Incubi and Succubi

Henry Fuseli, An Incubus Leaving Two Girls

It will have been noted from my last posting on fairy lovers that they are, in the British Isles, predominantly female- other than the northern Scottish tradition of male selkies, who will form sexual relationships with human women and father children. 

Older literature often makes reference to incubi and succubi, male and female spirits or demons who take on human form to lie with women and men at night.  These beings have ancient roots, both classical and in the Middle East, and are clearly not identical (or even closely related) to our own faery lovers.  This notwithstanding, the terminology has come to be used indiscriminately (as with nymphs and satyrs) so that there may be some confusion between the two.  Reginald Scot included incubus amongst his list of fairy beings in the Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584 (in Book 7 c.15 and the ‘Discourse’ c.11). Scot was generally sceptical about all supernatural phenomena, though, and it is very clear from the ‘Shepherd’s Dream’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England (1612) that the poet was inclined to suspect that the incubus, “that begets dadlesse babes on girles asleepe” was just a cover for a much simpler explanation for pregnancies out of marriage.

British faery lovers tend to be involved on a longer-term basis with human partners, rather than simply using them for sexual purposes, but there is some native evidence for a purely carnal faery visitant.  I have previously described the nightmare or hag, a species of being that has also been identified more narrowly with Mab and even Puck.  These are the best known, but not entirely the only, examples of succubi in British tradition. (Note that Reginald Scot regarded the nightmare as a purely physical affliction though).

In Robert of Gloucester’s Metrical Chronicle (composed between about 1260 and 1300) there is an account given of the conception of Merlin.  His mother described how an unknown but very handsome man used to come to see her at night and, in due course, she found herself pregnant- never having slept with a man.  Amazed by this story, the king sought his counsellors’ advice, and they confirmed that there were ‘wights’ called elves (both male and female) who were known to act like this and to visit men and women at night. 

Þe clerkes sede þat it is in philosofie yfounde

Þat þer beþ in þe eyr an hey ver fram þe grounde  

As a maner gostes wiȝtes as it be

& me may þem ofte an erþe in wilde studes yse

& ofte in mannes forme wommen hii comeþ to

& ofte in wimmen forme hii comeþ to men al so

Þat men clupeþ eluene & parauenture in þis manere

On of hom in þis womman biȝet þis child here.”

This passage is, in fact, fairly easy to read. NB: the letter þ is simply ‘th’ whilst ȝ functions as a ‘y’ or sometimes as a guttural ‘g.’  The verb ‘clypeth’ simply means ‘call.’

“The clerks said (to the king) that it’s accepted by science

That there are, high in the air and far above the ground,

Beings that resemble ghosts

(Whom you can often see in wild, wooded places

And who often come in the shape of men to women

And who in women’s form visit men too)

That we call elves; perhaps in this way

One of them got this woman here pregnant with this child (Merlin).”

Robert of Gloucester was, almost certainly, a learned monk, and his background and education may well have shaped his Chronicle.  Furthermore, he was elaborating the legend of Merlin’s birth that had already been told by Geoffrey of Monmouth and several others.  We may wonder, then, whether this is a literary and scholastic view of elves or derives from folk belief. Notably, from the previous century there’s a story of a handsome fairy male who seduced a young woman at Dunwich (Life of William of Norwich, by Thomas of Monmouth).

However, the religious text titled Dives and Pauper, which dates to about 1405, very much confirms that the conceptions of elves set out by Robert of Gloucester reflect a more popular belief.  In the twenty-first chapter we are told how:

“The fende … may transfigure hym into lykenesse of man or woman by sufferaunce of god, for mannys synne and womans. And the fendes that tempt folk to lecherie be moste besy to appere in mannys likenes & womans to do lecherie with folk & so bringe them to lecherye. And in speche of folke: they be cleped elvys, but in Latyne whan they appeir in mannis lykenes: they be cleped Incubi. And whane they appier in lykenesse of wymen: they be cleped succubi…”

The idea of fairy men appearing in women’s beds and seducing them in fact proved to be a long lasting one.  Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, was the offspring of just such a union, according to the story of his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests, published in 1628.

