Faeries and the Christian faith

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Fairy Passage

The relationship of the Christian religion to fairy-kind is a very ambiguous or ambivalent one.  On the whole, faeries are regarded as alien beings who stand wholly and permanently outside the Christian community.  This can be seen most clearly in the various origin myths that have been formulated to situate fairies within a Christian world view.

Lost Souls

One common explanation is that the fairies are fallen angels who followed Lucifer when he staged his rebellion in heaven.  They were, however, left in limbo.  When the gates of heaven and hell were sealed, some of the rebel angels were isolated between the two.  They went to hide amidst the rocks and trees of earth until judgment day and so have become the fairies (see, for example, Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2, 327). In one version of this account of fairy origins, the decreasing sightings of fairies are also explained. Rather than being driven away by electric light and aeroplanes, it seems that the fairies are seen less because, in the last century, god has taken pity on the outcasts and has begun to let them back into heaven for a last chance (Drever, The Lure of the Kelpie, 1937).

Reflecting this view, there is a widespread story in Britain concerning the fairies’ anxiousness over their ultimate salvation.  A Scottish version can be found in Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, under the title of The Fairy’s Inquiry.

“A clergyman was returning home one night after visiting a sick member of his congregation. His way led by a lake and, as he proceeded, he was surprised to hear most melodious strains of music. He sat down to listen. The music seemed to approach coming over the lake accompanied by a light. At length he discerned a man walking on the water, attended by a number of little beings, some bearing lights, others musical instruments. At the beach the man dismissed his attendants, and then walking up to the minister saluted him courteously. He was a little grey-headed old man, dressed in rather an unusual garb. The minister having returned his salute begged of him to come and sit beside him. He complied with the request, and on being asked who he was, replied that he was one of the Daoine Shi. He added that he and they had originally been angels, but having been seduced into revolt by Satan, they had been cast down to earth where they were to dwell till the day of doom. His object now was, to ascertain from the minister what would be their condition after that awful day. The minister then questioned him on the articles of faith; but as his answers did not prove satisfactory, and as in repeating the Lord’s Prayer, he persisted in saying wert instead of art in heaven, he did not feel himself justified in holding out any hopes to him. The fairy then gave a cry of despair and flung himself into the loch, and the minister resumed his journey.”

Keightley, pages 385-6

This story implies an unhappiness with their indeterminate position, but another account states that the fairies can sometimes be heard in their knolls, singing a song that celebrates that they are not of the seed of Adam and Abraham but rather are descended from the ‘Proud Angel.’  On the Isle of Man, in fact, the little people are called the cloan moyrney, the ‘proud clan,’ and there is a prayer “jee saue mee voish cloan ny moyrn” (‘God save me from the children of pride’).

Another (very bizarre) origin myth tells how Jesus was walking the world and, one day, visited a poor woman in her cottage.  She had a very large family and, when she realised who was at the door, she hid a number of her children from her visitor.  Jesus was offended by her subterfuge and, when he left, declared that the concealed children would not be seen again, because he had turned them into fairies.  The story fails to make much sense on several levels, and the disproportionate cruelty of the response to the mother’s embarrassment is impossible to justify (though I recall it’s not entirely out of character with some episodes in the New Testament).  Why the woman should be ashamed at the size of her family is not explained and we can only assume that the account reflects some deeper discomfort with natural sexuality and fertility within the religion.

Symons, Earthly Paradise, 1934

Holy Innocents

Lastly, there are origin myths that are rather more benign, in that they do not judge the fairy folk- although they still exclude them from the Christian community and the perceived benefits of the faith.  As I have described before, in Cornwall it was said that the pixies were either ghosts or the dead returned or they were the souls of children who were still-born or who died before baptism (see, for example, Evans Wentz Fairy Faith pp.172, 179 & 183).  In Wales the tylwyth teg were sometimes explained as being the spirits of virtuous Druids or the ghosts of prehistoric races (Evans Wentz pp.147 & 148). Lastly, in Highland Scotland, there was a belief in spirits called taran who were children who had died unbaptised and now wandered the woods and wastes, lamenting their fate.  These little beings were often seen and evidently bore a close relationship or resemblance to the sith folk (see Shaw, History of the Province of Moray, 1775).

This last category of beings plainly comprises spirits who are without sin in Christian terms: they never lived long enough to sin, or they lived ‘good’ lives in times before Christianity existed.  All the same, they are outside the fold of the church and beyond salvation in conventional eschatology.  This underlines how different fairies are: whatever physical similarities there may be, they are from another world, another dimension, and, as such, they can never participate spiritually in the same experience as humans.

