“Like little soldiers”- fae warfare

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‘The unseelie court- war’ by Jasmine Becket-Griffith

I have discussed fae mortality and violence previously; here I examine the context within which fairy deaths might occur.

According to some traditional folklore accounts, there are fairy kings and queens; we know some of their names from literary sources, of course: they include Oberon, Mab and Titania.  There is next to no evidence, though, on these monarchs’ kingdoms.  Is there a single realm or many within the island of Britain?  We do not know, but the partial information we have on fairy armies and fairy battles supports the suspicion that there are numerous warring tribes or polities.  This would not be in the least surprising, given reports of endemic violence from Ireland and Brittany (See Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 44, 46, 50, 55, 57, 74, 207 & 211).

Fairy soldiers

Fairies are often described as looking like soldiers in eighteenth and nineteenth century British sources.  For example, an old Cornish woman quoted by Robert Hunt compared them to “little sodgers.”  We should not, however, be misled by these accounts.  All they’re really telling us is that the beings sighted were wearing red (and possibly green) jackets; British soldiers at this time were, of course, called the ‘red coats’ and provided a ready analogy for witnesses (for example Hunt, Popular Romances, 118; Bord, Fairies, 32).

From time to time, nonetheless, armed fays have been sighted.  The trows on Orkney have sometimes been spotted wearing armour.  A boy abducted by the fairies on Islay in exchange for a changeling was eventually freed by his blacksmith father and returned home; it transpired that he had learned how to forge swords whilst he was away “under the hill.”  Lastly, at the opposite end of the country, a host of spriggans encountered by smugglers on the beach of Mounts Bay at Eastern Green, just outside Penzance, were armed with bows and arrows, spears and slings and were organised in rank and file with marching music provided by pipes, cymbals and tambourines (Briggs, Dictionary, p.132).

This Cornish report leads us to the second very frequent type of report from witnesses.  It’s quite common for people to see fairies en masse, apparently drilling like bodies of soldiers.  There were said to be scores or even hundreds on the Eastern Green; several very similar examples come from the Isle of Man.  In one case a man saw an ‘army’ dressed in red; in a second two men met a fairy army on the road at Mull.  They were all dressed in red caps and coats, some mounted, some on foot, and they so filled the highway that the men had to climb over the hedge and wait for quite some time for the host to pass.  A third experience, dated to about 1830, involved a man later to become a member of the Manx Parliament, the House of Keys.  Out one October night on the way to a harvest supper he and a friend saw a supernatural light in a field, within which a “great crowd of little beings” dressed in red “moved back and forth amid the circle of light, as they formed into order like troops drilling.”  Lastly, on Mellor Moor on the Pennines near Blackburn during the mid-eighteenth century, fairies were often said to appear “in military array … their revolutions conforming in every respect to the movement of modern troops.” (See Bord, Fairies, pp.36 & 42; Wentz p.133).

In an incident at Lochaweside in Argyll, a shepherd carrying a lost sheep home saw a cave in a rock face where he’d never seen one before.  Plainly suspecting it was a fairy location, he put his knife into a gap in the rock before taking his time studying what was inside.  What he saw was a collection of weapons, including guns and swords.  Just then the sheep started to escape and, in dashing to catch it, the shepherd dislodged the knife.  When he looked again, the cave was gone and he saw only bare rock.  The disappearance of the weapons cache only confirmed the impression that this was no earthly armoury.

Battles

What are these troops exercising for?  Why have they hoarded all these arms?  Direct accounts of fairy fighting are much rarer.  We are told by Mrs Bray that there was a protracted war between the pixies and the fairies for control of Devonshire and Dartmoor.  We also read of a woman lost in mist who saw a pixie battle being fought on the ramparts of Castle-an-Dinas in mid-Cornwall (though, when the fog cleared, though, there was no trace of any fighting).

The best example comes from Wales, though:

“There is a tradition among the Glamorgan peasantry of a fairy battle fought on the mountain between Merthyr and Aberdare, in which the pigmy combatants were on horseback. There appeared to be two armies, one of which was mounted on milk-white steeds, and the other on horses of jet-black. They rode at each other with the utmost fury and their swords could be seen flashing in the air like so many penknife blades. The army on the white horses won the day, and drove the black-mounted force from the field. The whole scene then disappeared in a light mist.” (Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, p.107)

What is especially interesting about this is the fact that there is also a tale of conflict between the white fairy king and the black at Strath Spey in Scotland.  They are said to be locked in perpetual struggle over the white king’s wife.  This story may give us a hint as to the fairies’ motivation for their aggression.  For the Spey kings, the prize is possession of a woman; Shakespeare may take us a little nearer the truth with his notion in Midsummer Night’s Dream of Oberon and Titania feuding over a changeling boy.  It seems very like that the motive for fairy wars is control of resources- and for the faes those contested assets are human, whether it is produce they can steal from us or individuals whom they can abduct.

Finally, in one way or another, humans are intimately associated with fairy warfare.  For our penultimate example we return to the Isle of Man.

“A woman walking over Barrule met two fairy armies going to battle, which was to begin on the ringing of a bell; she pulled the bell, and in consequence both armies attacked her, and kept her prisoner for three years, when she escaped.”

Lastly, at Loch Gruinart on Islay a battle was fought in August 1598 between the MacLeans and the MacDonalds.  Just before the two sides clashed, the MacLean chief was approached by a “tiny fellow of the brownie order” who offered his services in the coming fighting.  The MacLean dismissed help from someone so diminutive, so the ‘Black Elf’ went off to the MacDonald camp and made the same proposal, which was gratefully accepted.  The additional one hundred warriors tilted the odds in favour of the MacDonalds and, in fact, it was the Black Elf who killed the MacLean leader.

mosquito's hunger, david revoy

‘Mosquito’s hunger’ by David Revoy

Intercommunal strife is just one aspect of the ‘Darker Side of Faery’ as described in my 2021 book:

“Some war with reremice for their leathern wings”- the facts on fairy violence

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It has become a widespread belief that fairies are wholly benevolent and peaceable beings, to whom violence and antagonism towards humankind is anathema.  This idea is probably reinforced by arguments for fairies being nature spirits and vegetarians.

This view of the supernatural realm would surprise our predecessors, who had a very different and more complex view of faery.  Older folk lore portrays an other-world very similar to our own, with its own internal conflicts and with a range of responses to human-kind, from friendly to hostile.

  • fairy warfare– it seemed entirely reasonable to earlier generations that the fairies would disagree profoundly and might engage in armed conflict amongst themselves. The Reverend Kirk said that “These Subterraneans have Controversies, Doubts, Disputes, Feuds and Sidings of Parties … they transgress and commit Acts of Injustice and Sin.”  As a result, they have “many disastrous Doings of their own, as … Fighting, Gashes, Wounds and Burialls…”  As evidence of these conflicts, there is a Glamorganshire tradition of a fairy battle fought in the air between Aberdare and Merthyr.  In the Hebrides Evans Wentz reported that it was believed that the fairy hosts always fought at Halloween, as evidence of which a red liquid produced by lichens after frost was believed in fact to be the blood of the fairy fallen.  John Campbell, in his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, provides detail of a similar phenomenon.  He describes a substance called elf-blood (fuil siochaire) which is found on the shores of the Hebrides; it is like a dark red stone and is full of holes.  These bloodstones are connected to the red skies of the aurora borealis, which themselves are termed the ‘pool of blood’ and are a sign of fairy fighting above.
  • retributive violence–  I have already in several postings referred to the fact that fairies were believed to impose a strict code of morals and conduct upon humans and to enforce this by forceful means.  There seemed to be little hesitation about battering and injuring those of whom they disapproved.  Offending individuals could certainly expect to be pinched mercilessly; they might also be jostled, assaulted, lamed and (for the offence of seeing through the fairy glamour) blinded.
  • thrashing-  John Campbell recorded a series of curious tales about the conduct of fairy women, which I reproduce here:

“A herdsman at Baile-phuill, in the west end of Tiree, fell asleep on Cnoc Ghrianal, at the eastern base of Heynish Hill, on a fine summer afternoon. He was awakened by a violent slap on the ear. On rubbing his eyes, and looking up, he saw a woman, the most beautiful he had ever seen, in a green dress, with a brooch fastened in at the neck, walking away from him. She went westward and he followed her for some distance, but she vanished, he could not tell how…

A man in Mull, watching in the harvest field at night, saw a woman standing in the middle of a stream that ran past the field. He ran after her, and seemed sometimes to be close upon her, and again to be as far from her as ever. Losing temper he swore himself to the devil that he would follow till he caught her. When he said the words the object of his pursuit allowed herself to be overtaken, and showed her true character by giving him a sound thrashing. Every night after he had to meet her. He was like to fall into a decline through fear of her, and becoming thoroughly tired of the affair, he consulted an old woman of the neighbourhood, who advised him to take with him to the place of the appointment the ploughshare and his brother John. This would keep the Fairy woman from coming near him. The Fairy, however, said to him in a mumbling voice, “You have taken the ploughshare with you to-night, Donald, and big, pock-marked, dirty John your brother,” and catching him she administered a severer thrashing than ever. He went again to the old woman, and this time she made for his protection a thread, which he was to wear about his neck. He put it on, and instead of going to the place of meeting, remained at the fireside. The Fairy came, and, taking him out of the house, gave him a still severer thrashing. Upon this, the wise woman said she would make a chain to protect him against all the powers of darkness, though they came. He put this chain about his neck, and remained by the fireside. He heard a voice calling down the chimney, ‘I cannot come near you to-night, Donald, when the pretty smooth-white is about your neck.’…

A man in Iona, thinking daylight was come, rose and went to a rock to fish. After catching some fish, he observed he had been misled by the clearness of the moonlight, and set off home. On the way, as the night was so fine, he sat down to rest himself on a hillock. He fell asleep, and was awakened by the pulling of the fishing rod, which he had in his hand. He found the rod was being pulled in one direction, and the fish in another. He secured both, and was making off, when he heard sounds behind him as of a woman weeping. On his turning round to her, she said, “Ask news, and you will get news.” He answered, “I put God between us.” When he said this, she caught him and thrashed him soundly. Every night after he was compelled to meet her, and on her repeating the same words and his giving the same answer, was similarly drubbed. To escape from her persecutions he went to the Lowlands. When engaged there cutting drains, he saw a raven on the bank above him. This proved to be his tormentor, and, as usual, she thrashed him. He resolved to go to America. On the eve of his departure, his Fairy mistress met him and said, “You are going away to escape from me. If you see a hooded crow when you land, I am that crow.” On landing in America he saw a crow sitting on a tree, and knew it to be his old enemy. In the end the fairy dame killed him.”

These are odd accounts and a little difficult to explain.  The man is compelled against his will to meet the fairy woman, but is then apparently beaten for doing so.  The battery appears to be either a means of ensuring his obedience by instilling fear- and a hint that the fairy lover does not trust her charms- or it is a punishment for his temerity.  Either way it suggests that fairies can be vindictive and contemptuous, even towards those they favour in some way.

  • cautionary violence– again, in an earlier on the warning use of fairy tales I have mentioned those spirits whose primary purpose seems to have been to scare and discipline children so as to encourage them to avoid dangerous locations such as ponds or river banks.  Jenny Greenteeth and Peg Powler weren’t just names, though, nor would they merely give an errant child a fright: they would drag the disobedient infant beneath the water and drown them,
  • unprovoked violence– some supernaturals were malicious by nature and human encounters with them would almost invariably prove fatal.  These include the Highland water horses, the each uisge/ aughisky, the kelpie and the shoopiltree of Shetland, all of which would lure people into mounting them and would then career at speed into a river or lake or into the sea, where the humans would be drowned and/ or devoured.  There were other non-equine but equally maleficent and dangerous water spirits in Scotland, such as the fideal, the fuath, the peallaidh, the muilearteach and the cearb (the killer).  In Wales the llamhigyn y dwr (the water leaper) and the afanc were known.  All of these made a habit of tearing their unfortunate victims to pieces beneath the waves.

A broader perspective on fairy conduct confirms the impression of a fractious, rough and sometimes vicious society.  Many aspects of their culture depended upon violence to some degree:

  • population: as described when discussing changelings , human children and wives might be taken by force to supplement the fairy race;
  • subsistence: a significant portion of the food and drink consumed in faery was stolen,  usually by stealth but sometimes coercively- for example, in cases where livestock were stolen and then butchered; and,
  • leisure: the fairy idea of fun often involved tormenting people or their livestock- for example, the habit of ‘riding’ horses at night, a practice which left them weak and distressed in the mornings.

As this catalogue shows, traditional folk belief was a great deal less confident in the good nature of fairy kind than is the case with some contemporary commentators.  The best counsel would be to approach with care- or better still to protect oneself with charms and to seek to avoid the ‘good neighbours’ altogether, to be on the safe side. Fairies were regarded as being as variable, unpredictable and potentially vicious as any imperfect human being.