Rather more interesting is the account of Goodwin Wharton (1653-1704) of his dealings with a woman called Mary Parrish and her contacts in the fairy kingdom of Lowlands, which lies beneath Hounslow Heath, west of London.  The story is mainly one of a wealthy man being cheated by a woman who holds out hopes of faery power, but it has a sexual element too.

Parrish told Wharton that the recently widowed faery queen, Queen Penelope LaGard, had taken a fancy to him and wished to marry him and make him the new king of Lowlands.  Although plans for face-to-face meetings kept falling through, Wharton had proved so irresistible to Penelope that for some weeks she had secretly visited him at night and had sex with him whilst he was asleep.  Despite his unconscious state, they had intercourse multiple times nightly, a revelation that explained the great tiredness and backache that had recently afflicted him.

Thinking about this, Wharton realised that he remembered one occasion on which they had had sex three times in a row; on the third occasion, the queen had “sucked up her breath” just as they both reached orgasm, the effect of which had been to extract “the very substance of the marrow” from his bones, leaving him drained nearly to the point of death.  This statement accords well with traditional medical beliefs, that saw sperm as a special kind of ‘marrow’ or vital energy.  Queen Penelope was exactly like a succubus, sapping Wharton’s strength.

Fuseli, Queen Mab and Two Girls

For more details on the subject of faery loves, see my new book Love and Sex in Faeryland.

How to Spot a Fairy

Fuseli, The Changeling

Our forebears often saw fairies- and knew that they had done so.  The certainty about the nature of experiences that is frequently disclosed in accounts is derived from various factors- circumstance, context, experience- but in no small measure it came from the witness knowing already what to expect. 

I’d like to look at this issue here, with particular reference to the identification of fairy changelings.  I’ll start with a couple of handbills from the 1690s which advertised ‘freak shows’ in London.  Even as recently as the nineteenth century, dead mermaids were put on display for the public to see; I assume that these were either confected fakes or they were the remains of manatees or seals or such like.  Live fairies are another matter entirely, though.

In 1690 a ‘changeling child’ was displayed at the Black Raven tavern, West Smithfield.  It was described as a “living skeleton,” which had been captured by Venetians from a Turkish ship.  The girl had been born to Hungarian parents and was nine years old, it was claimed, but she was only one foot six inches high.  Her legs, thighs and arms were very small “no bigger than a man’s thumb” and her face was as small as the palm of an adult’s hand, with a “very grave and solid” expression, as if she was sixty years of age.  If the girl was held up to the light, you could see all her ‘anatomy’ inside.  She never spoke, but mewled like a cat.  She had no teeth, but she had a voracious appetite all the same.

A second hand-bill of about the same date advertised a “living fairy” who could be seen at the Rose Tavern, Brydges Street, Covent Garden.  He was supposed to be 150 years old; he had been found around sixty years previously but had not aged since then.  His head was a “great piece of curiosity,” having no skull and “with several imperfections worthy of your observation.”

Doubtless both of these exhibits were profoundly disabled individuals who were being exploited by the proprietors of the touring show, but my interest is in the fact that they conformed to pre-existing ideas of what a fairy would look like.  What is, perhaps, most interesting is that the shared preconception seemed to be of a deformed and shrivelled creature- not at all the beautiful fairy princess we might be inclined to expect.

As I have often described before, one of the main occupations of British fairies was abducting people, most especially babies and young children.  Whilst a toddler might just wander off and not return, a baby in a cradle tended to be substituted for a fairy replacement- the changeling or ‘killcrop’ (a term seemingly taken from German: Luther discussed kilkropffs, for example, which is very possibly how the term became familiar and entered English). 

Changelings were accepted as being widespread and common.  For example, in December 1846 the Newcastle Courant carried a feature on the Devonshire pixies, in the course of which it was noted, casually and very much in passing, that a woman who was a fairy changeling was at that very time living in Totnes.  The people of South Devon were aware that this woman was a fairy and- it seems- were not especially surprised about that.  Part of their certainty must (again) have come from the fact that she looked like a fairy.  What did Victorians expect to see?

