Arthur Rackham- girlies and goblins

The pretext for writing this post is that, working with publisher Green Magic on some new faery books, we decided to ‘rebrand’ all the titles they’d issued with new covers using artwork by Arthur Rackham. Rackham is instantly recognisable to many readers, his work is topical and attractive- and it’s largely out of copyright!

I’ve discussed aspects of Rackham‘s work before, both on this blog and in my book Faery Art of the Twentieth Century; what I want to focus on here is the way that art can shape our perceptions. Firstly, as my title suggests, there are essentially two sorts of faery-being featured in all of Rackham’s faery illustrations. There is a slender young female with long hair, dressed in flowing robes (or sometimes nothing)- a faery- and there is a small ugly man in quasi-medieval clothes- a pixie, goblin or gnome. The new cover of British Pixies gives a good idea of the latter. Some of Rackham’s nude, juvenile nymphs are to be seen on the cover of my Love and Sex in Faeryland.

Regular visitors to this blog will be aware that Rackham’s bipartite arrangement of the Faery world is not reflected by British tradition. There are, of course, attractive female faeries and surly looking pixies, but the faery clans of the British Isles are far more complex than that: every region has its particular family, race or species of fae being and there is little reason to suppose that males take just the one form and females another.

At the same time, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Rackham wasn’t creating his designs without foundation. What he drew upon, though, was not folklore but literature. We need only think of the sexy faery women of medieval romances such as Sir Launfal or the small and misshapen faery kings of Huon of Bordeaux or King Herla to understand where he found his models. As an illustrator of faery tales and legends, this is to be expected.

The dichotomy of type that Rackham established so effectively through the commercial and artistic success of his designs was taken on in turn by many of the children’s illustrators of the mid-twentieth century- artists such as Rosa Petherick, Susan Pearse or Agnes Richardson- and the iconography came to be embedded in our collective psyche. Because of Rackham, I suggest, we can now only think of faeries within these parameters, divided into these two rough categories- elegant, pretty and girly/ ugly, stunted and male. This is something of an exaggeration, but not a huge one. More recently, the Middle Earth elves of Peter Jackson’s film have contributed the blonde, noble warrior elf as well; but in a sense this is just an elaboration of Rackham’s largely female faery clan.

These images are pervasive and persistent. That might sound improbable again, but consider this. A recent book on modern paganism and fairy belief, Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (Feraro and White, 2019), found that many of the contemporary conceptions of fairies as planetary guardians and green protectors came not from age-old faery tradition but from images and ideas in books like Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairy series, that adult pagans had seen and absorbed as children.

We get very similar evidence from the Fairy Census (2014-17). When witnesses reached for adjectives to describe what they saw, they often chose to make comparisons with popular representations of faery-kind. Five people likened the beings they saw to Disney characters; four referred to pictures by Brian Froud. One tree spirit was said to have looked like Gollum (i.e. in the films). Looking further back, terms borrowed from Paracelsus were co-opted- sylph and, especially, gnome. Favourite films and beloved books make a powerful impression, very possibly shaping in advance what we expect to see. Of course, they provide a vocabulary, a point of reference, which is why witnesses often allude to the creatures they see looking like leprechauns, goblins, brownies and “the classic gnome” even though they may be using labels that are alien to place where the sighting occurred, mistaken, imprecise or simply unhelpful. Goblins and brownies are good examples here, in that the traditional descriptions of these tend to be of very large and hairy beings; often, now, the words are chosen to denote a small, brown pixie type being, one who is often the personification of Paracelsus’ very unhelpful ‘gnome’ character. The interaction between what we expect to see and what we may then actually see is a complex psychological well beyond my comfort zone, but it is at least clear how mass market imagery, especially that absorbed at an impressionable age, will enter our subconscious.

The new books, Manx Faeries and The Faery Lifecycle, are due to be published later this month.

What’s in a Name? Using the right terms for the faeries

Recently I’ve been researching the pixies of south-west Britain for my book, British Pixies, and, in so doing, encountered serious problems in pinning down the basic terminology used by authors such as Robert Hunt and William Borlase and (presumably) their local Cornish sources.  There are at least five terms used to label the fairy folk of the south-west: pixies, pobel vean (little people), spriggans, knockers and buccas.  A couple of these words seem to be Cornish and, we might be tempted to suggest, are older and more authentic than some of the other terms.  The word pixie/ pisky would seem to be a later import, if we are correct in supposing that it is related to the pucks of England and the pwcca of Wales and is (probably) a Germanic word originally.  The bucca certainly seems to be an identical being.  Some of the folklore writers tried to make distinctions between this multiplicity of words: for instance, the pobel vean were said to be smaller and more beautiful; the knockers lived in mines; the spriggans were ugly and evil.  The truth is, though, that reading the sources, we find the words being used interchangeably, so that Cornish witnesses can speak of knockers as buccas or can use the latter word to denote both pixies and the pobel vean.

Precision seems both impossible and, very probably, unnecessary.  This example is reflective of a wider problem within the British Isles, where successive layers of incoming speech have led to an overlapping vocabulary, which can tempt us into imagining differences (or even similarities) that don’t exist.  Over and above this, of course, there is the additional problem of the faeries not wanting us to know what they really call themselves, for fear of giving us power over them). Here are a few other instances of the taxonomic confusion.

Isle of Man: the island’s fairies are often called the ferrish (singular)/ ferrishyn (plural)This could be a Manx word, but compare it with authentically Manx Celtic terms like mooinjer veggy or sleigh beggey, meaning the little people.  Ferrishyn seems suspiciously similar, to me, to the terms ferishers, feriers, fraries and, even, farisees/ pharisees used in Norfolk and Suffolk in the east of England.  On Orkney and Shetland you might encounter the pronunciation ferries. Recalling the Highland Gaelic tendency to turn a final ‘s’ into ‘sh,’ this could indicate the route by which Manx speakers arrived at ferrish.  Whatever the exact derivation, these are all dialect versions of ‘fairies’ and, as such, aren’t themselves hugely old.  Katherine Briggs drew a comparison with the feorin of the English North West, but, as Simon Young has demonstrated, this is most probably derived from ‘fear’- something that scares you. 

Wales: there seem to be several good, genuine, Welsh words in use, many of them euphemisms. These include tylwyth teg, bendith y mamau (the mother’s blessings), y dynion mwyn (the kind people), y teulu (the tribe), gwragedd anwyl (the beloved women), yr elod (‘the intelligences’- perhaps, the ‘wise’ or ‘all-knowing’ ones), pwcca and ellyllon.  All’s not what it seems, however.  As already mentioned, pwcca could just be a borrowing across the border.  Likewise, ellyllon is simply the Welsh rendering of the English ‘elves’ and even tylwyth teg, ‘the fair folk’ may be a mistaken rendering of fairies, based on the assumption that the core of the English word was ‘fair’ as in good-looking. I need hardly say that y goblin bach, the little goblin, is not a deeply authentic Welsh label.

