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

‘Up Hill and Down Dale’- Pixy-Led in the West Country: a study of pixy tricks

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Robert Anning Bell, The Will of the Wisp

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).

History

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.

Hiding Gates

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.

Music

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.

Fairy Rings

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.

Never Arriving

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.

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Alan Lee

Pixie Motives

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.

Pixie Pleasures

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)).

Human Responses

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.

Remedies

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).

Other Remedies

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 Houses deals with a related phenomenon, though admittedly a deception by the fairies undertaken for benign purposes.  My book, British Pixiesalso examines the theme of pixy-leading in detail and in the wider context of pixie behaviour overall.

Nightmares and fairies

fusli
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

There is a little explored link between fairies and nightmares, an association expressed very well in one of the most famous fairy texts, Mercutio’s description of fairy queen Mab in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  She is (as Shelley crowned her in his poem Queen Mab) the queen of dreams, both good and bad:

 “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

that presses them and learns them first to bear,

making them women of good carriage.” (Act I, scene 4)

It’s pretty evident here that Shakespeare sees Mab as having a sexual function.  She educates- and maybe even seduces- virgin girls, teaching them how to perform in bed.  That bearing, or carriage, is not about deportment but about receiving a lover lying on top.

In this passage, Mab is called a ‘hag,’ and to be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares. ‘The hagge’ was imagined as a hideous witch who sat on a sleeper’s stomach, causing bad dreams.  The notion of compression was a very early one, as we see from the South English Legendary of about 1300:

“Þe luþere gostes …deriez men in heore slep… And ofte huy ouer-liggez [men], and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare.”

“The evil ghosts harm men in their sleep and often lie on top of them, which people call ‘the night-mare.’”

There’s a supernatural cause here, but not a fairy one.  However, by the early seventeenth century the fae nature of the affliction was established.  For example, in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, one of Robin’s companions, Gull the Fairy, explains how:

“Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”

The victim’s experience is described in The Holly Bush of 1646:

“the nightmare hath prest,

With that weight on their breast,

No returnes of their breath can pass.”

The sixteenth century Scots poem, My Heart is High Above, likewise conveys some sense of how the experience feels: “Then languor on me lies, like Morpheus the mair.”  Devon poet, Robert Herrick, in his poem, The Hag, also described the sensation of a being riding the sleeper:

“The Hag is astride,

This night for to ride;

The Devill and shee together:”

In their 1621 play Thierry and Theodoret, playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher emphasise the unpleasant and exhausting nature of the experience:

“goblins ride me in my sleep to jelly.” (I, 2)

However, the sensation he depicted also has something of pixy-leading about it, as well as reminding us of the stories of fairies actually riding human victims at night for want of an available horse:

“A Thorn or a Burr She takes for a Spurre:
With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
Through Brakes and through Bryars,
O’re Ditches, and Mires,
She followes the Spirit that guides now.”
    
    miles johnston

Miles Johnston

In these versions, the pressure and shortness of breath are associated with fear rather than sexual activity and arousal, but there was great confusion between the two aspects of the nightmare.  We see this in William Sampson’s 1636 play The Vow Breaker- or the Fair Maid of Clifton in Nottinghamshire, when Ursula remarks to Anne:

“you us’d to say Hobgoblins, Fairies and the like were nothing but our own affrightments and yea, oh my Cuz, I once dreamed of a young batchelor and was ridden with a Nightmare.”

Here we elide seamlessly from fairies to nightmares to sexual fantasy within a single sentence.  In Drayton’s Nymphidia the sensual nature of the sensation is addressed more explicitly:

“And Mab, his merry queen, by night,

Bestrides young folk that lie up-right,

(in older times the mare that hight.)”

In both passages, the poets’ bawdiness is barely concealed.  Ursula being ridden by her lusty young batchelor and the ‘up-right’ wet-dreamers of Drayton are almost solely concerned with erotic dreams rather than horror.  This sexual aspect of the nightmare is underlined by Edward Topsell in his Historie of Serpents, where he mentions “The spirits of the night, called Incubi and Succubi, or else Night-mares.” (p.173)  These two spirits were believed to be supernatural lovers who came to men and women during the night.

The Victorian magazine, Once A Week, in 1867 carried a feature on Devonshire pixies, which informed its readers that they had control over sleeper’s fantasies: “Some may bring nightmares and others sweet dreams.”  Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given that the pixies of the South West can control the weather and use their powers of glamour to change landmarks and ‘pixy-lead’ victims.

The intertwining of faeries and good and bad dreams is highlighted lastly in Cartwright’s play of 1635, The Ordinary, in which Moth prays that:

“St Francis and St Benedict,

Blesse this house from wicked wight,

From the Nightmare and the Goblin,

That is hight Goodfellow Robin…” (Act III, scene 1)

Here it is Robin Goodfellow himself, otherwise known as Puck, who takes on the role of the wicked wight who brings bad dreams and disturbed sleep.

The word ‘mare’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon mære/ mæra, and derives from a verb meaning ‘to crush.’  In modern English it has fallen together with the word for a female horse (Anglo-Saxon mere).  The words have entirely separate origins, although the sense of riding presumably encouraged them to be mixed up.  It seems this confusion worked in several directions: for instance, in 1696 John Aubrey in his Miscellanies described precautions taken to “prevent the Night-Mare (viz.) the Hag from riding their Horses.”  Fairies are known for taking horses from stables and riding them at night and Aubrey (or perhaps country people he spoke to) understandably, but mistakenly, expanded the term for a fairy dream to cover another well-known fairy activity.

the end

Further Reading

In more recent times, fairies have come to be associated with much sweeter dreams- as in Rose Fyleman’s verse Fairy Lullaby for a Mortal which imagines the faes bringing dreams and brushing away darkness with their “soft, soft wings.”  These literary and nursery visions of gentle and benign Faery are a long way from earlier perceptions.

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of Queen Mab and see my Fayerie for more on her role in Tudor and Jacobean verse.

‘The House on Selena Moor’- a story analysed

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A view west towards Silena Moor (in the valley) today

Here is an annotated version of this fascinating text, taken from William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series, Penzance 1873, pp.94-102

“When the ancient family of Noy flourished in Buryan, there was a large tract of unenclosed common, belonging to the farms of Pendrea, Selena, and Tresidder, which extended from Cotnewilly to Burnewhall, and branched off in other directions. Great part of this ground was swampy and produced a rank growth of rushes, water-flags, and coarse herbage. Many acres were gay in summer with cotton-grass, bog-beans, cucco-flowers, and other plants usually found in such soil. In some places were dry rocky banks overgrown with sloe-trees, moor-withey, furze, and brambles; these patches being surrounded by a broad extent of quaking bog or muddy soil appeared like islands in a marsh. There were also many springs, rivulets, and pools, that seldom froze, much frequented by wild-fowl in winter. Great part of this moorland was then impassable; horse-tracks leading to Burnewhall, Selena, and other farms, passed over the driest places, and were continued by rough causeways through swamps;—they were very bad roads at all seasons.

[Silena Moor is still to be found in Penwith, to the west of Newlyn on the main B3315 road to Land’s End.  It is to the south west of St Buryan and is an area of rough grass and scrub, as can just about be seen in the above photo.]

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The menhir overlooking Silena moor

“One afternoon in harvest, Mr. Noy, with some of his men, were over to Burnewhall helping his kinsfolk, the Pendars. As more hands were required for the next day, which was to be the gulthise (harvest home), soon after ‘croust‘ time (lunch time) he rode up to Church-town to get them…

Soon after ‘day-down’ Mr. Noy, followed by his dogs, left the public-house intending to return to Burnewhall, but he didn’t arrive there that night nor the next. The Pendars and their people thought he might have enjoyed himself at the Ship Inn till late, and then have gone home to Pendrea. Mr. Noy had no wife nor anybody else to be much alarmed about him, as he was a middle-aged or rather elderly bachelor. But next day when people from Church-town, Pendrea, and scores of neighbours from other farms, came with their horses to help and to feast at the gulthise, and nobody among them had seen or heard of Mr. Noy from the time he left the inn, they got somewhat uneasy; … Dame Pendar sent messengers round to all places where she thought Mr. Noy might have gone, and they returned, just as the feast was breaking up, without any tidings of him.

Then everyone became anxious, and as it was near daybreak they volunteered to disperse and search in every place they could think of before going to bed.  So away they went, some on horseback, others afoot, to examine mill-pools, stream-works, cliffs, and other dangerous places, near and far away. They returned at night, but nobody had seen or heard of the missing gentleman. Next morning horsemen were dispatched to other parishes, and as Mr. Noy was well known and liked there was a general turn out to hunt for him; but this day, too, was passed in a like fruitless search miles away.

On the third day, however, in the grey of the morning, a horse was heard to neigh, and dogs were heard barking among thickets on a piece of dry ground almost surrounded with bogs and pools, on Pendrea side of Selena Moor.  Now it happened that no one had thought of looking for Mr. Noy in this place so near home, but when with much ado, a score or so of men discovered a passable road into this sort of island in the bogs, there they saw Mr. Noy’s horse and hounds; the horse had found plenty of pasture there, but the dogs, poor things, were half-starved. Horse and dogs showed their joy, and led the way through thorns, furze, and brambles—that might have grown there hundreds of years—till they came to large ‘skaw’ [elder] trees and the ruins of an old bowjey [cowshed] or some such building that no one knew of.

[Note the presence of fairy elder trees at the remote spot where Noy is found.  The description of the spot as an ‘island’ may have resonances with the wider Celtic concept of faery as a normally inaccessible island in the sea]

“The horse stopped at what had been a doorway, looked around and whinnied; the dogs, followed by several people, pushed through the brambles that choked the entrance, and within they found Mr. Noy lying on the ground fast asleep. It was a difficult matter to arouse him; at last he awoke, stretched himself, rubbed his eyes, and said,

‘Why you are Burnewhall and Pendrea folks; however are ye all come here? To-day is to be the gulthise, and I am miles and miles away from home. What parish am I in? How could ‘e have found me? Have my dogs been home and brought ‘e here?’

Mr. Noy seemed like one dazed as we say, and all benumbed as stiff as a stake, so without staying to answer his questions, they gave him some brandy, lifted him on horseback, and left his steed to pick its way out, which it did readily enough, and a shorter one than they discovered.

[Note his physical and mental state– a good indicator of his recent contact with faerie.  Waking up in a strange place after a fairy encounter is a very common scene, especially to be found in Welsh stories of visits to unknown houses and inns on the moors.]

“Though told he was on his own ground, and less than half a mile from Burnewhall, he couldn’t make out the country as he said, till he crossed the running water that divides the farms. “But I am glad,” said he “however it came to pass, to have got back in time for the gulthise.” When they told him how the corn was all carried three days ago, he said they were joking, and wouldn’t believe it till he had seen all in the mowhay [barn] under thatch and roped down; that the loose straw was raked up, and all harvest implements put away till next season.”

[We have the classic lapse of time here, something that typifies the difference between Faery and the human world.  The mention of crossing streams may also be an indicator of a transition from faery back to the normal world.]

“Then whilst breakfast was getting ready, seated on a chimney-stool by a blazing fire, he told his neighbours that when he came to Cotnewilly, the night being clear, he thought he might as well make a short cut across the moor and save nearly a mile- as he had often done before in summer time- instead of going round by the stony bridle-path; but his horse, that was pretty much used to finding his own way when his master was tipsy, wanted to keep the usual road, and his rider, to baulk him, pulled farther off towards Pendrea side of the common than he would otherwise have done, and went on till he found himself in a part that was unknown to him; though he had been, as he thought, over every inch of it that man or beast could tread on, both in winter and summer. Getting alarmed at the strange appearance of everything around him, he tried in vain to retrace his steps, then gave the horse its head, and let it take its own course.

[This stumbling into a strange place in a familiar landscape is a very good example of the experience of being ‘pixy-led’.]

“Yet, instead of proceeding homeward, as was dobbin’s wont, it bore Mr. Noy to a land so crowded with trees that he had to alight and lead his steed. After wandering miles and miles, sometimes riding but oftener afoot, without seeing any habitation in this strange place, which he believed must be out of Buryan but in what parish he couldn’t tell, he at last heard strains of lively music, and spied lights glimmering through the trees and people moving about, which made him hope that he had arrived at some farm where they had a gulthise, and the harvest-folks were out, after supper, dancing in the town-place.

[Pretty obviously, Noy has crossed now into fairyland. This music and feasting is either some fairy event he has stumbled upon or is deliberately set up to lure him to them.]

“His dogs slunk back, and the horse wasn’t willing to go on, so he tied him to a tree, took his course through an orchard towards the lights, and came to a meadow where he saw hundreds of people, some seated at tables eating and drinking with great enjoyment apparently, and others dancing reels to the music of a crowd or tambourine—they are much the same thing—this was played by a damsel dressed in white, who stood on a heaping-stock just beside the house door, which was only a few paces from him.”

[The white dress may be indicative of fairy nature- and of course the reluctance of the dogs and horse to approach demonstrates their keener sense of otherworldliness- but then, they’ve not been in the Star Inn for several hours and they’re a good deal more alert than Mr Noy probably is as he comes upon this faery celebration.  Across Britain, the faeries are renowned for their love of feasting, music and dance, all of which are good ways of trapping unwary humans too.]

“The revellers, farther off, were all very smartly decked out, but they seemed to him, at least most of them, to be a set of undersized mortals; yet the forms and tables, with the drinking-vessels on them, were all in proportion to the little people. The dancers moved so fast that he couldn’t count the number of those that footed jigs and reels together, it almost made his head giddy only to look at their quick and intricate whirling movements.”

[We’re dealing here with pixies or ‘an pobel vean’ the little people of Cornwall.  As in many British stories, this is an encounter with small faeries– child height or less.]

“Noy noticed that the damsel who played the music was more like ordinary folks for stature, and he took her to be the master’s daughter, as, when one dance was ended, she gave the crowd to a little old fellow that stood near her, entered the house, fetched therefrom a black-jack [a leather jug], went round the tables and filled the cups and tankards that those seated, and others, handed to be replenished. Then, whilst she beat up a new tune for another set of dancers, Mr. Noy thought she cast a side-glance towards him; the music, he said, was so charming and lively that to save his soul he couldn’t refrain from going to join the dancers in a three-handed reel, but the girl with a frown and look of alarm, made a motion with her head for him to withdraw round a corner of the house out of sight. He remained gazing, however, and still advancing till she beckoned to the same little old man, to whom she spoke a few words, gave him the crowd to play, and leaving the company, went towards the orchard signalling to Mr. Noy to follow her, which he did. When out of the candle-glare and in a clear spot where moonlight shone, she waited for him. He approached and was surprised to see that the damsel was no other than a farmer’s daughter of Selena, one Grace Hutchens, who had been his sweetheart for a long while, until she died, three or four years ago; at least he had mourned her as dead, and she had been buried in St. Buryan Churchyard as such.”

[Grace is a fairy captive, a servant at the celebration rather than a participant.  She knows the danger of Noy joining in the dance, which is a classic way of being ‘taken.’]

“When Mr. Noy came within a yard or so, turning towards him, she said, ‘thank the stars, my dear William, that I was on the look-out to stop ye, or you would this minute be changed into the small people’s state like I am- woe is me.’ He was about to kiss her, ‘Oh, beware!” she exclaimed, “embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing. You may think it strange, yet it was all through my love for you that I am come to this.'”

[‘Changed into the fairy state‘ is a very important phrase.  Long presence in faery,  and especially consumption of food and drink there, will alter you both physically and mentally.  It’s interesting in this account that even touching one of the inhabitants can have the same effect.]

“‘People believed, and so it seemed, that I was found on the moor dead; it was also supposed that I must have dropped there in a trance, as I was subject to it. What was buried for me, however, was only a changeling, or sham body, never mine I should think, for it seems to me that I feel much the same still as when I lived to be your sweetheart.'”

[Abduction of people and livestock by a faked death, and the leaving behind of a ‘stock’ is a strategy used across Britain by the fays.  A log or plant stem might be used for people, or a slaughtered cow’s hide might be stuffed- or even left behind with an elderly elf hidden within.]

“As she said this several little voices squeaked, “Grace, Grace, bring us more beer and cider, be quick!”

[Note the small voices to go with the small bodies of the pobel vean- and their treatment of Grace as a slave.]

“‘Follow me into the garden, and remain there behind the house; be sure you keep out of sight, and don’t for your life, touch fruit or flower,’ said she, in conducting out Mr. Noy, who desired her to bring him a tankard of cider too. ‘No, my love, not for the world,’ she replied, ‘await me here, I’ll soon return. Sad is my lot to be stolen from the living and made housekeeper to these sprites,’ murmured Grace, in quitting the garden.

Over a few minutes she returned to Mr. Noy, led him into a bowery walk, where the music and noise of merriment didn’t overpower their voices, and said, ‘you know, my dear Willy, that I loved you much, but you can never know how dearly.’

‘Rest yourself,’ she continued pointing to a stone, ‘on that seat, whilst I tell ye what you never dreamt of.’ Mr. Noy seated himself as desired, and Grace related how one evening, about dusk, she was out on Selena Moor in quest of strayed sheep, when hearing him, in Pendrea ground, halloo and whistle to his dogs, she crossed over towards the sound in hopes of falling in with him, but missed her way among ferns higher than her head, and wandered on for hours amidst pools and shaking bogs without knowing whither.

After rambling many miles, as it seemed to her, she waded a brook and entered an orchard, then she heard music at a distance, and proceeding towards it, passed into a beautiful garden with alleys all bordered by roses and many sweet flowers, that she had never seen the like of. Apples and other tempting fruit dropped in the walks and hung over head, bursting ripe.”

[Again there is the idea of crossing a stream as a boundary into faery, a place that has some connotations of the garden of Eden.]

“This garden was so surrounded with trees and water- coming in every here and there among them- that, like one ‘piskey-led,’ all her endeavours to find a way out of it were in vain. The music, too, seemed very near at times, but she could see nobody. Feeling weary and athirst, she plucked a plum, that looked like gold in the clear starlight; her lips no sooner closed on the fruit than it dissolved to bitter water which made her sick and faint. She then fell on the ground in a fit, and remained insensible, she couldn’t say how long, ere she awoke to find herself surrounded by hundreds of small people, who made great rejoicing to get her amongst them, as they very much wanted a tidy girl who knew how to bake and brew, one that would keep their habitation decent, nurse the changed-children (i.e. the changelings) that weren’t so strongly made as they used to be, for want of more beef and good malt liquor, so they said.”

[The music is a lure, yet has no definite source- a clear example of ‘ceol sidhe.’ The fairy food, we note, may seem enticing but is unsatisfactory- even unpleasant, when actually eaten. We note too the fairy preference for neatness in humans and their complaints about the weakening of human stock found in the stolen infants.]

“At first she felt like one entranced and hardly knew how to ‘find herself’ in such strange company; even then, after many years’ experience, their mode of life seemed somewhat unnatural to her, for all among them is mere illusion or acting and sham. They have no hearts, she believed, and but little sense or feeling; what serves them, in a way, as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals- may be thousands of years ago.  What appear like ruddy apples and other delicious fruit, are only sloes, hoggans (haws) and blackberries. The sweet scented and rare flowers are no other than such as grow wild on every moor.”

[In this story the fays seem to be our deceased ancestors; there is, too, the familiar use of ‘glamour‘ to deceive.]

“In answer to Mr. Noy’s enquiries about small people’s dietary, Grace told him how she sickened, at first, on their washy food of honey-dew and berries—their ordinary sustenance—and how her stomach felt so waterish that she often longed for a bit of salt fish. The only thing she relished was goat’s milk, ‘for you must have often heard,’ said she, ‘that these animals are frequently seen on moors, or among carns and in other out-of-the-way places, miles from their homes. They are enticed away by small people to nourish their babes and changelings. There’s a score or more of goats here at times. Those cunning old he-ones that often come among a flock—no one knows whence—and disappear with the best milkers, are the decoys, being small people in such shapes. One may often notice in these venerable long-beards, when seen reposing on a rock, chewing their cuds, a look of more than human craftiness and a sly witch-like glance cast from the corner of their eyes.'”

[This story is firmly of the opinion that faery is a place of scant pleasures, for its all superficial and unreal; the food sounds unappetising in the main, although the fairy love of dairy products, especially those of goats, is confirmed.  The fact that fairy food was insubstantial and unhealthy for a human reminds us of the story of the Suffolk Green Children, in which the reverse was the case.]

“Looking at Mr. Noy for a moment with a melancholy expression, Grace sighed and continued, ‘I am now getting used to this sort of life and find it tolerable, the more so because the whole tribe behave to me with great kindness, the elderly men above all; you observed that little fellow to whom I spoke and who now plays the tambourine, I desired him to tell the rest, in case they inquired for me, that I was gone to look after the children, and he is so much attached to me as to do or say anything I request.’ Seeing Mr. Noy look somewhat lowering, Grace exclaimed, ‘Oh! my dear Willy, don’t be such a noddy as to be jealous, for he’s no other than vapour, and what he is pleased to think love, is no more substantial than fancy.’

Mr. Noy asked if there were any children among them besides those they stole and replaced with changelings?

‘Very few indeed,’ she replied, ‘though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father. For you must remember they are not of our religion,’ said she, in answer to his surprised look, ‘but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them, anyhow the small tribe seem to think so. And the old withered ‘kiskeys’* of men that one can almost see through, like puffs of smoke, are vainer than the young ones. May the Powers deliver them from their weakly frames! And indeed they often long for the time when they will be altogether dissolved in air, and so end their wearisome state of existence without an object or hope.'”

* the kiskey is the dried up stalk of the kegga, the water hemlock.

Midsummer night's dream

[I have discussed fairy physiology in an early posting and have examined too fairies’ mortality: they are long lived but not immortal, it appears.  The statement about star worship was discussed in my article on fairy religionParticularly notable is the fact that the Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.  The references to fairy salvation are a late, Christian interpolation into fairy-lore, transferring to the Good Neighbours our own concerns about heaven and hell, beliefs that may well not be theirs.]

“Grace also told him—but he didn’t remember exactly the words she spoke—that she was the more content with her condition since she was enabled to take the form of any bird she pleased, and thus gratify her desire to be near him, so that when he thought of her but little suspected her presence; she was mostly hovering round and watching him in the shape of some common small bird. Grace assured Mr. Noy of her everlasting love, yet as long as nature would permit him to retain his mortal form she would rather behold him in flesh and blood, than see him changed to her state. She also told him, that when he died, if he wished to join her, they would then be united and dwell in this fairy-land of the moors.”

[Changes in shape and in size are characteristic, it seems, of Cornish fairies with spriggans able to swell rapidly to the size of a giant and the fairy master of Cherry of Zennor varying between tiny and normal human stature.  The fairy associations with birds and with insects have been discussed in previous posts.]

“Mr. Noy wanted to know much more about these strange beings, and was about to enquire, when they again called, ‘Grace, Grace, where art thou so long? Bring us some drink quickly.’ She hastily entered the house, and that moment it came into his head that he, too, would have some liquor, disperse the small tribe, and save Grace.

Knowing that any garment turned inside out and cast among such sprites would make them flee, and happening to put his hand into his coat pocket, he felt there the gloves that he had worn for binding in the afternoon; quick as thought, he turned one inside out, put into it a small stone, and threw it among them; in an instant they all vanished with the house, Grace, and all the furniture. He just had time to glance round, and saw nothing but thickets and the roofless house of an old bowjey, when he received a blow on his forehead that knocked him down, yet he soon fell asleep and dozed away an hour or two he thought.”

[Turning a garment, whether coat, glove or hat, is a tried and tested solution to being piskey-led.  Throwing the item of clothing- most especially gloves, adds potency to the charm.]

“Those to whom Mr. Noy related his story, said that he had learnt nothing new from Grace, for old folks always believed of the fair people such things as she told him, and they disliked to be seen, above all by daylight, because they then looked aged and grim. It was said, too, that those who take animal forms get smaller and smaller with every change, till they are finally lost in the earth as muryans (ants), and that they passed winter, for the most part, in underground habitations, entered from cleves or carns. And it is held that many persons who appear to have died entranced, are not really dead, but changed into the fairy state.”

[A repetition of some of the themes already highlighted- faery and death, the change in physical state experienced there plus a statement of the underground location of faery.  The celebration seen above ground seems more likely them to have been intended to catch Noy- or just to enjoy a warm summer evening.]

“The recovered gentleman further informed them that he had remarked amongst the small folks, many who bore a sort of family-likeness to people he knew, and he had no doubt but some of them were changelings of recent date, and others their forefathers who died in days of yore, when they were not good enough to be admitted into heaven, nor so wicked as to be doomed to the worst of all places. Over a while, it is supposed they cease to exist as living beings, for which reason fewer of them are now beheld than were seen in old times.”

[Seeing neighbours believed to be dead still alive in faery is a common theme- for example, the story of ‘The Tacksman of Auchriachan.’ There’s a trace here too of the idea that fairies are fallen angels who were caught between heaven and hell when the doors of each were closed.  It’s got mixed up with concepts of abduction and stocks, though.]

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail) or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

[This is a poignant statement of the sense of bereavement felt by many returned from faery.  This yearning to get back to the joys of faery, however compromised they may be, is seen too in the story of ‘Cherry of Zennor’ and James Hogg’s poem ‘Kilmeny‘ amongst many othersNoy hopes to stumble upon Grace and her captors again at evening time, one of the liminal points in the day.]

Cherry of Zennor

an enactment of the Cornish story of ‘Cherry of Zennor

Further Reading

See too my posts on Cherry of Zennor, Cornish fairy dancing and Cornish changelings.

“Some kind of joy”- the meaning of fairy encounters

frederick cotman, spellbound

Frederick Cotman, Spellbound

How does contact with the fairies affect us?  I have often mentioned the more negative aspects of meeting fairies on human health- the consequences, both physical and psychological, associated with being ‘elf addled.’

Shock & awe

These adverse outcomes can be real and life changing- here are two further examples from the Isle of Man: a man who spied on fairies dancing in an old kiln was taken ill, and was left unable to walk for the remainder of his life, whilst another who watched fairies dancing through the keyhole of a deserted cottage was blinded for his impertinence.  These are the extreme outcomes.  Definitely, the common responses are terror, bewilderment and, naturally, surprise.  In Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies we read these not untypical accounts:

“The physical reaction was that Mr X’s wife was so completely unnerved as to be almost hysterical… The boy said he felt ‘weird.'” (p.115)

“He said he was stunned by the sight and one occasion had gone into a kind of swoon… he seemed partially ‘fairy-struck.'” (p.116)

Some people certainly can find fairy encounters very draining and are left ill and exhausted for some time afterwards.

Very understandably, many people will be amazed, awed, entranced and fascinated by what is happening to them.  One man wrote in 1973 of a meeting with a gnome which made him “neither disturbed nor excited, just curious to know more about him.” (Janet Bord, Fairies, p.72)

Elation

However, in this posting I’m going to focus upon the pleasant and spiritual results of a fairy encounter.  Beyond the natural astonishment and shock, there are far more positive responses.

For instance, some men walking along a road on the Isle of Man one night met three huge fairies coming the other way.  As they passed them, they felt a curious sensation, ‘as if lifted up.’  This reaction is very far from unique.  We find it echoed in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies by witnesses who describe their elation, exhilaration and sense of enhanced health.  One felt “as light as air” afterwards; another “had a rather exciting feeling like being on a great height, but I was in no way afraid.”  (pp.31, 144, 156, 192, 251, 254 & 296)

hutton lear glimpse

Hutton Lear, A glimpse of the fairies

Calm

Also from Man comes the following experience, recounted by a Mr J H Kelly to Evans Wentz (Fairy Faith p.134).  The witness was walking back from Laxey to Douglas one moonlit night when he heard voices and “was conscious of being in the midst of an invisible throng.”  The strange feeling continued for the distance of a mile or so “There was no fear or emotion or excitement, but perfect calm on my part” he recalled.  Eventually he turned off the main road and “there was a sudden and strange quietness and a sense of isolation came over me, as though the joy and peace of my life had departed with the invisible throng.”  He was left convinced of the reality of the fairy folk.  In Seeing Fairies several witnesses mentioned the sense of peace or calm they felt.

Confirmation

As in the Laxey case, and as is quite predictable, a fairy encounter will often create a true believer.  For example, Dorothy Tompkins saw a flying being in her garden and said to herself:

“This is not a butterfly or anything else, it is a fairy.  I am absolutely sure, and nothing and nobody must ever make me doubt it.”

