I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faerywhich they released in April this year.
As its full title indicates, in Beyond Faery- Exploring the World of Mermaids, Kelpies, Goblins & Other Faery Beasts, we’ve gone beyond the conventional boundaries and perceptions of the faes- as winged, female beings- to explore a much wider and wilder world of supernatural creatures. Many of these are far more dangerous- but perhaps, as a result, rather more predictable- that the humanoid fairies about whom I normally write.
The faery beasts that are the subject of this book share a number of traits that differentiate them from the more familiar members of fairy-kind. Firstly, they are- without exception- of conventional, human-world size. There are continual debates about the size of the human-like faes (as you’ll read in several of posts), but there is never any dispute that mermaids are the same size as we are and that the other creatures that resemble the mammals of this world- the dogs, horses, bulls and so on- are all the same size as their domesticated equivalents- if not somewhat bigger.
Secondly, the faery beasts have next to no conception of working with human beings to either assist them or to improve the natural world. Whilst the ‘eco-fairy’ has gained some vogue in recent decades, the faery beasts are far less complex creatures- or, we might say, more single minded in their purpose. Very many of them have one of two intentions: to scare us and/ or to kill and eat us. Mermaids are a bit different from this: they can enter into relationships with humans and raise families, but there is seldom any suggestion of any wider co-operation with us. They live in their world, we live in ours; they are in different dimensions- and the merfolk like to keep it that way.
These beasts are faery, then, in terms of their supernatural nature and their magical powers. They may look like the livestock or pets that we’re familiar with, but their behaviour is very different: their purpose and their powers are nothing like the ordinary dog’s or cow’s. In many ways, we might call them monsters.
I have already given readers a taste of what’s covered in the book in my recent postings, in which I’ve made use of material I’ve come across since the manuscript of Beyond Faery was finalised earlier this year. Those new examples supplement what you’ll find discussed in more detail in the chapters of the book. The text’s 270 pages long, including a glossary and a full bibliography.
I was a little surprised to note that Google has designated my book ‘controversial literature’- as, indeed, was the case for the previous book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk, too. On consideration, I quite like the thought of having written two controversial books. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you think it’s as subversive as this might suggest!
My next book, Beyond Faery, will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in early November. It examines the variety of ‘faery beasts’ that exist alongside the traditional faeries we’re familiar with- the kelpies, water bulls, black dogs, hobgoblins and others that make Faery so complex, fascinating- and dangerous. For the next few weeks I’m going to examine some of these beings, using materials I’ve come across in my researches since the text of Beyond Faery was completed. This week, we start in the ocean.
(Jasper Maine, The City Match, 1639, Act III, scene 1)
The merfolk- the mermaids and the selkies- have long fascinated humankind. They are a complex as well as a beautiful people and both men and women seem to be drawn inexorably towards them.
There are in fact many different types of supernatural inhabiting the seas. We are familiar with the mermaids (half-human, half-fish) and the selkies (humans who can put on a seal skin in order to travel through the sea) but in addition to these there are, for example:
Sea fairies– Cornish folklorist and writer Enys Tregarthen described these as being amongst the fairy family, but able to ride the waves. She also identified cliff fairies, whose traits include a desire for doing good and healing injured animals and a liking for singing and dancing at dawn or sunset and,
Sea trows– on Orkney and Shetland the local fae folk, the trows, also inhabit the ocean and are said to be “great rolling creatures, tumbling in the waters” which are sometimes pulled up in fishermen’s nets.
“Yee mermaids faire,
That on the shores do plaine,
Your sea-greene haire
As yee in trammels knit your locks
Weepe ye; and so inforce the rocks
In heavy murmurs through the broad shores tell.”
(William Browne, Britannia’s Pastorals, II, Song I)
The best known trait of the mermaid is, of course, her physical beauty and desirability. In fact, traditional folklore is divided over the actual appearance of these beings. One story from Shetland typifies the standard views. Young Maikie found a selkie on some offshore rocks, a distance from her seal skin, which she’d shed on the beach. He responded in the conventional way to her physical charms, admiring her snow white body, her fine legs and her bonnie yellow hair. He hid her skin, offered her human clothes to wear and asked her to be his wife (which she was for a number of years, until she found her skin again and escaped to the sea).
Another account was less complimentary: a mermaid encountered near Buchan was discovered combing her long brown hair hair- a traditional activity. She had a small upper body with a thin neck, round head and small, flat face with white thick set teeth and small eyes. Her lower half was like a cod, but with a double tail.
A selection of other nineteenth century accounts reinforce the impression that the merfolk resemble us, but that their reported good looks are not always all that we tend to imagine:
Campbelltown, Argyll, 1811: a man was able to creep with a few paces of a mermaid lying on a rock and watched her for two hours. She was six to seven feet in length, the upper half being white and the lower half brindled or reddish grey and covered in scales, terminating in a fin that was of greenish-red and shining, about twelve to fourteen inches wide. The upper half was human, except that the arms were short and thin. The creature had long brown hair and a human face with hollow eyes;
Ardeal, Argyll, 1814: the mermaid seen was very white, but with rosy cheeks. She had long dark hair and arms that tapered to her hands, which were said to be only the size of those of an eight to ten year old child. Her tail was like that of an immensely large cuddy fish or saith;
Port Charlotte, Argyll, 1857: a woman was seen in the sea at close range. She had a full breast, dark complexion, fine hair in ringlets and a comely face;
Southside, Deerness, Orkney, 1890-94: a mermaid returned regularly to this spot in the summer months. She was six to seven feet in length, with a little black head, white neck and a snow white body. She sat on a rock waving her hands about; and,
lastly, older accounts still, from Tudor and Stuart times, record the “whooping noise” that the merfolk made and their sea green hair. The mermaid’s long hair is frequently matched by the copious beards of the mermen.
The eyewitness descriptions are less consistently complimentary, then, and as Swan wrote in Speculum Mundi of 1634, “Mermaids and Menfish seem to me the most strange fish.”
All the same, the consensus seems to be that mermaids have a high opinion of their own good looks. They are reputed to be very vain and their traditional attributes are a comb and a mirror, with which they pass hours sitting on rocks, combing their long hair (admittedly, one seen at Mumbles near Swansea in 1893 was combing her hair with a mackerel’s back bone). They are also very partial to jewellery and can be wooed with rings and necklaces.
The most recent accounts don’t question the mermaids’ charms and it is very true to say that they are regularly sought by human males as their spouses. As in the earlier example, selkies are continually portrayed as being captured and forced into marriage by men. However, the traffic is not all one way. Dora Broome in her Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man describes a mermaid who developed an obsessive passion for a young man from Port Le Murrey, and nearly managed to lure him away with her charms. In another Shetland story, a girl gathering shell-fish on a beach fell asleep in a cave after sitting down to eat her lunch. Some months later she discovered she was pregnant and, when the baby was born, it had flippers instead of hands. This she explained by the fact that, as she had wandered along the beach that day, she had been watched by a seal offshore. It would seem that this creature had, in fact, been a selkie and that he had taken advantage of her sleep to rape her. The best we can say about the selkie’s conduct is this: the girl then learned in a dream that, if she went to a nearby sea inlet, she would find silver coins that would pay for the child’s upbringing.
The love of a mermaid can be perilous and, on the Isle of Man, there seemed to be a settled procedure for freeing a hapless fisherman from a mermaid’s attentions. To do this he needed help- and the right preparations. Herring roe had to be boiled for three days and then dried and ground into a powder. The human victim would consume this in a drink and then set to sea, protected by sprigs of vervain and a cross made of rowan wood. As soon as the mermaid began to follow the boat, a charm had to be repeated:
“Ben-varrey, ben-varrey- go back to thy home,
Til the sea from this island of Mannin doth roam,
Find a mate with a tail, for if thou X should wed,
In the deeps of the sea he’ll be drownded and dead.”
As soon as this verse has been completed, the vervain should be dropped in the waves and an iron knife should be stuck in the mast, which will summon up a storm, driving the mermaid beneath the surface and the ship back to land.
The merfolk are, of course, not just love interest for humans. They have an independent and separate life. They are said to herd fish out at sea and they have control over the weather and sea conditions, so that when breakers drive up onto the shore, the Welsh say “The mermaid is driving her sheep.”
