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Away with the fairies

by Viv Francis

If you have gossamer-winged do-gooders in mind when the word 'fairy' is mentioned, forget it. The Cinderella-style fairy Godmother who bestows gifts and acts as guardian angel could be closer, but is not the full picture. Eye witness accounts suggest the Good Folk are much like humans - they're not all Tom Thumb-sized and enjoy a good boogie and brawl as much as the next entity, although they have the advantage of invisibility, immortality, flying and shape-shifting.

In 1907 anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz began to journey through Brittany, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland to interview people who had encountered fairies. Some witnesses told him that fairies are noble and tall and looked like humans except for their luminosity and/or translucence. Evans-Wentz recounts reports of hunts at which participants were dressed in Elizabethan costume, processions between old forts, and displays of bell-ringing outside ancient churches. Wee Folk were often seen and heard to be engaged in warfare. Wood-Martin reports that in 1797 an army of fairies marched across the bog between Maryborough and Stadybally at midday, and that in 1800 two little armies fought either side of a Kilkenny road. Although blood was found, the only casualty discovered was squashed foliage.

Elf-arrows were supposedly shot by elves at people and cattle out of malice or as revenge. According to Gardner, before the battle of Trei-Gruinard in 1598, a little man called Du-Sith (Black Elf) was hired, who was generally believed to be one of the Good Folk. He killed the opponent with an arrow considered an Elf-bolt. In old Highland families there are several treasures of reputed fairy origin, including a Fairy Flag preserved at Dunvegan Castle. That banner, left behind by a startled fairy woman, brought victory to the Clan at the battles of Glendale and Waternish, and reputedly would again.

In 1968, the people of Ballymagroartyscotch were outraged when road builders threatened to cut down a skeog (fairy tree). Several contractors refused to destroy the tree; one said, "I heard of a chap with the electricity board, and he cut down a fairy tree, and the next day he fell off an electricity pole and was killed". Eventually, the road was diverted. In the 1960s a sidhe (fairy mound) was discovered to be in the way of a planned airport in Ireland; again, builders would not touch it. The airport sidhe became the focal point of controversy before the builders bypassed it.

The Fortean Times (Issue 128) reports that a bypass recently threatened a 15ft fairy thorn bush (sceach) in Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare. Eddie Lenihan warned that its destruction could bring misfortune to those using the new road. He claimed that the sceach at Latoon was a marker in a fairy path. Lenihan claimed that a local farmer had seen white fairy blood at the spot . A way was found to work around the sceach, though Lenihan was unable to stop the council clearing trees at a ring-fort for the bypass, so watch this space.

One of the most famous fairy warrior tribes is the Celtic Tuatha de Danaan ("People of the Goddess Danu"). The 12th century Book of Invasions suggests they were exiled below ground by Milesian invaders, where they live to this day in Tir Nan Og (The Land of the Young). This idyllic place, where time stands still and there is no death, can be accessed through sidhe. Australian mimis live in rock crevices, German kobolds are 'mine fairies', Indian devas live in underground cities, as do the uldra of Lapland. Native American ohdows live in deep underground caves where they prevent earthquakes and stop demons and dangerous earth spirits from reaching the surface. Russian domovoi and domovikha live in cellars. We all know about apparent connections between faults and rifts in the earth's crust and apparitions of monsters and mysterious lights.

Cracks and crevices are traditionally associated with entrances to the 'other' worlds. Many ancient people believed that creatures lived below the earth. They were seen as guardians of treasure and secrets. Brian Stross heard some interesting stories while studying the Tzeltal Indians of Tenejapa in Mexico. The local name for their tiny hairy humanoids is ihk'al, who fly about with 'rockets' and occasionally carry people off. Further south, similar beings reportedly kidnap women and force them to bear children. In Samoa, Robert Louis Stephenson found tales of fairy women enamoured with mortal men. The Gwrgedd Annwn are known to take human husbands. Thomas the Rhymer was said to be the lover of the Scottish Queen of Elfhame; he was gone for seven years.

Fairies also do good deeds. Pat Freeney told Evans-Wentz that one day an old lady came to his house asking for oatmeal. Freeney offered potatoes, but the lady wanted oatmeal. She asked him to leave some in a bin, so that she could collect it later, which he did. Next morning "the bin was overflowing with oatmeal. The woman was one of the Gentry". Freeney reported that the the Gentry "never taste anything salt, but eat fresh meat and drink pure water". Anyone for a Simonton pancake?

Phantom music is a favourite in fairy tales. The Wee Folk of Durham are particularly festive according to Brockie, whilst on Eigg there is a fairy hill called Cnoc-na-piobaireachd, the Knoll of Piping. If you keep your ear to the ground at midday you might hear fairy revelry on The Music Barrow on Bincombe Down in Dorset. If you fancy a jig, you could also try Cissbury Ring where the fairies are said to dance at Midsummer. According to the Janet and Colin Bord, the curiosity of one mortal piper proved his undoing - he entered Pict's Knowe and never returned.

'Illustrations of the Fairy Mythology' contains a reproduction of a pamphlet signed by a J. Cotham in 1678. Three weeks before the pamphlet was written, a Dr. Moore and two companions were staying at an inn at Dromgreagh. Moore said that as a child in Ireland he had been abducted by fairies several times. His mother would consult the local wise woman, who gained his release. As he spoke in the tavern, men entered and carried him off (as he later said). His companions saw him assailed by an unseen force, attempted to grab him, but he vanished. The innkeeper sent for an old woman, who said he was in a nearby wood, and that if by her magic she could prevent him eating or drinking during his absence, he would be restored. Moore reappeared next morning, exhausted. He recounted that when his abductors offered him refreshment it had been unaccountably struck from his hand, and that at dawn he had found himself alone and in sight of the inn.

Folkloric fairies don't single out the wicked or the good, appearing to beguile at random. Being in a bluebell wood might increase your chance of contact, and being 'psychic' seems to help. If you are determined to meet the fey, you could take the advice of Robert Kirk, once Minister of the church in Aberfoyle, Scotland, and a seventh son with 'the second sight'. He recommended seemingly odd (Christian) rituals which involved tying hair around one's middle. He told of his own abduction by fairies, and concluded that they were invisible creatures composed of 'congealed air'. His body was found on a fairy mound, giving rise to the legend that the Wee Folk had taken his soul. After his funeral Kirk appeared to his cousin, saying that he was not dead but in fairyland, and could be saved by certain stated procedures. He "was visibly seen" at the appointed time, but shocked his potential saviour, and his rescue was bungled.

One favourite mischief of the fairies is baby abduction. Waldron's 'History of the Isle of Man' features the story of a woman whose babies made odd departures shortly after birth. The babies were each found some distance from the bed, having been dropped by the fairies. After her third baby was born, the woman saw it being carried by an invisible force. Her husband saw the baby by her side but it was a poor substitute for her own. This 'alien' youngster lived for a few years, but didn't talk or walk and only ate a few herbs.

I have come across various tips which might be useful in a sticky situation with The Gentry. They are cagey about their names; knowing a fairy's true name gives you a degree of power over it. Various cultures have gods whose names are only to be spoken in reverence. When confronted by the Fey, ring bells - they don't like the noise (and the Christian connotations?). Placing a child in an elder-wood cradle could cause it to be pinched black and blue by fairies, whilst placing ash berries in a cradle prevents the child being traded for a changeling. St. John's Wort and salt protect against fairy spells. And never eat fairy food. According to Fraser, whenever you enter a fairy dwelling you should stick a piece of steel, "such as a knife, a needle, or a fish-hook", in their door - the elves will not be able to shut it until you leave. Iron or steel is also handy. "A knife or a nail in your pocket is quite enough to prevent the fairies from lifting you up at night."

So who or what are these mischievous blighters that we once called fairies? Why have sightings of them diminished? Nicholson was told that Dr Ingram, a preacher who died in 1879, drove the Trow (the local fairies) from the Shetlands, forcing them to the Faroes. He was told this by a Trow woman who apparently resisted.

Sightings of anomalous lights are perhaps the most plausibly 'explained' of fairy phenomena. Will-o-the-wisps, or corpse candles, are usually attributed to methane. Baron von Reichenbach was curious about lights reported in graveyards. One of his associates, Leopoldina Reichel, was able to see dancing lights which resembled "dwarfish kobolds". She could swish them about with her skirt. Reichebach thought they were a result of chemicals from the dead. Elf fire, or ignis fatuus ('foolish fire'), is a flame-like phosphorescence caused by combusting gases from decaying vegetable matter. Those pursuing ignis fatuus are evaded. In Russian folklore these wandering fires are the spirits of stillborn children flitting between heaven and hell.

A more historical, and romantic, explanation of British Little People is that they are the dispossessed early tribes who faded away into uninhabited places, growing smaller with time as they passed into legend. Some suggest that The Fey are a folk-memory of short Neolithic or Bronze Age folk. When the Celts arrived in the UK, the aboriginals defended themselves by instilling superstitious fear in their persecutors. Cornish fey are apparently reduced in size every time they shape-shift, ending their days as ants. It is considered unlucky to kill Cornish ants.

Evans-Wentz theorised that some of the phenomena his witnesses described were past events leaving "mental records like pictures cast upon a screen". He believed that due to the increase of "education", these encounters had diminished. This fits some of the evidence, particularly accounts that bring time-slips to mind and takes into account the growth of rationalism.

Keel writes that UFO reports contain multiple sightings "identical to the fairy and gnome stories of yesteryear". Witnesses to these events can experience effects often noted in more conventional UFO encounters. In 'The Field Guide to Extra terrestrials' by Huyghe, it is easy to spot fairy-like 'aliens'. One type depicted even flew around a Christmas tree. Vallee writes: "The psychology of the elementals or ultra terrestrials is well known and fully described in the fairy lore of northern Europe and the ancient legends of Greece, Rome and India". Call them what you will, the African abata, the Australian mimis, the German kobolds, the Baltic leshy et al may well offer insights into the world of anomalous phenomena that warrant investigation. Maybe next time you look to the skies for life forms, you should keep one eye on the ground.

John Mitchell & Robert J. M. Rickard 'Phenomena: A Book of Wonders'

J. G. Fraser 'The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion'

J. O. Halliwell 'Illustrations of the Fairy Mythology'

Lewis Spence 'The Fairy Tradition in Britain'

John Nicholson 'Some Folk-Tales and Legends of Shetland'

Walter Y Evans-Wentz 'The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries'

William Brockie 'Superstitions of the County of Durham'

Janet and Colin Bord 'The Secret Country: More Mysterious Britain'

Patrick Huyghe 'The Field Guide to Extra terrestrials'

John A. Keel 'UFOs - Operation Trojan Horse'

Jacques 'Dimensions: A Casebook of Alien Contact'

Robert Kirk 'The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies'