Some Obscure British Faeries

The Chichevache

About eighteen months ago, I examined the long list of faeries and other sprites that had been assembled during the early nineteenth century in the so-called Denham TractsAs I remarked then, one aspect of this list is that it reminds us how many faery names have become utterly unfamiliar and mysterious to us. 

In this posting, I want to go back to the Denham list to have a look of some of the more obscure and puzzling of these words.

caddies: A term from Yorkshire, the diminutive of the rare cad(d)- a spirit. In John Hutton’s A Tour to the Caves, in the Environs of Ingleborough and Settle (1781), caddy is given as a word for a ghost or bugbear.  It is very clearly a sort of supernatural being, as two examples will show.  “One of these cadds or familiars still knocking over their pillow,” was used by Francis Osborne in his Advice to a Son, (1656) page 36, whilst “Rebellion wants no cad nor elfe/ But is a perfect witchcraft of itself,” appears in ‘Elegies,’ by Henry King, Poems (1657).

calcars: mentioned by both Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) and by Denham, the word appears to derive from the verb calculare.  Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words defines ‘calcar’ as an astrologer, ‘to calke’ being to calculate or to cast a figure or nativity.  In John Bale’s 1538 play Kynge Johan “calking” is mentioned along with conjuring, coining and other frauds (1838 edition, page 71).  Nevertheless, it has also been connected to caucher and related to the French noun ‘cauchemare,’ a nightmare. Overall, though, it seems to be more to do with sorcery and magic than with Faery.

chittifaces:  Skeat’s Glossary of Tudor and Stuart Words and Wright’s Dialect Dictionary define this as someone with a thin and pinched face, a freckled visage or a small baby face.  It also is defined as a puellulus improbulus– a bad little girl. It might be used contemptuously: Thomas Otway’s 1683 play, The Souldiers Fortune, includes the line “Now, now, you little Witch, now you Chitsface” (Act 3, scene 1).

Possibly related is Chaucer’s term ‘chichevache’ which is used in the ‘Clerk’s Tale’ in the Canterbury Tales, line 1188Lest Chichevache yow swelwe in hire entraille!” [swallow you in her insides]. John Lydgate’s early fifteenth century poem Bycorne & Chychevache reaffirms that “Chichevache eteþe wymmen goode.”  This a monster that devours obedient wives (and therefore is very hungry, according to Chaucer’s joke).  In Lydgate’s verse, the creature is contrasted satirically with the bicorn, part panther and part cow, which eats devoted husbands and is, apparently, very well fed and plump.  Denham mentions bygorns in his list as well.

We might also note that in French chevaucher means simply ‘to ride a horse,’ so that a connotation of nightmare may have been incorporated into this name as well.

clabbernappers:  Some topographical and historical research reveals that in Southfleet parish in Kent there once was a large cave known that was called the Clabber Napper’s Hole. The related legend, as transcribed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1803 and reprinted in vol.26 for December 1846, was that the occupier of the cave was a kidnapper or freebooter. The article proposed that clabber derived from “caer l’abre,” the dwelling in the woods, though there is no attempt to explain why a Welsh word and a French word would be combined- as is frequent in old and dodgy etymologies where words with suitable meanings are randomly put together with no thought for historical likelihood.  

A more literal interpretation of the name might suggest that it was simply an onomatopoeic word, the meaning of which was a sort of noisy abductor (of children).  The Clabber Napper might, therefore, have been a sort of nursery sprite used to scare children.  If so, it might have been adopted by the putative smugglers to keep people away from their lair, or it might have been used by parents to discourage their children from playing there.

gringes: in some old dialects, to gringe or grange means to grind the teeth (Dickinson’s 1878 Glossary of Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland). On that basis we might imagine another nursery sprite- a monster that grinds its teeth a lot and is used to keep children in their beds at night.

Probably the wrong sort of Miffy…

Miffies: Miffy is a nickname for the devil in Gloucestershire according to Thomas Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English vol.2. Presumably it is related to Old French maufé meaning the devil. In addition, ‘miff’ means displeasure or ill humour, hence the modern meaning of being or feeling miffed over something.

Mock-beggars: There are numerous places known as Mockbeggar, Mock Beggar, or some variant thereon. E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1894, defines Mock-Beggar Hall as an ostentatious dwelling whose mean spirited and stingy owners will turn away the poor from their door.  

This is the literal interpretation of the phrase; however, John Florio’s 1611 dictionary of English and Italian, Queen Anna’s New World of Words, defines ‘beffana’ as a bugbear or scarecrow, which might explain how it got into Denham’s list.

Nickies & Nacks: these are water sprites- Denham also mentions the related nixies (but this is just an adaptation of the German name nixe and first seems to have been used about 1816 by Sir Walter Scott) and nisses, which might be another pronunciation of the word, but is much more likely to be taken from Swedish and Danish, a nisse being a sort of domestic goblin or brownie.  Keightley seems to have been one of the first to use it in print in the Fairy Mythology (1828), so it is again a late borrowing and not an authentic British sprite; the nisse’s role had already been long filled by our own brownies and hobs. 

Nicks, necks and nickies all can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon nicer or nicor, becoming nekir and nyker in Middle English.  All the Germanic languages of the continent have related words with a similar meaning. The nickie, neck or nack is a supernatural being found living in the sea or in inland waters- other familiar terms might be water-demon or kelpie.   In Middle English the word was also used to denote a siren or mermaid.  The creature first appeared in the poem Beowulf as a dreadful creature of the night; it continued to be deadly and terrible in subsequent centuries.

In Layamon’s Brut of about 1200 (lines 10851-2) we are told about a lake in Scotland “Þat water is unimete brade; nikeres þer baðieð inne; þer is ælvene ploȝe in atteliche pole” (The water is immeasurably broad; nikers bathe there; there too is the play of elves in the hideous pool).

The Ayenbite of Inwite (Prick of Conscience) of 1340 (line 61) describes to us the how sea creatures called “nykeren… habbeþ bodyes of wyfman and tayl of visse” (have the bodies of women and the tails of fish).  Like sirens, according to Robert Mannyng in 1338, the nikers will sing to sailors a “mery song þat drecched þam ferly long [tormented them for a long time].”  The Treatise of Ghostly Battle (1500) also describes their tricks to lure men: “The nykare or meremaydene, that cast opone the water syde dyverse thyngis whyche semene fayre to mane, but anone as he taketh hit, she taketh hyme ande devoureth hym.”  This image persisted into Victorian times: in 1853 in Hypatia Charles Kingsley had a character ask “’What is a nicor, Agilmund?’ ‘A sea-devil who eats sailors.’”

The word nick or neck has almost completely faded from English, except for the river spirit known as Nicky Nicky Nye on the Welsh-English border. Its loss is a shame, as it would overcome the confusion between inland and marine mermaids that we now have- and which made me suggest the coinage ‘meremaid‘ as a substitute.

A secondary meaning (but one that is now the common understanding of the word), is demon or devil. So, in 1481, William Caxton’s translation of the History of Reynard Fox contains a reference to “fowle nyckers, Come they out of helle?”  This meaning was preserved in the poem, ‘Nickar the Soulless,’ published by Sebastian Evans in Macmillan’s Magazine for 1863 (and later in Brother Fabian’s Manuscript and Other Poems, 1865).  Nickar, the devil, makes a deal for a man’s soul so that he may see again and marry the naked fairy girl he once saw bathing in a river.  Today, of course, we still refer to ‘Old Nick.’

Spoorns & spurns: ‘Spurn’ generally denoted a fight or a spur but in the Dorset dialect it meant an evil spirit.  Keightley speculated that both “Calcar and Sporn (spurs?) may be the same, from the idea of riding” and hence some kind of nightmare, an evil spirit that rode people in their sleep and caused frightening dreams and paralysis (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, note to page 334).

Tantarrabobs: ‘Tantara’ and ‘tantaran’ was a noise or distubance (as in a tantrum). Tantarabobus, Tantarabobs, or Tankerabogus were variants upon a South Western dialect name for the Devil; it also denoted a noisy playful child. Thus, tantara-bogus was a noisy bogle (Joseph Wright, English Dialect Dictionary).

Thrummy-caps: According to Henry Farnie in his Fife Coast from Queensferry to Fifeness (1860, 112-113) Thrummy-cap was the vindictive ghost of a drowned carpenter who haunted the harbour where he died. James Halliwell-Phillips meanwhile reported that thrummy-caps were faeries from Northumberland and were “Queer looking little old men” who lived in the vaults and cellars of castles (Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words, 1848).

It’s not wholly clear how or why this relates to the above, but ‘thrum’ means a weaver’s ends, the extremity of the warp on the loom that can’t be woven.  It is a piece of material about nine inches in width.  Thrum therefore meant a frayed fringe or tuft, so that a thrummy-cap would be a ragged or shaggy looking hat knitted from these off-cuts of coarse woven woollen cloth.  Perhaps, rather like the Redcaps of the same area, the Northumbrian thrummy-caps were associated with the distinctive headgear.

Tints:  As a noun, the word is defined as being an obscure northern term for goblin. Another sense of the word ‘tint’ is a tiny touch, scrap or taste whilst ‘tinte’ means lost (coming from a Middle English verb of that meaning, tine, to lose (J. Wright, English Dialect Dictionary). Tinted was therefore ‘lost’ or ‘neglected.’ As well as to lose or to be lost, tine/ tyne could also mean to trouble or to be troubled or distressed.

There is a story in which an Eskdale goblin named Gilpin Horner was heard two men crying out “Tint, tint, tint,” the word in this context apparently meaning ‘lost.’   They responded to his cry, “What de’il’s tint you?” (Who the devil’s lost- or even taken- you) and the goblin then appeared to them, “something like a human form, but surprisingly little, distorted in features and misshapen in limbs.”  The men fled and Horner pursued them and took up residence in the home of one of the pair.  It was “undoubtedly flesh and blood” as it ate and drank with the family and had a taste for cream.  This treat it stole to eat whenever it could; it was also cruel to the children if they provoked it.  One day, though, a voice was heard calling the goblin’s name and it leapt up and left for ever. (George Allan, Life of Sir Walter Scott, Baronet: With Critical Notices of His Writings, 1834, 247-248). 

In another legend from the Borders area, a man tried to taunt the duergars of the Simonside Hills in Northumberland by going out one night calling “Tint! tint!” The duergars at first appeared with little lights near a bog, trying to lure him in- much like a will of the wisp– but the story concludes with an “innumerable multitude” of them with “hideous visages” and clubs in their hands, surrounding the man.  He tried to fight them off with his staff but they had no physical forms and, every time he struck out, he only seemed to multiply the number assailing him, until he collapsed in a faint until morning (Charles Tibbits, Folk-lore and Legends: English, 1890,182-183).

Wirrikows: the Scottish wirry-cowe, worricow, and variations thereon, was a bugbear or goblin; the name might also be used for a scarecrow or for the devil himself. The name probably comes from a combination of the words ‘worry’ (in the sense of harassment) and ‘cowe’ or hobgoblin.  Denham mentions “kows or cowes” separately in his list.  An example is the Hedley Kowe of Hedley near Ebchester, which was a mischievous bogie that could take a variety of forms in order to play tricks on its hapless victims (see my Beyond Faery, 2020). 

Examples of the Scottish word’s usage are found in Thomas Donaldson’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect of 1809: “Where harpie, imp, an’ warricoe/ An’ goblins dwell” and in Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel Black Dwarf– “They do say there’s a sort o’ worricows and lang-nebbed things about the land” (ii, in Tales of my Landlord, 1st Series, I, 51).  

The wirrikow was, apparently, a dreadful thing to meet: James Hogg refers in The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818) to “the waefu’ [woeful] wirricowe.”  In James Lumsden’s play, Doun I’ Th’ Loudons (1908, page 276) the sprite is described as “Hump-backit an’ bow’d- a wirricow- And scrimply [barely] fowre feet three!”  He had a red face, according to Hogg (“haffats in a lowe”) and would make people scream with fear and alarm.  For example, she “Scream’d at ilk clough, an’ skrech’d at ilka how, As sair as she had seen the wirry-cow” (A. Ross Helenore, 1768, 77).

A Nixie, by Arthur B Davies

As I said at the start, much has been lost from British folklore, with only tantalising scraps remaining. However, with some digging in etymological and dialect dictionaries, we can start to restore some idea of what our ancestors knew (and feared).

Faery Dealings

Rackham, A Fairy Market

Transacting business with the faeries can be a process beset by problems that significantly reduce the apparent advantages that might be gained by humans through such dealings.

As I discussed in a previous post, the faes can indulge in spontaneous and gratuitous acts of kindness. A man from Anglesey, for instance, woke up one morning to find that his shirt had been washed overnight by the tylwyth teg, and besides which they had left him half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) wrapped up in the garment. Such acts as these are unpredictable and sporadic, so little reliance can- or should- be placed on them, and the favour is easy to lose.

The fairies can decide to undertake substantial tasks for some, but it would probably be unwise to found any thoughts of prosperity- or to make plans for the future- based upon their assistance. A farmer at Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye unwittingly employed three faery men to help with his harvest. They reaped a field and put the corn in stooks in the record time of just a few hours, but they would not associate with any of the other farm workers and they complained bitterly about their working conditions: about their bread, their drink and their employer. The farmer discovered how disgruntled these mysterious workers were by having his son eavesdrop on their conversations. He very was lucky indeed that this spying didn’t have an unfavourable outcome- as was the case for one farmer on Colonsay. He benefited considerably from the fact that every year the local faeries would voluntarily harvest and stack the crops in his fields. He never saw who bestowed such a favour upon him and, eventually, consumed by curiosity, he stayed up one night to see who was doing the work. A host of faeries appeared and the farmer tried to count them: this proved such an insult to his supernatural helpers’ generosity that he never had their aid again.

Faeries will, inexplicably and without invitation, undertake quite onerous chores on farms. Perhaps it is this that explains their parallel tendency to make free with the property of their human neighbours. For example, on Shetland, one family had a cooking kettle that the trows simply borrowed (or, we might say, took) for a whole year. It was a trow habit too to ‘borrow’ islanders’ boats. This was vexing enough, no doubt, but the trows never tied them up again when they’d finished with them, and simply left them loose in the harbour or unsecured on the beach. Indeed, human households often left buckets of water out for the trows as they had discovered that this was a way of preventing them interfering with other household utensils.

The trows will also enter into commercial transactions with humans, but their way of doing deals does not resemble our own. A tinker was wandering the islands selling metalware when he saw a small dark man standing by a door that led inside a mound. This man (clearly a trow) enquired what was for sale: the tinker replied that he had plates, bowls and cups in his basket. Suddenly, he found himself inside the hillock; as suddenly, he was outside again with his basket entirely emptied of goods- but with five gold sovereigns in their place. It’s not a normal way of conducting business for us, but it’s how the trow folk do it.

Compare another case, in which a Shetland fiddler was employed by some trows to provide music at a wedding in Norway. They carried him there in a boat at record speed, but after the festivities the man was told that if he wanted to be rowed back home again, he would have to pay for the privilege with one of his stock of cows. Reluctantly, he agreed, but as he was so far from home he felt he had very little choice. When the man got back to his family, he discovered his one night away had actually been three years. He was very angry at this and resolved that he was not going to pay for the return journey. Nevertheless, within a week or so the fiddler found that one of his cows was sickly and had stopped eating and drinking. The man realised that, in fact, it was only the form of a cow that survived and that the real beast had already been taken by the trows in exercise of their bargain.

Even a more straightforward bargain can turn out to have its alarming aspects. In Keightley’s Fairy Mythology there’s a Manx story called the ‘Fairy Chapman,’ which he borrowed from Waldron’s guide to the Isle of Man:

“A man being desirous of disposing of a horse he had at that time no great occasion for, and riding him to market for that purpose, was accosted in passing over the mountains by a little man in a plain dress, who asked him if he would sell his horse. “‘Tis the design I am going on,” replied he: on which the other desired to know the price. “Eight pounds,” said he. “No,” returned the purchaser, “I will give no more than seven, which if you will take, here is your money.” The owner thinking he had bid pretty fair, agreed with him, and the money being told out, the one dismounted and the other got on the back of the horse, which he had no sooner done than both beast and rider sunk into the earth immediately, leaving the person who had made the bargain in the utmost terror and consternation. As soon as he had a little recovered himself, he went directly to the parson of the parish, and related what had passed, desiring he would give his opinion whether he ought to make use of the money he had received or not. To which he replied, that as he had made a fair bargain, and no way circumvented nor endeavoured to circumvent the buyer, he saw no reason to believe, in case it was an evil spirit, it could have any power over him. On this assurance, he went home well satisfied, and nothing afterwards happened to give him any disquiet concerning this affair. This was told to Waldron by the person to whom it happened.”

Fairy Mythology, 398-399

My recent book, How Things Work in Faery, contains extended discussion of all these puzzling aspects of the faery economy.

Fairy Friends- desirable or not?

 

Hilda Cowham, The surprise
Hilda Cowham, The Surprise’

Fairies can rarely be described as genuinely friendly to human kind, it is sad to report.  They will be lovers and parents of children, it is true, and they may take a liking to an individual and bestow gifts upon them, but the commonest interactions tend to be antagonism or avoidance, as I’ve often described.  Amicable relations are very infrequently described, which is why I’ve gathered together the scattered references here.

Domestic Companions

As might be expected, we are most likely to become acquainted with those faes who live closest to us.  In the British Library there’s a seventeenth century manuscript that deals with spirits such as the brownies, hobgoblins and Robin Goodfellows.  It explains how these are:

“more familiar and domestical that the others … [which] abide in one place more than another so that almost never depart from some particular houses, as though they were their proper mansions, making in them sundrie noises, rumours, mockeries, gawds and jests, without doing any harm at all, and some have heard them play at gitterns and Jew’s harps and ring bells and to make answer to those that call to them, and speake with certain signes, laughters and merry gestures, so that those of the house come at last to be so familiar and well acquainted with them that they fear them not all.” (MS Harleian 6482)

This comfortable familiarity is reflected in two other stories of such spirits.  The first dates from the reign of Richard I, from Dagworth in Suffolk.  The manor house of Sir Osbern de Bradwell became the home of a being called Malekin, a small changeling girl who had apparently been abducted from her home in nearby Lavenham by the fairies.

“At first, the knight’s wife and his whole family were exceedingly terrified by her conversation, but having become accustomed to her words and the ridiculous things she did, they talked to her confidently and familiarly, asking her about many things.  She spoke in English, according to the dialect of the region, but occasionally even in Latin and discoursed on the Scriptures to the knight’s chaplain… She could be heard and felt, but hardly ever seen, except once when she was seen by a chamber maid in the shape of a very tiny infant who was dressed in a kind of white tunic…”

Malekin also consumed food and drink that was left out for her and was evidently very much a part of the household.  Much more recently, something similar is told about Yorkshire farmer George Gilbertson and his family, who shared their home with a boggart (although it was never seen).  It was practical joker, as is the way with boggarts, but the children of the house found that it would play happily with them- if they pushed items through a knot hole in a cupboard, the boggart would immediately pop them back out again.  The children called this ‘laiking [playing, in Yorkshire dialect] wi’ t’boggart.’ (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.307)

Faeries can, therefore, be quite pleasant house guests, as long as you can put up with their high spirits and practical sense of humour.  They are often most friendly with domestic staff: Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft described how they would “sport themselves in the night by tumbling and fooling with servants and shepherds in country houses” and Robin Goodfellow (or Puck) was particularly known for his friendliness towards maids, performing their chores for them at night- although this was generally done secretly and anonymously without any suggestion of an amicable, social relationship as well (Scot, 1584, Book III, c.4)

Grace Jones, Fairies' Good night 1924
Jones, The Fairies’ Goodnight, 1924

Faery Playmates

There’s also evidence of faeries befriending lonely servants and farm maids and entertaining them with music, dance and company.  I’ll cite three cases, all from the West of Britain.  John Rhys tells the story of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, near Carmarthen.  She was hired by an elderly couple to help on their farm.  Eilian got into the habit of spinning outside in a meadow by moonlight, where the tylwyth teg would visit her and sing and dance as she worked.  Eventually, the girl disappeared with the fairies and it later turned out that she had been taken to be a fairy wife. (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 211-212).

Very close to this story is that of Shui Rhys of Cardiganshire.  She looked after her parents’ cows and often stayed out in the fields very late.  She was told off by her mother and blamed the spirits: little people in green would come to her, dance and play music around her and speak to her in a language she couldn’t understand.  These contacts were allowed to continue, for fear of offending the fairies, but it was a risky strategy and, eventually, Shui disappeared just like Eilian (Sikes, British Goblins 67-69).

The story of Anne Jeffries from Cornwall is comparable to these.  She had deliberately gone out, trying to make contact with the fairies by repeating little verses to summon them, and eventually they came to her in her garden.  Six little men in green appeared to her one day, showered her with kisses- and then carried her off to Faery.  She stayed there only a short while, until a violent dispute arose over her affections, after which she was ejected, but the fairies continued to favour her with healing knowledge and a supply of food.

These examples have to be viewed more ambivalently, as the fairies’ great friendliness to these isolated girls seem to have been a pretext for lulling their suspicions prior to abducting them.  These ulterior motives may well sound rather more familiar and fit rather better with the impression of fairy character that most folk accounts give.

Summary

Fairies will be amicable and accommodating, therefore, but it seems that it is often done with a view to what might be received in return.  Fairy authority Katharine Briggs, in her 1978 book Vanishing People, gave this rather harsh summary of the fairy temperament:

“the kindness of the fairies was often capricious and little mercy mingled with their justice… We are dealing with a pendulous people, trembling on the verge of annihilation, whose mirth is often hollow and whose beauty is precarious and glamorous.  From such, no great compassion can be expected.” (p.161)

Fairy friendship is available, therefore, but it should always be approached with caution.  Their amity towards humans may not be as open and free as we would expect from other people.

 

 

Oberon’s books- fairy spell books

MS.-e-Mus.-173,-fols.-61v-6

There is a scattering of evidence to the effect that fairies had their own spell books, as well as their innate magical abilities, which I have described before.

There are only a few references to these spell books:

  • In Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth (chapter 7) he informs us that:
    • “They are said to have many pleasant toyish Books; but the operation of these Pieces only appears in some Paroxysms of antic corybantic Jollity, as if ravished and prompted by a new Spirit entering into them at that Instant, lighter and merrier than their own. Other Books they have of involved abstruse Sense, much like the Rosicrucian Style. They have nothing of the Bible, save collected Parcels for Charms and counter Charms; not to defend themselves with, but to operate on other Animals, for they are a People invulnerable by our Weapons…”;
    • From this we can deduce that there seem to be three varieties of spell book- one to used to send the fairies into some sort of ecstatic dance; a second using scraps of Biblical verse for casting spells on others (rather like local magicians offered to do in human communities) and a third that was employed for more powerful conjuring- perhaps to contact other spirits such as angels, a practice used by such magi as Queen Elizabeth’s own conjuror, John Dee;
  • The Red Book of Menteith- the story goes that a fairy queen banished some troublesome elves from Cnoc-n’an-Bocan (Bogle-knowe, or Hobgoblin-hill) near to Menteith into The red book of Menteith.  The condition was that they would only be released when the laird of Menteith opened the book.  Eventually, this happened by mistake and instantly the released fairies appeared before him demanding work. He had to set them various impossible tasks to be freed of them himself.
  • The Red Book of Appin is another Scottish tome that, J. G. Campbell implies, has power against both witch and fairy spells.  That said, its primary content is concerned with healing sick cattle and with maintaining the fertility of fields (although of course these may both be the subject of fairy blights).  The Red Book was therefore a local cunning man’s book of incantations used for assisting small farmers with their common problems.  The legend is that it came from a mysterious ‘fine gentleman’, although it does not appear clear that he was of fairy origin; when the book was obtained from him by devious magical means, he transformed into many shapes, implying that he was (at least) a wizard and maybe a demon.  He was defeated, however, and the book came into more benign human hands;
  • Thomas Keightley states in his Fairy mythology that the Danes believed that the elle folk had books which they would give to favoured humans and which helped them tell the future.  The existence of such volumes seems to have been a wider Scandinavian belief.  In Iceland the story is told of Jon Gudmundsson of Reydarfjord who met an elf girl called Ima whilst tending the family flock one day.  He and Ima were strongly attracted to each other and during the course of their courtship she told him about a book that her father possessed that was full of marvellous lore and from which Jon could learn a great deal; he would become a poet whose verse would have magical powers and he would foresee the future and ‘never be surprised by things.’  Jon persuaded her to arrange a loan of the book and then generally ‘enjoyed her company.’  The loan was made but then after a fortnight when return of the book was requested, Jon refused.  He was threatened with fairy vengeance.  On Christmas Eve Ima, her father and mother and a man who had been abducted and trapped by the elves planned to attack his home to recover the text.  The plan was betrayed to Jon by the captive human, who had tired of his interminable supernatural life.  Jon was prepared for his attackers’ arrival and slew all four, including Ima, before burning their bodies.

There is tendency for humans to believe that fairy magical powers are wholly innate. Various evidence I have offered in recent posts suggests that the situation may be different: either it is acquired by physical means after birth- whether by dipping in a pool (for which see c.16 of my British fairies), by learning their magic hand gestures, by the application of herbal ointment or by some other form of of physical contact– or it is learned (or at least supplemented) from written sources.  If any of these are at least partially true, it makes our access to supernatural power considerably easier than we might have supposed.

1.5-MS.-Rawl.-D.-252

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

On my fairy bookshelf

cover

I have created a recommended fairy books page to complement my website list, this time offering a guide to what I consider to be the best books on fairy-lore available.

Naturally, I would urge you all to purchase a copy of my own British fairies (and to read my three fairy novels!), but should you want to read more broadly and more deeply, click here to read more about what you should be reading more about!

See also my own faery publications here as well as my list of useful fairy websites.

“Urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white”-fairy clothing

ar-elves

Arthur Rackham, ‘To make my small elves coats’, Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1908

“Wee folk, good folk, trooping all together,

Green jacket, red cap and white owl’s feather.”

William Allingham, The fairies, 1850

What does a fairy wear?  Nowadays we may well envisage a small girl in a pink tutu with a star tipped wand.  As regular readers will anticipate, this was decidedly not our ancestors’ image of faery kind.  It was, nonetheless, very much as conventional.

Local dress

There were some who regarded fairies as, in many respects, indistinguishable from their human neighbours.  For example, the Reverend Kirk in chapter five of The secret commonwealth asserted that “Their Apparell … is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: so are they seen to wear Plaids and variegated Garments in the Highlands of Scotland, and Suanochs therefore in Ireland.”  Other evidence from Scotland confirms this.  At her witchcraft trial on 1576 Bessie Dunlop described the fairies she had conversed with: the men dressed as gentlemen, the women in plaids; a later account of the departure of the fairies also has them attired in plaids (with red caps); J. G. Campbell likewise mentions fairies in blue Highland bonnets.

Tell tale clothes

More commonly, there was always something about their dress which betrayed fairy-kind to the humans who encountered them.  Sometimes it was the style of the garments, more often it was the colour.  William Bottrell in Traditions and hearthside stories of West Cornwall states that the typical appearance of the pobel vean was “dressed in bright green nether garments, sky-blue jackets, three cornered hats on the men and pointed ones on the ladies, all decked out with lace and silver bells.”  There is, then, a resemblance to (antique) human fashions combined with distinctive hues.  This tendency to dress in the style of a century before is underlined by the story of the fairy market on Blackdown near Taunton- “Their habits used to be of red, blue or green, according to the way of old country garb, with high crowned hats” (Keightley Fairy mythology p.294).

Fairy colour ways

The quintessential and identifying fairy hue was green.  For example, John Campbell of Barra in the Highlands told a story of  woman seen dressed in green, observing “no woman would be clad in such a colour except a fairy woman.”  Indeed, the ‘green gowns’ was a fairly common euphemism employed to avoid too closely naming the good neighbours.

In about two thirds of the cases where the colour of garments is noted in an account, it is green.  Bourne in Antiquitates vulgares  from 1725 states that they were “always clad in green” and, whilst this overstates the popular view, accounts from Cornwall through Wales and northern England and up to the Highlands repeatedly confirm the fairy preference.  In his Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song Robert Cromek embellishes this slightly, describing “mantles of green cloth inlaid with flowers” and “green pantaloons buttoned with bobs of silk and sandals of silver.”  J. F. Campbell found accounts in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands of fairies in kilts, but these were green and matched by green conical hats.

Some readers will recall that green was the skin tone of the mysterious ‘fairy’ children discovered at Woolpit in Suffolk in the 1100s.  Katherine Briggs has suggested that the colour relates to death- and there may be something in this.  Identity with nature and plant life might be another association.

Popular as green was, it was by no means exclusive.  Other traditional choices were:

  • red– Evans Wentz recorded Welsh fairies in “gaudy colours (mostly red)”, in “soldiers’ clothes” with red caps and some pixies at Land’s End in red cloaks (Fairy faith pp.142, 155 & 181).  Professor John Rhys found that Welsh witnesses in Victorian times often referred to the Tylwyth Teg ‘the red coats’ by way of euphemism;
  • white– Welsh informants told Evans Wentz that the Tylwyth Teg were ‘always’ clothed in white and Thomas Heywood in his Hierarchie of the blessed angels employs ‘white nymphs’ as a euphemism for the fairies (p.507);
  • blue– for example, Sikes in British goblins (chapter V, part iii) describes the Tylwyth Teg seen at the ‘Place of strife,’ Trefeglws, Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire, as “the old elves of the blue petticoats.” In the Suffolk story, Brother Mike, the fairies appear in blue coats, yellow breeches and red caps;
  • other– on Shetland the ‘grey neighbours’ are grey clad goblins.  Walter Scott records Border fairies clad in “heath brown or lichen dyed garments.”  John Rhys learned that the fairy women of Cardigan dressed “gorgeously in white, while the men were content with garments of a dark grey colour, usually including knee-breeches.” Meanwhile, around the River Teifi, the fairy women were said to dress “like foreigners, in short cotton dresses reaching only to the knee-joint.”  He felt this was exceptional, as generally fairy dresses had very long trains and local girls who dressed in a more showy fashion would be likened to the Tylwyth Teg.  At the other extreme, some supernatural beings traditionally abandon human clothing altogether and appear dressed in skins or leaves (Briggs, Dictionary, pp.110-11).  In the hands of poets, an opposite tendency applies and clothing can become highly elaborate and literary.  For instance John Beaumont in 1705 decked out his fairies in “loose Network Gowns, tied with a black sash about their middles, and within the Network appeared a Gown of a Golden Colour… they had white Linnen Caps on, with lace about three Fingers breadth, and over it they had a Black loose Network Hood” (A treatise of spirits).

To summarise the matter of preferred clothing colours, we may quote the words of John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset; in 1566 he was suspected of witchcraft and gave evidence. He stated “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black.  Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”

Oddities and exceptions

Lastly, some supernaturals, the hobgoblins and brownies, dispensed with clothing altogether, relying on their hairiness or coarse skin.  For them, the gift of clothes was the ultimate insult which drove them away from their chosen home.  You may recall Dobby the house elf of Hogwarts school, dressed in an old tea-towel.  Joanne Rowling knew her folklore.

Authors and artists aside, the folklore conception of fairy dress was of relatively simple garments. Susan Swapper of Rye told her 1610 witchcraft trial that the fairy woman she met dressed in a ‘green petticoat’ and plainness seems to be the norm- as in accounts of ‘long green robes.’  Sometimes something more elaborate is suggested; Angus Macleod of Harris in 1877 relayed his mother’s description of fairies dancing: “Bell-helmets of blue silk covered their heads, and garments of green satin covered their bodies and sandals of yellow membrane covered their feet” (Wentz p.116).

Fairy headwear

A particular identifying feature, indeed, was the fairy’s cap.  It is regularly mentioned, most often red, although blue and yellow are also recorded, and again allusions occur from the south-west through Wales and the north-west up into Scotland.  The shape is often pointed or conical- for example, a mid-twentieth century encounter near Perth was with a “wee green man with peakit boots and a cap like an old gramophone horn on his head.”  The same informant ten years later had a rather more prosaic sighting of two small men in bowler hats…

By the twentieth century, conceptions of the style of fairy clothing had shifted away from the traditional forms to something much more influenced by art- both high and popular.  Strains of whimsy and of floaty, flimsy ballerina type garments became pervasive, as typified perhaps by Cicely Mary Barker, whose fairies were, in the main, genteel young ladies, dressed perhaps for an Edwardian fancy dress party.

edwardian-fairies

Summary

To summarise, descriptions of fairy clothing tended to fall into one of three categories:

  • the otherness of the fairies was emphasised by the brightly coloured and elaborate nature of their attire;
  • likewise, their otherness was indicated by the fact that they wore clothes of an earlier era: to the Victorians they appeared dressed in the fashions of mid-eighteenth century Georgians; or,
  • by way of contrast, the very vicinity and intimate proximity of the ‘good neighbours’ was shown by the fact that they wore garments almost identical to those of human kind.

Lastly, readers will doubtless have observed how long-established one image is: the pixie or gnome dressed in his green jacket and red, pointy cap is deeply ingrained in the British imagination.

Further reading

See too my posting on the significance or symbolism of the different colours of fairy mentioned in folklore.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).

“Where should this music be? i’ the air or the earth?”- fairy pastimes

msn-fairy-orchestra

As has been discussed in previous posts, the residents of fairyland were conceived to spend a good deal of their time tormenting humans, either maliciously or mischievously, some in thievery from hapless mortals and a little in honest commerce.  The impression gained from folklore though, is that mostly the fairy life was one of leisure, with nothing to do but have fun.

Again and again the sources connect the fairies with pleasure and revelry, and in particular:

  • dancing appears to have been their chiefest delight and one of their commonest attributes (for example, see Macbeth, IV, 1- “Like elves and fairies in a ring.”). Most often this is said to take place by moonlight and usually in open places- in grassy fields, meadows, pastures and near megalithic monuments.  The fondness for moonlight is a widespread preference recorded in literature, including Milton in Comus- “Now to the moon in wavering morrice move…” (lines 115-117), Lyly, Fletcher and, of course, Shakespeare, who mentions ‘moonshine revels’ in both Midsummer Night’s Dream (II, 2) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (V, 5).   In Cornwall fairies are said to dance at their fairs, although again these are most likely to be held in open spaces (Wentz p.171).  The dances would invariably be in a circle, in one late nineteenth century case on the Isle of Skye being around a bonfire (see Briggs, Fairies in tradition p.20), and the inevitable consequence of this was the well-known ‘fairy rings’ on the grass.  This is noted by Prospero in The Tempest (V, 1) who invokes “Ye elves … that/ By moonshine do the green-sour ringlets make/ Whereof the ewe not bites.”  Many other writers also allude to the same habit and phenomenon, including Ben Jonson, Lyly, Milton, Brown, John Aubrey and Thomas Nashe.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins was told that the fairies prefer (reasonably enough) to dance in dry places, preferentially under oak trees; there they leave reddish circles- most often under the female oaks (p.106).  Humans might be lured to join these ‘wanton’ dances and would have great trouble escaping, as I have described before.

fairy-ring

  • “Most dainty music”- music naturally accompanied the dancing, both instrumental and vocal; for example Thomas Brown in The Shepherd’s pipe describes fairies dancing to piping in meadows or in fields of yellow box.  In Scotland the bagpipes appear to have been preferred. John Dunbar of Invereen told Wentz’ informants that the sidh were “awful for the bagpipes” and often were heard playing them (p.95).   Fairies are frequently associated with particular pipes and chanters in the Highlands (Wentz pp.86 & 111) and it is also notable that their musical skills might be bestowed upon fortunate humans (p.103).  Equally, it is said, several folk tunes are originally fairy airs, heard and memorised by attentive players. To human ears the fairy music was invariably found to be ‘soft and sweet’ and nearly irresistible- especially to the young (Rhys pp.53, 86, 96 & 111; Wentz p.159).   Throughout Shakespeare’s Tempest “heavenly music” is a central element to the enchantments used by Prospero and Ariel,  lending it a magical as well as pleasurable aspect.  Humans, it seems, are welcome to join in fairy songs (just as with dances) so long as they are polite and, possibly even more importantly, musical, so that their contribution is harmonious and positive.  Woe betide the poor vocalist: in one Scottish case a hump back who sang well and enhanced a song was rewarded by having his hump taken away;  a jealous imitator who tried to repeat this spoiled the rhyme and was punished by bestowal of the hump (Wentz p.92);
  •  feasting too went along with the the enjoyment of song and dance.  Banqueting, wine and ale are frequently alluded to (in the Cornish stories of Selena Moor and Miser on the Gump, for instance).  A Zennor girl came upon pixy ‘junketting’ in an orchard near Newlyn, Wentz was told (p.175).  In many of the instances when fairy hills are seen to open up it is to reveal a fine feast within (for example William of Newborough, Book I, c.28 & Keightley p.283).
  • riding provided the other major pastime.  The ‘fairy rade’ or procession features in a large number of stories, for example Allison Gross and Tam Lin.  These processions are described as being richly caparisoned and very stately.  Mounted fairies also liked to hunt, although these outings tend to be far noisier and wilder affairs.  We are never surely told what is was that the fairies preferred to chase, but we often hear of their abandoned gallops across the countryside with their hounds.
  • mischief might also be said to be a fairy entertainment.  The taunting of humans is a fixed fairy character trait and was a primary source of pleasure for several types of fairy- especially the pucks and hobgoblins, and this is exemplified by Thomas Haywood in his Hierarchie of the blessed angels (1636, p.574) when he describes how they enjoy gambolling at night on a household’s shelves and settles, making a noise with the pots and pans and waking up the sleeping inhabitants.

In all of the above, it will be noted, the fairies mirrored the activities of earthly royal courts and noble houses.  At the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, we are told that Oberon “doth keep his revels here tonight.”  Overall, in fact, the strong impression gained from a study of the accounts (both traditional and literary) is that the fairies’ time was mainly filled with pleasure and mischief, and that there was only a very a scanty ‘work ethic.’  This is echoed in a comment on the Anglesey fairies recorded by one of Evans Wentz’ interviewees.  The woman observed with some disapproval that “all the good they ever did was singing and dancing.”

1920s-fairies

‘When the fairies came,’ Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, 1888- 1960

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have return to fairy music and song in a later post.

Faery goats

The Goat and the Vine
The Goat and the Vine. Aesop ‘s Fables. 1933 edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

I could have chosen quite a number of beasts to discuss, as many wild and domesticated breeds have been seen as fairy animals, but I have a decades old affection for goats.  I’ve never yet owned or cared for one of the creatures, but I’ve always wanted to and I’ve not given up my aspirations yet!

There’s something about a goat (its inquisitive nature, its toughness, its cheekiness, its omnivorous taste for chewing anything- including your clothes-  and the way they sneeze on the pollen in meadows) that draws you and gives them a character that sheep wholly lack.  Our forebears appreciated this too and so goats have fairy associations all over the British Isles.

R Doyle, Girls combing goats beards

Richard (Dickie) Doyle, Girls combing goats’ beards.

Evidence

Whilst the association made between fairies and goats is to be encountered in folklore from Highland Scotland all the way down to West Cornwall (what we might call the ‘Celtic fringe’) some of the best evidence is from Wales, as set out in Sikes’ British Goblinschapter 4.

The bad-natured female fairies, the gwyllion, were closely linked with goats, which were themselves esteemed for their occult knowledge and powers.  The Tylwyth Teg were said to comb goats’ beards every Friday so as to make them presentable on Sunday (a curious notion that says more about Welsh religiosity than the faith of the fairies).  In the tale of Cadwaladr’s goat, Jenny the female goat turned out to be a fairy maiden in disguise, who led Cadwaladr to the court of the fairy goat king.

Keightley gives the Highland tale of the Tacksman of Auchriachan.  It is a story of fairy theft from the tacksman (tenant farmer).  He hears the fairies in their knoll planning their pilfering whilst he is far away from his home “in search of our allies, the goats.”

Symbolism

There may be a connection here with the devil; the horned goat is a well-known symbol of Satan.  It is notable, too, that in Highland Scotland, at least, there was a belief (reported by some of Evans Wentz’ informants) that the origin of fairies was as fallen angels whose descent ended on the earth surface rather than in hell.  Additionally, in western symbolism the goat represents lust and lubricity, so that it may be a trope for fairy wantonness.  The horns might also denote supernatural power (see J. C. Cooper, An illustrated encyclopaedia of traditional symbols, Thames & Hudson).

Whatever the exact nature of the goat’s supernatural affinities, I decided to make use of them in my children’s story, The Derrick.  Set in Dorset, there is a strong tradition in Britain, and in the South-West of England in particular, of being ‘pixy-led’ astray by either the Will of the Wisp or by mischievous pixies. Turning an item of clothing inside out is often the only remedy to find your right way home again.  In my story the main characters. Thom and his brother, are led astray one evening by faery goats.  They are the first sign that the farm where the boys are spending their holiday is under the spell of faery.

arthurrackham-goats

Arthur Rackham, The wolf and the seven kids.

“Away with the fairies”-fairy illness and blight

 

bf

Brian Froud, a ‘bad faery’

“Be thee a spirit of health or goblin damned,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell…” Hamlet, Act I, scene 4.

Our forebears had to have some way of explaining sudden illness and death, or the birth of a child which gradually was revealed to have mental disabilities.  The cause ascribed for these afflictions, before the development of medical science, was the malign intervention of supernatural beings.  It was the fairies that made people (and their livestock) ill; the benefit of this explanation was that it gave an understanding of an otherwise inexplicable malady and pointed to a solution- the propitiation of the ‘good folk.’

Fairy injuries

It is possible to identify a range of means by which injury was believed to be inflicted:

  • pinching– the slovenly housewife or maid who failed to do her chores and keep the home clean would be punished by the pixies pinching and taunting her; for example in Nimphidia Drayton notes of the house elves that “These make our Girles their sluttery rue/ By pinching them both blacke and blew.”   Hence the source of bruises and cramps might be attributed- in a highly judgmental way!  In Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor the elves are commanded to “pinch the maids as blue as bilberry” wherever fires unraked or hearths unswept were found-“Our radiant Queen hates sluts and sluttery.”  In the same play pinching is the fate to be meted out to Falstaff when he transgresses on the pretended fairy concourse (Act IV scene 3 & V scene 5).
  • jostling and bumping– in a slightly more aggressive version of the former, a person who strayed into fairy precincts or who violated their privacy might be pushed and misused in this manner, perhaps leading to at least partial paralysis.  This was the fate of a farmer who invaded the fairy market on the Blackdown Hills and was left lamed on one side for the remainder of his life (Keightley, Fairy Mythologypp.294-5);
  • a fairy blast or whirlwind might paralyse or be fatal;
  • wasting sickness– afflictions such as consumption might be ascribed to the sufferer being ‘away with the fairies.’ Instead of sleeping in his or her bed, at night the victim would in fact be dancing with the fairies.  This ceaseless energetic activity sapped the strength and led to the person’s decline and death.  It was also believed that sadness at being parted from the fairies during the daytime contributed to the disease’s progress and malignancy.  John Aubrey recorded this belief whilst the Reverend Robert Kirk  describes a woman whom he personally met who, after her encounter with the fairies, was “prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly ever seen to laugh” (Secret Commonwealth of Elves and Fairies section 15);
  • abduction by means of dancing in fairy rings was a very common explanation of sudden disappearance.  The victim might be lost for ever, might be danced to death (as just described) or might return after a lapse of time (see later).  If the cause of the disappearance was deduced, the person could be rescued from the fairy ring on the anniversary of their disappearance, perhaps by force or by touching with iron;
  • physical assault– a human might be shot with fairy arrows, resulting in total or partial paralysis and/ or death.  These ‘elf bolts’ were the neolithic flint arrow heads turned up by cultivation, thereby giving context to otherwise mysterious artifacts.  Robert Kirk remarked on the use of flint darts against livestock in the Highlands: the cattle would be injured internally without there being any outward sign of a wound, the blow by these elf bolts having “something of the Nature of Thunderbolt subtilty” (s.8).  The resultant paralysis might be used to extract the “purest substance” of the beast for the fairies’ consumption, or might help abduct an individual, as was also the case with the next form of assault-
  • ‘fairy stroke’– the modern ‘stroke’ was then interpreted as the magical wounding of a person.  Rather than attacking with darts, a curse or spell inflicted epilepsy or paralysis and, once again, facilitated the abduction of the victim’s soul.  Kirk described how the fairies would smite “without Paine, as with a Puff of Wind” (s.4);
  • changelings– the specific theft of a human baby and its replacement by an aged elf or a defective fairy infant was perceived to be a very common problem; children were especially vulnerable in the time before they were baptised and variety of protective measures were deployed.  These included bindweed or iron around the cradle, the burning of leather in the room or the administering to the baby of either milk from a cow grazed on pearl-wort or water in which had been steeped cinders from a fire over which the child had been passed (Wentz, Fairy faith in the Celtic countriespp.87 & 91).  If the newborn was discovered to be mentally disabled or defective, this was put down not to congenital or perinatal problems but to a supernatural intervention: the real child had been abducted and an ‘oaf’ (an elf) left in its place (the ‘ouphs’ of Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor are derived from the same source).  The parents, once the presence of a changeling had been realised, had to expose the substitute.  If it was an aged fairy, some trick would be performed to get it to reveal itself, such as brewing beer in an egg shell, which would provoke its curiosity.  Salt might be burned as a magical means of repelling it.  If these attempts did not succeed and an infant elf was still suspected, far worse treatment could follow, typically placing the baby on a shovel over the fire (or at least heating the shovel in its presence)- but throwing the child in a river, ducking it in cold water daily, neglecting its needs, throwing pieces of iron at it or, lastly, placing it outside at night or on the beach as the tide came in, might also be tried.  The least objectionable method was the Cornish use of a four leaf clover to recover the abducted baby (Wentz pp.111, 146, 171 & 177).  The idea was that the changeling’s cries would summon the fairy parents who would save their child and return the stolen human infant.  Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880, c.5) discusses the Welsh tradition of the plentyn newid (the new child) and remarks disapprovingly upon the cruelties from time to time inflicted as a result of this changeling belief.  Sometimes, rather than a living being, a ‘stock’ was substituted- a log fashioned in the likeness of the missing person who was, in actuality, ‘away with the fairies.’  This motionless, speechless form (a “a lingering voracious Image” in Kirk’s words) was left at the home in bed to act as a cover for the fact that the man or woman had been taken to fairyland for some purpose- perhaps as a midwife or wet nurse to a fairy mother.  Some readers will recall that in Susanna Clark’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a bog-oak likeness is left in place of Lady Emma Pole who is abducted to dance at the fairy balls.

Finally, it should be noted that a number of other illnesses might also be blamed on fairies, including painful deformities, impetigo, childlessness and certain cattle pests.  For example in the Highlands the spinal paralysis called marcadh sidh was believed to be engendered by fairies riding the livestock at night; indeed in Wales almost any livestock complaint was ascribed to the tylwyth teg (Wentz pp.86, 144 & 158).  It seems that in the late middle ages, a time of high infant mortality, ‘feyry’ was synonymous with childhood illness (see Keith Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, 1971, p.217).

Time in faery

The passage of time in fairyland was different to that experienced on the earth. Abductees might find, for example, that:

  • a few minutes with the fairies were in truth hours away from their friends- five minutes might turn out to be a year and a day and two hours two generations;
  • a night was equivalent to one year, seven years, twenty years or many generations;
  • a day in faery was in fact, on earth, a a year and a day or even fifty years.

A long absence in fairyland brought many dangers:

  • they might suffer the grief of finding parents deceased and former lovers married in their absence;
  • they might perish as soon as human food passed their lips; or,
  • they might crumble way to dust as soon as they touched a mortal.

These perils emphasise the risks of being ‘away with the fairies’ and how very different fairyland can be to the world of mortal men.  That said, there is no consistency in the stories; there is no standard equivalent between earth time and fairy time and, for some, the time difference did not apply.  Midwives could attend upon fairy mothers and return home the same evening; others who had friendly dealings with the fairy court could come and go at will, just as if they were visiting human friends in their homes.

In conclusion, in the absence of effective medical treatments, earlier generations had little to protect themselves from, or as remedies against, these conditions.  What they did have available were the desperate measures of child abuse described above, traditional herbal medicines and religion.  The Reverend Kirk somewhat scathingly observed how congregations would swell periodically as local people attended church to “sene or hallow themselves, their Corns and Cattell, from the Shots and Stealth of these wandering Tribes.”  In confirmation of this statement, suspected witch John Walsh told his inquisitors in 1566 that fairies only had power over those who lacked religious faith (see Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, p.724).  The Reverend Kirk also observed that he local country folk called the fairies Sleagh Maith (the Good People), in a further attempt “to prevent the Dint of their ill Attempts” and to deflect “these Arrows that fly in the Dark” (Kirk section 2 and see my previous posting ‘They who must not be named‘). Resort might also be made to local ‘cunning’ folk for a cure.  Just as fairies could cause illness, it was thought that they could grant healing powers to some.  There are recorded witchcraft cases in which the accused ascribed their abilities to such supernatural aid (see Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic, p.317).

Our transition to the modern, rational world has deprived us of many facets of our ancestors’ lives- their intimate knowledge or animals and plants and their intense sense of community, for example- but those losses are balanced in some measure by an improved appreciation of the workings of nature and of history.  Those puzzling flint arrow heads which so puzzled our forebears are now instantly assessed as ‘Stone Age’ by most people and placed easily within a geological timescale of millennia, divesting them of much of their mystery- if not their fascination.  When a serving girl working for Alexander Carmichael felt a flint dart fly past her as she crossed the farmyard at night in the 1900s, her instinct was instantly blamed the nefarious sidh- even when naughty boys might have been a better explanation (see Wentz p.88)!

Lastly, the degree to which illness and death might be ascribed to fairies in considerable measure related to the popular assessment of fairy temperament.  If they were seen as preternaturally ill-disposed towards humankind, almost anything might be blamed upon them.  I will return to the issue of fairy character in a later posting.

Want to know more?

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  See too my more recent post on the psychological consequences of fairy abduction.

The White Goddess & the Elder Queen

Welcome to British Fairies, my blog devoted to the fairy folk of the British Isles.  The philosophy here is simple: to celebrate and investigate the fairies of England, Cornwall, Wales and Scotland (with some reference too to the Isle of Man).  I’ll stick strictly to this rule, and not dilute or confuse the evidence with examples from Ireland- or any where else (wherever possible).  There’s plenty of evidence to discuss from Britain alone, and much of it is underused or little known.

Fairies have long been a fascination of mine and, over the last few years, a subject upon which I have focused in detail.  I’m constantly researching and writing about our Good Neighbours: see the list of my publications on my separate books page.

Background

As a young man living in Guildford in 1984, I purchased a copy of the new edition of  The White Goddess by Robert Graves.  I was already interested in fairy-lore, in Celtic mythology and folk tales, in early British pagan beliefs and in the complex web of myth and story found in the Arthurian legends and in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

graves

Graves’ book immediately caught my imagination.  I know now that by academics it is seen as a work of fiction,  but the poetic blend of literature, archaeology and belief sparked my imagination, partly because it confirmed to me themes that already had a powerful resonance.  I was spending many hours walking alone of the Surrey Downs, and the infusing with myth and magic of ordinary landscape features such as elder trees and hawthorns was inspiring and exciting.  The white blossom of these two bushes, the strong, cloying scent, and (most particularly) the link between the elder and fairy lore made a lasting impression upon me.  In due course I came to realise the powerful links that have always existed between fairies and plants–  with certain trees and flowers having particularly strong associations.

Elder trees

I had read in Katherine Briggs’ book, A dictionary of fairies, about the ‘old lady of the elder tree.’  The lady demands respect: if you wish to take wood from the tree, you must ask permission; if you fail to do so, misfortune will befall you- your cattle may die and your barn burn down.  For me this traditional figure transmuted into ‘our lady of the elder tree’, the guardian female spirit of the summer hedgerows.  The magical status of the elder, the Celtic scawen, was further augmented by Graves’ descriptions of the elder in the Celtic calendar and I began to weave my own personal myth around this archetypal British fairy tree.

elder queen

Arthur Rackham, The elder mother.

It is notable that in Denmark there are similar tales told of the hyldre folk (the hidden people).  They too are linked to the elder tree (hylde).  The shrub is believed to be magical and inhabited by an elder mother or woman; it is essential to ask her leave before taking any branches.  Most dangerous of all, though, are the elle (elf) maids who dance in the moonlight near the elder thickets.  They have beautiful faces and voices and will lure young men to dance with them.  However, their bodies are hollow behind and they will dance the youths to death.  Beware these wood nymphs (hyldre)!  For more detail see Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, p.78 et seq, especially, p.93.

For me, this thinking culminated in my 2015 book, The elder queenin which the elder tree is intimately linked with female fairy power and allure.  The supernatural use of humans for the satisfaction of their own needs, the unattainability and inscrutability of fairy thought and the vital link between the faery realm and the health of the rural environment all came together in this story.  Visit Amazon for details of the book and how to purchase!  I hope you enjoy it!

elder queen

Further reading

For a critical analysis of Graves’ White goddess, and a discussion of just how much he may have invented, a good start is a posting on Morgan Daimler’s blog discussing Graves’ influence on modern paganism.

See a list of my own faery publications here.