‘Spirits of another sort’- Fairy Immortality

monge, white faery
Jean-Baptiste Monge, White Fairy

Although I have discussed previously the evidence that fairies can be murdered, the general view of fairy-kind is that they’re immortal.  Certainly, literary representations describe faery characters in these terms- and it’s reasonable to assume that authors mostly just reflected the prevailing beliefs of their time.

Immortal faes

The situation is well illustrated in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The dispute between Titania and Oberon that’s central to the plot arises over an orphaned human child.  Titania tells us that his mother “being mortal, of that boy did die” and that, “for her sake, I do rear up her boy.”  Oberon quarrels with her over possession of the child and the land is blighted “The human mortals want their winter here” the queen says (II, 1).  Later, Peaseblossom addresses Titania’s new lover, Bottom, with a cry of “Hail mortal!” (III, 1) It’s very evident from all three lines that the faeries see a stark distinction between their state and ours.  The boy’s mother died in childbirth; although they may need to assistance of human midwifes, this could never happen to a fairy woman.  Oberon simply confirms this difference when he declares to Puck “we are spirits of another sort” (III, 2).

The medieval poem, Thomas of Erceldoune, expresses the distinction between the faery state and ours in one simple phrase.  Thomas meets the fairy queen and wants to have sex with her; she knows this will impair her unearthly beauty and exclaims to him:

“Man of molde, thou will be merre (mar)”

Thomas is a mortal being of Middle Earth and will inevitably return to the dust from which he came.  This sharp contrast in our natures is brought out in the stories of those humans taken for many years into Faery and who, upon finally returning home, crumble into dust as soon as they touch another mortal or consume earthly food.  In his account of Welsh folklore from 1896, it is fascinating to read that Elias Owen was told that, in just the same way, the tylwyth teg call us humans ‘dead men’ or ‘men of earth’ (Welsh Folklore, p.11).  Humans are also sometimes called ‘children of Eve,’ indicative, at the very least, of our different lines of descent.

There is, also, a little evidence that fairies seek to make their human captives immortal like themselves.  In Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess we are told how the elves dance at night beside a well:

“dipping often times

Their stolen children, so to make them free

From dying flesh and dull mortality.” (Act I, scene 2)

monge bf
Monge, Blue Fairy

Faery fatalities

How do we square this conviction of faery deathlessness with the evidence of faeries being killed quite easily by men?  One explanation is, simply, that the faeries are mortal but that their life spans are very much longer than ours- so extended, in fact, that they are for all intents and purposes immortal.  This was certainly the view that the Reverend Robert Kirk took in The Secret Commonwealth.

The other explanation is one that Tolkien endorsed.  As is very clear from Lord of the Rings, disease and age cannot kill an elf, but they can die in battle- and therefore can be murdered.  This qualified state may well seem a lot less desirable than any idea of perpetual youth and health.  We find a depiction of it in another literary treatment of supernatural immortality- in Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso.  The ‘sorceress’ Manto explains how:

“We are so born that all ills we sustain,

Save only death; but you must realise

Our Immortality is tinged with pain

As sharp as death and all that it implies.”  (Book 43, stanza 98)

We may set against this the statement by Cornish author Enys Tregarthen that the pobel vean (the little people) showed their age by getting younger and fairer- or, at least, the fairy royalty did (The Pisky Purse, 1905).

Summary & Further Reading

In conclusion, we humans, with our mayfly lives, just can’t be sure as to the truth about fairy mortality.  We read of fairy funerals witnessed by humans from time to time; perhaps these are best interpreted as ceremonies for those who have finally reached the end of their very long lives or for those who have been the unfortunate victims of assassination and war.

For more discussion of fairy life and mortality, see my recently published FaeryFor more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Killing fairies- the unpleasant truth

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

It’s a widespread belief that fays are immortal.  In fact (and surprisingly) the folklore evidence- scattered as it is- clearly contradicts this.  Fairies are mortal and, it follows, they can be killed.

Fairies’ life spans are considerably longer than ours, which probably explains the common misconception, but nonetheless they do die eventually, something the Reverend Robert Kirk expressed with his usual style:

“They are not subject to sore Sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain Period, all about ane Age.” (Secret Commonwealth, chapter 7)

Another Scottish account of fairy life-spans states that they live through nine ages, with nine times nine periods in each:

“Nine nines sucking the breast,
Nine nines unsteady, weak,
Nine nines footful, swift,
Nine nines able and strong,
Nine nines strapping, brown,
Nine nines victorious, subduing,
Nine nines bonneted, drab,
Nine nines beardy, grey,
Nine nines on the breast-beating death,
And worse to me were these miserable nine nines
Than all the other short-lived nine nines that were.”

