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

British Pixies

I am very pleased to announce the arrival of a new book, British Pixies, which has been published by Green Magic, who also released by British Fairies back in 2017 and, much more recently, The Great God Pan.

This new book is a short study of the pixie populations of the South West of England, of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, looking at all aspects of their nature and behaviour- their appearance, clothes, habits and tricks. They are particularly notorious for pixie leading, as I have discussed before.

Here I include a poem I found quite recently, The Pisky Gleaner by Nora Hopper Chesson, which was published in the Cornhill Magazine, vol.9, issue 51, September 1900.

The verse is unusual for the view it presents of the pisky/ pixie, which is essentially to treat it as a sort of puck or brownie, labouring on a human farm in return for a share of human food. It seems to do this for love of a human female, an unusual vision of faery in which it is far more likely for a desired person to be abducted into Faery than the other way round. The idea of the pisky being banished by his own kind for loving a mortal is not Chesson’s invention: on the Isle of Man one explanation of the origin of the fynoderee, a hairy hob type creature who works on human farms, is that he was expelled from Faery for just such a passion. The fynoderee is transformed into a beast as part of his punishment; the pisky of the poem seems to have taken on human form as a disguise. Chesson’s pisky is somewhat saddened and subject to human control, very much unlike the bulk of his race, who are independent, carefree and wild (although there are traces, in Cornwall, of a so-called ‘brown piskie’ who lived and worked in human mills and farms).

Chesson’s pisky has some similarities to those drawn by Rene Cloke and Lorna Steele, in the accompanying postcards, which reflect the benign and friendly view of pixies which has tended to prevail for the last century or more. As I describe in the new book, though, though, they are a far more robust- even cruel- folk who treat humans very much as a source of fun rather than the object of romantic attachment. Worse still are those fiercer pixies called the spriggans, who jealously and violently guard their hoards of gold amongst the ancient standing stones of west Cornwall. The authentic pixie folklore is really a great deal more complex, and more interesting, than the tourist souvenir pixie that we tend to encounter today.

Although they only came to wider public attention with the writings of Mrs Anne Bray in mid-Victorian times (Peeps at Pixies etc), the pixies are a distinct and fascinating family of faeries with a longstanding tradition in their homelands and they are highly deserving of close study. British Pixies is out now from all good vendors of fine literature…

Sceptics beware! Faery attitudes to disbelievers

It definitely is not wise to doubt the existence of fairies- and to voice that disbelief too loudly or too forcefully. Here are a few examples of your likely fate if you do.

Disbelief in the face of tangible proof of the faeries’ existence and capabilities is especially hated by them.  Very common are stories of humans who win faery favour by mending their broken tools, and a regular element in these is the companion who doubts and mocks any such assistance.  In a Sussex version of the story of the ‘broken peel,’ a ploughman mends the baking implement but his mate scorns the whole idea- and dies a year to the day later.  In alternative versions, a gift of food is given in return for the repair and the companion refuses to eat it- and suffers as a result.

Death may seem a disproportionate response, but it’s not unusual. A Shetland girl who had spoken lightly of the trows one night was drowned as she travelled home; a West Yorkshire man who mocked the boggarts instantly collapsed and died of a heart attack at Lumbutts, near Todmorden.

The Leeds Mercury for May 13th 1852 carried the story of an unbelieving butcher who was met one night by two female goblins. One jumped up behind him on his horse and the other ran alongside as he cantered. He was so terrified by the experience that, as soon as he made it home, he went to bed and expired. Another sceptic went to a well-known haunt of a boggart and called out mockingly, asking where it was. It replied that it would be with him shortly, once its shoe had been tied and, before he had a chance to think better of things and flee, it jumped out, grabbed him, and dragged him through bogs and briars until his clothes and skin were shredded and the pound of candles he had had in his pocket were reduced to the wicks alone. He was left in a ditch, barely more alive than dead.

The pixies of the South West of Britain seem to be especially touchy about doubters and there are several stories of people punished by them for scepticism- usually by pixy-leading them.

In William Bottrell’s story of Uter Bosence and the Piskey, the man is drunkenly making his way home one night. He has laughed at stories of pixies and is regarded by other local people as an “unbelieving heathen” as a result.  A fog arises and he becomes trapped in a field, unable to find the way out.  Uter decides to rest in a ruined chapel until the weather improves or dawn comes, but instead, he is confronted with a band of spriggans and a terrible goat-like being with blazing eyes and paws instead of hooves, which tries to dance with him.  Then he’s knocked over and dragged across the moor- an experience from which he never fully recovers.

A Somerset man returning from the pub found himself misled and lost because he had sneered at the possibility of pixies. He was rescued by a local farmer who heard his cries of distress and, in response to the experience, the man worked on his saviour’s farm for free, saying that he did this to please the pixies, so that they wouldn’t give him a “gude lammin’” the next time they came across him alone at night. 

In Enys Tregarthen’s 1940 story, Why Jan Pendogget Changed His Mind, the main character is another disbeliever who unwisely is too vocal about his contempt for such childish ideas as pixies. He attends St Columb fair one day- and his mother advises him to avoid crossing Undertown Meadow on his way home because the pisky folk have been making rings there. He ignores this, of course, and is pixy-led. He can’t find the gate out of the field and then can’t locate the one he entered by either. He sees lights bobbing and hears the pixies laughing- and is trapped all night until dawn.

Cornish miner called Tom Trevorrow doubted the existence of the knockers in mines.  He refused to share his food with them and ignored the warnings of their displeasure at his disrespect (falls of stones in the workings), so finally they caused a roof collapse that buried the lode he had been working, along with all his tools.

One of the least violent of these types of tale may be the Dartmoor story of Nanny Norrish, whose scepticism is answered one night when she meets the pixies piled up before her in a pyramid and all chattering loudly.  Nanny appears to have got off lightly, considering what we’ve already seen and given that another Devon folklorist averred that the pixies’ “malevolence will know no end” towards one who’s spoken ill of them.

J J Hilder, pen copy of Pixy Led by Fred Hall