Ann Jeffries and the Pobel Vean

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Ann Jeffries was the daughter of a poor labouring man, who lived in the parish of St Teath in North Cornwall, between Wadebridge and Tintagel. She was born in 1626, and is supposed to have died in 1698.  The first written references to Ann appeared in March 1647, very soon after her faery experiences in 1645, and she was still alive in 1696 when Moses Pitt wrote about her (see later).

Our main account of her life is found in Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England (pages 127-9) from which the following passages are adapted.  

When she was nineteen years old, Ann, who was said to be a remarkably sharp and clever girl, went to live as a servant with the Pitt family. She was said to have been unusually bold and would do things which even boys feared to attempt. In those days everyone in Cornwall believed in fairies (the little folk or pobel vean in Cornish) and everybody feared them. They were the constant subject of gossip and rumour and this talk particularly captured Ann’s imagination and set her longing anxiously to meet with some of them. As a result, she was often out and about after sunset, turning up the fern leaves and looking into the bells of the foxglove to find a fairy, singing all the time this charm:

“Fairy fair and fairy bright;
Come and be my chosen sprite.”

Equally, she never allowed a moonlit night to pass without going down into the nearby valley and, walking beside the stream, she would sing another charm:

“Moon shines bright, waters run clear,
I am here, but where’s my fairy dear?”

The fairies spent a long time testing the poor girl; for, as they told her afterwards, they heard her perfectly well and never lost sight of her; but there they would be, looking on when she was seeking them, and they would run from frond to frond of the ferns, always just ahead of her when she was turning them up its her anxious search.  [NB- ferns are closely associated with faeries and with invisibility.]

One day Ann, having finished her morning’s work, was sitting knitting in the arbour in her master’s garden, when she fancied she heard some one moving aside the branches, as though endeavouring to look in upon her; and she thought it must be her sweetheart, so she resolved to take no notice. Ann went on steadily with her work and no sound was heard but the regular clicking of her knitting-needles. Presently she heard a suppressed laugh, and then again a rustle amidst the branches. The back of the arbour was towards the lane, and to enter the garden it was necessary to walk down the lane to the gate, which was, however, not many yards off.

At last Ann began to feel vexed that the intruder did not show himself, and she said peevishly, half out loud —

“You may stay there till the kueney (or cuney: moss, or mildew) grows on the gate, ere I’ll come to ‘ee.”

There was immediately peculiarly ringing and very musical laughter. Ann knew this wasn’t her lover’s laugh, and she felt afraid. Nonetheless, it was bright day, and she assured herself that no one would do her any mischief, as she knew herself to be a general favourite in the parish. Presently Ann felt sure that she’d heard the garden gate carefully opened and closed, so she waited anxiously. In a few moments she saw, standing at the entrance to the arbour, six little men, all clothed in green. They were beautiful little figures, and had very charming faces, and such bright eyes. The grandest of these visitors, who wore a red feather in his cap, advanced in front the others, and, making a most polite bow to Ann, addressed her familiarly in the kindest words. [Needless to observe, perhaps, the red and green clothes are very typical fairy garb.]

This gentleman looked so sweetly on Ann that she was charmed beyond measure, and she put down her hand as if shake hands with him, but instead he jumped into her palm and she lifted him into her lap. He then, without any more ado, he clambered upon her bosom and neck, and began kissing her. Ann never felt so delighted in her life as while this one little gentleman was playing with her; but presently he called his companion and they all clambered up by her dress as best they could, and kissed her neck, her lips, and her eyes. One of them ran his fingers over her eyes, and she felt as if they had been pricked with a pin. Suddenly Ann became blind, and she felt herself whirled through the air at a great rate. By and by, one of her little companions said something which sounded like “Tear away,” and Ann had her sight at once restored.

Ann found that she was in one of the most beautiful places- temples and palaces of gold and silver; trees laden with fruits and flowers; lakes full of gold and silver fish and the air full of birds of the sweetest song, and the more brilliant colours. Hundreds of ladies and gentlemen were walking about; hundreds more were idling in the most luxurious bowers, the fragrance of the flowers oppressing them with sense of delicious repose. Hundreds were also dancing or engaged in games of various kinds. Ann was, however, surprised to find that these happy people were no longer the small people she’d previously seen. There was now no more than the difference usually seen in a crowd, between their height and her own. Ann found herself arrayed in the most highly-decorated clothes. So grand, indeed, did she appear, that she doubted her identity.

[Ann’s fairyland is very similar to several others that I have described on the blog.  The cottage and garden where Cherry of Zennor lives bears some similarities, but Ann’s palatial surroundings are much closer to some of the medieval descriptions I’ve discussed.]

Ann was constantly attended by her six friends; but the finest gentleman, who had been the first to address her, continued her as her favourite, at which the others appeared to be very jealous. Eventually Ann and her favourite contrived to separate themselves, and they retired into some most lovely gardens, where they were hidden by the luxuriance of the flowers. They passed their time lovingly, and Ann wished this could continue forever. However, just when they were happiest, there was a great noise, and the five other fairies appeared at the head of a great crowd, all in a violent rage. Her lover drew his sword to defend her, but this was soon beaten down, and he lay wounded at her feet. Then the fairy who had blinded her again placed his hands upon her eyes, and all was dark. She heard strange noises, and felt herself whirled about and about, and as if a thousand flies were buzzing around her.

At length her eyes were opened, and Ann found herself on the ground in the arbour where she had been sitting in the morning, and many anxious faces were around her, all conceiving that she was recovering from a fit.  As a result of her faery experience, Ann found that she was endowed with clairvoyance and healing powers.  The first person she cured was her mistress, but her fame soon circulated within Cornwall and beyond.  

Ann had been given ointment by the fairies to cure “all distempers, sicknesses and sores” (such as the falling sickness and broken bones) and she was also granted the power to make herself invisible at will (perhaps the same ointment).  When she was later arrested, it was alleged that these fairies were in fact her imps or familiars. She denied this, saying rather that they had quoted holy scripture to her.  Ann never returned to Faery, but the Little Folk stayed near her, at least for the next few years.

We also have a first-hand account of some aspects of Ann’s story recounted by the son of the family for whom she worked as servant.  This was published in the form of a letter from Moses Pitt to the Right Reverend Father in God, Dr. Edward Fowler, Lord Bishop of Gloucester:

MOSES PITT’S LETTER RESPECTING ANNE JEFFERIES.

“An account of Anne Jefferies, now living in the county of Cornwall, who was fed for six months by a small sort of airy people, called fairies; and of the strange and wonderful cures she performed with salves and medicines she received from them, for which she never took one penny of her patients.”

Anne Jefferies, who was afterwards married to a farm labourer William Warren, was born in the parish of St Teath in December 1626, “and she is still living, 1696, being now in the 70th year of her age.” From the published narrative, we learn that Mr Humphrey Martin was asked by Moses Pitt to visit and examine Anne in 1693. Mr Martin writes, “As for Anne Jefferies, I have been with her the greater part of one day, and did read to her all that you wrote to me; but she would not own anything of it, as concerning the fairies, neither of any of the cures that she did. She answered, that if her own father were now alive, she would not discover to him those things which did happen then to her. I asked her the reason why she would not do it; she replied, that if she should discover it to you, that you would make books or ballads of it; and she said, that she would not have her name spread about the country in books or ballads of such things, if she might have five hundred pounds for it.” [As well as fear for her own reputation, you wonder if there was some fear of disclosing faery secrets as well.]

Mr Pitt’s correspondent went on to say that Anne was so frightened by the visitors she had in the arbour “that she fell into a kind of convulsion fit. But when they found her in this condition they took her into the house and put her to bed, and took great care of her. As soon as she recovered out of her fit, she cried out, ‘They are just gone out of the window- they are just gone out of the window. Do you not see them?'” Anne recovered, and “as soon as she recovered a little strength, she constantly went to church…  She took mighty delight in devotion, and in hearing the Word of God read and preached, although she herself could not read.”

Ann eventually told some portions of her story and cured numerous diseases amongst the people, by means of the powers she had derived from the fairy world. “People of all distempers, sicknesses, sores, and ages, came not only so far off as the Land’s End, but also from London, and were cured by her. She took no moneys of them, nor any reward that ever I knew or heard of, yet had she moneys at all times sufficient to supply her wants [This implies that she is receiving gifts of coins from the faeries].  She neither made nor bought any medicines or salves that ever I saw or heard of, yet wanted them not as she had occasion. She forsook eating our victuals, and was fed by these fairies from that harvest time to the next Christmas day; upon which day she came to our table and said, because it was that day, she would eat some roast beef with us, the which she did- I myself being then at the table.”

The fairies constantly attended upon Ann and they appear to have vied with each other to win her favour. They fed her, as we have been already told and the writer says that on one occasion site she “gave me a piece of her bread, which I did eat, and I think it was the most delicious bread that ever I did eat, either before or since.” Ann could render herself invisible, apparently at will. The fairies would come and dance with her in the orchard. She had a silver cup, given to her by the fairies, which she in turn gave to a local girl called Mary Martyn when she was about four years of age.

At last, “one John Tregeagle, Esq., who was steward to John Earl of Radnor, being a justice of peace in Cornwall, sent his warrant for Anne, and sent her to Bodmin jail, and there kept her a long time.”  Her offence was, apparently, not so much her claims of faery acquaintance (although that was certainly enough to get you into trouble in those days- and, in Scotland, to get you burnt at the stake).  More of a problem for Ann, however, was the fact that she was a staunch Church of England Royalist during the Civil War.  As we have seen, she was very devout, but she insisted on High Church services, which didn’t go down well with the increasingly powerful Puritans.  Possibly even worse than that was the fact that her prophecies for the future all foretold the victory of the King and the triumph of the bishops.  

The fairies had previously given Ann a warning that she would be apprehended.  When they did this, “she asked them if she should hide herself. They answered no; she should fear nothing, but go with the constable. So she went with the constable to the justice, and he sent her to Bodmin jail, and ordered the prison keeper that she should be kept without victuals, and she was so kept, and yet she lived, and that without complaining. But poor Ann lay in jail for a considerable time after; and also Justice Tregeagle, who was her great prosecutor, kept her in his house some time as a prisoner, and that without victuals.”  Apparently, after a year or so in Bodmin’s jail, she was released to a sort of house arrest in the home of the Mayor of Bodmin.  She held out, though, and eventually had to be released without charge, after which she took up a position with Moses Pitt’s widowed aunt in Padstow.

In the course of this account, we have a curious example of the fairies quoting Scripture; I’m not aware of another instance of this. On one occasion Ann, when seated with the family, was called three times. “Of all these three calls of the fairies, none heard them but Ann. After she had been in her chamber some time, she came to us again, with a Bible in her hand, and told us that when she came to the fairies, they said to her, ‘What ! has there been some magistrates and ministers with you, and dissuaded you from coming anymore to us, saying, we are evil spirits, and that it was all a delusion of the devil? Pray, desire them to read that place of Scripture, in the First Epistle of St. John, chap. iv. ver. I, ‘Dearly beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God;’ and this place of Scripture was turned down so in the said Bible. I told your lordship before, Anne could not read.”

Finally:

“And now, my lord, if your lordship expects that I should give you an account when, and upon what occasion, these fairies forsook our Anne, I must tell your lordship I am ignorant of that. She herself can best tell, if she would be prevailed upon to do so; and the history of it, and the rest of the passages of her life, would be very acceptable and useful to the most curious and inquisitive part of mankind.” (from An Historical Survey of the County of Cornwall, C. S. Gilbert 1817).

Cornwall's Bodmin Jail plans £12.5m Dark Walk attraction
The entrance to Bodmin jail

Fairy herbs

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J W Waterhouse, The Sorceress, 1913

I have previously drawn attention to the various herbal remedies prepared and prescribed by faeries.  In this post I add a few more ingredients to the fairy pharmacopeia.

Ointments

We know very well that the fairies collected and processed plants for medicine.  Suspected witch Alesoun Peirsoun spent seven years visiting Elfame and had seen the Good Neighbours making salves in pans over fires, using herbs picked before sunrise.  The trows of Shetland did the exactly same because, in the story of Farquhar’s Pig (a pig was a small earthenware jar or bottle), a container of healing ointment is obtained from them (against their will) by claiming it in God’s name.  This invocation rendered them powerless to stop the human seizing the vessel.

In some sources we are simply told, very frustratingly, that the fairies used ‘herbs.’  For example, in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Purse she describes “herbs and flowers wet with fairy dew” being gathered to make eye salves and other ointments, but we aren’t given any more detail than this.  The ‘green herbes’ used by Bartie Paterson in 1607 are another instance of this vagueness.

Medicines & powders

Luckily, the records are often a lot more specific and helpful.  According to the manuscript, Sloane MS 73 f.125, a person who has been taken by elves can be treated as follows:

“Take the root of gladen and make a poudre thereof, and ȝeve the sike both in his metes and in his drynkes, and he schal be hool within ix days and ix nyȝtes, or be deed, for certeyn.”

‘Gladen’ is the common iris, formerly called orris root.  When fresh, it is poisonous; dried, it used to be employed as a flavouring.  In this form it would at least do no harm, so the patient’s recovery of their whole health, or their death, probably couldn’t be ascribed to their treatment.  The rather fatalistic attitude of the text might suggest that the author knew that the treatment would make no difference and that, instead, nature would take its course.  (NB: in Norfolk ‘gladen’ denotes the cat’s tail, or bulrush, a plant with absolutely no known medicinal or food properties).

In 1597 four Edinburgh women were tried for alleged witchcraft and for being associated with the “Farie-folk.’  They appear to have been traditional healers, claiming to have been taught their remedies by the Good Folk.  Christian Lewinstoun, for example, made one treatment by mixing fresh butter with a ‘sweet wort.’ She bathed one of her patients in woodbine and resin and  treated heart disease in another by seething broom and chamomile in white wine.  The former herb has many medicinal properties, including reducing the narrowing of blood vessels; chamomile, too, has a range of healing properties. This suggests that we have here a folk remedy with some genuine benefits.

Lewinstoun also, much less wisely, prescribed mercury (both as a salve and as a drink) to at least two sick people.  The element is highly toxic- although ‘trained’ physicans used it without hesitation during the same period.  Another of the group who faced trial, Jonet Stewart, advised bathing in red nettles and alexanders; she also made a salve by seething alexanders in butter.  Alexanders can promote appetite, aid digestion and act as a mild diuretic and disinfectant.  Nettles share these properties and can reduce inflammation, so again there were some healing properties to these ingredients and certainly nothing magical.

Elsewhere in Scotland flax (the ‘blue-eyed one of the fairy woman’ or, in Gaelic, gorm-shuileach na mna sith) was used as a medicine as well as to protect people against the elves and the sluagh.  In Wales the plant ‘purging flax’ was called llin y tylwyth teg, or fairy flax.  Flax seeds have a range of medicinal properties, as their continued use today demonstrates, so that we have, again, a good indication of a genuine folk cure.

Further Reading

See my posts on fairy inflicted illnesses, physical as well as psychological, and on the treatments, which included the use of still and running water and belts as well as herbs.  See to my Faerychapters 12 and 13.  There is also detailed discussion of the faeries’ healing powers in my 2021 book The Faery Lifecycle:

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Gaining (and losing) second sight

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Eileen Soper, Muddle’s Mistake

Acquisition of the second sight, and the ability to see through fairy glamour and watch the Good Folk, is a gift many desire.  It can come from many sources, some easily achieved (it would appear); many purely fortuitous.

Let’s start with the cases of luck.  In one Scottish case, a child left asleep upon a fairy knoll came away from the spot endowed with the second sight.  Whether this was a matter of the place alone, or the result of an intervention by the sith folk because they had chosen to favour the infant, we cannot tell.   Cromek recorded that a person invited inside a fairy hill to feast with the inhabitants went away afterwards with the second sight, implying that the food itself or perhaps the proximity to the fairies could have been the source.  If it was the food, this will of course be in stark contrast to the usual outcome, in which the person eating faery food in Faery becomes trapped there.

Contact with the fairies seems to be fundamental to the transfer, as is seen in Enys Tregarthen’s story of the fairy child Skerry Werry, published in 1940.  A lost fairy child was taken in and cared for by a widow on Bodmin Moor.  The longer the little girl stayed, the better the old woman’s ‘pixy sight’ became, so that she could see the pisky lights on the moor.  The story implies that it was simply Skerry-Werry’s residence that had the effect.  More traditionally, as in Tregarthen’s story The Nurse Who Broke Her Promise, which was published in the same year, a human midwife bathing a fairy baby is told not to splash bath water in her eyes (or, even more commonly is asked to anoint the child with ointment, but not touch herself) and a breach of such an injunction is what transfers the magic vision.

A third example is even stranger: an old Somerset woman who used to nurse those who were sick was one day walking to a well for water when a moth brushed against her face.  This gave her the pixy-sight and she immediately saw a little man, who asked her to come with him to try to come with him to tend his seriously ill wife.  I have mentioned the fairy association with moths before, so this incident has some precedents.

Gifts of second sight from the fairies are certainly reported.  Scottish woman Isobel Sinclair was granted such a power, so that she would “know giff thair be any fey bodie in the house” (as her trial on Orkney in February 1633 was told).  A substantial part of the case against her was that she was “a dreamer of dreams.”

Elspeth Reoch had been tried fifteen years previously for very similar reasons to Sinclair: she had had contact with the fairies and they had given her ability to see into the future and tell fortunes.  Elspeth was instructed in two methods of obtaining the second sight.  One was to roast an egg and use the ‘sweat of it’ (the moisture that appeared on the shell, presumably) to wash her hands and then rub her eyes.  The second technique was to pick the flower called millefleur and, kneeling on her right knee, to pull the plant between her middle finger and thumb, invoking the Christian trinity.

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Once one person had the gift, others could benefit.  Contact with them, by touching them or by looking over a shoulder, would reveal the fairies to the second person as well.

Be warned, though.  The fairies object to uninvited intrusions and to any behaviour they regard as spying.  There is a Victorian report of a case from Wrexham in which a fairy blinded a person just because he looked at it.  A very similar account comes from Exmoor: a person who ‘had dealings’ with the pixies later saw them thieving at the market in Minehead.  When she protested, she was blinded.  Alone, these cases might appear to be truncated versions of the midwife stories mentioned earlier; these nearly always culminate with the midwife spotting the fairy father on a later occasion, whether he is stealing goods at a fair or market or simply out and about in the human world.  She addresses him, giving away her secret, and, in response, she is blinded, whether by a breath in the face or some more physical means.  However, the Wrexham and Minehead stories both suggest that anyone who has the second sight, for whatever reason, might suffer as a consequence if a fairy objects to it.

Seeing through the fairies’ glamour risks exposing those aspects of their conduct that they might rather keep concealed from us (their propensity for stealing our property perhaps being the least of them).  Knowing their secrets can put us in peril, so that it is possibly rash to wish too fervently for knowledge of their hidden world.

 

 

 

 

‘Cherry of Zennor’- a fairy adventure considered

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The cliffs near Trereen: Gurnard’s Head with Trereen Dinas promontory fort.

Like the ‘Fairy House on Selena Moor,’ this Cornish tale is taken from Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1st series, p. 118 et seq.  It’s another lengthy story with many fascinating fairy facets.

“Old Honey lived with his wife and family in a little hut of two rooms and a ‘talfat,’ (sleeping platform) on the cliff side of Trereen in Zennor. The old couple had half a score of children, who were all reared in this place. They lived as they best could on the produce of a few acres of ground, which were too poor to keep even a goat in good heart. The heaps of crogans (limpet shells) about the hut led one to believe that their chief food was limpets and gweans (periwinkles). They had, however, fish and potatoes most days, and pork and broth now and then of a Sunday. At Christmas and the Feast they had white bread. There was not a healthier nor a handsomer family in the parish than Old Honey’s. We are, however, only concerned with one of them, his daughter Cherry. Cherry could run as fast as a hare, and was ever full of frolic and mischief…

[The Penwith peninsula generally is rich with fairylore, and Zennor parish seems to be a hot spot, what with this story, the mermaid of Zennor and the captured pixie SkillywiddenThe area is also endowed with numerous megalithic sites, adding an even greater aura of ancient mystery to the landscape.]

Soon after Cherry got into her teens she became very discontented, because year after year her mother had been promising her a new frock… Cherry was sixteen. One of her playmates had a new dress smartly trimmed with ribbons, and she told Cherry how she had been to Nancledra to the preaching, and how she had ever so many sweethearts who brought her home. This put the volatile Cherry in a fever of desire. She declared to her mother she would go off to the “low countries”  (beyond Towednack) to seek for service, that she might get some clothes like other girls.

[Nancledra village is on the main road south to Penzance on Mount’s Bay, about halfway between north and south coasts. Towednack is smaller and nearer to Zennor.]

Her mother wished her to go to Towednack that she might have the chance of seeing her now and then of a Sunday.  “No, no!” said Cherry, “I’ll never go to live in the parish where the cow ate the bell-rope, and where they have fish and taties (potatoes) every day, and conger-pie of a Sunday, for a change.”

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The Highlands and Lowlands of Towednack parish

One fine morning Cherry tied up a few things in a bundle and prepared to start. She promised her father that she would get service as near home as she could, and come home at the earliest opportunity. The old man said she was bewitched, charged her to take care she wasn’t carried away by either the sailors or pirates, and allowed her to depart. Cherry took the road leading (south) to Ludgvan and Gulval. When she lost sight of the chimneys of Trereen (just north of Nancledra), she got out of heart and had a great mind to go home again. But she went on.

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Barrow on Lady Downs

At length she came to the “four cross roads” on the Lady Downs, sat herself down on a stone by the road-side, and cried to think of her home, which she might never see again.  Her crying at last came to an end, and she resolved to go home and make the best of it.  When she dried her eyes and held up her head she was surprised to see a gentleman coming towards her- for she couldn’t think where he came from; no one was to be seen on the Downs a few minutes before.  The gentleman wished her “morning,” enquired which was the road to Towednack, and asked Cherry where she was going.

[In another published version of the story, our young heroine at this point idly picks and crushes some fern fronds, the effect of which sees to be to conjure up the faery gentleman . The same book (Frances Olcott, The Book of Elves and Fairies, 1918) includes the poem Mabel on Midsummer Day by Mary Howitt, in which a girl is sent on an errand is warned that it’s a dangerous time of year and she must take care not to offend the Good Folk and neither “pluck the strawberry flower/ Nor break the lady-fern.” ]

“Cherry told the gentleman that she had left home that morning to look for service, but that her heart had failed her, and she was going back over the hills to Zennor again.  “I never expected to meet with such luck as this,” said the gentleman. “I left home this morning to seek for a nice clean girl to keep house for me, and here you are.”

He then told Cherry that he had been recently left a widower, and that he had one dear little boy, of whom Cherry might have charge. Cherry was the very girl that would suit him. She was handsome and cleanly. He could see that her clothes were so mended that the first piece could not be discovered; yet she was as sweet as a rose, and all the water in the sea could not make her cleaner. Poor Cherry said “Yes, sir,” to everything, yet she did not understand one quarter part of what the gentleman said. Her mother had instructed her to say “Yes, sir,” to the parson, or any gentleman, when, like herself, she did not understand them. The gentleman told her he lived but a short way off, down in the low countries; that she would have very little to do but milk the cow and look after the baby; so Cherry consented to go with him.

Away they went; he talking so kindly that Cherry had no notion how time was moving, and she quite forgot the distance she had walked.  At length they were in lanes, so shaded with trees that a checker of sunshine scarcely gleamed on the road. As far as she could see, all was trees and flowers. Sweet briars and honeysuckles perfumed the air, and the reddest of ripe apples hung from the trees over the lane.

Then they came to a stream of water as clear as crystal, which ran across the lane. It was, however, very dark, and Cherry paused to see how she should cross the river. The gentleman put his arm around her waist and carried her over, so that she did not wet her feet.

The lane was getting darker and darker, and narrower and narrower, and they seemed to be going rapidly down hill. Cherry took firm hold of the gentleman’s arm, and thought, as he had been so kind to her, she could go with him to the world’s end.  After walking a little further, the gentleman opened a gate which led into a beautiful garden, and said: “Cherry, my dear, this is the place we live in.”

[This whole journey is highly suggestive of a passage into a faery underworld.  Time seems to stretch, and, although Cornish lanes can be shady between their high stone hedges, this progress downhill and over a stream strongly indicates that the pair are crossing some sort of boundary into another world.  The fecundity of the countryside, in contrast to the bare moors off central Penwith, may be another indicator of this.]

“Cherry could scarcely believe her eyes. She had never seen anything approaching this place for beauty. Flowers of every dye were around her; fruits of all kinds hung above her; and the birds, sweeter of song than any she had ever heard, burst out into a chorus of rejoicing. She had heard granny tell of enchanted places. Could this be one of them? No. The gentleman was as big as the parson; and now a little boy came running down the garden walk shouting: “Papa, papa.”

The child appeared, from his size, to be about two or three years of age; but there was a singular look of age about him. His eyes were brilliant and piercing, and he had a crafty expression. As Cherry said, “He could look anybody down.”  Before Cherry could speak to the child, a very old dry-boned, ugly-looking woman made her appearance, and seizing the child by the arm, dragged him into the house, mumbling and scolding. Before, however, she was lost sight of, the old hag cast one look at Cherry, which shot through her heart “like a gimblet.”

[The man can’t be a fairy because he is human sized, Cherry reasons- he is not one of the ‘pobel vean.’  Nevertheless, the unusual nature of faery eyes is often remarked upon and may be a sure indicator of faery nature.]

“Seeing Cherry somewhat disconcerted, the master explained that the old woman was his late wife’s grandmother: that she would remain with them until Cherry knew her work, and no longer, for she was old and ill-tempered, and must go. At length, having feasted her eyes on the garden, Cherry was taken into the house, and this was yet more beautiful. Flowers of every kind grew everywhere, and the sun seemed to shine everywhere, and yet she did not see the sun.

[Light, without any discernible source for it, is another definitive trait of faery.  Gardens, have, of course, a strong fairy association.]

“Aunt Prudence- so was the old woman named- spread a table in a moment with a great variety of nice things, and Cherry made a hearty supper. She was how directed to go to bed, in a chamber at the top of the house, in which the child was to sleep also. Prudence directed Cherry to keep her eyes closed, whether she could sleep or not, as she might, perchance, see things which she would not like. She was not to speak to the child all night. She was to rise at break of day; then take the boy to a spring in the garden, wash him, and anoint his eyes with an ointment, which she would find in a crystal box in a cleft of the rock, but she was not on any account to touch her own eyes with it. Then Cherry was to call the cow; and having taken a bucket full of milk, to draw a bowl of the last milk for the boy’s breakfast. Cherry was dying with curiosity. She several times began to question the child, but he always stopped her with: “I’ll tell Aunt Prudence.” According to her orders, Cherry was up in the morning early. The little boy conducted the girl to the spring, which flowed in crystal purity from a granite rock, which was covered with ivy and beautiful mosses. The child was duly washed, and his eyes duly anointed. Cherry saw no cow, but her little charge said she must call the cow.”

[The instruction to Cherry to keep her eyes and mouth shut, to anoint the child’s eyes with water from a magical spring and to guard against touching her own with the salve are all quintessential fairy elements.  Numerous stories of midwives visiting Faery involve this plot element.  Not asking questions is another part of the pact that respects and preserves fairy mystery.]

“Pruit! pruit! pruit!” called Cherry, just as she would call the cows at home; when, lo! a beautiful great cow came from amongst the trees, and stood on the bank beside her.  Cherry had no sooner placed her hands on the cow’s teats than four streams of milk flowed down and soon filled the bucket. The boy’s bowl was then filled, and he drank it. This being done, the cow quietly walked away, and Cherry returned to the house to be instructed in her daily work.”

[I’ve discussed before the fairy love of dairy products. This bountiful and vaguely magical beast may be stolen– they’d say borrowed- from a local farmer, or it may be raised by the faes alone.]

“The old woman, Prudence, gave Cherry a capital breakfast, and then informed her that she must keep to the kitchen, and attend to her work there- to scald the milk, make the butter, and clean all the platters and bowls with water and gard (gravel sand). Cherry was charged to avoid curiosity. She was not to go into any other part of the house; she was not to try and open any locked doors.”

[It’s worthwhile remarking how like to servitude is Cherry’s sojourn here.  Most mortals taken to Faery work there as prisoners and slaves.  Cherry’s terms of service may sound better, but her lot seems the same.]

“After her ordinary work was done on the second day, her master required Cherry to help him in the garden, to pick the apples and pears, and to weed the leeks and onions.  Glad was Cherry to get out of the old woman’s sight.  Aunt Prudence always sat with one eye on her knitting, and the other boring through poor Cherry. Now and then she’d grumble: ‘I knew Robin would bring down some fool from Zennor- better for both that she had tarried away.’  Cherry and her master got on famously, though, and whenever Cherry had finished weeding a bed, her master would give her a kiss to show her how pleased he was.”

[Of course, taking human females for sex was the other reason they might be abducted. It may be significant that the fairy man shares a name with Robin Goodfellow]

“After a few days, old Aunt Prudence took Cherry into those parts of the house which she had never seen. They passed through a long dark passage. Cherry was then made to take off her shoes; and they entered a room, the floor of which was like glass, and all round, perched on the shelves, and on the floor, were people, big and small, turned to stone. Of some, there were only the head and shoulders, the arms being cut off; others were perfect. Cherry told the old woman she “wouldn’t cum ony furder for the wurld.” She thought from the first she was got into a land of Small People (i.e. the fairies) underground, only master was like other men; but now she know’d she was with the conjurers, who had turned all these people to stone. She had heard talk on ’em up in Zennor, and she knew they might at any moment wake up and eat her.”

[This scene is highly reminiscent of Sir Orfeo’s visit to the fairy king’s castle in the poem of that name.  The possibility that this faeryland is in fact some sort of abode of the dead is made clear here. The uncertain distinction between fairies and ghosts is common in British folklore: the Cornish pixies are said to be the spirits of dead children and Northern boggarts are almost entirely ghost-like.  Interestingly, we now learn that Cherry is not as simple or as trusting as she might have seemed and has had her suspicions all along- that she is in fact with the small people- an pobel vean.]

“Old Prudence laughed at Cherry, and drove her on, insisted upon her rubbing up a box, “like a coffin on six legs,” until she could see her face in it. Well, Cherry did not want for courage, so she began to rub with a will; the old woman standing by, knitting all the time, calling out every now and then: “Rub! rub! rub! Harder and faster!” At length Cherry got desperate, and giving a violent rub at one of the corners, she nearly upset the box. When, O Lor! it gave out such a doleful, unearthly sound, that Cherry thought all the stone people were coming to life, and with her fright she fell down in a fit. The master heard all this noise, and came in to inquire into the cause of the hubbub. He was in great wrath, kicked old Prudence out of the house for taking Cherry into that shut-up room, carried Cherry into the kitchen, and soon, with some cordial, recovered her senses. Cherry could not remember what had happened; but she knew there was something fearful in the other part of the house. But Cherry was mistress now- old Aunt Prudence was gone. Her master was so kind and loving that a year passed by like a summer day. Occasionally her master left home for a season; then he would return and spend much time in the enchanted apartments, and Cherry was certain she had heard him talking to the stone people. Cherry had everything the human heart could desire; but she was not happy; she would know more of the place and the people. Cherry had discovered that the ointment made the little boy’s eyes bright and strange, and she thought often that he saw more than she did; she would try; yes, she would!”

[The passage of time in faery is notoriously different from that on earth.  As ever, too, curiosity is sure to break the spell, just as with Pandora.]

tren

The barrows on Trendrine Hill, Towednack parish.

“Well, next morning the child was washed, his eyes anointed, and the cow milked; she sent the boy to gather her some flowers in the garden, and taking a “crurn” of ointment, she put it into her eye. Oh, her eye would be burned out of her head if Cherry had not run to the pool beneath the rock to wash her burning eye; when lo! she saw at the bottom of the water hundreds of little people, mostly ladies, playing-and there was her master, as small as the others, playing with them. Everything now looked different about the place. Small people were everywhere, hiding in the flowers sparkling with diamonds, swinging in the trees, and running and leaping under and over the blades of grass. The master never showed himself above the water all day; but at night he rode up to the house like the handsome gentleman she had seen before. He went to the enchanted chamber, and Cherry soon heard the most beautiful music.”

[This kind gentleman is in fact a shape-shifting fairy.  The fairy music that Cherry hears is further confirmation of the supernatural nature of all around her.]

“In the morning her master was off, dressed as if to follow the hounds. He returned at night, left Cherry to herself, and proceeded at once to his private apartments. Thus it was day after day, until Cherry could stand it no longer. So she peeped through the key-hole, and saw her master with lots of ladies, singing; while one dressed like a queen was playing on the coffin. Oh, how madly jealous Cherry became when she saw her master kiss this lovely lady. However, the next day the master remained at home to gather fruit. Cherry was to help him, and when, as usual, he looked to kiss her, she slapped his face, and told him to kiss the Small People, like himself, with whom he played under the water.

So he found out that Cherry had used the ointment. With much sorrow, he told her she must go home, that he would have no spy on his actions, and that Aunt Prudence must come back. Long before day, Cherry was called by her master. He gave her lots of clothes and other things; took her bundle in one hand, and a lantern in the other, and bade her follow him. They went on for miles on miles, all the time going up-hill, through lanes, and narrow passages. When they came at last on level ground, it was near daybreak. He kissed Cherry, told her she was punished for her idle curiosity; but that he would, if she behaved well, come sometimes on the Lady Downs to see her. Saying this, he disappeared. The sun rose, and there was Cherry seated on a granite stone, without a soul within miles of her- a desolate moor having taken the place of a smiling garden. Long, long did Cherry sit in sorrow, but at last she thought she would go home.

[The story culminates in the ejection from Faery for breaking the fairy rules.  This was the fate of Elidyr, amongst others, and Cherry had to be thankful for she was not blinded in the eye she had surreptitiously touched with the ointment.  This is, almost always, the fate of disobedient midwives.]

“Her parents had supposed her dead, and when they saw her, they believed her to be her own ghost. Cherry told her story, which every one doubted, but Cherry never varied her tale, and at last every one believed it. They say Cherry was never afterwards right in her head, and on moonlight nights, until she died, she would wander on to the Lady Downs to look for her master.”

[We end as so many similar stories end (see for example that of Mr Noy and the House on Silena Moor): the visitor to Faery returns home, like one given up ages ago for dead, but can never settle again.  Cherry’s sojourn in Faery has left her ‘elf-addled,’ and she cannot feel happy with mortal things ever again.]

zennor

Zennor quoit, visited April 2019.

Further reading

Cornish folklore is replete with accounts of supernatural beings.  In other posts I have examined fairies dancing at a spring, Cornish changelings and abduction by the piskies.

Lewis Carroll on pixies

pixie brian froud

One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.

In this post I feature a paragraph of juvenilia from the family journal ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ which was ‘published’ by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and his brothers and sisters between 1850 and 1853 to entertain themselves and their parents.  The piece is of interest as an early work of fantasy by the future author of the Alice stories as well as being an example of Victorian ideas on pixies.

The text appears under the sub-title: ‘Zoological papers‘ and makes fun of the learned scientific, academic style (with footnotes).

Zoological papers: Pixies

“The origin of this curious race of creatures is not at present known: the best description we can collect of them is this, that they are a species of fairies about two feet high (1), of small and graceful figure; they are covered in a dark reddish kind of fur; the general expression of their faces is sweetness and good humour; the former quality is probably the reason why foxes are so fond of eating them. From Coleridge we learn the following additional facts; that they have ‘filmy pinions’ something like dragon flies’ wings, that they ‘sip the furze-flower’s fragrant dew’ (that, however, could only be for breakfast, as it would dry up before dinner-time), and that they are wont to ‘flash their faery feet in gamesome prank,’ or, in more common language, ‘to dance the polka (2) like winking.’

From an old English legend (3) which, as it is familiar with our readers, we need not here repeat, we learn that they have a strong affection for raw turnips, decidedly a more vulgar sort of food than ‘fragrant dew’; and from their using churns and kettles we conjecture that they are not unacquainted with tea, milk, butter &c. They are tolerably good architects, though their houses must unavoidably have something the appearance of large dog kennels, and they go to market occasionally, though from what source they get the money for this purpose has hitherto remained an unexplained mystery. This is all the information we have been able to collect on this interesting subject.

(1) So they are described by the inhabitants of Devonshire, who occasionally see them.

(2) Or any other step.

(3) A tradition, introduced into notice by the Editor.”

Now, it seems very likely that Carroll must have been reading Mrs Bray.  Her book, The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy , was published in 1836 and describes, in a series of letters to the poet Robert Southey, the traditions, legends and superstitions that surround the North Dartmoor town of Tavistock.  This is the most likely source for most of Carroll’s information: Mrs Bray’s children’s book, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West, didn’t appear until 1854.

His fairy lore is on the whole, sound (excepting, I think, the turnips… as he confesses himself)  We do know that there was longstanding animosity between the Dartmoor foxes and pixies, which led to an ever-increasing effort by the latter to protect themselves.  The foxes hunted the pixies, digging them out of their underground homes and devouring them.  The pixies  responded by making iron shelters- which may, indeed, as Carroll suggests, look like dog kennels (R. King, ‘Folklore of Devonshire,’ Fraser’s Magazine, vol.8, 1873, p.781).

We know very well the fairies’ partiality for dairy products such as butter and milk, and it had long been a poetic conceit that tiny rural beings would drink dew and nectar from flowers.  We are also very familiar with their love of dance.  The use of kettles and the like is quite conventional: one common set of stories involves fairies seeking human aid to mend some basic item of domestic equipment- a stool or a ‘ped’ used to remove loaves from ovens; they made their own butter as well as stealing ours and would have needed a fully equipped kitchen for these tasks.  Tales of fairies at markets are also well-known, although their habit is often to thieve from the stalls rather than to buy.  In the frequent accounts of midwives who have cared for a fairy baby and, in the process, touched an eye with fairy ointment, the women are exposed when they spy a fairy at the market, whether buying or shoplifting.  Fairies often had gold, it is true, whether to purchase goods or to make gifts to chosen favourites.  Many writers have speculated about its source: was this money merely leaves and pebbles disguised by glamour (as was not unknown) or was it real currency, perhaps discovered by the fays underground?  Fairies were said to have abilities to help humans locate buried treasure, certainly, and access to ancient hoards might explain the unusual coins that often made up their payments.

Carroll’s pixies coincide very much with tradition, then, and even his jokey invention of their foxy fur coats is not entirely unheard of, as we know from more recent fairy sightings.  Nevertheless, the winged pixy is something of a surprise (though see Brian Froud’s image below) as is the description of them as always jolly.  As readers will know, they have a great tendency to mischief- hence the term ‘pixy-led.’

pixy

Another Froud pixie

Further reading

Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are classics and well worth reading if you’ve not already, albeit not fairy stories in any conventional sense.  I have also enjoyed reading Sean Conroy’s recent book, Alice in the Underground: Lewis Carroll and Alice in Modern Culturea book which examines many of the debated questions of Carroll’s life and work.  My own British Pixies (2021) looks at all aspects of the folklore of the pixies of South West England.

“In the likeness of a crab”- fairy shape shifters

paton_-_puck_and_fairies_from_a_midsummer_nights_dream

Joseph Noel Paton, Puck and the fairies

Although the ability to shape-shift is often reckoned to be a standard fairy attribute, it is actually very rare amongst the fairies of Britain.  Part of the reason for its prominence in popular imaginings is that it has one very well-known practitioner.

Glamour & invisibility

We ought perhaps to start with some definition of terms.  We’re not talking here about the fairies’ power of invisibility.  This appears to be pretty much universal, for British fairies at least; they can all vanish at will.  Secondly, shape shifting should not be confused with the regular fairy use of ‘glamour’ whereby magic can conceal the real identity of supernatural beings.  A good example arises in the stories of midwives taken at night to grand mansions to attend rich ladies in their childbirth.  It’s only when the midwife accidentally touches some fairy ointment to her eye that her vision penetrates through the illusion to see that she’s really surrounded by misshapen elves in a cave.

Thirdly, by shape-shifting I’m not really concerned so much with the ability of spriggans to change their size.  An example of this comes from the Cornish story ‘Cherry of Zennor.’  Cherry is approached by a gentleman to work for him; they reach his home after a long and slightly mysterious journey, which appears to be a passage into fairyland.  All goes well until Cherry looks into a well where she sees many tiny fairies dancing- and her new master shrunk to the same size.  Fascinating as this is, in this posting I’m really only interested in a complete change of form.

Hobgoblins and sweet Puck

In 1584 in his horror novella Beware the cat, William Baldwin wrote what’s probably our first clear statement of the fairies’ shape-shifting habits:

“I have read that … the ayry spirits which wee call Demones, of which kinde are Incubus and Succubus, Robin Good Fellow the Fairy and Goblins, which the Miners call Telchines, could at their pleasure take upon them any other sortes.”

Robin Goodfellow is our particular interest here.  Also called Puck, this hobgoblin is the consummate master of transformation, as immortalised in Midsummer night’s dream, Act II, scene 1 in which Puck boasts to a fairy about his pranks:

“When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,/ Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:/ And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,/ In the very likeness of a roasted crab;/ And when she drinks, against her lips I bob/ And on her withered dewlap pour the ale./ The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,/ Sometimes for three foot stool mistaketh me;/ Then slip I from her bum, down topples she…”

All Shakespeare does here is give immortal form to the traditional character of Puck.  Other texts of about the same time give other examples of his tricks- these are The life of Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests (1628) and a poem called The pranks of Puck that has been attributed to Ben Jonson. In these works Robin is endowed with his shape-shifting power by his fairy father Oberon, who tells him:

“Thou hast the power to change thy shape/ To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape./ Transformed thus, by any meanes,/ See none thou harm’st but knaves and queanes.”

In the course of the stories Puck dispenses rough justice and has simple slapstick fun in a huge variety of forms- for example:

  • livestock such as a horse, a dog and an ox,
  • wild animals including a fox, a hare, a bear and a frog;
  • birds, including a crow, an owl and a raven;
  • various spirits including a will of the wisp and a ghost; and,
  • various people, including a cripple, a soldier, a young maid and fiddler.

