‘Nymphology’- a new book

Nymphology

I am pleased to announce that my new book, Nymphology- A Brief History of Nymphs, is now available as a Kindle book and paperback through Amazon.

I’ve often discussed the interface between classical and British mythologies, both on this site and in my book Fayeriebut I decided to focus on the subject in a short new volume, examining the meaning and stories of nymphs from the ancient Greek past right up to the present day.

Nymphs have always been about sex,  whether that’s the story of Hylas and the Nymphs or it’s the modern day nymphets of Nabokov’s Lolita or adult websites.  There’s much more to it than that, though; the nymph is also about healing and poetic inspiration, about religious as well as sexual obsession.

I’ve traced their story from the classical texts and poets, through Morgan Le Fay and the Lady of the Lake, through Spenser, Shakespeare and Michael Drayton’s Nymphidia right up to Nabokov and Pierre Louys’ Chansons de Bilitis.  Nymphs are found in paintings and sculptures as well as in literature, and the new book celebrates them all.

The boo is 80 pages long plus illustrations- in the UK it’s £5.50 for the e-book and £7.95 for the paperback copy.  For details of all my other books, please see my separate Books page.

Hermaphroditus_Salmacis_Albani_Louvre
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, Albani, 1630

 

Fairies- explaining the unexplained

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A ‘fairy loaf’- a fossil sea urchin

“The naturalists of the Dark Ages owed many obligations to our fairies, for whatever they found wonderful and could not account for, they easily got rid of by charging to their account.” (Brand, Popular antiquities, vol.2 p.285)

In earlier times fairies were regularly used to explain phenomena for which we had no scientific theory, such as fairy rings, fossils and archaeological artefacts.  This tendency was exacerbated by the habit of applying the word ‘fairy’ to anything that was mysterious and/ or small.  A good example might be old clay pipe stems, which readily became ‘fairy pipes’- even in places where they had been manufactured- Broseley in Shropshire for instance.  This is a curious testimony to the power of mythology over factual knowledge.

mudlark_fairy_pipe_15May2015

A sample ‘fairy pipe’

There is a particular fitness to this tendency, because of the convention that fairies themselves are small and, perhaps, delicate, but why link the faeries with ancient monuments such as fortifications and burial mounds?  This has been done across Britain, from Shetland to Penwith in Cornwall.  Very commonly, these sites are rural, frequently remote and of great antiquity; they were built for purposes unknown by persons unknown and this inevitably has invited speculation.  How they were built is likewise unknown and this can enhance the aura of mystery or miraculousness.  The physical and imaginative distance separating us from these structures makes it easy to see them as products of Faerie.

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Cissbury Ring hillfort

The kinds of sites that have been given names linking them to fairyland include barrows, standing stones, hillforts, flint workings and- even- Roman ruins.  Some examples of the folk lore associations follow:

  • Iron Age hillforts– in Sussex the fairies are known to dance at Torberry Hill and Cissbury forts;
  • the motte and bailey at Pulborough in the same county was the scene of a fairy funeral; and,
  • the ancient flint mines and earth works at Harrow Hill in Sussex have been identified by the some as the fays’ last home in England;
  • barrows at Batcombe and Stoney Littleton in Somerset are known as ‘fairy toots.’  In the same county fairy gold is buried at Cadbury hillfort and fairy pipes are found at Dolbury camp.  At the barrow called Pudding Pie Hill in North Yorkshire it’s said that if you run around it nine times and then stick a knife in the top, you will hear the fairies inside;
  • Hoarstones stone circle in Shropshire is a fairy ring in which six fairy women dance on moonlit nights;
  • burial cists on Shetland are ‘trow haunted’- they are places where the “peerie [tiny] Hillmen” will be encountered;  brochs as well as standing stones on the island are the same;
  • at the Roman sites at Bolitree and Kenchester in Herefordshire are also haunted by fairies and fairy money (Roman coins?) have been found there.  In one case a Roman mosaic pavement that was discovered in the county was promptly covered over again for fear of offending the fays.  In Oystermouth (Ystum Llwynarth) on Gower during the 1860s local people would not collect tesserae, the fragments of a Roman mosaic floor, found in the churchyard of All Saints church for fear that the fairies would haunt or torment them.

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Stoney Littleton barrow- the ammonite fossil at the entrance

It’s particularly curious to note the Norman motte at Pulborough amongst these prehistoric monuments.  It must have been reasonably apparent that this site was a castle, yet a veneer of age and mystery seems to have been enough to attract the fairies.  In the remainder of the cases, the fay link is likely to have been engendered by several clear associations:

  • many of these sites were underground or the material came from beneath the soil.  As it’s well-known that fairyland is subterranean- a place of the dead perhaps- it made eminent sense to assume that they were fairy lairs;
  • fairies are well known to give money to their favourites and sometimes the coins are of unknown origin. Heavy Roman and Celtic currency would very obviously have been mistaken for fairy gold;
  • as the fairies have their own monarchy and court, they will need suitably grand locations to inhabit.  The ruins of old forts and palaces that we can see in the mortal world presumably have a supernatural form where the fairies dwell in feasting and revelry;
  • if fairies are the ancestral spirits of the land- its original inhabitants, perhaps- then all old burial sites and ceremonial structures must be their responsibility; and,
  • there is an age-old association between the fays and buried treasure and fairy gold is frequently related to ancient sites.  That at Dolebury sinks deeper of you try to dig for it.  In contrast, at Bury Ditches fort near Clun in Shropshire a pot of gold was buried by fairies, attached to which is a thin gold wire to help guide seekers to the treasure.  Intriguingly, on Blea Moor on the Pennines there once lived the Lile Hob.  This being was linked to buried treasure known to be in the area; when three silver armlets were discovered on the Moor, the hob disappeared forever.