Scottish author James Napier recounted a changeling story in his book, Folklore, in 1879.  The child in question was suspected of having been swapped because “it seemed to have been pinched” and subsequently, it became very hungry, “gurning and yabbering constantly.”  These were give-away signs.  Another Scot, John Monteath, described in his book on Dunblane Traditions (1835) that changelings were “unearthly skin an’ bane gorbels.” In Scots, a gorbel is an unfledged bird, so this phrase is suggestive of the shrivelled, skinny look of the infant.  Likewise, in his story of ‘The Smith and the Fairies,’ John Francis Campbell described how the blacksmith’s son took to his bed and moped, becoming “thin, old and yellow.” (Popular Tales, vol.III)

In August 1892 the Dublin branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children issued its annual report.  Amongst the cases featured was that of a child neglected by its parents because they believed it to have been a changeling.  The reason for this (though it was probably worsened by their lack of care) was that the child was a “living skeleton,” which was exactly the term used for the girl advertised on the 1690 handbill.   On New Year’s Day 1898 the Hampshire and Portsmouth Telegraph carried a feature on Welsh superstitions associated with New Year’s Eve. The paper reprted that it was still felt to be vital to watch a child’s cradle at this turning point of the year lest the tylwyth teg snatch the babe and leave a plentyn newid (a ‘changed child’). This fairy would be a “frightful looking, shrunken, puling brat, not infrequently becoming idiotic.”  The paper added what a disgrace to the parents it was if such a substitution had been allowed to take place. 

What’s consistent in all these examples is the starved look of the infant- despite the fact that they frequently gobbled up food.  Perhaps it’s significant that in one Scottish poem a milkmaid wooed by a fairy gives her lover a crucifix to wear- and his glamour is dispelled, revealing him as a “brown, withered twig, so elf twisted and dry.”  In another Scottish account, a man is sure that his wife has been taken by the fairies rather than having died.  He has her coffin opened- and finds a dry leaf inside.

From the Welsh Evening Express, October 26th 1898

So fixed was the association between a whingeing child with an insatiable hunger and fairy abduction that Horlicks even made reference to the tradition in an advert for their product that ran during the late 1890s.

Although the Smithfield changeling was dumb, it was the preternatural knowledge and loquacity of the swapped infant that often gave away its true nature.  Lewis Spence tells the story of a Sutherland woman out walking one day when her one-year old baby suddenly recites some lines of verse.  She abandons the creature and runs home, fortunately finding her true child back in its cradle.

Changelings were not necessarily taken for malign reasons: the fairies often sought a playmate for their own children, but they didn’t give much thought to the feelings of the human family.  Such was the desperation of those parents to recover their own bairns that many terrible measures were attempted.  The case of leaving the child all alone out in the countryside that was just mentioned was very mild compared to some remedies.  For example, people resorted to threatening suspected changelings with red-hot pokers, holding them on shovels over the fire or placing them in hot ovens.  Such cruelty was provoked by the perfectly understandable anxiety to be reunited with the lost baby.  The abuse was bolstered by the assurance that it was justified because the child no longer looked the same- instead, it looked like fairy.

Further Reading

For a more extended consideration of this subject, see my books Middle Earth Cuckoos (2021) and Faery (2020).

Nightmares and fairies

fusli
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

There is a little explored link between fairies and nightmares, an association expressed very well in one of the most famous fairy texts, Mercutio’s description of fairy queen Mab in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  She is (as Shelley crowned her in his poem Queen Mab) the queen of dreams, both good and bad:

 “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

that presses them and learns them first to bear,

making them women of good carriage.” (Act I, scene 4)

It’s pretty evident here that Shakespeare sees Mab as having a sexual function.  She educates- and maybe even seduces- virgin girls, teaching them how to perform in bed.  That bearing, or carriage, is not about deportment but about receiving a lover lying on top.

In this passage, Mab is called a ‘hag,’ and to be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares. ‘The hagge’ was imagined as a hideous witch who sat on a sleeper’s stomach, causing bad dreams.  The notion of compression was a very early one, as we see from the South English Legendary of about 1300:

“Þe luþere gostes …deriez men in heore slep… And ofte huy ouer-liggez [men], and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare.”

“The evil ghosts harm men in their sleep and often lie on top of them, which people call ‘the night-mare.’”

There’s a supernatural cause here, but not a fairy one.  However, by the early seventeenth century the fae nature of the affliction was established.  For example, in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, one of Robin’s companions, Gull the Fairy, explains how:

“Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”

The victim’s experience is described in The Holly Bush of 1646:

“the nightmare hath prest,

With that weight on their breast,

No returnes of their breath can pass.”

