Faery Charms- Magical Deeds and Words

‘I saw the banshee flying, wild in the Wind of March…’ Florence Susan Harrison, 1912

I recently described how we can use a variety of substances and objects as charms against fairies.  In this posting, I look at how some actions and words can have a like effect.

Some of the effective actions will be familiar to readers from wider magical practice.  For example, drawing a circle around yourself- especially if an iron or steel point is used to do this- will guard an individual from a range of harms, including malign fairies  Making the sign of the Christian cross is widely believed to be effective in the same manner as, of course, are Christian prayers or the invocation of holy names, typically the trinity, but also individual saints.

Some actions are less explicable.  For example, there is a very peculiar (and frustratingly incomplete) account recorded in Charles Rogers Social Life in Scotland (1886).  He describes how the fairies abducted the wife of the miller of Menstrie but how, when riddling meal one day at the door of his barn, he stood in a particular stance or posture that had the effect of breaking the spell and recovering his spouse.  Rogers doesn’t expand on this, leaving us desperate for details.

More typically, it was forms of words that were effective against the faes (over and above simply blessing yourself and calling on god).  Volume III of Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs) of 1900 contains a range of spoken charms that offer protection against fairies.  Many of these are addressed to individual saints, including as Brigit, Mary, Michael, Peter, James, John and Columba.  Their assistance is sought either against generalised perils or to help with specific threats.

For example, on waking in the morning you can pray to “Ward off the bane of the fairy women” (these ban sith were plainly seen as a persistent danger, as several prayers are concerned with them); the fairies of the knolls (siodach nan cnoc) are also mentioned.  The sith folk as a whole were seen as especially threatening on Thursdays (when a blessing could be intoned against them) and at the time of death, when a person might prayer to be shielded against the evil of the fairies (bho arrais nan sidh). 

More precisely identified risks include fairy arrows or darts (which are mentioned in several prayers) and the fairy host or sluagh.  One notably vivid prayer to Brigit seeks her blessing to ensure that:

“No seed of the fairy host shall lift me,

Nor seed of airy host shall lift me.”

“Cha tog siodach mi

Cha tog sluagach mi”

As well as people, household items and equipment might be protected, as in this blessing for a loom against gruagachs and fairy women: “Bho gach gruagach is ban-sith.”

William Mackenzie also recorded Gaelic Incantations that he heard on the Hebrides before 1895.  He came across a charm against injuries to the spleen and liver by fairies as well as more comprehensive charms guarding against the ‘nine slender fairies’ (‘s air naoi bean seang sithe) or against a more pervasive malign fairy influence:

“We repudiate their evil tricks,

(May) their back be to us,

May their face be from us,

Through merit of the passion and death of our saviour.”

The Mona Miscellany of 1873 records a very similar incantation from the Isle of Man that was to be said at night to protect a home from fairy incursions:

“The peace of God and the peace of man,

The peace of God on Columb Killey,

On each window and each door,

And on every hole admitting moonlight,

And on the place of my rest

And the peace of God on myself.”

Directly comparable to this is a grace that was recorded from a resident of Skye, Farquhar Beaton, during the 1840s, when he was one hundred years old.  Nightly he prayed for protection for the old and young, wives and children, sheep and cattle against the ‘power and dominion of the fairies’ (o churnhach agus cheannas nan sithichean).  Some might perhaps question the credulity of the people saying such prayers, but as Beaton himself said- “My own two eyes beheld them; my own two ears heard them” (Mo dhu shuil fein a chunnaic iad; mo dha chluas fein a chual iad.)  He’d seen the threat and he was taking no chances…

One thing to bear in mind with all of these charms, I am sure, is the need to repeat them in the exact form in which they have been formulated.  The Isle of Man also supplies a very good example of this, which is to be found in Dora Broome’s Fairy Tales of the Isle of Man.  A man wanted to find a fynoderee to help cure his sickly cow and his wife told him a charm to repeat to lure one out of a tree and into his power:

“Fynoderee, fynoderee

Come down, for I can see.”

The being would then follow the husband anywhere, but she warned him to cross himself three times immediately afterwards, for fear of butcheragh (witchcraft, or bad magic).  Of course, the husband forgot the gesture to go with the words, and bad luck followed: his cow recovered, but it then disappeared along with the fynoderee- and all the other animals and birds living on the farm.

A fynoderee, after Brian Froud

For more on protections against faeries, see my Darker Side of Faery (2021). My Manx Faeries examines the fynoderee and other beings from the Isle of Man in more detail.

Fairy Nature in the Celtic Countries

Cinzia Marotta 2
by Cinzia Marotta

One of the staple texts for many of us interested in faery lore is Evans Wentz’ 1911 Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.  I have often cited from it in my postings, because it contains a wealth of interviews, carried out during the first decade of the last century, with elderly country people who were still close to fairy traditions.

Recently, I was referred back to this valuable book by something else I had been reading and reread a section I’d not examined so closely before.  A Welsh informant, John Jones, a bard from Ynys Mon (Anglesey), described the tylwyth teg as “a kind of spirit race from a spirit world.”  This phrase struck me and set me searching for all the views on the ‘Nature of Fairies’ that Evans Wentz had collected.

What I summarise here are the opinions of over four dozen individuals whom Evans Wentz interviewed when preparing his book.  I have included here only the witnesses from Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man and Cornwall, in line with my ‘British Fairies’ focus.  What emerges are differences between the different ‘Celtic’ nations, as well as various common ideas.  Almost everyone agreed that the fairies were a type of spirit, but beliefs as to their exact nature differed across Britain.  There were also some religious and ‘learned’ interpretations that were encountered everywhere in the British Isles.  I’ll deal with these briefly first.

Informed Opinion

A number of widely respected and accepted theories have explained fairy origins for several centuries.  Inevitably, they were repeated to Evans Wentz.

The Christian church proved surprisingly accommodating to fairy belief: in fact, one minister in Montgomeryshire suggested that “God allowed them to appear in times of great ignorance to convince people of the existence of an invisible world.” (p.146)

The idea that the fairies were the fallen angels trapped between heaven and hell when their gates were closed following Lucifer’s rebellion was a popular explanation mentioned to Evans Wentz by over half a dozen of his interviewees.  Another religious theory, that is often found in sources, was recounted to him by an elderly woman in Carmarthen: she understood that the fairies were members of a very large family that had been hidden from Jesus once when he visited their mother.  Because she had been ashamed that she had twenty children, and had concealed some of them, he turned them into fairies and they were never seen by her again (p.153).

John Davies of Ballasalla on Man, a herb doctor and seer, meanwhile told Wentz that the fairies were “the lost souls of the people who died before the flood.”  Summarising Davies’ evidence, Wentz said he was sure that his interlocutor’s visions were genuine, but that “whatever he may have seen has been very much coloured in interpretation by his devout knowledge of the Christian bible, and by his social environment.” (p.123)

Scientific explanations were also offered, reflecting the latest thinking of the period.  A couple of informants mentioned the theory of MacRitchie that fairies were memories of pygmy former races inhabiting Britain; another couple of the more middle class and better-read contacts described them as ‘astral’ beings, borrowing from contemporary Theosophy and Spiritualism.

Frances Tolmie, native of Skye, had this to say to Wentz on these sorts of ideas, though.  She believed the fairy faith was very ancient but that “With the loss of Gaelic in our times came the loss of folk-ideals.  The classical and English influences combined had a killing effect, so that the instinctive religious feeling which used to be among our people when they kept alive the fairy traditions is dead.  We have intellectually constructed creeds and doctrines which take its place.” (p.99)

Miss Tolmie was evidently pessimistic as well as very wise, but there was still plenty of traditional information to gather.

Cinzia Marotta 3
by Cinzia Marotta

Scotland

The general view in Scotland was that the sith are a tribe or race of spirits, who can appear to us in the likeness of men and women (p.105).  However, a clear distinction was made between the fairies living under the hills and those who are numbered amongst the aerial host or sluagh.  As Marian MacLean of Barra stated, “they are both spirits of the dead and other spirits not the dead.” (p.109) The sluagh comprises the souls or ghosts of the dead; the sith living under the knolls are spirits of another kind.  This is very clear and Sir Walter Scott seemed to say something very similar.  He recorded a story of a woman who was abducted and conveyed underground (“to secret recesses”) where she recognised someone ‘who had been mortal but had been trapped’ (by eating the food there).  Evidently this individual is not exactly, dead, nor fully living any longer (Scott, The Lady of the Lake, pp.107-111).

For Scottish witnesses, this dichotomy raised further questions: as I’ve described in a post on the fairy host, people are often snatched up by the sluagh or may enter a fairy hill and join a dance.  How, physically, did this work?  John MacNeil of Barra stated firmly “when they took people they took body and soul together.”  Murdoch MacLean, who lived on the same island, seemed to agree “the fairies had a mighty power of enchanting natural people, and could transform the physical body in some way.”  Humans, as corporeal beings, may enter a spirit world, but it needs magic to do so.  (pp.102 & 113)

Wales

It was agreed in Wales that fairies were a spirit race with human characteristics, who might be seen by some people, but not by others, and who might appear or disappear at will.

The Reverend Josiah Jones of Machynlleth described the tylwyth teg as “living beings halfway between something material and spiritual.”  Mr D. Davies-Williams of Montgomery said they were “a real race of invisible or spiritual beings living in an invisible world of their own.” (p.145) The Reverend T. M. Morgan, of Newhcurch near Carmarthen, also stated that they “live in some invisible world to which children on dying might go to be rewarded or punished, according to their behaviour on this earth.” We have to note the reverend gentleman’s rather unorthodox notion of heaven, here. (p.150)

Louis Foster Edwards of Harlech also tried to define Faery: “The world in which they lived was a world quite unlike ours, and mortals taken to it by them were changed in nature.” ( my italics; p.144) They were visitors only to our world, having no homes here, said David Williams JP of Carmarthen.  He also stated that the tylwyth teg were “aerial beings [who] could fly and move about in the air at will.  They were a special order of creation.”

This was the nature of the tylwyth teg; as for their origins, Wentz’ Welsh informants believed that they might be the spirits of virtuous Druids or the ghosts of prehistoric races. (pp.147 & 148)

Cinzia Marotta Reddish spirit
Reddish Spirit by Cinzia Marotta

Isle of Man

The spiritual nature of the ‘Little People’ (the mooinjer veggey) was accepted by Wentz’ Manx informants.  They were perhaps ghosts or the spirits of dead people; one witness termed them ‘Middle World Men,’ who weren’t good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell. This concept of ‘intermediate’ status closely echoes one of the reports from Wales (pp.117 & 124).

Cornwall

In Cornwall, too, the spiritual nature of the pixies was affirmed repeatedly to Evans Wentz.  There were several ideas as to their origins.  They were, perhaps, the souls of the ancient inhabitants of the land (pp.169 & 176), much as was proposed to him in Wales.  They may have been ghosts or the dead returned (pp.172 & 179); they may also have been the souls of children who were still-born (p.183).

