How heavy are fairies?

iro tulip

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite- Bubble fairy with tulip

There has been a long running debate about the physicality and corporeality of the faes. Some see the faes as being as solid and tangible as us; others conceive the fairies as verging on the weightless.  One witness from Newcastle upon Tyne has felt fairies dancing on her hair and clothing.  A Manx woman felt them walk on her, “as light as cats.”  It is well known that one Scottish word for the faes is the ‘sluagh’- the airborne host- one version of which is sluagh eutram- the light folk.

Others have taken this notion further, shrinking the fairies and reducing their weight correspondingly.  Staying in the Highlands, an alternative euphemism for the faes might be daoine beaga- the little people.  Another Manx witness confirmed that they were, indeed, “very little and very light.” A Hampshire woman described the flower fairies in her garden as:

“so tiny and so luminous that the very air seems lighter as I sense them.  They seem to me to have slight little bodies with gossamer wings.”

Famed Scottish painter of mythical and faery themes, John Duncan, met the faes repeatedly on the island of Iona.  During one encounter he noted that:

“Their feet did not bend the thick heather over which they walked and they made no sound as they passed close…”

John Rhys has published a very similar account from Wales, describing the tylwyth teg dancing on the tips of rushes (Celtic Folklore, p.83).

Fairies may be very small, but are they insubstantial? Can we put our hands through them? Can they pass through solid obstacles?  Some sightings suggest just this- that they can vanish into walls and banks and that we could never catch them because our bodies pass right through theirs. Evans Wentz relates the story of an Anglesey woman who walked with a fairy lady one night; she tried to touch her but her hand went right through (Fairy faith, p.141).

Definitely in the ‘aery nothings’ camp was Yorkshire writer Durant Hotham.  In chapter two of his Life of Jacob Behmen (1654) he observed that:

“nor is the Aery region disfurnisht of its Inhabitant Spirits; [which include] that far more numerous Progeny of Aerial Spirits, lodg’d in Vehicles of a thinner spun thread than is (otherwise than by condensation) visible to our dim sight.”

The Reverend Robert Kirk maintained much the same a few years later.  He said that fairies had “light changable Bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed Cloud.”  It is because these bodies of ‘congealed air’ are so pliable and subtle that the fairies can appear or disappear at pleasure (Secret commonwealth c.1).

fair seesaw

See-saw by Dorothy Wheeler- empirical proof that children weigh more than fairies…

Sightings

These general statements are complemented by the testimony of actual witnesses.  Fairies seen in dancing in the moonlight near Stowmarket in Suffolk during the 19th century were described as being “light and shadowy, not like solid bodies.”  The Reverend Edmund Jones, describing eighteenth century Gwent, told the story of a girl who used to dance in a barn with some of the tylwyth teg on her way to and from school.  She took off her shoes to do so, because otherwise she made a noise which seemed displeasing to them and because she never heard their feet when they were dancing.  These faes appear to be very light, therefore.  The same seems to be the case in our last example.  Two boys from the Isle of Man met a fairy man on the road once; he was only 5-6 inches tall and, when they tried to catch him, he flew off, leaving no footprints in the dust.  A Manx witness even went so far as to allege that the island fairies have “no body and no bones.”

Other witnesses attest on the contrary to the tangible solidity of fairies.  A girl from Kent met a fairy man leading a horse in her garden.  He put his hand on her wrist “and his touch was cool, not cold like a fish or a lizard but much cooler than a human touch.”  In a second incident told to Marjorie Johnson, a young woman walking her dogs near Minehead in Somerset surprised two pixies in an oak wood.  They ran away from her into a hollow in an oak tree and, in their haste to dart inside, they forgot to duck their heads.  Both knocked off their hats, which Miss Voss-Bark picked up and took home; they were tiny cones made of wood and permanent proof of her encounter.

Especially convincing is another account from the Isle of Man.  A woman from Ballasalla told George Waldron how her ten-year-old daughter had met a large crowd of little people up on the mountains.  Some had tried to abduct her, but others in the group had objected to this and had tried to protect her and the two sides had fallen to fighting.  Some of the other fairies then spanked her for causing dissension.  When she got home, she had distinct prints of tiny hands on her buttocks, visible proof of the veracity of her unhappy experience.

iro daisies

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Daisies

Implications

The answer to the debate over the solidity or insubstantiality of fairies will resolve many other puzzles over their nature.

Those who have claimed to have had sexual relationships with faes must, almost inevitably, be proponents of the ‘solid and fleshly’ view of fairy nature.  Likewise, I think, must be the case those who have acted as midwives or nurse maids to fairy infants- and the same for those children who were abducted as their playmates or the adults who were taken to act as cooks and suchlike domestic skivvies in fairyland.

Other such questions over physicality can have two resolutions.   For example, if we wonder what food they might eat, we can either accept that their diet is the same as ours- or instead we can tend to the view that they extract the substance (the foyson or toradh) without taking the foodstuff itself.

