‘Adar Rhiannon’- fairy birds

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Adar Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

In Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins you will find the story of Shon ap Shenkin:

“Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin [in Carmarthenshire]. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning, he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farm-house which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never before seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. ‘What do I want here?’ ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; ‘that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?’ ‘In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?’ ‘Under the tree!-music! what’s your name?’ ‘Shon ap Shenkin.’ ‘Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!’ cried the old man. ‘I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.’ With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.” (Sikes pp.92-94)

In several respects this is a typical story about the differential passage of time in Faery and the mortal risks faced by a human returning home.  Such accounts date back to King Herla in the Middle Ages.  Of course, Shon is not aware of any journey to Faery at all; he simply sat in the shade by the roadside, but somehow was transported from this world.

However, what interests me in the tale are two of the details- the tree and the bird.  The tree is said to be a sycamore, which is unusual; it would not have surprised me to learn that it was a hawthorn (or perhaps an elder).  These are notorious fairy trees with which the Good Folk and magical properties have always been closely associated; sycamores don’t seem to have these traditional associations.

The other feature is the bird.  I have discussed the faery nature of certain insects (bees and moths) and fairies fleeing a human’s presence have not infrequently been compared to birds, but the evidence of a fairy nature is much harder to find in the fairylore of the British Isles.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

Scraps of evidence are present, nonetheless.  Evans Wentz mentions Breton fairies who take the form of ducks, swans and magpies (an especially significant bird in British folklore) whilst in Ireland fairies and some of the goddesses of the Tuatha de Danaan appear as crows.  (Fairy Faith pp.200 & 305-7)  From the Isle of Man, there is a fascinating little story about a notorious fairy woman whose beauty was deadly to local men.  She would bewitch them with her charms and then lead groups of them together int the sea, where they drowned.  The people resolved to end this slaughter and plotted to catch and kill her.  To escape, the fairy took the form of a wren.  She survived, but every New Year’s Day she must become a wren once more and face being hunted and killed in a traditional January 1st ceremony.

From Oxfordshire there comes the story of True John and Greedy Jack, a tale that pits a man favoured by the fairies against a jealous neighbour.  Both farmers had apple trees, but John’s produced abundant fruit and were always full of crowds of small green birds whilst, at night, small lights were seen in the branches, accompanied by singing and perfume.  Jack was envious and one day tried shooting at the trees with a shot gun to scare off the birds and damage the fruit.  Instead, it was his own fruit that were peppered with shot and the birds pecked at his face.  After this, Jack lost all his luck.  When John died, Jack cut down the bounteous tree hoping to drive the birds to live in his own, but instead a mighty wind arose and flattened his orchard.  Neither the birds nor the lights were seen again.  Both for their colour and for their close association to the lights, these are very obviously faery birds, a fact that should have been clear to Jack.  From that, it should have been clear in turn that he could not force the fairies into favouring him over his rival.  His downfall followed inexorably.  The protective role of faeries towards apple trees is something I’ve commented upon in several previous posts, too.

Lastly, as Sikes himself records, there is the ancient Welsh legend of the Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon). Rhiannon is one of the goddesses or fairy women of Welsh myth.  Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep.”  In a clear sign of their magical or faery nature, the birds can be remote but sound as if they are very near.

This legend appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). Seven men only had escaped from a large force that had followed King Bran across the sea to fight the Irish.  Bran himself had died of his wounds, but had commanded the survivors to cut off his head and bury it under Tower Hill in London. On their way there, the men paused at Harlech in North Wales to rest and feast. Three birds came and began singing to them so sweetly that all the songs they had ever heard before seemed unpleasant in comparison.  The feast and birdsong were so enchanting, they remained listening for seven years.  (see Sikes p.2 and Evans Wentz pp.329 & 334)

The sweetness of song and the dislocation of time (for a period of years of considerable magical significance) are found in the Welsh myth just as in the story of Sion ap Senkin.  It seems clear from these scattered remnants that there was once a much completer knowledge of the nature and powers of faery birds, something that we have sadly lost with the passage of the years.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

For more on fairy animals generally, see my recently published book Faery.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

‘Cherry of Zennor’- a fairy adventure considered

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The cliffs near Trereen: Gurnard’s Head with Trereen Dinas promontory fort.

Like the ‘Fairy House on Selena Moor,’ this Cornish tale is taken from Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1st series, p. 118 et seq.  It’s another lengthy story with many fascinating fairy facets.

“Old Honey lived with his wife and family in a little hut of two rooms and a ‘talfat,’ (sleeping platform) on the cliff side of Trereen in Zennor. The old couple had half a score of children, who were all reared in this place. They lived as they best could on the produce of a few acres of ground, which were too poor to keep even a goat in good heart. The heaps of crogans (limpet shells) about the hut led one to believe that their chief food was limpets and gweans (periwinkles). They had, however, fish and potatoes most days, and pork and broth now and then of a Sunday. At Christmas and the Feast they had white bread. There was not a healthier nor a handsomer family in the parish than Old Honey’s. We are, however, only concerned with one of them, his daughter Cherry. Cherry could run as fast as a hare, and was ever full of frolic and mischief…

[The Penwith peninsula generally is rich with fairylore, and Zennor parish seems to be a hot spot, what with this story, the mermaid of Zennor and the captured pixie SkillywiddenThe area is also endowed with numerous megalithic sites, adding an even greater aura of ancient mystery to the landscape.]

Soon after Cherry got into her teens she became very discontented, because year after year her mother had been promising her a new frock… Cherry was sixteen. One of her playmates had a new dress smartly trimmed with ribbons, and she told Cherry how she had been to Nancledra to the preaching, and how she had ever so many sweethearts who brought her home. This put the volatile Cherry in a fever of desire. She declared to her mother she would go off to the “low countries”  (beyond Towednack) to seek for service, that she might get some clothes like other girls.

[Nancledra village is on the main road south to Penzance on Mount’s Bay, about halfway between north and south coasts. Towednack is smaller and nearer to Zennor.]

Her mother wished her to go to Towednack that she might have the chance of seeing her now and then of a Sunday.  “No, no!” said Cherry, “I’ll never go to live in the parish where the cow ate the bell-rope, and where they have fish and taties (potatoes) every day, and conger-pie of a Sunday, for a change.”

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The Highlands and Lowlands of Towednack parish

One fine morning Cherry tied up a few things in a bundle and prepared to start. She promised her father that she would get service as near home as she could, and come home at the earliest opportunity. The old man said she was bewitched, charged her to take care she wasn’t carried away by either the sailors or pirates, and allowed her to depart. Cherry took the road leading (south) to Ludgvan and Gulval. When she lost sight of the chimneys of Trereen (just north of Nancledra), she got out of heart and had a great mind to go home again. But she went on.

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Barrow on Lady Downs

At length she came to the “four cross roads” on the Lady Downs, sat herself down on a stone by the road-side, and cried to think of her home, which she might never see again.  Her crying at last came to an end, and she resolved to go home and make the best of it.  When she dried her eyes and held up her head she was surprised to see a gentleman coming towards her- for she couldn’t think where he came from; no one was to be seen on the Downs a few minutes before.  The gentleman wished her “morning,” enquired which was the road to Towednack, and asked Cherry where she was going.

[In another published version of the story, our young heroine at this point idly picks and crushes some fern fronds, the effect of which sees to be to conjure up the faery gentleman . The same book (Frances Olcott, The Book of Elves and Fairies, 1918) includes the poem Mabel on Midsummer Day by Mary Howitt, in which a girl is sent on an errand is warned that it’s a dangerous time of year and she must take care not to offend the Good Folk and neither “pluck the strawberry flower/ Nor break the lady-fern.” ]

“Cherry told the gentleman that she had left home that morning to look for service, but that her heart had failed her, and she was going back over the hills to Zennor again.  “I never expected to meet with such luck as this,” said the gentleman. “I left home this morning to seek for a nice clean girl to keep house for me, and here you are.”

He then told Cherry that he had been recently left a widower, and that he had one dear little boy, of whom Cherry might have charge. Cherry was the very girl that would suit him. She was handsome and cleanly. He could see that her clothes were so mended that the first piece could not be discovered; yet she was as sweet as a rose, and all the water in the sea could not make her cleaner. Poor Cherry said “Yes, sir,” to everything, yet she did not understand one quarter part of what the gentleman said. Her mother had instructed her to say “Yes, sir,” to the parson, or any gentleman, when, like herself, she did not understand them. The gentleman told her he lived but a short way off, down in the low countries; that she would have very little to do but milk the cow and look after the baby; so Cherry consented to go with him.

Away they went; he talking so kindly that Cherry had no notion how time was moving, and she quite forgot the distance she had walked.  At length they were in lanes, so shaded with trees that a checker of sunshine scarcely gleamed on the road. As far as she could see, all was trees and flowers. Sweet briars and honeysuckles perfumed the air, and the reddest of ripe apples hung from the trees over the lane.

Then they came to a stream of water as clear as crystal, which ran across the lane. It was, however, very dark, and Cherry paused to see how she should cross the river. The gentleman put his arm around her waist and carried her over, so that she did not wet her feet.

The lane was getting darker and darker, and narrower and narrower, and they seemed to be going rapidly down hill. Cherry took firm hold of the gentleman’s arm, and thought, as he had been so kind to her, she could go with him to the world’s end.  After walking a little further, the gentleman opened a gate which led into a beautiful garden, and said: “Cherry, my dear, this is the place we live in.”

[This whole journey is highly suggestive of a passage into a faery underworld.  Time seems to stretch, and, although Cornish lanes can be shady between their high stone hedges, this progress downhill and over a stream strongly indicates that the pair are crossing some sort of boundary into another world.  The fecundity of the countryside, in contrast to the bare moors off central Penwith, may be another indicator of this.]

“Cherry could scarcely believe her eyes. She had never seen anything approaching this place for beauty. Flowers of every dye were around her; fruits of all kinds hung above her; and the birds, sweeter of song than any she had ever heard, burst out into a chorus of rejoicing. She had heard granny tell of enchanted places. Could this be one of them? No. The gentleman was as big as the parson; and now a little boy came running down the garden walk shouting: “Papa, papa.”

The child appeared, from his size, to be about two or three years of age; but there was a singular look of age about him. His eyes were brilliant and piercing, and he had a crafty expression. As Cherry said, “He could look anybody down.”  Before Cherry could speak to the child, a very old dry-boned, ugly-looking woman made her appearance, and seizing the child by the arm, dragged him into the house, mumbling and scolding. Before, however, she was lost sight of, the old hag cast one look at Cherry, which shot through her heart “like a gimblet.”

[The man can’t be a fairy because he is human sized, Cherry reasons- he is not one of the ‘pobel vean.’  Nevertheless, the unusual nature of faery eyes is often remarked upon and may be a sure indicator of faery nature.]

“Seeing Cherry somewhat disconcerted, the master explained that the old woman was his late wife’s grandmother: that she would remain with them until Cherry knew her work, and no longer, for she was old and ill-tempered, and must go. At length, having feasted her eyes on the garden, Cherry was taken into the house, and this was yet more beautiful. Flowers of every kind grew everywhere, and the sun seemed to shine everywhere, and yet she did not see the sun.

[Light, without any discernible source for it, is another definitive trait of faery.  Gardens, have, of course, a strong fairy association.]

“Aunt Prudence- so was the old woman named- spread a table in a moment with a great variety of nice things, and Cherry made a hearty supper. She was how directed to go to bed, in a chamber at the top of the house, in which the child was to sleep also. Prudence directed Cherry to keep her eyes closed, whether she could sleep or not, as she might, perchance, see things which she would not like. She was not to speak to the child all night. She was to rise at break of day; then take the boy to a spring in the garden, wash him, and anoint his eyes with an ointment, which she would find in a crystal box in a cleft of the rock, but she was not on any account to touch her own eyes with it. Then Cherry was to call the cow; and having taken a bucket full of milk, to draw a bowl of the last milk for the boy’s breakfast. Cherry was dying with curiosity. She several times began to question the child, but he always stopped her with: “I’ll tell Aunt Prudence.” According to her orders, Cherry was up in the morning early. The little boy conducted the girl to the spring, which flowed in crystal purity from a granite rock, which was covered with ivy and beautiful mosses. The child was duly washed, and his eyes duly anointed. Cherry saw no cow, but her little charge said she must call the cow.”

[The instruction to Cherry to keep her eyes and mouth shut, to anoint the child’s eyes with water from a magical spring and to guard against touching her own with the salve are all quintessential fairy elements.  Numerous stories of midwives visiting Faery involve this plot element.  Not asking questions is another part of the pact that respects and preserves fairy mystery.]

“Pruit! pruit! pruit!” called Cherry, just as she would call the cows at home; when, lo! a beautiful great cow came from amongst the trees, and stood on the bank beside her.  Cherry had no sooner placed her hands on the cow’s teats than four streams of milk flowed down and soon filled the bucket. The boy’s bowl was then filled, and he drank it. This being done, the cow quietly walked away, and Cherry returned to the house to be instructed in her daily work.”

[I’ve discussed before the fairy love of dairy products. This bountiful and vaguely magical beast may be stolen– they’d say borrowed- from a local farmer, or it may be raised by the faes alone.]

“The old woman, Prudence, gave Cherry a capital breakfast, and then informed her that she must keep to the kitchen, and attend to her work there- to scald the milk, make the butter, and clean all the platters and bowls with water and gard (gravel sand). Cherry was charged to avoid curiosity. She was not to go into any other part of the house; she was not to try and open any locked doors.”

[It’s worthwhile remarking how like to servitude is Cherry’s sojourn here.  Most mortals taken to Faery work there as prisoners and slaves.  Cherry’s terms of service may sound better, but her lot seems the same.]

“After her ordinary work was done on the second day, her master required Cherry to help him in the garden, to pick the apples and pears, and to weed the leeks and onions.  Glad was Cherry to get out of the old woman’s sight.  Aunt Prudence always sat with one eye on her knitting, and the other boring through poor Cherry. Now and then she’d grumble: ‘I knew Robin would bring down some fool from Zennor- better for both that she had tarried away.’  Cherry and her master got on famously, though, and whenever Cherry had finished weeding a bed, her master would give her a kiss to show her how pleased he was.”

[Of course, taking human females for sex was the other reason they might be abducted. It may be significant that the fairy man shares a name with Robin Goodfellow]

“After a few days, old Aunt Prudence took Cherry into those parts of the house which she had never seen. They passed through a long dark passage. Cherry was then made to take off her shoes; and they entered a room, the floor of which was like glass, and all round, perched on the shelves, and on the floor, were people, big and small, turned to stone. Of some, there were only the head and shoulders, the arms being cut off; others were perfect. Cherry told the old woman she “wouldn’t cum ony furder for the wurld.” She thought from the first she was got into a land of Small People (i.e. the fairies) underground, only master was like other men; but now she know’d she was with the conjurers, who had turned all these people to stone. She had heard talk on ’em up in Zennor, and she knew they might at any moment wake up and eat her.”

[This scene is highly reminiscent of Sir Orfeo’s visit to the fairy king’s castle in the poem of that name.  The possibility that this faeryland is in fact some sort of abode of the dead is made clear here. The uncertain distinction between fairies and ghosts is common in British folklore: the Cornish pixies are said to be the spirits of dead children and Northern boggarts are almost entirely ghost-like.  Interestingly, we now learn that Cherry is not as simple or as trusting as she might have seemed and has had her suspicions all along- that she is in fact with the small people- an pobel vean.]

“Old Prudence laughed at Cherry, and drove her on, insisted upon her rubbing up a box, “like a coffin on six legs,” until she could see her face in it. Well, Cherry did not want for courage, so she began to rub with a will; the old woman standing by, knitting all the time, calling out every now and then: “Rub! rub! rub! Harder and faster!” At length Cherry got desperate, and giving a violent rub at one of the corners, she nearly upset the box. When, O Lor! it gave out such a doleful, unearthly sound, that Cherry thought all the stone people were coming to life, and with her fright she fell down in a fit. The master heard all this noise, and came in to inquire into the cause of the hubbub. He was in great wrath, kicked old Prudence out of the house for taking Cherry into that shut-up room, carried Cherry into the kitchen, and soon, with some cordial, recovered her senses. Cherry could not remember what had happened; but she knew there was something fearful in the other part of the house. But Cherry was mistress now- old Aunt Prudence was gone. Her master was so kind and loving that a year passed by like a summer day. Occasionally her master left home for a season; then he would return and spend much time in the enchanted apartments, and Cherry was certain she had heard him talking to the stone people. Cherry had everything the human heart could desire; but she was not happy; she would know more of the place and the people. Cherry had discovered that the ointment made the little boy’s eyes bright and strange, and she thought often that he saw more than she did; she would try; yes, she would!”

[The passage of time in faery is notoriously different from that on earth.  As ever, too, curiosity is sure to break the spell, just as with Pandora.]

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The barrows on Trendrine Hill, Towednack parish.

“Well, next morning the child was washed, his eyes anointed, and the cow milked; she sent the boy to gather her some flowers in the garden, and taking a “crurn” of ointment, she put it into her eye. Oh, her eye would be burned out of her head if Cherry had not run to the pool beneath the rock to wash her burning eye; when lo! she saw at the bottom of the water hundreds of little people, mostly ladies, playing-and there was her master, as small as the others, playing with them. Everything now looked different about the place. Small people were everywhere, hiding in the flowers sparkling with diamonds, swinging in the trees, and running and leaping under and over the blades of grass. The master never showed himself above the water all day; but at night he rode up to the house like the handsome gentleman she had seen before. He went to the enchanted chamber, and Cherry soon heard the most beautiful music.”

[This kind gentleman is in fact a shape-shifting fairy.  The fairy music that Cherry hears is further confirmation of the supernatural nature of all around her.]

“In the morning her master was off, dressed as if to follow the hounds. He returned at night, left Cherry to herself, and proceeded at once to his private apartments. Thus it was day after day, until Cherry could stand it no longer. So she peeped through the key-hole, and saw her master with lots of ladies, singing; while one dressed like a queen was playing on the coffin. Oh, how madly jealous Cherry became when she saw her master kiss this lovely lady. However, the next day the master remained at home to gather fruit. Cherry was to help him, and when, as usual, he looked to kiss her, she slapped his face, and told him to kiss the Small People, like himself, with whom he played under the water.

So he found out that Cherry had used the ointment. With much sorrow, he told her she must go home, that he would have no spy on his actions, and that Aunt Prudence must come back. Long before day, Cherry was called by her master. He gave her lots of clothes and other things; took her bundle in one hand, and a lantern in the other, and bade her follow him. They went on for miles on miles, all the time going up-hill, through lanes, and narrow passages. When they came at last on level ground, it was near daybreak. He kissed Cherry, told her she was punished for her idle curiosity; but that he would, if she behaved well, come sometimes on the Lady Downs to see her. Saying this, he disappeared. The sun rose, and there was Cherry seated on a granite stone, without a soul within miles of her- a desolate moor having taken the place of a smiling garden. Long, long did Cherry sit in sorrow, but at last she thought she would go home.

[The story culminates in the ejection from Faery for breaking the fairy rules.  This was the fate of Elidyr, amongst others, and Cherry had to be thankful for she was not blinded in the eye she had surreptitiously touched with the ointment.  This is, almost always, the fate of disobedient midwives.]

“Her parents had supposed her dead, and when they saw her, they believed her to be her own ghost. Cherry told her story, which every one doubted, but Cherry never varied her tale, and at last every one believed it. They say Cherry was never afterwards right in her head, and on moonlight nights, until she died, she would wander on to the Lady Downs to look for her master.”

[We end as so many similar stories end (see for example that of Mr Noy and the House on Silena Moor): the visitor to Faery returns home, like one given up ages ago for dead, but can never settle again.  Cherry’s sojourn in Faery has left her ‘elf-addled,’ and she cannot feel happy with mortal things ever again.]

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Zennor quoit, visited April 2019.

Further reading

Cornish folklore is replete with accounts of supernatural beings.  In other posts I have examined fairies dancing at a spring, Cornish changelings and abduction by the piskies.

‘The House on Selena Moor’- a story analysed

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A view west towards Silena Moor (in the valley) today

Here is an annotated version of this fascinating text, taken from William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Second Series, Penzance 1873, pp.94-102

“When the ancient family of Noy flourished in Buryan, there was a large tract of unenclosed common, belonging to the farms of Pendrea, Selena, and Tresidder, which extended from Cotnewilly to Burnewhall, and branched off in other directions. Great part of this ground was swampy and produced a rank growth of rushes, water-flags, and coarse herbage. Many acres were gay in summer with cotton-grass, bog-beans, cucco-flowers, and other plants usually found in such soil. In some places were dry rocky banks overgrown with sloe-trees, moor-withey, furze, and brambles; these patches being surrounded by a broad extent of quaking bog or muddy soil appeared like islands in a marsh. There were also many springs, rivulets, and pools, that seldom froze, much frequented by wild-fowl in winter. Great part of this moorland was then impassable; horse-tracks leading to Burnewhall, Selena, and other farms, passed over the driest places, and were continued by rough causeways through swamps;—they were very bad roads at all seasons.

[Silena Moor is still to be found in Penwith, to the west of Newlyn on the main B3315 road to Land’s End.  It is to the south west of St Buryan and is an area of rough grass and scrub, as can just about be seen in the above photo.]

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The menhir overlooking Silena moor

“One afternoon in harvest, Mr. Noy, with some of his men, were over to Burnewhall helping his kinsfolk, the Pendars. As more hands were required for the next day, which was to be the gulthise (harvest home), soon after ‘croust‘ time (lunch time) he rode up to Church-town to get them…

Soon after ‘day-down’ Mr. Noy, followed by his dogs, left the public-house intending to return to Burnewhall, but he didn’t arrive there that night nor the next. The Pendars and their people thought he might have enjoyed himself at the Ship Inn till late, and then have gone home to Pendrea. Mr. Noy had no wife nor anybody else to be much alarmed about him, as he was a middle-aged or rather elderly bachelor. But next day when people from Church-town, Pendrea, and scores of neighbours from other farms, came with their horses to help and to feast at the gulthise, and nobody among them had seen or heard of Mr. Noy from the time he left the inn, they got somewhat uneasy; … Dame Pendar sent messengers round to all places where she thought Mr. Noy might have gone, and they returned, just as the feast was breaking up, without any tidings of him.

Then everyone became anxious, and as it was near daybreak they volunteered to disperse and search in every place they could think of before going to bed.  So away they went, some on horseback, others afoot, to examine mill-pools, stream-works, cliffs, and other dangerous places, near and far away. They returned at night, but nobody had seen or heard of the missing gentleman. Next morning horsemen were dispatched to other parishes, and as Mr. Noy was well known and liked there was a general turn out to hunt for him; but this day, too, was passed in a like fruitless search miles away.

On the third day, however, in the grey of the morning, a horse was heard to neigh, and dogs were heard barking among thickets on a piece of dry ground almost surrounded with bogs and pools, on Pendrea side of Selena Moor.  Now it happened that no one had thought of looking for Mr. Noy in this place so near home, but when with much ado, a score or so of men discovered a passable road into this sort of island in the bogs, there they saw Mr. Noy’s horse and hounds; the horse had found plenty of pasture there, but the dogs, poor things, were half-starved. Horse and dogs showed their joy, and led the way through thorns, furze, and brambles—that might have grown there hundreds of years—till they came to large ‘skaw’ [elder] trees and the ruins of an old bowjey [cowshed] or some such building that no one knew of.

[Note the presence of fairy elder trees at the remote spot where Noy is found.  The description of the spot as an ‘island’ may have resonances with the wider Celtic concept of faery as a normally inaccessible island in the sea]

“The horse stopped at what had been a doorway, looked around and whinnied; the dogs, followed by several people, pushed through the brambles that choked the entrance, and within they found Mr. Noy lying on the ground fast asleep. It was a difficult matter to arouse him; at last he awoke, stretched himself, rubbed his eyes, and said,

‘Why you are Burnewhall and Pendrea folks; however are ye all come here? To-day is to be the gulthise, and I am miles and miles away from home. What parish am I in? How could ‘e have found me? Have my dogs been home and brought ‘e here?’

Mr. Noy seemed like one dazed as we say, and all benumbed as stiff as a stake, so without staying to answer his questions, they gave him some brandy, lifted him on horseback, and left his steed to pick its way out, which it did readily enough, and a shorter one than they discovered.

[Note his physical and mental state– a good indicator of his recent contact with faerie.  Waking up in a strange place after a fairy encounter is a very common scene, especially to be found in Welsh stories of visits to unknown houses and inns on the moors.]

“Though told he was on his own ground, and less than half a mile from Burnewhall, he couldn’t make out the country as he said, till he crossed the running water that divides the farms. “But I am glad,” said he “however it came to pass, to have got back in time for the gulthise.” When they told him how the corn was all carried three days ago, he said they were joking, and wouldn’t believe it till he had seen all in the mowhay [barn] under thatch and roped down; that the loose straw was raked up, and all harvest implements put away till next season.”

[We have the classic lapse of time here, something that typifies the difference between Faery and the human world.  The mention of crossing streams may also be an indicator of a transition from faery back to the normal world.]

“Then whilst breakfast was getting ready, seated on a chimney-stool by a blazing fire, he told his neighbours that when he came to Cotnewilly, the night being clear, he thought he might as well make a short cut across the moor and save nearly a mile- as he had often done before in summer time- instead of going round by the stony bridle-path; but his horse, that was pretty much used to finding his own way when his master was tipsy, wanted to keep the usual road, and his rider, to baulk him, pulled farther off towards Pendrea side of the common than he would otherwise have done, and went on till he found himself in a part that was unknown to him; though he had been, as he thought, over every inch of it that man or beast could tread on, both in winter and summer. Getting alarmed at the strange appearance of everything around him, he tried in vain to retrace his steps, then gave the horse its head, and let it take its own course.

[This stumbling into a strange place in a familiar landscape is a very good example of the experience of being ‘pixy-led’.]

“Yet, instead of proceeding homeward, as was dobbin’s wont, it bore Mr. Noy to a land so crowded with trees that he had to alight and lead his steed. After wandering miles and miles, sometimes riding but oftener afoot, without seeing any habitation in this strange place, which he believed must be out of Buryan but in what parish he couldn’t tell, he at last heard strains of lively music, and spied lights glimmering through the trees and people moving about, which made him hope that he had arrived at some farm where they had a gulthise, and the harvest-folks were out, after supper, dancing in the town-place.

[Pretty obviously, Noy has crossed now into fairyland. This music and feasting is either some fairy event he has stumbled upon or is deliberately set up to lure him to them.]

“His dogs slunk back, and the horse wasn’t willing to go on, so he tied him to a tree, took his course through an orchard towards the lights, and came to a meadow where he saw hundreds of people, some seated at tables eating and drinking with great enjoyment apparently, and others dancing reels to the music of a crowd or tambourine—they are much the same thing—this was played by a damsel dressed in white, who stood on a heaping-stock just beside the house door, which was only a few paces from him.”

[The white dress may be indicative of fairy nature- and of course the reluctance of the dogs and horse to approach demonstrates their keener sense of otherworldliness- but then, they’ve not been in the Star Inn for several hours and they’re a good deal more alert than Mr Noy probably is as he comes upon this faery celebration.  Across Britain, the faeries are renowned for their love of feasting, music and dance, all of which are good ways of trapping unwary humans too.]

“The revellers, farther off, were all very smartly decked out, but they seemed to him, at least most of them, to be a set of undersized mortals; yet the forms and tables, with the drinking-vessels on them, were all in proportion to the little people. The dancers moved so fast that he couldn’t count the number of those that footed jigs and reels together, it almost made his head giddy only to look at their quick and intricate whirling movements.”

[We’re dealing here with pixies or ‘an pobel vean’ the little people of Cornwall.  As in many British stories, this is an encounter with small faeries– child height or less.]

“Noy noticed that the damsel who played the music was more like ordinary folks for stature, and he took her to be the master’s daughter, as, when one dance was ended, she gave the crowd to a little old fellow that stood near her, entered the house, fetched therefrom a black-jack [a leather jug], went round the tables and filled the cups and tankards that those seated, and others, handed to be replenished. Then, whilst she beat up a new tune for another set of dancers, Mr. Noy thought she cast a side-glance towards him; the music, he said, was so charming and lively that to save his soul he couldn’t refrain from going to join the dancers in a three-handed reel, but the girl with a frown and look of alarm, made a motion with her head for him to withdraw round a corner of the house out of sight. He remained gazing, however, and still advancing till she beckoned to the same little old man, to whom she spoke a few words, gave him the crowd to play, and leaving the company, went towards the orchard signalling to Mr. Noy to follow her, which he did. When out of the candle-glare and in a clear spot where moonlight shone, she waited for him. He approached and was surprised to see that the damsel was no other than a farmer’s daughter of Selena, one Grace Hutchens, who had been his sweetheart for a long while, until she died, three or four years ago; at least he had mourned her as dead, and she had been buried in St. Buryan Churchyard as such.”

[Grace is a fairy captive, a servant at the celebration rather than a participant.  She knows the danger of Noy joining in the dance, which is a classic way of being ‘taken.’]

“When Mr. Noy came within a yard or so, turning towards him, she said, ‘thank the stars, my dear William, that I was on the look-out to stop ye, or you would this minute be changed into the small people’s state like I am- woe is me.’ He was about to kiss her, ‘Oh, beware!” she exclaimed, “embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing. You may think it strange, yet it was all through my love for you that I am come to this.'”

[‘Changed into the fairy state‘ is a very important phrase.  Long presence in faery,  and especially consumption of food and drink there, will alter you both physically and mentally.  It’s interesting in this account that even touching one of the inhabitants can have the same effect.]

“‘People believed, and so it seemed, that I was found on the moor dead; it was also supposed that I must have dropped there in a trance, as I was subject to it. What was buried for me, however, was only a changeling, or sham body, never mine I should think, for it seems to me that I feel much the same still as when I lived to be your sweetheart.'”

[Abduction of people and livestock by a faked death, and the leaving behind of a ‘stock’ is a strategy used across Britain by the fays.  A log or plant stem might be used for people, or a slaughtered cow’s hide might be stuffed- or even left behind with an elderly elf hidden within.]

“As she said this several little voices squeaked, “Grace, Grace, bring us more beer and cider, be quick!”

[Note the small voices to go with the small bodies of the pobel vean- and their treatment of Grace as a slave.]

“‘Follow me into the garden, and remain there behind the house; be sure you keep out of sight, and don’t for your life, touch fruit or flower,’ said she, in conducting out Mr. Noy, who desired her to bring him a tankard of cider too. ‘No, my love, not for the world,’ she replied, ‘await me here, I’ll soon return. Sad is my lot to be stolen from the living and made housekeeper to these sprites,’ murmured Grace, in quitting the garden.

Over a few minutes she returned to Mr. Noy, led him into a bowery walk, where the music and noise of merriment didn’t overpower their voices, and said, ‘you know, my dear Willy, that I loved you much, but you can never know how dearly.’

‘Rest yourself,’ she continued pointing to a stone, ‘on that seat, whilst I tell ye what you never dreamt of.’ Mr. Noy seated himself as desired, and Grace related how one evening, about dusk, she was out on Selena Moor in quest of strayed sheep, when hearing him, in Pendrea ground, halloo and whistle to his dogs, she crossed over towards the sound in hopes of falling in with him, but missed her way among ferns higher than her head, and wandered on for hours amidst pools and shaking bogs without knowing whither.

After rambling many miles, as it seemed to her, she waded a brook and entered an orchard, then she heard music at a distance, and proceeding towards it, passed into a beautiful garden with alleys all bordered by roses and many sweet flowers, that she had never seen the like of. Apples and other tempting fruit dropped in the walks and hung over head, bursting ripe.”

[Again there is the idea of crossing a stream as a boundary into faery, a place that has some connotations of the garden of Eden.]

“This garden was so surrounded with trees and water- coming in every here and there among them- that, like one ‘piskey-led,’ all her endeavours to find a way out of it were in vain. The music, too, seemed very near at times, but she could see nobody. Feeling weary and athirst, she plucked a plum, that looked like gold in the clear starlight; her lips no sooner closed on the fruit than it dissolved to bitter water which made her sick and faint. She then fell on the ground in a fit, and remained insensible, she couldn’t say how long, ere she awoke to find herself surrounded by hundreds of small people, who made great rejoicing to get her amongst them, as they very much wanted a tidy girl who knew how to bake and brew, one that would keep their habitation decent, nurse the changed-children (i.e. the changelings) that weren’t so strongly made as they used to be, for want of more beef and good malt liquor, so they said.”

[The music is a lure, yet has no definite source- a clear example of ‘ceol sidhe.’ The fairy food, we note, may seem enticing but is unsatisfactory- even unpleasant, when actually eaten. We note too the fairy preference for neatness in humans and their complaints about the weakening of human stock found in the stolen infants.]

“At first she felt like one entranced and hardly knew how to ‘find herself’ in such strange company; even then, after many years’ experience, their mode of life seemed somewhat unnatural to her, for all among them is mere illusion or acting and sham. They have no hearts, she believed, and but little sense or feeling; what serves them, in a way, as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals- may be thousands of years ago.  What appear like ruddy apples and other delicious fruit, are only sloes, hoggans (haws) and blackberries. The sweet scented and rare flowers are no other than such as grow wild on every moor.”

[In this story the fays seem to be our deceased ancestors; there is, too, the familiar use of ‘glamour‘ to deceive.]

“In answer to Mr. Noy’s enquiries about small people’s dietary, Grace told him how she sickened, at first, on their washy food of honey-dew and berries—their ordinary sustenance—and how her stomach felt so waterish that she often longed for a bit of salt fish. The only thing she relished was goat’s milk, ‘for you must have often heard,’ said she, ‘that these animals are frequently seen on moors, or among carns and in other out-of-the-way places, miles from their homes. They are enticed away by small people to nourish their babes and changelings. There’s a score or more of goats here at times. Those cunning old he-ones that often come among a flock—no one knows whence—and disappear with the best milkers, are the decoys, being small people in such shapes. One may often notice in these venerable long-beards, when seen reposing on a rock, chewing their cuds, a look of more than human craftiness and a sly witch-like glance cast from the corner of their eyes.'”

[This story is firmly of the opinion that faery is a place of scant pleasures, for its all superficial and unreal; the food sounds unappetising in the main, although the fairy love of dairy products, especially those of goats, is confirmed.  The fact that fairy food was insubstantial and unhealthy for a human reminds us of the story of the Suffolk Green Children, in which the reverse was the case.]

“Looking at Mr. Noy for a moment with a melancholy expression, Grace sighed and continued, ‘I am now getting used to this sort of life and find it tolerable, the more so because the whole tribe behave to me with great kindness, the elderly men above all; you observed that little fellow to whom I spoke and who now plays the tambourine, I desired him to tell the rest, in case they inquired for me, that I was gone to look after the children, and he is so much attached to me as to do or say anything I request.’ Seeing Mr. Noy look somewhat lowering, Grace exclaimed, ‘Oh! my dear Willy, don’t be such a noddy as to be jealous, for he’s no other than vapour, and what he is pleased to think love, is no more substantial than fancy.’

Mr. Noy asked if there were any children among them besides those they stole and replaced with changelings?

‘Very few indeed,’ she replied, ‘though they are fond of babies, and make great rejoicing when one happens to be born amongst them; and then every little man, however old, is proud to be thought the father. For you must remember they are not of our religion,’ said she, in answer to his surprised look, ‘but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them, anyhow the small tribe seem to think so. And the old withered ‘kiskeys’* of men that one can almost see through, like puffs of smoke, are vainer than the young ones. May the Powers deliver them from their weakly frames! And indeed they often long for the time when they will be altogether dissolved in air, and so end their wearisome state of existence without an object or hope.'”

* the kiskey is the dried up stalk of the kegga, the water hemlock.

Midsummer night's dream

[I have discussed fairy physiology in an early posting and have examined too fairies’ mortality: they are long lived but not immortal, it appears.  The statement about star worship was discussed in my article on fairy religionParticularly notable is the fact that the Welsh fairy king, Gwyn ap Nudd, was said in the Welsh Triads to have great knowledge about the nature and qualities of the stars and could predict the future from them.  The references to fairy salvation are a late, Christian interpolation into fairy-lore, transferring to the Good Neighbours our own concerns about heaven and hell, beliefs that may well not be theirs.]

“Grace also told him—but he didn’t remember exactly the words she spoke—that she was the more content with her condition since she was enabled to take the form of any bird she pleased, and thus gratify her desire to be near him, so that when he thought of her but little suspected her presence; she was mostly hovering round and watching him in the shape of some common small bird. Grace assured Mr. Noy of her everlasting love, yet as long as nature would permit him to retain his mortal form she would rather behold him in flesh and blood, than see him changed to her state. She also told him, that when he died, if he wished to join her, they would then be united and dwell in this fairy-land of the moors.”

[Changes in shape and in size are characteristic, it seems, of Cornish fairies with spriggans able to swell rapidly to the size of a giant and the fairy master of Cherry of Zennor varying between tiny and normal human stature.  The fairy associations with birds and with insects have been discussed in previous posts.]

“Mr. Noy wanted to know much more about these strange beings, and was about to enquire, when they again called, ‘Grace, Grace, where art thou so long? Bring us some drink quickly.’ She hastily entered the house, and that moment it came into his head that he, too, would have some liquor, disperse the small tribe, and save Grace.

Knowing that any garment turned inside out and cast among such sprites would make them flee, and happening to put his hand into his coat pocket, he felt there the gloves that he had worn for binding in the afternoon; quick as thought, he turned one inside out, put into it a small stone, and threw it among them; in an instant they all vanished with the house, Grace, and all the furniture. He just had time to glance round, and saw nothing but thickets and the roofless house of an old bowjey, when he received a blow on his forehead that knocked him down, yet he soon fell asleep and dozed away an hour or two he thought.”

[Turning a garment, whether coat, glove or hat, is a tried and tested solution to being piskey-led.  Throwing the item of clothing- most especially gloves, adds potency to the charm.]

“Those to whom Mr. Noy related his story, said that he had learnt nothing new from Grace, for old folks always believed of the fair people such things as she told him, and they disliked to be seen, above all by daylight, because they then looked aged and grim. It was said, too, that those who take animal forms get smaller and smaller with every change, till they are finally lost in the earth as muryans (ants), and that they passed winter, for the most part, in underground habitations, entered from cleves or carns. And it is held that many persons who appear to have died entranced, are not really dead, but changed into the fairy state.”

[A repetition of some of the themes already highlighted- faery and death, the change in physical state experienced there plus a statement of the underground location of faery.  The celebration seen above ground seems more likely them to have been intended to catch Noy- or just to enjoy a warm summer evening.]

“The recovered gentleman further informed them that he had remarked amongst the small folks, many who bore a sort of family-likeness to people he knew, and he had no doubt but some of them were changelings of recent date, and others their forefathers who died in days of yore, when they were not good enough to be admitted into heaven, nor so wicked as to be doomed to the worst of all places. Over a while, it is supposed they cease to exist as living beings, for which reason fewer of them are now beheld than were seen in old times.”

[Seeing neighbours believed to be dead still alive in faery is a common theme- for example, the story of ‘The Tacksman of Auchriachan.’ There’s a trace here too of the idea that fairies are fallen angels who were caught between heaven and hell when the doors of each were closed.  It’s got mixed up with concepts of abduction and stocks, though.]

“From the night that Mr. Noy strayed into the small people’s habitation, he seemed to be a changed man; he talked of little else but what he saw and heard there, and fancied that every redbreast, yellow-hammer, tinner (wag-tail) or other familiar small bird that came near him, might be the fairy-form of his departed love.

Often at dusk of eve and moonlight nights, he wandered round the moors in hopes to meet Grace, and when he found his search was all in vain he became melancholy, neglected his farm, tired of hunting, and departed this life before the next harvest. Whether he truly died or passed into fairy-land, no one knows.”

[This is a poignant statement of the sense of bereavement felt by many returned from faery.  This yearning to get back to the joys of faery, however compromised they may be, is seen too in the story of ‘Cherry of Zennor’ and James Hogg’s poem ‘Kilmeny‘ amongst many othersNoy hopes to stumble upon Grace and her captors again at evening time, one of the liminal points in the day.]

Cherry of Zennor

an enactment of the Cornish story of ‘Cherry of Zennor

Further Reading

See too my posts on Cherry of Zennor, Cornish fairy dancing and Cornish changelings.

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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Dances with elves

walter jenks morgan, where rural fays and fairies dwell

Walter Jenks Morgan, Where rural elves and fairies dwell

“Following the footsteps
Of a rag doll dance
We are entranced
Spellbound…”

Siouxsie and the Banshees, 1981

We all know that fairies love dancing.  They have regularly been seen, dancing in meadows, glades, buildings and at wells.  Literary authority Minor White Latham even goes so far as to say that dancing “amounted almost to a natural means of locomotion” for them (Elizabethan fairies, p.100).  Fairy dances are known too as a primary way in which humans are enticed into fairyland and become lost to the mortal world.  In this posting, I want to examine why humans seem to fall again and again for the trick and what the consequences of this gullibility may be for them.

All reports agree that fairies are enthusiastic and talented dancers.  That being the case, people were often drawn inexorably to watch them.  There are several accounts from Wales indicating that a recognised community pastime was to go to see the tylwyth teg dancing.  For example, after Sunday evening service at the church at Corwrion, near Bethesda, members of the congregation would go to a place called Pen y Bonc to mingle with the fairies as they danced.  The same was the case around Llanberis, Penmachno and Beddgelert, although it was acknowledged that getting too close was risky.

The peril to be guarded against was being drawn into the dancing circle.  We know that fairy music in itself can be bewitching; combined with dancing in which you can also participate, it can be nigh on irresistible- and the sensation was addictive.  Edward Jones of Pencwm, Llanrhystid, one night saw a fairy dance on Trichrug Hill.  He described how “he felt his feet lifted up and his body light.”  A farmer living at Llwyn On in Nant y Bettws came across the tylwyth teg dancing in a meadow at Cwellyn Lake.  He found that

“little by little he was led on by the enchanting sweetness of their music, and the liveliness of their playing, until he had got with their circle.  Soon, some kind of spell passed over him so that he lost his knowledge of the place and found himself in a country, the most beautiful he’d ever seen, where everybody spent their time in mirth and rejoicing.  He had been there seven years, but it seemed but a night’s dream…”

Little wonder then that dancers can be seduced away and never return.

These are the joys of elvish dancing.  Given what we know about faerie, we must expect there to be woes- and there are.  As the previous passage has already implied, the differential passage of time in Faerie and the mortal world can be one of the most serious problems for the dancer.  Here are just a handful of examples of a very widely reported issue.

  • A Scottish man taken into a dance under a hill was rescued a year and a day later, but he thought he was still dancing his first dance. He was only convinced of the length of his absence by seeing how his clothes had been rubbed to rags by the barrel of whisky he’d been carrying on his shoulder.  In a comparable story from Bruan near Wick the man was only convinced of the duration of his absence by seeing how his baby had grown into a toddler.  Likewise, a Welsh dancer was baffled how his brand-new shoes had been worn away;
  • Two brothers from Strathspey heard fairy music from a sithean, a fairy hill. One wanted to enter, the other did not.  The one who joined the dance was lost and his brother was only able to rescue him a year and day later, protected by a rowan cross on his clothes.  The dancer thought he’d stayed only half an hour or a single reel;
  • two men on the Isle of Man joined a fairy dance in a house.  After a while one went outside to relieve himself against the wall of the cottage; it instantly disappeared- along with his companion inside- and he was only rescued seven years later, at which point he complained about having to go home so soon;
  • A man from Haven near Pembridge in Herefordshire was lost for twenty-three years in a fairy ring- but thought it just minutes; and,
  • A Perthshire man rescued after a year and a day declared he’d only had a single dance and was not yet tired. When he got outside the fairy hill, he collapsed with exhaustion.  A Welsh man who was rescued was reduced to a mere skeleton, but immediately asked after the lost cow he’d set out to find a year before.

As will also be apparent from these accounts, getting away is no simple matter either.  Friends and relatives will need determination and patience to recover the lost dancer.  Precise timing is essential; often the rescue must be effected a year and a day exactly after the disappearance and the rescuer must be protected so that he isn’t also taken: iron or some other magical material will be needed to stop the fairies seizing the person or sealing them within the fairy hill.  Other precautions include pages from the Bible sewn into the clothes and the ensuring that only one foot is put into the circle of the dance.  The fairies will resist strongly, so more than one helper may be needed to pull the victim out of the circle.

For many of those who return from the dance, there is a double disappointment of resumption of their everyday life after the heady pleasure of fairyland and, quite often, the shock of losses that have occurred whilst they have been away: parents may have died, loved ones may have married someone else.  Thus Scottish writer James Cririe captured the allure and the terror in his 1803 book, Scottish scenery:

“At times, around and on that verdant hill,/ If common fame in ought can be believed,/ What fairy forms illusive mock the eye,/ In airy rings alternate lost and seen./ All robed in green, they mix and sportive weave,/ The mazy dance to music’s melting sound;/ Their tiny forms seen by the silent moon/ With wonder fill the gazing swain aghast/ While fear with sweat his shaking limbs bedews,/ Lest chang’d his form and carried far away to distant climes or to fairy halls.”

yorinda and yoringel in the witch's wood, duncan

John Duncan, Yorinda and Yoringel in the witches’ wood

Traditional material in the Fairy Census

Cottingley harebell posie Elsie

Elsie Wright presented with a posy of harebells

The Fairy Investigation Society‘s recent Fairy Census, published in January this year and covering 2014-2017, is a fascinating snapshot of contemporary perceptions of the fairy realm.  As I have already discussed, there is much that is new in modern fairy sightings, but there is also much that seems to come straight from traditional folklore sources, mixed up with the more contemporary and anomalous experiences.  There are quite a few experiences which would be very familiar to our ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although the examples of each are all quite limited in number.

The sorts of aspects of Faery I’m discussing here tend to be those that sit less well with the benign image of fays that has become so prevalent now.  Here are a few examples:

  • Hiding or moving things– the mischievous removal or concealment of personal possessions, often keys or jewellery, was reported a few times;
  • Pixie-led– in a second manifestation of fairy mischief, there was a handful of cases in which individuals found themselves lost or going in circles in a familiar place or within a small area where the exits were nearby and clear;
  • Abductions– in only ten cases (1% of the total) there seemed to have been an attempt to abduct a person (half involved adults and half children). Several times a strong feeling of compulsion was reported, often tempered by a sense of fear- even in situations where the fairies’ conduct was not in itself threatening: for example, they seemed to be dancing or playing;
  • Time distortion– it’s well known that time can pass very differently in Faery and this was mentioned in several reports. Most often hours were lost or unaccounted for.  Memorably, one witness described the sensation as “time felt twisty” (no.225);
  • Music– traditional accounts very frequently link music and dancing with fairy sightings. In the Census music was heard in only 11% of cases.  In half of these bells the music came from bells, although sounds like pipes, voices and drums were also reported.  Six of the witnesses compared what they heard to Irish or ‘Celtic’ music. As regular readers may recall, ceol sidhe is an especially Irish phenomenon;
  • Dancing– once the commonest pastime of our good neighbours, this was mentioned but in only 3% of the modern cases;
  • Conventional terms were often resorted to as a frame of reference or as a label for what the person experienced. Mention is quite often made in the Census of pixies, dryads, elves, gnomes, dwarves, leprechauns, brownies and goblins.  The traditional dress associated with these were reasonably common too- clothes of green, red and brown and caps, quite often pointed.  The most interesting of these accepted fairy ‘types’ were the four mentions of ‘banshees.’  The being’s hollow, mourning cry was what provoked the identification; in two of the cases, a death was felt to be directly related to the premonition; and,
  • Fairy temperament– many contemporary writers describe faes as kind, friendly and helpful- full of good will to humans and to the natural world. The older idea of fairy character was generally a lot darker and echoes of this are to be found in some of the Census cases.  Witnesses sensed anger, hostility and even outright malice in about 3% of cases; they felt fear in 6%.  In one instance in the Census- and one in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies– there was an impression that the fairy was mocking the human for some reason (Census no.475; Johnson p.24).  Balancing these negative emotions, there were also a few reports in which the human sensed the fairy’s interest or curiosity in them or what they were doing.

Cottingley 3

Elsie Wright again

The Census therefore presents us with an intriguing combination of traditional and wholly novel elements.  Only a few of the encounters involve interaction, so that the majority are descriptions of brief sightings (frequently of flying beings).  Nevertheless we come away with the impression that fairy encounters are an evolving body of law, with new perceptions or reactions added to the older understandings.

See too my posting on who believes in fairies for some further discussion of the Census statistics and their breakdown by age and gender.

Cottingley 2

 

Contrary fairies

fairies-have-tiff-with-birds

Arthur Rackham, The fairies have a tiff with the birds

One thing that any regular reader of these pages- or of any materials on fairy-lore- will soon notice is that Faery is a place where contradictions are rife. Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs seems to have recognised this problem when she wrote that “it is possible for most people to keep two quite irreconcilable beliefs alive at the same time.” (The anatomy of Puck, p.5)  Morgan Daimler has recently said something very similar: ”

“When it comes to Fairy the only generality we can make is that we can’t easily make any generalities.” (Fairies- a guide to the Celtic fair folk p.173)

Inconsistency and uncertainty seem par for the course in fairy studies.  There is a distinct lack of consensus as to the appearance of the fays (their height, their facial features, the presence or absence of wings) or regarding their dress.  I have discussed the range of opinion on these matters before on this blog and in chapters 1, 5 and 28 of my book British fairies.  Of course, one might fairly observe that a non-human, presented with a selection of humans of varying age, ethnicity and dressed in their traditional, indigenous costume, might be equally puzzled to determine what the ‘typical’ human looks like.  There are many sorts of fairies, so the lack of consistency in reports need not trouble us.

Non-believers will say that inconsistency in accounts is hardly remarkable, given that we’re discussing a wholly imaginary set of beings.  The believer, in contrast, may explain the contradictions  by pointing to the variety of fairy forms, their magical abilities and their well-known sense of mischief.  Janet Bord argues as much in her book Fairies: real encounters with the little people: discrepancies in descriptions of fairies’ height may all be put down to their use of glamour and illusion.  The agnostic researcher, wishing to take a more ‘scientific’ approach, and to aiming to discover the reason and logic behind fairy belief, might search for social and psychological explanations.

The biggest problem for any form of rational analysis of fairy accounts is the existence of downright irreconcilable differences between descriptions.  I shall highlight just four here to demonstrate my point.

Iron taboo

Iron is well-known as a material that repels fairies. A child in a cradle can be protected by scissors hung over it; shears placed in a chimney prevent fairy incursions by that route and a wise traveller will carry metal with them, even something as small as a pin, as a defence against supernatural encounters.  Tales are often told of rescues of abducted spouses from fairy hills; the rescuer will place his knife at the threshold in order to stop the entrance to the hill re-closing and trapping him.  This list could be extended considerably, but the principle is very well established. However, how do we explain fairies using metal tools- which they often do, as evidenced in the stories of human help being sought to repair demanded pails, pick axes and the like?  Even more aberrant, perhaps, there is a Shetland story of an abducted boy who returns home skilled in making scythes, a craft he has learned whilst living with the trows (see for example Magical folk pp.38, 133 & 135).

The fairies’ faith

Religion is another source of contraries, as I have mentioned in a recent posting.  The fairies are generally regarded as being heathens, or at least irreligious.  On that basis, charms that are just as efficacious as a piece of iron include a page from the Bible, the sign of the cross or the invocation of God or the saints.  Prompt baptism of a newborn will guard against its theft as a changeling.  This all seems quite reasonable, until it is set alongside other traditions that treat the fairies as being perfectly orthodox Christian folk, conducting christenings and the like, or as beings concerned for their place in creation and worried over whether they will share in the Christian salvation. Once again, both cannot apply, but a compromise is almost impossible (see Magical folk pp.120, 127 & 135).

Time in fairyland

The passing of time is a significant feature of many stories of fairyland.  I have alluded to this previously and it is pretty well known that time in Faery can pass at a different rate to time in the mortal world.  A night spent under a fairy knoll may transpire to have been a year or ten, or a century, in the ‘real’ world.  As might be imagined, the consequence of this for the returning visitor can be disastrous and tragic.  And yet- this is not always a problem.  Some visitors come and go without ill-effects; a midwife may be taken to attend a fairy birth and return home the same night; a husband may go to rescue his wife from the beneath the fairy hill and will do so in ‘real time.’  The fairies themselves may come and go from our world without difficulty.

Fairy food

I have remarked before that fairies can be described both as vegetarians and as keen hunters.  Lastly, still on the issue of diet, how about fairy attitudes to bread?  This may sound bizarre, but it was widely believed in Britain that carrying a crust was a sure way of protecting yourself from malign influences.  Witness Robert Herrick’s brief rhyme:

“If ye feare to be affrighted,

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

This may perhaps relate originally to carrying consecrated host, but it seems that ultimately any old slice of Hovis would do.  Now contrast the situation in Wales.  John Rhys tells of lake maidens (gwragedd annwn) lured to tryst with a mortal man by the offer of bread.  They are fussy though: not any old piiece of bara brith will do.  First the bread is too hard “Cras dy fara“, then too soft “Llaith dy fara,” until finally a happy medium is found and true love blossoms (Rhys, Celtic folklorepp.3-6 & 27-30).

Inconclusions

It is not possible to be didactic, especially on the subject of beings who are invisible and secretive.  Contacts with them are rare and always fleeting, so any impressions formed will always be uncertain and unconfirmed.  As I’ve suggested, the want of congruity throughout the reports may seem to give excellent grounds for rejecting them all as fictions.  What is odd, though, is that these tales derive from a period when there was a genuine and widespread belief in (and fear of) fairies.  This being so, you might expect the folk stories to provide listeners with consistent and coherent statements about the supernaturals, so that audiences might be forewarned and forearmed.  The lack of correspondence between accounts might even be argued to be an indicator of authenticity.

We’ll summarise with the words of some fairy experts. Brian Froud, renowned fairy artist, was interviewed by Signe Pike for her 2010 book Faery tale.  He described to Pike his reaction to his first investigations into faery:

“At first I thought, I don’t know… all this sounds a bit weird… and at the same time, a lot of it sounded like common sense.  It’s very typical of faery, actually.  In one way it simplified everything for me, and at the same time, it suddenly made everything very complicated.” (p.86)

Fairies are often regarded as being creatures of the ‘betwixt and between’ (see for example Storm Faerywolf’s book on the fairy tradition of that title).  If this is so, it’s only fitting that our knowledge about them should, in the same way, be indeterminate and unsettled.  It’s typical too of the fairies to want to withhold something from us- whether it’s their name or full knowledge of their personalities.  I’ll conclude this brief survey of contrariety with some very fitting words from the first paragraph of the first chapter of Morgan Daimler’s recent bookNoting the conflicting descriptions of fairies, she states:

“None of them are wrong, and none of them are exactly right either, and that’s your first lesson about Fairy: it is in all ways and always a contradiction.”

Green children and fairy maids- The medieval roots of British fairy traditions

portunes

I have just finished reading Professor Ronald Hutton’s new book The witch.  As is obvious from the title, this is an in-depth study of witches and witchcraft from ancient times up until the close of the witch trials in the seventeenth century.  In fact, it is more of a work of historiography, surveying the research and theories of other scholars, than a pure history of the subject.  Chapter 8 concerns witches and fairies- hence my interest; I have written on this before myself on this about the relationship between fairies and witches and in my book British fairies.

Hutton considers the links between local magicians and healers and the fairies; he also gives an outline of the evolution of British fairy lore as crystallised in its fullest form in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  It is his sketch of the development of the mythology that I wish to examine in this posting.

Medieval fairy faith

Hutton proposes that there were seven key elements to British fairy belief in the middle ages.  These all seem to have been in place by 1200 at the latest, but it is reasonable to suppose that they originate a good deal earlier, perhaps even pre-Conquest (see for this my posting on Anglo-Saxon elves).  The main twelfth century sources are a verse history of Britain composed by Layamon (c.1200), chronicles written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died 1200) and William of Newbury (1136-98- and who is also called Newburgh and Newbridge), De nugis curialium by Walter Map (1140- 1210), the tour of Wales by Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) and Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury (1150-1228).  These contain various ‘fairy’ stories and accounts of recent supernatural events and encounters.

These key fairy-lore features are as follows:

  • the fairies inhabit a parallel world- several stories illustrate this.  The underground realm of fairyland is visited in the stories of Elidyr and King Herla whilst the Green Children of Woolpit stray into rural Suffolk from there.  A notable feature that is several times mentioned is the curious half-light that prevails in faery; there is neither sun nor moon, but a dim luminosity like torchlight;
  • they have the ability to enter our world and steal children– Ralph of Coggeshall’s story of ‘Malekin’ demonstrates this.  She was stolen by the fairies from a cornfield where her mother was working during harvest; rather like a ghost she could contact the human world but not return to it;
  • there are portals to faery- in the account of Elidyr he enters fairyland by a river bank; in King Herla it is a cave in a cliff; the Green Children follow a long tunnel that leads them out of ‘St Martin’s Land.’  William of Newbury locates a fairy feast under a barrow, a quintessential fairy locale;
  • beautiful fairy women– they dance at night and will sometimes wed humans– but always subject to conditions that are inevitably broken.  The story of Wild Edric epitomises the irresistible beauty of the fairy bride and her unavoidable loss (see later).  In Layamon’s Brut the lovely elf queen Argante takes Arthur to Avalon after the battle of Camlann to heal and care for him.  Readers may also recall the ‘aelfscyne’ or elf-bright women of Saxon myth I have described before in my post on  Anglo-Saxon elves.  Lastly,  there is evidence suggesting that the fairy women could have their own independent sexuality (or be loose and lustful to medieval minds) as well as being beautiful.  There are menacing accounts in thirteenth century sources of elf women visiting men at night as succubi.  The sister of the Green Children grew up, it was said, to have quite lax morals- an indicator perhaps of her fairy birth (although one might equally suggest that her conduct was a reaction to the shock of becoming an orphan and a refugee);
  • green colour- the Green Children at Woolpit emerged into this Middle Earth green tinged and would only eat green beans at first, although their colour faded as their diet changed;
  • the fairies can bless or torment humans- according to the historian Layamon, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (our earliest fairy godmother account). Conversely, Gervase of Tilbury tells of a fairy horn stolen by a hunter in Gloucestershire.  It brings with it bad luck and the man is executed for his theft; and,
  • they may live in human homes- Gervase of Tilbury tells of the ‘portunes’ who closely resemble brownies.  They work on farms, doing any work required however hard; they serve the household but never injure them and, at nights, they enter the house and cook frogs on the fire.

argante

Queen Argante

British tradition

These are Hutton’s seven core aspects of British fairylore.  From the medieval accounts I think we can add at least eleven more:

  • time passes differently in faery- when King Herla returns to the human world he is warned not to step from his horse until a small dog given to him has leaped to the ground.  A couple of his retinue forget this and dismount from their steeds; they instantly crumble to dust for he has been away several hundred years, although to him it seemed but hours.  It is said that he and his company are still riding, waiting for the dog to jump down.  The story of Malekin also has a typical feature: she has been seven years in fairyland, she says, and must remain another seven before she may return home.  Seven is a common magic number in faery measurements of time.  A delay of a year between events is also seen.  King Herla celebrates his wedding and, a year later, visits the king of faery to celebrate his.  The same commitment to meet a year later also appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight;
  • feasting– is a major fairy fairy pastime, as in the stories of King Herla and the account by William of Newbury of a fairy cup stolen from a banquet under a barrow;
  • mischief- although generally benevolent, the portunes do like to play tricks on humans by leading their horses into ponds when they are out riding at night.  A thirteenth century sermon also speaks of  ‘all such ben led at night with gobelyn and erreth hither and thither’.
  • diminutive size– clearly some fairies, such as the fairy maidens and wives, approach normal stature; nonetheless, the portunes are said to be only a half inch high (probably a mistake for half a foot/ 6″) and the fairies in King Herla are described as apes, pygmies, dwarves and half human size.  The fairies met by Elidyr are likewise small, but by contrast the Green Children, the fairies under the barrow seen in William of Newbury’s story and the bearers of the fairy horn in Gloucestershire are all of normal proportions.  At the other extreme, indeed, the fairy maidens seen dancing by Wild Edric described as being taller and larger than human women;
  • marriage subject to conditions- as mentioned above, fairy maids will wed human husbands, but there is always a catch.  In Wild Edric the hero was warned never to mention her sisters; of course, he did, and she promptly left.  Walter Map described the experience of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who captured a fairy wife at Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons (De nugis II, xi).  She lived with him and raised a family, but he was told never to strike her with a bridle.  Eventually, accidentally, this happened and forthwith she and all but one of the children disappeared.  This is the first of many such stories from Wales;
  • warnings– Gervase describes the ‘grant’ which is a foal-like creature which warns villagers of fire;
  • honesty & keeping promises is vital in fairy morality.  This an element in King Herla (and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); it is also seen in the story of Elidyr, who reported that the supernatural people he met never took oaths and abhorred lying;
  • fairies disappear at will (as in the story of King Herla) and generally remain invisible to normal human sight (as with the changeling Malekin).  This concealment can be overcome in two ways.  A person might apply a magic ointment.  Gervase of Tilbury mentions this in an account of the dracae water spirits of Brittany.  It is a regular feature of later British fairylore and may either have been imported from Brittany or may share the same ‘Celtic’ origin. Alternatively, it may be possible to obtain the second sight through contact with a ‘seer.’  This again is a feature of later lore (see Evans-Wentz for example) but in the life of the hermit Bartholomew who lived on the island of Farne in the late twelfth century the saint is told that he may see swarms of demons by placing his foot upon that of another, so that it seems this technique had a long pedigree;
  • foreknowledge of events- this supernatural power is mentioned in the story of King Herla;
  • a liking of dairy products- in Gerald of Wales’ account of Elidyr’s childhood visits to fairyland, he mentions their vegetarian diet and their preference for junkets.  This later became a significant theme in Elizabethan literature; and,
  • they may need human help, especially at child birth.  Gervase of Tilbury’s story of the Breton dracae also features the theme of the midwife to the fairies, later a regular element in many fairytales.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

All of these characteristics will be recognised in later fairylore and all have been described in previous postings and in my book British fairies.  However, Ronald Hutton suggests that what we would recognise as the British fairy tradition didn’t fully emerge for another 300 years or so, and that it depended upon the assimilation of continental motifs.  He suggests two in particular that were late arrivals in British folk belief:

  • the changeling idea- the idea of substituting a fairy for a human child is, he proposes, an import from Northern Europe.  As we have seen with the story of Malekin, the risk of fairies stealing human children was already well established in Britain at an early date, as was a close affinity between fairies and children- witness the Green Children or the story of Elidyr.  It is not entirely clear then whether we simply lack the evidence of the substituted stock or aged elf or whether this was indeed a last detail borrowed from abroad and added to the established tradition;
  • visiting houses and dairies at night, rewarding the clean and neat and punishing the dirty.  Hutton believes that this derives from continental myths of the good company of ‘the lady’ who could bring blessings to homes.  He may be right in this, but again many of the elements for this belief were plainly already in place- the presence of portunes in some homes and the liking for milk and cream- so that it needed little external influence for the ideas to coalesce; and,
  • fay maids–  Hutton proposes that these beings were inspired by literature.  It is quite true that chivalric romance is full of magical, semi-human women such as Morgan le Fay, but as we have already seen they were well known to British audiences at a much earlier date and may have contributed to Arthurian legend just as well as being derived from it.

