Animal Second Sight

chechkleyHumans’ ability consistently to see fairies is poor and has to be acquired- either by ritual, contact with an endowed person or, sometimes, by descent.  In contrast, puzzlingly, animals seem to be far better at this than we are; many seem naturally to be gifted with this ability.  We know this from the reactions of pets and livestock- but have to assume that wild creatures are equally as aware of the supernatural beings around them.

Dogs

In one story from Northumberland, for example, a man’s hunting dog would ‘point’ the fairies which were invisible to its master (although he could hear their music).  Instinctively he saw them and responded to them as prey.  It seems, then, that for dogs at least there is no inherent awareness of any supernatural nature nor any risk.  Previously, I have written about dogs that detected the presence of supernatural beings and then chased or attacked them, faithful to their duties of guarding their human owners.  Sadly, these hounds’ encounters with faeries seldom finished well for them.  Dogs may sense the ‘stranger’ status of the beings, but they lack any instinctive fear.checkley reading lesson

Cattle

Cattle are aware, but seem to have no aversion to the creatures.  For instance, the well-known story of ‘The Little People’s Cow’ from Cornwall encapsulates many of the key aspects of the situation.  The dairy maid only sees the fairies when she accidentally includes a four-leaf clover in her ‘wise,’ the cushion of grass on which she rested the milk pail on her head.  Then she witnessed:

“A great number of little beings- as many as could get under Rosy’s udder at once- held butter-cups, and other handy flowers or leaves, twisted into drinking vessels, to catch the shower of milk that fell among them, and some sucked it from clover-blossoms. As one set walked off satisfied, others took their places. They moved about so quickly that the milkmaid’s head got almost ‘light’ whilst she looked at them. “You should have seen,” said the maid afterwards- how pleased Rosy looked, as she tried to lick those on her neck who scratched her behind her horns, or picked ticks from her ears; whilst others, on her back smoothed down every hair of her coat. They made much of the calf, too; and, when they had their fill of milk, one and all in turn brought their little arms full of herbs to Rosy and her calf- how they licked all up and looked for more!”

The human can only see the fairies with magical aid; the cow does not require this (unless, we might speculate, she has the benefit of eating the clover) and there is apparently a mutually rewarding relationship between cow and fays.

Horses

Horses, in contrast to cattle, seem to be alarmed by fairies.  In Yorkshire there was a tradition that boggarts would disguise themselves as stones on moorland tracks, deliberately to trip up passers-by.  Horses, in particular, were able to see them better than people could- and often when they reared up unexpectedly it’s because they had ‘taken the boggart’- they’d spotted one, even if it didn’t look like a boggart.

Something similar is reported from the Isle of Man.  Here, there was once no bread delivery at Orrysdale in the north-west of the island because the baker’s boy said that his cart horse was able to see the fairies after dark and would take fright.  On this particular occasion, as it was getting near dusk, the boy decided not to risk the horse rearing or bolting- and had accordingly gone home instead of completing his round.

tarrant

Summary

As these 1930s postcards indicate, it has become customary for us to assume that the faes are allied with woodland creatures.  This is very much a development of the last 175 years or so.  Victorian poets such as Madison Cawein and twentieth century writers such as Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter elaborated these ideas, but the older evidence implies a more complex and less harmonious relationship.  We shouldn’t forget, for example, that our medieval forebears accepted without question the notion that the faeries would be out in the woods, not gambolling happily with squirrels and bunnies, but hunting them with hawks and hounds.  On this basis, it’s understandable that some animals might exhibit a measure of caution, if not fear.

For more on the faeries’ interactions with animals and nature more widely, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Enchanted gardens (with fairies at the bottom)

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Cicely Mary Barker, The pine tree fairy, c.1940, Laing Art Gallery

I recently caught the end of an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, near to where I live in East London.  The theme of the show was ‘The enchanted garden’  but there was, unexpectedly, a strong fairy theme alongside the pictorial  paean to English garden paradises.

Amongst the pictures displayed were several of the original flower fairy illustrations by Cicely Mary Barker, which were a delight to see.  They were much larger than I might have anticipated.  There was also ‘A fairy’ by Lucien Pisarro and the delightful ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ a painting illustrating a scene from one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales by Mark Lancelot Symons, a painter who produced a number of fairy works and who deserves greater attention.

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Lucien Pissaro, The fairy, 1894

The convention is for us to imagine fairies in the countryside- dancing in meadows and on high moors- and leaving fairy rings behind- or secreted in woodland glades.  This is all perfectly correct: these are the secluded places where traditional fairy sightings have occurred and they have been reinforced in our imaginations by writers like William Shakespeare.  In the last century and a half, though, writers have also moved the fairy folk into (urban) back gardens.  They have become, perhaps, the outside equivalent of the domestic brownie.

Most famous for this must be Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) whose first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, appeared in May 1917. She brought Faery right into the lives of her readers, imagining the fairy court assembling to dance behind the gardener’s shed and casting the imagined little girl reading the poem as the fairy queen herself.

Fyleman was not alone though in relocating fairies so much closer to home, nor was she the first to make the move.  English poet Philip Bourke Marston (1850-1887) repeatedly swapped between the ideas of fairies and flowers in gardens in poems such as Flower fairies, Garden fairies and Before and after the flower birth.  It’s never entirely clear whether they are real fairies or the spirits of flowers, for their silver laughter and singing are described, as are their “sudden scents.”

“Flower fairies- have you found them,
When the summer’s dusk is falling.
With the glow-worms watching round them,
Have you heard them softly calling?”

American poet Madison Julius Cawein (1865- 1914) also wrote extensively on fairy themes; in ‘Fairies’ he imagines Puck in a garden, travelling “Down the garden-ways … on a beetle’s back” whilst in Unmasked he too realises that the blooms outside his house are really fairies in disguise.  Lastly, another US poet, Arthur Peterson, in a verse entitled Halloween 1916 assembled Puck and the “blithe fairies”, who are the spirits of the summer flowers, to dance together to mark the coming of autumn with its frosts.

“… we came unto a garden,

Bright within a gloomy forest…

And I saw, as we grew nearer,

That the flowers so blue and golden

Were but little men and women,

Who amongst the green did shine.

But ‘twas marvellous the resemblance

Their bright figures bore to blossoms…”

Symons, Mark Lancelot, 1887-1935; Jorinda and Jorindal

Mark Symons, Jorinda and Joringel, Reading art gallery

‘A geography of trees’- wood elves in myth and popular culture

 

Female_HalfElf

“… like a wind out of fairy-land
Where little people live
Who need no geography
But trees.”           (Hilda Conkling [1910-86], Geography, 1920)

Today probably most people, if asked, would imagine elves and fairies gambolling in a woodland setting.  This appears to have become a very strong convention within our popular visual culture, yet it is not traditional to British fairy lore (despite a few links between fairies and particular trees, most notably in Gaelic speaking areas where the fairy thorn has particular power and significance- see for examples poems of this name by Samuel Ferguson and Dora Sigerson Shorter). I wish therefore in this posting to examine how this prevalent image came about.

Shakespeare

Although the fairy king Oberon is met in a forest in the thirteenth century romance epic Huon of Bordeuax, but I believe the primary source of our close association between fairies and forests is Shakespeare, both the ‘wood near Athens’ which features in Midsummer night’s dream and in which Titania, Oberon, Puck and the other fairies make their home, and the open woodland of Windsor Great Park that features in the Merry Wives of Windsor and which is the scene of Falstaff’s believed encounter with the fairy queen and her train.  Whilst their ultimate roots may lie with the dryads and hamadryads of classical myth, it was these theatrical presentations of fairies that first really fixed the woodland elf in the English speaking public’s imagination.  Much subsequent literature and visual art has cemented the pairing to the extent that it appears inevitable, but there is little trace of it in older sources or in British folklore.

British fairy homes

The British fairy, according to older writers, could be found in a variety of locations.  They frequented mountains, caverns, meadows and fields, fountains, heaths and greens, hills and downland, groves and woods.  Generally, they were more likely to be found in ‘wild places.’ Residence underground- whether in caves or under hills- is a commonly featured preference and I have often mentioned the presence of fairies under knolls and barrows.  Woods feature in these sources, it’s perfectly true, but they are far from the most commonly mentioned locations.  (I have considered here Reginald Scot, Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy, Bourne’s Antiquitates vulgares and a few medieval texts.)  The South English legendary of the thirteenth or fourteenth century is especially interesting reading in this connection: elves are seen, we are informed, “by daye much in wodes… and bi nightes ope heighe dounes…”- in other words, they frequent woods during the day (presumably for concealment from human eyes) but resort to open hill tops at night for their revelries.

A particularly relevant source is the Welsh minister, the Reverend Edmund Jones. In his 1780 history of the superstitions of Aberystruth parish he recorded the contemporary views locally on the most likely locations for seeing fairies.  They did not like open, plain or marshy places, he reported, but preferred those that were dry and near to or shaded by spreading branches, particularly those of hazel and oak trees (The appearance of evil, para.56).  Jones’ description fits the open oak parkland of Windsor perfectly, where Falstaff is duped by those merry wives and their gang of children disguised as elves.  It’s also notable that Wirt Sikes in his British goblins locates the Welsh elves (ellyllon) in groves and valleys.  In Wales at least, then, an open wooded landscape was believed in popular tradition to be the fairies’ preferred habitat.

EnchantedForest_Fitzgerald

John Anster Fitzgerald, The enchanted forest

Woodland fays

Woods were one of the favoured resorts for the fairy folk, then, but not their sole preserve.  It seems to be in Victorian times that woodland elves became the cliche that we encounter today.  I have (for better or ill) read a lot of Victorian fairy verse and certain stereotyped images are very well worn: moonlight, dancing in rings, woodland glades.  Here are just a few examples to indicate what you’ll see ad nauseam.  The connection begins to appear in the eighteenth century (see for example the “fairy glade” of Sir James Beattie’s The minstrel and The palace of fortune by Sir William Jones, 1769). References multiply throughout the next hundred years and into the last century: the “sylvan nook where fairies dwell” of Janet Hamilton’s Pictures of memory; Ann Radcliffe’s “woodlands dear” and “forest walks” in Athlin and The glow-worm; the “woodways wild” of Madison Julius Cawein’s Prologue and the “fairy wood” in his Elfin; the “woodland fays” that appear in George Pope Morris’ Croton Mode.  By then well-established, these fays persisted into the twentieth century, in “some dark and mystic glade” of Tennessee Williams’ Under April rain or the “nymphs of a dark forest” of Edna St Vincent Millay.  All of this imagery transferred to the visual arts, too, especially to the illustrations of children’s books.

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Margaret Tarrant, ‘The fairy way’

Tolkien’s elves

Once this image was embedded in the culture, it proved almost impossible to eradicate.  J. R. R. Tolkien absorbed it and the Silvan or Wood Elves of Lord of the Rings are the result; Galadriel is one of the Galadhrim (the tree people) of Lorien.  Tolkien’s influence in recent decades has been extensive and powerful.  An example might be Led Zeppelin, whose own highly influential Stairway to heaven invokes images of fairyland where “the forests shall echo with laughter.”  The pervasive idea was that the natural habitat of the fairy is the forest.

It might not be inappropriate to conclude with more lines from infant prodigy Hilda Conkling.  In If I could tell you the way she described how-

“Down through the forest to the river
I wander…
Fairies live here;
They know no sorrow.
Birds, winds,
They are the only people.
If I could tell you the way to this place,
You would sell your house and your land
For silver or a little gold,
You would sail up the river,
Tie your boat to the Black Stone,
Build a leaf-hut, make a twig-fire,
Gather mushrooms, drink spring-water,
Live alone and sing to yourself
For a year and a year and a year!”

MWT-G3804-330 Fairies Market

Margaret Tarrant, The fairies market, 1921

Further reading

For a wider consideration of the relationship between fays and trees, see Neil Rushton’s posting on dead but dreaming on the metaphysics of fairy trees.  See my other postings for thoughts on eco-fairies and fairies at the bottom of your garden.

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

 

 

Fern seed and invisibility

faerie spell Alan Lee

‘Faerie spell’, by Alan Lee

“We have the receipt of fern seed: we walk invisible”

(Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I, Act 2, scene 1)

It is widely believed that the seed of ferns has magical powers.  On the continent it is used to disclose treasure; in Britain it brings love or conjures invisibility, as indicated by the line from Henry IV above.

