Faery song

waterhouse siren 

A siren, J W Waterhouse

I have written before of the fairies’ love of music (known as fonn-sith in Scotland) and of song.  Songs are more, though, than just entertainment: they are magical.

The special status of song in fairy culture is demonstrated extremely well in a story from Highland Scotland.  Angus Mór of Tomnahurich was a shepherd.  He heard music coming from a fairy knoll, accompanied by the voice of his wife-to-be singing.  Approaching the knoll, he peeped in but couldn’t see her.  A fairy woman happened to be passing by so he seized her with his iron-tipped crook and demanded to know what was happening.  She told him that he would only be able to save his intended if, at the end of that week, he could tell the fairy queen’s secret on the Bridge of Easan Dubh (the Black Falls).  Seven days later Angus was on the bridge, where he heard a woman singing in a very fine voice.  It was the queen, and the song itself was her secret.  The last verse went as follows:

“There is music (ceol) in the hall of my dear,

There is gold in the land of Mackay,

But there is a song (oran) in Inverness,

That shall never be known.”

Big Angus cried out that he now knew every word of her song- and her secret with it.  The Queen screamed in frustration, but he had effectively broken her spell, and she was forced to relinquish her claim to his wife.

James Halliwell long ago observed that “fairies always talk in rhyme” and it is true to say that many of their activities and many significant statements are accompanied by song.  For example, fairies at work- grinding, churning or ‘waulking’ cloth- had special songs that went with those activities.  Expressions of strong emotions, such as anger, love and grief, would also take a verse form (Halliwell, Popular Rhymes & Nursery Tales, 1849, p.190; Evans Wentz pp.102 & 112).

The use of verse and rhyme to formulate secrets was also common amongst faery-kind.  Think, for example, of the British equivalents of Rumpelstiltskin, creatures such as Whuppity Stoorie and Sili Go Dwt: these goblin-like characters sing their secret to themselves, but are always overheard and undone:

“Little kens oor gude dame at hame,

That Whuppity Stoorie is my name!”

“Nimmy, nimmy not,

My name’s Tom Tit Tot” and,

“Little did she know

That Trwtyn Tratyn

Is my name.”

This last verse works much better in the original Welsh:

“Bychan a wydda’ hi

Mai Trwtyn-Tratyn

Yw f’enw i.”

Wordplay was something that supernaturals particularly respected and enjoyed- and a skill in it could prove crucial.  Some fishermen from the Isle of Lewis were out in their boat when a mermaid briefly surfaced.  They saw her ‘blood-charm’ (perhaps a reference to the fact that a mermaid’s shed blood will stir up the waves into a tempest) and, in any event, merely sighting a mermaid would normally have been interpreted as a sign of disaster.  She resurfaced nearer to the boat and asked the helmsman for his ‘half-stanza.’  The steersman gave a clever answer, referring to his control over the ship, to which she said “It is well that you gave such a reply” and then sank out of sight.  It appears that his quick wit and versifying pleased her, because the boat and the crew got home safely, although other ships out that day foundered and men drowned.

Closely comparable to this incident are the circumstances which gave rise to a ‘fairy song’ from Argyllshire.  A fairy woman daily visited a mother and her new-born son, “with words and with singing of verses to try if she could ‘word’ him away with her.”  Luckily, the mother always had a ready answer and was able to prevent her child being taken.  The fairy woman in her verses successively disparaged the boy- in response to which his mother praised him- then she warned of the temptations of the girls in town as he got older, with their curly brown hair and their bouncy breasts (cìochan currach) and lastly the bean-sith admitted that she wanted him to be the herder of her sheep on the moor.  The mother instead retorted that she hoped he’d be a warrior or a rich farmer.

henry william walker, a fairy bower

Henry William Walker, A Fairy Bower

Mermaid wisdom is also often expressed in verse, as in this advice on health and diet:

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

The same habit was known amongst fairies: for example, a man on the Island of Barra was sent to fetch a doctor for a seriously ill woman.  It was a hot day and on his return journey he sat down on a fairy knoll for a rest and fell asleep.  He awoke to hear a song “Ill it becomes a messenger, on an important message, to sleep on the ground in the open air.” (Evans Wentz p.114)

Faery song can have a sinister significance as well.  The song of the kelpie, the supernatural horse that lives in Scottish rivers, is said to signify that it is in search of human blood.  It is certainly known to sing in triumph when a person is already on its back and it is too late for them to escape.  One song had these words:

“And ride weil, Davie

And by this night at ten o’clock,

Ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Another version, recorded in 1884, went as follows:

“Sit well, Janety, or ride well Davie

For this time morn, ye’ll be in Pot Cravie.”

