Riding humans- a fairy pastime

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Fairies are reputed to ride a variety of creatures. As the illustrations to this post show, artists at least have allowed themselves considerable latitude in the sorts of steeds deemed possible- great fun being had with notions of the tiny size of the faes and the kinds of steed that might therefore be suitable.

It is very well known from the folklore that fairies and pixies like to take horses from stables and ride them at night, returning the steeds distressed, sweating and exhausted in the morning.  Often, too, their manes will be fiendishly knotted to make stirrups and panniers for their faery riders.  A witch-stone or hag-stone (a naturally holed stone) hung just above the animals in their stalls will prevent this.  Sprays or crosses of birch put over a stable door will bar the faeries from entering at night.

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Faery Ridden

Be warned, though: if the faeries want to go out riding and there are no suitable steeds to hand, they can use us instead.  Especially on the Isle of Man, people have been known to be taken and ridden all night.  They feel no weight on their backs during the experience, but they become tired from loss of sleep and thin and weak from their exertions.  Luckily, it is said that taking the precaution of wearing a suitable flower or herb to scare off the faeries (rowan blossom say) should be enough to prevent this.

From the Isle of Arran, we hear of a woman who suddenly fell ill and became very tired and sleepy.  Her family suspected that this was no ordinary fatigue and watched her at night.  They discovered that the fairies were coming when the house was asleep and turning her into a horse, which they then used for their carting.  A search of the garden the next morning uncovered a hidden harness, which helped break the spell cast upon her.

Hag Ridden

Also from Scotland, we have the confession of suspected witch Isobel Gowdie that she had gone out with the fairy host, the sluagh, to shoot elf-bolts at hapless humans.  Of these random victims she said:

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

These straw-like beings were used by the witches to ride upon, just like horses.  They sat astride them, pronounced ‘horse and hattock’ and then travelled in a whirlwind.  This mode of travel is a trait of witches (see too the testimony of Bessie Flinkar, tried in 1661, who travelled to covens this way); but it was a power of those with the second sight and is, of course, exactly what the fairies were very commonly known to do.

We’ve looked previously at the fae tendency to move in whirlwinds.  That they travel in this manner is a widespread belief in Britain, from the Forest of Dean all the way north to Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides.  There, for example, the band of fairies called Friday’s People (Muintirr Fhionlaidh) would travel on calm days in whirlwinds, occasionally picking up those found asleep en route and carrying them a short distance.

Another Scottish witch suspect, Jonet Morrison of Bute, confessed in 1662 that the way the fairies ‘blasted’ those against whom they had a grudge was with “a whirlwind that the fayries raises about that person quhich they intend to wrong and, that tho ther were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot quhom they were set for.”  I’ve written about fairy whirlwinds in other posts on their movement.

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Summary

In former times it was widely believed that wasting illness and perpetual tiredness (symptoms we might now ascribe to a poor diet or to underlying health conditions) were actually the result of being ‘hag ridden’- turned into horses by witches, or fairies, and ridden at night or, alternatively, because the person was being carried off nightly to dance under the fairy hill.  Either way, their energy was being drained and they received no rest when they seemed to be asleep.

To conclude, therefore: we must not be complacent.  Almost any available object can be employed by the faeries to travel about.  Plant stems are regularly enchanted with their glamour, they keep their own horses, but will just as readily take steeds kept by humans from their stables and, most alarmingly, they will even cast a spell on us and exploit us.

Riding humans is just one aspect of the Darker Side of Faery, a subject I explore in my 2021 book of that title.

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“From fairies … guard me!”- talismans against faery folk

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In the modern age, with the prevalent view of fairies as attractive and benign beings with whom we wish to make contact and commune, the concept of charms to protect ourselves from supernatural interference seems alien.  However, as I have described previously, the view of faery was once very far from favourable and prophylactics were widely known.

Protecting against fairies

The folklore evidence offers a variety of means of keeping oneself safe from fairy visitations.  The recorded methods are:

