What’s that smell?

Brian Froud, ‘The Bully Bogey,’ from Good Faeries, Bad Faeries

As I have described previously, both on this blog and in detail in my 2020 book, Faery, there is quite a lot of evidence for the fact that our Good Neighbours have a distinctive smell. I’ve come across a little more evidence on this, which is well worth considering.

In 1650, at Dunoon on the island of Bute, a woman called Finwell Hyndman was accused of witchcraft. She was said to disappear for twenty four hours every three months and, when she returned, she was crazed and weary and had “such a wyld smell that none could come neir hir.” She couldn’t explain her absences to the community, which made it pretty clear to everyone that she had been ‘away with the fairies.’

Perhaps the people of Kingarth parish were correct about Finwell. The smell that was so noticeable and inexplicable might have been a clear sign of Hyndman’s contact with the faeries. That would unquestionably have been the interpretation placed on matters on the Isle of Man, where the smell of fairies was a well-known phenomenon, and was said to be sour and strong.

For instance, a certain Mrs C., living in Arbory parish in the south of Man, one day in December 1891 went to the stream near her cottage for water. There was, she said, a terrible stench “between a burnt rag and a stink” she said, and so “thick” on the bank that she could scarcely breathe. This was the smell of fairies, who had obviously only recently departed. A girl on the island also smelled them once- and then lost her sense of smell- although this could conceivably have been a punishment for her involuntary exclamation of “What a stink!” which would naturally have offended the tetchy faes.

It shouldn’t necessarily surprise us to learn that the faes, as a separate race or species from us, should have their own odour that is unique to them and enables us to detect their presence. Many people seem to find the scent overpowering or unpleasant, but such things can be a matter of individual preference and physiology, of course. It works the other way round too: in the relevant section on my book Faery I quote from a Manx story in which a hidden human is discovered by the faeries because of his smell. In addition, as I described in my previous posting, it is well established in magical texts that fairies should be attracted by burning incense and by the person working the spell being scrupulously clean and using clean clothes and table cloths, towels and the like. In this context, it may be worth adding that effective ways of driving fairies off, or holding them at bay, include burning rags or old shoes- the stench created is offensive to the fays’ sensitive noses (which makes you wonder if they really smell like burnt rags themselves, as Mrs C on Man alleged).

Froud, ‘The Bigot Bogey,’ from Good Faeries, Bad Faeries, 1998

See more too in my 2021 book, The Faery Lifecycle:

‘Maistir’ and fairies- the uses of urine…

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Crodh mara by Zenna Tagney (Isle of Skye)

We all know the problem- we’ve saved up a supply of stale urine and then we don’t know what to do with it all…  Luckily, folklore provides us with a variety of uses for the control of nuisance fairies, as I shall describe.

It’s well known that the Good Folk object to strong and offensive smells, whether that’s a burning shoe, singed sheep hide or the powerful ammonia scent of stale urine, a substance our ancestors stored up for use in curing leather and, at a household level, for cleaning laundry– it removes stains and brightens colours.  This substance is called maistir in Scottish Gaelic and had many additional uses.

Trapping with urine

At Shewbost on the Hebrides fairy cattle, the crodh mara, used to come ashore to graze and the local people were able to catch them and add them to their own herds of livestock by the simple measure of sprinkling maistir across their path back to the sea (see MacPhail, Folklore from the Hebrides, II, p.384).  Furthermore, mermaids- just like the fairies- also have an aversion to the substance.  Sprinkled between a mermaid and the sea, she would not be able to cross, although these charms were only effective so long as the urine was renewed daily.  In one case the person responsible forgot one morning to sprinkle ‘fresh’ maistir and, as soon as she detected it, the mermaid escaped, calling her herd of fae cows by name to follow her.

Repelling with urine

A sprinkling of maistir around a home will protect the household from the faes.  It is especially helpful just after a baby has been born, when both nursing mother and child need to be protected against the risk of abduction.  In Ross-shire in the north of Scotland, all new born babies were bathed in urine (or uisge-or- ‘golden water) to prevent the fairies stealing them (Folklore vol.14, p.381).Perhaps on the same basis, carrying the mother over the drain from the cow shed is reckoned to be equally effective.

Changelings could be driven away, forcing the faeries to return their infant captive, by exposing them to a range of unpleasant conditions, of which the mildest involved maistir.  A suspected changeling could be laid on top of the pot in which the liquid was being stored and, because of the stench, this might alone be enough to expel it.  This remedy is plainly the flip side to the defence of new born babies and their mothers.

In fact, maistir can be a general protective against bad luck.  On the Isle of Man, for example, ploughs would be washed with the substance before they were taken out to the fields for the annual ploughing.  On Halloween in the Highlands cattle, doorposts and walls of houses would all be sprinkled with the liquid to protect the premises from the fays.

Conclusion

So, nuisance fairies? Problem solved!  Sprinkle stale urine around your house and they won’t come near.  The problem is, nobody else may either, given the stench…

 

Gnomes and gardens

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‘Midsummer tomte’ from The Midsummer Tomte & the Little Rabbits by Ulf Stark & Eva Eriksson

Introduction

I’m going to start controversially.  The theme of this post is gnomes, but the fact is that gnomes don’t exist.  The word ‘gnome’ was made up by the sixteenth century German physician Paracelsus to describe a concept of his own invention, an earth dwelling nature spirit.  It wasn’t quite like the dwarves or kobolds of his native Germanic folklore and it isn’t really related to anything in the folklore of the British Isles either. A substitute term from English might be ‘goblin’ or (even better) the word ‘mannikin’ which was adopted by Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s.

Who’s a gnome?

Arguments about terminology aside, its very clear that people see gnome-like beings all the time and that they are closely tied to nature.  The book Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and the Fairy Census 2017 are both full of sightings which give us a very good idea of their appearance and habits.

I should start with a word of warning.  Some of the modern accounts give rise to a suspicion that preconceptions about the appearance and conduct of gnomes, derived from literature and popular art, have shaped people’s perception of what they witnessed.  For example, a mother’s toddler saw a “funny little man” in their Nottinghamshire garden; she questioned him as to what exactly he had seen and he gave “a fair description with what she associated with a dwarf or gnome.”  What the very young infant experienced is channelled through an adult’s interpretation, therefore (Johnson p.17).  The mother, and possibly the child too, will have had their vision pre-formed by Enid Blyton, Walt Disney and other such powerful influences.  In another instance, the figures seen wore “the recognised garb of gnomes”- as if there is some sort of supernatural uniform (Johnson p.185).

At the same time, though, many people struggle to label what they have witnessed, so that I have sorted out the accounts on the basis of my own prejudices applied to their descriptions and perhaps included some examples that were not gnomic.  Some of the beings sighted were called ‘gnomes,’ in one case the witness wasn’t sure whether to best call them gnomes or brownies and a few people resorted to Hodson’s term ‘mannikin’ (Johnson pp.45, 169 & 177).

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Brian Froud, a gnome

What’s a gnome?

Whilst we may have doubts about classification, we can be rather more definite in describing the ‘typical’ gnome.  They are likely to be seen wearing jackets and trousers, very often hats and boots.  The clothes are predominantly green, though often brown.  Red is sometimes seen and a variety of other colours have been reported from time to time: grey, blue, yellow and even mauve.  As we might anticipate, gnomes’ hats are very frequently pointed and most commonly red.  Green brown, yellow and blue headgear have also been seen and hats may also resemble mushrooms and acorns or be broad brimmed or peaked.

Gnomes don’t tend to be tall.  About half of those sighted were under twelve inches in height; roughly equal numbers measured between twelve and eighteen inches high, between eighteen and twenty-four inches and taller than that, up to about five feet high in just two examples.  Beards were quite frequently reported; white hair or aged features were not uncommon.

