Monarchy and Hierarchy in Faery

steele

from the Famous Fairies series by Lorna Steele

In Morgan Daimler’s latest book, A New Dictionary of Fairy- A 21st Century Exploration of Celtic and Related Western European Fairies, she remarks that “Fairy is a very feudal system… everything is tied together with debts and obligations and what’s owed to who.” (p.120)  This set me thinking once again about fairy monarchy and how exactly their society is organised, something I’ve tackled before in several postings.

The human societies of the High Middle Ages were, indeed, feudal, in that land was granted in return for services within a rigidly hierarchical and monarchic social structure, from the king down to the lowliest knight.  The system was pyramidal, with the ruler overseeing a multitude of tenants and subtenants across each realm.

How closely does Faery resemble this?  We know of fairy kings and queens, obviously, and we know too of the importance of promises and obligations in fairy relationships.  However- so far as we know- land, and rights over it, form no part of fairy social dynamics and the fairy hierarchy seems to be very flat- perhaps no more than two levels, comprising the monarch and subjects.

So far as we can tell, British fairy monarchs reigned over no highly structured nation nor over any court in which precedence or rank dominated.  Fairy kings and queens were remarkably free of airs and graces.  They undertook the most menial chores for themselves- so, for example, the elf king in the ballad Sir Cawline fights his own duels and does not rely on a champion.  These kings and queens were not averse to entering sexual relationships with the humblest of humans, either.  Margaret Alexander, from Livingston in Scotland, told her 1647 witchcraft trial that the fairy king had taken her as his partner and, even, “laye with her upone the brige” at Linton.  Al fresco sex in the highway with a human commoner is about as far from regal as we can imagine.

Sometimes, intermediaries with the human world might be employed, as was the case with Thom Reid who communicated with Bessie Dunlop on behalf of the fairy queen, but any more elaborate organisation than this seems to have been absent.  The only exception to this statement is the system of multiple ‘elphin courts’ that’s mentioned in some versions of the ballad of Tam Lin (Child versions D, K & G)In two, we read of three courts including a ‘head court’ that is dressed in green and accompanies the queen.  In the third of these renderings, the ranking is more complex, as Tam explains to his human lover, Margret:

“Then the first an court that comes you till

Is published king and queen;

The next an court that comes you till,

It is maidens mony ane.

The next an court that comes you till

Is footmen, grooms and squires;

The next an court that comes you till

Is knights, and I’ll be there.”

In this scheme, we have a very distinct and strict social ordering.  Usually, however, the most that we hear of is some servants, as in the ballad of Leesom Brand, in which the hero goes to the fairy court aged ten to act as a server at the king’s table. Of course, such domestic servants were once quite common in a range of households, and implied no great wealth or status.

Faery society is a very flattened pyramid, therefore, and its individual citizens have an almost compete autonomy- it seems.  Perhaps the problem is that we lack any adequate word to transliterate the fairy term: Donald McIlmichael, tried at Inverary in 1674, said that he had seen an old man inside the fairy hill he visited who “seemed to have preference above the rest” and “seemed to be chief.”  Perhaps there is seniority, priority and respect, but little more than that.

Nevertheless, regardless of the parties, interpersonal relationships in and with Faery are governed by reciprocity.  Good deeds should always be repaid, and to the same degree or value.  If a fairy loans you some flour, always give exactly the same quality and quantity back.  Debts are remembered and will be exacted, even decades later.  It will be obvious that you should never enter into any sort of deal with the fairies unless you are able and willing to fulfil your side.  Default is not an option.

For more information on fairy governance, see chapter 11 of my book, Faery.

Titania by Arthur Rackham

Gwenhidw- Mermaid Queen of Wales

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Many readers will be familiar with The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, by Walter Evans-Wentz.  They might even recall that, in his investigation of Welsh fairy lore, he spoke to a Welsh Justice of the Peace from Carmarthen called David Williams, who proved a rich source of faery facts, despite his sober and respectable position.  In particular, he told Evans-Wentz about the king and queen of the tylwyth teg, whom he named as Gwydion ab Don and his wife Gwenhidw.  Gwydion is a character straight out of the Mabinogion, and he is said to live amongst the stars in Caer Gwydion, one of several magical faery fortresses that are mentioned in Welsh legend.  His wife, meanwhile, is connected to the fluffy white clouds that appear in fine weather and which are called ‘the sheep of Gwenhidw.’

This is a very pretty image, and Evans-Wentz goes on to speculate that this queen has some connection to King Arthur’s queen Guinevere, who is properly Gwenhwyfar, ‘the white ghost’ or spirit.  Ghostly ‘white ladies’ are very common in British folklore, often associated with wells and streams.

The real Gwenhidw

Mr David Williams JP gave Evans-Wentz a very useful lead, but what he had learned as a boy from his mother was a very confused version of the authentic tradition.

Gwenhidw (or Gwenhidwy/ Gwenhudwy) is well known in Welsh folklore.  She is, actually, a morforwyn- a mermaid.  Her name means ‘white enchantment’ or ‘white spell.’ In modern stories she owns a herd of white horses that run along the crests of the waves.  In older versions of the tale, the foaming waves were her ewes and every ninth wave was the ram of the flock.  This conception of the incoming tide is preserved in a sixteenth century poem by Rhys Llywd ap Rhys ap Rhicert in which he described a boat trip to the monastic island of Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) from the Lleyn Peninsula.  The passage is notoriously choppy and he described the sea as:

“haid o ddefaid Gwenhudwy/ a naw hwrdd yn un a hwy”

(a flock of ewes of Gwenhidwy and nine rams with them.”

Another poem of a comparably early date refers to Gwenhidw growing a beard (Ni adaf mal Gwenhudwy/  Ar vy min dyfu barf mwy– “Like G., I no longer grow a beard on my lip.”)  This seems to be an example of the quite widespread British tradition that mermaids are (contrary to popular misconceptions) pretty unattractive to look at- and possibly not even very different to tell from mermen.

Elsewhere in Welsh tradition a flood is termed ‘Gwenhudwy’s oppression’ and the sea is called her ‘plain.’  Lastly, an Elizabethan poem contrasts a man called Rhys Cain to our heroine, saying that he is a ‘feeble magician’ compared to her (wan hydol i Wenhidw).  

Conclusions

What can we conclude from these scattered references?  It emerges that Gwenhidw was once well-known in Wales as a powerful and fearsome mermaid, someone to be dreaded and respected.  If insulted, her vengeance might be savage.

Figuratively, at least, Gwenhidw had flocks of sheep.  At some point (though perhaps only in the family of David Williams JP) a misconception arose and the rolling breakers of the angry sea were substituted by benign fair weather clouds.  This, along with her  marriage to Gwydion, demoted Gwenhidw, but she deserves to be restored to her far more prominent position as sorceress and queen.

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Further Reading

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

“Like little soldiers”- fae warfare

jasmine becket-griffith unseelier court war (2)

‘The unseelie court- war’ by Jasmine Becket-Griffith

I have discussed fae mortality and violence previously; here I examine the context within which fairy deaths might occur.

According to some traditional folklore accounts, there are fairy kings and queens; we know some of their names from literary sources, of course: they include Oberon, Mab and Titania.  There is next to no evidence, though, on these monarchs’ kingdoms.  Is there a single realm or many within the island of Britain?  We do not know, but the partial information we have on fairy armies and fairy battles supports the suspicion that there are numerous warring tribes or polities.  This would not be in the least surprising, given reports of endemic violence from Ireland and Brittany (See Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 44, 46, 50, 55, 57, 74, 207 & 211).

Fairy soldiers

Fairies are often described as looking like soldiers in eighteenth and nineteenth century British sources.  For example, an old Cornish woman quoted by Robert Hunt compared them to “little sodgers.”  We should not, however, be misled by these accounts.  All they’re really telling us is that the beings sighted were wearing red (and possibly green) jackets; British soldiers at this time were, of course, called the ‘red coats’ and provided a ready analogy for witnesses (for example Hunt, Popular Romances, 118; Bord, Fairies, 32).

From time to time, nonetheless, armed fays have been sighted.  The trows on Orkney have sometimes been spotted wearing armour.  A boy abducted by the fairies on Islay in exchange for a changeling was eventually freed by his blacksmith father and returned home; it transpired that he had learned how to forge swords whilst he was away “under the hill.”  Lastly, at the opposite end of the country, a host of spriggans encountered by smugglers on the beach of Mounts Bay at Eastern Green, just outside Penzance, were armed with bows and arrows, spears and slings and were organised in rank and file with marching music provided by pipes, cymbals and tambourines (Briggs, Dictionary, p.132).

This Cornish report leads us to the second very frequent type of report from witnesses.  It’s quite common for people to see fairies en masse, apparently drilling like bodies of soldiers.  There were said to be scores or even hundreds on the Eastern Green; several very similar examples come from the Isle of Man.  In one case a man saw an ‘army’ dressed in red; in a second two men met a fairy army on the road at Mull.  They were all dressed in red caps and coats, some mounted, some on foot, and they so filled the highway that the men had to climb over the hedge and wait for quite some time for the host to pass.  A third experience, dated to about 1830, involved a man later to become a member of the Manx Parliament, the House of Keys.  Out one October night on the way to a harvest supper he and a friend saw a supernatural light in a field, within which a “great crowd of little beings” dressed in red “moved back and forth amid the circle of light, as they formed into order like troops drilling.”  Lastly, on Mellor Moor on the Pennines near Blackburn during the mid-eighteenth century, fairies were often said to appear “in military array … their revolutions conforming in every respect to the movement of modern troops.” (See Bord, Fairies, pp.36 & 42; Wentz p.133).

In an incident at Lochaweside in Argyll, a shepherd carrying a lost sheep home saw a cave in a rock face where he’d never seen one before.  Plainly suspecting it was a fairy location, he put his knife into a gap in the rock before taking his time studying what was inside.  What he saw was a collection of weapons, including guns and swords.  Just then the sheep started to escape and, in dashing to catch it, the shepherd dislodged the knife.  When he looked again, the cave was gone and he saw only bare rock.  The disappearance of the weapons cache only confirmed the impression that this was no earthly armoury.

Battles

What are these troops exercising for?  Why have they hoarded all these arms?  Direct accounts of fairy fighting are much rarer.  We are told by Mrs Bray that there was a protracted war between the pixies and the fairies for control of Devonshire and Dartmoor.  We also read of a woman lost in mist who saw a pixie battle being fought on the ramparts of Castle-an-Dinas in mid-Cornwall (though, when the fog cleared, though, there was no trace of any fighting).

The best example comes from Wales, though:

“There is a tradition among the Glamorgan peasantry of a fairy battle fought on the mountain between Merthyr and Aberdare, in which the pigmy combatants were on horseback. There appeared to be two armies, one of which was mounted on milk-white steeds, and the other on horses of jet-black. They rode at each other with the utmost fury and their swords could be seen flashing in the air like so many penknife blades. The army on the white horses won the day, and drove the black-mounted force from the field. The whole scene then disappeared in a light mist.” (Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, p.107)

What is especially interesting about this is the fact that there is also a tale of conflict between the white fairy king and the black at Strath Spey in Scotland.  They are said to be locked in perpetual struggle over the white king’s wife.  This story may give us a hint as to the fairies’ motivation for their aggression.  For the Spey kings, the prize is possession of a woman; Shakespeare may take us a little nearer the truth with his notion in Midsummer Night’s Dream of Oberon and Titania feuding over a changeling boy.  It seems very like that the motive for fairy wars is control of resources- and for the faes those contested assets are human, whether it is produce they can steal from us or individuals whom they can abduct.

Finally, in one way or another, humans are intimately associated with fairy warfare.  For our penultimate example we return to the Isle of Man.

“A woman walking over Barrule met two fairy armies going to battle, which was to begin on the ringing of a bell; she pulled the bell, and in consequence both armies attacked her, and kept her prisoner for three years, when she escaped.”

Lastly, at Loch Gruinart on Islay a battle was fought in August 1598 between the MacLeans and the MacDonalds.  Just before the two sides clashed, the MacLean chief was approached by a “tiny fellow of the brownie order” who offered his services in the coming fighting.  The MacLean dismissed help from someone so diminutive, so the ‘Black Elf’ went off to the MacDonald camp and made the same proposal, which was gratefully accepted.  The additional one hundred warriors tilted the odds in favour of the MacDonalds and, in fact, it was the Black Elf who killed the MacLean leader.

mosquito's hunger, david revoy

‘Mosquito’s hunger’ by David Revoy

Intercommunal strife is just one aspect of the ‘Darker Side of Faery’ as described in my 2021 book: