Some Obscure British Faeries

The Chichevache

About eighteen months ago, I examined the long list of faeries and other sprites that had been assembled during the early nineteenth century in the so-called Denham TractsAs I remarked then, one aspect of this list is that it reminds us how many faery names have become utterly unfamiliar and mysterious to us. 

In this posting, I want to go back to the Denham list to have a look of some of the more obscure and puzzling of these words.

caddies: A term from Yorkshire, the diminutive of the rare cad(d)- a spirit. In John Hutton’s A Tour to the Caves, in the Environs of Ingleborough and Settle (1781), caddy is given as a word for a ghost or bugbear.  It is very clearly a sort of supernatural being, as two examples will show.  “One of these cadds or familiars still knocking over their pillow,” was used by Francis Osborne in his Advice to a Son, (1656) page 36, whilst “Rebellion wants no cad nor elfe/ But is a perfect witchcraft of itself,” appears in ‘Elegies,’ by Henry King, Poems (1657).

calcars: mentioned by both Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) and by Denham, the word appears to derive from the verb calculare.  Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words defines ‘calcar’ as an astrologer, ‘to calke’ being to calculate or to cast a figure or nativity.  In John Bale’s 1538 play Kynge Johan “calking” is mentioned along with conjuring, coining and other frauds (1838 edition, page 71).  Nevertheless, it has also been connected to caucher and related to the French noun ‘cauchemare,’ a nightmare. Overall, though, it seems to be more to do with sorcery and magic than with Faery.

chittifaces:  Skeat’s Glossary of Tudor and Stuart Words and Wright’s Dialect Dictionary define this as someone with a thin and pinched face, a freckled visage or a small baby face.  It also is defined as a puellulus improbulus– a bad little girl. It might be used contemptuously: Thomas Otway’s 1683 play, The Souldiers Fortune, includes the line “Now, now, you little Witch, now you Chitsface” (Act 3, scene 1).

Possibly related is Chaucer’s term ‘chichevache’ which is used in the ‘Clerk’s Tale’ in the Canterbury Tales, line 1188Lest Chichevache yow swelwe in hire entraille!” [swallow you in her insides]. John Lydgate’s early fifteenth century poem Bycorne & Chychevache reaffirms that “Chichevache eteþe wymmen goode.”  This a monster that devours obedient wives (and therefore is very hungry, according to Chaucer’s joke).  In Lydgate’s verse, the creature is contrasted satirically with the bicorn, part panther and part cow, which eats devoted husbands and is, apparently, very well fed and plump.  Denham mentions bygorns in his list as well.

We might also note that in French chevaucher means simply ‘to ride a horse,’ so that a connotation of nightmare may have been incorporated into this name as well.

clabbernappers:  Some topographical and historical research reveals that in Southfleet parish in Kent there once was a large cave known that was called the Clabber Napper’s Hole. The related legend, as transcribed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1803 and reprinted in vol.26 for December 1846, was that the occupier of the cave was a kidnapper or freebooter. The article proposed that clabber derived from “caer l’abre,” the dwelling in the woods, though there is no attempt to explain why a Welsh word and a French word would be combined- as is frequent in old and dodgy etymologies where words with suitable meanings are randomly put together with no thought for historical likelihood.  

A more literal interpretation of the name might suggest that it was simply an onomatopoeic word, the meaning of which was a sort of noisy abductor (of children).  The Clabber Napper might, therefore, have been a sort of nursery sprite used to scare children.  If so, it might have been adopted by the putative smugglers to keep people away from their lair, or it might have been used by parents to discourage their children from playing there.

gringes: in some old dialects, to gringe or grange means to grind the teeth (Dickinson’s 1878 Glossary of Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland). On that basis we might imagine another nursery sprite- a monster that grinds its teeth a lot and is used to keep children in their beds at night.

Probably the wrong sort of Miffy…

Miffies: Miffy is a nickname for the devil in Gloucestershire according to Thomas Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English vol.2. Presumably it is related to Old French maufé meaning the devil. In addition, ‘miff’ means displeasure or ill humour, hence the modern meaning of being or feeling miffed over something.

Mock-beggars: There are numerous places known as Mockbeggar, Mock Beggar, or some variant thereon. E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1894, defines Mock-Beggar Hall as an ostentatious dwelling whose mean spirited and stingy owners will turn away the poor from their door.  

This is the literal interpretation of the phrase; however, John Florio’s 1611 dictionary of English and Italian, Queen Anna’s New World of Words, defines ‘beffana’ as a bugbear or scarecrow, which might explain how it got into Denham’s list.

Nickies & Nacks: these are water sprites- Denham also mentions the related nixies (but this is just an adaptation of the German name nixe and first seems to have been used about 1816 by Sir Walter Scott) and nisses, which might be another pronunciation of the word, but is much more likely to be taken from Swedish and Danish, a nisse being a sort of domestic goblin or brownie.  Keightley seems to have been one of the first to use it in print in the Fairy Mythology (1828), so it is again a late borrowing and not an authentic British sprite; the nisse’s role had already been long filled by our own brownies and hobs. 

Nicks, necks and nickies all can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon nicer or nicor, becoming nekir and nyker in Middle English.  All the Germanic languages of the continent have related words with a similar meaning. The nickie, neck or nack is a supernatural being found living in the sea or in inland waters- other familiar terms might be water-demon or kelpie.   In Middle English the word was also used to denote a siren or mermaid.  The creature first appeared in the poem Beowulf as a dreadful creature of the night; it continued to be deadly and terrible in subsequent centuries.

In Layamon’s Brut of about 1200 (lines 10851-2) we are told about a lake in Scotland “Þat water is unimete brade; nikeres þer baðieð inne; þer is ælvene ploȝe in atteliche pole” (The water is immeasurably broad; nikers bathe there; there too is the play of elves in the hideous pool).

The Ayenbite of Inwite (Prick of Conscience) of 1340 (line 61) describes to us the how sea creatures called “nykeren… habbeþ bodyes of wyfman and tayl of visse” (have the bodies of women and the tails of fish).  Like sirens, according to Robert Mannyng in 1338, the nikers will sing to sailors a “mery song þat drecched þam ferly long [tormented them for a long time].”  The Treatise of Ghostly Battle (1500) also describes their tricks to lure men: “The nykare or meremaydene, that cast opone the water syde dyverse thyngis whyche semene fayre to mane, but anone as he taketh hit, she taketh hyme ande devoureth hym.”  This image persisted into Victorian times: in 1853 in Hypatia Charles Kingsley had a character ask “’What is a nicor, Agilmund?’ ‘A sea-devil who eats sailors.’”

The word nick or neck has almost completely faded from English, except for the river spirit known as Nicky Nicky Nye on the Welsh-English border. Its loss is a shame, as it would overcome the confusion between inland and marine mermaids that we now have- and which made me suggest the coinage ‘meremaid‘ as a substitute.

A secondary meaning (but one that is now the common understanding of the word), is demon or devil. So, in 1481, William Caxton’s translation of the History of Reynard Fox contains a reference to “fowle nyckers, Come they out of helle?”  This meaning was preserved in the poem, ‘Nickar the Soulless,’ published by Sebastian Evans in Macmillan’s Magazine for 1863 (and later in Brother Fabian’s Manuscript and Other Poems, 1865).  Nickar, the devil, makes a deal for a man’s soul so that he may see again and marry the naked fairy girl he once saw bathing in a river.  Today, of course, we still refer to ‘Old Nick.’

Spoorns & spurns: ‘Spurn’ generally denoted a fight or a spur but in the Dorset dialect it meant an evil spirit.  Keightley speculated that both “Calcar and Sporn (spurs?) may be the same, from the idea of riding” and hence some kind of nightmare, an evil spirit that rode people in their sleep and caused frightening dreams and paralysis (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, note to page 334).

Tantarrabobs: ‘Tantara’ and ‘tantaran’ was a noise or distubance (as in a tantrum). Tantarabobus, Tantarabobs, or Tankerabogus were variants upon a South Western dialect name for the Devil; it also denoted a noisy playful child. Thus, tantara-bogus was a noisy bogle (Joseph Wright, English Dialect Dictionary).

Thrummy-caps: According to Henry Farnie in his Fife Coast from Queensferry to Fifeness (1860, 112-113) Thrummy-cap was the vindictive ghost of a drowned carpenter who haunted the harbour where he died. James Halliwell-Phillips meanwhile reported that thrummy-caps were faeries from Northumberland and were “Queer looking little old men” who lived in the vaults and cellars of castles (Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words, 1848).

It’s not wholly clear how or why this relates to the above, but ‘thrum’ means a weaver’s ends, the extremity of the warp on the loom that can’t be woven.  It is a piece of material about nine inches in width.  Thrum therefore meant a frayed fringe or tuft, so that a thrummy-cap would be a ragged or shaggy looking hat knitted from these off-cuts of coarse woven woollen cloth.  Perhaps, rather like the Redcaps of the same area, the Northumbrian thrummy-caps were associated with the distinctive headgear.

Tints:  As a noun, the word is defined as being an obscure northern term for goblin. Another sense of the word ‘tint’ is a tiny touch, scrap or taste whilst ‘tinte’ means lost (coming from a Middle English verb of that meaning, tine, to lose (J. Wright, English Dialect Dictionary). Tinted was therefore ‘lost’ or ‘neglected.’ As well as to lose or to be lost, tine/ tyne could also mean to trouble or to be troubled or distressed.

There is a story in which an Eskdale goblin named Gilpin Horner was heard two men crying out “Tint, tint, tint,” the word in this context apparently meaning ‘lost.’   They responded to his cry, “What de’il’s tint you?” (Who the devil’s lost- or even taken- you) and the goblin then appeared to them, “something like a human form, but surprisingly little, distorted in features and misshapen in limbs.”  The men fled and Horner pursued them and took up residence in the home of one of the pair.  It was “undoubtedly flesh and blood” as it ate and drank with the family and had a taste for cream.  This treat it stole to eat whenever it could; it was also cruel to the children if they provoked it.  One day, though, a voice was heard calling the goblin’s name and it leapt up and left for ever. (George Allan, Life of Sir Walter Scott, Baronet: With Critical Notices of His Writings, 1834, 247-248). 

In another legend from the Borders area, a man tried to taunt the duergars of the Simonside Hills in Northumberland by going out one night calling “Tint! tint!” The duergars at first appeared with little lights near a bog, trying to lure him in- much like a will of the wisp– but the story concludes with an “innumerable multitude” of them with “hideous visages” and clubs in their hands, surrounding the man.  He tried to fight them off with his staff but they had no physical forms and, every time he struck out, he only seemed to multiply the number assailing him, until he collapsed in a faint until morning (Charles Tibbits, Folk-lore and Legends: English, 1890,182-183).

Wirrikows: the Scottish wirry-cowe, worricow, and variations thereon, was a bugbear or goblin; the name might also be used for a scarecrow or for the devil himself. The name probably comes from a combination of the words ‘worry’ (in the sense of harassment) and ‘cowe’ or hobgoblin.  Denham mentions “kows or cowes” separately in his list.  An example is the Hedley Kowe of Hedley near Ebchester, which was a mischievous bogie that could take a variety of forms in order to play tricks on its hapless victims (see my Beyond Faery, 2020). 

Examples of the Scottish word’s usage are found in Thomas Donaldson’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect of 1809: “Where harpie, imp, an’ warricoe/ An’ goblins dwell” and in Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 novel Black Dwarf– “They do say there’s a sort o’ worricows and lang-nebbed things about the land” (ii, in Tales of my Landlord, 1st Series, I, 51).  

The wirrikow was, apparently, a dreadful thing to meet: James Hogg refers in The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818) to “the waefu’ [woeful] wirricowe.”  In James Lumsden’s play, Doun I’ Th’ Loudons (1908, page 276) the sprite is described as “Hump-backit an’ bow’d- a wirricow- And scrimply [barely] fowre feet three!”  He had a red face, according to Hogg (“haffats in a lowe”) and would make people scream with fear and alarm.  For example, she “Scream’d at ilk clough, an’ skrech’d at ilka how, As sair as she had seen the wirry-cow” (A. Ross Helenore, 1768, 77).

A Nixie, by Arthur B Davies

As I said at the start, much has been lost from British folklore, with only tantalising scraps remaining. However, with some digging in etymological and dialect dictionaries, we can start to restore some idea of what our ancestors knew (and feared).

‘Santa’s little helpers’ – the origins of the Christmas elves

rockwell

Norman Rockwell, Santa with elves, 1922

Santa’s elves are the result of the combination of a number of traditions. Santa Claus himself is of course much older, deriving from the historical figure of St. Nicholas of Myra but with attributes added from several European Christmas traditions, particularly the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas. The association of Christmas presents with elves has precedents in Swedish and Danish folklore.

First sightings

The Christmas elf as such first appeared in literature in 1850 when Louisa May Alcott completed, but never published, a book entitled Christmas elves.  The American political magazine Harper’s Weekly (1857-1916) featured in its Christmas edition for 1857 a poem The wonders of Santa Claus which recounts that he:

“Keeps a great many elves at work/ All working with all their might/ To make a million of pretty things/ Cakes, sugar-plums and things/ To fill the stockings, hung up you know,/ By the little girls and boys…”

The image of the elves in the workshop was popularised by Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American women’s magazine published 1830-1878.  The front cover illustration of its 1873 Christmas issue showed Santa surrounded by toys and elves with the caption, “Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time.” At this time Godey’s magazine played a major role in influencing the Christmas traditions that were developing in the USA: for example, the cover of its 1850 Christmas issue featured the first widely circulated picture of the modern Christmas tree. Additional impetus was given to the idea of Christmas elves by Austin Thompson’s 1876 play The House of Santa Claus: a Christmas fairy show for Sunday schools.  In fact, in Clement Clarke Moore’s earlier poem of 1823, A visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known today as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), Santa Claus himself was described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”

Scandinavian origins

These literary and commercial strands mingled with Scandinavian ideas brought to North America by immigrants.  Prior to the influence of St. Nicholas in Sweden, the job of giving out gifts had been done by the Yule Goat. By 1891, however, the saint had become so well known that he could no longer be excluded from the festival; he became merged with the tomten, which were supernatural farm guardians closely akin to the British brownie, dobby or hob (tomte means ‘homestead man’).

jultomte_and_horse

A jultomte & horse

tomte, or nisse, is a Nordic mythological creature that closely associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season.  It’s generally described as being a small male, about 90 cm/ 36 inches tall, with a long white beard and a conical or knitted cap in red or some other bright colour. Their appearance is rather like our modern convention of the garden gnome. In Swedish and Danish folklore the creatures are solitary, residing in the pantry or barn, and tend to be mischievous.  However, they are also very hardworking, being responsible for the protection and welfare of a farmstead and, particularly, caring for the livestock.  The nisse/ tomte was a very familiar creature in Scandinavian folklore and, with the romanticising and collection of folklore during the 19th century, it gained even greater popularity.  (NB: nisse derives from Nils/ Nicholas, further underlining the intermingling of traditions.)

Jultomten_1895

As already mentioned, in the Nordic folklore traditions associated with Christmas the tomte is often accompanied by the Yule goat (julbocken). The pair appeared on Christmas Eve, knocking on doors and handing out presents. The nisse also delivered gifts at the door, but was more commonly seen with a pig, another popular Christmas symbol in Scandinavia.  It is customary to leave out a bowl of porridge with butter in gratitude for the services rendered by the creature. Then, in the 1840s, the farm nisse became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called julenisse (Yule Nisse).

jenny nystrom

Tomten & gingerbread, by Jenny Nystrom.

In 1881, the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning published Viktor Rydberg’s poem Tomten, illustrated by Jenny Nyström.  She took the traditional Swedish folk character and turned it into a friendly white-bearded, red-capped figure that has come to be associated with Christmas ever since. Shortly afterwards, and obviously influenced by the emerging Father Christmas traditions as well as by the new Danish tradition, a variant of the nisse/tomte, called the jultomte in Sweden and julenisse in Norway, started delivering Christmas presents in those countries, taking over the role from the traditional julbock.

Still today in Scandinavia the nisse/ tomte are pictured on Christmas cards, calendars and house and garden decorations, often with a horse or cat, or riding on a goat or in a sled pulled by a goat. The julenisse tends now to be adult sized , rather than being the height of a child, as was the older tradition.

Glædelig_Jul,_ca_1917

Also caught up in this legend making was another myth, that of ‘Santa’s little helper.’  This seems to be derived from the German companions to Santa Claus, who include Knecht Ruprecht (boy Rupert).  The idea of a child assistant has become mingled with that of fairy bringers of presents to help produce our present ideas.

Disney and since

In the USA these varied concepts also became mixed with the less rustic and more childlike images of fairies and elves derived from more recent British tradition.  The result was that Santa Claus’ elves steadily lost their beards and became more infantile and saccharine.  Walt Disney’s 1932 cartoon Santa’s workshop was a stage in this process, depicting ‘Santa’s little helpers’ as white bearded elves in green hats and costumes.  An autonomous body of lore has begun to accrue around these creatures now, with their ‘traditional’ names purporting to include such dismal examples as Alabaster Snowball, Bushy Evergreen and (I regret to say) Sugarplum Mary.  There is of course very little traditional material in these current stories: the whole idea is alien to the British tradition as it was imported into North America and it has evolved a long way beyond the Nordic elements. Nevertheless, the image has developed a life of its own with such films as Elf (2003) and it continues to evolve, as much through popular as commercial influence.

Glædelig_Jul,_1885

Further reading

There’s also an article on the subject of julenisse on The fairy page blog.