The sixteenth century Scots poem, My Heart is High Above, likewise conveys some sense of how the experience feels: “Then languor on me lies, like Morpheus the mair.”  Devon poet, Robert Herrick, in his poem, The Hag, also described the sensation of a being riding the sleeper:

“The Hag is astride,

This night for to ride;

The Devill and shee together:”

In their 1621 play Thierry and Theodoret, playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher emphasise the unpleasant and exhausting nature of the experience:

“goblins ride me in my sleep to jelly.” (I, 2)

However, the sensation he depicted also has something of pixy-leading about it, as well as reminding us of the stories of fairies actually riding human victims at night for want of an available horse:

“A Thorn or a Burr She takes for a Spurre:
With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
Through Brakes and through Bryars,
O’re Ditches, and Mires,
She followes the Spirit that guides now.”
    
    miles johnston

Miles Johnston

In these versions, the pressure and shortness of breath are associated with fear rather than sexual activity and arousal, but there was great confusion between the two aspects of the nightmare.  We see this in William Sampson’s 1636 play The Vow Breaker- or the Fair Maid of Clifton in Nottinghamshire, when Ursula remarks to Anne:

“you us’d to say Hobgoblins, Fairies and the like were nothing but our own affrightments and yea, oh my Cuz, I once dreamed of a young batchelor and was ridden with a Nightmare.”

Here we elide seamlessly from fairies to nightmares to sexual fantasy within a single sentence.  In Drayton’s Nymphidia the sensual nature of the sensation is addressed more explicitly:

“And Mab, his merry queen, by night,

Bestrides young folk that lie up-right,

(in older times the mare that hight.)”

In both passages, the poets’ bawdiness is barely concealed.  Ursula being ridden by her lusty young batchelor and the ‘up-right’ wet-dreamers of Drayton are almost solely concerned with erotic dreams rather than horror.  This sexual aspect of the nightmare is underlined by Edward Topsell in his Historie of Serpents, where he mentions “The spirits of the night, called Incubi and Succubi, or else Night-mares.” (p.173)  These two spirits were believed to be supernatural lovers who came to men and women during the night.

The Victorian magazine, Once A Week, in 1867 carried a feature on Devonshire pixies, which informed its readers that they had control over sleeper’s fantasies: “Some may bring nightmares and others sweet dreams.”  Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given that the pixies of the South West can control the weather and use their powers of glamour to change landmarks and ‘pixy-lead’ victims.

The intertwining of faeries and good and bad dreams is highlighted lastly in Cartwright’s play of 1635, The Ordinary, in which Moth prays that:

“St Francis and St Benedict,

Blesse this house from wicked wight,

From the Nightmare and the Goblin,

That is hight Goodfellow Robin…” (Act III, scene 1)

Here it is Robin Goodfellow himself, otherwise known as Puck, who takes on the role of the wicked wight who brings bad dreams and disturbed sleep.

The word ‘mare’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon mære/ mæra, and derives from a verb meaning ‘to crush.’  In modern English it has fallen together with the word for a female horse (Anglo-Saxon mere).  The words have entirely separate origins, although the sense of riding presumably encouraged them to be mixed up.  It seems this confusion worked in several directions: for instance, in 1696 John Aubrey in his Miscellanies described precautions taken to “prevent the Night-Mare (viz.) the Hag from riding their Horses.”  Fairies are known for taking horses from stables and riding them at night and Aubrey (or perhaps country people he spoke to) understandably, but mistakenly, expanded the term for a fairy dream to cover another well-known fairy activity.

the end

Further Reading

In more recent times, fairies have come to be associated with much sweeter dreams- as in Rose Fyleman’s verse Fairy Lullaby for a Mortal which imagines the faes bringing dreams and brushing away darkness with their “soft, soft wings.”  These literary and nursery visions of gentle and benign Faery are a long way from earlier perceptions.

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of Queen Mab and see my Fayerie for more on her role in Tudor and Jacobean verse.

Who is Titania?

