Beyond Faery

I am very pleased to announce that Llewellyn Worldwide has now published Beyond Faery, the companion to my book Faery which 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.

Contents

The book’s chapters cover, firstly, the various water beasts: the mermaids, mere-maids (fresh water mermaids), river sprites, kelpies, water horses and water bulls and other less well-known creatures, such as the njugl and the shoopiltee. Then I turn to the land beasts, amongst whom I number the ‘hags,’ the banshees and similar; the hobs and goblins; the bogies, boggarts, brags and bugganes; the black daemon dogs; the fearsome faery beasts such as fae cats and bunnies and, lastly, the wills of the wisp.

Controversy?

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!

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

 

 

 

 

 

‘Something in that witching face’- kelpies and mermaids

caffieri mermaid

Caffieri, ‘Young siren’

A long time ago, in an early posting on this blog, I discussed mermaids; I want now to return to the subject with some further reflections and information.

The little mermaid

Just like fairies, elves and pixies, it is very notable how the popular image of mermaids has improved and how they are coming to be regarded as wholly cute and attractive figures of myth.  The illustrations to this posting by Hector Caffieri demonstrate an early stage in this trend; perhaps the best known contemporary example might be Disney’s Ariel, the little mermaid.  In passing, it may be worthwhile making an additional observation on visual conventions.  The cartoon Ariel, for one, is sanitised and winsome.  Caffieri’s ‘Siren’ above is likewise a small girl, but it’s notable how the standard image has changed in the last century or so.  Today, the fish scales extend to the waist; in Victorian times (as can be seen) they often started somewhat lower, requiring a more discrete treatment (or perhaps a chance for a little titillation).

Today, mermaids are viewed wholly as figures suitable for children to like, draw and to imitate, with mermaid tails being a widely available form of fun beach wear.  It seems very likely that this more benign idea is derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story of The little mermaid.  The main character in this is presented as a model of Christian self sacrifice and goodness and has doubtless had a pervasive influence commensurate with the story’s popularity.  For modern generations, the aforementioned cartoon version of the story from Disney has profoundly influenced popular views of marine supernaturals since its release in 1989.  Other symptoms of these revised views of merfolk may be the 1984 film Splash starring Daryl Hannah and the very recent appearance of female entertainers playing mermaids for parties and corporate events.

Folklore mermaids

Whilst terrestrial fairies have been the subject of prettification and miniaturisation since the late sixteenth century,  this process has only been applied to mermaids during the last century and a half.  The consequence is that a great deal more of the older folklore attitudes survive, both in stories and in poetry.  Mermaids are still supernatural creatures deserving of awe, fear and mistrust.  Kindliness was never one of the mermaid’s traditional traits and it is still not how other supernatural water beasts are perceived.  In this respect, the dependable J K Rowling gives us a depiction more observant of folklore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (there called grindylows).  It may be easier for us to identify with and to find attractive qualities in a being that lives solely on land; mermaids live in a different element in which a human cannot survive and this important distinction may help to preserve their distance from us and our healthy respect for that difference.

caffieri-hector-1847-1932 a-young-siren

Caffieri,  ‘Siren’ (Bonhams)

It’s also inescapable that most mermaids are depicted as young, beautiful, naked women.  There’s probably a lot of psychology here if you’d like to find it.  This iconography may tell us about relations between men and women: the separation between elements may be a metaphor for the difference between the sexes.  It may equally just have something to say about sex more generally- that physical attraction is powerful, but dangerous; that we are entering a new and exposing environment when we entrust ourselves to another individual; that the lure of the strange and mysterious is strong but perilous.   As with all supernatural partners, love for mermaids is enticing but full of risk: what is placed in jeopardy may be long term happiness, your present way of living and connections or, even, life itself.

Irish poet Francis Hackett (1883-1962) captured many of the conventional traits of the mermaid in his poem Sea dawn:

“From Wicklow to the throb of dawn
I walked out to the sea alone
And by the black rocks came upon
A being from a world unknown.

As proud she sat as any queen
On high, and naked as the air:
Her limbs were lustrous, and a sheen
Of sea-gold flowed from her flowing hair.

And as the spreading sea did swell
With dawns strange and brimming light
Her little breasts arose and fell
As if in concord with the sight.

Faint was the sea sound that she made
Of little waves that melt in sand
While with her honey hair she played
And arched the mirror in her hand.”

This evocation of adolescent allure may well now trigger thoughts of the recent controversy concerning J. M. Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the nymphs and its temporary removal from the walls of Manchester City Art Gallery.  Both the picture and Hackett’s verse are of a piece and represent one powerful current of thought on mermaids and their nature.

Common mermaid themes

Across the world, there are several themes common to tales of merfolk.  The principal of these are as follows:

  • they can predict the future (see John Rhys, Celtic folklorethough very often this knowledge is dispensed in cryptic terms;
  • they can grant magical powers to those they favour (see for example The old man of Cury in Hunt’s Popular romances of the West of England);
  • they can punish those who offend them or who injure those whom they protect (see Hunt’s stories of the mermaid in Padstow Harbour and of The mermaid’s vengeance);
  • they can assume normal human form by magical means; and,
  • they can become involved in love affairs with mortals, whether that involves living for a while on land with the human or luring the human beneath the waves.  The outcomes are seldom good (see Matthew Arnold, The merman’s lament).

As is the case in contact with all supernatural beings, involvement with merfolk is generally risky and involves an imbalance of power.  Romantic attachments can be fatal whilst any information or ability gained from them is only obtained through coercion, whether that is bribery or physical force.

mucha mermaid

An art nouveau mermaid or water sprite

Water monsters

To repeat, as with the improvement in the character of fairies, the changed perception of merfolk is a relatively recent amelioration.  Evidence of the earlier, much more dangerous, nature of these beings is still to be found in the Scottish accounts of water horses (associated with salt water), water bulls and other water beasts like kelpies, which are found in freshwater lochs.  Their main occupation, it seems, is seducing mortals and luring them to their doom.  James Hogg’s 1819 poem The mermaid is representative of this:  the Maid of the Crystal Wave lures a young man to ‘places he should not have been and sights he should not have seen’ and it proves to be his ruin.  Similarly in Charles Mackay’s 1851 ballad The Kelpie of Corryevreckan a handsome stranger on a horse rides off with love-struck Jessie, but then plunges beneath the waves with her, so that she is found drowned the next day.  Poet Joseph Rodman Drake in his verse, To a friend, described travellers being terrorised by “the kelpie’s fang.”

It is notable that whilst mermaids might accidentally drown their lovers, it is not generally their intention, whereas the character of the water beasts is specifically to seek out humans in order to destroy them.  In light of this, there is perhaps a case for excluding the latter from the category of ‘fairies.’ Mermaids are semi-human in form; the kelpie can take on human form whilst the water horses appear as animals alone and may be better described as monsters.

Lastly, what is particularly notable is the Highland Scottish link between water creatures and horses.  Exactly why this should have been made is far from clear, but it is to be found across Northern Europe in Scandinavian folklore, from Iceland through to Denmark.  It seems very likely that Viking settlement introduced this idea into the north of Scotland.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J W Waterhouse, ‘Sketch for a mermaid’, 1892.

Further reading

As mentioned, I posted before on the risks of loving mermaids and water beasts and I have also discussed catching the fleeting and vulnerable asrai.  Mermaids are more than pretty faces, though: see my post on mermaid wisdom and my posting on Gwenhidw, the Welsh mermaid queen. See too my discussion of freshwater mere-maids and of of Charles’ Kingsley’s famous novel, The water babies.