England: the foregoing sections suggest the invasive power of the English language (which is true) but let’s not forget that Anglo-Saxon was itself steadily overwhelmed by subsequent influxes of Romance and other languages.  Old English ‘elf’ still survives, especially in lowland Scotland, but it generally plays second best to a French import, fay/ fairy, a word which has been adopted as a handy, catch-all labelOther continental importations include goblin, from the French gobelin, and Scandinavian troll (which is the root of the trows of Orkney and Shetland too).  Both goblin and trow seem to have been required because there wasn’t a decent English equivalent.  Anglo-Saxon had used the word dweorg, meaning a small, malicious elf-like being. This vanished from standard English- along with any concept of ‘dwarves’ as a species of supernatural entity.  In Dorset, there is still the derrick, a name that’s derived from dweorg and which is now applied to a little man who’s often said to be a local kind of pixie… 

Much more recently, as I’ve described before, we’ve imported Latin and Greek words like nymph, naiad and siren as extra terms to use in parallel with fairy, elf and mermaid.  We’ve also adopted entirely made-up names, such as gnome and sylph.  As mentioned in a previous posting, these were dreamed up by Paracelsus, but they’ve assumed a place in the language, to the extent that gnomes have even been accepted as a separate genus of fairy being.

These imported names can add variety to texts- and I’m as guilty as any of switching from one to another just to avoid monotony- but they can also create the impression that the landscape is peopled with a dense confusion of different types of being, whereas we may, in most instances, be dealing with only a handful of types.  Broadly, in Britain, we can probably narrow matters down to fairies/ elves and brownies/ hobs/ boggarts.  The rest is probably just a matter of differences of terminology (and this is before we’ve even considered all the very local names that exist: dobbies, powries, dunters, red caps, piskies etc etc)…. 

Emmeline Richardson

Faeries & Sylphs in Wessex: the writing of John Cowper Powys

John Cowper Powys, author

Today, the name of writer John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) will be unfamiliar to most people. He was, nevertheless, a prolific writer of novels and poetry and was (and is) highly regarded by those who know his work. Part of his fall from favour may be related to the fact that none of his novels seem to be under 500 pages in length (although that’s never been a problem with Tolkien…)

The landscape, history and mythology of Wessex are at the centre of much of Powys’ work (despite his Welsh-ness). The supernatural penetrated his thinking and, even, his everyday life. Powys was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex (the counties of Dorset, Somerset and western Hampshire) and he celebrated the region’s inherent mystery and antiquity- for example, one of his novels is Maiden Castle (1936), named after the Iron Age hillfort south of Dorchester. In the novel, this site is where is the character Uryen tries to raise the ancient gods. The fort is huge and impressive and has inspired other artists- for example, composer John Ireland‘s 1921 orchestral work Mai Dun and photographs and paintings by Paul Nash. The latter called the fort “the largest and most perfect earthwork in the world. To say it is the finest in Dorset is, perhaps, enough, for in no part of any country, I believe – not even in Wiltshire, where Avebury stands – can be found so complete a sequence of hill architecture…” He sensed its powerful aura too- its unsettling spirit of place- “Its presence to-day, after the immense passage of time, is miraculously undisturbed; the huge contours strike awe into even the most vulgar mind; the impervious nitwits who climbed on to the monoliths of Stonehenge to be photographed, slink out of the shadow of the Maiden uneasily.”

Paul Nash, Maiden Castle, 1943

Returning to John Cowper Powys, the author had a highly intimate relationship with faery-lore. Admittedly, he wrote a good deal of poetry that was very conventional in its approach. For example, in To Thomas Hardy he described how “fairy fingers ring the flowery bells,” he demanded in On the Downs- “Squeeze out the cowslip wine, O fairy hands!” and in To W B Yeats he imagined a time “when woods were free/ To elfin feet and fairy minstrelsy.”

In these poems Powys’ fairies are the very familiar faes of late Victorian verse: they are tiny, winged and frail (he addresses a straw blown in the wind as a “wandering elf”- although this image also brings to mind the habit of Highland Scottish fairies of travelling in small whirlwinds). The fae beings of Powys’ verse care for nature (clearing slugs and snails from blackthorn leaves in Fairies’ Song) and they are both inspiration and illusion.

However, there was a deeper and more powerful undercurrent in his verse. In his Autobiography, published in 1934, Powys described Wordsworth’s “cerebral mystical passion for young women.” He saw this as being intimately bound up with the Romantic poet’s abnormally sensual sensitivity to the elements and, Powys declared, Wordsworth wanted his girls to be “elemental.”

Elsewhere in the same book, Powys confessed to being a “nympholept or sylpholept” himself. He was powerfully attracted to slim, sylph-like young females and he was perfectly open in his books about this “erotic obsession.” His ideal sylph had long, slender thighs, narrow boyish hips and “ankles of ravishing perfection”- “as fragile as wild anemones.” Sylphs are, of course, the elemental beings of the air who form part of the mythology of Paracelsus. For Powys, these faery beings were a constant source of desire and distraction. His poem Blasphemy is addressed to a “fairy form [and] flower-like face” with “piteous tender breast.” He asks her “Why did you come with your childish grace/ And trouble my heart’s rest?” A verse written To my friends curses them because they “have driven the fairies far away/ Lest their white limbs should hide the heavenly crown.” For Powys, the fairies truly were succubi or lhiannan shee, supernatural lovers who haunted and possessed their human lovers.

This desire for thin nymphets is entwined with Powys’ perception that the great god Pan and all his retinue are still present and active in the world. A poem about Montacute House in Somerset assures us that “Here, undisturbed may dusky Dryads dream/ That Pan with all his music haunteth still…” Of course, Pan is alive still in Arcadia in Greece as well: his pipes are heard by all that heed, for “the beautiful must always last/ Secure from change” (Odi Profanum). For Powys, Pan is the god of lusty passion for nymphs (indeed, in his poem The Truth? he called on people to drop their masks and to admit that they were all, really, “satyrs shamelessly/ Goblins, Imps and Elves”). At the same time, though, Pan is also the deity of the natural world, found in plants, clouds and waters, driving life and fertility in everything.

Brian Froud-the background to his art

 

primroses
Primroses (1978)

Readers will be very familiar with Brian Froud’s fairy art from books such as Faeries and Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries.  Here I want to examine what he believes about the subjects he paints- and how that may influence his creative process.

Faeries

Froud- and his artistic partner Alan Lee- first came to public attention as ‘faery experts’ with the publication of the illustrated book, Faeries, in 1978.  It has been through several editions since, including a twenty-fifth anniversary issue, and the illustrations have for many become synonymous with representations of Faery.  This is understandable- there is something very immediate and ‘real’ about their vision of fairies: they are wild and often ugly.  Although the two artists portrayed naked and attractive female fairies, including quite young juveniles,  as often (if not more frequently) there are mature and deformed beings, hybrids of animals and humans, pixies with malicious faces and sharp fangs, a host of barely human humanoids.  The nakedness then serves to emphasise their wild, untamed natures- it isn’t sexual but feral.

Froud toadstools

Writing in her Introduction to the anniversary edition, Betty Ballantine described faeries as “alien creatures with values and ethics far removed from mankind: they do not think and, most notably, they do not feel, the way that humans do. This is precisely the core of much of their envy of mortals and a source of a good deal of the trouble they cause…”  She concluded: “Faerie is a world of dark enchantments, of captivating beauty, of enormous ugliness, of callous superficiality, of humour, mischief, joy and inspiration, of terror, laughter, love and tragedy.”  These lines summarise Froud and Lee’s vision exactly.

In his own preface to the anniversary edition, Brian Froud underlined that he and Lee had “wanted to be as true to the subject as possible and to portray fairies as they really are.  So, we went back to the original source material and folklore description.”  This is the real value of the book Faeries.  It is a very attractive ‘coffee-table’ volume to flick through and admire the illustrations, but the text is a faithful abbreviation of the folklore- although the two artists drew their material from across Europe, mixing up British, Irish and continental faes quite indiscriminately.

Froud continued: “we started to produce page after page of wizened faces with sharp little teeth, most of them up to no good.  We were painting pictures of faeries with their original power reinstated, not just airy whimsy.  We were being true to the fairies themselves and those who have bought the book have instinctively felt that honesty in every painting and drawing.”  Here he identified the reader’s response that still draws us to the images, over four decades later.  The fairyland of Faeries is sexy, menacing, beautiful, distorted; it is complex and imperfect, it mingles good and evil and, as such, it seems authentic.

harebell
Harebell faery (1978)

Good Faeries, Bad Faeries

After the success of Faeries, Brian Froud became particularly closely associated with fairydom and that link has substantially shaped his career since the late 1970s.  His other books include Goblins (1983), Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book (1994), Good Faeries, Bad Faeries (1998), The Faeries’ Oracle (2000) and Brian Froud’s World of Faerie (2007).  With these he has steadily drifted further from the solid base of faerylore that gave Faeries its convincing authority and accuracy and he has increased the whimsy and invention.

In the original Preface to the 1978 book, it is declared that “Only one thing is certain- that nothing is certain.  All things are possible in the land of Faerie.”  This has more and more become the case for the later books, which are much more works of fantasy fiction than attempts to summarise folklore.  Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is a very good example of this.  It is a mix of pure personal invention with traditional material and has to be approached with some care as a ‘source’ book.  As Froud says in the Preface to the ‘Good’ half of the book, it’s “about the magic in our lives today; it links faeries of the past with faeries of the present and future.”  The artwork is still fantastic, but as he tells us “such images grow from my own inner journeys and daily contact with the faeries.”  This new book is a product not so much of trips to the library but of undiluted imagination.

fairy kissed by pixies
The faery who was kissed by pixies (1998)

It seems clear to me that, since 1978, the artist has absorbed a lot of the more recent ideas about faeries- theories derived not from British folklore but from Theosophy, Spiritualism and from modern Paganism.  For example, he states “they are shape shifters, highly mutable, for no faery or nature spirit has a fixed body.  In their essence, faeries are abstract structures of flowing energy, formed of an astral matter…”  To look at the faeries is “to look at the four elements to which they are aligned: earth, water, fire and air.  Faeries are physical manifestations of these basic building blocks of creation and the spiritual custodians of all natural phenomena.”  They are “agents of the cosmic mechanics that underlie our world… bringing us messages from the depths inside ourselves and from the cosmos.”  They coalesce from “the pure consciousness of the world’s soul” gradually manifesting “in a form eloquent of function, moulded by emotion.”  This is a man who’s been reading Geoffrey Hodson, Madame Blavatsky and Paracelsus.  As I’ve indicated before, I’m more traditional in my approach to the subject, so I’m not so keen on these passages.

The faeries of Good Faeries, Bad Faeries have been ‘hippified’ too.  No longer are they the potentially malicious beings of 1978: they are “agents of self-growth and transformation, embodiments of the healing energies that flow through nature and through ourselves.”  Faeries are “a reflection of the inner nature of our souls;”  theirs is “a land where wisdom is inseparable from whimsy and where leprechauns dance with angels.”  We’re a long way here from the faeries who steal children and kill your cows…

Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is, in consequence, a curious mixture of traditional sprites, new age spirits and beings that are entirely made up by Brian Froud.  He deals with such beings as hobs, piskies, grigs, muryans,  bodachs, fideals, hobyahs and melsh dick; but also he describes sylphs, angels, undines, pans, fauns and- for some reason- a sphinx (?). He also offers us his own jokey beings, such as the rainbow faery, the buttered toast faery, the pen stealer and the foot fungus faery…

faery waters
Faery waters (1998)

In summary, therefore, Faeries remains a classic and is a recommended book to have in your faery collection- it is attractive as well as genuinely informative.  The later books are a delight to look at, but they can’t be treated as guides to Faery equivalent to the 1978 original.

For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

 

Faery: the Lore, Magic & World of the Good Folk

faery

I’m very pleased to announce that my new book, Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk, has now been published by Llewellyn Worldwide and is available through all the usual channels.

The new book builds on my last, British Fairiesas well as on the postings on this blog.  What I have aimed to offer is a complete statement of our knowledge of the life, culture, personality, temperament and habits of the Good Folk, often trying to understand the faery perspective on these matters to better appreciate why and how they behave.  Of course, everything has to be seen from the human standpoint: it’s only through our interactions with the faeries that we can experience their world.  Furthermore, this relationship between humans and supernaturals has always had its points of friction.  In the book, I don’t shy away from examining the perils of faery contact: they are more powerful and more complex than popular culture often allows and they have to be approached with caution and respect.

The new book is based upon extensive research in hard to find folklore sources and brings readers a wealth of new information they might not otherwise discover.

Contacting Faery

In chapter 13 of the book, I examine the magical methods for contacting and summoning the fae (something I’ve also touched on in a posting on this blog).  Given that the new book is all about bringing us closer to Faery and improving our understanding of our Good Neighbours, I’ll add here another ritual procedure that I recently unearthed.

This is taken from the Rosicrucian text, Le Comte de Gabalis, by Abbé Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars (1635–1673). The book builds on the work of Paracelsus, whom I’ve had occasion to criticise in a previous post, but it provides us with a further interesting insight into the magical methods practiced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to contact the supernatural world.  Villars makes the process sound quite straightforward (Gabalis, Discourse II):

“One has only to seal a goblet full of compressed Air, Water, or Earth and to leave it exposed to the Sun for a month. Then separate the Elements scientifically, which is particularly easy to do with Water and Earth. It is marvellous what a magnet for attracting Nymphs, Sylphs, and Gnomes, each one of these purified Elements is. After taking the smallest possible quantity every day for some months, one sees in the Air the flying Commonwealth of the Sylphs, the Nymphs coming in crowds to the shores, the Gnomes, the Guardians of the Treasures,  parading their riches. Thus, without symbols, without ceremonies, without barbaric words, one becomes ruler over these Peoples. They exact no worship whatever from the Sage, whose superiority to themselves they fully recognise. Thus venerable Nature teaches her children to repair the elements by means of the Elements. Thus harmony is re-established. Thus man recovers his natural empire, and can do all things in the Elements without the Devil, and without Black Art.”

Readers will recall that Paracelsus envisaged four classes of beings to accompany the four elements comprising the world.  Salamanders are the fire beings and:

“If we wish to recover empire over the Salamanders, we must purify and exalt the Element of Fire which is in us, and raise the pitch of that relaxed string. We have only to concentrate the Fire of the World in a globe of crystal, by means of concave mirrors…”

So, there we have the instructions.  Before you put them into practice, though, I strongly recommend that you prepare yourselves by reading Faery: A Guide to the Lore, Magic and World of the Good Folk!

Kensington Gardens- Britain’s fairy epic

Thomas_Tickell_by_Sylvester_Harding
Thomas Tickell, by Sylvester Harding

In my recent book, Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse, I discussed how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a period during which outside influences began to alter native fairy beliefs profoundly.  The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance were two such, a third was the work of doctor, astrologer and alchemist Paracelsus, whose theories I have examined before.

The impact of these influences, especially that of Paracelsus, may be neatly contained in a single fairy poem, Kensington Gardens by Thomas Tickell (1686-1740).  Tickell was born near Carlisle and was a graduate of Oxford.  He held various government positions but is mainly recalled as a poet.  He produced a translation of Homer’s Iliad, which he published at the very same time as Alexander Pope’s version in 1715, a coincidence which caused some tension between the two.  The poem Kensington Gardens appeared in 1722 and is a heroic epic describing the fall of a fairy kingdom that once existed on the land that eventually became the park.

Strictly speaking, the poem should be described as Georgian, but Tickell’s birth and education took place within the Stuart period, and it is doubtless fair to assume that Tickell’s outlook and beliefs belong to the seventeenth century.  Kensington Gardens is of interest, therefore, because it encapsulates the mixture of traditional fairy belief and innovation that typified fairies in literature throughout the 1600s.

Tradition in Tickell’s Epic

Concepts of fairy conduct inherited by the author from much earlier include the fairies’ delight in leisure: “Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies played/ On every hill and danced in every shade.”  They rewarded women for their domestic cleanliness:

“When cleanly servants, if we trust old tales,
Beside their wages had good Fairy vailes,
Whole heaps of silver Tokens, nightly paid,
The careful wife, or the neat dairy-maid…”

But they also stole babies, one of whom is Albion, the hero of the story:

“By magic fenc’d, by spells encompass’d round,
No Mortal touch’d this interdicted ground;
No Mortal enter’d, those alone who came
Stolen from the couch of some terrestrial dame:
For oft of babes they robb’d the matron’s bed,
And left some sickly changeling in their stead.”

Albion is a human child brought up by fairies and kept artificially small by them, although he is still noticeably tall at twelve inches in height.  He falls in love with the fae Kenna, an affair that precipitates the fall of the fairy realm when Oberon discovers and jealously expels the young man.

murray fq and bat
Fairy Queen on Bat, Amelia Jane Murray

King Oberon

Newer elements sit alongside these age-old ideas.  Tickell’s king of faery is Oberon.  This name has a long continental pedigree but it was made particularly popular in Britain by Shakespeare’s use of it in Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Oberon’s subjects are especially worthy of note.  As we have already seen, they are small: they are described as a “pigmy race” elsewhere in the poem.  This diminutive stature was a noteworthy development in seventeenth century literature.  Small faes had existed before, but Mercutio’s soliloquy on Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet gave impetus to an elaboration of the possibilities of miniature beings and poets- most importantly Michael Drayton and Robert Herrick- exploited the potential of this idea.  Tickell merely observed what was already a convention by the time he wrote.

Elemental Spirits

Lastly, the fairies of Kensington Gardens are said to have “airy forms.”  This notion of fairies as insubstantial, as well as tiny, derives directly from the work of Paracelsus.  He had proposed in the sixteenth century that the world was supported and kept functioning by elemental beings- the gnomes of the ground, undines of water, salamanders of fire and the sylphs of the air.  Parallels could readily be drawn between these creatures that he imagined and the fairies and goblins of native belief, and that is precisely what happened.  In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton included a ‘Digression of Spirits’ in which he summarised views about fairies from across Europe.  For example, he describes:

“… those Naiades or water Nymphs which have been heretofore conversant about waters and rivers.  The water (as Paracelsus thinks) is their Chaos, wherein they live; some call them Fairies… Paracelsus hath several stories of them that have lived and been married to mortal men…”

Later Burton notes Paracelsus’ views on what he classes as “terrestrial devils,” a group which includes “Faunes, Satyrs, Wood-nymphs… Fairies, Robin Goodfellowes, Trulli etc.”  Two things are notable from these short passages.  Not only has Burton incorporated Paracelsus’ concepts of undines and gnomes; he has liberally strewn his text with classical Greek and Roman terminology. (Burton, Part I, section 2)

Forty years later, in 1665, a new version of Reginald Scot’s well-known book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was published.  Scot’s 1584 original contains a wealth of fairy information; the new edition was expanded with the addition of ‘A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Substance of Devils and Spirits.’  This new text (like Burton’s) owes a great deal to the new thought of the Renaissance and to Paracelsus’ scientific theories; for example, reference is made to the Neo-Platonists.  Fairies are termed “Astral Spirits,” having an “elemental quality.” They live in water, air, flames and under the earth; they have hunger and passions; they wage war and procreate; they have no physical body and can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Scot, 1665, Book II, cc.1 & 4)

This later text demonstrates how much the new theories about the nature of fairies had infiltrated British thought.  These ideas, along with references to nymphs, satyrs and other classical beings, were all indiscriminately mixed together, confusing and reshaping fairy belief for future generations.

amelia-jane-murray-
Fairy & moth, Amelia Jane Murray

Tickell’s Sylphs

Tickell’s poem is symptomatic of its age.  His fairies are miniscule, insubstantial forms- a state confirmed in the climactic battle of the war.  Albion fights with Fairy Prince Azuriel and their combat seems to be concluded when:

“With his keen sword he cleaves his Fairy foe,
Sheer from the shoulder to the waste he cleaves,
And of one Arm the tott’ring trunk bereaves.”

However, Albion is fighting a fairy, and different rules apply:

“His useless steel brave Albion wields no more,
But sternly smiles, and thinks the combat o’er:
So had it been, had aught of mortal strain,
Or less than Fairy, felt the deadly pain.
But Empyreal forms, howe’er in fight
Gash’d and dismember’d, easily unite…
So did Azuriel’s Arm, if fame say true,
Rejoin the vital trunk whence first it grew;
And, whilst in wonder fixt poor Albion stood,
Plung’d the curst sabre in his heart’s warm blood.”

Albion is struck down and Kenna is unable to revivify him: “the Fates alike deny/
The Dead to live, or Fairy forms to die.”

Ultimately, classical Greek sea god Neptune intervenes in fairy affairs.  With a sweep of his trident, he destroys Oberon’s divided, fractious kingdom, leaving only ruins on the site where later the new Hanoverian dynasty created its pleasure gardens and named it after Albion’s love, the ‘Aerial maid’ Kenna.

Oberon’s fairy nation is scattered: “Wing’d with like fear his abdicated bands.” They flee to secluded corners of Britain where they can still be glimpsed from time to time as they “featly foot the green,/ While from their steps a Circling verdure springs.” The fairies are not gone entirely, therefore, but they are scattered.

Tickell concludes his epic with several reminders of the transformed nature of his British fairies.  They are small, they are winged and they are sylph-like, aery beings.  In fact, a direct link with Paracelsus’ elementals of the air had already been made by rival poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock, which was published in 1712.  He was the first to introduce this term in English literature, but once he had connected “sylphs and sylphids, fays, fairies, genii, elves and daemons,” British fairies could never be the same again.

the-fae-by-amelia-jane-murray
Fairies on Owl, Amelia Jane Murray

Last Thoughts

Tickell had hoped his lengthy poem would be celebrated as a heroic fairy epic- a landmark in national literary history.  Sadly, it is largely forgotten now, except amongst enthusiasts of Georgian poetry and, of course, fans of faery.  Nonetheless, it’s worth reading- it’s quite entertaining, once you’ve got used to his florid style, and it tells us lots about the fairy faith as one era merged into another.

In conclusion, I’ll repeat what I said at the outset: the seventeenth century was a turning point in British fairy beliefs and Thomas Tickell’s fairy epic encapsulates the old and new ideas that were in ferment.

For more detail of Fayerie and my other faery books, please see my books page.

 

 

Gnomes and gardens

tomte

‘Midsummer tomte’ from The Midsummer Tomte & the Little Rabbits by Ulf Stark & Eva Eriksson

Introduction

I’m going to start controversially.  The theme of this post is gnomes, but the fact is that gnomes don’t exist.  The word ‘gnome’ was made up by the sixteenth century German physician Paracelsus to describe a concept of his own invention, an earth dwelling nature spirit.  It wasn’t quite like the dwarves or kobolds of his native Germanic folklore and it isn’t really related to anything in the folklore of the British Isles either. A substitute term from English might be ‘goblin’ or (even better) the word ‘mannikin’ which was adopted by Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s.

Who’s a gnome?

Arguments about terminology aside, its very clear that people see gnome-like beings all the time and that they are closely tied to nature.  The book Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and the Fairy Census 2017 are both full of sightings which give us a very good idea of their appearance and habits.

I should start with a word of warning.  Some of the modern accounts give rise to a suspicion that preconceptions about the appearance and conduct of gnomes, derived from literature and popular art, have shaped people’s perception of what they witnessed.  For example, a mother’s toddler saw a “funny little man” in their Nottinghamshire garden; she questioned him as to what exactly he had seen and he gave “a fair description with what she associated with a dwarf or gnome.”  What the very young infant experienced is channelled through an adult’s interpretation, therefore (Johnson p.17).  The mother, and possibly the child too, will have had their vision pre-formed by Enid Blyton, Walt Disney and other such powerful influences.  In another instance, the figures seen wore “the recognised garb of gnomes”- as if there is some sort of supernatural uniform (Johnson p.185).

At the same time, though, many people struggle to label what they have witnessed, so that I have sorted out the accounts on the basis of my own prejudices applied to their descriptions and perhaps included some examples that were not gnomic.  Some of the beings sighted were called ‘gnomes,’ in one case the witness wasn’t sure whether to best call them gnomes or brownies and a few people resorted to Hodson’s term ‘mannikin’ (Johnson pp.45, 169 & 177).

froud gnome

Brian Froud, a gnome

What’s a gnome?

Whilst we may have doubts about classification, we can be rather more definite in describing the ‘typical’ gnome.  They are likely to be seen wearing jackets and trousers, very often hats and boots.  The clothes are predominantly green, though often brown.  Red is sometimes seen and a variety of other colours have been reported from time to time: grey, blue, yellow and even mauve.  As we might anticipate, gnomes’ hats are very frequently pointed and most commonly red.  Green brown, yellow and blue headgear have also been seen and hats may also resemble mushrooms and acorns or be broad brimmed or peaked.

Gnomes don’t tend to be tall.  About half of those sighted were under twelve inches in height; roughly equal numbers measured between twelve and eighteen inches high, between eighteen and twenty-four inches and taller than that, up to about five feet high in just two examples.  Beards were quite frequently reported; white hair or aged features were not uncommon.

Given the total number of cases recorded in the Census, Seeing fairies and a few other sources I used, gnomes don’t seem to constitute a large part of the fairy population.  They represent about 13% of the total sightings.

To summarise this information so far: gnomes look like gnomes.  They tend to be small, bearded, in tall pointy caps.  One witness in Liverpool saw a little being “of the tubby sort;” two others described what they saw as being like ‘traditional gnomes.’  I assume once again that they are comparing the creatures seen to an image of an ‘archetypal gnome’ that they held in their imaginations (Johnson pp.323, 172 & 261).

Given their habitual association with gardens and greenery, we have to add that gnomes may well smell distinctively of loam and damp vegetation.  Witnesses in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies report gnomes with “an odour like fungus” or a “strange earthy smell;” there seems to be a particular association with mushrooms and fungus.  (Johnson pp.33, 36 & 186)

Garden gnomes

Where were gnomes seen?  This analysis is actually far more interesting than the information on appearance, which in the main is quite stereotypical.  Surprisingly, 37% of the beings labelled as gnomes by those who saw them were seen inside houses.  That means that the majority, 67%, were seen outside (as we might expect), but the locations varied.  Not quite half the gnomes were seen in gardens, but they were also spotted in woods (some even apparently living in trees), in open grassy areas and, in three cases, walking along a road.

Gnomish deeds

What were these gnomes up to?  Many did fit with our conventional view of gnomes as gardeners and cultivators.  They have been seen busily engaged in a range of garden tasks, including working with green beans in a vegetable patch, tending fruit and flowers- both outside and in greenhouses and the like- sawing and chopping wood, moving plants around and carrying horticultural implements like wheelbarrows, baskets, buckets, brooms, forks, rakes and spades.  For example, in 1940 a Mrs Small living in Nottingham had accidentally pruned away the main shoots of some tomatoes.  She saw some gnomes, who were about twelve inches high, looking very concerned about the condition of the plants.  A little later they came to her carrying a basket filled with green tomatoes and conveyed to her (without words) that she should put them to ripen in a dark place.  The same witness also saw a gnome in her garden looking very cross about a piece of rope tied around a tree: it seems that gnomes may be quite possessive about the places they live, or at least have very clear ideas about good and bad horticulture.

The gnomes don’t always need tools to do their work of cultivation and propagation.  In one instance that took place at Stapleford in Nottinghamshire, a woman was struggling to weed and hoe a very parched patch of earth.  She spotted a gnome watching her with amusement and, when she challenged him for laughing at her instead of lending a hand, he dived beneath the ground surface and very quickly turned over the soil.  Gnomes have also been seen in gardens acting as general ‘protectors’ to the plants, for example guiding people towards the best times to pick plants.

Other gnomes are just as busy, but with more general tasks.  A couple were seen carrying a heavy bundle; in another encounter, that took place in a snowy Devon lane, a car driver saw six little figures, about eight inches high, transporting a ladder along the road.  His appearance led to a hurried scramble to haul the ladder through the hedge and out of sight.  Cobbler gnomes in leather aprons and carrying their tools and materials were met by one person.  Some gnomes are seen just taking their leisure: in one instance they were dancing, in another doing gymnastics; in a third sighting about a dozen were witnessed racing tiny ponies and traps around a field in rural Derbyshire.

Homely gnomes

The domestic gnomes are possibly the most surprising: they are quite at home in human houses (and flats)- sitting on the stove, for example, and they seem particularly fascinated by machinery such as sewing machines.  One gnome encountered by Geoffrey Hodson quite reasonably spent the summer in his garden in Letchworth, but moved inside the house as winter came on.

Conclusions

We end with a conundrum, then.  Our ancestors would not have seen gnomes, because they had never heard of them.  They might very well have seen goblins, imps, and even dwarves (duergars) in the North-East of England and the Scottish Borders; they might very well have seen fairies and elves hard at work in their vegetable patches, but it seems to have been a far more recent development that these sightings came to be labelled using Paracelsus’ invented term.  This received widespread diffusion through the Theosophists and related groups from the late nineteenth century onwards and the word has become embedded in our language- very possibly because it met a need and provided a convenient term to describe a class of supernatural beings.

jultomte-JN2

“On a mission from God”-do fairies have a divine purpose?

fairies-bless-the-newborn-child-by-Estella-Canziani

Estella Canziani, Fairies bless the newborn child.

There is an identifiable strand of thought about modern fairies that wishes to see them as part of a wider divine plan.  I wrote a little while ago about the ideas of Paracelsus on fairies and I think his insistence upon his elementals being part of God’s creation and allotted a purpose within the universe have been a major contributor to this ‘mission from god’ idea.

Satanic servants?

This is quite a turn-around, because formerly, as I described in my jottings on fairy religion, the Christian church had spent most of its history attacking fairies and condemning fairy belief. Fairies were demons or, at the very best, delusions sent by the devil to lead us astray.  This had always been the orthodox belief of the Catholic church and, after the Reformation, the position was expressed with renewed vigour and venom by Protestant preachers.  Quite unfairly, post-Lutheran polemicists made out that one of the many superstitions fostered by Rome was the existence of fairies.

As these beings were nothing more or less than servants of Satan, there could be never be any accommodation with them and the Christian church was directly opposed to them.  This is very clearly shown in a story from Borgue in Kirkcudbright: a boy started to disappear for days at a time and it was realised that he was visiting the fairies underground.  To protect the child, he was taken to a local priest and was given a large crucifix to wear on a black ribbon around his neck (although, this being dour, Protestant Scotland, the local kirk then expelled the family for such Papist goings on).

Over the intervening centuries, there have been attempts to find some sort of accommodation between fairies and the Biblical view of the universe.  In A discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits, which was appended to the 1665 edition of Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft, one of several such arguments was set out:

“God made the Fairies, Bugs, Incubus, Robin Goodfellow and other familiar domestical spirits and Devils on the Friday and, being prevented with the evening of the Sabbath, finished them not, but left them unperfect, and therefore ever since they use to flie the holiness of the Sabbath, seeking dark holes in Mountains and Woods, wherein they hide themselves til the end of the Sabbath and then come abroad to trouble and molest men.” (Book I c.XI)

This passage is an excellent compromise between divine omnipotence and the need to explain these anomalous spirits- not quite demons, not quite angels. We may compare the belief in Cornwall that the local pixies were either the souls of still-born children or of newborn babies who died before they could be baptised.

Despite these conflicting theories, the fairies’ position is clear in one sense: they are not godly beings and, as such, are averse to all things Christian.  This was very widely reflected in popular belief, in which a sure charm against fairy harm was anything in the least related to religion- whether it was the sign of the cross, the use of blessings or, even, the deployment of pages torn from a Bible or a prayer book as defence against elf attack.  Any item or turn of phrase with Christian connotations came to be seen as protection against fairy powers: for example, in William Bottrell’s story of An’ Pee Tregear, the old woman sees pixies threshing in a barn.  She hears a pixie sneeze and instinctively says ‘bless you’- causing them all to disappear (Traditions and hearthside stories, vol.2 p.154).

margetson

Hester Margetson, Bluebell in fairyland.

Fays and angels

You wouldn’t necessarily know today that any of this very marked antipathy ever existed between mainstream Christianity and a belief in fairies.  For example, Doreen Virtue in Fairies 101 (2007) describes the fays as “God’s creatures with important missions” and as “angels who reside close to earth.”  In her Healing with fairies of 2001 she claims them as sparks of the divine light, part of God’s wondrous creation.  Their role is as guides and helpers to humans and as guardians of nature.

Other contemporary writers take a pagan approach, but still infuse their descriptions with a sacred vocabulary.  Alicen and Neil Geddes-Ward derive their Faeriecraft from modern Wicca and refer to the “sacred nature” of the fairies, with whom we can build a “divine relationship.”  Sirona Knight and Deanna Conway both associate the fairies with the God and Goddess; Rae Beth refers to the Great Mother.

Particularly in the accommodation of fairies with Christian belief, the danger seems to me to be to subordinate them to whatever divine purpose is perceived by the author and to reduce or eliminate the free will and the individuality of the fairies themselves.  Once they have their mission from God, they can lose their own motivations and agenda and come to be viewed solely through their relationship to us and to their holy duty.  Much as with the reconstitution of fairies as nature spirits and elementals, devoted to saving the planet, I think there’s a lot of projection of our own concerns and needs onto them and too little regard for the evidence of tradition.

Selfish supernaturals?

In her 2017 book Fairies Morgan Daimler states in no uncertain terms that the fairies

“have never cared about the things we do to the world around us so long as we leave their places alone.”

This encapsulates the traditional fairies’ selfishness perfectly: they are protective of their favoured spots- but that’s all.  Morgan also points out that the faes can always go back to the otherworld in any case (Fairies, pp.4 & 174).  She’s quite right; it might be nice to personify nature in order to give ourselves a bit of extra impetus to clear up the mess we’ve made, but the fairies and elves of folklore would probably take the view that it’s nothing to do with them.  We wrecked the place, so we should put it right- and, meanwhile, they’ve got better things to do.  This may sound harsh and unfeeling, but a lot of the British fairies are just that: they steal property, they kidnap children, they torment adults, they kill livestock and people.

Reading the posts I’ve made on this blog or reading any of the accounts contained in the folklore sources that I’ve depended upon, it is hard honestly to see anything about the national fairies that could entitle them to be seen as “divine sparks.”  Often, albeit for different reasons, you feel that the medieval and Reformation church men had made a better assessment.  Faerie can be mercenary and it can be cruel and its denizens can appear devoid of any hint of holy fervour.  A Victorian author said that the Devonshire pixies “had no religious rites or services.”  Most others similarly lacked any discernible faith or ceremonies.  How and when did the fairies get religion?

Pixies and Paradise?

Paracelsus sowed the seed, but I think it was only in the wake of Theosophy that we became convinced that the fays had to be part of a bigger plan.   For example, Manly P. Hall (1901-90) and the Reverend Flower A. Newhouse (1909-94) both wrote extensively on the angelic and fairy hierarchies.  Newhouse called the fairies ‘frakins’ and saw them as a lower order of earth elemental, responsible for flowering plants and grasses.  Above them were sylphs, gnomes and elves, leading successively to the angels.  Her books include Natives of eternity (1937), The kingdom of the shining ones (1955) and Rediscovering angels and natives (1966), the titles all being suggestive of her general approach.

Daphne Charters was author of The origin, life and evolution of fairies (1951) and A true fairy tale (1956).  She claimed to have daily conversations with the small workforce of fairies resident in her home and garden.  She saw the entire natural and human world as being run by these industrious creatures, beings who ‘covered every inch’ of the visible and invisible universe.  In many ways Charters’ theories built upon those of Geoffrey Hodson (as in his book The kingdom of God) , but she disagreed with his views in two ways.  Firstly, his belief was the fairies could not speak, whereas she was in constant, chatty dialogue with her good neighbours.  Secondly, her vision of a hierarchy of nature spirits was far more systematic and orderly than Hodson’s.  Charters discovered a scale of being from the microscopic, simple and short-lived rudines all the way up to God.  The intermediate stages included gnomes, elves and fairies, each longer-lived, larger and more mentally developed that the other.

Iris Ratsey was another Christian medium and mystic.  Her little 1966 book, Pioneering in conscious and co-operative mediumship, is a strange mix of prayers, meditations and visions. From an early age she had regularly seen fairies and, in the text, she describes a visit to “higher dimensional territory” where she witnessed the “sub-human or etheric nature species” responsible for the growth of wheat seeds and describes their ecstatic life cycle.  Ratsey stated that her visions of tiny elfin creatures gave her “a sense of divine presence” explicitly linking her contact with Faery with religious experience.

What do the fairies want?

Fairies have been promoted in recent decades into a force for good.  They are seen as having a role assisting us with our moral and/or spiritual development and are appealed to and worked with on this basis by several faery faiths.  My caution with this depiction of the fairy race is that it is very hard to square it with the traditional sources.  An honest assessment of those would be that the fairy race is, at best, amoral (and at worst immoral) in the sense that faes can be cruel, selfish and demonstrate little respect for property.  There is very little ‘divine’ about them.  They don’t want our prayers; they aren’t interested in petitioners; they are a separate race living in parallel to humans whose good will can’t be bought.  What they want from us is tribute, not worship; they’re interested in taxes or booty rather than sacrifice.

In many respects, the fairy attitude to human beings as delineated in the folklore accounts is one akin to a colonial or conquering state, which seeks to derive income and resources from a tributary people.  This fits very well with the fairies’ practices of abducting adults and children, of stealing food products and food sources and their general possessiveness in respect of human property.  This may seem harsh- yet it encapsulates some of the core dynamics of our relationship.  In light of this, it is harder to recast the fay character as benevolent and non-materialist, as some modern conceptions wish to do.

 

 

Anti-Paracelsus- the man who messed up Faery?

Paracelsus

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (known as Paracelsus) was a German doctor, alchemist and astrologer.  He was born near Zurich in 1493 and died in Salzburg in 1541.  He is significant to those interested in fairylore for his theory of the spirits of the four elements.

What’s in a name?

Von Hohenheim was a vain and combative man.  There was little in his nature to ingratiate himself with others: he was abusive, conceited and determined to break with tradition.  Typical of this attitude is the fact that he called himself Paracelsus.  Celsus was a respected Roman physician of the 1st century BC; von Hohenheim had declared himself ‘Greater than Celsus.’  In our field of fairylore one of the most respected and widely known figures is the author Katharine Briggs.  Many readers will know her name and may very likely own one of her books- I started my own fairy investigations with a copy of her Dictionary of fairies.  To act like Paracelsus, then, would for me to decide henceforth to call myself ‘Better than Briggs.’

I don’t have either the confidence or the effrontery of Paracelsus, but it tells us a lot about the man.  He knew best- in everything- and previous authorities were worthless.  In contrast, Katharine Briggs was an academic, a careful scholar who had a referenced source for everything she wrote, and I still constantly refer to her books.  Nonetheless, we should recall that she was largely a collator of other people’s work (especially in her best-known books).  I believe we should always use Briggs as our starting point but then proceed to the sources she drew upon rather than just quoting Briggs herself- and let’s not forget that these sources were folklore collections that were often, themselves, already second or third hand from the experiences described.

Briggs,_K

Katharine Mary Briggs

If there is one chink in Brigg’s intellectual armour, it is her friendship with and confidence in the Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue.  It is pretty widely accepted now that Tongue made up a good deal of her material.  She got away with this because, of course, no-one could dispute whether or not she had interviewed some elderly farmer’s wife and for a long time no-one doubted that she had.  In a sense, then, Tongue was much like Paracelsus- she created a mythology which many successors have taken seriously when it did not deserve that respect.

The four elementals

Back to the great Paracelsus.  In his book On nymphs, sylphs, pygmies and salamanders and other spirits he set out his theories on the supernatural world (De nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteribus spiritibus, published 1566). He believed that the whole universe was endowed with life and that the intermediate state between the material and the non-material was peopled with real beings associated with the four elements.

Paracelsus was a good Catholic and he stressed the role of God in creating these ‘elementals.’  Part of the divine purpose had been to ensure that no part of the universe was void and without life, but Paracelsus felt there was more to it than that.  The elementals have important functions to perform in the universe (as we’ll see in a little while); he believed that they were vitally necessary and had not been created in vain.  In addition, they exist to prove the marvels of the works of God and Paracelsus therefore argued that our proper response to this is to study them very closely and to learn all that we can about them.

According to Paracelsus, there are four species of elemental .  He used a variety of names for them, even in so short a book as De nymphis.  There are the undines or nymphs of water, the sylphs (a word he invented- it may derive from Greek silphe, meaning grub, or be a contraction of sylvestris nymphi) of the air, the fiery salamanders or vulcani and the pygmies or gnomes of the earth (whom he also called the mountain mannikins).  Once again, the word ‘gnome’ was apparently invented by Paracelsus.  The name was derived by Paracelsus from Greek, either gnōmē (intelligence)- because the gnomes revealed information about hidden treasures- or ge nomos (earth dwelling).  Nevertheless, they are Paracelsus’ invention and so, as Katherine Briggs wrote in the Dictionary of fairies, gnomes “belong rather to dead science than to folk tradition.”

Paracelsus went to great lengths to stress that these elementals that he imagined are not pure spirits.  They are composite spirit-men, very similar in many ways to humans, but not descended from Adam and Eve.  They are more like humans than beasts, but they are neither.  They resemble us both physically and in their personalities.

The elementals’ flesh is more subtle than ours and can’t be grasped or bound; they can travel through solid objects.  Nonetheless, in many respects they are people just like us.  They need food, drink and clothing; they have children, they suffer diseases and other health complaints and, although long-lived, they will eventually die.  The elementals walk about just as we do, albeit at much greater speeds.  Like us they are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb or talkative.  They make tools, they have government, they formulate laws.  They rest and sleep like us; they have their night and day and their seasons.  They are “queer and marvellous” creatures whose major difference to humans is that they have no souls.  Nevertheless, Paracelsus rejected any idea that the elementals are devils or demons; they crave salvation and by marrying a human can receive a soul and thereby be saved.

Paracelsus described his imaginary water, fire, mountain and wind people in detail.  The undines look very like us, living in brooks and pools.  The sylphs are crude, coarse, longer and stronger than we are; their food is like ours- the herbs of the woods which they inhabit.  They are shy and fugitive.  Gnomes are about half the size of humans, and build their houses under the earth. The vulcani are long, narrow and lean.  They appear fiery and they melt and forge metals.

Paracelsus believed that the elementals are rational and ought to be treated with respect.  We can enter into bargains with them and they may give us money.  They do not mix with each other but live solely within their own elements; however, as the human world is compounded of all of the elements, they are able to interact with humans.  The nymphs most resemble humans and are known to marry and interbreed with them.  They have to be treated well, though, as if offended they will rapidly return to their own element.  Likewise gnomes will serve people, providing them with money and knowledge and guiding them to rich resources, but they can deal out blows, too, and will disappear under their mountains at the least provocation.

The elementals have two vital functions, according to Paracelsus: they indicate and warn of future events, such as political and economic upheavals, and they act as guardians over nature.  Specifically the nature spirits- especially the salamanders- make and protect “tremendous treasures in tremendous quantities.”   They steadily reveal these to humans, thereby explaining why it is that we slowly discover new mineral sources and lodes of precious metal.

That’s a summary of De nymphis and I’ve probably already more devoted more space to Paracelsus’ ideas than they deserve, in the circumstances.  Now, we’re all entitled to our fantasies, but the problems arise when people mistake them for scientific fact or for received wisdom.  Both misconceptions have befallen Paracelsus.  What may best be described as a speculation has matured into the status of a report from the otherworld.

sylphs

Pixies and pygmies

Paracelsus’ ideas were widely disseminated, both through the reading of his work and through the thought of other thinkers who drew upon him.  Amongst those who followed his fourfold classification of Faery were Eliphas Levy, Madame Blavatsky (founder of Theosophy), W. B. Yeats, Evans Wentz, Rudolf Steiner and Geoffrey Hodson.

Unorthodox and individual as his ideas were, Paracelsus’ four-fold division of nature took hold.  Proof of this is to be found in our usage of the word gnome.  He may have made it up, but on the continent it became associated with the dwarves of Teutonic and Scandinavian mythology and gradually came to act as an alternative label for them.  Dwarf, gnome and goblin are now virtually interchangeable in everyday speech.

Just as he invented his own theories in medicine, Paracelsus invented his own folklore.  Others added to this subsequently, Montfaucon de Villars (in Le comte de Gabalis, 1670) and Eliphas Levi being particular culprits and adding considerably to Paracelsus’ original fantasies from the Kabbalah.

undine 1909

Arthur Rackham, Undine, 1909

Paracelsus and folk tradition

Now, we already know that classical mythology had started to taint native beliefs as a result of the renaissance rediscovery of Greek and Roman legends.  British fairies were regularly made synonymous with Mediterranean fauns and such like:

“You mountain nymphs which in the desarts reign/ Cease off your hasty chase of savage beasts…/ You driades and light-foot Satyri/ You gracious Fairies, which at even-tide,/ Your closets leave with heavenly beauty stored…” (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594); or,

“some are of fyre, and some of the ayre,/ Some watrye and some earthly, and some golden and fayre/ Some lyke unto sylver…” (The Buggbears, George Gascoigne, 1565)

Paracelsus only compounded this trend, but the real problem with his idea of the elementals is that it has next to no basis in folk tradition- nor, perhaps, should we expect it to do so, given Paracelsus’ addiction to rejecting received wisdom.

There are certainly some familiar elements in what he wrote.  He’d spent a lot of time in mines and was doubtless aware of the spirit called the kobold in Germany and knocker in Cornwall; the gnome bears some considerable resemblance to these and fairies too have long been linked to buried treasure.  His undine brides are very like the fairy wives of Welsh folk stories (and other myths).

As his four elementals are partly derived from classical myth, and partly from his own imagination, the difficulty for many subsequent writers has been fitting his ideas in with conventionally recognised fairy tribes.  This has often proved an inevitable and considerable challenge and the result frequently is the incorporation into family-trees of strangers and aliens who just don’t belong there.  Gnomes are one example of this.  As I’ve just said, some similarities can be detected with Germanic dwarves, but in Britain- other than the very localised ‘knockers-‘ there’s really nothing similar.  The Anglo-Saxon word for dwarf, dweorg, was able to mutate into derrickdenoting a West Country sort of pixy, precisely because there was no need for anything resembling a dwarf as such.

The ‘undine’ is something like a mermaid and vaguely resembles a meremaid such as Jenny Green-teeth, but in truth it’s only the fact that they all live in water that unites them.  As for salamanders, there’s honestly nothing remotely like them in British fairy-lore.  The result is that many authors have to rope in Greek nymphs and nereids, rusalkas and any other types they can in order to provide examples of Paracelsus’ four forms.

WOODNYMPH

Charles M Russell, Wood nymph

Paracelsus’ legacy

The achievement of On nymphs etc is that later readers took it too seriously.  It has been treated as a scientific study by a respected Renaissance authority and many have felt that it has to be given the respect due to such a seminal text and incorporated into existing fairy belief.  In fact, in trying to accommodate it with traditional fairy-lore, the tendency has been for Paracelsus’ fantasies to obscure the original material.  Many writers have agonised over fitting elementals and elves together, to the detriment of the latter.

Geoffrey Hodson in Fairies at work and play is an example of this.  He offers us multiple categories of faery beings, including elves, brownies, mannikins (a term he may have borrowed from Paracelsus), the four elementals and devas (borrowed from Hindu belief through Theosophy).  He tries to be scientific and taxonomic, but his list is pretty confusing.  In fact, in modern fairy belief there’s considerable confusion over the exact nature of fairies and I suspect that a lot of this is due to the attempts to incorporate Paracelsus’ categories.

Many contemporary writers feel obliged to try to offer their readers some sort of classification of fairy kind and struggle to find a scheme that includes both brownies, pixies and the four elementals.  They won’t sit together satisfactorily- and this is, of course, because Paracelsus dreamed up his classification with very little reference to tradition (well, German, Northern European tradition: he obviously knew his classical mythology).  It’s very easy to find modern guides to faery which are primarily structured around the four elementals (works by Cassandra Eason, Edain McCoy, Ted Andrews, Dora Kunz, Harmonia Saille, Victoria Hunt and Emily Carding might all be cited).  Readers are offered detailed analyses of the four classes along with procedures, spells and rituals for contacting and working with them.  I’ve even seen ‘water babies’ suggested as a form of beach fairy found playing in the surf, which appears to be promoting Charles Kingsley‘s story far above its station to the status of authentic folklore source.

Praise for Paracelsus?

Is there anything good to say about the book De nymphis?  It’s certainly a good and convincing read, it’s true, but there may be a more substantive benefit.

One aspect of Paracelsus’ description will strike a chord with many: that’s his vision of elementals as guardians of nature.  As we have faced increasing environmental degradation, this role for the fairies has been deliberately promoted.  For many writers, it is close to being their principle function.  As a single example, Rae Beth in The way into faerie describes how the fairies’ dancing keeps “the whole web of Nature in balance and harmony.”  This focus upon ecosystems and natural processes cannot be faulted.

However, in the process (and I particularly blame the Theosophists here) the identification of fairies with the elementals and with finer workings of botany and biochemistry has tended to diminish them until they’re not much more than molecules and minerals moving through the xylem and phloem.  This trend may have been initiated, however unwittingly, by Paracelsus, but it’s diverged even from his ideas.  He was quite clear that the elementals are people, just like us, with their moods and aspirations, whereas some more recent writing has stripped them of this individuality.

Modern scientific thinking makes us want to order and arrange things logically and neatly and the writing of Paracelsus provides an apparent starting point for doing this.  The thing is, though, a great deal of it’s nonsense, and I think we should all be a lot happier if we just ditched it and stuck to the observation and experience of tradition.

Further Reading

I discuss Paracelsus work and its impact at greater length in my books Fayerieon Tudor and Stuart faerylore, and in my study Nymphology.

Flower fairies- origins and meaning

gorse-flower-fairy

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.

Shakespeare

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).

titania-sleeping

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)

rowan

Tiny fairies

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.

elder

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.

Further reading

Other posts on the natural associations of fairies cover such issues as wood elves, fairy plants and ‘eco-fairies.’