In Morgan Daimler’s latest book, A New Dictionary of Fairy- A 21st Century Exploration of Celtic and Related Western European Fairies, she remarks that “Fairy is a very feudal system… everything is tied together with debts and obligations and what’s owed to who.” (p.120) This set me thinking once again about fairy monarchy and how exactly their society is organised, something I’ve tackled before in several postings.
The human societies of the High Middle Ages were, indeed, feudal, in that land was granted in return for services within a rigidly hierarchical and monarchic social structure, from the king down to the lowliest knight. The system was pyramidal, with the ruler overseeing a multitude of tenants and subtenants across each realm.
How closely does Faery resemble this? We know of fairy kings and queens, obviously, and we know too of the importance of promises and obligations in fairy relationships. However- so far as we know- land, and rights over it, form no part of fairy social dynamics and the fairy hierarchy seems to be very flat- perhaps no more than two levels, comprising the monarch and subjects.
So far as we can tell, British fairy monarchs reigned over no highly structured nation nor over any court in which precedence or rank dominated. Fairy kings and queens were remarkably free of airs and graces. They undertook the most menial chores for themselves- so, for example, the elf king in the balladSir Cawline fights his own duels and does not rely on a champion. These kings and queens were not averse to entering sexual relationships with the humblest of humans, either. Margaret Alexander, from Livingston in Scotland, told her 1647 witchcraft trial that the fairy king had taken her as his partner and, even, “laye with her upone the brige” at Linton. Al fresco sex in the highway with a human commoner is about as far from regal as we can imagine.
Sometimes, intermediaries with the human world might be employed, as was the case with Thom Reid who communicated with Bessie Dunlop on behalf of the fairy queen, but any more elaborate organisation than this seems to have been absent. The only exception to this statement is the system of multiple ‘elphin courts’ that’s mentioned in some versions of the ballad of Tam Lin (Child versions D, K & G). In two, we read of three courts including a ‘head court’ that is dressed in green and accompanies the queen. In the third of these renderings, the ranking is more complex, as Tam explains to his human lover, Margret:
“Then the first an court that comes you till
Is published king and queen;
The next an court that comes you till,
It is maidens mony ane.
The next an court that comes you till
Is footmen, grooms and squires;
The next an court that comes you till
Is knights, and I’ll be there.”
In this scheme, we have a very distinct and strict social ordering. Usually, however, the most that we hear of is some servants, as in the ballad of Leesom Brand, in which the hero goes to the fairy court aged ten to act as a server at the king’s table. Of course, such domestic servants were once quite common in a range of households, and implied no great wealth or status.
Faery society is a very flattened pyramid, therefore, and its individual citizens have an almost compete autonomy- it seems. Perhaps the problem is that we lack any adequate word to transliterate the fairy term: Donald McIlmichael, tried at Inverary in 1674, said that he had seen an old man inside the fairy hill he visited who “seemed to have preference above the rest” and “seemed to be chief.” Perhaps there is seniority, priority and respect, but little more than that.
Nevertheless, regardless of the parties, interpersonal relationships in and with Faery are governed by reciprocity. Good deeds should always be repaid, and to the same degree or value. If a fairy loans you some flour, always give exactly the same quality and quantity back. Debts are remembered and will be exacted, even decades later. It will be obvious that you should never enter into any sort of deal with the fairies unless you are able and willing to fulfil your side. Default is not an option.
For more information on fairy governance, see chapter 11 of my book, Faery.
I have written several times about the sexual allure of fairies and about sexual relationships between fairies and humans. Inevitably, many of these unions will result in children and in this posting I examine the evidence on mixed race families and the fate of their offspring.
Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs observed in her book The Fairies in Tradition and Literature that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (p.95). Mixed race families are entirely possible and there seems neither doubt nor surprise about this in the folklore. When we learn about human-faery offspring, it is generally because there has been some problem in the relationship. Of course, our view of these matters is skewed, as we usually only hear about cases where partnerships went wrong- not those matches where the couple ‘live happily ever after.’ We very occasionally get glimpses of these: human girls are quite often abducted to become fairy brides and every now and then we catch sight of them later on. For example, in the Welsh story of Eilian, she is met again by the woman she worked for when the latter is called out as midwife to the fairy hill- only to discover that it is her former farm maid who is the mother brought to child bed.
Fairy Family Life
Admitting that we only tend to see the failed matches, what can we say about fairy parenting? Probably the fairest conclusion is that fairies are just as good, and as bad, as husbands, wives and parents as humans.
Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed to the court a decades long relationship with the fairy queen. Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had enjoyed regular sexual contact with her and the couple had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame. These children were brought up by the mother, but at the same time Man was not entirely absent from their lives.
A reversal of this arrangement is seen with Katharine Jonesdochter of Shetland, tried for witchcraft in 1616. She confessed to a forty-year affair with a fairy man whom she called ‘the bowman.’ He first came to her when she was a teenager (a “young lass” as she described herself) and they had a child together. A relative recalled that she had seen “ane little creatour in hir awin hus amongst hir awin bairns quhom she callit the bowmanes bairn.” In this case the child stayed with the (human) mother and the (fairy) father was seen once or twice a year- at Halloween and on Holy Cross Day (September 14th)- when he visited her for sex.
Both these cases seem to say more about gender roles in human and fairy society than they do about defaults or qualities of fairy-kind as mothers and fathers. There is, of course, no reason to assume that males are any less loving toward their spouses and children than females. For example, in the ballad Leesom Brand, the eponymous hero’s fairy wife and baby both die during child birth, but he is able to find magical means to revive them.
All the same, an exception may have to be made for merfolk. The folklore record indicates that they are very often wanting in basic familial instincts and make very poor parents indeed. In the ballad of the Selkie of Sule Skerry, the selkie father has first of all made a woman pregnant and abandoned her; then he returns grudgingly upon hearing her complaints and gives her gold to ‘buy’ the child from her (what he calls a ‘nurse-fee’)- taking the boy away to raise him as a selkie in the sea.
In many stories, a mermaid is the parent as the result of being captured by a human male on the shore. He has managed to find, and withhold from her, the seal skin or tail that she has shed temporarily, thereby preventing her from rejoining her people. The mermaid is forced to become her captor’s wife and children inevitably follow over the succeeding years. Eventually, one of those infants comes across the seal skin hidden somewhere on the farm and mentions the discovery to the mother- who without hesitation leaves immediately to return to the sea.
Whether male or female, therefore, merfolk generally set a poor example as parents. The best that can be said for most mermaids is that they were akin to captives and unwilling partners, which may excuse (a little) their readiness to abandon their children.
There are, though, a couple of stories that are happy exceptions to this rather poor record. The famous mermaid of Zennor took a human husband who (unusually) went to live with her beneath the sea. We know the marriage appeared to thrive because, several years later, the skipper of a boat was hailed by the mermaid complaining that his anchor was blocking the door to her home, preventing her returning to her husband and their offspring or, in some accounts, preventing her taking her children to church. From Orkney, we hear of Johnny Croy who managed to secure a mermaid wife by snatching her precious golden comb. To win it back, she struck a bargain with him- that she would live with him on his farm for seven years and that he would then go with her to visit her family beneath the waves. They had seven children together, and the entire family disappeared forever under the sea when the initial seven years were up. The family bonds in these two cases seem strong and lasting, with the human husband prepared to give up his home and society in order to stay with his supernatural wife and children.
The Welsh lake maidens, the gwragedd annwn, also have a reputation for abandoning their husbands and families, although in these cases they would excuse themselves and blame the husbands for what happened. They are wooed in conventional manner by the human males and consent freely to marriage, but conditions or taboos are always imposed which- just as predictably- are violated in time by their husbands. These mothers are driven away from their families, therefore, they are not fleeing like the mermaids.
As we might expect, having fairy parents or ancestors does have some benefits for the children.
John Rhys quotes in his Celtic Folklore from William Williams’ Observations on the Snowdon Mountains, of 1802, in which he discusses:
“A race of people inhabiting the districts about the foot of Snowdon, were formerly distinguished and known by the nickname of Pellings, which is not yet extinct. There are several persons and even families who are reputed to be descended from these people …. These children and their descendants, they say, were called Pellings, a word corrupted from their [faery] mother’s name, Penelope… there are still living several opulent and respectable people who are known to have sprung from the Pellings. The best blood in my own veins is this fairy’s.” (Rhys, vol.1, p.48, citing Williams pp.37-40)
Rhys also mentions several times people living in the Pennant Valley in North Wales who are noted for their very good looks- flax yellow hair and pale blue eyes- which are said to be derived from a fairy ancestor called Bella (vol.1, pp.96, 106, 108, 220 & 223; vol.2 p.668)
As well as physical charms, fairy parents can bestow significant gifts upon their part-human offspring. The faery wife of Llyn y Fan Fach is a typical Welsh ‘lake maiden’ who is driven off by her husband’s violation of her taboos. Nonetheless, she keeps in regular contact with her three sons, teaching them marvellous healing skills so that they become the famous physicians of Myddfai. In the Tudor Ballad of Robin Goodfellow, Robin is the son of Oberon, fathered upon a maid to whom he took a fancy. The father provides materially for his son’s upbringing (although he is absent) and, when the boy reaches his teens, Oberon comes to him and reveals his true nature and magical powers:
“King Oberon layes a scrole by him,
that he might understand
Whose sonne he was, and how hee’d grant
whatever he did demand:
To any forme that he did please
himselfe he would translate;
And how one day hee’d send for him
to see his fairy state.”
Finally, the offspring of matches with merfolk are generally readily identifiable. There are accounts from the Scottish islands of children conceived with human fathers who have webs between their fingers and toes. One mermaid mother tried to trim these away but they regrew repeatedly until a horny crust developed- a feature that is still be seen amongst some island people today and which can limit the manual tasks they can undertake.
I discuss other aspects of fairy families, childcare and healing in my recently published book, Faery(Llewellyn Worldwide). See too the discussion in my Faery Lifecycle, a complete study of faery anatomy and physiology.
It is well known that fairies try to steal new born babies and that they leave changelings behind in their place. Here, I want to examine the evidence for the abduction of children older than toddlers and how this is achieved. Babies can be snatched from their cradles; how are less helpless juveniles abducted?
There seem to be three broad strategies employed by the fairies in taking infants. They kidnap them, they trick them or they lure them away. There are ample examples to illustrate all of these ploys. It was believed that the fairies were always on the lookout for chances to abduct infants (see, for example, Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 150).
Obviously, it is easiest to kidnap children if they come willingly. It is perfectly possible to achieve this by friendly means. In one Scottish example, a little girl used to regularly play with the faeries under the Hill of Tulach at Monzie. One day they cut a lock of her hair and told her that next time she visited she would stay with them for ever. Fortunately, the child told her mother what had happened and she immediately worked various charms and never let her daughter out to play again. A boy from Borgue in Kirkcudbrightshire used regularly to make extended visits to the Good Folk underground in the same manner; he was protected by suspending a crucifix blessed by a Catholic priest around his neck. Indeed, in one case from Orkney, a little girl so pestered the local trows with repeated visits to their underground homes that, in their irritation, they breathed on her and paralysed her for life.
The Scottish ballad of Leesom Brand fits with the friendly visit pattern of journey to Faery. A boy aged ten finds his way to “an unco’ land where wind never blew and no cocks ever crew.” There he meets with and falls for a woman who is only eleven inches tall. It is at this point that this story takes a slightly uncomfortable turn. Despite her small statute this lady was “often in bed with men I’m told” and the young boy, despite his tender years, is no exception; he gets her pregnant, too, and it is this scandal that forces them both the flee back to the human world.
Simply opening the door to a human child might be enough to tempt it in, then. More often, some additional inducement was necessary. It might be nothing more than playing upon the child’s curiosity, as in the Welsh medieval case of Elidyr. He had run away from home after an argument and had hidden for two days on a river bank. Two little men then appeared to him and invited him to go with them to “a country full of delights and sports.” That was all he required to persuade him to go with them. Somewhat comparable is the tale of a boy from St. Allen in Cornwall who was led into a Faery by a lovely lady. He first strayed into a wood following the sound of music and after much wandering feel asleep. When he awoke, a beautiful woman was with him and guided him through fantastic palaces. Eventually he was found by searchers, once again asleep. Fascinatingly, Evans Wentz has a modern version of the Elidyr story, told to him near Strata Florida (see Fairy Faith 148; Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 86, ‘The Lost Child’).
Some children require more material temptation. On the Isle of Man, a girl was walking over a bridge when three little men appeared to her and offered her a farthing to go with them. She wisely refused, knowing that consent would place her in their power for ever. In Northumberland, at Chathill Farm near Alnwick, there was a well-known fairy ring. It was reputed that, if a child danced around it nine times, she or he would be in the fairies’ control. To encourage children to do this, the fairies used to leave food and other gifts at the ring and parents, in response, would tie bags containing the age-old remedy of peony roots and seeds around their infants’ necks as a protection against fairy harm. Elsewhere in the north of England, it has been reported that the fairies would leave out fairy butter as bait for children.
These inducements to stray start to merge into out and out tricks. For example, a boy lost on Dartmoor was found by his mother seated under an oak tree known to be a pixie haunt. He told her that “two bundles of rags” had led him away- evidently, pixies in disguise so as to attract his attention and lull his suspicions. As soon as the lights of his mother’s lantern appeared, these rags vanished (Hunt, Popular Romances, 96).
The kidnap can be covered by means of a changeling put in the abductee’s place. The son of a blacksmith on the island of Islay, aged fourteen, suddenly fell ill and wasted away. It was revealed to the father that, in fact, he had been taken by the fairies and a changeling left behind. This the father exposed with the trick of brewing in egg shells and then violently expelled. However, he had then to go to the fairy knoll to recover his son rather than the boy being automatically returned (as is the usual practice). He was working for the fairies there as a blacksmith, which may explain their reluctance to part with him.
Some children are snatched without ceremony. In one case from the Isle of Man a boy sent to a neighbour’s house to borrow some candles at night was chased on his way home by a small woman and boy. He ran, but only just kept ahead of them, and when he was back at his home, he had lost the power of speech and his hands and feet were twisted awry. He remained this way for a week. This could almost be a changeling story (see Evans Wentz 132).
Waldron tells of a ten-year-old girl from Ballasalla on the Isle of Man who had a lucky escape from such a kidnap attempt. Out on an errand one day, she was detained by a crowd of little men. Some grabbed hold of her and declared their intention to take her with them; others in the party objected to the idea. A fight broke out amongst the fairies and, because she had incited this discord, they spanked her but let her get away. The truth of her account was seen in the little red hand prints marking her buttocks.
I have assumed so far, naturally, that parents would not wish to see their offspring taken to fairyland. One incident contradicts this. A woman from Badenoch in the Highlands was given shelter overnight in a fairy hill but, the next morning, she had to promise to surrender her child to them so as to be set free. She agreed, but was to visit her daughter in the hill. After a while, with no sign of things changing, the infant complained that she had been abandoned by her mother. The woman scolded the girl for suggesting this and the fairies ejected her from the hill and never allowed her in again. This suggestion that fairy abduction might sometimes be a boon for the child is confirmed by another source. The verse ‘The Shepherd’s Dream,’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England, reveals that changelings were taken from mothers who beat or otherwise abused their progeny.
Going with the fairies need not be prolonged nor unpleasant, fortunately. Many stories indicate that children will be well cared for in Faery. A game keeper and his wife lived at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor. This couple had two children, and one morning when the wife had dressed the eldest she let her run away to play while she dressed the baby. In due course, father and mother realised that the child had disappeared. They searched for days with help from their neighbours, and even bloodhounds, without finding her. One morning a little time later some young men went to pick nuts from a clump of trees near the keeper’s house, and at there they came suddenly on the child, undressed, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.
There are, therefore, many ways of luring children into fairyland- some are friendly and almost consensual, others are more underhand and forcible. The child’s treatment once in Faery will also vary: some will be well cared for and treated as fairy playmates; others may find themselves put to work in menial roles. I discuss all the many aspects of these abductions and how to avoid them in my recently published book Faery. The abduction of children is just one aspect of the Darker Side of Faery, a subject explored in detail in my book of that title, published in 2021.
Hot on the heels of Fayerie, another new book- this time, on the traditional British ballads and rhymes concerned with Faery. In the course of writing Fayerie, I made particular use of the early modern English and Scots ballads, songs such as Young Tamlane, Thomas Rhymer and the Elfin Knight, and realised that there was no one book which brought together all of those lyrics concerned just with the supernatural. Now there is.
Britain is rich in its heritage of traditional ballads, most of which date from the seventeenth century or earlier. Around twenty of these take fairies and fairyland as their primary theme. Accordingly, these songs are valuable sources of information on late medieval and early modern fairy beliefs. This new book provides an overview of fairy lore in the ballads, accompanied by edited texts for all the key lyrics, supplemented by notes that put each narrative in its wider context.
In addition, British traditional rhymes dealing with fairy-lore are collected together, along with a selection of verses and songs ascribed to the fairies themselves. We are all familiar with little couplets like ‘Fairy folks are in old oaks;’ these little catchphrases stick in our memories, quite deliberately, because they were designed to do just that: children in particular needed to be alerted to the places in the landscape where dangerous fairies lurked and punchy little verses did the trick. There are lots recorded but, once again, they have not before been collected together. The same is true of the subject of the third chapter of the new book; this features songs and poems composed by fairies themselves. Once again, bringing them together emphasises the degree to which verse is central to fairy discourse. These texts are often overlooked as a body of literature in their own right, but this book takes the opportunity to focus upon them and what they can tell us about human and faery society.