Following up my April posting on faes that look like ‘Wheels on Fire,’ I’ve recently been researching the faerylore of the Channel Islands, and have come across some more strange manifestations of faery-kind.
The Guernsey phenomenon called le faeu boulanger (the rolling fire, but literally the ‘baker’s fire’) is something like a will of the wisp, but yet has its own unique features. Like the will, le faeu can indicate where treasure is buried, but islanders also say that it’s a spirit in pain, always wandering and seeking a delivery from its plight through suicide. It’s surprising to us, perhaps, to think of a supernatural desiring mortality– or even being able to kill itself- but the evidence confirms that this seems to be the case. If a knife is left with its haft stuck in the ground and the blade pointing up, le faeu will attack it and plunge itself repeatedly onto the blade, leaving drops of blood in the morning.
Behaving more like a will of the wisp, le faeu will pursue people, and the only solution then is to turn your coat (just as when you’re being pixy-led). One evening during the 1920s a man called Le Sauvage was walking home one night when he- and the lane along which he was passing- were bathed in a strange red glow. He then saw a ball of fire bounding across a field towards him. Despite the shock, he tore off his cap, pulled it inside out and jammed it on again. The fire vanished, as did the pervading glow. Le Sauvage then staggered home, but was so shocked that he could barely stir from a chair for the next twenty four hours.
In the late 1960s or early ’70s a man encountered an oval ball of light at Piemont on Guernsey. It was a couple of metres ahead of him and floating about 30cms off the ground. He was terrified and felt trapped, but discovered that if he took one step forward, the ball retreated by the same amount. He was able, very slowly therefore, to make his way towards his home until the light vanished. Other sightings of le faeu were also reported in the early 1970s, two on the beach and another in a field.
On the island of Jersey there is a related apparition, called the Wotho. This is a round ball, about 45cms in diameter. One man who saw it described how it rolled backwards and forwards in the road at his feet, stopping him advancing. This account puts me in mind of an experience relayed by the Reverend Edmund Jones in his book, A Relation of the Appartion of Spiritsin the County of Monmouth (1813). Jones described an incident that occurred in the parish of Bedwas (pages 39-40):
“Mr Henry Llewellyn, having been sent by me… to fetch a load of Books… and coming home by night, towards Mynydduslwyn, having just passed by Clwyd yr Helygen ale-house, and being in dry, fair part of the lane, the Mare which he rode stood still, and would go no farther, but drew backward ; and presently he could see a living thing round like a bowl, rolling from the right hand to the left, crossing the lane, moving sometimes slow, and sometimes very swift, swifter than a bird could fly, though it had neither wings nor feet ; altering also its size : it appeared three times, lesser one time than another; it appeared least when near him, and seemed to roll towards the Mare’s belly. The Mare then would go forward, but he stopped her to see more carefully what it was. He stayed, as he thought, about three minutes, to look at it ; but fearing to see a worse sight, thought it time to speak to it, and said, “What seekest thou, thou foul thing? In the Name of the Lord Jesus go away!” and, by speaking this it vanished, as if it sunk in the ground near the Mare’s feet. It appeared to be of a reddish colour with a mixture of an ash colour.”
These are very odd accounts indeed, but they remind us to be much more open to experiences than we are perhaps conditioned to be by the conventional preconception of the fairy as a tiny, winged female. Readers may also recall similar sightings reported in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies (2014). During the early 1940s a woman on a country walk in Kent saw a furry tennis ball rolling up a slope towards her. It briefly opened when it drew close to where she was sitting to reveal a pixie within- and then disappeared. Another woman, visiting Cornwall in the 1930s, saw a pisky who changed into “a long furry black roll, which gambolled about on the grass and then disappeared.”
Two other anomalous descriptions from Seeing Fairies are worth citing, just to confirm the very wide and unpredictable range of forms that supernatural beings may assume. As a child, a Miss Rosalie Fry lived at Glydach outside Swansea. Playing with her sister inside the house one day, they both saw “something they could only describe as being like a piece of the finest white chiffon, about eighteen inches square, [that] floated very slowly down into view… moving in an extraordinarily graceful, flowing manner and then, as slowly, wafted away up out of sight” and vanished. Johnson herself, along with her sister, had a similar experience in at home in Nottingham in 1971. In the street outside their house they saw what seemed to be “several white crinkled paper balls, but which, if viewed from the right angle, could have been wide, frilly dresses or tutus worn by tiny beings.” For some time they rolled and walked and danced in the road. A man walking his dog passed by, oblivious to the shapes (although his dog was not). After a while, the curious assembly vanished.
As I’ve said before, Faery can be a lot more mysterious than we allow ourselves to imagine…
The Channel Island accounts are from Marie de Garis, Folklore of Guernsey, 1975, and John L’Amy, Jersey Folklore, 1927. See also Johnson, Seeing Fairies, 2014, pages 28 and 236. The Fairy Census 2017 is also a very good source of unexpected faery forms.
A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), suggested that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies, books that adult pagans had seen as and absorbed as children. Is this really true? Is the view of faeries as green champions really so recent and untraditional a development?
In fact, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to indicate that faeries have been connected with nature conservation and environmental causes for a quite long time. For example, there is a widespread popular story of a woodcutter just about to fell a tree who is stopped by the appearance of a fairy being from beneath the ground. This is described as having happened as far apart in Britain as Northamptonshire and Nithsdale in the Scottish Borders. The idea of faeries as active defenders of the natural world was therefore accepted in folk belief from at least the start of the nineteenth century, a situation that was reflected in the literature of the time. In his 1810 poem Alice Brand, Sir Walter Scott had the elfin king demand:
“Why sounds yon stroke on the beech and oak,
Our moonlight circle’s screen,
Or who comes here to chase the deer,
Beloved of our Elfin Queen?”
In the ballad of Tam Lin, the young Tam appears to his lover-to-be, Janet, after she plucks a rose in the forest. He complains that she has taken the flower without his permission. Similarly, in the ballad Hynde Etin complaint is made by the fairy when nuts are picked, “For I’m the guardian of the wood/ and ye maun [must] let it be.” Whether this is environmental stewardship or cases of trespass on private land is not entirely clear, but the faeries are evidently highly protective of their natural resources. We might see those faeries that protect (human) orchards and nut groves, such as Owd Goggie, in a similar light.
Lastly, an article carried by the Welsh Western Mail in September 1878 described the industry that had brought prosperity to Nant y Glo and Blaenau, in Gwent, albeit at the cost of the local woodlands. The extensive tree-felling was dated back some ninety years to the time when ironworking first started in the area and demand for charcoal expanded steeply. Before then, we are told, the fairies had protected the trees of the hills and valleys thereabouts. These were yr tylwyth teg yn y coed, the fairies of the wood, who often used to be seen assembled under the female oaks there, and who guarded the trees and harmed those that felled them. Sadly, however, they couldn’t resist against the “inroads of a gross material civilisation” (as the writer called it, even then) and they were driven off west into less spoiled parts of the Principality. These sentiments might surprise us from a Victorian, but they demonstrate that environmental awareness, and a sense of the faeries’ role as eco-guardians, might not be that new.
As far back as the start of the seventeenth century, in fact, there is evidence of the fairies being seen as friends and protectors of wildlife and the natural world. Sir William Browne in Britannia’s Pastorals imagined the fairies
“Teaching the little birds to build their nests,/ And in their singing how to keepen rests…”
The ‘eco-fairy’ as a concept is not new, therefore, even if the label is. An examination of the folklore and literary sources discloses three interrelated functions that the faes were believed to undertake: they cared for small mammals and birds; they had a special link with certain flowers and trees and, lastly, they assumed a more general supervisory role over the natural world, keeping it in balance and preventing over-exploitation and pollution.
Fairies’ Furry Friends
Fairies not only lived and played in the countryside- according to Victorian poetry they talked to the birds, taught them how to sing and kept their eggs warm in the nest by curling up to sleep beside them. Poet Rose Fyleman, famous for There’s a Fairy at the Bottom of my Garden, in her verse A Fairy Went A-Marketing, imagined how a fae might buy pet fish and birds and then set them free. For Fyleman, fairies and wildlife were best of friends, with robins serving as a page in the fairy court and tiny faes living contentedly in flowers.
Verse and popular conceptions went hand in hand, as there are reported encounters with fairies helping birds find berries in the snow and looking after wildlife in wintry weather. Early Victorian child poet, Annie Isabella Brown, imagined fairies describing how:
“We gathered flannel-mullen leaves,
Against the winter’s cold;
To keep the little dormouse warm,
Within its hedgerow hold.”
Poet Menella Bute Smedley also imagined the fairies “twisting threads of bloom and light” to make butterflies’ wings.
Just as there was active supernatural involvement with the animal kingdom, folk tradition identifies two aspects to the relationship between fairies and plants. They are attracted to certain herbs, whether supernaturally or for merely utilitarian reasons (foxgloves, for example, are called fairy gloves and fairy thimbles) and, secondly, the fairies are said inhabit certain trees, such as oaks, thorns and elders. It was a relatively easy transition from these associations to come up with the idea of flower fairies as popularised by artists Cicely Baker and Margaret Tarrant, but the foundations of this twentieth century phenomenon are much deeper and older (see Lewis Spence, BritishFairy Tradition, pp.178-80).
It looks as though the first step towards the flower fairy idea was to emphasise the affinity between fairies and particular flowers. Next, it was an easy step to conceive of the spirits living in those flowers and the miniaturisation of the fairies popularised by Shakespeare and his contemporaries assisted with this. Inevitably, too, the fairy character began to be softened by association with bloom, scent and colour.
This change seems to have proceeded from the seventeenth century, judging by scattered indications in our literature. For instance, William Browne (1588-1643) in his verse The Rose imagined that “the nimble fairies by the pale-faced moon/ Water’d the root and kissed her pretty shade.” From the eighteenth century there is good literary evidence for the idea of fairies taking up residence in flowers. Coleridge, for example, described “Fays/ That sweetly nestle in the foxglove bells.” His contemporary George Darley imagined little fairies with scented wings emerging at night from blossoms and flitting from flower to flower enjoying nectar like wine (George Darley (1795-1846), What the Toys do at Night and The Elf Toper).
By the late nineteenth century this idea was exceedingly widespread: American poet Madison Julius Cawein repeatedly housed his fays in toadstools or in blooms and in his adult fairy tale, Phantastes, Scottish author George MacDonald described how “the flowers die because the fairies go away, not that the fairies disappear because the flowers die. The flowers seem a sort of house for them, or outer bodies, which they can put on and off when they please… you would see a strange resemblance, almost a oneness between the flower and the fairy… [but] whether all flowers have fairies, I cannot determine.” When J. M. Barrie adopted these ideas for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, he was simply making use of an already well-established idea- although the success of his books and plays took it to a much wider audience.
Consequent upon inhabiting flowers, other connections were seen- for example, gardens become an ideal place to see fairies according to the poetry of Philip Bourke Marston and others. It was also during the nineteenth century that the fairies’ role as conservers of plant life was crystallised. In The Fairy’s Promise Edwin Arnold had fairies promise to help a love-sick poet because “Thou hast never plucked daisy or heather bell/ From the emerald braes where the fairies dwell.” The fairies’ floral duties are spelled out in detail in The Wounded Daisy by Menella Bate Smedley. They are to be found at work in the corners of meadows:
“Perhaps you’ll see them… setting the lilies steady, Before they begin to grow; Or getting the rosebuds ready Before it is time to blow. A fairy was mending a daisy Which someone had torn in half…”
According to numerous nineteenth century poets the fairies shaped and inspired growth and, even, taught the plants how to grow at special schools over the winter.
Finally, Menella Bute Smedley made an important leap by involving humans as partners in the task of caring for the natural world:
“Then pull up the weeds with a will,/ And fairies will cherish the flowers.” (A Slight Confusion)
There are, then, two conceptions of the exact interrelationship between fairies and the natural world. The first is that they exist simply as a part of the natural world and its processes. The second, and more significant, is that they act as ‘guardians of nature’, actively watching over plants, animals and the earth as a whole and keeping the intricate systems in balance.
Fairies and the Green Revolution
Many contemporary writers on fairy matters stress how the faes are opposed to intensive agriculture, to overuse of fertilisers, to pollution and to general environmental degradation. It would be easy to imagine that these ideas have been imported into the faery faith since the 1960s, but the examples given so far make it abundantly clear that they were present in folklore and, thence it would seem, in literature, well before any conception of the harms of over-intensive cultivation even occurred to the scientific community.
Fairies have always been linked more closely to rural and uncultivated locations than to towns, although it would be wrong to suggest that they’re never seen in urban places (and the evidence of the recent Fairy Census and of the witness accounts recorded in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies both suggest this is changing anyway). Even in the countryside, though, they’re not a people solely of wild places and woods. They often live and work around human farms (the Hobs and the Brownie type of spirit) and they frequently take advantage of the human environment, using mills and dancing in pastures and meadows at night. There is no antipathy with agriculture as such, therefore.
That said, ideas of fairies as a champion of more traditional, organic, self-sufficient production date back to the mid-nineteenth century at the very latest. For example, folklorist Evans Wentz in the 1900s heard in Scotland that the Highland clearances also drove off the sith. Highlander John Dunbar of Invereen told him that “no one sees them now because every place on this parish where they used to appear has been put into sheep and deer and grouse and shooting.” A vision of them fighting with sheep was seen, in fact, as a premonition of what was the follow (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 94).
Works such as Peter Pan and the various Flower Fairies books unquestionably popularised the conception of the fairy as protector and champion of nature, but these ideas had been around since Elizabethan times and had been consolidating during the Victorian period. Such perceptions of the faeries are, arguably, as traditional as notions of them dancing in rings and stealing children. The ‘green fairy’ is not some hippy, environmentalist creation, grafted on in recent decades, but is a fundamental element of the nature of Faery.
For further discussion of the environmental role of faeries, see my more recent post on the relationship of faeries to the natural world and my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):
It’s frequently said that children are especially able to see the fairies- perhaps because of their innate innocence, perhaps because they are endowed with a sort of second sight and so are open to wonder and magic and are not closed off mentally by rationality and ‘good sense,’ as adults can be.
Children’s Second Sight
The folklore evidence as to the existence of special powers in children is equivocal. The sheer number of accounts that could be analysed mean that a statistical test of this is impractical, so I rely on my anecdotal impression of all the reports I’ve read to say that there’s no special bias towards infants: any one of any age and any sex is liable to see the Good Folk, it seems from the folk stories. However, we can be a bit more scientific about the more recent reports. Consolidating the cases of sightings from the Fairy Census and from Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies, it’s possible to say that around a third of witnesses were children. Of these, about 80% were girls.
What do the above statistics tell us? Well, for developed countries, the proportion of children seems high. In the UK, those under 18 make up about 21% of the population; in the USA it’s 24%, whilst 14% of the German population are 17 and under. It seems, then, that children are indeed now slightly more likely to experience a fairy encounter; and girls are obviously significantly more likely. Whether this is reflective of genuine differences, or of a sexist tendency for it to be acceptable for female children to express such ideas, and for boys not to do so, is much less clear.
Acquiring Second Sight
On the whole, though, age appears to be much less a factor in seeing fairies than other influences. Doubtless a pre-existing predisposition to belief- even an expectation that a fairy might be seen- must help. In earlier generations, other explanations for being able to see supernaturals were advanced. For example, those born on a Sunday were said to be more prone to second sight (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.81); others said that it was those born early in the morning who acquired the gift (Spence, British Fairy Tradition, p.160). Some people might be genetically more likely to have these experiences; others may acquire the second sight as a gift from the fairies.
The fact seems to be that some people are lucky enough to have the second sight and the majority of others are not. The ability does not discriminate by any physical factors. For example, Martin Martin, touring the Hebridean islands in the eighteenth century, reported the local belief that not only children, but horses and cows as well, were all believed to be endowed with the ability to see the sith folk
The differential nature of the gift is demonstrated very well in an account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. In 1937 an old woman told a folklorist how, as a small girl, she had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field. The little girl was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing. Very possibly, however, if the mother had held her daughter’s hand, she would have seen the Good Folk- it’s very common for the sight to be easily transferred by contact in this manner.
Sightings by Children
Now, to turn to my illustrations, which are largely taken from postcards and books of the 1920s and 1930s. What will be apparent instantly is that the authors and artists of this period were quite blase about the experience of contact with the faes. Although, as I have explained several times in previous postings, people (especially children) are very vulnerable to abduction, you might know nothing of this danger from these pictures. Instead, it’s all rather charming and lovely. Kids- and in particular girls- are encouraged to hope for these encounters and to plunge into them without hesitation.
Suggesting to anyone, especially guileless infants, that a free and easy approach to fairy contact is advisable seems- in light of all the folklore evidence- to be extremely unwise, even reckless. Clearly, by the interwar period, the fairies had been reduced in the minds of many to harmless and probably unreal little beings- just perfect for amusing little girls. Margaret Tarrant- presumably in a play upon the name of the junior girl guiding organisation, the Brownies, and the domestic fairies of British tradition, also called brownies– seems to actively promote contact as a harmless pastime for young Guides. The human Brownies were so-called (I assume) because they were encouraged and expected to undertake lots of little household chores for mother (just like their supernatural counterparts); the risk is, of course, that they’ll be kidnapped and made into slaves for the fairies.
There’s seldom a hint in all these images that any wariness is required. A few suggest a hesitation on the child’s part, or a sensible inclination to spy from a place of concealment, but most of the subjects make no attempt to protect themselves, or appear to experience any apprehension. All I can say is- you have been warned….
The fairy themed children’s books and postcards that were so abundant during the interwar period enriched our visual culture immensely- I’m thinking especially of the work of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and their flower fairy illustrations but, as this post shows, many other artists were active during those decades as well.
However, these artists showed little awareness of or respect for British folk tradition and the fairies they promoted to the card buying public were almost exclusively sweet and harmless. Nevertheless, others (such as Marjorie Johnson) maintained actual contact with Faery and, as some of the recent encounters in the Fairy Census demonstrate, the Good Folk are still temperamental and potentially perilous.
There is some strange connection between the faes and bees which, rather like their associations with the cuckoo, are now no longer as clear to us as once may have been the case.
The Voice of the Beehive
There is certainly a similarity in terms of appearance and sound between honey bees and faeries. For example, a man on Arran was out cutting bracken one day when the fairy host flew over him. He reported that he saw “something like a swarm of bees,” into which he threw his reaping hook. The iron tool caused the faes to drop his wife, whom they had abducted, leaving a ‘stock’ behind in her bed.
This comparison to a flock of small creatures is common in eye-witness reports. A man at Benbecula in the Hebrides heard the sluagh go over- it sounded to him ‘like a flock of plovers.’ A man living near Harrogate once got up early to hoe his turnips. When he reached his field, he was astonished to discover every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green. As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled like flocks of partridges. In another Yorkshire report from Ilkley, fairies surprised whilst bathing in the spa there made a noise “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” when disturbed by the caretaker.
The noise of the fairies, as well as their appearance, might resemble that of a hive of bees. John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass) on the Wiltshire downs and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.” They objected to his intrusion on their dancing and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.” A fairy host described on the Isle of Man sounded first like humming bees, then like a waterfall and lastly like a marching and murmuring crowd as they drew progressively nearer to the witness. (Sophia Morrison, Manx Fairy Tales, ‘Billy Beg, Tom Beg & the Fairies.)
Florence Anderson, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’
Modern sightings have often compared fairies to insects (though admittedly butterflies, moths and dragonflies rather than bees) but ‘buzzing’ is a term used to describe their motion. One woman in Florida saw a fairy riding a bee (for example Fairy Census no.s 5, 5A, 320, 400, 417, 475 & 251). The weirdest sighting comes from Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies: a woman on holiday in mid-Cornwall during the 1930s described meeting a female cliff-dwelling pixie, who was about two feet in height and was covered in short dark brown hair with yellow rings on her body and arms, very much resembling a bumblebee (p.53).
Returning to the Manx faes, another traditional belief was that ‘bumbees’ are actually misbehaving fairies who have been turned into insects as a punishment by others in their community. In Ireland, in the 1850s, a folklore collector was told that bees are fairies, who are in turn the souls of those deceased, a notion that connects us back to the longstanding ties between fairyland and the land of the dead. The identity between fairies and bees is attested from Wales, too. In British Goblins Wirt Sikes describes how those trying to destroy ancient megalithic monuments would face supernatural opposition, amongst which might be “swarms of bees, which are supposed to be fairies in disguise.” (Notes & Queries, vol.10, 1854, p.500; Sikes p.383)
Lastly, mention ought to be made of the spirit called Browney, a Cornish fairy whom you’ll find listed by Katherine Briggs amongst others. Simon Young (of the Fairy Investigation Society) has written an article, Against Taxonomy: The Fairy Families of Cornwall, which argues quite convincingly that this sprite- who was allegedly summoned to settle a swarm- was the product of confusion and misremembered stories, and never existed at all.
The fairy associations with moths is the subject of an earlier posting on this blog. The fae ability to fly is also related to this, as is the existence (or not) of fairy wings. For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021).
The source of my title, but not very relevant, I know…
What do the fairies think about us? The view that has emerged in recent decades is that they are concerned to help us, to heal the planet and to better ourselves, but as I’ve indicated in previous posts, the older tradition very frequently discloses a harder, more cynical character.
The attitude of the faes to humans that is exposed in the folk stories can be, at best, dispassionate and can be coolly exploitative in other accounts. In fact, according to some observers, the fairies regard us with humour or even contempt.
In the 1673 text, A Pleasant Treatise of Witches, the author describes the fays as “little Mimick Elves” who “busy themselves chiefly in imitating the operations of men.” We shouldn’t mistake this for flattery though: these ‘imitators of men’ seem to laugh, he tells us, “mocking sometimes the workmen [in mines] but seldome or never hurting them.” (p.53)
This bleaker view of fae conduct was repeated in an article in Fraser’s Magazine in 1842 (vol.25, p.317). In A Sketch of Scottish Diablerie in general the writer observed that most people feel that they imitate human feasts and pastimes in “fiendish mockery” and for some “hellish purpose.”
In this light, an isolated incident in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies acquires more meaning and significance. A Mrs J. Hanley recalled an incident that had occurred when she was a young woman of eighteen. Walking in the mountains near Bettws-y-coed in North Wales, she had the sensation that she was being followed and turned around. She saw:
“a little man about two feet high, who looked rather as if he had been put together out of sticks or the twisty roots of gorse. He seemed too me to be swaggering along, mocking us, I think, as a small boy might so.”
She turned to her companion to point out the extraordinary sight, but the being vanished at that moment (of course). Nevertheless, she retained the feeling that she and her friend were being watched by several unseen observers and were “the objects of derision.” (p.24)
This is not the only such experience recorded in Johnson’s book. Other witnesses detected a derisive tone in voices or in the way that fairies laughed at them- although sometimes this amusement may have been merely teasing or even sympathetic. (Johnson pp.25, 58, 68 & 90)
From time to time, fairy contempt for humankind breeds overconfidence. This can be seen in the ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ class of stories, in which a fairy being holds power over an individual so long as his name can’t be discovered. Contemptuous of the human’s ability to guess the name, the supernatural uses it to himself- and is, of course, overheard.
Why should the fairies have this attitude towards us? Scottish fairy poet James Hogg may offer part of the explanation. He was told by shepherd William Laidlaw that he had met with fairies in the Ettrick Forest. Their wild unearthly eyes had-
“turned every one upon him at the same moment and he had heard their mysterious whisperings, of which he knew no word, save now and then the repetition of his name, which was always done with a strain of pity.” (‘Odd characters’ in Shepherd’s Calendar, 1829).
Perhaps this explains the fairy attitude. Humans are short-lived, they lack magical powers and they spend their time working hard to win the means to live. Compared to the carefree fairy lifestyle, it must seem a comically pitiable existence, hectic with unceasing toil and prematurely ended. In this context, it’s highly instructive to reread the recollections of Welsh boy Elidyr, who visited faery in the twelfth century. He recalled to Gerald of Wales that the fairy folk he met had only contempt for humans’ ambition, infidelity and inconstancy. Later he tried to steal a golden ball from his supernatural hosts; they recovered it from him with expressions of scorn, contempt and derision. The encounters described above all appear to be modern instances of the same responses.
On this blog I’ve many times returned to what is, for me, the fascinating subject of fairy speech. As I’ve described previously, we expect to be able to communicate with our Good Neighbours and, most of the time, this happens without comment. From time to time, however, the incomprehensibility of the fairy tongue is remarked upon. We may draw several conclusions form this: either that they share- and have always shared- our speech with us, or that close proximity with us over centuries has made them bilingual- even though they may naturally, amongst themselves, speak another language entirely. British fairies have been heard to speak English, Gaelic, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon as well as wholly unknown tongues: according to one Scottish witch suspect, Anne Cairns (tried and executed at Dumfries in April 1659), the ‘fferie’ were “not earthen folkis” and so spoke “no earthly talkis” but rather conversed with “ane eldridge voyce.”
Rackham, Fairy song.
Silence is golden?
In this post I take a different tack: that contact with the fairies can require- or lead to- loss of one’s voice. From this perspective, silence is the result of being near the fays or it is the safest option when they are near.
Elspeth Reoch was a young Orkney woman tried for witchcraft in March 1616. She told her prosecutors that she had been in contact with the fairies on and off since she was twelve years old. There is much that is interesting in her confessions, but here we are interested solely in the fact that she lost her voice after she had sex with one of two fairy men who approached her; this was to protect her against people’s questions as to how she had gained the second sight. Elspeth lay with him and when she woke the next morning, she had “no power of her toung and could not speik.”
Diane Purkiss provides a full account of the case, along with considerable sociological and psychological theorising about Elspeth’s situation, in her book Troublesome Things. It looks as though Elspeth derived some income from begging as a mute and from telling fortunes, but that her own family were angry about her silence and allowed her brother to beat her quite severely to try to get her to speak. Purkiss’ speculations over gender roles and power may be justified, but let’s put Elspeth’s loss of voice in a wider context.
Barbara Bowndie of Kirkwall on Orkney was taken by the fairies for a day. She told her trial in 1644 that this experience left her speechless for a further twenty four hours- as well it might. Janet Morrison, a suspect witch from Bute, told her trial in 1662 that she had healed a girl who had been blasted by the ‘faryes.’ The child, daughter of a man called McPherson, was lying “without power of hand or foot and speechless.” Janet made her well with herbs. In both these cases, loss of use of the tongue is the consequence of fairy proximity- whether deliberately inflicted or not; it is one symptom of being ‘elf-addled‘.
John Stewart, tried for sorcery at Irvine in 1618, had acquired knowledge of palmistry from the fairies whilst in Ireland. One Halloween, he had met the king of faery and his court. The king had touched John on his forehead with his staff (wand), which had the effect of blinding him in one eye and making him dumb. Three years later he met the king again one Halloween and his sight and speech were restored. He then met the fays regularly and acquired his skills from them.
Silence might also be enjoined upon a person meeting the fays. The Reverend Robert Kirk stated that the “subterraneans [would] practice sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their mysteries.” Any humans who had spent time with the faes under the hill might be “smit… without pain as with a puff of wind… or they strick them dumb.” Bessie Dunlop is a very famous witch suspect, tried at Lyne in 1576. Once again, her confessions are a rich and fascinating source, but I am interested only in one aspect. A fairyman (or ghost) called Thom Read was her supernatural adviser, helping her with cures for sick people and cattle and locating lost and stolen goods. On one occasion, Thom introduced her to twelve handsome fairy folk; before they met Thom forbade her to speak to them. The ‘guid wichtis’ as Bessie called them greeted her and invited her to go with them to Faery/ Elfame. As instructed, she did not reply and then they conferred amongst themselves- she didn’t know what they said “onlie sche saw thair lippis move.” This suggests that they were audible when addressing her directly but when speaking privately amongst themselves they were inaudible, whether that was deliberate or just a feature of fairy speech.
It’s worth pointing out that in several modern cases witnesses have reported an identical experience: they see the fays speaking but they hear nothing (for example, see Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.48, 89 & 299). In this connection too, we should note the scattered but consistent reports on telepathic communication, in which the barriers of the spoken word are overcome entirely (Johnson pp.20, 80, 89, 111, 163 & 262).
A woman of Rousay in Orkney, whose child was taken by the trows, was instructed how to recover her infant by force. She had to break into the fairy lair, snatch back her baby and hit the fairy woman who’d abducted it with a bible, three times. Throughout this encounter, not a word was to be spoken, otherwise the rescue would fail.
Finally, on certain other occasions Bessie Dunlop saw Thom Reid in public- in the street and in the churchyard- but had been enjoined not to speak to him. She had been instructed that, on such occasions, she must never address him unless he had spoken to her first. This may be as much to do with concealment as with matters of confidentiality or communication between dimensions, it has to be remarked.
It may be significant too that speech can be a way of dispelling fairy enchantment. Those who are pixie-led or in the process of being taken by the fays can sometimes break the spell by crying out for help. For example, a Manx woman who was surrounded on the road and jostled in a direction she didn’t want to go managed to free herself by calling her son (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith p.126).
Lastly, the fairies could also help with curing loss of speech. Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried for witchcraft in May 1658, was a folk healer who diagnosed and treated a man whose tongue had been ‘taken’ by the fairies. She advised him to use foxglove leaves and water taken from a south-running stream. Likewise, the parson of Warlingham in Surrey during the 16th or 17th century made a manuscript collection of medicines and cures that were “taught him by the Fayries.” One of these was for loss of speech: “take wormwood, stamp it, temper it with water, strain it and out a spoonful in the mouth.”
Conclusions & further reading
So, to conclude, we have tantalising glimpses of a fresh perspective on the fairy world. Loss of speech may well be an integral part of that condition called ‘fairy blast,’ being ‘taken’ by the fairies or what I’ve termed ‘elf-addled.’ It may also be something that’s imposed or inflicted upon a person who has dealings with the fairies so as to ensure that their privacy is protected.
These adverse outcomes can be real and life changing- here are two further examples from the Isle of Man: a man who spied on fairies dancing in an old kiln was taken ill, and was left unable to walk for the remainder of his life, whilst another who watched fairies dancing through the keyhole of a deserted cottage was blinded for his impertinence. These are the extreme outcomes. Definitely, the common responses are terror, bewilderment and, naturally, surprise. In Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies we read these not untypical accounts:
“The physical reaction was that Mr X’s wife was so completely unnerved as to be almost hysterical… The boy said he felt ‘weird.'” (p.115)
“He said he was stunned by the sight and one occasion had gone into a kind of swoon… he seemed partially ‘fairy-struck.'” (p.116)
Some people certainly can find fairy encounters very draining and are left ill and exhausted for some time afterwards.
Very understandably, many people will be amazed, awed, entranced and fascinated by what is happening to them. One man wrote in 1973 of a meeting with a gnome which made him “neither disturbed nor excited, just curious to know more about him.” (Janet Bord, Fairies, p.72)
However, in this posting I’m going to focus upon the pleasant and spiritual results of a fairy encounter. Beyond the natural astonishment and shock, there are far more positive responses.
For instance, some men walking along a road on the Isle of Man one night met three huge fairies coming the other way. As they passed them, they felt a curious sensation, ‘as if lifted up.’ This reaction is very far from unique. We find it echoed in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies by witnesses who describe their elation, exhilaration and sense of enhanced health. One felt “as light as air” afterwards; another “had a rather exciting feeling like being on a great height, but I was in no way afraid.” (pp.31, 144, 156, 192, 251, 254 & 296)
Hutton Lear, A glimpse of the fairies
Also from Man comes the following experience, recounted by a Mr J H Kelly to Evans Wentz (Fairy Faith p.134). The witness was walking back from Laxey to Douglas one moonlit night when he heard voices and “was conscious of being in the midst of an invisible throng.” The strange feeling continued for the distance of a mile or so “There was no fear or emotion or excitement, but perfect calm on my part” he recalled. Eventually he turned off the main road and “there was a sudden and strange quietness and a sense of isolation came over me, as though the joy and peace of my life had departed with the invisible throng.” He was left convinced of the reality of the fairy folk. In Seeing Fairies several witnesses mentioned the sense of peace or calm they felt.
As in the Laxey case, and as is quite predictable, a fairy encounter will often create a true believer. For example, Dorothy Tompkins saw a flying being in her garden and said to herself:
“This is not a butterfly or anything else, it is a fairy. I am absolutely sure, and nothing and nobody must ever make me doubt it.”
Another of Johnson’s informants described the sighting as an “enlightening experience. I knew something first hand, which I had not known before.” (pp.44, 46, 66, 112, 181 & 318)
Similar was the experience of Cynthia Montefiore, recorded in 1977. She was with her mother in the family garden in Somerset, when they both saw a fairy hovering in a rose bush. “We went back to the house astonished and enriched by our mutual experience…” (Bord p.69)
Even if the witness isn’t changed, the encounter will very often stay with them for the remainder of their lives: “one of the most vivid experiences of my life” said one. Equally, there can be sadness to have seen a fairy and then never to see one again, and a longing to go back to an age when we might have been more open to such visions.
Comfort and joy
Many of the first hand accounts sent to Marjorie Johnson recount the happiness, even joy, that the sightings gave. Often, too, the individuals derived comfort from the encounters. Several had been sad or worried before, but afterwards felt restored and reassured (for example, pp.45, 223 or 254).
These sensations can stay with you, too. Consider for example the words of a Welsh woman who spoke to researcher Robin Gwyndaf (in Narvaez, The Good People, 1997, p.181). She described how her knowledge of the reality of the tylwyth teg made her feel: “it gives you some kind of joy to think about it,” she told him.
A Hampshire woman called Sylvia Pigeon saw a fairy in her garden. She recalled that:
“She felt love and compassion coming from the creature, that ‘it was looking at me with some delight, I would say… I had a feeling of love and friendliness.’” (Bord p.71)
An assurance of friendliness was communicated to several of those who described their fairy encounters to Johnson.
McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush
“Like seeing beyond this world”
These sensations of happiness, love and personal development must surely be part of the reason why people so often connect fairy encounters with religious meaning. Not only are they in touch with an otherworld- they feel uplifted and enhanced by it.
The end of the experience may also abruptly terminate the feelings of joy, though. We saw this in the earlier account from the Isle of Man; something similar was felt by two boys who met two fairy youths and their mother on a beach on the island of Muck in about 1910. They spoke to the fairies for some time and even shared their food. After a while the Scottish boys’ sister arrived and spoke to them- “the spell was broken and immediately they became fearful, though before they had felt happy.” It is fascinating how often the intrusion of an external individual is necessary to break the fairy enchantment, although this is usually the welcome release from being pixy-led: for example, a woman unable to find her way out of a field in Cornwall was only rescued when a farm boy came wandering past; an Irish woman being led off by a crowd of fairies could only escape them by calling to her son and a Welsh man who had awoken at night to find fairies dancing and feasting in his bedroom could only find his way out of the room by crying out in panic and awakening the rest of his family (Bord, pp.15, 123 & 128).
A special mention should be made here of the impression caused by hearing fairy music. I have described before the impact the ceol sidhecan have and it’s worth repeating now. The combination of contact with supernatural forces, conveyed in a form that naturally affects the human senses and emotions, can be extremely powerful. For example, one of Johnson’s witnesses said that hearing the high and plaintive sound of undines signing was: “so alluring that I was filled with a strange longing.” Another told her that the sweet, unearthly music “will never be effaced from my memory.” (pp.328 & 329)
‘Midsummer tomte’ from The Midsummer Tomte & the Little Rabbits by Ulf Stark & Eva Eriksson
I’m going to start controversially. The theme of this post is gnomes, but the fact is that gnomes don’t exist. The word ‘gnome’ was made up by the sixteenth century German physician Paracelsus to describe a concept of his own invention, an earth dwelling nature spirit. It wasn’t quite like the dwarves or kobolds of his native Germanic folklore and it isn’t really related to anything in the folklore of the British Isles either. A substitute term from English might be ‘goblin’ or (even better) the word ‘mannikin’ which was adopted by Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s.
Who’s a gnome?
Arguments about terminology aside, its very clear that people see gnome-like beings all the time and that they are closely tied to nature. The book Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and the Fairy Census 2017 are both full of sightings which give us a very good idea of their appearance and habits.
I should start with a word of warning. Some of the modern accounts give rise to a suspicion that preconceptions about the appearance and conduct of gnomes, derived from literature and popular art, have shaped people’s perception of what they witnessed. For example, a mother’s toddler saw a “funny little man” in their Nottinghamshire garden; she questioned him as to what exactly he had seen and he gave “a fair description with what she associated with a dwarf or gnome.” What the very young infant experienced is channelled through an adult’s interpretation, therefore (Johnson p.17). The mother, and possibly the child too, will have had their vision pre-formed by Enid Blyton, Walt Disney and other such powerful influences. In another instance, the figures seen wore “the recognised garb of gnomes”- as if there is some sort of supernatural uniform (Johnson p.185).
At the same time, though, many people struggle to label what they have witnessed, so that I have sorted out the accounts on the basis of my own prejudices applied to their descriptions and perhaps included some examples that were not gnomic. Some of the beings sighted were called ‘gnomes,’ in one case the witness wasn’t sure whether to best call them gnomes or brownies and a few people resorted to Hodson’s term ‘mannikin’ (Johnson pp.45, 169 & 177).
Whilst we may have doubts about classification, we can be rather more definite in describing the ‘typical’ gnome. They are likely to be seen wearing jackets and trousers, very often hats and boots. The clothes are predominantly green, though often brown. Red is sometimes seen and a variety of other colours have been reported from time to time: grey, blue, yellow and even mauve. As we might anticipate, gnomes’ hats are very frequently pointed and most commonly red. Green brown, yellow and blue headgear have also been seen and hats may also resemble mushrooms and acorns or be broad brimmed or peaked.
Gnomes don’t tend to be tall. About half of those sighted were under twelve inches in height; roughly equal numbers measured between twelve and eighteen inches high, between eighteen and twenty-four inches and taller than that, up to about five feet high in just two examples. Beards were quite frequently reported; white hair or aged features were not uncommon.
Given the total number of cases recorded in the Census, Seeing fairies and a few other sources I used, gnomes don’t seem to constitute a large part of the fairy population. They represent about 13% of the total sightings.
To summarise this information so far: gnomes look like gnomes. They tend to be small, bearded, in tall pointy caps. One witness in Liverpool saw a little being “of the tubby sort;” two others described what they saw as being like ‘traditional gnomes.’ I assume once again that they are comparing the creatures seen to an image of an ‘archetypal gnome’ that they held in their imaginations (Johnson pp.323, 172 & 261).
Given their habitual association with gardens and greenery, we have to add that gnomes may well smell distinctively of loam and damp vegetation. Witnesses in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies report gnomes with “an odour like fungus” or a “strange earthy smell;” there seems to be a particular association with mushrooms and fungus. (Johnson pp.33, 36 & 186)
Where were gnomes seen? This analysis is actually far more interesting than the information on appearance, which in the main is quite stereotypical. Surprisingly, 37% of the beings labelled as gnomes by those who saw them were seen inside houses. That means that the majority, 67%, were seen outside (as we might expect), but the locations varied. Not quite half the gnomes were seen in gardens, but they were also spotted in woods (some even apparently living in trees), in open grassy areas and, in three cases, walking along a road.
What were these gnomes up to? Many did fit with our conventional view of gnomes as gardeners and cultivators. They have been seen busily engaged in a range of garden tasks, including working with green beans in a vegetable patch, tending fruit and flowers- both outside and in greenhouses and the like- sawing and chopping wood, moving plants around and carrying horticultural implements like wheelbarrows, baskets, buckets, brooms, forks, rakes and spades. For example, in 1940 a Mrs Small living in Nottingham had accidentally pruned away the main shoots of some tomatoes. She saw some gnomes, who were about twelve inches high, looking very concerned about the condition of the plants. A little later they came to her carrying a basket filled with green tomatoes and conveyed to her (without words) that she should put them to ripen in a dark place. The same witness also saw a gnome in her garden looking very cross about a piece of rope tied around a tree: it seems that gnomes may be quite possessive about the places they live, or at least have very clear ideas about good and bad horticulture.
The gnomes don’t always need tools to do their work of cultivation and propagation. In one instance that took place at Stapleford in Nottinghamshire, a woman was struggling to weed and hoe a very parched patch of earth. She spotted a gnome watching her with amusement and, when she challenged him for laughing at her instead of lending a hand, he dived beneath the ground surface and very quickly turned over the soil. Gnomes have also been seen in gardens acting as general ‘protectors’ to the plants, for example guiding people towards the best times to pick plants.
Other gnomes are just as busy, but with more general tasks. A couple were seen carrying a heavy bundle; in another encounter, that took place in a snowy Devon lane, a car driver saw six little figures, about eight inches high, transporting a ladder along the road. His appearance led to a hurried scramble to haul the ladder through the hedge and out of sight. Cobbler gnomes in leather aprons and carrying their tools and materials were met by one person. Some gnomes are seen just taking their leisure: in one instance they were dancing, in another doing gymnastics; in a third sighting about a dozen were witnessed racing tiny ponies and traps around a field in rural Derbyshire.
The domestic gnomes are possibly the most surprising: they are quite at home in human houses (and flats)- sitting on the stove, for example, and they seem particularly fascinated by machinery such as sewing machines. One gnome encountered by Geoffrey Hodson quite reasonably spent the summer in his garden in Letchworth, but moved inside the house as winter came on.
We end with a conundrum, then. Our ancestors would not have seen gnomes, because they had never heard of them. They might very well have seen goblins, imps, and even dwarves (duergars) in the North-East of England and the Scottish Borders; they might very well have seen fairies and elves hard at work in their vegetable patches, but it seems to have been a far more recent development that these sightings came to be labelled using Paracelsus’ invented term. This received widespread diffusion through the Theosophists and related groups from the late nineteenth century onwards and the word has become embedded in our language- very possibly because it met a need and provided a convenient term to describe a class of supernatural beings.
As I’ve described before, fairies traditionally travel in whirlwinds. This mode of travel can act partly as a cover for human abductions and partly as a form of concealment. It appears to have been considered essentially faery, so much so that the magic necessary to achieve it might even be imparted to whoever or whatever is carried along in the fairy eddy: for example, a farmer living on the island of Tiree saw one of his sheep being whirled up into the sky by a gust of wind. He was so certain that the fairies had done this that, when the sheep came to be slaughtered, he refused to eat any of its meat- plainly because he considered it tainted in some manner.
We know, too, that one of the fairies’ favourite and most distinctive pastimes is their circle dancing. It follows, therefore, that there are some grounds for arguing that a spinning motion may be inherent in fairy movement. There is more explicit evidence that this may be the case.
Some older evidence
My earliest example is from mid-Wales in 1862. Two carters, David Evans and Evan Lewis, were travelling from Brecon to New Quay in Ceredigion with wagon-loads of timber. At Maestwynog, one August afternoon, they saw some small people climbing to the top of a distant hill. There they danced in a circle for a while, but then began to spiral into the centre, “like a gimblet screw.” Then, successively, the figures disappeared into the ground. The dancing beforehand reinforces the sense that circular motion may be especially fay, but this sighting takes the matter further.
A changeling child who had been exposed at Sorbie in Galloway was put in a basket over the cottage fire to drive it away and retrieve the human baby that the fairies had taken. The changeling shrieked and cursed and spat- and then spiralled up through the smoke hole in the roof “like a corkscrew.”
In Victorian times, two men were out walking one night on the Isle of Man when they saw the figure of a woman dressed all in white standing in the angle of the wall just opposite a church gate. When one of the two man went across to speak to her she took him by the arm and spun him round and round till he was dizzy, and then let go of him so suddenly that he nearly fell down on the road. The marks of her fingers remained on his arm up to the day of his death as dark imprints on the biceps. In another Manx example, a very troublesome buggane was described as “whirling like a spinning wheel” on top of a mountain. He then came to meet an old woman who had expressed the opinion that he ought to be chastened for his many pranks “whirring like a spinning wheel.” [‘Old Nance and the Buggane’- see http://www.feegan.com]
Much more recent sightings suggest that this corkscrew motion was not unusual. A woman from Monmouthshire twice saw fairies- in 1945 and 1949- and each time they appeared to her as a whirling shape before the individual fairy was visible. The fays have also been seen to “spin round and round at a tremendous speed, and then vanish at the peak.” Some others did the same “spiralling upwards with a sound like the soughing of the wind.” The spinning motion can be imparted to objects they’re standing on too (such as a bowl of tulips). [Marjorie Johnson, Seeing Fairies, pp.47, 106, 155, 212 & 297]
The more traditional whirlwinds are still seen too, out on country roads but also in modern urban environments. An art school student from North Carolina saw a figure inside a tiny vortex only one foot high and a factory security guard saw them in dust devils as a child. [Seeing fairies, p. 229 and Fairy Census numbers 346 & 419]
In previous posts I’ve addressed the question of how fairies move about: do they rely upon magic, for instance, or do they use their own forms of transport? The few cases discussed here open up some intriguing new avenues for investigation. Other examples of spinning motion have probably been recorded; perhaps readers know of others?
Grace Jones, The fairy dance, c.1920
For more on the anatomy and physiology of faery kind, see my book The Faery Lifecycle, published in 2021.
There has been a long running debate about the physicality and corporeality of the faes. Some see the faes as being as solid and tangible as us; others conceive the fairies as verging on the weightless. One witness from Newcastle upon Tyne has felt fairies dancing on her hair and clothing. A Manx woman felt them walk on her, “as light as cats.” It is well known that one Scottish word for the faes is the ‘sluagh’- the airborne host- one version of which is sluagh eutram- the light folk.
Others have taken this notion further, shrinking the fairies and reducing their weight correspondingly. Staying in the Highlands, an alternative euphemism for the faes might be daoine beaga- the little people. Another Manx witness confirmed that they were, indeed, “very little and very light.” A Hampshire woman described the flower fairies in her garden as:
“so tiny and so luminous that the very air seems lighter as I sense them. They seem to me to have slight little bodies with gossamer wings.”
Famed Scottish painter of mythical and faery themes, John Duncan, met the faes repeatedly on the island of Iona. During one encounter he noted that:
“Their feet did not bend the thick heather over which they walked and they made no sound as they passed close…”
John Rhys has published a very similar account from Wales, describing the tylwyth teg dancing on the tips of rushes (Celtic Folklore, p.83).
Fairies may be very small, but are they insubstantial? Can we put our hands through them? Can they pass through solid obstacles? Some sightings suggest just this- that they can vanish into walls and banks and that we could never catch them because our bodies pass right through theirs. Evans Wentz relates the story of an Anglesey woman who walked with a fairy lady one night; she tried to touch her but her hand went right through (Fairy faith, p.141).
Definitely in the ‘aery nothings’ camp was Yorkshire writer Durant Hotham. In chapter two of his Life of Jacob Behmen (1654) he observed that:
“nor is the Aery region disfurnisht of its Inhabitant Spirits; [which include] that far more numerous Progeny of Aerial Spirits, lodg’d in Vehicles of a thinner spun thread than is (otherwise than by condensation) visible to our dim sight.”
The Reverend Robert Kirk maintained much the same a few years later. He said that fairies had “light changable Bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed Cloud.” It is because these bodies of ‘congealed air’ are so pliable and subtle that the fairies can appear or disappear at pleasure (Secret commonwealth c.1).
See-saw by Dorothy Wheeler- empirical proof that children weigh more than fairies…
These general statements are complemented by the testimony of actual witnesses. Fairies seen in dancing in the moonlight near Stowmarket in Suffolk during the 19th century were described as being “light and shadowy, not like solid bodies.” The Reverend Edmund Jones, describing eighteenth century Gwent, told the story of a girl who used to dance in a barn with some of the tylwyth teg on her way to and from school. She took off her shoes to do so, because otherwise she made a noise which seemed displeasing to them and because she never heard their feet when they were dancing. These faes appear to be very light, therefore. The same seems to be the case in our last example. Two boys from the Isle of Man met a fairy man on the road once; he was only 5-6 inches tall and, when they tried to catch him, he flew off, leaving no footprints in the dust. A Manx witness even went so far as to allege that the island fairies have “no body and no bones.”
Other witnesses attest on the contrary to the tangible solidity of fairies. A girl from Kent met a fairy man leading a horse in her garden. He put his hand on her wrist “and his touch was cool, not cold like a fish or a lizard but much cooler than a human touch.” In a second incident told to Marjorie Johnson, a young woman walking her dogs near Minehead in Somerset surprised two pixies in an oak wood. They ran away from her into a hollow in an oak tree and, in their haste to dart inside, they forgot to duck their heads. Both knocked off their hats, which Miss Voss-Bark picked up and took home; they were tiny cones made of wood and permanent proof of her encounter.
Especially convincing is another account from the Isle of Man. A woman from Ballasalla told George Waldron how her ten-year-old daughter had met a large crowd of little people up on the mountains. Some had tried to abduct her, but others in the group had objected to this and had tried to protect her and the two sides had fallen to fighting. Some of the other fairies then spanked her for causing dissension. When she got home, she had distinct prints of tiny hands on her buttocks, visible proof of the veracity of her unhappy experience.
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Daisies
The answer to the debate over the solidity or insubstantiality of fairies will resolve many other puzzles over their nature.
Those who have claimed to have had sexual relationships with faes must, almost inevitably, be proponents of the ‘solid and fleshly’ view of fairy nature. Likewise, I think, must be the case those who have acted as midwives or nurse maids to fairy infants- and the same for those children who were abducted as their playmates or the adults who were taken to act as cooks and suchlike domestic skivvies in fairyland.
Other such questions over physicality can have two resolutions. For example, if we wonder what food they might eat, we can either accept that their diet is the same as ours- or instead we can tend to the view that they extract the substance (the foyson or toradh) without taking the foodstuff itself.
We are very familiar with the thought of fairies flying, but there are also reports of them gliding or floating, too; something which is strongly suggestive of lightness or even weightlessness. For instance, in 1922 seven year old Penny Storey was living in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire. As she lay in bed one summer evening, a female being between twelve and thirteen inches high suddenly appeared and glided past her window.
“Her arms were outstretched sideways, and her feet gracefully together… No wings were visible… She simply floated, quite slowly, vertically downwards through the air.”
Jennifer George, from Cornwall, saw something comparable in her bedroom as a girl. A bubble of steady yellow-white light floated about four feet above the floor before gliding out of the window and disappearing.
Some of these figures lack wings but still move effortlessly in the air: “They had no wings but still seemed to dive through the air at a good speed.” Others possess them but do not need to employ them: ballet dancer Betty Lambert, as an adult and with an adult companion, saw a fairy in a bedroom “whose outstretched wings seemed motionless as it floated out into the night…”
Fairies don’t just drift about weightlessly, though. A Mrs Shirley Eshelby of Carbis Bay in Cornwall witnessed a fay dancing in her bedroom early one morning: “although she appeared to me to be dancing in space, she was evidently stepping on something that was solid to her feet, because she never danced below a certain level. When departing she skipped away, touching the invisible line with her tiny, naked feet.” Other fairies, seen in the Home Counties in 1970, “ran on air as if on the ground…” These examples are perhaps more indicative of the fays inhabiting a separate dimension than being incorporeal, but they do imply that, in this world, they do not experience gravity in the same way as we do. (Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.46, 94, 167, 171, 182, 186 & 304)
The evidence is just as ambivalent when it comes to determining how fairies can vanish from our sight- as they do extremely frequently. Is this is a process of physical dissolution- or is it just the application of glamour- or magical deception? Have they gone, or have they simply rendered themselves invisible but are still there?
Contemporary accounts in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provide support for both schools of thought. There are numerous mentions of faes simply disappearing. However, in some cases they seem to melt away before witnesses’ eyes. Those who saw fairies often said that they ‘faded away,’ a process suggestive of a less fleshly nature than our own. One fay “dissolved into a sunbeam, slowly;” another “quivered away.” It can be a gradual process: one man watched a group of fairies “grow lighter, insubstantial, and more like a cinema film” and it can involve the fay appearing and disappearing piece by piece. In one Manx account a crowd of fairies met on the road by three people in a horse-drawn cart simply “melted away” as the travellers got nearer. (Johnson pp.173, 240, 299, 305 & 309; Evans Wentz p.126)
By contrast, there are also plenty of incidents reported to Johnson in which the fairy neither vanished nor dissolved. Rather, in order to get away, they had to run. We’ve already seen the incident with the pixies’ lost hats; fleeing into bushes, behind trees and through hedges are all mentioned. Beings who need to make a dash for cover quite obviously are as solid and real as we are- and don’t have extensive magical abilities either.
As well as my previous postings on fairy bodies and solidity, see too chapter 1 of my British fairies. I also discuss fairy physiology in detail in my forthcoming book, Faery(Llewellyn Worldwide, early 2020).