Fairies as birds

There are two brief mentions of British fays who can transform to birds.  The hyter sprite, an obscure fairy of East Anglia, can also appear in the shape of a sandmartin and, from the Cornish story of The fairy dwelling on Silena Moor we learn that pixy abductee Grace Hutchens is more reconciled to her captivity by the fact that she can transform into a small bird and fly near to her former lover, Mr Noy.  It’s perhaps also worth observing that these fairies’ wings are acquired by transformation, here, as they evidently don’t normally possess them…

There’s a catch to the Cornish pixies’ ability to transform, though.  They can only change into birds and it seems each transformation shrinks the sprite so that eventually they dwindle away to virtually nothing.

meeting the kelpie by camelid

Meeting the kelpie by Camelid on DeviantArt

Kelpies

Evidently Puck can become whatever he likes.  Most other fairies are strictly limited in what they can become.  The Scottish kelpie/ each uisge may appear either in male or horse form.  In the former guise, he is a handsome young man who seeks to seduce young women and lure them to their doom; the lucky ones spot the telltale signs of his real nature- the sand or water weed caught in his hair, and make their escape.   The others are carried off into a loch or the sea and drowned.

Conclusion and further reading

To finish, we can see how rare the power to change form is.  In England it’s really just limited to Puck, although we have to note the interesting fact that a couple of the South Western fairies do have some special powers.

Elsewhere I’ve posted about fairies’ physical forms and the solidity and reality of fays.  I discuss fairy magic generally in chapter 10 of my British fairies, 2017.

‘Reach out and touch me’- the physical transmission of magical power

fairy touch

Fairy touch, by Carol Armstrong

I have written here before about fairy magic (and see chapter 10 of my British fairies) and about the properties of fairy ointment.  In this post I want to home-in on another aspect of our good neighbours’ magical powers- their ability to convey these by mere touch.

The most significant consequence of this aspect of their magic is that it demonstrates that their abilities seem not necessarily to be innate; they may be learned from grimoires or they may be transferred by supernatural means- they are capable of being passed simply and quickly from person to person. In this respect the situation resembles the ointment which I discussed previously. Magical ability is, we might say, a commodity to be acquired by anyone, regardless of birth or status.

Scottish accounts

Receipt of magic vision is demonstrated from several sources.  Seers (those endowed with the second sight) can admit others to their visions by means of mere contact.  The Reverend Kirk in chapter 12 of The secret commonwealth tells us about this:

“The usewall Method for a curious Person to get a transient Sight of this otherwise invisible Crew of Subterraneans, (if impotently and over rashly sought,) is to put his [left Foot under the Wizard’s right] Foot, and the Seer’s Hand is put on the Inquirer’s Head, who is to look over the Wizard’s right Shoulder, (which hes ane ill Appearance, as if by this Ceremony ane implicit Surrender were made of all betwixt the Wizard’s Foot and his Hand, ere the Person can be admitted a privado to the Airt;) then will he see a Multitude of Wights, like furious hardie Men, flocking to him haistily from all Quarters, as thick as Atoms in the Air…”

Those with second sight are, of course, humans who are privileged to be able to see the supernaturals surrounding us which are invisible to most.  Those fairy beings have the same power, nonetheless.  In various Scottish ballads and poems we hear of an identical process.  In the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer the hero meets the fairy queen who tells him:

“Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies [wonders] three.”

The same is recounted in Thomas of Erceldoune and in the Queen of Elfland’s nourice:

“O nourice lay your head
Upo my knee:
See ye na that narrow road
Up by yon tree?
. . . . .
That’s the road the righteous goes,
And that’s the road to heaven.
An see na ye that braid road,
Down by yon sunny fell?
Yon’s the road the wicked gae,
An that’s the road to hell.”

Welsh evidence

You may notice that all these examples are of Scottish provenance, but the conception is not exclusively from the north of Britain.  John Rhys tells a tale of a Gwynnedd farmer:

“who lived not long ago at Deunant, close to Aberdaron. The latter used, as is the wont of country people, to go out a few steps in front of his house every night to–before going to bed; but once on a time, while he was standing there, a stranger stood by him and spoke to him, saying that he had no idea how he and his family were annoyed by him. The farmer asked how that could be, to which the stranger replied that his house was just below where they stood, and if he would only stand on his foot he would see that what he said was true. The farmer complying, put his foot on the other’s foot, and then he could clearly see that all the slops from his house went down the chimney of the other’s house, which stood far below in a street he had never seen before. The fairy then advised him to have his door in the other side of his house, and that if he did so his cattle would never suffer from disease. The result was that the farmer obeyed, and had his door walled up and another made in the other side of the house: ever after he was a most prosperous man, and nobody was so successful as he in rearing stock in all that part of the country.” (Celtic folklorep.230)

Lastly, we may note that this idea has a long history.  In the Life of Bartholomew of Farne, which is published as an appendix to Simeon of Durham’s Works (vol.1, Appendix 2, CUP reprint 2002) there’s a story about how the devil showed the hermit Bartholomew spirits in the form of sheep.  It was only when he put his foot on the other’s that the holy man saw through the deception and realised they were actually demons.

Summary and further reading

What can we conclude from all this?  Well, the process of transference by touch certainly suggests the considerable power of the magic involved, yet at the same time it implies that magical ability is not unique.  Anyone can acquire it provided that they have the right materials (to make ointment) or the right acquaintances.  It suggests too that there may not be a huge gulf between humans and fairies: they seem to be closely related and the distance between us is narrow and easily bridged.  All we need then is luck, the right contacts and/or determination and commitment (for example, to gather enough four leaf clover to be able to produce a usable quantity of the magic ointment).

There are many ways to acquire the fairies’ magic powers- fern seed may also be laboriously collected (like clover), a spell book might be acquired or a person may  learn their magic hand gestures their spells and their conjurations.  These have all been examined in separate postings.

Further reading

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

 

“Builded all of burnished gold”- fairy buildings

Elven_city_by_Nagare-Boshi

An elven city, by Nagare-Boshi

It may seem to run counter to our intuition to think of fairies as building physical structures.  I have described fairy dwellings previously, mostly implying that they were natural features like caves and hills (see too chapter 4 of my British fairies).   This is the case, but our predecessors readily assumed and accepted that a great deal more could be achieved by their supernatural neighbours.  Indeed, fairy-kind seemed to excel at constructing grand accommodation for themselves.  Here are a few early examples.

The folklore evidence

In the poem of Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas enters fairyland and sees a “faire castell” next to a town and tower; “In erthe es none lyke theretill.”  In the twelfth century story of King Herla the fairy king occupies a ‘splendid mansion.’  These tales convey some general impression of what the fairies could build, but the poem Sir Orfeo provides much more detail (what follows is J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of the Middle English text):

“A castle he saw amid the land
princely and proud and lofty stand;
the outer wall around it laid
of shining crystal clear was made.
A hundred towers were raised about
with cunning wrought, embattled stout;
and from the moat each buttress bold
in arches sprang of rich red gold.
The vault was carven and adorned
with beasts and birds and figures horned;
within were halls and chambers wide
all made of jewels and gems of pride;
the poorest pillar to behold
was builded all of burnished gold.”

These beliefs in a parallel world of splendid palaces and fortifications persisted into the nineteenth century.  Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices.

Building for mortals

These fairies were building for themselves in their own realms, but they would interact with humans in construction projects too.  There seem to be three different situations in which fairies got involved in building structures in the human world. Firstly, this occurred under duress.  There are several instances where fairies were compelled, against their will, to carry out tasks for a human.  Michael Scot, a stone mason, drank a magic potion and thereby got control over the fairies.  He commanded them to build roads and bridges around Scotland.  A similar tale is told of Donald Duibheal Mackay.  On the Isle of Skye the Great Barn of Minguinish was roofed by the sidh as a ransom for a captured companion (see my post on captured fairies).  Lastly, a fairy queen banished some troublesome elves from Cnoc-n’an-Bocan (Bogle-knowe, or Hobgoblin-hill, near to Menteith) into a book, The red book of Menteith.  The condition was that they would only be released when the laird of Menteith opened the volume.  Eventually, this happened by mistake.  Instantly, fairies appeared before him demanding work. Not knowing what work to set them to, his lordship hit upon the plan of making a road onto the island where his castle stood. They began, but the Earl realised that, if they continued, his hitherto impregnable retreat would be made vulnerable, so instead he asked them to make for him a rope of sand. They began this latter task without finishing the former, and finding their new work too much for them, they resolved to abandon that part done and depart, to the relief of the Earl.

Scottish sites

Secondly, a large number of Scottish sites claim to have been built by fairies.  One, the Drocht na Vougha (fairy bridge) in Sutherland, was for their own convenience to shorten the journey time around Dornoch Firth; however, it benefited humans too and, when one traveller blessed the builders,  the bridge sank beneath the waves.  Many other places are alleged to have been built by fairies- sometimes in a night, such as the castles at Dunscaith and Duntulm- or by such laborious means as passing the stones from person to person over a great distance (Corstophine church and Abernethy tower). Other fairy buildings include Glasgow cathedral, Linlithgow palace, Peebles bridge and the castles at Dunstanburgh and Edinburgh.  All this effort to create edifices only used by humans might seem puzzling, but we are told that the church of St Mary’s at Dundee was built for gold, so that the good neighbours’ motivation in these labours might actually be very familiar indeed.