On the evidence I have set out, I am inclined to think that the British fairy tradition evolved in recognisable form a good deal earlier than Professor Hutton suggested, although it seems incontestable that continental influences may have helped to refine and emphasise certain themes.

Anglo-Saxon elves

alf

The Norse universe- showing Alfheim where the elves live

It will be obvious that the Saxon immigrants to British shores in the sixth century brought with them an established body of belief on fairies and elves.  What I wish to do in this posting is to attempt to outline the core elements of what that belief might have been, before it interacted with existing insular British beliefs.

Sources

We can form some idea of what our Saxon ancestors might have believed from several sources.  There are their own literary productions- poems, stories and medical texts- which provide valuable information.  There are contemporary Norse texts which examine the Viking pantheon.  Lastly, we may compare more recent Scandinavian- especially Danish- folk beliefs with English fairy stories; where they share elements, we may suggest that these derive from an early, common mythology believed by all the continental Germanic tribes.  Of course, the potential flaw in this approach is that there was later contact through Danish and Norwegian Viking settlement in Britain.  If beliefs are widespread throughout all of England and lowland Scotland- and not limited to the Danelaw, this later influence may be discounted; equally, I might argue that we are still describing Saxon folklore, albeit the beliefs of the later Saxons after the Norse influx had been absorbed (!)  In fact, many of the ideas listed below are found in Wessex, the West Midlands and the North, the Borders and Scottish lowlands, beyond the Norse settlements, so that later imports may not be the best explanation.  Another approach could be to ascribe these common beliefs to a core of Indo-European thought, something that was not unique to Celts, Germans, Slavs or others.   There is, very likely, such a deep shared source: it is probably world wide and very ancient.  In this case, it is still likely that a good number of these ideas were incorporated in to early English belief and were carried into Britain at the time of the settlement.

Norse Alfheim

The old Norse Edda is a good starting point for this examination, as it provides a clear statement of northern Teutonic belief about the elves.  In the early 1200s in Iceland, scholar Snorri Sturluson compiled the so-called prose Edda, a record of the Norse myths and legends.  In Gylfaginning Gylfi describes the heavens and the many splendid places there:

“There is one place that is called Alfheim.  There live the folk called light-elves, but the dark-elves live down in the ground, and they are unlike them in appearance, and even more unlike them in nature.  Light-elves are fairer than the sun to look at, but dark-elves are blacker than pitch.”

These alfar are still active to this day.  Meanwhile, in later British belief we come across stories of Elfame from Lowland Scotland.  It seems inescapable that this ‘elf-home’ is a survival from the earliest English legends.  As for the division into light and dark, good and bad, elves, there are several later references to ‘white fays’ in English literature and one echo that may be particularly significant. Being interrogated on charges of witchcraft in 1566, John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset told his inquisitors “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black.  Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…”  If the colours reflect more than mere choice of costume, there appears here to be a survival of the light/ dark opposition.  In this connection we should also note the Old English term aelfscyne which was applied to women in a couple of texts (Genesis A and the poem Judith).  The word seems to mean something like ‘elf-beautiful’ or even ‘enchantingly bright’; perhaps in the suggestion of light or shining there is a further hint of the light and dark elf dichotomy.

From this limited evidence it may be possible to postulate a basic Anglo-Saxon mythology of an Elf-home, divided between the good (white) elves and the bad (black) elves.  Beyond that, it is not safe to go. Several further varieties of elves- the sae, feld, beorg, dun and munt aelfen- are mentioned in Aelfric’s Glossary,  but it seems very likely that these are actually translations of classical terms such as naiad and hamadryad and that they are not genuine Saxon categories at all.  If this is so, this is a tenth century example of the deleterious effects of classical learning that I described in a previous post.

Elf shot

Luckily, we do possess some direct evidence of Saxon conceptions of the elvish race. They are mentioned in several medical texts as the causes of illnesses, mainly internal pains or mental disturbances.  A spell to cure ‘the stitch’ goes as follows:

“Loud were they, lo, loud, as they rode over the barrow/ … Out little spear, if herein it be/ … To them another I wish to send back/ … a flying dart against them in return./  …if it were gods’ shot, or it were elves’ shot/ Or it were witches’ shot, now I will help you/ This is the remedy…”

‘Elf-shot’ was a recognised cause of disease in later times and was a major diagnosis in the Saxon texts such as Lacnunga.  A selection of herbs were employed in treating both humans and livestock afflicted with these maladies.  The medical texts also refer to aelfsogetha- which appears to be something like bronchitis or heartburn- and to aelfsidenn, which literally means elf-enchantment and seems to be a night fever or nightmares.  There is too a cure for waeteraelfaedle (water-elf sickness) which is characterised by the patient’s livid nails, watering eyes and downcast looks.  This term may denote another subdivision of the elves: in later times in Scotland there was a clear distincton between land (or dressed) and water fairies (see Campbell, Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.2 p.64).  Equally, though, it might just as well be read as ‘watery elf-sickness’ and so be more concerned with the symptoms than the identity of the agent inflicting the disease.

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Elves in a fairy knoll

Common elvish traits

Turning to the comparative sources, the attributes shared by English fairies with those of the original English homelands seem to be extensive and to include:

  • living under hills, which will periodically rise or open up to reveal feasting and music within;
  • a love of singing and dancing;
  • a preference for dancing in circles in grassy places, leaving marks on the ground;
  • a love of cleanliness and tidiness, for which humans are rewarded (or punished);
  • causing disease in humans and livestock;
  • the inability to cross running water;
  • a preference for wearing green and red, especially red caps;
  • an aversion to loud noises, which may drive them away;
  • the magic power to make themselves invisible, change their shape, see the future or to confer prosperity;
  • the need to use human midwives;
  • magic power in their names, which must be concealed from humans;
  • a strong link to certain trees, especially oaks.  Elder trees also feature in Danish folklore, which tells of the Old Lady of the Elder Tree who must be appeased before taking wood.  This spirit also appears in Lincolnshire, very strongly suggesting that Danish settlers brought the belief with them to East Anglia;
  • residence in Elfame is perilous, because time passes differently and because their food is unsafe for humans;
  • fairies take children and leave changelings, which may be exposed by cooking tricks or by burning;
  • there is a species of fairy that resides with humans, doing farm-work, stealing fodder and grain from neighbours and becoming so attached to a household that it is impossible to escape them by trying to move away.  Nonetheless, if they are insulted, they will become a nuisance. These are of course the English and Lowland Scots brownies;
  • there are freshwater fairies that are part-horse;
  • there are marine fairies such as mermaids and seal people.

As suggested earlier, the considerable parallels between Danish fairy lore and English tales are indicative of a common source.  The question remains whether that was located in fifth century Angeln before the early English fared forth in their keels, or further back in time and further away in the homelands of the Indo-European peoples.

Anglo-Saxon elves seem to have been imagined as being human in size and shape, but having a semi-divine nature.  Scandinavian elves shared this character and were the subject of sacrifices, aelfblot.  For instance, in Kormaks Saga a wounded man was told to sacrifice a bull and then to take the beast to a mound “in which elves dwell … and redden the outside of the mound with the bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast with the flesh; and you will be healed.”  There are records of comparable practices in Britain.

The evidence indicates that a rich set of beliefs were imported to British shores, there to mingle with the mythology of the residual British population and to produce the complex and developed fairy-lore to which this blog is dedicated.

Further reading

I have considered the early medieval fairy lore of Wales and the fairies of post-Norman England in other posts.

For those readers who want a far more detailed and academic examination of this area, I recommend the work of Alaric Hall, lecturer in medieval English literature at Leeds University.  You will readily find online pdf copies of his book Elves in Anglo-Saxon England and of his PhD thesis from which the book derives.  As his job indicates, his approach is primarily literary and is written from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxonist. If your conversational Mercian is weak, you may not fancy it….!