What plant was Rapunzel named for? In the original German, the food that her mother desires is "rapunzel," plural "rapunzeln," but the proper English translation remains mysterious. One writer gave up with the pronouncement that "hardly anybody has the least idea what rampion is or looks like, though it is clearly some kind of salad vegetable" (Blamires, Telling Tales, 161).
This is not entirely true. The problem is that we have several ideas. Multiple plants are known, in German, as rapunzel. I have come across four that are frequently attributed as the plant of the fairytale.
The only clue we really have from the story is that the pregnant woman eats it in a salad, and that perhaps her craving seems a little strange. Any of these plants would fit that description.
In fact, the name Rapunzel is actually a unique addition by Schulz. In the older and more widespread tales from France and Italy, as we've looked at over the past few weeks, the plant is parsley. This is reflected in the names of various heroines: Petrosinella, Persinette, Prezzemolina, Parsillette, and others.
In the Italian "Petrosinella," the oldest known Rapunzel tale, there is no explanation needed for the parsley. It is used to flavor the tale with innuendo.
In "Persinette" (1698), Charlotte-Rose de Caumont La Force explains that "In those days, parsley was extremely rare in these lands; the Fairy had imported some from India, and it could be found nowhere else in the country but in her garden."
Parsley is native to the central and eastern Mediterranean, but would still have been familiar to La Force's audience. The herb had been in France for a long time. Charlemagne and Catherine de Medici, for instance, had it in their royal gardens. La Force's fanciful explanation of the rare parsley places the story in a distant land and/or time. There's also a wry little comment about the wife's unusual hunger: "Parsley must have tasted excellent in those days."
Schulz approached the tale nearly a hundred years later in his collection of tales, Kleine Romane. His translation of "Persinette" contains various small changes, but the most significant was that he changed the plant, and with it, the girl's name.
In his translation, the fairy's garden includes "Rapunzeln, which were very rare at the time. The fairy had brought it from over the sea, and there was none in the country except in her garden."
There is still the comment "back then the Rapunzeln tasted wonderful."
Schulz's "Rapunzel" was the version which influenced the Brothers Grimm (who were apparently unaware of the French fairytale). Their first version of Rapunzel is very terse and simple, in line with oral storytelling, so it's likely that they were relying on an informant who had read Schulz. If not for Schulz's creativity, we might today have an alternate fairytale chant of "Petersilchen, Petersilchen, let down your hair!"
So this whole question of plants must begin from a different place - because it wasn't Rapunzel to begin with.
The meaning of parsley
In the older stories, parsley was rich with symbolism, associated with desire and fertility. The Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that parsley "provokes venery and bodily lust." The story of "Petrosinella" relied on this; there is a salacious line about the prince visiting the girl to enjoy the "parsley sauce of love."
English children were told that babies were found in parsley beds (Folkard, Waring). According to Waring's Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions (p. 174), "Some country women still repeat an old saying that to sow parsley will sow babies." In another superstition, too much parsley in your garden would mean that "female influences reigned" and only baby girls would be born! (Baker, 1977)
Occasionally it could be dangerous. In Greece, parsley was a funerary herb and had associations with death. Richard Folkard mentioned an English superstition that transplanting parsley would offend "the guardian spirit who watches over the Parsley-beds," leading to ill fortune. (Hmmm... very fitting for the Rapunzel story.)
Parsley featured in many folk remedies. It was used on swollen breasts and in cures for urinary ailments. According to Thompson, "A craving for parsley of the mother would make immediate sense" due to its use in traditional medicine (pp. 32-33). It was also used by midwives to speed up labor when a mother was struggling with a long childbirth, and in the early stages of pregnancy, it could be used as an abortifacient.
Much has been made of the abortion possibility in connection with Rapunzel. This particularly colors Basile's version, where Petrosinella's father is never mentioned, and her mother acts alone in stealing parsley from the ogress's garden.
However, in "Persinette," La Force gives us a married couple who do want children but still ultimately give up their daughter in exchange for the precious parsley. Why? Well, abortion is not parsley's only connection; look at all the other beliefs surrounding parsley and fertility. It could also indicate that the mother was sickly or facing a difficult childbirth. Also, don't forget just how much importance was placed on pregnancy cravings. Pascadozzia, for instance, claims to fear that her child will have a disfiguring birthmark if she doesn't obey her cravings. See Holly Tucker's Pregnant Fictions for more on just how drastic these ideas could get, and how much sway pregnant women held. Persinette's parents may have seen no other option, with the lives of both mother and child potentially on the line.
If not parsley, another symbolic plant typically features in Rapunzel-type tales: herbs such as fennel, or fruit such as apples. There are levels of erotic symbolism. A pregnant woman lusts uncontrollably after a food associated with desire. Her child is named for that food and grows up locked away to keep her from male advances. Even so, her guardians are never able to prevent her from eventually becoming sexually active when she reaches maturity. Her name and her nature are linked.
Why the Change?
Swapping rapunzel for parsley boots all of those superstitions, folk remedies, and symbols. Why exactly did Schulz change it?
Here are some theories I've come across:
Theory 1: Rapunzel would have made more sense than parsley to a German audience.
Kate Forsyth's excellent case study The Rebirth of Rapunzel suggested that "Schulz may have changed the heroine’s name because parsley is a Mediterranean plant that grows best in warm, temperate climates, and so may have been relatively unknown in northern Germany, where Schulz was born."
In the exact opposite direction, writer Gabriele Uhlmann concluded that the plant was lamb's lettuce, based on the statement that rapunzeln was rare, and the fact that lamb's lettuce was imported to Germany. Note that the line about the plant being rare is a direct translation of La Force's joke.
Either way, both of these theories rely on the idea that rapunzel would have made more sense than parsley - either more familiar, or more rare and alluring, to a German audience.
What do German books of the time indicate?
Johann Jakob Walter's Kunst- und Lustgärtners in Stuttgart Practische Anleitung zur Garten-Kunst (1779) does feature parsley under the German names petersilie and peterling, with instructions for growing it in gardens.
Walter also listed three rapunzels - Campanula rapunculus (rampion bellflower), Oenothera biennis (evening primrose), and finally Phyteuna spicata (spiked rampion) - while mentioning that there were still others out there. He differentiated them by calling them blue-flowered Rapunzel, yellow-flowered Rapunzel, and forest Rapunzel. He attributed Oenothera biennis as an American plant, but I got the impression that he was familiar with the other two plants growing wild in Germany.
Joachim Heinrich Campe's 1809 book Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprach lists numerous plants as Rapunzel. Campanula rapunculus is first, but attributed to Switzerland, France and England. Next are Phyteuna spicata and Valerianella locusta (lamb's lettuce), both attributed to Germany. Finally is Oenothera biennis. He notes the first three as frequently eaten in salads.