We are very familiar with the thought of fairies flying, but there are also reports of them gliding or floating, too; something which is strongly suggestive of lightness or even weightlessness.  For instance, in 1922 seven year old Penny Storey was living in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.  As she lay in bed one summer evening, a female being between twelve and thirteen inches high suddenly appeared and glided past her window.

“Her arms were outstretched sideways, and her feet gracefully together… No wings were visible… She simply floated, quite slowly, vertically downwards through the air.”

Jennifer George, from Cornwall, saw something comparable in her bedroom as a girl.  A bubble of steady yellow-white light floated about four feet above the floor before gliding out of the window and disappearing.

Some of these figures lack wings but still move effortlessly in the air: “They had no wings but still seemed to dive through the air at a good speed.”  Others possess them but do not need to employ them: ballet dancer Betty Lambert, as an adult and with an adult companion, saw a fairy in a bedroom “whose outstretched wings seemed motionless as it floated out into the night…”

Fairies don’t just drift about weightlessly, though.  A Mrs Shirley Eshelby of Carbis Bay in Cornwall witnessed a fay dancing in her bedroom early one morning: “although she appeared to me to be dancing in space, she was evidently stepping on something that was solid to her feet, because she never danced below a certain level.  When departing she skipped away, touching the invisible line with her tiny, naked feet.”  Other fairies, seen in the Home Counties in 1970, “ran on air as if on the ground…”  These examples are perhaps more indicative of the fays inhabiting a separate dimension than being incorporeal, but they do imply that, in this world, they do not experience gravity in the same way as we do.  (Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.46, 94, 167, 171, 182, 186 & 304)

The evidence is just as ambivalent when it comes to determining how fairies can vanish from our sight- as they do extremely frequently.  Is this is a process of physical dissolution- or is it just the application of glamour- or magical deception?  Have they gone, or have they simply rendered themselves invisible but are still there?

Contemporary accounts in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provide support for both schools of thought.  There are numerous mentions of faes simply disappearing.  However, in some cases they seem to melt away before witnesses’ eyes.  Those who saw fairies often said that they ‘faded away,’ a process suggestive of a less fleshly nature than our own.  One fay “dissolved into a sunbeam, slowly;” another “quivered away.”  It can be a gradual process: one man watched a group of fairies “grow lighter, insubstantial, and more like a cinema film” and it can involve the fay appearing and disappearing piece by piece. In one Manx account a crowd of fairies met on the road by three people in a horse-drawn cart simply “melted away” as the travellers got nearer.  (Johnson pp.173, 240, 299, 305 & 309; Evans Wentz p.126)

By contrast, there are also plenty of incidents reported to Johnson in which the fairy neither vanished nor dissolved.  Rather, in order to get away, they had to run.  We’ve already seen the incident with the pixies’ lost hats; fleeing into bushes, behind trees and through hedges are all mentioned.  Beings who need to make a dash for cover quite obviously are as solid and real as we are- and don’t have extensive magical abilities either.

Further reading

As well as my previous postings on fairy bodies and solidity, see too chapter 1 of my British fairies.  I also discuss fairy physiology in detail in my forthcoming book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide, early 2020).

iro- tightrope

 

“Ray of light”- Tinkerbell and luminous fairies

dame-autumn-hath-a-mournful-face-1871 grimshaw

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Dame Autumn hath a mournful face, 1871

Ever since Peter Pan appeared on the stage in 1904, the idea of fairies as flitting points of light has been fixed in the popular imagination.  This post looks at the facts and the fiction of these perceptions of faery.

Tinkerbell

In contrast to her theatrical representation, in his book of the story of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie imagined Tinkerbell as a full physical creature. For example, she is described as being-

“exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.

Tink is very evidently not just solid- she’s sexy, she’s sexual and she’s possessive.

However, in the stage-play the fairy was reduced to a flickering light and a tinkle of bells.  The light “darts about” using language that is variously furious, acerbic, shrill and impudent- we are told.  But it all sounds the same to us; Tinkerbell is a presence that can hardly be seen and barely understood except through the mediation of Peter.

This image of a flickering light caught hold though, despite its insubstantial nature, and is noticeably strong in the evidence of contemporary witnesses.

Grimshaw iris

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Iris.

Traditional fays

Is this all Barrie’s fault and invention, though?  By and large, traditional sightings don’t have much to say about glowing lights- except for the will o’the wisp, who was nothing but a flitting light.  These fairy apparitions have only one purpose, though, to lure travellers out of their way into bogs and mires; they are not fully rounded characters like Tink and most faeries.  Nevertheless, despite the paucity of evidence, there is an interesting report from Dartmoor published in 1876 which describes the pixies.

“The pixies are never really seen, but in some cases white spots are seen moving about in the dark and then they are heard- although you can’t understand their words.” (Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol.8, 1876, p.57)

Secondly, from Evans Wentz’ Fairy faith in Celtic countries, there comes a sighting on the Isle of Man dating from about the 1860s.  The witness, a member of the island’s legislature at the time of recording his experience, had been walking home at night with a friend when he saw across a small brook:

“a circle of supernatural light… The spot where the light appeared was a flat space surrounded on the sides away from the river by banks formed by low hills; and into this space and the circle of light, from the surrounding sides apparently, I saw come in twos and threes a great crowd of little beings smaller than Tom Thumb and his wife.  All of them, who appeared like soldiers, were dressed in red.  They moved back and forth amid the circle of light as they formed into order like troops drilling.” (Wentz p.133)

The witness’ companion declined to get any nearer and, after a while, struck a wall with his walking stick, thereby causing the fairies and their ‘aura’ to vanish instantaneously.

Lastly, Walter Gill recorded in his Second Manx Scrapbook of 1932 that fairies might be seen far off at night on the Isle of Man, as sparks or little flames dancing on hilltops.

These three are  intriguing, if rather isolated, reports.

grimshaw midsummer eve

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Midsummer Eve.

Contemporary fays

In the more recent witness reports of Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies and, even more so, in the Fairy Census 2017, the luminosity of fairies is often mentioned, so it’s worth analysing the figures a little.

Movement is the most noticeable feature of the sightings in the modern period.  In the Census there’s total of 69 cases of luminous fays (14% of the total); Johnson meanwhile has 34 instances.  Whilst 15% of the Census lights were stationary, 73% were in motion.  Sometimes a fairy body will be seen with the light, or the fairy is said to have ‘an aura’ but they can too be simple points of light: 28% of the Census witnesses described the fairy as a ball of light.  We may very well suspect here the influence of J. M. Barrie‘s stage representation of Tinkerbell in the minds of those having the experience.  This seems to be confirmed by a woman from Michigan describing an experience during the 1990s.  She wrote that:

“They were like little lights. Like Tinker Bell while she’s flying. A little pixie light. Several of them.”

Another witness told Johnson about “a Tinker Bell light.”

There’s more to say though.  A variety of effects have been associated with the bright fairies.  Some give off flashes of light, others sparkle (“as though speckled with stardust”). Some  produce a noise (for example, a high pitched buzz or humming) and some also wax and wane in their brilliance:

“the whole area of trees seemed to glow as though there were a lot of lights in that area of the woods. The light seemed to pulsate, growing brighter and growing dimmer again. I watched closely and saw the light changing colour. There were several different colours, blue, red and orange and they all seemed to blend together.  ” (Census no.6, England, 2014)

“a ball of energy that looked like a sparkler.” (Census no.349)

“a light appeared on or from within a half dead pecan tree. It swirled around the trunk from ground level to about twenty five feet or so high. At its highest point the light appeared to come from within the tree … It then swirled around the trunk again losing brightness until it faded.” (Census no.414, US, 1990s)

A variety of colours are seen.  Blue, white and multi-coloured are most common, but a full spectrum of hues from pink and violet through green to silver and gold have been reported.

In Johnson’s reports 25% of the fairies had an aura.  For example, one was “a lovely little fairy dressed in silver and green and it floated before her, lighting the way.”  (p.37)  A woman and her child in Cornwall saw a patch of mist in the garden, which-

“gradually cleared to light like neon-lighting, but ball-shaped and then, fascinated, she watched what she called the ‘glitter of the fairies’, mauve, blue, green, orange, yellow, red and white lights brighter than any gems, going round in a little circle and then darting backwards and forwards.” (p.168)

Another witness on the Scottish island of Iona in 1954 saw a mass of light shaped into small clouds and another being with a ‘halo’ of spring green and sunset pink around the head (p.226)

As already seen in some of the quotations, 20% of the Census cases the fairy lights are associated with trees, bushes and other foliage.  Today, of course, we very much conceive of greenery as the natural abode of the fays but nonetheless it is an interesting association.

People may of course see lights for a variety of reasons.  Their eyes may be dazzled; there may be some physiological problem that has yet to be diagnosed.  Even so, many of the experiences on the Census don’t seem capable of explanation by such means and the witnesses themselves are frequently critical and cautious of ascribing supernatural origins.  For example, they will often consider other explanations, such as insects.  The comparison may be made to a firefly, but there will be something to make it clear that it is not an insect that has been seen- generally the size of the being.  One of Johnson’s correspondents described seeing in Spain in the mid-1950s “quantities of small lights- which were too big for glow worms- flitting about.” (p.313)

Final thoughts

The experience of bright, flitting fairies is now so common that we may have to regard it as one of the features of the species.  Despite the paucity of older sources recounting similar effects, darting lights now seem to be a determining element for deciding what a witness has seen.  These sightings may be very puzzling, but they are persistent and consistent, so we may need to revise our preconceptions about the supernatural and how it appears to us.