How to Conjure and Control a Faery Lover

Jean Baptiste Monge

A number of documents from the sixteenth century include spells for conjuring up fairy women for sex.  This may strike us as shocking and surprising, but the fact that a several separate texts have survived suggests that it was an activity in which a number of magicians were interested.

Spells to gain power over human women are known, as are spells to control spirits; the combination of the two activities is therefore not wholly unpredictable, especially given the well-known desirability of faery women to which I have made reference in numerous other postings.

There seem to be a number of motivating factors involved in these conjurations.  Undeniably, possession and control over a supernatural beauty for the purposes of sexual enjoyment are top of the list, doubtless intertwined with a very male attitude to females and towards being able to boast about your magical (and sexual) skills.  Once conjured, though, the fairy women could provide other benefits, because they had supernatural knowledge that could enrich the magician. In this, they can be rather like faery brides- though as will become clear, those casting the spells discussed here don’t seem to have been interested in any sort of long-term relationship. 

Balancing this, nonetheless, it is very clear that the risks inherent in such operations were well known and that the need for careful management of the interaction- and fairly prompt dismissal of the faery- were fully appreciated.

The spells are surrounded by the typical precautions that many magicians employed: chalk circles may be drawn; the magus will have bathed and abstained from alcohol or sex for a period of time beforehand; clean linen will be laid on a table bearing a candle and (in this particular instance) on the bed; incense or other perfumes will be employed.  A wand or a crystal ball may also be required to assist in the ritual, and the proper day of the week, point in the lunar cycle and time must be observed.

The fairy is then summoned, invoking a variety of holy names and images that are meant to subdue and constrain the spirit.  The king and queen of fairies may also be called upon to assist, through their powers and virtues and through the faith and obedience owed to them by the individual fairies, so that they rank equally alongside the Trinity and the Virgin Mary.  Given the date- and that all of this is post-Reformation- is doubly surprising.  Given that all these Christian trappings are being deployed just to have sex with a supernatural might be regarded as triply surprising.

Three separate magical operations have been preserved.  The first is to be found in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584.  After the ritual preparations, the magus sits in a circle and proceeds as follows:

“… then beginne your conjuration as followeth here, and saie: I conjure thee Sibylia, O gentle virgine of fairies, by the mercie of the Holie-ghost, and by the dreadfull daie of doome, and by their vertues and powers; … and by the king and queene of fairies, and their vertues, and by the faith and obedience that thou bearest unto them… I conjure thee O Sibylia, O blessed and beautifull virgine, by all the riall words aforesaid; I conjure thee Sibylia by all their vertues to appeare in that circle before me visible, in the forme and shape of a beautifull woman in a bright and vesture white, adorned and garnished most faire, and to appeare to me quicklie without deceipt or tarrieng, and that thou faile not to fulfill my will & desire effectuallie. For I will choose thee to be my blessed virgine, & will have common copulation with thee. Therefore make hast & speed to come unto me, and to appeare as I said before: to whome be honour and glorie for ever and ever, Amen.”

Discoverie of Witchcraft Book 13, c.8.

This may have to be repeated as many as four times until Sibylia appears, but Scot assures us she will, after which she must be bound by the holy names not to leave or become invisible until she is given leave to do so.  Then, as Scot describes, she is asked by the conjurer “to give me good counsell at all times, and to come by treasures hidden in the earth, and all other things that is to doo me pleasure, and to fulfill my will, without anie deceipt or tarrieng; nor yet that thou shalt have anie power of my bodie or soule, earthlie or ghostlie, nor yet to perish so much of my bodie as one haire of my head.”

Gerda Wegener, from Les Delassements d’Eros, 1925

The other spells all resemble Scot’s, more or less.  A second is to be found in a manuscript in the British Library.  It recommends performing the spell on a Friday and that the magus should draw two touching chalk circles, in one of which is “a faire bed with new washed shetes, swet and well smyllinge.” A clean table stands in the other circle, on which is fresh water and bread.   The virgin spirits Michel, Chicam and Burfee are then summoned to appear and to obey the magician’s will.  One of them is commanded to lie on the bed. 

A Latin incantation is repeated three times, after which the three faery women will appear, bearing food and wine.  Nonetheless, the magician is warned:

“eate not with them. But thou shalle se oneof them that is fayrest and she shall make ye no chere. Then pryvily put thy sceptre to the hight of hir face and stand in the circle and kisse hir and say to hir… I conjure you, virgin, by the sceptre and the truth by virtue of which you have come here that you hasten to give to me a ring of invisibility and to approach this bed without delay and lie down nude by that venerable name which you discern in my sceptre… and, unless you make every assuagement you can without fraud or harm or illusion or bodily wound, that you do not depart from me until I desire to give you the licence and loose you by my own volition…”

The magus is warned to take the ring from the faery before lying down with her, otherwise he will not be able to receive it (it seems because he will no longer be pure).  The other faeries are sent away then, after which the man is advised to “go naked to bede. Ly on the righte side of the bed and she on the lyfte sid of the bed and do what yow wilt. But aske note whether she be a Spirit or a woman, for then she well spaeke no mor to the. And she shall do thee no harm. Then lycans hir in the mornyng to go and she will com agayn when thou callst hir.”

The third magical operation is set out in a manuscript now to be found in Folger Library in Washington.  It is very similar to the others, except that it is a lot more detailed and is concerned with conjuring the presence of “the seven sisters of the fairies,” who are called Lilia, Hestilia, Fata, Sola, Afrya, Julia and Venulla. 

There are four spells.  The first summons the sisters into the magician’s presence and constrains them to bring him treasure as well as to give him information as to the location of buried treasure and how to destroy any beings guarding that.  They are also all required to “have bountiful copulation” with him as he chooses, without having any power over his body or being able to delude him.

The second spell enables the conjurer to call one of the fairy virgins to his bed whenever he wants to have pleasure with her. The ritual requires chalk circles and a freshly made bed and summons a “bountiful maid and virgin before me in a green gown and beautiful apparel, who will not fail to fulfil my will and desire effectually.” She is ordered to “Come quickly” because he wants carnal copulation with her.

The third spell deals with the faery once she has appeared.  She is required to lie down on the bed “quietly and gently without fraud, hurt or guile” and without doing any harm to him, as well as departing when she’s told to do so.  When the faery is present, the man is advised (once again) to lie down on her left-hand side and to do whatever he pleases (or can).  The magician is reassured that, now she has been bound, the faery is just a woman and that he need not fear her.  Even more importantly, he’s assured that he will never have encountered “so pleasant a creature or lively a woman in bed.”  The magician is then advised that, having “fulfilled thy will and desire with her, thou mayst reason with her of any manner of things thou desirest to and in all kind of questions you list to demand of her.”  As we see again, physical pleasure can be combined with the acquisition of wisdom and material wealth.  Even so, the man is warned not to ask her any questions about herself, or to speak to anyone else about their contacts- or to otherwise disclose them.  However fantastic the sex, great self-control must be exercised in this respect.

The fourth spell sends the faery back where she came from, there to rest until the magician fancies seeing her again.

A number of elements in these texts should be very familiar to readers: there’s the allusion to the danger of consuming faery food, the link between faeries and buried treasure, the need to keep quiet about the benefits derived from association with a faery and, lastly, the distinguishing green robe that she wears (albeit briefly, of course…)

The spells are at the same time both risibly adolescent and depressingly chauvinist.  On the one hand, there’s the emphasis placed upon the fairy being a virgin: Scot, for example, is particularly concerned with conjuring “the blessed virgins,” the fairies Sibylia, Milia and Achilia and, interestingly, the British Library manuscript is also concerned with a trinity of faery virgins.  I presume that the deflowering of the faery is part of her subjugation to the human magus.  Alongside this repeated emphasis upon her purity, the faery lover is still guaranteed to be the best lover he will ever have gone to bed with: “For beauty and bounty neither queen nor empress in all the whole world is able to countervail her, for I have diverse times proved her and had her with me.”  Even so, there is an odd note of bathos, too- an admission of reality perhaps- when the author of the text states that the magician will be able to do “with her whatsoever you please or canst do…”  It seems that aspiration may run ahead of performance for those possibly too young or too old…

Gerda Wegener, ‘The Pastimes of Eros,’ 1925

Sources & Further Reading

If you’d like to know more about these conjurations, you can consult the original texts which are reproduced as follows:

Reginald Scot: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/60766/60766-h/60766-h.htm

The British Library manuscript, Sloane 3850, ff.143-166 is discussed in a journal article: https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/opuscula/article/download/36310/29268/0

The Folger Library manuscript MS Xd 234 is also in an article:

https://dokumen.tips/documents/the-binding-of-the-fairies-frederika-bain.html

I have also included the texts in the appendix to my most recent book, Love and Sex in Faeryland.

Incubi and Succubi

Henry Fuseli, An Incubus Leaving Two Girls

It will have been noted from my last posting on fairy lovers that they are, in the British Isles, predominantly female- other than the northern Scottish tradition of male selkies, who will form sexual relationships with human women and father children. 

Older literature often makes reference to incubi and succubi, male and female spirits or demons who take on human form to lie with women and men at night.  These beings have ancient roots, both classical and in the Middle East, and are clearly not identical (or even closely related) to our own faery lovers.  This notwithstanding, the terminology has come to be used indiscriminately (as with nymphs and satyrs) so that there may be some confusion between the two.  Reginald Scot included incubus amongst his list of fairy beings in the Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584 (in Book 7 c.15 and the ‘Discourse’ c.11). Scot was generally sceptical about all supernatural phenomena, though, and it is very clear from the ‘Shepherd’s Dream’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England (1612) that the poet was inclined to suspect that the incubus, “that begets dadlesse babes on girles asleepe” was just a cover for a much simpler explanation for pregnancies out of marriage.

British faery lovers tend to be involved on a longer-term basis with human partners, rather than simply using them for sexual purposes, but there is some native evidence for a purely carnal faery visitant.  I have previously described the nightmare or hag, a species of being that has also been identified more narrowly with Mab and even Puck.  These are the best known, but not entirely the only, examples of succubi in British tradition. (Note that Reginald Scot regarded the nightmare as a purely physical affliction though).

In Robert of Gloucester’s Metrical Chronicle (composed between about 1260 and 1300) there is an account given of the conception of Merlin.  His mother described how an unknown but very handsome man used to come to see her at night and, in due course, she found herself pregnant- never having slept with a man.  Amazed by this story, the king sought his counsellors’ advice, and they confirmed that there were ‘wights’ called elves (both male and female) who were known to act like this and to visit men and women at night. 

Þe clerkes sede þat it is in philosofie yfounde

Þat þer beþ in þe eyr an hey ver fram þe grounde  

As a maner gostes wiȝtes as it be

& me may þem ofte an erþe in wilde studes yse

& ofte in mannes forme wommen hii comeþ to

& ofte in wimmen forme hii comeþ to men al so

Þat men clupeþ eluene & parauenture in þis manere

On of hom in þis womman biȝet þis child here.”

This passage is, in fact, fairly easy to read. NB: the letter þ is simply ‘th’ whilst ȝ functions as a ‘y’ or sometimes as a guttural ‘g.’  The verb ‘clypeth’ simply means ‘call.’

“The clerks said (to the king) that it’s accepted by science

That there are, high in the air and far above the ground,

Beings that resemble ghosts

(Whom you can often see in wild, wooded places

And who often come in the shape of men to women

And who in women’s form visit men too)

That we call elves; perhaps in this way

One of them got this woman here pregnant with this child (Merlin).”

Robert of Gloucester was, almost certainly, a learned monk, and his background and education may well have shaped his Chronicle.  Furthermore, he was elaborating the legend of Merlin’s birth that had already been told by Geoffrey of Monmouth and several others.  We may wonder, then, whether this is a literary and scholastic view of elves or derives from folk belief. Notably, from the previous century there’s a story of a handsome fairy male who seduced a young woman at Dunwich (Life of William of Norwich, by Thomas of Monmouth).

However, the religious text titled Dives and Pauper, which dates to about 1405, very much confirms that the conceptions of elves set out by Robert of Gloucester reflect a more popular belief.  In the twenty-first chapter we are told how:

“The fende … may transfigure hym into lykenesse of man or woman by sufferaunce of god, for mannys synne and womans. And the fendes that tempt folk to lecherie be moste besy to appere in mannys likenes & womans to do lecherie with folk & so bringe them to lecherye. And in speche of folke: they be cleped elvys, but in Latyne whan they appeir in mannis lykenes: they be cleped Incubi. And whane they appier in lykenesse of wymen: they be cleped succubi…”

The idea of fairy men appearing in women’s beds and seducing them in fact proved to be a long lasting one.  Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, was the offspring of just such a union, according to the story of his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests, published in 1628.

Rather more interesting is the account of Goodwin Wharton (1653-1704) of his dealings with a woman called Mary Parrish and her contacts in the fairy kingdom of Lowlands, which lies beneath Hounslow Heath, west of London.  The story is mainly one of a wealthy man being cheated by a woman who holds out hopes of faery power, but it has a sexual element too.

Parrish told Wharton that the recently widowed faery queen, Queen Penelope LaGard, had taken a fancy to him and wished to marry him and make him the new king of Lowlands.  Although plans for face-to-face meetings kept falling through, Wharton had proved so irresistible to Penelope that for some weeks she had secretly visited him at night and had sex with him whilst he was asleep.  Despite his unconscious state, they had intercourse multiple times nightly, a revelation that explained the great tiredness and backache that had recently afflicted him.

Thinking about this, Wharton realised that he remembered one occasion on which they had had sex three times in a row; on the third occasion, the queen had “sucked up her breath” just as they both reached orgasm, the effect of which had been to extract “the very substance of the marrow” from his bones, leaving him drained nearly to the point of death.  This statement accords well with traditional medical beliefs, that saw sperm as a special kind of ‘marrow’ or vital energy.  Queen Penelope was exactly like a succubus, sapping Wharton’s strength.

Fuseli, Queen Mab and Two Girls

For more details on the subject of faery loves, see my new book Love and Sex in Faeryland.

Fairy Friends- desirable or not?

 

Hilda Cowham, The surprise
Hilda Cowham, The Surprise’

Fairies can rarely be described as genuinely friendly to human kind, it is sad to report.  They will be lovers and parents of children, it is true, and they may take a liking to an individual and bestow gifts upon them, but the commonest interactions tend to be antagonism or avoidance, as I’ve often described.  Amicable relations are very infrequently described, which is why I’ve gathered together the scattered references here.

Domestic Companions

As might be expected, we are most likely to become acquainted with those faes who live closest to us.  In the British Library there’s a seventeenth century manuscript that deals with spirits such as the brownies, hobgoblins and Robin Goodfellows.  It explains how these are:

“more familiar and domestical that the others … [which] abide in one place more than another so that almost never depart from some particular houses, as though they were their proper mansions, making in them sundrie noises, rumours, mockeries, gawds and jests, without doing any harm at all, and some have heard them play at gitterns and Jew’s harps and ring bells and to make answer to those that call to them, and speake with certain signes, laughters and merry gestures, so that those of the house come at last to be so familiar and well acquainted with them that they fear them not all.” (MS Harleian 6482)

This comfortable familiarity is reflected in two other stories of such spirits.  The first dates from the reign of Richard I, from Dagworth in Suffolk.  The manor house of Sir Osbern de Bradwell became the home of a being called Malekin, a small changeling girl who had apparently been abducted from her home in nearby Lavenham by the fairies.

“At first, the knight’s wife and his whole family were exceedingly terrified by her conversation, but having become accustomed to her words and the ridiculous things she did, they talked to her confidently and familiarly, asking her about many things.  She spoke in English, according to the dialect of the region, but occasionally even in Latin and discoursed on the Scriptures to the knight’s chaplain… She could be heard and felt, but hardly ever seen, except once when she was seen by a chamber maid in the shape of a very tiny infant who was dressed in a kind of white tunic…”

Malekin also consumed food and drink that was left out for her and was evidently very much a part of the household.  Much more recently, something similar is told about Yorkshire farmer George Gilbertson and his family, who shared their home with a boggart (although it was never seen).  It was practical joker, as is the way with boggarts, but the children of the house found that it would play happily with them- if they pushed items through a knot hole in a cupboard, the boggart would immediately pop them back out again.  The children called this ‘laiking [playing, in Yorkshire dialect] wi’ t’boggart.’ (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.307)

Faeries can, therefore, be quite pleasant house guests, as long as you can put up with their high spirits and practical sense of humour.  They are often most friendly with domestic staff: Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft described how they would “sport themselves in the night by tumbling and fooling with servants and shepherds in country houses” and Robin Goodfellow (or Puck) was particularly known for his friendliness towards maids, performing their chores for them at night- although this was generally done secretly and anonymously without any suggestion of an amicable, social relationship as well (Scot, 1584, Book III, c.4)

Grace Jones, Fairies' Good night 1924
Jones, The Fairies’ Goodnight, 1924

Faery Playmates

There’s also evidence of faeries befriending lonely servants and farm maids and entertaining them with music, dance and company.  I’ll cite three cases, all from the West of Britain.  John Rhys tells the story of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, near Carmarthen.  She was hired by an elderly couple to help on their farm.  Eilian got into the habit of spinning outside in a meadow by moonlight, where the tylwyth teg would visit her and sing and dance as she worked.  Eventually, the girl disappeared with the fairies and it later turned out that she had been taken to be a fairy wife. (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 211-212).

Very close to this story is that of Shui Rhys of Cardiganshire.  She looked after her parents’ cows and often stayed out in the fields very late.  She was told off by her mother and blamed the spirits: little people in green would come to her, dance and play music around her and speak to her in a language she couldn’t understand.  These contacts were allowed to continue, for fear of offending the fairies, but it was a risky strategy and, eventually, Shui disappeared just like Eilian (Sikes, British Goblins 67-69).

The story of Anne Jeffries from Cornwall is comparable to these.  She had deliberately gone out, trying to make contact with the fairies by repeating little verses to summon them, and eventually they came to her in her garden.  Six little men in green appeared to her one day, showered her with kisses- and then carried her off to Faery.  She stayed there only a short while, until a violent dispute arose over her affections, after which she was ejected, but the fairies continued to favour her with healing knowledge and a supply of food.

These examples have to be viewed more ambivalently, as the fairies’ great friendliness to these isolated girls seem to have been a pretext for lulling their suspicions prior to abducting them.  These ulterior motives may well sound rather more familiar and fit rather better with the impression of fairy character that most folk accounts give.

Summary

Fairies will be amicable and accommodating, therefore, but it seems that it is often done with a view to what might be received in return.  Fairy authority Katharine Briggs, in her 1978 book Vanishing People, gave this rather harsh summary of the fairy temperament:

“the kindness of the fairies was often capricious and little mercy mingled with their justice… We are dealing with a pendulous people, trembling on the verge of annihilation, whose mirth is often hollow and whose beauty is precarious and glamorous.  From such, no great compassion can be expected.” (p.161)

Fairy friendship is available, therefore, but it should always be approached with caution.  Their amity towards humans may not be as open and free as we would expect from other people.

 

 

Kensington Gardens- Britain’s fairy epic

Thomas_Tickell_by_Sylvester_Harding
Thomas Tickell, by Sylvester Harding

In my recent book, Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse, I discussed how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a period during which outside influences began to alter native fairy beliefs profoundly.  The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance were two such, a third was the work of doctor, astrologer and alchemist Paracelsus, whose theories I have examined before.

The impact of these influences, especially that of Paracelsus, may be neatly contained in a single fairy poem, Kensington Gardens by Thomas Tickell (1686-1740).  Tickell was born near Carlisle and was a graduate of Oxford.  He held various government positions but is mainly recalled as a poet.  He produced a translation of Homer’s Iliad, which he published at the very same time as Alexander Pope’s version in 1715, a coincidence which caused some tension between the two.  The poem Kensington Gardens appeared in 1722 and is a heroic epic describing the fall of a fairy kingdom that once existed on the land that eventually became the park.

Strictly speaking, the poem should be described as Georgian, but Tickell’s birth and education took place within the Stuart period, and it is doubtless fair to assume that Tickell’s outlook and beliefs belong to the seventeenth century.  Kensington Gardens is of interest, therefore, because it encapsulates the mixture of traditional fairy belief and innovation that typified fairies in literature throughout the 1600s.

Tradition in Tickell’s Epic

Concepts of fairy conduct inherited by the author from much earlier include the fairies’ delight in leisure: “Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies played/ On every hill and danced in every shade.”  They rewarded women for their domestic cleanliness:

“When cleanly servants, if we trust old tales,
Beside their wages had good Fairy vailes,
Whole heaps of silver Tokens, nightly paid,
The careful wife, or the neat dairy-maid…”

But they also stole babies, one of whom is Albion, the hero of the story:

“By magic fenc’d, by spells encompass’d round,
No Mortal touch’d this interdicted ground;
No Mortal enter’d, those alone who came
Stolen from the couch of some terrestrial dame:
For oft of babes they robb’d the matron’s bed,
And left some sickly changeling in their stead.”

Albion is a human child brought up by fairies and kept artificially small by them, although he is still noticeably tall at twelve inches in height.  He falls in love with the fae Kenna, an affair that precipitates the fall of the fairy realm when Oberon discovers and jealously expels the young man.

murray fq and bat
Fairy Queen on Bat, Amelia Jane Murray

King Oberon

Newer elements sit alongside these age-old ideas.  Tickell’s king of faery is Oberon.  This name has a long continental pedigree but it was made particularly popular in Britain by Shakespeare’s use of it in Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Oberon’s subjects are especially worthy of note.  As we have already seen, they are small: they are described as a “pigmy race” elsewhere in the poem.  This diminutive stature was a noteworthy development in seventeenth century literature.  Small faes had existed before, but Mercutio’s soliloquy on Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet gave impetus to an elaboration of the possibilities of miniature beings and poets- most importantly Michael Drayton and Robert Herrick- exploited the potential of this idea.  Tickell merely observed what was already a convention by the time he wrote.

Elemental Spirits

Lastly, the fairies of Kensington Gardens are said to have “airy forms.”  This notion of fairies as insubstantial, as well as tiny, derives directly from the work of Paracelsus.  He had proposed in the sixteenth century that the world was supported and kept functioning by elemental beings- the gnomes of the ground, undines of water, salamanders of fire and the sylphs of the air.  Parallels could readily be drawn between these creatures that he imagined and the fairies and goblins of native belief, and that is precisely what happened.  In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton included a ‘Digression of Spirits’ in which he summarised views about fairies from across Europe.  For example, he describes:

“… those Naiades or water Nymphs which have been heretofore conversant about waters and rivers.  The water (as Paracelsus thinks) is their Chaos, wherein they live; some call them Fairies… Paracelsus hath several stories of them that have lived and been married to mortal men…”

Later Burton notes Paracelsus’ views on what he classes as “terrestrial devils,” a group which includes “Faunes, Satyrs, Wood-nymphs… Fairies, Robin Goodfellowes, Trulli etc.”  Two things are notable from these short passages.  Not only has Burton incorporated Paracelsus’ concepts of undines and gnomes; he has liberally strewn his text with classical Greek and Roman terminology. (Burton, Part I, section 2)

Forty years later, in 1665, a new version of Reginald Scot’s well-known book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was published.  Scot’s 1584 original contains a wealth of fairy information; the new edition was expanded with the addition of ‘A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Substance of Devils and Spirits.’  This new text (like Burton’s) owes a great deal to the new thought of the Renaissance and to Paracelsus’ scientific theories; for example, reference is made to the Neo-Platonists.  Fairies are termed “Astral Spirits,” having an “elemental quality.” They live in water, air, flames and under the earth; they have hunger and passions; they wage war and procreate; they have no physical body and can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Scot, 1665, Book II, cc.1 & 4)

This later text demonstrates how much the new theories about the nature of fairies had infiltrated British thought.  These ideas, along with references to nymphs, satyrs and other classical beings, were all indiscriminately mixed together, confusing and reshaping fairy belief for future generations.

amelia-jane-murray-
Fairy & moth, Amelia Jane Murray

Tickell’s Sylphs

Tickell’s poem is symptomatic of its age.  His fairies are miniscule, insubstantial forms- a state confirmed in the climactic battle of the war.  Albion fights with Fairy Prince Azuriel and their combat seems to be concluded when:

“With his keen sword he cleaves his Fairy foe,
Sheer from the shoulder to the waste he cleaves,
And of one Arm the tott’ring trunk bereaves.”

However, Albion is fighting a fairy, and different rules apply:

“His useless steel brave Albion wields no more,
But sternly smiles, and thinks the combat o’er:
So had it been, had aught of mortal strain,
Or less than Fairy, felt the deadly pain.
But Empyreal forms, howe’er in fight
Gash’d and dismember’d, easily unite…
So did Azuriel’s Arm, if fame say true,
Rejoin the vital trunk whence first it grew;
And, whilst in wonder fixt poor Albion stood,
Plung’d the curst sabre in his heart’s warm blood.”

Albion is struck down and Kenna is unable to revivify him: “the Fates alike deny/
The Dead to live, or Fairy forms to die.”

Ultimately, classical Greek sea god Neptune intervenes in fairy affairs.  With a sweep of his trident, he destroys Oberon’s divided, fractious kingdom, leaving only ruins on the site where later the new Hanoverian dynasty created its pleasure gardens and named it after Albion’s love, the ‘Aerial maid’ Kenna.

Oberon’s fairy nation is scattered: “Wing’d with like fear his abdicated bands.” They flee to secluded corners of Britain where they can still be glimpsed from time to time as they “featly foot the green,/ While from their steps a Circling verdure springs.” The fairies are not gone entirely, therefore, but they are scattered.

Tickell concludes his epic with several reminders of the transformed nature of his British fairies.  They are small, they are winged and they are sylph-like, aery beings.  In fact, a direct link with Paracelsus’ elementals of the air had already been made by rival poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock, which was published in 1712.  He was the first to introduce this term in English literature, but once he had connected “sylphs and sylphids, fays, fairies, genii, elves and daemons,” British fairies could never be the same again.

the-fae-by-amelia-jane-murray
Fairies on Owl, Amelia Jane Murray

Last Thoughts

Tickell had hoped his lengthy poem would be celebrated as a heroic fairy epic- a landmark in national literary history.  Sadly, it is largely forgotten now, except amongst enthusiasts of Georgian poetry and, of course, fans of faery.  Nonetheless, it’s worth reading- it’s quite entertaining, once you’ve got used to his florid style, and it tells us lots about the fairy faith as one era merged into another.

In conclusion, I’ll repeat what I said at the outset: the seventeenth century was a turning point in British fairy beliefs and Thomas Tickell’s fairy epic encapsulates the old and new ideas that were in ferment.

For more detail of Fayerie and my other faery books, please see my books page.

 

 

“With white wands swinging”- fairy queens and magic wands

hester margetson

Magic wands

Wands have been symbols of power for millennia.  They denote civic office and, since at least the 1300s, they have symbolised and conveyed magic power.  In the grimoire The Oathbound book of Honorius, hazel and laurel staffs are used for magical operations such as summoning demons.  They are four sided with names and figures written upon them.  In the fourteenth century Italian text, The Key of Solomon, demons are conjured and lost items are found with procedures which involve the use of wands and staffs.  The former are made from hazel or other nut wood, the staffs from elder, cane or rosewood.  They must be of one year’s growth only and must be cut with a single stroke on a propitious day at sunrise.  They should be inscribed with figures on a similarly suitable day and at an auspicious time.  The text recommends that wands should be long enough for a person to draw a circle around themselves.

In the ballad of the same name, the witch Allison Gross makes her magic with a conjurer’s staff:

“Then out she has taken a silver wand
She’s turned her three times round and round
She muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm.”

In the ballad The Laily Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea, a silver wand is used to reverse the spell and to turn the worm back into a gentle knight.

Both William Lilly and Elias Ashmole, whose rituals for conjuring fairies have been preserved for us, make ample reference to the use of wands in their ceremonies.  Reginald Scot records similar practices in Discourse on witches.

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Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, A fairy flies through the night sky.

Fairy wands

Given these magical associations, it was inevitable that those fairies being summoned should acquire their own wands too and this image has certainly become embedded in our iconography and therefore, so it would seem, in our visions of them.

Wands are not mentioned very much in traditional British folklore, but Evans Wentz mentions a Breton tale in which a white fairy wand is used to enter Faery: it is struck twice against a rock in a cross shape in order to open the portal to fairyland. Wentz also suggests that the faes’ wands may be derived from those believed to have been used by druids.  (Fairy faith pp.202 & 343-4; Luzel, Contes popularies, vol.1, p.3 ‘La fille qui se maria un mort’)

The fairy wand makes a central appearance in the traditional story ‘Kate Crackernuts’ which is from Orkney.  Princess Kate was victim of a jealous stepmother, who used magic to cover her good looks with a sheep’s head.  Her stepsister, also called Kate, was angry at what her mother had done; together the two escape from their palace and go to live in another kingdom.   There stepsister Kate discovers that the prince of the realm lies sick in his bed because he goes to dance under the hill with the fairies every night and, even more importantly, that a fairy child in the knoll possesses a wand which will cure her sister.  By rolling hazelnuts, she is able to distract the little boy and seize the wand, enabling her to free her sister of the sheep’s head.  Faithful Kate then cures the elf-addled prince and everyone (of course) then marries and lives happily ever after.

However, Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provides us with a dozen modern examples of faes wielding wands.  The wand is often the attribute of an individual fairy identified as a fairy queen by witnesses, a distinguished person who will often wear a crown or coronet as well- though in one sighting in a Nottingham dentist’s surgery, a group of ballet dancing fairies each waved a wand.  It should be remarked that the crowns and tiaras seen on the brows of these faery queens may be another human interpolation: as with wands, there’s no necessary reason why the fays should imitate our indicators of rank- nor that these regalia should signify the same things to them, even if they do.

The wands seen by Johnson’s witnesses are noted as being made of silver, gold or crystal; a couple emit light; a quarter of them have stars on the end.  In one case, the wand produces magic- a twist of it by the fairy queen fills a room with other dancing fairies.

The wand seems to have become inseparable from the fairy in the minds of many.  Literature, art and supernatural experiences all reinforce each other.  We perhaps expect to see a wand, meaning that- whatever the fae may actually be holding- there’s a tendency for it to be labelled as a wand regardless.

Here’s Fairy led by English poet Mary Webb (1881-1927) as a closing example of what has shaped our perceptions so powerfully:

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

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There’s more on faery magic and its deployment (and a great deal less about pretty girls in lip gloss and eye shadow wielding wands) in my Darker Side of Faery (2021):

darker side

“Those white and blue fairies”- fairy faces

dark fairy
Dark fairy by Maiarcita on http://www.deviantart.com

Reading Minor White Latham’s Elizabethan fairies recently, I was struck by his argument that Tudor and Stuart conceptions about the race and colour of fairies might have been quite different our own assumptions.  I’ve argued before that there’s a good deal of evidence of  ethnic diversity in Faery  Let’s not forget, for example, that in Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy court has connections with the far east, Titania and Oberon disputing over a boy “stolen from an Indian king” whose mother was a “votaress” of Titania’s, the pair sitting together gossiping in the “spiced Indian air, by night.”  Likewise, Milton in Paradise Lost imagined a “Pygmean race beyond the Indian mount.”   African and Asian fairies ought not to surprise us at all, then, but Latham goes considerably further than this.

Masks for masques

The Tudors and Stuarts loved performing as faes in masques and plays, and to do so they put on masks.  For example, in George Gascoigne’s 1565 comedy The Buggbears there’s reference to spirits played by actors in “visars like devills,” to going “a-sprityng with this face and that” and “buggbears with vysardes.”  Latham’s argument is that the colour of these masks reflects conceptions about what he calls the ‘complexion’ of the fairies.  A very good starting point for an exploration of this argument is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.

In the Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare returned to a fairy theme for comic effect.  Fairies often appeared on the English stage as a vehicle for cheating or tricking characters, and that is their purpose in this play.  A plot is hatched to make a fool of Falstaff by dressing up some children as fairies and scaring him.  Mrs Anne Page decides her daughter Nan, her young son and three or four more of his age group shall “dress / Like urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white,” holding candles and rattles (IV, 4).  Nan is to be the fairy queen in a white silk dress and it’s very evident from the line quoted above that the others will be wearing green and white too.  Mrs Page’s friend, Mrs Ford, then says “I’ll go buy them vizards.”  In a slightly later scene (IV, 6), in which the women go over their plans again, it’s agreed that the children should be “mask’d and vizarded.”  They’ll be in disguise, then; their faces will be covered.  As a consequence, when Falstaff is confronted by Nan as the fairy queen (V, 5) and she calls forth “Fairies, black, grey, green and white” there’s a good deal of support for Latham’s suggestion that these colours relate not to their clothes (which we already know about) but to the colour of their masks (faces).

melancholicheart.deviantart.com Red-Faerie
Red Faerie by melancholicheart.deviantart.com

Support for Latham’s contention comes from the text of a masque performed for Queen Elizabeth at Woodstock in 1575.  The entertainment began with the monarch being approached by the ‘Queen of Fayry’ who presents herself by declaring that her love for Elizabeth had drawn her out of her woodland retreat and “caused me transforme my face/ and in your hue to come before your eyne/ now white, then blacke, your frend the fayery Queene.”  Black and white were the colours of the English queen, but at the same time it did not appear to be considered odd that her supernatural counterpart might have a black face.

Red, black & white spirits

In light of these examples, I’d return to other evidence I cited for you in an previous post on red and white fairies, and argue more confidently that those citations weren’t descriptions of clothes but of skin colour.  There are further examples to consider.

Reginald Scot in his Discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits mentions “white spirits and black spirits, grey spirits and red spirits” (c.33); in Macbeth the three witches meet with Hecate and “Like elves and Fairies in a ring” summon up “Black spirits.” The 1618 masque at Cole-Orton featured a character asking Puck about “ye faries, those little ring-leaders, those white and blew faries.”  In his play, Monsieur Thomas, John Fletcher has a character attempting to conjure spirits of earth and air, whom he addresses thus: “Be thou black or white or green, be thou heard or seen.” (c.1637, Act V, scene 9)  Lastly, Joan Willimot, accused of witchcraft in 1618, had a fairy woman called Pretty as her spirit guide, who would advise her on those who had been cursed.  She told Joan that the Earl of Rutland’s son had been “stricken with a white spirit.”  This is very suggestive of a white fairy, akin to those ‘white ladies’ who are often seen haunting springs or old houses.

All in all, it seems to me that we have pretty strong evidence for the fact that English people of the early modern period conceived of their fays as being quite alien in appearance- red, green, blue, grey, jet black and snow white.

anime fairy

Further reading

My posts on diversity in fairy and on fairy colours touch on closely related topics; my post on fairy stature examines another convention of the fairy drama of Shakespeare’s time.

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.  There’s more too on faery anatomy and physiology in my Faery Lifecycle published in 2021:

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“Dwarfish Fairyes elves”- Tudor and Stuart fairies

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Summer School 2011, dress rehearsal of Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Emily Laws School of Acting: Mustardseed, Titania, Cobweb & Peaseblossom.

I have often mentioned before how the robust elf of British tradition has undergone a transformation over the last few centuries into a tiny, winged being.  In this post I’d like to identify some culprits for this process.

Who are we going to blame?

