Fairies and Bread- the significance of baking in fairyland

baker

When we think of baking and fairies today, cupcakes and treats with pink icing for little girls’ parties tend to come to mind.  Even if we put these to one side, that homely substance, bread, seems far too ordinary and basic a product to have any supernatural aspects, but the folklore reveals that fairies have a strange relationship to the substance.

It might, in fact, be more accurate for us to talk about baked products in this posting, as we are by no means solely concerned with loaves made of wheat flour.  For example, throughout Scotland oatcakes (rather than loaves) were thought to have protective powers: a bannock hung over a cottage threshold would protect a mother and her new-born child inside and burning an oatcake would drive off the faeries.

Home Baking

“And, for thy food, eat fairy bread.”

(The Convert Soule, 1620)

The fairies are widely known to bake their own bread.  Tantalisingly, one Scottish writer has described faery bread as tasting like a wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine; apparently, it will last for a week at least without going stale.  Cornish woman Anne Jefferies, who was imprisoned for suspected witchcraft, was fed by the faeries during her captivity and a person who tasted the bread they gave her described it as “the most delicious … I ever did eat, either before or afterward.”

The fairies will share their baked products with humans, sometimes, although (as with all fairy food) it may not be all it seems.  In Breconshire the belief is that gifts of bread from the tylwyth teg, if not eaten immediately and in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.  A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them.  After this ordeal, they gave him meat and bread to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”

Bread Protects from Faeries

There seems to be something mysterious and semi-magical about bread when it comes to fairies. It can both protect people or bestow supernatural powers.

In one Scottish story a man who has stolen from the faeries is pursued by them and they cry out “You wouldn’t be so fast if it wasn’t for the hardness of your bread.”  In a similar tale, a Perthshire man was troubled by faery cattle eating his crops, but was unable to catch them until one day, as he chased a dun cow around his fields, a faery woman appeared and advised that he’d do better if he ate barley bannocks turned on the griddle and milk from black goats. He followed her advice, caught the faery cow and thereafter had the best milk herd in the district.  This bread magic can work both ways though: in an incident from the Hebrides a captive mermaid manages escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him would have been luckier had it not been for the dryness of his bread- if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.

Bread somehow works to protect people from faery ill-will.  It was widely believed throughout Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influence, especially from being pixie-led.  Stuart poet Robert Herrick wrote that:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

The verse seems to imply that, originally, people must have carried a piece of consecrated host, but eventually any sort of bread was thought to be as good.  The Scottish Highland equivalent to this protection is to have oatmeal in your pocket or sprinkled over your clothes when travelling.

New babies are believed to be especially vulnerable to faery abduction, but bread products are a particularly effective at safeguarding them.  From Cornwall comes a belief that a child can be protected from being taken by baked goods: a mother must take a cake with her to her baby’s baptism and then give it to the first person she meets in the road.  This guarantees her child’s safety from the pixies.  There’s an identical practice in Sutherland in Scotland, involving oatcake and cheese, whilst on the Isle of Man the practice was to provide ‘blithe meat’ (bread and cheese) for people who came to visit a mother and her new-born child.  A portion of this would be scattered around for the unseen visitors, too- partly perhaps to win their favour as ‘godmothers’ and partly to guard against the risk of abduction.

bake 2

Bread Attracts Faeries

Confusingly, as I have described before when discussing fairy farming, fairies also seem to grow wheat and other grains so they can bake their own bread.  What’s more, they seem to like human loaves just as much as their own.  Traditionally, fairy helpers on farms, such as brownies, boggarts and others, are paid in bread.  Very frequently fairies will come to farmhouses to ask to borrow flour or meal when their own supplies have run low.  Bread can also be used to attract fairies to you in summoning charms and it seems to help appease faery animosity: at Wooler, in Northumberland, sickly children would be dipped in a well’s waters and bread and cheese would be left as an offering to the fairies, hoping for a cure.

That the faeries have a taste for human baking is confirmed by several stories from Wales, in which lake maidens are lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are very fussy about the bake of their loaves though: first the bread offered will be judged too hard, then too soft, until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms.  In another of these Welsh stories, concerning the maiden of Llyn y Fan Fach, a man uses bread to bait a fishing hook so he can catch himself a faery wife.  Once again, he tries first with a hunk from a well-baked loaf- and fails- and then tries with half-baked bread and lands his bride.  We may compare evidence from the isle of Man to these Welsh stories.  At Casstruan on the island the mermaids were said to have been very plentiful offshore and the local fishermen would befriend them by throwing them bread, butter and oatcakes.

