Fairy herbs

Waterhouse_JW_-_The_Sorceress_1913
J W Waterhouse, The Sorceress, 1913

I have previously drawn attention to the various herbal remedies prepared and prescribed by faeries.  In this post I add a few more ingredients to the fairy pharmacopeia.

Ointments

We know very well that the fairies collected and processed plants for medicine.  Suspected witch Alesoun Peirsoun spent seven years visiting Elfame and had seen the Good Neighbours making salves in pans over fires, using herbs picked before sunrise.  The trows of Shetland did the exactly same because, in the story of Farquhar’s Pig (a pig was a small earthenware jar or bottle), a container of healing ointment is obtained from them (against their will) by claiming it in God’s name.  This invocation rendered them powerless to stop the human seizing the vessel.

In some sources we are simply told, very frustratingly, that the fairies used ‘herbs.’  For example, in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Purse she describes “herbs and flowers wet with fairy dew” being gathered to make eye salves and other ointments, but we aren’t given any more detail than this.  The ‘green herbes’ used by Bartie Paterson in 1607 are another instance of this vagueness.

Medicines & powders

Luckily, the records are often a lot more specific and helpful.  According to the manuscript, Sloane MS 73 f.125, a person who has been taken by elves can be treated as follows:

“Take the root of gladen and make a poudre thereof, and ȝeve the sike both in his metes and in his drynkes, and he schal be hool within ix days and ix nyȝtes, or be deed, for certeyn.”

‘Gladen’ is the common iris, formerly called orris root.  When fresh, it is poisonous; dried, it used to be employed as a flavouring.  In this form it would at least do no harm, so the patient’s recovery of their whole health, or their death, probably couldn’t be ascribed to their treatment.  The rather fatalistic attitude of the text might suggest that the author knew that the treatment would make no difference and that, instead, nature would take its course.  (NB: in Norfolk ‘gladen’ denotes the cat’s tail, or bulrush, a plant with absolutely no known medicinal or food properties).

In 1597 four Edinburgh women were tried for alleged witchcraft and for being associated with the “Farie-folk.’  They appear to have been traditional healers, claiming to have been taught their remedies by the Good Folk.  Christian Lewinstoun, for example, made one treatment by mixing fresh butter with a ‘sweet wort.’ She bathed one of her patients in woodbine and resin and  treated heart disease in another by seething broom and chamomile in white wine.  The former herb has many medicinal properties, including reducing the narrowing of blood vessels; chamomile, too, has a range of healing properties. This suggests that we have here a folk remedy with some genuine benefits.

Lewinstoun also, much less wisely, prescribed mercury (both as a salve and as a drink) to at least two sick people.  The element is highly toxic- although ‘trained’ physicans used it without hesitation during the same period.  Another of the group who faced trial, Jonet Stewart, advised bathing in red nettles and alexanders; she also made a salve by seething alexanders in butter.  Alexanders can promote appetite, aid digestion and act as a mild diuretic and disinfectant.  Nettles share these properties and can reduce inflammation, so again there were some healing properties to these ingredients and certainly nothing magical.

Elsewhere in Scotland flax (the ‘blue-eyed one of the fairy woman’ or, in Gaelic, gorm-shuileach na mna sith) was used as a medicine as well as to protect people against the elves and the sluagh.  In Wales the plant ‘purging flax’ was called llin y tylwyth teg, or fairy flax.  Flax seeds have a range of medicinal properties, as their continued use today demonstrates, so that we have, again, a good indication of a genuine folk cure.

Further Reading

See my posts on fairy inflicted illnesses, physical as well as psychological, and on the treatments, which included the use of still and running water and belts as well as herbs.  See to my Faerychapters 12 and 13.  There is also detailed discussion of the faeries’ healing powers in my 2021 book The Faery Lifecycle:

faery-lifecycle-cover

Mixed Race Faery Families

babies

I have written several times about the sexual allure of fairies and about sexual relationships between fairies and humans.  Inevitably, many of these unions will result in children and in this posting I examine the evidence on mixed race families and the fate of their offspring.

Hybrid Children

Renowned fairy expert Katharine Briggs observed in her book The Fairies in Tradition and Literature that fairies “are apparently near enough in kind to mate with humans- closer in fact than a horse is to an ass, for many human families to claim fairy ancestry” (p.95). Mixed race families are entirely possible and there seems neither doubt nor surprise about this in the folklore.  When we learn about human-faery offspring, it is generally because there has been some problem in the relationship.  Of course, our view of these matters is skewed, as we usually only hear about cases where partnerships went wrong- not those matches where the couple ‘live happily ever after.’  We very occasionally get glimpses of these: human girls are quite often abducted to become fairy brides and every now and then we catch sight of them later on.  For example, in the Welsh story of Eilian, she is met again by the woman she worked for when the latter is called out as midwife to the fairy hill- only to discover that it is her former farm maid who is the mother brought to child bed.

Fairy Family Life

Admitting that we only tend to see the failed matches, what can we say about fairy parenting?  Probably the fairest conclusion is that fairies are just as good, and as bad, as husbands, wives and parents as humans.

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed to the court a decades long relationship with the fairy queen.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had enjoyed regular sexual contact with her and the couple had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.  These children were brought up by the mother, but at the same time Man was not entirely absent from their lives.

A reversal of this arrangement is seen with Katharine Jonesdochter of Shetland, tried for witchcraft in 1616.  She confessed to a forty-year affair with a fairy man whom she called ‘the bowman.’  He first came to her when she was a teenager (a “young lass” as she described herself) and they had a child together.  A relative recalled that she had seen “ane little creatour in hir awin hus amongst hir awin bairns quhom she callit the bowmanes bairn.”  In this case the child stayed with the (human) mother and the (fairy) father was seen once or twice a year- at Halloween and on Holy Cross Day (September 14th)- when he visited her for sex.

Both these cases seem to say more about gender roles in human and fairy society than they do about defaults or qualities of fairy-kind as mothers and fathers.  There is, of course, no reason to assume that males are any less loving toward their spouses and children than females.  For example, in the ballad Leesom Brand, the eponymous hero’s fairy wife and baby both die during child birth, but he is able to find magical means to revive them.

bowerley mermum and babe
Amelia Bowerley

All the same, an exception may have to be made for merfolk.  The folklore record indicates that they are very often wanting in basic familial instincts and make very poor parents indeed.  In the ballad of the Selkie of Sule Skerry, the selkie father has first of all made a woman pregnant and abandoned her; then he returns grudgingly upon hearing her complaints and gives her gold to ‘buy’ the child from her (what he calls a ‘nurse-fee’)- taking the boy away to raise him as a selkie in the sea.

In many stories, a mermaid is the parent as the result of being captured by a human male on the shore.  He has managed to find, and withhold from her, the seal skin or tail that she has shed temporarily, thereby preventing her from rejoining her people.  The mermaid is forced to become her captor’s wife and children inevitably follow over the succeeding years.  Eventually, one of those infants comes across the seal skin hidden somewhere on the farm and mentions the discovery to the mother- who without hesitation leaves immediately to return to the sea.

Whether male or female, therefore, merfolk generally set a poor example as parents.  The best that can be said for most mermaids is that they were akin to captives and unwilling partners, which may excuse (a little) their readiness to abandon their children.

There are, though, a couple of stories that are happy exceptions to this rather poor record.   The famous mermaid of Zennor took a human husband who (unusually) went to live with her beneath the sea.  We know the marriage appeared to thrive because, several years later, the skipper of a boat was hailed by the mermaid complaining that his anchor was blocking the door to her home, preventing her returning to her husband and their offspring or, in some accounts, preventing her taking her children to church.  From Orkney, we hear of Johnny Croy who managed to secure a mermaid wife by snatching her precious golden comb.  To win it back, she struck a bargain with him- that she would live with him on his farm for seven years and that he would then go with her to visit her family beneath the waves.  They had seven children together, and the entire family disappeared forever under the sea when the initial seven years were up.  The family bonds in these two cases seem strong and lasting, with the human husband prepared to give up his home and society in order to stay with his supernatural wife and children.

The Welsh lake maidens, the gwragedd annwn, also have a reputation for abandoning their husbands and families, although in these cases they would excuse themselves and blame the husbands for what happened.  They are wooed in conventional manner by the human males and consent freely to marriage, but conditions or taboos are always imposed which- just as predictably- are violated in time by their husbands.  These mothers are driven away from their families, therefore, they are not fleeing like the mermaids.

baby & Fs

Fairy Inheritance

As we might expect, having fairy parents or ancestors does have some benefits for the children.

John Rhys quotes in his Celtic Folklore from William Williams’ Observations on the Snowdon Mountains, of 1802, in which he discusses:

“A race of people inhabiting the districts about the foot of Snowdon, were formerly distinguished and known by the nickname of Pellings, which is not yet extinct. There are several persons and even families who are reputed to be descended from these people …. These children and their descendants, they say, were called Pellings, a word corrupted from their [faery] mother’s name, Penelope… there are still living several opulent and respectable people who are known to have sprung from the Pellings. The best blood in my own veins is this fairy’s.” (Rhys, vol.1, p.48, citing Williams pp.37-40)

Rhys also mentions several times people living in the Pennant Valley in North Wales who are noted for their very good looks- flax yellow hair and pale blue eyes- which are said to be derived from a fairy ancestor called Bella (vol.1, pp.96, 106, 108, 220 & 223; vol.2 p.668)

As well as physical charms, fairy parents can bestow significant gifts upon their part-human offspring.  The faery wife of Llyn y Fan Fach is a typical Welsh ‘lake maiden’ who is driven off by her husband’s violation of her taboos.  Nonetheless, she keeps in regular contact with her three sons, teaching them marvellous healing skills so that they become the famous physicians of Myddfai.  In the Tudor Ballad of Robin Goodfellow, Robin is the son of Oberon, fathered upon a maid to whom he took a fancy.  The father provides materially for his son’s upbringing (although he is absent) and, when the boy reaches his teens, Oberon comes to him and reveals his true nature and magical powers:

“King Oberon layes a scrole by him,

that he might understand

Whose sonne he was, and how hee’d grant

whatever he did demand:

To any forme that he did please

himselfe he would translate;

And how one day hee’d send for him

to see his fairy state.”

Finally, the offspring of matches with merfolk are generally readily identifiable.  There are accounts from the Scottish islands of children conceived with human fathers who have webs between their fingers and toes.  One mermaid mother tried to trim these away but they regrew repeatedly until a horny crust developed- a feature that is still be seen amongst some island people today and which can limit the manual tasks they can undertake.

Further Reading

I discuss other aspects of fairy families, childcare and healing in my recently published book, Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).  See too the discussion in my Faery Lifecycle, a complete study of faery anatomy and physiology.

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Riding humans- a fairy pastime

iro 3

Fairies are reputed to ride a variety of creatures. As the illustrations to this post show, artists at least have allowed themselves considerable latitude in the sorts of steeds deemed possible- great fun being had with notions of the tiny size of the faes and the kinds of steed that might therefore be suitable.

It is very well known from the folklore that fairies and pixies like to take horses from stables and ride them at night, returning the steeds distressed, sweating and exhausted in the morning.  Often, too, their manes will be fiendishly knotted to make stirrups and panniers for their faery riders.  A witch-stone or hag-stone (a naturally holed stone) hung just above the animals in their stalls will prevent this.  Sprays or crosses of birch put over a stable door will bar the faeries from entering at night.

cloke

Faery Ridden

Be warned, though: if the faeries want to go out riding and there are no suitable steeds to hand, they can use us instead.  Especially on the Isle of Man, people have been known to be taken and ridden all night.  They feel no weight on their backs during the experience, but they become tired from loss of sleep and thin and weak from their exertions.  Luckily, it is said that taking the precaution of wearing a suitable flower or herb to scare off the faeries (rowan blossom say) should be enough to prevent this.

From the Isle of Arran, we hear of a woman who suddenly fell ill and became very tired and sleepy.  Her family suspected that this was no ordinary fatigue and watched her at night.  They discovered that the fairies were coming when the house was asleep and turning her into a horse, which they then used for their carting.  A search of the garden the next morning uncovered a hidden harness, which helped break the spell cast upon her.

Hag Ridden

Also from Scotland, we have the confession of suspected witch Isobel Gowdie that she had gone out with the fairy host, the sluagh, to shoot elf-bolts at hapless humans.  Of these random victims she said:

“we may shoot them dead at owr pleasour.  Any that ar shot be us, their sowell will goe to Hevin, bot ther bodies remain with us, and will flie as horsis to us, as small as strawes.”

These straw-like beings were used by the witches to ride upon, just like horses.  They sat astride them, pronounced ‘horse and hattock’ and then travelled in a whirlwind.  This mode of travel is a trait of witches (see too the testimony of Bessie Flinkar, tried in 1661, who travelled to covens this way); but it was a power of those with the second sight and is, of course, exactly what the fairies were very commonly known to do.

We’ve looked previously at the fae tendency to move in whirlwinds.  That they travel in this manner is a widespread belief in Britain, from the Forest of Dean all the way north to Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides.  There, for example, the band of fairies called Friday’s People (Muintirr Fhionlaidh) would travel on calm days in whirlwinds, occasionally picking up those found asleep en route and carrying them a short distance.

Another Scottish witch suspect, Jonet Morrison of Bute, confessed in 1662 that the way the fairies ‘blasted’ those against whom they had a grudge was with “a whirlwind that the fayries raises about that person quhich they intend to wrong and, that tho ther were tuentie present, yet it will harme none bot quhom they were set for.”  I’ve written about fairy whirlwinds in other posts on their movement.

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Summary

In former times it was widely believed that wasting illness and perpetual tiredness (symptoms we might now ascribe to a poor diet or to underlying health conditions) were actually the result of being ‘hag ridden’- turned into horses by witches, or fairies, and ridden at night or, alternatively, because the person was being carried off nightly to dance under the fairy hill.  Either way, their energy was being drained and they received no rest when they seemed to be asleep.

To conclude, therefore: we must not be complacent.  Almost any available object can be employed by the faeries to travel about.  Plant stems are regularly enchanted with their glamour, they keep their own horses, but will just as readily take steeds kept by humans from their stables and, most alarmingly, they will even cast a spell on us and exploit us.

