Still Ill? Diseases caused by faeries

babies

I have described in other posts the various ways in which the faeries can prejudice human health. Here, I want to draw these together and add details of a few other illnesses ascribed to the supernatural causes.

Fairy Blights

The fairies blight and debilitate in a variety of ways.  Overall, medical practitioners recognised that a patient might suffer from being “haunted by fairies” and that she or he might have been “stricken with some ill spirit.” (John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches, 1646, 49).  These malign attentions might manifest in various ways, depending upon the exact causes.  People might sicken and fade away, having been shot with elf-arrows; they might display similar but much more sudden symptoms after abduction and they might fall victim to paralysis.

In the Scottish Highlands, if a fairy breathed upon a person, they might be covered in huge blisters. A lesser version of these symptoms, the rash called ‘hives,’ was known in the region as the ‘fairy-pox’ or a’ bhreac-sith.  

Fairy Nips

The fairies are well known for their pinching, and severe and persistent symptoms of this were treated as a condition in its own right.  In his attack on the idea of witchcraft, A Candle in the Dark, which was written in 1655, Thomas Ady noted that:

“There are often found in Women with Childe certain spots black and blew, as if they were pinched or beaten, which some ignorant people call Fairy Nips.”

Another book of 1672, a satirical attack on Catholicism, mentions the stigmata and sneers that,  although one priest does not bear the holy marks, “he may have fairy nips, which are as bad.”

In 1671, playwright Henry Carey hinted in the epilogue to his play, The Generous Enemies, at a belief that even greater harm might be suffered by younger victims of this condition:

“like children, just alive,/ Pinched by the fairies, never after thrive.”

On Shetland, there was a condition known as ‘dead man’s nip’ which manifested as a small discoloured spot somewhere on a person’s body. It could be healed by the application of churchyard earth or by brushing with a bible.  This seems very likely to be a northerly version of the English illness, not least because fairies and the dead are often intimately associated, and most especially so in Scotland.

Elf-Cakes

Enlargement of the spleen was also believed to have been inflicted by vengeful fairies.  Thomas Lupton in 1579 made reference to “hardnes of the syde, called the Elfe-cake.” Herbalist William Langham in his 1597 book The Garden of Health prescribed certain ‘simples’ to “heale elfe cake and the hardnesses of the side.”  In these cases the word ‘cake’ seems to be used in the sense of a congealed mass, rather as in ‘cake of soap.’

Cures

Very fortunately, as I have described several times, the fairies often supply the cure as frequently as they inflict a blight.  The remedies to fairy illness are as numerous as the illnesses they cause, ranging from using belts and girdles to cure to the many herbal treatments I have described.

For further information on sickness and healing, see chapters 12 and 13 of my Faery (2020).  see too my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side

‘An Ill Wind’- Faery Paralysis and Other Blights

Sleigh- Phylis & Demoophoon, Phantastes
Bernard SleighPhyllis & Demoophoon

People can be rendered completely incapable of movement by the fairies.  This is generally inflicted as some sort of punishment and can be a short-term measure to remedy a temporary problem- or a long-term state, which is indicative of a completely different state of affairs.  Long lasting paralysis is often a sign of fairy abduction.

Frozen on the Spot

A lazy, drunken farm labourer from the Cotswold area of England sneaked away from the harvest work in the fields to drink beer in the sun.  He chose a small mound with a hawthorn growing on top as comfortable spot and settled down to relax.  However, a crowd of small green beings appeared in front of him.  Despite his fear, he found he was completely unable to move.  After a while, they disappeared and he recovered the use of his limbs; he needed a drink, but found that all the beer in his flask had also disappeared.

It seems very clear from this account that the shirker had chosen a fairy hill to laze upon.  The incident might simply be a case of the fairies stealing alcohol because they fancied their own binge, but it seems more likely that this is an incident of a trespass being punished and- at the same time- a human being chastened for infringing the fairies’ moral code.  Whilst the story doesn’t say it explicitly, I reckon we may infer that the shock was such that the man rarely drank afterwards.

Incursion upon the fairies’ reserved places seems constantly to be the cause of cases of paralysis.  A farmer of Ffridd Uchaf was returning from Beddgelert fair in Snowdonia. He saw a company of fairies dancing and, whilst he lay in hiding watching them, he fell asleep. As he slumbered, they bound him so tightly that he could not move, after which they covered him over with a veil of gossamer, so that nobody would see him in case he cried out for help. As the man did not return home, his family made a thorough search for him, but in vain. Fortunately, about the same time the next night the fairies returned and freed him and, a little while later, he awoke after sleeping a whole night and a day. He had no idea where he was, and wandered about on the slopes of the Gader and near the Gors Fawr until he heard a cock crow, when he finally realised he was less than a quarter of a mile from his home.  This case is comparable to the story of ‘Miser on the Gump at St Just.’  An old man set out one moonlit night to Woon Gumpus, near the village of St Just, where he had heard that the fairies assembled and where he thought he might be able to steal some fairy treasure.  The whole fairy court emerged from under ground for a feast and the man hoped to steal some of their gold and silver plates.  He was so preoccupied with the precious metals that he neglected to notice that he had been surrounded by spriggans.  They threw hundreds of tiny ropes around him and pulled him to the ground, where he was pinched and stung by the entire fairy multitude.  At dawn they vanished, leaving him bound with cobwebs on the open moor.

A man who unwittingly stumbled upon a fairy market on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset was mishandled in a similar way. He tried to ride through the crowd of fairies gathered around the numerous stalls and was “crowded and thrust, as when one passes through a throng of people… He found himself in pain and so hastened home; where, being arrived, lameness seized him all on one side, which continued with him as long as he lived, which was for many years…” Although the writer here, Richard Bovet, calls it ‘lameness,’ it seems apparent that the man suffered some sort of paralysis on one side of his body (Pandaemonium 207).

Our last example comes from Torrington in North Devon.  One day at the very beginning of June, 1890, a man was working in a wood.  At the end of the day he separated from his companions to collect a tool he had left nearby.  On bending down to pick it up, a strange feeling came over him; he was unable to move and he heard pixies laughing.  He realised he was at their mercy.  When he had not returned home by ten o’clock that night, his wife became very alarmed and went out to look for him.  She met the man emerging from the wood, soaked to the skin.  He explained he had been held under the pixies’ spell for nearly five hours, capable only of crawling along on his hands and knees.  It was dark and he had no idea where he was, as a result of which he fell into a stream, which broke the spell.  The wood was apparently known for pixie-leading, although this is not really the right term for the man’s experience, which was much more akin to a paralysis.

Several features unite these cases: an action which somehow incurs fairy displeasure and their sanction, which is a loss of bodily function that may vary in terms of its extent and/ or duration.  I have called this fairy paralysis; our forebears seem to have called it something else- ‘fairy blast.’

soper spell
Eileen Soper, The Spell That Went Wrong

Fairy Blast

Roughly speaking, there are two main ways in which the fairies make humans sick.  One is to shoot us with arrows (elf-shot), which leaves the victim elf-struck (suffering from a stroke).  The other is to blast them with an ‘ill-wind’- a condition also sometimes called the evil eye.

The condition was recognised in England, and was often termed ‘the Faerie’ but it is from Scotland that we have the better records of the illness and its cure. The evidence mainly comes from the trial of women suspected of being ‘witches,’ although in reality what they had usually been involved in was folk healing, using herbs, of the sickness caused by fairies and witches.  For example, Jonet Andersone of Stirling was tried in 1621: using a shirt worn by the patient and an iron knife, she had diagnosed that the illness had come from ‘a blast of ill wind.’  Likewise, Janet Boyman of Edinburgh told a mother than her child had been blasted with an evil wind by the fairies when they found it in its cradle, unblessed by the mother and therefore unprotected from faery malignity.

