Why do fairies do our chores?

Why is it that some fairies seem happy to undertake chores for humans, whether these are strenuous physical tasks or finishing off household jobs that haven’t been completed?

We are very familiar with the existence and activities of the brownie and related faery species (boggarts, broonies, gruagachs and glaistigs) who will attach themselves to a particular family, estate or farmstead and perform a variety of agricultural and domestic functions.  I have analysed these relationships in some detail in my recent book Faery, but suffice to say that we may regard the interaction as some sort of contract for service, with the fairy being accepted as having a clear role and place within the household.  In return for the work done, food, drink and, often, an allocated time to enjoy the shelter and warmth of the humans’ home are granted.  The faery acquires a recognised position within the wider clan or ‘familia.’

Here, I’m rather more interested in the cases where the fairies appear very ready to do odd-jobs for humans.  Remuneration may be provided, but there isn’t the long-term relationship that’s usually understood to exist with the brownies and boggarts.  These arrangements can take a number of forms.

At Osebury, near Lulsley on the River Teme in Worcestershire, the tradition is that a broken implement left in the faery’s cave there will be mended for you.  On Orkney it was believed that, if a spinning wheel was not working well, leaving it out overnight on a faery mound would fix it.  There’s an unspoken arrangement that faulty items can be brought to the faery’s habitation and that a repair would be done without any apparent expectation of reward.

Then there are the cases where the fairy comes to the human home to do the work.  On Guernsey it was said that the fairies would help industrious individuals.  If an unfinished piece of knitting, such as a stocking, was left on the hearth or by the oven along with a bowl of porridge, by morning the work would be done and the bowl would be empty.  However, if the reason that the task was unfinished was the person’s idleness, the faery response would be to deal out some blows instead.  (MacCulloch, Guernsey Folklore, 203).  On the island of Jersey it was reported that if servants left out unfinished work (such as needlework) with a piece of cake, the fairies would complete it overnight- and do much of the next day’s work too.  (Folklore vol.25, 245)  On the British mainland, in Staffordshire, the tradition was the same.  Small household tasks would be carried out in return for gifts of food or tobacco.  (‘Notes on Staffordshire Folklore’, W Witcutt, Folklore 1942, 89).

Somewhat comparable is information from the Scottish Highlands to the effect that a girl’s fairy lover, who lived near her home in a fairy hill, would help her out with her daily chores, such as cutting peat turfs for the fire.  Of course, the motivation here was love, which may well distinguish it from the cases already described.

Somewhat at odds with most of the foregoing is a case recorded by MacDougall and Calder in 1910 in which a man’s laziness was encouraged by the fairies doing all his work for him at night.  The miller of Mulinfenachan, near Duthil in Inverness-shire, who was called Strong Malcolm, used to put everything ready in his mill before he went to bed, knowing that all the grinding would be done by morning.  If straw needed to be threshed for the cattle, or grain winnowed, these jobs would be done if the necessary tools and raw materials were left out.  Anyone who tried to spy on the activities would be forcibly expelled.

None of this was done for him out of kindness, though.  When another mill burned down locally, the fairies were heard to exclaim “We will have plenty of meal now… and Strong Malcolm must henceforth work for himself or starve.”  The explanation of this account rests on two points.  One is that food stuffs lost by fire or perhaps just dropped on the ground) went to the fairies as their rightful property.  Secondly, it will be apparent that they had been taking a ‘commission’ for the work that they did for Malcolm.  They had been keeping a share of all the flour, grain and such like- and with the fire, they no longer had to work for this.  (Folk Tales and Fairy Lore, 187). 

Although the Guernsey fairies objected to laziness, those at Duthil didn’t mind about this fault in Strong Malcolm- because it was profitable for them not to do so. The fairies intermeddle in human affairs, it seems, because there’s something in it for them. Hard work in exchange for a bowl of porridge might seem like a poor exchange to us, but with magical powers to accomplish the work, the labour could well look very different to them and, plainly, there’s something about human food (whether it’s the ingredients or the finished product) that’s irresistible to them- and worth all the effort.

