Floatiness- movement of fay people?

IRO f with bunnies

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Fairy with bunnies and flower skipping rope

“Oh, band of mischievous fairies,/ That flicker and float about;”

(Old Donald, Menella Bute Smedley)

As many readers will know very well indeed, the Irish and Scottish Gaelic name for the fairies is sidh.  One of the derivations of this term is from the word for ‘peace.’  Translations of the name therefore give us ‘the People of Peace,’ the ‘still folk’ or ‘the silently moving folk.’  One interpretation of ‘peace’ is that it is a euphemistic name– an expression of hope as much as a description, a form of wish or charm that the fays will be peaceful in their conduct and leave us mortals in peace, just as use of the ‘Good Neighbours’ aspires to a state of amity between supernaturals and humans.

Silent movement

I want in this post to discuss the other understanding of the phrase- the suggestion that the ‘peace’ in question is not an absence of conflict (either with humans or between the fairies themselves) but is descriptive of the manner of their movement.

“And in the fields of martial Cambria…/ Where light foot fairies skip from bank to bank.”  (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594, attributed to Shakespeare)

Now, just how fairies might get about is generally take for granted and seldom remarked upon.  We assume that they’ll walk, that they might ride their own faery horses or that they might fly with those pretty butterfly and dragonfly wings that they’ve so recently acquired.  Perhaps rather more often than fluttering, fairies are taken to ‘teleport’ from one spot to another: witness Ariel in The Tempest, putting a girdle about the earth in forty minutes.

iro yellow fay

Movement through the air is particularly likely to be soundless, which may indeed explain the ‘people of peace’ epithet.  John Gregorson Campbell believed that this was entirely appropriate in the circumstances:

“Sound is a natural adjunct of the motions of men, and its entire absence is unearthly, unnatural, not human.  The name sith without doubt refers to ‘peace’ or silence of Airy motion, as contrasted to the stir and noise accompanying the movements and actions of men.  The German ‘still folk’ is a name of corresponding import… They seem to glide or float along, rather than to walk.” (Superstitions of the Highlands and islands p.4).

Campbell compared the sound of the fairies’ movement to a rustling noise, like that of a gust of winds, or a silk gown, or a sword drawn sharply through the air.

“In they swept with a rustling sound/ Like dead leaves blown together.”

The fairies’ cobbler, Rosamond M. Watson

The soundlessness of fairy movement seems to be confirmed by an account collected by Welsh minister Edmund Jones.  A girl of Trefethin parish told him how she had come across some fairies dancing under a crab tree.  Regularly for three or four years after that time, either when she was going to or coming home from school, she would meet with them to dance in a barn.  She recalled that they wore green and blue aprons, were of small stature and looked “oldish.” Most notable, though, was she never heard their feet whilst she was dancing with them; she took off her own shoes too to make no noise as it seemed displeasing to them.

Skipping and speeding

Other authorities believe that fairy motion was typified by its great speed, which is achieved without perceptible effort.  The fays’ hands and feet may move so fast that they aren’t visible and they seem to glide through the air without touching the ground.  A man who met some Scottish fairies on Halloween described to poet James Hogg how “their motions were so quick and momentary he could not well say what they were doing.”  Supporting this, an account of Broonie the trow king from Orkney describes him as ‘gliding’ from farmstead to farmstead.  Nonetheless, another witness reported how she saw a trow getting about by skipping- backwards (County folklore, vol.3 ,Shetland and Orkney).

iro the acrobats

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The acrobats

Swimming in the air

Is there anything else distinctive about fairy motion that can be gleaned from the sources?

There are a few intriguing mentions of unusual or characteristic movement.  In The secret commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk describes how, with their bodies of “congealled Air” the sidh folk are “some tymes caried aloft” and that they “swim in the Air near the Earth” (c.1).  Welsh Rev. Edmund Jones relates how Edmund Daniel of Arail saw fairies at Cefn Bach: they were “leaping and striking the air” in an undulating motion (The appearance of evil no.59).  Lastly, a nineteenth century Yorkshire account describes the fays as being seen, early on summer mornings, in “rapid, confused motion.”  These latter descriptions are so individual and unique as to lend them considerable authenticity.

Catch us if you can

The same man who told James Hogg about the fairies on Halloween also had another supernatural experience, when he saw a crowd of fays travelling up Glen Entertrony.  At first he thought they were neighbours returning from the fair and tried to catch up with them to get the latest news.  Although they were only twenty paces ahead of him, and he was running, he was never able to reach them- and all the time they seemed to him to be standing still in a circle.  This puts me in mind of an incident from the Mabinogion.  In the story of Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed, Pwyll is seated on top of a fairy hill when he sees fairy princess Rhiannon riding past.  He tries to pursue her, but can never catch her up however hard he spurs his horse.

In the Scottish Highlands it is also believed that, when ‘the folk’ move about in groups, they travel in eddies of wind.  In Gaelic such an eddy is known as `the people’s puff of wind’ (oiteag sluaigh) and its motion ‘travelling on tall grass stems’ (falbh air chuiseagan treorach).  John Rhys recorded in Celtic folklore that the Welsh tylwyth teg were said to dance on the tops of rushes, again suggestive of a light and floating motion.

Whilst we’re talking about fairy movement, it may be worth mentioning here a curious observation by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor in his folk lore guide, The peat fire flame.  He records the Highlands belief that fairies always approach from the West.  My guess is that this is the direction associated with sunset and so, by extension, with death, and that it reflects the association of fairies with the dead, even if they are not ghosts or the dead themselves.

Conclusions

What can we conclude from this brief survey of allusive hints?  The best we can probably say is that one way that fairies might be identified is by their particular gliding, floating movements.

I examine other evidence on other means of locomotion in two other posts, one on fairies whirling and one on ‘Horse and Hattock.’

IRO Dragonfly fairy

Fairy lore and The Mabinogion

coranyeit

As many readers are likely to be aware, The Mabinogion is the collection of early medieval Welsh stories that connects us to ancient Celtic mythology and gives us the first literary mentions of later Romantic hero, King Arthur.  Much could be written (and has been) about the connections between these stories and the works of Chretien de Troyes, Marie de France and Malory; yet more can be said about the links between the Welsh myths and the Irish stories of Cuchulain and others.  Here, I wish solely to focus upon the traces of fairy-lore in these accounts.

It is fair to say that The Mabinogion is steeped in magic.  Fairy glamour- the use of concealment, deception and transformation- is a theme that runs throughout the different stories of the collection.  The ‘glamorous’ quality of the tales is so fundamental to them and so subtle that we might almost overlook it.  Nonetheless, the integral otherworldly quality of many of the stories shares a nature and a source with faery.  These are fairy-tales just as much as they are hero stories, pseudo-history or courtly romances.

Welsh fairies

There are several features that can be identified which more explicitly demonstrate the fairy presence in The Mabinogion.  These include:

  • mounds- in several tales the action takes place, or characters are discovered seated upon, mounds.  In Pwyll and Manawyddan the gorsedd at Narberth has a particularly central role, but see too the stories of Owein and of Peredur- in the latter one mound is also explicitly stated to be a barrow, reminding us of the link between fairies and ancient sites.  Regular readers will further recall that grassy knolls are a typical fairy haunt;
  • magical ointment- in an incident in the story of Peredur, an ointment is used to revive knights killed in combat.  This quality of bestowing immortality or overcoming mortality recalls my recent discussion of the properties of fairy ointment;
  • fairy hounds- at the very start of the story Pwyll, the eponymous hero comes across Arawn, lord of Annwfn, who is out hunting with archetypal supernatural hounds– white with red ears.  This is very plainly a fairy pack and Arawn appears to be the lord of fairyland;
  • in the story of Culhwch ac Olwen, the many members of King Arthur’s court are listed.  Amongst them is his messenger Sgilti Light Foot who can run over forests on the tops of the trees and over mountains on the tips of the reeds. This skill is directly paralleled by a fairy trait recorded at Llanberis in North Wales by John Rhys; the Tylwyth Teg were said to be so light and agile that they could dance on the tips of the rushes (Celtic folklore p.83);
  • characters in the tales can travel with a tell-tale gliding motion, most notably Rhiannon in the story of Pwyll; she cannot be pursued either slowly or quickly, but always mysteriously moves ahead of those following her. This gait is distinctively fairy and is a feature of the ‘fairy rades’ often commented upon.
  • lastly, we must address the identity and nature of the people called Coranyeit/ Corannyeid (modern Welsh coraniaid) who bring plague to Britain in the story of Llud and Llevelys.  The episode requires a lengthier consideration.  

The Coraniaid

The people called Coranyeit appear to be fairies of some description- or, at least, strangers with magical powers.  Their name is etymologically linked to Welsh corr/ corrach (dwarf/ stunted), suggestive of diminutive fairies, and to the Breton fairies called korriganed.  The latter closely resemble the pixies of the British south-west, but it is hard to identify any clear parallels between korrigans and coranyeit.  All we do know is that the troublesome beings of the Welsh story are said to have come from Asia (Triad 36).

The Coraniaid are classed as one of the three gormessoedd (foreign oppressions or invasions) of Wales; this is because they have an unfortunate gift- they can hear anything that is said, however hushed the voice, provided that the wind catches it.  As a result, no-one could plot against them and they could seemingly never be harmed.  This trait perhaps is linked to the need to refer to the fairies by pseudonyms, such as Tylwyth Teg, Bendith y Mamau or ‘good neighbours’ so as not to insult or antagonise them.

The Corannyeid are eliminated from the realm by mashing insects in water and sprinkling this upon the assembled people.  The humans present are unharmed and the intruders are destroyed.  This detail is very puzzling and has never had any satisfactory explanation; some commentators have suggested that Spanish fly may be involved. The Welsh word used in the story (pryvet; Modern Welsh pryfed) is of very limited assistance in solving the mystery as it simply means ‘insects’ in a general sense. Nothing is clear, then, but there is some parallel at least to the use of various plants like rowan or of substances like stale urine to repel fairies.  These may be distasteful to humans, but they are none of them fatal.

In the Coraniaid‘s size, their malevolence and their supernatural senses there is plainly a good deal of fairy nature.  A final observation may clinch this identification.  In 1779 a clergy man called Edmund Jones wrote A geographical, historical and religious account of the parish of Aberystruth.  He had cause to criticise (at length) the parishioners’ foolish attachment to old delusions concerning the tylwyth teg.  Amongst the beliefs prevalent in the area in the late eighteenth century was the idea that the fairies would always know whatever was spoken out of doors, especially at night (p.72).  This seems to be a direct preservation of the Corianaid‘s regrettable eavesdropping abilities.

korrigan