What’s more, it’s doesn’t just appear to be the quality of the bake that seems to matter: the faeries don’t like salt in their loaves.  As a general rule, it’s a substance they can’t abide, something which comes out in Manx one story.  A woman was out walking when she heard music ahead of her on the road.  She followed the sound and caught up with a group of fairies.  They asked what she had in her basket, to which she replied bread, offering to share it with them.  She broke one of the oatcakes she had with her and placed it on a hedge.  They accepted her offer after checking that there was no salt in the mix.  Because of her generosity, she was promised always to have bread.

In fact, such is the liking of the faes for human bread that they will steal it if it can’t be got by gift or in exchange for an honest night’s work.  One Scottish story tells how the trows living under a cottage stole freshly baked oatcakes simply by slyly raising a floor slab and snatching them away as they cooled; on the Isle of Man the practice certainly was to leave the last cake of a batch behind the ‘turf-flag’ for the little people.

All the same, the fairies seem to have an ambiguous relationship to human baking.  The Welsh tylwyth teg are said to enter kitchens and to ‘robin’ bread dough- that is, to make it too sticky and stringy to rise.  The Cornish pixies too are said to spoil bread in the oven, making it come out full of ‘pixy-spits.’  Probably these examples are just examples of their mischievous nature getting the better of their appetites.

Two stories from the Isle of Man underline the importance of bread to the fairies.  In one, a servant girl at Bride was baking one day and forgot to share the cake she made with the fairies.  When she got into bed that night, she received a blow in the face that made her see stars.  She was a sensible young woman and readily understood what it meant- that the fairies were offended and vengeful- and she instantly got up and baked another cake, which she divided with them.  In another account, a woman lying sick in bed at Barrule was visited by ‘the Bishop of the fairies,’ a man in an old-fashioned three-cornered hat, who stood before her, broke a cake and gave her half.  The report does not really explain what this incident meant, but perhaps the fact that she recovered to tell the story indicates that she was favoured by the faes and had been healed.

Why Bread?

As noted already, part of the perceived power of bread must come from its use by the Christian church in the host.  The idea that a holy item will repulse the ‘evil’ forces of Faery is very common.  What would be effective, then, is its sanctified nature rather than the fact that it’s a leavened wheat product.  It may be simply confusion on the part of humans that, now, any old bit of bread would seem to do.

Another explanation might be that the fairies object to bread because it is a product of settled human civilisation- along with iron, for example.  This doesn’t really explain the situation, though, for two reasons: one that fairies make their own bread (and iron) and because they consume- and like- human bread.

In conclusion, then, in fairyland bread is far more magical and mysterious a food stuff than we might ever have supposed. For something so everyday and unremarkable, it holds great power.

For more on this, see my recently published book Faery.

Carried Away: flying with the sluagh

41_Macdonald
Daniel MacDonald, ‘The Fairy Wind (Sidhe Gaoithe)

The sluagh are the fairy host in the folklore of the Scottish Highlands.  In this region of Britain people may be abducted by being taken inside a fairy hill (a tomhan) or they may be snatched up and carried away by the sluagh.  I touched on this subject briefly in my posting on elf-shots, but return to it in more detail now.

‘Them’

The sluagh, or fairy host, is known by several names in Gaelic, all of which give us some clue as to their nature or origin.  Lewis Spence calls them the sluagh eotrom, meaning the ‘light’ or ‘aery’ host.  This may reflect their flight through the air, or even their physical nature.  The Reverend Kirk, meanwhile, distinguishes between the sluagh saoghalta and the sluagh sith.  The latter is the ‘fairy host’ and the former the ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ host.  If we understand that ‘sluagh’ more broadly denotes people or population, this makes sense of what Kirk says next: “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged.” In other words, once earthly people die, they join the fairy host instead (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, ‘Succinct Accompt,’ 9 (10)).

Flying with the Sluagh

We can learn something more from actual experiences of contact with the host.  John MacPhee of Uist was outside his house one night when he heard a sound coming from the West (a notoriously fay direction) like the breaking of the sea.  He saw a mass of small men coming in a crowd from that direction and suddenly felt hot, as if a crowd of people had surrounded him and were pressing in, breathing upon him.  Then he was carried off at great speed, flying through the air to the graveyard at Dalibrog, seventeen miles distant.  For a moment or two he was set down, and the sensation of heat left him.  Then the host returned, he felt hot again, and was carried back to his home. After this experience, MacPhee became sickly and thin.  The man was evidently ‘elf-addled:’ he suffered some of the typical physical effects of fairy contact and, although the author of the account refers to the host as ‘the dead,’ their living physicality seems very much to contradict this description.  The same is true perhaps for those people who are taken repeatedly by the sluagh.  Physical mistreatment by the host can be a common experience, with victims being ‘rolled, dragged and trounced in mud and mire and pools.’  This can leave them terrorised and in extreme exhaustion and is often fatal.

The mass nature of the sluagh is apparent.  They travel in a multitude- according to one Scottish witness “in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like starlings.” As will be seen from subsequent testimonies, comparisons to flocks of birds or beasts are common.  For instance, on Barra Evans Wentz was told that the host went about at midnight, travelling in fine weather against the wind like a covey of birds (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 108).

How they fly

The host travels across the land by several means.  They can use whirlwinds, as Scottish witch suspect, Bessie Dunlop, attested.  She had been visited by twelve fairy folk who left her in “ane hideous uglie sowche of wind.” A sowche is a sough, a rushing or whistling.  This suggests violence, but in the Scottish Highlands these eddies of wind are also called the oiteag sluagh, the host’s breeze, suggestive of something more gentle.

The host can also travel on objects imbued with faery glamour, such as bulrushes, docks, ragwort and withered grass stems.  Humans who witness this can imitate the fairies’ actions and transfer their magic power to other items on which to fly, such as ploughs or loom beams.  Physical travel is not necessary, though, for a man in Sutherland was taken in spirit one night by the sluagh, even after his friends had forcibly restrained his body to try to prevent his abduction.  If a person is called to travel with the sluagh, there is no denying the summons.  In another instance, a man on Skye saw the host approaching and begged his friend to hold him tightly to prevent his abduction. Despite the friend’s best efforts, the victim began to ‘hop and dance’ before rising off the ground and being carried a couple of miles.

Why they fly

The reason for these journeys seems to be uniformly malicious.  The primary aim is to abduct humans, and secondary purposes are shooting elf-bolts at people and livestock or stealing human property- usually food and drink.  Some trows flew all the way from Shetland to Norway to abduct a newly married woman, for example, and some fairies in Moray conveyed a man to Paris, although much more local journeys are far more typical (Evans Wentz, 106).

Another reason for the host’s flight is to meet with enemies and to fight them.  There are numerous accounts of the hosts battling in the sky on cold and frosty nights (and especially at Halloween), leaving pools of blood (fuil nan sluagh) on the ground in the morning as testimony to their violent slaughter (Evans Wentz, 91).

Flight might be used to hunt or take people or animals, but the experience of flight itself might be sufficiently unpleasant to be a punishment in itself.  A minister in Ross-shire in Scotland had spoken slightingly of the fairies and they exacted their revenge by picking him up and carrying him head over heels through the air.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe
John Duncan, The Riders of the Sidhe; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection

Defence against the Sluagh

The accounts so far, especially that of the man taken despite the best efforts of his friends to prevent it, might suggest that the sluagh are pretty much invincible and irresistible.  This is not the case, fortunately.  Very simple measures can defeat them.  Two abductions of women on the Isle of Arran were prevented by means of casting a reaping hook up into the mass of little people as they passed overhead, ‘like a swarm of bees.’  Being iron, this instantly released the captive being carried away.  Likewise, the use of Christian blessings is effective: a Shetland man flew with the host on a rush by imitating their spell (“Up hors, up hedik, up well ridden bolwind”) and he found himself taken with them to a cottage where a woman was in labour.  The plan was to take the new mother if she sneezed three times and no one ‘sained’ her.  She sneezed, but the man riding with the trows said ‘bless you’ and prevented her abduction.

These are magical defences; physical means of resistance tend to be much less certain and more risky.  Some men were tending the herds at Cornaigbeg Farm on Tiree when they heard something passing them on the road.  It sounded like a flock of sheep passing, but one of the dogs became very agitated and chased after it.  Eventually the poor hound returned- it had lost all its hair and was torn and bloody, dying soon afterwards.  As we’ve seen before, dogs and fairies frequently don’t mix.

Summary

The faeries have several means of flight– and several types of motion– so that riding straws or moving in a whirlwind are just a sample of their ways of getting about.  For more on abductions, the sluagh and The Darker Side of Faery, see my 2021 book of that title:

darker side

“The swart fairy of the mine”- industrial elves

lee dwarfs

Alan Lee, Dwarfs, from Faeries

There’s lots of evidence for fairies being just as active as humans in extracting the earth’s resources and in manufacturing.  This may jar somewhat with the notion of winged flower fairies, but that convention forgets the fact that gnomes, as first imagined by Paracelsus, are very intimately connected to the mineral riches of the earth.  Fairies can seem just as interested as humans in money and treasure, so it’s worth considering where these riches might come from.

Going underground

There are two principal industrial activities in which fairies are involved.  These are metal working and mining.  The fays mine for both coal and ores and they have been associated with the tin mines of the South West of England, the lead mines of the Long Mynd in Shropshire and with the copper mines of Cumberland and North Yorkshire.

There are two principal types of mine fairy- the knockers of the South West of England (also called ‘nuggies,’ ‘bockles,’ ‘gathons’ or ‘buccas’) are very well known.  In the coal and metal ore mines of Wales, we find the coblynau (i.e. goblins).  Other named mine spirits are the Blue-Cap of the Northumberland coalmines, a very strong being who moved the wheeled coal tubs on the underground railways, and the Cutty Soams of County Durham, who were mine bogles, known for their vengeful mischief- which included such pranks as cutting the traces (or ‘soams’) on the underground coal wagons.

Appearance

Despite the differing regional names, it seems safe to treat most of these beings as one underground species.  The knockers and coblynau are very hard working sprites who are frequently heard but very seldom seen; the sounds of their picks, their wheelbarrows and the falls of stone they cause is heard deep in mines.  Occasionally they may be spotted working or lounging near the entrances to mines, and those who have seen them describe beings the size of a one or two-year-old child (about eighteen inches high), with large heads and ugly old men’s faces; they are dressed just like human miners.

Early in the last century, a girl called Carol George was on the beach at Porthtowan, on the north coast of Cornwall, when she saw in the mine adit that opened onto the beach a group of small people, only six inches high and dressed in white.  They disappeared almost as soon as they were spotted, but sound more like pixies than knockers (Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.93)

Blue Cap apparently has no physical form, but his presence is indicated by a light blue flame which settles on the wagons he moves.  The other exception is the mine pixy ‘gathon’ (if Mrs Bray is to be believed, at any rate).  She describes him as naked and fat, with large ears and a long bushy tail (Peeps at Pixies, p.10).

Activities

The mine sprites have diminutive tools and equipment matching that of the human miners and labour tirelessly- digging, transporting and winding their coal and ore to the surface.  In the masque The fairies’ farewell, presented at Coleorton on Candlemas Day 1618, we hear a further description of the fairies’ labours:

“blacke faeries … ye dancing spiritts of the Pittes: … helpe them hole & drive sharp theire Picks & their moindrils, keepe away the dampe & keepe in theire Candles, draine the Sough & hold them out of ye hollows…”

Wirt Sykes, in British Goblins (p.24)claimed that all this frenetic subterranean labour  was just for show but accomplished nothing at all. The writer of A pleasant treatise of witches (1673) explained that this was because these mine elves “busy themselves chiefly in imitating the operations men … these seem to laugh, to be cloathed like workmen, to dig the earth, and to do many things they do not, mocking sometimes the workmen but seldome or never hurting them.”

These views might be correct- or it might instead be the case that human observers never saw any evidence of tangible results in this world.  Blue-Cap is the exception here, as he assisted the human miners and, perfectly reasonably, expected to be paid for his work at the same rate as every other ‘putter’ who moved the coal around the tramways.  Rather like fairies borrowing flour from householders, he insisted upon being given the exact agreed sum and would refuse underpaid wages or leave behind any surplus.  Evidently, Blue Caps were not brownies and neither toiled for free nor accepted very modest payment in kind.

Though often heard at night (in the North Yorkshire lead mines this earned them the name of the ‘Ghostly Shift’), these spirits never worked in the mines on Saturdays or on Christian holidays and, in respect for this, the miners too would avoid working on the same days.  The sprites also objected to whistling and to use of the sign of the cross, which were therefore proscribed.

The knockers will guide favoured miners to good seams or lodes by various means.  Where no excavation has yet been started they may indicate promising places to dig.  The sprites may dance in rings to indicate spots where men will strike rich ore.  Digging wherever a will o’ the wisp is seen is also reputed to lead you to a profitable lode.  The Reverend Edmund Jones of Gwent gives a very interesting account of a version of this habit.  One morning a William Evans of Hafod-y-dafel in the parish was crossing the Beacon Mountain when he saw an opencast coal mine where none existed.  The fairies were cutting coal, filling sacks and loading horses.  This vision is unexplained and, on the face of it, is merely a kind of fairy pantomime, serving no discernible purpose.  However, another report from Wales suggests a different interpretation.  Lewis Morris, a correspondent of the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1754, described how, before Esgair y Mwyn lead mine was discovered near Pontrhydfendigaid in Cardiganshire, the local fairies had been observed (and heard) by many people to be hard at work, both day and night.  When the mine was established in 1751, though, they disappeared.  The same was also the case at Llwyn Llwyd lead mine near Ysbyty Ystwyth, not far from Esgair y Mwyn.  These two cases suggest that the Brecon Beacons vision may well have been an indication of a rich coal seam just beneath the surface (a prediction similar to the incident of the fairy railway sighted on the Isle of Man that I mentioned in a recent post).

Once a new mine has been started, through their tapping underground the fairies point the way to mineral riches.  They will also warn of impending disaster- often by making three distinct knocks against the rock.  Generally, then, their presence is welcomed by miners- their noises are not found alarming and it’s said to be good luck to see the pixies dancing in the adit of a mine.

The sounds made by knockers can be prolonged and are not easily explained by other means.  For example, at Llwyn Llwyd voices, blasting, clearing spoil, levelling roadways, boring, pick-axeing and (most notably) pumping were all heard- when there were no pumps working within a mile of the shafts and when, in any case, pumps were very quiet when in operation.  Although they may sometimes be heard just once a month or once a year, in 1799 in some mines on Anglesey the knockers were heard repeatedly over a period of weeks.

As with all supernatural helpers, the knockers are averse to humans being too inquisitive.  Although the sounds of their work indicate how and where to dig, if miners stop their work to listen to the knockers, they will also cease their labours.  If they’re overlooked, they may pelt stones at the spies- or simply vanish.  The sounds of their excavations may point to rich veins of ore- or they may just be mischievous and meant to mislead.

As with many fairy types, those who offend them or try to take advantage of them will be punished and those miners who betray the source of their good fortune will lose the knockers’ favour.  At the same time, they claimed a share of human property.  This might just be a small portion of the miners’ food or of their candle tallow, but there are also accounts of bargains struck whereby the knockers were promised some of the profits of a rich vein in return for guidance locating it.  It hardly needs to be said that reneging on such deals would lead to ruin and even death, whilst boasting of fairy aid in finding rich seams of ore will guarantee that the good fortune is lost.  Mrs Bray’s mine pixy, Gathon, is depicted as a typical prank-playing sprite, but he also helps the oppressed and the poor, a not uncommon fairy trait.

The fairies may also be found in coal pits; from Scotland we have a report that from time to time they would leave their tiny tools behind as physical evidence of their labours.  We have one account from Derbyshire in the nineteenth century of the colliers of Curbar leaving a share of the coal they dug for the fairies to ensure good luck.

In some way, then, whether they were mining themselves or simply oversaw the shafts, these local fairies had a close interest in the industry.

Heavy metals

Despite Sykes’ doubts about the productiveness of fairy labours, it seems very reasonable to suppose that ore and coal were extracted and that these formed the raw materials of other enterprises in fairyland.

In The Secret Commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk reports that the fairies “strike Hammers, and do such lyke Services within the little Hillocks they most haunt” (chapter 1).  The trows of Shetland are particularly renowned for their skills working brass, iron and other metals and they have been known to pass on these skills to fortunate human children who have been taken to live with them ‘under the hill.’  As I’ve noted before, it’s a curious contradiction that we can have reports of these metalworking abilities at the same time as being repeatedly assured that fairies loath and avoid items made of iron.

The only way of reconciling these two accounts is to assume that man-made iron is anathema to them but that their own products, imbued in some way with Faery properties, are harmless.  Certainly we hear of fairies having cutlery for eating and drinking vessels of precious metals- and of course brownies will undertake all sorts of farm tasks for humans- such as reaping corn and hay- that unavoidably involve the use of iron and steel tools.

Conclusion

As I’ve argued before, fairy society is a good deal more complex and more industrious than we might initially assume.  Whether they’re farming, mining or at market, trading the fruits of those labours, the fays can work just as hard as humans and be just as interested in commerce.

For more detail on this subject, see my book How Things Work in Faery (2021).

gnome

Brian Froud, A gnome.

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.

Contrary fairies

fairies-have-tiff-with-birds

Arthur Rackham, The fairies have a tiff with the birds

One thing that any regular reader of these pages- or of any materials on fairy-lore- will soon notice is that Faery is a place where contradictions are rife. Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs seems to have recognised this problem when she wrote that “it is possible for most people to keep two quite irreconcilable beliefs alive at the same time.” (The anatomy of Puck, p.5)  Morgan Daimler has recently said something very similar: ”

“When it comes to Fairy the only generality we can make is that we can’t easily make any generalities.” (Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk p.173)

Inconsistency and uncertainty seem par for the course in fairy studies.  There is a distinct lack of consensus as to the appearance of the fays (their height, their facial features, the presence or absence of wings) or regarding their dress.  I have discussed the range of opinion on these matters before on this blog and in chapters 1, 5 and 28 of my book British fairies.  Of course, one might fairly observe that a non-human, presented with a selection of humans of varying age, ethnicity and dressed in their traditional, indigenous costume, might be equally puzzled to determine what the ‘typical’ human looks like.  There are many sorts of fairies, so the lack of consistency in reports need not trouble us.

Non-believers will say that inconsistency in accounts is hardly remarkable, given that we’re discussing a wholly imaginary set of beings.  The believer, in contrast, may explain the contradictions  by pointing to the variety of fairy forms, their magical abilities and their well-known sense of mischief.  Janet Bord argues as much in her book Fairies: real encounters with the little people: discrepancies in descriptions of fairies’ height may all be put down to their use of glamour and illusion.  The agnostic researcher, wishing to take a more ‘scientific’ approach, and to aiming to discover the reason and logic behind fairy belief, might search for social and psychological explanations.

The biggest problem for any form of rational analysis of fairy accounts is the existence of downright irreconcilable differences between descriptions.  I shall highlight just four here to demonstrate my point.

Iron taboo

Iron is well-known as a material that repels fairies. A child in a cradle can be protected by scissors hung over it; shears placed in a chimney prevent fairy incursions by that route and a wise traveller will carry metal with them, even something as small as a pin, as a defence against supernatural encounters.  Tales are often told of rescues of abducted spouses from fairy hills; the rescuer will place his knife at the threshold in order to stop the entrance to the hill re-closing and trapping him.  This list could be extended considerably, but the principle is very well established. However, how do we explain fairies using metal tools- which they often do, as evidenced in the stories of human help being sought to repair demanded pails, pick axes and the like?  Even more aberrant, perhaps, there is a Shetland story of an abducted boy who returns home skilled in making scythes, a craft he has learned whilst living with the trows (see for example Magical folk pp.38, 133 & 135).

The fairies’ faith

Religion is another source of contraries, as I have mentioned in a recent posting.  The fairies are generally regarded as being heathens, or at least irreligious.  On that basis, charms that are just as efficacious as a piece of iron include a page from the Bible, the sign of the cross or the invocation of God or the saints.  Prompt baptism of a newborn will guard against its theft as a changeling.  This all seems quite reasonable, until it is set alongside other traditions that treat the fairies as being perfectly orthodox Christian folk, conducting christenings and the like, or as beings concerned for their place in creation and worried over whether they will share in the Christian salvation. Once again, both cannot apply, but a compromise is almost impossible (see Magical folk pp.120, 127 & 135).

Time in fairyland

The passing of time is a significant feature of many stories of fairyland.  I have alluded to this previously and it is pretty well known that time in Faery can pass at a different rate to time in the mortal world.  A night spent under a fairy knoll may transpire to have been a year or ten, or a century, in the ‘real’ world.  As might be imagined, the consequence of this for the returning visitor can be disastrous and tragic.  And yet- this is not always a problem.  Some visitors come and go without ill-effects; a midwife may be taken to attend a fairy birth and return home the same night; a husband may go to rescue his wife from the beneath the fairy hill and will do so in ‘real time.’  The fairies themselves may come and go from our world without difficulty.

Fairy food

I have remarked before that fairies can be described both as vegetarians and as keen hunters.  Lastly, still on the issue of diet, how about fairy attitudes to bread?  This may sound bizarre, but it was widely believed in Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influences.  Witness Robert Herrick’s brief rhyme:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

This may perhaps relate originally to carrying consecrated host, but it seems that ultimately any old slice of Hovis would do.  Now contrast the situation in Wales.  John Rhys tells of lake maidens (gwragedd annwn) lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are fussy though: not any old piiece of bara brith will do.  First the bread is too hard “Cras dy fara“, then too soft “Llaith dy fara,” until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3-6 & 27-30).

Inconclusions

It is not possible to be didactic, especially on the subject of beings who are invisible and secretive.  Contacts with them are rare and always fleeting, so any impressions formed will always be uncertain and unconfirmed.  As I’ve suggested, the want of congruity throughout the reports may seem to give excellent grounds for rejecting them all as fictions.  What is odd, though, is that these tales derive from a period when there was a genuine and widespread belief in (and fear of) fairies.  This being so, you might expect the folk stories to provide listeners with consistent and coherent statements about the supernaturals, so that audiences might be forewarned and forearmed.  The lack of correspondence between accounts might even be argued to be an indicator of authenticity.

We’ll summarise with the words of some fairy experts. Brian Froud, renowned fairy artist, was interviewed by Signe Pike for her 2010 book Faery tale.  He described to Pike his reaction to his first investigations into faery:

“At first I thought, I don’t know… all this sounds a bit weird… and at the same time, a lot of it sounded like common sense.  It’s very typical of faery, actually.  In one way it simplified everything for me, and at the same time, it suddenly made everything very complicated.” (p.86)

Fairies are often regarded as being creatures of the ‘betwixt and between’ (see for example Storm Faerywolf’s book on the fairy tradition of that title).  If this is so, it’s only fitting that our knowledge about them should, in the same way, be indeterminate and unsettled.  It’s typical too of the fairies to want to withhold something from us- whether it’s their name or full knowledge of their personalities.  I’ll conclude this brief survey of contrariety with some very fitting words from the first paragraph of the first chapter of Morgan Daimler’s recent bookNoting the conflicting descriptions of fairies, she states:

“None of them are wrong, and none of them are exactly right either, and that’s your first lesson about Fairy: it is in all ways and always a contradiction.”

“From fairies … guard me!”- talismans against faery folk

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In the modern age, with the prevalent view of fairies as attractive and benign beings with whom we wish to make contact and commune, the concept of charms to protect ourselves from supernatural interference seems alien.  However, as I have described previously, the view of faery was once very far from favourable and prophylactics were widely known.

Protecting against fairies

The folklore evidence offers a variety of means of keeping oneself safe from fairy visitations.  The recorded methods are:

