Faery lore in Kilvert’s Diary

The Reverend Francis Kilvert is known for the diaries he kept between 1870 and 1879, when he was a vicar in various parishes in Herefordshire, along the border with Wales. These records provide valuable evidence of many aspects of rural life at the time- which includes scraps of folklore.

There are scattered references in Kilvert’s entries to faery belief. We can probably label these faery folk as the tylwyth teg, the Welsh fair folk, rather than seeing them as more anglicised beings. The border between Powys and Herefordshire is not sharp break between Welsh and English culture and there are plenty of Welsh place names to be found on the English side: doubtless alongside Welsh folk beliefs.

The rocks at Aberedw

Faery belief was beginning to fade at the time Kilvert wrote. He was told by David Price of Capel-y-ffin that “We don’t see them now because we have more faith in the Lord and don’t think of them.  But I believe the fairies travel yet…”  This was not complete disappearance or extinction, therefore; more, it was a matter of the human eye of faith failing, or being distracted by the Christian teachings heard in the Wesleyan chapels. The fairies were still there, but showed themselves less often than before. In July 1872, for example, Kilvert was told that the fairies had last been seen at the Rocks of Aberedw, in the Wye Valley, south of Builth Wells. The fair folk were, in any case, naturally elusive. Kilvert heard on Midsummer’s Day 1873 how the grandfather of Walter Brown of Marsh had once seen the fairies in a hedge in a lane. Sadly, by the time he had stopped his horse and cart and scrambled off, the tylwyth teg had vanished.

A farm at Llan-pica

At the same time, faery lore was still told to local children. Kilvert noted in October 1870 how boys feared the ‘Goblin Lantern’ and that ‘Hob with his Lantern’ was often seen at Sheepcot Pool at Wernwg. Wills of the wisp were still very real apparitions, therefore, and boys still turned their hats to save themselves from being pulled into faery rings to join their dances. The faeries remained a potent and persistent threat- as proved by the story of a girl from Llan-pica, near Painscastle, who was led astray by them and, it was reported, killed. This violence, especially against a child, is unusual, but the habit of stealing people, especially kids, is of course very familiar.

The tylwyth teg weren’t all bad, by any means. An old man at Rhos Goch Mill used to hear the fairies entering the mill at night and dancing to the sweet music of their fiddles. Indeed, a tune that (for no apparent reason) was titled ‘The Fall of Paris’ had, apparently, been taught to a human by the fairies. The association of the faes with songs and with tunes is very strong, and is known throughout the British Isles, from Wales and the Isle of Man up to Orkney and the Shetlands.

Rhos Goch Mill

Kilvert’s records of the fairies of the Marches, brief as it is, is fascinating, because it combines general and unique features together creating a very specific faerylore for this region- and one that is highly localised, and the more real and believable for the fact that the incidents can be sited so precisely.

Gwenhidw- Mermaid Queen of Wales

mmd

Many readers will be familiar with The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, by Walter Evans-Wentz.  They might even recall that, in his investigation of Welsh fairy lore, he spoke to a Welsh Justice of the Peace from Carmarthen called David Williams, who proved a rich source of faery facts, despite his sober and respectable position.  In particular, he told Evans-Wentz about the king and queen of the tylwyth teg, whom he named as Gwydion ab Don and his wife Gwenhidw.  Gwydion is a character straight out of the Mabinogion, and he is said to live amongst the stars in Caer Gwydion, one of several magical faery fortresses that are mentioned in Welsh legend.  His wife, meanwhile, is connected to the fluffy white clouds that appear in fine weather and which are called ‘the sheep of Gwenhidw.’

This is a very pretty image, and Evans-Wentz goes on to speculate that this queen has some connection to King Arthur’s queen Guinevere, who is properly Gwenhwyfar, ‘the white ghost’ or spirit.  Ghostly ‘white ladies’ are very common in British folklore, often associated with wells and streams.

The real Gwenhidw

Mr David Williams JP gave Evans-Wentz a very useful lead, but what he had learned as a boy from his mother was a very confused version of the authentic tradition.

Gwenhidw (or Gwenhidwy/ Gwenhudwy) is well known in Welsh folklore.  She is, actually, a morforwyn- a mermaid.  Her name means ‘white enchantment’ or ‘white spell.’ In modern stories she owns a herd of white horses that run along the crests of the waves.  In older versions of the tale, the foaming waves were her ewes and every ninth wave was the ram of the flock.  This conception of the incoming tide is preserved in a sixteenth century poem by Rhys Llywd ap Rhys ap Rhicert in which he described a boat trip to the monastic island of Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) from the Lleyn Peninsula.  The passage is notoriously choppy and he described the sea as:

“haid o ddefaid Gwenhudwy/ a naw hwrdd yn un a hwy”

(a flock of ewes of Gwenhidwy and nine rams with them.”

Another poem of a comparably early date refers to Gwenhidw growing a beard (Ni adaf mal Gwenhudwy/  Ar vy min dyfu barf mwy– “Like G., I no longer grow a beard on my lip.”)  This seems to be an example of the quite widespread British tradition that mermaids are (contrary to popular misconceptions) pretty unattractive to look at- and possibly not even very different to tell from mermen.

Elsewhere in Welsh tradition a flood is termed ‘Gwenhudwy’s oppression’ and the sea is called her ‘plain.’  Lastly, an Elizabethan poem contrasts a man called Rhys Cain to our heroine, saying that he is a ‘feeble magician’ compared to her (wan hydol i Wenhidw).  

Conclusions

What can we conclude from these scattered references?  It emerges that Gwenhidw was once well-known in Wales as a powerful and fearsome mermaid, someone to be dreaded and respected.  If insulted, her vengeance might be savage.

Figuratively, at least, Gwenhidw had flocks of sheep.  At some point (though perhaps only in the family of David Williams JP) a misconception arose and the rolling breakers of the angry sea were substituted by benign fair weather clouds.  This, along with her  marriage to Gwydion, demoted Gwenhidw, but she deserves to be restored to her far more prominent position as sorceress and queen.

mmd3

Further Reading

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

Mermaid wisdom

-a-mermaid-combing-her-hair-goble

Warwick Goble,  A mermaid combing her hair

Mermaids are best known for their captivating beauty, a quality that can sometimes prove fatal to human lovers, and sometimes they display magical powers- they can predict the future, make curses and conjure up storms- but they are not usually thought of as founts of wisdom.  All the same, quite a few traditional folklore stories show that mermaids do have oracular powers.  Also, like oracles, it can sometimes be pretty hard to make sense of what they’re saying.

Cookery advice

Mermaids seem to have strong opinions about two matters in particular, human health and human cuisine.  The latter is especially surprising seeing as mermaids aren’t likely to cook anything at all and certainly not much that would be eaten by humans.  This doesn’t seem to stop them expressing their views, even so.  For instance, a mermaid caught in a fishing net off the Isle of Man was held captive for three weeks by the boat’s crew.  She refused to speak, eat or drink until they finally relented and took her down to the beach to set her free.  Other merfolk came to meet her at the sea’s edge and when she was asked what men were like, she said:

“Very ignorant- they throw away the water eggs are boiled in.”

Another mermaid, caught in nets near Fishguard in West Wales, advised:

“Skim the surface of the pottage before adding sweet milk.  It will be whiter and sweeter and less of it will do.”

This is probably very good advice, but how a mermaid would know about making soup with dairy products is anybody’s guess.

An incident from the Hebrides involves a mermaid escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him his failure can be ascribed to the dryness of his bread- whereas if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.

In one case the advice concerns the preparation of fish, which at least we can accept a mermaid might know about.  A mermaid had been trapped on the land by the magical means of sprinkling stale urine across her path (this works with fairies too).  She spoke only once in the week she spent ashore, to warn a woman gutting fish:

“Wash and clean well, there’s many a monster in the sea.”

In another case a mermaid has something to say about the preparation of fish, but in this case her words don’t seem to be about kitchen hygiene but instead are either a prediction or a grant of good fortune.  The mermaid had been caught on a hook by some Shetland fishermen; she begged to be freed and promised to grant them anything they wished for.  They returned her to the water and, before she sank beneath the waves, she declaimed a verse ending with the advice “Skoom well your fish.” One of the crew of the boat paid attention to her words and carefully skinned the next fish he caught.  He found a large and valuable pearl inside.

 

WarwickGoble_TheSea Fairies
Goble, Sea fairies

Cures & remedies

Mermaids also seem to know a good deal about human diseases and their treatment with herbal remedies.  In one Scottish case, a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore and called out:

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

A very similar story has the mermaid tell a sick girl’s lover about the mugwort remedy in good time; he makes a juice from the flower tops which saves his beloved.  There may well be some sound advice on herbal medicine being dispensed here, though once again quite what a sea dweller knows about weeds growing on dry land is another matter altogether.

warwick-goble-sea sprites

Goble, Sea sprites

Cryptic comments

Lastly, some of the mermaid sayings seem so cryptic it’s hard to make much sense at all of them.  Just before she dived out of sight beneath the waves, a mermaid who had been discovered sitting on a rock near Porth y Rhiw in South Wales said simply:

“Reaping in Pembrokeshire and weeding in Carmarthenshire.”

Another, who had become stranded on the beach as the tide went out at Balladoole on the Isle of Man called out to her rescuers:

“One butt in Ballacaigen is worth all of Balladoole.”

It’s may be possible to extract some sense from this, if the ‘butt’ refers to a barrel of fish.  If this is right, she may have been saying that the herring catch at the first location would always be better than that off the beach where she was found- a helpful hint for the men who saved her.

Summary

There’s a tendency to forget these days that mermaids are more than a pretty face (and figure) and that they have a society and a character as rounded and complex of that of the faeries.  They can be wise, they can be bewitching– and they can be deadly and dangerous.  I have tried to cover this in a succession of previous posts.

The material will appear in expanded form in a forthcoming book, ‘Fairy beasts,’ that is currently in preparation.

Goble mermaid

Goble, A mermaid

 

 

 

 

 

Fairy cleanliness

iro bath

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

Here’s a question not often asked: how- and how often- do fairies keep themselves clean? We know that they have very strong opinions on the cleanliness of human homes, and that they will punish or reward maids and housewives according to what they find, but does this extend to their own dwellings and, for that matter, to their own persons?

When you start to look, you find that the evidence exists in some quantity- so here are the best conclusions I can reach.  The need for the fairies to wash themselves and their clothes was accepted without question by our ancestors- for example, on the Isle of Man the saying was that “If rain falls when it’s sunny, the fairies are washing.”

Bathing faes

“Til after long time myrke, when blest were windows, dares and lights,

And pales were fill’d, and hathes were swept, ‘gainst Farie Elves and sprits:”

(William Warner, Albion’s England, 1586, Book V, c.XXV)

There are plenty of reports that demonstrate that fairies do, definitely, wash themselves.  As an outdoor people, living in woods and meadows, a lot of this bathing took place in natural bodies of water.  For example, in Northamptonshire certain ‘faery pools’ are known where the faeries swim at night; at Brington, in fact, bathing faeries were seen by witnesses as recently as 1840.  On the Isle of Man, beside the Gretch River, there’s a spot called the Fairy Ground where fairy mothers dressed in red used to be seen washing their babies.

It’s inevitable that encounters with fays are likely to occur at these bathing places.  A Northumberland tale records how a little girl gathering primroses by the River Wear came upon some faeries washing in the river.  In revenge for this invasion of their ablutions, she was abducted by them that same night and her father then had to follow a very complex ritual to be able to recover her.  Sometimes, it’s the faery who’s vulnerable. From North Yorkshire comes a story of a faery girl found lost and alone near Tower Hill, Middleton-in-Teesdale.  A woman took the child home and made her warm and fed her but the girl cried so bitterly that woman took pity and returned her to the place by the river where she’d been found and where it was believed that the faeries bathed, in the hope that her parents would return for her (Bord, Fairies, Appendix, p.206).

In due course the faeries, who are ever a people alert to their own convenience and advantage, realised that they could wash themselves with far greater comfort in people’s homes.  Initially the fays may have used water collected around human farms: there is one Welsh account of them bathing in a moat; but it then became the practice for them to enter the dwellings and to require that fresh water be left out in front of the fire or kiln for them.  This may be seen as dependence- as Latham does in Elizabethan Fairies (p.118) but it probably should more properly be seen as proof of the fairies’ canny nature.  Even so, if the householders did comply, they could generally anticipate a few silver coins being left behind for them in thanks.  Perhaps this is why some even started to provide soap and towels to their supernatural visitors- less for reasons of kindness than greed (Y Cymmrodor, vol.7, 1886, p.196).

This habit must have started many centuries ago, because the provision of water has become established as- to all intents and purposes- a fairy right. Mrs Bray tells the story of a couple of maids in a house near Tavistock who forgot to put out a bucket for the pixies one night.  Their response on finding the empty pail was to immediately go upstairs, enter the girls’ room by the keyhole and then surround their bed, loudly debating the best punishments for their laziness and neglect.  The enraged pixies considered pinching, spoiling the maids’ best clothes, sending a tooth-ache or inflicting a red nose.  One of the maids heard this and suggested getting up to put matters right; the other refused to stir ‘for all the pixies in Devonshire.’  The first maid did get up and fill the bucket- and was rewarded with silver pennies; the other was lamed for her obstinacy and rudeness (Bray, Tamar and Tavy, pp.188-9).

There is widespread testimony to the custom from across the British Isles, most frequently from the Isle of Man and from Wales. Sometimes hot water was preferred but, very curiously, it’s also reported that the tylwyth teg would choose to wash their children in the water in which human children have already been cleaned whilst in the Highlands the water used for washing men’s feet was most desirable (Rhys, Celtic Folklore 56, 110, 137, 151, 198 & 240).

Once established as a perquisite of the good neighbours, it was generally advisable to give them what they wanted, for fear of what they’d use instead.  Householders need to be warned that the fays may wash in any liquid they find available (even if this is meant by the humans for cooking or drinking).  Although they may not sound ideal for the purpose, fairies have taken revenge if no water was put out by bathing their infants in kit, the water in which oats were soaked in the Highlands, or in milk.  In one incident on Shetland, trows entered a house at night to bathe a baby and found no water left out.  Muttering “Mukka, mukka, dilla do,” they made use instead of the ‘swotts’ -or water in which sowens or oat-husks were steeped- to wash the child and its clothes, before pouring the liquid back into the keg from which it had been taken…

Whilst we’d never think of drinking water deliberately put out for washing, we might not expect or realise that cooking liquids would be used- and this could prove risky.  In a case from Dunadd in Argyll, the fays one night washed a stolen child in milk left out for them by a farmhouse fire.  This milk was wisely thrown away by the farmer the next morning, but his sheep dog lapped it up- and instantly died.

So established was this practice that, in Gloucestershire on Christmas Eve, the faeries were formally invited into homes.  The fire was banked up and water was left out for their annual bath and, it was believed, if this was done good luck would be bound to follow for the next twelve months.

Fairies also noticed that humans built themselves places specially for bathing- and they’ve taken advantage of these too.  There’s a well-known story of faeries surprised one morning in a bathing spa in Ilkley:  when the caretaker William Butterfield arrived to open up he found at first that the key simply rotated in the lock without effect.  He then tried to push the door open, but felt resistance from the other side.  On finally forcing his way in, he was met with:

“whirr, whirr, whirr, such a noise and sight! All over the water and dipping into it was a lot of little creatures, all dressed in green from head to foot, none of them more than eighteen inches high, and making a chatter and a jabber thoroughly unintelligible.  They seemed to be taking a bath, only they bathed with all their clothes on.”

They scattered as soon as William appeared, leaving no trace behind (Briggs, Fairies in tradition, 133-4).

fairy laundry

Fairy laundry

Fairies wash their bodies then, albeit not that frequently, and, as we’ve just seen, they may save time and trouble by bathing fully clothed.  This example aside, there is again sufficient evidence to show that the fairies do their washing just like us.

At least one spring, the Claymore well near Kettleness in Yorkshire, has been identified as a place where the faes wash their clothes and, in the Middleton-in-Teesdale case cited earlier, the fairies were also said to wash their clothes in the river Tees there (Bord p.206).  J. G. Campbell has a very brief mention of a fisherman seeing green silk spread out to dry on the fairy knoll of Beinn Feall on Coll.  The colour of the cloth, let alone its location, confirm its supernatural ownership.

An interesting story comes from the Isle of Man dated to the early twentieth century.  A man reported that his father, when he was a boy, had come across the fairies doing their washing in the river at Glen Rushen.  They were beating the clothes on the rocks and then hanging them to dry on gorse bushes. The boy crept close and stole a little cap, which was too small even for a human child to wear.  He took it home to show his mother, but she told him to go straight back and replace it- which he did.

Several other spots on the same island are also sites of fairy laundering.  A flat stone used to be pointed out in the Rhenab River where the fairies were both heard and seen- at night and early in the morning- washing their clothes.  At an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard ” beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream” and, in another unidentified glen, children saw the fairies’ newly-washed linen spread out on a rock to dry according to a report in Chamber’s Journal from 1855.

Unsurprisingly, fairy clothes washing moved inside human homes, too.  A Shetland fisherman who had been dozing by his fire awoke to find a trow using his feet as a clothes horse for drying her child’s clothes.  When he shifted position and the washing fell in the ashes, she slapped his leg in irritation and, as a consequence, he and his descendants always limped.

The great unwashed?

I’ve discussed fairy smell previously and the question is obviously highly pertinent to the present topic.  A young Yorkshire woman in late Victorian times told her vicar that she’d never seen the faeries but she had smelt them.  Asked to describe the odour, she told him:

“If you have ever been a very crowded place of worship where the people have been congregated for some time, then you knew the smell.”

This very strongly suggests a sweaty, stale, unwashed smell and, of course, if they bathed but once a year that is only to be expected.  All the same, the prevailing concern with regular supplies of water and with cleanly human homes tends to indicate that they are not a noisome folk.  Perhaps fairies just smell different to humans, rather than dirty.

It’s also said that they object to bad smells in the human world (such as stale urine- a substance which was kept, ironically, for cleaning human clothes but which was a well-known fay-repellent). A very grubby fisherman from Port Erin on the Isle of Man was once forcibly washed by the fairies.  He’d spied them swinging on gorse bushes, but this punishment seems to have been about something more than his intrusion on their privacy.

Lastly, there is the well-known story of Bettie Stogs from Cornwall.  She and her husband were alcoholics and were neglecting themselves, their home and their baby. The pixies removed the infant, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers, by way of a salutary lesson to her.

For more discussion of faery physiology, anatomy and health, see my 2021 book ‘The Faery Lifecycle’:

Some Welsh Otherworlds

sidi

Caer Sidi by Sirsur on Deviant Art

In a post last summer I discussed the Welsh tendency to portray fairyland as an island, especially an offshore island that appeared and disappeared unpredictably.  In this post I’m returning to the subject of the Celtic ideas of Faery,  but with a wider perspective.

We have to start with some background.  In Welsh mythology Annwn (Old Welsh Annwfyn) is the commonest term used for the Otherworld, the supernatural dimension.  The word occurs most notably in the title of a poem found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’ and dated roughly to the late 800s- early 1100s- ‘The spoils of Annwn’ (Preiddau Annwn).  This poem describes a journey by King Arthur and three ships full of his men to seize a magical cauldron from Annwn.  The verse touches on many important themes:  there is the Celtic idea of the special food vessel (perhaps a forerunner of the Grail);  the cauldron’s cooking fire is kindled by the breath of nine maidens, a group we must irresistibly associate with Morgan le Fay and the nine virgin priestesses of the Isle de Sein off the Breton coast; there is the use of the magic number seven (only seven men return with Arthur from his voyage- just as only seven men return to Britain with Bran the Blessed in the story ‘Branwen, daughter of Llŷr‘ in the Mabinogion)- and there is the idea of a a fairy fortress, my particular interest here.

Caer Sidi

Arthur’s quest takes him to a stronghold that has various names in the poem.  It is first called Caer Sidi (or Siddi), but it’s also the four-cornered fort, the fort of numbness, the fort of obstruction and the Glass Fort (Caer Wydyr).  Those of us interested in the Arthurian legends could easily be distracted by this last name, which takes us to other mythological sites in the Matter of Britain: to Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass, and thence to Glastonbury and Avalon (but that’s another story).

Back to Caer Sidi; this name is translated variously as the Otherworld fort, the spiral fortress and, importantly for us here, the Fairy Fort.  That interpretation derives from a link made between Sidi and the Gaelic sidhe, meaning the Tuatha De Danann, the fairy folk.  Now, it has to be admitted that sidhe properly means ‘peace’ and that it has come to mean ‘fairy’ because it’s an abbreviation of ‘people of peace,’ one of those euphemisms regularly used by people to avoid naming Them directly that I’ve examined before.  It’s not a wholly secure chain of etymology, therefore, but it’s a generally accepted translation and (as I’m no Celtic scholar) I’m content to accept it.

Another Taliesin poem, Kerd Veib am Llyr (Song before the sons of Llyr) also refers to Caer Sidi.  The poet declares that

“Complete is my chair in Caer Sidi/ No-one will be afflicted with disease or old age that may be in it/… Around its borders are the streams of ocean.”

These lines appear to imply that this chair (kadeir- meaning a throne or seat of precedence) is situated on an island and that either the seat or the site confer some sort of eternal youth- that it is a paradise.

corona-borealis-fred-espenak-sq

Caer Arianrhod

Magical, or supernatural, forts are popular with the Welsh poets.  Another example that’s worth mentioning is Caer Arianrhod.  This location features in the story of Math fab Mathonwy, also in the Mabinogion.  Arianrhod herself is one of the children of the goddess figure Don, the Welsh equivalents of the Irish goddess Danu and her offspring, the Tuatha De Danann.  The mythology is all very complicated and it’s easy to get lost, but for present purposes it will suffice us to say that forts and fairies seem to be intimately related in Celtic myth.  Another ancient Welsh poem, Kadeir Kerritwen (the Chair of Ceridwen), describes how the River Enfnys flows around Arianrhod’s court: it is, once again, an island, depicted as being physically separated from the rest of the mortal world as a metaphor for its spiritual separation.  I may add that Caer Arianrhod is also a name for the constellation of the Northern Crown, the Corona Borealis.

Now, we’re not talking here about Caernarfon castle- let’s bear that it mind.  These legends were formulated in the ‘Dark Ages’ when there were no stone medieval castles.  Even Norman motte and bailey strongholds of wood and earth would have been too advanced for the period, so what we have to imagine for all of these locations is a traditional British hill fort, somewhere like Maiden Castle or Hambledon Hill.  Of course, as I’ve only recently discussed, there are longstanding fairy associations with ancient sites, whether hill forts, stone circles or barrows.  That’s why, therefore, in my story Albion awake!I had the main characters meet the fairy queen Maeve atop the tumulus on the summit of Hambledon Hill.

So, to return to our theme, Fairyland for the Welsh appears always to have been associated with some identifiable feature in the landscape, whether a prehistoric fortification or an island.  The ‘otherness’ and inaccessibility of each particular site presumably derived from its physical features (man-made or natural)  and also from the aura of mystery attached to it: Iron Age hillforts or Neolithic causewayed camps would have been ancient and inexplicable presences, haunted by the spirits of poorly understood ancestors. Possibly too some memories are preserved of the sacredness of lakes and other bodies of water in Iron Age Celtic worship.  There was a gulf in time, as well as some geographical barrier, that separated the observer from the fairy place.

To conclude, then, the Welsh faerie is somewhere near to us, yet faraway.  It might be found either:

  • on a high hilltop (and you might be reminded here of Arthur Machen’s story The hill of dreams);  and/ or,
  • on an enchanted island in the sea or in an inland lake.  We know that King Arthur sails to Annwn in his ship Prydwen, indicating that Caer Sidi must be doubly remote and inaccessible.  This idea is not uniquely Welsh.  I’ll close with a story from the Scottish Highlands.  In the far north west in Gairloch lies Loch Maree and in that loch there is Eilean Sithain (the fairy island).  On that island is another loch, and in that loch a further island, on which- under a tree- sits the fairy queen, receiving from her people their kain (tithe or tribute) which is paid every seven years to the devil (it was said).  (see J. H. Dixon, Gairloch in North west Ross-shire, 1885, p.159).

Some further reading

I’ve mentioned Robert Graves’ White Goddess before and in it, chapters 5 and 6, he examines the mythology behind the two caers at some length (make what you will of it).

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.

