‘Nymphology’- a new book

Nymphology

I am pleased to announce that my new book, Nymphology- A Brief History of Nymphs, is now available as a Kindle book and paperback through Amazon.

I’ve often discussed the interface between classical and British mythologies, both on this site and in my book Fayeriebut I decided to focus on the subject in a short new volume, examining the meaning and stories of nymphs from the ancient Greek past right up to the present day.

Nymphs have always been about sex,  whether that’s the story of Hylas and the Nymphs or it’s the modern day nymphets of Nabokov’s Lolita or adult websites.  There’s much more to it than that, though; the nymph is also about healing and poetic inspiration, about religious as well as sexual obsession.

I’ve traced their story from the classical texts and poets, through Morgan Le Fay and the Lady of the Lake, through Spenser, Shakespeare and Michael Drayton’s Nymphidia right up to Nabokov and Pierre Louys’ Chansons de Bilitis.  Nymphs are found in paintings and sculptures as well as in literature, and the new book celebrates them all.

The boo is 80 pages long plus illustrations- in the UK it’s £5.50 for the e-book and £7.95 for the paperback copy.  For details of all my other books, please see my separate Books page.

Hermaphroditus_Salmacis_Albani_Louvre
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, Albani, 1630

 

Who is Titania?

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

Vivien Leigh as Titania in Midsummer night’s dream

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

Diana

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

Edwin_Landseer Titania_and_Bottom

Edwin Landseer, Titania and Bottom, 1851

The Titans

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s fairy queen

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

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

She rules over the seasons and they follow her moods.

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

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

1-there-sleeps-titania-john-simmons

John Simmons, There sleeps Titania

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

Titania and Bottom c.1790 Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Further reading

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

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

Fairy language

elvsh.

What language do fairies speak?  If we were to ask  J. R. R. Tolkien and his many admirers, we would of course be advised ‘Elvish’- the languages of Quenya and Sildarin that Tolkien forged out of Finnish and Welsh.  These languages are fascinating intellectual feats, but they are modern, academic inventions; they do not reflect our predecessors’ views on the matter.  What does folklore have to tell us about elvish speech?

Local dialect

The normal rule is that fairies will speak the same language as their human neighbours. Reverend Kirk states this explicitly in The Secret Commonwealth (section 5).

“Their Apparell and Speech is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: … They speak but litle, and that by way of whistling, clear, not rough. The verie Divels conjured in any Countrey, do answer in the Language of the Place; yet sometimes the Subterraneans speak more distinctly than at other times.”

John Rhys relayed a story of a mermaid from North Wales in which the reporter observed sceptically “we do not know what language is used by sea maidens … but this one, this time at any rate, it is said, spoke very good Welsh” (Brython, vol.1, p.82).

This situation is to be expected, in that communication would otherwise be very difficult- if not impossible- and interaction very much reduced.  Most of our fairy tales are founded upon intercourse between humans and fairies, so that mutual intelligibility is vital.  The ability to converse means that humans may overhear or engage in conversations (Wentz Fairy faith pp.96, 101, 10, 110, 140 & 155) and also may hear or even participate in songs (Wentz pp.92, 98 & 112). It follows then that the fairies speak the local language or, even dialect.  They speak Gaelic in the Highlands, Welsh in Wales and English in England- and going further an Exmoor fairy sounds just like a Somerset peasant (Ruth Tongue, County Folklore, vol.VIII, p.117).

Tone of voice

Given a widespread belief that some fairies at least were of smaller stature than the human population, they have voices to match.   Kirk has already implied this, but other sources are clearer on the point.  At Gors Goch, Cardiganshire, little beings came to a farm house at night asking for shelter in “thin, silvery voices ” (Wentz p.155).  The pixies encountered on Selena Moor, near St Buryan, were said to have squeaked with little voices (Briggs, Dictionary, p.142).

Jabbering talk

Much of British fairy-lore depends upon the ability of humans and supernaturals to have contact and to form relationships.  Nevertheless, the fairies’ speech is sometimes said to be incomprehensible or, even, not to resemble human speech at all.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins recorded that Thomas William of Hafodafel, Blaenau Gwent, met a fairy procession and “heard them talking together in a noisy, jabbering way; but no-one could distinguish the words.”  Other witnesses from Wales state the same: “they did not understand a word that was said; not a syllable did they comprehend…” whilst in another couple of encounters we are assured “it was not Welsh and she did not think it was English” (John Rhys, Celtic folklore, pp.272, 277 & 279).

John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass of the Wiltshire downs) and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  Lastly, a nineteenth century account from Ilkley of fairies surprised bathing tells that they were “making a chatter and jabber thoroughly unintelligible.”  The noise, it was said, was “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” (Briggs, Tradition, pp.133-4).  These latter descriptions bring to mind small, insect-like beings, perhaps.

Elidyr’s story

Finally, we must note the very curious tale told of Elidyr by Gerald of Wales.  Elidyr, as a boy, was one day escorted into an underground realm and subsequently spent much time there with the fairies. Years later, as a priest, he told his tale and, in particular, that:

“He had made himself acquainted with the language of that nation, the words of which, in his younger days, he used to recite, which, as the bishop often had informed me, were very conformable to the Greek idiom. When they asked for water, they said Ydor ydorum, which meant bring water, for ydor in their language, as well as in the Greek, signifies water, from whence vessels for water are called ydrie; and dwr also, in the British language, signifies water. When they wanted salt they said, Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt’: salt is called als in Greek, and halen in British, for that language, from the length of time which the Britons (then called Trojans, and afterwards Britons, from Brito, their leader) remained in Greece after the destruction of Troy, became, in many instances, similar to the Greek.

It is remarkable that so many languages should correspond in one word, als in Greek, halen in British, and halgein in the Irish tongue, the g being inserted; sal in Latin, because, as Priscian says, ‘the s is placed in some words instead of an aspirate,’ as als in Greek is called sal in Latin, emi – semi, epta – septem – sel in French – the A being changed into E – salt in English, by the addition of T to the Latin; sout, in the Teutonic language: there are therefore seven or eight languages agreeing in this one word. If a scrupulous inquirer should ask my opinion of the relation here inserted, I answer with Augustine, ‘that the divine miracles are to be admired, not discussed.’ Nor do I, by denial, place bounds to the divine power, nor, by assent, insolently extend what cannot be extended. But I always call to mind the saying of St. Jerome; ‘You will find,’ says he, ‘many things incredible and improbable, which nevertheless are true; for nature cannot in any respect prevail against the lord of nature.’ These things, therefore, and similar contingencies, I should place, according to the opinion of Augustine, among those particulars which are neither to be affirmed, nor too positively denied.”

From all that we can tell, the clerk in question appears to be concocting his elvish tongue out of elements of Welsh and Irish, with perhaps some awareness of Latin and Greek in the background.  It is not, therefore, to be relied upon very much as an account of traditional beliefs.  A better summary may be to say that, in general, fairies were regarded in many respects as being identical or similar to humans (not just in speech, but also in form, diet, dress and conduct).  Sometimes, however, their otherworldly aspect dominated, and their speech was as alien as their magical abilities.

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have a general interest in languages and linguistics, more details about which can be found on my website.

See too my later posts on fairy names and on more modern evidence from song as well as speech for for the fairy language.