“That’s Not My Name!”- names, power and secrecy in Faery

06_Barnum_TamLin

Tam Lin, by Joanna Barnum.

“They forget my name

They call me Hel,

They call me Stacey,

They call me her,

They call me Jane

That’s not my name”

The Ting Tings, ‘That’s not my name’, 2008

In the traditional Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, a handsome human boy has been abducted to Elfland to serve in the fairy queen’s retinue.  His sweetheart, Janet, agrees to help save him and bring him home but he warns her of the obstacles she will face in attempting this.  The fairies will change his form to try to scare her, but additionally he advises her:

“First, they did call me Jack, he said,

And then they called me John,

But since I lived in the fairy court

Tomlin has always been my name.”

These lines very strongly imply that, as part of his kidnapping and detention, a change of name has played a part.

Fairy Names

We know already the power of names in Faery.  Fairies often conceal their names from humans in order to preserve their power, but are as often careless in doing so, meaning that they are outwitted in the end.  Welsh brownie Gwarwyn-a-throt exemplifies this: he is overheard by his intended victim foolishly repeating his name to himself, gloating that it is a secret- and so he is undone.  In another example, also from Walespossession of the fairy maiden’s name constrained her to marry the man who discovered it (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, p.45).

Concealment of identity by this simple strategy is found in another ballad, The Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter, although in this case a seducer is trying to avoid taking any responsibility for a child he has fathered.  Before he leaves her, the knight is asked for his name by the shepherdess and he responds, evasively:

“Some men do call me Jack, sweetheart,

And some do call me John;

But when I come to the King’s fair court,

They call me Sweet William.”

The lines in these two ballads are obviously very similar; there may well have been borrowing from one song to another, in fact.  Nonetheless, this shouldn’t detract from the significance of personal names in Faery.

On this point, I think that it’s also highly significant that the evidence from the Scottish witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries regularly refers to the existence of a king and queen of Elfame, but these royal personages never have a personal name.  This could well be because they wished to preserve their power and mystery from us untrustworthy humans.  For that matter, the few names we have for faery royalty- Mab, Oberon, Titania– are all imported from outside the British Isles.  None are authentic, native names.

the-grump-fairy-7

“That’s not my name!”- Grumpy fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

Human Names

Similar magic applies to human names, which should in all cases be withheld from the faes.  There is a class of stories to which I’ve referred several times in my posts, the so-called ‘ainsel’ theme, which hinges upon this point.  A human meets a fairy of some description and, on being asked his/her name, cannily responds ‘mi ainsel,’ ‘misen’ or the Gaelic equivalent ‘mi-fhín’ (all meaning ‘myself’).  Some dispute then arises between them, the human fends of the fairy’s attack and injures it, and the fairy flees to complain to a parent or to its companions.  They are unsympathetic, because the aggrieved fae has to admit that it was ‘myself’ who inflicted the harm.  This story involves simple self-preservation, but concealing a name is a more general protection against supernatural control.  Put simply, if the fairies have a grievance against you, it’s harder for them to find you if they don’t have your name!

A name can, therefore, be a source of power and of protection.  It follows-as with Tam Lin- that the fairies could very likely want to change an abductee’s name when that person is safely ‘under the hill,’ so as to make it harder for family and friends to retrieve him or her.  There could well be another aspect to this too, though. The harsh truth is that, for many visitors to Elfame, the experience is an unpleasant and involuntary one.  They are taken as captives and held in servitude, performing chores for the fairies (whether child rearing or kitchen duties) that are never-ending and exhausting.  Such conditions can only be called slavery and it has, of course, been the practice of human slave masters throughout history to rename their slaves, taking away their individuality and rendering them more clearly someone else’s property.  It would make sense for the faes to do the same: if they have a human skivvying in the kitchens, or serving at banquets, they have to be able to call them something, but they may very well wish to avoid using their proper personal names.

Finally, we ought to recognise that fairy expert Lewis Spence felt uncertain about the significance of the lines in Tam Lin.  He had made a wide study of British and world folklore and could not think of other examples of a name change being part of the magical detention of a captive.  Nevertheless, he also observed that in some versions of the ballad Janet has to keep calling out Tam’s name as she undertakes his rescue, further suggesting that there is some spell residing in the unearthly name that has to be broken to free the boy from the fairy queen’s clutches.

Further reading

See my forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn International (March 2020) and my previous postings on silence in faery company, on fairy name taboos and on fairies’ personal names.

grumpy red fairy

“That’s not my name!” Grumpy Red Fairy by Jasmine Becket-Griffith

 

‘Elf addled’- the ill effects of faery contact

froud, somethign wicked

Brian Froud, ‘Something evil this way comes’

I take the title of this posting from one of the Anglo-Saxon herbals or Leechbooks.  Our forebears diagnosed a number of ailments which they ascribed to malign fairy intervention; one of these was called ælfadl (which we may roughly translate as elf- addle today).  Its nature is uncertain- it appears to involve some degree of internal physical pain- but I have co-opted it to describe the mental health effects of contact with our fairy neighbours.

