Fairy lovers- passion and peril

Brian Froud, ‘The Leanan-Sidhe,’ from Faeries

As many humans have discovered, having a faery lover can prove to be a terrible burden and strain.  Although you might initially feel a great sense of joy, pride and accomplishment, this often vanishes as the true cost of your lover becomes apparent.

The attraction is simply explained.  Fairy women are renowned to be great beauties– which is why, in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the Roman general greets the Egyptian queen as a “great fairy” (IV, 8).  To describe her as a fae is the only way of doing justice to her looks.  As well as beauty, fairy lovers and wives can bring advantages, such as supernatural skills and knowledge, but they can be demanding and jealous lovers too.

The Manx female fairy called the lhiannan shee is a very good example of this.  Dora Broome (Fairy Tales from the Isle of Man 36) describes one such lhiannan shee.  She woes her chosen man by leaving him a chest full of gold and a golden length of mermaid’s hair, but she also hangs around his home, sighing and trying to catch his eye, which the man knows could be fateful for him.  He decides to get married, thinking that this will put her off, but the plan doesn’t work.  The fairy woman continues to hang around, disturbing the newly wed couple, until the husband eventually catches sight of the fairy’s lovely face looking through the window.  She was “more beautiful than moonlight on water or the first primrose in Spring.”  The man falls under her spell instantly and abandons his wife for seven years.  When he finally returns, his wife has remarried and her first husband has been reduced to a white haired, haggard wreck- and can never escape his fairy pursuer. 

Broome says that the charms against a lhiannan shee are to say the Lord’s prayer quickly if you glimpse her and to always carry with you a magical object, such as twig of cuirn (rowan or mountain ash) or a fish bone called a bollan.  Both are highly effective at repelling fairies, apparently.  Powerful protection is needed, though, because “the face of the Fairy Woman is lovelier than a dream and lonelier than a sea-bird’s cry.”   

In another story, The Fisherman and the Ben-Varrey, Broome describes how a mermaid with lovely blue eyes and golden hair has a similarly bewitching effect on a poor man.  She gives him a chest of old golden coins and the sound of her voice as she sings on the rocks on the shore is so enticing that he would join her and drown had it not been for his wife locking the door.  The money turns out to be a curse, because everyone assumes it must be stolen, whilst the family end up poorer than ever because the fisherman stops fishing, believing he has wealth for life.  By luck, all the money is lost- which lifts the spell- but it’s clear that sooner or later the ben-varrey would have claimed him.

The lhiannan shee’s influence upon a man can be malign, causing him to waste away and to lose his wits and friends.  For example, a large burly man took up with a fairy woman.  He started to share all his food and drink with her, often putting his cup behind him so that she could drink (even though no-one else saw her).  As time passed, he began to laugh and talk to himself when alone (or so it seemed to others).  He also became paranoid about people trying to listen in to his conversations with her- although he claimed that the shee girl was telling him when he was being spied upon. It is particularly dangerous to speak to one, as it puts you at her mercy: in late Victorian times a man described meeting one in the fields near Rushen on Man and being very tempted to chat to her because she was so charming and lovely, but he knew not to do so because a friend of his had done this and had then been haunted by her, with the shee woman even following him into pubs and drinking his beer.

In 1904, a Manx author was able to identify at least half a dozen known lhiannan shees on the island. One at Glendowan was living with a man; another at Sorby had been seen chasing her husband and several others had been sighted wandering (or prowling) on their own, for example at Port Erin, where she was seen walking up the mountain.

The lhiannan shee is especially notable for the fact that she pursued and attached herself to men.  This proximity often came to be termed ‘haunting’ because it was too intense and obsessive and, both on Man and in the Highlands, there are stories of men who fled overseas to escape their fairy lovers, only to find that they had followed them across oceans. The Scottish and Manx shee women are extreme cases, but any fairy relationship can prove burdensome and demanding for the human partner. In Wales, as is known from numerous stories, winning the fae woman in the first place can be difficult (see the accounts about tempting them with bread) and the marriage is almost always subject to strict obligations or taboos. Normally, these involve keeping iron away from the fairy female, but there’s a very similar tale told of Dolgellau pool. A fairy would bathe there on summer evenings and Hugh Evans dared to spy on her- and fell in love. She consented to marry on the stipulation that he would allow her to continue to go off alone at nights and never interfere or ask questions about this. He agreed, but then became consumed with curiosity and tried to follow her one night. Hugh fell and broke his leg doing this and, once she had nursed him back to health, she left him forever.

In one Scottish story, the relentlessness of the fairy attachment is starkly revealed. A shepherd heard pipes playing and had to follow the sound of music. He was drawn onwards for weeks, months, seasons, living on roots and berries as he wandered. Finally he crossed the sea and, on the far shore, was met by a piper dressed in green who invited him to accept the love of a faery girl who had seen him with his flocks and had lured him to this place.

Many of the faery lovers I have described in previous posts can seem more passive, assigned the sorts of roles and attitudes allocated to women in the past.  On the surface this may be true, but it underestimates their power and planning.

Hans Zatzka

I have several times before mentioned the fairy women Tryamour in the story of Sir Launfal.  She is not unique.  In the Lay of Graelent, for example, the young knight is riding in a forest one May day when he comes upon a naked maiden bathing in a fountain, with her clothes hanging nearby on a bush.  He seizes them, in response to which she calls him by name and asks him to at least leave her shift. Graelent relents and allows her to come out of the water and dress, but then he’s overcome with lust and “did with her what he pleased.”  After what amounts to a rape, he begs her pardon, which she grants, before revealing that she had gone to the forest with the express intention of meeting him.  She then offers him fine clothes and money on condition that he binds himself to her and keeps their relationship secret.  Ultimately, the lady raises Graelent from death and disappears with him (strongly suggestive of Arthur and Morgan le Fay and clearly indicative of her fairy nature). This final departure to fairyland is repeated in Sir Launfal.

The Lay of Guingamor is quite similar.  The knight is hunting in a forest when he finds a maiden bathing in a spring and combing her hair (rather like a mermaid).  She is “long limbed and softly rounded” and, once again, he snatches her clothes to bring her within his power.  As before, though, it seems that her presence is far from accidental.  She addresses him by name and promises him love and gifts.  Guingamor then accompanies her to her palace, where a stay of three days lasts for three hundred years in human time.  These distortions in time as a familiar feature of passage between dimensions.

Finally, the lay called Le chevalier qui fist parler les cons et les culs involves another hunting knight discovering three nymphs bathing in a fountain.  They are “so seeming wise and beautiful, one might surmise that they were fairies in mortal guise.”  As soon as the knight’s squire sees the fays’ “white charms, their pretty bosoms, haunches, arms” he (yet again) snatches their clothes and rides off.  It is his master who restores their dresses to them, in return for which he is granted three powers- to be welcome everywhere and to be able to make “parler les cons et les culs” (to make cunts and arses talk…). A bizarre gift, but there you go…

It will have been noted from the previous paragraphs that fairy lovers are, in the British Isles, predominantly female.  Whereas Ireland has the gean cannah, the love talker, as a male equivalent to the leanan-sidhe, there are really no equivalent terrestrial beings in Britain.  There is, however, the northern Scottish tradition of male selkies, who will form sexual relationships with human women and father children.  Often, though, these relationships are brief and, not uncommonly, they’re non-consensual.  Selkie men seem prone to impregnating human women and abandoning them (see my posting on the chapter on selkies in my book Beyond Faery and, too, the ballad the Selkie of Sule Skerry).

Further Reading

There’s more discussion and examples of the lhiannan shee in my book Faery whilst in Beyond Faery I give extended consideration to the problems of human relationships with merfolk. My new book, Love and Sex in Faeryland, examines this subject at length.

‘Leanan Sidhe’ by Starfire-666 on Deviant Art, after Brian Froud in Good Faeries, Bad Faeries.

Naked fairies- nudity in fairyland

mush fae

In a book published in 2017, American art historian Susan Casteras contributed a chapter on Victorian fairy painting.  She perceptively remarked how nudity, which is very far from being an inherent element in folklore, became something that the Victorians chose to exaggerate in their visions of fairyland.  Many paintings of the period, she rightly observed,  were all about “flaunting nudity for its own sake rather than as a supposedly accurate transcription of faery lore.”  (S. Casteras, ‘Winged Fantasies: Constructions of Childhood, Adolescence and Sexuality in Victorian Fairy Painting’ in Marilyn Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, c.8, 127-8)

simmons fairy lying on a leaf
John Simmons, A Fairy on a Leaf

Looking at John Simmons’ painting above, you cannot help but agree with the second part of Casteras’ comment- although Simmons was a particular offender, producing a number of ‘pin-up’ canvases.  What about the folklore evidence, though?  Victorian pictures- and more recently the work of Alan Lee, Brian Froud and Peter Blake– have habituated us to the idea of a Faery full of frolicking nudes, but how traditional is this?

The honest answer has to be that there’s very little sign of nudity in the older accounts of Faery.  In my post on fairy abductions of children, I mentioned the story of a girl who temporarily went missing in Devon.  A game keeper and his wife living at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor, had two children, and one morning the eldest girl went out to play while her mother dressed her baby sister. In due course, the parents realised that the older child had disappeared and several days of frantic and fruitless searching followed. Eventually, after hope had nearly been lost, the girl was found quite near to her home, completely undressed and without her clothes, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly with her toes. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.

Now, this girl was a human infant and there may have been several reasons why the pixies might have taken off all her clothes.  They may have objected to human things; they may have thought a ‘natural’ state was healthier and preferable.  Whatever the exact explanation, it’s one of the few instances where there’s a suggestion that nudity might be the normal condition in Faery.

harris

A calendar illustration by Mabel Rollins Harris

The other evidence is all qualified in one way or another. Mermaids don’t have clothes, but that’s for very obvious reasons.  Men are forever falling in love at first sight with these creatures, but you may well suspect that coming across a uninhibited and naked female is a pretty strong draw in any case.

Some fairies don’t ‘need’ clothes at all because they’re naturally very hairy: the brownies, hobgoblins and the Manx fynoderee are all examples of these.  Their shaggy pelts were covering enough.  It’s almost always this kind of faery that is the subject of a story in which a reward of clothes for services rendered alienates the helpful being.  Typically, a brownie or boggart with work faithfully on a farm, threshing grain, carrying hay and tending the livestock, all for very little reward except some bread and milk left out ta night.  After a while, the curiosity of the farmer overcomes good sense and the creature’s labours are spied upon.  It’s seen to be (at the very best), dressed in tattered rags and (at the worst) completely naked.  Pity is taken and new clothes are made in recognition of its hardwork, but all that’s achieved is to offend the fae, who recites a short verse- and leaves forever.

Lastly, the only other definite example of bare fairy flesh is one I’ve discussed several times previously and one in which ulterior motives are very important.  In the medieval romance of Sir Launval, the young knight is summoned into the presence of the fairy lady, Tryamour.  She’s found in a pavilion in a forest, relaxing on a couch on a hot summer’s day.

“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert; Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May, / Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day, / He segh never non so pert.””

“because of the heat, she’d undone her dress nearly to her waist; she lay uncovered; she was as white as a lily in May, or snow falling on a winter’s day; he’d never seen anyone so pert.”

Tryamour’s plan is to seduce Launval and, plainly, lying there topless and available is a pretty good scheme for winning his attention.  It’s not normal behaviour in Faery, though, anymore than it is on the earth surface.  Most of the accounts we have of the appearance of fairies describe their clothes– their style and their colour; we are not told that they are provocatively naked.

Nude fairies, therefore, seem to be a Victorian obsession; they are the soft porn of their day.  As has been described before, it was acceptable to display bare breasts in art, but only so long as it was justifiable and/ or distant from the present day.  Painting classical nymphs, oriental harems and fairyland let artists get away with it.  they seized the opportunity- regardless of the fact that the folklore provided almost no basis for this.

“Little they slept that night”- fairy love and fairy passion

tamlaine
James Herbert MacNair, Tamlaine, 1905Enter a caption

I return to a subject that has an abiding fashion for many visitors to the blog- and apparently me too: fairy sexuality and sensuality.

Fae lovers

From the very earliest times, it seems, the idea of Faery was synonymous with irresistible beauty.  Elf-women were called ‘shining’ by the Anglo-Saxons (aelfsceone) and this idea by no means ended with the arrival of the Normans and of the fairy women of romance.  English writer Layamon in his history of Britain, The Brut, described the queen of Avalon, Argante, as the fairest of all maidens,  “alven swithe sceone” (an elf most fair).  The concept of radiant beauty persisted: the fairy queen who met Thomas the Rhymer at Huntlie bank was “a ladye bright” and, as late as Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, the faes’ royal lady is still “radiant” (Act V, scene 5).

Great beauty can provoke great passion, of course, and for many writers this response was amplified when a fairy lover was involved.  Sir Launfal is introduced to fairy lady Dame Tryamour whom he finds, stretched out in the heat with her clothes unfastened to her waist.  Lying on a bed of purple linen, “that lefsom lemede bright” (the lovely one gleamed).  She greets Launfal as her darling and he kisses her and sits beside her.  After a meal they go to bed immediately and “for play, litell they slepte that night.”

The fairy princess and her consort waste no time, evidently- and this looks to be a Faery trait.  In Spenser’s Faery Queen Prince Arthur, much like Sir Launfal, meets a fairy queen whilst he’s resting in a forest.  “Her dainty limbes full softly down did lay,” after which he was ravished by the delight that “she to me delivered all that night.” (Book I, canto IX, stanza 14).

