Nightmares and fairies

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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.

Cuckoos in the Scottish elf-land

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Peg Maltby

There are, in Scottish fairy tradition, some fascinating but scattered clues that offer us a new perspective upon that land known widely as elfame/ elphame (the home of the elves).

Mirryland

The earliest clue to the existence of a different tradition to that we know comes from a verse romance of the earlier fifteenth century, King Berdok.  The eponymous hero of the story is ruler of Babylon and for seven years woos a maid called Mayiola or Mayok, daughter of the King of Faery.  He affectionately calls her his “the golk of Maryland.”  A golk is a cuckoo; this particular specimen is said to be but three years old and to have but one eye- nevertheless, “King Berdok luvit her weill.”

The date of Berdok is uncertain, but it was known by poet William Dunbar (1460-1522) who referred to it in his own poem In Secreit Place This Hyndir Nicht, in which another lover refers to his amour as “my golk of Marie land.”

These verses give us two curious problems: what’s the link between cuckoos and fairies and what and where is Mary land?  The latter question is a little easier to resolve.  The place name also appears as Mirry/ May/ Maiden and Murrayland.  For example, in 1596 Thomas Leyis of Aberdeen (along with much of the rest of his family, in fact) was accused of witchcraft and of dancing around the market cross in the town with the devil.  His former girlfriend, Elspet Keid, turned against him and gave evidence against him that led to his execution.  Thomas had told his erstwhile lover that he would take her to Murrayland and there marry her- “a man at the foot of a certain mountain being sure to rise at his bidding, and supply them with all they wanted.”  Given his association with supernatural powers, it seems possible that Thomas is talking about a Faery under a hill here, although we must recognise the fact that in Scotland at the time Murrayland was a real place too- the territory of Clan Murray.

Lastly, there is a ballad, ‘The rain rins down through Mirry-land toune.’  This tells the story of a young man, Sir Hew, who is killed and butchered and thrown in a well by a woman.  His mother searches for him and his ghost tells her to fetch a winding sheet, whereupon:

“And at the back of Mirry-land toune,/ It’s there we twa shall meet.”

Given the established links between faery and the dead, it seems reasonable to assume that the town is question has some supernatural nature.

Where does this odd name derive from? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Virgin Mary, although in the Catholic Middle Ages her presence in people’s minds is very likely to have affected the pronunciation.  Rather, the root is older than that in Britain.  The word appears to descend from the Anglo-Saxon maere, word that is preserved in modern English as ‘nightmare.’  Clearly it denotes some supernatural being- a sprite or incubus- from which it is an easy step to ‘fairy’ and thence ‘fairyland.’

she looked like a fairy queen

Walter Crane, She looked like a fairy queen (1877)

Fairy cuckoos

What about the cuckoo?  This is trickier: in Northern Europe it is a bird associated with summer, certainly, being its best known harbinger.  In the story, The Cuckoo and the Merry Tree, by Frances Browne (1857), the merry tree is some sort of evergreen like laurel, growing at the world’s end, and the cuckoo brings leaves from it in spring.

However, there seems from the Scottish traditions to be a fairy link that is now largely lost.  For example, in the Highlands it used to be said that, if it rained when the sun also shone, either the sith folk were baking or a gowk was going to heaven.  I have read that the cuckoo was regarded as being sacred to the fairies, but I haven’t been able to authenticate this.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of other folklore tradition concerning the bird- for instance, it’s said that, on hearing the first cuckoo in spring, you must run three times in a circle sun-wise to ensure good luck for the rest of the year. In addition, it’s said that if you hear a cuckoo on April 14th, you should immediately turn over any coins that you have in your pocket.  Readers will spot the fairy congruences here: the circling sunwise and the ‘turning’ of an item to dispel supernatural bad luck.  These practices may, of course, just be examples of more general folk magic but even so they serve to confirm the ‘uncanny’ nature of the bird.

