Spying on Faeries

There are many aspects of human behaviour to which fairies take exception, such as meanness, rudeness and untidiness, but spying upon their activities is especially enraging to them.  They value their privacy above all things. Although I recently noted how much the faeries hate those who doubt or mock their existence, it seems that the opposite is just as unwelcome: being too interested in them is disliked just as much as disbelief. Striking the right balance can be very hard indeed for us humans (consider here the story of a Manx midwife who was offered two cakes to eat by the faeries, one broken and one whole; she was told to eat as much as she liked, so long as it wasn’t the cake that was broken- or the whole one… Evans Wentz 127). A handful of examples of faery reactions to spying is offered here.

Many reports of the fairies’ vicious reactions to discovering that their private activities have been overlooked come from the Isle of Man.  For example, some men riding home at night saw a light in an old kiln.  One looked inside and saw a great crowd assembled but, almost instantly, the light went out and the witness was seized with sickness and found he could not walk.  A similar Manx account ends even more unfortunately.  Two men were walking home over the mountains at night when they passed an old, ruined cottage that was then being used as a cattle byre.  However, on that night they heard music emanating from the house.  The windows had been blocked up with turfs so one of the men peered through the keyhole of the door instead.  He saw fairies dancing- but was seen himself almost immediately.  The fiddler at the gathering jabbed the spy in his eye with his bow- and he was blinded from that date.

Such reactions were by no means unique to the Manx fairies.  A Hertfordshire folktale, The Green Lady, concerns a girl who set out to seek her fortune and is given work as a housemaid by the fairy woman of the title (the story bears close resemblances to the Cornish story of Cherry of Zennor– and the several related accounts).  The maid is warned not to eat the food in the house and not to spy on the activities of her mistress.  The girl proves too nosey, though, and (like the Manx traveller) looks through the keyhole of one of the rooms on the woman’s house.  Inside, the Green Lady is dancing with a bogey– and the maid loses her sight for this violation (although in this story she is able to restore her vision with a magic well in the grounds of the property).

In the Scottish Highlands, near Braemar, there lies the Big Stone of Cluny.  This has always been known to be a gathering place of the sith folk and, one night, a man saw a number of tiny figures dancing on top of the stone.  He watched for some time, as his fancy was taken by one fairy girl in particular, but she sensed his presence and flew at him in fury.  He only just had time to say a prayer and protect himself from what could have been permanent injury.  At Beddgelert in Snowdonia, another man spied upon the fairies when they were dancing.  This time, though, he fell asleep where he was concealed and, whilst he slumbered, was bound with ropes and covered with gossamer.  Search parties who looked for him the next day couldn’t see him and it was only the next night that the tylwyth teg freed him, after he had slept for a day and a half.

However much the faeries live in proximity to us- and are prepared to invade our homes and other buildings to use for their own purposes- they apply different rules and principles to themselves. Trespass upon human property, and constant listening in to human conversations, are perfectly acceptable, but the reverse is intolerable, whether it arose accidentally or deliberately. These dual standards, and the need constantly to keep on the right side of our Good Neighbours, has been a constant feature of British faerylore across the centuries.

The faeries’ adverse reactions to anything they consider to be incursions upon their rights and their privacy are described further in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

Gaining (and losing) second sight

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Eileen Soper, Muddle’s Mistake

Acquisition of the second sight, and the ability to see through fairy glamour and watch the Good Folk, is a gift many desire.  It can come from many sources, some easily achieved (it would appear); many purely fortuitous.

Let’s start with the cases of luck.  In one Scottish case, a child left asleep upon a fairy knoll came away from the spot endowed with the second sight.  Whether this was a matter of the place alone, or the result of an intervention by the sith folk because they had chosen to favour the infant, we cannot tell.   Cromek recorded that a person invited inside a fairy hill to feast with the inhabitants went away afterwards with the second sight, implying that the food itself or perhaps the proximity to the fairies could have been the source.  If it was the food, this will of course be in stark contrast to the usual outcome, in which the person eating faery food in Faery becomes trapped there.

Contact with the fairies seems to be fundamental to the transfer, as is seen in Enys Tregarthen’s story of the fairy child Skerry Werry, published in 1940.  A lost fairy child was taken in and cared for by a widow on Bodmin Moor.  The longer the little girl stayed, the better the old woman’s ‘pixy sight’ became, so that she could see the pisky lights on the moor.  The story implies that it was simply Skerry-Werry’s residence that had the effect.  More traditionally, as in Tregarthen’s story The Nurse Who Broke Her Promise, which was published in the same year, a human midwife bathing a fairy baby is told not to splash bath water in her eyes (or, even more commonly is asked to anoint the child with ointment, but not touch herself) and a breach of such an injunction is what transfers the magic vision.

A third example is even stranger: an old Somerset woman who used to nurse those who were sick was one day walking to a well for water when a moth brushed against her face.  This gave her the pixy-sight and she immediately saw a little man, who asked her to come with him to try to come with him to tend his seriously ill wife.  I have mentioned the fairy association with moths before, so this incident has some precedents.

Gifts of second sight from the fairies are certainly reported.  Scottish woman Isobel Sinclair was granted such a power, so that she would “know giff thair be any fey bodie in the house” (as her trial on Orkney in February 1633 was told).  A substantial part of the case against her was that she was “a dreamer of dreams.”

Elspeth Reoch had been tried fifteen years previously for very similar reasons to Sinclair: she had had contact with the fairies and they had given her ability to see into the future and tell fortunes.  Elspeth was instructed in two methods of obtaining the second sight.  One was to roast an egg and use the ‘sweat of it’ (the moisture that appeared on the shell, presumably) to wash her hands and then rub her eyes.  The second technique was to pick the flower called millefleur and, kneeling on her right knee, to pull the plant between her middle finger and thumb, invoking the Christian trinity.

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Once one person had the gift, others could benefit.  Contact with them, by touching them or by looking over a shoulder, would reveal the fairies to the second person as well.

Be warned, though.  The fairies object to uninvited intrusions and to any behaviour they regard as spying.  There is a Victorian report of a case from Wrexham in which a fairy blinded a person just because he looked at it.  A very similar account comes from Exmoor: a person who ‘had dealings’ with the pixies later saw them thieving at the market in Minehead.  When she protested, she was blinded.  Alone, these cases might appear to be truncated versions of the midwife stories mentioned earlier; these nearly always culminate with the midwife spotting the fairy father on a later occasion, whether he is stealing goods at a fair or market or simply out and about in the human world.  She addresses him, giving away her secret, and, in response, she is blinded, whether by a breath in the face or some more physical means.  However, the Wrexham and Minehead stories both suggest that anyone who has the second sight, for whatever reason, might suffer as a consequence if a fairy objects to it.

Seeing through the fairies’ glamour risks exposing those aspects of their conduct that they might rather keep concealed from us (their propensity for stealing our property perhaps being the least of them).  Knowing their secrets can put us in peril, so that it is possibly rash to wish too fervently for knowledge of their hidden world.