The Good and the Wicked Wichts

goblin

In the Miller’s Tale, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the author has carpenter Robyn pronounce this blessing over the student, Nicholas:

“I crouche thee from elves and fro wightes.”

Therwith the nyght-spel seyde he anon-rightes

On foure halves of the hous aboute,

And on the tresshfold of the dore withoute:

“Jhesu Crist and seinte Benedight,

Blesse this hous from every wikked wight,

For nyghtes verye, the white pater-noster!”

Robyn recites a standard formula, seemingly, blessing and protecting the house against both elves and ‘wights.’

What’s a Wight?

What is this strange term that is used as sort of equivalent to elves?  A wight (wicht in Scots) can either be a human or some supernatural being, typically of the fairy family.  Used to describe people like us, it will be encountered in such phrases as “living wight,” “earthly wight” or “mortal wight.”  However, the word can also be found in such phrases as “uneardlie [unearthly] wights” (trial of Stephen Maltman, Gargunnock, 1628).

When applied to supernaturals, the term can encompass ghosts as well as a range of other spirits.  For example, Robert of Gloucester (1260-1300) in his chronicle of English history described “As a maner gostes, wiȝtes as it be.”

The main significance, however, is fairies, as is clear from Richard Baxter’s The Certainty of the World of Spirits, published in 1625:

“We are not fully certain whether those Aerial Regions have not a third sort of wights that are neither Angels (Good or Fallen) nor souls of Men, and whether these called Fairies and Goblins are not such.”

What, more than the fact that we are discussing fairies, does the word tell us?  Firstly, we might remark that ‘wightling’ means a puppet, so that there may be some sense of a tiny being implied.  It does not appear, however, that the word in itself has any sense of either good or bad.  Both types of fairy can be called ‘wights.’

goblin 2

Good Fairies

Scottish witch suspect Bessie Dunlop, who was tried in 1576, had an intermediary, a deceased man called Thom Reid, who put her in touch with the fairies.  One time he introduced her to a group of a dozen men and women whom he told her were “gude wychtis that wynnit [lived] in the Court of Elfame.”  Another time he showed her a group of mounted men that were “gude wichtis that wer rydand [riding] in Middil-ȝerd [Middle Earth].”  The Reverend Robert Kirk, in the Secret Commonwealth, referred to the fairies as “subterranean wights” and “invisible wights,” beings who caused a nuisance with their pranks but who were not malicious. (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, c.12 & ‘Succinct Accompt’ c.8)

This situation is summarised in a traditional Scottish rhyme:

“Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye call me fairy
I’ll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gind guid neibour ye ca’ me
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca’ me seelie wicht
I’ll be your freend baith day and nicht.” (see my Fairy Ballads)

What’s fascinating about this is the distinction that’s made between “elf or imp,” which are bad, and a “seelie wicht,” a ‘good wight.’  These positive definitions are crowned by a reference in Gavin Douglas’ Aeneid to “hevinly wightis.”  When Bartie Paterson of Dalkeith (tried as a witch in 1607) advised a patient to back up the ointment made of green herbs he’d been given with a prayer to Jesus and all “leving wychtis above and under earth,” we have to presume that Bartie believed those wights to be good and, for that matter, godly, beings.

Bad Fairies

Frustratingly, this neat dichotomy is illusory, because ‘wicht’ can imply a malign fairy just as much as a good one.  Wicked wights are as likely to be members of the ‘unseelie court’ as to be benign.  Emphasising how slippery and imprecise the usage can be, we have this remark from the trial of Margaret Sandiesoun on Orkney in April 1635 for witchcraft and sorcery.  She was reported to have refused to try to cure a sickly child because “he was takin away be the guid wichtis in the cradle.”  The baby has been abducted- so calling the fairies ‘good’ is clearly force of habit, and a nervous deference, and bears no accurate relationship to their actual behaviour.

We meet the seelie and unseelie court again in a lecture given by William Hay in 1564 in which he warned that:

“there are certain women who do say that they have dealings with Diana the queen of fairies. There are others who say that the fairies are demons, and deny having any dealings with them, and say that they hold meetings with a countless multitude of simple women whom they call in our tongue ‘celly vichtys’ [seelie wichts].”

For example, in 1661 a midwife from Dalkeith in Midlothian admitted that, when women were in childbed, she would place a knife under the mattress, sprinkle the bed with salt and then pray for God to “let never a worse wight waken thee…”  A woman called Margaret Dickson of Pencaitland in 1643 treated a changeling child who had been taken by “evill wichts.”  Edinburgh woman Jonet Boyman in 1572 explained to a family that their child had died because the “sillyie wichts” had found it unsained [unblessed] one day and had blasted it.  Lastly, Gargunnock folk healer Stephen Maltman appeared before a church court in 1626 and admitted that he had told a woman how to prevent ‘earthly and unearthly wights’ stealing the milk from her cows.

The dual meaning of the term is underlined by the Reverend Kirk, who also wrote in his book about “fearful wights” and “furious hardie wights,” from whom people might protect themselves with iron.  Writing around the same time as Kirk, George Sinclair in Satan’s Invisible World Discovered made reference to prayers for protection from an “ill wight.” (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, chapters 15, 12 & 4)

Lastly, underlining all these negative associations, in 1836 Robert Allan in Evening Hours bravely declared: “O, what care I for warlock wights,/ Or bogles in the glen at e’en.”

hob

For more on the Darker Side of Faery natures, see my 2021 book:

darker side

“Let me grab your soul away”- faeries, souls and the dead

fitzgerald Fairy_passage

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy passage

Fairies and the dead have always had some ill-defined relationship, but in an account of folk beliefs in North East Scotland, I came across this fascinating note:

“It is said that, if a person dies of consumption, the fairies steal the soul from the body and animate another person with it.” (Shaw, The history of the province of Moray, 1827, p.278)

In the far north of Scotland, fairy abductions of humans can include not just a physical kidnapping but the abstraction of a person’s vital essence, leaving an inanimate stock behind: their soul is in Faery and a lifeless shell remains.  Related to this may be the Shetland belief that trows can only appear in human form if they can find someone who’s not been protected by a ‘saining’ or blessing. There is one story in which two trows attend a Yule dance in the form of two small boys whose mother had forgotten to bless them before she went out for the night’s festivities.  When they were exposed for what they were, the trows vanished from the dance, but the boys didn’t return to their beds.  They were found the next day dead in a deep snowdrift.  Fairy ‘possession’ can lead to real or simulated death, then, as well as following on from it.

Virtuous Pagans?

This particular Scottish manifestation is unique, but the idea that fairies (or, at least, some of them) have an association with the souls of the dead is widespread in the British Isles.  It has been speculated that the pixies of the south-west might be the souls of unbaptised children, or those delivered stillborn, or perhaps the spirits of virtuous druids and other non-Christians.  The mine sprites (the ‘knockers’ in the South West) were the souls of ancient miners and there are traces of a belief that bees and moths were spirits in some form.  In Wales as well the tylwyth teg were thought to be the spirits of virtuous druids who had died in pre-Christian times, whilst on the Isle of Man the belief was that the fairies represented the souls of those who died before the Flood (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, pp.183, 169, 179, 177, 178, 147 & 123).

Faery Dogs

In Yorkshire, the supernatural hounds called the Gabriel Ratchets were believed to be the form taken by infants who died before baptism; they would circle their parents home overhead at night.  Other ‘faery beasts’ such as the black dogs, shugs and shocks were regarded as portents of death in the counties where they were seen.  The Welsh equivalent of these hounds, called the Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven.

Faery Limbo

Certain people- those who died early, unexpectedly or by violence- would go to live with the fairies in a sort of limbo.  This is a concept found across Britain in folklore, ballad and poetry from at least the Middle Ages.  Sir Walter Scott used it in his ballad ‘Alice Brand’ which is incorporated into his novel The Lady of the Lake.  Alice and her lover Richard are hiding in the greenwood; the Elfin King hears them cutting his trees and sends a goblin to chastise them:

“Up, Urgan, up! to yon mortal hie,

 For thou wert christen’d man:

For cross or sign thou wilt not fly,

 For mutter’d word or ban.”

When the goblin finds the pair, Alice confronts him and asks how he fell under the king’s power.  He replies:

“It was between the night and day,

 When the Fairy King has power,

That I sunk down in a sinful fray,

And ’twixt life and death, was snatch’d away

To the joyless Elfin bower.”

Alice is then able to release from this captive state by making the sign of the cross three times.

Witches’ Faery Helpers

What appeared so frequently in verse and story merely reflected genuine folk belief, as is confirmed by the evidence given by several Scottish witchcraft suspects.  For example, Alison Peirson told her inquisitors that several deceased members of her family were to be found in the court of Elphame, including her uncle William Simpson; Andro Man claimed that he knew “sindrie dead men in thair cumpanie” (one of whom was the late King James IV, who had died at the Battle of Flodden).  Bessy Dunlop revealed that the laird of Auchenreath, who had died nine years previously, was to be seen amongst the fairy rade whilst her particular ‘familiar,’ a man called Thom Reid, had fallen at the battle of Pinkie some 29 years earlier.  Elspeth Reoch’s fairy intermediary was a relative called John Stewart, who had been murdered at sunset- a violent and early death at a liminal time of day.

Lewis Spence examines some of the thought behind these folklore traditions in his classic British Fairy Origins.  The soul is often conceived as a small person and it is easy to understand how the little folk and the spirit homunculus might become confused.  Walter Evans-Wentz, in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, also espoused the theory that (some at least of) the fairies are the souls of the dead, something which he set within a wider Celtic ‘Legend of the Dead.’  He said that:

“the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and fairyland.” (Spence pp.68, 70 & 80; Evans Wentz pp.280 & 493)

The Reverend Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth goes so far as to argue that, whilst the bodies of the dead lie in their graves in the churchyard, their souls inhabit the fairy knowes that are so often found in proximity to Highland churches.  He confirmed that fairies were, therefore, believed by some with the second sight to be “departed souls, attending awhile in this inferior state, and clothed with Bodies procured through their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe… but if any were so impious as to have given no Alms, they say when the Souls of such do depart, they sleep in an unactive state till they resume the terrestrial Bodies again.”  Other seers believed that the souls of the dying people became wraiths, and the apparitions of black dogs which I mentioned earlier, and yet others were convinced that the fairies were “a numerous People by themselves, having their own polities.”  He mentioned too other beliefs that people’s “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged” and that some will “go to the Siths (or People at Rest, and in respect of us, in Peace) before the natural Period of their Lyfe expire…”  These ideas seem very clearly to be identical with the idea that those murdered or otherwise killed violently end up in faery.  Seventeenth century Scottish opinion on the nature of fairykind was divided then, but it was apparently as common to see them as some manifestation of human dead as it was to consider them to be a separate form of life.

Poet Robert Sempill put these ideas into verse, describing how one suspected witch:

“names our nyboris sex or sewin, (6 or 7)

That we belevit had bene in heawin.”

“Shoot that poison arrow”- elf bolts & abductions

archer

The Reverend Robert Kirk, in The Secret Commonweath, makes some fascinating remarks about the fairies’ habit of shooting ‘elf-arrows’ at people:

“Those who are unseened or unsanctified (called Fey) are said to be pierced or wounded with those People’s Weapons, which makes them do somewhat verie unlike their former Practice, causing a sudden Alteration, yet the Cause thereof unperceavable at present; nor have they Power (either they cannot make use of their natural Powers, or ask’t not the heavenly Aid) to escape the Blow impendent…

They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life … leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts.” (chapter 8)

Two features of his account are especially striking: one is how the arrows change the character of the people that they strike; the second is Kirk’s later observation that cattle hit by the fairy arrows can be healed by the laying-on of hands.

The firing of elf-bolts was a practice especially associated with the so-called saighead sith (the archer fairies) who are numbered amongst the sluagh sith or fairy host.  They will fly over the length and breadth of the land at night, picking off their chosen targets as they go.

As Kirk indicates, the fairy arrows are used by the sith not as a way of killing people or cattle but as a means of abducting victims.  Numerous examples of this may be found.  For example, the practice is described in the Shetland ballad, King Orfeo, which is a version of the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo.  In the ballad-

“The king, he has a-huntin’ gane
An’ left his lady all alane
The Elfin King wi’ his dairt
Pierced his lady tae the hert…”

In one reported example, a woman at Glen Cannel on Mull was shot and replaced by a log of alderwood.  To earthly eyes these victims appear to have died, but in reality, they have been taken.  Women were an especial target, but in a case from Gortan in Argyll a cooper was the subject as the fairies needed some barrels to be made.  Scottish witch suspect Jonet Morrison explained that “quhen they are schott ther is no recoverie for it and if the schott be in the heart they died presently but if be not at the heart they will die in a while with it yet will at least die with it…”  In other words, it’s always fatal.

Witch-suspect Isobel Gowdie, interrogated in 1662, gave a similar account:

“…we may shoot them dead at owr pleasour.  Any that ar shot be us, their sowell will goe to hevin, bot ther bodies remains with us, and will flie as horses to us, as small as strawes.”

Folklore authority J. G. Campbell recorded that the strike would take the power from the person’s limbs, so that they could not defend themselves or escape.  Sometimes, they would not die but rather fall ill, in which cases they would have been replaced with an elderly elf who inhabited their body and received care in the victim’s stead.

Cattle were taken in the same manner.  When the elf-bolt struck a cow, it would be found in distress, rolling its eyes and bawling as if suffering from a malignant cramp.  If the shot was not instantly fatal it would leave an indentation on the skin that slowly killed the beast.  Either way, when it died, it was not in fact dead but rather an effigy had been left behind and the cow itself had been taken to the fairy knoll to milk.  Likewise, a living semblance of a cow might be left behind, but it would eat and drink prodigiously without fattening or producing milk.

Sometimes shooting with a bolt is inflicted not for the purposes of abduction but in order to punish the human.  The fairies might take offence over some perceived slight by a person or they might feel that their moral code has been breached.  For example, a couple at Herbusta on Skye were reaping by moonlight.  The husband was struck by a bolt because the fairies objected to them being out in the field at night (presumably because they considered it their time of day).

arch2

Weaponry

Elf-bolts have every resemblance to Neolithic flint arrows.  According to witch-suspect Isobel Gowdie, they are made by the devil, who roughs out the shape before passing them to elf-boys who finish them off using some sharp instrument like a needle to knap the sharp edges and point.

There was some difference of opinion as to how the bolts were fired.  Some saw them as being just like human arrows. Poet Cromek rather fancifully described how the bows were made from the ribs of men who had been buried at spots where three lairds’ lands met, the quivers were made from the sloughed skin of adders and the shafts were fashioned from the stems of bog-reeds.  According to Isobel Gowdie the arrow points were not fired at all, but were rather flipped forcefully from the thumbnail.

The oddest aspect of the sluagh’s hunting expeditions was the fact that the fairies themselves could not fire their own arrows at their intended victims.  They had to take a mortal with them to perform this act for them.  Numerous sources confirm this curious disability.  For example, in one story from the Highlands, a man saw the fairies making a bow and knew that this was for him and that they were about to carry him off.  He begged his friends to hold him tightly so that he could not be taken, but it happened anyway.  The disadvantage with this reliance is that the human hunter was often reluctant to shot the targets, often because they knew the person selected.  For instance, in the case of the woman from Glen Cannel on Mull, the man taken by the sluagh first shot at a lamb, which rose through the window out of the woman’s house.  The faes were not pleased and he was forced by them to shoot again.  In other cases reported, the human captive would deliberately miss or shot a sheep and a hen instead.  As Isobel Gowdie said: “Som tymes we misse; bot if they twitch [touch], be it beast or man or woman, it will kill, tho they had an jack [mail-coat] upon them.”  She went on, with clear regret: “Bot that quhich troubles my conscience most, is the killing of several persones, with the arrowes quhich I gott from the divell.”

Defences

Given the constant threat of being shot and taken, what could the human population do to protect themselves?  There were several lines of defence, luckily enough.

Firstly, there were charms that could be recited to protect person and property.  On the island of South Uist, for example, a ‘herding blessing’ was sung whilst tending the cattle.  It asked St Bridget to protect the stock against a variety of dangers, including “the arrows of the slim fairy women” (o saighde nam ban seaga sith).”  At his trial for witchcraft in 1607 ‘fairy doctor’ Bartie Paterson confessed to invoking the holy trinity to guard cattle against “arrowschot” amongst other types of ‘shot’ directed at them.  In the Outer Hebrides, a person would be protected outside if they carried with them a sieve in one hand and a piece of coal in the other.  If you were able to come by an elf bolt that had previously been fired, simply carrying that with you was thought to be a complete defence against being struck yourself.

There are various practical steps that can be taken to diminish the risk that you will ever become the target of an attack by the sluagh.  It’s believed that the host (and fairies generally) will make their approach from the west.  That being the case, leaving westerly windows open after sunset is always a bad idea, because it tempts the sluagh to shoot arrows in, especially if a cow is being milked beside that window.  Another protection, which is useful where a window is needed for ventilation, is to place an iron bar across it.  Then, the iron will stop fairies and fairy arrows from entering.

Cattle ploughing are deemed a particular target, but there are simple precautions that can be taken, even out in the fields.  Both in Durham, in the North of England, and in Scotland, the practice was to put a bend in the furrows when the fields were being ploughed.  The reason for this was said to be that the fairies aimed along the ridges when trying to strike the oxen.  The curve simply but effectively ruined their aim.

If, despite charms and physical measures, a cow or a person was still struck, there were various cures that could be administered.  In many communities a ‘fairy doctor’ would be able to detect when sickness arose from being shot with a dart and could then prescribe a remedy.  On Shetland, for example, the suspected ‘trow-shot’ cow would be felt all over.  If a dimple, marking the site where the bolt hit, was located, a page of the Bible would be rolled up tightly and put into the depression for a little while.  Then it was removed, and with it the cattle’s affliction went.  Washing the injured cow, or giving it water to drink in which an old elf-arrow had been steeped, were other tried and tested remedies.  Putting tar between the cows’ horns was also, apparently, helpful.

For more on this subject and on the ‘Darker Side of Faery,’ see my 2021 book:

How heavy are fairies?

iro tulip

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite- Bubble fairy with tulip

There has been a long running debate about the physicality and corporeality of the faes. Some see the faes as being as solid and tangible as us; others conceive the fairies as verging on the weightless.  One witness from Newcastle upon Tyne has felt fairies dancing on her hair and clothing.  A Manx woman felt them walk on her, “as light as cats.”  It is well known that one Scottish word for the faes is the ‘sluagh’- the airborne host- one version of which is sluagh eutram- the light folk.

Others have taken this notion further, shrinking the fairies and reducing their weight correspondingly.  Staying in the Highlands, an alternative euphemism for the faes might be daoine beaga- the little people.  Another Manx witness confirmed that they were, indeed, “very little and very light.” A Hampshire woman described the flower fairies in her garden as:

“so tiny and so luminous that the very air seems lighter as I sense them.  They seem to me to have slight little bodies with gossamer wings.”

Famed Scottish painter of mythical and faery themes, John Duncan, met the faes repeatedly on the island of Iona.  During one encounter he noted that:

“Their feet did not bend the thick heather over which they walked and they made no sound as they passed close…”

John Rhys has published a very similar account from Wales, describing the tylwyth teg dancing on the tips of rushes (Celtic Folklore, p.83).

Fairies may be very small, but are they insubstantial? Can we put our hands through them? Can they pass through solid obstacles?  Some sightings suggest just this- that they can vanish into walls and banks and that we could never catch them because our bodies pass right through theirs. Evans Wentz relates the story of an Anglesey woman who walked with a fairy lady one night; she tried to touch her but her hand went right through (Fairy faith, p.141).

Definitely in the ‘aery nothings’ camp was Yorkshire writer Durant Hotham.  In chapter two of his Life of Jacob Behmen (1654) he observed that:

“nor is the Aery region disfurnisht of its Inhabitant Spirits; [which include] that far more numerous Progeny of Aerial Spirits, lodg’d in Vehicles of a thinner spun thread than is (otherwise than by condensation) visible to our dim sight.”

The Reverend Robert Kirk maintained much the same a few years later.  He said that fairies had “light changable Bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed Cloud.”  It is because these bodies of ‘congealed air’ are so pliable and subtle that the fairies can appear or disappear at pleasure (Secret commonwealth c.1).

fair seesaw

See-saw by Dorothy Wheeler- empirical proof that children weigh more than fairies…

Sightings

These general statements are complemented by the testimony of actual witnesses.  Fairies seen in dancing in the moonlight near Stowmarket in Suffolk during the 19th century were described as being “light and shadowy, not like solid bodies.”  The Reverend Edmund Jones, describing eighteenth century Gwent, told the story of a girl who used to dance in a barn with some of the tylwyth teg on her way to and from school.  She took off her shoes to do so, because otherwise she made a noise which seemed displeasing to them and because she never heard their feet when they were dancing.  These faes appear to be very light, therefore.  The same seems to be the case in our last example.  Two boys from the Isle of Man met a fairy man on the road once; he was only 5-6 inches tall and, when they tried to catch him, he flew off, leaving no footprints in the dust.  A Manx witness even went so far as to allege that the island fairies have “no body and no bones.”

