The fae relationship with the humble and everyday candle is rather more complex and magical than we might initially imagine. Four examples illustrate different aspects of this.
Fae beings are sometimes compared to candles- that is, when they appear in the form of points of light and especially when seen as the will of the wisp– looking like a lantern to lead travellers astray. In such a form they have often been compared explicitly to candle flames . In the form of the canwyll corph (corpse candle) in Wales, they appear to predict an imminent death. For both phenomena, see c.12 of my Beyond Faery(2020).
Faeries also make normal everyday use of the light that candles provide- for example, the lhiannan shee of the Isle of Man performs the role of a washer woman akin to the bean nighe of the Scottish Highlands. She will be seen at night, washing clothes in a river by the light of a taper. Perhaps, too, just like humans, faeries can be comforted by the homely light. At Manor Farm, East Halton, in Lincolnshire, the resident hob was something of a nuisance, because he could use his great strength for pranks as well as undertaking chores. The residents of the farm were said to leave a candle lit in a window every night ‘to keep the Hob quiet.’
Candles have more magical properties, though. In County Durham, there was once a great fear of pregnant women and unbaptised babies being stolen by the ever watchful faeries (as nurse maids and as changelings), so the practice was to leave a candle burning all night in the same room as the cradle. Some explanation of the reasoning behind this might come from an incident reported on the Isle of Man. A confined mother was being watched over at night by two women. They kept feeling drowsy and, as soon they started to fall asleep, the candle in the room would dim. The pair would then awaken with a start, brought on by their fear of the little folk, and the flame would flare up again. This happened several times until they awoke to find the expectant mother out of bed and an argument taking place outside. The fairies had been in the act of taking her but the women’s waking had disturbed and defeated them. These examples suggest that candle light can have some power to dispel faery power, or to keep them at bay, and it may in fact be this that was being exploited against the hob on Manor Farm.
In Arkengarthdale in North Yorkshire, a man laid a bogle in his cottage by opening his bible, lighting a candle and then pronouncing the injunction “Now then, you can read, or dance, or die as you like.” The bogle was observed to vanish in the form of a grey cat and wasn’t seen again for many years. However- as is often the case- the banishment was not permanent. One day the man met the bogle again on the stairs of his house- and this spelled his doom. Shortly after the encounter he left home to go to his work in a local mine, and died in an accident. This use of the candle as part of the exorcism ceremony may have simply relied upon the precedent of church practices, of course, but the flame might also have had special properties against the bogle.
A poor widow from Reeth (the neighbouring parish to Arkengarthdale) suffered inconvenience and loss when her neighbour stole some candles from her. The thief soon found himself haunted by a bogle; he tried shooting it but it had no body that could be wounded (of course). The next day it came to him, warning “I’m neither bone nor flesh nor blood, thou canst not harm me. Give back the candles, but I must take something from thee.” It plucked an eyelash, which may seem harmless enough, except that his eye ‘twinkled’ for ever after that day. The protection given to the poor woman may indicate faery morality, but perhaps the particular concern over candles suggests an extra, magical dimension to the story.
Lastly, we have a record of magical candles being used by Scottish faeries. A man’s wife was abducted into the faery hill at Pollochaig in Inverness-shire. Another local man had been given some enchanted wax candles by the sith folk, the sort they use to light their nocturnal dances (although more poetic and romantic accounts of such festivities tend to describe them using glow-worms for illumination) . This favoured individual lent the husband one but warned that the Good Neighbours would use tricks to try to steal it back and defeat him. Just as predicted, the husband lost the candle. He borrowed one after another, making repeated (failed) attempts to enter the sithean until he finally succeeded and got his wife back, but- sadly- by this point all those magical candles had been used up.
To sum up, the faery interaction with candles seem to be threefold. They can use them for conventional lighting purposes but tapers may also be used magically, both against the faes and by them. The exact significance of this is still hard to determine: our limited folklore evidence illustrates the situations but doesn’t presently provide quite enough detail for us to really understand the dynamics.
Recently I was researching another faery subject entirely when I was led to refer to the chapter on North American faery beings in Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook’s Magical Folk (2018). Peter Muise there describes the ‘Puritans and Pukwudgies’ of New England, arguing that the European invaders largely lost their own faery lore as they crossed the Atlantic, but discovered the rich supernatural world of Native American belief- which was slowly assimilated.
This isn’t the whole story, as two other chapters in Magical Folk make clear. Later Irish and Scottish settlers, especially in Atlantic Canada, did import their faery belief with them- and I know from my own reading of British sources that there are several Scottish stories that explicitly discuss Highland faes, such as the leannan sith and the bochan, who travel with emigrants to North America. It might be better to say that the English settlers were less likely to carry their faery folk with them- and Muise discussed why this might be so.
A second point concerns the pukwudgie/ puckwudgie. This spirit is now probably the best known of the North American ‘faeries’ and modern sightings seem to be on the increase, as Muise has described. However, as his chapter title indicates, most of this modern lore comes from New England, to which the pukwudgie is, strictly, a stranger. He is a spirit of the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes area- not of New England, which had its own indigenous beings (which are known about and which survive- amongst the indigenous population still and, to a degree, amongst the offcomers). Various writers, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, seem to have been responsible for popularising the pukwudgie and extending his range. Literary uses of faery lore often do this- spreading beings such as pixies and leprechauns far beyond their natural habitats and (arguably) obscuring the local differences.
Be that as it may (and you can read the chapter in Magical Folk, which is highly recommended for your book shelves) what struck me was the strong similarities between North American faery behaviour and that of the British faes. Here are a few examples, taken from Muise:
pukwudgies and other Algonquian spirits have magical powers and can shape shift or make themselves invisible;
they can act as wills of the wisp (often seen as balls of light) and lead people into swamps or over cliffs;
they have a nasty habit of pestering women and girls, luring them into forests where they seduce them. Once a human female has been involved with a faery male, she can never settle back into society and marry;
All these characteristics and habits can be found in British folklore. I have provided links to posts I’ve made in the past on exactly these subjects. Now, there seem to be two explanations for these remarkably close parallels. One is that faery temperament, physiology and powers are pretty much the same the whole world over. As such, we shouldn’t expect any real difference between a pukwudgie and a boggart, just as we wouldn’t dream of imagining there would be any differences (except of culture) between- say- an Inuit, a European and an aboriginal Australian. The other explanation is that there has- in fact- been a great deal more immigration of European faeries into North America than we realised. The least sign of this, perhaps, is the optional spelling of Puck-wudgie: does this reveal an almost unconscious identification between the pucks of the English midlands with the Ojibwe sprite?
This is a big subject and one in which I have too little knowledge to make pronouncements. Nevertheless, the similarities of supernatural behaviour are notable and demand examination and explanation. Perhaps all North American faery survivals have really been crossbred with British faes from East Anglia and the South West, with the faery population being swamped and colonised just as much as the aboriginal possessors, or perhaps they’re really all one race, despite superficial differences, just as humans are.
Final trivia fact: I got to thinking about this after I came across the 1972 song ‘Puckwudgie‘ by cor-blimey Cockney comedian of the 1950s and ’60s, Charlie Drake. British readers of a certain age may recall Charlie from comedy specials and black and white films shown on Saturday and Sunday afternoons; I never anticipated a faery link, but there you go. I might well say the same of David Bowie- yet we have The Laughing Gnometo contend with. That- and Drake’s song- bear strong similarities.
The spirits known as wills of the wisp, which in fact go by many local names, seem to have a single purpose, which is to try to lure people out of their way, something which may just get them lost or which may result in their deaths. Their exact status as ‘fairies’ is a little uncertain. They are clearly supernatural beings, and almost always of a solitary nature, but their precise classification is difficult; in some cases, they resemble ghosts. Nevertheless, the activities of the ‘pure’ wills of the wisp, who only have one manifestation, are shared with entities we would unhesitatingly describe as fairies- such as pixies, Robin Goodfellow and the various pucks and pwccas. For this reason, I included a chapter on wills of the wisp in my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery. The evidence presented here represents additional research I’ve undertaken, which complements the content of the book.
Very typical of this family of sprites is Willy and the Wisp, who is seen around Buckhaven in Scotland. He’s been called a “fiery devil” who leads people off their path in order to drown them or, at the very least, to cause them to stumble and fall, whether into a bog or over a bank or cliff. He sometimes appears as sparks around a walker’s feet or as a candle shining in the dark two or three miles ahead of them. Like a rainbow, this light would recede before the advancing traveller. He has also been known to lure boats into the shore, where they have foundered. This entity is also called ‘spunky’ in Scotland, or ‘Dank Will,’ with his “deceitful lantern.”
Interestingly, on the Hebridean island of South Uist it was said that the Will of the Wisp had not been seen before 1812. A woman who went out one night to collect rue from the sand dunes was never seen again and it was thought that her ghost returned as the wandering light that was seen there frequently after that. This is an intriguing example of the confusion, or uncertainty, that can exist over the interrelationship between Faery and the dead.
In Dorset, on the south coast of England, the Will or Jack o’ Lantern is seen as a hopping ball of light that precedes a traveller, attempting to lure the person off the road, perhaps into a pond or perhaps just to make them lost. If it succeeds, you will hear it sniggering and laughing. In Devon and Cornwall, too, the Jack o’ Lantern is known. He has been known to attack lanterns carried by people, or to perch on the roofs of houses. Generally, the light is like a small blue flame, but it has been seen as big as five feet in height. It generally floats at a low level (about a metre off the ground), but can rise high into the air- or vanish, and then reappear again. Sometimes it is fixed, sometimes it moves at considerable speed. In the South West of England, as well as pools and marshes, the “pixy-lights” might try to lure people down abandoned mine shafts, which are still quite common in the region.
The Will is usually seen in more out of the way locations, such as mountains and lowland marshes, but by no means exclusively. It has been sighted in water meadows or in domestic gardens as well. When it is seen in church-yards, it is often called a ‘corpse candle,’ once again linking the phenomenon with the dead.
A very curious example of the phenomenon is the Will seen at Fringford Mill in Oxfordshire. Witnesses have reported red lights that looked like gnomes, standing about three feet high. They would bob up and down (as seems to be typical) but they also emitted a singing sound. The lights would slowly approach to within about one foot of a person and then bob away again, apparently with the intention of leading the individual either into the mill stream or onto the highway. Horses kept in the field next to the mill would be terrified by the apparition. At Ascott under Wychwood, in the same county, the Will was called Jenny Burn Tail and once more resembled a human figure- a man holding a lantern.
Sometimes the Wills of the Wisp of Devon and Cornwall are seen indicating places where rich lodes of ore can be mined. The Wills of the Channel Island of Guernsey have a comparable link to buried riches. It is believed on the island that their appearance marks the site of concealed treasure. This association can be exploited by Le Feu Belengier to lead those hopeful of finding lost wealth through bogs and brakes.
Even so, the riches can be there for the finding by the determined. The only problem is that the wandering fire will protect its treasure. Stories are told on the island of a woman who dug where she saw a Will dancing and, in due course, uncovered a pan that seemed to be full of coins. However, just before she was able to claim the riches, she was distracted and, when she turned back to the pan, it had been overturned and was empty. In another case, a man who dug up a pot of coins looked away for a moment- to discover a huge black hound curled up in the hole. Conversely, a man who excavated a pot full of sea-shells was canny enough not to be deterred. He carried the seemingly worthless discovery home and, the next morning, awoke to find the shells transformed into coins. This story is a reverse of the usual reports of money received from fairies turning into shells, leaves and mushrooms overnight. The common element of not taking your eye off the prize is generally encountered in respect of sightings of fairies themselves: if you see one, you should try to avoid blinking or looking away. If you do allow yourself to be distracted, the fairy will disappear.
The Will of the Wisp is very well known in Scotland, but he has a long history in Welsh folklore too. Early in the nineteenth century, the road from Welshpool, on the Welsh border, to Shrewsbury in England was haunted around Onslow Hill by a ‘goblin’ who appeared as a ball of fire and would sit behind riders on their horses. There were numerous reports of this being and generally people avoided travelling along this road by night if they could. Not far away, at Marford near Wrexham, the Jack o’ Lantern was often seen early in the eighteenth century. Typical of its tricks was an occasion when it led two men into a ditch after they had thought they could see the light of a farmhouse window and had aimed towards it. Once the chosen victim was lost and soaked, the sprite would always dance about in glee over them.
Older Welsh sources more generally blame the ellyllon, the elves, for such sightings and misfortunes; another name for the Will of the Wisp is yr ellyll dan- ‘elf fire.’ This light, also called ‘bog fire’ has been described as being like the light of a lantern, that would dance ahead of riders, travelling at the same speed as them, or would appear as actual blue flames on the extremities of the horse and rider. This Will was reported as late as 1898, but subsequent changes to farming practice and the draining of land seems to have scared many of them off.
In some parts of Wales, a number of specific, named sprites are identified as the cause of such mischief. Several are identified in Snowdonia. The bwbach llwyd or ‘brown hobgoblin’ will appear on mountain tracks, dressed like a shepherd. He lures travellers off the path before vanishing. Somehow related in the bodach glas who appears in front of people once a fog has descended. He noiselessly hovers in front of them. always maintaining the same distance. Lantern Jack, meanwhile, is a blue flame seen on paths at night. It grows steadily larger, leading people astray until the light is snuffed out with a peel of laughter.
In south and east Wales the pwcca is a light that will lead on travellers, who think they are following another person with a lantern, until they find themselves on the very edge of a precipice. The light then leaps out into the void and a peal of pwcca’s mocking laughter is heard.
The pwcca is a further reminder to us that the Will and the more familiar and corporeal Puck often blend into each other, so that being misled by a will of the wisp and being pixy-led can be very similar experiences. The cross-over between the two is further underlined by the fact that, in some parts of Wales, the pwcca is more like a domestic brownie than a malign sprite.
The medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-50) wrote two poems describing the Will. Y Pwll Mawn, The Peat Pit, is desrcibed by him as being “the haunt of many a drowned wraith” whilst Ar Niwl Maith (On a Misty Walk) is an extended description of the perils of travel in poor visibility:
“My twisty traipse turns to clumsy labour
Like a hell,
Into a still bogmire,
Where in every hollow lurks
A hundred wry-mouthed elves.”
Similarly, in the Highlands, a Gaelic poem mentions “the busily roaming fairy woman, deluder of travellers…”
More details and discussion will be found in the chapter dedicated to this subject in my forthcoming Beyond Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).
Deliberate leading astray is a fairy habit almost exclusively found in South West Britain. It is reported about as often in Cornwall and Devon, with about twenty-five per cent of cases taking places in other counties (Dorset and Somerset) and slightly fewer in Wales. Because it is primarily a phenomenon of South-West England, I will use the term pixie-led as a label for the process.
Here I’m only going to describe those fairy beings who, amongst their other activities, enjoy misleading humans. Those supernaturals that appear as moving lights and whose sole function is to mislead- wills of the wisp, Jack o’ Lanterns, Goblin Lanterns and such like- will not be my concern here. This reflects a fairly clear subdivision of types, but it is not perfect or binding. Pucks and Pooks in England and South Wales can often appear in all respects like a will of the wisp, although we know them to be more complex characters in addition to this (see for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, 23).
Pixie-leading is a longstanding fairy practice that is well attested in literature. It can be traced back to the early fourteenth century. Jeremy Harte in Exploring Fairy Traditions (p.26) records a preacher’s sermon that describes one who has been “led at nyght with gobelyn, and erreth hider and thider.” The references multiply from the seventeenth century, for example from Francis Rous, who in his religious text Meditations of Instruction of 1616 compared those who pursue material wealth to:
“they [that] shall stumble into the same ditches, wherein they have seene many of their neighbours wallowing. This makes sport for the divel, and thus is man most truly fayry-led, even led aside by the spirits of darknesse…”
In an identical tone, Thomas Heyrick, in The New Atlantis of 1687, mentioned those who “Vainly like wilder’d men should wander round/ Be lost in senceless shapes on fairy ground” (p.51). Likewise, Beaumont and Fletcher in their play Wit at Several Weapons (c.1620), have a character complain:
“My ways are goblin led and the night elf still draws me from my home.” (II, 2)
Writing in the first half of the 1600s, poet Robert Herrick, a Devonshire parson, advised:
“If ye feare to be affrighted
When ye are (by chance) benighted,
In your Pocket for a trust
Carrie nothing but a Crust:
For that holy piece of Bread,
Charmes the danger, and the dread.”
Christopher Clobbery, who wrote in 1659, warned of “fairy elves who thee mislead … in to the mire, then at thy folly smile/ Yea, clap their hands for joy.” The remedy he advised was simple: “Old country folk, who pixie-leading fear/ Bear bread about them, to prevent harm.”
In the English Midlands, we know from Jabez Allies that you were not pixie-led but ‘poake-ledden,’ something which seems to be confirmed by the experience of Bishop Richard Corbet (author of the poem Rewards and Fairies), who became lost near Bosworth in 1640. He and his party were advised then to “Turne your cloakes/ … for Pucke is busy in these oakes./ If ever wee at Bosworth will be found/ Then turn your cloakes, for this is fairy ground.”
What is Pixie-Leading?
To be pixie-led is a very well-known phrase, but what does it actually entail? There are, in fact, at least half a dozen different experiences which are classed under this heading.
Changing the landscape or hiding the path
Using glamour so that the human victim no longer recognises where they are is the commonest way to confuse and lead astray a person. A few accounts will exemplify this: Once a Week magazine in 1867 reported how a young farmer was pixie-led one evening in an orchard, where he was trapped for two hours. In a Welsh incident, two young women returning to Llandysul from Lampeter fair were led in a field next to their home. They were lost for hours on a bright moonlit night, yards from their house. Lastly, a Cornish man called Glasson, making the short walk from Ludgvan to Gulval near Penzance, got completely lost and went in circles. In all these cases, and more, a familiar place became strange; land marks disappeared and panic set in.
Sometimes, the change made is to conceal the gate out of a field. Often, again, the enclosed space is very familiar to the victim and the moon may be shining, but the means of escape seems to vanish. To add to this, in several Cornish accounts the pixies also frustrate their victims’ attempts to get free by raising the field hedge whenever he finds a lower part he might have been able to climb over (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.1, p.57 and Enys Tregarthen, Folklore Tales, ‘The Enchanted Field’ (1911)).
In one case, something similar happened inside a house. A Welsh man woke up to see fairies in his bedroom dancing and eating. He tried to wake his wife, but couldn’t, and for four hours just had to watch the festivities. Eventually, the fairies left and he got out of bed to try to see where they had gone. However, he couldn’t find the bedroom door; it was only when he cried out in panic and woke the rest of his family that the spell was broken. For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.
