Fairy Vengeance

Duncan Carse

One of the major perils of crossing the fairies is that they can be very likely to seek vengeance.  They have a vindictive streak, something which is not alleviated at all by their generally indifferent or uncaring attitude towards humankind.  We must add to this the problem that they are immortal: the fairies can wait to get their own back, not just through the perpetrator’s lifetime, but far down the generations (as Professor John Rhys described in Celtic Folklore vol.I, c.VII & vol.II pp.420-25). He speculated whether this delayed gratification was the result of their deathlessness or because some spell prevented prompter action; either way, the fairies can wait and innocent descendants can pay the price for an ancestor’s folly.

Rhys illustrated the vengeful aspect of the faery character with an account from Pantannas, near Beddgelert. A farmer sought to banish the tylwyth teg from his farm by ploughing up all the areas of grass sward (so that, effectively, they had nowhere left to dance). The man immediately began to see apparitions, or hear voices, threatening that Dial a ddaw, ‘Vengeance is coming.’ Soon after, all the farmer’s supply of corn was destroyed by fire, but serious as this loss was, the fairies declared it to be only the beginning of their inexorable and inflexible revenge. The farmer restored the grassy areas and pleaded with the fairies for mercy, and they returned to the land, but the threat of further action was not lifted- it was only postponed to his descendants. A century later, the warning voices were heard again (‘Dial a ddaw‘) and, soon enough, the vengeance was exacted. The son of the family disappeared at night, presumed to have been taken by the tylwyth teg at a fairy ring, and he was not seen again for several generations. When he finally returned, the world was changed and his name was only a dim memory and- as so often happens in Welsh stories- as soon as he touched something in the mortal world, he crumbled away to dust. What we gather from this is that the fairies won’t forget and that, to make matters worse, they are patient, leading to what seems to us humans like harsh and wholly unreasonable punishment meted out against future generations, who may not even understand why they are suffering.

A variety of offences will incur the fairies’ wrath.  I’ve already mentioned their adverse response to disbelief in their existence; other misdemeanours against them include:

  • Attacking the fairies: this is easily the most understandable case, perhaps.  A Norman knight who came upon fairies dancing at Beddgelert sets his hounds upon the happy throng.  His fate was first to get lost.  Then, when he managed to return home, he found his wife with her lover; the two men fought and the malicious knight died (Welsh Outlook, no.11, Nov.1st 1915, 431-2);
  • Even insults to fairies can elicit a severe response: a drunken man on the Isle of Man met some fairies dancing at Laxey. He swore at them and they chased him away by pelting him with gravel. This wasn’t sufficient though: soon his horse and cow died and, within six weeks, he died himself. I’ve mentioned before the Ballad of Mary O’Craignethan, in which a father rescues his kidnapped daughter from the fairy king. This happy outcome is marred, though, by the fact that- in his grief and rage- the father cursed the fairy folk. He is warned that “nane e’er cursed the Seelie Court and ever after thrave.” As predicted, the father dies soon after recovering his beloved Mary;
  • Trespassing on fairy ground: the fairies have been known (at the very least) to blunt farmers’ scythes if they try to mow the grass growing on a fairy ring. In a case reported from South-west Scotland, a farmer’s cow was killed because it had been annoying the fairies by standing on top of their house. Somewhat comparable may be the story of the walnut tree that once grew at Llandyn Hall, Llangollen, around which the faeries met at night to hold their wedding ceremonies.  When it was cut down in the nineteenth century, the faeries took their revenge, it was believed: one of the workmen involved in the felling was killed by a falling branch;
  • Damaging faery goods– usually we read stories in which humans are rewarded for mending broken faery tools. A Devonshire story reverses this. A boy found a pixie peel (baking implement) in a field. He broke it, saying “The pixies won’t bake any more bread.” He was instantly attacked and pinched, and couldn’t open his eyes for days (Folklore, vol.11, 213);
  • Spying: the faeries are notoriously secretive and retiring. A girl given a job as a housemaid by a ‘Green Lady,’ a fairy woman, was warned never to spy on her activities. Of course, the girl did- peeping through a keyhole at her mistress dancing with a bogey- and for this she was blinded (Folklore, vol.7);
  • Kidnapping: at Rudha Ban in Tarbet the wife of the head of the Macfarlane clan fell ill after the birth of a child and couldn’t nurse her baby.  Her husband kidnapped the wife of a local urisk and made her act as wet nurse.  In revenge for this affront, the urisk mutilated the family’s milkmaid.  In turn, he was hanged (Winchester, Traditions of Arrochar and Tarbet, 1916);
  • For attempted murder: at Hawker’s Cove, near Padstow, local man Tristram Bird discovered a mermaid one day whilst he was out hunting seals.  She was sat on a rock, combing her hair and looking as alluring as mermaids can; he instantly desired her and asked her to marry him.  She rejected the proposal and mocked him.  He threatened to shoot her, and she warned him he’d be sorry if he did.  He did- and he was.  Her fired at her and in response she cursed the harbour.  A storm blew up- and a sandbar blocked access from Padstow to the sea;
  • Failing to leave water out for them at night and to make them welcome in your home: when a family forgot one night to put out water, soap and towels for the visiting tylwyth teg, as was habitual, the peeved fairies overturned their stacks of peat outside (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886);
  • For meanness: a couple out walking on the Isle of Man met a small, crippled man begging.  Whilst the wife would have helped, the husband refused to give him any money, for which he was cursed.  They had a number of children subsequently- all the girls were born without disabilities, but all the boys were disabled just like the beggar (Manx Folklore, 1882-5).  In another Manx story, a man realised that the someone was stealing potatoes from his field after dark. He decided to sit out all night to catch the culprit. He discovered it was the fairies and, by the next morning, he was white and shaking and only able to struggle home and get into his bed, where he soon died. This was the penalty for begrudging a few spuds. A further Manx story concerns a girl baking at Bride.  She forgot the custom of sharing the resulting oat cake with the fairies but when she went up to sleep and got into bed, she received a blow to her face.  She knew this was a message from the fairies, so she went straight back down, baked a new cake and shared it with the Little People (Yn Lioar Manninagh, vol.2).

Some of these incidents are comprehensible, as acts of violence are met with violence.  In the later cases, though the response seems disproportionate to the incitement- but no-one ever suggested that fairies are proportionate people. The best policy is the utmost caution- and the utmost respect: be generous, share with them and at the same time don’t intrude.

Duncan Carse

Killing fairies- the unpleasant truth

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

It’s a widespread belief that fays are immortal.  In fact (and surprisingly) the folklore evidence- scattered as it is- clearly contradicts this.  Fairies are mortal and, it follows, they can be killed.

Fairies’ life spans are considerably longer than ours, which probably explains the common misconception, but nonetheless they do die eventually, something the Reverend Robert Kirk expressed with his usual style:

“They are not subject to sore Sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain Period, all about ane Age.” (Secret Commonwealth, chapter 7)

Another Scottish account of fairy life-spans states that they live through nine ages, with nine times nine periods in each:

“Nine nines sucking the breast,
Nine nines unsteady, weak,
Nine nines footful, swift,
Nine nines able and strong,
Nine nines strapping, brown,
Nine nines victorious, subduing,
Nine nines bonneted, drab,
Nine nines beardy, grey,
Nine nines on the breast-beating death,
And worse to me were these miserable nine nines
Than all the other short-lived nine nines that were.”

That the fays will eventually sicken and pass away is confirmed by a couple of pieces of evidence.  Firstly, fairy funerals have been witnessed.  William Blake most famously described one, but his account is probably more poetic than authentic.  Other people have however stumbled upon fairy funeral processions (for example, that of the Fairy Queen at Lelant in Cornwall) and the Reverend Edmund Jones, living in Monmouthshire in the late eighteenth century, told of several such funerals seen which foretold deaths in the mortal world, quite often that of the witness.

Secondly, there are a few allusions to fairy cemeteries.  One was believed to be at Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland;  generally in the north of England it used to be said that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground.

So, despite great longevity, age and sickness will ultimately overtake even the fairies.  This is sad, but not necessarily shocking.  More disturbing is the evidence that fairies can be killed prematurely.  I have discussed fairy warfare in a previous post; it’s almost unavoidable that blood will be spilt in such conflict, but we might still not think it so remarkable that one magical being can slay another.  The truth is, though, that humans can murder supernaturals.

Nymphocide (I’ve just invented this word, by the way) may occur accidentally.  One version of the story from Brinkburn is that it was the ringing of the bells of the church that killed them (Denham Tracts, p.134).  I’ve mentioned before fairies aversion to church bells; this particular story takes that theme to extremes.

Other fairy murders are just that- deliberate and premeditated killings.  One case from Shropshire concerns some nuisance boggarts in a farmhouse.  The story follows the pattern of the “we’re flitting too” type of tale, in which the human family try to escape their unwelcome companions by moving house, only to find that the boggart comes with them.  In most versions the humans reconcile themselves to their unwanted housemates, often giving up the move entirely.  In the Shropshire version, the humans take matters to their logical conclusion.  Unable to give the boggarts the slip, they trick them into sitting in front of a blazing fire in the hearth of the new home and then topple them into the flames, where they’re held in place with forks and brooms until they’re consumed.

Some other nymphocides at least seem to be crimes of passion or are committed in the heat of the moment or in self defence.  On the Hebridean island of Benbecula a mermaid was accidentally slain by a stone thrown at her head during an attempt by some fishermen to capture her.  In the ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elf-knight, the heroine lulls to sleep the fairy who plans to kill her and then stabs him to death; in another version she drowns him- but the ability to kill is the point.  J. F. Campbell relays a story concerning the killing of a gruagach with a sword (Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.1, p.7).  The Reverend Robert Kirk also mentions a man with second sight who, during a visit to faerie, “cut the Bodie of one of those People in two with his Iron Weapon.”  All of these raise tales the possibility that it is the iron of the weapons that is significant.  We know that iron is a good defence against fairies and it seems only reasonable that it should be fatal for them too.

This evidence may surprise and shock some readers, but it fits with the general tenor of traditional fairy lore.  If the fairies are dangerous and untrustworthy beings, it seems inevitable that sometimes a person will conclude that the only safe and permanent solution will be to do away with the perceived threat.

A related, but separate, procedure is the ‘laying’ of a supernatural- normally a boggart- which involves permanently banishing or exorcising the creature.  Perhaps this will be the subject of a future posting…

IdaRentoulOuthwaite

Further reading

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