Clap-Cans and Nut Nans- and other cautionary sprites

melsh

Although I often stress the independent and contrary nature of faery kind, there is a class of spirits whose almost sole purpose seems to be to protect human food resources and to prevent children getting into mischief.   Fairy expert Katharine Briggs often called these ‘nursery sprites‘ but this name suggests that they are only found inside houses- as indeed, some are, lurking in dark corners and empty rooms and scaring infants into going to bed and staying quiet, but some of these are found outside too (the pretty self-explanatory ‘Rawhead and Bloodybones’ being one such) and others only exist outside the nursery and the home- hence my preference for ‘cautionary sprites.’

Orchard Spirits

Many of these spirits live in and around orchards and fruit patches, amongst them being Owd Goggie, Lazy Laurence, the Coltpexy and the Gooseberry Wife of the south of England.  There is a particular concentration of these beings in the North West of England, however, which will be my focus in this posting.  Incredibly large numbers of very local boggarts are recorded in Cheshire, Lancashire and Westmorland, and spill over the Pennine Hills into West Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

Guarding soft fruit and apples is more a southern activity, but further north nut groves are protected from the depredations of children, who are liable to steal the nuts and break the branches, by a range of sprites.  We know of Churnmilk Peg, Melch Dick and Nut Nan, who guarded the hazels from theft with threats of burning naughty children with heated pokers.  Peg was an old and very ugly hag, who sat in the groves around Malham in North Yorkshire, smoking  a pipe.  Her name derives from the hazels in their green state, when they’re called churn-milk. All she says is  “Smoke! smoke a wooden pipe!/ Getting nuts before they’re ripe!” and if this doesn’t work, she’ll abduct the disobedient youths.  Melsh Dick apparently derives his name from the same unripe, ‘mushy’ or ‘mulchy’ nuts; he too will make off with disobedient children.   These figures are often assisted in their work by Clap-Cans, a being with no form or substance whose sole purpose is to scare away youngsters by beating on tins with sticks.

It is fascinating to see how the faery world has been recruited to safeguard humans’ assets.  Normally, knowing their character, we might expect these supernaturals to be more likely to steal nuts than to defend them and we would certainly not anticipate any willingness to assist humans based upon their usual self-interested attitudes.  Here, we must accept that we have encountered a more altruistic spirit.

alan lee_faeries_jenny greenteeth
by Alan Lee, from Faeries

Jenny Greenteeth

The capacity in the North West to accept that some faeries will subdue their will entirely to that of the human community, and act wholly in its interests, has had a very curious impact upon the perceived character of the river spirit Jenny Greenteeth and her close relatives- Peg Powler in the Tees, Mary Hosies in the Avon in Lanarkshire, Jenny the Whinney on the Isle of Man, Grindylow Peg, Nelly Longarms, the Nok and many others (including the enigmatic Brook Calf and Star Nell).  Traditionally, these rather nasty beings have had one purpose: to lurk in bodies of water and to try to snatch and kill the unwary- most commonly children.  Victims will be drowned- but they may also be eaten: Grindylow Peg, for example, has iron teeth for this purpose.  They may also be tortured horribly first.

For generations, children have been warned to stay away from stagnant ponds and pools, water-filled pits, mill dams, wells, springs and streams, because these are just the places where Jenny and her sisters wait, hidden perhaps under green weeds (and wearing their green caps), overhanging trees or projecting banks.  They need only the slightest opportunity to dart forth, seize the unsuspecting infant and drag them beneath the surface.  The floating vegetation closes again and no-one knows of or even suspects the tragedy that has taken place.  In this respect, Jenny is very clearly another cautionary spirit.   She has, however, experienced ‘mission creep’ in some very surprising ways.

As time has passed, Jenny seems to have infested new bodies of water: since the Industrial Revolution, she has also moved into canals, drainage ditches, culverts and tunnels- in other words, the inland waterways of the industrialised north-west .  This, of course, makes perfect sense, for these man-made watercourses are just as perilous for the young as natural features.  This change has brought her much more into built up areas, so that Jenny is now known in central Manchester as much as in the countryside.  It seems, as well, that once she got used to the town, she expanded her operations further: Jenny has been said to lurk too in old buildings and cemeteries.  We might be startled by this abandonment of her watery haunts, but then, in Cheshire she had long been known to lurk in trees in the absence of so many bodies of open water.  Jenny has even accommodated herself to human dwellings, in her search for prey: she has been spotted lying in wait in outside toilets, at the top of unlit stairs, in darkened corners and, in Yorkshire, in that quintessential piece of architecture, the ‘coyl-oyl’ (or coal shed).

Not only has Jenny expanded the sites of her operations, she has widened her franchise to incorporate a much wider range of juvenile wrongs.  Parents more recently have threatened Jenny’s intervention for far more than getting too near to the edge of a pond.  She has started to encroach on the preserve of the nursery sprites, and has been said to punish bad behaviour- a refusal to go to bed, neglect of hair brushing and (most appositely) want of teeth brushing.  It seems pretty obvious that some profound confusion has developed here over the exact of nature of Jenny’s green teeth.  Her origin in slime covered pools has been forgotten, and it looks as though parents now scare their offspring by suggesting that they’ll end up with green fangs like Jen’s if they don’t pay attention to decent oral hygiene.

In her more recent manifestations there is increasingly little to distinguish Jenny from the host of other ‘nursery sprites,’ beings that include Tom Dockin, Tom Poker and Bannister Doll and then blur into a wider array of alarming boggarts and bogles, such as Bibler Dick, Jonny Cobler, Shagcalf and White Horse, Old Lobb or Lob-Thirst, various phantom dogs and (one of my favourites) the apparition called the Baum Rappit, a scary ghostly rabbit seen near the church in Rochdale.  All of these bogies and hobgoblins have a primary function of giving us a shock- and very little more.  To return to our starting point, however, Jinny Green-teeth is said to guard orchards around Saddleworth on the Lancashire slopes of the Pennines.

Eichler schlinggewachse
Reinhold Max Eichler, Schlinggewachse (Creepers)

Jenny and the Meremaids

Jenny, meanwhile, has also encroached on the domain of the fresh water mermaids, the ‘meremaids‘ as I’ve termed them before.  The fact of this overlap is unremarkable, given the almost identical habitats of each, yet the meremaids have always tended to have a wider scope of operations- at the very least, not being limited to terrifying children.

Several characteristics now applied to Jenny Greenteeth appear to have been transferred from the meremaids.  These include appearing only at night, most especially at full moon, guarding buried treasure and (a motif taken from the spirits of larger rivers) claiming an annual sacrifice or tribute of one or more drowned victims.

Earlier, I mentioned how Churnmilk Peg is said to be a terribly ugly hag.  Crossover or confusion between female spirits, hags and witches is not at all uncommon and I’ll conclude by noting that in one account, from Preston, Jenny Greenteeth is even said to be seen riding a broomstick.

eichler, ein buchsenschuss
Eichler, Ein buchsenschuss (A gunshot)

Summary

The multitude of local bogies and sprites, for whom we only have scanty records now, along with their often overlapping activities, makes for fascinating study.  I look at the orchard sprites again in my recently published Faery and give extended consideration to the many boggarts and bogies in the forthcoming companion, Beyond Faery.

Mere maids- freshwater spirits of Britain

 

fideal
A fideal, Brian Froud

In this post I want to explore a very particular form of British fairy being, the freshwater mermaids or water sprites.  Mere, meaning a lake or pool, is an old English word that forms the basis of mermaid, although of course this almost exclusively used in reference to the sea fairy now.  Nonetheless, the idea of the inland ‘mere-maid’ is very ancient, the very oldest of these very likely being found in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, in the ghastly shape of the mother of the monster Grendel.

