Puckwudgie and European influence

Recently I was researching another faery subject entirely when I was led to refer to the chapter on North American faery beings in Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook’s Magical Folk (2018). Peter Muise there describes the ‘Puritans and Pukwudgies’ of New England, arguing that the European invaders largely lost their own faery lore as they crossed the Atlantic, but discovered the rich supernatural world of Native American belief- which was slowly assimilated.

This isn’t the whole story, as two other chapters in Magical Folk make clear. Later Irish and Scottish settlers, especially in Atlantic Canada, did import their faery belief with them- and I know from my own reading of British sources that there are several Scottish stories that explicitly discuss Highland faes, such as the leannan sith and the bochan, who travel with emigrants to North America. It might be better to say that the English settlers were less likely to carry their faery folk with them- and Muise discussed why this might be so.

A second point concerns the pukwudgie/ puckwudgie. This spirit is now probably the best known of the North American ‘faeries’ and modern sightings seem to be on the increase, as Muise has described. However, as his chapter title indicates, most of this modern lore comes from New England, to which the pukwudgie is, strictly, a stranger. He is a spirit of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes area- not of New England, which had its own indigenous beings (which are known about and which survive- amongst the indigenous population still and, to a degree, amongst the offcomers). Various writers, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seem to have been responsible for popularising the pukwudgie and extending his range. Literary uses of faery lore often do this- spreading beings such as pixies and leprechauns far beyond their natural habitats and (arguably) obscuring the local differences.

Be that as it may (and you can read the chapter in Magical Folk, which is highly recommended for your book shelves) what struck me was the strong similarities between North American faery behaviour and that of the British faes. Here are a few examples, taken from Muise:

  • pukwudgies and other Algonquian spirits have magical powers and can shape shift or make themselves invisible;
  • they can act as wills of the wisp (often seen as balls of light) and lead people into swamps or over cliffs;
  • they have a nasty habit of pestering women and girls, luring them into forests where they seduce them. Once a human female has been involved with a faery male, she can never settle back into society and marry;
  • they shoot poisoned arrows at victims;
  • they are immortal– unless killed by humans;
  • their gaze can blight a person and cause the victim to sicken and die;
  • they can grant three wishes;
  • they have high pitched voices;
  • they steal human goods but can be appeased with gifts of food;
  • they don’t like to be talked about by humans and will take revenge if they know this has happened; and,
  • they are skilled in healing using herbs.

All these characteristics and habits can be found in British folklore. I have provided links to posts I’ve made in the past on exactly these subjects. Now, there seem to be two explanations for these remarkably close parallels. One is that faery temperament, physiology and powers are pretty much the same the whole world over. As such, we shouldn’t expect any real difference between a pukwudgie and a boggart, just as we wouldn’t dream of imagining there would be any differences (except of culture) between- say- an Inuit, a European and an aboriginal Australian. The other explanation is that there has- in fact- been a great deal more immigration of European faeries into North America than we realised. The least sign of this, perhaps, is the optional spelling of Puck-wudgie: does this reveal an almost unconscious identification between the pucks of the English midlands with the Ojibwe sprite?

This is a big subject and one in which I have too little knowledge to make pronouncements. Nevertheless, the similarities of supernatural behaviour are notable and demand examination and explanation. Perhaps all North American faery survivals have really been crossbred with British faes from East Anglia and the South West, with the faery population being swamped and colonised just as much as the aboriginal possessors, or perhaps they’re really all one race, despite superficial differences, just as humans are.

The pukwudgie by Kitty-Grim on Deviant Art

Final trivia fact: I got to thinking about this after I came across the 1972 song ‘Puckwudgie‘ by cor-blimey Cockney comedian of the 1950s and ’60s, Charlie Drake. British readers of a certain age may recall Charlie from comedy specials and black and white films shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; I never anticipated a faery link, but there you go. I might well say the same of David Bowie- yet we have The Laughing Gnome to contend with. That- and Drake’s song- bear strong similarities.