Magical properties

Samuel Bamford, witness of the Peterloo massacre, records a Lancashire tradition that the fern seed was used to obtain the heart of a loved one and he tells the tale of an attempt to gather some in a highly melodramatic manner (Passages in the life of a radical, cc.20-22- see below).  In Michael Drayton’s epic poem Nimphidia we find the fays, like mortals, using fern seed to win a loved one’s affections.  We have discussed fairy glamour in previous posts, so it is of great interest that fern seed is also said to confer invisibility upon the possessor and was used for this property by both the fairies and by mortals; like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson referred to this usage in his play The New Inn- “I had/ No medicine to go invisible/ No fern seed in my pocket.” (New Inn, Act 1, scene 6).  Both playwrights were confident that their audiences would understand the reference.

Supernatural use of ferns is found from time to time in fairy literature.  In one version of the Cornish story of Cherry of Zennor, the young heroine is depicted pausing at a cross roads, uncertain which way to head.  She idly picks and crushes some fern fronds, the effect of which is to conjure up a fairy gentlemen who becomes her employer and her suitor (see Frances Olcott, The book of elves and fairies, 1918, c.VIII). The same book includes the poem Mabel on Midsummer Day by Mary Howitt.  The girl is sent on an errand to her grandmother’s, but is warned that it is Midsummer Day “when all the fairy people/ From elf-land come away.”  It’s a dangerous time of year, then, and she must take care not to offend the fairies, for example she should not “pluck the strawberry flower/ Nor break the lady-fern.”

Collection ritual

To add to the mystery of the process, the seed could only be seen and gathered on Midsummer’s Eve when it was shed from the plants’ fronds.  William Browne in Britannia’s pastorals refered to the “wondrous one-night seeding ferne.”  This night is also the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist, and it was said that the fern seed fell at the precise moment of his birth.

The process of collection and the fairy link are described more fully by Thomas Jackson in A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, 1625, pp.178-9:

“It was my happe since I undertook the Ministrie to question an ignorant soule… what he saw or heard when he watch’t the falling of the Ferne-seed at an unseasonable and suspitious houre.  Why (quoth he) … doe you think that the devil hath ought to do with that good seed? No: it is in the keeping of the King of Fayries and he, I know, will do me no harm: yet he had utterly forgotten this King’s name until I remembered it unto him out of my reading of Huon of Bordeaux.” (i.e. Oberon)

The perils of collecting

Given the strong supernatural associations, it is not surprising that collecting the fees was accompanied by some measure of risk, as told by Richard Bovet in Pandaemonium, p.217:

“Much discourse about the gathering of Fern-seed (which is looked upon as a Magical herb) on the night of Midsummer’s Eve, and I remember I was told of one that went to gather it, and the Spirits whistlit by his ears like bullets and sometimes struck his Hat or other parts of his Body. In fine: though that he had gotten a quantity of it, and secured it in papers and a Box besides, when he came home he found it all empty.  But probably this appointing of times and hours is the Devil’s institution.”

Great precautions were taken to protect the collector with charms and spells (see Sir Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Borders, II p.27).  Samuel Bamford’s account describes the kind of ritual and incantations that had to accompany the attempt to gather the seed and the ghastly retribution that might befall the seeker who erred in their supplications or who was deemed unsuitable by the spirits.  The fern was to be found in Boggart, or Fairy, Clough (gorge) and the collectors went there bearing items including an earthen ware dish, a pewter platter and a skull lined with moss and clay and with a tress of the hair of the loved one attached.  Various forms of words were recited whilst the seed was shaken onto the plates with a hazel rod.

The magical powers of fern seen were recalled even into the modern era, as witnessed by the poem The spell by Madison Julius Cawein, in which the fairy connection and the power to win a loved one are both invoked:

“St John hath told me what to do

To search and find the ferns that grow

The fern seed that the faeries know;

Then sprinkle fern seed in my shoe,

And haunt the steps of you, my dear,

And haunt the steps of you.”

In conclusion, herbal means to acquire fairy powers are commonly found and usually employ ingredients from plants commonly available.  The only practical issue seems to be that collecting sufficient to produce a usable amount is likely to be extremely time consuming and may demand a very large amount of luck.  In other words, the offer of fairy glamour is held out to us but, rather like a mirage, it is forever retreating before us.

Further reading

Lots of other postings on this blog examine spells and other rituals to see and conjure fairies, to attract fairies and to repel them.

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