This doesn't help much. All I can say is that when Schulz was writing, parsley was known in Germany, and so were multiple plants known as rapunzel.
Perhaps there's a clue in other fairytales. In 1812 - writing 22 years after Schulz - we have Johann Gustav Büsching's story "Das Mahrchen von der Padde," or "The Tale of the Toad," in Volkssagen, Märchen und Legenden. In this Rapunzel-like tale, the parsley-munching heroine is named Petersilie. So we have another German collector from roughly the same era, collecting a similar tale, who did not see any problems with keeping a character named Parsley. He didn't seem to worry that German readers would find parsley too faraway or too mundane. It was evidently a story native to Germany, parsley and all. (However, an English translator, Edgar Taylor, altered the name to "Cherry the Frog Bride" - presumably to make the name prettier.)
Theory 2: Schulz was intentionally trying to erase the symbolism of parsley, particularly its use as an aphrodisiac and/or abortifacient.
Personally, I doubt that Schulz was trying to erase erotic symbolism from the story. I also doubt that he was trying to erase female agency - yes, that's a theory I've run into. It's true that the Grimms made edits and removed things they didn't feel were appropriate. But they weren't the ones who changed the plant!
Schulz's edits consisted mostly of adding his own little details to explain plot holes or color the story. He kept the story as La Force wrote it, including the pregnancy as well as the strict but ultimately loving fairy godmother who reunites with Rapunzel at the end. There is no erasure of eroticism going on here. There is no demonizing of the older, magical woman.
The Grimms - who had exactly nothing to do with the Rapunzel name - were the ones who edited out the unwed pregnancy and transformed the benevolent fairy into a nasty old witch named Mother Gothel. Even then, while their edits made Rapunzel dangerously foolish, they also gave her an element of agency that neither La Force or Schulz gave her: the Grimm Rapunzel actively tries to run away from Gothel, weaving a ladder to escape her tower.
Theory 3: Schulz thought Rapunzel was a cooler name than Petersilchen (the direct translation of Persinette).
This is another theory brought up by Forsyth: perhaps Rapunzel was more appealing to Schulz's ear. Swiss scholar Max Lüthi wrote that "Rapunzel sounds better in the German tale than Persinette, it has a more forceful sound than Petersilchen... To be sure , in folk beliefs the plants called 'Rapunzel' do not play any important role, quite in contrast to those... such as parsley and fennel, apples and pears, which are attributed eroticizing and talismanic properties" (as quoted in McGlathery, Fairy Tale Romance, p. 130).
Perhaps there's a clue in other translations. Schulz was not the only one to make edits to a literary tale which he was presenting to the audience of another country.
When it came to exporting the Grimms' tales, English translators were faced with some problems. Most chose to keep Rapunzel's name. A valid choice, but one that leaves the name meaningless to English-speakers. Rapunzel just isn't familiar as a plant name to a lot of Americans. As Forsyth put it, "the change of the heroine’s name to Rapunzel drained much of the symbolic meaning from the herb, and in many cases led to the link between girl and plant being broken."
In the most drastic departure, John Edward Taylor translated Rapunzel for The Fairy Ring: A Collection of Tales and Traditions in 1846 . . . as "Violet." Rather than craving salad, the mother demands her own bouquet of the sweet-smelling violets that only grow in the fairy's garden. Taylor stripped the fairytale of even more symbolism, made the heroine's name mundane and ordinary, and made her parents dangerously stupid and greedy (really . . . the wife demands a fresh bouquet every day, even though she can see and smell the violets from her window. And she's not even eating them). Martin Sutton, attributing Valeriana locusta as the original rapunzel, suggested that Taylor was avoiding not only the implications of pregnancy and cravings, but a possible link to the drug valerian, used for anxiety and sleep disorders.
Fortunately, "Violet" did not catch on.
An anonymously translated 1853 English version, Household Stories Collected by the Brothers Grimm, changed the plant to radishes but kept the Rapunzel name without explanation.
H. B. Paull published Grimm's Fairy Tales in 1868, with the story under the title of "The Garden of the Sorceress." In a stroke of brilliance, she translated rapunzeln as lettuce and named her heroine Letitia, "Lettice" for short.
Home Stories, in 1855, described the plant as "the most beautiful rampions."
Mrs. Edgar Lucas used the translation corn-salad in Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (1900). Corn-salad, again, is an alternate name for Valerianella locusta or lamb's lettuce. In the 1909 edition, however, she changed the plant to rampion.
Throughout all translations, rampion gradually took over in English as the most common translation. Otherwise, translators tended to leave it as "rapunzel."
The answer to the change lies with Schulz. So who was Schulz? What kind of translator was he? Was he a Taylor, a strict prude who wanted a pretty and innocent plant? Was he a Paull, with a hand for wordplay?
I think Schulz was simply a storyteller. He stayed faithful to La Force's story, but he added small details, spicing it up rather than doing a flat translation. For instance, La Force simply says that Persinette had good food, but Schulz gives Rapunzel a detailed meal including marzipan. He also adds that Rapunzel doesn't just let her hair down, but winds it around a window hook before allowing people to climb it. When Rapunzel's prince goes missing, the king is left worrying about the succession of the kingdom. In essence, Schulz liked include practical little details that made the story more realistic and immediate.
"Parsley" might have been all right for another collector, such as Büsching, but it didn't cut it for Schulz. I think all three theories for Rapunzel's name change are valid, and they could work together without conflicting. Schulz could very likely have preferred the sound of Rapunzel to Petersilchen. Maybe he did think it would make more sense than parsley to his German audience. And with his practical side, maybe he knew parsley could pose a danger to pregnancy; he may have thought that didn't suit La Force's story, in which a happily married woman eagerly awaits her firstborn child.
This still leaves the question of which rapunzel he meant. There were at least four he might have heard of.
We know that La Force's parsley and Schulz's rapunzel are eaten in salads, and that they would not be considered all that delicious (see the joking remark that parsley must have tasted wonderful back then).
Both parsley and multiple plants known as rapunzel could be found in German gardens of the time. I've never had the opportunity to do a taste test of these plants; the only one I've ever had is parsley as a garnish.
I did start looking at images of the plants. Campanula rapunculus (rampion bellflower) and Oenothera biennis (evening primrose) are flowers. Phyteuma spicata (spiked rampion) has tall stalks topped with bristling spearheads.
By process of elimination, Valerianella locusta - lamb's lettuce - looks the most similar to parsley. Not very similar - their leaves look very different - but both are leafy green vegetables. And both of them blossom with bunches of teeny-tiny whitish flowers. When I looked at pictures of them flowering, I instantly thought "That has to be it."
