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 Pixiesis out now from all good vendors of fine literature…
People can be rendered completely incapable of movement by the fairies. This is generally inflicted as some sort of punishment and can be a short-term measure to remedy a temporary problem- or a long-term state, which is indicative of a completely different state of affairs. Long lasting paralysis is often a sign of fairy abduction.
Frozen on the Spot
A lazy, drunken farm labourer from the Cotswold area of England sneaked away from the harvest work in the fields to drink beer in the sun. He chose a small mound with a hawthorn growing on top as comfortable spot and settled down to relax. However, a crowd of small green beings appeared in front of him. Despite his fear, he found he was completely unable to move. After a while, they disappeared and he recovered the use of his limbs; he needed a drink, but found that all the beer in his flask had also disappeared.
It seems very clear from this account that the shirker had chosen a fairy hill to laze upon. The incident might simply be a case of the fairies stealing alcohol because they fancied their own binge, but it seems more likely that this is an incident of a trespass being punished and- at the same time- a human being chastened for infringing the fairies’ moral code. Whilst the story doesn’t say it explicitly, I reckon we may infer that the shock was such that the man rarely drank afterwards.
Incursion upon the fairies’ reserved places seems constantly to be the cause of cases of paralysis. A farmer of Ffridd Uchaf was returning from Beddgelert fair in Snowdonia. He saw a company of fairies dancing and, whilst he lay in hiding watching them, he fell asleep. As he slumbered, they bound him so tightly that he could not move, after which they covered him over with a veil of gossamer, so that nobody would see him in case he cried out for help. As the man did not return home, his family made a thorough search for him, but in vain. Fortunately, about the same time the next night the fairies returned and freed him and, a little while later, he awoke after sleeping a whole night and a day. He had no idea where he was, and wandered about on the slopes of the Gader and near the Gors Fawr until he heard a cock crow, when he finally realised he was less than a quarter of a mile from his home. This case is comparable to the story of ‘Miser on the Gump at St Just.’ An old man set out one moonlit night to Woon Gumpus, near the village of St Just, where he had heard that the fairies assembled and where he thought he might be able to steal some fairy treasure. The whole fairy court emerged from under ground for a feast and the man hoped to steal some of their gold and silver plates. He was so preoccupied with the precious metals that he neglected to notice that he had been surrounded by spriggans. They threw hundreds of tiny ropes around him and pulled him to the ground, where he was pinched and stung by the entire fairy multitude. At dawn they vanished, leaving him bound with cobwebs on the open moor.
A man who unwittingly stumbled upon a fairy market on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset was mishandled in a similar way. He tried to ride through the crowd of fairies gathered around the numerous stalls and was “crowded and thrust, as when one passes through a throng of people… He found himself in pain and so hastened home; where, being arrived, lameness seized him all on one side, which continued with him as long as he lived, which was for many years…” Although the writer here, Richard Bovet, calls it ‘lameness,’ it seems apparent that the man suffered some sort of paralysis on one side of his body (Pandaemonium 207).
Our last example comes from Torrington in North Devon. One day at the very beginning of June, 1890, a man was working in a wood. At the end of the day he separated from his companions to collect a tool he had left nearby. On bending down to pick it up, a strange feeling came over him; he was unable to move and he heard pixies laughing. He realised he was at their mercy. When he had not returned home by ten o’clock that night, his wife became very alarmed and went out to look for him. She met the man emerging from the wood, soaked to the skin. He explained he had been held under the pixies’ spell for nearly five hours, capable only of crawling along on his hands and knees. It was dark and he had no idea where he was, as a result of which he fell into a stream, which broke the spell. The wood was apparently known for pixie-leading, although this is not really the right term for the man’s experience, which was much more akin to a paralysis.
Several features unite these cases: an action which somehow incurs fairy displeasure and their sanction, which is a loss of bodily function that may vary in terms of its extent and/ or duration. I have called this fairy paralysis; our forebears seem to have called it something else- ‘fairy blast.’
Roughly speaking, there are two main ways in which the fairies make humans sick. One is to shoot us with arrows (elf-shot), which leaves the victim elf-struck (suffering from a stroke). The other is to blast them with an ‘ill-wind’- a condition also sometimes called the evil eye.
The condition was recognised in England, and was often termed ‘the Faerie’ but it is from Scotland that we have the better records of the illness and its cure. The evidence mainly comes from the trial of women suspected of being ‘witches,’ although in reality what they had usually been involved in was folk healing, using herbs, of the sickness caused by fairies and witches. For example, Jonet Andersone of Stirling was tried in 1621: using a shirt worn by the patient and an iron knife, she had diagnosed that the illness had come from ‘a blast of ill wind.’ Likewise, Janet Boyman of Edinburgh told a mother than her child had been blasted with an evil wind by the fairies when they found it in its cradle, unblessed by the mother and therefore unprotected from faery malignity.
In 1662 Jonet Morrisone of Bute was tried for witchcraft. Amongst the evidence against her was an incident where she had told a man that his daughter was paralysed and unable to speak because of “blasting with the faryes,” something she cured with herbs. She had treated at least two others in the same way. Janet Trall of Perth treated a baby that had got “a dint of evil wind” by bathing the infant with water from a south-flowing well. I’ve discussed before the crucial role of water in curing fairy illness and in cures provided to us by the fairies.
On Shetland and Orkney, the trows were also said to cause identical illnesses. The islanders said that an ‘ill wind’ in the face could lead to languor, stupor and loss of appetite.
There were two explanations as to how blasting happened. Healer Catie Watson of Stow explained in 1630 that people were “blasted with the breath of the fairy.” Jonet Morisone, though, said that “blasting is a whirlwind that the fayries raise about that persone quhich they intend to wrong and that, tho’ there were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot him quhom they were set for.” She went on to explain that the effect of the wind gathered in one place in the body and, unless treated in a timely manner, would cause the victim to ‘shirpe’ (shrivel) away. Janet Boyman in 1572 expanded a little on this: the purpose of the blasting was, in her opinion, to enable the fairies (the “sillyie wychts” as she called them) to abduct the victim. She saw blasting as part of a longer term strategy, therefore, rather than as an immediate response to some offence.
Some close contact was evidently necessary for the blast to be inflicted. I’ll end this discussion with a mention of a Highland Scottish belief that cattle could be paralysed by the so-called ‘fairy mouse.’ The luch-sith was the name for the shrew and it was believed that its presence in pastures could lead to livestock being struck down with the marcachd sith, (fairy riding), a paralysis of the spine brought on by the shrew running across the backs of the cattle when they lay down.
For more on this aspect of the faery character, see my 2021 book The Darker Side of Faery:
Deliberate leading astray is a fairy habit almost exclusively found in South West Britain. It is reported about as often in Cornwall and Devon, with about twenty-five per cent of cases taking places in other counties (Dorset and Somerset) and slightly fewer in Wales. Because it is primarily a phenomenon of South-West England, I will use the term pixie-led as a label for the process.
Here I’m only going to describe those fairy beings who, amongst their other activities, enjoy misleading humans. Those supernaturals that appear as moving lights and whose sole function is to mislead- wills of the wisp, Jack o’ Lanterns, Goblin Lanterns and such like- will not be my concern here. This reflects a fairly clear subdivision of types, but it is not perfect or binding. Pucks and Pooks in England and South Wales can often appear in all respects like a will of the wisp, although we know them to be more complex characters in addition to this (see for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, 23).
Pixie-leading is a longstanding fairy practice that is well attested in literature. It can be traced back to the early fourteenth century. Jeremy Harte in Exploring Fairy Traditions (p.26) records a preacher’s sermon that describes one who has been “led at nyght with gobelyn, and erreth hider and thider.” The references multiply from the seventeenth century, for example from Francis Rous, who in his religious text Meditations of Instruction of 1616 compared those who pursue material wealth to:
“they [that] shall stumble into the same ditches, wherein they have seene many of their neighbours wallowing. This makes sport for the divel, and thus is man most truly fayry-led, even led aside by the spirits of darknesse…”
In an identical tone, Thomas Heyrick, in The New Atlantis of 1687, mentioned those who “Vainly like wilder’d men should wander round/ Be lost in senceless shapes on fairy ground” (p.51). Likewise, Beaumont and Fletcher in their play Wit at Several Weapons (c.1620), have a character complain:
“My ways are goblin led and the night elf still draws me from my home.” (II, 2)
Writing in the first half of the 1600s, poet Robert Herrick, a Devonshire parson, advised:
“If ye feare to be affrighted
When ye are (by chance) benighted,
In your Pocket for a trust
Carrie nothing but a Crust:
For that holy piece of Bread,
Charmes the danger, and the dread.”
Christopher Clobbery, who wrote in 1659, warned of “fairy elves who thee mislead … in to the mire, then at thy folly smile/ Yea, clap their hands for joy.” The remedy he advised was simple: “Old country folk, who pixie-leading fear/ Bear bread about them, to prevent harm.”
In the English Midlands, we know from Jabez Allies that you were not pixie-led but ‘poake-ledden,’ something which seems to be confirmed by the experience of Bishop Richard Corbet (author of the poem Rewards and Fairies), who became lost near Bosworth in 1640. He and his party were advised then to “Turne your cloakes/ … for Pucke is busy in these oakes./ If ever wee at Bosworth will be found/ Then turn your cloakes, for this is fairy ground.”
What is Pixie-Leading?
To be pixie-led is a very well-known phrase, but what does it actually entail? There are, in fact, at least half a dozen different experiences which are classed under this heading.
Changing the landscape or hiding the path
Using glamour so that the human victim no longer recognises where they are is the commonest way to confuse and lead astray a person. A few accounts will exemplify this: Once a Week magazine in 1867 reported how a young farmer was pixie-led one evening in an orchard, where he was trapped for two hours. In a Welsh incident, two young women returning to Llandysul from Lampeter fair were led in a field next to their home. They were lost for hours on a bright moonlit night, yards from their house. Lastly, a Cornish man called Glasson, making the short walk from Ludgvan to Gulval near Penzance, got completely lost and went in circles. In all these cases, and more, a familiar place became strange; land marks disappeared and panic set in.
Sometimes, the change made is to conceal the gate out of a field. Often, again, the enclosed space is very familiar to the victim and the moon may be shining, but the means of escape seems to vanish. To add to this, in several Cornish accounts the pixies also frustrate their victims’ attempts to get free by raising the field hedge whenever he finds a lower part he might have been able to climb over (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.1, p.57 and Enys Tregarthen, Folklore Tales, ‘The Enchanted Field’ (1911)).
In one case, something similar happened inside a house. A Welsh man woke up to see fairies in his bedroom dancing and eating. He tried to wake his wife, but couldn’t, and for four hours just had to watch the festivities. Eventually, the fairies left and he got out of bed to try to see where they had gone. However, he couldn’t find the bedroom door; it was only when he cried out in panic and woke the rest of his family that the spell was broken. For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.
Mist and Fog
The pixies are known for their ability to control the weather and this can be used as a way of trapping victims. Men travelling across Dartmoor from Crediton to Exeter were advised that, if a cloud descended, they should strip and sit on their clothes for half an hour or so. The pixies would in due course raise the fog thrown around them. Patience is evidently important in such cases. A woman on the Quantocks became demented with terror when the pixies caused an evening mist to rise suddenly around her, so that she was lost in a field minutes away from her home. For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.
The pixies may lure people away from their route with music, thereby getting them lost. This has been reported in Devon and in North Wales.
Just as a person may become trapped in a familiar field, they may step into a fairy ring and fall into the fairies’ power. A Somerset farmer coming home from market was led like this until he ended up exhausted by a briar bush that grew in three counties- a plant which magical properties that seems to have broken the spell he was under. Cornish fairy author Enys Tregarthen has called rings ‘Spriggan Traps.’
Perhaps related to this phenomenon is that of following a ‘piskey-path.’ Enys Tregarthen also described how these mysterious green paths can be seen on cliffs or meandering across the moors, still verdant when the bracken is dry and brown. Writing in 1630 in his View of Devonshire, Thomas Westcote mentioned how a person who got lost on Dartmoor would be “led in a pixy-path.” Here there is some definite, if unclear, link between these paths and being pixie-led.
In one Cornish story a man called Nicholas Annear was punished by the pixies for always rushing and hurrying. One day, he set out for market with his horse and cart. The pixies made it appear that the church tower at his destination was ahead, but he never got there. He drove his cart all day and never arrived.
Who do they pixies do this? They seem to have several motivations. Above all, there’s their love of mischief; they need no reason as such, other than the pleasure in mildly tormenting humans. However, they may feel the person needs to be punished for some reason (as in the case of Nicholas Annear above). If they have been insulted by a person, s/he will be targeted in revenge. For example, a North Yorkshire man who declared that he’d catch a fairy in a bottle was led astray for two hours as a result of his foolhardy boldness. Someone who has taken the fairies’ property will suffer too. A man from Bishop’s Lydeard in the Quantock Hills picked up a fairy grindstone as he was out walking and decided to keep it. A mist descended upon him and he was led through brambles all night. A woman from Selworthy parish on the Exmoor coast of Somerset saw a group of pixies; they were so upset by her intrusion that they led her all over the moor and through the woods. Any trespass upon the fairies’ privacy is bitterly resented.
An isolated example of retribution for trespass comes from Orkney, at the diametrically opposite end of the British Isles to Devon and Cornwall, where most of the accounts are located. In Redland parish on the mainland of Orkney there was a grass ‘gait’ (or path) used by the trows when passing from their hill to the sea shore at twilight. Two men in search of a midwife crossed the path one evening; for this disrespectful act one of them was led far astray by the trows.
Predictably, the pixie attitude to leading someone out of their way is great amusement. They are often said to be heard laughing or, even, clapping their hands with glee. They might sometimes be seen jumping about in front of the victim, mocking their situation (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 184). A clear indication of the blurring of differences between wills of the wisp and pixie-leading fairies is a description of the Dorset Jack o’ Lantern, who is seen as a ball of light hopping before a person and which sniggers and laughs if a victim is successfully lured into a pond; something very similar was described in Cornish story by Enys Tregarthen (Why Jen Pendogget Changed his Mind (1940)).
As for the human victims, how do they react? Inevitably, they will end up exhausted, frustrated and panic-stricken. They are often said in Cornwall to be left “mizzy-mazey” (Enys Tregarthen, The Enchanted Field). In Devon, the victim is said to be ‘mazed’ as a result, a neat term that is suggestive of being both amazed and lost (in a maze).
The consequences of being pixie-led can be much more serious, though. We’ve heard about terror and a loss of wits. A man who was pixie-led on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset had to be rescued after he was lured into a bog. He was ill for quite some time after this experience. A Devonshire man crossing Dartmoor near Chudleigh was pixie-led by the sound of music. He wandered for hours, trying to locate the source, and eventually collapsed in a faint. When he came round the next morning, he was able to make his way home, but he took to his bed, never rose again and soon afterwards died. In like manner a Welsh man, John Jacob of Bedwellty, was led astray by the fairies one night, following shapes that appeared and then vanished. At last he came to a neighbour’s house and was saved, but he was rendered mute by the experience and soon sickened and died.
If you are pixie-led, what can you do to free yourself? There are several tried and tested remedies.
Turning your clothes
The best known and easiest remedy is to turn an item of clothing- a hat might be turned back to front or a coat, pocket, glove or stocking might be turned inside out. It seems likely that this is effective because it changes your appearance and throws the pixies off the scent or releases you from the enchantment that traps you in a fairy ring. Wise travellers turn their clothes before they set out, so that they will be safe from enchantment throughout their journey. It’s worth adding, though, that in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Who Rode in a Pocket, the pixie’s presence in the victim’s clothing is the cause of their wandering astray- and the spell is only broken when she turns her pockets, thereby ejecting the mischievous passenger.
Making a Noise
Attracting the attention of other people who’ve not fallen under the pixie spell will work. This is effective in two ways. Either the rescuer calls out in reply to help guide the victim to safety or the pixie-led person makes a noise which attracts rescuers to where she or he is stranded. For instance, Abraham Stocke in Somerset had said that he had no time for pixies. They led him into a swamp one night when he was walking home from brass band practice. Luckily, he had his euphonium with him and was able to play it to alert his family and guide them to him. A person simply coming along and startling the victim out of their bemusement can often be enough to release them (for examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies).
It can help to carry something with you to protect yourself against pixie charms during your travels. This could be a cross made from rowan wood, a piece of bread (as we’ve seen already) or a sprig of the plant greater stitchwort. Rowan, or mountain ash, are also well-known for repelling supernaturals beings of all kinds (witches included). The stitchwort is more unusual and seems to be a uniquely Devonian remedy. The flower is called ‘pixies’ in the county and it is believed to be the special property of the pixies. Picking it will upset them, but apparently carrying it with you somehow has the effect of deflecting rather than attracting their ill-will.
Water (as often) can release the bewildered person. Drinking the water from Fitz’s Well, near Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, dispels the glamour cast by the local pixies. Apparently any running water may have the same effect and, in fact, it is possible that falling in a stream might be sufficient to break the spell.
Summary & Further Reading
Pixie-leading is only really something to be concerned about if you’re out walking in unfamiliar places in Cornwall or Devon. The open moors are the likeliest locations, places where getting lost is, in any case, a considerable risk unless you’re well equipped with a map and compass. Outside this area, it is a remote risk: as we’ve seen from the folklore, there are only isolated cases from North Wales, North Yorkshire and Orkney.
In many ways, as I’ve described, the fairies can treat humans like their playthings and pixie-leading is one of the most acute examples of this. Unlike abductions, though, it is generally a very short-term and harmless experience. People can occasionally be led to perilous spots, such as marshes or cliff tops, and a few react very seriously to the stress of the experience, but for most it is an annoyance and a bit of a fright, but no more.
For another examination of the subject, see Simon Young’s article Pixy Led in Devon and the South West, which is available through Academia.com. I have, of course, read this, but in writing this posting I deliberately sought to reach my own conclusions based on the evidence that I had uncovered. Simon had access to a range of other sources and therefore reaches other useful conclusions on the subject. My posting on Glamour Housesdeals with a related phenomenon, though admittedly a deception by the fairies undertaken for benign purposes. My book, British Pixies, also examines the theme of pixy-leading in detail and in the wider context of pixie behaviour overall.
The Fairy Investigation Society‘s recent Fairy Census, published in January this year and covering 2014-2017, is a fascinating snapshot of contemporary perceptions of the fairy realm. As I have already discussed, there is much that is new in modern fairy sightings, but there is also much that seems to come straight from traditional folklore sources, mixed up with the more contemporary and anomalous experiences. There are quite a few experiences which would be very familiar to our ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although the examples of each are all quite limited in number.
The sorts of aspects of Faery I’m discussing here tend to be those that sit less well with the benign image of fays that has become so prevalent now. Here are a few examples:
Hiding or moving things– the mischievous removal or concealment of personal possessions, often keys or jewellery, was reported a few times;
Pixie-led– in a second manifestation of fairy mischief, there was a handful of cases in which individuals found themselves lost or going in circles in a familiar place or within a small area where the exits were nearby and clear;
Abductions– in only ten cases (1% of the total) there seemed to have been an attempt to abduct a person (half involved adults and half children). Several times a strong feeling of compulsion was reported, often tempered by a sense of fear- even in situations where the fairies’ conduct was not in itself threatening: for example, they seemed to be dancing or playing;
Time distortion– it’s well known that time can pass very differently in Faery and this was mentioned in several reports. Most often hours were lost or unaccounted for. Memorably, one witness described the sensation as “time felt twisty” (no.225);
Music– traditional accounts very frequently link music and dancing with fairy sightings. In the Census music was heard in only 11% of cases. In half of these bells the music came from bells, although sounds like pipes, voices and drums were also reported. Six of the witnesses compared what they heard to Irish or ‘Celtic’ music. As regular readers may recall, ceol sidheis an especially Irish phenomenon;
Conventional terms were often resorted to as a frame of reference or as a label for what the person experienced. Mention is quite often made in the Census of pixies, dryads, elves, gnomes, dwarves, leprechauns, brownies and goblins. The traditional dress associated with these were reasonably common too- clothes of green, red and brown and caps, quite often pointed. The most interesting of these accepted fairy ‘types’ were the four mentions of ‘banshees.’ The being’s hollow, mourning cry was what provoked the identification; in two of the cases, a death was felt to be directly related to the premonition; and,
Fairy temperament– many contemporary writers describe faes as kind, friendly and helpful- full of good will to humans and to the natural world. The older idea of fairy character was generally a lot darker and echoes of this are to be found in some of the Census cases. Witnesses sensed anger, hostility and even outright malice in about 3% of cases; they felt fear in 6%. In one instance in the Census- and one in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies– there was an impression that the fairy was mocking the human for some reason (Census no.475; Johnson p.24). Balancing these negative emotions, there were also a few reports in which the human sensed the fairy’s interest or curiosity in them or what they were doing.
Elsie Wright again
The Census therefore presents us with an intriguing combination of traditional and wholly novel elements. Only a few of the encounters involve interaction, so that the majority are descriptions of brief sightings (frequently of flying beings). Nevertheless we come away with the impression that fairy encounters are an evolving body of law, with new perceptions or reactions added to the older understandings.
See too my posting on who believes in fairies for some further discussion of the Census statistics and their breakdown by age and gender.