I have described in previous posts the widely known physical attractiveness of fairies. In Stuart verse, for example, we find praise for “the matchless features of the Fairy Queen” and for her “gracious eyes.”
Fairy partners were extremely attractive, but love for a fairy could be portrayed as obsessive, something that caused the human to sicken and to pine, as we see from Robert Armin’s The Valiant Welshman (1615, Act II, scene 5):
“Oh, the intolerable paine that I suffer from the love of the fairy Queen! My heeles are all kybde [bruised] in the very heate of my affection, that runnes down into my legges; methinks I could eat up a whole Baker’s shoppe at a meale, to be eased of this love.”
Fairies were desirable partners simply because of their physical beauty. However, a fairy’s lover could hope for great favour still- and the lover of the fairy queen (the most beauteous of all her kind) would naturally be even more highly honoured and rewarded. At the same time, though, these supernaturals could prove to be possessive and demanding lovers- and vengeful if they felt neglected or slighted.
The trade-off between sex and gain, passion and pain, was therefore a difficult one, as we see from both folklore record and from romantic fiction.
The Scottish Evidence
Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed a relationship with the fairy queen that involved both her worship (he and others assembled and kissed her “airrs” in reverence) but also regular sexual contact. He said of her:
“the queen is very plesand, and wilbe auld and young quhen scho pleissis; scho mackis any king quhom she pleisis and leyis with any scho lykis.”
One of those whom the queen liked was Man. Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had “conversit with hir bodily.” In other words, he ‘lay with her’ and, as a result of these “carnal dealings” they had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.
Over and above these numerous infants, Man had gained materially: he learned to diagnose and cure diseases in cattle and humans and he was taught charms to steal milk and corn, or to protect his neighbours’ fields against such fairy thefts.
Sex with a fairy often appears to have been the price (and the conduit) for supernatural powers. Isobell Strathaquin, also from Aberdeen, was tried in the January of the previous year to Andro Man; she told the court that she acquired powers in this manner: she “learnit it at [from] ane elf man quha lay with hir.”
Elspeth Reoch of Orkney also gained the second sight from two fairy men, but it involved sexual harassment by one of them. She told her 1616 trial that two men had approached her and called her “ane prettie” before giving her a charm to enable her to see the faes. Later “ane farie man” called John Stewart came to her on two successive nights and ‘dealt with her,’ not allowing her to sleep and promising a “guidly fe” is she agreed to have sex with him. She held out against his blandishments until the third night, when he touched her breast and them seemed to lie with her. The next day she was struck dumb (in order to conceal the source of her prophetic powers) and had to wander the town and beg for her living, offering people the knowledge she received through her second sight.
Sometimes, it has to be admitted, boasting can come into these accounts. Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn near Nairn, was tried as a witch in 1662. During her confession she seems to mock or tease her accusers with her account of the huge proportions of the devil’s ‘member.’ They were pressing her for confessions and they got them, with Isobel all the while expressing her modesty and Christian timidity over describing such shocking acts.
Sex in the Stories
The exchange of sex and skill is common between fairy and mortal. In the poem and ballads of the same name, Thomas of Erceldoune was relaxing outside in the sunshine one day when he was approached by the gorgeous fairy queen. After some resistance, she consented to lie with him “And, as the story tellus ful right, Seven tymes be hir he lay.” Thomas is moved to these prodigious feats by her physical desirability (and, no doubt, by his own youthful vigour) but there’s a price to pay. Initially after intercourse, the queen loses her beauty and becomes a hideous hag; secondly, her looks and youth may only be restored by her lover agreeing to spend seven years in Faery. Thomas seems to have very little choice about this and has to leave immediately- although on the plus side, his travelling companion is restored to her former loveliness. Once there, the riches start to flow to Thomas. He is elegantly clothed and lives a life of luxurious leisure; what’s more, at the end of his time in Faery, he is endowed by the queen with special abilities. In some versions of the tale, he becomes a skilled harper; in others he gains second sight.
The romance of Sir Launfal is comparable for the trade off between sex and wealth. The fairy lady Tryamour summons the young knight to her in a forest. She is reclining semi-naked in the heat and offers him a rich feast, followed by a sleepless night of sex. The next morning, though, the nature of their transaction becomes clear: she promises to visit him regularly in secret but there are two conditions: “no man alive schalle me se” and, even more onerous:
“thou makst no bost of me…
And, yf thou doost, y warny the before,
Alle my love thou hast forlore.”
Assenting to the terms, he is given fine clothes, horses, armour and attendants and returns to the court of King Arthur. Before, he had been poor and of no account, but now he is rich and gains status and respect.
In due course (albeit for honourable reasons) Launfal discloses his secret lover. As with fairy money, this indiscretion might normally be expected to lose him Tryamour’s affections instantly and irreparably, but in this case she comes to Arthur’s court and carries him off to faery forever.
Fairy love and fairy magical abilities may be bestowed upon the lucky human, but that good fortune is plainly qualified. The gifts are in fact an exchange; there must be a surrender on the part of the mortal recipient, which may be the loss of some of their independence or which may require a complete abandonment of their home, friends and family. Perhaps the prize of fairy love and fairy knowledge are worth paying highly for, but, in earlier times, the cost of the bargain often turned out to be excessive, for fairy contact could prove fatal if revealed to the church and state.
A Note on the Scottish Witch Cases
As I highlighted before in my discussion of Ronald Hutton’s book, The Witch, I still harbour reservations about using the testimony from the Scottish witch trials. I say above that Isobel Gowdie was ‘pressed’ for incriminating evidence. This was literally true: boards were placed on suspects’ legs and piled with rocks. We have a record of one victim of this crying out for it to stop and agreeing to confess whatever the court wanted.
Once these individuals had fallen into the authorities’ hands, their fate was pretty much sealed. The sentence that almost all faced was to be ‘wyrrit and burnit,’ which means that they were tied to a stake, strangled and then burned. For Elspeth Reoch, for example (NB Orcadian readers!) she was taken to the top of Clay Loan in Kirkwall where there is still a small area of grass; several local women suffered the same horrible fate on this spot. We know too that one woman leaped from the top of a high prison tower in Perth to avoid execution.
Faced with the same circumstances, you too might agree to say whatever your inquisitors wanted you to say if it ended the misery. How much can we trust this evidence then? My feeling is that, whilst these might not be personal experiences, they still reflect what society as a whole believed to be the structure and conduct of the fairy folk. If it did not convince the torturers, they might not have accepted it. These confessions reflect the wider understanding of Faery in those days and need not be dismissed out of hand as the individual fantasy of a person desperate to stop the torture.
Finally: I have quite often quoted from the confessions of these individuals. Whenever you read their names, spare a thought for them. The worst that most did was to try to cure people and livestock at a time when medicines and health care were hugely limited. To most of us, I’m sure these hardly sound like crimes, let alone capital offences.