The Song of the Siren: when mermaids sing

E. S. Hardy, A Little Mermaid

“Bewitching, like the wanton mermaid’s song” Shakespeare, Venus & Adonis

By analogy with sirens, we are led to believe that mermaids have beautiful and enticing singing voices. Most of the British folklore evidence actually contradicts this: they are certainly alluring, though it seems to be their hair, their good looks and their topless state that generally draws men towards them.

Welsh folklorist Professor John Rhys was certain that mermaids were no singers. For example, he recounts the story of a Caernarfonshire fisherman who came across a mermaid in a cave. Translating (rather freely) from the original Welsh version published in Cymru Fu, Rhys describes how “at first she screeched wildly” when the man discovered her, but then calmed down and entered into a relationship with the human. The couple had children, but she never lost her close link to the sea, meaning that one time when they were out in a boat that was overtaken by a storm she was able to calm it by whispering to the waves. The storm was evidently of more than meteorological origin, because it was accompanied by “the most unearthly screeches and noises.”

Recounting the fate of a mermaid who became stranded on the shore at Conway and was left to die of exposure by the locals, Rhys quotes from a rhyme: “Y forforwyn ar y traeth/ Crio gwaeddu’n arw wnaeth.” He translates this as “The stranded mermaid on the beach/ Did sorely cry and sorely screech,” though the literal and less poetic version is “The mermaid on the beach / Crying, crying loudly.” (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 1901, 117-119 & 199)

Rhys was evidently firmly convinced that mermaids are tuneless shriekers. This seems to have some echoes in an account from the Scottish island of Mull. In the waters around Mull there lives a ‘water witch’ (an cailleach uisge), a malign creature who is consciously contrasted in folklore to the mermaid (maighdean mara), a being who meant no harm. The cailleach is old and dresses in weeds, but her voice, apparently, sounds young. She ensures that she always sits with the light behind her, dazzling the observer, so that she seems young and attractive to that person. She is accompanied by two seal familiars, one black and one white (these would seem to be selkies, because one caught in the late eighteenth century fought her way out of the fishing net, leaving strands of a woman’s hair behind). If any man laughs at the cailleach’s song, the seals will upset his boat.

Whatever their musical accomplishments, on the Channel Island of Sark it was believed that the local mermaids would sit on rocks offshore and sing just before storms blew in, their voices attracting ships to veer too close to the coast. Conversely, there is a newspaper report I quote in my book Beyond Faery that described how mermaids were to be seen nightly at the mouth of the River Dee in Aberdeen, singing “harmonious lays” in their “charming, sweet, melodious voices.” Their performances concluded with God Save the King. Given that this was in 1688, the year of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution,’ in which Protestant William of Orange dethroned Catholic James II, we must strongly suspect that a political statement was being made here under cover of a miraculous sighting. Whether the mermaids were Jacobite supporters isn’t clear.

Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909, by Herbert James Draper

The Sark tales, linking the songs to shipwrecks, are far more authentic sounding. For all their physical charms, mermaids tend to be deadly. Here are three Scottish examples of this. A Shetland man did a deal with a selkie, in which he would get a mermaid wife in return for giving the selkie a knife. The new wife was delivered, but she promptly drowned the man, whilst the selkie used the blade to cut all the fishing lines in the harbour.

On South Uist, a fishing crew spotted a mermaid. The Hebridean tradition was to throw items to her and Domhnall threw his knife. She caught this and dived out of sight. By taking his sacrifice, it was a sign that Domhnall would drown within the year- which he did. Lastly, on North Uist, a man walking home came across a mermaid on the shore who told him that he had to answer a question for her- or she would kill him. She asked “When were you in greatest danger?” He replied that there had been two occasions: when he was born and when he first learned to walk. Perhaps by boldly refusing to acknowledge that he was at that present moment in great peril, it seems he broke the spell. He was able to drive the mermaid off- very strangely and inexplicably by throwing a large round cheese at her head…

Alluring as they may be, the best advice always with the merfolk is to steer clear (often quite literally). Their love and their gifts are almost always perilous pleasures to enjoy; they may look like charming playmates- but beware…

Rosa Petherick, Mermaid playing

Seizing Faery Wives

Gwrag Annwn

I have suggested in the past that faery lovers such as the Scottish leannan sith can have a pretty possessive and pitiless attitude towards their human partners.  Poor attitudes to potential lovers are by no means something unique to fairy-kind’s treatment of humans.  Human males can be equally as bad in their attitudes towards faery females.

Numerous examples of this sort of behaviour come from Wales and can be found in the first volume of Professor John Rhys’ Celtic Folklore.  Almost always, these involve the tylwyth teg dancing in a faery ring.  Now, it’s perfectly true to say that although the faes very evidently greatly enjoy dancing and spend a lot of time engaged in it, one of the reasons for conducting their dances publicly in the open air seems to be to attract humans to them, so that they can be swept up in the excitement and then carried off to Faery.  Rhys has plenty of examples of this.  He also has plenty of examples of a human male- very typically a shepherd boy or farmer- who spots an attractive faery girl in the ring and, simply, kidnaps her- taking her against her will to be his ‘spouse.’

Here’s an example:

“One fine evening in the month of June a brave, adventurous youth… went to the banks of the Gwyrfai, not far from where it leaves Cwellyn Lake, and hid himself in the bushes near the spot where the folks of the Red Coats- the fairies- were wont to dance. The moon shone forth brightly without a cloud to intercept her light; all was quiet save where the Gwyrfai gently murmured on her bed, and it was not long before the young man had the satisfaction of seeing the fair family dancing in full swing. As he gazed on the subtle course of the dance, his eyes rested on a damsel, the most shapely and beautiful he had seen from his boyhood. Her agile movements and the charm of her looks inflamed him with love for her, to such a degree that he felt ready for any encounter in order to secure her to be his own. From his hiding place he watched every move for his opportunity; at last, with feelings of anxiety and dread, he leaped suddenly into the middle of the circle of the fairies. There, while their enjoyment of the dance was at its height, he seized her in his arms and carried her away to his home at Ystrad. But, as she screamed for help to free her from the grasp of him who had fallen in love with her, the dancing party disappeared like one’s breath in July. He treated her with the utmost kindness, and was ever anxious to keep her within his sight and in his possession. By dint of tenderness, he succeeded so far as to get her to consent to be his servant at Ystrad. And such a servant she turned out to be!”

In due course, he wins her over further and she consents to marry him. (Rhys, 44-45).  This is just one of at least half a dozen examples where the girl is forcibly seized or snatched from amongst her friends, family and people (see too Rhys pages 85, 86, 90, 126 & 128). 

A Manga leannan sith

Now, these violent takings are justified by the passionate love of the young man, but these are very weak excuses.  Rhys also recounts several stories where relationships develop more normally- a couple are attracted to each other, start to meet and slowly fall in love (see, for example, on pages 54, 61, 91 & 97).   Very plainly, kidnapping is not the only way of getting a faery lover.

Nonetheless, these methods have been used for centuries.  At page 71 of his book, Rhys retells the story of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who snatches a faery lake woman to be his wife.  This affair is retold from Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialum which was written in the twelfth century.  Earlier still is the account of Wild Edric of Shropshire, who also bodily carried off a faery woman he spotted dancing with her sisters.

For that matter, it isn’t just faeries who are treated this way.  As I’ve described previously, mermaids and selkies are also trapped on land by men against their will and are made to become the men’s ‘wives.’  In almost all these cases, though, the marriages don’t last very long.  The selkies find their seal skins that the men had hidden from them with the clear intention of preventing their escape from the ‘marriage,’ which is plainly rather more like sexual slavery. As soon as they have the means, these wives will return home to the sea. In the Welsh cases, the woman’s consent to stay is conditional upon not being struck by her husband- usually with iron.  This is always breached and the faery vanishes instantly- not infrequently, taking her children and the cattle she brought as a dowry with her.

Why do human men think they can just capture supernatural partners?  To a great extent, no doubt, the folklore accounts reflect the attitudes and behaviours operating within human communities at the time they were recorded.  The faes are assumed to be sexist because the humans were.  The faery women are taken as something akin to slaves: they provide sexual services and- as we saw in the example I quoted- they are frequently extremely good around the house too. 

It may be that desperate measures are employed by the human male because he can’t think of any other way of bridging the gap between our dimension and the faery’s- and perhaps, too, he is worried that he might have only the one chance to see and to seize this girl.  This may be a factor, but I suspect that a stronger element in this litany of bad conduct is a feeling of contempt and lack of empathy for individuals from another race or species.  They seem to be regarded as being there for the taking, without opinions or rights of their own.  It’s an extremely unattractive dynamic but, as I remarked at the outset, it cuts both ways, to be honest: human girls are as likely to be carried off as unwilling wives/ sex slaves to Faery as the other way round. 

Selkie Girl

Three Wishes: your dreams fulfilled by faeries?

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Cinderella

A cliché of faery lore is that the fairies grant our wishes, often in threes because this is a magical and significant number (at least in Christian tradition).  This is more the substance of fairy-tales and fairy godmother stories than authentic British folklore, but it’s not entirely without foundation in native accounts.

Mermaids seem especially prone to granting triple wishes.  Furthermore, as the Cornish story of Lutey and the mermaid demonstrates, mermaid vengeance may be postponed (as I recently described for the faeries too).  The mermaid first granted Lutey three wishes as a reward for returning her to the sea when she’d become stranded, but then refused to let go of him when they were in the surf, instead trying to drag him under the water.  The barking of his dog and the sight of his cottage on the shore broke her spell, and with a flash of his knife he forced her to let him go.  Nevertheless, the mermaid promised to return after nine (three times three) years- which she did, seizing him from a fishing boat out at sea.  The mermaid in the related Cornish story, The Old Man of Cury, grants a single wish, as does the Manx mermaid who falls for a man who woos her with gifts of apples.

John Bauer, Syv ønsker, The Seven Wishes

The fairy women of Scotland seem especially inclined to grant wishes to humans.  These skills may be taught, or exchanged for sex, or they may be given as rewards.  Often, the grant is offered conditionally: the recipient can have either ‘ingenuity without advantage’ or ‘advantage without ingenuity.’  One will be clever and highly skilled, but will never be rich; the other will make the man prosperous, but he will be stupid.  Abilities in crafts or music are often bestowed; even a great skill in thieving can be granted, apparently.  Sometimes, too, these awards are not really gifts at all, and a price may be exacted, which can even be the eventual forfeit of the human him or herself.  We saw this with Lutey; in the Scottish tale of Peter Waters of Caithness, he met a fairy woman at a well and she spontaneously offered to endow him with great prowess, either as a preacher or as a piper.  He chose to be a piper and she even gave him a set of pipes.  All she asked was that, in return, they meet again after seven years.  In the meantime, he won great fame and fortune for his music but when he duly returned to meet her at the well, he was never seen again (J. G. Campbell, Superstitions).

An unusual Scottish Gaelic story builds upon this general idea.  The fairy queen (who is generally identified with Fann, the embodiment of skill) was grieved by the lack of wisdom amongst many women in the world.  She therefore breathed on the fairy flax plant and issued a summons to every woman in the world to come to her knoll to be endowed with wisdom.  Many came and the queen appeared before them, carrying a limpet in which there was the ais or skill of wisdom.  Each woman was invited to drink from the shell, according to her faith and desire.  Sadly, the cup ran dry before all could drink (Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2).

There are other ways to get what you want from fairies though.  At Bewcastle, in Cumbria, there is a stone to which you can whisper your secret wishes; the fairies will then help you.  In several other instances, wishes are granted and skills bestowed as the result of bargains- although these deals are not always willing entered into by the faeries.  A boy who stripped turf from a faery knoll was persuaded to replace it on the basis that he would be helped in making the best chanter possible for his bagpipes.  A girl who agreed not to tether her cows on a knoll was then directed to grazing that never ceased and produced very rich milk.  Equally, a man who stuck his knife in the doorway of a faery hill refused to remove it until he had been granted piping skills.

All in all, there is a curious transactional relationship between humans and supernaturals. The faeries constantly and unrepentantly steal from us and use our property and possessions, but they will spontaneously grant valuable knowledge and skills or make gifts of gold. They will reward good deeds but at the same time lavish wealth on favourites who may seem to be chosen at random. In some cases love motivates their actions; in other cases they find themselves forced begrudgingly to comply. It’s a complex exchange of generosity and obligation, part of the tangled and frequently tortuous relationship that we have forged with the over the last thousand years or more of cohabitation on these islands.

Weber, Christmas Fairy

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!

Beyond Faery I: Mermaids and Selkies

 

hermann-moest-the-fishermans-dream
Hermann Moest, The Fisherman’s Dream

My next book, Beyond Faerywill 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.

Jasmine_Becket_Griffith

A Mermaid by Jasmine Beckett-Griffith (with a nod to Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead)

Strange Fish

“Faith, I do grant,

This is the strangest Fish… some

Say ‘tis an o’er-grown Porpoise, others say,

‘Tis the fish caught in Cheshire; one, to whom

The rest agree, said that ‘twas a Mermaid.”

(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)

bowerley merboy

Mermaid beauty

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.

bowerley merkids

Merfolk habits

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.

bowerley mermum and babe

Mermaid gifts

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.

eichler see-rosen

Freshwater folk

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. 

Jasmine Beckett-Griffith, Mermaid with Roses

Fairies and Bread- the significance of baking in fairyland

baker

When we think of baking and fairies today, cupcakes and treats with pink icing for little girls’ parties tend to come to mind.  Even if we put these to one side, that homely substance, bread, seems far too ordinary and basic a product to have any supernatural aspects, but the folklore reveals that fairies have a strange relationship to the substance.

It might, in fact, be more accurate for us to talk about baked products in this posting, as we are by no means solely concerned with loaves made of wheat flour.  For example, throughout Scotland oatcakes (rather than loaves) were thought to have protective powers: a bannock hung over a cottage threshold would protect a mother and her new-born child inside and burning an oatcake would drive off the faeries.

Home Baking

“And, for thy food, eat fairy bread.”

(The Convert Soule, 1620)

The fairies are widely known to bake their own bread.  Tantalisingly, one Scottish writer has described faery bread as tasting like a wheaten loaf mixed with honey and wine; apparently, it will last for a week at least without going stale.  Cornish woman Anne Jefferies, who was imprisoned for suspected witchcraft, was fed by the faeries during her captivity and a person who tasted the bread they gave her described it as “the most delicious … I ever did eat, either before or afterward.”

The fairies will share their baked products with humans, sometimes, although (as with all fairy food) it may not be all it seems.  In Breconshire the belief is that gifts of bread from the tylwyth teg, if not eaten immediately and in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.  A man from Dornoch in Sutherland was taken by the fairies and flew with them.  After this ordeal, they gave him meat and bread to eat, but he complained afterwards that it was like “so much cork.”

Bread Protects from Faeries

There seems to be something mysterious and semi-magical about bread when it comes to fairies. It can both protect people or bestow supernatural powers.

In one Scottish story a man who has stolen from the faeries is pursued by them and they cry out “You wouldn’t be so fast if it wasn’t for the hardness of your bread.”  In a similar tale, a Perthshire man was troubled by faery cattle eating his crops, but was unable to catch them until one day, as he chased a dun cow around his fields, a faery woman appeared and advised that he’d do better if he ate barley bannocks turned on the griddle and milk from black goats. He followed her advice, caught the faery cow and thereafter had the best milk herd in the district.  This bread magic can work both ways though: in an incident from the Hebrides a captive mermaid manages escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him would have been luckier had it not been for the dryness of his bread- if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.

Bread somehow works to protect people from faery ill-will.  It was widely believed throughout Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influence, especially from being pixie-led.  Stuart poet Robert Herrick wrote that:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

The verse seems to imply that, originally, people must have carried a piece of consecrated host, but eventually any sort of bread was thought to be as good.  The Scottish Highland equivalent to this protection is to have oatmeal in your pocket or sprinkled over your clothes when travelling.

New babies are believed to be especially vulnerable to faery abduction, but bread products are a particularly effective at safeguarding them.  From Cornwall comes a belief that a child can be protected from being taken by baked goods: a mother must take a cake with her to her baby’s baptism and then give it to the first person she meets in the road.  This guarantees her child’s safety from the pixies.  There’s an identical practice in Sutherland in Scotland, involving oatcake and cheese, whilst on the Isle of Man the practice was to provide ‘blithe meat’ (bread and cheese) for people who came to visit a mother and her new-born child.  A portion of this would be scattered around for the unseen visitors, too- partly perhaps to win their favour as ‘godmothers’ and partly to guard against the risk of abduction.

bake 2

Bread Attracts Faeries

Confusingly, as I have described before when discussing fairy farming, fairies also seem to grow wheat and other grains so they can bake their own bread.  What’s more, they seem to like human loaves just as much as their own.  Traditionally, fairy helpers on farms, such as brownies, boggarts and others, are paid in bread.  Very frequently fairies will come to farmhouses to ask to borrow flour or meal when their own supplies have run low.  Bread can also be used to attract fairies to you in summoning charms and it seems to help appease faery animosity: at Wooler, in Northumberland, sickly children would be dipped in a well’s waters and bread and cheese would be left as an offering to the fairies, hoping for a cure.

That the faeries have a taste for human baking is confirmed by several stories from Wales, in which lake maidens are lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are very fussy about the bake of their loaves though: first the bread offered will be judged too hard, then too soft, until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms.  In another of these Welsh stories, concerning the maiden of Llyn y Fan Fach, a man uses bread to bait a fishing hook so he can catch himself a faery wife.  Once again, he tries first with a hunk from a well-baked loaf- and fails- and then tries with half-baked bread and lands his bride.  We may compare evidence from the isle of Man to these Welsh stories.  At Casstruan on the island the mermaids were said to have been very plentiful offshore and the local fishermen would befriend them by throwing them bread, butter and oatcakes.

What’s more, it’s doesn’t just appear to be the quality of the bake that seems to matter: the faeries don’t like salt in their loaves.  As a general rule, it’s a substance they can’t abide, something which comes out in Manx one story.  A woman was out walking when she heard music ahead of her on the road.  She followed the sound and caught up with a group of fairies.  They asked what she had in her basket, to which she replied bread, offering to share it with them.  She broke one of the oatcakes she had with her and placed it on a hedge.  They accepted her offer after checking that there was no salt in the mix.  Because of her generosity, she was promised always to have bread.

In fact, such is the liking of the faes for human bread that they will steal it if it can’t be got by gift or in exchange for an honest night’s work.  One Scottish story tells how the trows living under a cottage stole freshly baked oatcakes simply by slyly raising a floor slab and snatching them away as they cooled; on the Isle of Man the practice certainly was to leave the last cake of a batch behind the ‘turf-flag’ for the little people.

All the same, the fairies seem to have an ambiguous relationship to human baking.  The Welsh tylwyth teg are said to enter kitchens and to ‘robin’ bread dough- that is, to make it too sticky and stringy to rise.  The Cornish pixies too are said to spoil bread in the oven, making it come out full of ‘pixy-spits.’  Probably these examples are just examples of their mischievous nature getting the better of their appetites.

Two stories from the Isle of Man underline the importance of bread to the fairies.  In one, a servant girl at Bride was baking one day and forgot to share the cake she made with the fairies.  When she got into bed that night, she received a blow in the face that made her see stars.  She was a sensible young woman and readily understood what it meant- that the fairies were offended and vengeful- and she instantly got up and baked another cake, which she divided with them.  In another account, a woman lying sick in bed at Barrule was visited by ‘the Bishop of the fairies,’ a man in an old-fashioned three-cornered hat, who stood before her, broke a cake and gave her half.  The report does not really explain what this incident meant, but perhaps the fact that she recovered to tell the story indicates that she was favoured by the faes and had been healed.

Why Bread?

As noted already, part of the perceived power of bread must come from its use by the Christian church in the host.  The idea that a holy item will repulse the ‘evil’ forces of Faery is very common.  What would be effective, then, is its sanctified nature rather than the fact that it’s a leavened wheat product.  It may be simply confusion on the part of humans that, now, any old bit of bread would seem to do.

Another explanation might be that the fairies object to bread because it is a product of settled human civilisation- along with iron, for example.  This doesn’t really explain the situation, though, for two reasons: one that fairies make their own bread (and iron) and because they consume- and like- human bread.

In conclusion, then, in fairyland bread is far more magical and mysterious a food stuff than we might ever have supposed. For something so everyday and unremarkable, it holds great power.

For more on this, see my recently published book Faery.

Naked fairies- nudity in fairyland

mush fae

In a book published in 2017, American art historian Susan Casteras contributed a chapter on Victorian fairy painting.  She perceptively remarked how nudity, which is very far from being an inherent element in folklore, became something that the Victorians chose to exaggerate in their visions of fairyland.  Many paintings of the period, she rightly observed,  were all about “flaunting nudity for its own sake rather than as a supposedly accurate transcription of faery lore.”  (S. Casteras, ‘Winged Fantasies: Constructions of Childhood, Adolescence and Sexuality in Victorian Fairy Painting’ in Marilyn Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, c.8, 127-8)

simmons fairy lying on a leaf
John Simmons, A Fairy on a Leaf

Looking at John Simmons’ painting above, you cannot help but agree with the second part of Casteras’ comment- although Simmons was a particular offender, producing a number of ‘pin-up’ canvases.  What about the folklore evidence, though?  Victorian pictures- and more recently the work of Alan Lee, Brian Froud and Peter Blake– have habituated us to the idea of a Faery full of frolicking nudes, but how traditional is this?

The honest answer has to be that there’s very little sign of nudity in the older accounts of Faery.  In my post on fairy abductions of children, I mentioned the story of a girl who temporarily went missing in Devon.  A game keeper and his wife living at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor, had two children, and one morning the eldest girl went out to play while her mother dressed her baby sister. In due course, the parents realised that the older child had disappeared and several days of frantic and fruitless searching followed. Eventually, after hope had nearly been lost, the girl was found quite near to her home, completely undressed and without her clothes, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly with her toes. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.

Now, this girl was a human infant and there may have been several reasons why the pixies might have taken off all her clothes.  They may have objected to human things; they may have thought a ‘natural’ state was healthier and preferable.  Whatever the exact explanation, it’s one of the few instances where there’s a suggestion that nudity might be the normal condition in Faery.

harris

A calendar illustration by Mabel Rollins Harris

The other evidence is all qualified in one way or another. Mermaids don’t have clothes, but that’s for very obvious reasons.  Men are forever falling in love at first sight with these creatures, but you may well suspect that coming across a uninhibited and naked female is a pretty strong draw in any case.

Some fairies don’t ‘need’ clothes at all because they’re naturally very hairy: the brownies, hobgoblins and the Manx fynoderee are all examples of these.  Their shaggy pelts were covering enough.  It’s almost always this kind of faery that is the subject of a story in which a reward of clothes for services rendered alienates the helpful being.  Typically, a brownie or boggart with work faithfully on a farm, threshing grain, carrying hay and tending the livestock, all for very little reward except some bread and milk left out ta night.  After a while, the curiosity of the farmer overcomes good sense and the creature’s labours are spied upon.  It’s seen to be (at the very best), dressed in tattered rags and (at the worst) completely naked.  Pity is taken and new clothes are made in recognition of its hardwork, but all that’s achieved is to offend the fae, who recites a short verse- and leaves forever.

Lastly, the only other definite example of bare fairy flesh is one I’ve discussed several times previously and one in which ulterior motives are very important.  In the medieval romance of Sir Launval, the young knight is summoned into the presence of the fairy lady, Tryamour.  She’s found in a pavilion in a forest, relaxing on a couch on a hot summer’s day.

“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert; Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May, / Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day, / He segh never non so pert.””

“because of the heat, she’d undone her dress nearly to her waist; she lay uncovered; she was as white as a lily in May, or snow falling on a winter’s day; he’d never seen anyone so pert.”

Tryamour’s plan is to seduce Launval and, plainly, lying there topless and available is a pretty good scheme for winning his attention.  It’s not normal behaviour in Faery, though, anymore than it is on the earth surface.  Most of the accounts we have of the appearance of fairies describe their clothes– their style and their colour; we are not told that they are provocatively naked.

Nude fairies, therefore, seem to be a Victorian obsession; they are the soft porn of their day.  As has been described before, it was acceptable to display bare breasts in art, but only so long as it was justifiable and/ or distant from the present day.  Painting classical nymphs, oriental harems and fairyland let artists get away with it.  they seized the opportunity- regardless of the fact that the folklore provided almost no basis for this.

Mixed Race Faery Families

babies

I have written several times about the sexual allure of fairies and about sexual relationships between fairies and humans.  Inevitably, many of these unions will result in children and in this posting I examine the evidence on mixed race families and the fate of their offspring.

Hybrid Children

Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs observed in her book The Fairies in Tradition and Literature that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (p.95). Mixed race families are entirely possible and there seems neither doubt nor surprise about this in the folklore.  When we learn about human-faery offspring, it is generally because there has been some problem in the relationship.  Of course, our view of these matters is skewed, as we usually only hear about cases where partnerships went wrong- not those matches where the couple ‘live happily ever after.’  We very occasionally get glimpses of these: human girls are quite often abducted to become fairy brides and every now and then we catch sight of them later on.  For example, in the Welsh story of Eilian, she is met again by the woman she worked for when the latter is called out as midwife to the fairy hill- only to discover that it is her former farm maid who is the mother brought to child bed.

Fairy Family Life

Admitting that we only tend to see the failed matches, what can we say about fairy parenting?  Probably the fairest conclusion is that fairies are just as good, and as bad, as husbands, wives and parents as humans.

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed to the court a decades long relationship with the fairy queen.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had enjoyed regular sexual contact with her and the couple had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.  These children were brought up by the mother, but at the same time Man was not entirely absent from their lives.

A reversal of this arrangement is seen with Katharine Jonesdochter of Shetland, tried for witchcraft in 1616.  She confessed to a forty-year affair with a fairy man whom she called ‘the bowman.’  He first came to her when she was a teenager (a “young lass” as she described herself) and they had a child together.  A relative recalled that she had seen “ane little creatour in hir awin hus amongst hir awin bairns quhom she callit the bowmanes bairn.”  In this case the child stayed with the (human) mother and the (fairy) father was seen once or twice a year- at Halloween and on Holy Cross Day (September 14th)- when he visited her for sex.

Both these cases seem to say more about gender roles in human and fairy society than they do about defaults or qualities of fairy-kind as mothers and fathers.  There is, of course, no reason to assume that males are any less loving toward their spouses and children than females.  For example, in the ballad Leesom Brand, the eponymous hero’s fairy wife and baby both die during child birth, but he is able to find magical means to revive them.

bowerley mermum and babe
Amelia Bowerley

All the same, an exception may have to be made for merfolk.  The folklore record indicates that they are very often wanting in basic familial instincts and make very poor parents indeed.  In the ballad of the Selkie of Sule Skerry, the selkie father has first of all made a woman pregnant and abandoned her; then he returns grudgingly upon hearing her complaints and gives her gold to ‘buy’ the child from her (what he calls a ‘nurse-fee’)- taking the boy away to raise him as a selkie in the sea.

In many stories, a mermaid is the parent as the result of being captured by a human male on the shore.  He has managed to find, and withhold from her, the seal skin or tail that she has shed temporarily, thereby preventing her from rejoining her people.  The mermaid is forced to become her captor’s wife and children inevitably follow over the succeeding years.  Eventually, one of those infants comes across the seal skin hidden somewhere on the farm and mentions the discovery to the mother- who without hesitation leaves immediately to return to the sea.

Whether male or female, therefore, merfolk generally set a poor example as parents.  The best that can be said for most mermaids is that they were akin to captives and unwilling partners, which may excuse (a little) their readiness to abandon their children.

There are, though, a couple of stories that are happy exceptions to this rather poor record.   The famous mermaid of Zennor took a human husband who (unusually) went to live with her beneath the sea.  We know the marriage appeared to thrive because, several years later, the skipper of a boat was hailed by the mermaid complaining that his anchor was blocking the door to her home, preventing her returning to her husband and their offspring or, in some accounts, preventing her taking her children to church.  From Orkney, we hear of Johnny Croy who managed to secure a mermaid wife by snatching her precious golden comb.  To win it back, she struck a bargain with him- that she would live with him on his farm for seven years and that he would then go with her to visit her family beneath the waves.  They had seven children together, and the entire family disappeared forever under the sea when the initial seven years were up.  The family bonds in these two cases seem strong and lasting, with the human husband prepared to give up his home and society in order to stay with his supernatural wife and children.

The Welsh lake maidens, the gwragedd annwn, also have a reputation for abandoning their husbands and families, although in these cases they would excuse themselves and blame the husbands for what happened.  They are wooed in conventional manner by the human males and consent freely to marriage, but conditions or taboos are always imposed which- just as predictably- are violated in time by their husbands.  These mothers are driven away from their families, therefore, they are not fleeing like the mermaids.

baby & Fs

Fairy Inheritance

As we might expect, having fairy parents or ancestors does have some benefits for the children.

John Rhys quotes in his Celtic Folklore from William Williams’ Observations on the Snowdon Mountains, of 1802, in which he discusses:

“A race of people inhabiting the districts about the foot of Snowdon, were formerly distinguished and known by the nickname of Pellings, which is not yet extinct. There are several persons and even families who are reputed to be descended from these people …. These children and their descendants, they say, were called Pellings, a word corrupted from their [faery] mother’s name, Penelope… there are still living several opulent and respectable people who are known to have sprung from the Pellings. The best blood in my own veins is this fairy’s.” (Rhys, vol.1, p.48, citing Williams pp.37-40)

Rhys also mentions several times people living in the Pennant Valley in North Wales who are noted for their very good looks- flax yellow hair and pale blue eyes- which are said to be derived from a fairy ancestor called Bella (vol.1, pp.96, 106, 108, 220 & 223; vol.2 p.668)

As well as physical charms, fairy parents can bestow significant gifts upon their part-human offspring.  The faery wife of Llyn y Fan Fach is a typical Welsh ‘lake maiden’ who is driven off by her husband’s violation of her taboos.  Nonetheless, she keeps in regular contact with her three sons, teaching them marvellous healing skills so that they become the famous physicians of Myddfai.  In the Tudor Ballad of Robin Goodfellow, Robin is the son of Oberon, fathered upon a maid to whom he took a fancy.  The father provides materially for his son’s upbringing (although he is absent) and, when the boy reaches his teens, Oberon comes to him and reveals his true nature and magical powers:

“King Oberon layes a scrole by him,

that he might understand

Whose sonne he was, and how hee’d grant

whatever he did demand:

To any forme that he did please

himselfe he would translate;

And how one day hee’d send for him

to see his fairy state.”

Finally, the offspring of matches with merfolk are generally readily identifiable.  There are accounts from the Scottish islands of children conceived with human fathers who have webs between their fingers and toes.  One mermaid mother tried to trim these away but they regrew repeatedly until a horny crust developed- a feature that is still be seen amongst some island people today and which can limit the manual tasks they can undertake.

