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).

Fairy Godmothers- the folklore evidence

fairies-bless-the-newborn-child-by-Estella-Canziani
Estella Canziani, Fairies Bless the New Born Child

I recently read an academic article which suggested that the idea of the fairy godmother, so prevalent is our contemporary views of Faery, was a relatively recent introduction to existing tradition, something derived from the Brothers Grimm and from stories like Pinocchio and Cinderella, and since reinforced by popular films, rather than it being a long-standing element of folklore belief.  In this posting I want to challenge that idea and to argue instead that it is one of the oldest recognised aspects of faery behaviour.

Medieval Romance

One of the pastimes or habits of medieval faeries was to either bless or torment humans. According to the historian Layamon, for example, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (this is, by far, our earliest faery godmother account, as the writer was born around 1200).  In the 13th century French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, too, there is a reference to a healing horn that’s presented to faery king Oberon by four faery ‘godmothers.’  Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly.

The fourteenth century romance of Ogier the Dane mixes fairy material with the ‘Matter of Britain,’ the stories of King Arthur and the exploits of the knights of the Round Table.  At his birth, Ogier is endowed with gifts and qualities by six fairy women; the last of these, Morgana, declares “I claim you as my own.  You shall not die until you have visited me in Avalon.”  After many adventures serving King Charlemagne, Ogier is shipwrecked on a strange island that turns out to be Morgana’s realm.  He falls under her seductive spell and passes a hundred years in bliss, not ageing a day, until by accident he recovers his memory and wishes to return to France.  On doing so, Ogier finds a new king, Hugh Capet, on the throne, whilst the language spoken has changed during his long absence.  After more noble deeds, Morgana reclaims Ogier for herself and takes him back to Avalon- where he is still alive today, alongside King Arthur.

Jessie wilcox smith cinderella
Jessie Wilcox-Smith, Cinderella

Faery Gifts

Amongst the christening gifts made by fairies is very famous song indeed of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye.  This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman.  It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life.  Each verse of the song had a different tune.  For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the latest baby heir.

Warwick Goble This was the image I used on our "welcome baby" cards for my little one - MAGIC!
Warwick Goble, illustration in Dora Owen, The Book of Fairy Poetry, 1920

In Tudor times the belief still lingered that some children might be endowed with talents and good fortune at their birth, as in these lines by John Milton (At a Vacation Exercise in the Colledge):

“Good luck befriend thee Son; for at thy birth,

The Faiery Ladies daunc’t upon the hearth;

Thy drowsie Nurse hath sworn she did them spie

Come tripping to the Room where thou didst lie;

And sweetly singing round thy Bed,

Strew all their blessings on thy sleeping Head…”

jessie-willcox-smith-godmothers
Jessie Wilcox-Smith, The Fairy Godmother

These conceptions of course persist for modern readers in the fixed character of the ‘fairy godmother,’ but in Tudor and Stuart times it seems that the favour of the fairy kingdom more generally was envisaged by Ben Jonson (The Silent Woman, Act V, scene 1):

“To what strange fortune, friend, some men are born…

Surely, when thou wert young,

The fairies dandled thee.”

In Victorian verse the idea of fairy godmothers and of three wishes was greatly elaborated, most notably with mermaids, thereby embedding it in our consciousness.  See for example, The Fairy Gift, The Fairy and the Three Wishes & The Farmer and the Magic Ring, all by John Godfrey Saxe, The Fairy’s Gift, Margaret Elizabeth Munson Sangster, in Poems of the Household (1893), 242 and Wise Sarah & The Elf, Elizabeth Coatsworth.  Generally, see my Victorian Fairy Verse.

weber fairy gm
Sarah Stilwell Weber, Fairy Godmother

 

 

“Little they slept that night”- fairy love and fairy passion

tamlaine
James Herbert MacNair, Tamlaine, 1905Enter a caption

I return to a subject that has an abiding fashion for many visitors to the blog- and apparently me too: fairy sexuality and sensuality.

Fae lovers

From the very earliest times, it seems, the idea of Faery was synonymous with irresistible beauty.  Elf-women were called ‘shining’ by the Anglo-Saxons (aelfsceone) and this idea by no means ended with the arrival of the Normans and of the fairy women of romance.  English writer Layamon in his history of Britain, The Brut, described the queen of Avalon, Argante, as the fairest of all maidens,  “alven swithe sceone” (an elf most fair).  The concept of radiant beauty persisted: the fairy queen who met Thomas the Rhymer at Huntlie bank was “a ladye bright” and, as late as Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, the faes’ royal lady is still “radiant” (Act V, scene 5).