Physical risks of fairyland

It’s pretty widely known that a visit to fairyland can have serious physical consequences. Because time may pass more slowly in Faery, the returning visitor may discover that their few hours away were really years or centuries, so that they return to a land wholly unfamiliar to them and where they often crumble away to dust as soon as they have contact with the food or soil of the mortal world. The ill-effects may be less drastic than this, but nevertheless contact with the otherworld can lead to permanent disablement by the fairies.

Psychological risks of faery

Less well-reported are the psychological ill-effects of a sojourn with the fays.  We can piece together the evidence from various sources across the centuries.  In seventeenth century England John Aubrey collected a story concerning a shepherd, employed by a Mr Brown of Winterbourne Basset in Wiltshire, who had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played.  As Aubrey observed of such visitors, they would “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.” (Briggs, Fairies in Tradition, p.12).

Later the same century the Reverend Robert Kirk met a woman who had come back from Faery; she ate very little food and “is still prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly seen ever to laugh.  Her natural Heat and radical Moisture seem to be equally balanced, lyke an unextinguished Lamp, and going in a circle, not unlike the faint Lyfe of Bees and some Sort of Birds that sleep all the Winter over and revive in the Spring” (Kirk, Secret commonwealth chapter 15).  The ‘half-life,’ withdrawal or hibernation that Kirk seems to be describing here is mentioned elsewhere in Scotland.  On Shetland it was believed that the trows might steal part of new mother, that part that remained at home seeming ‘pale and absent.’  (Magical folk, p.132)

The Shetland trows would also take children for a while, but released them at puberty.  Back with human society, they always maintained “an unbroken silence regarding the land of their captivity.”  Indeed, that silence could be physically enforced: in Ireland it was believed that “the wee folk puts a thing in their mouth that they can’t speak.” (Spence, Fairy tradition, p.262)

W. B. Yeats was fascinated by this condition and reported that those who’d been ‘away’ were always pining with sorrow over their loss of fairy bliss.  They had a cold touch and a low voice.  They seemed to have lost part of their humanity and would be queer, distraught and pale, ever restless with a desire to be far away again.  Yeats was told by one woman from the Burren that:

“Those that are away among them never come back, or if they do they are not the same as they were before.” (Unpublished prose, vol.1, p.418 & vol.2, p.281)

The symptoms of having been ‘away’ are a dazed look, vacant mind, fainting fits, trances, fatigue, languor, long and heavy sleeping and wasting away.

Sometimes it is hard to determine whether the after-effects are psychological or physiological (though one may lead to the other).  The Reverend Edmund Jones in his history of Aberystruth parish in Wales described a neighbour and good friend who had been absent with the fairies for a whole year.  When he came back,  “he looked very bad.” (p.70)  Likewise Jones wrote in another book on spirit apparitions in Wales that the experience was debilitating and left the revenant sickly and disturbed; often the person would fade away and died not long after their return home (The appearance of evil paragraphs 68 & 82).  In Welsh belief of the time, in fact, even seeing fairies might prove to be a premonition of the person’s death (paras 56, 62, and 69).

Cornish case study

An example of being elf-addled comes from the well-known story of the House on Selena Moor, in Bottrell’s Traditions and hearthside stories of the West of Cornwall (1873, pp.94-102).  Pixie led on the moor, a Mr Noy finds a farmhouse at which a celebration is taking place.  As he approaches, he meets a former lover whom he thought dead, but who has actually been captured and enslaved by the fairies.  She warns him not to touch the fairy food and drink, as she had done, and tells him something of the fairy life.  The experience of seeing the fairies, and of knowing his lost love still to be alive in fairyland, deeply affected him:

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail), or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

Noy had had no physical contact with Grace nor had he partaken of the fairy fruit and beer- otherwise he would never have been able to return home at all.  Nevertheless, what he saw and heard was enough to blight the brief remainder of his life.

It’s worth recalling here too that prolonged physical contact with the fairies- a sexual relationship with a supernatural lover, perhaps in the course of a prolonged partnership or marriage- can have both physiological and psychological consequences.  It can often be fatal, whether almost immediately or over time.

Summary

A visit to fairyland need not be harmful.  Many travellers come and go unscathed. Some are even transformed for the better by the experience.  As alluded to earlier, girls might be abducted by the Shetland trows but returned to their homes when they reached adulthood.  They would be restored to their families “in maiden prime with a wild unearthly beauty and glamour on them.” (Magical folk p.132)

To close, time spent in faery must always be viewed as potentially perilous.  Even if the person is not enslaved or entrapped, they can still be affected long term by the experience, both physically and mentally.

Further reading

Morgan Daimler has posted on fairy possession on her blog, looking particularly at the Anglo-Saxon and old Irish evidence for the problem and its treatment.  See also my posting ‘Some kind of joy’ which looks at the positive aspects of fairy encounters.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faery, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in March 2020.

Vampire fairies? some first thoughts

 

goth

Gothic Vampire Fairy Fantasy Fine Art Print by Molly Harrison ~ “Twilight Wandering”

I have written several times about fairy blights and the perils of contact with fairies.  I want in this post to draw your attention to a couple of references suggestive of an even more sinister aspect to the character of some fairies.

Breath

Firstly, a few lines from Shakespeare’s Comedy of errors.  In Act 2 scene 2 the character Dromio of Syracuse exclaims:

“This is the fairyland.  O! The spite of spites,/ We talk with goblins, owls and elvish sprites: If we obey them not, this will ensue, They’ll suck our breath, or pinch us black and blue.”

I hope many of you will be familiar (at least by now) with the idea of pinching as a regular punishment; it is a fairly harmless sanction for the relatively minor transgression of poor housekeeping. But, “suck our breath”? This is far more deadly sounding, and for many will conjure up thoughts of dementors in the Harry Potter series.  I think we have to assume that Shakespeare knew whereof he wrote in these lines: he seemed to draw on authentic folklore for much of his fairy material, so this presumably reflects something he’d encountered.

Relevant to this may be a fragment from Rudyard Kipling.  He wrote a story called ‘fairy-kist.’  The meaning was explained thus:

“He’d been wounded and gassed and gangrened in the War, and after that … he’d been practically off his head.  She called it ‘fairy-kist.'”

“Meanin’ he’d been kissed by the fairies?” McKnight enquired.

“It would appear so, Sandy.  I’d never heard the word before.  West Country, I suppose.”

We have here the suggestion of oral assault, a possibility of a folklore source, and a description of the impact upon the man’s mental health.

Blood

Then we have a chilling tale of fairy vampirism from the Highlands of Scotland.  Four hunters on the Braes of Lochaber stayed overnight in a bothy.  Shortly after each had lamented the absence of their girlfriends, the women entered the hut.  Whilst the others were in their lovers’ arms, one man was suspicious and held off his alleged sweetheart with his knife and by playing a (metal) Jew’s Harp.  The women disappeared at cockcrow; they had not been girls but glaistigs and his three companions lay dead, their throats cut and their bodies drained of blood.

In fact, Lewis Spence devoted a whole section of his book, The fairy tradition is Britain, to the subject of the ‘Vampirical attributes of fairies’ (chapter XIV, pp.268-269).  If fairies are indeed the dead, their desire for the lifeblood of mortals would make complete sense.  It was said in both Scotland and the Isle of Man that water was left out for the fairies overnight not so much as a courtesy, but to give them something to quench their thirsts so that they would not take the sleeper’s blood.  Consumption was believed in Scotland and Ireland to be the progressive result of such fairy bleeding.  In Cromarty it was believed that the ‘lady in green‘ carried her child from cottage to cottage at night, bathing it in the blood of the youngest inhabitant (Hugh Miller, Scenes and legends of the north of Scotlandp.15)  There are similar Highland tales of bird-like green women who crack bones and drink blood; there is, finally, a tale from Skye similar to that of the four men of Lochaber: eight girls tending cattle were attacked by an ‘old woman’ who sucked the blood of all but one.

Now, we know that some fay beasts exist solely to catch and consume hapless humans.  I have described kelpies and water bulls elsewhere.  The vampire-like faery maidens just described are somewhat different, and they are using their physical allure for novel ends.  Again, seduction by fays with a view to abduction to faery is a familiar enough theme, but this is gruesomely different.

vampire fairy

Further reading

This subject has also been examined on the strange history site..  In this article Beachcomber critically dissects Spence’s section on vampires in detail- and largely rejects the evidence he presents.  Readers can click the link and draw their own conclusions; my response is that the writer is correct in his case, but that he achieves this by his own manipulation of categories.  He criticises Spence for this but then isolates so-called ‘trooping fairies’ from other supernaturals when I think such hard and fast boundaries (although useful) are hard to maintain in individual cases.  In any event, the ‘trooping fairy’ is really an Irish and Highland concept and not something found in most of mainland Britain south of (?) Perth.  In addition, the line from the play indicates that there may be a little more substance to the idea of stealing the life force than Beachcomber had realised.

Have readers any other examples of vampirism to add?