People of Peace

It is very strange, therefore, to turn to some of the prayers and charms contained in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Gaelic Songs).  I have described charms included in these volumes previously: people would pray to the trinity and the saints for protection against fairies and the hosts and all the harm that they could inflict. So far, so familiar.

Turn, then, to this prayer for peace, which seeks to be with Jesus Christ in the dwelling of peace, the paradise of gentleness-

“and in the fairy bower of mercy.” (ann an siothbrugh na h-iochd)

(vol.3, 177)

A second prayer for peace also seeks the “peace of fairy bowers” (sith nan siothbrugh). Elsewhere Mary and Brigit are described as a fairy swan and a fairy duck of peace (lacha shith Mhoire na sith) respectively (vol.3, 269 & vol.1, 317).  Possibly the latter images combine some sense of lightness, softness and a magical quality (?)

These references are surprising and confusing.  The ‘fairy bower’ seems to mean the fairies’ normal dwelling: elsewhere Carmichael refers to “the fairy bower beneath the knoll” (vol.2. 286) whilst in another charm ‘fairy wort’ is picked on top of the ‘fairy bower’ (bruth) (vol.2, 162).  The Gaelic word brugh has several meanings: it can denote a large house or mansion, an underground dwelling, a fairy mound and, lastly, a fortified tower, which we generally know today as a broch.  It appears that all these meanings are wrapped up together in the prayers and invocations cited.  Brochs are, for example, sites of fairy presence and power.  For example, at Houstry in Caithness in 1810 a man took building materials from a ruined broch near his farm.  This incurred the deep displeasure of the sith folk living there, and they inflicted a plague upon the cattle of everyone living in the neighbourhood.  Secondly, at around the same date on Shetland, a fiddle player called Hakki Johnson was passing the Broch of Houlland one night when he heard music being played inside by the trows.  He was able to memorise the tune, which has been passed down since as the Wast Side Trows Reel.  A man on Skye who demolished the ‘fairy bower’ of Dun Gharsain at Bracadale in order to build some pens for his livestock only escaped a disastrous revenge from the fairies because he had been drinking milk from a cow that had grazed on the protective herb mothan.  This ‘bower’ again is termed a bruth and is, very evidently, a broch, one of several found beside Loch Bracadale.

In conclusion, we have to reconcile ourselves top the contradictory evidence that ‘fairy’ was used both in a negative sense, implying a threat that required holy protection, and (at the very same time) the fairies were associated with peace and other heavenly qualities…

A nation underground- subterranean fairies

Rackham Kensington Gdns
Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

In this post I want to return to the question of fairy dwellings and fairyland.  Fairyland is very often conceived of as a place below the ground surface; here I want to examine that in considerable detail.

The idea of a subterranean Faery is something that has long been embedded in both folklore and literature.  For example, in a masque presented for Queen Elizabeth by the Earl of Hertford in 1591 we are introduced to the monarch:

“I that abide in places underground,/ Aureola, the Queene of Fairy land…”

Much later, the Duchess of Newcastle imagined that “The Fairy Queen’s large Kingdome got by birth/ Is the circled centre of the Earth,” a place bejewelled with all the gems and ores we might anticipate to find in a mine.

Without doubt, this hidden realm would be a place of mystery.  John Aubrey in the late seventeenth century wrote that:

“Some were led away by fairies, as was a Hind riding upon Hackpen… So was a shepherd of Mr Brown of Winterbourne Abbas… the ground opened and he was brought to strange places underground.”

I want to go too to those strange places, to discover the way and to see what’s there.

How to get access

It’s very widely accepted that fairyland is subterranean, but that raises a host of problems.  How deep is it?  Where are the access points?

It’s also very widely believed that one very common location for fairy dwellings is under small hills.  This is especially common in Scotland, where many small mounds are called ‘fairy knowe’ or ‘knolls.’ An alternative name for the trows of Shetland is the ‘hill men.’ These hills may be natural mounds or they may be prehistoric burial tumuli.  Neolithic barrows are regarded as fairy homes from Yorkshire right up to Sutherland and including the Isle of Man.

Either way, the fairies aren’t buried very deep and getting in presents less challenges.  Very few people ever simply pick up a spade and start digging (wisely, as it’s very likely to have serious repercussions).  More often they wait for a door to reveal itself: this may happen at special times of year such as Halloween or perhaps because there’s a special celebration taking place within the hill and the doors are thrown open to let out the heat and noise.  The simple and direct approach was employed by one poor East Yorkshire man in the story of the White Powder.  He was instructed simply to walk up to the door of the mound and to knock three times to be granted entry and led into the presence of the fairy queen.

