‘Nymphology’- a new book

Nymphology

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

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

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

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

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

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Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, Albani, 1630

 

‘Spirits of another sort’- Fairy Immortality

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Jean-Baptiste Monge, White Fairy

Although I have discussed previously the evidence that fairies can be murdered, the general view of fairy-kind is that they’re immortal.  Certainly, literary representations describe faery characters in these terms- and it’s reasonable to assume that authors mostly just reflected the prevailing beliefs of their time.

Immortal faes

The situation is well illustrated in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The dispute between Titania and Oberon that’s central to the plot arises over an orphaned human child.  Titania tells us that his mother “being mortal, of that boy did die” and that, “for her sake, I do rear up her boy.”  Oberon quarrels with her over possession of the child and the land is blighted “The human mortals want their winter here” the queen says (II, 1).  Later, Peaseblossom addresses Titania’s new lover, Bottom, with a cry of “Hail mortal!” (III, 1) It’s very evident from all three lines that the faeries see a stark distinction between their state and ours.  The boy’s mother died in childbirth; although they may need to assistance of human midwifes, this could never happen to a fairy woman.  Oberon simply confirms this difference when he declares to Puck “we are spirits of another sort” (III, 2).

The medieval poem, Thomas of Erceldoune, expresses the distinction between the faery state and ours in one simple phrase.  Thomas meets the fairy queen and wants to have sex with her; she knows this will impair her unearthly beauty and exclaims to him:

“Man of molde, thou will be merre (mar)”

Thomas is a mortal being of Middle Earth and will inevitably return to the dust from which he came.  This sharp contrast in our natures is brought out in the stories of those humans taken for many years into Faery and who, upon finally returning home, crumble into dust as soon as they touch another mortal or consume earthly food.  In his account of Welsh folklore from 1896, it is fascinating to read that Elias Owen was told that, in just the same way, the tylwyth teg call us humans ‘dead men’ or ‘men of earth’ (Welsh Folklore, p.11).  Humans are also sometimes called ‘children of Eve,’ indicative, at the very least, of our different lines of descent.

There is, also, a little evidence that fairies seek to make their human captives immortal like themselves.  In Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess we are told how the elves dance at night beside a well:

“dipping often times

Their stolen children, so to make them free

From dying flesh and dull mortality.” (Act I, scene 2)

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Monge, Blue Fairy

Faery fatalities

How do we square this conviction of faery deathlessness with the evidence of faeries being killed quite easily by men?  One explanation is, simply, that the faeries are mortal but that their life spans are very much longer than ours- so extended, in fact, that they are for all intents and purposes immortal.  This was certainly the view that the Reverend Robert Kirk took in The Secret Commonwealth.

The other explanation is one that Tolkien endorsed.  As is very clear from Lord of the Rings, disease and age cannot kill an elf, but they can die in battle- and therefore can be murdered.  This qualified state may well seem a lot less desirable than any idea of perpetual youth and health.  We find a depiction of it in another literary treatment of supernatural immortality- in Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso.  The ‘sorceress’ Manto explains how:

“We are so born that all ills we sustain,

Save only death; but you must realise

Our Immortality is tinged with pain

As sharp as death and all that it implies.”  (Book 43, stanza 98)

We may set against this the statement by Cornish author Enys Tregarthen that the pobel vean (the little people) showed their age by getting younger and fairer- or, at least, the fairy royalty did (The Pisky Purse, 1905).

Summary & Further Reading

In conclusion, we humans, with our mayfly lives, just can’t be sure as to the truth about fairy mortality.  We read of fairy funerals witnessed by humans from time to time; perhaps these are best interpreted as ceremonies for those who have finally reached the end of their very long lives or for those who have been the unfortunate victims of assassination and war.

For more discussion of fairy life and mortality, see my recently published FaeryFor more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Nightmares and fairies

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The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

There is a little explored link between fairies and nightmares, an association expressed very well in one of the most famous fairy texts, Mercutio’s description of fairy queen Mab in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  She is (as Shelley crowned her in his poem Queen Mab) the queen of dreams, both good and bad:

 “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

that presses them and learns them first to bear,

making them women of good carriage.” (Act I, scene 4)

It’s pretty evident here that Shakespeare sees Mab as having a sexual function.  She educates- and maybe even seduces- virgin girls, teaching them how to perform in bed.  That bearing, or carriage, is not about deportment but about receiving a lover lying on top.

In this passage, Mab is called a ‘hag,’ and to be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares. ‘The hagge’ was imagined as a hideous witch who sat on a sleeper’s stomach, causing bad dreams.  The notion of compression was a very early one, as we see from the South English Legendary of about 1300:

“Þe luþere gostes …deriez men in heore slep… And ofte huy ouer-liggez [men], and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare.”

“The evil ghosts harm men in their sleep and often lie on top of them, which people call ‘the night-mare.’”

There’s a supernatural cause here, but not a fairy one.  However, by the early seventeenth century the fae nature of the affliction was established.  For example, in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, one of Robin’s companions, Gull the Fairy, explains how:

“Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”

The victim’s experience is described in The Holly Bush of 1646:

“the nightmare hath prest,

With that weight on their breast,

No returnes of their breath can pass.”

The sixteenth century Scots poem, My Heart is High Above, likewise conveys some sense of how the experience feels: “Then languor on me lies, like Morpheus the mair.”  Devon poet, Robert Herrick, in his poem, The Hag, also described the sensation of a being riding the sleeper:

“The Hag is astride,

This night for to ride;

The Devill and shee together:”

In their 1621 play Thierry and Theodoret, playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher emphasise the unpleasant and exhausting nature of the experience:

“goblins ride me in my sleep to jelly.” (I, 2)

However, the sensation he depicted also has something of pixy-leading about it, as well as reminding us of the stories of fairies actually riding human victims at night for want of an available horse:

“A Thorn or a Burr She takes for a Spurre:
With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
Through Brakes and through Bryars,
O’re Ditches, and Mires,
She followes the Spirit that guides now.”
    
    miles johnston

Miles Johnston

In these versions, the pressure and shortness of breath are associated with fear rather than sexual activity and arousal, but there was great confusion between the two aspects of the nightmare.  We see this in William Sampson’s 1636 play The Vow Breaker- or the Fair Maid of Clifton in Nottinghamshire, when Ursula remarks to Anne:

“you us’d to say Hobgoblins, Fairies and the like were nothing but our own affrightments and yea, oh my Cuz, I once dreamed of a young batchelor and was ridden with a Nightmare.”