The illustrations I have found suggest that these creatures may be sexually alluring to some extent, but on the whole they are perilous to humankind.

asrai

An asrai, from kelfae.com

Drowning, gold and midnight

The majority of our fresh water meremaids share something with Grendel’s mother: they are dangerous, if not fatal, to humans.  A very good example is the creature dwelling in the Black Mere at Morridge in Staffordshire.  No animals would drink the waters and birds were said to avoid overflying the mere.  This was probably because the mermaid used to seize passersby at midnight and drown them.  When an attempt was made to drain the Mere, she emerged and threatened to engulf the whole of the nearby town of Leek in its waters.  Wisely, the work was abandoned and never restarted.

Other mere maidens include those of the ponds, pools and meres at Fordham, Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk at Rendlesham and most notably at the Mermaid Pits, Fornham All Saints.  All these beings came out at night to drag down their victims.  Most are anonymous, but a few have been given names, for example Jenny Greenteeth, who has been encountered at Ellesmere in Shropshire as well as in Lancashire and Cumbria, Grindylow in Yorkshire, Nelly Longarms and the widespread Rawhead and Bloodybones.  In Scotland one encounters the fideal, an evil spirit who haunts Loch na Fideil near Gairloch, in the north-west Highlands; she is often regarded as a personification of the entangling bog grasses and water weeds of the loch’s shore.

It is often said that the purpose of these creatures was to teach children to steer clear of ponds and similar drowning dangers, such as lawn-like mats of pond weed.  The same risk existed around river banks, so that we hear  of ‘Peg Powler’ at Piercebridge on the River Tees, who might drag incautious children from the banks under the waves, and of comparable perilous creatures in the River Gipping in Suffolk.

All of these supernaturals preyed upon passing mortals.  Despite this bad reputation (or possibly because of it) some were also connected to gold or treasure in some way.  A beautiful maiden at Child’s Ercall in Shropshire offered two men gold if they would enter the water to take it from her (but she disappeared when they commented upon their luck, surely a variation of the common idea of keeping quiet about fairy favours).  We must wonder too whether,  if they had entered the water, the outcome might not have been as happy as they anticipated.  At Marden (Herefordshire) and Rostherne Mere (Cheshire) the mere-maids are said to be guarding bells submerged beneath the pool.

Eichler schlinggewachse
Reinhold Maximilian Eichler, Schlinggewächse (Creepers),  Jugend magazine, vol. 3, no. 34, p. 567, Aug. 20th 1898

The asrai

The last creature to discuss is perhaps the most intriguing, the asrai or ashray of Cheshire and Shropshire (no specific locations seem to be identified).  This meremaid combines many of the features already mentioned.  However, the fairy maid is portrayed as far more vulnerable than those seen before.  If she is caught, she does not fight back like some of the creatures mentioned, she instead pleads in an incomprehensible language to be set free and, when she is not, she curls up moaning in the fisherman’s boat and has melted away by the time he reaches shore at daybreak. Where her hands had touched the fisherman, he was burned and marked for life.

Other versions of the folk belief say that asrai have green hair and either a fishtail or webbed feet.  They are reputed to live for many centuries, coming to the surface of the lake once each century to bathe in the moonlight, which helps them to grow. If the asrai sees a man she will use promises of gold and jewels to attempt to lure him into the deepest part of the lake, there to drown or simply to trick him. She cannot tolerate human coarseness and vulgarity, and this will be enough to frighten her away.  Curiously, the same has been said of other fairies: Lewis Spence recorded that a woman of Loch Aline in the Highlands escaped abduction by the fairies when she used “a very coarse, unseemly word” (as well she might in the circumstances).  The sidhe could not tolerate this and left her where they found her (Lewis Spence, The fairy tradition in Britain, p.264).

Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan described the asrai evocatively, if not wholly in line with oral tradition.  In his poem The asrai- prologue to the changeling he says that:

“Before man grew of the four elements
The Asrai grew of three- fire, water, air-
Not earth, -they were not earthly….

