Traditional material in the Fairy Census

Cottingley harebell posie Elsie

Elsie Wright presented with a posy of harebells

The Fairy Investigation Society‘s recent Fairy Census, published in January this year and covering 2014-2017, is a fascinating snapshot of contemporary perceptions of the fairy realm.  As I have already discussed, there is much that is new in modern fairy sightings, but there is also much that seems to come straight from traditional folklore sources, mixed up with the more contemporary and anomalous experiences.  There are quite a few experiences which would be very familiar to our ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although the examples of each are all quite limited in number.

The sorts of aspects of Faery I’m discussing here tend to be those that sit less well with the benign image of fays that has become so prevalent now.  Here are a few examples:

  • Hiding or moving things– the mischievous removal or concealment of personal possessions, often keys or jewellery, was reported a few times;
  • Pixie-led– in a second manifestation of fairy mischief, there was a handful of cases in which individuals found themselves lost or going in circles in a familiar place or within a small area where the exits were nearby and clear;
  • Abductions– in only ten cases (1% of the total) there seemed to have been an attempt to abduct a person (half involved adults and half children). Several times a strong feeling of compulsion was reported, often tempered by a sense of fear- even in situations where the fairies’ conduct was not in itself threatening: for example, they seemed to be dancing or playing;
  • Time distortion– it’s well known that time can pass very differently in Faery and this was mentioned in several reports. Most often hours were lost or unaccounted for.  Memorably, one witness described the sensation as “time felt twisty” (no.225);
  • Music– traditional accounts very frequently link music and dancing with fairy sightings. In the Census music was heard in only 11% of cases.  In half of these bells the music came from bells, although sounds like pipes, voices and drums were also reported.  Six of the witnesses compared what they heard to Irish or ‘Celtic’ music. As regular readers may recall, ceol sidhe is an especially Irish phenomenon;
  • Dancing– once the commonest pastime of our good neighbours, this was mentioned but in only 3% of the modern cases;
  • Conventional terms were often resorted to as a frame of reference or as a label for what the person experienced. Mention is quite often made in the Census of pixies, dryads, elves, gnomes, dwarves, leprechauns, brownies and goblins.  The traditional dress associated with these were reasonably common too- clothes of green, red and brown and caps, quite often pointed.  The most interesting of these accepted fairy ‘types’ were the four mentions of ‘banshees.’  The being’s hollow, mourning cry was what provoked the identification; in two of the cases, a death was felt to be directly related to the premonition; and,
  • Fairy temperament– many contemporary writers describe faes as kind, friendly and helpful- full of good will to humans and to the natural world. The older idea of fairy character was generally a lot darker and echoes of this are to be found in some of the Census cases.  Witnesses sensed anger, hostility and even outright malice in about 3% of cases; they felt fear in 6%.  In one instance in the Census- and one in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies– there was an impression that the fairy was mocking the human for some reason (Census no.475; Johnson p.24).  Balancing these negative emotions, there were also a few reports in which the human sensed the fairy’s interest or curiosity in them or what they were doing.

Cottingley 3

Elsie Wright again

The Census therefore presents us with an intriguing combination of traditional and wholly novel elements.  Only a few of the encounters involve interaction, so that the majority are descriptions of brief sightings (frequently of flying beings).  Nevertheless we come away with the impression that fairy encounters are an evolving body of law, with new perceptions or reactions added to the older understandings.

See too my posting on who believes in fairies for some further discussion of the Census statistics and their breakdown by age and gender.

Cottingley 2

 

What exactly is a fairy? The Fairy Census 2017

The Fairy's Lake ?exhibited 1866 by John Anster Fitzgerald 1819-1906

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s lake, 1866, Tate Gallery

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

(Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5).

In January this year the Fairy Investigation Society published a Fairy Census covering 2014-2017.  The document makes fascinating reading and I will be examining its contents over a couple of posts.  Here, I want to raise the intriguing question of what, exactly, we understand by the word ‘fairy’ in the early 21st century.

The data for the census comes from individuals across the world, although primarily from Britain, Ireland and the USA.  They submitted descriptions of their fairy experiences to the Society and these give us an opportunity to consider what today is popularly understood to be ‘a fairy.’

We all think we know what a fairy looks like: we envisage either a fluttering girl or a small pixie in green. Whatever the detail, the fundamental assumption is that they are humanoids, closely resembling us.  Nevertheless the Census, along with Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, confronts us with a body of sightings which within themselves are consistent and which challenge our conventional ideas.  Some fairies apparently do not look like fairies at all.

Small animals

It is not unusual to hear of fairies and pixies being described as particularly hirsute and shaggy, with dark and unkempt hair, but a small number of encounters have been with mammalian beings that display human-like characteristics.  Marjorie Johnson gathered together several of these.

During the summer of 1920 fairy seer Tom Charman spent nine weeks in the New Forest and repeatedly met with small cat-like creatures.  Similar beings were described to Johnson by witnesses from Kent, Essex and Cheshire, but she also received a comparable report from Indiana- of a cat standing on its hind legs and wearing brown trousers.  When disturbed, it ran away ‘like a rabbit.’

In his valuable little book, Somerset fairies and pixies (2010), Jon Dathen interviewed a Somerset farmer who recounted a sighting from his childhood, some seventy years earlier. Late at night he had sneaked downstairs to find a small person “like a hare done up in clothes” sitting in front of the farmhouse fire.  He had long ears, whiskers and buck teeth, but he could speak- explaining he had come in to escape the cold.  Later in his life, the farmer had heard of other hare-type pixies being sighted in the county.

Storm-

John Anster Fitzgerald, The storm.

Furry shapes

 A handful of reports take furriness even further.  A woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described how she regularly met some cliff dwelling pixies; both were about two feet in height.  The male was a small human with some distinctive features but the female was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, somewhat like a bee.

Two other accounts are even more surprising.  During the early 1940s in Kent one woman was on a country walk when she 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.  Returning to Cornwall in the 1930s, a final witness on a coastal walk sighted a pisky who then changed into “a long furry black roll, which gambolled about on the grass and then disappeared.”

The_artists_dream

John Anster Fitzgerald, The painter’s dream.

‘Ent fays’

Over the last hundred and fifty years the identification of fairies with the environment and natural processes has become more and more commonplace.  Some fairies are seen dressed in garments made from leaves and flowers, but it may not be especially surprising to find that supernatural beings are met with who appear to be more vegetative than animal.  These are creatures whose body seems to be composed of vegetable matter; they may perhaps be subdivided into ‘ents,’ walking trees, and smaller hybrid entities.

The tree-beings can be tall, seven feet high or more, perhaps with faces showing in the bark of their ‘bodies.’ The smaller vegetation fairies appear to be far more mixed in their appearance.  Some have bodies made of animated leaves and sticks, some are composed of a mixture of plant and insect elements, some are tiny leaf-like creatures.  With more evidence it may very likely be possible to analyse these types further.

C A Doyle creeper
Charles Altamont Doyle, A creeper.

Monsters

Last of all, there is a collection of witness accounts that tests our conceptions of fairies to the limits.  There are strange hybrid creatures: a dragonfly-fish, a frog-sparrow or a butterfly-bird.  There are also semi-human forms: beings that are part human and part insect, reptile, dog, spider or frog, as well as fairies that seem to be a combination of traditional fairy and mermaid features. Some fays have appeared as huge tadpoles, another as an ape dressed in leaves.

Some other less conventional forms

There are various other classes of sighting which, whilst fitting within the conventional imagery of fays, still display some unique features.

Aliens 

The boundaries between ‘aliens’ and ‘fairies’ are increasingly uncertain and permeable, it seems.  In Seeing fairies a tiny number of witnesses mentioned beings with pronounced pointed faces or slit/ black eyes.  The proportion of such sightings was distinctly higher in the Census, suggesting that the now-standard concept of a ‘grey alien’ may be shaping fairy experiences.

Humanoids 

Although the commonest fay form is human, they are sometimes said to be noticeably disproportionate, being too tall or having overlong limbs.  This is occasionally hinted at in Johnson’s reports, but spindly or gangly bodies are considerably more frequent in the Census, with bodies described as being very slender, long-limbed or above normal height.

Lights 

The luminosity of fairies is often mentioned, but the last transformation is the eradication of the body altogether: the fairy is reduced to a point of light, which is often seen darting about.  Johnson’s witnesses experienced this only a handful of times.  In the Census fourteen per cent of cases were sightings of bright lights, of which nearly three quarters were moving.  We may suspect here the influence of J. M. Barrie‘s stage representation of Tinkerbell in the minds of those having the experience.

stuff that dreams are made of

John Anster Fitzgerald, The stuff that dreams are made on (detail).

Conclusions

On their own, these reports are so anomalous as to make no sense, but grouped together some sort of pattern does appear to emerge and it is possible to identify certain ‘species’ that are regularly sighted.  Perhaps they are so different from the standard idea of fairy to demand a new name, but at present ‘faery’ is the only category to which we may assign them.