Fairies flitting- when and why fairies move home

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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

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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…

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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).