Vivien-Leigh-as-Titania-in-A-Midsummer-Nights-Dream

Vivien Leigh as Titania in Midsummer night’s dream

For many of us today, Titania has become the archetype of the fairy queen, if not of female fairies as a class.  Her origins seem to be Elizabethan.  In 1590 Edmond Spenser made his Faerie Queen a descendant of Titania, but the character was most explicitly and effectively introduced into fairy-lore by William Shakespeare in Midsummer night’s dream.  She was not a traditional character of British folklore (as her name might, in any case, suggest) and the playwright was certainly very well aware of the British equivalent: Queen Mab features prominently in a famous speech by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which was first performed in 1597. The Dream was written in 1605; did Shakespeare merely want a bit of variety or did he have other motives for creating a new faery monarch?

Diana

Somewhat like the name of her consort Oberon, Titania’s name is more descriptive than personal.  ‘Titania’ simply means that she is born of Titans- though this naturally begs some very important questions.  Roman writer Ovid tells us in The Metamorphoses that Titania is another name or aspect of the goddess Diana.  The latter was the Roman deity responsible for childbirth and, as such, there are some parallels with Queen Mab the midwife.  The Romans also linked Diana to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was primarily a goddess of nature, particularly of springs and water courses (she was, for example, known as Limnaia, ‘lady of the lake’, a name which for us now is freighted with resonances of Morgan le Fay and other fay maidens and such like nymphs).  In her guise as goddess of woods and water, Artemis had obvious parallels with native nature spirits and the association makes considerable sense.  However, Shakespeare had already used ‘Diana’ as a character in All’s well that ends well, five years previously to The dream, so perhaps again he merely sought variety- or had pursued the links even more deeply.

Edwin_Landseer Titania_and_Bottom

Edwin Landseer, Titania and Bottom, 1851

The Titans

Diana was descended from Titans, a heritage which takes us back to the roots of Greek mythology.  The Titans were a race of giants born of Uranus and Ge (heaven and earth).  Amongst their numbers were the male gods Oceanus, Cronus, Hyperion, Prometheus and Atlas; amongst the goddesses were numbered Thea, Phoebe and Rhea.  The inter-relationships and identities of these beings are far from fixed in the myths, but we need not be concerned with the detail.  It is the general tenor of the stories that’s significant: they contain a variety of fruitful themes and concepts.

Cronus is often seen as the chief of the Titans.  He led a revolt against Zeus and the Olympian gods and was defeated and displaced, being banished with all his kind to imprisonment in Tartarus.  It’s said that Cronus now sleeps eternally on some Western island, and as such his myth has very likely contributed to the growth of the story of King Arthur sleeping in Avalon.  The sister of Cronus was Rhea, but she was also his wife and so mother of a pantheon including Zeus, Poseidon, Hera and others.  In this role Rhea is commonly identified with another goddess, Cybele, who was in turn worshipped across the ancient world as the Great Mother Goddess.  She is another deity of nature, fertility and wild places and, as such, fairly readily linked to a fairy queen of groves and springs.

The daughter of the famous Titan Atlas was the equally well-known Calypso, nymph of the island of Ogygia.  It was she who detained Odysseus for seven years and tried to prevent him ever returning home with promises of immortality.   The time-scale and the reward must trigger for us thoughts of detention in fairyland.

In summary then, these divine female Titans all have attributes and rich associations which provoke thoughts of British equivalents and which tie local beings into a wider and more powerful mythology.  It may be for these reasons that Shakespeare chose the name Titania: she brought with her connotations of power and antiquity.

Shakespeare’s fairy queen

Rather like Artemis/ Diana, Shakespeare’s fairy queen is intimately associated with the natural environment.  Her quarrel with Oberon disrupts the weather and the growing of the crops.  This is summarised by Titania when she tells Bottom that:

“I am a spirit of no common rate./ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene i)

She rules over the seasons and they follow her moods.

In due course, naturally, the character of Titania took on a life of her own.  The name was taken up by others and became accepted as the appropriate appellation: for example, in Thomas Dekker’s play The whore of Babylon in 1607.

The new queen inherited much of the wanton sexuality of fairies generally and especially that of Queen Mab, giving us the erotically tinged imagery of Fuseli and Simmons as illustrated below.  The buxom wenches of the paintings are ironic given the fact that Artemis, one of Titania’s forms, was also known as a goddess of chastity who was in conflict with Aphrodite (who, in fact, is also of Titan ancestry).

1-there-sleeps-titania-john-simmons

John Simmons, There sleeps Titania

Titania and Bottom c.1790 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Titania and Bottom c.1790 Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Further reading

This posting was inspired by a reading of Geoffrey Ashe’s excellent Camelot and the vision of Albion.  Robert Graves in The white goddess also has a good deal to say about Cronus and the rest.  See too my consideration of the identity of Shakespeare’s Ariel.

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my books Famous Fairies and Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

“Fear of little men”-or, ‘How the fairy got her wings’

In William Allingham’s poem The fairies (1883) he gives late expression to a formerly common attitude to fairies:

“Up the airy mountain,/ Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/    For fear of little men;/ Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together;”

fuseli-puck

Henry Fuseli, Puck

The traditional terror of fairies and the change in attitudes in more recent times is something I have touched upon in my posting on fairies and the night and which I wish to analyse in some more detail.

Perilous fairies

Until at least the early seventeenth century,  the conventional view of fairy kind was that they were as dangerous as they were intriguing and enticing.   For example, the eller maids of Denmark were beautiful, but also deadly: anyone lured into dancing with them would be danced to death; they would never be able to stop and would perish from exhaustion. Fairies were the causes of disease and stole human children, food and possessions, as I have previously described.

What I wish to examine here is how these fearsome and sometimes fatal creatures could deteriorate into something cloyingly cute and eminently suitable for little girls to imitate. In Religion and the decline of magic (1971) Keith Thomas prefaces his discussion of fairy beliefs by observing that “Today’s children are brought up to think of fairies as diminutive beings of a benevolent disposition, but the fairies of the Middle Ages were neither small nor particularly kindly” (p.724). When was our fearful respect for the fairies replaced by a simpering, indulgent affection?

Shakespeare’s influence

I have dated the change, as I suggest, to around 1600.  Shakespeare provides us with some evidence of the shift in popular perceptions.  Some commentators view him as the sole culprit, but this is to imbue him with far greater influence and respect than he had at the time.  He may now be seen as a genius and cultural icon, but that was not his status in his lifetime; as a playwright he did not shape views, but he certainly does reflect them.

Take, for example, Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On the one hand there is Puck, whose magic interventions in human affairs might be dismissed as farcically inept, but who should probably best be viewed as mischievous, if not malignant, in his conduct.  He admits to revelling in his tricks, for certain.  At another extreme are the fairies introduced by Titania to Bottom, called Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed; here we have a first hint of the tiny and harmless beings with whom we are so familiar today.  A sense of these fairies’ size is conveyed by their use of glow-worms as lanterns and their hiding in acorn cups to escape Oberon’s fury.  By contrast, there is the encounter in The Merry Wives of Windsor between Sir John Falstaff and some children disguised as fairies.  They may be small, but that does not in the least detract from the horror he feels: “They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: I’ll wink and couch: no man their works must eye” (Act V scene 5).  Lack of stature, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, still did not of necessity denote weakness or an amenable nature.

Science and reason

What exactly changed, then?  I think that there is a number of causes.  The growth of science and industry, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, removed the justification for and threat of fairies.  Previously, as Geoffrey Parrinder remarked, “they helped explain many of the curious happenings of life” (Witchcraft, Pelican, 1958, p.70). By the later 1600s, this function was being superseded as John Aubrey wrote:

Old wives tales-  Before printing old wives’ tales were ingenious, and since Printing came into fashion, til a little before the Civil-Warres, the ordinary Sort of People were not taught to read; nowadayes bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good bookes, and a variety of Turnes of affaires; have putt all the old Fables out of doors and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin Goodfellow and the Fayries” (Remains of Gentilisme & Judaisme, 1687-89, p.68).

When they were no longer required to explain illness, they were left as merely decorative and un-threatening.  That said, if fairies had become redundant in this environment, their social function could be preserved by transporting them to other worlds.  This appears to be what has happened: green clad goblins have been translated into the ‘little green men’of science fiction.

Secondly, rationalism and religious scepticism has had a role.  Disbelief in a spirit world is sufficient to kill off fairies entirely, but it has also stopped them being taken seriously. Once this had happened, their descent into cuteness and whimsy was easy.

Fairy belief for a long time was treated as a thing of the previous generation.  For instance, John Aubrey recalled that “when I was a Boy, our Countrey people would talke much of them…” meaning  ‘Faieries.’  His contemporary, Sir William Temple, said much the same thing, suggesting that fairy belief had only really declined over the previous thirty years or so (i.e. during the mid-seventeenth century).  Robert Burton, writing the Anatomy of melancholy in 1621, shared these opinions:  fairies had been “in former times adored with much superstition” but were now seen only from time to time by old women and children.

Nevertheless, doubt seems to have been well established by the 1580s at least.  The best evidence for this is Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft (1584).  The book is an assault upon belief in witches, but he compares this extensively with the parallel belief in a supernatural race of beings.  In his introduction ‘To the reader’ Scot remarks that:

“I should no more prevail herein [i.e., in persuading his audience] than if a hundred years since I should have entreated your predecessors to believe that Robin Goodfellow, that great and ancient bull-beggar, had been a cozening merchant and no devil indeed.  But Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared…”

Once again, the fairy faith is a thing of the (distant) past.  Later Scot comments that “By this time all Kentishmen know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave” (Book XVI, c.7).  Scot’s theme is that such credulity is not just old-fashioned; it is now the preserve of the simple and weak.  He repeats these allegations throughout his text: “the feare of manie foolish folke, the opinion of some that are wise, the want of Robin Goodfellow and the fairies, which were woont to mainteine chat and the common people’s talke in this behalfe … All which toies take such hold upon men’s fansies, as whereby they are lead and entised away from the consideration of true respects, to the condemnation of that which they know not” (The Epistle); likewise- “we are so fond, mistrustful and credulous that we feare more the fables of Robin Goodfellow, astrologers and witches and beleeve more things that are not than things that are.  And the more unpossible a thing is, the more we stand in feare thereof” (Book XI, c.22).

Talk of fairies then, was in Scot’s opinion only fit for “yoong children” and its only purpose was to “deceive and seduce.”  Scot is concerned how many in the past were “cousened and abused” by such tales and he admonishes his readers to remember this:

“But you shall understand that these bugs speciallie are spied and feared of sicke folke, children, women and cowards, which through weakness of mind and body are shaken with vain dreams and continuall feare… But in our childhood our mothers maids have so terrified us with … urchins, elves, hags, fairies… that we are afraid of our own shadowes” (Book VII, c.15).

Scot remained confident in the advance of reason, however:

“And know you this, by the waie, that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin were as terrible and also as credible to the people as hags and witches be now, and in time to come a witch will be as derided and contemned, and as plainlie perceived, as the illusion and knaverie of Robin Goodfellow…” (Book VII, c.2)

King James I/VI in his Daemonologie (1597) was just as scornful as Scot of any belief in ‘Phairie’ but he did not ascribe it to mere foolishness.  For him, it was more sinister- it was a deception of the devil who had “illuded the senses of sundry simple creatures, in making them beleeve that they saw and harde such thinges as were nothing so indeed.” Although the fairy faith was “one of the illusiones that was risest in the time of Papistrie” it was thankfully in decline in Presbyterian Scotland at the time that he wrote (c.V).

Thirdly, fairy belief dwindled as the natural world was increasingly explored, surveyed and quantified.  When every acre of land was being assessed for its productive value and as a capital asset, the fairies were mapped and measured out of existence.  On a crowded island, no space was left for anything except the tiniest of beings to survive.  In fact, even as early as the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Michael Drayton could equate smallness with fairy nature: in his Eighth Nymphal he declares “Why, by her smallness you may find/ That she is of the fairy kind.”

rape-of-the-lock

Stothard, The rape of the lock

The shrinking fairy

The cumulative effect of these societal changes was, as Keith Thomas wrote, that “By the Elizabethan age, fairy lore was primarily a store of mythology rather than a corpus of living beliefs” (Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.726).  Deprived of its rationale, the decay set in quickly.  There is a suggestion of flight in Drayton’s Poly-Olbion- “The frisking fairy there, as on the light air borne” (1613, Song XXI) but explicit winged flight is first mentioned in The Rape of the Lock from 1712, in which Alexander Pope imagined fairies “Some to the sun their insect wings unfold/ Waft on the breeze or sink in clouds of gold.”   When, in 1798, Thomas Stothard illustrated Pope’s book with fairies with butterfly wings, the trend was confirmed.  Contemporaneously, we may note a bat winged Puck by Fuseli from 1790 and a tiny winged fairy creature in his illustration of Titania awakening with Bottom dated to 1794. This quickly seems to have become the convention: in subsequent Victorian images fairies are predominantly winged creatures; these wings are either gauzy like dragonflies’ or patterned like butterflies’.

henry-fuseli-titania-awakes-surrounded-by-attendant-faries-1794

Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

All the same, folk belief could still lag well behind popular culture and artistic representations: Ivor Gurney wrote a poem in 1918 that must preserve older Gloucestershire beliefs.  Having waited in a lane at dusk for a lover to return home, he is alarmed by a bustle in the hedgerow:

“Until within the ferny brake/ Stirred patter-feet and silver talk/ That set all horror wide awake-/ I fear the fairy folk.”  (Girl’s Song, September 1918)

There have been stubborn resisters too to the sentimentalising tendency.  Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1908) made clear his feelings; Puck tells Dan and Una (p.14):

“Besides, what you call [fairies] are made up things the People of the Hills have never heard of- little buzzflies with butterfly wings and gauze petticoats, and shiny stars in their hair, and a wand like a school-teacher’s cane for punishing bad boys and rewarding good ones… Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don’t care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors?  Butterfly wings indeed!”

The ultimate result of this decline is some of the twee horrors to be found.  For Christmas, I received a card bearing an illustration by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.  Along with Cicely Mary Barker, she is one of the prime offenders in the genre loathed by Kipling (and Puck). Amongst her pictures you will find fairies with perfect 1920s bobs and, worse still, gambling with koala bears at drinks parties…

ida-1

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

The resistance to the sentimentalising tendency continues (see for example the remarks of Cassandra Lobiesk on her website Fae folk: the world of fae- see my links page), but after at least a century, it may sadly be a losing battle.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

 

“Queen Mab hath been with you”

froud 4

Brian Froud, ‘The queen of the bad fairies’

In my fairy/ fantasy story, Albion Awakeone of the main characters is Maeve (Mab), ‘queen’ of the fairies.  She is a very well known name in literary fairy land, thanks amongst others to Shelley (who calls her ‘Queen of Spells’), Drayton and Shakespeare, and in this post I wanted to outline her traditional character (although my version in the new book is departs from convention in some respects).

Tiny Mab

Mab was generally conceived as being a tiny creature- the archetypal fairy.  She is believed to be derived from the Welsh Mabb, queen of the ellyllon, who were minute elves of grove and vale.  The most famous account of her is in Romeo and Juliet (Act One, scene iv) when Mercutio describes her in the following terms: “She comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone,” galloping at night in a coach made from a nut shell.  This diminutive stature is compounded by Shelley in his poem Queen Mab by an insubstantial and wispy physical form.

Whatever her size, though, Mab is source of disturbance.  Mercutio records that she “gallops night by night through lovers’ brains/ And then they dream of love.”  She is the fairy midwife of dreams and enables sleeping humans to realise their desires in fantasy.

Mischievous Mab

Secondly, Mab is mischievous; witness Mercutio again: she “plats the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs.”  She is responsible for undoing domestic chores and pinches and torments lazy servants- for example Ben Jonson in his 1603 ‘Entertainment at Althorpe’ warns that in the dairy Mab can hinder the churning.

Troublesome dreams

This interference in human affairs is taken one stage further, though, according to Mercutio’s description, and in this final aspect we find a link to the sensual, sexual fairy that I have discussed in an earlier posting.  Romeo’s companion recounts that “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage.”  To be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares and ‘the hagge’ was conceived to be a hideous witch or succubus who sat on a sleeper’s stomach and caused bad dreams.  For example, in the Mad pranks and merry jests of Robin Goodfellow (1588, Percy Society 1841, p.42) Gull the Fairy describes how “Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”  This notion is here distorted by Shakespeare into something akin to an incubus seducing- and even educating- virgin girls.

Robert Herrick, in his poem Oberon’s palace, tells of a naked and “moon-tanned” Mab who goes to bed with the elf-king.  These more adult and sinister traits in Mab’s behaviour are something I have chosen to develop in my novel.

fuseli

Queen Mab by Henry Fuseli