Other witnesses attest on the contrary to the tangible solidity of fairies.  A girl from Kent met a fairy man leading a horse in her garden.  He put his hand on her wrist “and his touch was cool, not cold like a fish or a lizard but much cooler than a human touch.”  In a second incident told to Marjorie Johnson, a young woman walking her dogs near Minehead in Somerset surprised two pixies in an oak wood.  They ran away from her into a hollow in an oak tree and, in their haste to dart inside, they forgot to duck their heads.  Both knocked off their hats, which Miss Voss-Bark picked up and took home; they were tiny cones made of wood and permanent proof of her encounter.

Especially convincing is another account from the Isle of Man.  A woman from Ballasalla told George Waldron how her ten-year-old daughter had met a large crowd of little people up on the mountains.  Some had tried to abduct her, but others in the group had objected to this and had tried to protect her and the two sides had fallen to fighting.  Some of the other fairies then spanked her for causing dissension.  When she got home, she had distinct prints of tiny hands on her buttocks, visible proof of the veracity of her unhappy experience.

iro daisies

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Daisies

Implications

The answer to the debate over the solidity or insubstantiality of fairies will resolve many other puzzles over their nature.

Those who have claimed to have had sexual relationships with faes must, almost inevitably, be proponents of the ‘solid and fleshly’ view of fairy nature.  Likewise, I think, must be the case those who have acted as midwives or nurse maids to fairy infants- and the same for those children who were abducted as their playmates or the adults who were taken to act as cooks and suchlike domestic skivvies in fairyland.

Other such questions over physicality can have two resolutions.   For example, if we wonder what food they might eat, we can either accept that their diet is the same as ours- or instead we can tend to the view that they extract the substance (the foyson or toradh) without taking the foodstuff itself.

We are very familiar with the thought of fairies flying, but there are also reports of them gliding or floating, too; something which is strongly suggestive of lightness or even weightlessness.  For instance, in 1922 seven year old Penny Storey was living in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.  As she lay in bed one summer evening, a female being between twelve and thirteen inches high suddenly appeared and glided past her window.

“Her arms were outstretched sideways, and her feet gracefully together… No wings were visible… She simply floated, quite slowly, vertically downwards through the air.”

Jennifer George, from Cornwall, saw something comparable in her bedroom as a girl.  A bubble of steady yellow-white light floated about four feet above the floor before gliding out of the window and disappearing.

Some of these figures lack wings but still move effortlessly in the air: “They had no wings but still seemed to dive through the air at a good speed.”  Others possess them but do not need to employ them: ballet dancer Betty Lambert, as an adult and with an adult companion, saw a fairy in a bedroom “whose outstretched wings seemed motionless as it floated out into the night…”

Fairies don’t just drift about weightlessly, though.  A Mrs Shirley Eshelby of Carbis Bay in Cornwall witnessed a fay dancing in her bedroom early one morning: “although she appeared to me to be dancing in space, she was evidently stepping on something that was solid to her feet, because she never danced below a certain level.  When departing she skipped away, touching the invisible line with her tiny, naked feet.”  Other fairies, seen in the Home Counties in 1970, “ran on air as if on the ground…”  These examples are perhaps more indicative of the fays inhabiting a separate dimension than being incorporeal, but they do imply that, in this world, they do not experience gravity in the same way as we do.  (Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.46, 94, 167, 171, 182, 186 & 304)

The evidence is just as ambivalent when it comes to determining how fairies can vanish from our sight- as they do extremely frequently.  Is this is a process of physical dissolution- or is it just the application of glamour- or magical deception?  Have they gone, or have they simply rendered themselves invisible but are still there?

Contemporary accounts in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provide support for both schools of thought.  There are numerous mentions of faes simply disappearing.  However, in some cases they seem to melt away before witnesses’ eyes.  Those who saw fairies often said that they ‘faded away,’ a process suggestive of a less fleshly nature than our own.  One fay “dissolved into a sunbeam, slowly;” another “quivered away.”  It can be a gradual process: one man watched a group of fairies “grow lighter, insubstantial, and more like a cinema film” and it can involve the fay appearing and disappearing piece by piece. In one Manx account a crowd of fairies met on the road by three people in a horse-drawn cart simply “melted away” as the travellers got nearer.  (Johnson pp.173, 240, 299, 305 & 309; Evans Wentz p.126)

By contrast, there are also plenty of incidents reported to Johnson in which the fairy neither vanished nor dissolved.  Rather, in order to get away, they had to run.  We’ve already seen the incident with the pixies’ lost hats; fleeing into bushes, behind trees and through hedges are all mentioned.  Beings who need to make a dash for cover quite obviously are as solid and real as we are- and don’t have extensive magical abilities either.

Further reading

As well as my previous postings on fairy bodies and solidity, see too chapter 1 of my British fairies.  I also discuss fairy physiology in detail in my forthcoming book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide, early 2020).

iro- tightrope

 

“Little they slept that night”- fairy love and fairy passion

tamlaine
James Herbert MacNair, Tamlaine, 1905Enter a caption

I return to a subject that has an abiding fashion for many visitors to the blog- and apparently me too: fairy sexuality and sensuality.

Fae lovers

From the very earliest times, it seems, the idea of Faery was synonymous with irresistible beauty.  Elf-women were called ‘shining’ by the Anglo-Saxons (aelfsceone) and this idea by no means ended with the arrival of the Normans and of the fairy women of romance.  English writer Layamon in his history of Britain, The Brut, described the queen of Avalon, Argante, as the fairest of all maidens,  “alven swithe sceone” (an elf most fair).  The concept of radiant beauty persisted: the fairy queen who met Thomas the Rhymer at Huntlie bank was “a ladye bright” and, as late as Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, the faes’ royal lady is still “radiant” (Act V, scene 5).

Great beauty can provoke great passion, of course, and for many writers this response was amplified when a fairy lover was involved.  Sir Launfal is introduced to fairy lady Dame Tryamour whom he finds, stretched out in the heat with her clothes unfastened to her waist.  Lying on a bed of purple linen, “that lefsom lemede bright” (the lovely one gleamed).  She greets Launfal as her darling and he kisses her and sits beside her.  After a meal they go to bed immediately and “for play, litell they slepte that night.”

The fairy princess and her consort waste no time, evidently- and this looks to be a Faery trait.  In Spenser’s Faery Queen Prince Arthur, much like Sir Launfal, meets a fairy queen whilst he’s resting in a forest.  “Her dainty limbes full softly down did lay,” after which he was ravished by the delight that “she to me delivered all that night.” (Book I, canto IX, stanza 14).

It’s not solely fairy women who are passionate and impetuous.  In the Scottish ballad of Tamlane, the male hero (who is admittedly a human boy stolen away to fairyland by its queen) seems just as ardent.  He meets his lover Janet by a well and, taking her by the hand, leads her behind some nearby rose bushes so that “The green leaves were in between… What they did, I cannot say- [but] she ne’er returned a maid.”

As the romance of Sir Launfal has already indicated, fairy females can have a powerful effect on their human partners- at least in the minds of (male) medieval poets.  This is explicit in the story of Thomas of Erceldoune, which is dated to around 1425.  Thomas meets the fairy queen, another ‘lady shining bright’, and is so overcome with desire for her that “seven times he lay by her.”  Eventually she has literally to push him off, protesting “Man, you like your play… let me be!”

The lhiannan shee

Such are the aphrodisiac qualities of the fairy lover.  These feats are impressive (as well as improbable, perhaps) but there can be a downside to such consuming passions.  This is demonstrated by the leannan-shee of Celtic fairylore, whose activities were reported as a continuing menace even into Victorian times, though by then they were much rarer.  For example, describing Perthshire in 1810, one writer complained how:

“in our Highlands there be many fair ladies of this aerial order, which do often tryst with amorous youths, in the quality of succubi, or lightsome paramours or strumpets, called lean-nan-sith.” (Graham, Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery, p.275)

His words echo those of Reverend Kirk who, around 150 years earlier, had condemned the “abominable” goings on between fairies and humans.  His disapproval was probably not limited to the extra-marital sex.  Generally, relationships with supernaturals are difficult or perilous, for the simple reason that they span dimensions: for instance, marriages between men and mermaids are often short lived whilst men taken by mermaids almost invariably drown.

Visits by both male and female fairy lovers were thought once to have been common, and even in living memory of the late 19th century folklore collectors, there was a shoemaker in Tomantoul who claimed a leannan sith partner.  On the Isle of Man, the fairy lover, the lhiannan shee, was a very strong tradition.  They were believed to generally come at night, noiselessly, perhaps in the guise of a man’s wife, and they often haunted wells and pools.  They make the first advance and to reply to them is dangerous, for they will then attach themselves to a man and to haunt him constantly, whilst remaining invisible and inaudible to everyone else.  In at least one Manx case a lhiannan shee was inherited from a deceased brother.   In another, reported by Evans Wentz, a man met a strange woman at a dance and made the mistake of wiping the sweat from his face on part of her dress.  This created some connection between then and thereafter she would appear beside his bed at night.  Curiously, the only way of getting rid of her was to throw an unbleached linen sheet over the two: perhaps the pure, fresh state was significant?

Men would separate themselves from their family and friends to be with these fae lovers, who would visit them nightly and slowly exhaust them- both physically and mentally.  Obedience to the fairy mistress might be enforced by violence too- though sometimes the hapless human may have wondered whether he was being punished for daring to presume to love a fay or for neglecting or trying to escape her.  Eventually the leannan-shee would become an intolerable burden to their chosen partner and the men were frequently desperate to escape them, even emigrating to the other side of the world in an attempt to shake them off.  These efforts tended to fail- but oddly, whilst the fairy women appear to be undefeated by intervening oceans, at the same time they can’t cross streams.

As a general statement, fairy lovers are said to ruin their partners in body and soul.  Worse still, in one notorious case the fairy women were said to have bewitched all the males of the Isle of Man and to have lured everyone into the sea.  The male Manx  equivalents were generally seen as being equally dangerous, carrying women off forever.  Nonetheless, in the Scottish Highlands the gille sith (fairy boy) was renowned as a loving and attentive partner.

We should also add that fairy lovers can be the source of great advantage to their partners.  They can bring good luck and supernatural protection, bestow the skill of healing with herbs and grant the ability to foresee the future.  They can also assist their paramours with magical advice: an illustration is found in the tale of ‘the first MacIntyre.’  He was thrown out by his elder brother, who told him to leave the family farm taking only one white cow- and as many others as might follow her.  The younger brother had a fairy lover who gave him wise counsel in times of need.  She recommended that he pick up a sheaf of corn and then call the white cow.  When he did as instructed, most of the rest of the herd came too.

I’ll leave you with some of the verses of Irish poet Thomas Boyd’s poem The Leanan Sidhe (The fairy mistress) which capture many aspects of this legend:

“Where is thy lovely perilous abode?
In what strange phantom-land
Glimmer the fairy turrets whereto rode
The ill-starred poet band? …

And there … Trembling, behold thee lone,
Now weaving in slow dance an awful spell,
Now still upon thy throne?

Whether he sees thee thus, or in his dreams,
Thy light makes all lights dim;
An aching solitude from henceforth seems
The world of men to him.”

 

 

 

“The swart fairy of the mine”- industrial elves

lee dwarfs

Alan Lee, Dwarfs, from Faeries

There’s lots of evidence for fairies being just as active as humans in extracting the earth’s resources and in manufacturing.  This may jar somewhat with the notion of winged flower fairies, but that convention forgets the fact that gnomes, as first imagined by Paracelsus, are very intimately connected to the mineral riches of the earth.  Fairies can seem just as interested as humans in money and treasure, so it’s worth considering where these riches might come from.

Going underground

There are two principal industrial activities in which fairies are involved.  These are metal working and mining.  The fays mine for both coal and ores and they have been associated with the tin mines of the South West of England, the lead mines of the Long Mynd in Shropshire and with the copper mines of Cumberland and North Yorkshire.

There are two principal types of mine fairy- the knockers of the South West of England (also called ‘nuggies,’ ‘bockles,’ ‘gathons’ or ‘buccas’) are very well known.  In the coal and metal ore mines of Wales, we find the coblynau (i.e. goblins).  Other named mine spirits are the Blue-Cap of the Northumberland coalmines, a very strong being who moved the wheeled coal tubs on the underground railways, and the Cutty Soams of County Durham, who were mine bogles, known for their vengeful mischief- which included such pranks as cutting the traces (or ‘soams’) on the underground coal wagons.

Appearance

Despite the differing regional names, it seems safe to treat most of these beings as one underground species.  The knockers and coblynau are very hard working sprites who are frequently heard but very seldom seen; the sounds of their picks, their wheelbarrows and the falls of stone they cause is heard deep in mines.  Occasionally they may be spotted working or lounging near the entrances to mines, and those who have seen them describe beings the size of a one or two-year-old child (about eighteen inches high), with large heads and ugly old men’s faces; they are dressed just like human miners.

Early in the last century, a girl called Carol George was on the beach at Porthtowan, on the north coast of Cornwall, when she saw in the mine adit that opened onto the beach a group of small people, only six inches high and dressed in white.  They disappeared almost as soon as they were spotted, but sound more like pixies than knockers (Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, p.93)

Blue Cap apparently has no physical form, but his presence is indicated by a light blue flame which settles on the wagons he moves.  The other exception is the mine pixy ‘gathon’ (if Mrs Bray is to be believed, at any rate).  She describes him as naked and fat, with large ears and a long bushy tail (Peeps at Pixies, p.10).

Activities

The mine sprites have diminutive tools and equipment matching that of the human miners and labour tirelessly- digging, transporting and winding their coal and ore to the surface.  In the masque The fairies’ farewell, presented at Coleorton on Candlemas Day 1618, we hear a further description of the fairies’ labours:

“blacke faeries … ye dancing spiritts of the Pittes: … helpe them hole & drive sharp theire Picks & their moindrils, keepe away the dampe & keepe in theire Candles, draine the Sough & hold them out of ye hollows…”

Wirt Sykes, in British Goblins (p.24)claimed that all this frenetic subterranean labour  was just for show but accomplished nothing at all. The writer of A pleasant treatise of witches (1673) explained that this was because these mine elves “busy themselves chiefly in imitating the operations men … these seem to laugh, to be cloathed like workmen, to dig the earth, and to do many things they do not, mocking sometimes the workmen but seldome or never hurting them.”

These views might be correct- or it might instead be the case that human observers never saw any evidence of tangible results in this world.  Blue-Cap is the exception here, as he assisted the human miners and, perfectly reasonably, expected to be paid for his work at the same rate as every other ‘putter’ who moved the coal around the tramways.  Rather like fairies borrowing flour from householders, he insisted upon being given the exact agreed sum and would refuse underpaid wages or leave behind any surplus.  Evidently, Blue Caps were not brownies and neither toiled for free nor accepted very modest payment in kind.

Though often heard at night (in the North Yorkshire lead mines this earned them the name of the ‘Ghostly Shift’), these spirits never worked in the mines on Saturdays or on Christian holidays and, in respect for this, the miners too would avoid working on the same days.  The sprites also objected to whistling and to use of the sign of the cross, which were therefore proscribed.

The knockers will guide favoured miners to good seams or lodes by various means.  Where no excavation has yet been started they may indicate promising places to dig.  The sprites may dance in rings to indicate spots where men will strike rich ore.  Digging wherever a will o’ the wisp is seen is also reputed to lead you to a profitable lode.  The Reverend Edmund Jones of Gwent gives a very interesting account of a version of this habit.  One morning a William Evans of Hafod-y-dafel in the parish was crossing the Beacon Mountain when he saw an opencast coal mine where none existed.  The fairies were cutting coal, filling sacks and loading horses.  This vision is unexplained and, on the face of it, is merely a kind of fairy pantomime, serving no discernible purpose.  However, another report from Wales suggests a different interpretation.  Lewis Morris, a correspondent of the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1754, described how, before Esgair y Mwyn lead mine was discovered near Pontrhydfendigaid in Cardiganshire, the local fairies had been observed (and heard) by many people to be hard at work, both day and night.  When the mine was established in 1751, though, they disappeared.  The same was also the case at Llwyn Llwyd lead mine near Ysbyty Ystwyth, not far from Esgair y Mwyn.  These two cases suggest that the Brecon Beacons vision may well have been an indication of a rich coal seam just beneath the surface (a prediction similar to the incident of the fairy railway sighted on the Isle of Man that I mentioned in a recent post).

Once a new mine has been started, through their tapping underground the fairies point the way to mineral riches.  They will also warn of impending disaster- often by making three distinct knocks against the rock.  Generally, then, their presence is welcomed by miners- their noises are not found alarming and it’s said to be good luck to see the pixies dancing in the adit of a mine.

The sounds made by knockers can be prolonged and are not easily explained by other means.  For example, at Llwyn Llwyd voices, blasting, clearing spoil, levelling roadways, boring, pick-axeing and (most notably) pumping were all heard- when there were no pumps working within a mile of the shafts and when, in any case, pumps were very quiet when in operation.  Although they may sometimes be heard just once a month or once a year, in 1799 in some mines on Anglesey the knockers were heard repeatedly over a period of weeks.

As with all supernatural helpers, the knockers are averse to humans being too inquisitive.  Although the sounds of their work indicate how and where to dig, if miners stop their work to listen to the knockers, they will also cease their labours.  If they’re overlooked, they may pelt stones at the spies- or simply vanish.  The sounds of their excavations may point to rich veins of ore- or they may just be mischievous and meant to mislead.

As with many fairy types, those who offend them or try to take advantage of them will be punished and those miners who betray the source of their good fortune will lose the knockers’ favour.  At the same time, they claimed a share of human property.  This might just be a small portion of the miners’ food or of their candle tallow, but there are also accounts of bargains struck whereby the knockers were promised some of the profits of a rich vein in return for guidance locating it.  It hardly needs to be said that reneging on such deals would lead to ruin and even death, whilst boasting of fairy aid in finding rich seams of ore will guarantee that the good fortune is lost.  Mrs Bray’s mine pixy, Gathon, is depicted as a typical prank-playing sprite, but he also helps the oppressed and the poor, a not uncommon fairy trait.

The fairies may also be found in coal pits; from Scotland we have a report that from time to time they would leave their tiny tools behind as physical evidence of their labours.  We have one account from Derbyshire in the nineteenth century of the colliers of Curbar leaving a share of the coal they dug for the fairies to ensure good luck.

In some way, then, whether they were mining themselves or simply oversaw the shafts, these local fairies had a close interest in the industry.

Heavy metals

Despite Sykes’ doubts about the productiveness of fairy labours, it seems very reasonable to suppose that ore and coal were extracted and that these formed the raw materials of other enterprises in fairyland.

In The Secret Commonwealth the Reverend Robert Kirk reports that the fairies “strike Hammers, and do such lyke Services within the little Hillocks they most haunt” (chapter 1).  The trows of Shetland are particularly renowned for their skills working brass, iron and other metals and they have been known to pass on these skills to fortunate human children who have been taken to live with them ‘under the hill.’  As I’ve noted before, it’s a curious contradiction that we can have reports of these metalworking abilities at the same time as being repeatedly assured that fairies loath and avoid items made of iron.

The only way of reconciling these two accounts is to assume that man-made iron is anathema to them but that their own products, imbued in some way with Faery properties, are harmless.  Certainly we hear of fairies having cutlery for eating and drinking vessels of precious metals- and of course brownies will undertake all sorts of farm tasks for humans- such as reaping corn and hay- that unavoidably involve the use of iron and steel tools.

Conclusion

As I’ve argued before, fairy society is a good deal more complex and more industrious than we might initially assume.  Whether they’re farming, mining or at market, trading the fruits of those labours, the fays can work just as hard as humans and be just as interested in commerce.

For more detail on this subject, see my book How Things Work in Faery (2021).

gnome

Brian Froud, A gnome.

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

Killing fairies- the unpleasant truth

John Anster Fitzgerald - The Fairy's Funeral

John Anster Fitzgerald, The fairy’s funeral

It’s a widespread belief that fays are immortal.  In fact (and surprisingly) the folklore evidence- scattered as it is- clearly contradicts this.  Fairies are mortal and, it follows, they can be killed.

Fairies’ life spans are considerably longer than ours, which probably explains the common misconception, but nonetheless they do die eventually, something the Reverend Robert Kirk expressed with his usual style:

“They are not subject to sore Sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain Period, all about ane Age.” (Secret Commonwealth, chapter 7)

Another Scottish account of fairy life-spans states that they live through nine ages, with nine times nine periods in each:

“Nine nines sucking the breast,
Nine nines unsteady, weak,
Nine nines footful, swift,
Nine nines able and strong,
Nine nines strapping, brown,
Nine nines victorious, subduing,
Nine nines bonneted, drab,
Nine nines beardy, grey,
Nine nines on the breast-beating death,
And worse to me were these miserable nine nines
Than all the other short-lived nine nines that were.”

That the fays will eventually sicken and pass away is confirmed by a couple of pieces of evidence.  Firstly, fairy funerals have been witnessed.  William Blake most famously described one, but his account is probably more poetic than authentic.  Other people have however stumbled upon fairy funeral processions (for example, that of the Fairy Queen at Lelant in Cornwall) and the Reverend Edmund Jones, living in Monmouthshire in the late eighteenth century, told of several such funerals seen which foretold deaths in the mortal world, quite often that of the witness.

Secondly, there are a few allusions to fairy cemeteries.  One was believed to be at Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland;  generally in the north of England it used to be said that any green shady spot was a fairy burial ground.

So, despite great longevity, age and sickness will ultimately overtake even the fairies.  This is sad, but not necessarily shocking.  More disturbing is the evidence that fairies can be killed prematurely.  I have discussed fairy warfare in a previous post; it’s almost unavoidable that blood will be spilt in such conflict, but we might still not think it so remarkable that one magical being can slay another.  The truth is, though, that humans can murder supernaturals.

Nymphocide (I’ve just invented this word, by the way) may occur accidentally.  One version of the story from Brinkburn is that it was the ringing of the bells of the church that killed them (Denham Tracts, p.134).  I’ve mentioned before fairies aversion to church bells; this particular story takes that theme to extremes.

Other fairy murders are just that- deliberate and premeditated killings.  One case from Shropshire concerns some nuisance boggarts in a farmhouse.  The story follows the pattern of the “we’re flitting too” type of tale, in which the human family try to escape their unwelcome companions by moving house, only to find that the boggart comes with them.  In most versions the humans reconcile themselves to their unwanted housemates, often giving up the move entirely.  In the Shropshire version, the humans take matters to their logical conclusion.  Unable to give the boggarts the slip, they trick them into sitting in front of a blazing fire in the hearth of the new home and then topple them into the flames, where they’re held in place with forks and brooms until they’re consumed.

Some other nymphocides at least seem to be crimes of passion or are committed in the heat of the moment or in self defence.  On the Hebridean island of Benbecula a mermaid was accidentally slain by a stone thrown at her head during an attempt by some fishermen to capture her.  In the ballad, Lady Isabel and the Elf-knight, the heroine lulls to sleep the fairy who plans to kill her and then stabs him to death; in another version she drowns him- but the ability to kill is the point.  J. F. Campbell relays a story concerning the killing of a gruagach with a sword (Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.1, p.7).  The Reverend Robert Kirk also mentions a man with second sight who, during a visit to faerie, “cut the Bodie of one of those People in two with his Iron Weapon.”  All of these raise tales the possibility that it is the iron of the weapons that is significant.  We know that iron is a good defence against fairies and it seems only reasonable that it should be fatal for them too.

This evidence may surprise and shock some readers, but it fits with the general tenor of traditional fairy lore.  If the fairies are dangerous and untrustworthy beings, it seems inevitable that sometimes a person will conclude that the only safe and permanent solution will be to do away with the perceived threat.

A related, but separate, procedure is the ‘laying’ of a supernatural- normally a boggart- which involves permanently banishing or exorcising the creature.  Perhaps this will be the subject of a future posting…

IdaRentoulOuthwaite

Further reading

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

‘Elf addled’- the ill effects of faery contact

froud, somethign wicked

Brian Froud, ‘Something evil this way comes’

I take the title of this posting from one of the Anglo-Saxon herbals or Leechbooks.  Our forebears diagnosed a number of ailments which they ascribed to malign fairy intervention; one of these was called ælfadl (which we may roughly translate as elf- addle today).  Its nature is uncertain- it appears to involve some degree of internal physical pain- but I have co-opted it to describe the mental health effects of contact with our fairy neighbours.

Physical risks of fairyland

It’s pretty widely known that a visit to fairyland can have serious physical consequences. Because time may pass more slowly in Faery, the returning visitor may discover that their few hours away were really years or centuries, so that they return to a land wholly unfamiliar to them and where they often crumble away to dust as soon as they have contact with the food or soil of the mortal world. The ill-effects may be less drastic than this, but nevertheless contact with the otherworld can lead to permanent disablement by the fairies.

Psychological risks of faery

Less well-reported are the psychological ill-effects of a sojourn with the fays.  We can piece together the evidence from various sources across the centuries.  In seventeenth century England John Aubrey collected a story concerning a shepherd, employed by a Mr Brown of Winterbourne Basset in Wiltshire, who had seen the ground open and had been “brought to strange places underground” where music was played.  As Aubrey observed of such visitors, they would “never any afterwards enjoy themselves.” (Briggs, Fairies in Tradition, p.12).

Later the same century the Reverend Robert Kirk met a woman who had come back from Faery; she ate very little food and “is still prettie melanchollyous and silent, hardly seen ever to laugh.  Her natural Heat and radical Moisture seem to be equally balanced, lyke an unextinguished Lamp, and going in a circle, not unlike the faint Lyfe of Bees and some Sort of Birds that sleep all the Winter over and revive in the Spring” (Kirk, Secret commonwealth chapter 15).  The ‘half-life,’ withdrawal or hibernation that Kirk seems to be describing here is mentioned elsewhere in Scotland.  On Shetland it was believed that the trows might steal part of new mother, that part that remained at home seeming ‘pale and absent.’  (Magical folk, p.132)

The Shetland trows would also take children for a while, but released them at puberty.  Back with human society, they always maintained “an unbroken silence regarding the land of their captivity.”  Indeed, that silence could be physically enforced: in Ireland it was believed that “the wee folk puts a thing in their mouth that they can’t speak.” (Spence, Fairy tradition, p.262)

W. B. Yeats was fascinated by this condition and reported that those who’d been ‘away’ were always pining with sorrow over their loss of fairy bliss.  They had a cold touch and a low voice.  They seemed to have lost part of their humanity and would be queer, distraught and pale, ever restless with a desire to be far away again.  Yeats was told by one woman from the Burren that:

“Those that are away among them never come back, or if they do they are not the same as they were before.” (Unpublished prose, vol.1, p.418 & vol.2, p.281)

The symptoms of having been ‘away’ are a dazed look, vacant mind, fainting fits, trances, fatigue, languor, long and heavy sleeping and wasting away.

Sometimes it is hard to determine whether the after-effects are psychological or physiological (though one may lead to the other).  The Reverend Edmund Jones in his history of Aberystruth parish in Wales described a neighbour and good friend who had been absent with the fairies for a whole year.  When he came back,  “he looked very bad.” (p.70)  Likewise Jones wrote in another book on spirit apparitions in Wales that the experience was debilitating and left the revenant sickly and disturbed; often the person would fade away and died not long after their return home (The appearance of evil paragraphs 68 & 82).  In Welsh belief of the time, in fact, even seeing fairies might prove to be a premonition of the person’s death (paras 56, 62, and 69).

