Fairy Vengeance

Duncan Carse

One of the major perils of crossing the fairies is that they can be very likely to seek vengeance.  They have a vindictive streak, something which is not alleviated at all by their generally indifferent or uncaring attitude towards humankind.  We must add to this the problem that they are immortal: the fairies can wait to get their own back, not just through the perpetrator’s lifetime, but far down the generations (as Professor John Rhys described in Celtic Folklore vol.I, c.VII & vol.II pp.420-25). He speculated whether this delayed gratification was the result of their deathlessness or because some spell prevented prompter action; either way, the fairies can wait and innocent descendants can pay the price for an ancestor’s folly.

Rhys illustrated the vengeful aspect of the faery character with an account from Pantannas, near Beddgelert. A farmer sought to banish the tylwyth teg from his farm by ploughing up all the areas of grass sward (so that, effectively, they had nowhere left to dance). The man immediately began to see apparitions, or hear voices, threatening that Dial a ddaw, ‘Vengeance is coming.’ Soon after, all the farmer’s supply of corn was destroyed by fire, but serious as this loss was, the fairies declared it to be only the beginning of their inexorable and inflexible revenge. The farmer restored the grassy areas and pleaded with the fairies for mercy, and they returned to the land, but the threat of further action was not lifted- it was only postponed to his descendants. A century later, the warning voices were heard again (‘Dial a ddaw‘) and, soon enough, the vengeance was exacted. The son of the family disappeared at night, presumed to have been taken by the tylwyth teg at a fairy ring, and he was not seen again for several generations. When he finally returned, the world was changed and his name was only a dim memory and- as so often happens in Welsh stories- as soon as he touched something in the mortal world, he crumbled away to dust. What we gather from this is that the fairies won’t forget and that, to make matters worse, they are patient, leading to what seems to us humans like harsh and wholly unreasonable punishment meted out against future generations, who may not even understand why they are suffering.

A variety of offences will incur the fairies’ wrath.  I’ve already mentioned their adverse response to disbelief in their existence; other misdemeanours against them include:

  • Attacking the fairies: this is easily the most understandable case, perhaps.  A Norman knight who came upon fairies dancing at Beddgelert sets his hounds upon the happy throng.  His fate was first to get lost.  Then, when he managed to return home, he found his wife with her lover; the two men fought and the malicious knight died (Welsh Outlook, no.11, Nov.1st 1915, 431-2);
  • Even insults to fairies can elicit a severe response: a drunken man on the Isle of Man met some fairies dancing at Laxey. He swore at them and they chased him away by pelting him with gravel. This wasn’t sufficient though: soon his horse and cow died and, within six weeks, he died himself. I’ve mentioned before the Ballad of Mary O’Craignethan, in which a father rescues his kidnapped daughter from the fairy king. This happy outcome is marred, though, by the fact that- in his grief and rage- the father cursed the fairy folk. He is warned that “nane e’er cursed the Seelie Court and ever after thrave.” As predicted, the father dies soon after recovering his beloved Mary;
  • Trespassing on fairy ground: the fairies have been known (at the very least) to blunt farmers’ scythes if they try to mow the grass growing on a fairy ring. In a case reported from South-west Scotland, a farmer’s cow was killed because it had been annoying the fairies by standing on top of their house. Somewhat comparable may be the story of the walnut tree that once grew at Llandyn Hall, Llangollen, around which the faeries met at night to hold their wedding ceremonies.  When it was cut down in the nineteenth century, the faeries took their revenge, it was believed: one of the workmen involved in the felling was killed by a falling branch;
  • Damaging faery goods– usually we read stories in which humans are rewarded for mending broken faery tools. A Devonshire story reverses this. A boy found a pixie peel (baking implement) in a field. He broke it, saying “The pixies won’t bake any more bread.” He was instantly attacked and pinched, and couldn’t open his eyes for days (Folklore, vol.11, 213);
  • Spying: the faeries are notoriously secretive and retiring. A girl given a job as a housemaid by a ‘Green Lady,’ a fairy woman, was warned never to spy on her activities. Of course, the girl did- peeping through a keyhole at her mistress dancing with a bogey- and for this she was blinded (Folklore, vol.7);
  • Kidnapping: at Rudha Ban in Tarbet the wife of the head of the Macfarlane clan fell ill after the birth of a child and couldn’t nurse her baby.  Her husband kidnapped the wife of a local urisk and made her act as wet nurse.  In revenge for this affront, the urisk mutilated the family’s milkmaid.  In turn, he was hanged (Winchester, Traditions of Arrochar and Tarbet, 1916);
  • For attempted murder: at Hawker’s Cove, near Padstow, local man Tristram Bird discovered a mermaid one day whilst he was out hunting seals.  She was sat on a rock, combing her hair and looking as alluring as mermaids can; he instantly desired her and asked her to marry him.  She rejected the proposal and mocked him.  He threatened to shoot her, and she warned him he’d be sorry if he did.  He did- and he was.  Her fired at her and in response she cursed the harbour.  A storm blew up- and a sandbar blocked access from Padstow to the sea;
  • Failing to leave water out for them at night and to make them welcome in your home: when a family forgot one night to put out water, soap and towels for the visiting tylwyth teg, as was habitual, the peeved fairies overturned their stacks of peat outside (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886);
  • For meanness: a couple out walking on the Isle of Man met a small, crippled man begging.  Whilst the wife would have helped, the husband refused to give him any money, for which he was cursed.  They had a number of children subsequently- all the girls were born without disabilities, but all the boys were disabled just like the beggar (Manx Folklore, 1882-5).  In another Manx story, a man realised that the someone was stealing potatoes from his field after dark. He decided to sit out all night to catch the culprit. He discovered it was the fairies and, by the next morning, he was white and shaking and only able to struggle home and get into his bed, where he soon died. This was the penalty for begrudging a few spuds. A further Manx story concerns a girl baking at Bride.  She forgot the custom of sharing the resulting oat cake with the fairies but when she went up to sleep and got into bed, she received a blow to her face.  She knew this was a message from the fairies, so she went straight back down, baked a new cake and shared it with the Little People (Yn Lioar Manninagh, vol.2).

Some of these incidents are comprehensible, as acts of violence are met with violence.  In the later cases, though the response seems disproportionate to the incitement- but no-one ever suggested that fairies are proportionate people. The best policy is the utmost caution- and the utmost respect: be generous, share with them and at the same time don’t intrude.

Duncan Carse

Sceptics beware! Faery attitudes to disbelievers

It definitely is not wise to doubt the existence of fairies- and to voice that disbelief too loudly or too forcefully. Here are a few examples of your likely fate if you do.

Disbelief in the face of tangible proof of the faeries’ existence and capabilities is especially hated by them.  Very common are stories of humans who win faery favour by mending their broken tools, and a regular element in these is the companion who doubts and mocks any such assistance.  In a Sussex version of the story of the ‘broken peel,’ a ploughman mends the baking implement but his mate scorns the whole idea- and dies a year to the day later.  In alternative versions, a gift of food is given in return for the repair and the companion refuses to eat it- and suffers as a result.

Death may seem a disproportionate response, but it’s not unusual. A Shetland girl who had spoken lightly of the trows one night was drowned as she travelled home; a West Yorkshire man who mocked the boggarts instantly collapsed and died of a heart attack at Lumbutts, near Todmorden.

The Leeds Mercury for May 13th 1852 carried the story of an unbelieving butcher who was met one night by two female goblins. One jumped up behind him on his horse and the other ran alongside as he cantered. He was so terrified by the experience that, as soon as he made it home, he went to bed and expired. Another sceptic went to a well-known haunt of a boggart and called out mockingly, asking where it was. It replied that it would be with him shortly, once its shoe had been tied and, before he had a chance to think better of things and flee, it jumped out, grabbed him, and dragged him through bogs and briars until his clothes and skin were shredded and the pound of candles he had had in his pocket were reduced to the wicks alone. He was left in a ditch, barely more alive than dead.

The pixies of the South West of Britain seem to be especially touchy about doubters and there are several stories of people punished by them for scepticism- usually by pixy-leading them.

In William Bottrell’s story of Uter Bosence and the Piskey, the man is drunkenly making his way home one night. He has laughed at stories of pixies and is regarded by other local people as an “unbelieving heathen” as a result.  A fog arises and he becomes trapped in a field, unable to find the way out.  Uter decides to rest in a ruined chapel until the weather improves or dawn comes, but instead, he is confronted with a band of spriggans and a terrible goat-like being with blazing eyes and paws instead of hooves, which tries to dance with him.  Then he’s knocked over and dragged across the moor- an experience from which he never fully recovers.

A Somerset man returning from the pub found himself misled and lost because he had sneered at the possibility of pixies. He was rescued by a local farmer who heard his cries of distress and, in response to the experience, the man worked on his saviour’s farm for free, saying that he did this to please the pixies, so that they wouldn’t give him a “gude lammin’” the next time they came across him alone at night. 

In Enys Tregarthen’s 1940 story, Why Jan Pendogget Changed His Mind, the main character is another disbeliever who unwisely is too vocal about his contempt for such childish ideas as pixies. He attends St Columb fair one day- and his mother advises him to avoid crossing Undertown Meadow on his way home because the pisky folk have been making rings there. He ignores this, of course, and is pixy-led. He can’t find the gate out of the field and then can’t locate the one he entered by either. He sees lights bobbing and hears the pixies laughing- and is trapped all night until dawn.

Cornish miner called Tom Trevorrow doubted the existence of the knockers in mines.  He refused to share his food with them and ignored the warnings of their displeasure at his disrespect (falls of stones in the workings), so finally they caused a roof collapse that buried the lode he had been working, along with all his tools.

One of the least violent of these types of tale may be the Dartmoor story of Nanny Norrish, whose scepticism is answered one night when she meets the pixies piled up before her in a pyramid and all chattering loudly.  Nanny appears to have got off lightly, considering what we’ve already seen and given that another Devon folklorist averred that the pixies’ “malevolence will know no end” towards one who’s spoken ill of them.

J J Hilder, pen copy of Pixy Led by Fred Hall