Three Wishes: your dreams fulfilled by faeries?

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Cinderella

A cliché of faery lore is that the fairies grant our wishes, often in threes because this is a magical and significant number (at least in Christian tradition).  This is more the substance of fairy-tales and fairy godmother stories than authentic British folklore, but it’s not entirely without foundation in native accounts.

Mermaids seem especially prone to granting triple wishes.  Furthermore, as the Cornish story of Lutey and the mermaid demonstrates, mermaid vengeance may be postponed (as I recently described for the faeries too).  The mermaid first granted Lutey three wishes as a reward for returning her to the sea when she’d become stranded, but then refused to let go of him when they were in the surf, instead trying to drag him under the water.  The barking of his dog and the sight of his cottage on the shore broke her spell, and with a flash of his knife he forced her to let him go.  Nevertheless, the mermaid promised to return after nine (three times three) years- which she did, seizing him from a fishing boat out at sea.  The mermaid in the related Cornish story, The Old Man of Cury, grants a single wish, as does the Manx mermaid who falls for a man who woos her with gifts of apples.

John Bauer, Syv ønsker, The Seven Wishes

The fairy women of Scotland seem especially inclined to grant wishes to humans.  These skills may be taught, or exchanged for sex, or they may be given as rewards.  Often, the grant is offered conditionally: the recipient can have either ‘ingenuity without advantage’ or ‘advantage without ingenuity.’  One will be clever and highly skilled, but will never be rich; the other will make the man prosperous, but he will be stupid.  Abilities in crafts or music are often bestowed; even a great skill in thieving can be granted, apparently.  Sometimes, too, these awards are not really gifts at all, and a price may be exacted, which can even be the eventual forfeit of the human him or herself.  We saw this with Lutey; in the Scottish tale of Peter Waters of Caithness, he met a fairy woman at a well and she spontaneously offered to endow him with great prowess, either as a preacher or as a piper.  He chose to be a piper and she even gave him a set of pipes.  All she asked was that, in return, they meet again after seven years.  In the meantime, he won great fame and fortune for his music but when he duly returned to meet her at the well, he was never seen again (J. G. Campbell, Superstitions).

An unusual Scottish Gaelic story builds upon this general idea.  The fairy queen (who is generally identified with Fann, the embodiment of skill) was grieved by the lack of wisdom amongst many women in the world.  She therefore breathed on the fairy flax plant and issued a summons to every woman in the world to come to her knoll to be endowed with wisdom.  Many came and the queen appeared before them, carrying a limpet in which there was the ais or skill of wisdom.  Each woman was invited to drink from the shell, according to her faith and desire.  Sadly, the cup ran dry before all could drink (Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, vol.2).

There are other ways to get what you want from fairies though.  At Bewcastle, in Cumbria, there is a stone to which you can whisper your secret wishes; the fairies will then help you.  In several other instances, wishes are granted and skills bestowed as the result of bargains- although these deals are not always willing entered into by the faeries.  A boy who stripped turf from a faery knoll was persuaded to replace it on the basis that he would be helped in making the best chanter possible for his bagpipes.  A girl who agreed not to tether her cows on a knoll was then directed to grazing that never ceased and produced very rich milk.  Equally, a man who stuck his knife in the doorway of a faery hill refused to remove it until he had been granted piping skills.

All in all, there is a curious transactional relationship between humans and supernaturals. The faeries constantly and unrepentantly steal from us and use our property and possessions, but they will spontaneously grant valuable knowledge and skills or make gifts of gold. They will reward good deeds but at the same time lavish wealth on favourites who may seem to be chosen at random. In some cases love motivates their actions; in other cases they find themselves forced begrudgingly to comply. It’s a complex exchange of generosity and obligation, part of the tangled and frequently tortuous relationship that we have forged with the over the last thousand years or more of cohabitation on these islands.