Rather like in Wales, there was also evidence of the idea that the pixies did not really belong in our world.  John Guy, a fisherman from Sennen, recalled how his mother had said “they are a sort of people wandering about the world with no home or habitation.”  In the same vein, John Male of Delabole described them as “a race of little people who live out in the fields.” (pp.182 & 184).

Summary

 A number of important points emerge from this overview of the witnesses’ evidence.  It was widely understood throughout Britain that Faery was a separate and materially different place, or state, of being; it was seen to be a different dimension, as we might say today.

The major variation upon this was Scotland, as we’ve seen.  This ambivalence can, in fact, be detected as far back as the seventeenth century.  In various witch trials we hear the fairies described as- for example- the “earthles king and earthles quene” (Janet Anderson, Stirling, 1621) or “unearthlische creatures” or “uneardlie wights” (Stephen Maltman, Gargunnock, 1628).  Yet, at the same time, other accused persons could claim to have had bodily experiences such as “going with the farie twyse” (Marable Couper, Orkney, 1628) and the sexual relationships I have described before.

Following from the perception of fairies as beings of another world, people struggled to understand how contact with faery affected humans.  We have examined the risks of eating fairy food: how exactly was a physical being affected by the consumption of spirit sustenance?  It is clear that people who are taken by the fairies will experience some kind of transformation, at least temporarily; proximity to spirits and their spirit world can, however, have longer lasting effects, as I have described several times, which are both psychological as well as physiological.

Riding humans- a fairy pastime

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

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

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Faery Ridden

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

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

Hag Ridden

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

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

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

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

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

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Summary

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

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

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

darker side

Carried Away: flying with the sluagh

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Daniel MacDonald, ‘The Fairy Wind (Sidhe Gaoithe)

The sluagh are the fairy host in the folklore of the Scottish Highlands.  In this region of Britain people may be abducted by being taken inside a fairy hill (a tomhan) or they may be snatched up and carried away by the sluagh.  I touched on this subject briefly in my posting on elf-shots, but return to it in more detail now.

‘Them’

The sluagh, or fairy host, is known by several names in Gaelic, all of which give us some clue as to their nature or origin.  Lewis Spence calls them the sluagh eotrom, meaning the ‘light’ or ‘aery’ host.  This may reflect their flight through the air, or even their physical nature.  The Reverend Kirk, meanwhile, distinguishes between the sluagh saoghalta and the sluagh sith.  The latter is the ‘fairy host’ and the former the ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ host.  If we understand that ‘sluagh’ more broadly denotes people or population, this makes sense of what Kirk says next: “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged.” In other words, once earthly people die, they join the fairy host instead (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, ‘Succinct Accompt,’ 9 (10)).

Flying with the Sluagh

We can learn something more from actual experiences of contact with the host.  John MacPhee of Uist was outside his house one night when he heard a sound coming from the West (a notoriously fay direction) like the breaking of the sea.  He saw a mass of small men coming in a crowd from that direction and suddenly felt hot, as if a crowd of people had surrounded him and were pressing in, breathing upon him.  Then he was carried off at great speed, flying through the air to the graveyard at Dalibrog, seventeen miles distant.  For a moment or two he was set down, and the sensation of heat left him.  Then the host returned, he felt hot again, and was carried back to his home. After this experience, MacPhee became sickly and thin.  The man was evidently ‘elf-addled:’ he suffered some of the typical physical effects of fairy contact and, although the author of the account refers to the host as ‘the dead,’ their living physicality seems very much to contradict this description.  The same is true perhaps for those people who are taken repeatedly by the sluagh.  Physical mistreatment by the host can be a common experience, with victims being ‘rolled, dragged and trounced in mud and mire and pools.’  This can leave them terrorised and in extreme exhaustion and is often fatal.

The mass nature of the sluagh is apparent.  They travel in a multitude- according to one Scottish witness “in great clouds, up and down the face of the world like starlings.” As will be seen from subsequent testimonies, comparisons to flocks of birds or beasts are common.  For instance, on Barra Evans Wentz was told that the host went about at midnight, travelling in fine weather against the wind like a covey of birds (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 108).

How they fly

The host travels across the land by several means.  They can use whirlwinds, as Scottish witch suspect, Bessie Dunlop, attested.  She had been visited by twelve fairy folk who left her in “ane hideous uglie sowche of wind.” A sowche is a sough, a rushing or whistling.  This suggests violence, but in the Scottish Highlands these eddies of wind are also called the oiteag sluagh, the host’s breeze, suggestive of something more gentle.

The host can also travel on objects imbued with faery glamour, such as bulrushes, docks, ragwort and withered grass stems.  Humans who witness this can imitate the fairies’ actions and transfer their magic power to other items on which to fly, such as ploughs or loom beams.  Physical travel is not necessary, though, for a man in Sutherland was taken in spirit one night by the sluagh, even after his friends had forcibly restrained his body to try to prevent his abduction.  If a person is called to travel with the sluagh, there is no denying the summons.  In another instance, a man on Skye saw the host approaching and begged his friend to hold him tightly to prevent his abduction. Despite the friend’s best efforts, the victim began to ‘hop and dance’ before rising off the ground and being carried a couple of miles.

Why they fly

The reason for these journeys seems to be uniformly malicious.  The primary aim is to abduct humans, and secondary purposes are shooting elf-bolts at people and livestock or stealing human property- usually food and drink.  Some trows flew all the way from Shetland to Norway to abduct a newly married woman, for example, and some fairies in Moray conveyed a man to Paris, although much more local journeys are far more typical (Evans Wentz, 106).

Another reason for the host’s flight is to meet with enemies and to fight them.  There are numerous accounts of the hosts battling in the sky on cold and frosty nights (and especially at Halloween), leaving pools of blood (fuil nan sluagh) on the ground in the morning as testimony to their violent slaughter (Evans Wentz, 91).

Flight might be used to hunt or take people or animals, but the experience of flight itself might be sufficiently unpleasant to be a punishment in itself.  A minister in Ross-shire in Scotland had spoken slightingly of the fairies and they exacted their revenge by picking him up and carrying him head over heels through the air.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe
John Duncan, The Riders of the Sidhe; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection

Defence against the Sluagh

The accounts so far, especially that of the man taken despite the best efforts of his friends to prevent it, might suggest that the sluagh are pretty much invincible and irresistible.  This is not the case, fortunately.  Very simple measures can defeat them.  Two abductions of women on the Isle of Arran were prevented by means of casting a reaping hook up into the mass of little people as they passed overhead, ‘like a swarm of bees.’  Being iron, this instantly released the captive being carried away.  Likewise, the use of Christian blessings is effective: a Shetland man flew with the host on a rush by imitating their spell (“Up hors, up hedik, up well ridden bolwind”) and he found himself taken with them to a cottage where a woman was in labour.  The plan was to take the new mother if she sneezed three times and no one ‘sained’ her.  She sneezed, but the man riding with the trows said ‘bless you’ and prevented her abduction.

These are magical defences; physical means of resistance tend to be much less certain and more risky.  Some men were tending the herds at Cornaigbeg Farm on Tiree when they heard something passing them on the road.  It sounded like a flock of sheep passing, but one of the dogs became very agitated and chased after it.  Eventually the poor hound returned- it had lost all its hair and was torn and bloody, dying soon afterwards.  As we’ve seen before, dogs and fairies frequently don’t mix.

Summary

The faeries have several means of flight– and several types of motion– so that riding straws or moving in a whirlwind are just a sample of their ways of getting about.  For more on abductions, the sluagh and The Darker Side of Faery, see my 2021 book of that title:

darker side

“Shoot that poison arrow”- elf bolts & abductions

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The Reverend Robert Kirk, in The Secret Commonweath, makes some fascinating remarks about the fairies’ habit of shooting ‘elf-arrows’ at people:

“Those who are unseened or unsanctified (called Fey) are said to be pierced or wounded with those People’s Weapons, which makes them do somewhat verie unlike their former Practice, causing a sudden Alteration, yet the Cause thereof unperceavable at present; nor have they Power (either they cannot make use of their natural Powers, or ask’t not the heavenly Aid) to escape the Blow impendent…

They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life … leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts.” (chapter 8)

Two features of his account are especially striking: one is how the arrows change the character of the people that they strike; the second is Kirk’s later observation that cattle hit by the fairy arrows can be healed by the laying-on of hands.

The firing of elf-bolts was a practice especially associated with the so-called saighead sith (the archer fairies) who are numbered amongst the sluagh sith or fairy host.  They will fly over the length and breadth of the land at night, picking off their chosen targets as they go.

As Kirk indicates, the fairy arrows are used by the sith not as a way of killing people or cattle but as a means of abducting victims.  Numerous examples of this may be found.  For example, the practice is described in the Shetland ballad, King Orfeo, which is a version of the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo.  In the ballad-

“The king, he has a-huntin’ gane
An’ left his lady all alane
The Elfin King wi’ his dairt
Pierced his lady tae the hert…”

In one reported example, a woman at Glen Cannel on Mull was shot and replaced by a log of alderwood.  To earthly eyes these victims appear to have died, but in reality, they have been taken.  Women were an especial target, but in a case from Gortan in Argyll a cooper was the subject as the fairies needed some barrels to be made.  Scottish witch suspect Jonet Morrison explained that “quhen they are schott ther is no recoverie for it and if the schott be in the heart they died presently but if be not at the heart they will die in a while with it yet will at least die with it…”  In other words, it’s always fatal.

Witch-suspect Isobel Gowdie, interrogated in 1662, gave a similar account:

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

Folklore authority J. G. Campbell recorded that the strike would take the power from the person’s limbs, so that they could not defend themselves or escape.  Sometimes, they would not die but rather fall ill, in which cases they would have been replaced with an elderly elf who inhabited their body and received care in the victim’s stead.

Cattle were taken in the same manner.  When the elf-bolt struck a cow, it would be found in distress, rolling its eyes and bawling as if suffering from a malignant cramp.  If the shot was not instantly fatal it would leave an indentation on the skin that slowly killed the beast.  Either way, when it died, it was not in fact dead but rather an effigy had been left behind and the cow itself had been taken to the fairy knoll to milk.  Likewise, a living semblance of a cow might be left behind, but it would eat and drink prodigiously without fattening or producing milk.

Sometimes shooting with a bolt is inflicted not for the purposes of abduction but in order to punish the human.  The fairies might take offence over some perceived slight by a person or they might feel that their moral code has been breached.  For example, a couple at Herbusta on Skye were reaping by moonlight.  The husband was struck by a bolt because the fairies objected to them being out in the field at night (presumably because they considered it their time of day).

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Weaponry

Elf-bolts have every resemblance to Neolithic flint arrows.  According to witch-suspect Isobel Gowdie, they are made by the devil, who roughs out the shape before passing them to elf-boys who finish them off using some sharp instrument like a needle to knap the sharp edges and point.

There was some difference of opinion as to how the bolts were fired.  Some saw them as being just like human arrows. Poet Cromek rather fancifully described how the bows were made from the ribs of men who had been buried at spots where three lairds’ lands met, the quivers were made from the sloughed skin of adders and the shafts were fashioned from the stems of bog-reeds.  According to Isobel Gowdie the arrow points were not fired at all, but were rather flipped forcefully from the thumbnail.

The oddest aspect of the sluagh’s hunting expeditions was the fact that the fairies themselves could not fire their own arrows at their intended victims.  They had to take a mortal with them to perform this act for them.  Numerous sources confirm this curious disability.  For example, in one story from the Highlands, a man saw the fairies making a bow and knew that this was for him and that they were about to carry him off.  He begged his friends to hold him tightly so that he could not be taken, but it happened anyway.  The disadvantage with this reliance is that the human hunter was often reluctant to shot the targets, often because they knew the person selected.  For instance, in the case of the woman from Glen Cannel on Mull, the man taken by the sluagh first shot at a lamb, which rose through the window out of the woman’s house.  The faes were not pleased and he was forced by them to shoot again.  In other cases reported, the human captive would deliberately miss or shot a sheep and a hen instead.  As Isobel Gowdie said: “Som tymes we misse; bot if they twitch [touch], be it beast or man or woman, it will kill, tho they had an jack [mail-coat] upon them.”  She went on, with clear regret: “Bot that quhich troubles my conscience most, is the killing of several persones, with the arrowes quhich I gott from the divell.”

Defences

Given the constant threat of being shot and taken, what could the human population do to protect themselves?  There were several lines of defence, luckily enough.

Firstly, there were charms that could be recited to protect person and property.  On the island of South Uist, for example, a ‘herding blessing’ was sung whilst tending the cattle.  It asked St Bridget to protect the stock against a variety of dangers, including “the arrows of the slim fairy women” (o saighde nam ban seaga sith).”  At his trial for witchcraft in 1607 ‘fairy doctor’ Bartie Paterson confessed to invoking the holy trinity to guard cattle against “arrowschot” amongst other types of ‘shot’ directed at them.  In the Outer Hebrides, a person would be protected outside if they carried with them a sieve in one hand and a piece of coal in the other.  If you were able to come by an elf bolt that had previously been fired, simply carrying that with you was thought to be a complete defence against being struck yourself.

There are various practical steps that can be taken to diminish the risk that you will ever become the target of an attack by the sluagh.  It’s believed that the host (and fairies generally) will make their approach from the west.  That being the case, leaving westerly windows open after sunset is always a bad idea, because it tempts the sluagh to shoot arrows in, especially if a cow is being milked beside that window.  Another protection, which is useful where a window is needed for ventilation, is to place an iron bar across it.  Then, the iron will stop fairies and fairy arrows from entering.

Cattle ploughing are deemed a particular target, but there are simple precautions that can be taken, even out in the fields.  Both in Durham, in the North of England, and in Scotland, the practice was to put a bend in the furrows when the fields were being ploughed.  The reason for this was said to be that the fairies aimed along the ridges when trying to strike the oxen.  The curve simply but effectively ruined their aim.

If, despite charms and physical measures, a cow or a person was still struck, there were various cures that could be administered.  In many communities a ‘fairy doctor’ would be able to detect when sickness arose from being shot with a dart and could then prescribe a remedy.  On Shetland, for example, the suspected ‘trow-shot’ cow would be felt all over.  If a dimple, marking the site where the bolt hit, was located, a page of the Bible would be rolled up tightly and put into the depression for a little while.  Then it was removed, and with it the cattle’s affliction went.  Washing the injured cow, or giving it water to drink in which an old elf-arrow had been steeped, were other tried and tested remedies.  Putting tar between the cows’ horns was also, apparently, helpful.

For more on this subject and on the ‘Darker Side of Faery,’ see my 2021 book:

How heavy are fairies?

iro tulip

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite- Bubble fairy with tulip

There has been a long running debate about the physicality and corporeality of the faes. Some see the faes as being as solid and tangible as us; others conceive the fairies as verging on the weightless.  One witness from Newcastle upon Tyne has felt fairies dancing on her hair and clothing.  A Manx woman felt them walk on her, “as light as cats.”  It is well known that one Scottish word for the faes is the ‘sluagh’- the airborne host- one version of which is sluagh eutram- the light folk.

Others have taken this notion further, shrinking the fairies and reducing their weight correspondingly.  Staying in the Highlands, an alternative euphemism for the faes might be daoine beaga- the little people.  Another Manx witness confirmed that they were, indeed, “very little and very light.” A Hampshire woman described the flower fairies in her garden as:

“so tiny and so luminous that the very air seems lighter as I sense them.  They seem to me to have slight little bodies with gossamer wings.”

Famed Scottish painter of mythical and faery themes, John Duncan, met the faes repeatedly on the island of Iona.  During one encounter he noted that:

“Their feet did not bend the thick heather over which they walked and they made no sound as they passed close…”

John Rhys has published a very similar account from Wales, describing the tylwyth teg dancing on the tips of rushes (Celtic Folklore, p.83).

Fairies may be very small, but are they insubstantial? Can we put our hands through them? Can they pass through solid obstacles?  Some sightings suggest just this- that they can vanish into walls and banks and that we could never catch them because our bodies pass right through theirs. Evans Wentz relates the story of an Anglesey woman who walked with a fairy lady one night; she tried to touch her but her hand went right through (Fairy faith, p.141).

Definitely in the ‘aery nothings’ camp was Yorkshire writer Durant Hotham.  In chapter two of his Life of Jacob Behmen (1654) he observed that:

“nor is the Aery region disfurnisht of its Inhabitant Spirits; [which include] that far more numerous Progeny of Aerial Spirits, lodg’d in Vehicles of a thinner spun thread than is (otherwise than by condensation) visible to our dim sight.”

The Reverend Robert Kirk maintained much the same a few years later.  He said that fairies had “light changable Bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed Cloud.”  It is because these bodies of ‘congealed air’ are so pliable and subtle that the fairies can appear or disappear at pleasure (Secret commonwealth c.1).

fair seesaw

See-saw by Dorothy Wheeler- empirical proof that children weigh more than fairies…

Sightings

These general statements are complemented by the testimony of actual witnesses.  Fairies seen in dancing in the moonlight near Stowmarket in Suffolk during the 19th century were described as being “light and shadowy, not like solid bodies.”  The Reverend Edmund Jones, describing eighteenth century Gwent, told the story of a girl who used to dance in a barn with some of the tylwyth teg on her way to and from school.  She took off her shoes to do so, because otherwise she made a noise which seemed displeasing to them and because she never heard their feet when they were dancing.  These faes appear to be very light, therefore.  The same seems to be the case in our last example.  Two boys from the Isle of Man met a fairy man on the road once; he was only 5-6 inches tall and, when they tried to catch him, he flew off, leaving no footprints in the dust.  A Manx witness even went so far as to allege that the island fairies have “no body and no bones.”

Other witnesses attest on the contrary to the tangible solidity of fairies.  A girl from Kent met a fairy man leading a horse in her garden.  He put his hand on her wrist “and his touch was cool, not cold like a fish or a lizard but much cooler than a human touch.”  In a second incident told to Marjorie Johnson, a young woman walking her dogs near Minehead in Somerset surprised two pixies in an oak wood.  They ran away from her into a hollow in an oak tree and, in their haste to dart inside, they forgot to duck their heads.  Both knocked off their hats, which Miss Voss-Bark picked up and took home; they were tiny cones made of wood and permanent proof of her encounter.

Especially convincing is another account from the Isle of Man.  A woman from Ballasalla told George Waldron how her ten-year-old daughter had met a large crowd of little people up on the mountains.  Some had tried to abduct her, but others in the group had objected to this and had tried to protect her and the two sides had fallen to fighting.  Some of the other fairies then spanked her for causing dissension.  When she got home, she had distinct prints of tiny hands on her buttocks, visible proof of the veracity of her unhappy experience.

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Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Daisies

Implications

The answer to the debate over the solidity or insubstantiality of fairies will resolve many other puzzles over their nature.

Those who have claimed to have had sexual relationships with faes must, almost inevitably, be proponents of the ‘solid and fleshly’ view of fairy nature.  Likewise, I think, must be the case those who have acted as midwives or nurse maids to fairy infants- and the same for those children who were abducted as their playmates or the adults who were taken to act as cooks and suchlike domestic skivvies in fairyland.

Other such questions over physicality can have two resolutions.   For example, if we wonder what food they might eat, we can either accept that their diet is the same as ours- or instead we can tend to the view that they extract the substance (the foyson or toradh) without taking the foodstuff itself.

We are very familiar with the thought of fairies flying, but there are also reports of them gliding or floating, too; something which is strongly suggestive of lightness or even weightlessness.  For instance, in 1922 seven year old Penny Storey was living in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.  As she lay in bed one summer evening, a female being between twelve and thirteen inches high suddenly appeared and glided past her window.

“Her arms were outstretched sideways, and her feet gracefully together… No wings were visible… She simply floated, quite slowly, vertically downwards through the air.”

Jennifer George, from Cornwall, saw something comparable in her bedroom as a girl.  A bubble of steady yellow-white light floated about four feet above the floor before gliding out of the window and disappearing.

Some of these figures lack wings but still move effortlessly in the air: “They had no wings but still seemed to dive through the air at a good speed.”  Others possess them but do not need to employ them: ballet dancer Betty Lambert, as an adult and with an adult companion, saw a fairy in a bedroom “whose outstretched wings seemed motionless as it floated out into the night…”

Fairies don’t just drift about weightlessly, though.  A Mrs Shirley Eshelby of Carbis Bay in Cornwall witnessed a fay dancing in her bedroom early one morning: “although she appeared to me to be dancing in space, she was evidently stepping on something that was solid to her feet, because she never danced below a certain level.  When departing she skipped away, touching the invisible line with her tiny, naked feet.”  Other fairies, seen in the Home Counties in 1970, “ran on air as if on the ground…”  These examples are perhaps more indicative of the fays inhabiting a separate dimension than being incorporeal, but they do imply that, in this world, they do not experience gravity in the same way as we do.  (Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.46, 94, 167, 171, 182, 186 & 304)

The evidence is just as ambivalent when it comes to determining how fairies can vanish from our sight- as they do extremely frequently.  Is this is a process of physical dissolution- or is it just the application of glamour- or magical deception?  Have they gone, or have they simply rendered themselves invisible but are still there?

Contemporary accounts in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provide support for both schools of thought.  There are numerous mentions of faes simply disappearing.  However, in some cases they seem to melt away before witnesses’ eyes.  Those who saw fairies often said that they ‘faded away,’ a process suggestive of a less fleshly nature than our own.  One fay “dissolved into a sunbeam, slowly;” another “quivered away.”  It can be a gradual process: one man watched a group of fairies “grow lighter, insubstantial, and more like a cinema film” and it can involve the fay appearing and disappearing piece by piece. In one Manx account a crowd of fairies met on the road by three people in a horse-drawn cart simply “melted away” as the travellers got nearer.  (Johnson pp.173, 240, 299, 305 & 309; Evans Wentz p.126)

By contrast, there are also plenty of incidents reported to Johnson in which the fairy neither vanished nor dissolved.  Rather, in order to get away, they had to run.  We’ve already seen the incident with the pixies’ lost hats; fleeing into bushes, behind trees and through hedges are all mentioned.  Beings who need to make a dash for cover quite obviously are as solid and real as we are- and don’t have extensive magical abilities either.

Further reading

As well as my previous postings on fairy bodies and solidity, see too chapter 1 of my British fairies.  I also discuss fairy physiology in detail in my forthcoming book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide, early 2020).

iro- tightrope

 

‘Horse and hattock’- Fairy motion- Part Two

Scott Ariel & Caliban

David Scott, Ariel and Caliban, 1837.

In a previous post I examined evidence indicating that the fays have a distinctive gliding motion.  Implicit in that is the possibility that they may be hovering above the surface of the ground, rather than being in contact and taking steps.  It sounds from the reports as though they may not actually be flying, nor are they walking.  In this post I return to the subject and pull together all the clues in traditional folklore on the subject of fairy locomotion.

Since the eighteenth century it has become very difficult to conceive of fairies without also picturing wings.  Winged fairies are now consistently seen by witnesses- as in the recent Fairy Census- but the older folklore generally doesn’t describe them like this.  How they get about then is not clear.

Fairies on foot

We know that the brownies definitely get around on foot.  For instance, there’s a common story of a devoted domestic sprite in Scotland who walked daily from his dwelling to the house to which he was attached, crossing a stream by stepping stones on the way.  One day, when the weather was bad and the water levels had risen, the people in the house didn’t expect to see him because the river was too treacherous to cross- but he impressed them with his commitment to his duties by walking a long distance out of his way in order to cross by a bridge.  Plainly, if levitation or flight had been an option- he would have used it.

We also hear of fairies moving house.  When they do so, they tend to move in a conventional human manner, with horses and carts.  In one sighting from Sutherland during the late 1860s the witness saw three carts laden with furniture and other household possessions being dragged over the moorland where there was no road and in a direction in which no human habitation lay.  When the church bells drove the pixies out of their home at Withypool on Exmoor, they borrowed a local farmer’s horse and cart to make the move.  Various other isolated mentions of fays using carts and carriages can be found.

The same methods are, of course, used when the fairies decide to abandon a place.  On the Isle of Man, when the flour mill was built at Colby, the local fairies gave up their former haunts.  Early one morning they were seen climbing up into the mists and solitude of the mountain glens, with their household goods on their backs.

The only exception to these very mundane images comes from the Reverend Robert Kirk.  In The secret commonwealth he described in chapter two how:

“They remove to other Lodgings at the Beginning of each Quarter of the Year … Their chamælion-lyke Bodies swim in the Air near the Earth with Bag and Bagadge…”

This quaint image is certainly highly suggestive of that floating motion I described in my previous posting.  Nonetheless, there’s no suggestion of ‘teleporting’ from one location to another, nor of flight as such.

It’s worth mentioning here too the fact that some fays will also put to sea in boats, whether for pleasure trips or for fishing. Either way, they are expected to be tied to exactly the same forms of locomotion as humans.

Mounted fairies

Besides wagons and coaches, another very well known use of horses by the fairies is in the so-called ‘fairy rade’ in which the group often termed the ‘trooping fairies’ process about the countryside.  Fairies will also hunt on horseback  and there are frequent reports of this- especially from the Isle of Man.  Yet again, though, there is some suggestion here of weightlessness.  Describing the Nithsdale fairies, Cromek said that they rode steeds “whose hoof would not print the new ploughed land or dash the dew from the crop of a harebell” and that they never deviated from straight lines in their travels, going straight through hedges and across corn fields to their destinations without leaving a trace on the crops.

The fairies keep their own horses, but they will also ride human steeds at night (tying their manes in ‘elf-locks’ and on the Isle of Man they’ve even been known to commandeer people to ride around on).

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Richard Doyle

Flying fairies?

The nearest we come to some indication of winged flight is a couple of Victorian descriptions of encounters.  An example from West Yorkshire dates to about 1850.  A man called Henry Roundell, of Washburn Dale near Harrogate, got up early one day to hoe his turnips.  When he reached the field, he was astonished to discover that every row was being hoed by a host of tiny men in green, all of them singing in shrill cracked voices “like a lot of field crickets.”   As soon as he tried to climb over the stile into the field, they fled ‘like flocks of partridges.’  Another nineteenth century account from nearby Ilkley tells of a crowd of fairies surprised whilst bathing in the local spa baths.  The caretaker of the wells cried out in astonishment and “away the whole tribe went, helter skelter, toppling and tumbling, head over heels, heels over heeds, and all the while making a noise not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges.”  As they fled there was a whirring noise, which sounds very like startled wings, but we are told that “the fairies were “bounding over the walls like squirrels.”  In fact, if you look closely at both accounts, there’s no suggestion that they actually flew away like birds- merely that the startled commotion sounded similar to this.

Some fays (hobs and pixies) can transform themselves into birds, as we have see when discussing fairy shapeshifters, but this is a rare ability and is definitely not a widespread means of travel.

Magical flight

Can fairies fly then?  The answer is- yes, but not with wings.  The vast majority of British fairies have never been believed to have wings, in any case, but they don’t need them because they (or certain groups of them at least) can get around very well without.  They are able to fly through the air by magical means; there seem to be three or four separate ways of achieving this.

One is by means of a simple spell.  Various forms of words are recorded: naming the location to which you want to go might be enough in some cases.  On other occasions, a magic formula is required, and the commonest of which we hear is the cry of “Horse and hattock!”  It’s never made clear why these words are used, but we can hazard a few guesses.  It’s known that fays can enchant plant stems to ride like horses through the air.  For example Scottish poet Alexander Montgomerie mentions “When our good nighbours doe ryd … Some buckled on a bunwand, and some on a been” in his verse The Flyting between Montgomerie and Polwart (1585).  Now, a hattock is no longer an everyday word in English, but it means a sheaf or stook of corn, so perhaps what we have here is a spell to turn a wheat or barley stem into a mount.  There is of course an evident connection with witches’ broomsticks here, although it seems the fairies have a great deal more choices of flight available to them.

In Scotland and Ireland the fairy host, the sluagh, ride around the night sky, sometimes transporting hapless humans with them.  It seems that this is how they get about, as no other form of transport is ever mentioned.  For example, Sandy Gunn, of Houstry, near Dunbeath in the far north of Scotland, set out one summer morning sometime in the 1870s to visit his sister Betty.  He never arrived at her house and did not return home in the evening.  In fact, it wasn’t until the middle of the next day that he appeared, with a strange tale to tell.  Walking up a hill called Cnoc-an-Crask he’d felt a gentle breeze.  He’d lost his footing and been carried up into the air.  All day and all night he flew across the country, before being gently returned to the same spot the next morning.  In this case the flight seems to have been used mischievously (or even, perhaps, as a treat for the hapless human).  In another case the flight is pure mischief, teasing and scaring the victim.  A man at Fleshwick on the Isle of Man was caught up one night and transported over the fields until he got to the cliff edge, where the fays suddenly deposited him.

Flight could also be used as a punishment against one who’d offended or annoyed the sith.  A Perthshire herdsman who had prevented the fairies carrying off a newborn child and its mother was promptly carried off through the air for six or seven miles and back again before being unceremoniously dropped down through the smoke hole of his father’s cottage.  Here the aerial abduction is plainly a punishment for thwarting the fairies’ wills.

Similar stories come from Wales, too, and from them we learn that this form of flight is not necessarily pleasant for the human taken along.  The Welsh fairies travel either above, in the middle of or below the wind.  Above is a giddy and terrible sensation, whilst below involves being dragged through bush and brake.  This was plainly the  experience of one man whose case was described by the Reverend Edmund Jones in the late eighteenth century.  A hunting party visited a pub kept by Richard the tailor, “one who resorted to the company of fairies.”  One of the group went outside to relieve himself and was snatched up by a passing fairy band.  He was with them all night, being carried all the way from Monmouthshire to Newport and back again.  When he reappeared the next morning he “looked like he’d been pulled through thorns and briars.”  He felt very ill and said that for part of his journey he had been insensible.  Evidently he had been travelling below the wind (Jones, The appearance of evil, no.68).

A very similar – and vivid- description was given by Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of witchcraft of 1584 (Book III, c.IV):

“many such have been taken away by the said spirits for a fortnight or a month together, being carried with them in chariots through the air, over hills and dales, rocks and precipices, and passing over many countries and nations in the silence of the night, bereaved of their sense and commonly of their members to boot.”

The flying ‘chariots’ is a unique feature (although, as stated, we sometimes hear of ordinary terrestrial carriages and coaches) but Scot’s depiction of the effect of these prolonged aerial abductions certainly fits very well with the Rev. Jones’.  A Manx commentator described those taken as being carried ‘insensible’ through the sky.  Doubtless many of us might faint at the experience.

Naturally, some humans are exhilarated by the experience of flight and the novelty of visiting strange places in far lands.  Others are keen to try it at first, but then find it’s not as enjoyable as they had hoped.  A weaver joined the sluagh by pronouncing the magic words over his loom beam.  To begin with all went well, until he saw the host flying off a precipice.  At this point his courage failed him, he dropped to the ground and had to carry the beam all the way home on his shoulder

Next, a magical item can be used by the fairies to move around.  In a story from Herefordshire, a boy lost in the woods finally comes across a cottage and is taken in by the two women living there.  Later that night they put on white caps and fly off to a fairy dance.  He uses a third spare cap to follow them, although he’s later admonished by them for his impudence.

Finally, fairies can travel in a whirlwind.  This is again well known from Scotland and Ireland, but is also reported from as far away as Cornwall.  The use of these eddies of wind by which to move about seem to offer the fairies two advantages: firstly, they are fast and secondly they will blind humans who encounter them, maintaining the fairies’ concealment and, perhaps, allowing them to conduct a bit of surreptitious thieving on the way.

Further reading

See my other posts on whirling fairies and on fairy motion and too chapter 13 of my British fairies for a discussion of fairy pathways.