The merfolk’s supernatural powers are attested by a story from Padstow in Cornwall. A man called Tristram Bird bought a hunting rifle and went out to try to shoot a seal. Instead, he found a mermaid combing her hair and instantly conceived a passion for her. She rejected his advances and his offer of marriage; he became angry and threatened to shoot her. She warned him he’d be sorry but he fired off a shot anyway- in revenge for which she cursed Padstow’s harbour. Very soon afterwards, a storm arose that created a sandbar across the mouth of the harbour, cutting it off from the sea. It’s very evidently inadvisable to annoy or hurt a mermaid- on the Isle of Man it is said that if you vex a mermaid, you will never have an luck when you’re out fishing.
Mermaids are also said to pursue ships out at sea, trying to sink them. In the old ballad, The Mermaid, she’s seen by the crew of a ship with her mirror, combing her hair. They instantly despair of reaching their homes- rightly, because she circles the ship three times- and then it sinks. So strong was this belief that in Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Part III, Act III, scene 2) it is declared “I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall.”
The merfolk can foresee bad weather. At Lamorna Cove in West Cornwall, a mermaid would appear, floating head and shoulders above the waves, whenever a storm was approaching. On the small Channel Island of Sark, it’s said that the mermaids sit on rocks and sing before storms develop. It’s not entirely clear from this whether they are foreseeing or actually causing the bad weather. Folklorist Edgar MacCulloch reported this information and then observed that sailors on ships are attracted by the sound of the singing and come too close to shore, where they are then caught when the storm breaks. This juxtaposition suggests he regarded the mermaids as malign and culpable.
It’s plain that merfolk need to be treated with cautious respect. Around the Isle of Man mermaids are seemingly more numerous than mermen- they are certainly seen more frequently- and wise sailors know that, when they’re out at sea, they should never refer to them by the names used on land, so that the mermaid, the ben-varrey or pohllinagh, is called instead Joaney Gorm (‘Blue Joan’), a habit which must be linked to the name taboo so often found in folklore accounts.
Destructive as they may be, merfolk can also be healers. As I’ve mentioned before, they are known for their understanding of herbs’ healing properties and they can pass on these skills and knowledge to chosen humans- often those who’ve done them a good turn, such as carrying them back to the sea when they’ve become stranded.
Mermaids can be a source of riches, as well as useful skills, for humans. The Isle of Man ben-varrey I mentioned earlier demonstrated her affection for the fisherman she fancied by leaving him shells and seaweed, but others can offer a lot more than this. In another Manx story, a man falls under the spell of a mermaid after he rescues her from being stranded at low tide. He becomes preoccupied with her beauty and with the buried gold to which she guides him. Having found this hoard of gold coins, he gives up his work as a fisherman and spends his days dreaming of the mermaid and what he can do with his new found wealth. The problem is that the coins are antique Spanish gold that no-one will accept as currency, so the man and his wife have precious metals- but no income to buy food.
As several of these stories imply, the fundamental problem about relationships between humans and merfolk (and probably with all faery beings) is that we are from different dimensions and there is a gulf in comprehension between us. The merfolk don’t really understand the complexities of human society- nor why we can’t follow them under the water. Too often, indeed, the fate of the mermaid’s lover is, simply, to drown.
As I have discussed before, there are also mermaid-like creatures that live in freshwater. I’ve referred to these as ‘mere-maids’ to try to distinguish them, but throughout Britain there can be confusion about their true nature. For example, in Banffshire in Scotland a mhaidan mara (maid of the sea) is seen in rivers just before they swell after a heavy rain. She has an ‘enchanting’ figure and melodious voice, according to one late eighteenth century report, but her appearance always precedes an accident in the river; someone is sure to drown once she’s been spotted.
Foreseeing the future is a trait ascribed to the freshwater mermaids that lived in the moat of Blore castle in Staffordshire. Over several mornings before the battle of Blore Heath in 1459, they rose to the surface and, whilst combing their hair, sang this prediction:
“Ere yet the haw-berry assumes its deep red,/ Embued shall this heath be with blood nobly shed.”
Our final freshwater maid combines the peril and charms of her marine cousins. A boy was fishing on the River Towy when he hooked a huge salmon. Hauling the fish into his coracle, he prepared to hit it on the head when he heard a voice asking him not to do so. Looking again, he saw he’d hooked a beautiful young woman. He decided she must be a demon and said he’d kill her anyway, to which she said she’d drown him first. She asked him to be her lover, which he refused, so she grabbed him and took him down “yng ngwaelod yr afon” (“to the land under the river”). She did this twice, nearly drowning him, before he decided that a salmon wife was the better option. He had to cut the hook out of her top lip, doing which he splashed his face with her blood. This, she declared, made him hers forever- and they had a long marriage with several children, all of whom had a scar on their upper lip like their mother.