The wrong place

Lastly, there are numerous sites where the fairies did not build, as such, but objected to the site chosen and moved the assembled masonry blocks elsewhere by supernatural means overnight.  These appear exclusively to be churches.  Those at Rochdale, Samlesbury, Winwick, Newchurch in Rossendale, Burnley, Ince, Gadshill, Isle of Wight, Holme on the Wolds and Hinderwell are all associated with legends that the original location selected proved unacceptable to the fairies and that, eventually, after repeated efforts, the humans had to choose a new site.  Sometimes the fairies appeared in human form to do this, sometimes as pigs.

Fairy_Sandcastles_by_John_Philip_Wagner (2)

Fairy sandcastles, by John P. Wagner

Commentary

There are several comments to make on these records.  Firstly, it’s notable how most are Scottish or come from the north of England.  It seems that the more northerly fairies were the skilled stone masons, though why this should be we simply can’t speculate. Secondly, whilst we can understand why they should wish to build for themselves or hinder  building at places to which they had some special attachment, their willingness to work for humans (even for gold) is less comprehensible, especially as that included buildings for religious purposes- something to which they normally violently objected (as seen at Drocht na Vougha).

Perhaps part of the association in story tellers minds was between the magic of faery and particularly remarkable buildings. Palaces and churches might possibly have seemed so grand and impressive in their scale and decoration that they seemed, metaphorically and romantically, the work ‘of fairy hands.’

The other consideration that must be noted is the possibility that much of what was seen (especially during visits to fairyland) was simply ‘glamour‘- it had no physical reality.  We are familiar with stories of midwives taken to assist fairy women in labour who believe that they are in fine houses until they accidentally touch their eyelids with ointment intended for the fairy newborn and see that, in reality, they are in a ruined building or a cave.  Given their magical powers, indeed, one wonders why the good folk would bother at all with the labour of actually piling stone on stone when it could (presumably) all be achieved by the wave of a hand (or wand).

Fairy_Bridge_Isle_Of_Man.jpeg

Fairy Bridge, Isle of Man

Further reading

I discuss elsewhere the cities and palaces that might be found in fairyland underground and the strange Welsh otherworldly fortresses.

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

Green children and fairy maids- The medieval roots of British fairy traditions

portunes

I have just finished reading Professor Ronald Hutton’s new book The witch.  As is obvious from the title, this is an in-depth study of witches and witchcraft from ancient times up until the close of the witch trials in the seventeenth century.  In fact, it is more of a work of historiography, surveying the research and theories of other scholars, than a pure history of the subject.  Chapter 8 concerns witches and fairies- hence my interest; I have written on this before myself on this about the relationship between fairies and witches and in my book British fairies.

Hutton considers the links between local magicians and healers and the fairies; he also gives an outline of the evolution of British fairy lore as crystallised in its fullest form in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  It is his sketch of the development of the mythology that I wish to examine in this posting.

Medieval fairy faith

Hutton proposes that there were seven key elements to British fairy belief in the middle ages.  These all seem to have been in place by 1200 at the latest, but it is reasonable to suppose that they originate a good deal earlier, perhaps even pre-Conquest (see for this my posting on Anglo-Saxon elves).  The main twelfth century sources are a verse history of Britain composed by Layamon (c.1200), chronicles written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died 1200) and William of Newbury (1136-98- and who is also called Newburgh and Newbridge), De nugis curialium by Walter Map (1140- 1210), the tour of Wales by Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) and Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury (1150-1228).  These contain various ‘fairy’ stories and accounts of recent supernatural events and encounters.

These key fairy-lore features are as follows:

  • the fairies inhabit a parallel world- several stories illustrate this.  The underground realm of fairyland is visited in the stories of Elidyr and King Herla whilst the Green Children of Woolpit stray into rural Suffolk from there.  A notable feature that is several times mentioned is the curious half-light that prevails in faery; there is neither sun nor moon, but a dim luminosity like torchlight;
  • they have the ability to enter our world and steal children– Ralph of Coggeshall’s story of ‘Malekin’ demonstrates this.  She was stolen by the fairies from a cornfield where her mother was working during harvest; rather like a ghost she could contact the human world but not return to it;
  • there are portals to faery- in the account of Elidyr he enters fairyland by a river bank; in King Herla it is a cave in a cliff; the Green Children follow a long tunnel that leads them out of ‘St Martin’s Land.’  William of Newbury locates a fairy feast under a barrow, a quintessential fairy locale;
  • beautiful fairy women– they dance at night and will sometimes wed humans– but always subject to conditions that are inevitably broken.  The story of Wild Edric epitomises the irresistible beauty of the fairy bride and her unavoidable loss (see later).  In Layamon’s Brut the lovely elf queen Argante takes Arthur to Avalon after the battle of Camlann to heal and care for him.  Readers may also recall the ‘aelfscyne’ or elf-bright women of Saxon myth I have described before in my post on  Anglo-Saxon elves.  Lastly,  there is evidence suggesting that the fairy women could have their own independent sexuality (or be loose and lustful to medieval minds) as well as being beautiful.  There are menacing accounts in thirteenth century sources of elf women visiting men at night as succubi.  The sister of the Green Children grew up, it was said, to have quite lax morals- an indicator perhaps of her fairy birth (although one might equally suggest that her conduct was a reaction to the shock of becoming an orphan and a refugee);
  • green colour- the Green Children at Woolpit emerged into this Middle Earth green tinged and would only eat green beans at first, although their colour faded as their diet changed;
  • the fairies can bless or torment humans- according to the historian Layamon, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (our earliest fairy godmother account). Conversely, Gervase of Tilbury tells of a fairy horn stolen by a hunter in Gloucestershire.  It brings with it bad luck and the man is executed for his theft; and,
  • they may live in human homes- Gervase of Tilbury tells of the ‘portunes’ who closely resemble brownies.  They work on farms, doing any work required however hard; they serve the household but never injure them and, at nights, they enter the house and cook frogs on the fire.

argante

Queen Argante

British tradition

These are Hutton’s seven core aspects of British fairylore.  From the medieval accounts I think we can add at least eleven more:

  • time passes differently in faery- when King Herla returns to the human world he is warned not to step from his horse until a small dog given to him has leaped to the ground.  A couple of his retinue forget this and dismount from their steeds; they instantly crumble to dust for he has been away several hundred years, although to him it seemed but hours.  It is said that he and his company are still riding, waiting for the dog to jump down.  The story of Malekin also has a typical feature: she has been seven years in fairyland, she says, and must remain another seven before she may return home.  Seven is a common magic number in faery measurements of time.  A delay of a year between events is also seen.  King Herla celebrates his wedding and, a year later, visits the king of faery to celebrate his.  The same commitment to meet a year later also appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight;
  • feasting– is a major fairy fairy pastime, as in the stories of King Herla and the account by William of Newbury of a fairy cup stolen from a banquet under a barrow;
  • mischief- although generally benevolent, the portunes do like to play tricks on humans by leading their horses into ponds when they are out riding at night.  A thirteenth century sermon also speaks of  ‘all such ben led at night with gobelyn and erreth hither and thither’.
  • diminutive size– clearly some fairies, such as the fairy maidens and wives, approach normal stature; nonetheless, the portunes are said to be only a half inch high (probably a mistake for half a foot/ 6″) and the fairies in King Herla are described as apes, pygmies, dwarves and half human size.  The fairies met by Elidyr are likewise small, but by contrast the Green Children, the fairies under the barrow seen in William of Newbury’s story and the bearers of the fairy horn in Gloucestershire are all of normal proportions.  At the other extreme, indeed, the fairy maidens seen dancing by Wild Edric described as being taller and larger than human women;
  • marriage subject to conditions- as mentioned above, fairy maids will wed human husbands, but there is always a catch.  In Wild Edric the hero was warned never to mention her sisters; of course, he did, and she promptly left.  Walter Map described the experience of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who captured a fairy wife at Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons (De nugis II, xi).  She lived with him and raised a family, but he was told never to strike her with a bridle.  Eventually, accidentally, this happened and forthwith she and all but one of the children disappeared.  This is the first of many such stories from Wales;
  • warnings– Gervase describes the ‘grant’ which is a foal-like creature which warns villagers of fire;
  • honesty & keeping promises is vital in fairy morality.  This an element in King Herla (and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); it is also seen in the story of Elidyr, who reported that the supernatural people he met never took oaths and abhorred lying;
  • fairies disappear at will (as in the story of King Herla) and generally remain invisible to normal human sight (as with the changeling Malekin).  This concealment can be overcome in two ways.  A person might apply a magic ointment.  Gervase of Tilbury mentions this in an account of the dracae water spirits of Brittany.  It is a regular feature of later British fairylore and may either have been imported from Brittany or may share the same ‘Celtic’ origin. Alternatively, it may be possible to obtain the second sight through contact with a ‘seer.’  This again is a feature of later lore (see Evans-Wentz for example) but in the life of the hermit Bartholomew who lived on the island of Farne in the late twelfth century the saint is told that he may see swarms of demons by placing his foot upon that of another, so that it seems this technique had a long pedigree;
  • foreknowledge of events- this supernatural power is mentioned in the story of King Herla;
  • a liking of dairy products- in Gerald of Wales’ account of Elidyr’s childhood visits to fairyland, he mentions their vegetarian diet and their preference for junkets.  This later became a significant theme in Elizabethan literature; and,
  • they may need human help, especially at child birth.  Gervase of Tilbury’s story of the Breton dracae also features the theme of the midwife to the fairies, later a regular element in many fairytales.