In 1662 Jonet Morrisone of Bute was tried for witchcraft.  Amongst the evidence against her was an incident where she had told a man that his daughter was paralysed and unable to speak because of “blasting with the faryes,” something she cured with herbs.  She had treated at least two others in the same way.  Janet Trall of Perth treated a baby that had got “a dint of evil wind” by bathing the infant with water from a south-flowing well.   I’ve discussed before the crucial role of water in curing fairy illness and in cures provided to us by the fairies.

On Shetland and Orkney, the trows were also said to cause identical illnesses. The islanders said that an ‘ill wind’ in the face could lead to languor, stupor and loss of appetite.

There were two explanations as to how blasting happened.  Healer Catie Watson of Stow explained in 1630 that people were “blasted with the breath of the fairy.”  Jonet Morisone, though, said that “blasting is a whirlwind that the fayries raise about that persone quhich they intend to wrong and that, tho’ there were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot him quhom they were set for.”  She went on to explain that the effect of the wind gathered in one place in the body and, unless treated in a timely manner, would cause the victim to ‘shirpe’ (shrivel) away.   Janet Boyman in 1572 expanded a little on this: the purpose of the blasting was, in her opinion, to enable the fairies (the “sillyie wychts” as she called them) to abduct the victim.  She saw blasting as part of a longer term strategy, therefore, rather than as an immediate response to some offence.

Some close contact was evidently necessary for the blast to be inflicted.  I’ll end this discussion with a mention of a Highland Scottish belief that cattle could be paralysed by the so-called ‘fairy mouse.’  The luch-sith was the name for the shrew and it was believed that its presence in pastures could lead to livestock being struck down with the marcachd sith, (fairy riding), a paralysis of the spine brought on by the shrew running across the backs of the cattle when they lay down.

For more on this aspect of the faery character, see my 2021 book The Darker Side of Faery:

The faery personality- and their relations with humans

ovenden evil fairy
EnEvil fairy by Graham Ovenden

“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk/ Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine/ Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles/ But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.” (Henry Terrell,  The wee folk of Menteith, p.46)

Some months ago I posted about my personal views of the nature and conduct of fairy-kind.  I’d like to say a little more about my view of their general character and interaction with human kind, as I think it will inform an understanding of my own approach to the subject in these postings.

All things nice?

I’ve written in the past about certain modern, cute manifestations of fairy kind: Santa’s elves for example and the Tooth Fairy.  As those of you who read these comments will no doubt have detected, I have little time for such sugary figures.  I have an affection for the flower fairy art of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant, and even (sometimes) the plump cuddly creations of Mabel Lucy Atwell, but my own conception of their identity and activities is very different.

The genre of imagery shown below is part of our problem with fairies: because of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors, we have come to see them as cuddly and sweet and ideally suited to little girls.  This is a gross underestimation and misconception.  Perhaps Graham Ovenden’s painting at the head of this post is most appropriate: there’s beauty, but there’s something beneath, in that distracted self-absorbed look.

Attwelll Changeling
Mabel Lucy Attwell, The Changeling.Enter a caption

A darker view?

My view of Faery is rather darker and I’d summarise their main personality traits as follows.  I’ll use some characters from my own books to illustrate these convictions, or preconceptions (or prejudices!) of mine:

  • the fairies are a serious and scary people.  I don’t conceive of them as small, either physically or in their activities.  This will be apparent from my postings on this site and from all my fictional creations, but most strongly, perhaps, in the person of Maeve in Albion awake!  I’d hesitate to antagonise or patronise her: I may have imagined her as smaller of stature, but there’s no doubting her formidable determination;
  • they can’t be taken for granted and must be treated with all due respect and caution.  Their good will can’t be bought;
  • their resemblance to us should not be mistaken for affinity.  They may look like us physically, but they are unlike us and any resemblance should not put us off our guard;
  • they are strong and independent.  They have their own agenda and their own rules by which they live.  We shouldn’t presume to know their plans or to have much hope of changing them;
  • they are reserved and won’t reveal themselves readily;
  • they are content to live separately from us- indeed, they would prefer to do so- but sometimes necessity obliges them to make contact.  We should not imagine that they want to ‘help’ us or that they ‘love’ humankind.  To my mind that sort of attitude tends towards complacency and overconfidence.  In Albion awake!, for example, main character John Bullen is permitted to call upon Maeve’s assistance in times of great need, but no more.  That doesn’t inhibit her in appearing in his flat whenever she has need to make use of him, though; and that’s the core of the human/fairy interaction, to my mind.  They make use of us and they may grant us the occasional favour, but there is an notable imbalance of power.  In my novel The elder queen the fairies (‘the sky children’) show kindness to Darren Carter, but I’d probably conceive that as pity for the shambling wreck that he makes of his life towards the midpoint of the book- he’s drug addicted, divorced and indebted, homeless and jobless.  He’s an object of their charity; there’s a good deal of condescension but little of the equality of friends.

Key to the fairy character is their mutability.  How a particular individual human may be treated seems often to be a matter of whim; a fay’s mood is seldom predictable.  (I’d argue that this apparent lack of consistency may be more to do with our ignorance of their habits and thinking than any waywardness on their part).  Possible interactions with humans therefore cover a complete spectrum from good to bad.  The fairy may be:

  • evasive and secretive- or at the very least indifferent.  Whether this arises from fear of humankind, or contempt for mortals, is debatable;
  • generous and helpful.  Certain favourites may, inexplicably, be adopted and given regular gifts of money or valuable skills or rewards (such as a never ending supply of flour or beer);
  • even-handed and scrupulously fair.  Sometimes faes will ask to borrow some household item or provision; they will always return it and, if a food stuff has been loaned, they will insist upon a full and equivalent restitution, and occasionally more than that;
  • cruel and spiteful.  A human may deserve their bad treatment, possibly because of some conceived slight to or neglect of the fairies; alternatively, there may be little explanation for the maltreatment dished out- other than it amuses the faeries.

The last category of interaction is naturally the most concerning, as it can be unheralded and undeserved torment- sometimes culminating in death.  If I’m being cautious in my advice on approaches to fairies, I would always advise that you proceed on the assumption that the response you will get may be a rebuff or worse.  If I was asked to summarise the most negative aspects of faery character, I would say that they were exploitative.  Humankind are very often viewed as a resource, something to be used.  They may take our foodstuffs, they may make use of our possessions or occupy our homes.  Parasitic might be an even harsher adjective.  Fairy-kind can bake, churn, spin, forge metals and all the rest; but why labour when people have done the work already?  In this frame of mind, we can interpret changeling children as cuckoos: why look after the weak and infirm when you can take a healthy infant and leave the really hard care to a human?

Further reading

I expand upon many of these traits in my other postings and in my 2017 book British fairies.  My general advice, though, would always be to approach our Good Neighbours with great caution: if they are friendly and bountiful, count your blessings and enjoy your good luck (keeping it strictly secret).  If they do not seem approachable, accept it and keep a respectful distance.  Don’t pester, don’t expect, don’t assume.  Don’t mix up smaller size and beautiful looks with cuteness and harmlessness; as I titled a previous post- not all nymphs are nice.

My forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn Worldwide, will delve even further into the complex nature of the fae personality.

Fairy healers? Some further thoughts on Ronald Hutton’s ‘The witch.’

High_fairy_healer_mR4

High Fairy Healer, from the card game Rage of Bahamut

In his new book, The witch, Ronald Hutton argues for a close link between local cunning folk (what he prefers to call ‘service magicians’ who assist their local communities) and the fairies, who frequently taught these individuals their healing powers.  He cites numerous examples, most of witch come from Scottish witch trials (there is only a handful of English examples).

