‘Nymphology’- a new book

Nymphology

I am pleased to announce that my new book, Nymphology- A Brief History of Nymphs, is now available as a Kindle book and paperback through Amazon.

I’ve often discussed the interface between classical and British mythologies, both on this site and in my book Fayeriebut I decided to focus on the subject in a short new volume, examining the meaning and stories of nymphs from the ancient Greek past right up to the present day.

Nymphs have always been about sex,  whether that’s the story of Hylas and the Nymphs or it’s the modern day nymphets of Nabokov’s Lolita or adult websites.  There’s much more to it than that, though; the nymph is also about healing and poetic inspiration, about religious as well as sexual obsession.

I’ve traced their story from the classical texts and poets, through Morgan Le Fay and the Lady of the Lake, through Spenser, Shakespeare and Michael Drayton’s Nymphidia right up to Nabokov and Pierre Louys’ Chansons de Bilitis.  Nymphs are found in paintings and sculptures as well as in literature, and the new book celebrates them all.

The boo is 80 pages long plus illustrations- in the UK it’s £5.50 for the e-book and £7.95 for the paperback copy.  For details of all my other books, please see my separate Books page.

Hermaphroditus_Salmacis_Albani_Louvre
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, Albani, 1630

 

Nightmares and fairies

fusli
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

There is a little explored link between fairies and nightmares, an association expressed very well in one of the most famous fairy texts, Mercutio’s description of fairy queen Mab in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  She is (as Shelley crowned her in his poem Queen Mab) the queen of dreams, both good and bad:

 “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

that presses them and learns them first to bear,

making them women of good carriage.” (Act I, scene 4)

It’s pretty evident here that Shakespeare sees Mab as having a sexual function.  She educates- and maybe even seduces- virgin girls, teaching them how to perform in bed.  That bearing, or carriage, is not about deportment but about receiving a lover lying on top.

In this passage, Mab is called a ‘hag,’ and to be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares. ‘The hagge’ was imagined as a hideous witch who sat on a sleeper’s stomach, causing bad dreams.  The notion of compression was a very early one, as we see from the South English Legendary of about 1300:

“Þe luþere gostes …deriez men in heore slep… And ofte huy ouer-liggez [men], and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare.”

“The evil ghosts harm men in their sleep and often lie on top of them, which people call ‘the night-mare.’”

There’s a supernatural cause here, but not a fairy one.  However, by the early seventeenth century the fae nature of the affliction was established.  For example, in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, one of Robin’s companions, Gull the Fairy, explains how:

“Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”

The victim’s experience is described in The Holly Bush of 1646:

“the nightmare hath prest,

With that weight on their breast,

No returnes of their breath can pass.”

The sixteenth century Scots poem, My Heart is High Above, likewise conveys some sense of how the experience feels: “Then languor on me lies, like Morpheus the mair.”  Devon poet, Robert Herrick, in his poem, The Hag, also described the sensation of a being riding the sleeper:

“The Hag is astride,

This night for to ride;

The Devill and shee together:”

In their 1621 play Thierry and Theodoret, playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher emphasise the unpleasant and exhausting nature of the experience:

“goblins ride me in my sleep to jelly.” (I, 2)

However, the sensation he depicted also has something of pixy-leading about it, as well as reminding us of the stories of fairies actually riding human victims at night for want of an available horse:

“A Thorn or a Burr She takes for a Spurre:
With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
Through Brakes and through Bryars,
O’re Ditches, and Mires,
She followes the Spirit that guides now.”
    
    miles johnston

Miles Johnston

In these versions, the pressure and shortness of breath are associated with fear rather than sexual activity and arousal, but there was great confusion between the two aspects of the nightmare.  We see this in William Sampson’s 1636 play The Vow Breaker- or the Fair Maid of Clifton in Nottinghamshire, when Ursula remarks to Anne:

“you us’d to say Hobgoblins, Fairies and the like were nothing but our own affrightments and yea, oh my Cuz, I once dreamed of a young batchelor and was ridden with a Nightmare.”

Here we elide seamlessly from fairies to nightmares to sexual fantasy within a single sentence.  In Drayton’s Nymphidia the sensual nature of the sensation is addressed more explicitly:

“And Mab, his merry queen, by night,

Bestrides young folk that lie up-right,

(in older times the mare that hight.)”

In both passages, the poets’ bawdiness is barely concealed.  Ursula being ridden by her lusty young batchelor and the ‘up-right’ wet-dreamers of Drayton are almost solely concerned with erotic dreams rather than horror.  This sexual aspect of the nightmare is underlined by Edward Topsell in his Historie of Serpents, where he mentions “The spirits of the night, called Incubi and Succubi, or else Night-mares.” (p.173)  These two spirits were believed to be supernatural lovers who came to men and women during the night.

The Victorian magazine, Once A Week, in 1867 carried a feature on Devonshire pixies, which informed its readers that they had control over sleeper’s fantasies: “Some may bring nightmares and others sweet dreams.”  Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given that the pixies of the South West can control the weather and use their powers of glamour to change landmarks and ‘pixy-lead’ victims.

The intertwining of faeries and good and bad dreams is highlighted lastly in Cartwright’s play of 1635, The Ordinary, in which Moth prays that:

“St Francis and St Benedict,

Blesse this house from wicked wight,

From the Nightmare and the Goblin,

That is hight Goodfellow Robin…” (Act III, scene 1)

Here it is Robin Goodfellow himself, otherwise known as Puck, who takes on the role of the wicked wight who brings bad dreams and disturbed sleep.

The word ‘mare’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon mære/ mæra, and derives from a verb meaning ‘to crush.’  In modern English it has fallen together with the word for a female horse (Anglo-Saxon mere).  The words have entirely separate origins, although the sense of riding presumably encouraged them to be mixed up.  It seems this confusion worked in several directions: for instance, in 1696 John Aubrey in his Miscellanies described precautions taken to “prevent the Night-Mare (viz.) the Hag from riding their Horses.”  Fairies are known for taking horses from stables and riding them at night and Aubrey (or perhaps country people he spoke to) understandably, but mistakenly, expanded the term for a fairy dream to cover another well-known fairy activity.

the end

Further Reading

In more recent times, fairies have come to be associated with much sweeter dreams- as in Rose Fyleman’s verse Fairy Lullaby for a Mortal which imagines the faes bringing dreams and brushing away darkness with their “soft, soft wings.”  These literary and nursery visions of gentle and benign Faery are a long way from earlier perceptions.

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of Queen Mab and see my Fayerie for more on her role in Tudor and Jacobean verse.

Fairy Games and Pastimes

elves & Fs
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite- ‘Elves & Fairies’

I’ve written before about fairy sports.  Here I’d like to highlight some more light-hearted- though perhaps no less competitive- faery pastimes.  Both the examples come from the work of fairy poet Michael Drayton.

Firstly, a game we all will know.  In the Sixth Nymphal of The Muse’s Elisium, woodman Silvius describes:

“The Dryads, Hamadryads, the Satyres and the Fawnes

Oft play at Hyde and Seeke before me on the Lawnes,

The frisking Fayry oft when horned Cinthia shines

Before me as I walke dance wanton Matachynes…”

The ‘matachin’ is a sixteenth century sword dance related to the modern English morris dance (and it may be worthwhile noting that in Household Tales of 1895, Sidney Addy states that, at Curbar in Derbyshire, the fairies were dancing morris dances whenever they were sighted by locals).  As for ‘hide and seek,’ this is perhaps the earliest reference to this still popular children’s game.

Rather more mysterious are two other allusions made by Drayton in The Muse’s Elisium:

“And whilst the Nimphes that neare this place,

Disposed were to play

At Barly-breake and Prison-base,

Doe passe the time away:”

This passage is in the The First Nymphal; in the Third Nymphal we read these lines:

“At Barly-breake they play

Merrily all the day,

At night themselves they lay

Upon the soft leaves.”

What’s more, in the first book of Poly-Olbion, Drayton also mentions these games:

“The wanton Wood-Nymphs mixt with her light-footed Fawnes,

To lead the rurall routs about the goodly Lawnds,

As over Holt and Heath, as thorough Frith and Fell;

And oft at Barly-breake, and Prison-base, to tell

(In carrolds as they course) each other all the joyes…”

“The frisking fairies there, as on the light air borne,

Oft run at barley break upon the ears of corn,

And catching drops of dew in their lascivious chaces,

Do cast the liquid pearle in one another’s faces.”

Here we have references to two apparently related games, neither of which immediately sound very familiar today.  Barley-break is mentioned very often in Tudor and Stuart poetry and plays, which must attest to its contemporary popularity as a game for young couples (although it seems it could also refer to a circle dance- or the game could partly comprise dancing).

The nature of the game barley-break was, luckily, described at great length for us by Sir Philip Sydney in his Arcadia (I, 158), from which this is only an excerpt:

“Then couples three be straight allotted there

They of both ends the middle two do fly;

The two that in the mid place Hell called were,

Must strive, with waiting foot and watching eye,

To catch of them, and them to Hell to bear,

That they, as well as they, Hell may supply.”

Three couples play, with one pair confined to a central area called Hell.  The others have dare to get as near to Hell as possible, without being caught by one of the middle pair.  The catchers are required to hold hands at all times, but the other pairs can separate in order to stay free.  The game is over when all pairs have been caught and had a spell in Hell.

That barley-break might be a suitable pastime for supernatural woodland beings is confirmed by Richard Braithwaite’s play, A Strappado for the Divell (1615):

“Wood-haunting satyrs now their minions seeke,

And having found them, play at barley-breake,

Where delight makes the night short (though long) …”

brett
Molly Brett, from the series ‘Pixie Playthings’

Meanwhile, the game called ‘base, originally ‘Prison Bars,’ is a closely related activity.  Two parties, holding hands, face each other, and the aim is to catch an opponent who tries to run towards the opposite side’s base.  Thus, in Henry Chettle’s Tragedy of Hoffman- or, A Revenge for a Father (1602), Lucibella tells Ferdinand:

“Doe but stand here, I’ll run a little course

At base, or barley-break, or some such toye,

To catch the fellow, and come backe againe…”

In essence, both games are a sort of ‘tag.’ They stress the lively, physical and team-oriented nature of faery games.  Spenser in The Faery Queen mentions this aspect of ‘base’:

“So ran they all as they had been at bace,

They being chased, that did others chace.” (V, viii, 5)

The Legend of St Gregory of the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century gives us even more of an insight into the game:

“He wende in a day to plawe [play]

As the children don atte bars [i.e. at prison base]

A cours he took with a felawe,

Gregorie the swiftere was,

After him he leop pas wel gode,

With honden seyseth with skept [skill?]

That other was unblithe of mode [in an unhappy mood]

For tene [grief] of heart sore he wepte

And ran home as he wer wode [mad].”

In short, fairy games were energetic and exciting- just like their dancing and they were an excuse for young people to enjoy physical exercise and close contact with each other.  Given the known sensuous nature of faery kind, this is just what we might expect.

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of fairy leisure and entertainment.

 

Fairy rings

outhwaite fairy ring

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The fairy ring

“We’ll trace the lower grounds/ When Fayries in their Ringlets there

Doe daunce their nightly rounds.”   Michael Drayton, The queste of Cynthia

Fungi are closely associated with the fays- for example, it is said in Wales that mushrooms serve as fairy parasols- and, as is widely known, fairy rings mark the sites of the fairies’ nocturnal dancing.  This fact could easily be proved: set up a stick in a ring overnight and it would be found knocked down by the fays the next morning.

Lost landscape features

The rings used to be much more widespread than today, and much more noticeable. They appeared in all kinds of fields except those sown with corn.  Modern farming practices, with increased cultivation and use of fertilisers and pesticides, has drastically reduced the evidence, but we can get an idea of what our predecessors would have seen from the writings of naturalist Robert Plot.  Discussing the Staffordshire countryside in the late seventeenth century, he describes rings that were forty or fifty yards in diameter, often encircled by a rim between a foot and a yard wide.  These rims might be bare, or the grass might have a russet, singed colour.  The grass within could also be brown but was more often dark green.  Plot sought to explain the rings scientifically, blaming moles or penned cattle, but given their size and distinctness, it is unsurprising that others would readily resort to supernatural causation.

Changes in and intensification of agriculture have largely eradicated fairy rings from fields.  A large ring still existed as late as 1875 at Quebec House between Seagrave and Sileby in Leicestershire, but the very fact that it was remarked upon shows how rare they had become, even by this date.  Writing about Mid-Wales in 1911, Jonathan Caredig Davies remarked that the rings (cylchau y tylwyth teg in Welsh) had been numerous when he was a boy about forty years earlier.  It had been believed to be bad luck to enter them, but by the early twentieth century he found this superstition had entirely died out- no doubt a combination of waning belief and the disappearance of the rings themselves.

The rings were a mysterious feature that had demanded explanation.  As they vanished, the need for a justification of their presence and persistence also disappeared.  In his account of the Folklore of Hereford and Worcester, for example, writer Roy Palmer made an explicit link between rings and belief.  The fairy faith was a long time dying, he wrote, lasting until the early twentieth century.  Palmer went on to note that fairy rings were still pointed out at Stanford on Teme in the late 18th century and at Ledbury in the late 19th.

anderson fairy revels

Respecting rings

A variety of fairy beliefs attached to the rings.  It was widely believed that they should not be cultivated.  Grazing them and, even more importantly, ploughing them, was strongly discouraged: a Scottish ballad warned that-

“He wha tills the fairies’ green

Nae luck shall hae;

And he wha spills the faries’ ring

Betide him want and wae;

For weirdless days and weary nights

Are his til his deein’ day!”

Anyone foolish enough to ignore such advice would find their cattle struck down with murrain. In any case, it was also widely believed that any attempt to eradicate the rings would fail.  Ploughing could not remove them and they would return immediately, as was said to have happened with two rings in the churchyard at Pulverbatch in Shropshire.

Just as those who interfere with rings will suffer, it was believed that those that cared for them would be rewarded: as the Scottish rhyme promised, “an easy death shall dee.”

Large and lasting rings were once notable landscape features and attracted their own mythology.  For example, the famous ring at Brington village in Northamptonshire couldn’t be ploughed out and possessed supernatural properties.  If you ran around it nine times on the first night of a new moon, you would be able to hear the fairies feasting below the ground.

An aura of magic attaches itself to fairy rings, therefore.  Mostly the tendency is to avoid them: in Shropshire people used to be reluctant to use those parts of a church graveyard marked with rings.  To sleep in one is especially perilous- you are at considerable risk of being ‘taken’ by the fairies.  There’s a bit of good news though- May Day dew collected from a fairy ring is said to be excellent for preserving youthful skin.

IRO Ring

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Further reading

See ‘Fairy ground,’ chapter 12 of my British fairiesfor further discussion of aspects of this subject.  See too my posting on fairy plants.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.