Riding humans is just one aspect of the Darker Side of Faery, a subject I explore in my 2021 book of that title.

darker side

Fairy Knot Magic

The spinning wheel
Lilian Amy Govey- from ‘Dreams and Fairies’ series, 1922

I’ve written before about fairy magic involving intricate hand gestures.  Here I want to pursue that general idea.

In Ben Jonson’s masque of 1610, Oberon the Fairy Prince, two satyrs discuss celebrations organised by Oberon.  One asks if they shall “Tie about our tawny wrists/ Bracelets of the fairy twists?”  What is this referring to? What on earth does it imply?

Faery Twists

It seems that knots and twists are something intimately linked to fairies.  They will, of course, twist animal and human hair.  The faeries like to take and ride human horses at night, at the same time tightly knotting their manes into ‘pixy locks.’ These knots seem to function in part as stirrups and bridles, but they also seem to be a sign of fairy control.  For example, a Perthshire man who was taken from his garden by the faeries was returned three days later with his hair all in knots- visible, physical evidence of his abduction.  The knots have a practical function, therefore, but they appear to represent more than that.

Knot Magic & Healing

Scottish fairies are reported to dance around a fire at Halloween, throwing knotted blue ribbons over their left shoulders with their left hands.  Those who then pick up the ribbons will fall into the fairies’ power and may be abducted by them at any moment.

These actions are plainly some sort of magic spell.  The tying and releasing of knots is a long-established means of binding sickness to a person, or of freeing them from it.  It is seen very often in folk medicine and in witchcraft and the Scottish witch trials of the seventeenth century supply several examples.

Jonet Morrison of the Isle of Bute, who was tried in 1662, cured a sick baby by tying a knotted and beaded string around it for forty-eight hours, which was then removed and placed on a cat.  The cat instantly died, proving that the illness had been transferred from the child to it.  The power of knots for protecting or cursing is revealed most powerfully in the account of a woman condemned as a witch at St Andrews in 1572.  She faced the usual punishment for such an offence- strangling at the stake and burning- but she had betrayed no fear or alarm about her fate until her jailers removed from her a white cloth “like a collore craig [a collar or neck cloth] with stringes, whair on was mony knottes.”  After this was taken away, she despaired.  We may compare the fact that accused witch, Isobel Haldane, from Orkney, had been found to have “thrie grassis bound in a knot” in her home, a circumstance that only added to the weight of evidence against her.

Isobel Gowdie, of Auldearn near Nairn, was investigated for witchcraft in 1662.  She gave a fulsome and lengthy confession that included a couple of uses of knotted threads.  To steal milk from sheep and cows, she told her inquisitors that she and the other witches in her coven would take their tethers and “pull the tow and twyn it and plait it in the wrong way… and we draw the tedder (sua maid) [so made] in betwixt the cowes hinder foot and owt between the cowes forder foot and thereby take the milk.”

Secondly, the witches interfered with the dyeing vats of Alexander Cummings of Auldearn.  They took “a thread of each cullor of yairne… and did cast thrie knots on each thread… and did put the threidis in the fatt, withersones abowt in the fatt [stirring anti-clockwise] and thairby took the heall strength of the fatt away, that it could litt [dye] nothing bot onlie blak, according to the culor of the Divell.”

MWM 1
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

These practices made their way into Scots verse as well.  Alexander Montgomerie composed the Flyting of Polwart in the early 1580s as a ritualised mocking of Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth.  The latter was extravagantly insulted, amongst other things being accused of being born of an elf and then abandoned.  His baptism proceeded in this manner, with the child being bound to Hecate:

“Syne bare-foot and bare-leg’d to babtize that bairne

Till a water they went be a wood side,

They fand the shit all beshitten in his awin shearne [faeces],

On three headed Hecatus to heir them they cryde

As we have found in the field this fundling forfairne,

First his faith he forsakes in thee to confyde,

Be vertue of thir words and this raw yearne,

And whill this thrise thretty knots on this blew threed byd…”

Another verse was provoked by the trial of accused witch Alison Peirson in 1588.  She was discovered to have treated the Bishop of St Andrews, amongst other sick persons, and poet Robert Sempill subsequently attacked the bishop for his ungodly conduct, accusing him of “sorcerie and incantationes,” amongst which were spells involving “south rinning wellis” and “knottis of strease [straws].”

MWM 2
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

Curing with Hoops

What I regard as a related curing practice involved passing people through loops of yarn; the idea of release seems to be shared between the two.  Janet Trall, of Blackruthen, admitted in 1623 that she had cured a man called Robert Soutar in such a way.  She passed him through a “hesp of yarn, and afterwards cut it in nine parts, and buried it in three lords’ lands.”  Janet had learned these skills from the fairies, she said.  Thomas Geace from Fife also passed patients through yarn, in one case burning the thread afterwards.

There are plenty of other Scottish examples.  Andro Man from Aberdeen would administer cures by passing patients nine times through “ane hespe of unvatterit [undyed] yarn” and by then passing a cat nine times through in the opposite direction.  Once again, the illness passes to the unfortunate cat, which promptly dies.  A number of Edinburgh women, tried as witches in 1597, had treated patients by passing them through garlands made of green woodbine.  Some did this three times, others nine times.  One woman went through three times on three occasions twenty-four hours apart; in another instance the garland was cut up into nine pieces and burned after the ritual.

Knots & Knowledge

We have previously discussed the fairies’ power of seeing what is to come and to tell fortunes, and there is also a little evidence that knots and threads were used to foretell the future.  In this there must be a strong echo, or imitation, of the Greek Fates.  Whatever the exact source, in Alexander Montgomerie’s mocking poem, The Flyting of Polwart, his target or victim Polwart is alleged to have been raised by the hag Nicneven, who:

“With chairmes from Cathness and Chanrie of Ross,

Whais [whose] cunning consistis in casting a clew…”

‘Casting a clew’ seems to refer to reading the future in threads.

Protective Threads

Lastly, knotted threads could inflict or transfer harm, but they could also guard against it.  In the Scottish Highlands, threads called snaithean were used to protect children and livestock from attack by fairies or witches.  Lengths of wool, coloured either red or black, would be tied around the neck or a beast’s tail accompanied by a prayer and a charm that invoked aid from the trinity, Mary and various saints.

Much of this seems to come together in the ballad Willy’s Lady:

“Oh wha has loosed the nine witch knots

   That was amo that ladie’s locks?

 ‘And wha has taen out the kaims [combs] of care

   That hangs amo that ladie’s hair?

   ‘And wha’s taen down the bush o’ woodbine

   That hang atween her bower and mine?…

   O Willie has loosed the nine witch knots

   That was amo that ladie’s locks.

   And Willie’s taen out the kaims o care

   That hang amo that ladie’s hair.

   And Willie’s taen down the bush o’ woodbine

   That hang atween her bower and thine…

   And now he’s gotten a bonny young son,

   And mickle grace be him upon.”

(Child Ballad no.6; see my Fairy Ballads & Rhymes)

MWM3
from the collection of the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic

This magic is just aspect of the faeries magical powers, an ability often used to the disadvantage and loss of humans, as I describe in my 2021 book, The Darker Side of Faery.

darker side

The Perils of Fairy Passion- sex & power

Linda R 2
Fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

I have described in previous posts the widely known physical attractiveness of fairies.  In Stuart verse, for example, we find praise for “the matchless features of the Fairy Queen” and for her “gracious eyes.”

Fairy partners were extremely attractive, but love for a fairy could be portrayed as obsessive, something that caused the human to sicken and to pine, as we see from Robert Armin’s The Valiant Welshman (1615, Act II, scene 5):

“Oh, the intolerable paine that I suffer from the love of the fairy Queen!  My heeles are all kybde [bruised] in the very heate of my affection, that runnes down into my legges; methinks I could eat up a whole Baker’s shoppe at a meale, to be eased of this love.”

Fairies were desirable partners simply because of their physical beauty.  However, a fairy’s lover could hope for great favour still- and the lover of the fairy queen (the most beauteous of all her kind) would naturally be even more highly honoured and rewarded.  At the same time, though, these supernaturals could prove to be possessive and demanding lovers- and vengeful if they felt neglected or slighted.

The trade-off between sex and gain, passion and pain, was therefore a difficult one, as we see from both folklore record and from romantic fiction.

JohnSimmons_Titania_
John Simmons, ‘Titania’

The Scottish Evidence

Andro Man of Aberdeen was tried for witchcraft in 1598. He disclosed a relationship with the fairy queen that involved both her worship (he and others assembled and kissed her “airrs” in reverence) but also regular sexual contact.  He said of her:

“the queen is very plesand, and wilbe auld and young quhen scho pleissis; scho mackis any king quhom she pleisis and leyis with any scho lykis.”

One of those whom the queen liked was Man.  Over a period of thirty years, he said, he had “conversit with hir bodily.” In other words, he ‘lay with her’ and, as a result of these “carnal dealings” they had had “diverse bairnis” whom he’d since visited in fairyland/ elphame.

Over and above these numerous infants, Man had gained materially: he learned to diagnose and cure diseases in cattle and humans and he was taught charms to steal milk and corn, or to protect his neighbours’ fields against such fairy thefts.

Sex with a fairy often appears to have been the price (and the conduit) for supernatural powers.  Isobell Strathaquin, also from Aberdeen, was tried in the January of the previous year to Andro Man; she told the court that she acquired powers in this manner: she “learnit it at [from] ane elf man quha lay with hir.”

Elspeth Reoch of Orkney also gained the second sight from two fairy men, but it involved sexual harassment by one of them.  She told her 1616 trial that two men had approached her and called her “ane prettie” before giving her a charm to enable her to see the faes.  Later “ane farie man” called John Stewart came to her on two successive nights and ‘dealt with her,’ not allowing her to sleep and promising a “guidly fe” is she agreed to have sex with him.  She held out against his blandishments until the third night, when he touched her breast and them seemed to lie with her.  The next day she was struck dumb (in order to conceal the source of her prophetic powers) and had to wander the town and beg for her living, offering people the knowledge she received through her second sight.

Sometimes, it has to be admitted, boasting can come into these accounts.  Isobel Gowdie, from Auldearn near Nairn, was tried as a witch in 1662.  During her confession she seems to mock or tease her accusers with her account of the huge proportions of the devil’s ‘member.’  They were pressing her for confessions and they got them, with Isobel all the while expressing her modesty and Christian timidity over describing such shocking acts.

Sex in the Stories

The exchange of sex and skill is common between fairy and mortal.  In the poem and ballads of the same name, Thomas of Erceldoune was relaxing outside in the sunshine one day when he was approached by the gorgeous fairy queen.  After some resistance, she consented to lie with him “And, as the story tellus ful right, Seven tymes be hir he lay.”  Thomas is moved to these prodigious feats by her physical desirability (and, no doubt, by his own youthful vigour) but there’s a price to pay.  Initially after intercourse, the queen loses her beauty and becomes a hideous hag; secondly, her looks and youth may only be restored by her lover agreeing to spend seven years in Faery.  Thomas seems to have very little choice about this and has to leave immediately- although on the plus side, his travelling companion is restored to her former loveliness.  Once there, the riches start to flow to Thomas.  He is elegantly clothed and lives a life of luxurious leisure; what’s more, at the end of his time in Faery, he is endowed by the queen with special abilities.  In some versions of the tale, he becomes a skilled harper; in others he gains second sight.

The romance of Sir Launfal is comparable for the trade off between sex and wealth.  The fairy lady Tryamour summons the young knight to her in a forest.  She is reclining semi-naked in the heat and offers him a rich feast, followed by a sleepless night of sex.  The next morning, though, the nature of their transaction becomes clear: she promises to visit him regularly in secret but there are two conditions: “no man alive schalle me se” and, even more onerous:

“thou makst no bost of me…

And, yf thou doost, y warny the before,

Alle my love thou hast forlore.”

Assenting to the terms, he is given fine clothes, horses, armour and attendants and returns to the court of King Arthur.  Before, he had been poor and of no account, but now he is rich and gains status and respect.

In due course (albeit for honourable reasons) Launfal discloses his secret lover.  As with fairy money, this indiscretion might normally be expected to lose him Tryamour’s affections instantly and irreparably, but in this case she comes to Arthur’s court and carries him off to faery forever.

Summary

Fairy love and fairy magical abilities may be bestowed upon the lucky human, but that good fortune is plainly qualified.  The gifts are in fact an exchange; there must be a surrender on the part of the mortal recipient, which may be the loss of some of their independence or which may require a complete abandonment of their home, friends and family.   Perhaps the prize of fairy love and fairy knowledge are worth paying highly for, but, in earlier times, the cost of the bargain often turned out to be excessive, for fairy contact could prove fatal if revealed to the church and state.

A Note on the Scottish Witch Cases

As I highlighted before in my discussion of Ronald Hutton’s book, The Witch, I still harbour reservations about using the testimony from the Scottish witch trials.  I say above that Isobel Gowdie was ‘pressed’ for incriminating evidence.  This was literally true: boards were placed on suspects’ legs and piled with rocks.  We have a record of one victim of this crying out for it to stop and agreeing to confess whatever the court wanted.

Once these individuals had fallen into the authorities’ hands, their fate was pretty much sealed.  The sentence that almost all faced was to be ‘wyrrit and burnit,’ which means that they were tied to a stake, strangled and then burned.  For Elspeth Reoch, for example (NB Orcadian readers!) she was taken to the top of Clay Loan in Kirkwall where there is still a small area of grass; several local women suffered the same horrible fate on this spot.  We know too that one woman leaped from the top of a high prison tower in Perth to avoid execution.

Faced with the same circumstances, you too might agree to say whatever your inquisitors wanted you to say if it ended the misery.  How much can we trust this evidence then?  My feeling is that, whilst these might not be personal experiences, they still reflect what society as a whole believed to be the structure and conduct of the fairy folk.  If it did not convince the torturers, they might not have accepted it.  These confessions reflect the wider understanding of Faery in those days and need not be dismissed out of hand as the individual fantasy of a person desperate to stop the torture.

Finally: I have quite often quoted from the confessions of these individuals.  Whenever you read their names, spare a thought for them.  The worst that most did was to try to cure people and livestock at a time when medicines and health care were hugely limited.  To most of us, I’m sure these hardly sound like crimes, let alone capital offences.

This 16th-century woodcut depicts King James VI at the North Berwick witch trials, the case that first sparked his obsession with hunting. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Witches examined before King James I/VI

“Let me grab your soul away”- faeries, souls and the dead

fitzgerald Fairy_passage

John Anster Fitzgerald, Fairy passage

Fairies and the dead have always had some ill-defined relationship, but in an account of folk beliefs in North East Scotland, I came across this fascinating note:

“It is said that, if a person dies of consumption, the fairies steal the soul from the body and animate another person with it.” (Shaw, The history of the province of Moray, 1827, p.278)

In the far north of Scotland, fairy abductions of humans can include not just a physical kidnapping but the abstraction of a person’s vital essence, leaving an inanimate stock behind: their soul is in Faery and a lifeless shell remains.  Related to this may be the Shetland belief that trows can only appear in human form if they can find someone who’s not been protected by a ‘saining’ or blessing. There is one story in which two trows attend a Yule dance in the form of two small boys whose mother had forgotten to bless them before she went out for the night’s festivities.  When they were exposed for what they were, the trows vanished from the dance, but the boys didn’t return to their beds.  They were found the next day dead in a deep snowdrift.  Fairy ‘possession’ can lead to real or simulated death, then, as well as following on from it.

Virtuous Pagans?

This particular Scottish manifestation is unique, but the idea that fairies (or, at least, some of them) have an association with the souls of the dead is widespread in the British Isles.  It has been speculated that the pixies of the south-west might be the souls of unbaptised children, or those delivered stillborn, or perhaps the spirits of virtuous druids and other non-Christians.  The mine sprites (the ‘knockers’ in the South West) were the souls of ancient miners and there are traces of a belief that bees and moths were spirits in some form.  In Wales as well the tylwyth teg were thought to be the spirits of virtuous druids who had died in pre-Christian times, whilst on the Isle of Man the belief was that the fairies represented the souls of those who died before the Flood (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, pp.183, 169, 179, 177, 178, 147 & 123).

Faery Dogs

In Yorkshire, the supernatural hounds called the Gabriel Ratchets were believed to be the form taken by infants who died before baptism; they would circle their parents home overhead at night.  Other ‘faery beasts’ such as the black dogs, shugs and shocks were regarded as portents of death in the counties where they were seen.  The Welsh equivalent of these hounds, called the Cwn Annwn (roughly, the hounds of hell) were ban dogs employed for the pursuit of the souls of those who had died either unbaptised or unshriven.

Faery Limbo

Certain people- those who died early, unexpectedly or by violence- would go to live with the fairies in a sort of limbo.  This is a concept found across Britain in folklore, ballad and poetry from at least the Middle Ages.  Sir Walter Scott used it in his ballad ‘Alice Brand’ which is incorporated into his novel The Lady of the Lake.  Alice and her lover Richard are hiding in the greenwood; the Elfin King hears them cutting his trees and sends a goblin to chastise them:

“Up, Urgan, up! to yon mortal hie,

 For thou wert christen’d man:

For cross or sign thou wilt not fly,

 For mutter’d word or ban.”

When the goblin finds the pair, Alice confronts him and asks how he fell under the king’s power.  He replies:

“It was between the night and day,

 When the Fairy King has power,

That I sunk down in a sinful fray,

And ’twixt life and death, was snatch’d away

To the joyless Elfin bower.”

Alice is then able to release from this captive state by making the sign of the cross three times.

Witches’ Faery Helpers

What appeared so frequently in verse and story merely reflected genuine folk belief, as is confirmed by the evidence given by several Scottish witchcraft suspects.  For example, Alison Peirson told her inquisitors that several deceased members of her family were to be found in the court of Elphame, including her uncle William Simpson; Andro Man claimed that he knew “sindrie dead men in thair cumpanie” (one of whom was the late King James IV, who had died at the Battle of Flodden).  Bessy Dunlop revealed that the laird of Auchenreath, who had died nine years previously, was to be seen amongst the fairy rade whilst her particular ‘familiar,’ a man called Thom Reid, had fallen at the battle of Pinkie some 29 years earlier.  Elspeth Reoch’s fairy intermediary was a relative called John Stewart, who had been murdered at sunset- a violent and early death at a liminal time of day.

Lewis Spence examines some of the thought behind these folklore traditions in his classic British Fairy Origins.  The soul is often conceived as a small person and it is easy to understand how the little folk and the spirit homunculus might become confused.  Walter Evans-Wentz, in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, also espoused the theory that (some at least of) the fairies are the souls of the dead, something which he set within a wider Celtic ‘Legend of the Dead.’  He said that:

“the striking likenesses constantly appearing in our evidence between the ordinary apparitional fairies and the ghosts of the dead show that there is often no essential and sometimes no distinguishable difference between these two orders of beings, nor between the world of the dead and fairyland.” (Spence pp.68, 70 & 80; Evans Wentz pp.280 & 493)

The Reverend Robert Kirk in the Secret Commonwealth goes so far as to argue that, whilst the bodies of the dead lie in their graves in the churchyard, their souls inhabit the fairy knowes that are so often found in proximity to Highland churches.  He confirmed that fairies were, therefore, believed by some with the second sight to be “departed souls, attending awhile in this inferior state, and clothed with Bodies procured through their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe… but if any were so impious as to have given no Alms, they say when the Souls of such do depart, they sleep in an unactive state till they resume the terrestrial Bodies again.”  Other seers believed that the souls of the dying people became wraiths, and the apparitions of black dogs which I mentioned earlier, and yet others were convinced that the fairies were “a numerous People by themselves, having their own polities.”  He mentioned too other beliefs that people’s “Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged” and that some will “go to the Siths (or People at Rest, and in respect of us, in Peace) before the natural Period of their Lyfe expire…”  These ideas seem very clearly to be identical with the idea that those murdered or otherwise killed violently end up in faery.  Seventeenth century Scottish opinion on the nature of fairykind was divided then, but it was apparently as common to see them as some manifestation of human dead as it was to consider them to be a separate form of life.

Poet Robert Sempill put these ideas into verse, describing how one suspected witch:

“names our nyboris sex or sewin, (6 or 7)

That we belevit had bene in heawin.”

“Shoot that poison arrow”- elf bolts & abductions

archer

The Reverend Robert Kirk, in The Secret Commonweath, makes some fascinating remarks about the fairies’ habit of shooting ‘elf-arrows’ at people:

“Those who are unseened or unsanctified (called Fey) are said to be pierced or wounded with those People’s Weapons, which makes them do somewhat verie unlike their former Practice, causing a sudden Alteration, yet the Cause thereof unperceavable at present; nor have they Power (either they cannot make use of their natural Powers, or ask’t not the heavenly Aid) to escape the Blow impendent…

They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life … leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts.” (chapter 8)

Two features of his account are especially striking: one is how the arrows change the character of the people that they strike; the second is Kirk’s later observation that cattle hit by the fairy arrows can be healed by the laying-on of hands.

The firing of elf-bolts was a practice especially associated with the so-called saighead sith (the archer fairies) who are numbered amongst the sluagh sith or fairy host.  They will fly over the length and breadth of the land at night, picking off their chosen targets as they go.