Further reading

For more on faery relations with different animals, see my earlier posting on moths and pixies and on fairy beasts.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Staring elf

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‘Tinker bell’,* by artist Brian Froud

Blá nótt yfir himininn 
Blá nótt yfir mér 
Horf-inn út um gluggann 
Minn með hendur 
Faldar undir kinn 
Hugsum daginn minn 
Í dag og í gær 
Blá náttfötin klæða mig Í 
Beint upp í rúm 
Breiði mjúku sængina 
Loka Augunum 
Ég fel hausinn minn undir sæng 
Starir á mig lítill álfur 
Hleypur að mér en hreyfist ekki 
Úr stað – sjálfur 
Starálfur 

“Blue night over the sky, blue night over me, disappeared out of the window. Me, with my hands, hidden under my cheek, I think about my day, today and yesterday. I put on my blue night-clothes, go straight to bed. I pull the soft covers over, close my eyes, I hide my head under the covers. A little elf stares at me, runs towards me but doesn’t move from his place – from himself- a staring elf.”

These are the lyrics for the haunting song Starálfur by  Icelandic band, Sigur Ros.  I was entranced the first time I heard it- and for two reasons.  One is that it’s beautiful (which is reason enough for most fans of the band, obviously) and secondly because of what else the lyrics of the song evoked for me.  As a life-long lover of fairy lore, I wanted to know what the wider significance of that staring elf might be.

Icelandic elves

Some of you will know that the alfar, the Icelandic elves, are still very much still alive and well in present day Iceland.  Descendants of the Norse light and dark elves, they live under large rocks and hillocks and they are still treated with consideration and respect.  These same  alfar are also the distant relatives of our own English elves.

So, why is the elf in the song staring?  It may be conscience, perhaps, or just a dream, but it’s worth noting that one theme of Icelandic fairylore is that at certain times of year, and especially over the period of Christmas and the New Year, the elves will be abroad and may enter human homes.  Food and drink should be left out for them and they should be made to feel welcome (some readers may recall that a similar story applies to the trows of Shetland, and given their shared Norse heritage it is likely that the origins of both beliefs are shared).  Be that as it may, perhaps what’s described in this song is that presence of an elf in the home over the long winter nights.  Equally, it might merely evoke that feeling that the invisible people are always alongside us, watching and judging us; perhaps it is better that we are not aware of them, observing our actions, so perhaps this is why the speaker reflects upon his recent actions…

In the British Isles, we do not expect to be confronted with elves at such close quarters; they are usually banished to woods and even wilder, further places.  Even the house haunting brownie tended to keep discretely out of the way and did its chores at night.  This proximity, this invasion, is disturbing then.

Nightmares

What vocalist and composer Jón Þór Birgisson had in mind when he wrote this song, I don’t know; but I can say why it is affecting and memorable to me.  There are several abiding themes of fairlore that are evoked for me by the lyrics:

  • night is a time of peril, when our Good Neighbours are abroad.  In the song it’s not clear if that “blá nótt” is a glorious sky full of stars and the swirling Northern Lights, or something blacker and more brooding. Night is properly their time, and that is when humans should be at home and asleep.  During the hours of darkness the fairies dance and feast, disappearing at the first sign of dawn.  If we trespass upon their time, we should expect to be punished;
  • Nightmares can be brought to us by the fays at night.  Queen Mab is the elf most known for this; she is known as the midwife of dreams.  The dreams she brings may be pleasurable, but they may too be fearful and dismaying.  Fuseli’s painting of The nightmare captures this aspect of supernaturally induced dreams perfectly;
  • Following from this, I cannot help but see the creature sitting on the woman, pressing down upon her, as that Staring Elf.  What is disturbing and alarming about the song’s apparently benign image is the incursion of Faery into the home, into the safety and security of the warm bed.  The speaker pulls the covers over his head, seeking for cosy reassurance; instead he’s faced with an implacable and threatening presence.

There is, therefore, a curious disparity between the aetherial beauty of the music and the looming menace of the elf- always advancing, always imminent.  Perhaps that’s the epitome of the nightmare, in which the fear is ever unresolved- you fall from heights, you’re chased by beasts- but never die.  Both the tune and the images conjured will perpetually haunt me.

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Henry Fuseli, ‘The Nightmare’, 1781

* A closing note on the headline illustration by Brian Froud.  Froud’s representation of Tinkerbell, one of several paintings based upon Peter Panis perhaps the best of all works of art inspired by this play.  Any reading of the story has to confess that Tink is not a pleasant character- she’s jealous and vengeful and she tries to kill Wendy.  Disney’s blonde, busty, fluttering Tinkerbell wholly fails to capture the true character of the book.

Further reading

On her blog Morgan Daimler has written an interesting comparison of the alfar and the Irish sidhepointing out the surprising number of parallels between the two.