Ida Rentoul Outhwaite- Bubble fairy with tulip
There has been a long running debate about the physicality and corporeality of the faes. Some see the faes as being as solid and tangible as us; others conceive the fairies as verging on the weightless. One witness from Newcastle upon Tyne has felt fairies dancing on her hair and clothing. A Manx woman felt them walk on her, “as light as cats.” It is well known that one Scottish word for the faes is the ‘sluagh’- the airborne host- one version of which is sluagh eutram- the light folk.
Others have taken this notion further, shrinking the fairies and reducing their weight correspondingly. Staying in the Highlands, an alternative euphemism for the faes might be daoine beaga- the little people. Another Manx witness confirmed that they were, indeed, “very little and very light.” A Hampshire woman described the flower fairies in her garden as:
“so tiny and so luminous that the very air seems lighter as I sense them. They seem to me to have slight little bodies with gossamer wings.”
Famed Scottish painter of mythical and faery themes, John Duncan, met the faes repeatedly on the island of Iona. During one encounter he noted that:
“Their feet did not bend the thick heather over which they walked and they made no sound as they passed close…”
John Rhys has published a very similar account from Wales, describing the tylwyth teg dancing on the tips of rushes (Celtic Folklore, p.83).
Fairies may be very small, but are they insubstantial? Can we put our hands through them? Can they pass through solid obstacles? Some sightings suggest just this- that they can vanish into walls and banks and that we could never catch them because our bodies pass right through theirs. Evans Wentz relates the story of an Anglesey woman who walked with a fairy lady one night; she tried to touch her but her hand went right through (Fairy faith, p.141).
Definitely in the ‘aery nothings’ camp was Yorkshire writer Durant Hotham. In chapter two of his Life of Jacob Behmen (1654) he observed that:
“nor is the Aery region disfurnisht of its Inhabitant Spirits; [which include] that far more numerous Progeny of Aerial Spirits, lodg’d in Vehicles of a thinner spun thread than is (otherwise than by condensation) visible to our dim sight.”
The Reverend Robert Kirk maintained much the same a few years later. He said that fairies had “light changable Bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed Cloud.” It is because these bodies of ‘congealed air’ are so pliable and subtle that the fairies can appear or disappear at pleasure (Secret commonwealth c.1).
See-saw by Dorothy Wheeler- empirical proof that children weigh more than fairies…
These general statements are complemented by the testimony of actual witnesses. Fairies seen in dancing in the moonlight near Stowmarket in Suffolk during the 19th century were described as being “light and shadowy, not like solid bodies.” The Reverend Edmund Jones, describing eighteenth century Gwent, told the story of a girl who used to dance in a barn with some of the tylwyth teg on her way to and from school. She took off her shoes to do so, because otherwise she made a noise which seemed displeasing to them and because she never heard their feet when they were dancing. These faes appear to be very light, therefore. The same seems to be the case in our last example. Two boys from the Isle of Man met a fairy man on the road once; he was only 5-6 inches tall and, when they tried to catch him, he flew off, leaving no footprints in the dust. A Manx witness even went so far as to allege that the island fairies have “no body and no bones.”
Other witnesses attest on the contrary to the tangible solidity of fairies. A girl from Kent met a fairy man leading a horse in her garden. He put his hand on her wrist “and his touch was cool, not cold like a fish or a lizard but much cooler than a human touch.” In a second incident told to Marjorie Johnson, a young woman walking her dogs near Minehead in Somerset surprised two pixies in an oak wood. They ran away from her into a hollow in an oak tree and, in their haste to dart inside, they forgot to duck their heads. Both knocked off their hats, which Miss Voss-Bark picked up and took home; they were tiny cones made of wood and permanent proof of her encounter.
Especially convincing is another account from the Isle of Man. A woman from Ballasalla told George Waldron how her ten-year-old daughter had met a large crowd of little people up on the mountains. Some had tried to abduct her, but others in the group had objected to this and had tried to protect her and the two sides had fallen to fighting. Some of the other fairies then spanked her for causing dissension. When she got home, she had distinct prints of tiny hands on her buttocks, visible proof of the veracity of her unhappy experience.
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Daisies
The answer to the debate over the solidity or insubstantiality of fairies will resolve many other puzzles over their nature.
Those who have claimed to have had sexual relationships with faes must, almost inevitably, be proponents of the ‘solid and fleshly’ view of fairy nature. Likewise, I think, must be the case those who have acted as midwives or nurse maids to fairy infants- and the same for those children who were abducted as their playmates or the adults who were taken to act as cooks and suchlike domestic skivvies in fairyland.
Other such questions over physicality can have two resolutions. For example, if we wonder what food they might eat, we can either accept that their diet is the same as ours- or instead we can tend to the view that they extract the substance (the foyson or toradh) without taking the foodstuff itself.
We are very familiar with the thought of fairies flying, but there are also reports of them gliding or floating, too; something which is strongly suggestive of lightness or even weightlessness. For instance, in 1922 seven year old Penny Storey was living in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire. As she lay in bed one summer evening, a female being between twelve and thirteen inches high suddenly appeared and glided past her window.
“Her arms were outstretched sideways, and her feet gracefully together… No wings were visible… She simply floated, quite slowly, vertically downwards through the air.”
Jennifer George, from Cornwall, saw something comparable in her bedroom as a girl. A bubble of steady yellow-white light floated about four feet above the floor before gliding out of the window and disappearing.
Some of these figures lack wings but still move effortlessly in the air: “They had no wings but still seemed to dive through the air at a good speed.” Others possess them but do not need to employ them: ballet dancer Betty Lambert, as an adult and with an adult companion, saw a fairy in a bedroom “whose outstretched wings seemed motionless as it floated out into the night…”
Fairies don’t just drift about weightlessly, though. A Mrs Shirley Eshelby of Carbis Bay in Cornwall witnessed a fay dancing in her bedroom early one morning: “although she appeared to me to be dancing in space, she was evidently stepping on something that was solid to her feet, because she never danced below a certain level. When departing she skipped away, touching the invisible line with her tiny, naked feet.” Other fairies, seen in the Home Counties in 1970, “ran on air as if on the ground…” These examples are perhaps more indicative of the fays inhabiting a separate dimension than being incorporeal, but they do imply that, in this world, they do not experience gravity in the same way as we do. (Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.46, 94, 167, 171, 182, 186 & 304)
The evidence is just as ambivalent when it comes to determining how fairies can vanish from our sight- as they do extremely frequently. Is this is a process of physical dissolution- or is it just the application of glamour- or magical deception? Have they gone, or have they simply rendered themselves invisible but are still there?
Contemporary accounts in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies provide support for both schools of thought. There are numerous mentions of faes simply disappearing. However, in some cases they seem to melt away before witnesses’ eyes. Those who saw fairies often said that they ‘faded away,’ a process suggestive of a less fleshly nature than our own. One fay “dissolved into a sunbeam, slowly;” another “quivered away.” It can be a gradual process: one man watched a group of fairies “grow lighter, insubstantial, and more like a cinema film” and it can involve the fay appearing and disappearing piece by piece. In one Manx account a crowd of fairies met on the road by three people in a horse-drawn cart simply “melted away” as the travellers got nearer. (Johnson pp.173, 240, 299, 305 & 309; Evans Wentz p.126)
By contrast, there are also plenty of incidents reported to Johnson in which the fairy neither vanished nor dissolved. Rather, in order to get away, they had to run. We’ve already seen the incident with the pixies’ lost hats; fleeing into bushes, behind trees and through hedges are all mentioned. Beings who need to make a dash for cover quite obviously are as solid and real as we are- and don’t have extensive magical abilities either.
As well as my previous postings on fairy bodies and solidity, see too chapter 1 of my British fairies. I also discuss fairy physiology in detail in my forthcoming book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide, early 2020).