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.

 

‘Gaily trip the fairies’- dances and the devil

fairy dance in a clearing doyle

Richard Doyle, Fairy Dance in a Clearing

“The tripping Fayry tricks shall play” Drayton, Muse’s Elysium, 8th Nymphal

Fairies are notorious for their tripping habits, dancing around grassy rings in the moonlight.  These joyful activities have become central to their nature and a cliché of fairy verse, as illustrated by just a handful of examples:

“Ouphe and goblin! imp and sprite!

Elf of eve! and starry Fay!

Ye that love the moon’s soft light,

Hither, hither wend your way;

Twine ye in the jocund ring,

Sing and trip it merrily,

Hand to hand, and wing to wing,

Round the wild witch-hazel tree.”

The culprit fay, Joseph Rodman Drake

“Trip it over moss and rock
To the owlet’s elvish tune”
The little people, Julius Madison Cawein

Also in the poem There are fairies, Cawein assures us:

“There are faeries; verily;
Verily:
For the old owl in the tree,
Hollow tree,
He who maketh melody
For them tripping merrily,
Told it me.”

Lastly, in another of his verses, Son of the Elf, Cawein describes how fairies-

“Or, beneath the owlet moon,
Trip it to the cricket’s tune…”

This is all very pretty and quaint and tends to reinforce the view that sees fairies as charming and harmless, all leisure and no malice.  It’s not the whole story.

Pixie Perspectives

There is something more to this idea of tripping dances than just poetic conventions, though.  In Somerset the green fairy rings are called ‘gallitraps’ and we are told by Ruth Tongue that they are produced by the pixies riding colts in circles in the fields.  If you step into a gallitrap, you are entirely with the pixies’ power.  If you have one foot in and one out, you can see them, but you can still escape. (Somerset Folklore, 1965, p.115)

The word gallitrap is rare and unusual to us now, but it was once much more familiar, particularly in certain parts of Britain.  As Ruth Tongue’s example shows, the word was in common use in the south-west of England, in the counties of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Devon.  In that region the gallitrap (or gallytrap or gallowtrap) was a mystic green circle from which a guilty person, having once stepped, would only escape by being delivered to justice.  They could only exit from the circle into the arms of the law or else would become “infatuated to their own discovery” as one writer expressed it- the circle would have affected them and they would feel driven to confess or to expose their own guilt.

In several parishes in Devon the ‘gallitrap’ was a patch of land hedged about and considered uncanny.  Anyone ‘feyed’ (or fated) to be hung for a crime who entered one of these fields would then be unable to leave again but would instead wander round in circles, searching vainly for the gate or stile, until the local parson was called to release them (thence into the custody of a magistrate).  The field is then, quite literally, a ‘gallow-trap.’  In this example, many readers will identify the very close parallels between this process and the experience of being pixie-led and also the links to green places reserved for the faes that I recently discussed.

Although this conception of the gallitrap seems some way away from fairy rings, they are intimately connected.  In the story Two Men of Mendip by Walter Raymond (1879), this scene occurs:

“She held out her finger and traced upon the parched grass the greener round of a pixie ring.  ‘We be in a gallow-trap’ she laughed.  ‘If either of us have a’ done wrong, ‘tis sure to be brought to light.  He started as if struck unawares, then with a low cry he hid his face in his hands… The superstition that any man of crime stepping into a fairy circle should surely come to justice was thrust out of her mind.’ (p.230)

Another dialect source confirms that in Somerset the word ‘gyaalitrap’ referred to the familiar pixie-ring in meadows and pastures.

It appears that, in south-west England, the idea of the gallitrap was steadily extended.  Firstly, it came to signify any mysterious circle, shape or sign.  Mary Palmer, a mid-eighteenth century documenter of Devonshire dialect, recorded how one of her interviewees had watched the village parson in the wood to see if he “made any zerckles or gallytraps”- if he drew any shapes on the ground.  It came about in time that gallytraps might be drawn inside, on tables, just as much as on the ground outside.  In turn, once the word was associated more with odd shapes than with grassy rings, it began to be applied to anything that was a bit misshapen, so that in due course in Gloucestershire the word was applied to frightful ornaments or head-dresses that people wore, or even to badly made tools.

fairy ring

Doyle, Fairy Ring

Highland Flings

There is then a large geographical gap before we encounter the term again in Scotland.  The word ‘gillatryp’ (although it has been subject to metathesis and the vowels have been swapped around) seems to be identical to ‘gallytrap’ and definitely shares the same supernatural connotations.  The gillatryp was originally the name of a witches’ dance but was also used as a nickname for a suspected witch.  For example, the Kirk Session of Essill in 1731 heard that “Margaret H. (Gillatryps) in Garmouth compeared and decleared herself penitent for her indecent practices in unseemly dances on 26th December last.”

A century and a half earlier, we see the word employed in its original sense.  At Elgin in 1596, “Magie Tailȝeour [and] Magie Thomsoune … confessit thame to be in ane dance callit gillatrype, singing a foull hieland sang…”

According to Isobel Goudie in 1662, the ‘maiden’ of the witches’ coven at Auldearn was nicknamed ‘Over the dyke with it’ because:

“The Devill [alwayis takis the] maiden in his hand nixt him, quhan they daunce Gillatrypes; and as they couped they would cry ‘over the dyke with it.”

These last examples link us back to our starting point, a dance with supernatural beings.  That appears to be the core of this word’s meaning and, whether linked to fairies, witches or to the devil, they were ill-omened things.

Further Reading

Readers may wish to refer to Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary or to George Henderson’s Folklore of the Northern Counties, p.278, footnote 2- information supplied on Devon by Sabine Baring-Gould. For more on the danger of faery rings, see my Darker Side of Faery, 2021; for further discussion of faery rings, take a look at my Faeries in the Natural World (2021):

darker side

Natural World