Brian Froud-the background to his art

 

primroses
Primroses (1978)

Readers will be very familiar with Brian Froud’s fairy art from books such as Faeries and Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries.  Here I want to examine what he believes about the subjects he paints- and how that may influence his creative process.

Faeries

Froud- and his artistic partner Alan Lee- first came to public attention as ‘faery experts’ with the publication of the illustrated book, Faeries, in 1978.  It has been through several editions since, including a twenty-fifth anniversary issue, and the illustrations have for many become synonymous with representations of Faery.  This is understandable- there is something very immediate and ‘real’ about their vision of fairies: they are wild and often ugly.  Although the two artists portrayed naked and attractive female fairies, including quite young juveniles,  as often (if not more frequently) there are mature and deformed beings, hybrids of animals and humans, pixies with malicious faces and sharp fangs, a host of barely human humanoids.  The nakedness then serves to emphasise their wild, untamed natures- it isn’t sexual but feral.

Froud toadstools

Writing in her Introduction to the anniversary edition, Betty Ballantine described faeries as “alien creatures with values and ethics far removed from mankind: they do not think and, most notably, they do not feel, the way that humans do. This is precisely the core of much of their envy of mortals and a source of a good deal of the trouble they cause…”  She concluded: “Faerie is a world of dark enchantments, of captivating beauty, of enormous ugliness, of callous superficiality, of humour, mischief, joy and inspiration, of terror, laughter, love and tragedy.”  These lines summarise Froud and Lee’s vision exactly.

In his own preface to the anniversary edition, Brian Froud underlined that he and Lee had “wanted to be as true to the subject as possible and to portray fairies as they really are.  So, we went back to the original source material and folklore description.”  This is the real value of the book Faeries.  It is a very attractive ‘coffee-table’ volume to flick through and admire the illustrations, but the text is a faithful abbreviation of the folklore- although the two artists drew their material from across Europe, mixing up British, Irish and continental faes quite indiscriminately.

Froud continued: “we started to produce page after page of wizened faces with sharp little teeth, most of them up to no good.  We were painting pictures of faeries with their original power reinstated, not just airy whimsy.  We were being true to the fairies themselves and those who have bought the book have instinctively felt that honesty in every painting and drawing.”  Here he identified the reader’s response that still draws us to the images, over four decades later.  The fairyland of Faeries is sexy, menacing, beautiful, distorted; it is complex and imperfect, it mingles good and evil and, as such, it seems authentic.

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Harebell faery (1978)

Good Faeries, Bad Faeries

After the success of Faeries, Brian Froud became particularly closely associated with fairydom and that link has substantially shaped his career since the late 1970s.  His other books include Goblins (1983), Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book (1994), Good Faeries, Bad Faeries (1998), The Faeries’ Oracle (2000) and Brian Froud’s World of Faerie (2007).  With these he has steadily drifted further from the solid base of faerylore that gave Faeries its convincing authority and accuracy and he has increased the whimsy and invention.

In the original Preface to the 1978 book, it is declared that “Only one thing is certain- that nothing is certain.  All things are possible in the land of Faerie.”  This has more and more become the case for the later books, which are much more works of fantasy fiction than attempts to summarise folklore.  Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is a very good example of this.  It is a mix of pure personal invention with traditional material and has to be approached with some care as a ‘source’ book.  As Froud says in the Preface to the ‘Good’ half of the book, it’s “about the magic in our lives today; it links faeries of the past with faeries of the present and future.”  The artwork is still fantastic, but as he tells us “such images grow from my own inner journeys and daily contact with the faeries.”  This new book is a product not so much of trips to the library but of undiluted imagination.

fairy kissed by pixies
The faery who was kissed by pixies (1998)

It seems clear to me that, since 1978, the artist has absorbed a lot of the more recent ideas about faeries- theories derived not from British folklore but from Theosophy, Spiritualism and from modern Paganism.  For example, he states “they are shape shifters, highly mutable, for no faery or nature spirit has a fixed body.  In their essence, faeries are abstract structures of flowing energy, formed of an astral matter…”  To look at the faeries is “to look at the four elements to which they are aligned: earth, water, fire and air.  Faeries are physical manifestations of these basic building blocks of creation and the spiritual custodians of all natural phenomena.”  They are “agents of the cosmic mechanics that underlie our world… bringing us messages from the depths inside ourselves and from the cosmos.”  They coalesce from “the pure consciousness of the world’s soul” gradually manifesting “in a form eloquent of function, moulded by emotion.”  This is a man who’s been reading Geoffrey Hodson, Madame Blavatsky and Paracelsus.  As I’ve indicated before, I’m more traditional in my approach to the subject, so I’m not so keen on these passages.

The faeries of Good Faeries, Bad Faeries have been ‘hippified’ too.  No longer are they the potentially malicious beings of 1978: they are “agents of self-growth and transformation, embodiments of the healing energies that flow through nature and through ourselves.”  Faeries are “a reflection of the inner nature of our souls;”  theirs is “a land where wisdom is inseparable from whimsy and where leprechauns dance with angels.”  We’re a long way here from the faeries who steal children and kill your cows…

Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is, in consequence, a curious mixture of traditional sprites, new age spirits and beings that are entirely made up by Brian Froud.  He deals with such beings as hobs, piskies, grigs, muryans,  bodachs, fideals, hobyahs and melsh dick; but also he describes sylphs, angels, undines, pans, fauns and- for some reason- a sphinx (?). He also offers us his own jokey beings, such as the rainbow faery, the buttered toast faery, the pen stealer and the foot fungus faery…

faery waters
Faery waters (1998)

In summary, therefore, Faeries remains a classic and is a recommended book to have in your faery collection- it is attractive as well as genuinely informative.  The later books are a delight to look at, but they can’t be treated as guides to Faery equivalent to the 1978 original.

For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

 

Gnomes and gardens

tomte

‘Midsummer tomte’ from The Midsummer Tomte & the Little Rabbits by Ulf Stark & Eva Eriksson

Introduction

I’m going to start controversially.  The theme of this post is gnomes, but the fact is that gnomes don’t exist.  The word ‘gnome’ was made up by the sixteenth century German physician Paracelsus to describe a concept of his own invention, an earth dwelling nature spirit.  It wasn’t quite like the dwarves or kobolds of his native Germanic folklore and it isn’t really related to anything in the folklore of the British Isles either. A substitute term from English might be ‘goblin’ or (even better) the word ‘mannikin’ which was adopted by Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s.

Who’s a gnome?

Arguments about terminology aside, its very clear that people see gnome-like beings all the time and that they are closely tied to nature.  The book Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and the Fairy Census 2017 are both full of sightings which give us a very good idea of their appearance and habits.

I should start with a word of warning.  Some of the modern accounts give rise to a suspicion that preconceptions about the appearance and conduct of gnomes, derived from literature and popular art, have shaped people’s perception of what they witnessed.  For example, a mother’s toddler saw a “funny little man” in their Nottinghamshire garden; she questioned him as to what exactly he had seen and he gave “a fair description with what she associated with a dwarf or gnome.”  What the very young infant experienced is channelled through an adult’s interpretation, therefore (Johnson p.17).  The mother, and possibly the child too, will have had their vision pre-formed by Enid Blyton, Walt Disney and other such powerful influences.  In another instance, the figures seen wore “the recognised garb of gnomes”- as if there is some sort of supernatural uniform (Johnson p.185).

At the same time, though, many people struggle to label what they have witnessed, so that I have sorted out the accounts on the basis of my own prejudices applied to their descriptions and perhaps included some examples that were not gnomic.  Some of the beings sighted were called ‘gnomes,’ in one case the witness wasn’t sure whether to best call them gnomes or brownies and a few people resorted to Hodson’s term ‘mannikin’ (Johnson pp.45, 169 & 177).

froud gnome

Brian Froud, a gnome

What’s a gnome?

Whilst we may have doubts about classification, we can be rather more definite in describing the ‘typical’ gnome.  They are likely to be seen wearing jackets and trousers, very often hats and boots.  The clothes are predominantly green, though often brown.  Red is sometimes seen and a variety of other colours have been reported from time to time: grey, blue, yellow and even mauve.  As we might anticipate, gnomes’ hats are very frequently pointed and most commonly red.  Green brown, yellow and blue headgear have also been seen and hats may also resemble mushrooms and acorns or be broad brimmed or peaked.

Gnomes don’t tend to be tall.  About half of those sighted were under twelve inches in height; roughly equal numbers measured between twelve and eighteen inches high, between eighteen and twenty-four inches and taller than that, up to about five feet high in just two examples.  Beards were quite frequently reported; white hair or aged features were not uncommon.

Given the total number of cases recorded in the Census, Seeing fairies and a few other sources I used, gnomes don’t seem to constitute a large part of the fairy population.  They represent about 13% of the total sightings.

To summarise this information so far: gnomes look like gnomes.  They tend to be small, bearded, in tall pointy caps.  One witness in Liverpool saw a little being “of the tubby sort;” two others described what they saw as being like ‘traditional gnomes.’  I assume once again that they are comparing the creatures seen to an image of an ‘archetypal gnome’ that they held in their imaginations (Johnson pp.323, 172 & 261).

Given their habitual association with gardens and greenery, we have to add that gnomes may well smell distinctively of loam and damp vegetation.  Witnesses in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies report gnomes with “an odour like fungus” or a “strange earthy smell;” there seems to be a particular association with mushrooms and fungus.  (Johnson pp.33, 36 & 186)

Garden gnomes

Where were gnomes seen?  This analysis is actually far more interesting than the information on appearance, which in the main is quite stereotypical.  Surprisingly, 37% of the beings labelled as gnomes by those who saw them were seen inside houses.  That means that the majority, 67%, were seen outside (as we might expect), but the locations varied.  Not quite half the gnomes were seen in gardens, but they were also spotted in woods (some even apparently living in trees), in open grassy areas and, in three cases, walking along a road.

Gnomish deeds

What were these gnomes up to?  Many did fit with our conventional view of gnomes as gardeners and cultivators.  They have been seen busily engaged in a range of garden tasks, including working with green beans in a vegetable patch, tending fruit and flowers- both outside and in greenhouses and the like- sawing and chopping wood, moving plants around and carrying horticultural implements like wheelbarrows, baskets, buckets, brooms, forks, rakes and spades.  For example, in 1940 a Mrs Small living in Nottingham had accidentally pruned away the main shoots of some tomatoes.  She saw some gnomes, who were about twelve inches high, looking very concerned about the condition of the plants.  A little later they came to her carrying a basket filled with green tomatoes and conveyed to her (without words) that she should put them to ripen in a dark place.  The same witness also saw a gnome in her garden looking very cross about a piece of rope tied around a tree: it seems that gnomes may be quite possessive about the places they live, or at least have very clear ideas about good and bad horticulture.

The gnomes don’t always need tools to do their work of cultivation and propagation.  In one instance that took place at Stapleford in Nottinghamshire, a woman was struggling to weed and hoe a very parched patch of earth.  She spotted a gnome watching her with amusement and, when she challenged him for laughing at her instead of lending a hand, he dived beneath the ground surface and very quickly turned over the soil.  Gnomes have also been seen in gardens acting as general ‘protectors’ to the plants, for example guiding people towards the best times to pick plants.

Other gnomes are just as busy, but with more general tasks.  A couple were seen carrying a heavy bundle; in another encounter, that took place in a snowy Devon lane, a car driver saw six little figures, about eight inches high, transporting a ladder along the road.  His appearance led to a hurried scramble to haul the ladder through the hedge and out of sight.  Cobbler gnomes in leather aprons and carrying their tools and materials were met by one person.  Some gnomes are seen just taking their leisure: in one instance they were dancing, in another doing gymnastics; in a third sighting about a dozen were witnessed racing tiny ponies and traps around a field in rural Derbyshire.

Homely gnomes

The domestic gnomes are possibly the most surprising: they are quite at home in human houses (and flats)- sitting on the stove, for example, and they seem particularly fascinated by machinery such as sewing machines.  One gnome encountered by Geoffrey Hodson quite reasonably spent the summer in his garden in Letchworth, but moved inside the house as winter came on.

Conclusions

We end with a conundrum, then.  Our ancestors would not have seen gnomes, because they had never heard of them.  They might very well have seen goblins, imps, and even dwarves (duergars) in the North-East of England and the Scottish Borders; they might very well have seen fairies and elves hard at work in their vegetable patches, but it seems to have been a far more recent development that these sightings came to be labelled using Paracelsus’ invented term.  This received widespread diffusion through the Theosophists and related groups from the late nineteenth century onwards and the word has become embedded in our language- very possibly because it met a need and provided a convenient term to describe a class of supernatural beings.

jultomte-JN2

“On a mission from God”-do fairies have a divine purpose?

fairies-bless-the-newborn-child-by-Estella-Canziani

Estella Canziani, Fairies bless the newborn child.

There is an identifiable strand of thought about modern fairies that wishes to see them as part of a wider divine plan.  I wrote a little while ago about the ideas of Paracelsus on fairies and I think his insistence upon his elementals being part of God’s creation and allotted a purpose within the universe have been a major contributor to this ‘mission from god’ idea.

Satanic servants?

This is quite a turn-around, because formerly, as I described in my jottings on fairy religion, the Christian church had spent most of its history attacking fairies and condemning fairy belief. Fairies were demons or, at the very best, delusions sent by the devil to lead us astray.  This had always been the orthodox belief of the Catholic church and, after the Reformation, the position was expressed with renewed vigour and venom by Protestant preachers.  Quite unfairly, post-Lutheran polemicists made out that one of the many superstitions fostered by Rome was the existence of fairies.

As these beings were nothing more or less than servants of Satan, there could be never be any accommodation with them and the Christian church was directly opposed to them.  This is very clearly shown in a story from Borgue in Kirkcudbright: a boy started to disappear for days at a time and it was realised that he was visiting the fairies underground.  To protect the child, he was taken to a local priest and was given a large crucifix to wear on a black ribbon around his neck (although, this being dour, Protestant Scotland, the local kirk then expelled the family for such Papist goings on).

Over the intervening centuries, there have been attempts to find some sort of accommodation between fairies and the Biblical view of the universe.  In A discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits, which was appended to the 1665 edition of Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft, one of several such arguments was set out:

“God made the Fairies, Bugs, Incubus, Robin Goodfellow and other familiar domestical spirits and Devils on the Friday and, being prevented with the evening of the Sabbath, finished them not, but left them unperfect, and therefore ever since they use to flie the holiness of the Sabbath, seeking dark holes in Mountains and Woods, wherein they hide themselves til the end of the Sabbath and then come abroad to trouble and molest men.” (Book I c.XI)

This passage is an excellent compromise between divine omnipotence and the need to explain these anomalous spirits- not quite demons, not quite angels. We may compare the belief in Cornwall that the local pixies were either the souls of still-born children or of newborn babies who died before they could be baptised.

Despite these conflicting theories, the fairies’ position is clear in one sense: they are not godly beings and, as such, are averse to all things Christian.  This was very widely reflected in popular belief, in which a sure charm against fairy harm was anything in the least related to religion- whether it was the sign of the cross, the use of blessings or, even, the deployment of pages torn from a Bible or a prayer book as defence against elf attack.  Any item or turn of phrase with Christian connotations came to be seen as protection against fairy powers: for example, in William Bottrell’s story of An’ Pee Tregear, the old woman sees pixies threshing in a barn.  She hears a pixie sneeze and instinctively says ‘bless you’- causing them all to disappear (Traditions and hearthside stories, vol.2 p.154).

margetson

Hester Margetson, Bluebell in fairyland.

Fays and angels

You wouldn’t necessarily know today that any of this very marked antipathy ever existed between mainstream Christianity and a belief in fairies.  For example, Doreen Virtue in Fairies 101 (2007) describes the fays as “God’s creatures with important missions” and as “angels who reside close to earth.”  In her Healing with fairies of 2001 she claims them as sparks of the divine light, part of God’s wondrous creation.  Their role is as guides and helpers to humans and as guardians of nature.

Other contemporary writers take a pagan approach, but still infuse their descriptions with a sacred vocabulary.  Alicen and Neil Geddes-Ward derive their Faeriecraft from modern Wicca and refer to the “sacred nature” of the fairies, with whom we can build a “divine relationship.”  Sirona Knight and Deanna Conway both associate the fairies with the God and Goddess; Rae Beth refers to the Great Mother.

Particularly in the accommodation of fairies with Christian belief, the danger seems to me to be to subordinate them to whatever divine purpose is perceived by the author and to reduce or eliminate the free will and the individuality of the fairies themselves.  Once they have their mission from God, they can lose their own motivations and agenda and come to be viewed solely through their relationship to us and to their holy duty.  Much as with the reconstitution of fairies as nature spirits and elementals, devoted to saving the planet, I think there’s a lot of projection of our own concerns and needs onto them and too little regard for the evidence of tradition.

Selfish supernaturals?

In her 2017 book Fairies Morgan Daimler states in no uncertain terms that the fairies

“have never cared about the things we do to the world around us so long as we leave their places alone.”

This encapsulates the traditional fairies’ selfishness perfectly: they are protective of their favoured spots- but that’s all.  Morgan also points out that the faes can always go back to the otherworld in any case (Fairies, pp.4 & 174).  She’s quite right; it might be nice to personify nature in order to give ourselves a bit of extra impetus to clear up the mess we’ve made, but the fairies and elves of folklore would probably take the view that it’s nothing to do with them.  We wrecked the place, so we should put it right- and, meanwhile, they’ve got better things to do.  This may sound harsh and unfeeling, but a lot of the British fairies are just that: they steal property, they kidnap children, they torment adults, they kill livestock and people.

Reading the posts I’ve made on this blog or reading any of the accounts contained in the folklore sources that I’ve depended upon, it is hard honestly to see anything about the national fairies that could entitle them to be seen as “divine sparks.”  Often, albeit for different reasons, you feel that the medieval and Reformation church men had made a better assessment.  Faerie can be mercenary and it can be cruel and its denizens can appear devoid of any hint of holy fervour.  A Victorian author said that the Devonshire pixies “had no religious rites or services.”  Most others similarly lacked any discernible faith or ceremonies.  How and when did the fairies get religion?

Pixies and Paradise?

Paracelsus sowed the seed, but I think it was only in the wake of Theosophy that we became convinced that the fays had to be part of a bigger plan.   For example, Manly P. Hall (1901-90) and the Reverend Flower A. Newhouse (1909-94) both wrote extensively on the angelic and fairy hierarchies.  Newhouse called the fairies ‘frakins’ and saw them as a lower order of earth elemental, responsible for flowering plants and grasses.  Above them were sylphs, gnomes and elves, leading successively to the angels.  Her books include Natives of eternity (1937), The kingdom of the shining ones (1955) and Rediscovering angels and natives (1966), the titles all being suggestive of her general approach.

Daphne Charters was author of The origin, life and evolution of fairies (1951) and A true fairy tale (1956).  She claimed to have daily conversations with the small workforce of fairies resident in her home and garden.  She saw the entire natural and human world as being run by these industrious creatures, beings who ‘covered every inch’ of the visible and invisible universe.  In many ways Charters’ theories built upon those of Geoffrey Hodson (as in his book The kingdom of God) , but she disagreed with his views in two ways.  Firstly, his belief was the fairies could not speak, whereas she was in constant, chatty dialogue with her good neighbours.  Secondly, her vision of a hierarchy of nature spirits was far more systematic and orderly than Hodson’s.  Charters discovered a scale of being from the microscopic, simple and short-lived rudines all the way up to God.  The intermediate stages included gnomes, elves and fairies, each longer-lived, larger and more mentally developed that the other.

Iris Ratsey was another Christian medium and mystic.  Her little 1966 book, Pioneering in conscious and co-operative mediumship, is a strange mix of prayers, meditations and visions. From an early age she had regularly seen fairies and, in the text, she describes a visit to “higher dimensional territory” where she witnessed the “sub-human or etheric nature species” responsible for the growth of wheat seeds and describes their ecstatic life cycle.  Ratsey stated that her visions of tiny elfin creatures gave her “a sense of divine presence” explicitly linking her contact with Faery with religious experience.

What do the fairies want?

Fairies have been promoted in recent decades into a force for good.  They are seen as having a role assisting us with our moral and/or spiritual development and are appealed to and worked with on this basis by several faery faiths.  My caution with this depiction of the fairy race is that it is very hard to square it with the traditional sources.  An honest assessment of those would be that the fairy race is, at best, amoral (and at worst immoral) in the sense that faes can be cruel, selfish and demonstrate little respect for property.  There is very little ‘divine’ about them.  They don’t want our prayers; they aren’t interested in petitioners; they are a separate race living in parallel to humans whose good will can’t be bought.  What they want from us is tribute, not worship; they’re interested in taxes or booty rather than sacrifice.

In many respects, the fairy attitude to human beings as delineated in the folklore accounts is one akin to a colonial or conquering state, which seeks to derive income and resources from a tributary people.  This fits very well with the fairies’ practices of abducting adults and children, of stealing food products and food sources and their general possessiveness in respect of human property.  This may seem harsh- yet it encapsulates some of the core dynamics of our relationship.  In light of this, it is harder to recast the fay character as benevolent and non-materialist, as some modern conceptions wish to do.

 

 

Anti-Paracelsus- the man who messed up Faery?

Paracelsus

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (known as Paracelsus) was a German doctor, alchemist and astrologer.  He was born near Zurich in 1493 and died in Salzburg in 1541.  He is significant to those interested in fairylore for his theory of the spirits of the four elements.

What’s in a name?

Von Hohenheim was a vain and combative man.  There was little in his nature to ingratiate himself with others: he was abusive, conceited and determined to break with tradition.  Typical of this attitude is the fact that he called himself Paracelsus.  Celsus was a respected Roman physician of the 1st century BC; von Hohenheim had declared himself ‘Greater than Celsus.’  In our field of fairylore one of the most respected and widely known figures is the author Katharine Briggs.  Many readers will know her name and may very likely own one of her books- I started my own fairy investigations with a copy of her Dictionary of fairies.  To act like Paracelsus, then, would for me to decide henceforth to call myself ‘Better than Briggs.’

I don’t have either the confidence or the effrontery of Paracelsus, but it tells us a lot about the man.  He knew best- in everything- and previous authorities were worthless.  In contrast, Katharine Briggs was an academic, a careful scholar who had a referenced source for everything she wrote, and I still constantly refer to her books.  Nonetheless, we should recall that she was largely a collator of other people’s work (especially in her best-known books).  I believe we should always use Briggs as our starting point but then proceed to the sources she drew upon rather than just quoting Briggs herself- and let’s not forget that these sources were folklore collections that were often, themselves, already second or third hand from the experiences described.

Briggs,_K

Katharine Mary Briggs

If there is one chink in Brigg’s intellectual armour, it is her friendship with and confidence in the Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue.  It is pretty widely accepted now that Tongue made up a good deal of her material.  She got away with this because, of course, no-one could dispute whether or not she had interviewed some elderly farmer’s wife and for a long time no-one doubted that she had.  In a sense, then, Tongue was much like Paracelsus- she created a mythology which many successors have taken seriously when it did not deserve that respect.

The four elementals

Back to the great Paracelsus.  In his book On nymphs, sylphs, pygmies and salamanders and other spirits he set out his theories on the supernatural world (De nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteribus spiritibus, published 1566). He believed that the whole universe was endowed with life and that the intermediate state between the material and the non-material was peopled with real beings associated with the four elements.

Paracelsus was a good Catholic and he stressed the role of God in creating these ‘elementals.’  Part of the divine purpose had been to ensure that no part of the universe was void and without life, but Paracelsus felt there was more to it than that.  The elementals have important functions to perform in the universe (as we’ll see in a little while); he believed that they were vitally necessary and had not been created in vain.  In addition, they exist to prove the marvels of the works of God and Paracelsus therefore argued that our proper response to this is to study them very closely and to learn all that we can about them.

According to Paracelsus, there are four species of elemental .  He used a variety of names for them, even in so short a book as De nymphis.  There are the undines or nymphs of water, the sylphs (a word he invented- it may derive from Greek silphe, meaning grub, or be a contraction of sylvestris nymphi) of the air, the fiery salamanders or vulcani and the pygmies or gnomes of the earth (whom he also called the mountain mannikins).  Once again, the word ‘gnome’ was apparently invented by Paracelsus.  The name was derived by Paracelsus from Greek, either gnōmē (intelligence)- because the gnomes revealed information about hidden treasures- or ge nomos (earth dwelling).  Nevertheless, they are Paracelsus’ invention and so, as Katherine Briggs wrote in the Dictionary of fairies, gnomes “belong rather to dead science than to folk tradition.”

Paracelsus went to great lengths to stress that these elementals that he imagined are not pure spirits.  They are composite spirit-men, very similar in many ways to humans, but not descended from Adam and Eve.  They are more like humans than beasts, but they are neither.  They resemble us both physically and in their personalities.

The elementals’ flesh is more subtle than ours and can’t be grasped or bound; they can travel through solid objects.  Nonetheless, in many respects they are people just like us.  They need food, drink and clothing; they have children, they suffer diseases and other health complaints and, although long-lived, they will eventually die.  The elementals walk about just as we do, albeit at much greater speeds.  Like us they are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb or talkative.  They make tools, they have government, they formulate laws.  They rest and sleep like us; they have their night and day and their seasons.  They are “queer and marvellous” creatures whose major difference to humans is that they have no souls.  Nevertheless, Paracelsus rejected any idea that the elementals are devils or demons; they crave salvation and by marrying a human can receive a soul and thereby be saved.

Paracelsus described his imaginary water, fire, mountain and wind people in detail.  The undines look very like us, living in brooks and pools.  The sylphs are crude, coarse, longer and stronger than we are; their food is like ours- the herbs of the woods which they inhabit.  They are shy and fugitive.  Gnomes are about half the size of humans, and build their houses under the earth. The vulcani are long, narrow and lean.  They appear fiery and they melt and forge metals.

Paracelsus believed that the elementals are rational and ought to be treated with respect.  We can enter into bargains with them and they may give us money.  They do not mix with each other but live solely within their own elements; however, as the human world is compounded of all of the elements, they are able to interact with humans.  The nymphs most resemble humans and are known to marry and interbreed with them.  They have to be treated well, though, as if offended they will rapidly return to their own element.  Likewise gnomes will serve people, providing them with money and knowledge and guiding them to rich resources, but they can deal out blows, too, and will disappear under their mountains at the least provocation.

The elementals have two vital functions, according to Paracelsus: they indicate and warn of future events, such as political and economic upheavals, and they act as guardians over nature.  Specifically the nature spirits- especially the salamanders- make and protect “tremendous treasures in tremendous quantities.”   They steadily reveal these to humans, thereby explaining why it is that we slowly discover new mineral sources and lodes of precious metal.

That’s a summary of De nymphis and I’ve probably already more devoted more space to Paracelsus’ ideas than they deserve, in the circumstances.  Now, we’re all entitled to our fantasies, but the problems arise when people mistake them for scientific fact or for received wisdom.  Both misconceptions have befallen Paracelsus.  What may best be described as a speculation has matured into the status of a report from the otherworld.

sylphs

Pixies and pygmies

Paracelsus’ ideas were widely disseminated, both through the reading of his work and through the thought of other thinkers who drew upon him.  Amongst those who followed his fourfold classification of Faery were Eliphas Levy, Madame Blavatsky (founder of Theosophy), W. B. Yeats, Evans Wentz, Rudolf Steiner and Geoffrey Hodson.

