Arthur Rackham, a fairy steals the changeling boy (Midsummer Nights Dream)
Magic and enchantment are integral to conceptions of the nature of the fairy realm in traditional British folklore, but the actual form of these powers is less often explicitly discussed. This posting will start to do this. ‘Faerie’ and enchantment were widely understood to be identical. A few quotes from medieval and early modern literature will demonstrate this:
“To preve the world, alwey, iwis,/ Hit nis but fantum and feiri.” from Pancoast and Spaeth, Early English Poems, 1911, p.134: the world is nothing but illusion or deception;
“That thou herdest is fairye” Romance of Kyng Alisaundre, (1438) 6, 324; spoken after the king hears a dire prophecy pronounced by a stone trough;
“This is faiery gold, boy.” Winter’s Tale, III, 3- in other words, the gold discovered by the characters is really just dried leaves; it is an illusion.
The magical powers of fays
The folklore sources indicate that fairies possess a variety of magical powers by which humans may be deceived or confused. The following supernatural abilities are reported:
- shape-shifting- fairies have the innate power to change their shapes. However, not all fairies can do this. Some have only two shapes available between which they are able to switch (for instance between man and horse) but bogies, pucks and the like can choose to appear in whatever form they wish. Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream delights in this (II, 1):
“I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough.”
I examine this subject in a little more detail in a separate posting on shape-shifters in the fairy world.
- the perils of shape-shifting- in Cornish fairy lore there is an unusual price to pay for the magical ability to change physical form. It is said that every time one of the Pobel Vean (the little people) do this, becoming a bird or such like, they get permanently smaller, until they reach a point that they have shrunk to the size of a muryan (an ant) and so effectively disappear.
- vanishing– controlling their visibility is one of the major fairy attributes. This is widely accepted across Britain, from the Highlands to Cornwall (Evans-Wentz, Fairy faith in Celtic countries, pp.100, 102, 114, 138, 141, 144, 145 & 176). Interestingly, Bessie Dunlop of Lynn in Ayrshire,on trial for witchcraft in 1576, stated that the fairies’ disappearances were accompanied by a “hideous ugly howling sound, like that of a hurricane.” It possible too to extend this power to humans and make them disappear (Wentz p.100). The fairies can choose whether and when to reveal themselves to mortals, appearing and disappearing at will. However, in some circumstances, this can be overridden by human action. A four leaf clover can give the power to see (see for example Evans Wentz p.177) as can being in the company of an uneven number of people (Wirt Sikes, British goblins, p.106); looking through a knot hole in timber can confer visibility; application of fairy ointment (see next paragraph) to the eyes has the same effect and, of course, there are some who are born with the ‘second sight’ and who are able from birth to see our good neighbours. The Reverend Kirk described how this innate ability could then be communicated to another who was not gifted by mere contact; either the seer could place his/her foot upon that of the ungifted person, or rest a hand on the other’s shoulder- alternatively, the mortal with ordinary senses could look over the seer’s right shoulder (Secret commonwealth, Section 12). Evans Wentz describes very similar beliefs and practices in Wales (pp.139 & 153). Invisibility can also be achieved using fern seed, although this can only be seen and collected on St John’s Eve according to Walter Scot.