Trevor brown

A vampire fairy by Trevor Brown

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.

Flower fairies- origins and meaning

gorse-flower-fairy

During the last hundred years or so, fairies have become intimately associated with flowers.  What I want to do in this post is to consider the evidence for such links in traditional folklore beliefs and to discuss how the idea has arisen that fairies are ‘nature spirits’ or ‘guardians of nature’ and have a particular mission to supervise the growth of flowers and other plants, in which work they may resemble bees or ants and are certainly of diminutive dimensions.

Shakespeare

Without doubt, one link in the chain connecting fairies to flora is literary.  Shakespeare perhaps initiated the trend with a the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  One is required to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II, 1).  Of course, we have fairy Peaseblossom in the same play (III, 1) and Oberon’s well-known directions to help Puck find Titania:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…” (Act II, 1)

In The Tempest Ariel, who sings “Where the bee sucks., there suck I”  The floral motifs are prominent, indicating a closeness to nature generally and the evidence of small statute is also present.  Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton took the matter of scale to extremes, though for reasons of pure fancy: I don’t believe that they sought to reflect any genuine traditions known to them.  British fairies are of a range of sizes, often adult height, quite often the size of children, much more rarely very small (the medieval English ‘portunes’ of just half an inch in height are an exception).

titania-sleeping

Richard Dadd, ‘Titania sleeping,’ 1841, The Louvre 

Herrick imagined a fairy loaf of bread as “A moon-parch’t grain of wheat” washed down with “A pure seed-pearle of infant dew/ Brought and besweetened in a blew/ And pregnant violet” (Oberon’s feast).  Drayton likewise envisaged a fairy palace “The walls of spiders’ legs are made … The windows of the eyes of cats” (Nymphidia).  The conceit of miniature fairies was sustained into the next century by other poets.  For example, in The flower and the leaf John Dryden imagined that a faint track “look’d as lightly press’d, by fairy feet” and William King, like Herrick, surveyed a fairy supper:

“What may they be, fish, flesh of fruit?/ I never saw things so minute./ Sir, a roasted ant is nicely done,/ By one small atom of the sun./ These are flies’ eggs in moonshine poach’d/ This a flea’s thigh, in collops scotched.” (Orpheus and Eurydice)

rowan

Tiny fairies

Increasingly, then, the convention prevailed that fairies were minuscule, but neither in literature nor in folk tales was there any deep attachment to plant life.  As described when discussing fairy clothes, fairies most often were attired in green, which may well be symbolic of growth, but there is still scant suggestion of any special purpose as ministers of Mother Nature.  There are quite a few indications of fairies inhabiting trees.  There is the Old Lady of the Elder Tree whom I have mentioned in discussing my book  The Elder Queen; from the Outer Hebrides comes a story of a fairy maiden who inhabits a tree on a knoll, once a year appearing to dispense ‘the milk of wisdom’ to local women (L. Spence, British fairy origins pp.101 & 186); also from the Highlands and Western Isles we hear a report of ‘tree spirits’, green elves who are often seen in woodland (Spence p.100).  This is about as good as it gets in British tradition.  Lewis Spence in chapter VI of British fairy origins examined the theory that fairies derived from ‘elementary spirits’ and summed up “all nature spirits are not the same as fairies; nor are all fairies nature spirits.” (p.110)  He further stated that “it is a notable thing that in Great Britain and Ireland the nature spirit remains to us in vestigial form only.  To make a list of British nature spirits as known in our islands today is very … difficult… I can think of no genuinely English earth or tree spirits.” (p.113)  He blames homogenisation into “the common hill-fairy, the standard elf of folk-lore.” (p.114)  On the matter of flowers, s I have described before, there are flowers that are believed particularly to repel or to attract fairies, but the surviving stories do not conceive of fairies living within or overseeing the growth of any flowers.

elder

How then do we explain the rapid ascendancy of the flower fairy?  I think that occult science and mystical philosophy are the source; flower fairies are a product of the thought of Paracelsus and Pseudo-Dionysus.  They are nature spirits, part of a ‘celestial hierarchy,’ and are derived from a system of thought very different to native custom.  I shall examine this theme further in due course.

Further reading

Other posts on the natural associations of fairies cover such issues as wood elves, fairy plants and ‘eco-fairies.’

 

William Blake and fairy origins

blake_mhh

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

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

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

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

Fairy origins

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

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

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

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

crane

 

Walter Crane, Dryads & Naiads

Fairies as nature spirits

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

“Thir woddis and schawis all, quod he,

Sum tyme inhabyt war and occupyit

With nymphis and faunis apoun every side,

Qwhilk Farefolkis or than Elfis clepen we,

That war engendryt in this sam cuntrie…

Furth of ald stokkis and hard runtis of treis…”

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

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

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