Here we elide seamlessly from fairies to nightmares to sexual fantasy within a single sentence.  In Drayton’s Nymphidia the sensual nature of the sensation is addressed more explicitly:

“And Mab, his merry queen, by night,

Bestrides young folk that lie up-right,

(in older times the mare that hight.)”

In both passages, the poets’ bawdiness is barely concealed.  Ursula being ridden by her lusty young batchelor and the ‘up-right’ wet-dreamers of Drayton are almost solely concerned with erotic dreams rather than horror.  This sexual aspect of the nightmare is underlined by Edward Topsell in his Historie of Serpents, where he mentions “The spirits of the night, called Incubi and Succubi, or else Night-mares.” (p.173)  These two spirits were believed to be supernatural lovers who came to men and women during the night.

The Victorian magazine, Once A Week, in 1867 carried a feature on Devonshire pixies, which informed its readers that they had control over sleeper’s fantasies: “Some may bring nightmares and others sweet dreams.”  Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given that the pixies of the South West can control the weather and use their powers of glamour to change landmarks and ‘pixy-lead’ victims.

The intertwining of faeries and good and bad dreams is highlighted lastly in Cartwright’s play of 1635, The Ordinary, in which Moth prays that:

“St Francis and St Benedict,

Blesse this house from wicked wight,

From the Nightmare and the Goblin,

That is hight Goodfellow Robin…” (Act III, scene 1)

Here it is Robin Goodfellow himself, otherwise known as Puck, who takes on the role of the wicked wight who brings bad dreams and disturbed sleep.

The word ‘mare’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon mære/ mæra, and derives from a verb meaning ‘to crush.’  In modern English it has fallen together with the word for a female horse (Anglo-Saxon mere).  The words have entirely separate origins, although the sense of riding presumably encouraged them to be mixed up.  It seems this confusion worked in several directions: for instance, in 1696 John Aubrey in his Miscellanies described precautions taken to “prevent the Night-Mare (viz.) the Hag from riding their Horses.”  Fairies are known for taking horses from stables and riding them at night and Aubrey (or perhaps country people he spoke to) understandably, but mistakenly, expanded the term for a fairy dream to cover another well-known fairy activity.

the end

Further Reading

In more recent times, fairies have come to be associated with much sweeter dreams- as in Rose Fyleman’s verse Fairy Lullaby for a Mortal which imagines the faes bringing dreams and brushing away darkness with their “soft, soft wings.”  These literary and nursery visions of gentle and benign Faery are a long way from earlier perceptions.

See my recently released book, Faeryfor more discussion of Queen Mab and see my Fayerie for more on her role in Tudor and Jacobean verse.

Pre-Raphaelite Fairies

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John Everett Millais, Ferdinand Lured by Ariel, 1849

The forthcoming edition of Enchanted Living magazine (formerly Faerie Magazine) will be a Pre-Raphaelite special issue.  I suspect that, when it’s published, it’ll prove to be not quite what they promised in the sense that it won’t limit itself purely to the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: the term is nowadays used rather freely to describe almost any Victorian art, especially any fairy painters (such as Paton, Dadd or Doyle) or those who depicted mythological scenes, which might include J. M. Waterhouse, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham.  All of these are very fine artists, and have often been used to illustrate this blog, but they were not members or even associates of the PRB- so I set myself the small task of enumerating the faery work of that select group of painters.

hughes, La belle dame sans merci
Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame sans Merci

On the face of it, Pre-Raphaelite faeries ought to be a contradiction in terms.  The Brotherhood was founded in late 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais with the aim of pursuing “absolute and uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained in working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.”  This commitment to microscopic realism and ‘Truth to Nature’ can be seen very well in the background to Millais’ painting above: the rather Victorian garden scene is depicted with painstaking care- every leaf and stem is picked out- but if these painters were fully dedicated to representing the natural world as they encountered it, there were clearly problems showing fairies, which (I’ll dare to say) none had ever seen.  In fact, a continual problem in the movement was the parallel wish to combine aestheticism with pictures that had some sort of moral or spiritual message.

The Brotherhood’s dedication to the Italian painters of the Renaissance who preceded Raphael (Fra Angelico, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, for example), encouraged a general medievalism in their art.  Many of the scenes they painted are drawn from the literature or history of the Middle Ages, and the legends of King Arthur in particular were favourites, especially with Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.  Here too, of course, their art recommends itself to those of us who share their taste for the magic, vaguely ‘Celtic’ mysteries of these stories.

Maids of Elfen-Mere, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers published 1855 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Rossetti, Maids of Elfen Mere, 1855

Interestingly, Faery helped to get several of the most Pre-Raphaelite artists started in their careers.  In 1855 Millais, Rossetti and Arthur Hughes were employed to illustrate an edition of the collected poems of William Allingham titled The Music Master.  Allingham is very well known for his 1850 poem The Fairieswhich remains a favourite today.  Hughes supplied seven plates for The Music Master, Millais and Rossetti one each, but the latter’s illustration to ‘The Maids of Elfen Mere’ proved highly influential for its haunting, supernatural style.  Meanwhile, at the very same time, a young Edward Burne-Jones was commissioned to illustrate The Fairy Family by Archibald Maclaren.   Slightly later, as well, Rossetti illustrated his sister’s dark and brooding poem, Goblin Market.  He chose to represent the goblins as humanoid animals, which only adds to their menace (see below).

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Edward Burne-Jones, frontispiece to The Fairy Family
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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, illustration for Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti, 1862

Inspiration came to the Pre-Raphaelites from slightly more recent literary classics as well as Mallory and Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France.  Shakespeare’s Tempest, for example, provided the basis for Millais’ weird rendering of Ariel and Ferdinand, illustrated at the start of this posting.  The painting was criticised at the time: the dealer who commissioned it then rejected the finished canvas because of “the greenness of the fairies” and critics saw it as a rather eccentric (and failed) product of laborious effort.  Perhaps we’re more tolerant of these lurid goblins today than our predecessors: I like the evil looking little creatures, which seem quite authentic to me, whilst the feminine Arielseems highly appropriate to Shakespeare’s text.  John Keats’ haunting 1819 poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, inspired Arthur Hughes and very many painters thereafter.  The fatal faery woman, beautiful yet deadly, has always proved irresistible to (male) poets and painters.

 

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Rossetti, Jane Burden as Queen Guinevere, 1858

To conclude, what exactly is a Pre-Raphaelite fairy?  Despite my art historical quibbles at the outset, I’d say we can definitely identify such a creature.  She is, very likely, a willowy, red-haired maiden in voluminous medieval robes- a young, pale, woman very familiar to us all now.  Without doubt- albeit probably unintentionally- Rossetti and then Burne-Jones and classicist Waterhouse bequeathed us an archetype whom we all instantly recognise and whom many continue to imitate (see below).  As I’ve argued before, faeries are an abiding and very influential theme within our culture.  Faery images and faery texts are embedded in our thoughts.

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‘Pre-Raphaelite Fairy 04’ by svp-stock on Deviant Art
‘Fairy’ by Philip Malpass

Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse

Fayerie

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, another annotated anthology entitled Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  Hot on the heels of Victorian Fairy Verse, this offers an annotated selection of poetry from the period along with a detailed introduction.

The Tudor and Stuart period in Britain, the time of Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, Drayton, Herrick and many others, was a time when fairies featured repeatedly in poetry and drama. The new book is a detailed examination of the fairies of the era, as they are depicted in the verse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Contents

The book’s divided into three parts. The first part surveys the medieval background- how fairies were portrayed in the romances, poems and other literary works of the Middle Ages. Particular attention is paid to ideas of fairyland and to the kings and queens of Faery.

In the second part I examine Tudor and Stuart fairy knowledge in detail. Drawing on the many plays and poems of the period, a picture is built up of how contemporary people understood and interacted with their fairy neighbours. The book then considers how new ideas were beginning to change fairy belief at this time: changes in religion, science and culture were taking place (most notably the Reformation and the Renaissance) and these had a major impact on popular perceptions of fairies. Lastly in this part of the book, two specific questions are examined: how big were the fairies thought to be and what colour were their clothes- and their bodies?

The third part of the book is an annotated anthology of selected Tudor and Stuart fairy verse. Work is included by Thomas Churchyard, Simeon Steward, Robert Herrick, Michael Drayton and William Warner, amongst others. Overall, rather than just relying on Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton, the book draws on a very wide range of authors, both English and Scots, and includes many little known plays and poems.

Robin Good-fellow, or Puck

Tudor and Stuart Ideas

There is continuity in British fairy belief right through from the twelfth century to present times.  Many of the concepts accepted in the Middle Ages are still perfectly recognisable today.  These ideas were transmitted to us by the Tudor and Stuart periods, and the elements of their faery faith are very familiar.  Here are few examples of core aspects of their belief which are still applicable.

It was well known that fairies were especially beautiful: in a verse written to celebrate the first staging of Massinger’s play The Emperor of the East in 1631, the “matchless features of the Fairy Queen” are praised.  Naturally, sexual desire was involved: “that little fairy,/ ‘T has a shrewd, tempting face” says a character in Middleton’s The Spanish Gipsy (1621, I, 5).

Caution was needed in such affairs, though.  People of the period well knew that the faes were changeable: you could speak about “that hopeful Elf/ Thy dear, dainty Duckling” but also “that elf/ Of sin and darkness.”  The faes could even be invoked to inflict revenge:

“Nay, then, revenge, look big! Elf and Fairy/ Help to revenge the wronged ‘pothecary!”  (Massinger, The Picture, II, 1; Middleton, The Triumphs of Truth and The Family of Love, IV, 4)

As I have discussed many times, the fairies would reward diligent servants and housewives (“I have sometimes found money in old shoes” Middleton, The Witch, IV, 1) and would viciously chastise those felt to be lazy and dirty.  Pinching was the preferred punishment:

“pricked and pinched me like an urchin” (Middleton, More Dissemblers Besides Women, III, 1)

“The nips of fairies upon maids’ white hips,/ Are not more perfect azure.” (The Witch, I, 2)

Lastly, when not tormenting us mortals, it was very well known that the fairies would dedicate themselves to pleasure: “Fine dancing in such fairy rings” and “sung and danced about me like a fairy.” (Middleton, A Mad World, My Masters, V, 2 & IV, 4).

Further detail

Fayerie is an ideal companion to my other new book, Fairy Ballads and RhymesIt is published through Amazon/KDP and is available as an e-book at £7.50 or as a paperback at £12.00.  For details of all my faery books (fiction and non-fiction), please see my book page.

“Those white and blue fairies”- fairy faces

dark fairy
Dark fairy by Maiarcita on http://www.deviantart.com

Reading Minor White Latham’s Elizabethan fairies recently, I was struck by his argument that Tudor and Stuart conceptions about the race and colour of fairies might have been quite different our own assumptions.  I’ve argued before that there’s a good deal of evidence of  ethnic diversity in Faery  Let’s not forget, for example, that in Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy court has connections with the far east, Titania and Oberon disputing over a boy “stolen from an Indian king” whose mother was a “votaress” of Titania’s, the pair sitting together gossiping in the “spiced Indian air, by night.”  Likewise, Milton in Paradise Lost imagined a “Pygmean race beyond the Indian mount.”   African and Asian fairies ought not to surprise us at all, then, but Latham goes considerably further than this.

Masks for masques

The Tudors and Stuarts loved performing as faes in masques and plays, and to do so they put on masks.  For example, in George Gascoigne’s 1565 comedy The Buggbears there’s reference to spirits played by actors in “visars like devills,” to going “a-sprityng with this face and that” and “buggbears with vysardes.”  Latham’s argument is that the colour of these masks reflects conceptions about what he calls the ‘complexion’ of the fairies.  A very good starting point for an exploration of this argument is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.

In the Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare returned to a fairy theme for comic effect.  Fairies often appeared on the English stage as a vehicle for cheating or tricking characters, and that is their purpose in this play.  A plot is hatched to make a fool of Falstaff by dressing up some children as fairies and scaring him.  Mrs Anne Page decides her daughter Nan, her young son and three or four more of his age group shall “dress / Like urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white,” holding candles and rattles (IV, 4).  Nan is to be the fairy queen in a white silk dress and it’s very evident from the line quoted above that the others will be wearing green and white too.  Mrs Page’s friend, Mrs Ford, then says “I’ll go buy them vizards.”  In a slightly later scene (IV, 6), in which the women go over their plans again, it’s agreed that the children should be “mask’d and vizarded.”  They’ll be in disguise, then; their faces will be covered.  As a consequence, when Falstaff is confronted by Nan as the fairy queen (V, 5) and she calls forth “Fairies, black, grey, green and white” there’s a good deal of support for Latham’s suggestion that these colours relate not to their clothes (which we already know about) but to the colour of their masks (faces).

melancholicheart.deviantart.com Red-Faerie
Red Faerie by melancholicheart.deviantart.com

Support for Latham’s contention comes from the text of a masque performed for Queen Elizabeth at Woodstock in 1575.  The entertainment began with the monarch being approached by the ‘Queen of Fayry’ who presents herself by declaring that her love for Elizabeth had drawn her out of her woodland retreat and “caused me transforme my face/ and in your hue to come before your eyne/ now white, then blacke, your frend the fayery Queene.”  Black and white were the colours of the English queen, but at the same time it did not appear to be considered odd that her supernatural counterpart might have a black face.

Red, black & white spirits

In light of these examples, I’d return to other evidence I cited for you in an previous post on red and white fairies, and argue more confidently that those citations weren’t descriptions of clothes but of skin colour.  There are further examples to consider.

Reginald Scot in his Discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits mentions “white spirits and black spirits, grey spirits and red spirits” (c.33); in Macbeth the three witches meet with Hecate and “Like elves and Fairies in a ring” summon up “Black spirits.” The 1618 masque at Cole-Orton featured a character asking Puck about “ye faries, those little ring-leaders, those white and blew faries.”  In his play, Monsieur Thomas, John Fletcher has a character attempting to conjure spirits of earth and air, whom he addresses thus: “Be thou black or white or green, be thou heard or seen.” (c.1637, Act V, scene 9)  Lastly, Joan Willimot, accused of witchcraft in 1618, had a fairy woman called Pretty as her spirit guide, who would advise her on those who had been cursed.  She told Joan that the Earl of Rutland’s son had been “stricken with a white spirit.”  This is very suggestive of a white fairy, akin to those ‘white ladies’ who are often seen haunting springs or old houses.

All in all, it seems to me that we have pretty strong evidence for the fact that English people of the early modern period conceived of their fays as being quite alien in appearance- red, green, blue, grey, jet black and snow white.

anime fairy

Further reading

My posts on diversity in fairy and on fairy colours touch on closely related topics; my post on fairy stature examines another convention of the fairy drama of Shakespeare’s time.

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.  There’s more too on faery anatomy and physiology in my Faery Lifecycle published in 2021:

faery-lifecycle-cover

“Dwarfish Fairyes elves”- Tudor and Stuart fairies

MSND

Summer School 2011, dress rehearsal of Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Emily Laws School of Acting: Mustardseed, Titania, Cobweb & Peaseblossom.

I have often mentioned before how the robust elf of British tradition has undergone a transformation over the last few centuries into a tiny, winged being.  In this post I’d like to identify some culprits for this process.

Who are we going to blame?

The perception that the frightening and serious fairies of the British Middle Ages had undergone a change at some stage had been with me in vague terms for many years.  Recently, however, I finally got round to reading Minor White Latham’s 1930 book, Elizabethan Fairies.  His study crystallised my thoughts and confirmed what I had always suspected: that William Shakespeare is the major culprit and that 1594/5 marks the turning point in our perception of Faery.  Later poets followed the bard’s lead, but it was Midsummer Night’s Dream that started the trend.

The idea of small fairies was definitely well-established before our major playwrights and poets got their hands on the subject.  For example, from Reginald Scot’s list of fairies, found in his book The discoverie of witchcraft of 1584, we know there was traditional belief in a character called Tom Thumb.  This may surprise British readers, at least, for we think of him as a leading character in pantomimes and nursery stories.  This elf was small, as the name tells us: “but an inch in height, or a quarter of a span” according to a chapbook published in 1630 (a span is the distance from the thumb tip to the little finger tip- standardised at 9″ in imperial measurements).   In his play, The sad shepherd, Ben Jonson also described “span long Elves” carrying changelings (1637, Act II, scene 8)- I might point out that, if you think about it, this should be impossible.

Child sized fays

Generally, it was accepted that there might be both adult sized fairies and those that were shorter, perhaps only appearing like children.  We see both of these in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, of 1599, when an adult woman, Mrs Anne Page, decides to play a trick on Falstaff: she dresses her daughter Nan as the fairy queen, accompanied by some attendants- her “little son” and some other children disguised as “urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white” (Act IV, scene 4).  Nan is a young woman of marriageable age- in her mid- to late-teens perhaps; her court would appear to be infants under ten.  From this episode it seems apparent that a variety of sizes were accepted as normal in Faery by Elizabethan audiences but that the ouphs (elves) and fairies that were seen might very commonly be the size of young children: in The woman’s prize, for example, Beaumont and Fletcher have a character threaten that “children of five year old, like little fairies, will pinch thee into motley.” (Act II, scene 2)

A few thoughts on the word on ‘urchin’ that’ used in the play as a substitute term for fairy.  The word comes from the French, herisson, meaning hedgehog, and it was apparently adopted because of the habit of certain fays (especially pixies) of shape-shifting into the form of hedgehogs.  The terms were for a while interchangeable, until ‘urchin’ increasingly became attached to poor and misbehaving boys (by way of spiteful and prank filled pixies, I assume).  The word is also used to denote fays by Thomas Nashe in Strange Newes (1592), in which he equates “fairies and night urchins,” in the anonymous play The mayde’s metamorphosis of 1600 and in Thomas Dekker’s Whore of Babylon (1607).

Another regularly used term that likewise has some connotations of smallness is ‘puppet.’ This featured in Robert Greene’s James IV of 1594, where Oberon, king of the fairies, is described as “not so big as the king of Clubs” and his subjects as being “Puppets,” and it appeared regularly subsequently: in The Tempest in 1611 Shakespeare called fays “demi-puppets;”  the term’s also used in Randolph’s Amyntas in 1632 and in Henry More’s An antidote against atheism of 1653 (referring to the “dancing places of those little Puppet-Spirits” in Book III, chapter 11).  In The mayde’s metamorphosis there’s also reference to “mawmets” tripping lightly as a bee.  The word has the same sense of a puppet-like being and certainly conveys an idea of diminutive statute- as underlined in Amyntas, where a fairy wife might be sought for in a nutshell.

MidsummerMarkKurtz

The Dream performed at Dewey Mountain, New York, 2017; picture from Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Shakespeare’s legacy

This vocabulary all implies a changing attitude to fairies: that they coming to be seen as tiny, inoffensive, pretty, charming.  We’ve run ahead of ourselves slightly, though, and ought to retrace our steps to 1595 and the first production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Latham has this to say of Shakespeare’s use of fairy themes:

“That the disappearance of the fairies as credible entities should have been hastened by the influence of Shakespeare is one of the greatest ironies of their history. Of all the Elizabethans who made mention of them, there is no one who showed himself more cognizant of the belief in their existence, and no one who featured more prominently their traditional power and activities.” (p.177)

Latham goes on to enumerate the traditional fairy-lore in Shakespeare’s plays: their dangerous enchantments; their substitution of changelings; their pranks- sometimes harmless, sometimes malicious; their generosity to favourites; their midnight dances; their pinching of those who fail to meet their standards;  their pixy-leading.  All of this authentic material was, however, overwhelmed and displaced by what he created in the Dream.  Latham summarises this ‘new Elizabethan’ fairy very succinctly:

“Diminutive, pleasing, and picturesque sprites, with small garden names and small garden affairs, associated with moon-beams and butterflies, they present themselves as a new race of fairies, as different from the popular fairies of tradition as are those fairies from the fays of the medieval romances. ” (p.180)

The medieval fays are the magician women like Morgan le Fay, in some respects related to Titania, but not reigning over a fairy kingdom and much more engaged in the affairs of human kind.  What became the conventional fairy after the Dream was this, according to Latham:

  • they were subjected to a royal court and lost their independent status;
  • they lose their mischievous and changeable sides and become uniformly good;
  • they’re devoted to making the world happier and more beautiful, without imposing any taboos and codes or exacting any penalties;
  • they dislike and avoid disturbance and disruption;
  • they love children and are solicitous of the welfare of all humans;
  • they are “extravagantly” attached to flowers, tending them, named after them, decorated with them; and,
  • they’ve shrunk.  No longer are they infant sized, now they’re tiny: they can hide in acorns; they make their coats from bats’ wings; their fans are butterfly wings; they may drown in a bee’s honey bag should it burst.

It’s these last two characteristics, combined with their new, benign, nature, that marks the real departure for British fairies.   Worse still, they have become comic and ridiculous (as in the whole episode involving Titania and Bottom).  Their dignity and their stature had been diminished and they had become an entirely new race of spirits.

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Exeter Drama Company‘s 2015 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The earliest example of this change came almost immediately from Shakespeare himself, in Romeo and Juliet.  In Mercutio’s famous description of Queen Mab, she is reduced to a being “In shape no bigger than an agate stone/ On the forefinger of an alderman.”  Other poets then picked up upon the conceit of a minute fairy and had great fun with it.  During the first decades of the next century, several notable writers fixed the idea in the public imagination.  These included most notably:

  • Edward Fairfax, in his 1600 translation of Torquato Tasso’s Godfrey of Bulloigne, was an early adopter of Shakespeare’s new vision of Faery.  His fays are tiny enough to sit under “every trembling leaf” and they are intimately associated with blossoms: for example “Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers” (Book 4, stanza 18 and Book 17, stanza 61);
  • Michael Drayton, author of such works as Nimphidia and The Muses’ Elizium, in which fairies use acorn cups as boats, ride upon earwigs and make wedding dresses from primrose leaves.  In his 1613 Poly Olbion, Drayton imagines frisking fairies “as on the light air borne/ Oft run at barley break upon the corn/ And catching drops of dew.”  In the Eighth Nymphal the abiding impression of tininess is expressed directly: “Why, by her smallness you may find,/ That she is of the fairy kind”;
  • William Browne– the third book of his Britannia’s pastorals (c.1625) revels in the possibilities of microscopic fays, whose bread is hazelnut kernels, whose wash basins are sea shells and who dine upon the udders of mice and hornet’s eggs; and,
  • Robert Herrick (1591- 1674), in whose verses “dwarfish Fairyes elves” dine off mushrooms, instead of tables, upon single grains of wheat, washed down with drops of dew.  His Queen Mab’s bed is formed of six dandelion heads, with curtains of gossamer.  In his 1648 collection Hesperides, Herrick includes five fairy poems for which he is particularly remembered: Oberon’s Feast, Oberon’s Palace, Oberon’s Chapel (or the Fairy Temple), The Fairies and The Beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen.   All are easily accessible and give an authentic picture of the British fairy as it was conceived after Midsummer Night’s Dream.

These depictions pretty much sealed the fate of the fays.  They were now without question “pygmies” (Peter Heylyn, Cosmographie (1648), Book IV, p.196; Milton, Paradise lost (1667), Book IX, line 634).  They are, too, irredeemably linked to images of cuteness and harmlessness: for example in the 1660’s ballad The spring’s glory, “The fairies are tripping and lambs are skipping, /Pretty birds chirping in the wood do sing.”

One last citation will do, which is from the Poems and fancies of Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1653.  The book is full of fairies and they are uniformly minute, evidently inspired by Drayton and Herrick.  Queen Mab and “all her fairy fry” dance on mole hills, sit under flowers and eat off mushrooms spread with spiders’ webs instead of table cloths (Pastime in fairyland).

Flower fairies

So it is, that little girls in petal like dresses have become fixed in our minds- not just on the stage but in the work of many artists (not least Cicely Mary Barker, Margaret Tarrant and the many other children’s book illustrators of the mid-twentieth century).  In a recent post I laid a heavy burden of blame upon Paracelsus for distorting our concepts of the fairy realm; reluctantly, perhaps, this must be shared with William Shakespeare.  The trends towards smaller and less fearsome fairies were already present in English culture, doubtless, but Shakespeare’s work accelerated and magnified them, an impact exaggerated further by his very status in the literary world.