The evidence of fairy healing

As I have mentioned when discussing  witches and fairies, I am troubled by the fact that this evidence is from one very unique source or environment.  What is the folklore evidence of fairy healing other than that linked to witchcraft?  There seems to be very little.  I can think of only a handful of instances even remotely resembling what the accused healers described:

  • in Layamon’s Brut the elf queen Argante takes the wounded Arthur to Avalon to heal him- and the same history describes how elves bestowed upon Arthur the gifts of good luck and other qualities at his birth (acting as the original fairy god-mothers);
  • there are a couple of stories from Shetland of the healing abilities of the trows.  One relates an incident when they were seen treating a jaundiced trow infant by pouring water over it- a human stole the bowl used and was able then to cure jaundice in humans.  In another story ointment is stolen from the trows which proves efficacious for any human injury.  What is particularly notable about these accounts is that they are almost unique in describing fairies succumbing to illnesses and curing themselves;
  • the Welsh tale of the fairy wife of Llyn y Fan Fach follows the usual course of such tales.  The gwrag annwn is persuaded to marry a human male, but eventually he violates the conditions of their betrothal and she abandons him.  However, in this particular instance, she maintains regular contact with her three sons, to whom she teaches healing skills.  They became  the renowned physicians of Myddfai;
  • in the Cornish story of the old man of Cury, the hero of the title rescues a mermaid stranded by the tide.  In gratitude for carrying her back to the sea, the mermaid offers to give him any three things he cares to request.  He asked, not for wealth, but for the abilities to charm away sickness, to break the spells of witchcraft, and to discover thieves and restore stolen property;
  • in the ballad of The son of the knight of green vesture a cow herd is visited by a fairy maid and is offered various magical objects, each in exchange for a cow. He swaps one of his kine for a jewel that heals sores;
  • as I have discussed when examining  gifts from the fairies, there are a few sites around Britain which are associated with fairies and healing- wells and standing stones and such like.  For example, the ‘Hob Hole’ on the North Yorkshire coast was said to be inhabited by a ‘hob’ who could cure whooping cough if asked; the fairies’ ‘dripping cave’ at Craig-a-Chowie in Ross-shire could cure deafness.  A particularly interesting story attaches to the Fairies Well near Blackpool (from Spence, The fairy tradition in Britain, p.156).  The water of the well was known locally to be good for the treatment of weak eyes.  A mother whose daughter’s eyesight seemed to be failing went to the well to fill a bottle.  There she met a small green man who gave her a box of ointment to apply to the child.  Before treating her daughter, the mother put some of the salve on her own eye, without ill-effect.  She therefore applied it to the girl, who was cured.  So far, this is a happy tale of a benevolent fairy bestowing his healing power out of pure goodwill.  However, there is a sequel.  Some time later, the mother saw the same little man at the market.  She thanked him for the cure; he was angry and demanded to know with which eye she saw him.  She was promptly blinded, as happens in all such stories of midwives and wet nurses.  It appears, therefore, that her offence was to apply the ointment to anyone but the person for whom it was intended;
  • in the French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, which was only translated in English in the later sixteenth century, there is a reference to a healing horn given to fairy king Oberon by four fairy ‘godmothers.’  Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly; and,
  • much later Scottish sources describe the sidh folk giving certain craft and musical skills to favoured humans (see Evans-Wentz for the examples of this).

And that’s pretty much it.  There is some evidence of magical healing powers, therefore, but next to none of passing on these abilities to humans.  If we take out the literary instances, we have a very sparse list indeed: we are left with the ointment from Blackpool, the Cornish tale concerning a mermaid rather than a fairy and the story of the fairy mother teaching her children at Myddfai (all of which have unique elements to them) along with the examples of healing at wells and caves (none of which contain any suggestion that the resident sprite ever showed any inclination to pass on its knowledge of cures). Usually, fairies are associated with harming humans, with blighting livestock and with bringing ill-fortune (see too chapter 20 of my British fairies).