Great beauty can provoke great passion, of course, and for many writers this response was amplified when a fairy lover was involved.  Sir Launfal is introduced to fairy lady Dame Tryamour whom he finds, stretched out in the heat with her clothes unfastened to her waist.  Lying on a bed of purple linen, “that lefsom lemede bright” (the lovely one gleamed).  She greets Launfal as her darling and he kisses her and sits beside her.  After a meal they go to bed immediately and “for play, litell they slepte that night.”

The fairy princess and her consort waste no time, evidently- and this looks to be a Faery trait.  In Spenser’s Faery Queen Prince Arthur, much like Sir Launfal, meets a fairy queen whilst he’s resting in a forest.  “Her dainty limbes full softly down did lay,” after which he was ravished by the delight that “she to me delivered all that night.” (Book I, canto IX, stanza 14).

It’s not solely fairy women who are passionate and impetuous.  In the Scottish ballad of Tamlane, the male hero (who is admittedly a human boy stolen away to fairyland by its queen) seems just as ardent.  He meets his lover Janet by a well and, taking her by the hand, leads her behind some nearby rose bushes so that “The green leaves were in between… What they did, I cannot say- [but] she ne’er returned a maid.”

As the romance of Sir Launfal has already indicated, fairy females can have a powerful effect on their human partners- at least in the minds of (male) medieval poets.  This is explicit in the story of Thomas of Erceldoune, which is dated to around 1425.  Thomas meets the fairy queen, another ‘lady shining bright’, and is so overcome with desire for her that “seven times he lay by her.”  Eventually she has literally to push him off, protesting “Man, you like your play… let me be!”

The lhiannan shee

Such are the aphrodisiac qualities of the fairy lover.  These feats are impressive (as well as improbable, perhaps) but there can be a downside to such consuming passions.  This is demonstrated by the leannan-shee of Celtic fairylore, whose activities were reported as a continuing menace even into Victorian times, though by then they were much rarer.  For example, describing Perthshire in 1810, one writer complained how:

“in our Highlands there be many fair ladies of this aerial order, which do often tryst with amorous youths, in the quality of succubi, or lightsome paramours or strumpets, called lean-nan-sith.” (Graham, Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery, p.275)

His words echo those of Reverend Kirk who, around 150 years earlier, had condemned the “abominable” goings on between fairies and humans.  His disapproval was probably not limited to the extra-marital sex.  Generally, relationships with supernaturals are difficult or perilous, for the simple reason that they span dimensions: for instance, marriages between men and mermaids are often short lived whilst men taken by mermaids almost invariably drown.

Visits by both male and female fairy lovers were thought once to have been common, and even in living memory of the late 19th century folklore collectors, there was a shoemaker in Tomantoul who claimed a leannan sith partner.  On the Isle of Man, the fairy lover, the lhiannan shee, was a very strong tradition.  They were believed to generally come at night, noiselessly, perhaps in the guise of a man’s wife, and they often haunted wells and pools.  They make the first advance and to reply to them is dangerous, for they will then attach themselves to a man and to haunt him constantly, whilst remaining invisible and inaudible to everyone else.  In at least one Manx case a lhiannan shee was inherited from a deceased brother.   In another, reported by Evans Wentz, a man met a strange woman at a dance and made the mistake of wiping the sweat from his face on part of her dress.  This created some connection between then and thereafter she would appear beside his bed at night.  Curiously, the only way of getting rid of her was to throw an unbleached linen sheet over the two: perhaps the pure, fresh state was significant?

Men would separate themselves from their family and friends to be with these fae lovers, who would visit them nightly and slowly exhaust them- both physically and mentally.  Obedience to the fairy mistress might be enforced by violence too- though sometimes the hapless human may have wondered whether he was being punished for daring to presume to love a fay or for neglecting or trying to escape her.  Eventually the leannan-shee would become an intolerable burden to their chosen partner and the men were frequently desperate to escape them, even emigrating to the other side of the world in an attempt to shake them off.  These efforts tended to fail- but oddly, whilst the fairy women appear to be undefeated by intervening oceans, at the same time they can’t cross streams.

As a general statement, fairy lovers are said to ruin their partners in body and soul.  Worse still, in one notorious case the fairy women were said to have bewitched all the males of the Isle of Man and to have lured everyone into the sea.  The male Manx  equivalents were generally seen as being equally dangerous, carrying women off forever.  Nonetheless, in the Scottish Highlands the gille sith (fairy boy) was renowned as a loving and attentive partner.