Weber, Christmas Fairy

Rewards from Fairies

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Intruders

In a recent posting I highlighted the widespread British tradition of propitiating fairies with offerings and sacrifices– very much suggestive of a attitude of worship (or perhaps fear) towards the faery folk. It could even be presented as a sort of ‘protection money’ to keep on the right side of neighbours who are strict and unpredictable. This might give the impression of a one-way and non-reciprocal relationship, which would be misleading. Some people will receive spontaneous gifts of money; others are assisted in their domestic or farm work voluntarily by the fairies- or for minimal payment in kind for their labour. The faeries are also very ready to spontaneously acknowledge acts of good will be humans.

The famous poem by Bishop Corbet, ‘Rewards and Fairies,’ shows the strong link between the performance of good deeds towards fairies and personal gain for the individual that results- a transaction that has been recognised since the early seventeenth century- at the very least.  It need hardly be remarked that the fairies’ reputation is by no means universally so good: on the Isle of Man the fairies were blamed for all misfortunes- for falling down or tripping and for items that go missing and such like- whilst in Devon it has been said that the Dartmoor pixies were held liable for “a great deal of trouble and plague.”

Some of the types of good deed that are widely known to attract faery favour will already be familiar to us.  These include such actions as:

  • Preparing the house for fairy visitors at night, with swept hearths, clean floors, blazing fires, food and drink laid out, iron implements put away and water for washing provided- for which small gifts of money are typically given; or,
  • Repairing a broken tool- for which food is very often the reward- very typically (but not consistently) because what has broken is some sort of baking implement.

Examples of rather more unusual acts that will attract material thanks have included:

  • A man giving up his shirt to wrap a new-born fairy baby;
  • Saving a fairy girl who had got trapped part way down a cliff; or,
  • Carrying a stranded mermaid back to the sea- she brought her saviour silver and gold from the sea bed. In another case the mermaid guaranteed the rescuer’s householder pain free childbirths from that date onwards.

A number of more unusual instances are worth specific attention.  At Bewcastle, in Cumberland, there is a fairy stone to which you can whisper your secret wishes in the secure knowledge that the fairies will answer them. It is also not uncommon for rescued mermaids to offer their human helpers three wishes– as happened in the famous cases from the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall.

Rather more sinister, in one of the Scottish witch trials a woman called Margaret Barclay of Irvine was told by a man who had met that King of Pharie that, if she followed and adhered to the fairies just as he did, she would be rewarded with “geir aneuch” (‘gear enough’- or plenty of goods).  This, of course, sounds rather more like selling your soul to the devil than the generous gifts so far described.

We’ll conclude with the much more cheerful story of ‘Shilo,’ from Devonshire.  A farmer from near Ottery St Mary was walking through his fields when he heard a voice crying out that he’d lost his Shilo. The farmer looked over the hedge and saw a little old man whom he knew straightaway to be a pixie.  Soon after, the farmer came across a tiny baby lying near one of his hay ricks and crying feebly.  He took the foundling home to his wife, who revived it with bread soaked in warm cider.  They realised that the baby must be the missing Shilo for whom the pixie had been searching, so the man returned the infant to the spot where he’d found it.  He then called out and quickly the old pixy appeared and carried off the babe, without saying a word to the human.  The couple feared they’d face punishment for removing the child, but the next morning they awoke to find their house swept, the fire lit and breakfast ready for them and laid out on the table.  Outside, the corn was threshed and the day’s work was already done.  This continued everyday after that and the pair became well off and comfortable.

James Hope, The Maiden & the Fairies

Our interaction with the Good Folk is therefore complex. They will trade with us, they will steal from us; they demand respect, but they will be interfering and intrusive in our lives; they expect certain standards of behaviour from us and the sharing of our food and our homes; they like to be private, but they don’t like to be ignored- or taken for granted. Some fairies will form symbiotic relationships with us- living in our homes and helping us; others will resent intrusions and curiosity. They will act unexpectedly with generosity and kindness- and probably, as a guide to our own behaviour, this is the best advice: if you can do anything to help the fairies, do it cheerfully and readily. This will win their favour.