Mist and Fog
The pixies are known for their ability to control the weather and this can be used as a way of trapping victims. Men travelling across Dartmoor from Crediton to Exeter were advised that, if a cloud descended, they should strip and sit on their clothes for half an hour or so. The pixies would in due course raise the fog thrown around them. Patience is evidently important in such cases. A woman on the Quantocks became demented with terror when the pixies caused an evening mist to rise suddenly around her, so that she was lost in a field minutes away from her home. For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.
The pixies may lure people away from their route with music, thereby getting them lost. This has been reported in Devon and in North Wales.
Just as a person may become trapped in a familiar field, they may step into a fairy ring and fall into the fairies’ power. A Somerset farmer coming home from market was led like this until he ended up exhausted by a briar bush that grew in three counties- a plant which magical properties that seems to have broken the spell he was under. Cornish fairy author Enys Tregarthen has called rings ‘Spriggan Traps.’
Perhaps related to this phenomenon is that of following a ‘piskey-path.’ Enys Tregarthen also described how these mysterious green paths can be seen on cliffs or meandering across the moors, still verdant when the bracken is dry and brown. Writing in 1630 in his View of Devonshire, Thomas Westcote mentioned how a person who got lost on Dartmoor would be “led in a pixy-path.” Here there is some definite, if unclear, link between these paths and being pixie-led.
In one Cornish story a man called Nicholas Annear was punished by the pixies for always rushing and hurrying. One day, he set out for market with his horse and cart. The pixies made it appear that the church tower at his destination was ahead, but he never got there. He drove his cart all day and never arrived.
Who do they pixies do this? They seem to have several motivations. Above all, there’s their love of mischief; they need no reason as such, other than the pleasure in mildly tormenting humans. However, they may feel the person needs to be punished for some reason (as in the case of Nicholas Annear above). If they have been insulted by a person, s/he will be targeted in revenge. For example, a North Yorkshire man who declared that he’d catch a fairy in a bottle was led astray for two hours as a result of his foolhardy boldness. Someone who has taken the fairies’ property will suffer too. A man from Bishop’s Lydeard in the Quantock Hills picked up a fairy grindstone as he was out walking and decided to keep it. A mist descended upon him and he was led through brambles all night. A woman from Selworthy parish on the Exmoor coast of Somerset saw a group of pixies; they were so upset by her intrusion that they led her all over the moor and through the woods. Any trespass upon the fairies’ privacy is bitterly resented.
An isolated example of retribution for trespass comes from Orkney, at the diametrically opposite end of the British Isles to Devon and Cornwall, where most of the accounts are located. In Redland parish on the mainland of Orkney there was a grass ‘gait’ (or path) used by the trows when passing from their hill to the sea shore at twilight. Two men in search of a midwife crossed the path one evening; for this disrespectful act one of them was led far astray by the trows.
Predictably, the pixie attitude to leading someone out of their way is great amusement. They are often said to be heard laughing or, even, clapping their hands with glee. They might sometimes be seen jumping about in front of the victim, mocking their situation (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 184). A clear indication of the blurring of differences between wills of the wisp and pixie-leading fairies is a description of the Dorset Jack o’ Lantern, who is seen as a ball of light hopping before a person and which sniggers and laughs if a victim is successfully lured into a pond; something very similar was described in Cornish story by Enys Tregarthen (Why Jen Pendogget Changed his Mind (1940)).
As for the human victims, how do they react? Inevitably, they will end up exhausted, frustrated and panic-stricken. They are often said in Cornwall to be left “mizzy-mazey” (Enys Tregarthen, The Enchanted Field). In Devon, the victim is said to be ‘mazed’ as a result, a neat term that is suggestive of being both amazed and lost (in a maze).
The consequences of being pixie-led can be much more serious, though. We’ve heard about terror and a loss of wits. A man who was pixie-led on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset had to be rescued after he was lured into a bog. He was ill for quite some time after this experience. A Devonshire man crossing Dartmoor near Chudleigh was pixie-led by the sound of music. He wandered for hours, trying to locate the source, and eventually collapsed in a faint. When he came round the next morning, he was able to make his way home, but he took to his bed, never rose again and soon afterwards died. In like manner a Welsh man, John Jacob of Bedwellty, was led astray by the fairies one night, following shapes that appeared and then vanished. At last he came to a neighbour’s house and was saved, but he was rendered mute by the experience and soon sickened and died.
If you are pixie-led, what can you do to free yourself? There are several tried and tested remedies.
Turning your clothes
The best known and easiest remedy is to turn an item of clothing- a hat might be turned back to front or a coat, pocket, glove or stocking might be turned inside out. It seems likely that this is effective because it changes your appearance and throws the pixies off the scent or releases you from the enchantment that traps you in a fairy ring. Wise travellers turn their clothes before they set out, so that they will be safe from enchantment throughout their journey. It’s worth adding, though, that in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Who Rode in a Pocket, the pixie’s presence in the victim’s clothing is the cause of their wandering astray- and the spell is only broken when she turns her pockets, thereby ejecting the mischievous passenger.
Making a Noise
Attracting the attention of other people who’ve not fallen under the pixie spell will work. This is effective in two ways. Either the rescuer calls out in reply to help guide the victim to safety or the pixie-led person makes a noise which attracts rescuers to where she or he is stranded. For instance, Abraham Stocke in Somerset had said that he had no time for pixies. They led him into a swamp one night when he was walking home from brass band practice. Luckily, he had his euphonium with him and was able to play it to alert his family and guide them to him. A person simply coming along and startling the victim out of their bemusement can often be enough to release them (for examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies).
It can help to carry something with you to protect yourself against pixie charms during your travels. This could be a cross made from rowan wood, a piece of bread (as we’ve seen already) or a sprig of the plant greater stitchwort. Rowan, or mountain ash, are also well-known for repelling supernaturals beings of all kinds (witches included). The stitchwort is more unusual and seems to be a uniquely Devonian remedy. The flower is called ‘pixies’ in the county and it is believed to be the special property of the pixies. Picking it will upset them, but apparently carrying it with you somehow has the effect of deflecting rather than attracting their ill-will.
Water (as often) can release the bewildered person. Drinking the water from Fitz’s Well, near Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, dispels the glamour cast by the local pixies. Apparently any running water may have the same effect and, in fact, it is possible that falling in a stream might be sufficient to break the spell.
Summary & Further Reading
Pixie-leading is only really something to be concerned about if you’re out walking in unfamiliar places in Cornwall or Devon. The open moors are the likeliest locations, places where getting lost is, in any case, a considerable risk unless you’re well equipped with a map and compass. Outside this area, it is a remote risk: as we’ve seen from the folklore, there are only isolated cases from North Wales, North Yorkshire and Orkney.
In many ways, as I’ve described, the fairies can treat humans like their playthings and pixie-leading is one of the most acute examples of this. Unlike abductions, though, it is generally a very short-term and harmless experience. People can occasionally be led to perilous spots, such as marshes or cliff tops, and a few react very seriously to the stress of the experience, but for most it is an annoyance and a bit of a fright, but no more.
For another examination of the subject, see Simon Young’s article Pixy Led in Devon and the South West, which is available through Academia.com. I have, of course, read this, but in writing this posting I deliberately sought to reach my own conclusions based on the evidence that I had uncovered. Simon had access to a range of other sources and therefore reaches other useful conclusions on the subject. My posting on Glamour Housesdeals with a related phenomenon, though admittedly a deception by the fairies undertaken for benign purposes. My book, British Pixies, also examines the theme of pixy-leading in detail and in the wider context of pixie behaviour overall.
Michael Aislabie Denham (1801-1859) was an English merchant and collector of folklore. In the early part of his life he conducted his business in Hull; later he set up as a general merchant at Piercebridge, Co. Durham. He collected all sorts of local lore- sayings, songs and folktales- much of which he self-published. After his death many of his works were collected together and republished by the newly established Folklore Society as ‘The Denham Tracts.’
Denham recorded many valuable scraps of material. One of the most fascinating, found in the second volume of the Tracts, is this list of fairies and evil spirits. He drew upon a list already compiled by Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), perhaps supplementing this with another list found in George Gascoigne’s play The Buggbears (1565), and then adding many additional terms of his own, to produce this encyclopaedic inventory.
“Grose observes, too, that those born on Christmas Day cannot see spirits; which is another incontrovertible fact. What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hob- goblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubusses, spoorns, men-in- the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, knockers, elves, raw- heads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprats, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yett-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag- foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraithes, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gally-beggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars’ lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, buggaboes, kows or cowes, nickies, nacks, [necks] waiths, miffies, buckles, gholes, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy -carlins [Gyre-carling], pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricanns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sjlvans, succubuses, black-men, shadows, banshees, lian-banshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sybils, nick-nevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and cross-roads, were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit! [See Literary Gazette, December 1848, p.849]”
This is a daunting catalogue, impressive (intimidating even) in its length and detail, and a little depressing in the sense that so many of the names now seem unfamiliar. It’s clear how very rich the British fairy tradition once was, and how much has been lost in the last two hundred years.