The witch trials

The other notable feature of the witch cases is that the healing power claimed to have been acquired from the fairies was frequently specifically an ability to cure fairy blights. Unlike the range of ills cured by fairy wells and such like, the fairies only passed on remedies to harm caused by their own actions.  This is odd, not to say traitorous, behaviour on the fairies’ part.  Once again it makes me suncomfortable about these claims.  Why then was it that the suspect witches mentioned this beneficial gift?

There are 23 cases of witchcraft listed by Hutton.  Of these half involve claims by the healers of fairy teaching.  He notes too that about 80% of the defendants are women.  He speculates whether women were more likely to identify with supernatural helpers, whether they were more likely to be taken to court or whether they were most likely to be local magicians.  We cannot answer these questions, sadly.  It is notable that these cases peaked in the early modern period and were in decline by the eighteenth century, by which time magicians were believed to learn not from the fairies but from books and from the masters.

There were incontestably ‘wise wives’ in Scotland, dynion hysbys in Wales and ‘cunning folk’ in England who acted generally as healers within their communities and who sometimes offered to treat those who had been ‘blasted’ or blighted by the fairies (or whose livestock had).  It is far from apparent to what extent these individuals claimed to have acquired their abilities or treatments as the result of some special compact with ‘the good neighbours.’

Looking at the cases themselves, it is striking that, as well as claiming supernaturally derived knowledge, the alleged witches also often gave accounts of being visited in their homes by fairies (sometimes even by the fairy queen herself) or, alternatively, they might visit the fairies under their hills.  These contacts often occurred at night and they not infrequently led to long term sexual relationships.  In these regular and deliberate contacts, the witchcraft suspects were unusually honoured.  The witch cases may be abnormal because of the insistence by the human partner upon these regular and intimate contacts over an extended period.  I wonder, in fact, if this may indicate something significant about this handful of defendants.

Fairy healing- faith or fear?

It seems to me that there may be two explanations for the statements made by the suspected witches.  The first may be that there was something distinctive about the individual claimants themselves.  They have departed from fairy-lore conventions in making themselves ‘stars of the show’ by claiming these special associations.  Might they have ended up under arrest and accused by their neighbours because they had a tendency to boast, even because they had some sort of mental health problem that attracted attention in their villages and small towns?  Claims of fairy favour and love might equally have been a way of claiming some sort of status in their communities and, as noted, most of the accused were women who may well have felt economically and socially disadvantaged within the strictures of a strictly Presbyterian, hierarchical and patriarchal society.

As stated, these cases are at odds with the overall trend of recorded fairy belief, which ought to make us cautious about the claims.  Given that our ‘good neighbours’ were known for their proclivity for afflicting humans, it was presumably not a great leap of imagination to propose that, with the proper propitiations and knowledge, the fairies could help take off those curses.  It is interesting, too, that only a few ventured to lay claim to such powers; they constitute a minority of a minority, from whose accounts it may not be safe to conclude that it was widely believed that fairies passed on whatever medical skills they possessed to humankind.

The explanation outlined in the last couple of paragraphs may at least explain some of the elaboration in these accounts.  My second proposed explanation for the claims to fairy-taught powers is a great deal simpler and may be far more probable.  Many of the cures used by these healers (drinking water in which ‘elf-arrows’ had been immersed, magic circles, use of metal blades) were very far from new; they can be traced right back to Anglo-Saxon cures for elf afflictions.  They appear therefore to be traditional cures handed down over generations.  If this is correct, the accused witches plainly learned their craft from someone else- a relative or skilled teacher.  Alleging that the fairies taught them their knowledge protected the real, living sources of their remedies.   Once they were in the hands of the authorities, the accused probably realised that their prospects of acquittal were limited; what could be more understandable then than to try to protect family members and others from the same fate?  The fairies were never going to be arrested and burned.  This may be a far better explanation of these anomalous claims.

Further reading

I still highly recommend The Witch for its survey of witch lore and fairy lore over the last millennium.  I have returned to the theme of fairy cures in a much later post, looking at the actual plants and practices used.

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