Vision & Visibility in faery lore

Le Lavoir des Dames, Jersey

British faeries have a curious and contradictory relationship to humans’ ability to see them.

On the one hand, the faes are not infrequently associated with springs and wells that have the power of curing defects and diseases in human eyes. La Fontaine des Mittes on Jersey was one such: it cured both dumbness and sore eyes. This fountain is inhabited by two faeries (or nymphs), called Arna and Aiuna, whose presence perhaps is related to its curative properties. Compare, though, another Jersey site, Le Lavoir des Dames (fairies’ bathing place) off Sorrel Point. If you spied on the faes bathing there, they’d blind you. Readers may well be familiar with the fact that blinding (or striking dumb) are common punishments for violating faery privacy or glamour. The commonest victims are midwives who acquire- by accident- the ability to see through faery concealment whilst attending at a confinement. The midwives later see the faery father or some such person at a market- frequently stealing- and they are deprived of their (second) sight more or less violently. This may involve a breath or dust in the eye, a light touch or it may require physically and violently putting the eye out. A Guernsey woman who assisted at a fairy birth at the mound called Le Creux es Faies got baby spit in her eyes; fairy spit also subsequently stopped her seeing les p’tits gens ever again.

The Fairy Well, at Poulton le Fylde, Blackpool

Other faery sites with healing powers include a well at Bugley in Wiltshire which relieved sore eyes, whilst the water of the Faeries’ Well near Blackpool treated weak eyes. Note that a mother who took some of this water to help her daughter’s failing vision tried it first on her own eyes before applying it to her child- for the entirely understandable maternal reason that she didn’t want to harm her child further. This accidentally and unintentionally bestowed the second sight upon her and for this abuse of the waters’ healing properties she was duly blinded by a fairy man at a market. In passing, we may speculate as to whether the daughter too gained the second sight- and why the faes seem not to have been so concerned about that risk. Perhaps where the water is applied as a cure, it has no ‘side-effects,’ perhaps (as is often said) children naturally have the second sight and can see the faeries anyway.

Lastly, elf arrows are said to be a good treatment for sore eyes and for this reason (as well as to protect themselves against elf assaults and to be able to cure their livestock) people would collect them.

In the Hertfordshire fairy-tale of the Green Lady, a poor girl finds employment as servant to a faery woman. One of her chores is fetching water from a well and the fish in that well warn her to neither eat the lady’s food nor to spy upon her. The girl ignores the second injunction and sees the woman dancing with a bogie. She’s found out and is blinded as a punishment, but the fairy well water restores her sight.

On the Isle of Man, a man who accidentally saw the fairies one night in a pea field near Jurby, witnessing a great crowd of little people dancing in red cloaks, was blinded for life by an old fairy woman who spotted him. Another, who spied on them when they were dancing by looking through the keyhole of a deserted cottage, was blinded with a poke from the bow of the fiddle for his impertinence. The Manx Little People will often expand their flocks by stealing sheep from humans.  To do this, they use their glamour to make it impossible for a shepherd to accurately count the sheep he’s tending.  The only remedy is for him to wash his eyes in running water first. 

Scottish witch suspect John Stewart was rendered dumb- and blind in one eye- after the fairy king struck him with a white rod. This seems to have been a preliminary to teaching him some of the faeries’ secrets and magical knowledge. Perhaps we might say that some of his human senses were deliberately restricted before they were expanded by the acquisition of faery powers. Stewart’s sight and speech were restored in due course.

Our Good Neighbours can be highly touchy, though. A Victorian report from Wrexham tells of a fairy that blinded a person just because he looked at it. A very similar account comes from Exmoor: a person who ‘had dealings’ with the pixies later saw them thieving at the market in Minehead. When she protested, she was blinded. There is no mention of midwifery being involved, which may imply that her mere association with the fairies gave her the second sight.

Les Creux es faies, Guernsey

Children’s encounters with faeries- folklore & art

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Postcard, by Agnes Richardson

It’s frequently said that children are especially able to see the fairies- perhaps because of their innate innocence, perhaps because they are endowed with a sort of second sight and so are open to wonder and magic and are not closed off mentally by rationality and ‘good sense,’ as adults can be.

Children’s Second Sight

The folklore evidence as to the existence of special powers in children is equivocal.  The sheer number of accounts that could be analysed mean that a statistical test of this is impractical, so I rely on my anecdotal impression of all the reports I’ve read to say that there’s no special bias towards infants: any one of any age and any sex is liable to see the Good Folk, it seems from the folk stories.  However, we can be a bit more scientific about the more recent reports.  Consolidating the cases of sightings from the Fairy Census  and from Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies,  it’s possible to say that around a third of witnesses were children.  Of these, about 80% were girls.

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Margaret Tarrant, Fairy Secrets

girl with fairies, rabbits, and cupid  vintage postcard by Agnes Richardson

What do the above statistics tell us?  Well, for developed countries, the proportion of children seems high.  In the UK, those under 18 make up about 21% of the population; in the USA it’s 24%, whilst 14% of the German population are 17 and under.  It seems, then, that children are indeed now slightly more likely to experience a fairy encounter; and girls are obviously significantly more likely.  Whether this is reflective of genuine differences, or of a sexist tendency for it to be acceptable for female children to express such ideas, and for boys not to do so, is much less clear.

fairy parachutes

Acquiring Second Sight

On the whole, though, age appears to be much less a factor in seeing fairies than other influences.  Doubtless a pre-existing predisposition to belief- even an expectation that a fairy might be seen- must help.  In earlier generations, other explanations for being able to see supernaturals were advanced.  For example, those born on a Sunday were said to be more prone to second sight (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, p.81); others said that it was those born early in the morning who acquired the gift (Spence, British Fairy Tradition, p.160).  Some people might be genetically more likely to have these experiences; others may acquire the second sight as a gift from the fairies.Browse all of the Margaret Tarrant Fairies photos, GIFs and videos. Find just what you're looking for on Photobucket

by Margaret Tarrant (1888 - 1950) Little girl playing the flute with fairies and pixies.

The fact seems to be that some people are lucky enough to have the second sight and the majority of others are not.  The ability does not discriminate by any physical factors.  For example, Martin Martin, touring the Hebridean islands in the eighteenth century, reported the local belief that not only children, but horses and cows as well, were all believed to be endowed with the ability to see the sith folk

The Brownie's Dream - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Brownie’s dream

MARGARET TARRANT The Magic Pool Original Vintage Children's Print 1927 - 87 year old - Matted - Ready to Frame
Tarrant, Girls and fairies at magic pool

The differential nature of the gift is demonstrated very well in an account from Sutherland in the far north of Scotland.   In 1937 an old woman told a folklorist how, as a small girl, she had gone out with her mother one summer evening to tend the cows in the field.  The little girl was able to see small green people playing near the cattle, although her mother saw nothing.  Very possibly, however, if the mother had held her daughter’s hand, she would have seen the Good Folk- it’s very common for the sight to be easily transferred by contact in this manner.

Margaret Tarrant, On Primrose Hill
Tarrant, On Primrose Hill

Sightings by Children

Now, to turn to my illustrations, which are largely taken from postcards and books of the 1920s and 1930s.  What will be apparent instantly is that the authors and artists of this period were quite blase about the experience of contact with the faes.  Although, as I have explained several times in previous postings, people (especially children) are very vulnerable to abduction, you might know nothing of this danger from these pictures.  Instead, it’s all rather charming and lovely.  Kids- and in particular girls- are encouraged to hope for these encounters and to plunge into them without hesitation.

The Elfin Band - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Elfin Band

Suggesting to anyone, especially guileless infants, that a free and easy approach to fairy contact is advisable seems- in light of all the folklore evidence- to be extremely unwise, even reckless.  Clearly, by the interwar period, the fairies had been reduced in the minds of many to harmless and probably unreal little beings- just perfect for amusing little girls.  Margaret Tarrant- presumably in a play upon the name of the junior girl guiding organisation, the Brownies, and the domestic fairies of British tradition, also called brownies– seems to actively promote contact as a harmless pastime for young Guides. The human Brownies were so-called (I assume) because they were encouraged and expected to undertake lots of little household chores for mother (just like their supernatural counterparts); the risk is, of course, that they’ll be kidnapped and made into slaves for the fairies.

The Brownie's Clock by Margaret Winifred Tarrant
Tarrant, Brownie’s clock

There’s seldom a hint in all these images that any wariness is required.  A few suggest a hesitation on the child’s part, or a sensible inclination to spy from a place of concealment, but most of the subjects make no attempt to protect themselves, or appear to experience any apprehension.  All I can say is- you have been warned….

Nearly There - M W Tarrant Print
Tarrant, Nearly there

Queen of the Brownies by Margaret Tarrant. Margaret Winifred Tarrant was an English illustrator specializing in depictions of fairy-like children and religious subjects. She began her career at the age of 20, and painted and published into the early 1950s. Wikipedia
Tarrant, Queen of the Brownies

Last thoughts

The fairy themed children’s books and postcards that were so abundant during the interwar period enriched our visual culture immensely- I’m thinking especially of the work of Cicely Mary Barker and Margaret Tarrant and their flower fairy illustrations but, as this post shows, many other artists were active during those decades as well.

However, these artists showed little awareness of or respect for British folk tradition and the fairies they promoted to the card buying public were almost exclusively sweet and harmless.  Nevertheless, others (such as Marjorie Johnson) maintained actual contact with Faery and, as some of the recent encounters in the Fairy Census demonstrate, the Good Folk are still temperamental and potentially perilous.

For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century and also follow the links to earlier posts in the text and see too chapter 12 of my book Faery.

adorable Margaret Tarrant picture. I loved Margaret Tarrant books when I was young! Wish I'd kept them!
Tarrant, Angelina in the garden

Florence Choate

I wonder where Angelina is? - Counted cross stitch pattern in PDF format by Maxispatterns on Etsy
Hilda Cowham, I wonder where Angelina is?

Fairy Playdate Greeting Card
A ‘Fairy Playdate’ invitation card by Dorothy Wheeler

Fairy home. Dorothy Wheeler I had never seen this but she is just like my shining face in the tree
Fairy Home by Dorothy Wheeler

Vintage
‘The Fairy Queen’ from the ABC Book

Muriel Dawson

Beatrice Goldsmith (1895-1947), "Little Girl with Fairy"
Beatrice Goldsmith, Little Girl with Fairy

1940s Vintage Fairies by Helen Jacobs
A fairy abduction, by Helen Jacobs

"A Moonlight Party" F. Harrison (Artist), The Story Hour Book , Blackie and Son Circa 1922
Florence Harrison, A Moonlight Party

In the Fairy Ring, frontispiece by HARRISON, Florence Susan - Jonkers Rare Books
Florence Harrison, In the Fairy Ring

Florence Harrison / Elfin Song
Florence Harrison, Elfin Song

Susan Beatrice Pearse (British, 1878–1980), "A Girl Meets the Fairies"
Susan Beatrice Pearce, A girl meets the fairies

Gaining (and losing) second sight

SoperMushroomLL
Eileen Soper, Muddle’s Mistake

Acquisition of the second sight, and the ability to see through fairy glamour and watch the Good Folk, is a gift many desire.  It can come from many sources, some easily achieved (it would appear); many purely fortuitous.

Let’s start with the cases of luck.  In one Scottish case, a child left asleep upon a fairy knoll came away from the spot endowed with the second sight.  Whether this was a matter of the place alone, or the result of an intervention by the sith folk because they had chosen to favour the infant, we cannot tell.   Cromek recorded that a person invited inside a fairy hill to feast with the inhabitants went away afterwards with the second sight, implying that the food itself or perhaps the proximity to the fairies could have been the source.  If it was the food, this will of course be in stark contrast to the usual outcome, in which the person eating faery food in Faery becomes trapped there.

Contact with the fairies seems to be fundamental to the transfer, as is seen in Enys Tregarthen’s story of the fairy child Skerry Werry, published in 1940.  A lost fairy child was taken in and cared for by a widow on Bodmin Moor.  The longer the little girl stayed, the better the old woman’s ‘pixy sight’ became, so that she could see the pisky lights on the moor.  The story implies that it was simply Skerry-Werry’s residence that had the effect.  More traditionally, as in Tregarthen’s story The Nurse Who Broke Her Promise, which was published in the same year, a human midwife bathing a fairy baby is told not to splash bath water in her eyes (or, even more commonly is asked to anoint the child with ointment, but not touch herself) and a breach of such an injunction is what transfers the magic vision.

A third example is even stranger: an old Somerset woman who used to nurse those who were sick was one day walking to a well for water when a moth brushed against her face.  This gave her the pixy-sight and she immediately saw a little man, who asked her to come with him to try to come with him to tend his seriously ill wife.  I have mentioned the fairy association with moths before, so this incident has some precedents.

Gifts of second sight from the fairies are certainly reported.  Scottish woman Isobel Sinclair was granted such a power, so that she would “know giff thair be any fey bodie in the house” (as her trial on Orkney in February 1633 was told).  A substantial part of the case against her was that she was “a dreamer of dreams.”

Elspeth Reoch had been tried fifteen years previously for very similar reasons to Sinclair: she had had contact with the fairies and they had given her ability to see into the future and tell fortunes.  Elspeth was instructed in two methods of obtaining the second sight.  One was to roast an egg and use the ‘sweat of it’ (the moisture that appeared on the shell, presumably) to wash her hands and then rub her eyes.  The second technique was to pick the flower called millefleur and, kneeling on her right knee, to pull the plant between her middle finger and thumb, invoking the Christian trinity.

s venus 2

Once one person had the gift, others could benefit.  Contact with them, by touching them or by looking over a shoulder, would reveal the fairies to the second person as well.

Be warned, though.  The fairies object to uninvited intrusions and to any behaviour they regard as spying.  There is a Victorian report of a case from Wrexham in which a fairy blinded a person just because he looked at it.  A very similar account comes from Exmoor: a person who ‘had dealings’ with the pixies later saw them thieving at the market in Minehead.  When she protested, she was blinded.  Alone, these cases might appear to be truncated versions of the midwife stories mentioned earlier; these nearly always culminate with the midwife spotting the fairy father on a later occasion, whether he is stealing goods at a fair or market or simply out and about in the human world.  She addresses him, giving away her secret, and, in response, she is blinded, whether by a breath in the face or some more physical means.  However, the Wrexham and Minehead stories both suggest that anyone who has the second sight, for whatever reason, might suffer as a consequence if a fairy objects to it.

Seeing through the fairies’ glamour risks exposing those aspects of their conduct that they might rather keep concealed from us (their propensity for stealing our property perhaps being the least of them).  Knowing their secrets can put us in peril, so that it is possibly rash to wish too fervently for knowledge of their hidden world.

 

 

 

 

Faeries and Water- healing and diagnosis

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Hester Margetson

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

Healing Properties

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

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

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

hm1
Hester Margetson

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

Diagnostic properties

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

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

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

cloke well

Recovering Children

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

Seeing Faeries

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

Further Reading

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

faery-lifecycle-cover

Animal Second Sight

chechkleyHumans’ ability consistently to see fairies is poor and has to be acquired- either by ritual, contact with an endowed person or, sometimes, by descent.  In contrast, puzzlingly, animals seem to be far better at this than we are; many seem naturally to be gifted with this ability.  We know this from the reactions of pets and livestock- but have to assume that wild creatures are equally as aware of the supernatural beings around them.

Dogs

In one story from Northumberland, for example, a man’s hunting dog would ‘point’ the fairies which were invisible to its master (although he could hear their music).  Instinctively he saw them and responded to them as prey.  It seems, then, that for dogs at least there is no inherent awareness of any supernatural nature nor any risk.  Previously, I have written about dogs that detected the presence of supernatural beings and then chased or attacked them, faithful to their duties of guarding their human owners.  Sadly, these hounds’ encounters with faeries seldom finished well for them.  Dogs may sense the ‘stranger’ status of the beings, but they lack any instinctive fear.checkley reading lesson

Cattle

Cattle are aware, but seem to have no aversion to the creatures.  For instance, the well-known story of ‘The Little People’s Cow’ from Cornwall encapsulates many of the key aspects of the situation.  The dairy maid only sees the fairies when she accidentally includes a four-leaf clover in her ‘wise,’ the cushion of grass on which she rested the milk pail on her head.  Then she witnessed:

“A great number of little beings- as many as could get under Rosy’s udder at once- held butter-cups, and other handy flowers or leaves, twisted into drinking vessels, to catch the shower of milk that fell among them, and some sucked it from clover-blossoms. As one set walked off satisfied, others took their places. They moved about so quickly that the milkmaid’s head got almost ‘light’ whilst she looked at them. “You should have seen,” said the maid afterwards- how pleased Rosy looked, as she tried to lick those on her neck who scratched her behind her horns, or picked ticks from her ears; whilst others, on her back smoothed down every hair of her coat. They made much of the calf, too; and, when they had their fill of milk, one and all in turn brought their little arms full of herbs to Rosy and her calf- how they licked all up and looked for more!”

The human can only see the fairies with magical aid; the cow does not require this (unless, we might speculate, she has the benefit of eating the clover) and there is apparently a mutually rewarding relationship between cow and fays.

Horses

Horses, in contrast to cattle, seem to be alarmed by fairies.  In Yorkshire there was a tradition that boggarts would disguise themselves as stones on moorland tracks, deliberately to trip up passers-by.  Horses, in particular, were able to see them better than people could- and often when they reared up unexpectedly it’s because they had ‘taken the boggart’- they’d spotted one, even if it didn’t look like a boggart.

Something similar is reported from the Isle of Man.  Here, there was once no bread delivery at Orrysdale in the north-west of the island because the baker’s boy said that his cart horse was able to see the fairies after dark and would take fright.  On this particular occasion, as it was getting near dusk, the boy decided not to risk the horse rearing or bolting- and had accordingly gone home instead of completing his round.

tarrant

Summary

As these 1930s postcards indicate, it has become customary for us to assume that the faes are allied with woodland creatures.  This is very much a development of the last 175 years or so.  Victorian poets such as Madison Cawein and twentieth century writers such as Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter elaborated these ideas, but the older evidence implies a more complex and less harmonious relationship.  We shouldn’t forget, for example, that our medieval forebears accepted without question the notion that the faeries would be out in the woods, not gambolling happily with squirrels and bunnies, but hunting them with hawks and hounds.  On this basis, it’s understandable that some animals might exhibit a measure of caution, if not fear.

For more on the faeries’ interactions with animals and nature more widely, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

The Perils of Fairy Passion- sex & power

Linda R 2
Fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

I have described in previous posts the widely known physical attractiveness of fairies.  In Stuart verse, for example, we find praise for “the matchless features of the Fairy Queen” and for her “gracious eyes.”

Fairy partners were extremely attractive, but love for a fairy could be portrayed as obsessive, something that caused the human to sicken and to pine, as we see from Robert Armin’s The Valiant Welshman (1615, Act II, scene 5):

“Oh, the intolerable paine that I suffer from the love of the fairy Queen!  My heeles are all kybde [bruised] in the very heate of my affection, that runnes down into my legges; methinks I could eat up a whole Baker’s shoppe at a meale, to be eased of this love.”

Fairies were desirable partners simply because of their physical beauty.  However, a fairy’s lover could hope for great favour still- and the lover of the fairy queen (the most beauteous of all her kind) would naturally be even more highly honoured and rewarded.  At the same time, though, these supernaturals could prove to be possessive and demanding lovers- and vengeful if they felt neglected or slighted.

The trade-off between sex and gain, passion and pain, was therefore a difficult one, as we see from both folklore record and from romantic fiction.

JohnSimmons_Titania_
John Simmons, ‘Titania’

The Scottish Evidence

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed a relationship with the fairy queen that involved both her worship (he and others assembled and kissed her “airrs” in reverence) but also regular sexual contact.  He said of her:

“the queen is very plesand, and wilbe auld and young quhen scho pleissis; scho mackis any king quhom she pleisis and leyis with any scho lykis.”

One of those whom the queen liked was Man.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had “conversit with hir bodily.” In other words, he ‘lay with her’ and, as a result of these “carnal dealings” they had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.

Over and above these numerous infants, Man had gained materially: he learned to diagnose and cure diseases in cattle and humans and he was taught charms to steal milk and corn, or to protect his neighbours’ fields against such fairy thefts.

Sex with a fairy often appears to have been the price (and the conduit) for supernatural powers.  Isobell Strathaquin, also from Aberdeen, was tried in the January of the previous year to Andro Man; she told the court that she acquired powers in this manner: she “learnit it at [from] ane elf man quha lay with hir.”

Elspeth Reoch of Orkney also gained the second sight from two fairy men, but it involved sexual harassment by one of them.  She told her 1616 trial that two men had approached her and called her “ane prettie” before giving her a charm to enable her to see the faes.  Later “ane farie man” called John Stewart came to her on two successive nights and ‘dealt with her,’ not allowing her to sleep and promising a “guidly fe” is she agreed to have sex with him.  She held out against his blandishments until the third night, when he touched her breast and them seemed to lie with her.  The next day she was struck dumb (in order to conceal the source of her prophetic powers) and had to wander the town and beg for her living, offering people the knowledge she received through her second sight.

Sometimes, it has to be admitted, boasting can come into these accounts.  Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn near Nairn, was tried as a witch in 1662.  During her confession she seems to mock or tease her accusers with her account of the huge proportions of the devil’s ‘member.’  They were pressing her for confessions and they got them, with Isobel all the while expressing her modesty and Christian timidity over describing such shocking acts.

Sex in the Stories

The exchange of sex and skill is common between fairy and mortal.  In the poem and ballads of the same name, Thomas of Erceldoune was relaxing outside in the sunshine one day when he was approached by the gorgeous fairy queen.  After some resistance, she consented to lie with him “And, as the story tellus ful right, Seven tymes be hir he lay.”  Thomas is moved to these prodigious feats by her physical desirability (and, no doubt, by his own youthful vigour) but there’s a price to pay.  Initially after intercourse, the queen loses her beauty and becomes a hideous hag; secondly, her looks and youth may only be restored by her lover agreeing to spend seven years in Faery.  Thomas seems to have very little choice about this and has to leave immediately- although on the plus side, his travelling companion is restored to her former loveliness.  Once there, the riches start to flow to Thomas.  He is elegantly clothed and lives a life of luxurious leisure; what’s more, at the end of his time in Faery, he is endowed by the queen with special abilities.  In some versions of the tale, he becomes a skilled harper; in others he gains second sight.

The romance of Sir Launfal is comparable for the trade off between sex and wealth.  The fairy lady Tryamour summons the young knight to her in a forest.  She is reclining semi-naked in the heat and offers him a rich feast, followed by a sleepless night of sex.  The next morning, though, the nature of their transaction becomes clear: she promises to visit him regularly in secret but there are two conditions: “no man alive schalle me se” and, even more onerous:

“thou makst no bost of me…

And, yf thou doost, y warny the before,

Alle my love thou hast forlore.”

Assenting to the terms, he is given fine clothes, horses, armour and attendants and returns to the court of King Arthur.  Before, he had been poor and of no account, but now he is rich and gains status and respect.

In due course (albeit for honourable reasons) Launfal discloses his secret lover.  As with fairy money, this indiscretion might normally be expected to lose him Tryamour’s affections instantly and irreparably, but in this case she comes to Arthur’s court and carries him off to faery forever.

Summary

Fairy love and fairy magical abilities may be bestowed upon the lucky human, but that good fortune is plainly qualified.  The gifts are in fact an exchange; there must be a surrender on the part of the mortal recipient, which may be the loss of some of their independence or which may require a complete abandonment of their home, friends and family.   Perhaps the prize of fairy love and fairy knowledge are worth paying highly for, but, in earlier times, the cost of the bargain often turned out to be excessive, for fairy contact could prove fatal if revealed to the church and state.

A Note on the Scottish Witch Cases

As I highlighted before in my discussion of Ronald Hutton’s book, The Witch, I still harbour reservations about using the testimony from the Scottish witch trials.  I say above that Isobel Gowdie was ‘pressed’ for incriminating evidence.  This was literally true: boards were placed on suspects’ legs and piled with rocks.  We have a record of one victim of this crying out for it to stop and agreeing to confess whatever the court wanted.

Once these individuals had fallen into the authorities’ hands, their fate was pretty much sealed.  The sentence that almost all faced was to be ‘wyrrit and burnit,’ which means that they were tied to a stake, strangled and then burned.  For Elspeth Reoch, for example (NB Orcadian readers!) she was taken to the top of Clay Loan in Kirkwall where there is still a small area of grass; several local women suffered the same horrible fate on this spot.  We know too that one woman leaped from the top of a high prison tower in Perth to avoid execution.

Faced with the same circumstances, you too might agree to say whatever your inquisitors wanted you to say if it ended the misery.  How much can we trust this evidence then?  My feeling is that, whilst these might not be personal experiences, they still reflect what society as a whole believed to be the structure and conduct of the fairy folk.  If it did not convince the torturers, they might not have accepted it.  These confessions reflect the wider understanding of Faery in those days and need not be dismissed out of hand as the individual fantasy of a person desperate to stop the torture.

Finally: I have quite often quoted from the confessions of these individuals.  Whenever you read their names, spare a thought for them.  The worst that most did was to try to cure people and livestock at a time when medicines and health care were hugely limited.  To most of us, I’m sure these hardly sound like crimes, let alone capital offences.

This 16th-century woodcut depicts King James VI at the North Berwick witch trials, the case that first sparked his obsession with hunting. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Witches examined before King James I/VI

‘Reach out and touch me’- the physical transmission of magical power

fairy touch

Fairy touch, by Carol Armstrong

I have written here before about fairy magic (and see chapter 10 of my British fairies) and about the properties of fairy ointment.  In this post I want to home-in on another aspect of our good neighbours’ magical powers- their ability to convey these by mere touch.

The most significant consequence of this aspect of their magic is that it demonstrates that their abilities seem not necessarily to be innate; they may be learned from grimoires or they may be transferred by supernatural means- they are capable of being passed simply and quickly from person to person. In this respect the situation resembles the ointment which I discussed previously. Magical ability is, we might say, a commodity to be acquired by anyone, regardless of birth or status.

Scottish accounts

Receipt of magic vision is demonstrated from several sources.  Seers (those endowed with the second sight) can admit others to their visions by means of mere contact.  The Reverend Kirk in chapter 12 of The secret commonwealth tells us about this:

“The usewall Method for a curious Person to get a transient Sight of this otherwise invisible Crew of Subterraneans, (if impotently and over rashly sought,) is to put his [left Foot under the Wizard’s right] Foot, and the Seer’s Hand is put on the Inquirer’s Head, who is to look over the Wizard’s right Shoulder, (which hes ane ill Appearance, as if by this Ceremony ane implicit Surrender were made of all betwixt the Wizard’s Foot and his Hand, ere the Person can be admitted a privado to the Airt;) then will he see a Multitude of Wights, like furious hardie Men, flocking to him haistily from all Quarters, as thick as Atoms in the Air…”

Those with second sight are, of course, humans who are privileged to be able to see the supernaturals surrounding us which are invisible to most.  Those fairy beings have the same power, nonetheless.  In various Scottish ballads and poems we hear of an identical process.  In the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer the hero meets the fairy queen who tells him:

“Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies [wonders] three.”

The same is recounted in Thomas of Erceldoune and in the Queen of Elfland’s nourice:

“O nourice lay your head
Upo my knee:
See ye na that narrow road
Up by yon tree?
. . . . .
That’s the road the righteous goes,
And that’s the road to heaven.
An see na ye that braid road,
Down by yon sunny fell?
Yon’s the road the wicked gae,
An that’s the road to hell.”

Welsh evidence

You may notice that all these examples are of Scottish provenance, but the conception is not exclusively from the north of Britain.  John Rhys tells a tale of a Gwynnedd farmer:

“who lived not long ago at Deunant, close to Aberdaron. The latter used, as is the wont of country people, to go out a few steps in front of his house every night to–before going to bed; but once on a time, while he was standing there, a stranger stood by him and spoke to him, saying that he had no idea how he and his family were annoyed by him. The farmer asked how that could be, to which the stranger replied that his house was just below where they stood, and if he would only stand on his foot he would see that what he said was true. The farmer complying, put his foot on the other’s foot, and then he could clearly see that all the slops from his house went down the chimney of the other’s house, which stood far below in a street he had never seen before. The fairy then advised him to have his door in the other side of his house, and that if he did so his cattle would never suffer from disease. The result was that the farmer obeyed, and had his door walled up and another made in the other side of the house: ever after he was a most prosperous man, and nobody was so successful as he in rearing stock in all that part of the country.” (Celtic folklorep.230)

Lastly, we may note that this idea has a long history.  In the Life of Bartholomew of Farne, which is published as an appendix to Simeon of Durham’s Works (vol.1, Appendix 2, CUP reprint 2002) there’s a story about how the devil showed the hermit Bartholomew spirits in the form of sheep.  It was only when he put his foot on the other’s that the holy man saw through the deception and realised they were actually demons.

Summary and further reading

What can we conclude from all this?  Well, the process of transference by touch certainly suggests the considerable power of the magic involved, yet at the same time it implies that magical ability is not unique.  Anyone can acquire it provided that they have the right materials (to make ointment) or the right acquaintances.  It suggests too that there may not be a huge gulf between humans and fairies: they seem to be closely related and the distance between us is narrow and easily bridged.  All we need then is luck, the right contacts and/or determination and commitment (for example, to gather enough four leaf clover to be able to produce a usable quantity of the magic ointment).

There are many ways to acquire the fairies’ magic powers- fern seed may also be laboriously collected (like clover), a spell book might be acquired or a person may  learn their magic hand gestures their spells and their conjurations.  These have all been examined in separate postings.

Further reading

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

 

Fairies flitting- when and why fairies move home

Moving_Day_1869

To be clear at the outset, this posting is not about fairies fluttering from flower to flower on their gauzy wings.  In the dialect of northern England, and certainly south Yorkshire where I grew up, a flit is a move of home.  Common enough with humans, it is, surprisingly, something for which fairy kind is also known, contradicting preconceptions of their timeless presence in particular localities,  under certain distinctive fairy hills, in groves or near standing stones.

Our best and most picturesque account comes from the Rev. Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth.  In chapter 2 he describes how:

“They remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year, so traversing till Doomsday, being imputent and [impotent of?] staying in one Place, and finding some Ease by so purning [journeying] and changing Habitations. Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge; and at such revolution of Time, Seers, or Men of the second sight, (Fæmales being seldome so qualified) have very terrifying Encounters with them, even on High Ways; who therefoir uswally shune to travell abroad at these four Seasons of the Year…”

Aside from the wandering tendency of the sidh folk, what is noticeable too is that they seem tied to the points in the human calendar when leases tended to expire (although it might fairly be remarked that these themselves mark the major seasonal festivals of the year- the solstices and equinoxes.  Secondly, there is the quaintly appealing image of the fairies floating along with their luggage.  Given their magical powers, you might suppose there were easier ways to move house.

This constant motion may, perhaps, explain some of the fairies’ notorious elusiveness. Over and above a natural preference for change, there are a few other reasons why fairies might change their residences:

  • they are driven from their homes- the supernaturals may find themselves obliged to move either because they no longer feel welcome in their abode or because physical conditions there have become intolerable.  The first situation tends to arise with brownies- well meaning householders will try to give them clothes as a reward for their hard work or in pity at their nakedness, but this always causes offence and can lead to loss of the being’s voluntary labouring.  The second impulse for departure is very frequently the noise of church bells, which the creatures can find unbearable.  Such stories come from Inkberrow in Worcestershire and from Exmoor.  The pixies residing on a farm at Withypool had to retreat to the other side of Winsford Hill, a distance of around four to five miles, to escape the sound of the ‘ding-dongs.’  For this they begged use of the farmer’s cart and horses, another instance of the very physical inconvenience caused to them (just like us).
  • they flit with their families- I have mentioned this before hen discussing  brownies and boggarts: sometimes humans can find their supernatural housemates (typically boggarts) so vexing that they resolve the move away and leave them.  This always proves impossible; at some point during the removal it will be discovered that the entire household including the sprite has packed up and is on the move: a voice from within the cart piled high with belongings will confirm “aye, we’re flitting.”  Very frequently the response to this is simply to turn round and head back to the old, familiar home.

These rather aberrational accounts make fairies seem much like us: their tenancies expire, their neighbours get on their nerves and, rather than sorting out the problem where they are, they move on.  It humanises and domesticates them as well, in several of the cases, as stressing their inextricable links with humankind.

Perhaps the other aspect of these reports is to instil in us an expectation and acceptance that fairies may remove themselves from our locale.  For many hundreds of years it has been said that ‘fairies used to be seen round here- but no longer.’  Herein lies the reason: they have not ceased to exist, they have simply moved elsewhere.  The explanation helps sustain the belief; we don’t see them anymore, but someone else does now and- perhaps- some others might move into our neighbourhood soon if we’re lucky.

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

“I conjure thee, Sybilia, o gentle virgin of fairies”- how to see fairies

ar-gnomes

Arthur Rackham, ‘He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes,’ Grimms’ fairy tales

In a recent post I considered ways of protecting oneself from supernatural attention. Some people, of course, have always actively wished to attract fairies to themselves and to be able to see them.  Folk tradition recommends a number of ways of doing this:

  • being born with the gift- some people have a natural ability to see fairies.  One of Evans Wentz’ informants felt it was fairly common- one in three people- whereas the Reverend Kirk presented  endowment with the second sight as a far rarer attribute.  In The secret commonwealth he described the ‘tabhaisver’ or seer as having more acute or ‘exalted’ vision than most.  This was “a native Habit in some, descended from their Ancestors, and acquired as ane artificiall Improvement of their natural Sight in others; … for some have this Second Sight transmitted from Father to Sone thorow the whole Family, without their own Consent or others teaching, proceeding only from a Bounty of Providence it seems, or by Compact, or by a complexionall Quality of the first Acquirer” (c.12).  Even with this power though, the seer could only observe fairies provided s/he did not blink.
  • being in touch with nature– Tom Charman, resident of the New Forest, told Arthur Conan Doyle in the early 1920s that his gift of seeing fairies depended upon his being close to nature.  He had seen them as a child but had then lost the gift for some time as he reached adulthood.
  • using a four leaf clover–  as described in an earlier post, a four leaf clover can protect against fairies but it can also reveal them, by dispelling their ‘glamour.’  For example, Evans Wentz was told by an old woman how her nursemaid was able to see ‘scores’ of fairies swarming around her if she slipped a clover leaf into the grass pad used to carry a milk pail on her head (p.177);
  • being in an odd numbered group of people- Wirt Sikes was told by a Monmouth schoolteacher that uneven numbers people were more likely to see fairies and that men were more likely than women (British goblins p.106);
  • looking through an ‘elf-bore’– a piece of wood from which a knot has fallen out, leaving a hole through, is an ideal tool for seeing fairies.  Hold the ‘elf-bore’ to your eye and, again, the glamour is dissipated.  Kirk also recommended that the person look backwards through the fir knot (c.12);
  • certain light conditions– as I have described in an earlier post, a person is more likely to see fairies at twilight, allegedly for physiological reasons.  Gathering material in Wales in the late nineteenth century, John Rhys also learned on the Lleyn Peninsula that there was a greater chance of meeting the Tylwyth Teg on days when it was a little misty- when there was a light drizzle called gwlithlaw (dew-rain).  The cynical might remark that this means that most days will be good for seeing fairies in Wales…(!); what is not clear is whether these light conditions are favourable because they make faery more visible or because the Fair Folk prefer a little concealment;
  • physical contact– being in contact with the fairy or with a seer will transfer their magical sight.  One might place a foot on that of the fairy- John Rhys tells the tale of a Welsh farmer who was accosted outside his home by a fairy male complaining that  the human household’s waste was draining down his chimney and into his house; when the farmer placed his foot on the others, he was able to see below ground a house and a street of which he had never before been aware (Celtic folklore p.230).  Alternatively one could touch the seer in some way: Kirk describes how “the usewall Method for a curious Person to get a transient Sight of this otherwise invisible Crew of Subterraneans, (if impotently and over rashly sought,) is to put his [left Foot under the Wizard’s right] Foot, and the Seer’s Hand is put on the Inquirer’s Head, who is to look over the Wizard’s right Shoulder, (which hes ane ill Appearance, as if by this Ceremony ane implicit Surrender were made of all betwixt the Wizard’s Foot and his Hand, ere the Person can be admitted a privado to the Airt;) then will he see a Multitude of Wight’s, like furious hardie Men, flocking to him hastily from all Quarters, as thick as Atoms in the Air” (Secret commonwealth c.12);
  • spellsmagic was the last certain means by which to be able to observe fairies.  it could be used both to attract and then to ‘bind’ them- that is, to stop them disappearing again. In The discoverie of witchcraft Reginald Scot helpfully provides a selection of spells and procedures for these purposes (Book XV, chapter 8 & 9).  Sibylia, the fairy queen, is commanded to appear quickly, and without deceit or tarrying, in a chalk circle before the summoner, “in the form and shape of a beautiful woman in bright and vesture white, adorned and garnished most fair…”  If at first she does not appear, repeat the spell, ‘for doubtless she will come.’  I’ll leave it up to readers to decide whether or not to give this a go…

froud-7

Further reading

Fairy magic may be conveyed or acquired by various means, then.  You can read elsewhere about discovering spells from the fairy spell books or learning their magic hand gestures.  An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).