Unorthodox and individual as his ideas were, Paracelsus’ four-fold division of nature took hold.  Proof of this is to be found in our usage of the word gnome.  He may have made it up, but on the continent it became associated with the dwarves of Teutonic and Scandinavian mythology and gradually came to act as an alternative label for them.  Dwarf, gnome and goblin are now virtually interchangeable in everyday speech.

Just as he invented his own theories in medicine, Paracelsus invented his own folklore.  Others added to this subsequently, Montfaucon de Villars (in Le comte de Gabalis, 1670) and Eliphas Levi being particular culprits and adding considerably to Paracelsus’ original fantasies from the Kabbalah.

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Arthur Rackham, Undine, 1909

Paracelsus and folk tradition

Now, we already know that classical mythology had started to taint native beliefs as a result of the renaissance rediscovery of Greek and Roman legends.  British fairies were regularly made synonymous with Mediterranean fauns and such like:

“You mountain nymphs which in the desarts reign/ Cease off your hasty chase of savage beasts…/ You driades and light-foot Satyri/ You gracious Fairies, which at even-tide,/ Your closets leave with heavenly beauty stored…” (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594); or,

“some are of fyre, and some of the ayre,/ Some watrye and some earthly, and some golden and fayre/ Some lyke unto sylver…” (The Buggbears, George Gascoigne, 1565)

Paracelsus only compounded this trend, but the real problem with his idea of the elementals is that it has next to no basis in folk tradition- nor, perhaps, should we expect it to do so, given Paracelsus’ addiction to rejecting received wisdom.

There are certainly some familiar elements in what he wrote.  He’d spent a lot of time in mines and was doubtless aware of the spirit called the kobold in Germany and knocker in Cornwall; the gnome bears some considerable resemblance to these and fairies too have long been linked to buried treasure.  His undine brides are very like the fairy wives of Welsh folk stories (and other myths).

As his four elementals are partly derived from classical myth, and partly from his own imagination, the difficulty for many subsequent writers has been fitting his ideas in with conventionally recognised fairy tribes.  This has often proved an inevitable and considerable challenge and the result frequently is the incorporation into family-trees of strangers and aliens who just don’t belong there.  Gnomes are one example of this.  As I’ve just said, some similarities can be detected with Germanic dwarves, but in Britain- other than the very localised ‘knockers-‘ there’s really nothing similar.  The Anglo-Saxon word for dwarf, dweorg, was able to mutate into derrickdenoting a West Country sort of pixy, precisely because there was no need for anything resembling a dwarf as such.

The ‘undine’ is something like a mermaid and vaguely resembles a meremaid such as Jenny Green-teeth, but in truth it’s only the fact that they all live in water that unites them.  As for salamanders, there’s honestly nothing remotely like them in British fairy-lore.  The result is that many authors have to rope in Greek nymphs and nereids, rusalkas and any other types they can in order to provide examples of Paracelsus’ four forms.

WOODNYMPH

Charles M Russell, Wood nymph

Paracelsus’ legacy

The achievement of On nymphs etc is that later readers took it too seriously.  It has been treated as a scientific study by a respected Renaissance authority and many have felt that it has to be given the respect due to such a seminal text and incorporated into existing fairy belief.  In fact, in trying to accommodate it with traditional fairy-lore, the tendency has been for Paracelsus’ fantasies to obscure the original material.  Many writers have agonised over fitting elementals and elves together, to the detriment of the latter.

Geoffrey Hodson in Fairies at work and play is an example of this.  He offers us multiple categories of faery beings, including elves, brownies, mannikins (a term he may have borrowed from Paracelsus), the four elementals and devas (borrowed from Hindu belief through Theosophy).  He tries to be scientific and taxonomic, but his list is pretty confusing.  In fact, in modern fairy belief there’s considerable confusion over the exact nature of fairies and I suspect that a lot of this is due to the attempts to incorporate Paracelsus’ categories.

Many contemporary writers feel obliged to try to offer their readers some sort of classification of fairy kind and struggle to find a scheme that includes both brownies, pixies and the four elementals.  They won’t sit together satisfactorily- and this is, of course, because Paracelsus dreamed up his classification with very little reference to tradition (well, German, Northern European tradition: he obviously knew his classical mythology).  It’s very easy to find modern guides to faery which are primarily structured around the four elementals (works by Cassandra Eason, Edain McCoy, Ted Andrews, Dora Kunz, Harmonia Saille, Victoria Hunt and Emily Carding might all be cited).  Readers are offered detailed analyses of the four classes along with procedures, spells and rituals for contacting and working with them.  I’ve even seen ‘water babies’ suggested as a form of beach fairy found playing in the surf, which appears to be promoting Charles Kingsley‘s story far above its station to the status of authentic folklore source.

Praise for Paracelsus?

Is there anything good to say about the book De nymphis?  It’s certainly a good and convincing read, it’s true, but there may be a more substantive benefit.

One aspect of Paracelsus’ description will strike a chord with many: that’s his vision of elementals as guardians of nature.  As we have faced increasing environmental degradation, this role for the fairies has been deliberately promoted.  For many writers, it is close to being their principle function.  As a single example, Rae Beth in The way into faerie describes how the fairies’ dancing keeps “the whole web of Nature in balance and harmony.”  This focus upon ecosystems and natural processes cannot be faulted.

However, in the process (and I particularly blame the Theosophists here) the identification of fairies with the elementals and with finer workings of botany and biochemistry has tended to diminish them until they’re not much more than molecules and minerals moving through the xylem and phloem.  This trend may have been initiated, however unwittingly, by Paracelsus, but it’s diverged even from his ideas.  He was quite clear that the elementals are people, just like us, with their moods and aspirations, whereas some more recent writing has stripped them of this individuality.

Modern scientific thinking makes us want to order and arrange things logically and neatly and the writing of Paracelsus provides an apparent starting point for doing this.  The thing is, though, a great deal of it’s nonsense, and I think we should all be a lot happier if we just ditched it and stuck to the observation and experience of tradition.

Further Reading

I discuss Paracelsus work and its impact at greater length in my books Fayerieon Tudor and Stuart faerylore, and in my study Nymphology.

The legacy of Cottingley

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Elsie Wright & Frances Griffiths, by t’beck.

The photographs of fairies taken one hundred years ago by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths at Cottingley, West Yorkshire have a significant place in fairy-lore.   They represented a severe dent in the reputation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but possibly made the careers of his collaborators Geoffrey Hodson and Edward Gardner.  Since the pictures were exposed as fakes, the story of credulous grown men being outwitted by photos taken by teenagers armed only with some card, hat pins and a box brownie camera has been readily deployed to suggest the wider gullibility and foolishness of those adults who choose to believe in fairies.

Some also contend that belief in fairies was killed outright by the incident- and that this happened as far back as the early 1920s when the pictures first appeared. The much more recent exposure of images as false therefore came as little surprise to anyone.  In a 1994 article in History workshop journal Alex Owen described the Cottingley case as “one of the last manifestations of a glorious Victorian and Edwardian fairy tradition.” Rosa Lyster, writing on Quartz.com,  remarked that “Eventually, people stopped caring about the fairies. Interest in the supernatural was on the wane, and Doyle was looking increasingly unhinged. The girls produced no more photographs, and the public moved on.”

All of this comment is of a piece with the oft-argued contention that fairies never existed in the first place and that fairy belief, in the modern age, is dead and buried.  Except, of course, that it’s not- and any search of the internet or of books for sale on Amazon will amply prove this (witness the present blog and my own book British fairies).

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Elsie in 1915

We know now that Elsie and Frances copied their pictures from Princess Mary’s Gift Book and cut them out on Windsor and Newton board.  We know it was all a hoax- but still people are producing their versions and imitations of the Cottingley pictures.  These may just be an homage to a famous photographic forgery, but they are also defiant celebrations of continued belief in the face of what some might regard as fatally damning evidence.  The fact that Cottingley wasn’t real doesn’t matter at all; it portrayed something which lots of people remain convinced is real.  Richard Sugg has recently put it this way:

“With the 1983 confessions of both women, many might have assumed that the fairy tale was over… But the cousins somehow created a new kind of fairy folklore… Some stories are tough.  They manage continually to recreate and re-energise themselves; and the Cottingley affair did just that.” (Magical folk, 2017, p.62)

Richard might equally well have observed that the fairies too are tough and can continually regenerate and survive.  The modern manifestations of the Cottingley images are proof of that.

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Frances and the fairies, 1917

The paradox of the Cottingley pictures is that, although they look dodgy and now are known to be so, this does not seem to discourage anyone.  They retain their own unique mystique because they remain a powerful symbol of something evanescent that numerous people long to experience.  Frances and Elsie were impelled by a wish to recreate their dreams and no-one thinks the less of them for that.  In fact, lots of people today still want to imitate them.