The Asrai wander’d, choosing for their homes
All gentle places- valleys mossy deep,
Star-haunted waters, yellow strips of sand
Kissing the sad edge of the shimmering sea,                                         
And porphyry caverns in the gaunt hill-sides.”

In his sequel poem The changeling Buchanan tells us that “of the dew and the crystal air,/ And the moonray mild, were the Asrai made.”  Because, “In the glorious gleam of the natal ray,/The pallid Asrai faded away!” they were forced to retreat “far away in the darkened places,/ Deep in the mountains and under the meres.”

The most intriguing aspect of the asrai belief is the combination of predatory danger and vulnerability when caught.  It is comparable to the Scottish selkies, the seal women, who can be trapped and forced into marriage with a human if their seal skins can be stolen from them.  Perhaps in both we see the idea of the dangers of travelling between elements or dimensions.  Humans who visit fairyland can suffer both physically and mentally, and these stories demonstrate that the reverse is just as true.  The supernatural stranded in the physical world loses his or her power and is prey to mortality.

The kelpie_Draper

The kelpie, Herbert James Draper, 1913.

Further reading

I have discussed the capture of fairies more generally before and have also outlined mermaid belief in an early post.  See too my discussion of the ‘water horse‘ incident in the first book of the Outlander series.

 

 

 

‘Something in that witching face’- kelpies and mermaids

caffieri mermaid

Caffieri, ‘Young siren’

A long time ago, in an early posting on this blog, I discussed mermaids; I want now to return to the subject with some further reflections and information.

The little mermaid

Just like fairies, elves and pixies, it is very notable how the popular image of mermaids has improved and how they are coming to be regarded as wholly cute and attractive figures of myth.  The illustrations to this posting by Hector Caffieri demonstrate an early stage in this trend; perhaps the best known contemporary example might be Disney’s Ariel, the little mermaid.  In passing, it may be worthwhile making an additional observation on visual conventions.  The cartoon Ariel, for one, is sanitised and winsome.  Caffieri’s ‘Siren’ above is likewise a small girl, but it’s notable how the standard image has changed in the last century or so.  Today, the fish scales extend to the waist; in Victorian times (as can be seen) they often started somewhat lower, requiring a more discrete treatment (or perhaps a chance for a little titillation).

Today, mermaids are viewed wholly as figures suitable for children to like, draw and to imitate, with mermaid tails being a widely available form of fun beach wear.  It seems very likely that this more benign idea is derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story of The little mermaid.  The main character in this is presented as a model of Christian self sacrifice and goodness and has doubtless had a pervasive influence commensurate with the story’s popularity.  For modern generations, the aforementioned cartoon version of the story from Disney has profoundly influenced popular views of marine supernaturals since its release in 1989.  Other symptoms of these revised views of merfolk may be the 1984 film Splash starring Daryl Hannah and the very recent appearance of female entertainers playing mermaids for parties and corporate events.

Folklore mermaids

Whilst terrestrial fairies have been the subject of prettification and miniaturisation since the late sixteenth century,  this process has only been applied to mermaids during the last century and a half.  The consequence is that a great deal more of the older folklore attitudes survive, both in stories and in poetry.  Mermaids are still supernatural creatures deserving of awe, fear and mistrust.  Kindliness was never one of the mermaid’s traditional traits and it is still not how other supernatural water beasts are perceived.  In this respect, the dependable J K Rowling gives us a depiction more observant of folklore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (there called grindylows).  It may be easier for us to identify with and to find attractive qualities in a being that lives solely on land; mermaids live in a different element in which a human cannot survive and this important distinction may help to preserve their distance from us and our healthy respect for that difference.

caffieri-hector-1847-1932 a-young-siren

Caffieri,  ‘Siren’ (Bonhams)

It’s also inescapable that most mermaids are depicted as young, beautiful, naked women.  There’s probably a lot of psychology here if you’d like to find it.  This iconography may tell us about relations between men and women: the separation between elements may be a metaphor for the difference between the sexes.  It may equally just have something to say about sex more generally- that physical attraction is powerful, but dangerous; that we are entering a new and exposing environment when we entrust ourselves to another individual; that the lure of the strange and mysterious is strong but perilous.   As with all supernatural partners, love for mermaids is enticing but full of risk: what is placed in jeopardy may be long term happiness, your present way of living and connections or, even, life itself.

Irish poet Francis Hackett (1883-1962) captured many of the conventional traits of the mermaid in his poem Sea dawn:

“From Wicklow to the throb of dawn
I walked out to the sea alone
And by the black rocks came upon
A being from a world unknown.

As proud she sat as any queen
On high, and naked as the air:
Her limbs were lustrous, and a sheen
Of sea-gold flowed from her flowing hair.

And as the spreading sea did swell
With dawns strange and brimming light
Her little breasts arose and fell
As if in concord with the sight.

Faint was the sea sound that she made
Of little waves that melt in sand
While with her honey hair she played
And arched the mirror in her hand.”

This evocation of adolescent allure may well now trigger thoughts of the recent controversy concerning J. M. Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the nymphs and its temporary removal from the walls of Manchester City Art Gallery.  Both the picture and Hackett’s verse are of a piece and represent one powerful current of thought on mermaids and their nature.

Common mermaid themes

Across the world, there are several themes common to tales of merfolk.  The principal of these are as follows:

  • they can predict the future (see John Rhys, Celtic folklorethough very often this knowledge is dispensed in cryptic terms;
  • they can grant magical powers to those they favour (see for example The old man of Cury in Hunt’s Popular romances of the West of England);
  • they can punish those who offend them or who injure those whom they protect (see Hunt’s stories of the mermaid in Padstow Harbour and of The mermaid’s vengeance);
  • they can assume normal human form by magical means; and,
  • they can become involved in love affairs with mortals, whether that involves living for a while on land with the human or luring the human beneath the waves.  The outcomes are seldom good (see Matthew Arnold, The merman’s lament).

As is the case in contact with all supernatural beings, involvement with merfolk is generally risky and involves an imbalance of power.  Romantic attachments can be fatal whilst any information or ability gained from them is only obtained through coercion, whether that is bribery or physical force.

mucha mermaid

An art nouveau mermaid or water sprite

Water monsters

To repeat, as with the improvement in the character of fairies, the changed perception of merfolk is a relatively recent amelioration.  Evidence of the earlier, much more dangerous, nature of these beings is still to be found in the Scottish accounts of water horses (associated with salt water), water bulls and other water beasts like kelpies, which are found in freshwater lochs.  Their main occupation, it seems, is seducing mortals and luring them to their doom.  James Hogg’s 1819 poem The mermaid is representative of this:  the Maid of the Crystal Wave lures a young man to ‘places he should not have been and sights he should not have seen’ and it proves to be his ruin.  Similarly in Charles Mackay’s 1851 ballad The Kelpie of Corryevreckan a handsome stranger on a horse rides off with love-struck Jessie, but then plunges beneath the waves with her, so that she is found drowned the next day.  Poet Joseph Rodman Drake in his verse, To a friend, described travellers being terrorised by “the kelpie’s fang.”

It is notable that whilst mermaids might accidentally drown their lovers, it is not generally their intention, whereas the character of the water beasts is specifically to seek out humans in order to destroy them.  In light of this, there is perhaps a case for excluding the latter from the category of ‘fairies.’ Mermaids are semi-human in form; the kelpie can take on human form whilst the water horses appear as animals alone and may be better described as monsters.

Lastly, what is particularly notable is the Highland Scottish link between water creatures and horses.  Exactly why this should have been made is far from clear, but it is to be found across Northern Europe in Scandinavian folklore, from Iceland through to Denmark.  It seems very likely that Viking settlement introduced this idea into the north of Scotland.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J W Waterhouse, ‘Sketch for a mermaid’, 1892.