 

Fairy festivals and seasons

cmb

Cicely Mary Barker, The mountain ash fairy

“They thought me, once, a magic tree

Of wondrous lucky charm,

And at the door they planted me

To keep the house from harm.”

In a recent post I described the best days of the week to see fairies (or to avoid them).  There are also certain times of the year when they are more likely to be abroad in the mortal world, and when encounters are more likely- whether for good or ill.  (I should confess at the start that I’ve broken my rule and included material from Ireland here, because it is so consistent with that of the British Isles.)

Evidence

The bulk of the evidence on festivals and seasons comes from Scotland and Ireland.  There is a little from Man, a couple of odd instances from England and Cornwall and from Wales all we really know is that there were three ‘spirit nights’, the Teir nos ysprydnos, when it was believed that supernatural beings of all descriptions were abroad (these were May Day, Midsummer Eve and Halloween). Despite any deficiencies, the accounts are nonetheless consistent.  Two festivals stand out across Britain and Ireland- these are May Day and Halloween.  On these occasions the fairies would be out and about in the world, partly for pleasure, sometimes because they moved home at these important times of the year.

May Day

On May Day fires were lit to scare away the fairies.  This was done in Ireland, Scotland and on Man, where it was expressly the gorse that was burned.  Both in Ireland and Man it was believed to be unlucky to give fire away to a neighbour at this time- perhaps because the protection from fairies was being dissipated.  On Man, too, rowan, primroses and green boughs were gathered and laid before the doors of houses, stables and cattle sheds to exclude the fairies.  The reason for these precautions seems to have been that this festival was the time when the fairies re-emerged after winter and held their first dances of the year.  As they were freshly abroad in the world, again, they were deemed particularly dangerous.  It was said to be unwise to draw water from a well for a drink after sunset.  In Ireland, it was believed too that the sidhe would try to steal butter at this time of year; in Scotland, they stole milk from the cows.  Also in Ireland it was considered that cutting blackthorn at this season would attract ill-fortune.  In the worst cases, a sudden death would be regarded as an indicator of an abduction.

Midsummer

The next major seasonal festival of the year was Midsummer, but this has fewer fairy associations.  In Ireland Beltaine fires were lit and once again these acted as barriers or discouragements to the sidhe folk.

Margaret Tarrant-Midsummer Night

Margaret Tarrant, Midsummer night

Halloween

It was at Halloween (Samhain) that supernatural forces again became particularity dangerous.  On this night the fairy folk were abroad once more, their last major excursion of the year, and mortals had to take precautions.  In Ireland it was thought that the sidhe moved home on this night, whilst in Scotland the fairy court enjoyed its last processional ride (or rade).  In the Outer Hebrides the season was said to be even more perilous as it was then that the fairy hosts fought amongst themselves, whilst in England this was the time of the year when the Wild Hunt rode through the nighttime skies of the South West.  A person out on Halloween was in grave danger of being swept up with the fairy throng. The only way that the rade could be seen by a mortal without peril was to have rowan hung at their door (hence my use of the verse and illustration by Cicely Mary Barker at the head of this post).  In Ireland offerings of food were left out near raths and other fairy sites in order to deflect their enmity.  Conversely, it was said that this was the best time of year to rescue those abducted, as the doors of the fairy hills would be open.

Even if you did not encounter the fairies, the countryside could be tainted.  For this reason, in Cornwall and in Ireland the advice was not to eat brambles after the end of October.  As in May, cutting blackthorn was discouraged too in November.  As at the start of the growing year, so at the end, torches were lit in the Highlands to keep the sidhe folk away.

Other festivals

Other dates with fairy links are Whitsuntide, when holy water was sprinkled inside Irish homes to ward off the sidhe and the season of Yule on Shetland, during which it was believed that the trows (trolls) would wander the island and enter human homes.  In fact, the Highland community served by the Reverend Robert Kirk during the late seventeenth century regarded all the quarter days (Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Halloween) as risky times when there was fairy danger.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe.

Whereas the evidence on days and times of day was rather less conclusive, it is possible with some certainty to point to festivals and seasons of the year, liminal turning points in the calendar, during which the portals to the supernatural open, or at least become more porous, allowing far greater access from one side to the other.

Further reading

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.