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 Fayerie, but 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.
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.”
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.
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, Faery, for more discussion of Queen Mab and see my Fayeriefor more on her role in Tudor and Jacobean verse.
During the last hundred years or so, fairies have become intimately associated with flowers. What I want to do in this post is to consider the evidence for such links in traditional folklore beliefs and to discuss how the idea has arisen that fairies are ‘nature spirits’ or ‘guardians of nature’ and have a particular mission to supervise the growth of flowers and other plants, in which work they may resemble bees or ants and are certainly of diminutive dimensions.
Without doubt, one link in the chain connecting fairies to flora is literary. Shakespeare perhaps initiated the trend with a the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream. One is required to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II, 1). Of course, we have fairy Peaseblossom in the same play (III, 1) and Oberon’s well-known directions to help Puck find Titania:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…” (Act II, 1)
In The Tempest Ariel, who sings “Where the bee sucks., there suck I” The floral motifs are prominent, indicating a closeness to nature generally and the evidence of small statute is also present. Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton took the matter of scale to extremes, though for reasons of pure fancy: I don’t believe that they sought to reflect any genuine traditions known to them. British fairies are of a range of sizes, often adult height, quite often the size of children, much more rarely very small (the medieval English ‘portunes’ of just half an inch in height are an exception).
Richard Dadd, ‘Titania sleeping,’ 1841, The Louvre
Herrick imagined a fairy loaf of bread as “A moon-parch’t grain of wheat” washed down with “A pure seed-pearle of infant dew/ Brought and besweetened in a blew/ And pregnant violet” (Oberon’s feast). Drayton likewise envisaged a fairy palace “The walls of spiders’ legs are made … The windows of the eyes of cats” (Nymphidia). The conceit of miniature fairies was sustained into the next century by other poets. For example, in The flower and the leaf John Dryden imagined that a faint track “look’d as lightly press’d, by fairy feet” and William King, like Herrick, surveyed a fairy supper:
“What may they be, fish, flesh of fruit?/ I never saw things so minute./ Sir, a roasted ant is nicely done,/ By one small atom of the sun./ These are flies’ eggs in moonshine poach’d/ This a flea’s thigh, in collops scotched.” (Orpheus and Eurydice)
Increasingly, then, the convention prevailed that fairies were minuscule, but neither in literature nor in folk tales was there any deep attachment to plant life. As described when discussing fairy clothes, fairies most often were attired in green, which may well be symbolic of growth, but there is still scant suggestion of any special purpose as ministers of Mother Nature. There are quite a few indications of fairies inhabiting trees. There is the Old Lady of the Elder Tree whom I have mentioned in discussing my book The Elder Queen; from the Outer Hebrides comes a story of a fairy maiden who inhabits a tree on a knoll, once a year appearing to dispense ‘the milk of wisdom’ to local women (L. Spence, British fairy origins pp.101 & 186); also from the Highlands and Western Isles we hear a report of ‘tree spirits’, green elves who are often seen in woodland (Spence p.100). This is about as good as it gets in British tradition. Lewis Spence in chapter VI of British fairy origins examined the theory that fairies derived from ‘elementary spirits’ and summed up “all nature spirits are not the same as fairies; nor are all fairies nature spirits.” (p.110) He further stated that “it is a notable thing that in Great Britain and Ireland the nature spirit remains to us in vestigial form only. To make a list of British nature spirits as known in our islands today is very … difficult… I can think of no genuinely English earth or tree spirits.” (p.113) He blames homogenisation into “the common hill-fairy, the standard elf of folk-lore.” (p.114) On the matter of flowers, s I have described before, there are flowers that are believed particularly to repel or to attract fairies, but the surviving stories do not conceive of fairies living within or overseeing the growth of any flowers.
How then do we explain the rapid ascendancy of the flower fairy? I think that occult science and mystical philosophy are the source; flower fairies are a product of the thought of Paracelsus and Pseudo-Dionysus. They are nature spirits, part of a ‘celestial hierarchy,’ and are derived from a system of thought very different to native custom. I shall examine this theme further in due course.
“Some night tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle clothes our children where they lay…” Shakespeare, Henry IV Part One, Act I, scene 1.
I have several times alluded to the very widespread belief in changelings, but I want to examine it more closely in this posting. It was an article of the fairy faith throughout the British Isles that our ‘good neighbours’ were not averse to snatching human infants if the opportunity presented itself. The fairy queen herself, is accused of this crime by Ben Jonson:
“This is she that empties cradles/ Takes out children, puts in ladles.” (Entertainment at Althorpe, 1603).
Why change children?
The fairies were believed to prefer infants with fair hair and pale skin and to take only boys (Rhys Celtic folklorep.221; Wentz Fairy faithp.148). We may recall the child over whom Titania and Oberon squabble in A midsummer night’s dream. She has newly acquired a servant, “A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king; She never had so sweet a changeling.” Oberon wants the youth as his ‘henchman,’ as a ‘knight in his train’ but Titania will not release him (Act II, scene 1).
What was the changeling?
In place of the stolen human child was left the ‘changeling’, a creature consistently identifiable because it looked like an old man- being ugly, deformed, small, weak and bad-tempered. Whatever care it received, the substitute remained frail and did not grow, being peevish at all times. In other words, in earlier times before medical knowledge had developed, if a newborn was discovered to be mentally disabled or defective, this was put down not to congenital or perinatal problems but to a supernatural intervention: the real child had been abducted and an ‘oaf’ (an elf) left in its place (the ‘ouphs’ of Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor are derived from the same source). Drayton in Nymphidia sumarises the state of sixteenth century popular belief on pediatrics:
“…when a child haps to be got/ Which after proves an idiot/ When folke perceive it thriveth not/ The fault therein to smother;/ Some silly doting brainless caulf/ That understands things by the half/ Say that the fairy left this aulf/ And took away the other” (The court of fairy).
We may also note mention from Wales of a belief that the fairies might pay mortals to steal suitable children for them. Rhys relates the story of an old woman from Cwm Tawe who was believed in her neighbourhood to abduct healthy babes and replace them with old urchins in return for fairy gold (Rhys p.255).She would enter homes begging for alms and then offer to rock the cradle. Whilst the mother’s back was turned, the fairy whelp hidden beneath her cloak would hastily be swapped for the healthy child and the crone would make her escape.
The stolen children seemed generally to be well cared for and to enjoy life at the fairy court, spending their time in feasting, dancing and music. Hunt (Popular romances of the West of England) tends to support this in his story of Betty Stogs. He said it was believed in the ‘high countries’ of Penwith (Morva, Zennor and Towednack) that the fairies would take poorly cared for children and clean them. This was Stogs’ experience- she neglected her home and her child but the pixies removed it, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers.
There is, too, a little evidence that the fairies sought to make their captives immortal like themselves. In The faithful shepherdess Fletcher describes how the elves danced at a well by “pale moonshine, dipping often times/ Their stolen children, so to make them free/ From dying flesh and dull mortality” (Act I, Scene 2). This belief may go some way to explain an odd account from Wales of a suspected changeling that had to be dipped daily for three months in a cold spring, the result of which was that it thrived, growing ‘as fast as a gosling’ (Rhys p.256).
The theft of healthy normal babies and their replacement by an aged elf or a defective fairy infant was perceived to be a very common problem, then (note as a further illustration the song The fairy boy, by Samuel Lover, 1840, performed by Lucy Ward on her 2011 album Adelphi has to fly, Navigator Records). Children were especially vulnerable in the time before they were baptised and variety of protective measures were deployed. These included placing bindweed or iron (for example tongs or shears) around the cradle, the burning of leather in the room or the administering to the baby of either milk from a cow grazed on pearl-wort or water in which had been steeped cinders from a fire over which the child had been passed (Wentz, Fairy faith in the Celtic countries, pp.87 & 91). Sir Walter Scott in Borders minstrelsy reports that another protective was to weave wreathes from oak and ivy withies at the full moon in March. These were kept for a year and any children showing signs of consumption would be passed thrice through the hoops, thereby ensuring them against further supernatural assaults.
Exposing the changeling
The parents, once the presence of a changeling child had been realised, had to expose the substitute. If it was an aged fairy, some trick would be performed to get it to reveal itself, such as brewing beer in an egg shell, which would provoke its curiosity. It would exclaim that it had seen oaks grow from acorns and chickens from eggs, but it had never seen beer brewed in an egg shell (or pasties for the reapers mixed in a shell) . Sometimes the preternatural knowledge of the changeling might be exposed by chance: Wentz relates one Highland case where the child was seen to leap from its cradle to play the bagpipes when the parents were away.
Expelling the changeling
There were several other means of expelling a changeling. Salt might be burned as a magical means of repelling it or a shovel might be heated and held before its face. Magic was resorted to: the Cornish used a four leafed clover placed upon the ‘winickey’ impostor to recover the abducted baby and from Wales we learn of a curious ritual involving a hen: the mother had to find a black hen without a single white feather and had to kill it; then every window and door in the home except one would be sealed and the whole hen would be set before a wood fire to bake. At the point that all its feathers fell off, the crimbil child would leave and the rightful infant would have been returned (Rhys p.263).
If these attempts did not succeed and an infant elf was still suspected, far worse treatment could follow, typically placing the baby on a shovel over the fire- but throwing the child in a river, ducking it in cold water daily, neglecting its needs, throwing pieces of iron at it or, lastly, placing it outside at night or on the beach as the tide came in, might also be tried (Wentz pp.111, 146, 171 & 177). The idea was that the changeling’s cries would summon the fairy parents who would save their child and return the stolen human infant. Wirt Sikes in British Goblins(1880, c.5) discusses the Welsh tradition of the plentyn newid (the new child) and remarks disapprovingly upon the cruelties from time to time inflicted as a result of this changeling belief.
Some parents, however, accepted the ‘changeling’ as their own and cared for the disabled neonate just as much as they would be expected to do for a healthy baby. I have mentioned before how a mother who behaved in this manner was rewarded financially by the fairies during the infant’s life. Another example comes from a Scottish witch trial. John Ferguson approached Jonit Andirson for advice on his ‘shag-bairn’, a child the family suspected of being a changeling. Andirson confirmed their diagnosis and advised that she could not retrieve their baby from the fairies; however, if they cared for the changeling as their own, ‘they would not want.’
We have seen Ben Jonson’s mention that a ladle would replace the abductee. This suited his rhyme but is not traditional. Sometimes, rather than a living being, a ‘stock’ was substituted- a log fashioned in the likeness of the missing person who was, in actuality, ‘away with the fairies.’ This motionless, speechless form (a “a lingering voracious Image” in Kirk’s words) was left at the home in bed to act as a cover for the fact that the man or woman had been taken to fairyland for some purpose- perhaps as a midwife or wet nurse to a fairy mother. Some readers will recall that in Susanna Clark’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a bog-oak likeness is left in place of Lady Emma Pole who is abducted to dance at the fairy balls.