Faeries and Water- healing and diagnosis

hm2
Hester Margetson

I have written before about fresh and marine water spirits and about the connections between the faeries and rivers and wells; in this post I want to pull together various scattered strands and highlight the magical power that seems to link faeries and water.

Healing Properties

Water is very often seen being used for its ability to heal disease inflicted by or associated with the faeries.  As I have described previously, water that runs in a southerly direction- whether that’s a river or stream or the outflow from a spring or well- is deemed to be especially effective in curing sickness.  It may have to be collected in silence and it may be used to a patient or that person’s shirts or blouse, but it was regularly prescribed by Scottish witchcraft suspects- presumably because of its perceived efficacy.

As well as treating faery inflicted disease, water also could have a role in diagnosing the cause of a person’s infirmity.   Katharine Craigie, who was tried on Orkney in 1640, had told a sick man that she could discover whether he was afflicted by “ane hill spirit, a kirk spirit or a water spirit,” which are probably different types of trow.  She did this by placing three stones in the household’s fire all day; these were then left under the house’s threshold overnight and, in the morning, were dropped separately into a bucket of water. The stone that “chirned and chirled” when it was dropped in the water indicated that a kirk spirit (probably a trow living in a nearby church yard) was the cause of the malady.  Craigie used this technique to diagnose affliction by a hill spirit in a second case and, in 1617, Orkney woman Katharine Caray had diagnosed a sea spirit in the same manner.  James Knarstoun, another Orkney healer, in 1633 also used three stones for the same purpose.  He brought one from the shoreline, one from a hill (surely a fairy knoll) and one from a kirk yard and promised that, once the spirit was revealed, it could be “called home again.”

Isobell Strauthaquinn was tried for witchcraft in 1597.  Her mother had learned her healing skills from her fairy lover.  Amongst the techniques she seems to have passed on to Isobell was curing people with water in which the bones of the dead had been washed.

hm1
Hester Margetson

What’s puzzling and contradictory in all this is the fact that very often the healer’s abilities derived from the fairies in the first place.  In Perth in 1623 three women, Isobel Haldane, Janet Trall and Margaret Hormscleugh, were all accused of witchcraft.  They had healed using south running water and all three claimed to have started their careers as healers after visiting the fairies in their hills and, through this, being endowed with their medical knowledge.  Also in Perth, in 1640, a man called John Gothray was presented before the Presbytery for his use of charms to heal townspeople.  He too claimed to have been abducted by the fairies when he was younger and, since then, to have been visited monthly by his changeling brother (who’d been stolen when he was barely one month old), who taught him how to make medicines using various herbs mixed with water from a local spring.

Diagnostic properties

In Gothray’s case, the spring water seemed to have unique healing properties. Many such sites were known across Britain.  Often, too, the water was in some way able to predict the outcome of the illness.  Near Fodderty in Ross and Cromarty, there was a well called Tom na domhnuich; its water would be collected before sunrise and the patient bathed in it, if it then looked clear they would recover- if brown, they would die.  In 1839 we have a record of a woman going there to collect water for her sickly child.  She had the fascinating experience of seeing a “creature with glaring eyes” diving into the well (some sort of black dog or bogle apparition, apparently).  She decided to collect the water anyway and, after washing her child, it fell soundly asleep- something which was unusual and looked hopeful for its recovery.  Sadly, it then died.  The water in the same well might also predict death or recovery by the way it turned- clockwise for health, anti-clockwise for death.

At the well of Kirkholme, the rising of the water indicated recovery; at Muntluck if the water was low, it was a bad sign and if you drank from one Dumfries well and then vomited, recovery was impossible.

James Knarstoun, the Orkney healer, was able to determine what was afflicting Patrick Hobie’s daughter using water collected from St Mary’s Well on the island.  It had to be fetched only between midnight and cockcrow- for, as is well known, with the coming of dawn the fairies’ power weakens and they have to flee the earth surface.

cloke well

Recovering Children

Wells have another curious link with faeries.  At Sùl na bà near Nigg, in Ross and Cromarty, there was a spring where local people would leave changeling children overnight, along with gifts for the fairies.  The hope was that these would be accepted as sufficient to persuade the faes to restore the stolen child by the next morning.  A number of such sites were once recognised- some springs, but others fairy hills and the like.

Seeing Faeries

Lastly, water could be instrumental in helping you to see the fairies.  As I have mentioned before, it was customary in many parts of the country to leave out water for the faes to wash in overnight.  In the Bodleian Library in Oxford there is a seventeenth century spell book containing various magical charms to summon fairies.  One involves a lengthy ritual focused around collecting faery washing water.  Performed around the time of a new moon, clean water was set out by a clean hearth with a clean towel.  By the morning a white rime or grease would be seen on the water which was removed with a silver spoon.  This grease was then to be used the next evening to anoint your eyes before sitting up all night before a table set out with fresh bread and ale.  Fairies would come to eat the food and the watcher would be able to see them because of the grease on their eyes.  Fairy expert Katharine Briggs explains that this must work because the fairies will have washed their children and, in so doing, will have washed from them some of the special ointment with which they’re anointed to give them the faery second sight.

