People can be rendered completely incapable of movement by the fairies. This is generally inflicted as some sort of punishment and can be a short-term measure to remedy a temporary problem- or a long-term state, which is indicative of a completely different state of affairs. Long lasting paralysis is often a sign of fairy abduction.
Frozen on the Spot
A lazy, drunken farm labourer from the Cotswold area of England sneaked away from the harvest work in the fields to drink beer in the sun. He chose a small mound with a hawthorn growing on top as comfortable spot and settled down to relax. However, a crowd of small green beings appeared in front of him. Despite his fear, he found he was completely unable to move. After a while, they disappeared and he recovered the use of his limbs; he needed a drink, but found that all the beer in his flask had also disappeared.
It seems very clear from this account that the shirker had chosen a fairy hill to laze upon. The incident might simply be a case of the fairies stealing alcohol because they fancied their own binge, but it seems more likely that this is an incident of a trespass being punished and- at the same time- a human being chastened for infringing the fairies’ moral code. Whilst the story doesn’t say it explicitly, I reckon we may infer that the shock was such that the man rarely drank afterwards.
Incursion upon the fairies’ reserved places seems constantly to be the cause of cases of paralysis. A farmer of Ffridd Uchaf was returning from Beddgelert fair in Snowdonia. He saw a company of fairies dancing and, whilst he lay in hiding watching them, he fell asleep. As he slumbered, they bound him so tightly that he could not move, after which they covered him over with a veil of gossamer, so that nobody would see him in case he cried out for help. As the man did not return home, his family made a thorough search for him, but in vain. Fortunately, about the same time the next night the fairies returned and freed him and, a little while later, he awoke after sleeping a whole night and a day. He had no idea where he was, and wandered about on the slopes of the Gader and near the Gors Fawr until he heard a cock crow, when he finally realised he was less than a quarter of a mile from his home. This case is comparable to the story of ‘Miser on the Gump at St Just.’ An old man set out one moonlit night to Woon Gumpus, near the village of St Just, where he had heard that the fairies assembled and where he thought he might be able to steal some fairy treasure. The whole fairy court emerged from under ground for a feast and the man hoped to steal some of their gold and silver plates. He was so preoccupied with the precious metals that he neglected to notice that he had been surrounded by spriggans. They threw hundreds of tiny ropes around him and pulled him to the ground, where he was pinched and stung by the entire fairy multitude. At dawn they vanished, leaving him bound with cobwebs on the open moor.
A man who unwittingly stumbled upon a fairy market on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset was mishandled in a similar way. He tried to ride through the crowd of fairies gathered around the numerous stalls and was “crowded and thrust, as when one passes through a throng of people… He found himself in pain and so hastened home; where, being arrived, lameness seized him all on one side, which continued with him as long as he lived, which was for many years…” Although the writer here, Richard Bovet, calls it ‘lameness,’ it seems apparent that the man suffered some sort of paralysis on one side of his body (Pandaemonium 207).
Our last example comes from Torrington in North Devon. One day at the very beginning of June, 1890, a man was working in a wood. At the end of the day he separated from his companions to collect a tool he had left nearby. On bending down to pick it up, a strange feeling came over him; he was unable to move and he heard pixies laughing. He realised he was at their mercy. When he had not returned home by ten o’clock that night, his wife became very alarmed and went out to look for him. She met the man emerging from the wood, soaked to the skin. He explained he had been held under the pixies’ spell for nearly five hours, capable only of crawling along on his hands and knees. It was dark and he had no idea where he was, as a result of which he fell into a stream, which broke the spell. The wood was apparently known for pixie-leading, although this is not really the right term for the man’s experience, which was much more akin to a paralysis.
Several features unite these cases: an action which somehow incurs fairy displeasure and their sanction, which is a loss of bodily function that may vary in terms of its extent and/ or duration. I have called this fairy paralysis; our forebears seem to have called it something else- ‘fairy blast.’
Roughly speaking, there are two main ways in which the fairies make humans sick. One is to shoot us with arrows (elf-shot), which leaves the victim elf-struck (suffering from a stroke). The other is to blast them with an ‘ill-wind’- a condition also sometimes called the evil eye.
The condition was recognised in England, and was often termed ‘the Faerie’ but it is from Scotland that we have the better records of the illness and its cure. The evidence mainly comes from the trial of women suspected of being ‘witches,’ although in reality what they had usually been involved in was folk healing, using herbs, of the sickness caused by fairies and witches. For example, Jonet Andersone of Stirling was tried in 1621: using a shirt worn by the patient and an iron knife, she had diagnosed that the illness had come from ‘a blast of ill wind.’ Likewise, Janet Boyman of Edinburgh told a mother than her child had been blasted with an evil wind by the fairies when they found it in its cradle, unblessed by the mother and therefore unprotected from faery malignity.
In 1662 Jonet Morrisone of Bute was tried for witchcraft. Amongst the evidence against her was an incident where she had told a man that his daughter was paralysed and unable to speak because of “blasting with the faryes,” something she cured with herbs. She had treated at least two others in the same way. Janet Trall of Perth treated a baby that had got “a dint of evil wind” by bathing the infant with water from a south-flowing well. I’ve discussed before the crucial role of water in curing fairy illness and in cures provided to us by the fairies.
On Shetland and Orkney, the trows were also said to cause identical illnesses. The islanders said that an ‘ill wind’ in the face could lead to languor, stupor and loss of appetite.
There were two explanations as to how blasting happened. Healer Catie Watson of Stow explained in 1630 that people were “blasted with the breath of the fairy.” Jonet Morisone, though, said that “blasting is a whirlwind that the fayries raise about that persone quhich they intend to wrong and that, tho’ there were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot him quhom they were set for.” She went on to explain that the effect of the wind gathered in one place in the body and, unless treated in a timely manner, would cause the victim to ‘shirpe’ (shrivel) away. Janet Boyman in 1572 expanded a little on this: the purpose of the blasting was, in her opinion, to enable the fairies (the “sillyie wychts” as she called them) to abduct the victim. She saw blasting as part of a longer term strategy, therefore, rather than as an immediate response to some offence.
Some close contact was evidently necessary for the blast to be inflicted. I’ll end this discussion with a mention of a Highland Scottish belief that cattle could be paralysed by the so-called ‘fairy mouse.’ The luch-sith was the name for the shrew and it was believed that its presence in pastures could lead to livestock being struck down with the marcachd sith, (fairy riding), a paralysis of the spine brought on by the shrew running across the backs of the cattle when they lay down.
For more on this aspect of the faery character, see my 2021 book The Darker Side of Faery: