Fairies and holly trees

Cicely Mary Barker, The Holly Fairy

In a previous post I have discussed the close links between fairies and elder trees. As a seasonal posting today, I’m examining fairies and their relationship to holly.

I was recently browsing the journal, Welsh Outlook- A Monthly Journal of National Social Progress, in the collection of the National Library of Wales. The title doesn’t sound too promising for those searching for faerylore, but luckily I wasn’t put off. In volume 2, issue 10 (October 1915) there was an article on Snowdon Folklore, which recounted the story of Merfyn Ffowc, a shepherd.

Merfyn got lost in a thick mist on the mountains near Cwn Llan and, after wandering for some time, he heard a voice crying out in distress from higher above him. He clambered up a steep rock-face to find a small woman trapped in a cleft into which she had slipped. She was dressed in green, with silver shoes, and spoke a language he couldn’t understand- evidently a fairy. He carried her down the cliff and, almost as soon as they had reached the bottom, two men appeared, calling out for ‘Silifrit.’ Appreciative of Merfyn’s rescue, they presented him with a holly staff as a sign of their gratitude, and almost instantly vanished.

It turned out that this staff was lucky. Within the year Merfyn married a rich widow and his flocks expanded amazingly: every ewe gave him two lambs. It seems, however, that he didn’t fully appreciate (or recognise) the role of the fairy gift in his good fortune. As a result, he was caught one night in a terrible storm as he returned home from an evening drinking in Beddgelert and he lost his holly staff in the raging wind and rain. With the stick went all Merfyn’s new prosperity: all his sheep were washed away in the floods and he ended up poorer than he had started.

The holly staff seems to have had a magical significance for the fairy donors- as other examples will show. As for the fairy’s name, this type of name is something I’ve discussed in an earlier posting as well as in my book Famous Fairies.

The Welsh story immediately reminded me of another one, much older and from the other side of Britain. On June 17th 1499 in Norwich, John and Agnes Clerk and their daughter, Marion, appeared before a church court accused of sorcery. The family lived in Great Ashfield in Suffolk where the daughter had developed a reputation as a healer, soothsayer and finder of buried treasure. Marion immediately confessed everything, admitting that the fairies helped her whenever she needed information. Amongst their assistance was a holly stick that they had given her: her mother had taken it to the church on Palm Sunday, mixed up with the palm fronds, to be blessed, and Marion then used the stick to find treasure.

Margaret Tarrant

Two cases; two holly sticks from the faeries. What more do we know about the connection between this tree and the Good Folk? The plain answer has to be: not a lot. Katharine Briggs mentions in her Dictionary of Fairies that the holly is a fairy tree, along with the better known elder, oak and rowan, but she does not offer us more than this. In the traditional Scots ballad of The Elfin Knight, holly is mentioned in the refrain in two versions of the song: for example, “Sing green bush, holly and ivy.” See versions K & L in Child’s Ballads– these two refrains strongly indicate a faery or supernatural association with the shrub.

Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, gives a very full treatment of the magical and mythical significance of this shrub. He finds associations with the legends of King Arthur, Robin Hood and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also traces much deeper Druidic, Classical and Biblical links. None of these are specifically fae, but the symbolic power of the tree seems very clear.

Reverting to British folklore, in the Scottish Highlands, holly is recorded as having been used to ward off the sith folk at New Year. Perhaps its potency derives from its prickles (cut gorse is used in another story to defend against the faeries), from its evergreen (and therefore ‘immortal’) qualities and from its red berries. Just as with the rowan, which is regularly used as a protection against faery attack, red is a very powerful and defensive colour.

As I have described before, the countryside is full of shrubs and herbs that have positive and negative fairy associations. I have discussed the elder tree in an earlier post and I examine other faery plants in chapter 5 of my book Faery (2020).

Margaret Tarrant

For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Mixed Race Faery Families

babies

I have written several times about the sexual allure of fairies and about sexual relationships between fairies and humans.  Inevitably, many of these unions will result in children and in this posting I examine the evidence on mixed race families and the fate of their offspring.

Hybrid Children

Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs observed in her book The Fairies in Tradition and Literature that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (p.95). Mixed race families are entirely possible and there seems neither doubt nor surprise about this in the folklore.  When we learn about human-faery offspring, it is generally because there has been some problem in the relationship.  Of course, our view of these matters is skewed, as we usually only hear about cases where partnerships went wrong- not those matches where the couple ‘live happily ever after.’  We very occasionally get glimpses of these: human girls are quite often abducted to become fairy brides and every now and then we catch sight of them later on.  For example, in the Welsh story of Eilian, she is met again by the woman she worked for when the latter is called out as midwife to the fairy hill- only to discover that it is her former farm maid who is the mother brought to child bed.

Fairy Family Life

Admitting that we only tend to see the failed matches, what can we say about fairy parenting?  Probably the fairest conclusion is that fairies are just as good, and as bad, as husbands, wives and parents as humans.

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed to the court a decades long relationship with the fairy queen.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had enjoyed regular sexual contact with her and the couple had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.  These children were brought up by the mother, but at the same time Man was not entirely absent from their lives.

A reversal of this arrangement is seen with Katharine Jonesdochter of Shetland, tried for witchcraft in 1616.  She confessed to a forty-year affair with a fairy man whom she called ‘the bowman.’  He first came to her when she was a teenager (a “young lass” as she described herself) and they had a child together.  A relative recalled that she had seen “ane little creatour in hir awin hus amongst hir awin bairns quhom she callit the bowmanes bairn.”  In this case the child stayed with the (human) mother and the (fairy) father was seen once or twice a year- at Halloween and on Holy Cross Day (September 14th)- when he visited her for sex.

Both these cases seem to say more about gender roles in human and fairy society than they do about defaults or qualities of fairy-kind as mothers and fathers.  There is, of course, no reason to assume that males are any less loving toward their spouses and children than females.  For example, in the ballad Leesom Brand, the eponymous hero’s fairy wife and baby both die during child birth, but he is able to find magical means to revive them.

bowerley mermum and babe
Amelia Bowerley

All the same, an exception may have to be made for merfolk.  The folklore record indicates that they are very often wanting in basic familial instincts and make very poor parents indeed.  In the ballad of the Selkie of Sule Skerry, the selkie father has first of all made a woman pregnant and abandoned her; then he returns grudgingly upon hearing her complaints and gives her gold to ‘buy’ the child from her (what he calls a ‘nurse-fee’)- taking the boy away to raise him as a selkie in the sea.

In many stories, a mermaid is the parent as the result of being captured by a human male on the shore.  He has managed to find, and withhold from her, the seal skin or tail that she has shed temporarily, thereby preventing her from rejoining her people.  The mermaid is forced to become her captor’s wife and children inevitably follow over the succeeding years.  Eventually, one of those infants comes across the seal skin hidden somewhere on the farm and mentions the discovery to the mother- who without hesitation leaves immediately to return to the sea.

Whether male or female, therefore, merfolk generally set a poor example as parents.  The best that can be said for most mermaids is that they were akin to captives and unwilling partners, which may excuse (a little) their readiness to abandon their children.

There are, though, a couple of stories that are happy exceptions to this rather poor record.   The famous mermaid of Zennor took a human husband who (unusually) went to live with her beneath the sea.  We know the marriage appeared to thrive because, several years later, the skipper of a boat was hailed by the mermaid complaining that his anchor was blocking the door to her home, preventing her returning to her husband and their offspring or, in some accounts, preventing her taking her children to church.  From Orkney, we hear of Johnny Croy who managed to secure a mermaid wife by snatching her precious golden comb.  To win it back, she struck a bargain with him- that she would live with him on his farm for seven years and that he would then go with her to visit her family beneath the waves.  They had seven children together, and the entire family disappeared forever under the sea when the initial seven years were up.  The family bonds in these two cases seem strong and lasting, with the human husband prepared to give up his home and society in order to stay with his supernatural wife and children.

The Welsh lake maidens, the gwragedd annwn, also have a reputation for abandoning their husbands and families, although in these cases they would excuse themselves and blame the husbands for what happened.  They are wooed in conventional manner by the human males and consent freely to marriage, but conditions or taboos are always imposed which- just as predictably- are violated in time by their husbands.  These mothers are driven away from their families, therefore, they are not fleeing like the mermaids.

baby & Fs

Fairy Inheritance

As we might expect, having fairy parents or ancestors does have some benefits for the children.

John Rhys quotes in his Celtic Folklore from William Williams’ Observations on the Snowdon Mountains, of 1802, in which he discusses:

“A race of people inhabiting the districts about the foot of Snowdon, were formerly distinguished and known by the nickname of Pellings, which is not yet extinct. There are several persons and even families who are reputed to be descended from these people …. These children and their descendants, they say, were called Pellings, a word corrupted from their [faery] mother’s name, Penelope… there are still living several opulent and respectable people who are known to have sprung from the Pellings. The best blood in my own veins is this fairy’s.” (Rhys, vol.1, p.48, citing Williams pp.37-40)

Rhys also mentions several times people living in the Pennant Valley in North Wales who are noted for their very good looks- flax yellow hair and pale blue eyes- which are said to be derived from a fairy ancestor called Bella (vol.1, pp.96, 106, 108, 220 & 223; vol.2 p.668)

As well as physical charms, fairy parents can bestow significant gifts upon their part-human offspring.  The faery wife of Llyn y Fan Fach is a typical Welsh ‘lake maiden’ who is driven off by her husband’s violation of her taboos.  Nonetheless, she keeps in regular contact with her three sons, teaching them marvellous healing skills so that they become the famous physicians of Myddfai.  In the Tudor Ballad of Robin Goodfellow, Robin is the son of Oberon, fathered upon a maid to whom he took a fancy.  The father provides materially for his son’s upbringing (although he is absent) and, when the boy reaches his teens, Oberon comes to him and reveals his true nature and magical powers:

“King Oberon layes a scrole by him,

that he might understand

Whose sonne he was, and how hee’d grant

whatever he did demand:

To any forme that he did please

himselfe he would translate;

And how one day hee’d send for him

to see his fairy state.”

Finally, the offspring of matches with merfolk are generally readily identifiable.  There are accounts from the Scottish islands of children conceived with human fathers who have webs between their fingers and toes.  One mermaid mother tried to trim these away but they regrew repeatedly until a horny crust developed- a feature that is still be seen amongst some island people today and which can limit the manual tasks they can undertake.

Further Reading

I discuss other aspects of fairy families, childcare and healing in my recently published book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).  See too the discussion in my Faery Lifecycle, a complete study of faery anatomy and physiology.

faery-lifecycle-cover

Fairies and bees

Carse, bees

Duncan Carse

There is some strange connection between the faes and bees which, rather like their associations with the cuckoo, are now no longer as clear to us as once may have been the case.

The Voice of the Beehive

There is certainly a similarity in terms of appearance and sound between honey bees and faeries.  For example, a man on Arran was out cutting bracken one day when the fairy host flew over him.  He reported that he saw “something like a swarm of bees,” into which he threw his reaping hook.  The iron tool caused the faes to drop his wife, whom they had abducted, leaving a ‘stock’ behind in her bed.

This comparison to a flock of small creatures is common in eye-witness reports.  A man at Benbecula in the Hebrides heard the sluagh go over- it sounded to him ‘like a flock of plovers.’  A man living near Harrogate once got up early to hoe his turnips.  When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green.  As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled like flocks of partridges.  In another Yorkshire report from Ilkley, fairies surprised whilst bathing in the spa there made a noise “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” when disturbed by the caretaker.

The noise of the fairies, as well as their appearance, might resemble that of a hive of bees.  John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass) on the Wiltshire downs and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion on their dancing and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  A fairy host described on the Isle of Man sounded first like humming bees, then like a waterfall and lastly like a marching and murmuring crowd as they drew progressively nearer to the witness. (Sophia Morrison, Manx Fairy Tales, ‘Billy Beg, Tom Beg & the Fairies.)

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Florence Anderson, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’

Bee-like Faes

Modern sightings have often compared fairies to insects (though admittedly butterflies, moths and dragonflies rather than bees) but ‘buzzing’ is a term used to describe their motion.  One woman in Florida saw a fairy riding a bee (for example Fairy Census no.s 5, 5A, 320, 400, 417, 475 & 251).  The weirdest sighting comes from Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies:  a woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described meeting a female cliff-dwelling pixie, who was about two feet in height and was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, very much resembling a bumblebee (p.53).

Returning to the Manx faes, another traditional belief was that ‘bumbees’ are actually misbehaving fairies who have been turned into insects as a punishment by others in their community.  In Ireland, in the 1850s, a folklore collector was told that bees are fairies, who are in turn the souls of those deceased, a notion that connects us back to the longstanding ties between fairyland and the land of the dead.  The identity between fairies and bees is attested from Wales, too.  In British Goblins Wirt Sikes describes how those trying to destroy ancient megalithic monuments would face supernatural opposition, amongst which might be “swarms of bees, which are supposed to be fairies in disguise.”  (Notes & Queries, vol.10, 1854, p.500; Sikes p.383)

Lastly, mention ought to be made of the spirit called Browney, a Cornish fairy whom you’ll find listed by Katherine Briggs amongst others.  Simon Young (of the Fairy Investigation Society) has written an article, Against Taxonomy: The Fairy Families of Cornwall, which argues quite convincingly that this sprite- who was allegedly summoned to settle a swarm- was the product of confusion and misremembered stories, and never existed at all.

Further Reading

The fairy associations with moths is the subject of an earlier posting on this blog.  The fae ability to fly is also related to this, as is the existence (or not) of fairy wings. For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021).

hester margetson

Natural World

Laying boggarts

There is a procedure for ‘laying’ (or exorcising) fairies, just like ghosts.  This seems to apply particularly to the boggarts of North West England and, it has to be said, the difference between boggarts and ghosts is not always clear-cut in the stories that are told.  I’ve discussed before the uncertain relationship between fairies and the dead.

hothersall

Laying the Lancashire boggarts

There are still quite a few spots identified where boggarts have been laid- for instance under a laurel tree at Hothersall Hall near Ribchester.  Milk is poured on the tree roots, both for the benefit of the tree and to prolong the spell that imprisons the spirit.  A stone head excavated locally now sits in a fork of the laurel’s trunk and is widely regarded as being ‘the boggart.’

At Towneley, Lancs, a deal was done with the boggart to banish him.  He haunted a bridge over a small stream and demanded gifts from terrified travellers.  In return for a promise that he would stay away as long as the trees were green, he was given the soul of the next living being to cross the bridge.  The bargain was sealed by the locals by sending an old hen across the bridge; true to his word the boggart vanished and (of course) evergreen shrubs were quickly planted in the vicinity.  There are two other locations in the same county where the terms of banishment were the same: the boggart agreed to stay away so long as certain evergreen plants might be found in leaf (holly and ivy).  This doesn’t, perhaps, say much for the wits of the average boggart but it’s of a piece with the story of the farmer who agreed with a boggart who claimed rights over his field that they would take the above and below ground crops from the disputed land in alternate years.  The farmer promptly planted potatoes followed by wheat- and the boggart received wheat roots and potato tops for his pains.

boggart bridge

Boggart Bridge in Towneley Park

In Written Stone Lane, Dilworth, Lancashire, lies a slab of stone measuring nine by two by one feet, upon which is inscribed ‘Rauffe Radcliffe laid this stone to lye for ever, AD 1633.’  It’s believed that this was done to lay a boggart who had haunted the lane and scared travellers.  A local farmer later decided to ignore Radcliffe’s wishes (and warning) and took the slab to use as a counter in his buttery.  It took six horses several laborious hours to drag the rock to his farm and, after the stone was installed, nothing but misfortune followed.  No pan or pot would ever stay upright upon it, eventually persuading the avaricious man to return the slab whence it came.  It took only one horse a short while to pull the rock back and once it was restored the disturbances promptly ceased.  In County Durham there’s another stone under which a boggart is said to be laid- and on which no weary traveller can ever sit and rest easily.

written stone

Sometimes prayers are used, underlining the uncertain position of boggarts and faeries in our theology.  Are they some sort of evil spirit or simply antithetical to the Christian faith?  Whatever the answer, some boggarts were harder to banish than others.  Some might disappear through the ministrations of just one priest; others might need several praying as a team and, in a couple of instances, the fervent supplications of an entire village were needed to lay the sprite.

At Grislehurst in the same county of Lancashire a boggart was laid in spectacular manner, in a grave under an ash and a rowan tree and along with a staked cockerel.  Despite the presence of the two fairy trees and the use of the stake, which we all know from vampire hunting, the method didn’t work, though, as in 1857 the creature was still reported to be terrifying locals at night.

We have no information as to how you trap your boggart in the first place.  It’s been quite widely reported that in the town records for Yeadon, West Yorkshire, payments are shown being made to boggart catchers.  The report of this is late Victorian but I’m not clear if the records themselves come from earlier in the nineteenth century or refer to an even earlier period.  Either way, it seems that this expertise has now been lost, which is regrettable, given the fact that most fairy captures are entirely accidental.

The Cauld Lad

The layings described so far were ways of getting rid of nuisance boggarts and were brought about by humans.  We should recall, however, the mournful song of the brownie called the ‘Cauld lad of Hilton.’  He wandered the Northumbrian hall crying:

Wae’s me, wae’s me/ The acorn’s not yet fallen from the tree/ That’s to grow the wood/ That’s to make the cradle/ That’s to rock the bairnThat’s to grow to the man/ That’s to lay me!”

For the Cauld Lad, evidently, laying was a condition to be desired, to release him from his earthly bondage, and it was eventually achieved by that classic means of the gift of clothes.

It seems then that spirits might be laid to rest consensually and without violence.  On this point I recommend the story Hobberdy Dick by pre-eminent fairy lore expert Katherine Briggs.  This is an intelligent and well written fairy story- as much for adults as children- which makes good use of Brigg’s vast folklore knowledge and which concludes with an interesting speculation that laying with the gift of clothes was a form of salvation and redemption for the domestic spirit.

 

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.”

“I will diminish and go into the west”- the fate of the fairies

fairydeparture15-mounstroussite

Artist unknown, ‘A fairy departure’

Fairy-kind has always had a strong association with the past.  In my previous posting on their clothing, I noted the common tendency to imagine fairies in antiquated fashions typical of earlier eras.  This temporal distance seems to have had the function of emphasising or marking their separation from humankind.

Fairies- things of the past

Fairies are ‘things of the past’ in another sense: they have frequently been thought of as a race that is no more seen or that has departed from these lands.  By way of illustration of this, Katherine Briggs entitled one of her books ‘The vanishing people.’  Some readers may also call to mind the fact that Tolkien concludes Lord of the Rings with a departure of the elves into the west.  He built upon well established foundations.

This idea that fairies have disappeared or are no longer present in Britain has been a feature of fairy-lore for centuries.  Chaucer, for example, had the Wife of Bath on her journey to Canterbury begin her story thus:

“In th’olde dayes of the king Arthour,

Of which that Britons speken greet honour,

All was this land fulfild of fayerye.

The elf-queen, with hir joly companye,

Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede;

This was the olde opinion, as I rede,

I speke of manye hundred yeres ago;

But now can no man see none elves mo.”

Later writers have repeated this theme.  For example, in The Faithful shepherdess (III 1) Fletcher expressed the view that “Methinks there are no goblins, and men’s talk/ That in these Woods the Nimble Fairies walk/ Are fables.”

It would be fair to say that the citations given so far probably reflect the urban, educated, cultured view, in contrast to the beliefs of ‘simple’ country folk, but traditional folk tales have also featured and explained the reduction in the sightings of our supernatural neighbours.  For example, there is the Scottish story of ‘The departure of the fairies’ recounted by Hugh Miller in The Old Red Sandstone, p. 251.

‘On a Sabbath morning, all the inmates of a little hamlet had gone to church, except a herd-boy, and a little girl, his sister, who were lounging beside one of the cottages, when just as the shadow of the garden-dial had fallen on the line of noon, they saw a long cavalcade ascending out of the ravine, through the wooded hollow. It winded among the knolls and bushes, and turning round the northern gable of the cottage, beside which the sole spectators of the scene were stationed, began to ascend the eminence towards the south. The horses were shaggy diminutive things, speckled dun and grey; the riders stunted, misgrown, ugly creatures, attired in antique jerkins of plaid, long grey clokes, and little red caps, from under which their wild uncombed locks shot out over their cheeks and foreheads. The boy and his sister stood gazing in utter dismay and astonishment, as rider after rider, each more uncouth and dwarfish than the other which had preceded it, passed the cottage and disappeared among the brushwood, which at that period covered the hill, until at length the entire rout, except the last rider, who lingered a few yards behind the others, had gone by. “What are you, little manie? and where are ye going?” inquired the boy, his curiosity getting the better of his fears and his prudence. “Not of the race of Adam,” said the creature, turning for a moment in its saddle, “the people of peace shall never more be seen in Scotland.”‘

Touring Wales in late Victorian times, Professor John Rhys was several times told that fairies were no longer encountered in the countryside.  They had been seen ‘daily’ by shepherds “in the age of faith gone by,” in the “fairy days”- but no more (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.115 & 125).

What drives fairies away?

The reasons for the fairies’ departure tend to be related but curiously antagonistic:

  • they are driven away by the sound of new church bells- see for example Briggs, Dictionary, p.95;
  • they have been displaced by the clergy (in Chaucer’s plainly satirical lines): “For now the grete charitee and prayeres/ Of limitours and othere holy freres, … This maketh that ther been no fayeryes./ For ther as wont to walken was an elf,/ Ther walketh now the limitour him-self;”
  • they have been deliberately exorcised: it was explained to John Rhys (pp.221/228) that the fairies did not appear as in a “former age” because they had been cast out (ffrymu) for a period of centuries and would not be back during ‘our time.’  It is interesting that this ejection, albeit long, was considered a temporary state- a reason for some to be hopeful, perhaps; or,
  • they leave because the catholic faith has been replaced.  In his story The Dymchurch Flit Rudyard Kipling ascribes the fairies’ flight to the ill-will generated by religious dissension and the sense that they were no longer welcome and did not belong: “Fair or foul, we must flit out o’ this, for Merry England’s done with, an’ we’re reckoned among the Images”  (Puck of Pook’s Hill, p.267).  The poem, Farewell, rewards and fairies, by  Richard Corbet (1582–1635) is mentioned in the same book by Kipling and encapsulates these ideas: “the Fairies/  Were of the old Profession./ Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,/ Their dances were Procession./ But now, alas, they all are dead; Or gone beyond the seas.”  It is well worth examining the whole poem.

dymchurch

Arthur Rackham, illustration of the Dymchurch flit.

The combined shrinking and retreat of fairies and their realms reached a point in the twentieth century where many writers could declare their epitaphs.  For example, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, published in 1908, Rudyard Kipling has his character Puck admit that “The People of the Hills have all left.  I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; … good people, little people … pixies, nixies and gnomes and the rest- gone, all gone!”  (p.10).  Katherine Briggs began the first chapter of The fairies in tradition and literature by observing how, since the late Middle Ages at least, fairy beliefs “have been supposed to belong to the last generation and to be lost to the present one,” but still the tradition lingered on.  However, she seemed to have lost heart in The anatomy of puck (p.11), admitting that “the fairies, who descended perhaps from gods older than those the druids worshipped, who were so long lamented as lost and so slow to go, have gone, now and forever.”

And yet…

Nevertheless, the announcement of the demise of faery may have proved premature.  As Janet Bord wrote in Fairies- real encounters with little people (1998), “the changes that have occurred in this century have not resulted in the complete extinction of the fairies: they have survived, because people still see them.” The changes to which she referred are the impact of technology, the loss of importance of traditional beliefs and the loss of traditional knowledge.  The cultural influences of the media and a decline in sympathy with the natural environment has led to a diminution in fairy belief, but not its destruction.  For many people, “fairy lore is still alive in the background of their existence.”

The rise of alternative spiritualities has definitely contributed to this tenacity of belief.  In his book on the Cottingley fairy photographs, The coming of the fairies, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quoted with approval from the writings of Theosophist Edward Gardner.  The latter wrote that:

“For the most part, amid the busy commercialism of modern times, the fact of their existence has faded to a shadow, and a most delightful and charming field of nature study has too long been veiled. In this twentieth century there is promise of the world stepping out of some of its darker shadows. Maybe it is an indication that we are reaching the silver lining of the clouds when we find ourselves suddenly presented with actual photographs of these enchanting little creatures- relegated long since to the realm of the imaginary and fanciful.”

Gardner, Doyle and Geoffrey Hodson all waxed lyrical in the early decades of the century about beings existing at ‘higher levels of vibrations’ and similar.  They renewed the foundations for a belief in the existence and visibility of fairies which persists.  Diane Purkis in her book Troublesome things (chapter 10) was harsh on modern manifestations of fairy belief.  She wrote scathingly that a “few sad, mummified Victorian fairies survive, pressed in the pages of the Past Times catalogue, perhaps.  Some people are devoted to these little corpses, tending them devotedly, but they obstinately refuse to flourish, they have no roots and no branches, no real resonance.”  She rejects these remnants as being mere “revenants, wraiths, sad simplified ghosts.”

I will leave it to readers to decide on the validity of these dismissive words.  A glance at the abundance of fairy websites, and the shops and magazines offering a wealth of fairy related products, must give some reason to doubt Purkis’ scorn.  It would not be wrong to agree with Katherine Briggs that fairy tradition at least lingers, even today; perhaps, in fact, a more vigorous verb is justified- burgeons, perhaps?

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

William Blake and fairy origins

blake_mhh

I recently discussed William Blake’s conceptions of the nature of fairies.  It was pointed out to me by one reader (Dr9mabuse- whom I wish to thank) that I had overlooked another possible Blake reference, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Illustrated above is plate 11 from that poem.  The text reads as follows:

“The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects
with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and
adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers,
mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their
enlarged & numerous senses could perceive.”

I think it would be perfectly reasonable to regard this as an allusion to Blake’s treatment of fairies as animating spirits of nature.  He, of course, went far beyond this, elaborating this thought considerably in the Four Zoas, but in its original conception it coincided exactly with one of the commonest theories on the source of fairy beliefs.

Fairy origins

There are two books which particularly discuss the development of popular ideas on fairies.  The first is the classic British Fairy Origins by Lewis Spence, published in 1946.  Spence, who had a life long interest in the occult and mythology, set out a number of sources which he felt jointly fed into the fairy belief.  These are that fairies were:

  • elementary spirits– they are the spirits of natural features;
  • spirits of the dead– fairies are, in a sense, simply ghosts.  They haunt burial tumuli, the deceased are often found amongst their number (explicitly in The fairy dwelling on Selena moor) and time spent with them can age the visitor;
  • ancestral spirits– more than just being the dead, fairies were the dead of a particular family- the protective spirits of their predecessors;
  • aboriginal races– this theory postulates that fairies are a recollection of former inhabitants of Britain who were pushed to the margins by later settlers.  It is a garbled derivative of Darwin’s ideas of evolution as set out in The Descent of Man: the elusive pygmy races are our ape-like ancestors.  Of course, there is no evidence at all that Britain and Ireland were ever settled by any other than races of full stature and this is by far the least convincing of these origin theories;
  • former pagan gods– it seems widely accepted, for example, that the fairies of Ireland are the much-diminished survivors of the ancient Tuatha de Danaan;
  • totemic– the fairies are symbols of tribal kinship with certain animals; or,
  • fallen angels– they were cast out of heaven with Lucifer, but did not plummet all the way into hell (a widespread belief in Scotland on the evidence of Evans Wentz).

More recently, Katherine Briggs laid out the competing (or intermingled) theories in her book Fairies in tradition and literature.  Her list is very similar to Spence’s- fairies derive from:

  • forgotten gods and nature spirits– they are the seasons personified and the spirits of trees and water.  Amongst these Briggs includes fairies which may have been intended to act as warnings to children to avoid harmful places such as rivers, standing water and orchards- for example, Jenny Greenteeth, the spirit who lurked beneath the grass-like scum on pools, waiting to drag down unwary infants;
  • the ‘hosts of the dead‘, such as the ‘Wild Hunt’;
  • fallen devils;
  • giants and monsters; and,
  • tutelary spirits which comprise ancestral spirits attached to a particular family (most notably the banshees of Scotland who warn of family tragedy) and brownies and the like which serve a particular farm or household.

crane

 

Walter Crane, Dryads & Naiads

Fairies as nature spirits

In each list I have given priority to fairies as nature spirits.  This animistic idea is part of what Blake seems to have been referring to in the verse quoted.  The classical nymphs of wood and well, the dryads and naiads, are plainly the ‘geniuses of woods, rivers and lakes’ mentioned by Blake and very evidently contributed something to his thought and to our more general understanding of faery.  For British writers, at least, the different spirits were interchangeable.  For example Gavin Douglas, the Scots poet, in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, makes a direct substitution of one for the other.  In tackling Virgil’s lines “Haec nemora indigenae fauni nymphaique tenebant…” he gives us the following (my highlighting):

“Thir woddis and schawis all, quod he,

Sum tyme inhabyt war and occupyit

With nymphis and faunis apoun every side,

Qwhilk Farefolkis or than Elfis clepen we,

That war engendryt in this sam cuntrie…

Furth of ald stokkis and hard runtis of treis…”

Aeneid Book 8, chapter 6, line 4 et seq.

Nevertheless, these supernatural beings have developed their own local and distinct features and characters, in British folklore as well as in Blake’s poetry.  As I described previously, in William Blake’s personal mythology fairies were spiritual beings investing natural features, but they took on other functions and aspects.  Likewise, the British fairy tradition was woven from many strands and imbued fairies with multiple powers  and meanings.

In my recently published Albion awake!the fairy queen Maeve has some of these close associations with the land and with its well-being; she has a general role as a guardian of fertility for the Isle of Albion.  I have made further posts related to the book separately on johnkruseblog.wordpress.com, offering a background reading list and picture gallery.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

Fairy dwellings

rackham-the-three-little-men-in-the-wood

Arthur Rackham, Three little men in the woods

Where do fairies live?  This seems like an obvious question, but it is one that is not always directly asked.  British folklore gives various answers to the query, in part depending on the region from whence the tale derives and in part on the nature of the fairy folk involved.  It is important too in answering this question for us distinguish the places the fairies haunt or frequent, such as groves, moors, highways, stone circles and barrows, from their actual dwelling places.

Fairyland

A trite answer to the question of residence might be to respond that the fairies live in ‘Fairyland.’  This would not, in early modern Scotland, have seemed so banal a reply: the fairies’ palaces under the hill were known as Elfame and accordingly we hear about the Court and the Queen of Elfame.  For example, in a criminal trial of a suspected witch in 1576 she described the fairies thus “Thai war the gude wychtis that wynnit in the Court of Elfame” (that is- “They were the good folk that dwelled in the Court of ‘Elf-home.’)  As will be read in the following paragraphs, though, fairy-land in the main was conceived not as a distinct and parallel realm (other than in the cases discussed in the second bullet point), but as supernatural ‘pockets’ occurring within and between the human world.

The Reverend Kirk assures us in his Secret commonwealth that fairy dwellings are “large and fair,” being illuminated by “fir Lights, continual Lamps and Fires, often seen without Fuel to sustain them.”  He explains one reason for our uncertainty as to the nature of these homes: they are “(unless att some odd occasions) unperceavable by vulgar eyes.”  In other words, they are protected by glamour and are as a rule invisible (Kirk s.4).

Fairy dwellings

Some writers tended to be quite vague as to exact location.  For example, Reginald Scot in The discoverie of witchcraft (1584) simply states that fairies “do principally inhabit the mountains and caverns of the earth,” although their habit is “to make strange apparitions on the earth in meadows or in mountains” (Book III, c.4).  It is possible, in fact, to list quite a number of typical fairy homes:

  • under or in fairy knolls- this was a belief held widely throughout the British Isles.  For example, the fairy knowe or sithein was prevalent in Highland tradition (Wentz Fairy faith pp.86 & 104) but it is also found in Wales: it was said that the smaller Tylwyth teg lived in ‘holes in the hills’ (Wentz p.148) – as did the Cornish pixies at the Gump of St Just.   Welsh writer D. Parry-Jones provided very circumstantial evidence as to the routes into the fairies’ homes: “Their habitations were universally believed to be underground, in dimly lit regions, with the entrance to them under a sod, near one of their circles, by some ancient standing stone, under the bank of a river, away on the open moor hidden by bushes, or in the ruins of an old castle, as on Ynys Geinon rock. In the midst of this castle there was a pit with a three-ton stone lying across it, and when they wanted ingress or egress, they uttered a secret word, and lo! the stone lifted, and fell back again of its own accord. From the entrance down to the underground passage they descended along a ladder of twenty-one or –two gold rungs.” (Parry-Jones, Welsh legends & fairy lore, 1953, p.19)  The belief prevailed in England, too, for instance the fairies who lived under Hack Pen in Wiltshire, according to Aubrey.  He recorded that a shepherd employed by a Mr Brown or Winterbourne Basset had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played.  As Aubrey observed of such visitors “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.”  (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, p.12; Fairyist, Fairyplaces, Wessex).  The strength of the link between elves and hills may be demonstrated by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.  In the story, Puck consistently refers to his nation underground as ‘The People of the Hills.’  Sometimes these hills would open up to reveal a lighted hall within which the fairies danced  and into which humans would be lured.  This happens, for example, in Thomas Creede’s play of 1600, The wisdome of Dr Dodypol, in which a wine goblet is offered to a traveller by a fairy emerging from a mound in which music is being played.  This enchanted realm is ruled by a wizard whose invitation is to “taste the sweetnesse of these heavenly cates, Whilst from the hollow craines of this rocke, Musick shall sound…;” it is his spell that “Made a guilt pallace breake out of the hill, Filled suddenly with troopes of knights and dames, Who daunst and reveld while we sweetly slept…”   See too William of Newburgh’s tale of a fairy cup, stolen from a feast in an opened barrow.  It appears that any prominent or unusually shaped outcrop or hillock was likely to attract a supernatural association- for example, the Tolcarne rock near Newlyn which was inhabited by a troll-like being (Wentz p.176);
  • in an underground realm-  a classic description of such a subterranean country is found in the Middle English poem, Sir Orfeo: “When he was in the roche y-go,/ Wele thre mile other mo,/ He com into a fair cuntray,/ As bright soonne somers day,/ Smothe and plain and al grene,/ Hill no dale nas none ysene…”  As will be seen, this was a common British conception of fairyland.  In Wales the Tylwyth Teg dwelt in such a land or else underneath lakes, in the case of the human sized gwragedd annwn (Wentz p.142, 144 & 147).  In light of the latter site, we may be reassured to know that Scottish fairies sensibly preferred “Dwellings underground in dry spots” according to Evan Wentz’s informant John Dunbar of Ivereen (p.95).  In England there are two tales of an underground land where fairies live: the St Martin’s Land of the Green Children of Woolpit as told by William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall.  There was no sun, just a constant twilight and the children emerged from it through a long cavern.  Gerald of Wales describes a similar world in his tale of Elidor and the Golden Ball- the country was cloudy, yet bright, and at night very dark as there were no moon or stars.  In Cornwall, Bottrell collected the story of Richard Vingoe who was taken beneath Trevilley Cliffs at Land’s End and found there an underground world  reached by a cavern.  Many Welsh tales mention the fairies residing in caves. Likewise in the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is a fine wooded country extending for miles underground and Keightley reports a conversation with a Norfolk girl who advised him that in their expansive subterranean caverns the fairies built “houses, bridges and other edifices.”  Access to these lands might be through something as innocuous as a molehill (Wentz pp.161-162; Keightley pp.298 & 306) or by lifting a sod and disappearing (Rhys Celtic folklore p.227);
  • in caves and holes– these are particularly associated with hobgoblins, for example Hob Hole and Obtrusch Roque in Yorkshire;
  • on enchanted islands off the Pembroke and Carmarthen coasts (Wentz p.147).  These fairy islands disappear when approached or may only be seen by standing on an enchanted turf.  These isles are the home of the Plant Rhys Dwfn.  The tylwyth teg are also said to inhabit an island in a lake near Brecon which is reached by a subterranean passage leading from a door in a rock on the shore, which reveals itself once a year (Parry-Jones, pp.19-20).  Another Welsh story mentions an island in a lake known as the ‘Garden of the fairies;’
  • in the vicinity of standing stones– fairies were, for example, associated with the Pentre Ifan cromlech in Pembrokeshire whilst in the story of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by a path located under a menhir (Wentz pp.155 & 161).  In England, it is told that the Oxfordshire fairies were last seen disappearing under the Rollright Stone circle (Evans, Folklore Journal, 1895).  In short, fairies are often inseparable from ancient sites;
  • on the shore- in the folklore of Newlyn and Penzance in Cornwall, the tidal shoreline is the home of one family of pixies called the bucca.  They are propitiated by the local fishermen with offerings of fish (Wentz pp.174-175);
  • in human houses and farms- as is very well known, brownies and similar ‘house elves’ co-habit with humankind.  For example, in The hierarchie of blessed angels (1636, p.574) Thomas Haywood stated that pucks and hobgoblins were to be found living “in corners of old houses least frequented/ or beneath stacks of wood.”  Some fairies apparently live under the human house (Briggs pp.99-100), “under the door stane” according to Sir Walter Scott (Border minstrelsy p.14), a proximity which can inevitably lead to neighbour disputes.  For example, Parry-Jones tells of a farmer in Gwynedd whose habit was to empty his chamber-pot outside his front door every night before bed.  One evening a small man appeared and asked him to desist, as the waste was running down his chimney into his house beneath.  The farmer complied, blocking up the old door and creating a new one at the opposite side of the cottage, for which he was rewarded by healthy stock and great prosperity;
  • in trees- there are only a few traces of this association with individual trees, something that seems more pronounced in Scandinavian and German tales. For example, in the Sad Shepherd Ben Jonson advises that “There, in the stocks of trees, white Faies doe dwell,/ And span-long Elves, that dance about a poole!/ With each a little Changeling, in their armes!/ The airie spirits play with falling starres!/ And mount the Sphere of fire, to kisse the Moone!”  In the English fairy-tale ‘The King of the cats’ the nature of these tree dwellings is elaborated considerably: a wanderer at night sees a light streaming from a hollow oak; when he climbs the tree and looks inside, he discovers an interior resembling a church.  Readers of earlier posts may recall that I have made reference to the belief in the ‘Old Lady of the Elder Tree’, a spirit inhabiting and guarding these shrubs (The white goddess & the elder queen); you may also be familiar with the rhyme ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks’ and there is some record of a Northern belief in a race called ‘The Oakmen.’  Lastly we should note the “ympe-tre” of the fourteenth century ballad, Sir Orfeo.  The term ymp-tree is understood to denote a grafted apple or cherry; sleeping beneath it Orfeo’s wife Heurodis is approached and abducted by the Fairy King.  Whether this tree is the King’s home or merely a haunt of his is not clear; for certain plenty of trees were felt to have supernatural links without them being the physical residence of a fairy spirit;
  • in woods and forests– as well as residing in certain types of tree, there is a persistent link between elves and woodland, which I have described separately;
  • in a ruined structure made by glamour to look grand and well maintained.  Examples are the ‘Fairy dwelling on Selena moor’ (actually only a derelict farmhouse) and the illusory palace on Glastonbury Tor visited by St Collen.  In a fairy midwife tale recounted by Rhys, a cave is made to look finely furnished when it was really only strewn with rushes and ferns;
  • outside on the moors- John Rhys relays an account of the Tylwyth Teg who were said to live amongst ferns in the summer and to shelter amidst the gorse and heather during winter (Celtic folklore p.82); and, finally,
  • nowhere- as fairies are spirit visitors to our material world, some consider that they have no habitations here.  As such, they deserve human pity and comfort: a fire and clean water at night will ease their roofless wandering (Wentz p.182).

