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).

What’s that smell?

Brian Froud, ‘The Bully Bogey,’ from Good Faeries, Bad Faeries

As I have described previously, both on this blog and in detail in my 2020 book, Faery, there is quite a lot of evidence for the fact that our Good Neighbours have a distinctive smell. I’ve come across a little more evidence on this, which is well worth considering.

In 1650, at Dunoon on the island of Bute, a woman called Finwell Hyndman was accused of witchcraft. She was said to disappear for twenty four hours every three months and, when she returned, she was crazed and weary and had “such a wyld smell that none could come neir hir.” She couldn’t explain her absences to the community, which made it pretty clear to everyone that she had been ‘away with the fairies.’

Perhaps the people of Kingarth parish were correct about Finwell. The smell that was so noticeable and inexplicable might have been a clear sign of Hyndman’s contact with the faeries. That would unquestionably have been the interpretation placed on matters on the Isle of Man, where the smell of fairies was a well-known phenomenon, and was said to be sour and strong.

For instance, a certain Mrs C., living in Arbory parish in the south of Man, one day in December 1891 went to the stream near her cottage for water. There was, she said, a terrible stench “between a burnt rag and a stink” she said, and so “thick” on the bank that she could scarcely breathe. This was the smell of fairies, who had obviously only recently departed. A girl on the island also smelled them once- and then lost her sense of smell- although this could conceivably have been a punishment for her involuntary exclamation of “What a stink!” which would naturally have offended the tetchy faes.

It shouldn’t necessarily surprise us to learn that the faes, as a separate race or species from us, should have their own odour that is unique to them and enables us to detect their presence. Many people seem to find the scent overpowering or unpleasant, but such things can be a matter of individual preference and physiology, of course. It works the other way round too: in the relevant section on my book Faery I quote from a Manx story in which a hidden human is discovered by the faeries because of his smell. In addition, as I described in my previous posting, it is well established in magical texts that fairies should be attracted by burning incense and by the person working the spell being scrupulously clean and using clean clothes and table cloths, towels and the like. In this context, it may be worth adding that effective ways of driving fairies off, or holding them at bay, include burning rags or old shoes- the stench created is offensive to the fays’ sensitive noses (which makes you wonder if they really smell like burnt rags themselves, as Mrs C on Man alleged).

Froud, ‘The Bigot Bogey,’ from Good Faeries, Bad Faeries, 1998

See more too in my 2021 book, The Faery Lifecycle:

Glamour houses- a strange faery illusion

band_of_fairies_jpw
A Band of Fairies, by John Philip Wagner

A man was lost in the dark in deep snow on top of the Cotswold Hills near Dursley in Gloucestershire.  Unexpectedly, and to his relief, he came across an inn where he found a room for the night.  He slept well and found an excellent breakfast laid out for him the next morning.  When he was ready to leave, he could not find any staff around so he placed two guineas in payment for his accommodation on the counter before continuing his journey.  Arriving at his destination, he told his friends of his good fortune the previous night, but they said there was no such inn in the place he described.  Returning to the spot to settle the argument, he found no sign of the tavern, but his coins were lying in the snow.

This story is one of the most interesting examples of what I’m calling ‘glamour houses,’ grand buildings that are created by the fairies to accommodate humans, but which disappear by the following morning.  I’ll describe the various accounts we have and then consider why the fairies should go to this trouble.

The Phenomenon

The ‘glamour house’ phenomenon seems to be a feature of the fairies of Wales and the borders of England.  The vast majority of the examples come from North Wales.  All of the cases take place at night; in several the human is lost in bad weather.

In a couple of examples, the traveller is a farmer returning from a fair (one at Pwllheli in Lleyn; the other at Beddgelert near Snowdon).  This fact may, of course, make us suspicious that each had been drinking after a good day buying and selling.  The same might be said of a man called Ianto, who was returning home very late after a wedding.  The rest of the cases don’t give grounds for such doubts, though.  A shepherd from Cwm Llan, near Beddgelert, went out onto the mountain to search of his flock and got lost in mist;  a harpist setting out from his home at Ysbyty Ifan to walk to Bala was also caught by mist and lost his way so that he fell in a bog; people returning home after peeling rushes at Llithfaen, near Llanaelhaearn on Lleyn, came across a fairy dance.

However they find themselves far from home in the dark, the usual experience of the ‘glamour house’ is to be invited in, either to receive shelter or even to join in festivities, whether that may be a wedding celebration or simply communal singing and dancing.  The traveller is made welcome, fed, warmed and, eventually, given a comfortable bed for the night, in which they sleep well after their wandering and the good company they’ve enjoyed.  The sequel is always the same: they awake next morning to find the house or tavern vanished.  The man returning from Pwllheli awoke on a pile of ashes; more commonly, the man finds himself lying on heather or rushes, perhaps with a clump of moss for his pillow.  The Bala harpist found himself in a sheepfold, with his dog licking his face.  Ianto had the luckiest escape, for after being ‘pixy-led’ by music through bogs and thickets, he awoke not in a fine house but on the very edge of a precipice.

kensington-gardens_41
Arthur Rackham, Kensington Gardens

Key Features

To summarise the experiences then, people are out wandering very late at night; they may be lost or they may be in danger from fog or a blizzard.  They are given somewhere warm to sleep and, generally, awake outside under blue skies the next day.  The Dursley story is slightly different in that the illusion persists well into the next day, after the man has ridden off to meet his friends in Stroud. The only major departure from this pattern is an account from Llyn Bwch in the north of Ynys Mon (Anglesey).  Here young people would regularly go out on moonlit nights to see the fairies celebrating.  They would find a grand palace standing where none existed during the day time and would see the fairies there, dancing and enjoying themselves.  In the mornings afterwards, the palace would have vanished but fairy rings might be seen and fairy money might often be found.