That the fays will eventually sicken and pass away is confirmed by a couple of pieces of evidence.  Firstly, fairy funerals have been witnessed.  William Blake most famously described one, but his account is probably more poetic than authentic.  Other people have however stumbled upon fairy funeral processions (for example, that of the Fairy Queen at Lelant in Cornwall) and the Reverend Edmund Jones, living in Monmouthshire in the late eighteenth century, told of several such funerals seen which foretold deaths in the mortal world, quite often that of the witness.

Secondly, there are a few allusions to fairy cemeteries.  One was believed to be at Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland;  generally in the north of England it used to be said that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground.

So, despite great longevity, age and sickness will ultimately overtake even the fairies.  This is sad, but not necessarily shocking.  More disturbing is the evidence that fairies can be killed prematurely.  I have discussed fairy warfare in a previous post; it’s almost unavoidable that blood will be spilt in such conflict, but we might still not think it so remarkable that one magical being can slay another.  The truth is, though, that humans can murder supernaturals.

Nymphocide (I’ve just invented this word, by the way) may occur accidentally.  One version of the story from Brinkburn is that it was the ringing of the bells of the church that killed them (Denham Tracts, p.134).  I’ve mentioned before fairies aversion to church bells; this particular story takes that theme to extremes.

Other fairy murders are just that- deliberate and premeditated killings.  One case from Shropshire concerns some nuisance boggarts in a farmhouse.  The story follows the pattern of the “we’re flitting too” type of tale, in which the human family try to escape their unwelcome companions by moving house, only to find that the boggart comes with them.  In most versions the humans reconcile themselves to their unwanted housemates, often giving up the move entirely.  In the Shropshire version, the humans take matters to their logical conclusion.  Unable to give the boggarts the slip, they trick them into sitting in front of a blazing fire in the hearth of the new home and then topple them into the flames, where they’re held in place with forks and brooms until they’re consumed.

Some other nymphocides at least seem to be crimes of passion or are committed in the heat of the moment or in self defence.  On the Hebridean island of Benbecula a mermaid was accidentally slain by a stone thrown at her head during an attempt by some fishermen to capture her.  In the ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elf-knight, the heroine lulls to sleep the fairy who plans to kill her and then stabs him to death; in another version she drowns him- but the ability to kill is the point.  J. F. Campbell relays a story concerning the killing of a gruagach with a sword (Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.1, p.7).  The Reverend Robert Kirk also mentions a man with second sight who, during a visit to faerie, “cut the Bodie of one of those People in two with his Iron Weapon.”  All of these raise tales the possibility that it is the iron of the weapons that is significant.  We know that iron is a good defence against fairies and it seems only reasonable that it should be fatal for them too.

This evidence may surprise and shock some readers, but it fits with the general tenor of traditional fairy lore.  If the fairies are dangerous and untrustworthy beings, it seems inevitable that sometimes a person will conclude that the only safe and permanent solution will be to do away with the perceived threat.

A related, but separate, procedure is the ‘laying’ of a supernatural- normally a boggart- which involves permanently banishing or exorcising the creature.  Perhaps this will be the subject of a future posting…

IdaRentoulOuthwaite

Further reading

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

“Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt”- fairy physiology

 

froud

Brian Froud, a ‘frog fairy’

Our ancestors believed in a form of life called ‘fairy’; but how exactly did they conceive these beings? What was their physical form and nature (if they had one?)

Astral bodies

Robert Kirk, in his Secret commonwealth, describes them variously as “astral” with “light, changable Bodies somewhat of the Nature of a condensed cloud” (s.1) and as being composed of “congealed Air,” which meant that they could not be physically wounded in the “fluid, active, aethereal Vehicles” which held them (s.7).  Kirk was Scottish and it seems that the general Highland belief  was that sidh were not flesh and blood but spirits who looked like men and women, albeit smaller in stature (see Evans-Wentz, The fairy faith in Celtic countries, pp.102, 104, 105, 109 & 114).  They had no solidity and a hand could pass straight through them, as if through a ghost.  The same was true in Wales (Wentz pp.138, 140 & 144); the popular conception was that the fairies didn’t have physical bodies and so could be caught.  They lived in a materially different sort of world which would change any human who visited (Wentz pp.144-145).  One Welsh account depicts them dancing on the tips of rushes, evidently being both tiny and insubstantial.

In more recent times perceptions have moved us even further away from the idea of fairies having a fixed, solid body.  The medieval fay steadily became more ethereal until we arrived at a point today where quite a few authorities say that they have no inherent form and simply borrow their appearance from whatever preconceptions they viewer carries in his her mind.  The fairies are purely ‘thought forms‘ who look just as we expect them to look.

Fairy babies

This being so, it is strange then that it was accepted that ordinary mortals could have physical contact with fairies- dancing with them, nursing their babies and, indeed, fathering babies upon them.  Katharine Briggs wrote that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (see her The fairies in tradition and literature p.95). Maybe there was some distinction between the physical nature of the human sized and smaller fairies.  Maybe there were regional differences or simply some inconsistency in understanding.  Generally, the idea seems to be that faery folk are as real and tangible as we are: they can jostle and pinch humans, they can fire projectiles at them; in other words, faery is a parallel or neighbouring world that is just as corporeal as our own.

Fairy food

It is also notable that fairies would steal human food (and children), so presumably they ate the same things as we did.  We know that fairies drank wine and cider and made their own food such as cakes and bread.  David Parry-Jones in his Welsh Legends even records the fairies operating their own inn near Pwllheli.  Nonetheless, contrary beliefs were also held: in Cymbeline (III, 6) it is said of Imogen “But that it eats our victuals, I should think/ Here were a fairy.”

Unfairly, it appears that fairies can eat human food without injury, whereas a human tasting their food could be entrapped for ever- see for example the Cornish tale of the Fairy dwelling on Selena moor, in which a bite of a plum or a sip of cider would be fateful. Fairies can be fussy about human culinary efforts, however.  John Rhys presents a series of stories in which  lake maidens (gwraggedd annwn) repeatedly rejected human suitors because the bread they offered was either overbaked or underbaked- too hard or too soft (John Rhys, Celtic folklore pp.4, 28 & 30).  It took a fine judge of baking times to win a faery heart.  The fairies had a particular preference for dairy products, leading to speculations that they are vegetarian.

Fairy fertility

This Cornish story of Selena Moor also points up another physiological fact: fairies appear to be poor breeders.  The captive maid in the story, Grace, says that only very occasionally is a fairy child born, which then is a cause of great rejoicing.  A similar account is given by Angus McLeod of Harris in Wentz (p.116) who sadly remarked that “There is not a wave of prosperity upon the fairies of the knoll, no, not a wave.  There is no growth or increase, no death or withering upon the fairies.  Seed unfortunate they!”  It is to reinforce the weak fairy gene pool that babies are stolen as changelings and that human lovers are taken- a theme I exploited in my own fairy story The Elder Queen.

Actual physical appearance varied from one ‘species’ or type of fairy to another.  Some were envisaged as old men, some as ugly, hairy creatures, and some as tall and beautiful women.  Some were average human height, some were the size of children and some were very small indeed, minute enough to dance around a glow-worm according to one Welsh account; another describes them as being the size of guinea pigs (!).  Angus Macleod of Harris eulogised as follows: “Their heavy brown hair was streaming down to their waist and its lustre was of the fair golden sum of summer.  Their skin was as white as the swan of the wave, and their voice was as melodious as the mavis of the wood, and they themselves were as beauteous of feature and as lithe of form as a picture, while their step was as lithe and stately and their minds as sportive as the little red hind of the hill.” (Wentz p.116)

Fairy defects

Whatever the irresistible beauty of fairy maidens, we should be aware of the fact that fairy folk sometimes bore bodily defects that disclosed their supernatural identities. This is marked in Scandinavian folklore- for example, the elle maidens dancing near the elder thickets had alluring faces but were hollow behind (see too The white goddess & the elder queen) and the huldre folk had cow’s tails.  In Britain, this is a less common theme but, for example, Highland glaistigs wore long dresses to cover their hooves; a few other Scottish fairies were similarly marked and their true natures betrayed.

Immortal fairies?

Lastly, it is natural to enquire as to life span.  The Reverend Kirk expressed the opinion in section 7 of his Secret Commonwealth that “they are not subject to sore sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain period, all about ane Age.”  In other words, the fairies are not immortal.  It is certain that they fight wars and can slay each other.

In Cornish tradition the fairies’ exercise of their shape-shifting power had a serious side effect: each time they resumed their normal appearance they got smaller, so that over time they dwindled away until they reached the size of ants and were, essentially, lost.  It is worth observing in this connection that in Cornwall and the South west of England, the pixie or pisky was always considered in any case to be a diminutive being: the Cornish term was an pobel vean- the little people. Accordingly, they started at a disadvantage before they even employed their magic powers!

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have here mainly concentrated on our ideas about fairy bodies- size, shape, weight, etc; in several separate postings I discuss how we have conceived fairy beauty– their age and their sexuality.  I’ve also examined fairy shape-shifting as well as the debate over the extent to which fairies look like we expect them to.