Another note: we don't know what Schulz was thinking, but we may have an idea what the Grimms were thinking. The mother in the Grimms' "Rapunzel" is struck by the sight of the "fresh and green" vegetable when she sees it from a distance. The narrative is not entirely clear, but it does indicate that she wants the leaves in her salad and they are the main focus of her desire.
Two things here:
1) Rampion bellflower and spiked rampion have edible leaves, but are primarily grown as root vegetables.
2) Rampion bellflower (again) and evening primrose would have been most recognizable by their blue or yellow blossoms, not by green leaves.
Again... that leaves lamb's lettuce.
In addition, the Grimms originated a dictionary series, "Deutsches Wörterbuch." In an 1893 edition, published after their deaths, rapunzel is defined first as "die salatpflanze valeriana locusta, feld-lattich." Lamb's lettuce.
The others come in second. Evening primrose doesn't even make it into the entry - it gets listed on its own as "rapunzelsellerie."
So why did rampion take over as the English translation of rapunzel? Out of the English options, rampion has the most visual similarity to "rapunzel." It also has perhaps a slightly more romantic look to it. You can't name a fairytale princess "Corn Salad." Or you could, but it would be a brave choice. Quite a few translators struggled with the name, as seen in "Violet." In addition, English and American translators may simply not have been familiar with German garden vegetables.
The other plants all have their points or bring intriguing connections to the story. However, I believe the rapunzel plant is most likely Valerianella locusta - lamb's lettuce or corn salad. Personally, I'd love to read a study of the tale from a German botanist.
So far, in examining the history of Rapunzel, we have seen two very different endings to the Maiden in the Tower tale.
In the literary La Force/Grimm ending, Persinette/Rapunzel's hair is cut, the prince falls from the tower and goes blind, and they reunite later in the wilderness where her tears cure his blindness.
But in the older and more widespread ending, derived from oral tradition, the boy and girl flee from an ogre's chase in a "magical flight" where they use enchanted tools to evade the monster. Rapunzel is Aarne–Thompson Type 310, "The Maiden in the Tower." The oldest known Rapunzel, "Petrosinella," fits this, but is also close to Type 313, "The Girl Helps the Hero Flee." Type 313 tends to feature tough, clever heroines who use magic to get their boyfriends out of trouble and run circles around the villain. Italian Rapunzels - or more properly, Parsleys - are clever and magically powerful.
Although Basile's version is a literary tale, there are many examples of the tale in collected Italian folklore. "Snow-White-Fire-Red," recorded in 1885, overlaps with AT 408, "The Three Oranges," with its strikingly colored heroine, the prince on a hopeless search for her, and their separation when he forgets her. It lacks the significant Rapunzel "garden scene" of stolen vegetables. However, it still has the the tower, the ogress, the hair-ladder, and the heroine's use of magic to escape with her prince. In the end, the ogress curses the prince with amnesia, and Snow-White-Fire-Red has to get him to remember her. There is a Greek version titled "Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa" (Anthousa the Fair with Golden Hair).
Some stories feature the "garden scene" beginning of Rapunzel, but are actually different tale types. Italo Calvino, in his Italian Folktales (1956), includes "Prezzemolina" (meaning, again, Little Parsley). There is no hair or tower, but instead a parsley-loving girl forced to serve a witch until her magician boyfriend rescues her. Variants on this are Prunella (Plum) and Fragolette (Strawberry).
"The Old Woman of the Garden" has the same opening, but there is no prince at all. Instead, the girl shoves the witch into her own oven and goes home to her mother.
In Italian versions, the ogress is dangerous and powerful, but the girl is powerful too. By contrast, French versions make the heroine and hero totally defenseless before the fairy's or ogress's might.
La Force may have created an original ending to the tale, but the touch of tragedy ties in with oral French equivalents. The heroes are passive, with Persinette's only ability being her healing tears; the fairy wields all the power, and they get their happy ending when she feels sorry for them. "Persinette" is actually an exception from some French relatives in that it ends so happily!
Revue des traditions populaires, vol. 6 (1891) featured a French version called Parsillette (you guessed it - Little Parsley). This tale has so many similarities to Persinette that it may have been influenced by it, except for the addition of a talking parrot who betrays Parsillette's secret. Except that in the end, Parsillette is struck with ugliness by her godmother's curse. She hurries back to beg her godmother's forgiveness and plead for her beauty back, seemingly unconcerned that her boyfriend has dropped dead. It ends abruptly: "Later Parsillette married a very wealthy prince, and she never knew her parents."
"The Godchild of the Fairy in the Tower" is another strange one, very short, and apparently influenced by literary versions of the story. A talking dog, rather than a parrot, betrays the secret. At the godmother's curse, the unnamed golden-haired girl becomes a frog, and the prince grows a pig's snout. The End. I'm not making this up.
You could trace tragic endings as far back as the Greek myth of Hero and Leander, where the hero drowns trying to swim to his lover's tower prison, and she then commits suicide. Or there's the third-century legend of Saint Barbara, where the tower-dwelling heroine discovers Christianity (making Christ, in a way, her prince) and becomes a martyr at her father's hands.
However, the odd little tale of "The Godchild" reminds me of another tale, where a Rapunzel-like character ends up in a tale similar to the Frog Prince.
This is a German tale, "Das Mährchen von der Padde" (Tale of the Toad), adapted by Andrew Lang as "Puddocky." A poor woman has a daughter who will only eat parsley, and who receives the name "Petersilie" as a result. In the German version, Petersilie's parsley is stolen from a nearby convent garden. The abbess there does nothing until three princes see the girl brushing her "long, wonderful hair," and get into a brawl over her right there in the street. At that point, the infuriated abbess wishes that Petersilie would become an ugly toad at the other end of the world. (Interestingly, Laura J. Getty points out several traditional versions of the Maiden in the Tower where the girl's caretaker figure is a nun.)
In Lang's version, instead of an abbess there's a witch who takes Parsley into her home. Lang also specifies that Parsley's hair is black.
From there, in both versions the enchanted toad breaks her curse by aiding the youngest prince in his quest for some enchanted objects. She becomes human again and they marry. It's an example of the Animal Bride tale, albeit with a beginning reminiscent of Rapunzel - a similarity which Lang enhanced by turning the abbess neighbor into a witch foster mother.
"Blond Beauty" is a very short French version which, like Parsillette, has a parrot reveal the girl's affair.
There's also a much longer and more elaborate literary version from France:
The White Cat
A tragic Rapunzel tale is embedded in Madame D'Aulnoy's literary tale of the White Cat, another Animal Bride tale, published in 1697 - the same year as "Persinette," by an author from the same circle.