Motivations

Who do the fairies do this? To begin with, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the fairies are perfectly capable of building such structures in reality- whether for themselves or for human customers.  Secondly, their magical powers are such that they can easily construct the simulacrum of a house, inn or palace that appears to a visitor to be physical and real but yet which is nothing but glamour.  A good example of this comes from the ballad of the Wee Wee Man.  The narrator of the song meets the fairy man of the title when he is out walking.  He is invited to visit the fairy’s ‘bonny bower’ which stands on a nearby green:

“… we cam to a bonny ha’;/  The roof was o’ the beaten gowd,/ The flure was o’ the crystal a’. / When we cam there, wi’ wee wee knichts/   War ladies dancing, jimp and sma’,/  But in the twinkling of an eie,/ Baith green and ha’ war clein awa’.”

The Wee Wee Man creates the illusion of a splendid hall, built of sumptuous materials, but it can vanish in an instant.  This exactly what we see in these stories of transitory inns.

We might say that this is an excellent way to lure humans into your clutches and an elaborate form of pixy-leading and, it is true, Ianto ends up in the fine house where he sleeps after vainly following fairy music and voices for miles in the dark. There is some mischief involved, but very little, and no-one is ever harmed or abducted in these incidents.

On the whole, though, deliberate deception does not seem to be the aim.  Whilst it’s correct to observe that none of the splendid rooms the people see, the luxurious beds in which they sleep, the food they eat or the pleasant people they meet are really there, or are what they seem, the aim nonetheless appears to be to help or even protect a lost traveller. At the very least they are given free entertainment and food.

All of this may seem to be a strange and elaborate way of behaving, but the fairies can be extravagant with their favourites.  The practice is, in this way, related to the habit of the fairies to adopted favoured humans and to grant them money– in light of which it’s interesting to note that the lost shepherd from Cwm Llan found silver coins in his shoes when he awoke and, weekly for a long time after that, he would find a coin between two stones at the spot where he had slept (until he told someone about his luck, of course).

For more discussion of this subject- and other faery illusions, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side

Fairy Knot Magic

The spinning wheel
Lilian Amy Govey- from ‘Dreams and Fairies’ series, 1922

I’ve written before about fairy magic involving intricate hand gestures.  Here I want to pursue that general idea.

In Ben Jonson’s masque of 1610, Oberon the Fairy Prince, two satyrs discuss celebrations organised by Oberon.  One asks if they shall “Tie about our tawny wrists/ Bracelets of the fairy twists?”  What is this referring to? What on earth does it imply?

Faery Twists

It seems that knots and twists are something intimately linked to fairies.  They will, of course, twist animal and human hair.  The faeries like to take and ride human horses at night, at the same time tightly knotting their manes into ‘pixy locks.’ These knots seem to function in part as stirrups and bridles, but they also seem to be a sign of fairy control.  For example, a Perthshire man who was taken from his garden by the faeries was returned three days later with his hair all in knots- visible, physical evidence of his abduction.  The knots have a practical function, therefore, but they appear to represent more than that.

Knot Magic & Healing

Scottish fairies are reported to dance around a fire at Halloween, throwing knotted blue ribbons over their left shoulders with their left hands.  Those who then pick up the ribbons will fall into the fairies’ power and may be abducted by them at any moment.

These actions are plainly some sort of magic spell.  The tying and releasing of knots is a long-established means of binding sickness to a person, or of freeing them from it.  It is seen very often in folk medicine and in witchcraft and the Scottish witch trials of the seventeenth century supply several examples.

Jonet Morrison of the Isle of Bute, who was tried in 1662, cured a sick baby by tying a knotted and beaded string around it for forty-eight hours, which was then removed and placed on a cat.  The cat instantly died, proving that the illness had been transferred from the child to it.  The power of knots for protecting or cursing is revealed most powerfully in the account of a woman condemned as a witch at St Andrews in 1572.  She faced the usual punishment for such an offence- strangling at the stake and burning- but she had betrayed no fear or alarm about her fate until her jailers removed from her a white cloth “like a collore craig [a collar or neck cloth] with stringes, whair on was mony knottes.”  After this was taken away, she despaired.  We may compare the fact that accused witch, Isobel Haldane, from Orkney, had been found to have “thrie grassis bound in a knot” in her home, a circumstance that only added to the weight of evidence against her.

Isobel Gowdie, of Auldearn near Nairn, was investigated for witchcraft in 1662.  She gave a fulsome and lengthy confession that included a couple of uses of knotted threads.  To steal milk from sheep and cows, she told her inquisitors that she and the other witches in her coven would take their tethers and “pull the tow and twyn it and plait it in the wrong way… and we draw the tedder (sua maid) [so made] in betwixt the cowes hinder foot and owt between the cowes forder foot and thereby take the milk.”

Secondly, the witches interfered with the dyeing vats of Alexander Cummings of Auldearn.  They took “a thread of each cullor of yairne… and did cast thrie knots on each thread… and did put the threidis in the fatt, withersones abowt in the fatt [stirring anti-clockwise] and thairby took the heall strength of the fatt away, that it could litt [dye] nothing bot onlie blak, according to the culor of the Divell.”

MWM 1
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

These practices made their way into Scots verse as well.  Alexander Montgomerie composed the Flyting of Polwart in the early 1580s as a ritualised mocking of Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth.  The latter was extravagantly insulted, amongst other things being accused of being born of an elf and then abandoned.  His baptism proceeded in this manner, with the child being bound to Hecate:

“Syne bare-foot and bare-leg’d to babtize that bairne

Till a water they went be a wood side,

They fand the shit all beshitten in his awin shearne [faeces],

On three headed Hecatus to heir them they cryde

As we have found in the field this fundling forfairne,

First his faith he forsakes in thee to confyde,

Be vertue of thir words and this raw yearne,

And whill this thrise thretty knots on this blew threed byd…”

Another verse was provoked by the trial of accused witch Alison Peirson in 1588.  She was discovered to have treated the Bishop of St Andrews, amongst other sick persons, and poet Robert Sempill subsequently attacked the bishop for his ungodly conduct, accusing him of “sorcerie and incantationes,” amongst which were spells involving “south rinning wellis” and “knottis of strease [straws].”

MWM 2
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

Curing with Hoops

What I regard as a related curing practice involved passing people through loops of yarn; the idea of release seems to be shared between the two.  Janet Trall, of Blackruthen, admitted in 1623 that she had cured a man called Robert Soutar in such a way.  She passed him through a “hesp of yarn, and afterwards cut it in nine parts, and buried it in three lords’ lands.”  Janet had learned these skills from the fairies, she said.  Thomas Geace from Fife also passed patients through yarn, in one case burning the thread afterwards.

There are plenty of other Scottish examples.  Andro Man from Aberdeen would administer cures by passing patients nine times through “ane hespe of unvatterit [undyed] yarn” and by then passing a cat nine times through in the opposite direction.  Once again, the illness passes to the unfortunate cat, which promptly dies.  A number of Edinburgh women, tried as witches in 1597, had treated patients by passing them through garlands made of green woodbine.  Some did this three times, others nine times.  One woman went through three times on three occasions twenty-four hours apart; in another instance the garland was cut up into nine pieces and burned after the ritual.

Knots & Knowledge

We have previously discussed the fairies’ power of seeing what is to come and to tell fortunes, and there is also a little evidence that knots and threads were used to foretell the future.  In this there must be a strong echo, or imitation, of the Greek Fates.  Whatever the exact source, in Alexander Montgomerie’s mocking poem, The Flyting of Polwart, his target or victim Polwart is alleged to have been raised by the hag Nicneven, who:

“With chairmes from Cathness and Chanrie of Ross,

Whais [whose] cunning consistis in casting a clew…”

‘Casting a clew’ seems to refer to reading the future in threads.

Protective Threads

Lastly, knotted threads could inflict or transfer harm, but they could also guard against it.  In the Scottish Highlands, threads called snaithean were used to protect children and livestock from attack by fairies or witches.  Lengths of wool, coloured either red or black, would be tied around the neck or a beast’s tail accompanied by a prayer and a charm that invoked aid from the trinity, Mary and various saints.

Much of this seems to come together in the ballad Willy’s Lady:

“Oh wha has loosed the nine witch knots

   That was amo that ladie’s locks?

 ‘And wha has taen out the kaims [combs] of care

   That hangs amo that ladie’s hair?

   ‘And wha’s taen down the bush o’ woodbine

   That hang atween her bower and mine?…

   O Willie has loosed the nine witch knots

   That was amo that ladie’s locks.

   And Willie’s taen out the kaims o care

   That hang amo that ladie’s hair.

   And Willie’s taen down the bush o’ woodbine

   That hang atween her bower and thine…

   And now he’s gotten a bonny young son,

   And mickle grace be him upon.”

(Child Ballad no.6; see my Fairy Ballads & Rhymes)

MWM3
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

This magic is just aspect of the faeries magical powers, an ability often used to the disadvantage and loss of humans, as I describe in my 2021 book, The Darker Side of Faery.

darker side

Faery song

waterhouse siren 

A siren, J W Waterhouse

I have written before of the fairies’ love of music (known as fonn-sith in Scotland) and of song.  Songs are more, though, than just entertainment: they are magical.

The special status of song in fairy culture is demonstrated extremely well in a story from Highland Scotland.  Angus Mór of Tomnahurich was a shepherd.  He heard music coming from a fairy knoll, accompanied by the voice of his wife-to-be singing.  Approaching the knoll, he peeped in but couldn’t see her.  A fairy woman happened to be passing by so he seized her with his iron-tipped crook and demanded to know what was happening.  She told him that he would only be able to save his intended if, at the end of that week, he could tell the fairy queen’s secret on the Bridge of Easan Dubh (the Black Falls).  Seven days later Angus was on the bridge, where he heard a woman singing in a very fine voice.  It was the queen, and the song itself was her secret.  The last verse went as follows:

“There is music (ceol) in the hall of my dear,

There is gold in the land of Mackay,

But there is a song (oran) in Inverness,

That shall never be known.”

Big Angus cried out that he now knew every word of her song- and her secret with it.  The Queen screamed in frustration, but he had effectively broken her spell, and she was forced to relinquish her claim to his wife.

James Halliwell long ago observed that “fairies always talk in rhyme” and it is true to say that many of their activities and many significant statements are accompanied by song.  For example, fairies at work- grinding, churning or ‘waulking’ cloth- had special songs that went with those activities.  Expressions of strong emotions, such as anger, love and grief, would also take a verse form (Halliwell, Popular Rhymes & Nursery Tales, 1849, p.190; Evans Wentz pp.102 & 112).

The use of verse and rhyme to formulate secrets was also common amongst faery-kind.  Think, for example, of the British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin, creatures such as Whuppity Stoorie and Sili Go Dwt: these goblin-like characters sing their secret to themselves, but are always overheard and undone:

“Little kens oor gude dame at hame,

That Whuppity Stoorie is my name!”

“Nimmy, nimmy not,

My name’s Tom Tit Tot” and,

“Little did she know

That Trwtyn Tratyn

Is my name.”

This last verse works much better in the original Welsh:

“Bychan a wydda’ hi

Mai Trwtyn-Tratyn

Yw f’enw i.”

Wordplay was something that supernaturals particularly respected and enjoyed- and a skill in it could prove crucial.  Some fishermen from the Isle of Lewis were out in their boat when a mermaid briefly surfaced.  They saw her ‘blood-charm’ (perhaps a reference to the fact that a mermaid’s shed blood will stir up the waves into a tempest) and, in any event, merely sighting a mermaid would normally have been interpreted as a sign of disaster.  She resurfaced nearer to the boat and asked the helmsman for his ‘half-stanza.’  The steersman gave a clever answer, referring to his control over the ship, to which she said “It is well that you gave such a reply” and then sank out of sight.  It appears that his quick wit and versifying pleased her, because the boat and the crew got home safely, although other ships out that day foundered and men drowned.

Closely comparable to this incident are the circumstances which gave rise to a ‘fairy song’ from Argyllshire.  A fairy woman daily visited a mother and her new-born son, “with words and with singing of verses to try if she could ‘word’ him away with her.”  Luckily, the mother always had a ready answer and was able to prevent her child being taken.  The fairy woman in her verses successively disparaged the boy- in response to which his mother praised him- then she warned of the temptations of the girls in town as he got older, with their curly brown hair and their bouncy breasts (cìochan currach) and lastly the bean-sith admitted that she wanted him to be the herder of her sheep on the moor.  The mother instead retorted that she hoped he’d be a warrior or a rich farmer.

henry william walker, a fairy bower

Henry William Walker, A Fairy Bower

Mermaid wisdom is also often expressed in verse, as in this advice on health and diet:

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

The same habit was known amongst fairies: for example, a man on the Island of Barra was sent to fetch a doctor for a seriously ill woman.  It was a hot day and on his return journey he sat down on a fairy knoll for a rest and fell asleep.  He awoke to hear a song “Ill it becomes a messenger, on an important message, to sleep on the ground in the open air.” (Evans Wentz p.114)

Faery song can have a sinister significance as well.  The song of the kelpie, the supernatural horse that lives in Scottish rivers, is said to signify that it is in search of human blood.  It is certainly known to sing in triumph when a person is already on its back and it is too late for them to escape.  One song had these words:

“And ride weil, Davie

And by this night at ten o’clock,

Ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Another version, recorded in 1884, went as follows:

“Sit well, Janety, or ride well Davie

For this time morn, ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Pot Cravie is the English attempt at the Gaelic place-name Poll nan Craobhan, a deep pool on the River Spey.  The song celebrates that the victim will be plunged into the kelpie’s lair and won’t be returning.

Another very famous fairy song is that 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 baby heir (Evans Wentz p.99).

In summary, in Faerie speech and words in all their forms are magical and must be carefully guarded.

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Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Orchestra, (from ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’), 1908

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

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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.

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“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

 

“A Gift from the Fair Folk”-Marc Bolan, British rock and Faery

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Rear cover of Unicorn, 1969

In a past post I discussed the faery influences detectable in the music of Led Zeppelin.  Now, following my series of posts looking at fae themes in British classical music of the early twentieth century, in opera, musical theatre, songs and chamber works, I want to bring our discussions up to date.

Much of the British rock music of the late sixties and early seventies was suffused with faery.  A very good example of this is the work of Marc Bolan, in the days when he performed as Tyrannosaurus Rex, and before he shortened the band name to T. Rex and became the glam star that we remember.

The fairy influence is especially strong in the four albums Bolan released between 1968 and 1970, but even as late as Ride a White Swan in 1972 there are traces of elvishness.  The album titles themselves betray the tenor of the songs included on them: they are My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (which is all one title) and Prophets, Seers and Sages from 1968; 1969’s Unicorn and A Beard of Stars, released in the following year.

A Crooning Moon Rune

Certain themes appear repeatedly on these four albums.  There are, of course, repeated allusions to dwarves and fairies:

“Twelve years old, your elvish fingers toss your Beethoven hair” (‘Child Star,’ on My People);

“You’re a gift from the fair folk… A sprite in my house of sight” (‘Travelling Tragition,’ on Prophets)

“Fairy lights in her eyes/ Tame the water” (‘Pilgrim’s Tale,’ on Unicorn)

“She bathes in thunder/ The elves are under her” (‘Jewel,’ T. Rex, 1970)

“Tree wizard pure tongue … The swan king, the elf lord” (‘Suneye,’ T. Rex)

and, most especially for its mention of the sidhe folk:

“Fools have said the hills are dead/ But her nose is a rose of the Shee;/ A silver sword by an ancient ford,/ Was my gift from the child of the trees.” (‘Blessed Wild Apple Girl,’ Best of T.Rex, 1971).

There are, too, plentiful mentions of wizards, warlocks and magi, of myths and legends and of mysteries, such as unicorns.  Bolan references Narnia (‘Wonderful Brown-Skin Man’ on Prophets), King Arthur and the Matter of Britain: “Holy Grail Head, deep forest fed/ Weaving deep beneath the moon” (‘Conesuala’ on Prophets) or “Let’s make a quest for Avalon” (‘Stones for Avalon,’ on Unicorn) and (repeatedly) Beltane, including these lines:

“Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days,

Wear a tall hat and a tatooed gown,

Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane…” (‘Ride a White Swan,’ on Ride a White Swan, 1972).

Bolan was, it seems, steeped in British folklore.  He wrote of ‘The Misty Coast of Albany’ (with its echoes of William Blake’s lines “All things begin & end in Albion’s ancient Druid rocky shore”) and of the magical woods “Elder, elm and oak.” (‘Iscariot’ and ‘Misty Coast,’ both on Unicorn).  Even so, the other major fascination and inspiration for Bolan seems to have been classical myth, most especially woodland creatures like satyrs and fauns.  On a mantelpiece at his home he kept a small statute of the god Pan, which he called ‘Poon,’ to whom he addressed little messages and requests. Bolan’s biographer Mark Paytress has described the god as “Marc’s muse.”  Of course, in this devotion he’s linked directly to Arnold Bax, John Ireland and Arthur Machen.

The pagan Greek world appears several times in Bolan’s lyrics, with allusions to satyrs, maenads and titans:

“The frowning moon, it tans the faun,/ Who holds the grapes for my love.” (‘Frowning Atahualpa,’ My People)

“a pagan temple to Zeus/ He drinks acorn juice” (‘Stacey Grove,’ Prophets)

“Alice eyes scan the mythical scene… We ran just like young fauns” (‘Scenescof Dynasty,’ Prophets)

 As this jumble of citations possibly indicates, there were so many allusions packed into Bolan’s songs that the verses tended not to tell any coherent story but rather to sketch impressionistic imagery for the listener: aural painting, let’s say, creating a mood or feeling.

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The back cover of the expanded version of Unicorn.

The jumble of influences and imagery extended to the band’s album covers, too.  Bolan loved the art of William Blake, Dali and Arthur Rackham and for the cover of the first album, My People, asked the designer to provide something that looked ‘like Blake.’  On the back of the sleeve of Unicorn there’s a black and white photo of Bolan and co-member Steve Peregrine Took (note the name, Tolkien fans).  The pair are posed with an array of meaningful objects, which include a book on the Cottingley fairies (supplied by photographer Peter Sanders) and several volumes from Bolan’s own collection- a child’s Shakespeare, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and William Blake’s collected verse.  Collectively, these form a kind of key to Bolan’s writing.

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John Peel and his gramophone, 1968: N.B. Fairport Convention album, folk fans.

Do you ken John Peel?

The Bolan story is made more intriguing for his association with radio DJ John Peel.  Peel will be well known to many British readers, but very possibly much less familiar to those from outside the UK.  Peel became an institution on BBC Radio One, with a weekly show late on Friday nights on which he played and promoted new music he had discovered.  He performed a major role introducing listeners to punk rock from 1976, but before that had favoured folk and dub.  Earlier still, he had been a good friend of Marc Bolan.

The pair met in late July or early August 1967 and quickly became close.  They spent a great deal of time together, professionally and socially, and Bolan one night gave Peel a hamster called Biscuit (in a night club- the poor creature spent the evening riding round on one of the turntables).

Peel was taken with Bolan’s warbling voice and began to feature Tyrannosaurus Rex prominently on his radio shows.  He had a regular column in the International Times in which he also promoted his new friend.  As an established and respected DJ Peel played frequently around the country and so could offer more direct help to his friend’s career.  He started to give Bolan live support sets to his DJ appearances: Peel had a regular slot at the club called Middle Earth in London’s Covent Garden and also took the band with him as part of his ‘John Peel Roadshow’ as it was grandly called- everyone crammed together in his car and heading up the motorway.

Not only did Peel promote Bolan’s music; he contributed to it.  He narrated the track Wood Story on the album My People Were Fair and wrote the sleeve notes:

“They rose out of the sad and scattered leaves of an older summer… They blossomed with the coming spring, children rejoiced and the earth sang with them.”

Peel provided a further narration on the album Unicorn and also started to appear as a sort of support act for his friends.  He read poetry to the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall, sitting cross-legged on the stage, and at the Tyrannosaurus Rex gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on January 13th 1969, Peel was billed to appear to “prove the existence of fairies,” as the flyers promised, by reading poetry to the audience.  In the face of this proof, they remained, it is reported, “politely silent.”  What could Peel have been reading?  Based on what we learned just now, I wonder if the DJ may have read selected poems from Shakespeare and Blake- and maybe John Keats too?

Peel made out later that he never really understood or sympathised with Bolan’s mythic leanings.  He claimed that he couldn’t understand the song lyrics because they were too ‘mystical’ and ‘hippie’ for him.  Nonetheless, there’s the evidence of those sleeve notes and we know too that the pair travelled, with their respective partners, to visit Glastonbury, capital of hippiedom since the days of Rutland Boughton, where Bolan was pictured on top of the Tor.

In later years Peel was a gruff and slightly cynical personality, so these ‘airy-fairy’ indulgences all feel rather difficult to reconcile with the older, more rational enthusiast for the Sex Pistols and Extreme Noise Terror.  Nevertheless, Peel’s overall verdict was that Tyrannosaurus Rex “were elfin to a degree beyond human understanding.”

Signs of the Times

Marc Bolan is now the best remembered fairy rock star of the period, but the fae influence was pervasive.

For example, Bob Johnson of folk-rockers Steeleye Span asked in an interview in 1976:

“Everything I do and think is based on England.  If I lived on the West Coast [of the USA] how on earth could I think about elves and fairies and goblins and old English castles and churches?”

So strong, in fact, was this spirit of place that, along with another band member, Johnson produced an electric folk opera The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1977). This was based upon the book of the same title by Edward, Lord Dunsany (an author in the vein of Machen and a great influence upon H. P. Lovecraft) and the record featured contributions from, amongst others, Welsh folk singer and Eurovision entrant Mary Hopkin, blues musician Alexis Korner and Christopher Lee, star of (amongst so many films) The Wicker Man.

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The King of Elfland’s Daughter album cover.

Further Reading

You can listen to all Tyrannosaurus Rex’s albums on YouTube, of course; check out too the work of Dunsany and (even) Steeleye Span.  For more information on Marc Bolan, see these biographies: Paul Roland, Cosmic Dancer, 2012; Mark Paytress, Marc Bolan- The Rise and Fall of a Twentieth Century Superstar, 2003 and John Bramley, Marc Bolan- Beautiful Dreamer, 2017.  For John Peel see his autobiography Margrave of the Marches and Michael Heatley, John Peel, 2004.

“With white wands swinging”- fairy queens and magic wands

hester margetson

Magic wands

Wands have been symbols of power for millennia.  They denote civic office and, since at least the 1300s, they have symbolised and conveyed magic power.  In the grimoire The Oathbound book of Honorius, hazel and laurel staffs are used for magical operations such as summoning demons.  They are four sided with names and figures written upon them.  In the fourteenth century Italian text, The Key of Solomon, demons are conjured and lost items are found with procedures which involve the use of wands and staffs.  The former are made from hazel or other nut wood, the staffs from elder, cane or rosewood.  They must be of one year’s growth only and must be cut with a single stroke on a propitious day at sunrise.  They should be inscribed with figures on a similarly suitable day and at an auspicious time.  The text recommends that wands should be long enough for a person to draw a circle around themselves.

In the ballad of the same name, the witch Allison Gross makes her magic with a conjurer’s staff:

“Then out she has taken a silver wand
She’s turned her three times round and round
She muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm.”

In the ballad The Laily Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea, a silver wand is used to reverse the spell and to turn the worm back into a gentle knight.

Both William Lilly and Elias Ashmole, whose rituals for conjuring fairies have been preserved for us, make ample reference to the use of wands in their ceremonies.  Reginald Scot records similar practices in Discourse on witches.

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Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, A fairy flies through the night sky.

Fairy wands

Given these magical associations, it was inevitable that those fairies being summoned should acquire their own wands too and this image has certainly become embedded in our iconography and therefore, so it would seem, in our visions of them.

Wands are not mentioned very much in traditional British folklore, but Evans Wentz mentions a Breton tale in which a white fairy wand is used to enter Faery: it is struck twice against a rock in a cross shape in order to open the portal to fairyland. Wentz also suggests that the faes’ wands may be derived from those believed to have been used by druids.  (Fairy faith pp.202 & 343-4; Luzel, Contes popularies, vol.1, p.3 ‘La fille qui se maria un mort’)

The fairy wand makes a central appearance in the traditional story ‘Kate Crackernuts’ which is from Orkney.  Princess Kate was victim of a jealous stepmother, who used magic to cover her good looks with a sheep’s head.  Her stepsister, also called Kate, was angry at what her mother had done; together the two escape from their palace and go to live in another kingdom.   There stepsister Kate discovers that the prince of the realm lies sick in his bed because he goes to dance under the hill with the fairies every night and, even more importantly, that a fairy child in the knoll possesses a wand which will cure her sister.  By rolling hazelnuts, she is able to distract the little boy and seize the wand, enabling her to free her sister of the sheep’s head.  Faithful Kate then cures the elf-addled prince and everyone (of course) then marries and lives happily ever after.

However, Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provides us with a dozen modern examples of faes wielding wands.  The wand is often the attribute of an individual fairy identified as a fairy queen by witnesses, a distinguished person who will often wear a crown or coronet as well- though in one sighting in a Nottingham dentist’s surgery, a group of ballet dancing fairies each waved a wand.  It should be remarked that the crowns and tiaras seen on the brows of these faery queens may be another human interpolation: as with wands, there’s no necessary reason why the fays should imitate our indicators of rank- nor that these regalia should signify the same things to them, even if they do.

The wands seen by Johnson’s witnesses are noted as being made of silver, gold or crystal; a couple emit light; a quarter of them have stars on the end.  In one case, the wand produces magic- a twist of it by the fairy queen fills a room with other dancing fairies.

The wand seems to have become inseparable from the fairy in the minds of many.  Literature, art and supernatural experiences all reinforce each other.  We perhaps expect to see a wand, meaning that- whatever the fae may actually be holding- there’s a tendency for it to be labelled as a wand regardless.

Here’s Fairy led by English poet Mary Webb (1881-1927) as a closing example of what has shaped our perceptions so powerfully:

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

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There’s more on faery magic and its deployment (and a great deal less about pretty girls in lip gloss and eye shadow wielding wands) in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side

Fairies and elder trees

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Cicely Mary Barker, from Flower fairies of the trees, 1961

In one of my earliest postings, I discussed the curious link between fairies and elder trees.  I’d like to return to that with some fresh evidence, mainly drawn from the Isle of Man.

Elder trees are widely seen as having some sort of magical or spiritual properties.  For example, in Herefordshire there was a taboo upon burning elder wood for fear of bringing misfortune, whilst its inner rind was used to cure cows of jaundice.  Witches were said to dislike the tree, so its pith was fed to those believed to have been bewitched.   In Shropshire elder was never used as firewood as it would bring misfortune, even death, to the household.  The wood shouldn’t even be brought into the house, as it could cause a cow to lose its calf, nor should cattle be driven with an elder stick.  The juice of the plant would be used to protect the threshold and the hearth.