“White fairie money”- fairy cash

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Faery gold by Amy Brown

“White money, Puck, white fairie money…” (The Mask at Cole Orton, 1618)

There is much speculation and confusion about the nature of fairy wealth- or the need of fairies for it.  Their economy often seems to function without the need for currency at all: rather, they transact all commerce solely on the basis of barter.  At the same time, it was alleged to Evans-Wentz that the fairies ‘have plenty of money at their command, which they could bestow on people whom they liked.’ (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, p.142)

The sources of faery wealth

Where exactly all the coins that are given to human favourites come from is an interesting question.   We might conclude that the money they leave is actually stolen, lost by people or perhaps comes from a hidden hoard the faeries have discovered- which may explain the ancient or unknown coins that are sometimes received by way of payment (on the Welsh Borders finds of Roman coins were often thought to be fairy money).  In Wales it has been alleged that the tylwyth teg steal from the rich to assist the poor- like Robin Hood- and there is no denying the evidence that they have assisted those in need.

There are other possible sources of their wealth, though.  One Stuart period text casts the faes in a less favourable light that the Welsh view just mentioned; instead, they were reputed to lend money to the poor- and to be tough when timely repayment wasn’t made.  Alternatively, the fays have been known to enter into contracts with humans- for example, for building work, for which they have agreed payment (admittedly, though, they sometimes set their terms after the event, doing the work first and then demanding recompense from the obligated human).  They have also been known to make ‘profit sharing’ agreements with humans- usually miners.  In one highly anomalous report, Crossing described how Dartmoor pixies were left coins by cottagers to persuade them to tidy their houses.  This runs directly counter to the usual arrangement whereby a coin is left in recognition of a home being made clean and tidy for when the fairies visit at night.  Although this would provide our pixies with a source of ready cash, you can’t help but think that someone got this story mixed up (Tales of Dartmoor Pixies, c.3).

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Avalon’s gold by Linda Ravenscroft

The uses of faery wealth

The fairies have coin, it appears, because they have dealings with humans and because they know that- to us- hard cash is important.  For this reason, they acquire money in order to pay people for services rendered to them (such as caring for a changeling child) or to reward those whom they choose to favour (for instance, a man who played football with them was left with the football- full of gold coins).  They may be very generous in these cases, for example giving a life time’s supply of gold or a purse that never empties.

In contrast to these cases, there are plenty where money received from the fairies does not turn out to be all that it seemed.  Payments or gifts turn out later to be shells, withered leaves, dead flowers, paper or horse dung.  Sometimes there’s a reason for this: the recipient has betrayed fairy confidences or has been rude or ungrateful; sometimes the transformation doesn’t appear to be deserved and the fairies just seem to be mean.  The opposite transformation may take place as well, though.  Change given as leaves or pebbles may turn out to be gold.

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Fairy Jewels, by Helen Jacobs

The perils of faery wealth

“I see you labour with some serious thing,/ And think (like fairies’ treasure) to reveal it,/ Will cause it to vanish.”   (Nathan Field, Woman is a Weathercock, (1609), Act I, scene i)

As has already been suggested, fairy money can be conditional upon discretion.  Almost always, as soon as the source of unexplained wealth is confessed, it is lost forever and cannot be regained.  This is a consistent and very well-known folklore theme: for example, in Beaumont and Fletcher’s play The Honest Man’s Fortune, a character warns, “For when they talk once, ‘tis like fairy money, They get no more…”(Act V, 1). In the most serious cases, the person who betrays the confidence might die.

A story about the need to be discrete about the source of your fairy gold also gives another clue as to the nature of fairy money itself.  A Norfolk ploughman one day found a brand-new silver shilling at the end of a furrow.  Next day there were two- and then three and so forth.  He then faced a two-fold problem- he had to account for his new found and exponentially increasing wealth and he had to explain why all this money seemed to be freshly minted.  Local traders began to refuse his suspect cash and his employer dismissed him.  Finally, the ploughman admitted to his wife where it was all coming from, knowing at the same time that his confession would terminate their riches forever.  Fairy money can be a curse as well as a favour then- and there is a least a hint that the fairies themselves might be illegal coiners.

A final intriguing twist upon this theme comes from a Scottish folktale told about a midwife from Lochranza on the northern tip of the Isle of Arran who was taken to attend the fairy queen.  The boy who fetches her is a human enslaved under an enchantment for twenty-one years; he is able to give her various warnings how to behave when she is in Faery.  He particularly tells her not to accept payment in either gold or silver from the faes and to throw away any gifts they may give her.  She obeys his instructions, casting away the presents made to her after she has left the fairy hill.  The items explode into flames- and would have burned her home down had she kept them.

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From the Water babies, by Warwick Goble.

Further reading

In my last post I examined fairies access to buried treasure in detail; see too my essays on faery metal working skills, which may explain how they can mint fresh coinage, and on the fairy economy more generally.

This subject is also discussed in detail in my 2021 book, How Things Work in Faery.