I hope this may have whetted your appetite to explore the rich world that lies Beyond Faery.
I have written before about fresh and marine water spirits and about the connections between the faeries and rivers and wells; in this post I want to pull together various scattered strands and highlight the magical power that seems to link faeries and water.
Water is very often seen being used for its ability to heal disease inflicted by or associated with the faeries. As I have described previously, water that runs in a southerly direction- whether that’s a river or stream or the outflow from a spring or well- is deemed to be especially effective in curing sickness. It may have to be collected in silence and it may be used to a patient or that person’s shirts or blouse, but it was regularly prescribed by Scottish witchcraft suspects- presumably because of its perceived efficacy.
As well as treating faery inflicted disease, water also could have a role in diagnosing the cause of a person’s infirmity. Katharine Craigie, who was tried on Orkney in 1640, had told a sick man that she could discover whether he was afflicted by “ane hill spirit, a kirk spirit or a water spirit,” which are probably different types of trow. She did this by placing three stones in the household’s fire all day; these were then left under the house’s threshold overnight and, in the morning, were dropped separately into a bucket of water. The stone that “chirned and chirled” when it was dropped in the water indicated that a kirk spirit (probably a trow living in a nearby church yard) was the cause of the malady. Craigie used this technique to diagnose affliction by a hill spirit in a second case and, in 1617, Orkney woman Katharine Caray had diagnosed a sea spirit in the same manner. James Knarstoun, another Orkney healer, in 1633 also used three stones for the same purpose. He brought one from the shoreline, one from a hill (surely a fairy knoll) and one from a kirk yard and promised that, once the spirit was revealed, it could be “called home again.”
Isobell Strauthaquinn was tried for witchcraft in 1597. Her mother had learned her healing skills from her fairy lover. Amongst the techniques she seems to have passed on to Isobell was curing people with water in which the bones of the dead had been washed.
What’s puzzling and contradictory in all this is the fact that very often the healer’s abilities derived from the fairies in the first place. In Perth in 1623 three women, Isobel Haldane, Janet Trall and Margaret Hormscleugh, were all accused of witchcraft. They had healed using south running water and all three claimed to have started their careers as healers after visiting the fairies in their hills and, through this, being endowed with their medical knowledge. Also in Perth, in 1640, a man called John Gothray was presented before the Presbytery for his use of charms to heal townspeople. He too claimed to have been abducted by the fairies when he was younger and, since then, to have been visited monthly by his changeling brother (who’d been stolen when he was barely one month old), who taught him how to make medicines using various herbs mixed with water from a local spring.
In Gothray’s case, the spring water seemed to have unique healing properties. Many such sites were known across Britain. Often, too, the water was in some way able to predict the outcome of the illness. Near Fodderty in Ross and Cromarty, there was a well called Tom na domhnuich; its water would be collected before sunrise and the patient bathed in it, if it then looked clear they would recover- if brown, they would die. In 1839 we have a record of a woman going there to collect water for her sickly child. She had the fascinating experience of seeing a “creature with glaring eyes” diving into the well (some sort of black dog or bogle apparition, apparently). She decided to collect the water anyway and, after washing her child, it fell soundly asleep- something which was unusual and looked hopeful for its recovery. Sadly, it then died. The water in the same well might also predict death or recovery by the way it turned- clockwise for health, anti-clockwise for death.
At the well of Kirkholme, the rising of the water indicated recovery; at Muntluck if the water was low, it was a bad sign and if you drank from one Dumfries well and then vomited, recovery was impossible.
James Knarstoun, the Orkney healer, was able to determine what was afflicting Patrick Hobie’s daughter using water collected from St Mary’s Well on the island. It had to be fetched only between midnight and cockcrow- for, as is well known, with the coming of dawn the fairies’ power weakens and they have to flee the earth surface.
Wells have another curious link with faeries. At Sùl na bà near Nigg, in Ross and Cromarty, there was a spring where local people would leave changeling children overnight, along with gifts for the fairies. The hope was that these would be accepted as sufficient to persuade the faes to restore the stolen child by the next morning. A number of such sites were once recognised- some springs, but others fairy hills and the like.
