Still Ill? Diseases caused by faeries

babies

I have described in other posts the various ways in which the faeries can prejudice human health. Here, I want to draw these together and add details of a few other illnesses ascribed to the supernatural causes.

Fairy Blights

The fairies blight and debilitate in a variety of ways.  Overall, medical practitioners recognised that a patient might suffer from being “haunted by fairies” and that she or he might have been “stricken with some ill spirit.” (John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches, 1646, 49).  These malign attentions might manifest in various ways, depending upon the exact causes.  People might sicken and fade away, having been shot with elf-arrows; they might display similar but much more sudden symptoms after abduction and they might fall victim to paralysis.

In the Scottish Highlands, if a fairy breathed upon a person, they might be covered in huge blisters. A lesser version of these symptoms, the rash called ‘hives,’ was known in the region as the ‘fairy-pox’ or a’ bhreac-sith.  

Fairy Nips

The fairies are well known for their pinching, and severe and persistent symptoms of this were treated as a condition in its own right.  In his attack on the idea of witchcraft, A Candle in the Dark, which was written in 1655, Thomas Ady noted that:

“There are often found in Women with Childe certain spots black and blew, as if they were pinched or beaten, which some ignorant people call Fairy Nips.”

Another book of 1672, a satirical attack on Catholicism, mentions the stigmata and sneers that,  although one priest does not bear the holy marks, “he may have fairy nips, which are as bad.”

In 1671, playwright Henry Carey hinted in the epilogue to his play, The Generous Enemies, at a belief that even greater harm might be suffered by younger victims of this condition:

“like children, just alive,/ Pinched by the fairies, never after thrive.”

On Shetland, there was a condition known as ‘dead man’s nip’ which manifested as a small discoloured spot somewhere on a person’s body. It could be healed by the application of churchyard earth or by brushing with a bible.  This seems very likely to be a northerly version of the English illness, not least because fairies and the dead are often intimately associated, and most especially so in Scotland.

Elf-Cakes

Enlargement of the spleen was also believed to have been inflicted by vengeful fairies.  Thomas Lupton in 1579 made reference to “hardnes of the syde, called the Elfe-cake.” Herbalist William Langham in his 1597 book The Garden of Health prescribed certain ‘simples’ to “heale elfe cake and the hardnesses of the side.”  In these cases the word ‘cake’ seems to be used in the sense of a congealed mass, rather as in ‘cake of soap.’

Cures

Very fortunately, as I have described several times, the fairies often supply the cure as frequently as they inflict a blight.  The remedies to fairy illness are as numerous as the illnesses they cause, ranging from using belts and girdles to cure to the many herbal treatments I have described.

For further information on sickness and healing, see chapters 12 and 13 of my Faery (2020).  see too my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side

Fairy herbs

Waterhouse_JW_-_The_Sorceress_1913
J W Waterhouse, The Sorceress, 1913

I have previously drawn attention to the various herbal remedies prepared and prescribed by faeries.  In this post I add a few more ingredients to the fairy pharmacopeia.

Ointments

We know very well that the fairies collected and processed plants for medicine.  Suspected witch Alesoun Peirsoun spent seven years visiting Elfame and had seen the Good Neighbours making salves in pans over fires, using herbs picked before sunrise.  The trows of Shetland did the exactly same because, in the story of Farquhar’s Pig (a pig was a small earthenware jar or bottle), a container of healing ointment is obtained from them (against their will) by claiming it in God’s name.  This invocation rendered them powerless to stop the human seizing the vessel.

In some sources we are simply told, very frustratingly, that the fairies used ‘herbs.’  For example, in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Purse she describes “herbs and flowers wet with fairy dew” being gathered to make eye salves and other ointments, but we aren’t given any more detail than this.  The ‘green herbes’ used by Bartie Paterson in 1607 are another instance of this vagueness.

Medicines & powders

Luckily, the records are often a lot more specific and helpful.  According to the manuscript, Sloane MS 73 f.125, a person who has been taken by elves can be treated as follows:

“Take the root of gladen and make a poudre thereof, and ȝeve the sike both in his metes and in his drynkes, and he schal be hool within ix days and ix nyȝtes, or be deed, for certeyn.”

‘Gladen’ is the common iris, formerly called orris root.  When fresh, it is poisonous; dried, it used to be employed as a flavouring.  In this form it would at least do no harm, so the patient’s recovery of their whole health, or their death, probably couldn’t be ascribed to their treatment.  The rather fatalistic attitude of the text might suggest that the author knew that the treatment would make no difference and that, instead, nature would take its course.  (NB: in Norfolk ‘gladen’ denotes the cat’s tail, or bulrush, a plant with absolutely no known medicinal or food properties).

