‘Wheels on Fire’- it’s Faery, but not as we know it…

“Wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Just notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode”

Bob Dylan/ Rick Danko

Faery kind need not always appear in anthropomorphic form. I have described before the Scottish kelpies and each uisge and the shape shifting capabilities of several supernatural beings, such as Puck and the Isle of Man bogie called the buggane.

Transformations into animals might still seem relatively understandable, given the British tradition of semi-fish-like mermaids and selkies or the very widespread idea of the ‘Black Dog.’ However, fairies can sometimes take completely non-animal forms. I was inspired to examine these by Simon Young’s article on the Rolling Wool Bogie and in my book Beyond Faery I described the variety of ‘soft’ apparitions (looking like jelly, or balls or bales of wool or grass) as well as some very bizarre ‘hard’ forms that have been adopted.

There are quite a few examples of the ‘hard’ manifestations, from all around the British Isles.  At Hellsgill, Nether Auchinleck, in Clydesdale, a sprite in the shape of the outer rim of a cartwheel would come bounding down the brae, heading straight for any night time traveller.  Just as it looked to be about to collide with its victim, the wheel would vanish with an eldritch laugh.  Other such Scottish ‘wheels’ have been reported.  A man called Alexander, of Buaile Mor on South Unst, was fishing in a stream one night when he saw a figure approaching downstream.  He called to the stranger to step away from the water so as not to frighten the fish; the man complied but then Alexander realised something like a mill-wheel was rolling towards him.  Hurriedly, he gathered up his catch and gear and made off.  The fish he’d caught he hid under a rock and then headed for the nearest house.  Crossing the moor, however, he was repeatedly thrown down.  The next morning, returning to collect his catch, Alexander found that all had gone save for one he had ripped the head off by standing on it during his hurried departure the night before. 

At Lag nam Bocan (Bogle’s Hollow), on South Uist, a woman saw an iron car wheel rim rolling along the road.  A comparable- and equally inexplicable- incident occurred at Mynydduslwyn in Gwent: a reddish grey object, round like a bowl, was encountered rolling back and forth across a lane.  The witness believed it was a living thing, because it grew larger and smaller as it moved; he enquired what in God’s name it was, and the apparition instantly disappeared.  Perhaps it’s significant too that the Orkney monsters, the nuggle and the shoopiltee, are said to have tails resembling a water-wheels.

Two comparable examples from the Isle of Man, which were regarded as manifestations of the buggane, are described in Manx Notes and Queries for 1904:

“A man, when he was young, was seeing the girls home late in the night, and when coming to the end of beyr yn clagh glass (the grey stone road), he beard a great noise, and he looked in every direction, but could see nothing, and the noise was coming nearer. He did not know what to do, so he got over the hedge, but the noise was just over him, and he looked up and saw a thing like a big wheel of fire. It was going round at a great speed, and went towards Ballacurry and when it was near that place it vanished, and he saw no more of it

Second Account– A man was coming along the grey stone road in Ballakillowey, and he met a big wheel of fire, going around at a fearful rate, but remaining in the same place, and he could not get past, so he went back and took another road, but he met the wheel again at the next opening, and he went across the fields to shun it, but when he came to the high road the wheel was there again, but he ventured to pass it and got away. It made a great noise with whirling round.”

As I described in my book Beyond Faery, published last year, faery kind are capable of taking quite unexpected and baffling forms. That book argued for an expansion of ‘faery’ to include a range of supernatural beings in animal (rather than humanoid) form, but it will be clear that we actually need to expand our horizons far more broadly to encompass all the potential manifestations that have been encountered.

by ‘nachtwulf’ on DeviantArt

Faeries and Water- healing and diagnosis

hm2
Hester Margetson

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.

Healing Properties

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.

hm1
Hester Margetson

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.

Diagnostic properties

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.

cloke well

Recovering Children

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.

Seeing Faeries

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.

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of the links between the faes and water. For more on faery medicine, see my Faery Lifecycle, 2021:

faery-lifecycle-cover

Anglo-Saxon elves

alf

The Norse universe- showing Alfheim where the elves live

It will be obvious that the Saxon immigrants to British shores in the sixth century brought with them an established body of belief on fairies and elves.  What I wish to do in this posting is to attempt to outline the core elements of what that belief might have been, before it interacted with existing insular British beliefs.

Sources

We can form some idea of what our Saxon ancestors might have believed from several sources.  There are their own literary productions- poems, stories and medical texts- which provide valuable information.  There are contemporary Norse texts which examine the Viking pantheon.  Lastly, we may compare more recent Scandinavian- especially Danish- folk beliefs with English fairy stories; where they share elements, we may suggest that these derive from an early, common mythology believed by all the continental Germanic tribes.  Of course, the potential flaw in this approach is that there was later contact through Danish and Norwegian Viking settlement in Britain.  If beliefs are widespread throughout all of England and lowland Scotland- and not limited to the Danelaw, this later influence may be discounted; equally, I might argue that we are still describing Saxon folklore, albeit the beliefs of the later Saxons after the Norse influx had been absorbed (!)  In fact, many of the ideas listed below are found in Wessex, the West Midlands and the North, the Borders and Scottish lowlands, beyond the Norse settlements, so that later imports may not be the best explanation.  Another approach could be to ascribe these common beliefs to a core of Indo-European thought, something that was not unique to Celts, Germans, Slavs or others.   There is, very likely, such a deep shared source: it is probably world wide and very ancient.  In this case, it is still likely that a good number of these ideas were incorporated in to early English belief and were carried into Britain at the time of the settlement.

Norse Alfheim

The old Norse Edda is a good starting point for this examination, as it provides a clear statement of northern Teutonic belief about the elves.  In the early 1200s in Iceland, scholar Snorri Sturluson compiled the so-called prose Edda, a record of the Norse myths and legends.  In Gylfaginning Gylfi describes the heavens and the many splendid places there:

“There is one place that is called Alfheim.  There live the folk called light-elves, but the dark-elves live down in the ground, and they are unlike them in appearance, and even more unlike them in nature.  Light-elves are fairer than the sun to look at, but dark-elves are blacker than pitch.”

These alfar are still active to this day.  Meanwhile, in later British belief we come across stories of Elfame from Lowland Scotland.  It seems inescapable that this ‘elf-home’ is a survival from the earliest English legends.  As for the division into light and dark, good and bad, elves, there are several later references to ‘white fays’ in English literature and one echo that may be particularly significant. Being interrogated on charges of witchcraft in 1566, John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset told his inquisitors “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black.  Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”  If the colours reflect more than mere choice of costume, there appears here to be a survival of the light/ dark opposition.  In this connection we should also note the Old English term aelfscyne which was applied to women in a couple of texts (Genesis A and the poem Judith).  The word seems to mean something like ‘elf-beautiful’ or even ‘enchantingly bright’; perhaps in the suggestion of light or shining there is a further hint of the light and dark elf dichotomy.

From this limited evidence it may be possible to postulate a basic Anglo-Saxon mythology of an Elf-home, divided between the good (white) elves and the bad (black) elves.  Beyond that, it is not safe to go. Several further varieties of elves- the sae, feld, beorg, dun and munt aelfen- are mentioned in Aelfric’s Glossary,  but it seems very likely that these are actually translations of classical terms such as naiad and hamadryad and that they are not genuine Saxon categories at all.  If this is so, this is a tenth century example of the deleterious effects of classical learning that I described in a previous post.

Elf shot

Luckily, we do possess some direct evidence of Saxon conceptions of the elvish race. They are mentioned in several medical texts as the causes of illnesses, mainly internal pains or mental disturbances.  A spell to cure ‘the stitch’ goes as follows:

“Loud were they, lo, loud, as they rode over the barrow/ … Out little spear, if herein it be/ … To them another I wish to send back/ … a flying dart against them in return./  …if it were gods’ shot, or it were elves’ shot/ Or it were witches’ shot, now I will help you/ This is the remedy…”

‘Elf-shot’ was a recognised cause of disease in later times and was a major diagnosis in the Saxon texts such as Lacnunga.  A selection of herbs were employed in treating both humans and livestock afflicted with these maladies.  The medical texts also refer to aelfsogetha- which appears to be something like bronchitis or heartburn- and to aelfsidenn, which literally means elf-enchantment and seems to be a night fever or nightmares.  There is too a cure for waeteraelfaedle (water-elf sickness) which is characterised by the patient’s livid nails, watering eyes and downcast looks.  This term may denote another subdivision of the elves: in later times in Scotland there was a clear distincton between land (or dressed) and water fairies (see Campbell, Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.2 p.64).  Equally, though, it might just as well be read as ‘watery elf-sickness’ and so be more concerned with the symptoms than the identity of the agent inflicting the disease.

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Elves in a fairy knoll

Common elvish traits

Turning to the comparative sources, the attributes shared by English fairies with those of the original English homelands seem to be extensive and to include:

  • living under hills, which will periodically rise or open up to reveal feasting and music within;
  • a love of singing and dancing;
  • a preference for dancing in circles in grassy places, leaving marks on the ground;
  • a love of cleanliness and tidiness, for which humans are rewarded (or punished);
  • causing disease in humans and livestock;
  • the inability to cross running water;
  • a preference for wearing green and red, especially red caps;
  • an aversion to loud noises, which may drive them away;
  • the magic power to make themselves invisible, change their shape, see the future or to confer prosperity;
  • the need to use human midwives;
  • magic power in their names, which must be concealed from humans;
  • a strong link to certain trees, especially oaks.  Elder trees also feature in Danish folklore, which tells of the Old Lady of the Elder Tree who must be appeased before taking wood.  This spirit also appears in Lincolnshire, very strongly suggesting that Danish settlers brought the belief with them to East Anglia;
  • residence in Elfame is perilous, because time passes differently and because their food is unsafe for humans;
  • fairies take children and leave changelings, which may be exposed by cooking tricks or by burning;
  • there is a species of fairy that resides with humans, doing farm-work, stealing fodder and grain from neighbours and becoming so attached to a household that it is impossible to escape them by trying to move away.  Nonetheless, if they are insulted, they will become a nuisance. These are of course the English and Lowland Scots brownies;
  • there are freshwater fairies that are part-horse;
  • there are marine fairies such as mermaids and seal people.

As suggested earlier, the considerable parallels between Danish fairy lore and English tales are indicative of a common source.  The question remains whether that was located in fifth century Angeln before the early English fared forth in their keels, or further back in time and further away in the homelands of the Indo-European peoples.

Anglo-Saxon elves seem to have been imagined as being human in size and shape, but having a semi-divine nature.  Scandinavian elves shared this character and were the subject of sacrifices, aelfblot.  For instance, in Kormaks Saga a wounded man was told to sacrifice a bull and then to take the beast to a mound “in which elves dwell … and redden the outside of the mound with the bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast with the flesh; and you will be healed.”  There are records of comparable practices in Britain.

The evidence indicates that a rich set of beliefs were imported to British shores, there to mingle with the mythology of the residual British population and to produce the complex and developed fairy-lore to which this blog is dedicated.

Further reading

I have considered the early medieval fairy lore of Wales and the fairies of post-Norman England in other posts.

For those readers who want a far more detailed and academic examination of this area, I recommend the work of Alaric Hall, lecturer in medieval English literature at Leeds University.  You will readily find online pdf copies of his book Elves in Anglo-Saxon England and of his PhD thesis from which the book derives.  As his job indicates, his approach is primarily literary and is written from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxonist. If your conversational Mercian is weak, you may not fancy it….!