Fraud busters

It’s interesting to see how many people have been inspired to copy the Cottingley images and their stated reasons for doing so.  Some certainly are commenting upon the Cottingley story itself, such as Manuel Carballal on his blog El ojo critico (The critical eye), who experimented with the techniques used to explore how the pictures were faked:

Marcos Carballal

It’s notable, though,  how unimportant this aspect of the story seems to many.  There’s a fascinating narrative to be had concerning two country lasses’ ability to make fools of older and purportedly wiser establishment men like Doyle, but the majority of imitators are not inspired by that.  Of course, deception was never the girls’ intention.  They made the pictures for themselves and it was a chain of wholly unforeseeable events triggered by Elsie’s mum that gave the images their publicity and notoriety.  What seems to attract people is not so much the international publicity, but the original innocent motivation- the yearning for contact with the supernatural.

Imitation and flattery

It’s fascinating to note how closely most of the modern image makers have stuck to the original pictures.  They depict a single person encountering a fae in natural surroundings.  As will be seen below, and on the separate Cottingley gallery page, Nonchalant Concern even used the same titles for the photographs as in the published versions of those by Frances and Elsie.  At the same time, though, none of these pictures are direct imitations and- very definitely- none are presented to us as actual fairy snaps.  Just as with the originals- before Gardner, Doyle and the rest got involved, that is- the pictures have been taken for the amusement of the makers and those with whom they choose to share them.  They are knowingly faked- forgeries of forgeries, if you like- but somehow that only serves to demonstrate the lasting mystique of the originals.

Queen Mary's gift book

illustration from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, c.1914

One thing that most of the pictures do have in common is the fairies themselves.  Many of the creators seem to have taken the trouble to copy the feminine Edwardian period fairies utilised by Frances and Elsie (there are quite a few Cicely Mary Barker flower fairies in evidence).  It’s probably a significant comment upon our fairy iconography (and on the power of the Cottingley story) that winged, female fays in frocks continue to be our accepted idea of a fae, even a century later.  In one case, though, there is a slightly more contemporary feel: it seems possible that, in one of her photographs of her friend Elodie, Eleonore Bridge has used one of Alan Lee’s faeries from his joint book of that titled published with Brian Froud in 1978.  (We should recall too that Froud and Lee created a few of their own Cottingley photos as an appendix to the 1978 book, something Froud did again in Lady Cottington’s pressed fairy book in 1994).

Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that almost without exception the models are female and that so too, predominantly, are the photographers.  This may tell us something either about fairy belief or about amateur photography (or both, I won’t commit myself).  The preference for white dresses is noticeable; this may have a good deal to do with improving the contrast in a black and white image, but there are of course echoes of the 1910s outfits worn by Frances and Elsie as well, too, as suggestions of girlish innocence and simplicity- part and parcel, perhaps, of a belief in fays?  Bows and flowers in the hair add to the period and juvenile feel.

A fairy tale- and a true story

At Notley Green School, Essex, in January 2018 the Year Two pupils studied the Cottingley story.  I was surprised to learn this has a place in the National Curriculum, but it turns out that the organisation Film Education has produced Years 1 and 2 study materials linked to the film Fairy tale- a true story.  The kids then produced their own imitations-

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The Film Education module is aimed at primary school kids and takes the film as a starting point for asking questions such as ‘where do fairies come from?’ and ‘what do people believe about them?’  The material addresses such issues as the risks of visiting fairyland and the differing theories on fairy origins.  It discusses some fairy traditions and looks at the Cottingley events, as well as encouraging the children to make their own cut out fairies and fairy photos.  I was impressed; anything that promotes interest in the subject has to be welcomed.

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Thackley school in Bradford obviously undertook a similar project, but using Photoshop instead of paper cutouts.

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‘Where dreams merge with reality’

A brief examination of Cottingley related images on the internet will of course reveal that far more adults are fascinated than children.  Many are deliberately undertaking photography projects that honour and echo the original pictures. For example,   Katherine Alcock says that she wanted to create not fantasy but realistic fairy images, if that’s not entirely contradictory!

alcock

Katherine converted the image to black and white and manipulated it digitally to make it appear more grainy and vintage.  TekMagica on Flickr went even further to produce some strikingly ‘authentic’ looking images, which are helped by the girls’ clothes, which look appropriate to the fifties or sixties.

Eleonore Bridge is a fairy believer herself, as well as a keen photographer, and her motivation was to record “A magical moment where dreams merge with reality with hopes of creating a future where there is no contesting that fairies really do exist.”

elodie 1

elodie 3

elodie 2

Plenty of people, like the school children, just wanted to have fun with these pictures.  Here’s a selection- with more featured in a separate Cottingley gallery.

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Plastic Hippo on Pinsdaddy

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Image by Bondart

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Frances and the fairies by Nonchalant Concern (see the original above)

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Fairy tracking by Hazel Curse
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Cottingley fairie by Dark Shepherd

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from a Cottingley series by Victoria Emma Thompson

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Remember Cottingley by Japan Fanzz

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The Cottingley fairies by Marschons

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The meeting by Shutterbug Steff

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The Cottingley fairies by Kelli, entry for DP Challenge

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Promotional photo for ‘One day at a time’ by Kelli Ali

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By Soot Sprite

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Finally- the stuff of horror: a cat attacks some fays on a bed of four leaf clover.  For this hilarious nightmare we must thank Susan Sanford at artsparktheatre.blogspot.com.

Do you believe in fairies?

What unites these Cottingley inspired images, I believe, is not just an underlying wish for the whole story to have been true but also a playful and celebratory spirit.  We know we’re dealing with deliberate fakes, but people are enjoying their creativity and the chance to engage imaginatively with fairies.  There are, of course, plenty of other photographs of fairies available online, but the status of most of these is never so clear.  I’ll restrict myself to one example, which is quite well-known as it has been used as an illustration in Janet Bord’s book, Fairies- real encounters with little people.  It’s another black and white image, in the tradition of Cottingley perhaps, but it much more deliberately presents itself as genuine: it shows a nude young woman in a wood meeting what appear to be two naked Action Men at the foot of a tree.  The website strange history analyses the background to this picture and pretty comprehensively demolishes its credibility.

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A photograph of a member of a Cornish coven meeting some fairies…

The Cottingley replicas illustrated here and in the gallery are immune to this sort of debunking.  Thereby they demonstrate the demonstrate the resilience of myth and our need for fantasy and escape.

‘Just made up?’ The problem of fairy physicality

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Charles Hutton Lear, A glimpse of the fairies, 

There is a body of opinion that fairies have no fixed, physical form and that when they appear to us they shape themselves to our expectations.  This notion first seems to be mentioned in a fairy context by W B Yeats in his introduction to Fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry (1888).  Many generations of mystics and occult writers have acknowledged the existence of spiritual beings, he wrote- beings “who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them.”

Thought forms

Yeats did not originate this idea.  Early on, Theosophists had formulated the concept of ‘thought forms.’  Mahatma Koot Humi, one of Madame Blavatsky’s mentors and inspirations, wrote that “thoughts are things… they are real entities.”  This idea was elaborated by Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant in a book, Thought forms, in 1905; they asserted that thoughts produced a radiating vibration conveying their emotion and also had a floating form.  The idea was then transferred nature spirits and elementals.  To become visible, they assume etheric bodies, which are shaped by folklore stories and human imaginations.  Robert Ogilvie Crombie of Findhorn explained that, although its natural form is a swirl of light, an elemental “can put on any of these thought forms and then appear personified as that particular being … elf, gnome, faun, fairy and so on.”[1]  Edward Gardner had a related but different conception.  He believed that Elsie and Frances at Cottingley had abilities akin to mediums.  They could materialist the fairies they photographed through ectoplasm, which was the explanation for their contemporary appearance.

The idea of the thought form was developed in relation to fairies by Geoffrey Hodson in Angels and the new race (1929)He asserted that fairies have no physical body but are formed of light, albeit along the ‘same model’ as humans.  In The kingdom of the gods in 1952 Hodson elaborated on these ideas: the archetype for the fairy form was the human body and their appearance was further determined by our expectations as to what we might see.

These ideas still prevail.  In Signe Pike’s 2009 book Faery tale she interviewed artist Brian Froud who told her (p.91):

“It’s often thought that faeries use our own thought patterns to manifest themselves.  For example, when a faery appears to a person, it will typically look quite similar to the creatures you see in storybooks.  This is because if you were to see a ball of energy, would you really know it was a faery?  No.  So they try to ‘speak’ our visual language.  We see wings, and flowing dresses, and heads and eyes.  The problem is, we think we’re just making it up.”

Likewise in The faery faith by Serena Roney-Dougal, she discusses how our psyche may create some of the things we see (pp.67-71).

Solid- or see-through illusions?

I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with this idea, for several reasons:

  • It seems to introduce an insurmountable circularity into the situation.  If it is argued that fairies look like we expect them to look, it’s hard to establish a point at which our ‘preconceptions’ were first conceived, as no-one will ever see an ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ fairy;
  • There are compelling reports of ‘fairies’ that look nothing like our expectations: see for example some of the experiences in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies or some of the pixies described in Jon Dathen’s Somerset faeries and pixies;
  • The argument may seem to operate as a legitimate cover for those who claim to have seen fays when all they are describing are the products of their own over-active imaginations.  Their alleged visions are just repetitions of images they have derived from Enid Blyton’s stories,  from J. M. Barrie’s play script and from their nursery books.

Lastly, and most importantly, the theory is hard to square with cases which appear to be accounts of genuine encounters with solid and physical fays.  If fairies are solely balls of energy it’s difficult to reconcile this with the cases where their physical presence was either central to the plot or appeared already to be established before the human encountered them.  I am thinking here of the cases where humans and fays have entered into sexual relationships and where children have been borne of these pairings- children who often must be physically delivered by human midwives attending a faery knoll.  I also am thinking of cases where fairy celebrations have been stumbled upon accidentally by people- the many cases where the fairies have been found dancing and then lured in human partners, or the stories of fairy feasts discovered under fairy hills. In one story told by William of Newburgh, readers may recall, the man who discovered the celebration also managed to make off with a gold cup.  Elsewhere I have discussed the transmission of fairy powers by the medium of touch.  As a last example, I note Morgan Daimler’s discussion of fairy familiars on p.162 of her Fairy faithshe stresses that these familiars were “clearly visible to the witch as tangible presences, not dreams or see-through illusions…  they were real-world manifestations that were seen, heard, and spoken to, in the waking world.”

These are all very solid incidents where the human form of the fairies was central to the incident and also, as I’ve suggested, already established independent of any Schrödinger like observation.

Mccubbin, what the little girl saw in the bush

Frederick McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush, 1904

Summary

Our forebears definitely conceived of the fays as real and tangible- and so consistent in their appearance that classification into standard groups was possible and remained applicable over hundreds of years.  Any mutability in their appearance was purely of their own making- the result of their magic and glamour.

There were , of course, many who dismissed faeries as entirely illusory and imaginary, but this was for quite different reasons.  Rationalists challenged fairy belief on the grounds that it was self-delusion:

“Rainbow castles in the air/ Fit enough for fays and elves/ But not for mortals like ourselves.” (Martin Farquhar Tuppe, Liberty- Equality- Fraternity); or,

“That which belongs to neither heaven nor hell./ A wreath of mist, a bubble of the stream;/ Twixt a waking thought and dream…” (Sir Walter Scott, The kelpy).

All of that said, if fairies are but mutable forms responding to our own thoughts, it would explain their evolution in recent centuries, whereby they have acquired wands and wings and come to look like the leprechauns and flower fairies of contemporary culture.

This is a very difficult area and I can’t offer any definitive metaphysical solutions.  What do readers feel?  In short, do fairies look like fairies because they have a consistent and identifiable appearance or because they match themselves to whatever they find in our heads- be that Cicely Mary Barker or Henry Fuseli?

Further reading

I look at the question of fairy weight again in another posting whilst my posting on the question of who believes in fairies touches on related questions of belief and reality.  Whether or not fairy form changes according to our expectations, it’s certain that some fairies can shape-shift themselves.

Is there a fairy queen?

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Queen Titania, by John Simmons

This question may seem a shocking challenge to accepted conventions, but reflecting recently upon a couple of postings concerning the queens of elfland made on Living liminally by Morgan Daimler, I suddenly began to wonder whether we really mean the words we use when we so casually discuss the ‘fairy kingdom,’ the ‘faery realm,’  the seelie and unseelie ‘courts‘ and the king and queen of fairy.

Elsewhere, in her recent book Fairies, Morgan observes that “the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by Kings and Queens.” (p.61)    This is quite true, but as I have suggested before in my post on woodland elves, the idea of fairy royalty is very much a projection of medieval structures by medieval writers.  The idea was first seen in such poems as Huon of Bordeaux, King Herla, Sir Orfeo and in the verse of Chaucer: Sir Thopas and the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale.  Two centuries later, Spenser, Shakespeare and Herrick cemented the idea in our culture.  Neil Rushton has recently reiterated this interpretation in a posting on his ‘Dead but dreaming’ blog, Faeries in the Arthurian landscapein which he observes that:

“The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems.”

As Neil implies, when we think of fairies now we almost unconsciously and automatically conjure images of Arthurian knights and ladies and all the structures of precedence and privilege that go with them.  This is habit, but is it any more than that?

Fairy reign

We are very used, then, to thinking of Queen Mab and of Oberon and Titania.  But what need, though, do the faes really have of rulers?  In the Middle Ages, monarchs were required to perform several purposes within their simpler states:

  • to lead the people in armed conflict- as I have described previously, war amongst the fairies may jar with our conventional views of them, but the possibility is mentioned in a few sources and might therefore justify some sort of war chief;
  • to dispense justice- we are aware of no laws as such in Faery, although there are clearly codes of behaviour that they impose (upon humans at least) and the infringement of which (by humans) is subject to sanction.  Parallel with this distinct morality, there is a general atmosphere of unrestrained impulsiveness;
  • to organise society- it’s hard to tell what, if any, structure there is within fairy society.  If we regard them as nature spirits, then they are all at the level of worker bees, it would appear.  A few authorities have proposed hierarchies, although this normally seems to involve different forms of supernatural beings as against different ranks: see for example Geoffrey Hodson or two interviews with ‘Irish seers’ conducted by Evans-Wentz- one with George William Rusell (AE) and a second with an unnamed Mrs X of County Dublin (Fairy faith in Celtic countries pp.60-66 and 242-3).  You’ll see the differences in size in John Simmons’ painting below;
  • to act as some sort of religious leader or high priest(ess).  I explored the puzzling matter of fairy religion not long ago; it is an area of considerable doubt.

None of these functions seem especially essential to Faery as we generally conceive it.  Is the title of ‘queen’ therefore redundant, or at best merely a convenient honorary title?

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There sleeps Titania, by John Simmons

Secret commonwealth

Let’s consider the views of the Reverend Robert Kirk, who certainly seems to have been well placed to know what he was talking about.  Writing in the late 1680s, he titled his justly famous book The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies.  A ‘commonwealth’ can merely denote a nation state or polity, but it can also more narrowly have the meaning of ‘republic.’  Given that he cannot but have been aware of the English Parliamentary ‘Commonwealth’ that succeeded the execution of Charles I in 1649, I think it’s inescapable that this was the connotation intended by Kirk when he chose to describe his subject matter.  That seems undeniable when we read at the head of chapter 7 that “They are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love or Devotion towards God…  they disappear whenever they hear his Name invocked…”   We note Kirk’s belief in their aversion to church and religion, but also his conviction that they inhabit some sort of democracy regulated by rules of conduct of some description.

Much more recently, Theosophist Charles Leadbeater wrote that humans frequently mistook fairy leaders for kings and queens, whereas “In reality the realm of nature spirits needs no kind of government except except the general supervision which is exercised over it [by devas].” (The hidden side of things, 1913, p.147).

Rank or honour?

Perhaps those termed king and queen in Faery are simply those of the most distinguished character or the greatest magical power.  This was my conception of Queen Maeve in my story Albion awake!  In chapter 9, in response to being called Fairy Queen, Maeve replies:

“So you call me- but if I am a queen, I have no dominion.  I have powers, but I do not reign.  My people are a commonwealth- a secret commonwealth.”

Plainly I’ve stolen her phrase here!  Later she calls her people her ‘Nation Underground.’  I’ll let you track that reference down yourselves!

In conclusion, the main influence upon our conceptions of Faery as a stratified and monarchical society, with a royal family, a court, nobility and attendants, seems to be European society during the medieval period, channeled through contemporary literature.  Whether we are thinking of mythical Iron Age Ireland, Chaucer’s England or the France of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France, their aristocratic society provided a model that was unthinkingly imposed upon fairyland.  It seems unlikely that the ‘common folk’ necessarily shared this; indeed, a large number of fairies were independent and individual characters or were conceived as members of their own, very local community.  Should we continue to talk of kings and queens then, or is it simply habit?  Do the terms have anything to do with contemporary perceptions of fairy?  What do readers think?

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‘Queen Mab,’ Henry Meynell Rheam

Further reading

Elsewhere I discuss fairy kings and that famous fairy queen Titania.

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

‘Come unto these yellow sands’- seaside fairies

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Thomas Maybank, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1906)

It is generally (perfectly correctly) our assumption that fairies and elves are beings of woodland and groves.  They may from time to time be found out on rough moorland (pixies and spriggans in the south west of England) or even in human homes and farm buildings (brownies) but we very rarely imagine them at the seaside.  This is mistaken; they have been sighted there and this post presents the scattered evidence for this.

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Richard Dadd, ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ (1841)

Shakespearean fairies

Although in classical mythology the Nereids and Oceanids were marine nymphs, there is only a little traditional British material locating supernaturals on the seashore (for example, at Newlyn in Cornwall the bucca living on the strand had to be offered a share of the catch by fishermen hoping for success) and it is probably Shakespeare in The Tempest who first created the association in the popular mind.  In Act 1 scene 2, Ariel famously sings:

“Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark, hark!”

Here we have the conventional fairy circle dance transposed from a glade or meadow, where a fairy ring springs up, to the strand-a novelty that appears to be almost entirely the playwright’s invention.  Milton seems to have imitated this scene in Comus: “And on the Tawny Sands and Shelves, Trip the pert Fairies and the dapper Elves” (lines 117-118).  Without doubt, Shakespeare’s song has provided inspiration to painters ever since, as is illustrated here, and it seems to have created a lasting acceptance that fairies might quite properly be encountered so far from their normal haunts.  Scenes from The Tempest and, of course, Midsummer Night’s Dream were standard fare for Victorian fairy artists, but also we find seashore sprites unconnected with these famous plays.

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Robert Huskisson, ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’ (1847)

Victorian fairies

From the early nineteenth century we have the painting Fairies on the seashore by Henry Howard (see below).  What exactly this tropical scene illustrates is uncertain; it may be his own idea, it may be drawn from literature: Ann Radcliffe in The mysteries of Udolpho (1794) wrote some lines about a sea nymph, who sings:

“Where e’er ye are who love my lay/ Come when red sunset tints the wave,

To the still sands, where fairies play,/ There in cool seas, I love to lave.”

Around the same time Elizabeth Landon wrote an entire poem entitled Fairies on the seashore, which features flower, rainbow and music fairies as well as a sea fairy riding in a nautilus shell in the moonlight.

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Yeats and the seaside sidhe

In the late nineteenth century it seems likely that W. B. Yeats drew upon native Irish tradition, rather than any English literary or artistic works, when in 1889 he wrote his famous poem The stolen child.  It is voiced by fairies who are abducting a human infant- they tempt the child to accompany them to where:

“the moon glosses/ The dim grey sands with light/ Far off by furthest Rosses/ We foot it all the night,/ Weaving olden dances.”

The scene is Rosses Sands in County Sligo, a place known as a “great fairy locality” according to Yeats himself.  It would be easy enough to assume that these lines were simply the work of a great poetic imagination, but this would be mistaken.  Yeats, like his friends William Russell (AE) and Ella Young, actually met fairies. In his collected letters he tells of an encounter at the Rosses that took place about the time that the verse was composed, when he met and conversed with the queen of fairy and her troop.  In this respect, Yeats prefigures our last evidence by several decades.

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Seashore fairies, Henry Howard (1769-1847)

Fays on holiday?

Finally, in the twentieth century, we have actual sightings of fairies on the beach recorded, incidents which appear to exactly replicate Thomas Maybank’s 1906 version of Ariel’s song (rather than Margaret Tarrant’s more Peter Pan-ish and homely image).  In July 1921 Geoffrey Hodson saw some “queer little elf-like forms” playing on the beach at Blackpool.  They had elfish faces, large heads and ears, little round bodies, short thin legs with webbed feet and were three to six inches tall.  They played amongst the seaweed and stones, but did not go in the water; they seemed unconcerned by the presence of human holidaymakers (Fairies at work and playchapter 1).  In Conan Doyle’s Coming of the fairies, published in the same year, he reproduced an account by Mrs Ethel Wilson of Worthing of seeing fairies on the beach on sunny days: they were like little dolls with beautiful bright hair, she told him.  Unlike Hodson’s elves, these beings played in the sea and rode on the waves, constantly moving and dancing about.  These are fascinating sightings, though it is inescapable that the fays seem to have travelled to the coast very much in tandem with British day-trippers.

Much more recent sightings have confirmed that this link persists, rare as it is.  A Mrs Clara Reed was on holiday at Looe in Cornwall in 1943 when she saw a sea fairy, dressed in a skirt of shells with a bodice of seaweed and shells round her neck.  She spoke with the fairy at the water’s edge, and was told the future: that her sick husband would not die.  A flying fairy being was also seen hovering on the beach in British Columbia during the 1970s (Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.125; Fairy Census no.194).

To conclude, the evidence is patchy and much of it is from literature rather than folklore, but the indication is that fairies might be found in any natural scene, from the sea shore to the mountain top.  If we conceive of them as nature spirits, this would of course be exactly what we would expect.

Further reading

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

“Full beautiful, a faery’s child”- age and consent in fairy land

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“Oh, the fairies!/ Whoa, the fairies.! Nothing but splendour,/ And feminine gender.”

The conventional conception of fairies is that they are female and that they are young and attractive.  I am as guilty as others in perpetuating this: in both The Elder Queen and in the recent Albion awake! my central characters are fairy women, invested with strength, allure and passion.  These are powerful and abiding archetypes; they make for good story lines, but they may also be a source of confusion in our correct analysis of fairylore.

Victorian fairies

Since Victorian times the dominant trend in fairy lore has been to make the fairies more and more diminutive- especially in theatrical representations.  We may blame J M Barrie and Tinkerbell for this, but the miniaturising  theme was far wider than just one author.

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Henry Fuseli, Oberon and Titania a caption

There have always been small fairies, but in earlier times they were generally conceived as being adults of small stature rather than infants of normal height.  It must be noted that the term ‘elf’ popularly denoted tininess from the late eighteenth century at least (for instance in Blake and Keats).  That notwithstanding, until the early nineteenth century representations of fairies tended to treat them as adults.  In the case of painter Henry Fuseli, indeed, his fairy maids are women of a notably self-aware and unsettling character.

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

However, it was during the Victorian period that the representation of fairies degenerated through childlike figures to cloying cuteness.  During the same period, too, Victorian culture separated out ‘the child’ as distinct from adults and elevated the innocence of childhood. Previously children were merely small people; they have since become a separate social and cultural category.   James Kincaid has argued that the modern concepts of sexuality were created by the Victorians as entwined with their notions of the uncorrupted infant.   The result, he suggested, was that childhood and innocence have become idealised, fetishised and eroticised in everyday culture (Erotic innocence, Duke University Press, 1998).  He asserts that writers such as Lewis Caroll and J M Barrie absorbed this erotic idealising of children and “drove [it] into our cultural foundations.”

I would suggest that there have been a number of consequences of these cultural trends for our perceptions of fairyland:

  • we have tended to lose sight of the former nature of fairies.  As they have increasingly become little girls, some of the more sinister aspects to their characters have been elided;
  • despite what I have just said, a powerful tension has arisen between the ‘child’ fairy and the earlier imagery- for example the fairies of Shakespeare and, even more strongly, Keats.  The result was the projection of adult emotions and motivations and (my key focus here) sexuality onto fairies who were now often conceived as infants; and,
  • the 19th century use of children as fairies in theatrical performances, giving public visibility to girls acting on stage and, perhaps, portraying inappropriate roles.

Let me address the last point in more detail.  Advances in stagecraft enabled Victorian theatres to offer magical spectaculars, with fairies flying, disappearing and posing behind veils of magical mist.  Actresses had a reputation for lax morals, already, and there was some public concern over the impact upon the young girls employed to portray fairies.  Would the exposure “convert them into coquettes before they have even reached their teens?” asked the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885.  Regardless of the impact upon the girls themselves, Eileen Barlee in Pantomime waifs (1884) fretted that they were “Dressed in the airiest and, alas!, the scantiest of costumes … and many were in flesh-coloured tights.” They were presented to audiences as nearly naked or apparently so.  The verse at the top of the posting reflects this sense of sexualisation; it is taken from a music hall song quoted by Lionel Lambourne in the catalogue to the Royal Academy’s 1997 exhibition of Victorian fairy painting.

These stage performances may all have been perfectly innocent in themselves, but the reactions of the viewers are another matter.  I am reminded of Graham Greene’s scurrilous and scandalous review of Shirley Temple in the film Wee Willie Winkie, published in the magazine  Night and day in October 1937.  He commented provocatively that Temple was being presented as “a fancy little piece” and a “complete totsy.”  Her admirers, Greene alleged, were middle aged men and clergymen who would respond to her “dubious coquetry.”  Their respectable predecessors of a generation or two earlier, the Dean of Barchester and Mayor of Casterbridge,  may well have felt the same about Fairy Phoebe and her hosts whom they saw on stage.  What is involved, perhaps, is a ‘sanctioned’ opportunity to regard the young actresses.*

Twentieth century fairies

This may all seem hyper-alert, but let me give a few examples.  Firstly, an account of a supernatural encounter recorded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The coming of the fairies  (1922).  He supports his case for the reality of the Cottingley fairies with other evidence of their existence.   He relates how two respectable gentlemen visited a hill in Dorset:

“I was walking with my companion … when to my astonishment I saw a number of what I thought to be very small children, about a score in number, and all dressed in little gaily-coloured short skirts, their legs being bare. Their hands were joined, and all held up, as they merrily danced round in a perfect circle. We stood watching them, when in an instant they all vanished from our sight. My companion told me they were fairies, and that they often came to that particular part to hold their revels. It may be our presence disturbed them.”

In a more recent version of the same event, there are some telling differences. The walkers witnessed: “a group of about twenty young girls …  naked except for a little gaily coloured short skirt that lifted up from time to time on the gentle breeze.”  The changes may well be entirely unconscious, but it seems to me that the tone here has changed from being a mere account of a curious experience; indeed, the tenor of the second version is not unique.  Geoffrey Hodson was a theosophist and fairy-hunter who discovered elves all over Europe.  He wrote of his journeys in two books, The Kingdom of faerie (1930) and Fairies at work and play (1927).  I will quote from each respectively.

  • Cotswolds, 1925- of devas he says that “The actual form and manner are those of a vivacious school girl.”
  • At Geneva he tells us that “A particular fairy I am observing is a fascinating and charming creature … The face resembles that of a very pretty young country girl.”  Another deva had the form of a “a fresh young country girl.”
  • In Lancashire in 1921 he was surrounded by dancing fairies, the leader of whom has a “form …  perfectly modelled and rounded, like that of a young girl.”  We are assured that “There are no angles in the transcendently beautiful form.”
  • A deva met in a pine forest near Geneva in 1926 was “like a lovely young girl, in thin white drapery through which the form can be seen.”  Another such is “definitely female and always nude… Her form is always entrancingly beautiful.”

Hodson in his writing repeatedly discloses a sexualised response to the visions he experiences, in one cases admitting that it was only by an effort of will that he did not allow himself to be seduced by the allure of one rounded young spirit.

We may seem more aware of sexuality in texts now, but as Diane Purkiss warns us in her 2000 study, Troublesome things,  “We in the post-modern world are apt to be convinced that sex is at the bottom of everything, that we know far more about sex than the Victorians did, and that we can read their unconsciousness like a book.  These are all dangerous thoughts.  Just because sex seems to us at the bottom of everything, does not mean that this is equally true for all others; just because we know a lot more about our own sexualities (and do we really?) does not mean we know a lot about Victorian sexualities; just because we read something in a text doesn’t mean it is there for everyone.”

Jasmine

Despite these words of caution, Purkiss concedes that some artists of the period trod an uncertain line between eroticism and harmlessness.  She proposes, for example, that some of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower fairies hover in this uncertain interstice.  Mostly, these are demure illustrations, although sometimes perhaps Barker does allow what may be interpreted as some risque off-the-shoulder looks.  This hint of the other world of faery did not escape Barker’s biographer, Janet Laing; in her book, Cicely Mary Barker, (Penguin, 1995), Laing describes one alphabet fairy as follows:

“The more mystical and sensual side of fairy land is epitomised by the Jasmine fairy.  In the heat of the summer the ‘cool green bower’ and ‘sweet scented flowers’ are particularly seductive.” (p.55)

As I suggested in an earlier post, Arthur Rackham too appears to have taken advantage of the ‘value-free’ environment of Faerie to indulge in pictures of girls in see-through frocks and careless deshabille; witness this illustration of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Arthur Rackham, Puck and the fairy

As discussed in that previous post, depicting fairies seems to have been treated by many artists as a licence to adapt classical nudes to a more domestic scene, a wisp or two of gauze maintaining an illusion of modesty and decorum.

Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that all these child like ‘forms’ (whether presented as ‘art’, on stage or in the Cotswolds) are simultaneously naked or scantily attired and independent of adult society.  Those factors combined may well have served to liberate the response of some observers from the normal social and moral restraints.  Without doubt, the consequence has been that we have ended up confused and uncomfortable with aspects of our fairy lore.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weren’t all irredeemable tweeness amongst fairies.  For example, Christina Rossetti wrote the strange and disturbing Goblin Market, a poem that, as Diane Purkiss neatly expresses it, “restores fully a sense of the otherness and menace of the fairy world.”  More recently, the huge international popularity of Tolkien’s stories of elves and dwarves has helped to provide a much needed corrective to the saccharine flower fairies of the Edwardian nursery.  Legolas and Arwen have revived the Norse and Celtic  traditions of human sized and mature fairies.  Their robust combativeness and sexuality are a welcome reminder of older visions of the supernatural and are redressing the balance of imagery in the popular imagination.

We are left with a puzzling dichotomy in the conventions as to representations of faery in the twenty-first century.  A short search on the internet readily confirms this.  On the one hand we have the sexy faery babe, as represented here by a picture created by Bente Schlick.

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In contrast, there are the images of fairies as the embodiment of childhood innocence, for which I have selected an image ‘Caught by a sunbeam’ by artists Josephine Wall.

josephine-wall-caught-by-sunbeam

Lastly, there are the mature, self-possessed and possibly dangerous fairy women found in Brian Froud’s work.  Fairy maids in corsets with heaving cleavages are not rare, but they are hugely outnumbered by the more fey images, it has to be admitted.  The newly established convention that fairies are perfect manifestations of physical attractiveness and/ or innocence stand in stark contrast to older conceptions.  Fairies maidens were renowned in folk-lore for their alluring beauty, but they often suffered defects that betrayed their real nature: they might have cow’s tails, cloven feet beneath their long dresses, fingerless hands or hollow backs.  These aspects of fairy nature are very seldom found now in the idealised portrayals that are so prevalent- Froud’s pictures being something of an exception in their honest naturalism and occasional disturbing honesty about the  ‘average’ physique (pot bellies and drooping breasts).  The main problem with these paragons of prettiness is that they are one dimensional.  Deprived of the darker, more dangerous aspects of traditional fairy nature, they become merely decorative- charming but devoid of deeper meaning.

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In conclusion, it may be argued that our ‘use’ of the fairy myth has changed in recent centuries.  Whereas fairies were originally the causes of unexplained events and a source of supernatural protection and help, they have increasingly become the vehicles for our fantasies- a convenient way of expressing issues that might not otherwise be tackled.

* By way of a footnote: as a result of the comments in his review, Graham Greene was sued by Fox Entertainments and by Shirley Temple’s parents.  They demanded damages for his libellous insinuations and a trial in the High Court concluded that the images were entirely decent and innocent and that the claimants were therefore entitled to an award of £3500 compensation from the magazine and the author.  Night and day went into insolvency; Greene fled the country for Mexico, where he wrote his most admired work, The power and the glory.  Literature’s gain, perhaps…

Further reading

I discuss questions of fairy beauty and fairy sexuality and fairy passion again in other posts.  The text of this post is a version of a chapter that appears in my new book, British fairies.

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‘Smells like earth spirit’

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English writer John Aubrey, in his Miscellanies (1695), has the following record for 1670:

“Not far from Cirencester was an apparition.  Being demanded whether a good spirit or a bad, returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume- and a most melodious twang.  M. W. Lilly believes it was a fairie.”

That there might be a peculiar odour (and sound) associated with faery is a rare aspect of the folk lore accounts, but there are traces of suggestive evidence.  Aubrey’s account implies (I think!) that the smell was not unpleasant.  One Cornish tale, of the miser on the Gump at St Just (Hunt, Popular romances of the west of England, p.85) describes how the appearance of spriggans was accompanied by the odour of flowers filling the air.  The fairies meanwhile scattered flowers which instantly took root.

It was also believed that sweet scents would attract spirits.  The Renaissance philosopher and magician Cornelius Agrippa in his Occult philosophy described how to summon such beings as fairies of rivers, woods and fountains, nymphs, satyrs, dryads, and the hobgoblins and fairies of fields and meadows (Book III cc.16, 19 & 32).  He recommended the use of “odoriferous perfumes with sweet sounds and instruments of music” in combination with circles, incantations and offerings of food and drink (Book IV).

Generally, though, the scent associated with fairies is not so pleasing.  In his Second Manx Scrapbook W. W. Gill advises that the upper parts of glens are the best places to see, hear and smell Manx fairies.  What you will encounter is “a stale, sour smell”, apparently.  The nature of this odour may be explained by an Irish tale.  Biddy Mannion was abducted to act as nurse to the sickly infant of the king and queen of faerie.  After successfully caring for the child she was permitted to return home- but not before an ointment was rubbed on her eyes.  This revealed that she was in a frightful cave full of dead men’s bones, which had “a terribly musty smell.”  I have mentioned before the association of fairies with the dead, of which this is another demonstration.

Additionally, and for the purposes of comparison, I was interested to read that, in the Philippines, it is said that the smell of damp earth on a hot day, as it there had just been a downpour, is a sign of the presence of supernaturals.  In Tagalog this is called maalimuom or masangsang (Jaime Licauco,  Dwarves & other nature spirits, 2005, p.8).

Twentieth century spiritualist Edward Gardner has something to say on these matters. He is quoted in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1921 book on the Cottingley fairy incident, The coming of the fairies.  In chapter VIII Garner provides the theosophical view on the nature of fairies and states that they have no language as such (or none that mortal ears can hear, anyway), but communicate by means of sound and music.  More conventional fairy lore stresses the fairies love of music and dancing for entertainment- as I have discussed before.  Musical tones generated by the fairies themselves is a rather different concept- but perhaps some witnesses assumed the sounds heard came from instruments and not the fairy beings themselves.

Secondly, both Gardner and his colleague, Geoffrey Hodson, linked fairies intimately with flowers.  They saw fairies as nature spirits whose function was to help plants and flowers grow and reproduce.  This being the case, if any scent could be linked to these elementals, it would be that of blossom. Hodson  perceived the smell of flowers as akin to musical chords.

The evidence is sparse, but what little there is certainly gives us a new and intriguing perspective on the denizens of Faery.  The best that can be said is that, for some at least, the experience of encountering supernaturals is not solely a visual impression.

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An image from the photo shoot for the 1993 album ‘Siamese Dream’ by Smashing Pumpkins.  The (reissued) album cover features at the top; it’s not Nirvana, I know, but it’s the same era and genre, it’s got fairy wings and it’s one of my favourite albums, so why not….?  For fuller details of my writing and blogging on music, please see my website.