turning clothes– a consistently deployed protection was to ‘turn your coat’, to turn a garment inside out as a way of defending oneself from fairy tricks.  Two Cornish examples from Hunt illustrate the effectiveness of the remedy.  A Mr Tresillian, returning late at night from Penzance to his home in St Levan, came upon the piskies dancing in their rings.  He felt compelled to join them, at which point they swarmed upon him, stinging like bees.  He retained enough presence of mind to turn his glove inside out and threw it at them, which instantly caused the throng to disappear. Secondly, an old widow living at Chy-an-wheal, above Carbis Bay, found that her home was favoured by the thievish spriggans of nearby Trencrom Hill.  They resorted to her cottage to divide up their plunder and rewarded her tolerance of this by leaving her a coin after each visit.  She hatched a plan to get more from them and, one night, secretly turned her shift inside out whilst the spriggans were present.  This enabled her to seize a gold cup from them.  The widow became a wealthy woman as a result, but she could never wear that shift again because, if she did, she suffered agonies.
  • herbs– certain plants are effective in repelling fairies.  These include St John’s Wort, red verbena, daisies, ash, four leaf clover (this plant has the virtue both of dispelling glamour and enabling a person to see fairy folk as well as repelling them), and rowan. For example, a branch of mountain ash will help pull a trapped person out of a fairy ring, as the fairies dread the tree (Rhys pp.85 & 246).  Katherine Briggs suggests that it is the red berries of the plant which have given it its reputation for warding off evil, but it has much wider magical power than this, as Robert Graves explained in The White Goddess chapter 10.  Lastly, Wirt Sikes records in British goblins that a gorse hedge is an excellent protection against unwelcome visitors.
  • running water– fairy folk are unable to cross streams and rivers, so in any pursuit leaping from bank to bank will be a sure escape for the hunted human.  Water courses running south are said to be especially efficacious.  Oddly, nevertheless, fairies seem to have no objection to still water.  They actively seek it out for washing themselves and they are from time to time associated with wells.  For example John Rhys in Celtic folklore (1901, p.147 & chapter 6) notes the existence of several ‘fairy wells’in Wales which demanded attention from local people, in the absence of which they would overflow or flood.
  • faith– according to suspected witch John Walsh, when he was examined in prison in 1576, fairies only have influence over those whose Christian faith is weak or absent (although the evidence on the actual nature of fairy religion is unclear).  It may be questionable how much to rely upon this statement given the position he was in: he understandably wished to deflect the accusations made against him and, accordingly, he wanted to present himself as an orthodox individual resistant to any satanic temptations.  Be that as it may, it was widely known that the sign of the cross would dispel supernatural threats.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins  (p.63) gives an interesting summary of the Welsh beliefs in this respect: “There are special exorcisms and preventive measures to interfere with the fairies in their quest of infants. The most significant of these, throughout Cambria, is a general habit of piety. Any pious exclamation has value as an exorcism; but it will not serve as a preventive.”
  • self-bored stones– according to John Aubrey, if a person could locate stones through which natural erosion had created a hole (sometimes called ‘hag-stones’), they could protect their horses from night-riding by fairies by hanging the stones over each horse’s manger in the stables- or by tying the stone to the stable key.  The fairies would not then be able to pass underneath.
  • touching grass– in his Celtic folklore John Rhys records a couple of Welsh traditions that a person may save themselves from fairy abduction by seizing hold of grass, apparently because the Tylwyth Teg are prevented from severing blades of grass.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).