Lastly, water could be instrumental in helping you to see the fairies. As I have mentioned before, it was customary in many parts of the country to leave out water for the faes to wash in overnight. In the Bodleian Library in Oxford there is a seventeenth century spell book containing various magical charms to summon fairies. One involves a lengthy ritual focused around collecting faery washing water. Performed around the time of a new moon, clean water was set out by a clean hearth with a clean towel. By the morning a white rime or grease would be seen on the water which was removed with a silver spoon. This grease was then to be used the next evening to anoint your eyes before sitting up all night before a table set out with fresh bread and ale. Fairies would come to eat the food and the watcher would be able to see them because of the grease on their eyes. Fairy expert Katharine Briggs explains that this must work because the fairies will have washed their children and, in so doing, will have washed from them some of the special ointment with which they’re anointed to give them the faery second sight.
See my recently released book, Faery, for more discussion of the links between the faes and water.
Although I often stress the independent and contrary nature of faery kind, there is a class of spirits whose almost sole purpose seems to be to protect human food resources and to prevent children getting into mischief. Fairy expert Katharine Briggs often called these ‘nursery sprites‘ but this name suggests that they are only found inside houses- as indeed, some are, lurking in dark corners and empty rooms and scaring infants into going to bed and staying quiet, but some of these are found outside too (the pretty self-explanatory ‘Rawhead and Bloodybones’ being one such) and others only exist outside the nursery and the home- hence my preference for ‘cautionary sprites.’
Many of these spirits live in and around orchards and fruit patches, amongst them being Owd Goggie, Lazy Laurence, the Coltpexy and the Gooseberry Wife of the south of England. There is a particular concentration of these beings in the North West of England, however, which will be my focus in this posting. Incredibly large numbers of very local boggarts are recorded in Cheshire, Lancashire and Westmorland, and spill over the Pennine Hills into West Yorkshire and Derbyshire.
Guarding soft fruit and apples is more a southern activity, but further north nut groves are protected from the depredations of children, who are liable to steal the nuts and break the branches, by a range of sprites. We know of Churnmilk Peg, Melch Dick and Nut Nan, who guarded the hazels from theft with threats of burning naughty children with heated pokers. Peg was an old and very ugly hag, who sat in the groves around Malham in North Yorkshire, smoking a pipe. Her name derives from the hazels in their green state, when they’re called churn-milk. All she says is “Smoke! smoke a wooden pipe!/ Getting nuts before they’re ripe!” and if this doesn’t work, she’ll abduct the disobedient youths. Melsh Dick apparently derives his name from the same unripe, ‘mushy’ or ‘mulchy’ nuts; he too will make off with disobedient children. These figures are often assisted in their work by Clap-Cans, a being with no form or substance whose sole purpose is to scare away youngsters by beating on tins with sticks.
It is fascinating to see how the faery world has been recruited to safeguard humans’ assets. Normally, knowing their character, we might expect these supernaturals to be more likely to steal nuts than to defend them and we would certainly not anticipate any willingness to assist humans based upon their usual self-interested attitudes. Here, we must accept that we have encountered a more altruistic spirit.
The capacity in the North West to accept that some faeries will subdue their will entirely to that of the human community, and act wholly in its interests, has had a very curious impact upon the perceived character of the river spirit Jenny Greenteeth and her close relatives- Peg Powler in the Tees, Mary Hosies in the Avon in Lanarkshire, Jenny the Whinney on the Isle of Man, Grindylow Peg, Nelly Longarms, the Nok and many others (including the enigmatic Brook Calf and Star Nell). Traditionally, these rather nasty beings have had one purpose: to lurk in bodies of water and to try to snatch and kill the unwary- most commonly children. Victims will be drowned- but they may also be eaten: Grindylow Peg, for example, has iron teeth for this purpose. They may also be tortured horribly first.
For generations, children have been warned to stay away from stagnant ponds and pools, water-filled pits, mill dams, wells, springs and streams, because these are just the places where Jenny and her sisters wait, hidden perhaps under green weeds (and wearing their green caps), overhanging trees or projecting banks. They need only the slightest opportunity to dart forth, seize the unsuspecting infant and drag them beneath the surface. The floating vegetation closes again and no-one knows of or even suspects the tragedy that has taken place. In this respect, Jenny is very clearly another cautionary spirit. She has, however, experienced ‘mission creep’ in some very surprising ways.