Despite all this evidence of fairies living in wild and natural places, see too my posting on fairy building skills.

“Even lovers drown”- mermaids and faery

Rackham Mermaids

Arthur Rackham, ‘They have sea green hair’ from ‘Three Golden Apples’

“A mermaid found a swimming lad,

Picked him for her own,

Pressed his body to her body,

Laughed; and plunging down

Forgot in cruel happiness

That even lovers drown.”

W. B. Yeats, ‘The mermaid’ from The Tower, 1928

It is not, of course, possible to undertake a serious taxonomy of imaginary beasts, but personally I have never considered mermaids to be fairies: they cannot disappear, they have no magical powers (mostly) and they are often at the mercy of humans.  They seem too solid and physical; fairies are terrestrial whilst mermaids are marine.  They are semi-human, with some supernatural qualities, but they are not in the same dimension are fairies, I would contend.

Types of sea spirit

As stated, a phylogeny of creatures that are the products of mythology rather than biology is futile, but we can still offer some sort of classification and analysis:

  • mermaids and mermen are part human, part fish and are found around the coasts of England and Wales;
  • seal people including the selkies of Orkney and Shetland and the roane of the Highlands and islands are humans who can assume a seal skin to move through the sea.  Comparable are the merrows of Ireland.

Mermaids and seal people are often captured and made into the wives of human males, the mermaids by being stranded at low tide and the seal maidens by having their seal skins found and hidden after they have shed them on the shore.  These wives always pine for the sea and, eventually, escape back to it.

Ashore, mermaids are usually helpless and are at the mercy of the men who find them.  If they are assisted back into the sea, they may well grant magical protection to their saviours; if aid is refused, the men may be cursed.

Mermaid wisdom

The lure of mermaids for men appears to be their semi-naked state, their beauty- and most notably their hair- and their strange gnomic sayings, which added to their mysterious aura.  One of the more comprehensible sayings is recorded as follows: a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore.  She called out-

“If they wad drink nettles in March/ And eat muggons in May/ Sae mony braw maidens/ Wadna gang to the clay.” (R. Chambers, Popular rhymes of Scotland, 1870, p.331)

The advice in this case seems sound: nettles, taken as tea or soup, are diuretic and are a good source of minerals and vitamins; mugwort is both a tonic and vermifuge.

Doubtless mermaids and fairies both were invented by our ancestors to explain sudden and inexplicable illness (see too my next post) and storms, drownings and disappearances.  There must, too, be some measure of anthropomorphising of seals, glimpsed floating in the waves and mistaken for humans.

Generally, mermaids lack magical abilities, although their deaths may provoke (or be avenged by) storms.  In some cases they can control the waves by their words; in other instances their power is not innate but derives from an article such as a cap or a leather mantle.

Some mermaids, beautiful as they may seem, are in truth monsters who lure fishermen to their deaths.  For Yeats, as seen in the verse above, this may be through a combination of accident and neglect.  Sometimes, too, these unions need not be tragic, as with the mermaid of Zennor in Penwith who lured away Mathey Trewella to live with her; he was lost to his human friends and relations but apparently did not perish.  Indeed, Cornish mermaids are generally more fairy-like in their attributes.  In the story of ‘Lutey and the mermaid’ a fisherman of Cury on the Lizard was granted three wishes by a stranded mermaid whom he rescued.  Likewise in the ‘Old man of Cury’ a mermaid found and returned to the waves at Kynance Cove provided a magical comb by which she could be summoned to provide arcane knowledge to her saviour.  For these stories see Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England.

Fresh water beasts

Mermaids and selkies are strictly salt water beings.  A variety of fresh water spirits or monsters are identified by folklore, such as Jenny Greenteeth who drags children into ponds, and kelpies.  There are also marine monsters (see my earlier post on fairy beasts).  All of these have only one characteristic- destroying human life- and they lack any personality and society like fairies ‘proper.’  That said, in north-west England is found the Asrai, an aquatic fairy occasionally dredged in nets from pools and lakes, but which melts away in the air very quickly.  In Wales the Gwragedd Annwn are lake maidens who emerge from inland waters and occasionally marry young men- but always on their own terms and subject to their own conditions, which are ultimately always breached by their husbands, causing the water fairy to return home forever.

Froud MM

Brian Froud, A mermaid

Further reading

Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880) devotes his third chapter to the gwragedd annwn, recounting various folk tales and, in passing, observing that these fresh water sprites exist in the absence of mermaids in Welsh mythology.  Katherine Briggs provides full details of all these stories and others concerning selkies in her Dictionary of fairies ; she also directs readers to Sea enchantresses by Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh (London 1961).  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have posted more recently on freshwater mere-maids, on the asrai, a particularly vulnerable type of British fresh water fairy, and on the variety of supernatural water beasts.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see too my post on mermaid wisdom.

Lastly, Charles Kingsley in The water babies had his own unique slant on the idea of the marine fairy and I have examined this separately.

They who must not be named- the taboo over fairy names

arthur rackham_peter pan in kensington gardens_40

Arthur Rachkam- ‘They will mischief you’ from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

The open use of proper names for fairies- whether personal or collective names- is universally frowned upon and frequently punished.  I want briefly to examine in this post the  nature of this rule and its motivations.

Expert writer Katharine Briggs has described this superstition as the use of ‘euphemistic’ names for the fairy folk; I think that apotropaic may be a slightly more accurate term.  The primary purpose of this allusiveness, I believe, is to turn away displeasure and ill-fortune.

Politeness

Indirect names are used, I think, for several related purposes.  The first is with a view to complimenting  the fairy folk.  Examples include the Good People, the Good Neighbours, the Honest Folk, The Fair Family (Tylwyth teg), The Gentry, the People of Peace and the Seelie Court (that is, the ‘blessed court’, which is matched by Seelie Wicht, a ‘blessed soul’).  Some names avoided impolitic directness but were simply descriptive, as with the Cornish an pobel vean, the little people.

Averting danger

The polite and honorary addresses often conceal a second motivation- and perhaps the most important- which is to avert the unfavourable attentions of the fairies.  The invocation of goodness and peaceable conduct in part seek to ensure such a state of affairs: if you are respectful to them, they won’t be so inclined to harm you.  This is perhaps clearer in such names as Bendith y mamau, the mothers’ blessing; a name surely aimed at deflecting the risk that the fairies will steal a human child and replace it with a changeling.  The term is, in a sense, a spell to ward off the risk of abduction and the substitution of a sickly or demanding stock.

A final, very significant, element in this must be a desire to avoid using proper names directly.  Across of the globe in very many cultures it is known that a person’s proper name has special powers and that it should never be used directly or without permission- for example, in Arabia the jinns are referred to as mubarakin, ‘the blessed ones.’ Names are a form of property with magical qualities; renowned folklorist John Rhys, writing in Evans Wentz’s The fairy faith in Celtic countries, observed that a fairy would be “baffled” if his proper name was discovered (p.137) . This explains many of the vaguely descriptive phrases employed- the Green Coaties or Green Gowns, White Nymphs, People of the Hills, The Strangers and Themselves.  

This respectful avoidance of secret or personal names is best exemplified by the fairy tales featuring this theme.  Rumplestiltskin is now the best known, thanks to the Brothers Grimm, but it is a German story, not a British one.  Insular folklore has its direct parallels: the tales of Tom Tit Tot, Whuppity Stourie, Terrytop (Cornwall) and Trwtyn Tratyn from Wales.  Possession of a being’s concealed name gives control over that individual, hence the efforts to hide and to discover it.  In one Welsh example cited by John Rhys in Celtic folklorepossession of the fairy maiden’s name constrained her to marry a man (p.45).

rackham_rumple2

Rackham, Rumplestiltskin

Some readers may, of course, quite properly object that I have violated these rules in my story The Elder Queen– the faery folk there are free with personal and collective names, I must confess.  My defence is this: it is for the Folk themselves to decide what is revealed; they can choose to make themselves visible and what personal information to vouchsafe to a human.  In my story Darren is favoured- but then they want something from him- his virility and his child- so perhaps it is not a fair exchange at all.  Bargains with fairies seldom are balanced and mutually rewarding…

Further reading

The etymology of fairy names is discussed elsewhere.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).