Georges Picard- French fairies

Nymph & Forest Fairies

I discovered this artist through Sean Conroy’s former blog and had reposted it here.  His posts are no longer on WordPress but I found I inherited his images from him when I reblogged the post, so I have reused them with my own text…

Georges Picard (1857-1946) was a French painter and illustrator who produced a number fairy studies.  The pictures are distinctive, in part because of Picard’s unique ‘soft-focus’ technique (very much in contrast to the sharp and icy nymphs painted by his close contemporary Bouguereau) and in part because of his cavalier intermixing of fairies, sprites and nymphs, of adult women and small children gambolling together in sunny glades.

Dancing Fairies

Picard’s fairy scenes include A Nymph and Forest Fairies and Nymphs and Cherubim Amongst the Vines at Obernai. His main figures never, honestly, look especially fae: rather, they are adult female nudes painted in the academic style, who are discovered, lightly draped with a thin veil, cavorting in woodland clearings.  They look like what they were: Parisian models with fashionable hair styles and jewellery.  They are in the company of sprites or fairies in the form of small naked children.  This mix of sizes is a trait inherited from many of the British fairy painters who preceded him, such as Noel Paton, as doesn’t tell us much (I don’t believe) about Picard’s fairy philosophy.

Fairy & Sprites in the Undergrowth

Particularly noticeable is Picard’s cheerful jumbling of genres, so that biblical angels appear alongside classical divinities, Graeco-Roman nymphs and dryads disport themselves with native French fées.

Nymphs & Cherubim amongst the Vines at Obernai
Allegory of Wine

Picard also dealt with a fairy theme when he illustrated Alphonse Daudet’s short story  Le Conte de Noel, part of the La Fete des Toits (1896). This features a conversation between sparrows, chimneys, the snow and others.  We are then introduced to Les Kobolds.   For English speakers, the kobolds may best be known from German tradition as mine sprites, related to the Cornish knockers, but they are also household spirits, akin to a British Brownie, that live by the hearth or wood shed and undertake household chores at night.  They are small, male and bearded.  Daudet introduces them to us as follows:

c’est-à-dire les esprits familiers de chaque maison qui conduisent Noël à toutes les cheminées où il y a des petits souliers qui attendent.

“the familiar spirits of each house, who guide Christmas to all the chimneys where little stockings are waiting. “

Christmas (Noel) arrives to deliver presents and says to the fairies “Maintenant, messieurs les kobolds, marchez avec moi sur la pente des toits, nous allons commencer notre distribution.”  “Right, gentlemen, come with me across the roof tops, we’re going to start handing out presents.”

Christmas wants, this year, to concentrate on treating the poorest children, but the kobolds object that-

Avec ton nouveau système, les pauvres seront heureux, mais les riches pleureront. Et dame! un enfant qui pleure n’est plus ni riche ni pauvre. C’est un enfant qui pleure; et il n’y a rien de si triste…” 

“With your new system, the poor children will be happy and the rich ones will cry.  But, a child who’s crying is neither rich nor poor- it’s simply a weeping child and there’s nothing so sad.”

Picard illustrated this story with two drawings which, despite the text, portrayed the kobolds as semi-naked girls.  One wears only her boots, the other a top with a pointed hood, stockings and shoes.  This latter sprite leans against a chimney pot, pushing out her bottom and regarding us impishly.  Picard had drawn very similar pictures of a little blonde girl playing in a pond, catching frogs, a figure he obviously preferred to the masculine (and possibly ugly) spirits that Daudet had imagined.

The artist drew what pleased him, but in his interpretation of Daudet’s text, as well as in his wider vision of Faery, he was rather misleading.  Nonetheless, his pictures, if we examine them attentively, can lead us to new insights into faery-kind.  For example, Daudet’s story is a clue that the kobold is an ancestor of  Santa’s toy-making elves, with whom we are today so familiar.

For more on the classical nymph, see my newest book Nymphology.  There will be more on knockers in my forthcoming book on the ‘Economy of Faery.’  For more on the art of Faery, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

 

The tooth fairy- a modern myth

28mptoothfairy

A typical tooth fairy image…

At Christmas I wrote about the origins of Santa’s elves; in this posting I want to look at that other modern fairy myth, the tooth fairy.  The tooth fairy belief in the Western and in Western-influenced cultures tells that, when a child loses one of their baby teeth, they should place it under their pillow before bed and the tooth fairy will visit while they sleep, replacing the lost tooth with a small payment.

Norse origins

In northern Europe, there is an ancient tradition of tand-fé or tooth fee, which was paid when a child lost its first tooth.  This  is recorded as early as the Icelandic Poetic Edda, in which there is reference in verse 5 of Grimnismol (‘The sayings of Grimnir’) to a ‘tooth gift’- in this case, Freyr was given Alfheim by the gods (which certainly beats our 6d under the pillow).

Later, in medieval England, children were encouraged to burn their milk teeth so as to protect themselves from hardship in the afterlife. It was believed that children who did not do so would spend eternity searching for the teeth after death; a related idea was that (as with any shed bodily part) if a witch were to get hold of a shed tooth, it could give them power over the former owner, therefore its destruction was advisable.

Viking warriors are said to have paid children for their shed milk-teeth: these, and other articles belonging to infants, were believed to bring good luck in battle and so were strung around their necks. There is some evidence that trolls may have been blamed for toothache in Finland and Scandinavia.

It is clear that from a very early date there was a supernatural association with an infant’s first teeth.  This may have been related to the process of maturing and the child’s loss of dependence and innocence; the teeth themselves may have been believed to have carried with them some sort of spiritual power that could protect or be used for evil.  There was personal and social value in this.

The modern tooth fairy

The modern version of these traditions, in which a fairy rewards the infant, has been dated to the twentieth century. However, amongst the earliest references is an entry written by in the ‘Household Hints’ section of the Chicago Daily Tribune during 1908:

Tooth Fairy:  Many a refractory child will allow a loose tooth to be removed if he knows about the Tooth Fairy. If he takes his little tooth and puts it under the pillow when he goes to bed the Tooth Fairy will come in the night and take it away, and in its place will leave some little gift. It is a nice plan for mothers to visit the five cent counter and lay in a supply of articles to be used on such occasions.”

Earlier still, in 1902 American poet Amos Russel Wells (1862-1933) published a poem Tom’s tooth on the subject, indicating that there was already an association between fairies and teeth in North America by the close of the nineteenth century:

“The word went forth in Fairyland,
(From ugly fays, in sooth!)
“Young Tom’s had too much candy;
He needs an aching tooth!”

So Fever hurried from the south,
And from the west came Grumps,
And from the east came Puffy Face,
And from the north came Thumps.

They quickly spied a hollow tooth
(Where Tom had failed to brush);
They clapped their little, impish hands,
And made a silent rush.

They thumped the tooth, they banged the tooth,
The mocking, cruel crew;
They rasped the nerve, they ground the nerve,
They pierced it through and through.

From nine o’clock till twelve o’clock
They racked the groaning child,
Till Tom was “almost crazy,”
His mother, “fairly wild.”

At length between his moans and cries
Young Tom was heard to say,
“I’ll give my teeth less candy,
And brush them twice a day.”

Bang, bang! The impish fairy four
Each dealt a parting thwack,
Then off they flew, east, west, north, south,
And nevermore came back.”

What is the tooth fairy?

The fairy is generally conceived of as a small winged female being.  Its function appears to be to comfort a child for the pain and distress involved in the loss of teeth.  It may be clear to regular readers of this blog that this conjunction of ideas can only really have occurred in the nineteenth century when the tiny, winged, friendly fay had become well-established, and probably only in the USA where a variety of existing European traditions might meet each other and be mixed together.

It seems from research that children tend to realise that the tooth fairy is an imaginary being around the ages of five and seven years old.  This maturing attitude often affects belief in similar gift bearing beings like Santa Claus and the Easter bunny at the same time.  However the cultural and commercial forces that served to propagate the story during the last century also serve to perpetuate it as a pleasant childhood myth.

In other (south) European countries there seems to be a relatively recent story of a rodent (rat or mouse) exchanging milk teeth for money or some other gift.  World-wide, too, related ceremonies mark the loss of milk teeth.

Overall, the tooth fairy, and most particularly its very close association with children of a young age, demonstrates the way that fairy belief has been devalued and disarmed. These modern nursery fairies are wholly beneficent and friendly; they are to be welcomed, not feared; they are saccharine confections vastly removed from the original folk beliefs related to milk teeth and from the nature of traditional fairies.  Nonetheless, perhaps the tooth fairy deserves some sort of grudging respect from us for her ability to spread globally and her tenacious survival in the modern wold, where other fairy species have weakened and disappeared.

800px_COLOURBOX2180585

Another delightful tooth fairy, from Colourbox.

 

‘Santa’s little helpers’ – the origins of the Christmas elves

rockwell

Norman Rockwell, Santa with elves, 1922

Santa’s elves are the result of the combination of a number of traditions. Santa Claus himself is of course much older, deriving from the historical figure of St. Nicholas of Myra but with attributes added from several European Christmas traditions, particularly the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas. The association of Christmas presents with elves has precedents in Swedish and Danish folklore.

First sightings

The Christmas elf as such first appeared in literature in 1850 when Louisa May Alcott completed, but never published, a book entitled Christmas elves.  The American political magazine Harper’s Weekly (1857-1916) featured in its Christmas edition for 1857 a poem The wonders of Santa Claus which recounts that he:

“Keeps a great many elves at work/ All working with all their might/ To make a million of pretty things/ Cakes, sugar-plums and things/ To fill the stockings, hung up you know,/ By the little girls and boys…”

The image of the elves in the workshop was popularised by Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American women’s magazine published 1830-1878.  The front cover illustration of its 1873 Christmas issue showed Santa surrounded by toys and elves with the caption, “Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time.” At this time Godey’s magazine played a major role in influencing the Christmas traditions that were developing in the USA: for example, the cover of its 1850 Christmas issue featured the first widely circulated picture of the modern Christmas tree. Additional impetus was given to the idea of Christmas elves by Austin Thompson’s 1876 play The House of Santa Claus: a Christmas fairy show for Sunday schools.  In fact, in Clement Clarke Moore’s earlier poem of 1823, A visit from St. Nicholas (more commonly known today as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), Santa Claus himself was described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.”

Scandinavian origins

These literary and commercial strands mingled with Scandinavian ideas brought to North America by immigrants.  Prior to the influence of St. Nicholas in Sweden, the job of giving out gifts had been done by the Yule Goat. By 1891, however, the saint had become so well known that he could no longer be excluded from the festival; he became merged with the tomten, which were supernatural farm guardians closely akin to the British brownie, dobby or hob (tomte means ‘homestead man’).

jultomte_and_horse

A jultomte & horse

tomte, or nisse, is a Nordic mythological creature that closely associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season.  It’s generally described as being a small male, about 90 cm/ 36 inches tall, with a long white beard and a conical or knitted cap in red or some other bright colour. Their appearance is rather like our modern convention of the garden gnome. In Swedish and Danish folklore the creatures are solitary, residing in the pantry or barn, and tend to be mischievous.  However, they are also very hardworking, being responsible for the protection and welfare of a farmstead and, particularly, caring for the livestock.  The nisse/ tomte was a very familiar creature in Scandinavian folklore and, with the romanticising and collection of folklore during the 19th century, it gained even greater popularity.  (NB: nisse derives from Nils/ Nicholas, further underlining the intermingling of traditions.)

Jultomten_1895

As already mentioned, in the Nordic folklore traditions associated with Christmas the tomte is often accompanied by the Yule goat (julbocken). The pair appeared on Christmas Eve, knocking on doors and handing out presents. The nisse also delivered gifts at the door, but was more commonly seen with a pig, another popular Christmas symbol in Scandinavia.  It is customary to leave out a bowl of porridge with butter in gratitude for the services rendered by the creature. Then, in the 1840s, the farm nisse became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called julenisse (Yule Nisse).

jenny nystrom

Tomten & gingerbread, by Jenny Nystrom.

In 1881, the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning published Viktor Rydberg’s poem Tomten, illustrated by Jenny Nyström.  She took the traditional Swedish folk character and turned it into a friendly white-bearded, red-capped figure that has come to be associated with Christmas ever since. Shortly afterwards, and obviously influenced by the emerging Father Christmas traditions as well as by the new Danish tradition, a variant of the nisse/tomte, called the jultomte in Sweden and julenisse in Norway, started delivering Christmas presents in those countries, taking over the role from the traditional julbock.

Still today in Scandinavia the nisse/ tomte are pictured on Christmas cards, calendars and house and garden decorations, often with a horse or cat, or riding on a goat or in a sled pulled by a goat. The julenisse tends now to be adult sized , rather than being the height of a child, as was the older tradition.

Glædelig_Jul,_ca_1917

Also caught up in this legend making was another myth, that of ‘Santa’s little helper.’  This seems to be derived from the German companions to Santa Claus, who include Knecht Ruprecht (boy Rupert).  The idea of a child assistant has become mingled with that of fairy bringers of presents to help produce our present ideas.

Disney and since

In the USA these varied concepts also became mixed with the less rustic and more childlike images of fairies and elves derived from more recent British tradition.  The result was that Santa Claus’ elves steadily lost their beards and became more infantile and saccharine.  Walt Disney’s 1932 cartoon Santa’s workshop was a stage in this process, depicting ‘Santa’s little helpers’ as white bearded elves in green hats and costumes.  An autonomous body of lore has begun to accrue around these creatures now, with their ‘traditional’ names purporting to include such dismal examples as Alabaster Snowball, Bushy Evergreen and (I regret to say) Sugarplum Mary.  There is of course very little traditional material in these current stories: the whole idea is alien to the British tradition as it was imported into North America and it has evolved a long way beyond the Nordic elements. Nevertheless, the image has developed a life of its own with such films as Elf (2003) and it continues to evolve, as much through popular as commercial influence.

Glædelig_Jul,_1885

Further reading

There’s also an article on the subject of julenisse on The fairy page blog.