We should also add that fairy lovers can be the source of great advantage to their partners.  They can bring good luck and supernatural protection, bestow the skill of healing with herbs and grant the ability to foresee the future.  They can also assist their paramours with magical advice: an illustration is found in the tale of ‘the first MacIntyre.’  He was thrown out by his elder brother, who told him to leave the family farm taking only one white cow- and as many others as might follow her.  The younger brother had a fairy lover who gave him wise counsel in times of need.  She recommended that he pick up a sheaf of corn and then call the white cow.  When he did as instructed, most of the rest of the herd came too.

I’ll leave you with some of the verses of Irish poet Thomas Boyd’s poem The Leanan Sidhe (The fairy mistress) which capture many aspects of this legend:

“Where is thy lovely perilous abode?
In what strange phantom-land
Glimmer the fairy turrets whereto rode
The ill-starred poet band? …

And there … Trembling, behold thee lone,
Now weaving in slow dance an awful spell,
Now still upon thy throne?

Whether he sees thee thus, or in his dreams,
Thy light makes all lights dim;
An aching solitude from henceforth seems
The world of men to him.”

 

 

 

Fairy kings of Britain

paton msnd

Joseph Noel Paton, Oberon & Titania

In a previous posting I questioned the need for faery royalty, but here I accept the existence of the institution (in literature at least) and discuss some individual kings.

“Jealous Oberon”

Most readers will be familiar with the name of Oberon as the king of Faerie.  Shakespeare is responsible for this, but he did not invent the name.  Rather he borrowed it from the medieval French romance Huon of Bordeaux.  In that story Oberon / Auberon appears as a magical fairy king.  Auberon is a french name, an affectionate diminutive form of Aubert, which in turn is derived the Frankish/ Germanic Alberic (in Anglo-Saxon Aelfric), which means no more than ‘elf rule.’  In other words, this is not really a name at all, it’s just a job title- ‘King of the Elves.’

Oberon is now accepted as the archetypal fairy king and, it’s true, he clearly has Old English roots, but he’s come to us by way of literature and is not really a true folklore figure.  For the British, though, this doesn’t matter because they’ve had their own fairy king all along, whose name is Arthur.

King-Arthur-Winchester-Round-Table-closeup-WEB

“In this world he changed his life”

King Arthur long ago ceased to be merely a Dark Age hero or monarch of the Round Table: he was transformed into a supernatural being and a resident of Faery.

After Arthur was mortally wounded fighting his nephew Mordred he was carried away to be healed by the fay maidens Morgan and Nimue.  From this myth of fairy salvation, a closer link to fairy nature evolved.  Layamon, in his Brut of around 1190, recorded that:

“The British believe yet that he is alive,

And dwells in Avalon with the fairest of all the elves.”

Holinshed, in 1578, told much the same story.  People believed that “King Arthur was not dead, but carried away by the fairies into some pleasant place…” (Chronicles, Book V, c.14).  In the romance of Huon of Bordeaux Arthur even succeeds King Oberon to the fairy throne.

Lydgate in the fifteenth century developed the situation even further, though, and has the fairy king return to rule us (The fall of princes, Book VIII, c.24):

“He is a king y-crowned in Faërie,

With his sceptre and pall, and with his regalty,

Shalle resort, as lord and sovereigne,

Out of Faërie and reign in Bretaine,

And repair again the oulde Rounde table.”

By being taken to Faery, Arthur (perhaps by consuming the food and drink there) has become immortal himself and now awaits the call to return to save his former kingdom.

In fact, fairy glamour now envelopes him completely.  According to the romance Brut de la Montaigne, all fairy haunted places belong to Arthur (Verses XXX & XXXI), whilst in Gerbert’s Romance of Percival, the ‘siege perilous’ at the Round Table was bestowed upon Arthur by “la fée de la roche menor” (the fairy of the menhir).  Many of his knights too, such as Gawain and Lancelot, have fairy origins: Lancelot, for example, is raised by the mere maid the Lady of the Lake.  Moreover, the time of Arthur’s rule came to be seen as one especially favourable to the fairy presence in Britain, during which, far and wide, they danced openly on heaths and greens (e.g. John Dryden, The wife of Bath- her tale; Thomas Parnell (1679-1718), A fairy tale).

The conjunction of fairy stories and Arthurian myths remains compelling to us now because it combines magic and mystery along with a promise of redemption and restoration.  The once and future king will return from Faery to assist us in our greatest struggle and to ensure our salvation.

Other contenders?

I’ll close with a brief mention of one or two other candidates for the throne.   I have before mentioned Welsh fairy king Gwyn ap Nudd, who was said to hold court under Glastonbury Tor and who ruled over the tylwyth teg.  According to the Welsh Triads, Gwyn has great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and can predict the future from them.

Very much less well known is the mysterious King Eveling of Ravenglass in Cumbria.  He was said to hold court at Lyon’s Yards, the ruined Roman bath-house that stands near the small seaside town, but other than that little is known of him.  This fairy king is an intriguing figure because of his mythological connections: his name may very well be connected to Avalloc, putative ruler of the island of Avalon; both have some connection to Evelake, King of Sarras, found in the later French romances of Arthur.  He was, then, a significant figure at one time, but almost all details of him have been lost, in addition to which both he and Gwyn have been eclipsed first by Arthur and then by Oberon.

gwynapnudd

Gwyn ap Nudd by Thalia Took

Further Reading

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my books Famous Fairies and Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

Fairy healers? Some further thoughts on Ronald Hutton’s ‘The witch.’

High_fairy_healer_mR4

High Fairy Healer, from the card game Rage of Bahamut

In his new book, The witch, Ronald Hutton argues for a close link between local cunning folk (what he prefers to call ‘service magicians’ who assist their local communities) and the fairies, who frequently taught these individuals their healing powers.  He cites numerous examples, most of witch come from Scottish witch trials (there is only a handful of English examples).

The evidence of fairy healing

As I have mentioned when discussing  witches and fairies, I am troubled by the fact that this evidence is from one very unique source or environment.  What is the folklore evidence of fairy healing other than that linked to witchcraft?  There seems to be very little.  I can think of only a handful of instances even remotely resembling what the accused healers described:

  • in Layamon’s Brut the elf queen Argante takes the wounded Arthur to Avalon to heal him- and the same history describes how elves bestowed upon Arthur the gifts of good luck and other qualities at his birth (acting as the original fairy god-mothers);
  • there are a couple of stories from Shetland of the healing abilities of the trows.  One relates an incident when they were seen treating a jaundiced trow infant by pouring water over it- a human stole the bowl used and was able then to cure jaundice in humans.  In another story ointment is stolen from the trows which proves efficacious for any human injury.  What is particularly notable about these accounts is that they are almost unique in describing fairies succumbing to illnesses and curing themselves;
  • the Welsh tale of the fairy wife of Llyn y Fan Fach follows the usual course of such tales.  The gwrag annwn is persuaded to marry a human male, but eventually he violates the conditions of their betrothal and she abandons him.  However, in this particular instance, she maintains regular contact with her three sons, to whom she teaches healing skills.  They became  the renowned physicians of Myddfai;
  • in the Cornish story of the old man of Cury, the hero of the title rescues a mermaid stranded by the tide.  In gratitude for carrying her back to the sea, the mermaid offers to give him any three things he cares to request.  He asked, not for wealth, but for the abilities to charm away sickness, to break the spells of witchcraft, and to discover thieves and restore stolen property;
  • in the ballad of The son of the knight of green vesture a cow herd is visited by a fairy maid and is offered various magical objects, each in exchange for a cow. He swaps one of his kine for a jewel that heals sores;
  • as I have discussed when examining  gifts from the fairies, there are a few sites around Britain which are associated with fairies and healing- wells and standing stones and such like.  For example, the ‘Hob Hole’ on the North Yorkshire coast was said to be inhabited by a ‘hob’ who could cure whooping cough if asked; the fairies’ ‘dripping cave’ at Craig-a-Chowie in Ross-shire could cure deafness.  A particularly interesting story attaches to the Fairies Well near Blackpool (from Spence, The fairy tradition in Britain, p.156).  The water of the well was known locally to be good for the treatment of weak eyes.  A mother whose daughter’s eyesight seemed to be failing went to the well to fill a bottle.  There she met a small green man who gave her a box of ointment to apply to the child.  Before treating her daughter, the mother put some of the salve on her own eye, without ill-effect.  She therefore applied it to the girl, who was cured.  So far, this is a happy tale of a benevolent fairy bestowing his healing power out of pure goodwill.  However, there is a sequel.  Some time later, the mother saw the same little man at the market.  She thanked him for the cure; he was angry and demanded to know with which eye she saw him.  She was promptly blinded, as happens in all such stories of midwives and wet nurses.  It appears, therefore, that her offence was to apply the ointment to anyone but the person for whom it was intended;
  • in the French romance, Huon of Bordeaux, which was only translated in English in the later sixteenth century, there is a reference to a healing horn given to fairy king Oberon by four fairy ‘godmothers.’  Hearing a blast upon it will make the sickest man whole and sound instantly; and,
  • much later Scottish sources describe the sidh folk giving certain craft and musical skills to favoured humans (see Evans-Wentz for the examples of this).

And that’s pretty much it.  There is some evidence of magical healing powers, therefore, but next to none of passing on these abilities to humans.  If we take out the literary instances, we have a very sparse list indeed: we are left with the ointment from Blackpool, the Cornish tale concerning a mermaid rather than a fairy and the story of the fairy mother teaching her children at Myddfai (all of which have unique elements to them) along with the examples of healing at wells and caves (none of which contain any suggestion that the resident sprite ever showed any inclination to pass on its knowledge of cures). Usually, fairies are associated with harming humans, with blighting livestock and with bringing ill-fortune (see too chapter 20 of my British fairies).

The witch trials

The other notable feature of the witch cases is that the healing power claimed to have been acquired from the fairies was frequently specifically an ability to cure fairy blights. Unlike the range of ills cured by fairy wells and such like, the fairies only passed on remedies to harm caused by their own actions.  This is odd, not to say traitorous, behaviour on the fairies’ part.  Once again it makes me suncomfortable about these claims.  Why then was it that the suspect witches mentioned this beneficial gift?

There are 23 cases of witchcraft listed by Hutton.  Of these half involve claims by the healers of fairy teaching.  He notes too that about 80% of the defendants are women.  He speculates whether women were more likely to identify with supernatural helpers, whether they were more likely to be taken to court or whether they were most likely to be local magicians.  We cannot answer these questions, sadly.  It is notable that these cases peaked in the early modern period and were in decline by the eighteenth century, by which time magicians were believed to learn not from the fairies but from books and from the masters.

There were incontestably ‘wise wives’ in Scotland, dynion hysbys in Wales and ‘cunning folk’ in England who acted generally as healers within their communities and who sometimes offered to treat those who had been ‘blasted’ or blighted by the fairies (or whose livestock had).  It is far from apparent to what extent these individuals claimed to have acquired their abilities or treatments as the result of some special compact with ‘the good neighbours.’

Looking at the cases themselves, it is striking that, as well as claiming supernaturally derived knowledge, the alleged witches also often gave accounts of being visited in their homes by fairies (sometimes even by the fairy queen herself) or, alternatively, they might visit the fairies under their hills.  These contacts often occurred at night and they not infrequently led to long term sexual relationships.  In these regular and deliberate contacts, the witchcraft suspects were unusually honoured.  The witch cases may be abnormal because of the insistence by the human partner upon these regular and intimate contacts over an extended period.  I wonder, in fact, if this may indicate something significant about this handful of defendants.

Fairy healing- faith or fear?

It seems to me that there may be two explanations for the statements made by the suspected witches.  The first may be that there was something distinctive about the individual claimants themselves.  They have departed from fairy-lore conventions in making themselves ‘stars of the show’ by claiming these special associations.  Might they have ended up under arrest and accused by their neighbours because they had a tendency to boast, even because they had some sort of mental health problem that attracted attention in their villages and small towns?  Claims of fairy favour and love might equally have been a way of claiming some sort of status in their communities and, as noted, most of the accused were women who may well have felt economically and socially disadvantaged within the strictures of a strictly Presbyterian, hierarchical and patriarchal society.

As stated, these cases are at odds with the overall trend of recorded fairy belief, which ought to make us cautious about the claims.  Given that our ‘good neighbours’ were known for their proclivity for afflicting humans, it was presumably not a great leap of imagination to propose that, with the proper propitiations and knowledge, the fairies could help take off those curses.  It is interesting, too, that only a few ventured to lay claim to such powers; they constitute a minority of a minority, from whose accounts it may not be safe to conclude that it was widely believed that fairies passed on whatever medical skills they possessed to humankind.

The explanation outlined in the last couple of paragraphs may at least explain some of the elaboration in these accounts.  My second proposed explanation for the claims to fairy-taught powers is a great deal simpler and may be far more probable.  Many of the cures used by these healers (drinking water in which ‘elf-arrows’ had been immersed, magic circles, use of metal blades) were very far from new; they can be traced right back to Anglo-Saxon cures for elf afflictions.  They appear therefore to be traditional cures handed down over generations.  If this is correct, the accused witches plainly learned their craft from someone else- a relative or skilled teacher.  Alleging that the fairies taught them their knowledge protected the real, living sources of their remedies.   Once they were in the hands of the authorities, the accused probably realised that their prospects of acquittal were limited; what could be more understandable then than to try to protect family members and others from the same fate?  The fairies were never going to be arrested and burned.  This may be a far better explanation of these anomalous claims.

Further reading

I still highly recommend The Witch for its survey of witch lore and fairy lore over the last millennium.  I have returned to the theme of fairy cures in a much later post, looking at the actual plants and practices used.

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