In some people’s opinion, fairyland is a good deal deeper than the thickness of some turfs.  Its location therefore won’t be at all obvious and it follows that the ways in will be equally well concealed.  For example, the pixies of Dartmoor are believed to live beneath the bogs that cover that landscape.  This is an excellent strategy for keeping unwelcome visitors away, although there is some suggestion that rabbit holes on the moor may be a way in to this particular wonderland.  There are a lot to try though…

Normally, the road to fairyland is a lot better concealed and a lot more forbidding.  A variety of entrances have been identified:

  • beneath river banks- this is known especially in Wales, as in the story of Elidyr, who is taken by two little men under the hollow bank of a river;
  • under standing stones- this perpetuates the prehistoric link seen with barrows and is a legend linked with various sites including the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. In the Welsh tale of Einion and Olwen fairyland is accessed by an oval stone and then by a path and stairs, which are illuminated by a whitish-blue glow radiating from the steps themselves;
  • beneath Roman ruins- the remains of a military encampment high on Mellor Moor near Blackburn were said to be the ruins of a fairy city that had sunk beneath the ground due to an earthquake. The disappeared metropolis was still inhabitable, though, and church bells could sometimes be heard ringing beneath the turf;
  • under lakes- a fairy woman was seen to come and go from beneath the waters of Llyn Rhosddu on the Isle of Anglesey;
  • in a well- in Cornish fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor the girl Cherry is employed as a maid in a house that might itself be in fairyland, but she also sees her fairy master dancing when she looks down into a well in the garden;
  • behind waterfalls- the queen of the Craven fairies is reputed to live concealed behind Jennet’s Foss, near to Malham;
  • in cliffs- another inaccessible route into faery is from a cave in a cliff face. Cornishman Richard Vingoe entered fairyland this way at a spot near Land’s End.  Many hours of walking eventually led him to a “pleasant looking country”;
  • through deep caverns- Gervase of Tilbury, in his Otia Imperialia, described how a swine herd lost a pregnant sow and decided to look for her in the Peak Cavern near Peveril castle in Derbyshire. He wandered a long way until he emerged into a new country.  At Cwm Mabus near Llanrhystyd in Wales there are caves called Craig Rhydderch where the tylwyth teg are said to live and at Llanymynech near Oswestry is Ogo Hole, another entrance to faery;
  • the place called by the Scots ‘Mirryland’ or ‘Maidenland’ is said to be beneath a mountain;
  • in one Welsh account from 1860 a man called John Davies of Aberayron joined a fairy dance on Cilcennin Hill and spent the whole night with the tylwyth teg.  The revel was only disturbed the next morning by an old woman following the sound of music- at which the fairies all disappeared down some steps leading underground;
  • down long tunnels- the Green Children of Woolpit followed a long tunnel or passageway until they came out into the Suffolk landscape.

Whatever the exact route in, it is often long and dark.  The journey to faery may take several days (forty in the case of Thomas the Rhymer) and may involve difficult passages of wading through deep waters.  In the story of Cornish maid Anne Jefferies, she is snatched up and carried through the air, whirling through space with a sound like the buzzing of a thousand bees in her ears.  The fairy tale of Cherry of Zennor in one sense makes its fairyland real by presenting it as a pleasant manor house and gardens, but it is reached by a route very like the underground passages- Cherry is led down long lanes, shaded by high hedges and is carried over several streams before, after much travel, she and her fairy master arrive at their destination.

it’s worth lastly noting that tunnels sometimes provide the access from the human world to fairylands that are also on the earth surface.  These are frequently seen in Wales, where passages lead out onto an isle in a lake or to an offshore island in the sea.

How do we see?

Given that fairyland is far below ground, how do we see anything once we’re there?  Is Faery the “darksome den” that Golding described in his translation of Ovid, or is it bright? This is one of the greatest puzzles, but the sources are quite uniform in telling us what the conditions are, even if they don’t explain them to us.

The Green Children described a place without a sun, but where there was a “degree of light like that which is after sunset.”  In the poem Huon of Bordeaux we are told that it is the gold and silver with which the buildings are constructed that illuminate the place.  In the story of King Herla, faery is entered through a cave in a high cliff and (more reasonably) is lit by many torches.

