The sessions continued and completed the subject of the Fairy Folk/Good People:
For ease of discussion we grouped the tales into 4 categories:-
- 1/. Stories where they benefit from human kindness and offer a reward.
- 2/. React to unkindness and disrespect.
- 3/. Changelings, fairy left in place of a human baby
- 4/. Adult humans wander into their Fairy Land or are abducted there.
1/. In the previous session we looked at a number of tales about the first group of The Good People. There are lots of stories about these and often involved farmers and their wives and their help would be rewarded with little loaves, pats of butter or cheeses. These stories occurred all over Britain and continental Europe.
2/. This second group had a less benign flavour to them. Great care had to be taken to show respect or there could be dire consequences. Giving way to greed, arrogance and abusing hospitality were often fatal. They may have been used as morality tales, and perhaps in later versions reflected Christian mores. They attribute supernatural causes onto natural events, for things at the time there was no obvious explanation such as wasting diseases.
The Midwife at Garth Dorwen
We looked in detail at the story of The Midwife at Garth Dorwen. Human midwives were often summoned to fairy births to help fairy mothers or assist human women who had been abducted.
An old man and his wife who lived at Garth Dorwen, near Llandwrog went to Caernarfon to hire a servant at the Fair. They hired a girl with yellow hair who was standing a little apart for the others.
The girl, Eilian, would go out into the meadow to spin by the light of the moon. Here the Tylwyth Teg (the good people) used to come to her and sing and dance. One day in Spring, she ran off with the Tylwyth Teg and no more was heard of her.
The old woman at Garth Dorwen helped women in childbed, and some time after this, a gentleman on horseback came to the door one night when the moon was full, to fetch her to his lady. The old woman rode pillion behind him and they came to Rhos-y-Cowrt. In the centre of the rhos (moor) was an old fortification. Here they entered a large cave and came to a room- and it was the finest place the old woman had seen in her life- where the wife lay in bed.
When the baby was born, the husband gave her ointment to anoint its eyes, warning her not to get it into her own, but one of her eyes happening to itch, she rubbed it with the finger she had used to anoint the baby’s eyes. At once she saw with that that the fine chamber was a cave, the bed a ring of stones lined with rushes and withered bracken, and the gentleman’s wife none other than her servant girl Eilian; yet with the other eye, she still saw the grandest place that ever she had seen.
Not long afterwards, the old woman went to Caernarfon market and there she saw the husband. “How is Eilian?”, she asked. “She is pretty well, thank you”, he said, “but which eye do you see me with?”. “Well this one”, said she. At once he took a bullrush stem and poked it out.
In this tale Eilian has unusually coloured hair which would make her attractive to the good people. They were thought to need human blood lines to strengthen theirs. The spinning, moonlight, full moon, caves, old forts, travelling at night are common themes. Grand fairy abodes were often revealed to be very modest. Again there was a great consequence for disobeying, a warning not to cause even accidental offence.
Tom Monahan and the Hurley
We also looked in detail at the tale of “Tom Monahan and the Hurley”, as recorded in Galway in 1945.
Tom Monahan from Doonlaun was one of the finest players of hurling in the district. One bright moonlight night, he was on his way home, and as he passed a field that sloped down from a wood, he was surprised to see two teams of men playing hurling in the moonlight, and as he watched the game, he realised that they must be the Good People. They played wonderfully well and after a time, Tom became so excited that he let out a yell, which alerted the Good People to his presence.
“Would you like to join in?”, they asked. “Indeed I would”, said Tom, and “Have you a hurley?” They handed Tom the finest hurley he had ever seen, and he played as he never had before, and his team won.
“I’ll tell you who we are, now”, said the Good People. “We are from the churchyard beyond, and we are in a great fix, for we have to play our old rivals from Knockmar on this night week, and they have a mortal, the red-headed Paddy Ruadh, to play for them, and he is the best hurler in County Mayo. Will you play for us, to even things up?’ “Indeed I will”, said Tom, ‘but can I have the same hurley?” And it was agreed.
So a week from that night, Tom crept out, telling no-one where he was going, and he found the two teams and his hurley waiting for him. They played and played, and in the end, Tom’s team won. “What would you like now?” said the Good People, “and we’ll give it to you.” “I’d like the hurley that I played so well with”, was the reply. “You’ve asked for the one thing we can’t do. Tis fairy property and we couldn’t give it away.” “Well I want it”, said Tom. “Well you can’t have it”, said the Good People. “Well I must”, said Tom, and with that he walked away, taking the hurley will him.
Well Tom was hardly home before he began to sicken. His mother could do nothing for him, and the doctor could do nothing for him, and all the time, he grew worse and worse. And when he knew that he was going to die, Tom asked them to bury the hurley with him in his coffin. Sure they did it, so maybe he’s still winning matches for Doonlaun now.”
The common themes let us know early in the tale that the good people are involved, moonlight, reference to red hair, the finest hurley, from a church yard, and with this Christian morality. He paid a high price for breaking the rules of hospitality.
3/. The third group, Changelings, have a very dark tone to them, especially in the early stories. The origins of these may have come from disabled babies, sudden illness, congenital disorders and defects, and infanticide. The changelings survive for a while. In the later stories, the human parents sometimes get the children back and the fairies don’t abandon their own.