Further reading

In a world lacking a truly historical sense and without the science of archaeology, the known world of the fairies was readily at hand to explain features and finds that otherwise were wholly without a place in the world as it was then conceived and understood.  They gave structure and sense to our predecessors and at the same time enchanted the land around them, giving its significance and even a sense of the sacred. They represented the spirit of the land- a potent source of imagery.

See too my postings on fairies and the past and fairies and megaliths.

Who is Titania?

Vivien-Leigh-as-Titania-in-A-Midsummer-Nights-Dream

Vivien Leigh as Titania in Midsummer night’s dream

For many of us today, Titania has become the archetype of the fairy queen, if not of female fairies as a class.  Her origins seem to be Elizabethan.  In 1590 Edmond Spenser made his Faerie Queen a descendant of Titania, but the character was most explicitly and effectively introduced into fairy-lore by William Shakespeare in Midsummer night’s dream.  She was not a traditional character of British folklore (as her name might, in any case, suggest) and the playwright was certainly very well aware of the British equivalent: Queen Mab features prominently in a famous speech by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which was first performed in 1597. The Dream was written in 1605; did Shakespeare merely want a bit of variety or did he have other motives for creating a new faery monarch?

Diana

Somewhat like the name of her consort Oberon, Titania’s name is more descriptive than personal.  ‘Titania’ simply means that she is born of Titans- though this naturally begs some very important questions.  Roman writer Ovid tells us in The Metamorphoses that Titania is another name or aspect of the goddess Diana.  The latter was the Roman deity responsible for childbirth and, as such, there are some parallels with Queen Mab the midwife.  The Romans also linked Diana to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was primarily a goddess of nature, particularly of springs and water courses (she was, for example, known as Limnaia, ‘lady of the lake’, a name which for us now is freighted with resonances of Morgan le Fay and other fay maidens and such like nymphs).  In her guise as goddess of woods and water, Artemis had obvious parallels with native nature spirits and the association makes considerable sense.  However, Shakespeare had already used ‘Diana’ as a character in All’s well that ends well, five years previously to The dream, so perhaps again he merely sought variety- or had pursued the links even more deeply.

Edwin_Landseer Titania_and_Bottom

Edwin Landseer, Titania and Bottom, 1851

The Titans

Diana was descended from Titans, a heritage which takes us back to the roots of Greek mythology.  The Titans were a race of giants born of Uranus and Ge (heaven and earth).  Amongst their numbers were the male gods Oceanus, Cronus, Hyperion, Prometheus and Atlas; amongst the goddesses were numbered Thea, Phoebe and Rhea.  The inter-relationships and identities of these beings are far from fixed in the myths, but we need not be concerned with the detail.  It is the general tenor of the stories that’s significant: they contain a variety of fruitful themes and concepts.

Cronus is often seen as the chief of the Titans.  He led a revolt against Zeus and the Olympian gods and was defeated and displaced, being banished with all his kind to imprisonment in Tartarus.  It’s said that Cronus now sleeps eternally on some Western island, and as such his myth has very likely contributed to the growth of the story of King Arthur sleeping in Avalon.  The sister of Cronus was Rhea, but she was also his wife and so mother of a pantheon including Zeus, Poseidon, Hera and others.  In this role Rhea is commonly identified with another goddess, Cybele, who was in turn worshipped across the ancient world as the Great Mother Goddess.  She is another deity of nature, fertility and wild places and, as such, fairly readily linked to a fairy queen of groves and springs.

The daughter of the famous Titan Atlas was the equally well-known Calypso, nymph of the island of Ogygia.  It was she who detained Odysseus for seven years and tried to prevent him ever returning home with promises of immortality.   The time-scale and the reward must trigger for us thoughts of detention in fairyland.

In summary then, these divine female Titans all have attributes and rich associations which provoke thoughts of British equivalents and which tie local beings into a wider and more powerful mythology.  It may be for these reasons that Shakespeare chose the name Titania: she brought with her connotations of power and antiquity.

Shakespeare’s fairy queen

Rather like Artemis/ Diana, Shakespeare’s fairy queen is intimately associated with the natural environment.  Her quarrel with Oberon disrupts the weather and the growing of the crops.  This is summarised by Titania when she tells Bottom that:

“I am a spirit of no common rate./ The summer still doth tend upon my state.” (Act III, scene i)

She rules over the seasons and they follow her moods.

In due course, naturally, the character of Titania took on a life of her own.  The name was taken up by others and became accepted as the appropriate appellation: for example, in Thomas Dekker’s play The whore of Babylon in 1607.

The new queen inherited much of the wanton sexuality of fairies generally and especially that of Queen Mab, giving us the erotically tinged imagery of Fuseli and Simmons as illustrated below.  The buxom wenches of the paintings are ironic given the fact that Artemis, one of Titania’s forms, was also known as a goddess of chastity who was in conflict with Aphrodite (who, in fact, is also of Titan ancestry).

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John Simmons, There sleeps Titania

Titania and Bottom c.1790 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Titania and Bottom c.1790 Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Further reading

This posting was inspired by a reading of Geoffrey Ashe’s excellent Camelot and the vision of Albion.  Robert Graves in The white goddess also has a good deal to say about Cronus and the rest.  See too my consideration of the identity of Shakespeare’s Ariel.

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my books Famous Fairies and Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.