Another of Johnson’s informants described the sighting as an “enlightening experience.  I knew something first hand, which I had not known before.” (pp.44, 46, 66, 112, 181 & 318)

Similar was the experience of Cynthia Montefiore, recorded in 1977.  She was with her mother in the family garden in Somerset, when they both saw a fairy hovering in a rose bush.  “We went back to the house astonished and enriched by our mutual experience…” (Bord p.69)

Even if the witness isn’t changed, the encounter will very often stay with them for the remainder of their lives: “one of the most vivid experiences of my life” said one.  Equally, there can be sadness to have seen a fairy and then never to see one again, and a longing to go back to an age when we might have been more open to such visions.

Comfort and joy

Many of the first hand accounts sent to Marjorie Johnson recount the happiness, even joy, that the sightings gave.  Often, too, the individuals derived comfort from the encounters.  Several had been sad or worried before, but afterwards felt restored and reassured (for example, pp.45, 223 or 254).

These sensations can stay with you, too.  Consider for example the words of a Welsh woman who spoke to researcher Robin Gwyndaf (in Narvaez, The Good People, 1997, p.181).  She described how her knowledge of the reality of the tylwyth teg made her feel: “it gives you some kind of joy to think about it,” she told him.

Friendly

A Hampshire woman called Sylvia Pigeon saw a fairy in her garden.  She recalled that:

“She felt love and compassion coming from the creature, that ‘it was looking at me with some delight, I would say… I had a feeling of love and friendliness.’” (Bord p.71)

An assurance of friendliness was communicated to several of those who described their fairy encounters to Johnson.

Mccubbin, what the little girl saw in the bush

McCubbin, What the little girl saw in the bush

“Like seeing beyond this world”

These sensations of happiness, love and personal development must surely be part of the reason why people so often connect fairy encounters with religious meaning.  Not only are they in touch with an otherworld- they feel uplifted and enhanced by it.

The end of the experience may also abruptly terminate the feelings of joy, though.  We saw this in the earlier account from the Isle of Man; something similar was felt by two boys who met two fairy youths and their mother on a beach on the island of Muck in about 1910.  They spoke to the fairies for some time and even shared their food.  After a while the Scottish boys’ sister arrived and spoke to them- “the spell was broken and immediately they became fearful, though before they had felt happy.” It is fascinating how often the intrusion of an external individual is necessary to break the fairy enchantment, although this is usually the welcome release from being pixy-led: for example, a woman unable to find her way out of a field in Cornwall was only rescued when a farm boy came wandering past; an Irish woman being led off by a crowd of fairies could only escape them by calling to her son and a Welsh man who had awoken at night to find fairies dancing and feasting in his bedroom could only find his way out of the room by crying out in panic and awakening the rest of his family (Bord, pp.15, 123 & 128).

Faery music

A special mention should be made here of the impression caused by hearing fairy music.  I have described before the impact the ceol sidhe can have and it’s worth repeating now.  The combination of contact with supernatural forces, conveyed in a form that naturally affects the human senses and emotions, can be extremely powerful.  For example, one of Johnson’s witnesses said that hearing the high and plaintive sound of undines signing was: “so alluring that I was filled with a strange longing.” Another told her that the sweet, unearthly music “will never be effaced from my memory.” (pp.328 & 329)

Further Reading

I have discussed in several posts the beneficial influence of fairy belief upon human culture; I also examine the broader ‘psychological’ aspects in my books British Fairies (Green Magic, 2017) and Faery (Llewellyn, March 2020).

elsie-gregory-children-watching-fairies-dancing

 

‘Gaily trip the fairies’- dances and the devil

fairy dance in a clearing doyle

Richard Doyle, Fairy Dance in a Clearing

“The tripping Fayry tricks shall play” Drayton, Muse’s Elysium, 8th Nymphal

Fairies are notorious for their tripping habits, dancing around grassy rings in the moonlight.  These joyful activities have become central to their nature and a cliché of fairy verse, as illustrated by just a handful of examples:

“Ouphe and goblin! imp and sprite!

Elf of eve! and starry Fay!

Ye that love the moon’s soft light,

Hither, hither wend your way;

Twine ye in the jocund ring,

Sing and trip it merrily,

Hand to hand, and wing to wing,

Round the wild witch-hazel tree.”

The culprit fay, Joseph Rodman Drake

“Trip it over moss and rock
To the owlet’s elvish tune”
The little people, Julius Madison Cawein

Also in the poem There are fairies, Cawein assures us:

“There are faeries; verily;
Verily:
For the old owl in the tree,
Hollow tree,
He who maketh melody
For them tripping merrily,
Told it me.”

Lastly, in another of his verses, Son of the Elf, Cawein describes how fairies-

“Or, beneath the owlet moon,
Trip it to the cricket’s tune…”

This is all very pretty and quaint and tends to reinforce the view that sees fairies as charming and harmless, all leisure and no malice.  It’s not the whole story.

Pixie Perspectives

There is something more to this idea of tripping dances than just poetic conventions, though.  In Somerset the green fairy rings are called ‘gallitraps’ and we are told by Ruth Tongue that they are produced by the pixies riding colts in circles in the fields.  If you step into a gallitrap, you are entirely with the pixies’ power.  If you have one foot in and one out, you can see them, but you can still escape. (Somerset Folklore, 1965, p.115)

The word gallitrap is rare and unusual to us now, but it was once much more familiar, particularly in certain parts of Britain.  As Ruth Tongue’s example shows, the word was in common use in the south-west of England, in the counties of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Devon.  In that region the gallitrap (or gallytrap or gallowtrap) was a mystic green circle from which a guilty person, having once stepped, would only escape by being delivered to justice.  They could only exit from the circle into the arms of the law or else would become “infatuated to their own discovery” as one writer expressed it- the circle would have affected them and they would feel driven to confess or to expose their own guilt.

In several parishes in Devon the ‘gallitrap’ was a patch of land hedged about and considered uncanny.  Anyone ‘feyed’ (or fated) to be hung for a crime who entered one of these fields would then be unable to leave again but would instead wander round in circles, searching vainly for the gate or stile, until the local parson was called to release them (thence into the custody of a magistrate).  The field is then, quite literally, a ‘gallow-trap.’  In this example, many readers will identify the very close parallels between this process and the experience of being pixie-led and also the links to green places reserved for the faes that I recently discussed.

Although this conception of the gallitrap seems some way away from fairy rings, they are intimately connected.  In the story Two Men of Mendip by Walter Raymond (1879), this scene occurs:

“She held out her finger and traced upon the parched grass the greener round of a pixie ring.  ‘We be in a gallow-trap’ she laughed.  ‘If either of us have a’ done wrong, ‘tis sure to be brought to light.  He started as if struck unawares, then with a low cry he hid his face in his hands… The superstition that any man of crime stepping into a fairy circle should surely come to justice was thrust out of her mind.’ (p.230)

Another dialect source confirms that in Somerset the word ‘gyaalitrap’ referred to the familiar pixie-ring in meadows and pastures.

It appears that, in south-west England, the idea of the gallitrap was steadily extended.  Firstly, it came to signify any mysterious circle, shape or sign.  Mary Palmer, a mid-eighteenth century documenter of Devonshire dialect, recorded how one of her interviewees had watched the village parson in the wood to see if he “made any zerckles or gallytraps”- if he drew any shapes on the ground.  It came about in time that gallytraps might be drawn inside, on tables, just as much as on the ground outside.  In turn, once the word was associated more with odd shapes than with grassy rings, it began to be applied to anything that was a bit misshapen, so that in due course in Gloucestershire the word was applied to frightful ornaments or head-dresses that people wore, or even to badly made tools.

fairy ring

Doyle, Fairy Ring

Highland Flings

There is then a large geographical gap before we encounter the term again in Scotland.  The word ‘gillatryp’ (although it has been subject to metathesis and the vowels have been swapped around) seems to be identical to ‘gallytrap’ and definitely shares the same supernatural connotations.  The gillatryp was originally the name of a witches’ dance but was also used as a nickname for a suspected witch.  For example, the Kirk Session of Essill in 1731 heard that “Margaret H. (Gillatryps) in Garmouth compeared and decleared herself penitent for her indecent practices in unseemly dances on 26th December last.”

A century and a half earlier, we see the word employed in its original sense.  At Elgin in 1596, “Magie Tailȝeour [and] Magie Thomsoune … confessit thame to be in ane dance callit gillatrype, singing a foull hieland sang…”

According to Isobel Goudie in 1662, the ‘maiden’ of the witches’ coven at Auldearn was nicknamed ‘Over the dyke with it’ because:

“The Devill [alwayis takis the] maiden in his hand nixt him, quhan they daunce Gillatrypes; and as they couped they would cry ‘over the dyke with it.”

These last examples link us back to our starting point, a dance with supernatural beings.  That appears to be the core of this word’s meaning and, whether linked to fairies, witches or to the devil, they were ill-omened things.

Further Reading

Readers may wish to refer to Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary or to George Henderson’s Folklore of the Northern Counties, p.278, footnote 2- information supplied on Devon by Sabine Baring-Gould. For more on the danger of faery rings, see my Darker Side of Faery, 2021; for further discussion of faery rings, take a look at my Faeries in the Natural World (2021):

darker side

Natural World

Lewis Carroll on pixies

pixie brian froud

One of Brian Froud’s bad fairies.

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

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

Zoological papers: Pixies

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

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

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

(2) Or any other step.

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

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

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

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

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

pixy

Another Froud pixie

Further reading

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