As time has passed, Jenny seems to have infested new bodies of water: since the Industrial Revolution, she has also moved into canals, drainage ditches, culverts and tunnels- in other words, the inland waterways of the industrialised north-west . This, of course, makes perfect sense, for these man-made watercourses are just as perilous for the young as natural features. This change has brought her much more into built up areas, so that Jenny is now known in central Manchester as much as in the countryside. It seems, as well, that once she got used to the town, she expanded her operations further: Jenny has been said to lurk too in old buildings and cemeteries. We might be startled by this abandonment of her watery haunts, but then, in Cheshire she had long been known to lurk in trees in the absence of so many bodies of open water. Jenny has even accommodated herself to human dwellings, in her search for prey: she has been spotted lying in wait in outside toilets, at the top of unlit stairs, in darkened corners and, in Yorkshire, in that quintessential piece of architecture, the ‘coyl-oyl’ (or coal shed).
Not only has Jenny expanded the sites of her operations, she has widened her franchise to incorporate a much wider range of juvenile wrongs. Parents more recently have threatened Jenny’s intervention for far more than getting too near to the edge of a pond. She has started to encroach on the preserve of the nursery sprites, and has been said to punish bad behaviour- a refusal to go to bed, neglect of hair brushing and (most appositely) want of teeth brushing. It seems pretty obvious that some profound confusion has developed here over the exact of nature of Jenny’s green teeth. Her origin in slime covered pools has been forgotten, and it looks as though parents now scare their offspring by suggesting that they’ll end up with green fangs like Jen’s if they don’t pay attention to decent oral hygiene.
In her more recent manifestations there is increasingly little to distinguish Jenny from the host of other ‘nursery sprites,’ beings that include Tom Dockin, Tom Poker and Bannister Doll and then blur into a wider array of alarming boggarts and bogles, such as Bibler Dick, Jonny Cobler, Shagcalf and White Horse, Old Lobb or Lob-Thirst, various phantom dogs and (one of my favourites) the apparition called the Baum Rappit, a scary ghostly rabbit seen near the church in Rochdale. All of these bogies and hobgoblins have a primary function of giving us a shock- and very little more. To return to our starting point, however, Jinny Green-teeth is said to guard orchards around Saddleworth on the Lancashire slopes of the Pennines.
Jenny and the Meremaids
Jenny, meanwhile, has also encroached on the domain of the fresh water mermaids, the ‘meremaids‘ as I’ve termed them before. The fact of this overlap is unremarkable, given the almost identical habitats of each, yet the meremaids have always tended to have a wider scope of operations- at the very least, not being limited to terrifying children.
Several characteristics now applied to Jenny Greenteeth appear to have been transferred from the meremaids. These include appearing only at night, most especially at full moon, guarding buried treasure and (a motif taken from the spirits of larger rivers) claiming an annual sacrifice or tribute of one or more drowned victims.
Earlier, I mentioned how Churnmilk Peg is said to be a terribly ugly hag. Crossover or confusion between female spirits, hags and witches is not at all uncommon and I’ll conclude by noting that in one account, from Preston, Jenny Greenteeth is even said to be seen riding a broomstick.
The multitude of local bogies and sprites, for whom we only have scanty records now, along with their often overlapping activities, makes for fascinating study. I look at the orchard sprites again in my recently published Faeryand give extended consideration to the many boggarts and bogies in the forthcoming companion, Beyond Faery.
One curious aspect of fairy lore is the antipathy that some fairies have for water. This only applies in certain situations, however, and may not be a general rule.
Water as a fairy necessity
Fairies, like humans, require water for basic necessities. It’s pretty certain that they drink it: they are reputed to drink dew at the very least. Without doubt they use water for bathing: there are numerous folk lore records of fairies expecting householders to leave out bowls of fresh water for them at night so that they and children may wash: plenty of examples are to be found in Rhys, Celtic folklore (pp.56, 110, 151, 198, 221 & 240). There’s also a story of fairies surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley.
According to the seventeenth century pamphlet, Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests, if no clean water was left out for the fairies’ night time ablutions, the usual reprisal would follow:
“we wash our children in their pottage, milk or beer or whatever we find: for the sluts that have not such things fitting we wash their faces and hands with a gilded child’s clout or else carry them to some river and duck them over head and ears.”