It’s not solely fairy women who are passionate and impetuous.  In the Scottish ballad of Tamlane, the male hero (who is admittedly a human boy stolen away to fairyland by its queen) seems just as ardent.  He meets his lover Janet by a well and, taking her by the hand, leads her behind some nearby rose bushes so that “The green leaves were in between… What they did, I cannot say- [but] she ne’er returned a maid.”

As the romance of Sir Launfal has already indicated, fairy females can have a powerful effect on their human partners- at least in the minds of (male) medieval poets.  This is explicit in the story of Thomas of Erceldoune, which is dated to around 1425.  Thomas meets the fairy queen, another ‘lady shining bright’, and is so overcome with desire for her that “seven times he lay by her.”  Eventually she has literally to push him off, protesting “Man, you like your play… let me be!”

The lhiannan shee

Such are the aphrodisiac qualities of the fairy lover.  These feats are impressive (as well as improbable, perhaps) but there can be a downside to such consuming passions.  This is demonstrated by the leannan-shee of Celtic fairylore, whose activities were reported as a continuing menace even into Victorian times, though by then they were much rarer.  For example, describing Perthshire in 1810, one writer complained how:

“in our Highlands there be many fair ladies of this aerial order, which do often tryst with amorous youths, in the quality of succubi, or lightsome paramours or strumpets, called lean-nan-sith.” (Graham, Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery, p.275)

His words echo those of Reverend Kirk who, around 150 years earlier, had condemned the “abominable” goings on between fairies and humans.  His disapproval was probably not limited to the extra-marital sex.  Generally, relationships with supernaturals are difficult or perilous, for the simple reason that they span dimensions: for instance, marriages between men and mermaids are often short lived whilst men taken by mermaids almost invariably drown.

Visits by both male and female fairy lovers were thought once to have been common, and even in living memory of the late 19th century folklore collectors, there was a shoemaker in Tomantoul who claimed a leannan sith partner.  On the Isle of Man, the fairy lover, the lhiannan shee, was a very strong tradition.  They were believed to generally come at night, noiselessly, perhaps in the guise of a man’s wife, and they often haunted wells and pools.  They make the first advance and to reply to them is dangerous, for they will then attach themselves to a man and to haunt him constantly, whilst remaining invisible and inaudible to everyone else.  In at least one Manx case a lhiannan shee was inherited from a deceased brother.   In another, reported by Evans Wentz, a man met a strange woman at a dance and made the mistake of wiping the sweat from his face on part of her dress.  This created some connection between then and thereafter she would appear beside his bed at night.  Curiously, the only way of getting rid of her was to throw an unbleached linen sheet over the two: perhaps the pure, fresh state was significant?

Men would separate themselves from their family and friends to be with these fae lovers, who would visit them nightly and slowly exhaust them- both physically and mentally.  Obedience to the fairy mistress might be enforced by violence too- though sometimes the hapless human may have wondered whether he was being punished for daring to presume to love a fay or for neglecting or trying to escape her.  Eventually the leannan-shee would become an intolerable burden to their chosen partner and the men were frequently desperate to escape them, even emigrating to the other side of the world in an attempt to shake them off.  These efforts tended to fail- but oddly, whilst the fairy women appear to be undefeated by intervening oceans, at the same time they can’t cross streams.

As a general statement, fairy lovers are said to ruin their partners in body and soul.  Worse still, in one notorious case the fairy women were said to have bewitched all the males of the Isle of Man and to have lured everyone into the sea.  The male Manx  equivalents were generally seen as being equally dangerous, carrying women off forever.  Nonetheless, in the Scottish Highlands the gille sith (fairy boy) was renowned as a loving and attentive partner.

We should also add that fairy lovers can be the source of great advantage to their partners.  They can bring good luck and supernatural protection, bestow the skill of healing with herbs and grant the ability to foresee the future.  They can also assist their paramours with magical advice: an illustration is found in the tale of ‘the first MacIntyre.’  He was thrown out by his elder brother, who told him to leave the family farm taking only one white cow- and as many others as might follow her.  The younger brother had a fairy lover who gave him wise counsel in times of need.  She recommended that he pick up a sheaf of corn and then call the white cow.  When he did as instructed, most of the rest of the herd came too.

I’ll leave you with some of the verses of Irish poet Thomas Boyd’s poem The Leanan Sidhe (The fairy mistress) which capture many aspects of this legend:

“Where is thy lovely perilous abode?
In what strange phantom-land
Glimmer the fairy turrets whereto rode
The ill-starred poet band? …

And there … Trembling, behold thee lone,
Now weaving in slow dance an awful spell,
Now still upon thy throne?

Whether he sees thee thus, or in his dreams,
Thy light makes all lights dim;
An aching solitude from henceforth seems
The world of men to him.”