  • iron and steel– the supernatural race cannot abide forged metal in any form: the Reverend Kirk expressed it thus- “Iron hinders all the Opperations of those that travell in the Intrigues of these hidden Dominions.”  In fact, metal is a double protection: the presence of iron items will prevent harm; touching with iron will drive fairies away.  A scythe placed sharpened edge uppermost in a chimney will repel fairies; pins in the swaddling clothes, scissors hung over, or tongs laid upon, a cradle will prevent the substitution of a changeling (partly because the open blades will create a cross shape- see later); an iron bolt or lock on a door will guard a house, an axe placed under the pillow will protect the sleeper and striking a fairy with iron will result in its instant disappearance.  In Wales the story of the fairy wife lost by accidentally striking her with the iron bit on a bridle was extremely common; contact with metal in these cases lost a loved one.  Welsh folklore also records that if iron is thrown at a changeling or at a clinging fairy, the unwelcome presence will instantly be repelled (Rhys Celtic folklore pp.23 & 250).  From time to time fairy hills will open and the sound of music will lure humans in; the best protective against never escaping is to place an knife at the exit so that the door cannot close again.  If a person has been lured into dancing with the fairies in a ring, one way of recovering him or her is a touch with iron.  Despite this widely attested aversion to ironmongery, it is curious to note that fairies will be found using metal items- John Rhys records them borrowing griddles and pots in Wales and there are regular stories of fairies asking humans to mend their implements.  For example, a ploughman working in a field at Onehouse, just outside Stowmarket in Suffolk, was approached by a ‘sandy-coloured’ fairy for help mending his ‘peel.’  This was the long handled flat iron used for removing loaves from an oven.  The ploughman easily repaired the broken handle and was very soon rewarded with hot cake fresh from the oven.
  • salt and fish– in Popular romances of the West of EnglandRobert Hunt records an interesting tale from Cornwall of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk.  When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice form a local cunning woman who advised that the pobel vean could not abide the smell of fish or the savour of salt or grease.  Her recommendation was to rub the cows udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving.  The advice worked, but the cow pined for her supernatural friends.  Oddly, as mentioned in my earlier post on offerings to fairies, fishermen in nearby Newlyn appeased the spriggans with an offering of fish, indicating that the revulsion was not consistent.  In Wales it was said that one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire (Rhys p.103);
  • turning clothes– a consistently deployed protection was to ‘turn your coat’, to turn a garment inside out as a way of defending oneself from fairy tricks.  Two Cornish examples from Hunt illustrate the effectiveness of the remedy.  A Mr Tresillian, returning late at night from Penzance to his home in St Levan, came upon the piskies dancing in their rings.  He felt compelled to join them, at which point they swarmed upon him, stinging like bees.  He retained enough presence of mind to turn his glove inside out and threw it at them, which instantly caused the throng to disappear. Secondly, an old widow living at Chy-an-wheal, above Carbis Bay, found that her home was favoured by the thievish spriggans of nearby Trencrom Hill.  They resorted to her cottage to divide up their plunder and rewarded her tolerance of this by leaving her a coin after each visit.  She hatched a plan to get more from them and, one night, secretly turned her shift inside out whilst the spriggans were present.  This enabled her to seize a gold cup from them.  The widow became a wealthy woman as a result, but she could never wear that shift again because, if she did, she suffered agonies.
  • herbs– certain plants are effective in repelling fairies.  These include St John’s Wort, red verbena, daisies, ash, four leaf clover (this plant has the virtue both of dispelling glamour and enabling a person to see fairy folk as well as repelling them), and rowan. For example, a branch of mountain ash will help pull a trapped person out of a fairy ring, as the fairies dread the tree (Rhys pp.85 & 246).  Katherine Briggs suggests that it is the red berries of the plant which have given it its reputation for warding off evil, but it has much wider magical power than this, as Robert Graves explained in The White Goddess chapter 10.  Lastly, Wirt Sikes records in British goblins that a gorse hedge is an excellent protection against unwelcome visitors.
  • running water– fairy folk are unable to cross streams and rivers, so in any pursuit leaping from bank to bank will be a sure escape for the hunted human.  Water courses running south are said to be especially efficacious.  Oddly, nevertheless, fairies seem to have no objection to still water.  They actively seek it out for washing themselves and they are from time to time associated with wells.  For example John Rhys in Celtic folklore (1901, p.147 & chapter 6) notes the existence of several ‘fairy wells’in Wales which demanded attention from local people, in the absence of which they would overflow or flood.
  • faith– according to suspected witch John Walsh, when he was examined in prison in 1576, fairies only have influence over those whose Christian faith is weak or absent (although the evidence on the actual nature of fairy religion is unclear).  It may be questionable how much to rely upon this statement given the position he was in: he understandably wished to deflect the accusations made against him and, accordingly, he wanted to present himself as an orthodox individual resistant to any satanic temptations.  Be that as it may, it was widely known that the sign of the cross would dispel supernatural threats.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins  (p.63) gives an interesting summary of the Welsh beliefs in this respect: “There are special exorcisms and preventive measures to interfere with the fairies in their quest of infants. The most significant of these, throughout Cambria, is a general habit of piety. Any pious exclamation has value as an exorcism; but it will not serve as a preventive.”
  • self-bored stones– according to John Aubrey, if a person could locate stones through which natural erosion had created a hole (sometimes called ‘hag-stones’), they could protect their horses from night-riding by fairies by hanging the stones over each horse’s manger in the stables- or by tying the stone to the stable key.  The fairies would not then be able to pass underneath.
  • touching grass– in his Celtic folklore John Rhys records a couple of Welsh traditions that a person may save themselves from fairy abduction by seizing hold of grass, apparently because the Tylwyth Teg are prevented from severing blades of grass.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).