Late in the story, after the magical quest and curse-breaking parts are over, the heroine explains how she came to be cursed. Her mother ate fruit from the garden of the fairies, and agreed to let the fairies raise her daughter in exchange. The fairies built an elaborate tower for the heroine, which could only be accessed by their flying dragon. For company, the heroine had a talking dog and parrot. One day, however, a young king passed by, and she fell in love with him. She convinced one of the fairies to bring her twine and secretly constructed a rope ladder. When the king climbed up to her, the fairies caught him in her room. Their dragon devoured the king, and the fairies transformed the princess into a white cat. She could only be freed by a man who looked exactly like her dead lover.
Rapunzel as a "Beauty and the Beast" Tale
"Puddocky" and "The White Cat" focus more on the animal transformation than on the "Maiden in the Tower" elements. They keep Rapunzel's "garden scene," but the main plot is of a prince encountering a cursed maiden in a gender-flipped Beauty and the Beast tale. Not all "Animal Bride" tales (AT type 402) have this overlap with Rapunzel, but quite a few Rapunzel tales feature the maiden losing her beauty in some way.
Laura G. Getty mentions other versions which start out like Petrosinella, with the flight from the ogress, but which then feature an additional ending where the ogress curses the girl to have an animal's face. They have to convince the ogress to take back the curse before a marriage can take place. An Italian example is "The Fair Angiola," cursed to have the face of a dog.
The Complete Rapunzel
Put everything together from all the versions, and a much more elaborate version of Rapunzel emerges:
Take out a few scenes here or there, and you can get all sorts of combinations. Delete the animal transformation and separation and you've got the Italian Petrosinella. Focus on the transformation and leave out the magical flight, and you have the German Puddocky. Remove the happy ending and you have "The Godchild of the Fairy in the Tower." Keep it all together and you have, more or less, "Fair Angiola."
Even with La Force's unique creative twists, I was surprised to see how much Persinette matched up with other tales. The temporary loss of her prince and exile in the wilderness is a common trial.
The fairy cutting Persinette's glorious hair is parallel to the traumatic transformation in other stories. In versions like “Parsillette" or “The Fairy-Queen Godmother,” the fairy is the source of the heroine’s wondrous beauty and removes it when the heroine runs away. Persinette’s godmother also bestows beauty (including presumably her unique hair) at her baptism. When she cuts off Persinette's hair, she is removing her goddaughter's special privileges and gifts. This is accompanied by a change in location: instead of a bejewelled silver tower, Persinette now lives in an even more isolated house. This dynamic is quite different from laying a curse of animal transformation. However, the implications are lost in the Grimms' retelling.
I find it interesting that there are many versions where the girl isn't just transformed, but where she needs to heal (or perhaps resurrect?) the prince. Persinette cures her prince's blindness. Snow-White-Fire-Red and Anthousa fix their princes' amnesia. The White Cat and Parsillette replace their dead princes with suspiciously similar doppelgangers. If "The Godchild of the Fairy in the Tower" continued, one presumes that the heroine would need to not only break her own curse but cure her prince of his pig snout.
In all this, the witch-mother is a mysterious and morally grey character. Angiola's witch is a generous guardian who releases her from her curse, but is also a predatory figure (biting a piece from Angiola's finger at one point). The White Cat's fairy guardians are more malicious, pampering her but also being demanding and violent. Often the witch is merely a force to be evaded or killed. But also fairly frequently - as seen in Angiola, Blond Beauty, The Fairy-Queen Godmother, and Persinette - she does fully reconcile with the heroine and release her from her curse. In "Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa," rather than cursing the prince, the ogress warns Anthousa that he'll forget her and gives her the instructions to win him back.
Rapunzel is, at its core, a tale of an overprotective parent hiding away a maturing daughter so that she won’t encounter men. Some versions make her female guardian a nun - reminiscent of young noblewomen being sent to a convent to guard their virginity until they were of age to marry. Elements of desire and lust show through in the early garden scene, with the suggestive elements of the pregnant woman’s unstoppable cravings for parsley (an herb accompanied by erotic symbolism). In the story of Puddocky, the girl herself is the one obsessed with the food. The idea of forbidden fruit in a garden leading to sin is as old as the story of Adam and Eve. This beginning sets up the path of sexual temptation which Parsley is locked away to avoid, but her very name hearkens back to it.
Although the heroine typically ends up married despite her parent-guardian’s best efforts, she must endure trials before finally marrying her lover. These trials are directly related to her disapproving guardians, who did not bless the marriage. The emphasis on family approval is evident even in the early tale of Rudaba. In the case of Parsillette, she leaves her boyfriend, begs her godmother to take her back, and submits to an arranged marriage, restoring her to societal status quo. Less exciting, but possibly more realistic. And in "The Godchild," both lovers are simply out of luck.
La Force gave Persinette the happy ending found in Mediterranean versions, and a reconciliation with the parental figure more common in French versions. But she did so while explicitly showing that the fairy was trying to protect Persinette from a bad fate, apparently out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Other writers nodded to Parsley’s activities with the prince – Basile had the prince visit Petrosinella at night to eat "that sweet parsley sauce of love," a line that gets removed in a lot of versions. But La Force, uniquely, had that relationship lead to the natural result: pregnancy.
The Rapunzel tale type could be a romantic story of a girl escaping her strict family and running away with the boy she loves. However, the additional ending served as an extra cautionary fable for young noblewomen of the time, in a patriarchal society where they had little power. The story doesn't end with running away together and enjoying the "parsley sauce of love." The heroine has squandered the wealth and gifts of her family. She's no longer a virgin. Maybe she's even pregnant. What if she loses her beauty? What else can she offer as a bride? The boy is the one with power in the relationship; what if he forgets her and plans to marry someone else? She may have to fight for him. She may end up alone in poverty. But quite a few stories serve as reminders that her family may still be open to reaccepting her. Even with the eventual happy ending, in the era the stories were told, a young noblewoman who made the same choices as Parsley would undergo significant hardships.
The Brothers Grimm's Rapunzel is actually a rather unusual tale. It's an example of the tale type called "The Maiden in the Tower," but it's far removed from its roots among oral folktales, marked by the creative additions of a French author.
Worldwide, the image of a virginal young woman trapped in a tower has been persistent for millennia. Graham Anderson, in Fairytales in the Ancient World, attempts to tie Rapunzel to a fragmentary Egyptian story called "The Doomed Prince," in which a prince accesses his beloved's tower by jumping (pp. 121-122). Rapunzel has also been compared to the legends of Hero and Leander, or Saint Barbara.