  • iron and steel– the supernatural race cannot abide forged metal in any form: the Reverend Kirk expressed it thus- “Iron hinders all the Opperations of those that travell in the Intrigues of these hidden Dominions.”  In fact, metal is a double protection: the presence of iron items will prevent harm; touching with iron will drive fairies away.  A scythe placed sharpened edge uppermost in a chimney will repel fairies; pins in the swaddling clothes, scissors hung over, or tongs laid upon, a cradle will prevent the substitution of a changeling (partly because the open blades will create a cross shape- see later); an iron bolt or lock on a door will guard a house, an axe placed under the pillow will protect the sleeper and striking a fairy with iron will result in its instant disappearance.  In Wales the story of the fairy wife lost by accidentally striking her with the iron bit on a bridle was extremely common; contact with metal in these cases lost a loved one.  Welsh folklore also records that if iron is thrown at a changeling or at a clinging fairy, the unwelcome presence will instantly be repelled (Rhys Celtic folklore pp.23 & 250).  From time to time fairy hills will open and the sound of music will lure humans in; the best protective against never escaping is to place an knife at the exit so that the door cannot close again.  If a person has been lured into dancing with the fairies in a ring, one way of recovering him or her is a touch with iron.  Despite this widely attested aversion to ironmongery, it is curious to note that fairies will be found using metal items- John Rhys records them borrowing griddles and pots in Wales and there are regular stories of fairies asking humans to mend their implements.  For example, a ploughman working in a field at Onehouse, just outside Stowmarket in Suffolk, was approached by a ‘sandy-coloured’ fairy for help mending his ‘peel.’  This was the long handled flat iron used for removing loaves from an oven.  The ploughman easily repaired the broken handle and was very soon rewarded with hot cake fresh from the oven.
  • salt and fish– in Popular romances of the West of EnglandRobert Hunt records an interesting tale from Cornwall of a cow that was favoured by the fairies for its milk.  When the milkmaid at Bosfrancan farm near St Buryan realised what was happening, she sought advice form a local cunning woman who advised that the pobel vean could not abide the smell of fish or the savour of salt or grease.  Her recommendation was to rub the cows udders with fish brine to prevent the pisky thieving.  The advice worked, but the cow pined for her supernatural friends.  Oddly, as mentioned in my earlier post on offerings to fairies, fishermen in nearby Newlyn appeased the spriggans with an offering of fish, indicating that the revulsion was not consistent.  In Wales it was said that one means of driving off a changeling was to place salt on a shovel, make the sign of a cross in it and then to heat it over the fire (Rhys p.103);
  • turning clothes– a consistently deployed protection was to ‘turn your coat’, to turn a garment inside out as a way of defending oneself from fairy tricks.  Two Cornish examples from Hunt illustrate the effectiveness of the remedy.  A Mr Tresillian, returning late at night from Penzance to his home in St Levan, came upon the piskies dancing in their rings.  He felt compelled to join them, at which point they swarmed upon him, stinging like bees.  He retained enough presence of mind to turn his glove inside out and threw it at them, which instantly caused the throng to disappear. Secondly, an old widow living at Chy-an-wheal, above Carbis Bay, found that her home was favoured by the thievish spriggans of nearby Trencrom Hill.  They resorted to her cottage to divide up their plunder and rewarded her tolerance of this by leaving her a coin after each visit.  She hatched a plan to get more from them and, one night, secretly turned her shift inside out whilst the spriggans were present.  This enabled her to seize a gold cup from them.  The widow became a wealthy woman as a result, but she could never wear that shift again because, if she did, she suffered agonies.
  • herbs– certain plants are effective in repelling fairies.  These include St John’s Wort, red verbena, daisies, ash, four leaf clover (this plant has the virtue both of dispelling glamour and enabling a person to see fairy folk as well as repelling them), and rowan. For example, a branch of mountain ash will help pull a trapped person out of a fairy ring, as the fairies dread the tree (Rhys pp.85 & 246).  Katherine Briggs suggests that it is the red berries of the plant which have given it its reputation for warding off evil, but it has much wider magical power than this, as Robert Graves explained in The White Goddess chapter 10.  Lastly, Wirt Sikes records in British goblins that a gorse hedge is an excellent protection against unwelcome visitors.
  • running water– fairy folk are unable to cross streams and rivers, so in any pursuit leaping from bank to bank will be a sure escape for the hunted human.  Water courses running south are said to be especially efficacious.  Oddly, nevertheless, fairies seem to have no objection to still water.  They actively seek it out for washing themselves and they are from time to time associated with wells.  For example John Rhys in Celtic folklore (1901, p.147 & chapter 6) notes the existence of several ‘fairy wells’in Wales which demanded attention from local people, in the absence of which they would overflow or flood.
  • faith– according to suspected witch John Walsh, when he was examined in prison in 1576, fairies only have influence over those whose Christian faith is weak or absent (although the evidence on the actual nature of fairy religion is unclear).  It may be questionable how much to rely upon this statement given the position he was in: he understandably wished to deflect the accusations made against him and, accordingly, he wanted to present himself as an orthodox individual resistant to any satanic temptations.  Be that as it may, it was widely known that the sign of the cross would dispel supernatural threats.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins  (p.63) gives an interesting summary of the Welsh beliefs in this respect: “There are special exorcisms and preventive measures to interfere with the fairies in their quest of infants. The most significant of these, throughout Cambria, is a general habit of piety. Any pious exclamation has value as an exorcism; but it will not serve as a preventive.”
  • self-bored stones– according to John Aubrey, if a person could locate stones through which natural erosion had created a hole (sometimes called ‘hag-stones’), they could protect their horses from night-riding by fairies by hanging the stones over each horse’s manger in the stables- or by tying the stone to the stable key.  The fairies would not then be able to pass underneath.
  • touching grass– in his Celtic folklore John Rhys records a couple of Welsh traditions that a person may save themselves from fairy abduction by seizing hold of grass, apparently because the Tylwyth Teg are prevented from severing blades of grass.

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).