Further Reading

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of the links between the faes and water. For more on faery medicine, see my Faery Lifecycle, 2021:

faery-lifecycle-cover

Fairies and flowing water

Siegfried & The Rhinemaidens
Arthur Rackham, Rhine maidens

One curious aspect of fairy lore is the antipathy that some fairies have for water.  This only applies in certain situations, however, and may not be a general rule.

Water as a fairy necessity

Fairies, like humans, require water for basic necessities.  It’s pretty certain that they drink it: they are reputed to drink dew at the very least.  Without doubt they use water for bathing: there are numerous folk lore records of fairies expecting householders to leave out bowls of fresh water for them at night so that they and children may wash: plenty of examples are to be found in Rhys, Celtic folklore  (pp.56, 110, 151, 198, 221 & 240).  There’s also a story of fairies surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley.

According to the seventeenth century pamphlet, Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests, if no clean water was left out for the fairies’ night time ablutions, the usual reprisal would follow:

“we wash our children in their pottage, milk or beer or whatever we find: for the sluts that have not such things fitting we wash their faces and hands with a gilded child’s clout or else carry them to some river and duck them over head and ears.”

Similar stories are found across the country as far north as the Scottish Highlands: for example, in one Shetland example a trow mother washes her baby’s nappies in the water in which barley is soaking.

It hardly need be said that certain fairies live in water and plainly cannot have any objection to their natural environment.  Both fresh and salt water are inhabited, as I’ve discussed in previous posts on inland and marine mermaids.

Another fay link with water is found in the Scottish bean-nighe (the washer woman) and the related caointeach (the keener).  Both foretell deaths by washing clothes or winding sheets at fords or in streams; plainly they are not adverse to contact with running fresh water.   In fact, it’s said that power can be gained over the bean-nighe if you are able to come between her and the stream, indicating that her magic potential in some way derives from the water course.

Lastly, it’s worth recalling the fragments of evidence that children taken by the fairies can be somehow imbued with fairy magic not just by the application of green ointment but by dipping in certain springs and pools.

Fairy fear of water

Nevertheless, there is also evidence of fairies objecting to water that is flowing.  This is confirmed  by Evans-Wentz (p.38) for Ireland and for South West Scotland at least by J. F. Campbell in Popular tales of the west Highlands (volume 2, page 69).   The hideous nuckelavee of Orkney is a venomous creature, part human and part horse, but it couldn’t abide fresh water, meaning that it never came out in the rain and could be escaped by leaping a burn.  A dramatic example of this aversion comes from North Yorkshire: in Mulgrave Wood near Whitby lived a bogle or boggart by the name of Jeanie.  One day she chased a farmer who was riding by.  He galloped desperately for the nearest brook to escape her: just as she caught up with him and lashed out with her wand, his steed leapt the river.  Jeanie sliced the horse in half.  The front part, bearing the rider, fell on the far side and was safe, whilst Jeanie had to make do with the hind legs and haunches.

Any flowing watercourse will form an insurmountable barrier, it seems, but even more antithetical to the fays is water that flows in a southerly direction.  This is shown from a couple of accounts.  One way of expelling a changeling and recovering a human child from the fays that was practiced in the north east of Scotland was to wash the infant’s clothes in a south draining spring and then lay them to dry in the sun; if the clothes disappeared it meant that the fairies had accepted them and that the child would have been restored.  Secondly, in a previous post I have discussed the diagnosis of fairy-inflicted illnesses by ‘girdle-measuring.’  One practitioner I mentioned, Jennet Pearson, would wash the girdle in a south-flowing stream before treating the sick person.

There is also evidence that the high tide line on a beach had a similar barring effect on supernatural pursuers.  In the Highland story of Luran, he stole a goblet from the sith and escaped his angry pursuers by making for the shore.

There are contradictions to this, though.  In Superstitions of the Highlands J. F. Campbell expressed his opinion that running water was no barrier to fairies (p.50); a possible compromise position is Evelyn Simpson’s idea that it is only bad fairies who are obstructed, whilst well-intentioned ones may pass over unhindered (see Folklore in lowland Scotland, p.107).  Sometimes, too, it appears that even plain water can repel our good neighbours.  George Henderson has recounted a folk-tale from the isle of Uist in the Scottish Highlands in which the fairies are depicted calling at the door of a house for a ‘cake’ to come out to them: the inmates threw water on the cake, and it replied: ‘I can’t go, I am undone.’ (Survivals of belief amongst the Celts, 1911, p.219)  Here plain water seems enough to dispel the fairies’ magic.

I’ve written before about the contrary nature of much fairy lore.  It seems that there’ll always be exceptions to any rule we try to identify, but even so we may say that, in most cases, a river or stream will provide an effective barrier between you and supernatural harm.

undine
Arthur Rackham, Undine

Further reading

See too my post on fairies and wells.  An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.