Similar stories are found across the country as far north as the Scottish Highlands: for example, in one Shetland example a trow mother washes her baby’s nappies in the water in which barley is soaking.
It hardly need be said that certain fairies live in water and plainly cannot have any objection to their natural environment. Both fresh and salt water are inhabited, as I’ve discussed in previous posts on inland and marine mermaids.
Another fay link with water is found in the Scottish bean-nighe (the washer woman) and the related caointeach (the keener). Both foretell deaths by washing clothes or winding sheets at fords or in streams; plainly they are not adverse to contact with running fresh water. In fact, it’s said that power can be gained over the bean-nighe if you are able to come between her and the stream, indicating that her magic potential in some way derives from the water course.
Lastly, it’s worth recalling the fragments of evidence that children taken by the fairies can be somehow imbued with fairy magic not just by the application of green ointment but by dipping in certain springs and pools.
Fairy fear of water
Nevertheless, there is also evidence of fairies objecting to water that is flowing. This is confirmed by Evans-Wentz (p.38) for Ireland and for South West Scotland at least by J. F. Campbell in Popular tales of the west Highlands (volume 2, page 69). The hideous nuckelavee of Orkney is a venomous creature, part human and part horse, but it couldn’t abide fresh water, meaning that it never came out in the rain and could be escaped by leaping a burn. A dramatic example of this aversion comes from North Yorkshire: in Mulgrave Wood near Whitby lived a bogle or boggart by the name of Jeanie. One day she chased a farmer who was riding by. He galloped desperately for the nearest brook to escape her: just as she caught up with him and lashed out with her wand, his steed leapt the river. Jeanie sliced the horse in half. The front part, bearing the rider, fell on the far side and was safe, whilst Jeanie had to make do with the hind legs and haunches.
Any flowing watercourse will form an insurmountable barrier, it seems, but even more antithetical to the fays is water that flows in a southerly direction. This is shown from a couple of accounts. One way of expelling a changeling and recovering a human child from the fays that was practiced in the north east of Scotland was to wash the infant’s clothes in a south draining spring and then lay them to dry in the sun; if the clothes disappeared it meant that the fairies had accepted them and that the child would have been restored. Secondly, in a previous post I have discussed the diagnosis of fairy-inflicted illnesses by ‘girdle-measuring.’ One practitioner I mentioned, Jennet Pearson, would wash the girdle in a south-flowing stream before treating the sick person.
There is also evidence that the high tide line on a beach had a similar barring effect on supernatural pursuers. In the Highland story of Luran, he stole a goblet from the sith and escaped his angry pursuers by making for the shore.
There are contradictions to this, though. In Superstitions of the Highlands J. F. Campbell expressed his opinion that running water was no barrier to fairies (p.50); a possible compromise position is Evelyn Simpson’s idea that it is only bad fairies who are obstructed, whilst well-intentioned ones may pass over unhindered (see Folklore in lowland Scotland, p.107). Sometimes, too, it appears that even plain water can repel our good neighbours. George Henderson has recounted a folk-tale from the isle of Uist in the Scottish Highlands in which the fairies are depicted calling at the door of a house for a ‘cake’ to come out to them: the inmates threw water on the cake, and it replied: ‘I can’t go, I am undone.’ (Survivals of belief amongst the Celts, 1911, p.219) Here plain water seems enough to dispel the fairies’ magic.
I’ve written before about the contrary nature of much fairy lore. It seems that there’ll always be exceptions to any rule we try to identify, but even so we may say that, in most cases, a river or stream will provide an effective barrier between you and supernatural harm.
See too my post on fairies and wells. An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.
In this post I want to explore a very particular form of British fairy being, the freshwater mermaids or water sprites. Mere, meaning a lake or pool, is an old English word that forms the basis of mermaid, although of course this almost exclusively used in reference to the sea fairy now. Nonetheless, the idea of the inland ‘mere-maid’ is very ancient, the very oldest of these very likely being found in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, in the ghastly shape of the mother of the monster Grendel.
The illustrations I have found suggest that these creatures may be sexually alluring to some extent, but on the whole they are perilous to humankind.
An asrai, from kelfae.com
Drowning, gold and midnight
The majority of our fresh water meremaids share something with Grendel’s mother: they are dangerous, if not fatal, to humans. A very good example is the creature dwelling in the Black Mere at Morridge in Staffordshire. No animals would drink the waters and birds were said to avoid overflying the mere. This was probably because the mermaid used to seize passersby at midnight and drown them. When an attempt was made to drain the Mere, she emerged and threatened to engulf the whole of the nearby town of Leek in its waters. Wisely, the work was abandoned and never restarted.
Other mere maidens include those of the ponds, pools and meres at Fordham, Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk at Rendlesham and most notably at the Mermaid Pits, Fornham All Saints. All these beings came out at night to drag down their victims. Most are anonymous, but a few have been given names, for example Jenny Greenteeth, who has been encountered at Ellesmere in Shropshire as well as in Lancashire and Cumbria, Grindylow in Yorkshire, Nelly Longarms and the widespread Rawhead and Bloodybones. In Scotland one encounters the fideal, an evil spirit who haunts Loch na Fideil near Gairloch, in the north-west Highlands; she is often regarded as a personification of the entangling bog grasses and water weeds of the loch’s shore.
It is often said that the purpose of these creatures was to teach children to steer clear of ponds and similar drowning dangers, such as lawn-like mats of pond weed. The same risk existed around river banks, so that we hear of ‘Peg Powler’ at Piercebridge on the River Tees, who might drag incautious children from the banks under the waves, and of comparable perilous creatures in the River Gipping in Suffolk.
All of these supernaturals preyed upon passing mortals. Despite this bad reputation (or possibly because of it) some were also connected to gold or treasure in some way. A beautiful maiden at Child’s Ercall in Shropshire offered two men gold if they would enter the water to take it from her (but she disappeared when they commented upon their luck, surely a variation of the common idea of keeping quiet about fairy favours). We must wonder too whether, if they had entered the water, the outcome might not have been as happy as they anticipated. At Marden (Herefordshire) and Rostherne Mere (Cheshire) the mere-maids are said to be guarding bells submerged beneath the pool.
The last creature to discuss is perhaps the most intriguing, the asrai or ashray of Cheshire and Shropshire (no specific locations seem to be identified). This meremaid combines many of the features already mentioned. However, the fairy maid is portrayed as far more vulnerable than those seen before. If she is caught, she does not fight back like some of the creatures mentioned, she instead pleads in an incomprehensible language to be set free and, when she is not, she curls up moaning in the fisherman’s boat and has melted away by the time he reaches shore at daybreak. Where her hands had touched the fisherman, he was burned and marked for life.
Other versions of the folk belief say that asrai have green hair and either a fishtail or webbed feet. They are reputed to live for many centuries, coming to the surface of the lake once each century to bathe in the moonlight, which helps them to grow. If the asrai sees a man she will use promises of gold and jewels to attempt to lure him into the deepest part of the lake, there to drown or simply to trick him. She cannot tolerate human coarseness and vulgarity, and this will be enough to frighten her away. Curiously, the same has been said of other fairies: Lewis Spence recorded that a woman of Loch Aline in the Highlands escaped abduction by the fairies when she used “a very coarse, unseemly word” (as well she might in the circumstances). The sidhe could not tolerate this and left her where they found her (Lewis Spence, The fairy tradition in Britain, p.264).
“Before man grew of the four elements The Asrai grew of three- fire, water, air- Not earth, -they were not earthly….
The Asrai wander’d, choosing for their homes All gentle places- valleys mossy deep, Star-haunted waters, yellow strips of sand Kissing the sad edge of the shimmering sea, And porphyry caverns in the gaunt hill-sides.”
In his sequel poem ‘The changeling‘ Buchanan tells us that “of the dew and the crystal air,/ And the moonray mild, were the Asrai made.” Because, “In the glorious gleam of the natal ray,/The pallid Asrai faded away!” they were forced to retreat “far away in the darkened places,/ Deep in the mountains and under the meres.”
The most intriguing aspect of the asrai belief is the combination of predatory danger and vulnerability when caught. It is comparable to the Scottish selkies, the seal women, who can be trapped and forced into marriage with a human if their seal skins can be stolen from them. Perhaps in both we see the idea of the dangers of travelling between elements or dimensions. Humans who visit fairyland can suffer both physically and mentally, and these stories demonstrate that the reverse is just as true. The supernatural stranded in the physical world loses his or her power and is prey to mortality.