Elidyr described the fairyland he visited as “obscure, not illuminated with the light of the full sun.”  Rather, the days were cloudy and the nights very dark without either moon or stars.  It’s cool and dim in fairyland.  The visitor to Faery in the story of the White Powder also reported that the light there was “indifferent, as it is with us in the twilight.”  Perhaps because of this dinginess, the people of ‘St Martin’s Land,’ where the Green Children were born, were all of a green tinge.

In contrast, Sir Orfeo’s fairyland, reached after a journey of three miles or so starting beneath a rock, was “as bright so sonne on somers day.”  Likewise, after a long dark passage, the land under the Peak District was bright and open.  Equally, the swineherd described by Gervase of Tilbury found that the place he reached was enjoying its summer, and that the harvest was taking place, whereas he had left winter behind him on the earth’s surface.

What do we see?

The fairyland found underground is largely indistinguishable from the land left behind on the surface.  There are pastures, fields and orchards, where crops grow, sheep graze and fruit and flowers grow in abundance.  There are birds in the air and woods full of game.  The land may be quite level, an open plain without hills but threaded by rivers running between lakes.  The fairyland visited by Einion and Olwen fairyland was a fine, wooded, fertile country extending for miles underground and dotted with mansions and with well-watered, lush pastures.  An early nineteenth century account from Nithsdale tells of a ‘delicious country’ with fields of ripening corn and ‘looping burnies’ reached by a door halfway up the sunny side of a fairy knoll.

There are palaces and castles, like any medieval royal city (although in Faery these may be made from precious metals and gems) but there are ordinary civic amenities too.  Thomas Keightley recalled a conversation with a young woman in Norfolk who told him that the fairies were a people dressed in white who lived underground where they built houses, bridges and other edifices.  Proof of this comes from a commonly told Welsh story of a man who’s reproved by a hitherto unknown fairy neighbour for pouring his household slops down the other’s chimney.  Invited to place his foot on the other’s, the human sees that, far beneath his front yard, there is a street of houses he had never seen before.  These are just ordinary fairy cottages deep beneath an ordinary Welsh farmer’s cottage.

Some of the later British descriptions moved away from rolling verdant countryside to focus upon the dwellings of the fays.  For example, in the case of the ‘White Powder,’ the man visited the court of the fairy queen “in a fair hall.”  On the Isle of man, a traveller crossing Skyhill at night was taken inside the hill, where he saw a large hall with a grand feast in progress.  Likewise the so-called ‘Fairy Boy of Leith’ (account published 1684) told of visiting the fairies under a hill between Edinburgh and Leith and there enjoying music and feasting.  He entered through “a great pair of gates” and found “brave, large rooms as well accommodated as any in Scotland.”  Aberdeen man Andro Man, arrested on suspicion of witchcraft in 1598, told his interrogators that when he entered the residence of the fairy queen, he had noted in particular their “fair coverit” tables.

According to some Scottish stories, we may also see the start of three roads: the thorny road of the righteous to heaven, the broad road of the wicked to hell and a bonny looking road finally leading to Faery.  These ‘ferlies’ (wonders) are described in the old Scots  ballads Thomas the Rhymer, Young Tamlane and The Queen of Elfland’s Nourice.

There is an interesting last detail in the story of Anne Jefferies.  When she first encounters the fairies in her Cornish home, they are ‘the little people’ only a few inches tall, but in Faery they are all of normal human size (or else Anne has shrunk).  The fairy master in Cherry of Zennor looks tiny when seen at the bottom of the well  in the garden but resumes his human dimensions when he returns to the house.

Getting home again

This can be as hard as getting into fairy in the first place.  Some people, we must confess, never make it back to where they started.  The Green Children, dazzled by the heat and light of the surface, became bewildered and were completely unable to find the entrance to the passage from which they emerged.

For others the process can be relatively straightforward, albeit with longer term implications.  Richard Vingoe was led to a carn near Nanjizel where he emerged into the air.  He was so exhausted by the journey that he slept for a week and, if fact, was never the same again.

Elidyr was able to come and go from his faery, visiting his mother as he wished, until he tried to steal a golden ball from his fairy friends.  He was pursued and the ball was recovered, after which he could never find again the entrance in the river bank, even though he searched for a year.

kensington-gardens_41
Arthur Rackham, from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Conclusions

In many respects fairyland underground is a mirror image of our earth surface world- and this includes the climate.  Of course, there are also traditions that make it less homely and familiar, such as those which view it as some sort of land of the dead and those which treat it as far more magical and strange.