Summoning Faeries- spells and practices

Canziani Good morning
Good Morning‘ by Estella Canziani

In a much earlier post on summoning spells, I examined some of the methods that have been used to bring fairies before you.  During my researches, I’ve come across a few more, which are presented here now.

Broadly, there seem to be two ways in which it is possible to summon fairies into your presence.  One involves the use of a crystal ball and the conjuring of the faery with the correct words; the other exploits the faeries’ own magic or glamour to override their invisibility and expose them to our view.

Crystal Balls

The first method was the one adopted by many magicians and seers, especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when efforts to contact spirits of different kinds by these means seem to have been at their peak.  One of the leading English practitioners was William Lilly, who describes some of the methods used in his History of His Life and Times.  He tells us that he knew two skilled seers.  One was a woman called Sara Skelhorn who practiced in the Gray’s Inn Road in London.  She contacted beings she described as angels through her crystal ball and gained information from them.  In fact, Sara seems to have been rather too good at this.  Late in her life, she complained to Lilly how the angels wouldn’t go away, but followed her around her house until she was weary of their presence.

The other conjurer he knew was a woman called Ellen Evans, who summoned up the fairy queen using her ball and a summoning spell, that began “O Micol! O Micol! Regina pigmeorum veni…”  (Micol, come, queen of the pygmies [fairies]).  This line is evidently the start of a much longer invocation, and I have discussed before the sorts of lengthy charm that was usually required.  You’ll also note that it seemed necessary to invoke the faes in Latin; I’ve examined the question of fairy language several times before- and there’s little basis for thinking they spoke as the Romans did- but Latin as a learned language seemed very suitable for these charms at the time.

Here’s an example summoning ritual from Percy’s Reliques (III, 263).  It’s titled “an excellent way to get a fayrie.” :

“First, get a broad square christall or Venice glasse, in length and breadth three inches. Then lay that glasse or christall in the blood of a white henne, three Wednesdayes or three Fridayes. Then take it out and wash it with holy aqua [water], and fumigate it. Then take three hazle sticks, or wands, of an yeare groth ; pill [peel] them fayre and white ; and make them soe longe as you write the spiritt’s name, or fayrie’s name, which you call three times on every stick being made flatt on one side. Then bury them under some hill, whereat you suppose fayries haunt, the Wednesday before you call her : and the Friday followinge take them uppe and call her at eight, or three, or ten of the clocke, which be good planetts and houres for that turne ; but when you call be in cleane life and turne thy face towards the East, and when you have her bind her in that stone and glasse”

At this point Lilly goes on to warn readers that the spirits won’t appear for everyone.  They prefer people of “strict diet and upright life,” which is what he means by his reference to “cleane life:” a ritual cleansing in advance is recommended.  Moreover, even if they do appear, it will often transpire that the magician is not suited to the experience.  As Lilly says, even those of undaunted character and firm resolution can be astonished and trembling “nor can many endure their glorious aspects.”  However much you may desire to see the faery queen, therefore, the reality may be overwhelming.

Anning Bell Cupid_s_visit

Glamour

The second way to see fairies is to use their magic against them.  A seventeenth century spell book in the Bodleian library in Oxford contains a variety of faery related spells, including ‘To call Oberon into a crystal stone’ but the one I wish to discuss is called ‘Experimentum optimum verissimum for the fairies.”  It sets out a lengthy and complex procedure, which I reproduce for you here:

“In the night before the newe moone, or the same night, or the night after the newe moone, or els the night before the full moone, the night of the full, or the night after the full moone, goe to the house where the fairies mayds doe use and provide you a fayre and cleane buckett, or payle cleane washt, with cleere water therein and sett yt by the chimney syde or where fyre is made, and having a fayre newe towel or one cleane washt by, and so departe till the morning; then be thou the first that shall come to the buckett or water before the sonne ryse, and take yt to the light, that you find upon the water a whyte ryme, like rawe milk or grease, take yt by with a silver spoone, and put yt into a cleane sawcer; then the next night following come to the same house agayne before 11 of the clocke at night, making a good fire with sweet woods and sett upon the table a newe towel or one cleane washt and upon yt 3 fyne loaves of new mangett [fine wheat bread], 3 newe knyves with whyte haftes and a newe cuppe fulle of newe ale, then sett your selfe downe by the fyre in a chaire with your face towards the table and anonynt your eyes with the same creame or oyle aforesaid.  Then you shall see come by you thre fayre maydes, and as they passe by they will obey you with becking their heads to you, and like as they doe to you, so doe you to them, but saye nothing.  Suffer the first, whatsoever she be, to passe, for she is malignant, but to the second or third as you like best reache forth your hand and pluck her to you, and with fewe words aske her when she will apoynt a place to meete you the next morning for to assoyle such questions as you will demand of her; and then, yf she will graunt you, suffer her to depart and goe to her companye till the houre appointed, but misse her not at the tyme and place; then will the other, in the mean tyme whyle you are talking with her, goe to the table and eat of that ys ther, then will they depart from you, and as they obey you, doe you the like to them saying nothinge, but letting them depart quyetlye.  Then when youre houre is come to meete, say to her your mynde, for then will she come alone.  Then covenant with her for all matters convenient for your purpose and she wilbe always with you, of this assure yourselfe for it is proved, ffinis [the end].”

The process is reasonably straightforward, as you will have seen.  You will need to have acquired some fresh fine loaves, some new ale, some clean buckets filled with clean water and clean towels, but none of these items ought to be too hard to come by.  The tricky part is knowing whether a house is one “where the fairies mayds doe use,” in other words, a place that is frequented by female fairies on a regular basis.  Provided that you’re sure you’ve correctly identified the place, everything else will apparently fall into place like clockwork.

How does this ritual work?  Well, as fairy expert Katharine Briggs explained, the unspoken assumption lying behind it is as follows: overnight the fairies will enter the house to wash themselves and their children in the fresh water.  As I’ve described before, fairy babies are anointed with an ointment that gives them their second sight and powers of glamour and (it seems) reinforces their immortal fairy nature.  Some of this salve will, it seems, be washed off during the ablutions and it is this that forms the rime on the surface of the bucket.  You then simply lift it off with your silver spoon and you have acquired the key to faery.

All that remains is to wish you good luck- and to remind you to read other postings discussing some of the potential downsides of any encounter.  For a discussion of the summoning faeries for sexual purposes, see my Love and Sex in Faeryland, 2021 (Amazon/ Kindle)

Silence is golden- in Faery

fairy song

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Song

Speechless

On this blog I’ve many times returned to what is, for me, the fascinating subject of fairy speech.  As I’ve described previously, we expect to be able to communicate with our Good Neighbours and, most of the time, this happens without comment.  From time to time, however, the incomprehensibility of the fairy tongue is remarked upon.  We may draw several conclusions form this: either that they share- and have always shared- our speech with us, or that close proximity with us over centuries has made them bilingual- even though they may naturally, amongst themselves, speak another language entirely.  British fairies have been heard to speak English, Gaelic, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon as well as wholly unknown tongues: according to one Scottish witch suspect, Anne Cairns (tried and executed at Dumfries in April 1659), the ‘fferie’ were “not earthen folkis” and so spoke “no earthly talkis” but rather conversed with “ane eldridge voyce.”

a fairy song (2)

Rackham, Fairy song.

Silence is golden?

In this post I take a different tack: that contact with the fairies can require- or lead to- loss of one’s voice.  From this perspective, silence is the result of being near the fays or it is the safest option when they are near.

Elspeth Reoch was a young Orkney woman tried for witchcraft in March 1616.  She told her prosecutors that she had been in contact with the fairies on and off since she was twelve years old.  There is much that is interesting in her confessions, but here we are interested solely in the fact that she lost her voice after she had sex with one of two fairy men who approached her; this was to protect her against people’s questions as to how she had gained the second sight.  Elspeth lay with him and when she woke the next morning, she had “no power of her toung and could not speik.”

Diane Purkiss provides a full account of the case, along with considerable sociological and psychological theorising about Elspeth’s situation, in her book Troublesome Things.  It looks as though Elspeth derived some income from begging as a mute and from telling fortunes, but that her own family were angry about her silence and allowed her brother to beat her quite severely to try to get her to speak.  Purkiss’ speculations over gender roles and power may be justified, but let’s put Elspeth’s loss of voice in a wider context.

Barbara Bowndie of Kirkwall on Orkney was taken by the fairies for a day.  She told her trial in 1644 that this experience left her speechless for a further twenty four hours- as well it might.  Janet Morrison, a suspect witch from Bute, told her trial in 1662 that she had healed a girl who had been blasted by the ‘faryes.’  The child, daughter of a man called McPherson, was lying “without power of hand or foot and speechless.” Janet made her well with herbs.  In both these cases, loss of use of the tongue is the consequence of fairy proximity- whether deliberately inflicted or not; it is one symptom of being ‘elf-addled‘.

John Stewart, tried for sorcery at Irvine in 1618, had acquired knowledge of palmistry from the fairies whilst in Ireland.  One Halloween, he had met the king of faery and his court.  The king had touched John on his forehead with his staff (wand), which had the effect of blinding him in one eye and making him dumb.  Three years later he met the king again one Halloween and his sight and speech were restored.  He then met the fays regularly and acquired his skills from them.

Silence might also be enjoined upon a person meeting the fays.  The Reverend Robert Kirk stated that the “subterraneans [would] practice sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their mysteries.”  Any humans who had spent time with the faes under the hill might be “smit… without pain as with a puff of wind… or they strick them dumb.”  Bessie Dunlop is a very famous witch suspect, tried at Lyne in 1576.  Once again, her confessions are a rich and fascinating source, but I am interested only in one aspect.  A fairyman (or ghost) called Thom Read was her supernatural adviser, helping her with cures for sick people and cattle and locating lost and stolen goods.  On one occasion, Thom introduced her to twelve handsome fairy folk; before they met Thom forbade her to speak to them.  The ‘guid wichtis’ as Bessie called them greeted her and invited her to go with them to Faery/ Elfame.  As instructed, she did not reply and then they conferred amongst themselves- she didn’t know what they said “onlie sche saw thair lippis move.”  This suggests that they were audible when addressing her directly but when speaking privately amongst themselves they were inaudible, whether that was deliberate or just a feature of fairy speech.

It’s worth pointing out that in several modern cases witnesses have reported an identical experience: they see the fays speaking but they hear nothing (for example, see Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.48, 89 & 299).  In this connection too, we should note the scattered but consistent reports on telepathic communication, in which the barriers of the spoken word are overcome entirely (Johnson pp.20, 80, 89, 111, 163 & 262).

A woman of Rousay in Orkney, whose child was taken by the trows, was instructed how to recover her infant by force.  She had to break into the fairy lair, snatch back her baby and hit the fairy woman who’d abducted it with a bible, three times.  Throughout this encounter, not a word was to be spoken, otherwise the rescue would fail.

Finally, on certain other occasions Bessie Dunlop saw Thom Reid in public- in the street and in the churchyard- but had been enjoined not to speak to him.  She had been instructed that, on such occasions, she must never address him unless he had spoken to her first.  This may be as much to do with concealment as with matters of confidentiality or communication between dimensions, it has to be remarked.

It may be significant too that speech can be a way of dispelling fairy enchantment.  Those who are pixie-led or in the process of being taken by the fays can sometimes break the spell by crying out for help.  For example, a Manx woman who was surrounded on the road and jostled in a direction she didn’t want to go managed to free herself by calling her son (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith p.126).

Struck dumb?

Lastly, the fairies could also help with curing loss of speech.  Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried for witchcraft in May 1658, was a folk healer who diagnosed and treated a man whose tongue had been ‘taken’ by the fairies.  She advised him to use foxglove leaves and water taken from a south-running stream.  Likewise, the parson of Warlingham in Surrey during the 16th or 17th century made a manuscript collection of medicines and cures that were “taught him by the Fayries.”  One of these was for loss of speech: “take wormwood, stamp it, temper it with water, strain it and out a spoonful in the mouth.”

Conclusions & further reading

So, to conclude, we have tantalising glimpses of a fresh perspective on the fairy world.  Loss of speech may well be an integral part of that condition called ‘fairy blast,’ being ‘taken’ by the fairies or what I’ve termed ‘elf-addled.’  It may also be something that’s imposed or inflicted upon a person who has dealings with the fairies so as to ensure that their privacy is protected.

My other postings on this general subject include: That Strange Tongue, on fairy names and speech; A Hidden Tongue– fairy song and speech and Fairy Language.  

Sennen fairies

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The fairy spring at Sennen

This inspiration for this posting comes from an article on a fairy sighting written by E. Westlake, ‘A Traditional Hallucination’, which was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychic Research vol. 11 (1904), pages 191-193 and was much more recently reproduced in the Fairy Investigation Society Newsletter (New Series) no. 2 July 2015- which is where I first read it.

The experience took place in about 1888 at Sennen Cove, in the far west of Cornwall, and immediately fascinated me- because I know the village and because I knew I would probably visit before too long.  Both I and my wife have Cornish roots, some of her family still live in the county and, as a result (as well as the beauty of the place), we often go down.  This Easter we visited and I knew it was time to make a pilgrimage to the pisky well described in the Victorian report.

The incident was recounted to Mr Westlake, who visited Sennen in 1895, by Grace Penrose, a local woman aged 25, who had been about eighteen when she had her fairy experience.  Westlake wrote it up in 1897 (using his notes of the conversation from 1895) and it finally made it into print another seven years later. Grace’s story of ‘Little people at Sennen’ was this:

“One evening in August, I think it was in 1888, but am not sure to a year, we wanted some water from the well. It was late and Minnie [her elder sister] was afraid to go by herself, and I went with her to keep her company. It was a splendid night. The moon and stars were shining as bright as could be: the moon was overhead and one could see the sands and cliffs quite plain. Minnie had got down into the well – the bottom of which was dry on the near side and was bending down dipping up the water with a cup from the back of the well, which is deeper. I was standing by the side nearest the house with my back to the rock facing the little green of grass, but was looking to the right and watching Minnie in the well. She had been down a minute dipping up the water into the pitcher, when I heard a squeaking like mice.

I looked round, and there on the grass and about five feet in front of me were three little things like dolls about as high as a chair seat, dancing round and round with hands joined as fast as they could go; they were covering I should say as much ground as a big tray. They were dressed in a very thin white stuff like muslin, drawn in at the waist, and thrown all over their heads like a bride’s veil, so that I could not see their faces, and coming down over their arms. Their arms were stretched out rather drooping from the shoulder, and their hands were joined. I saw their hands very plainly, but did not distinguish fingers. They were as white as snow, hands and all. They had very small waists, no larger than the neck of that jug [6.5 inches]. Their dresses swell[ed] out at the bottom from the dancing; they were very long, and I don’t think I saw their feet, but they appeared to be dancing with a movement as though they were working their legs. They did not glide around. They went round pretty fast, as fast as real people. I’ve played like it before now. I watched them a minute [Note: This estimate is probably too great, for I find the time taken by three girls dancing around ‘two or three times as fast as they can’ is not more than 10 to 15 seconds] not longer; and they went around two or three times at least, as they were going round as fast as they could. They went around in the direction of the hands of a watch; and as gently as possible, with no sound of footsteps or rustling of dresses, but the squeaking noise kept up all the time. It was a pretty sound for mice, and louder – quite loud – one could have heard it I should think at a little distance.
Minnie in the well said, ‘Oh! What’s that! What’s that?’ (she told me afterwards she had heard the same noise as I had), and I said ‘Look! Look!’ And then as if they were frightened, they all ran together as quick as lightning up against the rock and they were out of sight in a moment.

I was that frightened, and was as white as a ghost when I came in. We looked at the clock and it was twelve. I have never been there before or since at that time of night. Mr Webber, a German, was in the house; and Mr Carter, who told me they were pixies, fairies you know. I had never heard or read of any such things before. Mother has since said that things were seen there [at the well] in times gone by, but I did not know of that then.”

Grace insisted that she had never had any other paranormal experiences nor suffered hallucinations.  Several details are especially fascinating about her account:

  • the tiny size of the fays, which fits quite well with popular tradition.  The comparison to a doll is something you’ll often see in the more recent reports;
  • their white colour, which is unusual but by no means unique in folklore encounters;
  • their fast spinning dance.  We know the fays for dancing on moonlit nights, but these rapid gyrations are unusual, but again not unheard of.  We should note too that they dance clockwise- ‘sunwise’- a direction that is generally thought to have magical connotations;
  • their high pitched squeaks, which once again are not conventional but which certainly fit with other reports as to their speech;
  • their disappearance into a solid rock face is fairly typical of fay disappearances;
  • the apparent loss of time.  It’s not entirely clear from Grace’s account, but she seems to imply that some hours may have been inexplicably lost during the experience.  Unaccounted passages of time, and the different passing of time in faery and in the human world, are regular incidents in fairy encounters.

The Journal titled Westlake’s article ‘A Traditional Hallucination’ and suggested that it was “obviously founded” on traditional lore- but this isn’t really true.  Had Grace been hallucinating this experience based upon her general knowledge of pixies and fairies, gleaned from books and popular stories, it would probably have been a great deal more conventional than it is.  We have dancing certainly, but we don’t have wings, green clothing, wands and other such standard fairy attributes.  The anomalies in the account argue for its truth.  So too does the fact that both sisters shared the experience- plus the fact that they were so close to the beings they saw.  Grace says the figures danced five feet away.  The path itself little over a metre wide so they were bound to be pretty near and so able to get a very good look.

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Westlake described the well as a “cavity between some granite blocks, about a yard square and deep, into which water drips from the hillside.”  It was approached by a steeply sloping and quite narrow path from the north (that is, from the village).  Beyond, to the east (that is, further uphill), he said there was an open space.

The site identified by the two girls was easily located on the Ordnance Survey map, lying on a steep footpath which leads up from the sea front road that runs through the village.  There’s more housing here than was the case in 1888 and it’s a busy thoroughfare leading from the heart of Sennen up to newer housing higher up the cliff.  Possibly it’s no busier than it was then, albeit holiday makers now replace local farmers and fishermen going about their business.

I was at first pessimistic about identifying the well, as lower down the slope there seemed to be considerable modern development (and, indeed, in one place builders were actively in the process of excavating the hillside to create space for a new dwelling).  Nevertheless, a walk of a few metres further brought me to the large rock that Grace mentioned, its identity as the source of the spring being confirmed by the abundant presence of water flowing beside the path.  Needless to say, with the advent of piped drinking water the well has been completely neglected and, as my photos show, it is seriously overgrown and silted up.  All the same, there was plentiful water present and, mentally removing the accumulated earth and plant material of 130 years, it was very easy to imagine the well as described by Grace and Westlake.

So, there I was.  Was I aware of the pisky presence?  No, I regret not. A hot, sunny bank holiday Monday with other tourists regularly walking past was probably not the ideal time: Grace saw the fairies on a moonlit August night, let’s recall.  I’d probably have to stay in Sennen to have any hope of repeating her encounter or- alternatively- buy the house next to the well.  This happened to be on the market at the time of our visit so, if you fancy living (quite literally) at Land’s End, with stunning views out over the sea (but facing fully into Atlantic gales in the winter), this is the place for you.  Mind, though, that your neighbours may turn out to be piskies, if they’re still in the vicinity.  That may be a blessing- or it may turn out to be a curse.

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Fairy names

 

iro

Previously I have discussed fairy language in the context of conversation with humans and in fairy song; I want here to consider fairy names.  I have recently been reading Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies (2014) and my examples are mostly drawn from that book.

To recap previous discussions, there are several aspects to the human experience of fairy speech.  Sometimes there is a complete barrier and no communication at all is possible: for example, in Canada in the early 1920s a little man “made an effort to talk to [a girl aged eleven] but she could not understand what he said” (p.34) or a three year old in Liverpool talked at length with some pixies “in a language her mother could not follow” (p.279).  More often the fays seem quite at home in the local tongue, whether that is English, Welsh or whatever.  Still, their speech will be distinctive for its tone: repeatedly fairy voices are reported to be “high pitched,” “bell-like or chirpy,” clipped and very quick” and like “a melodious twittering” (pp.44, 51, 59, 255).  This chirping, tinkling nature might in itself cause some problems of comprehension.

There are some lists of names in the early seventeenth century literature which are not to be taken seriously.  In The life of Robin Goodfellow we read of Pinch, Patch, Gull, Grim, Sib, Tib, Licke and Lull.  From Drayton’s Nimphidia come Hop, Mop, Dryp, Pip, Trip, Skip, Fib, Tib, Pinch, Pin, Tick, Quick, Jil, Jin, Tit, Nit, Wap and Win.  These are just alliterative play, plainly, although Katherine Briggs suggests that there may be a “hint of scurrility” here too, with wap and win at least being sexual slang.

une fee d'automne

How are fairies named then?  We have both contemporary and historical evidence on this:

  • Elias Ashmole recorded various spells for conjuring fairies in the seventeenth century.  Knowing a name was an important part of gaining control over the fay, and he identified two- Elabigathan and Margaret Barrance. The former is suitably exotic, the latter sounds like any goodwife Ashmole might have met in contemporary Oxford;
  • There are traditional/classical names, such as ‘Sybilia‘- one of the fairy queens, and rulers of the elemental beings known as Paralda (air), Niksa (water), Ghob (earth) and Djinn (fire).  The names of these kings can be found widely in contemporary writing (see, for example, Ted Andrews, Enchantment of the faerie realm) but they derive from Eliphas Levi, The conjuration of the four elements, and (perhaps) beyond that from Kabbalist sources;
  • Doreen Virtue records an encounter with a small pink, long-haired fairy called Lilitte (Fairies 101, pp.12-13);
  • Robery Ogilvie Crombie (Roc) of Findhorn met a faun in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens whose name was Kurmos; and,
  • from amongst Marjorie Johnson’s informants we learn of Trindy and Frieta, two fairies who lived in a cairn in a garden in Cornwall (p.65), Puck and Parry, two Cornish pixies met in Liverpool (p.279), a male fay in Shropshire named Hartha and, lastly, a tiny Welsh fairy called Veronica (p.272).  We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the mildly exotic, to the traditional.

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 is a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus over fairy dress and appearance.  Perhaps what we can identify are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken: sometimes it is familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown.

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Further reading

I’ve also looked at the topic of names in other posts on fairy naming, fairy songs and fairy speech.

 

‘A hidden tongue’- Fairy song and speech

 

MEX2 05z Ella Young SW 388

Ella Young

“Sweet voices call us through the air;

New languages we understand.

Is this our own world, grown so fair?

Sir Knight, we are in Fairy-Land!”

(In fairyland, by Lucy Larcom)

I have written previously about fairy language  and discussing the question in chapter 3 of my British fairies.  I wish to return to this subject to discuss some intriguing evidence.

Fairy talk

The typical treatment of the matter of fairy speech in the literature is either to use it as a source of humour or to regard it as a area so obscure and insoluble that little meaningful can be said.  The two extremes are illustrated by the following authorities.  Ben Jonson in The alchemist opted for the frivolous and mocking approach.  His elves enter crying “Titi, titi, titi…” which allegedly means “Pinch him or he will never confess.”  Dapper, the dupe of this scene, declares that he has told the truth, to which the elves respond “Ti, ti, ti, ti, to, ta”- ‘he does equivocate.’  Similar nonsense is spouted by the fairies in Thomas Randolph’s Amyntas of 1632.  You wonder whether this is all just a play on the name Titania.

The other view may be represented by the Reverend Edmund Jones, in his discussion of contemporary fairy beliefs in Gwent in the 1770s (A geographical, historical and religious account of the parish of Aberystruth). His description is typical of many of the Welsh texts and accounts of about that time: he states that the fairies are often heard talking together “but the words are seldom heard” (p.69).  This is either because they were indistinct, or because they were spoken in neither Welsh nor English.  We learn that Scottish brownies are “a’ rough but the mouth”- that is, they may be hairy but they speak softly. Conversely once, on Shetland, a girl saw a ‘grey woman’ wandering and “making a noise like scolding” in a “hidden tongue.”  Here the speech reported was both harsh to hear as well as incomprehensible.

“Around my head for ever,/ I hear small voices speak/ In tongues I cannot follow,/ I know not what they seek.” (Dora Sigerson Shorter, The man who stood on sleeping grass).

All that we can gather, then, is that fairy speech neither sounds like ours nor is it comprehensible.  It may be recognisable, nonetheless, as language: in the story of the Fairy revels on the Gump at St. Just (Hunt, Popular romances of the West of England, p.85) an old man hears fairies on the Gump singing hymns “in a language unknown.”   Even so, fay speech has also been said to be high-pitched or even bird-like.  Walter de la Mare in one poem describes bands of fairies “chattering like grasshoppers” (The ruin); in another, The unfinished dream, he overhears them “talking their unearthly scattered talk together…  Ageless in mien and speech.”  This perhaps captures the experience, but none of it helps us much in discovering the exact nature of fairy language- nor in actual communication with our good neighbours.

The evidence of Ella Young

We have, though, the testimony of Irish seer and poet Ella Young (see At the gates of dawn, 2011).  She heard fairy music and song and tried to record the words she heard.  If her account provides a half accurate transcription of actual speech, we would have the most tantalising evidence we possess for the language of the Irish sidhe folk (at least).  Young kept an account in her diary for the summer of 1917 in which she described what she had heard in the far northwest of Ireland.  On August 28th she heard ‘a great litany of chants and responses with words in an unknown language’- “Abaktha… nyetho… wyehoo.”  On September 1st a chorus sang the word “Beeya” repeatedly; this was followed on October 9th by chanting “Balaclóo… Beeya…” and it culminated on October 17th with an extended ‘Gregorian chant’ of which she recorded what she could:

“Hy bermillu, hy dramel, heroó, wyehóobilik, kyeyóubilik, wyehóo, balalóo…”

This may of course all be the product of a deluded mind: on September 8th Young wrote quite frankly that “my head has been for several days quite normal” as a consequence of which she had heard neither music nor song from the sidhe people.  All we can say is that, if it is genuine, it is untainted testimony of fairy speech.  Young’s experiences predate Tolkien and his confection of elvish languages from Welsh and Finnish; there could be no imitation of his pervasive influence nor, for that matter, does Gaelic appear to have shaped what she heard.  If her snatches of verse resemble anything at all, it’s some Algonquin tongue from New England.  It’s worth recording that Young was not alone in her claims to have met and conversed with fairies.  As respected a figure as poet William Butler Yeats made the same claims at the same time.

The words transcribed by Young may be complete nonsense; in practical terms, without a ‘Rosetta stone’ to give us a key to translation, they might as well be gobbledegook.  Nevertheless, it is an intriguing account and readers must draw their own conclusions…  The words of poet Philip Dayre are a fitting conclusion to this note.  In his verse, An invocation, he calls on the fairies to return to earth, asking:

“Who to human tongues shall teach,

That forgotten fairy speech,

By whose aid the world of old,

Did with Nature commune hold?”

Restoration of this lost unity might be the reward awaiting the person who finds that fairy Rosetta stone.

And with that, Namárië

Further reading

I have also posted a general discussion of fairy speech as well as some thoughts on fairy names.  The languages used is fairy naming is another fascinating subject for me.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

 yeats

Fairy language

elvsh.

What language do fairies speak?  If we were to ask  J. R. R. Tolkien and his many admirers, we would of course be advised ‘Elvish’- the languages of Quenya and Sildarin that Tolkien forged out of Finnish and Welsh.  These languages are fascinating intellectual feats, but they are modern, academic inventions; they do not reflect our predecessors’ views on the matter.  What does folklore have to tell us about elvish speech?

Local dialect

The normal rule is that fairies will speak the same language as their human neighbours. Reverend Kirk states this explicitly in The Secret Commonwealth (section 5).

“Their Apparell and Speech is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: … They speak but litle, and that by way of whistling, clear, not rough. The verie Divels conjured in any Countrey, do answer in the Language of the Place; yet sometimes the Subterraneans speak more distinctly than at other times.”

John Rhys relayed a story of a mermaid from North Wales in which the reporter observed sceptically “we do not know what language is used by sea maidens … but this one, this time at any rate, it is said, spoke very good Welsh” (Brython, vol.1, p.82).

This situation is to be expected, in that communication would otherwise be very difficult- if not impossible- and interaction very much reduced.  Most of our fairy tales are founded upon intercourse between humans and fairies, so that mutual intelligibility is vital.  The ability to converse means that humans may overhear or engage in conversations (Wentz Fairy faith pp.96, 101, 10, 110, 140 & 155) and also may hear or even participate in songs (Wentz pp.92, 98 & 112). It follows then that the fairies speak the local language or, even dialect.  They speak Gaelic in the Highlands, Welsh in Wales and English in England- and going further an Exmoor fairy sounds just like a Somerset peasant (Ruth Tongue, County Folklore, vol.VIII, p.117).

Tone of voice

Given a widespread belief that some fairies at least were of smaller stature than the human population, they have voices to match.   Kirk has already implied this, but other sources are clearer on the point.  At Gors Goch, Cardiganshire, little beings came to a farm house at night asking for shelter in “thin, silvery voices ” (Wentz p.155).  The pixies encountered on Selena Moor, near St Buryan, were said to have squeaked with little voices (Briggs, Dictionary, p.142).

Jabbering talk

Much of British fairy-lore depends upon the ability of humans and supernaturals to have contact and to form relationships.  Nevertheless, the fairies’ speech is sometimes said to be incomprehensible or, even, not to resemble human speech at all.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins recorded that Thomas William of Hafodafel, Blaenau Gwent, met a fairy procession and “heard them talking together in a noisy, jabbering way; but no-one could distinguish the words.”  Other witnesses from Wales state the same: “they did not understand a word that was said; not a syllable did they comprehend…” whilst in another couple of encounters we are assured “it was not Welsh and she did not think it was English” (John Rhys, Celtic folklore, pp.272, 277 & 279).

John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass of the Wiltshire downs) and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  Lastly, a nineteenth century account from Ilkley of fairies surprised bathing tells that they were “making a chatter and jabber thoroughly unintelligible.”  The noise, it was said, was “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” (Briggs, Tradition, pp.133-4).  These latter descriptions bring to mind small, insect-like beings, perhaps.

Elidyr’s story

Finally, we must note the very curious tale told of Elidyr by Gerald of Wales.  Elidyr, as a boy, was one day escorted into an underground realm and subsequently spent much time there with the fairies. Years later, as a priest, he told his tale and, in particular, that:

“He had made himself acquainted with the language of that nation, the words of which, in his younger days, he used to recite, which, as the bishop often had informed me, were very conformable to the Greek idiom. When they asked for water, they said Ydor ydorum, which meant bring water, for ydor in their language, as well as in the Greek, signifies water, from whence vessels for water are called ydrie; and dwr also, in the British language, signifies water. When they wanted salt they said, Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt’: salt is called als in Greek, and halen in British, for that language, from the length of time which the Britons (then called Trojans, and afterwards Britons, from Brito, their leader) remained in Greece after the destruction of Troy, became, in many instances, similar to the Greek.

It is remarkable that so many languages should correspond in one word, als in Greek, halen in British, and halgein in the Irish tongue, the g being inserted; sal in Latin, because, as Priscian says, ‘the s is placed in some words instead of an aspirate,’ as als in Greek is called sal in Latin, emi – semi, epta – septem – sel in French – the A being changed into E – salt in English, by the addition of T to the Latin; sout, in the Teutonic language: there are therefore seven or eight languages agreeing in this one word. If a scrupulous inquirer should ask my opinion of the relation here inserted, I answer with Augustine, ‘that the divine miracles are to be admired, not discussed.’ Nor do I, by denial, place bounds to the divine power, nor, by assent, insolently extend what cannot be extended. But I always call to mind the saying of St. Jerome; ‘You will find,’ says he, ‘many things incredible and improbable, which nevertheless are true; for nature cannot in any respect prevail against the lord of nature.’ These things, therefore, and similar contingencies, I should place, according to the opinion of Augustine, among those particulars which are neither to be affirmed, nor too positively denied.”

From all that we can tell, the clerk in question appears to be concocting his elvish tongue out of elements of Welsh and Irish, with perhaps some awareness of Latin and Greek in the background.  It is not, therefore, to be relied upon very much as an account of traditional beliefs.  A better summary may be to say that, in general, fairies were regarded in many respects as being identical or similar to humans (not just in speech, but also in form, diet, dress and conduct).  Sometimes, however, their otherworldly aspect dominated, and their speech was as alien as their magical abilities.

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have a general interest in languages and linguistics, more details about which can be found on my website.

See too my later posts on fairy names and on more modern evidence from song as well as speech for for the fairy language.