As Kirk indicates, the fairy arrows are used by the sith not as a way of killing people or cattle but as a means of abducting victims.  Numerous examples of this may be found.  For example, the practice is described in the Shetland ballad, King Orfeo, which is a version of the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo.  In the ballad-

“The king, he has a-huntin’ gane
An’ left his lady all alane
The Elfin King wi’ his dairt
Pierced his lady tae the hert…”

In one reported example, a woman at Glen Cannel on Mull was shot and replaced by a log of alderwood.  To earthly eyes these victims appear to have died, but in reality, they have been taken.  Women were an especial target, but in a case from Gortan in Argyll a cooper was the subject as the fairies needed some barrels to be made.  Scottish witch suspect Jonet Morrison explained that “quhen they are schott ther is no recoverie for it and if the schott be in the heart they died presently but if be not at the heart they will die in a while with it yet will at least die with it…”  In other words, it’s always fatal.

Witch-suspect Isobel Gowdie, interrogated in 1662, gave a similar account:

“…we may shoot them dead at owr pleasour.  Any that ar shot be us, their sowell will goe to hevin, bot ther bodies remains with us, and will flie as horses to us, as small as strawes.”

Folklore authority J. G. Campbell recorded that the strike would take the power from the person’s limbs, so that they could not defend themselves or escape.  Sometimes, they would not die but rather fall ill, in which cases they would have been replaced with an elderly elf who inhabited their body and received care in the victim’s stead.

Cattle were taken in the same manner.  When the elf-bolt struck a cow, it would be found in distress, rolling its eyes and bawling as if suffering from a malignant cramp.  If the shot was not instantly fatal it would leave an indentation on the skin that slowly killed the beast.  Either way, when it died, it was not in fact dead but rather an effigy had been left behind and the cow itself had been taken to the fairy knoll to milk.  Likewise, a living semblance of a cow might be left behind, but it would eat and drink prodigiously without fattening or producing milk.

Sometimes shooting with a bolt is inflicted not for the purposes of abduction but in order to punish the human.  The fairies might take offence over some perceived slight by a person or they might feel that their moral code has been breached.  For example, a couple at Herbusta on Skye were reaping by moonlight.  The husband was struck by a bolt because the fairies objected to them being out in the field at night (presumably because they considered it their time of day).

arch2

Weaponry

Elf-bolts have every resemblance to Neolithic flint arrows.  According to witch-suspect Isobel Gowdie, they are made by the devil, who roughs out the shape before passing them to elf-boys who finish them off using some sharp instrument like a needle to knap the sharp edges and point.

There was some difference of opinion as to how the bolts were fired.  Some saw them as being just like human arrows. Poet Cromek rather fancifully described how the bows were made from the ribs of men who had been buried at spots where three lairds’ lands met, the quivers were made from the sloughed skin of adders and the shafts were fashioned from the stems of bog-reeds.  According to Isobel Gowdie the arrow points were not fired at all, but were rather flipped forcefully from the thumbnail.

The oddest aspect of the sluagh’s hunting expeditions was the fact that the fairies themselves could not fire their own arrows at their intended victims.  They had to take a mortal with them to perform this act for them.  Numerous sources confirm this curious disability.  For example, in one story from the Highlands, a man saw the fairies making a bow and knew that this was for him and that they were about to carry him off.  He begged his friends to hold him tightly so that he could not be taken, but it happened anyway.  The disadvantage with this reliance is that the human hunter was often reluctant to shot the targets, often because they knew the person selected.  For instance, in the case of the woman from Glen Cannel on Mull, the man taken by the sluagh first shot at a lamb, which rose through the window out of the woman’s house.  The faes were not pleased and he was forced by them to shoot again.  In other cases reported, the human captive would deliberately miss or shot a sheep and a hen instead.  As Isobel Gowdie said: “Som tymes we misse; bot if they twitch [touch], be it beast or man or woman, it will kill, tho they had an jack [mail-coat] upon them.”  She went on, with clear regret: “Bot that quhich troubles my conscience most, is the killing of several persones, with the arrowes quhich I gott from the divell.”

Defences

Given the constant threat of being shot and taken, what could the human population do to protect themselves?  There were several lines of defence, luckily enough.

Firstly, there were charms that could be recited to protect person and property.  On the island of South Uist, for example, a ‘herding blessing’ was sung whilst tending the cattle.  It asked St Bridget to protect the stock against a variety of dangers, including “the arrows of the slim fairy women” (o saighde nam ban seaga sith).”  At his trial for witchcraft in 1607 ‘fairy doctor’ Bartie Paterson confessed to invoking the holy trinity to guard cattle against “arrowschot” amongst other types of ‘shot’ directed at them.  In the Outer Hebrides, a person would be protected outside if they carried with them a sieve in one hand and a piece of coal in the other.  If you were able to come by an elf bolt that had previously been fired, simply carrying that with you was thought to be a complete defence against being struck yourself.

There are various practical steps that can be taken to diminish the risk that you will ever become the target of an attack by the sluagh.  It’s believed that the host (and fairies generally) will make their approach from the west.  That being the case, leaving westerly windows open after sunset is always a bad idea, because it tempts the sluagh to shoot arrows in, especially if a cow is being milked beside that window.  Another protection, which is useful where a window is needed for ventilation, is to place an iron bar across it.  Then, the iron will stop fairies and fairy arrows from entering.

Cattle ploughing are deemed a particular target, but there are simple precautions that can be taken, even out in the fields.  Both in Durham, in the North of England, and in Scotland, the practice was to put a bend in the furrows when the fields were being ploughed.  The reason for this was said to be that the fairies aimed along the ridges when trying to strike the oxen.  The curve simply but effectively ruined their aim.

If, despite charms and physical measures, a cow or a person was still struck, there were various cures that could be administered.  In many communities a ‘fairy doctor’ would be able to detect when sickness arose from being shot with a dart and could then prescribe a remedy.  On Shetland, for example, the suspected ‘trow-shot’ cow would be felt all over.  If a dimple, marking the site where the bolt hit, was located, a page of the Bible would be rolled up tightly and put into the depression for a little while.  Then it was removed, and with it the cattle’s affliction went.  Washing the injured cow, or giving it water to drink in which an old elf-arrow had been steeped, were other tried and tested remedies.  Putting tar between the cows’ horns was also, apparently, helpful.

For more on this subject and on the ‘Darker Side of Faery,’ see my 2021 book:

Silence is golden- in Faery

fairy song

Arthur Rackham, A Fairy Song

Speechless

On this blog I’ve many times returned to what is, for me, the fascinating subject of fairy speech.  As I’ve described previously, we expect to be able to communicate with our Good Neighbours and, most of the time, this happens without comment.  From time to time, however, the incomprehensibility of the fairy tongue is remarked upon.  We may draw several conclusions form this: either that they share- and have always shared- our speech with us, or that close proximity with us over centuries has made them bilingual- even though they may naturally, amongst themselves, speak another language entirely.  British fairies have been heard to speak English, Gaelic, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon as well as wholly unknown tongues: according to one Scottish witch suspect, Anne Cairns (tried and executed at Dumfries in April 1659), the ‘fferie’ were “not earthen folkis” and so spoke “no earthly talkis” but rather conversed with “ane eldridge voyce.”

a fairy song (2)

Rackham, Fairy song.

Silence is golden?

In this post I take a different tack: that contact with the fairies can require- or lead to- loss of one’s voice.  From this perspective, silence is the result of being near the fays or it is the safest option when they are near.

Elspeth Reoch was a young Orkney woman tried for witchcraft in March 1616.  She told her prosecutors that she had been in contact with the fairies on and off since she was twelve years old.  There is much that is interesting in her confessions, but here we are interested solely in the fact that she lost her voice after she had sex with one of two fairy men who approached her; this was to protect her against people’s questions as to how she had gained the second sight.  Elspeth lay with him and when she woke the next morning, she had “no power of her toung and could not speik.”

Diane Purkiss provides a full account of the case, along with considerable sociological and psychological theorising about Elspeth’s situation, in her book Troublesome Things.  It looks as though Elspeth derived some income from begging as a mute and from telling fortunes, but that her own family were angry about her silence and allowed her brother to beat her quite severely to try to get her to speak.  Purkiss’ speculations over gender roles and power may be justified, but let’s put Elspeth’s loss of voice in a wider context.

Barbara Bowndie of Kirkwall on Orkney was taken by the fairies for a day.  She told her trial in 1644 that this experience left her speechless for a further twenty four hours- as well it might.  Janet Morrison, a suspect witch from Bute, told her trial in 1662 that she had healed a girl who had been blasted by the ‘faryes.’  The child, daughter of a man called McPherson, was lying “without power of hand or foot and speechless.” Janet made her well with herbs.  In both these cases, loss of use of the tongue is the consequence of fairy proximity- whether deliberately inflicted or not; it is one symptom of being ‘elf-addled‘.

John Stewart, tried for sorcery at Irvine in 1618, had acquired knowledge of palmistry from the fairies whilst in Ireland.  One Halloween, he had met the king of faery and his court.  The king had touched John on his forehead with his staff (wand), which had the effect of blinding him in one eye and making him dumb.  Three years later he met the king again one Halloween and his sight and speech were restored.  He then met the fays regularly and acquired his skills from them.

Silence might also be enjoined upon a person meeting the fays.  The Reverend Robert Kirk stated that the “subterraneans [would] practice sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their mysteries.”  Any humans who had spent time with the faes under the hill might be “smit… without pain as with a puff of wind… or they strick them dumb.”  Bessie Dunlop is a very famous witch suspect, tried at Lyne in 1576.  Once again, her confessions are a rich and fascinating source, but I am interested only in one aspect.  A fairyman (or ghost) called Thom Read was her supernatural adviser, helping her with cures for sick people and cattle and locating lost and stolen goods.  On one occasion, Thom introduced her to twelve handsome fairy folk; before they met Thom forbade her to speak to them.  The ‘guid wichtis’ as Bessie called them greeted her and invited her to go with them to Faery/ Elfame.  As instructed, she did not reply and then they conferred amongst themselves- she didn’t know what they said “onlie sche saw thair lippis move.”  This suggests that they were audible when addressing her directly but when speaking privately amongst themselves they were inaudible, whether that was deliberate or just a feature of fairy speech.

It’s worth pointing out that in several modern cases witnesses have reported an identical experience: they see the fays speaking but they hear nothing (for example, see Marjorie Johnson, Seeing fairies, pp.48, 89 & 299).  In this connection too, we should note the scattered but consistent reports on telepathic communication, in which the barriers of the spoken word are overcome entirely (Johnson pp.20, 80, 89, 111, 163 & 262).

A woman of Rousay in Orkney, whose child was taken by the trows, was instructed how to recover her infant by force.  She had to break into the fairy lair, snatch back her baby and hit the fairy woman who’d abducted it with a bible, three times.  Throughout this encounter, not a word was to be spoken, otherwise the rescue would fail.

Finally, on certain other occasions Bessie Dunlop saw Thom Reid in public- in the street and in the churchyard- but had been enjoined not to speak to him.  She had been instructed that, on such occasions, she must never address him unless he had spoken to her first.  This may be as much to do with concealment as with matters of confidentiality or communication between dimensions, it has to be remarked.

It may be significant too that speech can be a way of dispelling fairy enchantment.  Those who are pixie-led or in the process of being taken by the fays can sometimes break the spell by crying out for help.  For example, a Manx woman who was surrounded on the road and jostled in a direction she didn’t want to go managed to free herself by calling her son (Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith p.126).

Struck dumb?

Lastly, the fairies could also help with curing loss of speech.  Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried for witchcraft in May 1658, was a folk healer who diagnosed and treated a man whose tongue had been ‘taken’ by the fairies.  She advised him to use foxglove leaves and water taken from a south-running stream.  Likewise, the parson of Warlingham in Surrey during the 16th or 17th century made a manuscript collection of medicines and cures that were “taught him by the Fayries.”  One of these was for loss of speech: “take wormwood, stamp it, temper it with water, strain it and out a spoonful in the mouth.”

Conclusions & further reading

So, to conclude, we have tantalising glimpses of a fresh perspective on the fairy world.  Loss of speech may well be an integral part of that condition called ‘fairy blast,’ being ‘taken’ by the fairies or what I’ve termed ‘elf-addled.’  It may also be something that’s imposed or inflicted upon a person who has dealings with the fairies so as to ensure that their privacy is protected.

My other postings on this general subject include: That Strange Tongue, on fairy names and speech; A Hidden Tongue– fairy song and speech and Fairy Language.  

‘Gaily trip the fairies’- dances and the devil

fairy dance in a clearing doyle

Richard Doyle, Fairy Dance in a Clearing

“The tripping Fayry tricks shall play” Drayton, Muse’s Elysium, 8th Nymphal

Fairies are notorious for their tripping habits, dancing around grassy rings in the moonlight.  These joyful activities have become central to their nature and a cliché of fairy verse, as illustrated by just a handful of examples:

“Ouphe and goblin! imp and sprite!

Elf of eve! and starry Fay!

Ye that love the moon’s soft light,

Hither, hither wend your way;

Twine ye in the jocund ring,

Sing and trip it merrily,

Hand to hand, and wing to wing,

Round the wild witch-hazel tree.”

The culprit fay, Joseph Rodman Drake

“Trip it over moss and rock
To the owlet’s elvish tune”
The little people, Julius Madison Cawein

Also in the poem There are fairies, Cawein assures us:

“There are faeries; verily;
Verily:
For the old owl in the tree,
Hollow tree,
He who maketh melody
For them tripping merrily,
Told it me.”

Lastly, in another of his verses, Son of the Elf, Cawein describes how fairies-

“Or, beneath the owlet moon,
Trip it to the cricket’s tune…”

This is all very pretty and quaint and tends to reinforce the view that sees fairies as charming and harmless, all leisure and no malice.  It’s not the whole story.

Pixie Perspectives

There is something more to this idea of tripping dances than just poetic conventions, though.  In Somerset the green fairy rings are called ‘gallitraps’ and we are told by Ruth Tongue that they are produced by the pixies riding colts in circles in the fields.  If you step into a gallitrap, you are entirely with the pixies’ power.  If you have one foot in and one out, you can see them, but you can still escape. (Somerset Folklore, 1965, p.115)

The word gallitrap is rare and unusual to us now, but it was once much more familiar, particularly in certain parts of Britain.  As Ruth Tongue’s example shows, the word was in common use in the south-west of England, in the counties of Somerset, Gloucestershire and Devon.  In that region the gallitrap (or gallytrap or gallowtrap) was a mystic green circle from which a guilty person, having once stepped, would only escape by being delivered to justice.  They could only exit from the circle into the arms of the law or else would become “infatuated to their own discovery” as one writer expressed it- the circle would have affected them and they would feel driven to confess or to expose their own guilt.