In 1597 four Edinburgh women were tried for alleged witchcraft and for being associated with the “Farie-folk.’  They appear to have been traditional healers, claiming to have been taught their remedies by the Good Folk.  Christian Lewinstoun, for example, made one treatment by mixing fresh butter with a ‘sweet wort.’ She bathed one of her patients in woodbine and resin and  treated heart disease in another by seething broom and chamomile in white wine.  The former herb has many medicinal properties, including reducing the narrowing of blood vessels; chamomile, too, has a range of healing properties. This suggests that we have here a folk remedy with some genuine benefits.

Lewinstoun also, much less wisely, prescribed mercury (both as a salve and as a drink) to at least two sick people.  The element is highly toxic- although ‘trained’ physicans used it without hesitation during the same period.  Another of the group who faced trial, Jonet Stewart, advised bathing in red nettles and alexanders; she also made a salve by seething alexanders in butter.  Alexanders can promote appetite, aid digestion and act as a mild diuretic and disinfectant.  Nettles share these properties and can reduce inflammation, so again there were some healing properties to these ingredients and certainly nothing magical.

Elsewhere in Scotland flax (the ‘blue-eyed one of the fairy woman’ or, in Gaelic, gorm-shuileach na mna sith) was used as a medicine as well as to protect people against the elves and the sluagh.  In Wales the plant ‘purging flax’ was called llin y tylwyth teg, or fairy flax.  Flax seeds have a range of medicinal properties, as their continued use today demonstrates, so that we have, again, a good indication of a genuine folk cure.

Further Reading

See my posts on fairy inflicted illnesses, physical as well as psychological, and on the treatments, which included the use of still and running water and belts as well as herbs.  See to my Faerychapters 12 and 13.  There is also detailed discussion of the faeries’ healing powers in my 2021 book The Faery Lifecycle:

faery-lifecycle-cover

Fairy cures and potions

I have previously paid some attention to fairy healing, but I’ve recently gathered together a range of evidence on the types of cures and medicines that people have got from the fairies and it made sense to sort and arrange these to give a you a full idea of the sorts of methods and ingredients used.

There are a number of key elements or procedures regularly found in the cures, which are as follows.

Herbs

As a primarily rural people, it is far from surprising that the fays tend to use commonly found plants to make their potions.  Frequently we’re only told that ‘herbs’ were used, made into drinks and salves, but sometimes we are given more detail than just reading that they were “divers green herbs” which doesn’t help much at all.  Suspected witch, Isobel Stirling, used rowan in her cures; Elspeth Reoch used yarrow to cure nosebleeds; Bessie Dunlop was given something like the root of a beet by her fairy adviser and was told to cook it and make it into a salve or dry it and powder it.  Katherine Cragie was tried on Orkney in 1643 for both curing and inflicting illnesses; she treated those stricken by the trows with an application of foxglove leaves (the plant was called ‘Trowis Glove’ on Orkney at this time; it is not a practice to be imitated given the toxicity of the plant).  Nonetheless, Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried in May 1658, also treated a dumb man with foxglove leaves in water from a south running stream.  Isobel Haldane of Perth was tried in 1623 for making charms, a skill she claimed to have been taught by the fairies.  She attempted to drive out a ‘shargie bairn’ (a changeling) using a drink made from ‘sochsterrie’ leaves (possibly star-grass); the infant died (which may or may not have been a successful cure). Lastly, in 1716, Farquhar Ferguson of Arran was tried before a church court for practising charms: one of his medicinal drinks was made from agrimony.

A range of illnesses would be treated with herbs.  For such maladies as “ane evill blast of wind” or being “elf-grippit” (having a fairy attack or seizure) Bessie Dunlop had a variety of cures.  She would mix assorted herbs together to feed to sick cattle; illnesses in people might be cured by ointments or by powders (which were presumably ingested); during her examination in court she added that if the patient “sweated out” the treatment, they would not recover.  Just like Bessie, Jonet Morrisone from the isle of Bute healed a little girl who’d been ‘blasted with the faryes’ using herbs.  Rather like Bessie, too, she told the court at her trial in 1662 that treatment in time should guarantee recovery, but if she was consulted too late, the patient might still “shirpe” (shrivel or wither) away.

Alesoun Peirsoun treated the Bishop of St Andrews for trembling fever, palpitations, weakness in the joints and the flux with a herbal ointment which she rubbed into his cheeks, neck, breast, stomach and side.  Alesoun had spent seven years visiting the faery court in Elfame and had seen the ‘good neighbours’ making their salves in pans over fires, using herbs they had picked before sunrise.

Herbs seemed to do more than cure illness in livestock and people, though.  Janet Weir of Edinburgh told her trial in April 1670 that her fairy helper, a woman who would intercede on Janet’s behalf with the fairy queen, also gave her a piece of tree or herb root which allowed her to “doe what she should desyre.”

A Visit to the Witch 1882 | Edward Frederick Brewtnall | oil painting
Edward Frederick Brewtnall, A visit to the witch

Food

The herbal remedies just discussed as often hard to separate from those involving food stuffs, some everyday ingredients, others rather more expensive and harder to come by.  For instance, Alesoun Peirsoun also treated the Bishop with a medicinal broth made from ewe’s milk, wood-ruff and other herbs, claret and the liquor of boiled hen, which he had to drink over two successive days- a quart at a time.  Bessie Dunlop made a similar preparation.  She was approached for help by a young gentlewoman who suffered from ‘cold blood’ and fainting fits, for which she prescribed a potion made from ginger, cloves, aniseed and liquorice mixed in strong ale and taken with sugar in the mornings before eating.  Margaret Dicksone of Pencaitland used eggs and meal to drive out a changeling- perhaps more of a charm than a cure, just as was the case with the aforementioned Elspeth Reoch.  She acquired the second sight by means of boiling an egg on three successive Sundays and using the ‘sweat’ that formed on the egg to wash her hands and then rub on her eyes.

The vicar of Warlingham in Surrey in the early seventeenth century recorded a range of cures that had apparently been taught to him “by the fayries.”  Some of them involved the shedding and use of blood (quite common in magical remedies), others used food and herbs together.  For example:

  • To cure boils, blotches and carbuncles, take the ripe berries of ivy growing on a north facing wall, dry them, powder them and then give as much as will cover a groat coin in a glass of wine. The patient should be rubbed til they sweat and then put to bed in fresh sheets and clothes.  They will be well by morning;
  • To make a tooth fall out- mix wheat meal with spurge and put the paste in the hollow of the tooth. Given that spurge sap is acidic, this would certainly have had some sort of effect; and,
  • For those who are forespoken or bewitched- take three sprigs of rosemary, two comfrey leaves, half a handful of succory, half a handful of thyme and three sprigs of herb grace. Seethe these in a quart of water taken from a stream and then strain.  Flavour with nutmeg, ginger, mace and sugar and drink warm, followed by five almonds.

Water

I’ve discussed before how water can have magical properties. For example, from Shetland there come several accounts of trows using ‘kapps’ (wooden bowls) to pour water over patients during healing ceremonies.  The implement and the liquid were both important apparently (Saxby, Shetland traditional lore, p.151).

This is very often seen in the fairy-taught healing procedures.  Margaret Alexander from Livingstone used well water combined with charms to cure sick people.  Likewise, Isobel Haldane, who lived in Perthshire, took water from wells and burns and in it washed the shirts of her patients.   A woman called Jonet Boyman from Edinburgh would also diagnose sickness using a patient’s shirt, taking it to a well on Arthur’s Seat just outside the city.  Jonet had first acquired her healing skills by going to the well and raising a whirlwind, from which emerged a fairy man who taught her.

Earlier I mentioned Jonnet Miller, from Kirkcudbright, and it’s worth repeating here that one of her remedies (at least) required water taken from a stream that ran southwards.  Stein Maltman of Stirling told his 1628 trial that he made several different uses of water in his cures.  He boiled elf-shot in water from a south flowing stream and either had a patient drink it or bathe in it; in another case he had a man bathe himself in such a stream having first diagnosed his illness by reciting charms over one of the man’s shirts. Margaret Dicksone, mentioned just now, also treated a suspected changeling child by washing it- and its shirt- in a south-flowing stream.

Rituals and other items

Our last category involves a mixture of odd materials that were considered to have medicinal effect.  Catharine Caray from Orkney diagnosed and cured the sick using thread, charms and stones to cure physical and spiritual illnesses. For example, the thread might be tied on with an invocation of the holy trinity and the words “’bone to bone, synnew to synnew, and flesche to flesche, and bluid to bluid.”  Threads, often red in colour, were regularly used to protect cattle and children from fairy attacks.  Bessie Dunlop, for example, was given a green silk thread by her fairy helper, Thom Reid, with which she assisted women in childbirth.

Suspected witch Andro Man was tried at Aberdeen in 1598.  He used several methods to cure animals: he hit them with birds but he also employed salt and black wool.  A sick man was cured by passing him nine times through a length of yarn, and then transferring the illness from that to a cat.  He would invoke St John and use other holy words in Latin borrowed from Catholic liturgy; he stopped oxen from running away using ‘lax water’ (possibly water from a salmon stream or in which salmon had been cooked).  Lastly, he protected fields of corn by placing four stones at each corner.