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All of these characteristics will be recognised in later fairylore and all have been described in previous postings and in my book British fairies.  However, Ronald Hutton suggests that what we would recognise as the British fairy tradition didn’t fully emerge for another 300 years or so, and that it depended upon the assimilation of continental motifs.  He suggests two in particular that were late arrivals in British folk belief:

  • the changeling idea- the idea of substituting a fairy for a human child is, he proposes, an import from Northern Europe.  As we have seen with the story of Malekin, the risk of fairies stealing human children was already well established in Britain at an early date, as was a close affinity between fairies and children- witness the Green Children or the story of Elidyr.  It is not entirely clear then whether we simply lack the evidence of the substituted stock or aged elf or whether this was indeed a last detail borrowed from abroad and added to the established tradition;
  • visiting houses and dairies at night, rewarding the clean and neat and punishing the dirty.  Hutton believes that this derives from continental myths of the good company of ‘the lady’ who could bring blessings to homes.  He may be right in this, but again many of the elements for this belief were plainly already in place- the presence of portunes in some homes and the liking for milk and cream- so that it needed little external influence for the ideas to coalesce; and,
  • fay maids–  Hutton proposes that these beings were inspired by literature.  It is quite true that chivalric romance is full of magical, semi-human women such as Morgan le Fay, but as we have already seen they were well known to British audiences at a much earlier date and may have contributed to Arthurian legend just as well as being derived from it.

On the evidence I have set out, I am inclined to think that the British fairy tradition evolved in recognisable form a good deal earlier than Professor Hutton suggested, although it seems incontestable that continental influences may have helped to refine and emphasise certain themes.

Fairy ointment

fairy-onitment

I have written before about the effect of fairy ointment in dispelling the glamour used by the fairies to disguise and hide themselves.  The usual tale is of a human midwife or wet nurse who is called to assist with a fairy birth and who then accidentally touches an eye with the salve, thereby revealing the true nature of fairy kind.  When this regrettable slip is revealed, the unfortunate victim is blinded one way or another and their privileged view of faery is ended.  Before, I have recounted these tales from the human perspective and what I want to do here is to examine why this ointment was needed by the fairies in the first place.

Anointing babies

As just mentioned, the typical account involves a mortal caring for a fairy newborn. Part of this person’s duties includes anointing the child with a special ointment and it is this task which gives rise to the revelation that all is not what it seems- that magic is being used to disguise the hovel in which the supernaturals actually live or to conceal their non-human nature.  This cream clearly has an important function in the story relative to the human being; its significance to the fairies who provide it tends to be overlooked or taken for granted.  Nevertheless, it is obviously even more vital to them than it is to the human helper.  Why does the newly born infant need to have this treatment applied? We are never clearly told, but there seem to be a couple of likely explanations:

  • it confers the fairies’ magical powers- the ointment (or, sometimes, an oil) is most frequently applied to the eyes of the neonate- and of course it is unintentional application to the human’s eyes which leads to ejection from fairyland or blinding. This implies that the power to see through fairy illusion or invisibility is what is being conveyed.  That said, from time to time the treatment prescribed is to rub the baby all over with the potion (there are examples from Wales and Cornwall of this). This obviously indicates that a more general alteration of the child’s physical nature is intended and that not just a power of concealment or disguise but a range of other magical abilities- to fly, to transform objects and the like- are being passed on;
  • it confers immortality: In a revealing statement from the Cornish story of The fairy dwelling on Silena Moor, an abducted woman tells her former fiancee that she was taken by the fairies to nurse “their mortal babies.”  This does not seem to refer to changelings, but to fairy offspring themselves, as she goes on to observe that they “are not so strong as before.”  This strongly suggests that fairy babies are just like human infants in terms of lifespan and that some intervention may be required to bestow immortality.  There are a few brief mentions in verse and folk lore of a fairy practice of dipping changelings in order to liberate them from human mortality.  In the Welsh story of Eilean of Garth Dolwen it is notable that Eilean is a human captive in fairyland and that it is her half-human, half-fairy child who has to be treated by the midwife, perhaps to free it of its maternally inherited human frailties.  Comparable is the evidence of the fairy story of Child Rowland, in which the King of Elfhame uses a blood-red potion to revive two knights that he has slain.  He achieves this by touching the corpses’ eyes, ears, lips, nostrils and fingertips with the liquid.  In Milton’s poem Comus a similar ritual is described.  Delia has been enchanted and trapped by Comus; Sabrina, spirit of the River Severn, releases her from her captivity with drops from her ‘fountain pure’ which are applied to Delia’s breast, lips and finger tips.  In all these stories, then, a magical liquid confers life- either defeating death or reversing it.

It might have been imagined that the qualities just discussed were inherent in fairy-kind, central to their non-human nature, but it seems not.  These attributes need to be specifically conveyed, failing which- presumably- the child would be little different to any other.  That fairies’ magical powers are not necessarily inborn is a concept not wholly alien to fairy lore.  According to a Tudor ballad, Robin Goodfellow (admittedly the half-human son of the king of faery) was granted his father’s supernatural powers through a magical scroll.

Four leaf clover ointment

Pursuing this thought to its logical conclusion, it seems possible that a human who gets hold of sufficient of the ointment (or who is able to manufacture it) would be able to apply it to his/her own body and thereby bestow upon him/herself quasi-supernatural powers.  Evidence that fairy abilities were quite easily transferable comes from two sources.  In one set of stories, a human is able to fly through the air with the fairies simply by overhearing and repeating the spells they use.  There are several examples of such incidents from the Highlands.  Secondly, and directly relevant to the current discussion, there are accounts from Wales and from Cornwall in which a human’s ability to see through the glamour is derived not directly from the oil or ointment applied to the infant but from the water in which a fairy babe has been washed; again, inadvertent splashing of the bath water onto the eye bestows the power to penetrate the enchantment.  It appears, though, that fairy magic very easily washes (or rubs) off.

In light of what has just been proposed, particularly, we must consider what the constituents of this ointment might be.  The tale of Cherry of Zennor informs us that it is green in colour.  Also from Cornwall, we have evidence from a Mr Maddern of Penzance that was provided in 1910 for Evans Wentz’ Fairy faith in the Celtic countries.  The interviewee stated that a green fairy salve that bestowed invisibility when rubbed on the eyes could be made from certain herbs found on Kerris Moor, outside Paul, near Newlyn, in Penwith (Wentz p.175).  Four-leaf clovers were renowned for their quality of dispelling fairy spells and it seems very likely that this plant will form the main constituent of the salve. It may be that other plants may be added to the mixture- likely candidates might include broom, ragwort and cowslip, amongst others.  It might be anticipated that spells are spoken over the mixture, but this doesn’t appear to be the case: mere accidental possession of a four leaf clover would be enough for a person to see the fairies, we are told.

Summary

To summarise, then, the evidence presented seems to suggest that fairy-kind and human-kind are not that different.  Our closeness in physiology, our ability to interbreed, is entirely understandable, given that what separates us is not any profound physical or mental differences but the application of an ointment that bestows magical powers.  This may seem a surprising conclusion, but it is what we are driven to deduce from the stories.  This may detract from the mysterious otherness of faery, but at the same time it puts it within tantalising reach: with the correct recipe for the salve, we could all aspire to pass into another dimension.  Kerris Moor seems to be a good place to go; a bigger problem may be picking enough four-leaf clovers to make sufficient ointment…

Seeing fairies can result from a number of factors combined: the ointment ought to be a a guarantee, but the use of charms or  spell books may work, as may by learning their magic hand gestures or simply being in the right place at the right season or the right time.