In several parishes in Devon the ‘gallitrap’ was a patch of land hedged about and considered uncanny.  Anyone ‘feyed’ (or fated) to be hung for a crime who entered one of these fields would then be unable to leave again but would instead wander round in circles, searching vainly for the gate or stile, until the local parson was called to release them (thence into the custody of a magistrate).  The field is then, quite literally, a ‘gallow-trap.’  In this example, many readers will identify the very close parallels between this process and the experience of being pixie-led and also the links to green places reserved for the faes that I recently discussed.

Although this conception of the gallitrap seems some way away from fairy rings, they are intimately connected.  In the story Two Men of Mendip by Walter Raymond (1879), this scene occurs:

“She held out her finger and traced upon the parched grass the greener round of a pixie ring.  ‘We be in a gallow-trap’ she laughed.  ‘If either of us have a’ done wrong, ‘tis sure to be brought to light.  He started as if struck unawares, then with a low cry he hid his face in his hands… The superstition that any man of crime stepping into a fairy circle should surely come to justice was thrust out of her mind.’ (p.230)

Another dialect source confirms that in Somerset the word ‘gyaalitrap’ referred to the familiar pixie-ring in meadows and pastures.

It appears that, in south-west England, the idea of the gallitrap was steadily extended.  Firstly, it came to signify any mysterious circle, shape or sign.  Mary Palmer, a mid-eighteenth century documenter of Devonshire dialect, recorded how one of her interviewees had watched the village parson in the wood to see if he “made any zerckles or gallytraps”- if he drew any shapes on the ground.  It came about in time that gallytraps might be drawn inside, on tables, just as much as on the ground outside.  In turn, once the word was associated more with odd shapes than with grassy rings, it began to be applied to anything that was a bit misshapen, so that in due course in Gloucestershire the word was applied to frightful ornaments or head-dresses that people wore, or even to badly made tools.

fairy ring

Doyle, Fairy Ring

Highland Flings

There is then a large geographical gap before we encounter the term again in Scotland.  The word ‘gillatryp’ (although it has been subject to metathesis and the vowels have been swapped around) seems to be identical to ‘gallytrap’ and definitely shares the same supernatural connotations.  The gillatryp was originally the name of a witches’ dance but was also used as a nickname for a suspected witch.  For example, the Kirk Session of Essill in 1731 heard that “Margaret H. (Gillatryps) in Garmouth compeared and decleared herself penitent for her indecent practices in unseemly dances on 26th December last.”

A century and a half earlier, we see the word employed in its original sense.  At Elgin in 1596, “Magie Tailȝeour [and] Magie Thomsoune … confessit thame to be in ane dance callit gillatrype, singing a foull hieland sang…”

According to Isobel Goudie in 1662, the ‘maiden’ of the witches’ coven at Auldearn was nicknamed ‘Over the dyke with it’ because:

“The Devill [alwayis takis the] maiden in his hand nixt him, quhan they daunce Gillatrypes; and as they couped they would cry ‘over the dyke with it.”

These last examples link us back to our starting point, a dance with supernatural beings.  That appears to be the core of this word’s meaning and, whether linked to fairies, witches or to the devil, they were ill-omened things.

Further Reading

Readers may wish to refer to Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary or to George Henderson’s Folklore of the Northern Counties, p.278, footnote 2- information supplied on Devon by Sabine Baring-Gould. For more on the danger of faery rings, see my Darker Side of Faery, 2021; for further discussion of faery rings, take a look at my Faeries in the Natural World (2021):

darker side

Natural World

Fairies and stolen goods

Round about our coal fire

Fairies dancing near their hill, the door of which stands open

Readers will, by now I’m sure, be very familiar with the idea that fairies are inveterate thieves of human property.  In this post, I’ll challenge those preconceptions to some degree, and look at cases where they help us to retrieve items that we have lost or have been stolen.

The information we have on this is fairly limited and, unfortunately, all of it comes from the context of criminal trials, in which the defendant faced an allegation of witchcraft or something similar.

Fairy Knowledge

Most of the cases date from the sixteenth century.  The first concerns a woman from London, known to us only as “Mrs Croxton”, who lived in St Giles parish in the city in 1549.  All we know about her is that she offered to help find lost items, and this without the use of any charms or other magical techniques; instead, “she only speaketh with the fayrayes.”

About a decade and a half later a man called John Walsh was examined on suspicion of witchcraft in Dorset.  He had visited the fairies at their hills, either at noon or midnight, and acquired a range of information from them.  They told him who had been bewitched and they could also help him locate stolen goods.  With the fairies’ aid he had recovered several stolen horses, he claimed, and denied doing harm to anyone.

Scottish witches, with the devil and fairies under a knowe.

Witches’ Wisdom

The next example dates from 1576.  Bessie Dunlop, of Irvine in Scotland, was arrested after she had offered to help a man retrieve a stolen cloak.  Before this, she had been very active, it appears, identifying the whereabouts of stolen property and naming the culprits.  Her clientele ranged across the social spectrum including Lady Blair and Lady Thirdpart.  Bessie derived her abilities from a fairy man called Tom Reid, who had first approached her when she was alone in a field one day in 1572.  In consultation with Tom, Bessie was able to discover what had happened to the stolen goods and was also able to diagnose and offer cures for a range of illnesses.  Despite the good she appeared to have done within her community, Bessie was convicted of witchcraft and was strangled and then burned on November 8th 1576.

A century later (November 1677) a vagrant man called Donald McIlmichall was put on trial at the Tollbooth in Inveraray.  Initially the charge against him had been the theft of a cow, but it turned out on examination that he claimed to have visited the fairies under their hill on frequent occasions, joining their dances or providing the music for them.  This was all supposed to be kept secret.  When he told a friend of his visits, he had been stricken in the cheek by way of punishment.

Donald asked the fairies about the whereabouts of two horses stolen at Leismore and they were able to advise him.  They also voluntarily gave him information about a number of other stolen items, whose owners he duly informed.  Nonetheless, for the “horrid cryme of corresponding with the devil and consulting with him anent stolen goods and getting information for their discovery,” Donald was hanged and his goods forfeit.

These stories make for depressing reading, but much Scottish fairy information derives from witch trials, few of which ended happily for the victims.  What can we drive from these other than a sense of the human tragedy and cruelty involved?

Summary & further reading

Firstly, it seems fairly clear that the stolen goods involved weren’t stolen by the fays: the culprits were humans whose offences were exposed by supernatural means.  The fairies did plenty of stealing (food, mainly) but they don’t seem to have been betraying themselves here.

Secondly, this knowledge of secret acts has to be derived from the fairies’ powers of second sight.  We know already that the fays can see into the future; it asks a lot less to imagine that they might be aware of what is happening currently, or has happened, in a human community around them.  This readiness to tell tales about people seems to be related to the fairies tendency to prefer some individuals over others, with gifts of money and skills.  The people who could assist others in their  village or town, recovering for them lost property, would have gained prestige and, doubtless, rewards.  Indirectly, then, the fairies were bestowing wealth and fortune on those they favoured.