Cornish case study

An example of being elf-addled comes from the well-known story of the House on Selena Moor, in Bottrell’s Traditions and hearthside stories of the West of Cornwall (1873, pp.94-102).  Pixie led on the moor, a Mr Noy finds a farmhouse at which a celebration is taking place.  As he approaches, he meets a former lover whom he thought dead, but who has actually been captured and enslaved by the fairies.  She warns him not to touch the fairy food and drink, as she had done, and tells him something of the fairy life.  The experience of seeing the fairies, and of knowing his lost love still to be alive in fairyland, deeply affected him:

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail), or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

Noy had had no physical contact with Grace nor had he partaken of the fairy fruit and beer- otherwise he would never have been able to return home at all.  Nevertheless, what he saw and heard was enough to blight the brief remainder of his life.

It’s worth recalling here too that prolonged physical contact with the fairies- a sexual relationship with a supernatural lover, perhaps in the course of a prolonged partnership or marriage- can have both physiological and psychological consequences.  It can often be fatal, whether almost immediately or over time.

Summary

A visit to fairyland need not be harmful.  Many travellers come and go unscathed. Some are even transformed for the better by the experience.  As alluded to earlier, girls might be abducted by the Shetland trows but returned to their homes when they reached adulthood.  They would be restored to their families “in maiden prime with a wild unearthly beauty and glamour on them.” (Magical folk p.132)

To close, time spent in faery must always be viewed as potentially perilous.  Even if the person is not enslaved or entrapped, they can still be affected long term by the experience, both physically and mentally.

Further reading

Morgan Daimler has posted on fairy possession on her blog, looking particularly at the Anglo-Saxon and old Irish evidence for the problem and its treatment.  See also my posting ‘Some kind of joy’ which looks at the positive aspects of fairy encounters.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faery, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide in March 2020.

Is there a fairy queen?

2-titania-john-simmons

Queen Titania, by John Simmons

This question may seem a shocking challenge to accepted conventions, but reflecting recently upon a couple of postings concerning the queens of elfland made on Living liminally by Morgan Daimler, I suddenly began to wonder whether we really mean the words we use when we so casually discuss the ‘fairy kingdom,’ the ‘faery realm,’  the seelie and unseelie ‘courts‘ and the king and queen of fairy.

Elsewhere, in her recent book Fairies, Morgan observes that “the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by Kings and Queens.” (p.61)    This is quite true, but as I have suggested before in my post on woodland elves, the idea of fairy royalty is very much a projection of medieval structures by medieval writers.  The idea was first seen in such poems as Huon of Bordeaux, King Herla, Sir Orfeo and in the verse of Chaucer: Sir Thopas and the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale.  Two centuries later, Spenser, Shakespeare and Herrick cemented the idea in our culture.  Neil Rushton has recently reiterated this interpretation in a posting on his ‘Dead but dreaming’ blog, Faeries in the Arthurian landscapein which he observes that:

“The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems.”

As Neil implies, when we think of fairies now we almost unconsciously and automatically conjure images of Arthurian knights and ladies and all the structures of precedence and privilege that go with them.  This is habit, but is it any more than that?

Fairy reign

We are very used, then, to thinking of Queen Mab and of Oberon and Titania.  But what need, though, do the faes really have of rulers?  In the Middle Ages, monarchs were required to perform several purposes within their simpler states:

  • to lead the people in armed conflict- as I have described previously, war amongst the fairies may jar with our conventional views of them, but the possibility is mentioned in a few sources and might therefore justify some sort of war chief;
  • to dispense justice- we are aware of no laws as such in Faery, although there are clearly codes of behaviour that they impose (upon humans at least) and the infringement of which (by humans) is subject to sanction.  Parallel with this distinct morality, there is a general atmosphere of unrestrained impulsiveness;
  • to organise society- it’s hard to tell what, if any, structure there is within fairy society.  If we regard them as nature spirits, then they are all at the level of worker bees, it would appear.  A few authorities have proposed hierarchies, although this normally seems to involve different forms of supernatural beings as against different ranks: see for example Geoffrey Hodson or two interviews with ‘Irish seers’ conducted by Evans-Wentz- one with George William Rusell (AE) and a second with an unnamed Mrs X of County Dublin (Fairy faith in Celtic countries pp.60-66 and 242-3).  You’ll see the differences in size in John Simmons’ painting below;
  • to act as some sort of religious leader or high priest(ess).  I explored the puzzling matter of fairy religion not long ago; it is an area of considerable doubt.

None of these functions seem especially essential to Faery as we generally conceive it.  Is the title of ‘queen’ therefore redundant, or at best merely a convenient honorary title?

1-there-sleeps-titania-john-simmons

There sleeps Titania, by John Simmons

Secret commonwealth

Let’s consider the views of the Reverend Robert Kirk, who certainly seems to have been well placed to know what he was talking about.  Writing in the late 1680s, he titled his justly famous book The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies.  A ‘commonwealth’ can merely denote a nation state or polity, but it can also more narrowly have the meaning of ‘republic.’  Given that he cannot but have been aware of the English Parliamentary ‘Commonwealth’ that succeeded the execution of Charles I in 1649, I think it’s inescapable that this was the connotation intended by Kirk when he chose to describe his subject matter.  That seems undeniable when we read at the head of chapter 7 that “They are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love or Devotion towards God…  they disappear whenever they hear his Name invocked…”   We note Kirk’s belief in their aversion to church and religion, but also his conviction that they inhabit some sort of democracy regulated by rules of conduct of some description.

Much more recently, Theosophist Charles Leadbeater wrote that humans frequently mistook fairy leaders for kings and queens, whereas “In reality the realm of nature spirits needs no kind of government except except the general supervision which is exercised over it [by devas].” (The hidden side of things, 1913, p.147).

Rank or honour?

Perhaps those termed king and queen in Faery are simply those of the most distinguished character or the greatest magical power.  This was my conception of Queen Maeve in my story Albion awake!  In chapter 9, in response to being called Fairy Queen, Maeve replies:

“So you call me- but if I am a queen, I have no dominion.  I have powers, but I do not reign.  My people are a commonwealth- a secret commonwealth.”

Plainly I’ve stolen her phrase here!  Later she calls her people her ‘Nation Underground.’  I’ll let you track that reference down yourselves!

In conclusion, the main influence upon our conceptions of Faery as a stratified and monarchical society, with a royal family, a court, nobility and attendants, seems to be European society during the medieval period, channeled through contemporary literature.  Whether we are thinking of mythical Iron Age Ireland, Chaucer’s England or the France of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France, their aristocratic society provided a model that was unthinkingly imposed upon fairyland.  It seems unlikely that the ‘common folk’ necessarily shared this; indeed, a large number of fairies were independent and individual characters or were conceived as members of their own, very local community.  Should we continue to talk of kings and queens then, or is it simply habit?  Do the terms have anything to do with contemporary perceptions of fairy?  What do readers think?

Rheam-Queen-Mab-L

‘Queen Mab,’ Henry Meynell Rheam

Further reading

Elsewhere I discuss fairy kings and that famous fairy queen Titania.

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