There's a clearer ancestress in the Persian epic Shahmaneh, written around 1000 AD. This work features a woman named Rudaba (River Water Girl), locked in a tower by her father. Despite this barrier, she falls in love with a man named Zal. In a very sweet scene, she offers Zal her long hair: "Come, take these black locks which I let down for you, and use them to climb up to me." But he says in horror that he doesn't want to hurt her, and instead obtains a real rope. They eventually convince their families to let them marry, and their son becomes a great hero.
Are later versions an exaggeration of Rudaba's invitation to let someone climb her hair? Or was the writer playing on an oral tale where a man did climb a woman's hair, by pointing out that it would be painful? Either way, the scene suggests a seed of the story that would one day become Rapunzel.
"Petrosinella" is usually cited as the oldest known tale identifiable as a Rapunzel type. This was an Italian literary tale published in 1634 by Giambattista Basile. It all begins when a pregnant woman named Pascadozzia sees "a beautiful bed of parsley" in an ogress's garden. Overcome with ravenous hunger, she waits until the ogress is away and then breaks in to steal some of it - multiple times. The ogress threatens her with death unless she hands over her child. The child, Petrosinella (Little Parsley) actually reaches seven years old before before the ogress nabs her and takes her to a distant tower. This tower is accessible only by climbing Parsley's long tresses of golden hair. A prince finds her, they fall in love . . . and then Petrosinella takes complete charge of the story. She steals three magical gall-nuts from the ogress and runs away with the prince. The ogress pursues them, but Petrosinella throws the nuts onto the ground, where they become a dog, a lion, and a wolf who delay the ogress and finally gobble her up. Petrosinella and her prince live happily ever after.
I remember finding Rapunzel a rather pathetic figure when I read the story as a child. She just sat in her tower, unable to figure out how to escape when it was most important. Why didn't she find a rope, or cut her hair and use that? Where was this Rapunzel, flinging magical nuts and summoning monsters?
More than fifty years after Basile, the next step appeared, and the story changed.
The French aristocrat Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force was among other women writing literary fairytales in the 17th centuries. They took inspiration from oral folktales, but put their own spins on them and used them to comment on their society at the time. La Force's story "Persinette" was published in 1697 in a book titled Les Contes des Contes.
Persinette is derived from the French word "persil," meaning Parsley . . . so, "Little Parsley." It begins in a manner very similar to Petrosinella, but then sets out on its own path.
For one thing, rather than a pregnant woman alone, de la Force gives us a couple expecting a child. It is the father, not the mother, who goes stealing parsley on his wife's behalf, and he's the one who's caught by the fairy owner of the garden. Instead of threatening him with death, the fairy offers him all the parsley he wishes if he will hand over his unborn child. The man agrees. The fairy acts as godmother, names the child and swaddles her in golden clothing, and sprinkles her with water that makes her the most beautiful creature alive. However, the fairy knows Persinette's fate and is determined to avoid it, so when the girl turns twelve the fairy hides her in a bejewelled silver tower filled with every luxury imaginable. When the fairy visits, she does so by climbing up Persinette's conveniently tower-length blonde hair.
The story is exactly what you may remember: a prince hears Persinette singing and falls in love with her, eventually copies the fairy to climb up to the tower via hair, and their romance leads to pregnancy. The fairy is furious that her attempts to safeguard Persinette have been flaunted by Persinette herself. She cuts off Persinette's hair and sends her to a comfortable but isolated home deep in the wilderness. When the prince discovers his love gone and hears the fairy's taunts, he throws himself off the tower in despair. He doesn't die, but loses his sight. He wanders for years, until one day he happens on the house where Persinette lives with her young twin children. When Persinette's tears fall on his eyes, he regains his sight. However, the happy family realizes that the food around them (previously provided by the fairy) now turns into rocks or venomous toads when they try to eat, and they will surely starve. Despite this, Persinette and the prince affirm their love for one another. At this point the fairy takes pity on them, and carries them in a golden chariot to the prince's kingdom, where they receive a hero's welcome.
It's a clear descendant of older tales. The beginning is that of Petrosinella. The maiden hidden in a tower to keep her from men, who becomes pregnant anyway and is cast out by her parent, also features in the Greek myth of Danae.
But many of the most striking details - Rapunzel's forced haircut, the prince's blindness, the twin babies, and the healing tears - are all original creations by La Force. Our modern Rapunzel comes directly from her unique original fairytale.
German translations of Persinette
In 1790, a century later, Friedrich Schulz published a German translation of Persinette in his book Kleine Romane. It's not clear exactly how he encountered it, but it is very clearly a translation of La Force's story. His most significant contribution was to change the heroine's name. Rather than translating it to Petersilchen, the German equivalent of "Little Parsley," he replaced the coveted parsley with the salad green rapunzeln. The girl's name thus became Rapunzel.
Then along came the Grimms. Although their goal was supposedly to collect the oral tales of Germany, their sources were typically middle-class families who'd read plenty of French fairytales. They ended up removing some of their stories upon realizing that they were clearly French literary tales (anyone heard of "Okerlo"?). But some stories stuck around which modern scholars now believe were not German in origin at all.
The Grimms' first version of Rapunzel, in 1812, was very short and simple, almost terse. However, it reads like a summary of Schulz, including his unique use of the name "Rapunzel," indicating that their source was someone who had read Schulz's "Rapunzel" and was retelling it. The Grimms were aware of Schulz, mentioning him in their notes, but believed he was writing "undoubtedly from oral tradition." They do not seem to have been aware of the French tale at all.
The most important change that the Grimms made was removing all sympathy from the fairy godmother's character. No longer was Rapunzel's tower a silver palace filled with delights; it was just a tower. They left out the ending with the reconciliation between Rapunzel and her godmother. Starting in 1819, as the Grimms edited the story with more descriptions and deleted ideas that were too French, they changed the fairy to a sorceress known as Frau Gothel. (Gothel is a German dialect word for "godmother.") Over later editions, she became an old witch. They edited her into something more similar to the ogress of the older Italian tale.
They also toned down the story for children, removing references to unwed pregnancy. Rather than Rapunzel's pregnancy betraying her affair, she becomes dangerously stupid, blurting out that her godmother is much heavier than the prince. By the end she is mysteriously accompanied by her twin children, but nobody brings up pregnancy or scandalous unchaperoned visits.
You can read D. L. Ashliman's comparison of the Grimms' first and final versions of Rapunzel here.
Rapunzel is a German author's translation of a French literary tale. Analyses should take into account how different Rapunzel is from its oral ancestors. I found it interesting that while the heroine's name can vary, the most common version by far is "Parsley."