Further Reading

I discuss other aspects of fairy families, childcare and healing in my recently published book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).  See too the discussion in my Faery Lifecycle, a complete study of faery anatomy and physiology.

faery-lifecycle-cover

Gwenhidw- Mermaid Queen of Wales

mmd

Many readers will be familiar with The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, by Walter Evans-Wentz.  They might even recall that, in his investigation of Welsh fairy lore, he spoke to a Welsh Justice of the Peace from Carmarthen called David Williams, who proved a rich source of faery facts, despite his sober and respectable position.  In particular, he told Evans-Wentz about the king and queen of the tylwyth teg, whom he named as Gwydion ab Don and his wife Gwenhidw.  Gwydion is a character straight out of the Mabinogion, and he is said to live amongst the stars in Caer Gwydion, one of several magical faery fortresses that are mentioned in Welsh legend.  His wife, meanwhile, is connected to the fluffy white clouds that appear in fine weather and which are called ‘the sheep of Gwenhidw.’

This is a very pretty image, and Evans-Wentz goes on to speculate that this queen has some connection to King Arthur’s queen Guinevere, who is properly Gwenhwyfar, ‘the white ghost’ or spirit.  Ghostly ‘white ladies’ are very common in British folklore, often associated with wells and streams.

The real Gwenhidw

Mr David Williams JP gave Evans-Wentz a very useful lead, but what he had learned as a boy from his mother was a very confused version of the authentic tradition.

Gwenhidw (or Gwenhidwy/ Gwenhudwy) is well known in Welsh folklore.  She is, actually, a morforwyn- a mermaid.  Her name means ‘white enchantment’ or ‘white spell.’ In modern stories she owns a herd of white horses that run along the crests of the waves.  In older versions of the tale, the foaming waves were her ewes and every ninth wave was the ram of the flock.  This conception of the incoming tide is preserved in a sixteenth century poem by Rhys Llywd ap Rhys ap Rhicert in which he described a boat trip to the monastic island of Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) from the Lleyn Peninsula.  The passage is notoriously choppy and he described the sea as:

“haid o ddefaid Gwenhudwy/ a naw hwrdd yn un a hwy”

(a flock of ewes of Gwenhidwy and nine rams with them.”

Another poem of a comparably early date refers to Gwenhidw growing a beard (Ni adaf mal Gwenhudwy/  Ar vy min dyfu barf mwy– “Like G., I no longer grow a beard on my lip.”)  This seems to be an example of the quite widespread British tradition that mermaids are (contrary to popular misconceptions) pretty unattractive to look at- and possibly not even very different to tell from mermen.

Elsewhere in Welsh tradition a flood is termed ‘Gwenhudwy’s oppression’ and the sea is called her ‘plain.’  Lastly, an Elizabethan poem contrasts a man called Rhys Cain to our heroine, saying that he is a ‘feeble magician’ compared to her (wan hydol i Wenhidw).  

Conclusions

What can we conclude from these scattered references?  It emerges that Gwenhidw was once well-known in Wales as a powerful and fearsome mermaid, someone to be dreaded and respected.  If insulted, her vengeance might be savage.

Figuratively, at least, Gwenhidw had flocks of sheep.  At some point (though perhaps only in the family of David Williams JP) a misconception arose and the rolling breakers of the angry sea were substituted by benign fair weather clouds.  This, along with her  marriage to Gwydion, demoted Gwenhidw, but she deserves to be restored to her far more prominent position as sorceress and queen.

mmd3

Further Reading

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

Faery song

waterhouse siren 

A siren, J W Waterhouse

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

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

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

There is gold in the land of Mackay,

But there is a song (oran) in Inverness,

That shall never be known.”

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

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

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

“Little kens oor gude dame at hame,

That Whuppity Stoorie is my name!”

“Nimmy, nimmy not,

My name’s Tom Tit Tot” and,

“Little did she know

That Trwtyn Tratyn

Is my name.”

This last verse works much better in the original Welsh:

“Bychan a wydda’ hi

Mai Trwtyn-Tratyn

Yw f’enw i.”

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

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

henry william walker, a fairy bower

Henry William Walker, A Fairy Bower

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

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

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

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

“And ride weil, Davie

And by this night at ten o’clock,

Ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Another version, recorded in 1884, went as follows:

“Sit well, Janety, or ride well Davie

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

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

Another very famous fairy song is that of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye.  This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman.  It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life.  Each verse of the song had a different tune.  For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the baby heir (Evans Wentz p.99).

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

msn-fairy-orchestra

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