Pot Cravie is the English attempt at the Gaelic place-name Poll nan Craobhan, a deep pool on the River Spey.  The song celebrates that the victim will be plunged into the kelpie’s lair and won’t be returning.

Another very famous fairy song is that of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye.  This was a lullaby, sung over the cradle of the new-born heir to the clan MacLeod by a fairy woman.  It foretold the child’s strength in arms and that he would possess plenty of cattle and rich crops in the fields; it promised that he would be free from injury in battle and would enjoy a long life.  Each verse of the song had a different tune.  For many generations afterwards, the custom of the clan was to sing the protective charm over the baby heir (Evans Wentz p.99).

In summary, in Faerie speech and words in all their forms are magical and must be carefully guarded.

msn-fairy-orchestra

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Orchestra, (from ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’), 1908

“That strange tongue”- fairy names and speech

blake-puck

Sir Peter BlakePuck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth & Mustardseed, 1984

I’ve discussed fairy language and fairy names several times before, but in this posting I want to return again to the theme, considering specifically whether or not it may be possible to learn something more about fairy speech by a study of fairy names.

Of course, most traditional fairies are anonymous- they guard their names from a humans as a source of power.  The spinning stories in which a fairy’s name has to be guessed (Rumpelstiltskin, Perrifool etc) are examples which demonstrate magical conservation of a name combined with a fascinating sample of fairy names.

NB: I take the title of this post from a line in Thomas Randolph’s play, Amyntas, of around 1632.  In Act III character Dorylas instructs his “Bevy of Fairies” to “sing here a Fairy catch/ In that strange tongue I taught you.”  The ditty that follows is “Nos beata fauni proles” (We, happy children of fauns); evidently Latin is a fairy language (for more on which, see later).

Language

The manner in which fairies will be named will, of course, reflect the language they habitually use (unless, of course, fairy speech is preserved for use between themselves, and for their names, whilst they stick to our tongue with us).  Some new examples from the Isle of Man give us a bit more insight into this area.

It appears that, a lot of the time at least, the Manx fairies spoke Manx, what the native islanders called Gaelg. A few accounts recorded in the collection Yn Lioar Manninagh confirm that the fairies were heard conversing in “yallick.”  This seems to have been taken rather for granted, but all the same there are other reports in which they are said to speak “a foreign tongue.”  They may sometimes be overheard talking together at night, but they cannot be understood.

Manx folklore expert Charles Roeder, in his book Skeealyn Cheeil Chiolee (Manx Folk Tales), 1913, reported this theory about their speech:

“I have not heard anything about the fairies this long time.  There is no-one hearing them but the woman in the little shop.  She heard them at midnight one winter night in an elder tree, speaking a language she couldn’t understand.  As she drew near, they whispered in her ear- but she couldn’t understand.  Perhaps they were foreign fairies, visiting the Isle of Man, for in old tales the fairies speak Manx.  The Manx fairies have gone, or they have changed their language- like the people. Perhaps the fairies couldn’t understand English so they changed their language out of spite: they can be spiteful when offended.” (para.2)

Another witness suggested to him: “perhaps this [unknown] language is the language of fairyland, but whether that’s above or below earth no-one can tell.” (para.3)

Fairies may be bilingual in human languages too, it seems.  In 1910 two boys on the isle of Muck in the Hebrides met two tiny green boys on the beach.   These fairies spoke to them in both Gaelic and English.  We could speculate at length whether either was their native language or whether they had mastered both simply for the convenience of talking to the local humans.  The fairies informed the boys that they would be leaving the island for good soon, but that other fairies would be arriving.  We might therefore even go as far as to suggest that the fays next ‘posting’ was in an English speaking area, hence their skill.

peaseblossom

Names

In the catalogue of recorded fairy names, what’s fictional and fanciful is entangled and entwined with what’s derived from tradition and personal encounters. It’s very hard to separate out the jokey, made-up names, the ones that are modelled on classical Greek or Roman or Biblical sources, the everyday human names and those few that are left that don’t sound like anything familiar at all- and so, perhaps, are the most authentic.

The classical type of name was especially popular in Renaissance times.  Reginald Scot mentions three fairy sisters, Milia, Archilia and Sibylia, who might assist magicians in their conjuring.  His near contemporary William Lilly one time tried to conjure the queen of fairies, whom he called Micol and which sounds very like Hebrew.

From Stornoway on Shetland we hear a number of Gaelic names, many of which seem to be nicknames or perhaps names used to avoid saying the fay’s true name: there are Deocan nam Beann (milkwort), Popar, Peulagan and Conachay (little conch).  The trows of the northern isles have a variety of names, some of which retain hints of Viking Norse whilst others just sound like nicknames: Gimp, Kork, Tring, Tivla, Fivla, Hornjultie, Peester-a-leeti, Skoodern Humpi, Bannock Feet and Hempie the Ferry-louper.  On the Isle of Man we hear of a fairy king called (prosaically) Philip and his queen, Bahee, which is at least exotic enough to sound more authentic.

Meaning maybe hidden in names which are not English.  There is a group of Welsh fays, especially connected with weaving and spinning, whose names are alliterative but may imply more than that.  These include Sili Ffrit, Sili Go Dwt, Trwtyn Tratyn, Gwarwyn a Throt and Jili Ffrwtan.  The last is a well known amorous fairy: her first name seems to be just another representation of the sili (shili) of the first two names; ffrwtan, as you may guess, appears to be related to the word ‘fruit’ though ffrwtian means ‘spluttering.’  Sili may be derived from the word sil meaning spawn or small fry and so denotes something tiny- possibly very apt for a fay.  Professor John Rhys suggested that the “throt” name relates to similar spinning fairies elsewhere in Britain like Tom Tit Tot and Habetrot.  Equally likely, they may all just be nonsense names, chosen for their pleasing sounds.  What we can say with greater certainty is that they’re going to be names applied by humans to the tylwyth teg rather than chosen by the fays themselves.

The prettification of fays that has set in since the Mustardseed and Peaseblossom of Shakespeare has also given us the Moonbeam and Dewdrop mentioned in Bowker’s Goblin Tales; similar whimsy and a sense of harmony are produced by Modilla and Podilla, the names of pixies encountered at Brent on Dartmoor (Crossing, Tales of Dartmoor Pixies, 1890).

Spiritualist Daphne Charters met a vast number of nature spirits, amongst whom were Normus, Gorgus, Myrris, Movus, Mirilla, Namsos, Sirilla, Nuvic, Nixus, Lyssis, Tanchon and Persion.  She also encountered two Chinese fairies who rejoiced in the fairly un-Oriental names of Perima and Sulac.  Her great friend and supporter, Air Chief Marshall Dowding, was puzzled by the Latin sounding names of many of these fays, but are much thought concluded that the simple explanation was this: that the Romans had adopted fairy names, not the other way around!  Given what we saw in the play Amyntas earlier, we might conclude that the Air Chief Marshall knew what he was talking about…

Our newest evidence comes from the recently completed Fairy Census.  The names recorded by witnesses are, like those in Marjorie Johnson’s book, Seeing fairies (see my earlier post on Fairy Names), a mix of the conventional and bizarre.  Faeries variously identified themselves as Effeny, Sylvizz, La Belle Courtland, Goldenrod, Zee and Specia (Census numbers 117, 244, 307, 326, 383 and 438).  Two beings, which were either gnomes or brownies, were called Snodgrass and Grosswart (no.164).

We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the traditional, to the mildly exotic.  What emerges seems to be a mixture of classical inherited names, conventional contemporary names and some which might be dismissed as made up or might alternatively be thought of as examples of genuine fairy appellations.  It’s a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus we find amongst witnesses over fairy dress and appearance.

Perhaps what we can identify in this catalogue are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken by faes: sometimes it’s familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown and hard to understand.  There may well be problems for us humans reproducing the sounds and combinations we hear in fairy names, causing us to substitute something more familiar and pronounceable.

“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk,

Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine,

Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles,

But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.”

As a final thought, if you do come to know the name of a fairy, it should always be treated with the utmost respect and care, like a closely guarded secret.  Fairy names are a taboo subject: they are a source of power and they must be handled circumspectly.

m clark

Fairy names for humankind

Whilst we’re discussing terminology and labels, we may as well just glance at what fairies call us.  Manx fairies are recorded as referring to us as “middle world men” which is a very neutral, purely descriptive name.  In the ballad of Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen refers to Thomas as a “man of mould” and in later Welsh folklore we read similar terms: “dead man” or “man of earth.”  For the fays, plainly, what distinguishes us from them is our mortality- or rather, our shorter life spans because, as I have discussed before in the context of killing fairies, they are not actually immortal but endure much longer than we do.

Further Reading

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve addressed the question of fairy language and speech several times on this blog; see too my posting on silence in Faery: the cases when the faes take speech away from their favourites and abductees.

 

Cobwebs and cloth- fairy spinning and weaving

an-old-witch-working-magic-using-her-distaff-to-cause-a-storm-date

A witch conjures a storm with her distaff

“Swiftly turn the murmuring wheel!
Night has brought the welcome hour,
When the weary fingers feel
Help, as if from faery power;
Dewy night o’ershades the ground;
Turn the swift wheel round and round!”

William Wordsworth, Song of the spinning wheel

I have written previously on the fairy economy on this blog and in my book British fairies (chapter 9) but there is one craft activity that seems to be particularly associated with the denizens of faery: this is the making of thread and the weaving of garments.

I have recently been reading Hobgoblin and sweet puck, a book by Gillian Edwards from 1974, which examines fairylore through the origins of names and terminology.  It’s an interesting and entertaining book if you can track down a copy.  She noted that the fairies may be traced back through early medieval fees/ fatae to the original Three Fates of classical mythology.  They spin and sever the threads of our lives, so creating an ancient link between cloth making and the supernatural.

Much later, the Reverend Kirk has this to say of the sidh folk’s skill:

“Ther Women are said to Spine very fine, to Dy, to Tossue, and Embroyder: but whither it is as manuall Operation of substantiall refined Stuffs, with apt and solid Instruments, or only curious Cob-webs, impalpable Rainbows, and a fantastic Imitation of the Actions of more terrestricall Mortalls, since it transcended all the Senses of the Seere to discerne whither, I leave to conjecture as I found it.” (Secret Commonwealth c.5)

spinning-straw-into-gold

Quite a few other sources confirm the connection.  Brownies performing household tasks will often undertake stages of the cloth making process, for instance dressing hemp (though at the same time their aversion to linen is to be recalled), carding wool and spinning tow (coarse hemp fibres used for ropes and the like).  The fairies are said to spin with mountain flax (according to Addy in Household Tales).

In his Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands (p.15) J. G. Campbell recorded that typical activities within the fairy ‘brughs’ included spinning and weaving.  In Evans Wentz (Fairy faith p.98) there is an account from Skye of fairies heard ‘waulking’ (that is, fulling) some cloth and singing as they do so.  At Green Hollow in Argyllshire there was reputed to be a cloth dying factory operated by the fairies of Lennox.  When humans tried to steal the secrets of their natural plant dyes, it is said that the cloth workers concealed all their materials and fled.  The hidden materials still stain the waters of a local pool.

The loireag is a Highland fairy specifically responsible for overseeing the making of cloth through all its stages, from loom to fulling. She was a stickler for the traditional methods and standards, apparently.  Offerings of milk were made by home producers to propitiate her.  Another Scottish spirit, the gyre-carlin, had comparable links to cloth-making.  It was said that, if unspun flax was not removed from the distaff at the end of the year, she would steal it all.  Conversely, if asked by a woman for the endowment of skill in spinning, she would enable the recipient to do three to four times as much work as other spinners.

Fairy clothing

Logically, of course, fairies had to be able to manufacture cloth and garments.  Their royal courts and nobility are marked for their sumptuary splendour and robes, gowns and other costumes of green are central to many accounts.  It is only really the Dobbies who are habitually naked or dressed in rags.

Nonetheless, this skill is not what might be anticipated, as it seems too settled and domesticated for the wild fairies of uninhibited Nature.  Perhaps the transformation of raw plant or animal materials successively into thread and then into garments was remarkable and impressive enough at some stage to give it an almost magical mystique.  There are sources which lend some support to such a theory.  In Hobgoblin and sweet Puck Gillian Edwards notes that in Sweden the word dverg means both dwarf and spider.  The dwarves too are said to have been famed for their spinning and weaving skills and to have taught these to humans.  The gossamer webs seen in autumn are further evidence of their craft, she suggests.  The miser who spied on the fairies at the Gump near St Just in Cornwall was overpowered and tied up; in the morning he found himself on the moor covered in spiders’ gossamer threads.  From the Isle of Man comes a story of a woman who went to a river bank and called upon the spiders to help her with spinning clothes (Briggs, Dictionary, p.138).  There appears to be here some equation between the almost miraculous manufacture of webs by unseen creatures and fairy abilities.  There could too be some aspect of fairy ‘glamour’ in all this.

Thread and cloth making are not only marvellous, the process may also be perilous according to fairy tales.  On the one hand, fairies may enter your home to carry out these tasks.  Such an intrusion is not just a trespass, but risks too close a contact with these unpredictable beings, and measures had to be taken to prevent it.  Several Manx tales warn how a failure to disengage the drive band on a spinning wheel before retiring to bed enables the fairies to come into a house overnight to use it for their own purposes. By inviting them in, albeit indirectly, you are placing potentially yourself in the power of the ‘Li’l fellas.’ In the Highlands, this precaution was Christianised and it was said that the band should be disengaged on a Saturday night to prevent fairy spinning early on a Sunday (Sabbath) morning.  It was believed to be the solitary female creatures the glaisteag and the gyre-carlin who would most commonly attempt to enter human homes to spin, causing nuisance and considerable noise through the night.

The perils of spinning

The danger of spinning can be greater still, though.  A number of fairy stories pair fairies’ spinning skills with a task imposed upon a human that can be both impossible and fatal if it is not completed.  The British examples are:

  • in Habetrot a girl must prove her female skill at the spinning wheel or face some unspecified punishment by her mother.  A fairy woman named Habetrot (whom Briggs calls the patron spirit of spinning) appears and assists her, along with a team of helpers including Scantlie Mab;
  • in Tom-Tit-Trot a girl has to spin a large quantity of yarn overnight or face beheading by the king.  The imp Tom-Tit-Trot helps her on condition that she belongs to him unless she can guess his name.  Fortunately she overhears it and is saved;
  • Sili-go-Dwt, Trwtyn-Tratyn, Terry-Top, Perrifool and Whuppity-Stoorie are all similar tales in which an elf helps with spinning and demands a forfeit unless its name is guessed;
  • Evans-Wentz relays a tale (p.97) of a girl who is abducted by the sidh folk under a hillock and is told that she will be held there until she has spun all the wool in a large sack and eaten all the meal in a huge chest.  Neither diminish and she faces eternal confinement and labour until another captive soul tells her to rub spit on her left eyelid every morning.  By so doing, she makes daily inroads into the wool and meal and finally escapes;
  • in the story if Welsh girl Eilian (told by John Rhys, Celtic folklore p.212), she was obliged to become the wife of a fairy man when she failed to finish the large quantity of wool he had demanded that she spin.  This would have meant she was trapped in Faery forever and could never have returned home to her family;
  • Addy in Household tales has a couple of similar impossible tasks imposed upon young women.  In one, a cruel old woman imprisons girls to work for her.  One is required to make twenty one shirts in a day- or face being “clammed” (dialect for pinched, that quintessential fairy punishment).  She is assisted by a kindly fairy, who later helps her escape; and,
  • lastly, readers may recall the Grimm’s comparable story of Rumplestiltskin.  A girl is imprisoned by the king in a tower and has to spin straw into gold on pain of death. The eponymous sprite helps her, first in return for her necklace and then demands her first born child- unless she can guess his name.

There is also a curious Scottish ballad called The elfin knight in which the fairies appear to be associated with superlative mastery of the tailoring craft.  A human maid is told that the only way she has any hope of marrying the fairy knight is:

“Thou must shape a serk to me/ Without any cut or heme, quoth he/ Thou must shape it knife and sheerlesse/ And also sew it needle-threedlesse.”

This impossible task is combined with a comparable demand to sow and harvest a field subject to unachievable conditions.  Needless to say the shirt is never made and the girl doesn’t get the boy.

rumpelstiltskin_louisrhead2

The stories listed above link two curious themes.   One is the power of knowing a fairy being’s personal name.  If you possess it, you can overcome and escape the creature; if not, you face perpetual subjection (see too chapter 19 of my British fairies).  Intertwined with this is the obligation to perform an almost unattainable feat on pain of death (or, again, of fairy enslavement).  Quite how these came to be involved with spinning skills is rather hard to explain.  Perhaps there is some notion of exacting a high fee for the teaching of the fairies’ remarkable craft knowledge.

One might offer a Marxist interpretation of these stories, arguing that we have in these stories a critique of the loss of artisan craft-skills through the imposition of mass production and commercial deadlines.  Individuality is lost as the worker is subjected to the anonymous discipline of the factory proletariat, with sanctions for failing to meet the capitalist’s production targets…  There may be some fun to be had here.  Certainly it seems significant that these accounts feature some of the very few individuated and named fairy characters.

Conclusion

In many respects, then, the fairies are just as hard-working as any human.  For their society to function, they need to make their own cloth, build their homes, grow their own food, mine their minerals and forge their own metals.

An expanded version of this text appeared in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide 2020.  See too my 2021 book, How Things Work in Faery.

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Habetrot