Perhaps elements of the La Force story did enter oral folklore. In their notes, the Grimms briefly mentioned a Rapunzel-like tale which began similarly to Bluebeard. A girl lived with a witch who gave her the keys but forbade her to enter one room. The girl peeked in anyway and saw the witch with two huge horns on her head. The angry witch locked the girl in a tower, accessible only by the girl's long hair, and the rest of the tale proceeded like Rapunzel. This version was summarized in their notes for The Lord Godfather (link in German). In some notes, this story seems to have become confused and attached to Friedrich Schulz’s Rapunzel, but I haven’t found any evidence that it appears in Schulz; his version of Rapunzel is identical to La Force’s Persinette.
Personally, I was inspired to look into Persinette when I stumbled upon a claim on Tumblr that La Force's 17th-century story featured a heroine with psionic hair that she could use as extra arms or wings, and who was raised by a fairy named Gothelle. Frankly, this sounded ridiculously anachronistic. For one thing, "Gothelle" is just a faux-French spelling of the German word Gothel. Yet I found people reblogging it as if it was a fact. In truth, this description is from a modern retelling of Persinette in the webcomic "Emerald Blues."
The fact that people latched onto it shows an element of wishful thinking. Modern readers want a more active heroine who could be a match for any fairy or witch. But in fact, there actually is an older Rapunzel who is an active heroine and a sorceress in her own right: Petrosinella. There's also the real Persinette, with its positive portrayal of female relationships, and a strict fairy godmother who is ultimately loving and benevolent. And there's the Persian heroine Rudaba, whose story sensibly points out over a thousand years ago that using someone's hair as a ladder might be painful. There are fairytales containing sexism and passive heroines, but just as often there are tales of brave, clever and magical women.
Next time: some alternate endings to the Rapunzel story. Did you know that some versions keep going and become a gender-flipped version of Beauty and the Beast?
"Don't thank the fairies"
Yet another thing that I see frequently in fantasy books and online discussion is that people should never thank fairies. It breaks fairy etiquette, or it places you in their power. But . . . where did this idea come from? Really, why shouldn't you thank a fairy?
Two words: Yallery Brown.
In her Dictionary of Fairies, Katharine Briggs made much of the idea of not thanking fairies as part of their etiquette. For instance, under good manners she wrote, "A polite tongue as well as an incurious eye is an important asset in any adventure among FAIRIES. There is one caution, however: certain fairies do not like to be thanked. It is against etiquette. No fault can be found with a bow or a curtsy, and all questions should be politely answered." I have previously mentioned how influential Briggs' work has been to modern fantasy.
Briggs' evidence is the tale of Yallery Brown, originally published by M. C. Balfour in an 1891 article "Legends Of The Cars," in Folk-Lore vol. II. Joseph Jacobs wrote a version in plainer English. As the tale goes, a boy named Tom rescues a tiny old man the size of a baby, with brown skin and silky golden hair and beard. The grateful sprite tells Tom that he may call him "Yallery Brown," and promises him a reward - but warns Tom with a strange spark of anger never to thank him. From then on, Tom's chores do themselves, but the reward soon turns sour, as his fellow workmen find their own work ruined and turn against him, believing he's some kind of witch. Fired from his job, Tom tells the sprite "I'll thank thee to leave me alone." At those words, a cackling Yallery Brown curses him forever after to a life of bad luck and failure.
Yallery Brown remains mysterious. He is clearly malevolent, with even his "blessing" truly a disguised curse, but it is never explained why thanking him is significant, or why it angers him enough that he will warn a human against doing so.
Briggs drew the conclusion that explicit thanks were just not okay in fairy etiquette. Gratitude and appreciation are fine and dandy. Take, for instance, a man who mended a fairy's baking peel. The grateful fairies left him a cake. Eating it, he announced that it was "proper good" and bid "Goodnight" to the unseen fairies. He then "prospered ever after."
Explicit thanks, though, is bad. For some reason.
I’ve occasionally come across the theory that thanks is acknowledgement of debt, and it’s never a good idea to be indebted to the fae. Morgan Daimler's Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk is one example of a work that mentions this theory.
This is a handy explanation, but does not explain Yallery Brown’s fierce opposition to being thanked. It’s true he is quick to repay a favor, supporting the idea he doesn’t want to be indebted to Tom. But still, why would he be angry about someone else owing him a debt? He seems pleased to have Tom within his power.
Looking for analogues, we run into problems. The story of Yallery Brown is strangely unique. Usually, other fairies do not show the same repulsion to the words "thank you." For isntance, in the Swedish tale of "The Troll Labor," a troll paid a woman in silver, and "thanked her," although his specific words aren't given.
Back to Yallery Brown and Balfour. Some doubt has been cast on the traditionality of Balfour's work. Balfour didn't just transcribe her tales, but gave them a literary flair. That, and the striking uniqueness of her stories, have drawn suspicion by later scholars. The English folktale collector Joseph Jacobs remarked that “One might almost suspect Mrs. Balfour of being the victim of a piece of invention on the part of her . . . informant. But the scrap of verse, especially in its original dialect, has such a folkish ring that it is probable he was only adapting a local legend to his own circumstances.” In the Dictionary, Briggs mentioned Balfour's stories multiple times, while also making reference to the controversy that by then had begun to swirl around Balfour's work.
But this is aside from the point. Whatever the origin, Balfour's story is part of fairy mythology now. And I want to know why thanks are important in Balfour's story. Why is the term "thank you" offensive to Yallery Brown? Is there a missing piece here, a forgotten meaning?
As I started looking for explanations, I realized that there's one line in the story that is usually missed, but which changes the entire outlook of the tale.
Tom thanks Yallery Brown, with no ill consequences, at the beginning of the story! I only caught this on a second read. When Yallery Brown introduces himself and says that they will be friends, Tom responds "Thankee, master."
Later, Tom tries to thank Yallery Brown again, this time for helping him with his work on the farm. This is when the sprite grows angry and commands that he never say those words. This changes the picture. Thanking Yallery Brown innocently for his friendship is fine. It is only thanks for work that angers him. Perhaps it is the low nature of farmwork. Perhaps it is the reversal of roles that upsets him; rather than a meek Tom who says "Thank you, Master," now Tom's message imply "Thank you, Servant."
From here, there are connections to three other tale types. Closest is the famous tale of the household brownie.
"Don't pay the fairies"
Some classes of fairy work in human homes and help with chores. But their human hosts must be careful, for they will leave if given clothes or even the wrong sort of food. The safest bet is plain milk or porridge with butter. In the story of the Cauld Lad of Hylton, the servants behave as if clothes are a well-known way to banish unwanted spirits.
Although leaving clothes is not a verbal thanks, it is an expression of gratitude that backfires. In The Elves and the Shoemaker, collected by the Brothers Grimm, the shoemaker's wife declares, "The little men have made us rich, and we really must show that we are grateful for it." (Emphasis mine.) She notices that the elves are naked and sews beautiful clothes for them. Unfortunately for her, the newly clad elves announce that they now look too fine and handsome to do manual labor, and the shoemaker loses their aid.
In other cases, rather than the fae becoming too vain to serve, some find the gift infuriating. In a Lincolnshire version, a brownie gets angry that the offered shirt is made of rough hemp rather than fine linen. Alternately, the payment implied by the gift may insult the fae who have deigned to clean human homes. Or perhaps it's not an insult at all, just a signal that their term of service is over. The Highland spirit Brownie-Clod actually draws up a deal with some humans "to do their whole winter's threshing for them, on condition of getting in return an old coat and a Kilmarnock hood to which he had taken a fancy." However, his hosts put out his payment a little early, whether out of carelessness or because they're trying to be nice and forget that this is solely a business arrangement to him. Brownie-Clod takes the clothes and books it, leaving the rest of the work unfinished. (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, 396)
The tale type is so widespread, with so many variations and rationalizations, that it's impossible to say what the true meaning is. Although some brownies seem gleeful, in other cases, like that of the phynnodderee, the spirit actually seems distraught that they must now leave.
Lewis Spence theorized that the gift of clothes was insulting because the brownie was expecting a human sacrifice, and the clothes turned out to be only a decoy. I feel like that's a stretch. However, Gillian Edwards points out that these spirits are very frequently not just naked, but resemble hairy wild men or animals. (Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck, p. 111). The phynnodderee is a kind of satyr. Even Yallery Brown is covered in blond hair.
The act of offering clothes might be read as an act of domestication. There's a patronizing feel to the actions of the shoemaker's wife, or farmer, or any human. They decide that the naked or hair-covered fae would be better off if they fit human social mores by wearing human-style clothes.
Could there even be a connection to people turning their coats inside out to avoid being led astray by will o' the wisps, or protecting a baby from fairies by laying the father's clothes over the cradle?
Whatever the roots of the story, the end result is always that a clumsy expression of human gratitude drives away fairy aid.
"Don't interrupt the fairies"
I have found one other tale type where the words "thank you" cause fairies to flee. In this story, a farmer discovers some tiny elves in his barn, threshing his wheat for him.
"[T]he farmer, looking through the key-hole, saw two elves threshing lustily, now and then interrupting their work to say to each other, in the smallest falsetto voice: 'I tweat [sweat], you tweat?' The poor man, unable to contain his gratitude, incautiously thanked them through the key-hole; when the spirits, who love to work or play, 'unheard and unespied,' instantly vanished, and have never since visited that barn." (Choice Notes from Notes and Queries, 1859, p. 76)
Similarly in Brand's Popular Antiquities, the farmer accidentally drives them off with the line that they've done "Quite enough! and thank ye!"
Great! The fairies run away when someone thanks them. But wait - the act of thanks is not what they're running from. The storyteller in the first version explicitly states that they leave because they do not like to be watched.
In addition, this is a very widespread story, and other versions are illuminating. A similar spying farmer does not thank the laboring fairies, but laughs at them with the condescending words "Well done, my little men." Again, the specific words that he uses are not the problem. The fairies leave because "fairies are offended if a mortal speaks to them." (The Folk-Lore Record, 1878)
In most of the versions that I have read, there is no thanks. The farmer actually threatens the fairies, in a much more tense exchange.
In “The Ungrateful Farmer" (Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies), the farmer is pleased that the pixies are doing his farmwork. He witnesses them throwing down their tools saying in exhaustion "I twit, you twit." He mistakenly believes that they have spotted him. Knowing that "once the pixies learn that they are overlooked they cease to return to that spot," he assumes they will leave, and leaps out at them bellowing angrily, "I'll twit 'ee!" Poof, no more pixies.
In Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology, the farmer's anger is explained in a more straightforward way. The story is titled "The Fairy-Thieves" and the fairies are not helping with the harvest, but stealing it. When they make the declaration "I weat, you weat?", the farmer lunges at them with the words "The devil sweat ye. Let me get among ye!"
In the more sinister story of "Master Meppom's Fatal Adventure," the "Pharisees" don't just vanish; they strike the farmer with their flails before disappearing, and he dies within the year. (Lower 1854)
"Don't brag or boast of fairy gifts"
Any misuse of fairy gifts could cost the receiver greatly, as in the story of the Fuwch Gyfeiliorn or stray cow. A man receives a fairy cow and his herds prosper, but as she grows older, he feels it's not worth keeping an elderly cow that will no longer give milk or calves. But when he tries to slaughter her for meat, she runs back to the fairy realm, taking all the herd with her.
However, there was something in particular about revealing the fairy gift's origins.
John Rhys, in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx (1901), listed many versions of a tale where people are not to inform others where they got their fairy gold. For instance, a boy who was left money by the Tylwyth Teg every day, but only on the condition that he tell no one (pages 38, 83, 116, 203, 241). Generally, the tale concludes with the person telling their secret and losing the fairies' favor. The money never appears again. Occasionally, even the money they already had vanishes.
In the 17th century, in Ben Johnson's Entertainment at Althorpe (1605), Queen Mab - bestowing a gift - announces,
"Utter not, we you implore,
Who did give it, nor wherefore:
And whenever you restore
Your self to us, you shall have more."
The trope was around as early as the 12th-century lai of Sir Lanval, by Marie de France. In various versions from across the centuries, Lanval meets a fairy lady who becomes his lover and bestows him with wealth, gold and silver. She informs him that the more he spends, the more he shall have. However, if he ever reveals her existence, he will lose both her love and his fortune.
This is more a taboo of secrecy: not to reveal the source to others. All the same, there is an overlap. It's a taboo against (public) thanks or acknowledgement.
The main theme of these tale families is that fairies like their gifts to be anonymous. They do appreciate gratitude, but they also want discretion, and they can be mysteriously picky.
If these taboos are crossed, fairy servants flee, fairy gifts melt away to nothing, and fairy sweethearts bid farewell. Not because someone used the words "thank you." That, on its own, doesn't insult the fairies' generosity. Instead, it's because a human barged in yelling at them, gave a hamhanded and offensive gift, terminated their contract, or betrayed their trust.
The idea that the actual term "thank you" is offensive to fairies comes from "Yallery Brown," and nowhere else, so far as I know. The folkloric basis of Yallery Brown has been called into question, with later scholars wondering if the collector had the wool pulled over her eyes by her sources, or even if she went beyond polishing collected stories and into creating her own material. Maureen James wrote a thesis defending Balfour. At the same time, she acknowledged that many of the tales are found nowhere else. She suggested that rather than Balfour being wrong, there has been a lack of research into stories from the area of north Lincolnshire that Balfour examined.
