Puckwudgie and European influence

Recently I was researching another faery subject entirely when I was led to refer to the chapter on North American faery beings in Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook’s Magical Folk (2018). Peter Muise there describes the ‘Puritans and Pukwudgies’ of New England, arguing that the European invaders largely lost their own faery lore as they crossed the Atlantic, but discovered the rich supernatural world of Native American belief- which was slowly assimilated.

This isn’t the whole story, as two other chapters in Magical Folk make clear. Later Irish and Scottish settlers, especially in Atlantic Canada, did import their faery belief with them- and I know from my own reading of British sources that there are several Scottish stories that explicitly discuss Highland faes, such as the leannan sith and the bochan, who travel with emigrants to North America. It might be better to say that the English settlers were less likely to carry their faery folk with them- and Muise discussed why this might be so.

A second point concerns the pukwudgie/ puckwudgie. This spirit is now probably the best known of the North American ‘faeries’ and modern sightings seem to be on the increase, as Muise has described. However, as his chapter title indicates, most of this modern lore comes from New England, to which the pukwudgie is, strictly, a stranger. He is a spirit of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes area- not of New England, which had its own indigenous beings (which are known about and which survive- amongst the indigenous population still and, to a degree, amongst the offcomers). Various writers, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seem to have been responsible for popularising the pukwudgie and extending his range. Literary uses of faery lore often do this- spreading beings such as pixies and leprechauns far beyond their natural habitats and (arguably) obscuring the local differences.

Be that as it may (and you can read the chapter in Magical Folk, which is highly recommended for your book shelves) what struck me was the strong similarities between North American faery behaviour and that of the British faes. Here are a few examples, taken from Muise:

  • pukwudgies and other Algonquian spirits have magical powers and can shape shift or make themselves invisible;
  • they can act as wills of the wisp (often seen as balls of light) and lead people into swamps or over cliffs;
  • they have a nasty habit of pestering women and girls, luring them into forests where they seduce them. Once a human female has been involved with a faery male, she can never settle back into society and marry;
  • they shoot poisoned arrows at victims;
  • they are immortal– unless killed by humans;
  • their gaze can blight a person and cause the victim to sicken and die;
  • they can grant three wishes;
  • they have high pitched voices;
  • they steal human goods but can be appeased with gifts of food;
  • they don’t like to be talked about by humans and will take revenge if they know this has happened; and,
  • they are skilled in healing using herbs.

All these characteristics and habits can be found in British folklore. I have provided links to posts I’ve made in the past on exactly these subjects. Now, there seem to be two explanations for these remarkably close parallels. One is that faery temperament, physiology and powers are pretty much the same the whole world over. As such, we shouldn’t expect any real difference between a pukwudgie and a boggart, just as we wouldn’t dream of imagining there would be any differences (except of culture) between- say- an Inuit, a European and an aboriginal Australian. The other explanation is that there has- in fact- been a great deal more immigration of European faeries into North America than we realised. The least sign of this, perhaps, is the optional spelling of Puck-wudgie: does this reveal an almost unconscious identification between the pucks of the English midlands with the Ojibwe sprite?

This is a big subject and one in which I have too little knowledge to make pronouncements. Nevertheless, the similarities of supernatural behaviour are notable and demand examination and explanation. Perhaps all North American faery survivals have really been crossbred with British faes from East Anglia and the South West, with the faery population being swamped and colonised just as much as the aboriginal possessors, or perhaps they’re really all one race, despite superficial differences, just as humans are.

The pukwudgie by Kitty-Grim on Deviant Art

Final trivia fact: I got to thinking about this after I came across the 1972 song ‘Puckwudgie‘ by cor-blimey Cockney comedian of the 1950s and ’60s, Charlie Drake. British readers of a certain age may recall Charlie from comedy specials and black and white films shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; I never anticipated a faery link, but there you go. I might well say the same of David Bowie- yet we have The Laughing Gnome to contend with. That- and Drake’s song- bear strong similarities.

‘Wheels on Fire’- it’s Faery, but not as we know it…

“Wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Just notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode”

Bob Dylan/ Rick Danko

Faery kind need not always appear in anthropomorphic form. I have described before the Scottish kelpies and each uisge and the shape shifting capabilities of several supernatural beings, such as Puck and the Isle of Man bogie called the buggane.

Transformations into animals might still seem relatively understandable, given the British tradition of semi-fish-like mermaids and selkies or the very widespread idea of the ‘Black Dog.’ However, fairies can sometimes take completely non-animal forms. I was inspired to examine these by Simon Young’s article on the Rolling Wool Bogie and in my book Beyond Faery I described the variety of ‘soft’ apparitions (looking like jelly, or balls or bales of wool or grass) as well as some very bizarre ‘hard’ forms that have been adopted.

There are quite a few examples of the ‘hard’ manifestations, from all around the British Isles.  At Hellsgill, Nether Auchinleck, in Clydesdale, a sprite in the shape of the outer rim of a cartwheel would come bounding down the brae, heading straight for any night time traveller.  Just as it looked to be about to collide with its victim, the wheel would vanish with an eldritch laugh.  Other such Scottish ‘wheels’ have been reported.  A man called Alexander, of Buaile Mor on South Unst, was fishing in a stream one night when he saw a figure approaching downstream.  He called to the stranger to step away from the water so as not to frighten the fish; the man complied but then Alexander realised something like a mill-wheel was rolling towards him.  Hurriedly, he gathered up his catch and gear and made off.  The fish he’d caught he hid under a rock and then headed for the nearest house.  Crossing the moor, however, he was repeatedly thrown down.  The next morning, returning to collect his catch, Alexander found that all had gone save for one he had ripped the head off by standing on it during his hurried departure the night before. 

At Lag nam Bocan (Bogle’s Hollow), on South Uist, a woman saw an iron car wheel rim rolling along the road.  A comparable- and equally inexplicable- incident occurred at Mynydduslwyn in Gwent: a reddish grey object, round like a bowl, was encountered rolling back and forth across a lane.  The witness believed it was a living thing, because it grew larger and smaller as it moved; he enquired what in God’s name it was, and the apparition instantly disappeared.  Perhaps it’s significant too that the Orkney monsters, the nuggle and the shoopiltee, are said to have tails resembling a water-wheels.

Two comparable examples from the Isle of Man, which were regarded as manifestations of the buggane, are described in Manx Notes and Queries for 1904:

“A man, when he was young, was seeing the girls home late in the night, and when coming to the end of beyr yn clagh glass (the grey stone road), he beard a great noise, and he looked in every direction, but could see nothing, and the noise was coming nearer. He did not know what to do, so he got over the hedge, but the noise was just over him, and he looked up and saw a thing like a big wheel of fire. It was going round at a great speed, and went towards Ballacurry and when it was near that place it vanished, and he saw no more of it

Second Account– A man was coming along the grey stone road in Ballakillowey, and he met a big wheel of fire, going around at a fearful rate, but remaining in the same place, and he could not get past, so he went back and took another road, but he met the wheel again at the next opening, and he went across the fields to shun it, but when he came to the high road the wheel was there again, but he ventured to pass it and got away. It made a great noise with whirling round.”

As I described in my book Beyond Faery, published last year, faery kind are capable of taking quite unexpected and baffling forms. That book argued for an expansion of ‘faery’ to include a range of supernatural beings in animal (rather than humanoid) form, but it will be clear that we actually need to expand our horizons far more broadly to encompass all the potential manifestations that have been encountered.

by ‘nachtwulf’ on DeviantArt

Tam Lin & escapes from faeryland

The Fairy Host in Tam Lin by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

A number of Scottish ballads suggest that for human captives in fairyland to escape their captivity can be a violent and terrifying process- especially for the person trying to save them.  There are three primary examples to consider, all of which share close resemblances. 

In the ballad, The Faery Oak of Corriewater, a young man called Elph Irving has been captured by the queen of Elfland to be her cupbearer.  He is said to be “the fairest that earth may see” and, for his seven years’ service, she says that “his wage is a kiss of me” which seems to make it fairly clear that he is as much a sex slave as a domestic servant. It’s notable too that his name is prefixed ‘Elph,’ suggestive of some kind of assimilation to faery-kind through his residence with them. As we know, for humans to eat faery food can lead to a permanent physical change which prevents their return to the mortal world.

Irving’s sister comes to save him.  The fairies are alerted to her approach (“For here comes the smell of some baptised flesh,/ And the sounding of baptised feet”- humans can be smelt by fairies just as much as we can detect them by their distinctive fairy smell) and try to make a getaway on their steeds.  The sister, however, is too fast:

“She linked her brother around,

And called on God, and the steed with a snort

Sank into the gaping ground.

But the fire maun [must] burn, and I maun quake,

And the time that is gone will no more come back.

And she held her brother, and lo! he grow

A wild bull waked in ire;

And she held her brother, and lo! he changed

To a river roaring higher;

And she held her brother, and he became

A flood of the raging fire;

She shrieked and sank, and the wild elves laughed

Till the mountain rang and mire.”

To save her brother, she must be brave and not be intimidated by the transformations he goes through under the power of faery glamour. Sadly, the sister’s courage fails at last moment when Irving turns into the blaze of elfin fire and her chance to save him is lost forever.

Erica Leveque

The story of Tam Lin is very similar to that of the Faery Oak, but the ending is much happier.  Tam is a human boy who, as before, has been taken by the faery queen- perhaps once again for carnal reasons, as he describes himself as “fat and fair of flesh.”  This may, alternatively, relate to the fact that the fairies seem to intend to sacrifice him as their teind (tithe) to the devil.  This fate arises in part from his good looks, but it is also likely to reflect his part-human status; although Tam also states that he too has undergone some sort of transformation and that he is now “a fairy, lyth and limb,” he’s still not entirely one of them and, as such, is easier for the community to lose.

A girl called Janet falls for Tam after she meets him in a wood and gets pregnant.  She wants to rescue him from the fairies, so that she has a father for her child, and he instructs her when, where and how to do it.  She has to snatch him from his horse as the fairy court is out on its Halloween rade- and she must then be prepared for the transformations that will follow:

“They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and a snake;

            But had [hold] me fast, let me not pass,

            Gin ye wad be my maik [lover/ partner].

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            An adder and an ask;

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A bale that burns fast.

            They’ll turn me in your arms, Janet,

            A red-hot gad o’ airn;

            But haud me fast, let me not pass,

            For I’ll do you no harm.

First dip me in a stand o’ milk,

            And then in a stand o’ water;

            But had me fast, let me not pass,

            I’ll be your bairn’s father.

And next they’ll shape me in your arms

            A toad but and an eel;

            But had me fast, nor let me gang,

            As you do love me weel.

            ‘They’ll shape me in your arms, Janet,

            A dove but and a swan,

            And last they’ll shape me in your arms

            A mother-naked man;

            Cast your green mantle over me,

            I’ll be myself again.”

When Janet has rescued Tam, the fairy queen curses her for taking away the bonniest knight in her company: “Shame betide her ill-far’d face,/  And an ill death may she die.”  At the same time, too, the queen wishes she had taken steps to stop Tam’s fancy from straying.  She regrets that she had not taken out his heart, and replaced it with a stone, and that she had not “taen out thy twa grey een,/ Put in twa een o tree” (“Taken out your two grey eyes/ And put in two of wood.”)  This desire to blind Tam so he can’t see humans is an interesting detail of the ballad, because of its comparison to the faery practice of blinding those humans (usually midwives) who have got ointment on their eyes and as a result can see the fairies through their glamour.

Tam Lin by wylielise on deviantart

Our last example of a perilous escape from faery concerns a female captive who is rescued by her father.  The Ballad of Mary o’ Craignethan sees Mary stolen away under the fairy knoll by a fae man.  Her father seeks expert counsel and is advised on the ritual he has to follow to bless (sain) and then release her.  He must go to the fairy oak and there blow his horn three times.  At the first blast, the tree will bend and fall; at the second a silence will fall and an eldritch laugh will ring out.  At the third, a loathsome fiend will appear with “wauchie cheek and wauland ye” (‘a sallow cheek and wildly rolling eyes’). This will be Mary- and her father has to grasp her tightly by the wrists and make the sign of a cross over her:

“syne an ugsome ask in his han’ sho kyth’t

Owerspread wi’ lapper’t blude.”

She’ll appear next as a fearsome newt in his hand, covered in clotted blood.  He mustn’t quail but should then make the sign of the cross again and:

“Syne a sneeran’ [hissing] snake she turn’d roun’ his arm

And ower his bosom slade;

When he the thirden time she sain’t

A burnan bale she grew;

He nam’d ower her the halie name

An’ she flichter’t a milk-white dou [fluttered like a white dove].

He nam’d ower her the halie name

In his han’ was a lily rare;

He nam’d ower her the halie name,

In his han’ was his Mary fair.”

As you’ll have noticed, several transformations are common to all these stories.  Snakes, newts and burning bales seem to have been mentioned because they are likely to scare the rescuer into releasing their loved one; birds will flap wildly to try to escape- and it’s likely, I guess, that the snakes and newts will slither and, once again, alarm the rescuer. What is very clear, though, is that the rescue requires a lot of the human: she or he must not only know the necessary words and ritual; they must also have a very steady nerve and be able to see through the faeries’ glamour and realise that the deadly creatures in their arms are only illusion, and pose no real threat.

Tamlaine by Robert Macnair

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

paton_-_puck_and_fairies_from_a_midsummer_nights_dream

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.

meeting the kelpie by camelid

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.