On the Isle of Man,  the same ideas prevailed as on the British mainland.  Whilst the tree was said to be the haunt of the fairies, it repelled witches and, accordingly, there was hardly to be found an old well (tholtan in Manx) near which there didn’t grow an elder tree, according to Agnes Herbert in a guide to the island written in 1909.  If you carried elder leaves with you, the islanders believed, you would be protected against witchcraft.

These are but the first indications of the supernatural associations of the tramman tree on the island.  The fairies live in the trees and when the branches of the trees are seen to bend in the wind at night, it is in fact the fairies riding upon them.  Given their status as fairy residences, interference with the trees can be dangerous.  Evans Wentz heard the story of a woman from Arbory parish who one dark night accidentally collided with a tramman.  She was instantly smitten with a terrible swelling which all her neighbours agreed was the consequence of offending the fays by her clumsiness.  Another local account told of a man who cut down an elder and was driven to suicide by the aggrieved fairies, Walter Gill recorded in 1932.

The Manx fairies living in the ‘tramman’ are plainly very similar to the Old Lady of the Elder tree that I described before.  It’s not clear, though, whether or not they’re identical.  The Old Lady seems to personify the tree in some way- to be its spirit- whilst the Manx fays live in, or at least gather in, the elders, but may not actually embody them.  Regardless of the detail, the supernatural associations are very clear and persistent and- what’s more-  can be seen across Northern Europe from Denmark to the British Isles.

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Cicely Mary Barker, The elderberry fairy, from Flower fairies of the autumn, 1926

‘Horse and hattock’- Fairy motion- Part Two

Scott Ariel & Caliban

David Scott, Ariel and Caliban, 1837.

In a previous post I examined evidence indicating that the fays have a distinctive gliding motion.  Implicit in that is the possibility that they may be hovering above the surface of the ground, rather than being in contact and taking steps.  It sounds from the reports as though they may not actually be flying, nor are they walking.  In this post I return to the subject and pull together all the clues in traditional folklore on the subject of fairy locomotion.

Since the eighteenth century it has become very difficult to conceive of fairies without also picturing wings.  Winged fairies are now consistently seen by witnesses- as in the recent Fairy Census- but the older folklore generally doesn’t describe them like this.  How they get about then is not clear.

Fairies on foot

We know that the brownies definitely get around on foot.  For instance, there’s a common story of a devoted domestic sprite in Scotland who walked daily from his dwelling to the house to which he was attached, crossing a stream by stepping stones on the way.  One day, when the weather was bad and the water levels had risen, the people in the house didn’t expect to see him because the river was too treacherous to cross- but he impressed them with his commitment to his duties by walking a long distance out of his way in order to cross by a bridge.  Plainly, if levitation or flight had been an option- he would have used it.

We also hear of fairies moving house.  When they do so, they tend to move in a conventional human manner, with horses and carts.  In one sighting from Sutherland during the late 1860s the witness saw three carts laden with furniture and other household possessions being dragged over the moorland where there was no road and in a direction in which no human habitation lay.  When the church bells drove the pixies out of their home at Withypool on Exmoor, they borrowed a local farmer’s horse and cart to make the move.  Various other isolated mentions of fays using carts and carriages can be found.

The same methods are, of course, used when the fairies decide to abandon a place.  On the Isle of Man, when the flour mill was built at Colby, the local fairies gave up their former haunts.  Early one morning they were seen climbing up into the mists and solitude of the mountain glens, with their household goods on their backs.

The only exception to these very mundane images comes from the Reverend Robert Kirk.  In The secret commonwealth he described in chapter two how:

“They remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year … Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge…”

This quaint image is certainly highly suggestive of that floating motion I described in my previous posting.  Nonetheless, there’s no suggestion of ‘teleporting’ from one location to another, nor of flight as such.

It’s worth mentioning here too the fact that some fays will also put to sea in boats, whether for pleasure trips or for fishing. Either way, they are expected to be tied to exactly the same forms of locomotion as humans.

Mounted fairies

Besides wagons and coaches, another very well known use of horses by the fairies is in the so-called ‘fairy rade’ in which the group often termed the ‘trooping fairies’ process about the countryside.  Fairies will also hunt on horseback  and there are frequent reports of this- especially from the Isle of Man.  Yet again, though, there is some suggestion here of weightlessness.  Describing the Nithsdale fairies, Cromek said that they rode steeds “whose hoof would not print the new ploughed land or dash the dew from the crop of a harebell” and that they never deviated from straight lines in their travels, going straight through hedges and across corn fields to their destinations without leaving a trace on the crops.

The fairies keep their own horses, but they will also ride human steeds at night (tying their manes in ‘elf-locks’ and on the Isle of Man they’ve even been known to commandeer people to ride around on).

doyle-fary-queen

Richard Doyle

Flying fairies?

The nearest we come to some indication of winged flight is a couple of Victorian descriptions of encounters.  An example from West Yorkshire dates to about 1850.  A man called Henry Roundell, of Washburn Dale near Harrogate, got up early one day to hoe his turnips.  When he reached the field, he was astonished to discover that every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing in shrill cracked voices “like a lot of field crickets.”   As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled ‘like flocks of partridges.’  Another nineteenth century account from nearby Ilkley tells of a crowd of fairies surprised whilst bathing in the local spa baths.  The caretaker of the wells cried out in astonishment and “away the whole tribe went, helter skelter, toppling and tumbling, head over heels, heels over heeds, and all the while making a noise not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges.”  As they fled there was a whirring noise, which sounds very like startled wings, but we are told that “the fairies were “bounding over the walls like squirrels.”  In fact, if you look closely at both accounts, there’s no suggestion that they actually flew away like birds- merely that the startled commotion sounded similar to this.

Some fays (hobs and pixies) can transform themselves into birds, as we have see when discussing fairy shapeshifters, but this is a rare ability and is definitely not a widespread means of travel.

Magical flight

Can fairies fly then?  The answer is- yes, but not with wings.  The vast majority of British fairies have never been believed to have wings, in any case, but they don’t need them because they (or certain groups of them at least) can get around very well without.  They are able to fly through the air by magical means; there seem to be three or four separate ways of achieving this.

One is by means of a simple spell.  Various forms of words are recorded: naming the location to which you want to go might be enough in some cases.  On other occasions, a magic formula is required, and the commonest of which we hear is the cry of “Horse and hattock!”  It’s never made clear why these words are used, but we can hazard a few guesses.  It’s known that fays can enchant plant stems to ride like horses through the air.  For example Scottish poet Alexander Montgomerie mentions “When our good nighbours doe ryd … Some buckled on a bunwand, and some on a been” in his verse The Flyting between Montgomerie and Polwart (1585).  Now, a hattock is no longer an everyday word in English, but it means a sheaf or stook of corn, so perhaps what we have here is a spell to turn a wheat or barley stem into a mount.  There is of course an evident connection with witches’ broomsticks here, although it seems the fairies have a great deal more choices of flight available to them.

In Scotland and Ireland the fairy host, the sluagh, ride around the night sky, sometimes transporting hapless humans with them.  It seems that this is how they get about, as no other form of transport is ever mentioned.  For example, Sandy Gunn, of Houstry, near Dunbeath in the far north of Scotland, set out one summer morning sometime in the 1870s to visit his sister Betty.  He never arrived at her house and did not return home in the evening.  In fact, it wasn’t until the middle of the next day that he appeared, with a strange tale to tell.  Walking up a hill called Cnoc-an-Crask he’d felt a gentle breeze.  He’d lost his footing and been carried up into the air.  All day and all night he flew across the country, before being gently returned to the same spot the next morning.  In this case the flight seems to have been used mischievously (or even, perhaps, as a treat for the hapless human).  In another case the flight is pure mischief, teasing and scaring the victim.  A man at Fleshwick on the Isle of Man was caught up one night and transported over the fields until he got to the cliff edge, where the fays suddenly deposited him.

Flight could also be used as a punishment against one who’d offended or annoyed the sith.  A Perthshire herdsman who had prevented the fairies carrying off a newborn child and its mother was promptly carried off through the air for six or seven miles and back again before being unceremoniously dropped down through the smoke hole of his father’s cottage.  Here the aerial abduction is plainly a punishment for thwarting the fairies’ wills.

Similar stories come from Wales, too, and from them we learn that this form of flight is not necessarily pleasant for the human taken along.  The Welsh fairies travel either above, in the middle of or below the wind.  Above is a giddy and terrible sensation, whilst below involves being dragged through bush and brake.  This was plainly the  experience of one man whose case was described by the Reverend Edmund Jones in the late eighteenth century.  A hunting party visited a pub kept by Richard the tailor, “one who resorted to the company of fairies.”  One of the group went outside to relieve himself and was snatched up by a passing fairy band.  He was with them all night, being carried all the way from Monmouthshire to Newport and back again.  When he reappeared the next morning he “looked like he’d been pulled through thorns and briars.”  He felt very ill and said that for part of his journey he had been insensible.  Evidently he had been travelling below the wind (Jones, The appearance of evil, no.68).

A very similar – and vivid- description was given by Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of witchcraft of 1584 (Book III, c.IV):

“many such have been taken away by the said spirits for a fortnight or a month together, being carried with them in chariots through the air, over hills and dales, rocks and precipices, and passing over many countries and nations in the silence of the night, bereaved of their sense and commonly of their members to boot.”

The flying ‘chariots’ is a unique feature (although, as stated, we sometimes hear of ordinary terrestrial carriages and coaches) but Scot’s depiction of the effect of these prolonged aerial abductions certainly fits very well with the Rev. Jones’.  A Manx commentator described those taken as being carried ‘insensible’ through the sky.  Doubtless many of us might faint at the experience.

Naturally, some humans are exhilarated by the experience of flight and the novelty of visiting strange places in far lands.  Others are keen to try it at first, but then find it’s not as enjoyable as they had hoped.  A weaver joined the sluagh by pronouncing the magic words over his loom beam.  To begin with all went well, until he saw the host flying off a precipice.  At this point his courage failed him, he dropped to the ground and had to carry the beam all the way home on his shoulder

Next, a magical item can be used by the fairies to move around.  In a story from Herefordshire, a boy lost in the woods finally comes across a cottage and is taken in by the two women living there.  Later that night they put on white caps and fly off to a fairy dance.  He uses a third spare cap to follow them, although he’s later admonished by them for his impudence.

Finally, fairies can travel in a whirlwind.  This is again well known from Scotland and Ireland, but is also reported from as far away as Cornwall.  The use of these eddies of wind by which to move about seem to offer the fairies two advantages: firstly, they are fast and secondly they will blind humans who encounter them, maintaining the fairies’ concealment and, perhaps, allowing them to conduct a bit of surreptitious thieving on the way.

Further reading

See my other posts on whirling fairies and on fairy motion and too chapter 13 of my British fairies for a discussion of fairy pathways.