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2016 production of The Dream by Millennium Charter Academy at Andy Griffith Playhouse, Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Further reading

See Latham, of course (although the book can be rare and expensive), many of my previous posts and, in my 2017 book British fairies, chapters 1 and 28 particularly.  In another posting I’ve also developed some of Latham’s ideas on representations of fairy faces in Tudor drama.

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

 

 

Moths and pixies

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Edward Hopley, Puck and a moth

In this post I want to explore some persistent and intriguing connections between fairies and moths.  They are very scattered, but fascinating nonetheless.

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John Gibson (1790-1866), Cupid pursuing Psyche

Fluttering faes

A lot of the material linking fairies with moths is highly romantic and literary.  As we began to conceive of tiny winged fairies from the eighteenth century onwards, the association between fays and pretty insects made more and more sense.

We might date this connection from as early as Midsummer night’s dream and the fairy ‘Moth’ although Dr Beachcombing on the Strange history website has argued that this is really a misreading for ‘mote.’

The pairing subsequently manifested itself in several ways:

  • fairies acquired moth and butterfly wings– as we see in many pictures including the illustration by Warwick Goble included below. Another source for these may come from classical representations of winged nymph Psyche (see above);
  • instead of riding horses, fairies started to be imagined riding moths and flies.  Julius Cawein tells us in ‘Dream road’ that “the moths they say the fairies use as coursers;” Alice Cary in ‘Fairy folk’ described fairies travelling “in coaches/ That are drawn by butterflies”;
  • as the poetic faes drew closer to nature, they started to care for insects and other wildlife.  In Menella Bute Smedley’s poem ‘The butterfly and the fairies’ it’s the fays that make the butterfly’s gorgeous painted wings whilst in Peter John Allan’s ‘The dead butterfly’ Faery seems to be the lepidoptera heaven, where the deceased insect goes to dance with the ‘elfin band.’

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Richard Doyle, The fairy queen takes an airy drive

These conceits were taken to an extreme in the anonymous poem ‘The fairies fancy ball,’ published in 1832, in which the vernacular names of every species of butterfly and moth are played upon in a dream of a dance put on by the fairy queen.

This evolution of the ‘artistic faery,’ as we might call it, directly informs our thinking today.  If, for example, we look at the encounters reported in the recent Fairy Census, small flying fays are very common indeed and insect wings are a feature of quite a number of reports (see below).

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John George Naish, Midsummer fairies

Pixies and the dead

The rather disparate folklore evidence is very partial, but it’s far more interesting than the cute literary conceptions, I would say.

Our starting point is a brief remark by Robert Hunt in his Popular romances of the West of England (1865, p.82):

“Mr Thoms has noticed that in Cornwall ‘the moths which some regard as departed souls, others as fairies, are called Pisgies.’ This is somewhat too generally expressed; the belief respecting the moth, so far as I know, is confined to one or two varieties only. Mr Couch informs us that the local name, around Polperro, of the weasel is Fairy. So that we have evidence of some sort of metempsychosis amongst the elf family. Moths, ants, and weasels it would seem are the forms taken by those wandering spirits.”

The Mr Thoms mentioned by Hunt wrote about ‘The folklore of Shakespeare’ in The Athenaeum in 1847 (no.1041, p.1055).  In this article he says little more than Hunt repeats, except to say that the moths as pixies was the belief in the Truro area of mid-Cornwall and adding that it was thought that when the moths were very numerous, there would be great mortality to follow.  It’s also fascinating to learn that in Yorkshire the night flying moth Hepialis humali was called ‘the soul’  and that, in the Lake District too, moths were traditionally regarded as a sign of death.

There seems to be a link with death then, which is probably quite unsurprising if you think of a ghostly white moth seen at night.  Equally, as I’ve described previously, there are strong associations between fairies and death and it’s another Cornish belief that unbaptised infants may become piskies.

There are some other fragments of folk belief to add to these tantalising remnants.  According to J. Henry Harris, Cornish mothers would also tell their children that the little brown pisgie moth will play tricks on them in their sleep (Cornish saints and sinners, 1907, c.20).  In her story of ‘The little cake bird’ North Cornish author Enys Tregarthen says that the belief around St Columb is that the fairies will pass over your nose and arrange your dreams whilst you sleep.  We know that Queen Mab is the midwife of dreams, so all of this seems to be interrelated.

At St Nun’s Well near Looe on the south coast of the Cornish peninsula, there is a tradition of leaving a bent pin as an offering.  If you fail to do this, you will be followed home by a cloud of the pisgey moths.  We looked at fairy wells in a previous posting and this particular local tradition underscores both that connection and the need to show proper respect by making respectful offerings to the fairies.

Lastly, in a story from the Blackdown Hills of Somerset, a woman is brushed across her brow by a large moth and thereby receives the ‘pixy-sight’ which enables her to see an old pixy man who has come to ask for her skill in nursing his sick wife.  We know fairy powers can be transferred by touch, so this again fits in with other lore, although the medium of the moth is unusual.

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Some modern evidence

The recent Fairy Census confirms that there is still felt to be some common association between fairies and lepidoptera.  Some beings seen in Ohio flying around flowers were described as being “Small, pale, with long limbs and wings similar to moths.”  A man waiting for a train in Scotland saw a small ball of light hovering around one of the platform lights:

“At first I thought it was a moth being illuminated but then realised that it was too big to be a moth and also it was very, very bright. It hovered for a few moments then shot across the platform and it joined another ball of light opposite.”

He assumed it had to be a fairy because this was the “first thought that came into my head after I realised it wasn’t moths.” (Census numbers 169 & 350).  Several other witnesses made comparisons too to butterflies: consider for instance a Texan sighting of “a beautiful butterfly with a lovely body of a lady” or “bright, white light about five foot long with wings like a butterfly and a short dress” or “like a white butterfly” (numbers 375, 419 & 435).

Conclusions

This posting is just a first outline of this subject.  Doubtless with further reading other examples will be found and we will form a surer picture of the link, but it seems clear even at this preliminary stage that diminutive size, nocturnal habits, ghostly colours and some sort of spiritual aspect are all combined in this group of beliefs.

Further reading

Readers may be interested to note that the Scottish mythical and mystical poet Fiona Macleod makes considerable use of moth imagery.  They are often equated with spirits, perhaps ghosts: “In the grey-gloaming where the white moth flies” or “Not even the white moth that loves death flits through her hair.”  It is a a mysterious and silent symbol.

“In the likeness of a crab”- fairy shape shifters

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Joseph Noel Paton, Puck and the fairies

Although the ability to shape-shift is often reckoned to be a standard fairy attribute, it is actually very rare amongst the fairies of Britain.  Part of the reason for its prominence in popular imaginings is that it has one very well-known practitioner.

Glamour & invisibility

We ought perhaps to start with some definition of terms.  We’re not talking here about the fairies’ power of invisibility.  This appears to be pretty much universal, for British fairies at least; they can all vanish at will.  Secondly, shape shifting should not be confused with the regular fairy use of ‘glamour’ whereby magic can conceal the real identity of supernatural beings.  A good example arises in the stories of midwives taken at night to grand mansions to attend rich ladies in their childbirth.  It’s only when the midwife accidentally touches some fairy ointment to her eye that her vision penetrates through the illusion to see that she’s really surrounded by misshapen elves in a cave.

Thirdly, by shape-shifting I’m not really concerned so much with the ability of spriggans to change their size.  An example of this comes from the Cornish story ‘Cherry of Zennor.’  Cherry is approached by a gentleman to work for him; they reach his home after a long and slightly mysterious journey, which appears to be a passage into fairyland.  All goes well until Cherry looks into a well where she sees many tiny fairies dancing- and her new master shrunk to the same size.  Fascinating as this is, in this posting I’m really only interested in a complete change of form.

Hobgoblins and sweet Puck

In 1584 in his horror novella Beware the cat, William Baldwin wrote what’s probably our first clear statement of the fairies’ shape-shifting habits:

“I have read that … the ayry spirits which wee call Demones, of which kinde are Incubus and Succubus, Robin Good Fellow the Fairy and Goblins, which the Miners call Telchines, could at their pleasure take upon them any other sortes.”

Robin Goodfellow is our particular interest here.  Also called Puck, this hobgoblin is the consummate master of transformation, as immortalised in Midsummer night’s dream, Act II, scene 1 in which Puck boasts to a fairy about his pranks:

“When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,/ Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:/ And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,/ In the very likeness of a roasted crab;/ And when she drinks, against her lips I bob/ And on her withered dewlap pour the ale./ The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,/ Sometimes for three foot stool mistaketh me;/ Then slip I from her bum, down topples she…”

All Shakespeare does here is give immortal form to the traditional character of Puck.  Other texts of about the same time give other examples of his tricks- these are The life of Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests (1628) and a poem called The pranks of Puck that has been attributed to Ben Jonson. In these works Robin is endowed with his shape-shifting power by his fairy father Oberon, who tells him:

“Thou hast the power to change thy shape/ To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape./ Transformed thus, by any meanes,/ See none thou harm’st but knaves and queanes.”

In the course of the stories Puck dispenses rough justice and has simple slapstick fun in a huge variety of forms- for example:

  • livestock such as a horse, a dog and an ox,
  • wild animals including a fox, a hare, a bear and a frog;
  • birds, including a crow, an owl and a raven;
  • various spirits including a will of the wisp and a ghost; and,
  • various people, including a cripple, a soldier, a young maid and fiddler.

Fairies as birds

There are two brief mentions of British fays who can transform to birds.  The hyter sprite, an obscure fairy of East Anglia, can also appear in the shape of a sandmartin and, from the Cornish story of The fairy dwelling on Silena Moor we learn that pixy abductee Grace Hutchens is more reconciled to her captivity by the fact that she can transform into a small bird and fly near to her former lover, Mr Noy.  It’s perhaps also worth observing that these fairies’ wings are acquired by transformation, here, as they evidently don’t normally possess them…

There’s a catch to the Cornish pixies’ ability to transform, though.  They can only change into birds and it seems each transformation shrinks the sprite so that eventually they dwindle away to virtually nothing.

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Meeting the kelpie by Camelid on DeviantArt

Kelpies

Evidently Puck can become whatever he likes.  Most other fairies are strictly limited in what they can become.  The Scottish kelpie/ each uisge may appear either in male or horse form.  In the former guise, he is a handsome young man who seeks to seduce young women and lure them to their doom; the lucky ones spot the telltale signs of his real nature- the sand or water weed caught in his hair, and make their escape.   The others are carried off into a loch or the sea and drowned.

Conclusion and further reading

To finish, we can see how rare the power to change form is.  In England it’s really just limited to Puck, although we have to note the interesting fact that a couple of the South Western fairies do have some special powers.

Elsewhere I’ve posted about fairies’ physical forms and the solidity and reality of fays.  I discuss fairy magic generally in chapter 10 of my British fairies, 2017.

The crimson fairy and the red

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Red winter rose fairy by Rachel Anderson

The older literature often mentions fairies of varying colours: white, red, green and others.  Is this just a matter of clothing- or does it go deeper?  As an illustration, in the Elizabethan play Buggbears we are told that there are “sondry names by which we do call them [i.e. the fairies]; some are called … the whyte and red fearye.”  (1565, line 47) From Camden’s Britannia we learn of a cunning woman’s charm used in Ireland to treat the sickness called ‘esane’:

“Against all maladies and mischiefs whatsoever the women have effectual enchantments or charms, as they suppose, divided and parted amongst them, each one her several enchantment, and the same of divers forces: unto whom every man according as his mischance requireth speedeth himself for help. They say alwaies both before and after their charms a Pater Noster, and an Ave Maria. [If a man has a fall and becomes sick] there is sent a woman skilful in that kind unto the said place, and there she saith on this wise: ‘I call thee P. from the East and West, South and North, from the forests, woods, rivers, meeres, the wilde wood-fayries, white, red, black etc.’  and withal bolteth out certain short prayers. Then returneth she home unto the sick party, to try whither it be the disease called Esane, which they are of opinion is sent by the Fairies, and whispereth a certain odd prayer with a Pater Noster into his ear, putteth some coles into a pot full of fair water, and so giveth more certain judgment of the disease than many of our physicians can.”    (Britannia vol.4 p.470).

The question I want examine in this post is this: is this merely a matter a choice of fairy clothing (which I’ve posted about before) or are the colours of these fairies more significant and symbolic?

Fairy clothing colours

As many readers will know, the archetypal fairy colour is green and it is primarily a matter of dress.  Some variation is admitted; for example Mary Lewes has said that in North Wales the fairies wear scarlet (Queer side of things, p.119) and elsewhere she said that they wore white, but green for special occasions (Stranger than fiction p.160).  Certainly, so synonymous is green with the fays that it’s said to be bad luck for humans to wear the colour, as they might face fairy reprisals.  This is why Sir Walter Scott asked in Alice Brand “who may dare on wold to wear/ The fairies’ fatal green?”  In his book Goblin tales of Lancashire Victorian folklorist James Bowker recorded that the local name for the fairies was ‘The Greenies’ or the Hill Folk.  This probably relates to their dress, although not conclusively.

Analysis of recent sightings in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies, and in the 2017 Fairy Census, reveals that around one third of fairies seen are dressed in green.  Twenty per cent wear brown, twelve per cent red and ten per cent white or cream.  A scattering of other colours- blue, yellow, black- account for the rest.  These results seem fairly consistent with the written sources, all of which suggest that fairies are mostly seen in ‘earth tones.’ For example, in the Merry wives of Windsor, Shakespeare enumerated “fairies black, grey, green and white” and also “Fairies white and green.” (Acts V, 5 & IV, 4).

Although we instantly think of dwarves and gnomes in scarlet, red doesn’t actually feature very often in reports.  We have Mary Lewes’ mention and Sidney Addy’s statement that fairies (and witches) wear a red mantle with a hood that completely covers them (Household tales p.134).  In older material red is often found, in fact, as the colour that repels fairies- for example, red threads are tied round the necks of children and cattle to protect them and in one lowland Scottish ritual, a suspected changeling child is wrapped in red cloth and held over a rowan fire to drive it out (Aitken p.12).  I wonder if part of the prominence of red in our minds now comes from Scandinavian sources on tomte and nisse.  Nevertheless, pixies are believed to be red-headed (Tongue Somerset folklore p.113) and it may be in this sense that other fays are ‘red.’

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Cicely Mary Barker, White bindweed fairy, from ‘Flower fairies of the wayside’

“Poor little greenie…”

The possibility that the colour refers to complexion and not clothing is an important one, yet it can’t always be satisfactorily resolved from the sources.  Hugh Miller described a ‘green woman’ with a goblin child who went door to door bathing her babe in human infants’ blood and another ‘green lady’ who spread small pox (Scenes and legends p.15).  As already remarked, in Goblin tales of Lancashire James Bowler calls the ‘hill folk’ of that county ‘the greenies.’  Something more sinister starts to creep in, though.  Janet Bord tells the story of a lost fairy child found at Middleton in Teesdale who has green clothes and red eyes and it is also reported that Shetland fairies are of a yellow complexion, with red eyes and green teeth.  These latter faes are, by the way, dressed uniformly in grey with brown mittens (it is, after all, a long way north).

Thirdly, a comparable account comes from the Isle of Man.  A boy woke up one night hungry and decided to sneak into the kitchen to steal a freshly baked ‘bonnag’ (bannock).  Sitting before the fire, warming his hands, was a hideous fairy man with claw like hands and staring red eyes; the child ran swiftly back to bed.

Turning to pale fairies, the references are numerous in literature and folk lore.  Heywood had ‘white nymphs’ and Ben Jonson ‘white fays.’  In Shropshire and Somerset ‘white ladies’ haunted various locations- often watery.  Donald MacKenzie tells a Scottish wonder tale of a war between the White and Black Fairies on the Spey.  Much more than with Shakespeare, we seem to have a good/bad dichotomy symbolised here.  It may have antecedents in the Norse Edda’s light and dark elves, the former being pure of colour and dressed in white and silver garments.  Much, much later Thomas Keightley was informed by a country girl that the Norfolk ‘frairies’ always wore white.

As Mary Lewes already stated, white is a colour very often associated with the clothing of the Welsh tylwyth teg.  Fairies sighted at Frenifawr in Pembrokeshire rode small white horses and were dressed in white or red; a charming story from Aberaeron on Cardigan Bay tells how a pipe player called John Davies met a group of fairy women one night and almost married one.  He could tell they were fays because they were all in white and their dresses (this was in 1860) came only to their knees (!)  Sadly he was interrupted and they all disappeared down some stairs leading underground before the nuptials could be agreed.  These women sound charming and harmless,  but there’s more to white garments than just clean clothing.

A story dated 1903 from the Welsh borders suggests this.  An old woman living at Trellech described the fairies as being fairly small with “queer complexions.”  They were the size of a six year old child, barefoot, dressed in white with lovely white skin, but also white hair and white eyes too.  From some earlier point in Victorian times there comes the story of John Jones, a farm labourer of Perthrhys farm near Aberystwyth.  Walking home across Rhosrhydd Moor one moonlit night he realised two boys were following him.  Although it was late, he at first assumed they were just local youths messing around.  However, the boys then quit the road and started to dance in an “unearthly” manner.  Jones realised that they were both “perfectly white.”  Perhaps these white fays go some way to explaining the full significance of the ‘white spirit’ with which accused witch Joan Willimot claimed she had cursed the Earl of Rutland’s son.  The ‘mere-maids’ labelled ‘white ladies’ might also be less benign than they initially sound.

These last images (like the red eyed fays in Teesdale and on Man and Shetland) are naturally disturbing to us, rendering the fairies instantly more monstrous and threatening. Whilst (as my choice of illustrations show) we tend to think of ‘red’ as sexual or dangerous and ‘white’ as pure and innocent, the contrast might just as reasonably be between ‘living’ and ‘dead.’  Perhaps deliberately, both connotations are evoked by the traditional fairy green, suggestive of vibrant growth and of decay.  The fairy colours are, I’m sure, significant- and are symbolic of many attributes- danger, violence, sexuality and mortality.

Further reading

See my posting on the treatment of fairy complexion in Tudor and Stuart drama and what that says about their vision of Faery.  I also discussed fairy clothes in my 2017 book British fairies.