Names We Know
In this discussion, I’d like to try to edit and order Denham’s rambling, and sometimes repetitive, list. It’s possible, I think, to bring a greater sense of organisation to this jumble of names, the result of which will be (I believe) a clearer sense of the nature of British fairydom. I’ll start by rejecting the words we know perfectly well, like brownies, hobgoblins and dobbies, Robin Goodfellow and puck (and puckle), knockers, pixies, elves/ ouphs, urchins, gnomes, changelings, dwarfs and the trows of Shetland and Orkney. All of these have already had plentiful discussion on this blog.
Words I’ll Ignore
I’ll also reject foreign and/or classical material: the satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, lars, tritons, centaurs, and nymphs; the continental kobolds, korrigans, foletti, and trolls; the Irish leprechauns and clurichauns. There are also a number of general magical or spirit related terms included that we can safely ignore: calcars (calkers or conjurors), sybils, wizards and witches. Quite a few names for the devil have been excluded, too, such as mahound (a medieval derivation from Mohammed) and tantarrabob, and I’ve passed over a range of words that seem to denote demons or evil spirits, such as imp, spurn/ spoorn, Tom-tumbler, miffies, freiths and freits and mares (as in nightmares).
There is a class of ghostly or ghoulish being included in the list that doesn’t really belong with faeries and goblins. These are the fetches, the spirit or double of a dying person, which are also called swaithes, wraithes, waffs, waiths and dopplegangers. Although there is a definite crossover between apparitions of the dead and the Faery, these entities are distinct from faeries. Denham’s thrummy-caps, and corpse lights or candles, belong in this category too. The death-hearses and hell-wains are what we’d call headless coachmen today, I think, although it’s worth noting in passing that ‘Hellwain’ was used as the name of a witch’s familiar by Christopher Middleton in his play The Witch (Act I, scene 2), in a speech by Hecate which makes direct allusion to the notorious trial of the withes of St Osyth in Essex in 1582. Other familiars invoked in this scene are Puckle and Robin (see the previous paragraph) and Pidgen, who strongly echoes the fairy Pigwiggen in Drayton’s Nymphidia.
Other ghost-like apparitions include scrags, break-necks, spectres, sprats (spirits or sprites) and kitty-witches. With these I have also included the northern ‘silkies’ and ‘cauld-lads’, although in fact these ghost-like beings can be hybrid creatures, possessing several of the characteristics of brownies as well as sometimes acting as a guardian in spirit or, conversely, as a bogle. The best known silky is that of Black Heddon in Northumberland and the most famous Cauld Lad was found at Hilton in the same county.
Denham also included in his inventory the names of supernatural creatures that very evidently aren’t fairies. There are giants, but also snapdragons, and fire-drakes. Fire-breathing serpents plainly don’t have any place in Faery.
A few final odds and ends remain. Denham’s word ‘tutgot’ is not a noun, but an adjective- it means someone who has been seized or possessed by a ‘tut,’ a sort of Lincolnshire goblin. ‘Chittiface’ means baby-faced; perhaps it was a sort of nursery bogie; the ‘gringe’ possibly is related to ‘grinch,’ which means a small thing- another small fiend perhaps. A hudskin is a foolish or clownish fellow (in the Lincolnshire dialect); perhaps it’s in the list for the same reason that madcaps and patches were included. A clabbernapper appears to be nothing more than a gossip; a ‘scrat’ is a Northern dialect term for a hermaphrodite. From these last entries, it looks as though he also included some insults or derogatory terms.
This pruning performed, we can then start to sort out the list that remains. Pre-industrial Britain was teeming with supernatural beings as we can tell, and Denham was possibly right to pity the person who possessed the second sight and who would have been afflicted by visions of hosts of faeries and goblins on all sides. In particular, Denham mentions that those born at Christmas would have had this ability: other days or times of day are also auspicious, such as Sundays or early in the morning.
Boggarts and Bogles
There is a large number of goblin-like beings listed, whose main attribute will be terrifying travellers and those visiting certain locations. Sir Walter Scott characterised these creatures very well as “freakish spirit[s], who delight rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them.” They include boggles, bugbears, boggy-boes, boggleboes, bogies, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, boguests, buckles, buggaboes, black-bugs, cutties (female bogles, from Scotland and the Border region), hobhoulards, tints, hodge-pokers, alholds, swarths and black-men (dark entities), mormos, dudmen and scar-bugs. One thing that Denham’s enumeration emphasises is the fact that the element ‘bug’ or ‘bogey’ is particularly applied to these beings- and not just in English, but in Welsh, Gaelic and many other Indo-European languages as well. What we can’t be certain about is how very different these many sprites may have been: Denham has indiscriminately thrown together names taken from all over Britain. Many are very local, meaning that many fewer actual types of bogey may have been identified by our ancestors than this long tally suggests.
Needless to say, the terminology is also not scientifically precise. For example, Denham’s ‘flay-boggarts’ are really a sort of domesticated spirit like a brownie or hobgoblin. They are boggarts, whom we would normally regard as unfriendly, but they live and work on farms like brownies, receiving food and drink in return for their considerable labours. Their willingness to undertake the hardest chores, such as threshing grain, is reflected in the name: the ‘flay-boggart’ is one with a flail, at work in the barn.
Another special category of boggart may be the phantasmal beasts that appear to terrify users of the highway or near certain landmarks such as churches. Amongst these are the numerous black dogs, barguests, old-shocks, pad-foots, pictrees and brags, shag-foals, kows or cowes, gytrashes, grants, gallytrots and gally-beggars. These creatures will appear at night in the form of hounds, calves, cows, donkeys, horses and large shaggy dark beasts of uncertain genus.
The black hounds just mentioned need to be distinguished from those types of hound that fly through the air and often foretell or mark a death. These include Denham’s Gabriel-hounds, yett-hounds and hell-hounds.
Wills of the Wisp
The phenomenon of the spirit light or ignis fatuus that leads people out of their way at night, getting them lost or luring them into bogs, is well-known across Britain and has attracted a variety of colourful local names. Denham uncovered many of these: hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tails, kit-a-can-sticks, Jinny-burnt-tails, Jack-in-the-Wads, friars’ lanthorns, Meg-with-the-wads, hob-and-lanthorns, spunks and Jemmy-burties.
Nursery and Cautionary Sprites
As I recently discussed in my post on Jenny Greenteeth, these creatures exist mainly to scare incautious or recalcitrant children into behaving better and/ or staying away from perilous places such as ponds and riverbanks. They include bloody-bones, raw-heads, Tom-pokers, hob-headlesses, mum-pokers, bonelesses and tod-lowries. Some of these sprites guard orchards and nut groves, amongst whom we reckon the melch-dicks and colt-pixies.
Denham enumerates quite a few fresh water spirits, living in rivers and pools. These include nisses and nixies, Peg-powlers, nickies and nacks. In this connection he quotes a verse from Keightley’s Fairy Mythology:
“Know you the nixies, gay and fair?
Their eyes are black, and green their hair,
They lurk in sedgy waters.”
The ‘white women’ he mentions frequently are spirits believed to be female that haunt springs and wells.
There are some Scots beings in the list, such as the hags nick-nevin and the gyre carlin. Scottish Highland creatures also appear, which include kelpies, shellycoats (a Lowland fresh-water bogle), banshees and lhiannan-shees (the fairy lovers). This more sexual sort of supernatural also includes the incubus and succubus.
There are lastly, some individually named fairy types who deserve a little separate mention:
Dunnies are is a small brownie-like beings found on the Scottish borders, and especially in Northumberland. The most famous is the Hazlerigg Dunnie which has been known to take the form of a horse in order to trick a rider into mounting him, before galloping off and tipping the horseman in a bog. The dunnie is also said to disguise itself as a plough-horse, only to vanish when the ploughman takes him into the stable;
Men-in-the-oak– there are scattered traditional references to this class of faery being. Whether they are a separate class, or just an alternative name for faeries found living in oak woods, is not clear. The ‘pucks’ were known to have frequented such forests, for example (see my Fairy Ballads), but more recently the oak-men have emerged as an independent fairy tribe, as in Beatrix Potter’s Fairy Caravan (1929);
Redcaps– wearing a red cap is a tell-tale sign of a faery across the British Isles, but Denham was probably thinking here of the ‘redcap’ of the Scottish Borders, a malevolent goblin said to dye its headwear in the blood of its victims;
Tom-thumbs– in the seventeenth century Tom Thumb was a small elf well-known to people in ballads and rhymes. Since then, he has been caught up by romance and fairy-tale and has lost almost all his supernatural nature. See my discussion of this in Fayerie;
Hobbits– Denham gives us a fascinating and isolated mention of these beings. We know nothing more about them from British tradition, but a sharp-eyed young professor spotted the word at some point during the 1920s, and the rest is history…; and,
Redmen: these are small, solitary elves of Northamptonshire, often found living near wells or in dells. If caught, he can lead his captor to his hidden hoard of gold.
Denham’s list is a disorganised heap of names but, as can be seen, with a little effort it can be organised to reveal the richness of British faerylore and the many and varied categories of fairy being that have been recognised, with their different habitats and habits. Although confirmation probably wasn’t wanting, all of this only goes to underline how complex British Faery is. One of the Manx witnesses interviewed by Evans Wentz, John Davies of Ballasalla, told him that “There are as many kinds of fairies as populations in our world.” Even when it has been edited and ordered, Denham’s list demonstrates how right Davies was.
I explore all of these further in my books Faeryand (especially) in Beyond Faery (forthcoming) which examines in detail the full range of faery beasts, goblins and hags.