Further reading

As mentioned, I posted before on the risks of loving mermaids and water beasts and I have also discussed catching the fleeting and vulnerable asrai.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see my post on mermaid wisdom and my posting on Gwenhidw, the Welsh mermaid queen. See too my discussion of freshwater mere-maids and of of Charles’ Kingsley’s famous novel, The water babies.  

“From uncleannesse kept”- the cautionary function of fairy tales

shui-rhys-and-the-tylwyth-tegIn his book Religion and the decline of magic Keith Thomas astutely observed that “Fairy faith has a social function, enforcing certain conduct” and that “Fairy beliefs could help to reinforce some of the standards upon which the effective working of society depended” (pp.730 and 732).

There were two main targets for these warnings- children and servants/ wives.  The two groups shared subordinate social positions and could be the subject of rebukes and punishments.  One vehicle for such chastisement was supernatural.

Protecting children

Then, as now, children from time to time needed to be told what was best for them.  A fairy threat to enforce this, especially in situations when adults might be absent, was a valuable support to parents.  A variety of risks and dangers were given fairy personality in the hope of instilling an awed respect and nervous caution.  The perils given terrifying character included:

  • rivers– for example ‘Peg Powler’ on the river Tees, who might drag incautious children from the banks under the waves;
  • ponds– similar drowning dangers, as well as that of lawn-like mats of pond weed, were given identities: Jenny Greenteeth in Lancashire and Cumbria, Grindylow in Yorkshire, Nelly Longarms and the widespread Rawhead and Bloodybones.  In East Anglia the ‘freshwater mermaid’ was especially well known.  There are records of these perilous creatures in the River Gipping in Suffolk and in ponds, pools and meres at Fordham, Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk at Rendlesham and most notably at the Mermaid Pits, Fornham All Saints;
  • unripe fruit in trees– to discourage theft and upset stomachs, infants were warned of Awd Goggie, Lazy Lawrence and the Colt Pixy in orchards; Churnmilk Peg and Melsh Dick guarded Yorkshire nut groves and the Gooseberry Wife, in the form of a huge caterpillar, lay in wait amidst the fruit bushes on the Isle of Wight;
  • domestic store rooms– dangers in the home were protected by Tom Poker in Suffolk and Bloody Bones elsewhere.

Bogies also had the function of getting children to behave themselves and to go to bed. Amongst these so-called nursery bogies were Tankerabogus, Mumpoker and Tom Dockin.

Supervising adults

Adults undertaking domestic duties would be chastened by fairy retribution too.  The so-called ‘buttery sprites’ existed as the grownup equivalent to the creatures deployed to terrify children.  A range of chores were policed by supernatural means.  This theme is comprehensively summarised in the Fairies fegaries of 1635:

“And if the house be foule/ Or platter, dishe or bowle/ Up stairs we nimbly creepe/ And finde the sluts asleepe:/ Then we pinch their arms and thighs/ None escapes nor none espies./ But if the house be swepte/ And from uncleannesse kept/ We praise the house and maid/ And surely she is paid:/ For we do use before we go/ To drop a tester in her shoe.”

Servants were warned not to sit up late gossiping but to keep their houses tidy, floors and hearths swept and the embers raked up, dairies spotless and decked with mint, the shelves dusted, the benches wiped down and their pewter well scoured.  Those “foul sluts” who neglected their chores did so on pain of physical punishment: they would be pinched black and blue all over, whilst the obedient and dutiful would be rewarded with a coin in a shoe or pail (see for example Thomas Churchyard, A handful of gladsome verses, 1592 or William Browne, Britannia’s pastorals, Book 1, song 2).  Neglect of the proper domestic offerings to fairies- clean water, milk, bread and the like- led to infliction of the same penalties.

In summary then, fairy beliefs were not just a source of entertainment or explanation of puzzling events; they had a regulatory function.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).