Given the total number of cases recorded in the Census, Seeing fairies and a few other sources I used, gnomes don’t seem to constitute a large part of the fairy population.  They represent about 13% of the total sightings.

To summarise this information so far: gnomes look like gnomes.  They tend to be small, bearded, in tall pointy caps.  One witness in Liverpool saw a little being “of the tubby sort;” two others described what they saw as being like ‘traditional gnomes.’  I assume once again that they are comparing the creatures seen to an image of an ‘archetypal gnome’ that they held in their imaginations (Johnson pp.323, 172 & 261).

Given their habitual association with gardens and greenery, we have to add that gnomes may well smell distinctively of loam and damp vegetation.  Witnesses in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies report gnomes with “an odour like fungus” or a “strange earthy smell;” there seems to be a particular association with mushrooms and fungus.  (Johnson pp.33, 36 & 186)

Garden gnomes

Where were gnomes seen?  This analysis is actually far more interesting than the information on appearance, which in the main is quite stereotypical.  Surprisingly, 37% of the beings labelled as gnomes by those who saw them were seen inside houses.  That means that the majority, 67%, were seen outside (as we might expect), but the locations varied.  Not quite half the gnomes were seen in gardens, but they were also spotted in woods (some even apparently living in trees), in open grassy areas and, in three cases, walking along a road.

Gnomish deeds

What were these gnomes up to?  Many did fit with our conventional view of gnomes as gardeners and cultivators.  They have been seen busily engaged in a range of garden tasks, including working with green beans in a vegetable patch, tending fruit and flowers- both outside and in greenhouses and the like- sawing and chopping wood, moving plants around and carrying horticultural implements like wheelbarrows, baskets, buckets, brooms, forks, rakes and spades.  For example, in 1940 a Mrs Small living in Nottingham had accidentally pruned away the main shoots of some tomatoes.  She saw some gnomes, who were about twelve inches high, looking very concerned about the condition of the plants.  A little later they came to her carrying a basket filled with green tomatoes and conveyed to her (without words) that she should put them to ripen in a dark place.  The same witness also saw a gnome in her garden looking very cross about a piece of rope tied around a tree: it seems that gnomes may be quite possessive about the places they live, or at least have very clear ideas about good and bad horticulture.

The gnomes don’t always need tools to do their work of cultivation and propagation.  In one instance that took place at Stapleford in Nottinghamshire, a woman was struggling to weed and hoe a very parched patch of earth.  She spotted a gnome watching her with amusement and, when she challenged him for laughing at her instead of lending a hand, he dived beneath the ground surface and very quickly turned over the soil.  Gnomes have also been seen in gardens acting as general ‘protectors’ to the plants, for example guiding people towards the best times to pick plants.

Other gnomes are just as busy, but with more general tasks.  A couple were seen carrying a heavy bundle; in another encounter, that took place in a snowy Devon lane, a car driver saw six little figures, about eight inches high, transporting a ladder along the road.  His appearance led to a hurried scramble to haul the ladder through the hedge and out of sight.  Cobbler gnomes in leather aprons and carrying their tools and materials were met by one person.  Some gnomes are seen just taking their leisure: in one instance they were dancing, in another doing gymnastics; in a third sighting about a dozen were witnessed racing tiny ponies and traps around a field in rural Derbyshire.

Homely gnomes

The domestic gnomes are possibly the most surprising: they are quite at home in human houses (and flats)- sitting on the stove, for example, and they seem particularly fascinated by machinery such as sewing machines.  One gnome encountered by Geoffrey Hodson quite reasonably spent the summer in his garden in Letchworth, but moved inside the house as winter came on.

