Spying on Faeries

There are many aspects of human behaviour to which fairies take exception, such as meanness, rudeness and untidiness, but spying upon their activities is especially enraging to them.  They value their privacy above all things. Although I recently noted how much the faeries hate those who doubt or mock their existence, it seems that the opposite is just as unwelcome: being too interested in them is disliked just as much as disbelief. Striking the right balance can be very hard indeed for us humans (consider here the story of a Manx midwife who was offered two cakes to eat by the faeries, one broken and one whole; she was told to eat as much as she liked, so long as it wasn’t the cake that was broken- or the whole one… Evans Wentz 127). A handful of examples of faery reactions to spying is offered here.

Many reports of the fairies’ vicious reactions to discovering that their private activities have been overlooked come from the Isle of Man.  For example, some men riding home at night saw a light in an old kiln.  One looked inside and saw a great crowd assembled but, almost instantly, the light went out and the witness was seized with sickness and found he could not walk.  A similar Manx account ends even more unfortunately.  Two men were walking home over the mountains at night when they passed an old, ruined cottage that was then being used as a cattle byre.  However, on that night they heard music emanating from the house.  The windows had been blocked up with turfs so one of the men peered through the keyhole of the door instead.  He saw fairies dancing- but was seen himself almost immediately.  The fiddler at the gathering jabbed the spy in his eye with his bow- and he was blinded from that date.

Such reactions were by no means unique to the Manx fairies.  A Hertfordshire folktale, The Green Lady, concerns a girl who set out to seek her fortune and is given work as a housemaid by the fairy woman of the title (the story bears close resemblances to the Cornish story of Cherry of Zennor– and the several related accounts).  The maid is warned not to eat the food in the house and not to spy on the activities of her mistress.  The girl proves too nosey, though, and (like the Manx traveller) looks through the keyhole of one of the rooms on the woman’s house.  Inside, the Green Lady is dancing with a bogey– and the maid loses her sight for this violation (although in this story she is able to restore her vision with a magic well in the grounds of the property).

In the Scottish Highlands, near Braemar, there lies the Big Stone of Cluny.  This has always been known to be a gathering place of the sith folk and, one night, a man saw a number of tiny figures dancing on top of the stone.  He watched for some time, as his fancy was taken by one fairy girl in particular, but she sensed his presence and flew at him in fury.  He only just had time to say a prayer and protect himself from what could have been permanent injury.  At Beddgelert in Snowdonia, another man spied upon the fairies when they were dancing.  This time, though, he fell asleep where he was concealed and, whilst he slumbered, was bound with ropes and covered with gossamer.  Search parties who looked for him the next day couldn’t see him and it was only the next night that the tylwyth teg freed him, after he had slept for a day and a half.

However much the faeries live in proximity to us- and are prepared to invade our homes and other buildings to use for their own purposes- they apply different rules and principles to themselves. Trespass upon human property, and constant listening in to human conversations, are perfectly acceptable, but the reverse is intolerable, whether it arose accidentally or deliberately. These dual standards, and the need constantly to keep on the right side of our Good Neighbours, has been a constant feature of British faerylore across the centuries.

The faeries’ adverse reactions to anything they consider to be incursions upon their rights and their privacy are described further in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

Fairy taboos- reflections on some posts by Morgan Daimler

watching the fairies, beatrice goldsmith

Beatrice Goldsmith, Watching the fairies, 1925

On her blog Living liminally, Morgan has written a useful series of posts giving guidelines to interaction between humans and faery.  I encourage readers to have a look at these and also at my own post on fairy temperament.  I’ll only offer a few supplementary remarks here.

Thanking fairies

Morgan’s first fairy taboo is never to say thank you.  This isn’t just a matter of avoiding verbal gratitude: gifts to fairies that acknowledged some obligation- or even suggest some reciprocity may exist between our two worlds- are as likely to offend.  I have mentioned before the inadvisability of giving clothes to brownies– this can at the very least drive them away, at the worst antagonise them to such a degree that become a blight upon a household.

Privacy

Morgan’s second post is on the taboo of privacy, something that is clearly closely related to the former.  All the evidence confirms that discretion in respect of fairy contact is the only advisable approach: they do not like boasting or talkativeness on the part of humans.  Perhaps it suggests that they are taken for granted; it certainly betrays their own secrecy and privacy.  As I have alluded to several times, disclosure by a person that they are favourites of the fairies almost invariably results in the termination of that favour.

Names

The proper and respectful use of names is the third taboo Morgan has covered.  Fairies’ names are a source of power and must be handled circumspectly.  As a rule it is better to avoid references that may draw their attention to you; if the fairies must be mentioned, euphemisms that are complimentary seem to be preferable.  As Morgan rightly observes, some of the labels chosen are merely descriptive, whether of the appearance of the supernatural being or of the location in which s/he is found; this neutral approach may well be safest.  It’s also worth emphasising, as she does in a separate post on the power of names, that keeping back your own name from the fairies is just as important (something illustrated by the Ainsel series of stories, such as that of Meg Moulach).  Fairies withhold their names from us to stop us getting power over them and the reverse is just as true; put simply, if they have a grievance against you, it’s harder for them to find you if they don’t have your name!  Nonetheless, I’ve always felt rather uncomfortable about this strand of thought about the fays.  On the one hand it seems to suggest that humans are cleverer than their good neighbours and that a bit of cunning can outwit them or can trick them into betraying their names themselves.  At the same time, it introduces an element of deceit into the relationship, a want of openness and honesty that runs directly counter to other precepts on promoting good relations with fairies.

Food

Most recently Morgan has discussed food taboos and fairies.  This is a complex area: partaking of food (much like joining in a fairy dance) can be a way of succumbing to their magic.  At the same time, the faes often seem dependent upon human provisions (whether these are acquired as offerings or stolen).  As I’ve debated before, quite whether some of these gifts these represent propitiation or some sort of bargain is never wholly clear.  What we can say for certain is that they particularly like to consume dairy produce such as cream.

Etiquette

In a separate post dated May 4th 2017 Morgan makes the interesting suggestion that our past use of fairy as a derogatory term denoting a loose woman or a gay man might be the cause of our Good Neighbours’ dislike for the word.  This is certainly a very interesting suggestion; I had tended to see it the other way round: that the sense of unashamed and uninhibited sexuality on the part of the fairies was transferred to human conduct, but became derogatory in the process.

Generally, Morgan places considerable stress upon proper etiquette in our relations with the fair folk.  As I’ve repeated myself here and in several other posts, this is eminently good advice.  Given that they are a powerful people, mostly hidden from us and working to their own undisclosed agenda, conduct that propitiates or, at the very least, does not antagonise the fae surely is the only sensible course of action.