Killing fairies- the unpleasant truth

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

It’s a widespread belief that fays are immortal.  In fact (and surprisingly) the folklore evidence- scattered as it is- clearly contradicts this.  Fairies are mortal and, it follows, they can be killed.

Fairies’ life spans are considerably longer than ours, which probably explains the common misconception, but nonetheless they do die eventually, something the Reverend Robert Kirk expressed with his usual style:

“They are not subject to sore Sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain Period, all about ane Age.” (Secret Commonwealth, chapter 7)

Another Scottish account of fairy life-spans states that they live through nine ages, with nine times nine periods in each:

“Nine nines sucking the breast,
Nine nines unsteady, weak,
Nine nines footful, swift,
Nine nines able and strong,
Nine nines strapping, brown,
Nine nines victorious, subduing,
Nine nines bonneted, drab,
Nine nines beardy, grey,
Nine nines on the breast-beating death,
And worse to me were these miserable nine nines
Than all the other short-lived nine nines that were.”

That the fays will eventually sicken and pass away is confirmed by a couple of pieces of evidence.  Firstly, fairy funerals have been witnessed.  William Blake most famously described one, but his account is probably more poetic than authentic.  Other people have however stumbled upon fairy funeral processions (for example, that of the Fairy Queen at Lelant in Cornwall) and the Reverend Edmund Jones, living in Monmouthshire in the late eighteenth century, told of several such funerals seen which foretold deaths in the mortal world, quite often that of the witness.

Secondly, there are a few allusions to fairy cemeteries.  One was believed to be at Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland;  generally in the north of England it used to be said that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground.

So, despite great longevity, age and sickness will ultimately overtake even the fairies.  This is sad, but not necessarily shocking.  More disturbing is the evidence that fairies can be killed prematurely.  I have discussed fairy warfare in a previous post; it’s almost unavoidable that blood will be spilt in such conflict, but we might still not think it so remarkable that one magical being can slay another.  The truth is, though, that humans can murder supernaturals.

Nymphocide (I’ve just invented this word, by the way) may occur accidentally.  One version of the story from Brinkburn is that it was the ringing of the bells of the church that killed them (Denham Tracts, p.134).  I’ve mentioned before fairies aversion to church bells; this particular story takes that theme to extremes.

Other fairy murders are just that- deliberate and premeditated killings.  One case from Shropshire concerns some nuisance boggarts in a farmhouse.  The story follows the pattern of the “we’re flitting too” type of tale, in which the human family try to escape their unwelcome companions by moving house, only to find that the boggart comes with them.  In most versions the humans reconcile themselves to their unwanted housemates, often giving up the move entirely.  In the Shropshire version, the humans take matters to their logical conclusion.  Unable to give the boggarts the slip, they trick them into sitting in front of a blazing fire in the hearth of the new home and then topple them into the flames, where they’re held in place with forks and brooms until they’re consumed.

Some other nymphocides at least seem to be crimes of passion or are committed in the heat of the moment or in self defence.  On the Hebridean island of Benbecula a mermaid was accidentally slain by a stone thrown at her head during an attempt by some fishermen to capture her.  In the ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elf-knight, the heroine lulls to sleep the fairy who plans to kill her and then stabs him to death; in another version she drowns him- but the ability to kill is the point.  J. F. Campbell relays a story concerning the killing of a gruagach with a sword (Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.1, p.7).  The Reverend Robert Kirk also mentions a man with second sight who, during a visit to faerie, “cut the Bodie of one of those People in two with his Iron Weapon.”  All of these raise tales the possibility that it is the iron of the weapons that is significant.  We know that iron is a good defence against fairies and it seems only reasonable that it should be fatal for them too.

This evidence may surprise and shock some readers, but it fits with the general tenor of traditional fairy lore.  If the fairies are dangerous and untrustworthy beings, it seems inevitable that sometimes a person will conclude that the only safe and permanent solution will be to do away with the perceived threat.

A related, but separate, procedure is the ‘laying’ of a supernatural- normally a boggart- which involves permanently banishing or exorcising the creature.  Perhaps this will be the subject of a future posting…

IdaRentoulOuthwaite

Further reading

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

Fairies flitting- when and why fairies move home

Moving_Day_1869

To be clear at the outset, this posting is not about fairies fluttering from flower to flower on their gauzy wings.  In the dialect of northern England, and certainly south Yorkshire where I grew up, a flit is a move of home.  Common enough with humans, it is, surprisingly, something for which fairy kind is also known, contradicting preconceptions of their timeless presence in particular localities,  under certain distinctive fairy hills, in groves or near standing stones.

Our best and most picturesque account comes from the Rev. Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth.  In chapter 2 he describes how:

“They remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year, so traversing till Doomsday, being imputent and [impotent of?] staying in one Place, and finding some Ease by so purning [journeying] and changing Habitations. Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge; and at such revolution of Time, Seers, or Men of the second sight, (Fæmales being seldome so qualified) have very terrifying Encounters with them, even on High Ways; who therefoir uswally shune to travell abroad at these four Seasons of the Year…”

Aside from the wandering tendency of the sidh folk, what is noticeable too is that they seem tied to the points in the human calendar when leases tended to expire (although it might fairly be remarked that these themselves mark the major seasonal festivals of the year- the solstices and equinoxes.  Secondly, there is the quaintly appealing image of the fairies floating along with their luggage.  Given their magical powers, you might suppose there were easier ways to move house.

This constant motion may, perhaps, explain some of the fairies’ notorious elusiveness. Over and above a natural preference for change, there are a few other reasons why fairies might change their residences:

  • they are driven from their homes- the supernaturals may find themselves obliged to move either because they no longer feel welcome in their abode or because physical conditions there have become intolerable.  The first situation tends to arise with brownies- well meaning householders will try to give them clothes as a reward for their hard work or in pity at their nakedness, but this always causes offence and can lead to loss of the being’s voluntary labouring.  The second impulse for departure is very frequently the noise of church bells, which the creatures can find unbearable.  Such stories come from Inkberrow in Worcestershire and from Exmoor.  The pixies residing on a farm at Withypool had to retreat to the other side of Winsford Hill, a distance of around four to five miles, to escape the sound of the ‘ding-dongs.’  For this they begged use of the farmer’s cart and horses, another instance of the very physical inconvenience caused to them (just like us).
  • they flit with their families- I have mentioned this before hen discussing  brownies and boggarts: sometimes humans can find their supernatural housemates (typically boggarts) so vexing that they resolve the move away and leave them.  This always proves impossible; at some point during the removal it will be discovered that the entire household including the sprite has packed up and is on the move: a voice from within the cart piled high with belongings will confirm “aye, we’re flitting.”  Very frequently the response to this is simply to turn round and head back to the old, familiar home.

These rather aberrational accounts make fairies seem much like us: their tenancies expire, their neighbours get on their nerves and, rather than sorting out the problem where they are, they move on.  It humanises and domesticates them as well, in several of the cases, as stressing their inextricable links with humankind.

Perhaps the other aspect of these reports is to instil in us an expectation and acceptance that fairies may remove themselves from our locale.  For many hundreds of years it has been said that ‘fairies used to be seen round here- but no longer.’  Herein lies the reason: they have not ceased to exist, they have simply moved elsewhere.  The explanation helps sustain the belief; we don’t see them anymore, but someone else does now and- perhaps- some others might move into our neighbourhood soon if we’re lucky.

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