Conclusions

We end with a conundrum, then.  Our ancestors would not have seen gnomes, because they had never heard of them.  They might very well have seen goblins, imps, and even dwarves (duergars) in the North-East of England and the Scottish Borders; they might very well have seen fairies and elves hard at work in their vegetable patches, but it seems to have been a far more recent development that these sightings came to be labelled using Paracelsus’ invented term.  This received widespread diffusion through the Theosophists and related groups from the late nineteenth century onwards and the word has become embedded in our language- very possibly because it met a need and provided a convenient term to describe a class of supernatural beings.

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‘Smells like earth spirit’

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English writer John Aubrey, in his Miscellanies (1695), has the following record for 1670:

“Not far from Cirencester was an apparition.  Being demanded whether a good spirit or a bad, returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume- and a most melodious twang.  M. W. Lilly believes it was a fairie.”

That there might be a peculiar odour (and sound) associated with faery is a rare aspect of the folk lore accounts, but there are traces of suggestive evidence.  Aubrey’s account implies (I think!) that the smell was not unpleasant.  One Cornish tale, of the miser on the Gump at St Just (Hunt, Popular romances of the west of England, p.85) describes how the appearance of spriggans was accompanied by the odour of flowers filling the air.  The fairies meanwhile scattered flowers which instantly took root.

It was also believed that sweet scents would attract spirits.  The Renaissance philosopher and magician Cornelius Agrippa in his Occult philosophy described how to summon such beings as fairies of rivers, woods and fountains, nymphs, satyrs, dryads, and the hobgoblins and fairies of fields and meadows (Book III cc.16, 19 & 32).  He recommended the use of “odoriferous perfumes with sweet sounds and instruments of music” in combination with circles, incantations and offerings of food and drink (Book IV).

Generally, though, the scent associated with fairies is not so pleasing.  In his Second Manx Scrapbook W. W. Gill advises that the upper parts of glens are the best places to see, hear and smell Manx fairies.  What you will encounter is “a stale, sour smell”, apparently.  The nature of this odour may be explained by an Irish tale.  Biddy Mannion was abducted to act as nurse to the sickly infant of the king and queen of faerie.  After successfully caring for the child she was permitted to return home- but not before an ointment was rubbed on her eyes.  This revealed that she was in a frightful cave full of dead men’s bones, which had “a terribly musty smell.”  I have mentioned before the association of fairies with the dead, of which this is another demonstration.

Additionally, and for the purposes of comparison, I was interested to read that, in the Philippines, it is said that the smell of damp earth on a hot day, as it there had just been a downpour, is a sign of the presence of supernaturals.  In Tagalog this is called maalimuom or masangsang (Jaime Licauco,  Dwarves & other nature spirits, 2005, p.8).

Twentieth century spiritualist Edward Gardner has something to say on these matters. He is quoted in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1921 book on the Cottingley fairy incident, The coming of the fairies.  In chapter VIII Garner provides the theosophical view on the nature of fairies and states that they have no language as such (or none that mortal ears can hear, anyway), but communicate by means of sound and music.  More conventional fairy lore stresses the fairies love of music and dancing for entertainment- as I have discussed before.  Musical tones generated by the fairies themselves is a rather different concept- but perhaps some witnesses assumed the sounds heard came from instruments and not the fairy beings themselves.

Secondly, both Gardner and his colleague, Geoffrey Hodson, linked fairies intimately with flowers.  They saw fairies as nature spirits whose function was to help plants and flowers grow and reproduce.  This being the case, if any scent could be linked to these elementals, it would be that of blossom. Hodson  perceived the smell of flowers as akin to musical chords.

The evidence is sparse, but what little there is certainly gives us a new and intriguing perspective on the denizens of Faery.  The best that can be said is that, for some at least, the experience of encountering supernaturals is not solely a visual impression.

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An image from the photo shoot for the 1993 album ‘Siamese Dream’ by Smashing Pumpkins.  The (reissued) album cover features at the top; it’s not Nirvana, I know, but it’s the same era and genre, it’s got fairy wings and it’s one of my favourite albums, so why not….?  For fuller details of my writing and blogging on music, please see my website.