- glamour- this is the power of enchantment or disguise in its purest form. How it is imparted is not analysed, but it seems to comprise a spell that disguises the true nature of the enchanted thing or place. The word itself comes either from the Icelandic glamr, meaning a ghost or spirit, or instead from the old Scots English gramarye, denoting the spell or enchantment that bestows the disguise. As I have described in previous posts, the application of an ointment to the eyes (usually forbidden and accidental) frequently enables a human to dispel the glamour. This idea is widespread throughout the island of Britain- see for example in Keightley’s Fairy mythology pp.311-12 or Wentz p.175. This ointment invariably has to be applied by a human midwife attending a fairy birth and will be subject to an injunction that the midwife does not anoint herself. Her breach of this will lead to the loss of her sight or at least of her second sight. Violation of the glamour in these midwife stories results in harsh retribution. We will end this paragraph on a more cheerful note. One very particular example of fairy illusion relates to cases where a person is deceived into believing that they have visited a fine house, or inn, or outdoor celebration, and enjoyed feasting, drinking and dancing in good company. These pleasure filled nights end with the human retiring to sleep in a luxurious bed, only to find themselves out on the open moor in the morning, asleep in a sheepfold or stretched out on the heather or rushes. These adventures are harmless enough, given the all too common risk of being abducted by dancing fairies;
- elf-shots- in an earlier posting I described how fairies can blight and injure by means of arrows and the like (“Away with the fairies”-fairy illness and blight). These wounds and plagues are understood to be inflicted either by physical weapons, with which cursed or charmed missiles are fired, or by more plainly magical means. As just described in the previous paragraph, human helpers to the fairies can sometimes unwittingly penetrate the glamour by smearing a balm on one or both eyes. This violation of the fairies’ secrecy is normally punished by blinding- a jab in the eye with a stick; but sometimes a mere puff of breath in the face will have the same effect- a more obviously magical retribution for a magical transgression. The Reverend Kirk expresses it thus: “if any Superterraneans be so subtile, as to practice Slights by procuring a Privacy to any of their Misteries, (such as making use of their ointments, which … makes them invisible, or casts them in a trance, or alters their Shape, or makes Things appear at a vast Distance), they smite them without Paine, as with a Puff of Wind…” (s.4). John Rhys tells how a fairy spitting in a woman’s face deprived her of her ability to see through the glamour (Celtic folklore, p.248);
- levitation– in recent centuries fairies have grown wings that enable them to get around. Before that, their means of transport was much more obviously magical: for example, according to Reginald Scot in his Discoverie of witchcraft of 1584, “hempen stalks” plucked in the fields would be used as horses (Book II c.4). The fairies could also travel about on ragwort stems, or in whirling clouds of dust, using a spoken hex to get themselves airborne (Keightley p.290; Evans Wentz p.87 & see too p.152- the Tylwyth Teg can move or fly about at will). Powers of flight could be imparted to inanimate objects too, so that a building that attracted fairy ire could be moved elsewhere;
- magical names- as I discussed previously, power over a fairy can be gained by possession of his/her concealed name, which in this context becomes a spell in itself (They who must not be named).
I have exploited several of these traditional magical traits in my own fairy-tales. In The Elder Queen the fairies use force remotely and appear and disappear at will. In Albion awake! Maeve the fairy queen has similar capabilities and also uses levitation on herself and on her human companions. Lastly, in both stories a key theme is the seduction of a man by a fairy maid. Folklore has always ascribed irresistible beauty to fairy women (especially the gwragedd annwn of the Welsh lakes). This allure may well be a form of enchantment in itself, giving the fairy power over a weak human. Certainly, I would suggest that the impaired volition suffered by John Bullen in Albion awake! is more than just carnal lust! Lastly, my children’s story The Derrick is all about the fairies’ powers of delusion, flight, concealment- and destruction.
Pursuing this theme to its logical conclusion, we may finally note the interesting fact that the products of fairy/ human relationships do not automatically possess their supernatural parents’ abilities. In the pamphlet Robin Goodfellow, his mad pranks and merry jests, published in 1628, Robin Goodfellow (Puck) is revealed to be a half-human sprite. He needs to be formally granted his father’s powers by means of a scroll, although it seems apparent that the potentiality was there from birth, waiting to be released. Once acquired, this power enables Robin to obtain anything he wishes for and to change himself “to horse, to hog, to dog, to ape…”
Fairy magic powers may be acquired by a number of means- through books, through spoken charms, from plants like fern seed or, sometimes, just by touching a fay. Also the fairies see the future and find lost things.
An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).