Fairies and elder trees

elderflower

Cicely Mary Barker, from Flower fairies of the trees, 1961

In one of my earliest postings, I discussed the curious link between fairies and elder trees.  I’d like to return to that with some fresh evidence, mainly drawn from the Isle of Man.

Elder trees are widely seen as having some sort of magical or spiritual properties.  For example, in Herefordshire there was a taboo upon burning elder wood for fear of bringing misfortune, whilst its inner rind was used to cure cows of jaundice.  Witches were said to dislike the tree, so its pith was fed to those believed to have been bewitched.   In Shropshire elder was never used as firewood as it would bring misfortune, even death, to the household.  The wood shouldn’t even be brought into the house, as it could cause a cow to lose its calf, nor should cattle be driven with an elder stick.  The juice of the plant would be used to protect the threshold and the hearth.

On the Isle of Man,  the same ideas prevailed as on the British mainland.  Whilst the tree was said to be the haunt of the fairies, it repelled witches and, accordingly, there was hardly to be found an old well (tholtan in Manx) near which there didn’t grow an elder tree, according to Agnes Herbert in a guide to the island written in 1909.  If you carried elder leaves with you, the islanders believed, you would be protected against witchcraft.

These are but the first indications of the supernatural associations of the tramman tree on the island.  The fairies live in the trees and when the branches of the trees are seen to bend in the wind at night, it is in fact the fairies riding upon them.  Given their status as fairy residences, interference with the trees can be dangerous.  Evans Wentz heard the story of a woman from Arbory parish who one dark night accidentally collided with a tramman.  She was instantly smitten with a terrible swelling which all her neighbours agreed was the consequence of offending the fays by her clumsiness.  Another local account told of a man who cut down an elder and was driven to suicide by the aggrieved fairies, Walter Gill recorded in 1932.

The Manx fairies living in the ‘tramman’ are plainly very similar to the Old Lady of the Elder tree that I described before.  It’s not clear, though, whether or not they’re identical.  The Old Lady seems to personify the tree in some way- to be its spirit- whilst the Manx fays live in, or at least gather in, the elders, but may not actually embody them.  Regardless of the detail, the supernatural associations are very clear and persistent and- what’s more-  can be seen across Northern Europe from Denmark to the British Isles.

elderberry

Cicely Mary Barker, The elderberry fairy, from Flower fairies of the autumn, 1926

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.

9780300229042