There was a view that changelings were taken to strengthen the fairy stock. Boys with fair hair and rosy cheeks were prized, they were taken, treated well and in due course took a fairy bride. Something would be left behind in their place such as a magic block of wood or one of their own.
A changeling could be recognised as they were ugly and wizened, unnaturally knowing, becoming weak, grizzling, moping, and failing to thrive.
Precautions could be taken to protect a child from being taken. Iron and steel were well known to be repugnant to fairy folk, salt, rowan twigs, crucifix and rosary beads were protective. These are a mix of pagan and Christian beliefs co-opted into the stories later. In rural Ireland boys were dressed as girls to protect them from coming to the notice of the fairies until they were old enough to be safe.
These tales were from all over the country with examples from Ipstones, Staffordshire, Fermanagh, Ireland, Kington, Powys, Scotland and Llyn Ebyr, Wales. The people recounting the tale were often well-regarded members of the community and therefore viewed as reliable. A way to get the changeling to show itself was to act in an unexpected way, in the tale from Llyn Ebyr eggshell stew was served to the workers.
4/. The fourth group are those where adult humans wander into the fairy realm or are abducted. There were numerous examples of these.
These had echoes of the Celtic other world. Involved journeys near water, at night, at length, through caves, underground, through gaps in rocks, through a door, getting lost. You were safe if you did not eat or drink. The passage of time was different. Behaving oddly or bringing something from this world could be used to escape or rescue a person. Some tales left the protagonists caught between worlds where they could be heard from time to time outside cave entrances, in the wind etc..
The other world could be recognised because it was beautiful, vibrant and splendid. In Irish culture it was often the land of youth and health. It was often shown to be enchantment and not real.
The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor
We looked at this tale in detail, it has many of these elements.
A Farmer called Noy once took a short cut on Selena Moor in Cornwall and he became lost. After wandering for many miles over country that he could not recognise, he came upon a house, outside which hundreds of people were either dancing, or sitting drinking at tables. They were all richly dressed, but they looked to the farmer to be very small, and the tables and cups were small as well.
The farmer was astounded when he recognised a young woman who was serving drinks. She was his former sweetheart Grace, and as far as everyone was concerned, she had died three or four years before. Grace beckoned him aside, into the orchard that surrounded the house, and told him that she had also become lost on the moor, while searching for a lost sheep. What her friends found on the moor, what they thought was her body, was in fact a changeling, a stock, put there by the Fairies. In fact she had wandered around for hours until she came to an orchard where she could hear music playing. Although the music sounded near at hand, she could not get out of the orchard to find it.
At last, worn out with hunger and thirst, she plucked a golden plum from one of the trees and began to eat it. At once the fruit dissolved into bitter water in her mouth and she fell into a faint. When she revived, she found herself surrounded by a crowd of little people, who were very pleased to have acquired such a likely looking girl to bake and brew for them, and to look after their human babies.
Farmer Noy asked her about the little people, and she told him that their lives seemed unnatural and sham:- “They have little sense or feeling; what serves them in a way as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals, maybe thousands of years ago.”
Farmer Noy asked if Fairy babies were ever born, and Grace replied just occasionally, and then there was great rejoicing. Every little Fairy man, however old and wizened, was proud to be thought its father:- “For you must remember that they are not of our religion, but star-worshippers (pagans). They do not always live together like Christians and turtle doves; considering their long existence, such constancy would be tiresome for them.”
When Grace was called back to her work, she warned the farmer not to touch any fruit or flower in the orchard “for your very life”.
Farmer Noy thought that he might find a way to rescue them both; so he took his hedging gloves out of his pocket, turned them inside out and threw them in among the Fairies. Immediately everything vanished, including his lady-love, and he found himself standing alone beside a ruined cottage on the moor.
He was found some time later, dazed and bewildered, by the friends who had come out search for him. When he recovered his senses, he was much surprised to discover that he had been missing for three days.
Origins of the Fairy Folk in British Folklore:-
At the end of the topic we looked at the possible origins of the Fairy Folk. These tales stand out as being a distinctly different set of stories and there are a great many legends concerning them.
(i) they may have been used to illustrate examples of proper behaviour in stories designed to have a teaching function for children and adults. With Christian morals co-opted into them in later versions.
(ii) they may have been the existing inhabitants of Britain displaced when either the Bronze Age people or the Iron Age Celts arrived and they were pushed to the margins. The fairies didn’t like iron and the Celts had iron weapons. However, it is now thought that these peoples were blended together. There may be echoes of human origins in the long distant past.
(iii) they may have been linked to a cult of the dead, cult of the ancestors. Glastonbury Tor, Somerset:- St Collen met Gwyn ap Nudd (King of the Fairies, Lord of Annwyn) in his palace inside the Tor. Fairy Folk and the realm of the dead.
(iv) they may represent a survival of Celtic mythology: originally they may have been Celtic gods & goddesses. Aine:- wife of the Celtic sea god Manannan Mac Lir; wife of the sky horse Echdae; strong associations with the Earth Mother/ Great Goddess; in Munster venerated at Cnoc Aine as goddess of the dawn and also as Queen of the Fairies.
Next time we shall continue with supernatural in the natural world and landscape including the sea and mermaids.