The perception that the frightening and serious fairies of the British Middle Ages had undergone a change at some stage had been with me in vague terms for many years.  Recently, however, I finally got round to reading Minor White Latham’s 1930 book, Elizabethan Fairies.  His study crystallised my thoughts and confirmed what I had always suspected: that William Shakespeare is the major culprit and that 1594/5 marks the turning point in our perception of Faery.  Later poets followed the bard’s lead, but it was Midsummer Night’s Dream that started the trend.

The idea of small fairies was definitely well-established before our major playwrights and poets got their hands on the subject.  For example, from Reginald Scot’s list of fairies, found in his book The discoverie of witchcraft of 1584, we know there was traditional belief in a character called Tom Thumb.  This may surprise British readers, at least, for we think of him as a leading character in pantomimes and nursery stories.  This elf was small, as the name tells us: “but an inch in height, or a quarter of a span” according to a chapbook published in 1630 (a span is the distance from the thumb tip to the little finger tip- standardised at 9″ in imperial measurements).   In his play, The sad shepherd, Ben Jonson also described “span long Elves” carrying changelings (1637, Act II, scene 8)- I might point out that, if you think about it, this should be impossible.

Child sized fays

Generally, it was accepted that there might be both adult sized fairies and those that were shorter, perhaps only appearing like children.  We see both of these in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, of 1599, when an adult woman, Mrs Anne Page, decides to play a trick on Falstaff: she dresses her daughter Nan as the fairy queen, accompanied by some attendants- her “little son” and some other children disguised as “urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white” (Act IV, scene 4).  Nan is a young woman of marriageable age- in her mid- to late-teens perhaps; her court would appear to be infants under ten.  From this episode it seems apparent that a variety of sizes were accepted as normal in Faery by Elizabethan audiences but that the ouphs (elves) and fairies that were seen might very commonly be the size of young children: in The woman’s prize, for example, Beaumont and Fletcher have a character threaten that “children of five year old, like little fairies, will pinch thee into motley.” (Act II, scene 2)

A few thoughts on the word on ‘urchin’ that’ used in the play as a substitute term for fairy.  The word comes from the French, herisson, meaning hedgehog, and it was apparently adopted because of the habit of certain fays (especially pixies) of shape-shifting into the form of hedgehogs.  The terms were for a while interchangeable, until ‘urchin’ increasingly became attached to poor and misbehaving boys (by way of spiteful and prank filled pixies, I assume).  The word is also used to denote fays by Thomas Nashe in Strange Newes (1592), in which he equates “fairies and night urchins,” in the anonymous play The mayde’s metamorphosis of 1600 and in Thomas Dekker’s Whore of Babylon (1607).

Another regularly used term that likewise has some connotations of smallness is ‘puppet.’ This featured in Robert Greene’s James IV of 1594, where Oberon, king of the fairies, is described as “not so big as the king of Clubs” and his subjects as being “Puppets,” and it appeared regularly subsequently: in The Tempest in 1611 Shakespeare called fays “demi-puppets;”  the term’s also used in Randolph’s Amyntas in 1632 and in Henry More’s An antidote against atheism of 1653 (referring to the “dancing places of those little Puppet-Spirits” in Book III, chapter 11).  In The mayde’s metamorphosis there’s also reference to “mawmets” tripping lightly as a bee.  The word has the same sense of a puppet-like being and certainly conveys an idea of diminutive statute- as underlined in Amyntas, where a fairy wife might be sought for in a nutshell.

MidsummerMarkKurtz

The Dream performed at Dewey Mountain, New York, 2017; picture from Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Shakespeare’s legacy

This vocabulary all implies a changing attitude to fairies: that they coming to be seen as tiny, inoffensive, pretty, charming.  We’ve run ahead of ourselves slightly, though, and ought to retrace our steps to 1595 and the first production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Latham has this to say of Shakespeare’s use of fairy themes:

“That the disappearance of the fairies as credible entities should have been hastened by the influence of Shakespeare is one of the greatest ironies of their history. Of all the Elizabethans who made mention of them, there is no one who showed himself more cognizant of the belief in their existence, and no one who featured more prominently their traditional power and activities.” (p.177)

Latham goes on to enumerate the traditional fairy-lore in Shakespeare’s plays: their dangerous enchantments; their substitution of changelings; their pranks- sometimes harmless, sometimes malicious; their generosity to favourites; their midnight dances; their pinching of those who fail to meet their standards;  their pixy-leading.  All of this authentic material was, however, overwhelmed and displaced by what he created in the Dream.  Latham summarises this ‘new Elizabethan’ fairy very succinctly:

“Diminutive, pleasing, and picturesque sprites, with small garden names and small garden affairs, associated with moon-beams and butterflies, they present themselves as a new race of fairies, as different from the popular fairies of tradition as are those fairies from the fays of the medieval romances. ” (p.180)

The medieval fays are the magician women like Morgan le Fay, in some respects related to Titania, but not reigning over a fairy kingdom and much more engaged in the affairs of human kind.  What became the conventional fairy after the Dream was this, according to Latham:

  • they were subjected to a royal court and lost their independent status;
  • they lose their mischievous and changeable sides and become uniformly good;
  • they’re devoted to making the world happier and more beautiful, without imposing any taboos and codes or exacting any penalties;
  • they dislike and avoid disturbance and disruption;
  • they love children and are solicitous of the welfare of all humans;
  • they are “extravagantly” attached to flowers, tending them, named after them, decorated with them; and,
  • they’ve shrunk.  No longer are they infant sized, now they’re tiny: they can hide in acorns; they make their coats from bats’ wings; their fans are butterfly wings; they may drown in a bee’s honey bag should it burst.

It’s these last two characteristics, combined with their new, benign, nature, that marks the real departure for British fairies.   Worse still, they have become comic and ridiculous (as in the whole episode involving Titania and Bottom).  Their dignity and their stature had been diminished and they had become an entirely new race of spirits.

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Exeter Drama Company‘s 2015 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The earliest example of this change came almost immediately from Shakespeare himself, in Romeo and Juliet.  In Mercutio’s famous description of Queen Mab, she is reduced to a being “In shape no bigger than an agate stone/ On the forefinger of an alderman.”  Other poets then picked up upon the conceit of a minute fairy and had great fun with it.  During the first decades of the next century, several notable writers fixed the idea in the public imagination.  These included most notably:

  • Edward Fairfax, in his 1600 translation of Torquato Tasso’s Godfrey of Bulloigne, was an early adopter of Shakespeare’s new vision of Faery.  His fays are tiny enough to sit under “every trembling leaf” and they are intimately associated with blossoms: for example “Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers” (Book 4, stanza 18 and Book 17, stanza 61);
  • Michael Drayton, author of such works as Nimphidia and The Muses’ Elizium, in which fairies use acorn cups as boats, ride upon earwigs and make wedding dresses from primrose leaves.  In his 1613 Poly Olbion, Drayton imagines frisking fairies “as on the light air borne/ Oft run at barley break upon the corn/ And catching drops of dew.”  In the Eighth Nymphal the abiding impression of tininess is expressed directly: “Why, by her smallness you may find,/ That she is of the fairy kind”;
  • William Browne– the third book of his Britannia’s pastorals (c.1625) revels in the possibilities of microscopic fays, whose bread is hazelnut kernels, whose wash basins are sea shells and who dine upon the udders of mice and hornet’s eggs; and,
  • Robert Herrick (1591- 1674), in whose verses “dwarfish Fairyes elves” dine off mushrooms, instead of tables, upon single grains of wheat, washed down with drops of dew.  His Queen Mab’s bed is formed of six dandelion heads, with curtains of gossamer.  In his 1648 collection Hesperides, Herrick includes five fairy poems for which he is particularly remembered: Oberon’s Feast, Oberon’s Palace, Oberon’s Chapel (or the Fairy Temple), The Fairies and The Beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen.   All are easily accessible and give an authentic picture of the British fairy as it was conceived after Midsummer Night’s Dream.

These depictions pretty much sealed the fate of the fays.  They were now without question “pygmies” (Peter Heylyn, Cosmographie (1648), Book IV, p.196; Milton, Paradise lost (1667), Book IX, line 634).  They are, too, irredeemably linked to images of cuteness and harmlessness: for example in the 1660’s ballad The spring’s glory, “The fairies are tripping and lambs are skipping, /Pretty birds chirping in the wood do sing.”

One last citation will do, which is from the Poems and fancies of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1653.  The book is full of fairies and they are uniformly minute, evidently inspired by Drayton and Herrick.  Queen Mab and “all her fairy fry” dance on mole hills, sit under flowers and eat off mushrooms spread with spiders’ webs instead of table cloths (Pastime in fairyland).

Flower fairies

So it is, that little girls in petal like dresses have become fixed in our minds- not just on the stage but in the work of many artists (not least Cicely Mary Barker, Margaret Tarrant and the many other children’s book illustrators of the mid-twentieth century).  In a recent post I laid a heavy burden of blame upon Paracelsus for distorting our concepts of the fairy realm; reluctantly, perhaps, this must be shared with William Shakespeare.  The trends towards smaller and less fearsome fairies were already present in English culture, doubtless, but Shakespeare’s work accelerated and magnified them, an impact exaggerated further by his very status in the literary world.

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2016 production of The Dream by Millennium Charter Academy at Andy Griffith Playhouse, Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Further reading

See Latham, of course (although the book can be rare and expensive), many of my previous posts and, in my 2017 book British fairies, chapters 1 and 28 particularly.  In another posting I’ve also developed some of Latham’s ideas on representations of fairy faces in Tudor drama.

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.

 

 

“On a mission from God”-do fairies have a divine purpose?

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Estella Canziani, Fairies bless the newborn child.

There is an identifiable strand of thought about modern fairies that wishes to see them as part of a wider divine plan.  I wrote a little while ago about the ideas of Paracelsus on fairies and I think his insistence upon his elementals being part of God’s creation and allotted a purpose within the universe have been a major contributor to this ‘mission from god’ idea.

Satanic servants?

This is quite a turn-around, because formerly, as I described in my jottings on fairy religion, the Christian church had spent most of its history attacking fairies and condemning fairy belief. Fairies were demons or, at the very best, delusions sent by the devil to lead us astray.  This had always been the orthodox belief of the Catholic church and, after the Reformation, the position was expressed with renewed vigour and venom by Protestant preachers.  Quite unfairly, post-Lutheran polemicists made out that one of the many superstitions fostered by Rome was the existence of fairies.

As these beings were nothing more or less than servants of Satan, there could be never be any accommodation with them and the Christian church was directly opposed to them.  This is very clearly shown in a story from Borgue in Kirkcudbright: a boy started to disappear for days at a time and it was realised that he was visiting the fairies underground.  To protect the child, he was taken to a local priest and was given a large crucifix to wear on a black ribbon around his neck (although, this being dour, Protestant Scotland, the local kirk then expelled the family for such Papist goings on).

Over the intervening centuries, there have been attempts to find some sort of accommodation between fairies and the Biblical view of the universe.  In A discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits, which was appended to the 1665 edition of Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft, one of several such arguments was set out:

“God made the Fairies, Bugs, Incubus, Robin Goodfellow and other familiar domestical spirits and Devils on the Friday and, being prevented with the evening of the Sabbath, finished them not, but left them unperfect, and therefore ever since they use to flie the holiness of the Sabbath, seeking dark holes in Mountains and Woods, wherein they hide themselves til the end of the Sabbath and then come abroad to trouble and molest men.” (Book I c.XI)

This passage is an excellent compromise between divine omnipotence and the need to explain these anomalous spirits- not quite demons, not quite angels. We may compare the belief in Cornwall that the local pixies were either the souls of still-born children or of newborn babies who died before they could be baptised.

Despite these conflicting theories, the fairies’ position is clear in one sense: they are not godly beings and, as such, are averse to all things Christian.  This was very widely reflected in popular belief, in which a sure charm against fairy harm was anything in the least related to religion- whether it was the sign of the cross, the use of blessings or, even, the deployment of pages torn from a Bible or a prayer book as defence against elf attack.  Any item or turn of phrase with Christian connotations came to be seen as protection against fairy powers: for example, in William Bottrell’s story of An’ Pee Tregear, the old woman sees pixies threshing in a barn.  She hears a pixie sneeze and instinctively says ‘bless you’- causing them all to disappear (Traditions and hearthside stories, vol.2 p.154).

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Hester Margetson, Bluebell in fairyland.

Fays and angels

You wouldn’t necessarily know today that any of this very marked antipathy ever existed between mainstream Christianity and a belief in fairies.  For example, Doreen Virtue in Fairies 101 (2007) describes the fays as “God’s creatures with important missions” and as “angels who reside close to earth.”  In her Healing with fairies of 2001 she claims them as sparks of the divine light, part of God’s wondrous creation.  Their role is as guides and helpers to humans and as guardians of nature.

Other contemporary writers take a pagan approach, but still infuse their descriptions with a sacred vocabulary.  Alicen and Neil Geddes-Ward derive their Faeriecraft from modern Wicca and refer to the “sacred nature” of the fairies, with whom we can build a “divine relationship.”  Sirona Knight and Deanna Conway both associate the fairies with the God and Goddess; Rae Beth refers to the Great Mother.

Particularly in the accommodation of fairies with Christian belief, the danger seems to me to be to subordinate them to whatever divine purpose is perceived by the author and to reduce or eliminate the free will and the individuality of the fairies themselves.  Once they have their mission from God, they can lose their own motivations and agenda and come to be viewed solely through their relationship to us and to their holy duty.  Much as with the reconstitution of fairies as nature spirits and elementals, devoted to saving the planet, I think there’s a lot of projection of our own concerns and needs onto them and too little regard for the evidence of tradition.

Selfish supernaturals?

In her 2017 book Fairies Morgan Daimler states in no uncertain terms that the fairies

“have never cared about the things we do to the world around us so long as we leave their places alone.”

This encapsulates the traditional fairies’ selfishness perfectly: they are protective of their favoured spots- but that’s all.  Morgan also points out that the faes can always go back to the otherworld in any case (Fairies, pp.4 & 174).  She’s quite right; it might be nice to personify nature in order to give ourselves a bit of extra impetus to clear up the mess we’ve made, but the fairies and elves of folklore would probably take the view that it’s nothing to do with them.  We wrecked the place, so we should put it right- and, meanwhile, they’ve got better things to do.  This may sound harsh and unfeeling, but a lot of the British fairies are just that: they steal property, they kidnap children, they torment adults, they kill livestock and people.

Reading the posts I’ve made on this blog or reading any of the accounts contained in the folklore sources that I’ve depended upon, it is hard honestly to see anything about the national fairies that could entitle them to be seen as “divine sparks.”  Often, albeit for different reasons, you feel that the medieval and Reformation church men had made a better assessment.  Faerie can be mercenary and it can be cruel and its denizens can appear devoid of any hint of holy fervour.  A Victorian author said that the Devonshire pixies “had no religious rites or services.”  Most others similarly lacked any discernible faith or ceremonies.  How and when did the fairies get religion?

Pixies and Paradise?

Paracelsus sowed the seed, but I think it was only in the wake of Theosophy that we became convinced that the fays had to be part of a bigger plan.   For example, Manly P. Hall (1901-90) and the Reverend Flower A. Newhouse (1909-94) both wrote extensively on the angelic and fairy hierarchies.  Newhouse called the fairies ‘frakins’ and saw them as a lower order of earth elemental, responsible for flowering plants and grasses.  Above them were sylphs, gnomes and elves, leading successively to the angels.  Her books include Natives of eternity (1937), The kingdom of the shining ones (1955) and Rediscovering angels and natives (1966), the titles all being suggestive of her general approach.

Daphne Charters was author of The origin, life and evolution of fairies (1951) and A true fairy tale (1956).  She claimed to have daily conversations with the small workforce of fairies resident in her home and garden.  She saw the entire natural and human world as being run by these industrious creatures, beings who ‘covered every inch’ of the visible and invisible universe.  In many ways Charters’ theories built upon those of Geoffrey Hodson (as in his book The kingdom of God) , but she disagreed with his views in two ways.  Firstly, his belief was the fairies could not speak, whereas she was in constant, chatty dialogue with her good neighbours.  Secondly, her vision of a hierarchy of nature spirits was far more systematic and orderly than Hodson’s.  Charters discovered a scale of being from the microscopic, simple and short-lived rudines all the way up to God.  The intermediate stages included gnomes, elves and fairies, each longer-lived, larger and more mentally developed that the other.

Iris Ratsey was another Christian medium and mystic.  Her little 1966 book, Pioneering in conscious and co-operative mediumship, is a strange mix of prayers, meditations and visions. From an early age she had regularly seen fairies and, in the text, she describes a visit to “higher dimensional territory” where she witnessed the “sub-human or etheric nature species” responsible for the growth of wheat seeds and describes their ecstatic life cycle.  Ratsey stated that her visions of tiny elfin creatures gave her “a sense of divine presence” explicitly linking her contact with Faery with religious experience.

What do the fairies want?

Fairies have been promoted in recent decades into a force for good.  They are seen as having a role assisting us with our moral and/or spiritual development and are appealed to and worked with on this basis by several faery faiths.  My caution with this depiction of the fairy race is that it is very hard to square it with the traditional sources.  An honest assessment of those would be that the fairy race is, at best, amoral (and at worst immoral) in the sense that faes can be cruel, selfish and demonstrate little respect for property.  There is very little ‘divine’ about them.  They don’t want our prayers; they aren’t interested in petitioners; they are a separate race living in parallel to humans whose good will can’t be bought.  What they want from us is tribute, not worship; they’re interested in taxes or booty rather than sacrifice.

In many respects, the fairy attitude to human beings as delineated in the folklore accounts is one akin to a colonial or conquering state, which seeks to derive income and resources from a tributary people.  This fits very well with the fairies’ practices of abducting adults and children, of stealing food products and food sources and their general possessiveness in respect of human property.  This may seem harsh- yet it encapsulates some of the core dynamics of our relationship.  In light of this, it is harder to recast the fay character as benevolent and non-materialist, as some modern conceptions wish to do.

 

 

“That strange tongue”- fairy names and speech

blake-puck

Sir Peter BlakePuck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth & Mustardseed, 1984

I’ve discussed fairy language and fairy names several times before, but in this posting I want to return again to the theme, considering specifically whether or not it may be possible to learn something more about fairy speech by a study of fairy names.

Of course, most traditional fairies are anonymous- they guard their names from a humans as a source of power.  The spinning stories in which a fairy’s name has to be guessed (Rumpelstiltskin, Perrifool etc) are examples which demonstrate magical conservation of a name combined with a fascinating sample of fairy names.

NB: I take the title of this post from a line in Thomas Randolph’s play, Amyntas, of around 1632.  In Act III character Dorylas instructs his “Bevy of Fairies” to “sing here a Fairy catch/ In that strange tongue I taught you.”  The ditty that follows is “Nos beata fauni proles” (We, happy children of fauns); evidently Latin is a fairy language (for more on which, see later).

Language

The manner in which fairies will be named will, of course, reflect the language they habitually use (unless, of course, fairy speech is preserved for use between themselves, and for their names, whilst they stick to our tongue with us).  Some new examples from the Isle of Man give us a bit more insight into this area.

It appears that, a lot of the time at least, the Manx fairies spoke Manx, what the native islanders called Gaelg. A few accounts recorded in the collection Yn Lioar Manninagh confirm that the fairies were heard conversing in “yallick.”  This seems to have been taken rather for granted, but all the same there are other reports in which they are said to speak “a foreign tongue.”  They may sometimes be overheard talking together at night, but they cannot be understood.

Manx folklore expert Charles Roeder, in his book Skeealyn Cheeil Chiolee (Manx Folk Tales), 1913, reported this theory about their speech:

“I have not heard anything about the fairies this long time.  There is no-one hearing them but the woman in the little shop.  She heard them at midnight one winter night in an elder tree, speaking a language she couldn’t understand.  As she drew near, they whispered in her ear- but she couldn’t understand.  Perhaps they were foreign fairies, visiting the Isle of Man, for in old tales the fairies speak Manx.  The Manx fairies have gone, or they have changed their language- like the people. Perhaps the fairies couldn’t understand English so they changed their language out of spite: they can be spiteful when offended.” (para.2)

Another witness suggested to him: “perhaps this [unknown] language is the language of fairyland, but whether that’s above or below earth no-one can tell.” (para.3)

Fairies may be bilingual in human languages too, it seems.  In 1910 two boys on the isle of Muck in the Hebrides met two tiny green boys on the beach.   These fairies spoke to them in both Gaelic and English.  We could speculate at length whether either was their native language or whether they had mastered both simply for the convenience of talking to the local humans.  The fairies informed the boys that they would be leaving the island for good soon, but that other fairies would be arriving.  We might therefore even go as far as to suggest that the fays next ‘posting’ was in an English speaking area, hence their skill.

peaseblossom

Names

In the catalogue of recorded fairy names, what’s fictional and fanciful is entangled and entwined with what’s derived from tradition and personal encounters. It’s very hard to separate out the jokey, made-up names, the ones that are modelled on classical Greek or Roman or Biblical sources, the everyday human names and those few that are left that don’t sound like anything familiar at all- and so, perhaps, are the most authentic.

The classical type of name was especially popular in Renaissance times.  Reginald Scot mentions three fairy sisters, Milia, Archilia and Sibylia, who might assist magicians in their conjuring.  His near contemporary William Lilly one time tried to conjure the queen of fairies, whom he called Micol and which sounds very like Hebrew.

From Stornoway on Shetland we hear a number of Gaelic names, many of which seem to be nicknames or perhaps names used to avoid saying the fay’s true name: there are Deocan nam Beann (milkwort), Popar, Peulagan and Conachay (little conch).  The trows of the northern isles have a variety of names, some of which retain hints of Viking Norse whilst others just sound like nicknames: Gimp, Kork, Tring, Tivla, Fivla, Hornjultie, Peester-a-leeti, Skoodern Humpi, Bannock Feet and Hempie the Ferry-louper.  On the Isle of Man we hear of a fairy king called (prosaically) Philip and his queen, Bahee, which is at least exotic enough to sound more authentic.

Meaning maybe hidden in names which are not English.  There is a group of Welsh fays, especially connected with weaving and spinning, whose names are alliterative but may imply more than that.  These include Sili Ffrit, Sili Go Dwt, Trwtyn Tratyn, Gwarwyn a Throt and Jili Ffrwtan.  The last is a well known amorous fairy: her first name seems to be just another representation of the sili (shili) of the first two names; ffrwtan, as you may guess, appears to be related to the word ‘fruit’ though ffrwtian means ‘spluttering.’  Sili may be derived from the word sil meaning spawn or small fry and so denotes something tiny- possibly very apt for a fay.  Professor John Rhys suggested that the “throt” name relates to similar spinning fairies elsewhere in Britain like Tom Tit Tot and Habetrot.  Equally likely, they may all just be nonsense names, chosen for their pleasing sounds.  What we can say with greater certainty is that they’re going to be names applied by humans to the tylwyth teg rather than chosen by the fays themselves.

The prettification of fays that has set in since the Mustardseed and Peaseblossom of Shakespeare has also given us the Moonbeam and Dewdrop mentioned in Bowker’s Goblin Tales; similar whimsy and a sense of harmony are produced by Modilla and Podilla, the names of pixies encountered at Brent on Dartmoor (Crossing, Tales of Dartmoor Pixies, 1890).

Spiritualist Daphne Charters met a vast number of nature spirits, amongst whom were Normus, Gorgus, Myrris, Movus, Mirilla, Namsos, Sirilla, Nuvic, Nixus, Lyssis, Tanchon and Persion.  She also encountered two Chinese fairies who rejoiced in the fairly un-Oriental names of Perima and Sulac.  Her great friend and supporter, Air Chief Marshall Dowding, was puzzled by the Latin sounding names of many of these fays, but are much thought concluded that the simple explanation was this: that the Romans had adopted fairy names, not the other way around!  Given what we saw in the play Amyntas earlier, we might conclude that the Air Chief Marshall knew what he was talking about…

Our newest evidence comes from the recently completed Fairy Census.  The names recorded by witnesses are, like those in Marjorie Johnson’s book, Seeing fairies (see my earlier post on Fairy Names), a mix of the conventional and bizarre.  Faeries variously identified themselves as Effeny, Sylvizz, La Belle Courtland, Goldenrod, Zee and Specia (Census numbers 117, 244, 307, 326, 383 and 438).  Two beings, which were either gnomes or brownies, were called Snodgrass and Grosswart (no.164).

We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the traditional, to the mildly exotic.  What emerges seems to be a mixture of classical inherited names, conventional contemporary names and some which might be dismissed as made up or might alternatively be thought of as examples of genuine fairy appellations.  It’s a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus we find amongst witnesses over fairy dress and appearance.

Perhaps what we can identify in this catalogue are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken by faes: sometimes it’s familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown and hard to understand.  There may well be problems for us humans reproducing the sounds and combinations we hear in fairy names, causing us to substitute something more familiar and pronounceable.

“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk,

Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine,

Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles,

But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.”

As a final thought, if you do come to know the name of a fairy, it should always be treated with the utmost respect and care, like a closely guarded secret.  Fairy names are a taboo subject: they are a source of power and they must be handled circumspectly.

m clark

Fairy names for humankind

Whilst we’re discussing terminology and labels, we may as well just glance at what fairies call us.  Manx fairies are recorded as referring to us as “middle world men” which is a very neutral, purely descriptive name.  In the ballad of Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen refers to Thomas as a “man of mould” and in later Welsh folklore we read similar terms: “dead man” or “man of earth.”  For the fays, plainly, what distinguishes us from them is our mortality- or rather, our shorter life spans because, as I have discussed before in the context of killing fairies, they are not actually immortal but endure much longer than we do.

Further Reading

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve addressed the question of fairy language and speech several times on this blog; see too my posting on silence in Faery: the cases when the faes take speech away from their favourites and abductees.

 

Always going, never gone- the reality of the ‘vanishing’ fairy

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe

“I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo…”

(Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Tale)

An abiding aspect of accounts of Faery is that the fairies aren’t around anymore and that fairy belief is fading; it was once strong, but not any more.  This sort of account has been given repeatedly for the last five hundred years or so.  Fairy-lore expert Katherine Briggs to some extent subscribed to this view when she called her 1978 book The vanishing people, although she herself collected some modern modern sightings as well.

Fairies have always been going, but they have never finally and completely gone.  In Farewell to the fairies, the final chapter of her book Strange and secret people- fairies and the Victorian subconscious, Carole Silver observed that:

“The fairies have been leaving England since the fourteenth century but have never quite left despite the rise of the towns, science, factories and changes of religion.”

Two processes were believed to be working in parallel.  There was an active departure of the fairies combined with a growing disbelief amongst the human population.  Combined, these factors convinced observers again and again that our good neighbours had deserted us.  Sometimes the departure was the the fairies moving away from a vicinity, other times it appears that they were vanishing completely.

“Robin Goodfellow is a knave”- the sixteenth century & before

Chaucer was the first to declare that the fays had disappeared, and there has been a constant chorus of lamenting voices ever since.  These were strengthened, from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, by a belief that it was the Reformation which had driven out the supernaturals, the fairies’ Christian faith being inimical to that of Luther and Calvin.

By the late sixteenth century Reginald Scot felt able to declare that “Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared.” Elsewhere in The discovery of witchcraft he noted that “By this time all Kentish men know (a few fooles excepted) that Robin Goodfellow is a knave.”  In 1591 George Chapman had a character in his play A humorous day’s mirth query whether “fairies haunt the holy greene, as ever mine auncesters have thought.”  The fairy faith was increasingly seen as a thing of the past, or at the very least as a matter for an older generation and for less well educated and more superstitious folk.  For instance, writing in 1639, Robert Willis described how-

“within a few daies after my birth… I was taken out of the bed from [my mother’s] side and by my sudden and fierce crying recovered again, being found sticking between the beds-head and the wall and, if I had not cried in that manner as I did, our gossips had a conceit that I had been carried away by the Fairies…” (Mount Tabor p.92)

Doyle, triumphal march of the elf king 1870

Richard Doyle, The triumphant march of the elf king, 1870

“Out of date and out of credit”- the 1600s & 1700s

These early sources would suggest that fairy belief was over and done with by the start of the seventeenth century.  That was far from being the case.  As late as 1669, it seems, a spirit called ‘Ly Erg’ had haunted Glen More in the Highlands. Describing the Hebrides in 1716, Martin Martin averred that “it is not long since every Family of any considerable Substance in these Islands was haunted by a Spirit they called Browny…”  Speaking of Northumberland in 1729 the Reverend John Horsley felt that “stories of fairies now seem to be much worn, both out of date and out of credit.”  In 1779 the Reverend Edmund Jones alleged that, in the parish of Aberystruth, the apparitions of fairies had “very much ceased,” although the tylwyth teg had once been very familiar to the local people.  In other words, there had been belief but it was dwindling, or had died out.

“A winter evening’s tale”

The fairy faith was still apparently on the wane, or only just faded, during the next century too.  This was particularly believed to be the case in Scotland.  Shepherd poet James Hogg described the experiences of William Laidlawe, also called Will O’Phaup, who had been born in 1691 and who was “the last man of this wild region who heard, saw and conversed with the fairies; and that not once but at sundry times and seasons.”  Will lived on the edge of Ettrick Forest which was “the last retreat of the spirits of the glen, before taking their final leave of the land of their love…”  The fays’ departure was a regular theme for Hogg.  For example, in The queen’s wake he claimed that “The fairies have now totally disappeared… There are only a very few now remaining alive who have ever seen them.”  In 1820 Sir Walter Scott announced that “The fairies have abandoned their moonlight turf.” Writing of the Tay basin in 1831 James Knox agreed that “during the last century the fairy superstition lost ground rapidly and, even by the ignorant, elves are no longer regarded, though they are the subject of a winter evening’s tale.”

In a description of the Highlands in 1823 it was said that brownies had become rare, but that once every family of rank had had one.  Likewise Alan Cunningham, a lowland Scot, said that in Nithsdale and Galloway “there are few old people who have not a powerful belief in the influence and dominion of the fairies…”  Several accounts of the fairies’ departure from the Scottish Highlands can be dated to about 1790, although a lingering faith persisted with some into the middle of the next century.  A Galloway road-mender refused to fell a local fairy thorn in 1850, for example.

Also in the early 1820s, the fairies of the Lake District were declared extinct. Further south still, but at almost the same time, Fortescue Hitchens pronounced that in Cornwall-

“the age of the piskays, like that of chivalry, is gone.  There is perhaps hardly a house they are reputed to visit… The fields and lanes are forsaken.”

halt in the fairy procession

John Anster Fitzgerald, A halt in the fairy procession

“Credulous times”?- vanishing Victorian fays

Of Northamptonshire in 1851 it was said that “the fairy faith still lingers, but is in the last stages of decay.”  Nevertheless in 1867 John Harland could write that “the elves or hill folk yet live among the rural people of Lancashire.”  Speaking of his youth in the first half of the century, Charles Hardwick stated that, fairies had then been “as plentiful as blackberries-” but this no longer seemed to be the case to him considering the Lancashire of the 1870s.  Researching Devon folklore in the same year, Sir John Bowring interviewed four old peasants on Dartmoor who told him that “the piskies had all gone now, although there had been many formerly.”  Even so he was told a version of the common story of pixies caught stealing grain from a barn, something that had apparently happened as recently as three years before.

According to John Brand, describing Shetland in 1883, “not above forty or fifty years ago every family had an evil spirit called a Browny which served them…”  Writing about the same islands in the same year, Menzies Fergusson said that:

“credulous times are long, long gone by and we can see no more of the flitting sea trow… Civilisation has crept in upon all the fairy strongholds and disenchanted the many fair scenes in which they were wont to hold their fair courts.”

Recounting Cornish folk belief in 1893 Bottrell cited a verse to the effect that “The fairies from their haunts have gone.” In Herefordshire in 1912 a Mrs Leather of Cusop, just outside Hay on Wye, recalled fairies being seen dancing under foxgloves in Cusop Dingle: a vision that was within the memory of people still living, she recorded.

Sims-Charles-1900.-The-Beautiful-is-Fled

Charles Sims, The beautiful is fled, 1900

“Not utterly extinct?”- fairies in the twentieth century

Twentieth century writers echoed their predecessors.  Speaking of Wales in 1923 folklorist Mary Lewes recorded a-

“practically universal belief among the Welsh country folk into the middle of the last century [which] is scarcely yet forgotten.”

She blamed education and newspapers for having quenched the people’s spirits: “mortal eyes in Cambria will no more behold the Fair Folk at their revels.”  She lamented that “even the conception of fairies seems to have been lost in the present generation.”  A couple of years later, reflecting on Western Argyll in the 1850s, another writer reminisced over the “dreamland” people had inhabited before “the fierce eye of bespectacled modern omniscience” had dispelled belief.  “These were the days of elemental spirits, of sights and sounds relegated by present day sceptics to the realm of superstition or imagination.”  By the 1920s only old people recalled the wealth of folktales.  The fairy faith was also felt to be going or gone by this time from Herefordshire, Shropshire and from the Lake District.

Towards the end of last century, describing Sussex folk belief, Jacqueline Simpson declared that:

“Although it is most improbable that a belief in fairies is seriously entertained by any adult of the present generation, it was a different matter of the nineteenth century… Even one generation ago, it was not utterly extinct.”

tarrant fairy way

Margaret Tarrant, The fairy way

The fairies travel yet?

Continually, then, it seemed to investigators to be the case that fairy belief had been strong until a generation or so ago, but had since expired.  This was asserted every few decades, and little in substance really separates the remarks of Reginald Scot from those of Jacqueline Simpson.  For this reason, when Robin Gwyndaf alleged in 1997 that “fairy belief persisted in Wales until the late 1940s or early 1950s,” how confident should we be in the red line he seeks to draw?  Plenty of writers have done the same before, and have found themselves subsequently contradicted.  Equally, too, there have been writers- perhaps wiser, certainly more cautious-  who have not been so ready to pronounce the fairies’ obituary.

As already noted, the fairies were declared dead and gone from the Lake District in both 1825 and the early twentieth century.  Another observer was not so pessimistic: “The shyness of the British fairy in modern times has given rise to a widespread belief that the whole genus must be regarded as extinct,” wrote a Mrs Hodgson, yet she felt confident specimens could still be found in remote Cumberland and Westmorland neighbourhoods.  In the 1870s Francis Kilvert was told by David Price of Capel-y-ffin that “We don’t see them now because we have more faith in the Lord and don’t think of them.  But I believe the fairies travel yet…”  In 1873 William Bottrell confidently wrote that, in West Cornwall, “belief in the fairies is far from being extinct…”  On the Isle of Man it has been said that the fairies have retreated from the noise and disturbance of modern human life- but that they are still there, in the remote glens and moors.

Conclusions

Have the fairies disappeared?  It seems that it all depends on who does the asking and who they’re talking to.  The evidence of the recent Fairy Census, and of Marjorie Johnson’s collection of sightings in Seeing fairies, suggests that- contrary to all reports- the fairies are still present and active.

The scattered, individual accounts may give a contemporary observer the impression that the fairy faith is lost.  Nonetheless, with a little perspective, with the passage of a few years, a glance back will reveal that witnesses are still meeting our Good neighbours: they may be less willing to speak publicly about these experiences than once would have been the case, but the anonymity of an on-line survey permits confessions that seem to confirm that, indeed, ‘the fairies travel yet.’

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.