Exploring the Faery List in the ‘Denham Tracts’

 

nut fairy
Brian Froud, ‘Nut Fairy’

Michael Aislabie Denham (1801-1859) was an English merchant and collector of folklore.  In the early part of his life he conducted his business in Hull; later he set up as a general merchant at Piercebridge, Co. Durham.  He collected all sorts of local lore- sayings, songs and folktales- much of which he self-published.  After his death many of his works were collected together and republished by the newly established Folklore Society as ‘The Denham Tracts.’

Denham recorded many valuable scraps of material.  One of the most fascinating, found in the second volume of the Tracts, is this list of fairies and evil spirits.  He drew upon a list already compiled by Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), perhaps supplementing this with another list found in George Gascoigne’s play The Buggbears (1565), and then adding many additional terms of his own, to produce this encyclopaedic inventory.

“Grose observes, too, that those born on Christmas Day cannot see spirits; which is another incontrovertible fact. What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hob- goblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubusses, spoorns, men-in- the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, knockers, elves, raw- heads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprats, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yett-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag- foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraithes, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gally-beggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars’ lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, buggaboes, kows or cowes, nickies, nacks, [necks] waiths, miffies, buckles, gholes, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy -carlins [Gyre-carling], pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricanns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sjlvans, succubuses, black-men, shadows, banshees, lian-banshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sybils, nick-nevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and cross-roads, were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit! [See Literary Gazette, December 1848, p.849]”

This is a daunting catalogue, impressive (intimidating even) in its length and detail, and a little depressing in the sense that so many of the names now seem unfamiliar.  It’s clear how very rich the British fairy tradition once was, and how much has been lost in the last two hundred years.

Names We Know

In this discussion, I’d like to try to edit and order Denham’s rambling, and sometimes repetitive, list.  It’s possible, I think, to bring a greater sense of organisation to this jumble of names, the result of which will be (I believe) a clearer sense of the nature of British fairydom.  I’ll start by rejecting the words we know perfectly well, like brownies, hobgoblins and dobbies, Robin Goodfellow and puck (and puckle), knockers, pixies, elves/ ouphs, urchins, gnomes, changelings, dwarfs and the trows of Shetland and Orkney.   All of these have already had plentiful discussion on this blog.

Words I’ll Ignore

I’ll also reject foreign and/or classical material: the satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, lars, tritons, centaurs, and nymphs; the continental kobolds, korrigans, foletti, and trolls; the Irish leprechauns and clurichauns.  There are also a number of general magical or spirit related terms included that we can safely ignore: calcars (calkers or conjurors), sybils, wizards and witches.  Quite a few names for the devil have been excluded, too, such as mahound (a medieval derivation from Mohammed) and tantarrabob, and I’ve passed over a range of words that seem to denote demons or evil spirits, such as imp, spurn/ spoorn, Tom-tumbler, miffies, freiths and freits and mares (as in nightmares).

There is a class of ghostly or ghoulish being included in the list that doesn’t really belong with faeries and goblins.  These are the fetches, the spirit or double of a dying person, which are also called swaithes, wraithes, waffs, waiths and dopplegangers.  Although there is a definite crossover between apparitions of the dead and the Faery, these entities are distinct from faeries.  Denham’s thrummy-caps, and corpse lights or candles, belong in this category too.  The death-hearses and hell-wains are what we’d call headless coachmen today, I think, although it’s worth noting in passing that ‘Hellwain’ was used as the name of a witch’s familiar by Christopher Middleton in his play The Witch (Act I, scene 2), in a speech by Hecate which makes direct allusion to the notorious trial of the withes of St Osyth in Essex in 1582.  Other familiars invoked in this scene are Puckle and Robin (see the previous paragraph) and Pidgen, who strongly echoes the fairy Pigwiggen in Drayton’s Nymphidia.

Other ghost-like apparitions include scrags, break-necks, spectres, sprats (spirits or sprites) and kitty-witches.  With these I have also included the northern ‘silkies’ and ‘cauld-lads’, although in fact these ghost-like beings can be hybrid creatures, possessing several of the characteristics of brownies as well as sometimes acting as a guardian in spirit or, conversely, as a bogle.  The best known silky is that of Black Heddon in Northumberland and the most famous Cauld Lad was found at Hilton in the same county.

Denham also included in his inventory the names of supernatural creatures that very evidently aren’t fairies.  There are giants, but also snapdragons, and fire-drakes.  Fire-breathing serpents plainly don’t have any place in Faery.

A few final odds and ends remain.  Denham’s word ‘tutgot’ is not a noun, but an adjective- it means someone who has been seized or possessed by a ‘tut,’ a sort of Lincolnshire goblin.  ‘Chittiface’ means baby-faced; perhaps it was a sort of nursery bogie; the ‘gringe’ possibly is related to ‘grinch,’ which means a small thing- another small fiend perhaps.  A hudskin is a foolish or clownish fellow (in the Lincolnshire dialect); perhaps it’s in the list for the same reason that madcaps and patches were included.  A clabbernapper appears to be nothing more than a gossip; a ‘scrat’ is a Northern dialect term for a hermaphrodite.  From these last entries, it looks as though he also included some insults or derogatory terms.

This pruning performed, we can then start to sort out the list that remains.  Pre-industrial Britain was teeming with supernatural beings as we can tell, and Denham was possibly right to pity the person who possessed the second sight and who would have been afflicted by visions of hosts of faeries and goblins on all sides.  In particular, Denham mentions that those born at Christmas would have had this ability: other days or times of day are also auspicious, such as Sundays or early in the morning.

bogey
Arthur Rackham, ‘A Bogey’

Boggarts and Bogles

There is a large number of goblin-like beings listed, whose main attribute will be terrifying travellers and those visiting certain locations.  Sir Walter Scott characterised these creatures very well as “freakish spirit[s], who delight rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them.”  They include boggles, bugbears, boggy-boes, boggleboes, bogies, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, boguests, buckles, buggaboes, black-bugs, cutties (female bogles, from Scotland and the Border region), hobhoulards, tints, hodge-pokers, alholds, swarths and black-men (dark entities), mormos, dudmen and scar-bugs.  One thing that Denham’s enumeration emphasises is the fact that the element ‘bug’ or ‘bogey’ is particularly applied to these beings- and not just in English, but in Welsh, Gaelic and many other Indo-European languages as well.  What we can’t be certain about is how very different these many sprites may have been: Denham has indiscriminately thrown together names taken from all over Britain.  Many are very local, meaning that many fewer actual types of bogey may have been identified by our ancestors than this long tally suggests.

Needless to say, the terminology is also not scientifically precise.  For example, Denham’s ‘flay-boggarts’ are really a sort of domesticated spirit like a brownie or hobgoblin.  They are boggarts, whom we would normally regard as unfriendly, but they live and work on farms like brownies, receiving food and drink in return for their considerable labours.  Their willingness to undertake the hardest chores, such as threshing grain, is reflected in the name: the ‘flay-boggart’ is one with a flail, at work in the barn.

Another special category of boggart may be the phantasmal beasts that appear to terrify users of the highway or near certain landmarks such as churches.  Amongst these are the numerous black dogs, barguests, old-shocks, pad-foots, pictrees and brags, shag-foals, kows or cowes, gytrashes, grants, gallytrots and gally-beggars. These creatures will appear at night in the form of hounds, calves, cows, donkeys, horses and large shaggy dark beasts of uncertain genus.

The black hounds just mentioned need to be distinguished from those types of hound that fly through the air and often foretell or mark a death. These include Denham’s Gabriel-hounds, yett-hounds and hell-hounds.

Wills of the Wisp

The phenomenon of the spirit light or ignis fatuus that leads people out of their way at night, getting them lost or luring them into bogs, is well-known across Britain and has attracted a variety of colourful local names.  Denham uncovered many of these: hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, kit-a-can-sticks, Jinny-burnt-tails, Jack-in-the-Wads, friars’ lanthorns, Meg-with-the-wads, hob-and-lanthorns, spunks and Jemmy-burties.

Shellycoat_alan_lee
Alan Lee, ‘Shellycoat’

Nursery and Cautionary Sprites

As I recently discussed in my post on Jenny Greenteeth, these creatures exist mainly to scare incautious or recalcitrant children into behaving better and/ or staying away from perilous places such as ponds and riverbanks.  They include bloody-bones, raw-heads, Tom-pokers, hob-headlesses, mum-pokers, bonelesses and tod-lowries.  Some of these sprites guard orchards and nut groves, amongst whom we reckon the melch-dicks and colt-pixies.

Denham enumerates quite a few fresh water spirits, living in rivers and pools.  These include nisses and nixies, Peg-powlers, nickies and nacks.  In this connection he quotes a verse from Keightley’s Fairy Mythology:

“Know you the nixies, gay and fair?

Their eyes are black, and green their hair,

They lurk in sedgy waters.”

The ‘white women’ he mentions frequently are spirits believed to be female that haunt springs and wells.

Scottish Sprites

There are some Scots beings in the list, such as the hags nick-nevin and the gyre carlin.  Scottish Highland creatures also appear, which include kelpies, shellycoats (a Lowland fresh-water bogle), banshees and lhiannan-shees (the fairy lovers).  This more sexual sort of supernatural also includes the incubus and succubus.

redcap
Redcap, by Alan Lee

Named Types

There are lastly, some individually named fairy types who deserve a little separate mention:

  • Dunnies are is a small brownie-like beings found on the Scottish borders, and especially in Northumberland. The most famous is the Hazlerigg Dunnie which has been known to take the form of a horse in order to trick a rider into mounting him, before galloping off and tipping the horseman in a bog. The dunnie is also said to disguise itself as a plough-horse, only to vanish when the ploughman takes him into the stable;
  • Men-in-the-oak– there are scattered traditional references to this class of faery being. Whether they are a separate class, or just an alternative name for faeries found living in oak woods, is not clear.  The ‘pucks’ were known to have frequented such forests, for example (see my Fairy Ballads), but more recently the oak-men have emerged as an independent fairy tribe, as in Beatrix Potter’s Fairy Caravan (1929);
  • Redcaps– wearing a red cap is a tell-tale sign of a faery across the British Isles, but Denham was probably thinking here of the ‘redcap’ of the Scottish Borders, a malevolent goblin said to dye its headwear in the blood of its victims;
  • Tom-thumbs– in the seventeenth century Tom Thumb was a small elf well-known to people in ballads and rhymes. Since then, he has been caught up by romance and fairy-tale and has lost almost all his supernatural nature.  See my discussion of this in Fayerie;
  • Hobbits– Denham gives us a fascinating and isolated mention of these beings. We know nothing more about them from British tradition, but a sharp-eyed young professor spotted the word at some point during the 1920s, and the rest is history…; and,
  • Redmen: these are small, solitary elves of Northamptonshire, often found living near wells or in dells. If caught, he can lead his captor to his hidden hoard of gold.

Denham’s list is a disorganised heap of names but, as can be seen, with a little effort it can be organised to reveal the richness of British faerylore and the many and varied categories of fairy being that have been recognised, with their different habitats and habits.  Although confirmation probably wasn’t wanting, all of this only goes to underline how complex British Faery is.  One of the Manx witnesses interviewed by Evans Wentz, John Davies of Ballasalla, told him that “There are as many kinds of fairies as populations in our world.”  Even when it has been edited and ordered, Denham’s list demonstrates how right Davies was.

Further Reading

I explore all of these further in my books Faery and (especially) in Beyond Faery (forthcoming) which examines in detail the full range of faery beasts, goblins and hags.

 

 

 

Clap-Cans and Nut Nans- and other cautionary sprites

melsh

Although I often stress the independent and contrary nature of faery kind, there is a class of spirits whose almost sole purpose seems to be to protect human food resources and to prevent children getting into mischief.   Fairy expert Katharine Briggs often called these ‘nursery sprites‘ but this name suggests that they are only found inside houses- as indeed, some are, lurking in dark corners and empty rooms and scaring infants into going to bed and staying quiet, but some of these are found outside too (the pretty self-explanatory ‘Rawhead and Bloodybones’ being one such) and others only exist outside the nursery and the home- hence my preference for ‘cautionary sprites.’

Orchard Spirits

Many of these spirits live in and around orchards and fruit patches, amongst them being Owd Goggie, Lazy Laurence, the Coltpexy and the Gooseberry Wife of the south of England.  There is a particular concentration of these beings in the North West of England, however, which will be my focus in this posting.  Incredibly large numbers of very local boggarts are recorded in Cheshire, Lancashire and Westmorland, and spill over the Pennine Hills into West Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

Guarding soft fruit and apples is more a southern activity, but further north nut groves are protected from the depredations of children, who are liable to steal the nuts and break the branches, by a range of sprites.  We know of Churnmilk Peg, Melch Dick and Nut Nan, who guarded the hazels from theft with threats of burning naughty children with heated pokers.  Peg was an old and very ugly hag, who sat in the groves around Malham in North Yorkshire, smoking  a pipe.  Her name derives from the hazels in their green state, when they’re called churn-milk. All she says is  “Smoke! smoke a wooden pipe!/ Getting nuts before they’re ripe!” and if this doesn’t work, she’ll abduct the disobedient youths.  Melsh Dick apparently derives his name from the same unripe, ‘mushy’ or ‘mulchy’ nuts; he too will make off with disobedient children.   These figures are often assisted in their work by Clap-Cans, a being with no form or substance whose sole purpose is to scare away youngsters by beating on tins with sticks.

It is fascinating to see how the faery world has been recruited to safeguard humans’ assets.  Normally, knowing their character, we might expect these supernaturals to be more likely to steal nuts than to defend them and we would certainly not anticipate any willingness to assist humans based upon their usual self-interested attitudes.  Here, we must accept that we have encountered a more altruistic spirit.

alan lee_faeries_jenny greenteeth
by Alan Lee, from Faeries

Jenny Greenteeth

The capacity in the North West to accept that some faeries will subdue their will entirely to that of the human community, and act wholly in its interests, has had a very curious impact upon the perceived character of the river spirit Jenny Greenteeth and her close relatives- Peg Powler in the Tees, Mary Hosies in the Avon in Lanarkshire, Jenny the Whinney on the Isle of Man, Grindylow Peg, Nelly Longarms, the Nok and many others (including the enigmatic Brook Calf and Star Nell).  Traditionally, these rather nasty beings have had one purpose: to lurk in bodies of water and to try to snatch and kill the unwary- most commonly children.  Victims will be drowned- but they may also be eaten: Grindylow Peg, for example, has iron teeth for this purpose.  They may also be tortured horribly first.

For generations, children have been warned to stay away from stagnant ponds and pools, water-filled pits, mill dams, wells, springs and streams, because these are just the places where Jenny and her sisters wait, hidden perhaps under green weeds (and wearing their green caps), overhanging trees or projecting banks.  They need only the slightest opportunity to dart forth, seize the unsuspecting infant and drag them beneath the surface.  The floating vegetation closes again and no-one knows of or even suspects the tragedy that has taken place.  In this respect, Jenny is very clearly another cautionary spirit.   She has, however, experienced ‘mission creep’ in some very surprising ways.

As time has passed, Jenny seems to have infested new bodies of water: since the Industrial Revolution, she has also moved into canals, drainage ditches, culverts and tunnels- in other words, the inland waterways of the industrialised north-west .  This, of course, makes perfect sense, for these man-made watercourses are just as perilous for the young as natural features.  This change has brought her much more into built up areas, so that Jenny is now known in central Manchester as much as in the countryside.  It seems, as well, that once she got used to the town, she expanded her operations further: Jenny has been said to lurk too in old buildings and cemeteries.  We might be startled by this abandonment of her watery haunts, but then, in Cheshire she had long been known to lurk in trees in the absence of so many bodies of open water.  Jenny has even accommodated herself to human dwellings, in her search for prey: she has been spotted lying in wait in outside toilets, at the top of unlit stairs, in darkened corners and, in Yorkshire, in that quintessential piece of architecture, the ‘coyl-oyl’ (or coal shed).

Not only has Jenny expanded the sites of her operations, she has widened her franchise to incorporate a much wider range of juvenile wrongs.  Parents more recently have threatened Jenny’s intervention for far more than getting too near to the edge of a pond.  She has started to encroach on the preserve of the nursery sprites, and has been said to punish bad behaviour- a refusal to go to bed, neglect of hair brushing and (most appositely) want of teeth brushing.  It seems pretty obvious that some profound confusion has developed here over the exact of nature of Jenny’s green teeth.  Her origin in slime covered pools has been forgotten, and it looks as though parents now scare their offspring by suggesting that they’ll end up with green fangs like Jen’s if they don’t pay attention to decent oral hygiene.

In her more recent manifestations there is increasingly little to distinguish Jenny from the host of other ‘nursery sprites,’ beings that include Tom Dockin, Tom Poker and Bannister Doll and then blur into a wider array of alarming boggarts and bogles, such as Bibler Dick, Jonny Cobler, Shagcalf and White Horse, Old Lobb or Lob-Thirst, various phantom dogs and (one of my favourites) the apparition called the Baum Rappit, a scary ghostly rabbit seen near the church in Rochdale.  All of these bogies and hobgoblins have a primary function of giving us a shock- and very little more.  To return to our starting point, however, Jinny Green-teeth is said to guard orchards around Saddleworth on the Lancashire slopes of the Pennines.

Eichler schlinggewachse
Reinhold Max Eichler, Schlinggewachse (Creepers)

Jenny and the Meremaids

Jenny, meanwhile, has also encroached on the domain of the fresh water mermaids, the ‘meremaids‘ as I’ve termed them before.  The fact of this overlap is unremarkable, given the almost identical habitats of each, yet the meremaids have always tended to have a wider scope of operations- at the very least, not being limited to terrifying children.

Several characteristics now applied to Jenny Greenteeth appear to have been transferred from the meremaids.  These include appearing only at night, most especially at full moon, guarding buried treasure and (a motif taken from the spirits of larger rivers) claiming an annual sacrifice or tribute of one or more drowned victims.

Earlier, I mentioned how Churnmilk Peg is said to be a terribly ugly hag.  Crossover or confusion between female spirits, hags and witches is not at all uncommon and I’ll conclude by noting that in one account, from Preston, Jenny Greenteeth is even said to be seen riding a broomstick.

eichler, ein buchsenschuss
Eichler, Ein buchsenschuss (A gunshot)

Summary

The multitude of local bogies and sprites, for whom we only have scanty records now, along with their often overlapping activities, makes for fascinating study.  I look at the orchard sprites again in my recently published Faery and give extended consideration to the many boggarts and bogies in the forthcoming companion, Beyond Faery.

Mere maids- freshwater spirits of Britain

 

fideal
A fideal, Brian Froud

In this post I want to explore a very particular form of British fairy being, the freshwater mermaids or water sprites.  Mere, meaning a lake or pool, is an old English word that forms the basis of mermaid, although of course this almost exclusively used in reference to the sea fairy now.  Nonetheless, the idea of the inland ‘mere-maid’ is very ancient, the very oldest of these very likely being found in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, in the ghastly shape of the mother of the monster Grendel.

The illustrations I have found suggest that these creatures may be sexually alluring to some extent, but on the whole they are perilous to humankind.

asrai

An asrai, from kelfae.com

Drowning, gold and midnight

The majority of our fresh water meremaids share something with Grendel’s mother: they are dangerous, if not fatal, to humans.  A very good example is the creature dwelling in the Black Mere at Morridge in Staffordshire.  No animals would drink the waters and birds were said to avoid overflying the mere.  This was probably because the mermaid used to seize passersby at midnight and drown them.  When an attempt was made to drain the Mere, she emerged and threatened to engulf the whole of the nearby town of Leek in its waters.  Wisely, the work was abandoned and never restarted.

Other mere maidens include those of the ponds, pools and meres at Fordham, Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk at Rendlesham and most notably at the Mermaid Pits, Fornham All Saints.  All these beings came out at night to drag down their victims.  Most are anonymous, but a few have been given names, for example Jenny Greenteeth, who has been encountered at Ellesmere in Shropshire as well as in Lancashire and Cumbria, Grindylow in Yorkshire, Nelly Longarms and the widespread Rawhead and Bloodybones.  In Scotland one encounters the fideal, an evil spirit who haunts Loch na Fideil near Gairloch, in the north-west Highlands; she is often regarded as a personification of the entangling bog grasses and water weeds of the loch’s shore.

It is often said that the purpose of these creatures was to teach children to steer clear of ponds and similar drowning dangers, such as lawn-like mats of pond weed.  The same risk existed around river banks, so that we hear  of ‘Peg Powler’ at Piercebridge on the River Tees, who might drag incautious children from the banks under the waves, and of comparable perilous creatures in the River Gipping in Suffolk.

All of these supernaturals preyed upon passing mortals.  Despite this bad reputation (or possibly because of it) some were also connected to gold or treasure in some way.  A beautiful maiden at Child’s Ercall in Shropshire offered two men gold if they would enter the water to take it from her (but she disappeared when they commented upon their luck, surely a variation of the common idea of keeping quiet about fairy favours).  We must wonder too whether,  if they had entered the water, the outcome might not have been as happy as they anticipated.  At Marden (Herefordshire) and Rostherne Mere (Cheshire) the mere-maids are said to be guarding bells submerged beneath the pool.

Eichler schlinggewachse
Reinhold Maximilian Eichler, Schlinggewächse (Creepers),  Jugend magazine, vol. 3, no. 34, p. 567, Aug. 20th 1898

The asrai

The last creature to discuss is perhaps the most intriguing, the asrai or ashray of Cheshire and Shropshire (no specific locations seem to be identified).  This meremaid combines many of the features already mentioned.  However, the fairy maid is portrayed as far more vulnerable than those seen before.  If she is caught, she does not fight back like some of the creatures mentioned, she instead pleads in an incomprehensible language to be set free and, when she is not, she curls up moaning in the fisherman’s boat and has melted away by the time he reaches shore at daybreak. Where her hands had touched the fisherman, he was burned and marked for life.

Other versions of the folk belief say that asrai have green hair and either a fishtail or webbed feet.  They are reputed to live for many centuries, coming to the surface of the lake once each century to bathe in the moonlight, which helps them to grow. If the asrai sees a man she will use promises of gold and jewels to attempt to lure him into the deepest part of the lake, there to drown or simply to trick him. She cannot tolerate human coarseness and vulgarity, and this will be enough to frighten her away.  Curiously, the same has been said of other fairies: Lewis Spence recorded that a woman of Loch Aline in the Highlands escaped abduction by the fairies when she used “a very coarse, unseemly word” (as well she might in the circumstances).  The sidhe could not tolerate this and left her where they found her (Lewis Spence, The fairy tradition in Britain, p.264).

Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan described the asrai evocatively, if not wholly in line with oral tradition.  In his poem The asrai- prologue to the changeling he says that:

“Before man grew of the four elements
The Asrai grew of three- fire, water, air-
Not earth, -they were not earthly….

The Asrai wander’d, choosing for their homes
All gentle places- valleys mossy deep,
Star-haunted waters, yellow strips of sand
Kissing the sad edge of the shimmering sea,                                         
And porphyry caverns in the gaunt hill-sides.”

In his sequel poem The changeling Buchanan tells us that “of the dew and the crystal air,/ And the moonray mild, were the Asrai made.”  Because, “In the glorious gleam of the natal ray,/The pallid Asrai faded away!” they were forced to retreat “far away in the darkened places,/ Deep in the mountains and under the meres.”

The most intriguing aspect of the asrai belief is the combination of predatory danger and vulnerability when caught.  It is comparable to the Scottish selkies, the seal women, who can be trapped and forced into marriage with a human if their seal skins can be stolen from them.  Perhaps in both we see the idea of the dangers of travelling between elements or dimensions.  Humans who visit fairyland can suffer both physically and mentally, and these stories demonstrate that the reverse is just as true.  The supernatural stranded in the physical world loses his or her power and is prey to mortality.

The kelpie_Draper

The kelpie, Herbert James Draper, 1913.

Further reading

I have discussed the capture of fairies more generally before and have also outlined mermaid belief in an early post.  See too my discussion of the ‘water horse‘ incident in the first book of the Outlander series.

 

 

 

“Some war with reremice for their leathern wings”- the facts on fairy violence

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It has become a widespread belief that fairies are wholly benevolent and peaceable beings, to whom violence and antagonism towards humankind is anathema.  This idea is probably reinforced by arguments for fairies being nature spirits and vegetarians.

This view of the supernatural realm would surprise our predecessors, who had a very different and more complex view of faery.  Older folk lore portrays an other-world very similar to our own, with its own internal conflicts and with a range of responses to human-kind, from friendly to hostile.

  • fairy warfare– it seemed entirely reasonable to earlier generations that the fairies would disagree profoundly and might engage in armed conflict amongst themselves. The Reverend Kirk said that “These Subterraneans have Controversies, Doubts, Disputes, Feuds and Sidings of Parties … they transgress and commit Acts of Injustice and Sin.”  As a result, they have “many disastrous Doings of their own, as … Fighting, Gashes, Wounds and Burialls…”  As evidence of these conflicts, there is a Glamorganshire tradition of a fairy battle fought in the air between Aberdare and Merthyr.  In the Hebrides Evans Wentz reported that it was believed that the fairy hosts always fought at Halloween, as evidence of which a red liquid produced by lichens after frost was believed in fact to be the blood of the fairy fallen.  John Campbell, in his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands, provides detail of a similar phenomenon.  He describes a substance called elf-blood (fuil siochaire) which is found on the shores of the Hebrides; it is like a dark red stone and is full of holes.  These bloodstones are connected to the red skies of the aurora borealis, which themselves are termed the ‘pool of blood’ and are a sign of fairy fighting above.
  • retributive violence–  I have already in several postings referred to the fact that fairies were believed to impose a strict code of morals and conduct upon humans and to enforce this by forceful means.  There seemed to be little hesitation about battering and injuring those of whom they disapproved.  Offending individuals could certainly expect to be pinched mercilessly; they might also be jostled, assaulted, lamed and (for the offence of seeing through the fairy glamour) blinded.
  • thrashing-  John Campbell recorded a series of curious tales about the conduct of fairy women, which I reproduce here:

“A herdsman at Baile-phuill, in the west end of Tiree, fell asleep on Cnoc Ghrianal, at the eastern base of Heynish Hill, on a fine summer afternoon. He was awakened by a violent slap on the ear. On rubbing his eyes, and looking up, he saw a woman, the most beautiful he had ever seen, in a green dress, with a brooch fastened in at the neck, walking away from him. She went westward and he followed her for some distance, but she vanished, he could not tell how…

A man in Mull, watching in the harvest field at night, saw a woman standing in the middle of a stream that ran past the field. He ran after her, and seemed sometimes to be close upon her, and again to be as far from her as ever. Losing temper he swore himself to the devil that he would follow till he caught her. When he said the words the object of his pursuit allowed herself to be overtaken, and showed her true character by giving him a sound thrashing. Every night after he had to meet her. He was like to fall into a decline through fear of her, and becoming thoroughly tired of the affair, he consulted an old woman of the neighbourhood, who advised him to take with him to the place of the appointment the ploughshare and his brother John. This would keep the Fairy woman from coming near him. The Fairy, however, said to him in a mumbling voice, “You have taken the ploughshare with you to-night, Donald, and big, pock-marked, dirty John your brother,” and catching him she administered a severer thrashing than ever. He went again to the old woman, and this time she made for his protection a thread, which he was to wear about his neck. He put it on, and instead of going to the place of meeting, remained at the fireside. The Fairy came, and, taking him out of the house, gave him a still severer thrashing. Upon this, the wise woman said she would make a chain to protect him against all the powers of darkness, though they came. He put this chain about his neck, and remained by the fireside. He heard a voice calling down the chimney, ‘I cannot come near you to-night, Donald, when the pretty smooth-white is about your neck.’…

A man in Iona, thinking daylight was come, rose and went to a rock to fish. After catching some fish, he observed he had been misled by the clearness of the moonlight, and set off home. On the way, as the night was so fine, he sat down to rest himself on a hillock. He fell asleep, and was awakened by the pulling of the fishing rod, which he had in his hand. He found the rod was being pulled in one direction, and the fish in another. He secured both, and was making off, when he heard sounds behind him as of a woman weeping. On his turning round to her, she said, “Ask news, and you will get news.” He answered, “I put God between us.” When he said this, she caught him and thrashed him soundly. Every night after he was compelled to meet her, and on her repeating the same words and his giving the same answer, was similarly drubbed. To escape from her persecutions he went to the Lowlands. When engaged there cutting drains, he saw a raven on the bank above him. This proved to be his tormentor, and, as usual, she thrashed him. He resolved to go to America. On the eve of his departure, his Fairy mistress met him and said, “You are going away to escape from me. If you see a hooded crow when you land, I am that crow.” On landing in America he saw a crow sitting on a tree, and knew it to be his old enemy. In the end the fairy dame killed him.”

These are odd accounts and a little difficult to explain.  The man is compelled against his will to meet the fairy woman, but is then apparently beaten for doing so.  The battery appears to be either a means of ensuring his obedience by instilling fear- and a hint that the fairy lover does not trust her charms- or it is a punishment for his temerity.  Either way it suggests that fairies can be vindictive and contemptuous, even towards those they favour in some way.

  • cautionary violence– again, in an earlier on the warning use of fairy tales I have mentioned those spirits whose primary purpose seems to have been to scare and discipline children so as to encourage them to avoid dangerous locations such as ponds or river banks.  Jenny Greenteeth and Peg Powler weren’t just names, though, nor would they merely give an errant child a fright: they would drag the disobedient infant beneath the water and drown them,
  • unprovoked violence– some supernaturals were malicious by nature and human encounters with them would almost invariably prove fatal.  These include the Highland water horses, the each uisge/ aughisky, the kelpie and the shoopiltree of Shetland, all of which would lure people into mounting them and would then career at speed into a river or lake or into the sea, where the humans would be drowned and/ or devoured.  There were other non-equine but equally maleficent and dangerous water spirits in Scotland, such as the fideal, the fuath, the peallaidh, the muilearteach and the cearb (the killer).  In Wales the llamhigyn y dwr (the water leaper) and the afanc were known.  All of these made a habit of tearing their unfortunate victims to pieces beneath the waves.

A broader perspective on fairy conduct confirms the impression of a fractious, rough and sometimes vicious society.  Many aspects of their culture depended upon violence to some degree:

  • population: as described when discussing changelings , human children and wives might be taken by force to supplement the fairy race;
  • subsistence: a significant portion of the food and drink consumed in faery was stolen,  usually by stealth but sometimes coercively- for example, in cases where livestock were stolen and then butchered; and,
  • leisure: the fairy idea of fun often involved tormenting people or their livestock- for example, the habit of ‘riding’ horses at night, a practice which left them weak and distressed in the mornings.

As this catalogue shows, traditional folk belief was a great deal less confident in the good nature of fairy kind than is the case with some contemporary commentators.  The best counsel would be to approach with care- or better still to protect oneself with charms and to seek to avoid the ‘good neighbours’ altogether, to be on the safe side. Fairies were regarded as being as variable, unpredictable and potentially vicious as any imperfect human being.

“From uncleannesse kept”- the cautionary function of fairy tales

shui-rhys-and-the-tylwyth-tegIn his book Religion and the decline of magic Keith Thomas astutely observed that “Fairy faith has a social function, enforcing certain conduct” and that “Fairy beliefs could help to reinforce some of the standards upon which the effective working of society depended” (pp.730 and 732).

There were two main targets for these warnings- children and servants/ wives.  The two groups shared subordinate social positions and could be the subject of rebukes and punishments.  One vehicle for such chastisement was supernatural.

Protecting children

Then, as now, children from time to time needed to be told what was best for them.  A fairy threat to enforce this, especially in situations when adults might be absent, was a valuable support to parents.  A variety of risks and dangers were given fairy personality in the hope of instilling an awed respect and nervous caution.  The perils given terrifying character included:

  • rivers– for example ‘Peg Powler’ on the river Tees, who might drag incautious children from the banks under the waves;
  • ponds– similar drowning dangers, as well as that of lawn-like mats of pond weed, were given identities: Jenny Greenteeth in Lancashire and Cumbria, Grindylow in Yorkshire, Nelly Longarms and the widespread Rawhead and Bloodybones.  In East Anglia the ‘freshwater mermaid’ was especially well known.  There are records of these perilous creatures in the River Gipping in Suffolk and in ponds, pools and meres at Fordham, Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk at Rendlesham and most notably at the Mermaid Pits, Fornham All Saints;
  • unripe fruit in trees– to discourage theft and upset stomachs, infants were warned of Awd Goggie, Lazy Lawrence and the Colt Pixy in orchards; Churnmilk Peg and Melsh Dick guarded Yorkshire nut groves and the Gooseberry Wife, in the form of a huge caterpillar, lay in wait amidst the fruit bushes on the Isle of Wight;
  • domestic store rooms– dangers in the home were protected by Tom Poker in Suffolk and Bloody Bones elsewhere.

Bogies also had the function of getting children to behave themselves and to go to bed. Amongst these so-called nursery bogies were Tankerabogus, Mumpoker and Tom Dockin.

Supervising adults

Adults undertaking domestic duties would be chastened by fairy retribution too.  The so-called ‘buttery sprites’ existed as the grownup equivalent to the creatures deployed to terrify children.  A range of chores were policed by supernatural means.  This theme is comprehensively summarised in the Fairies fegaries of 1635:

“And if the house be foule/ Or platter, dishe or bowle/ Up stairs we nimbly creepe/ And finde the sluts asleepe:/ Then we pinch their arms and thighs/ None escapes nor none espies./ But if the house be swepte/ And from uncleannesse kept/ We praise the house and maid/ And surely she is paid:/ For we do use before we go/ To drop a tester in her shoe.”

Servants were warned not to sit up late gossiping but to keep their houses tidy, floors and hearths swept and the embers raked up, dairies spotless and decked with mint, the shelves dusted, the benches wiped down and their pewter well scoured.  Those “foul sluts” who neglected their chores did so on pain of physical punishment: they would be pinched black and blue all over, whilst the obedient and dutiful would be rewarded with a coin in a shoe or pail (see for example Thomas Churchyard, A handful of gladsome verses, 1592 or William Browne, Britannia’s pastorals, Book 1, song 2).  Neglect of the proper domestic offerings to fairies- clean water, milk, bread and the like- led to infliction of the same penalties.

In summary then, fairy beliefs were not just a source of entertainment or explanation of puzzling events; they had a regulatory function.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).