Treatment by passing patients through hanks of yarn was also practised by Isobel Haldane, by Janet Trall from near Perth- who then cut up the yarn into nine parts and buried it in three different places- and by Thomas Geace of Fife, who burned the yarn afterwards.  I assume that this has some relation to the use of girdles in diagnosing sickness.

Stein Maltman, mentioned in the last section, had learned his healing skills from the “fairie folk,” whom he often saw, and they supplied him with a repertoire of cures.  He rubbed some patients with elf-shot; over others he waved a drawn sword, on the basis that the naked iron would scare the malignant fairies away; finally he advised some of those who consulted him to return to the spots where they felt they had picked up their infections, there to pray for healing.

waterhouse_destiny

J M W Waterhouse, Destiny

For more on faery medicines and cures, see the discussion in my ‘Faery Lifecycle’ (2021):

Mermaid wisdom

-a-mermaid-combing-her-hair-goble

Warwick Goble,  A mermaid combing her hair

Mermaids are best known for their captivating beauty, a quality that can sometimes prove fatal to human lovers, and sometimes they display magical powers- they can predict the future, make curses and conjure up storms- but they are not usually thought of as founts of wisdom.  All the same, quite a few traditional folklore stories show that mermaids do have oracular powers.  Also, like oracles, it can sometimes be pretty hard to make sense of what they’re saying.

Cookery advice

Mermaids seem to have strong opinions about two matters in particular, human health and human cuisine.  The latter is especially surprising seeing as mermaids aren’t likely to cook anything at all and certainly not much that would be eaten by humans.  This doesn’t seem to stop them expressing their views, even so.  For instance, a mermaid caught in a fishing net off the Isle of Man was held captive for three weeks by the boat’s crew.  She refused to speak, eat or drink until they finally relented and took her down to the beach to set her free.  Other merfolk came to meet her at the sea’s edge and when she was asked what men were like, she said:

“Very ignorant- they throw away the water eggs are boiled in.”

Another mermaid, caught in nets near Fishguard in West Wales, advised:

“Skim the surface of the pottage before adding sweet milk.  It will be whiter and sweeter and less of it will do.”

This is probably very good advice, but how a mermaid would know about making soup with dairy products is anybody’s guess.

An incident from the Hebrides involves a mermaid escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him his failure can be ascribed to the dryness of his bread- whereas if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.

In one case the advice concerns the preparation of fish, which at least we can accept a mermaid might know about.  A mermaid had been trapped on the land by the magical means of sprinkling stale urine across her path (this works with fairies too).  She spoke only once in the week she spent ashore, to warn a woman gutting fish:

“Wash and clean well, there’s many a monster in the sea.”

In another case a mermaid has something to say about the preparation of fish, but in this case her words don’t seem to be about kitchen hygiene but instead are either a prediction or a grant of good fortune.  The mermaid had been caught on a hook by some Shetland fishermen; she begged to be freed and promised to grant them anything they wished for.  They returned her to the water and, before she sank beneath the waves, she declaimed a verse ending with the advice “Skoom well your fish.” One of the crew of the boat paid attention to her words and carefully skinned the next fish he caught.  He found a large and valuable pearl inside.

 

WarwickGoble_TheSea Fairies
Goble, Sea fairies

Cures & remedies

Mermaids also seem to know a good deal about human diseases and their treatment with herbal remedies.  In one Scottish case, a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore and called out:

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

A very similar story has the mermaid tell a sick girl’s lover about the mugwort remedy in good time; he makes a juice from the flower tops which saves his beloved.  There may well be some sound advice on herbal medicine being dispensed here, though once again quite what a sea dweller knows about weeds growing on dry land is another matter altogether.

warwick-goble-sea sprites

Goble, Sea sprites

Cryptic comments

Lastly, some of the mermaid sayings seem so cryptic it’s hard to make much sense at all of them.  Just before she dived out of sight beneath the waves, a mermaid who had been discovered sitting on a rock near Porth y Rhiw in South Wales said simply:

“Reaping in Pembrokeshire and weeding in Carmarthenshire.”

Another, who had become stranded on the beach as the tide went out at Balladoole on the Isle of Man called out to her rescuers:

“One butt in Ballacaigen is worth all of Balladoole.”

It’s may be possible to extract some sense from this, if the ‘butt’ refers to a barrel of fish.  If this is right, she may have been saying that the herring catch at the first location would always be better than that off the beach where she was found- a helpful hint for the men who saved her.

Summary

There’s a tendency to forget these days that mermaids are more than a pretty face (and figure) and that they have a society and a character as rounded and complex of that of the faeries.  They can be wise, they can be bewitching– and they can be deadly and dangerous.  I have tried to cover this in a succession of previous posts.

The material will appear in expanded form in a forthcoming book, ‘Fairy beasts,’ that is currently in preparation.

Goble mermaid

Goble, A mermaid