All the same, a close reading reveals that Yallery Brown does not find the words "thank you" offensive on their own. The words only become dangerous when the thanks is for his labor with farm work. Still mysterious, but it makes sense in the wider context of brownies, elves and fairies who hate to be loudly acknowledged, and who prefer subtler thanks. In fact, Yallery Brown might be a brownie. His name is Brown, after all.
Cuckoo Song begins with a girl waking up in bed after a mysterious injury. Her memories are foggy, her own family seems unfamiliar . . . and she feels voraciously hungry, no matter how much she eats.
This children's book is set in the 1920s not long after the first World War, and centers around Triss, a young girl from a well-to-do but deeply dysfunctional family. Ever since the death of her older brother in the war, the family has been unhealthily divided and deeply miserable. And now there is something wrong with Triss.
Ready for spoilers? This is a changeling story. Dark psychological horror. It's eerie, bizarre, and nightmarish, with some really beautiful prose. Many of the characters, not just Pen, are not what they seem at first. The slowly evolving friendship between Triss and her little sister Pen, for instance, was one of my favorite parts. Another character that will stay in my head for a long time is a kindly tailor, whose determination to save a lost child brings out one of the most unnerving threats in the book.
The fairies in this book are bonkers. They are creepy dark fairies, but they are also modern in a way, intertwining with the technology and aesthetics of the 1920s. You can use a telephone to call the otherworld. In one scene, a child is sucked into a silent black-and-white film. Scissors actively seek to kill anything fairylike. This is the kind of book where a girl unhinges her jaw to swallow a china doll whole. It's exactly as weird as it sounds, and it works.
Overall, the mood is very dark, but there was one scene towards the end of the book, in a crowded restaurant, that legitimately made me laugh out loud.
I particularly love that the changeling in the book is not a fairy child replacement. I have read so many changeling fantasies where the hero turns out to be a long-lost fairy prince or princess. This changeling story is inspired by tales where the replacement is a carved piece of wood, meant to pose as a corpse and fool people into believing their loved one is dead.
What would it be like to learn that you're not who you believe you are? And not even an enchanted Chosen One - nothing but a decoy? That's one plot idea I've been wishing I could read, and here it's played to its fullest extent.
Personally, I am adding this to my list of favorite books. I actually stumbled on the Wikipedia summary to begin with and was kind of baffled, but when I sat down to read the book, I finished it in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. If you're looking for a dark and utterly original changeling tale, featuring a sweet friendship between siblings, check this one out.
You can read an interview with author Frances Hardinge on her inspirations here.
The cecaelia is, in modern Internet parlance, a common term for a mermaid that has octopus limbs rather than a fish tail. Another frequently used name is "octomaid." A famous example of an octopus-limbed mermaid is Disney's sea witch Ursula. I want to focus on "cecaelia," an intriguing name - both singular and plural and pronounced seh-SAY-lee-uh. Most importantly... where did it come from?
The etymology, at first look, is baffling. It starts with the same syllable as the word "cephalopod" - cephalo (head) + pod (foot) - but that's not much to go on. It is not related to the Latin girls’ name Cecilia, or to the limbless amphibians called caecilians. Both of those come from the word “caecus,” meaning “blind.”
In Making a Splash (2017), Philip Hayward suggests that the word was inspired by a comic book character from the 1970s. The short comic "Cilia" appeared in Warren Publishing's Vampirella Magazine issue 16 in April 1972. It was reprinted in Issue 27, September 1973. Cilia, a beautiful mermaid-like woman with three tentacles in place of each leg, rescues a sailor from drowning. Although her appearance is horrifying to humans, she is a kind and gentle spirit and her relationship with the sailor grows into love. The story ends tragically when the prejudiced human community discovers her.
Cilia refers to her species as "cilophyte." The term was probably invented by the author - the etymology, again, is murky. As pointed out on the TV Tropes page for this comic, "phyte" means growth and "cilo" could be related to "cilium" (fine hairs), Scylla (a Greek sea monster), or "kilo" (Greek for thousand). Perhaps it was also meant to look similar to "cephalopod."
As Hayward points out, the word "cecaelia" does not appear until around 2007 or 2008. So I went diving.
The "cecaelia" can be traced to a Wikipedia page created in March 2007. (Thank you to Wikipedia administration for their help recovering the page information!) According to the earliest version of the page, the cecaelia is "a composite mythical being." The name "is a corruption of coleoidian, a genus of squid, and derives originally from a comic in Eerie magazine from the early 1970s featuring an octopoidal character named Cecaelia" who "helped a shipwrecked sailor back to land." This is apparently meant to be "Cilia;" the plot is right, as is the publisher. Later versions of the page corrected the character information. In addition, "Coleoidea" is the subclass of cephalopods which includes octopus, squid and cuttlefish.
The only source in this first version was a link to a discussion thread on seatails.org, a mermaid-enthusiast messageboard. Created by Kurt Cagle, Seatails began as a print magazine that ran briefly in 1987 and then moved to the web, shifting through several platforms over the years. In the early 2000s, it existed in a discussion board format. Members included numerous artists and collectors who were interested not only in mermaids but in other hybrid mythological creatures.
The link was apparently quickly deleted, since it did not meet Wikipedia's standards for sources. Unfortunately, Seatails is now defunct and the discussion thread in question cannot be reached even through the Internet Archive.
In addition to the information from Wikipedia, I contacted Kurt Cagle via the current Seatails page on the art site DeviantArt. I also contacted a DeviantArt user called EVAUnit4A, who identified themself as a user of the old message board and a contributor to the Cecaelia Wikipedia page.
Based on that, here are the main points of the history of the cecaelia as I understand it:
If the comic inspired all this, why wasn’t the species term “cilophyte” adopted instead? First of all, it seems it took a while to track down the specifics of the comic. EVAUnit4A suggested that perhaps cilophyte was “too unwieldy to type out properly" and that people may have wanted "a word closer to real octopus and squid." When I reached out to Cagle, he wrote back that another influence was the song “Cecelia” by Simon and Garfunkel, about a fickle and demanding lover.
According to Cagle, “I actually kind of forgot about [the cecaelia] after a while, and was surprised to find the term gaining traction a few years later.”
I have to take a quick detour here. Wikipedia is near-universally used, often more easily than print encyclopedias because it’s just a push of a button away. But it can also be edited by anyone at any time. As a result, it has strict guidelines. One of the most important is that "Wikipedia is not for things made up one day." The page for this rule, which has existed since 2005, sums up many of Wikipedia's policies, including that articles must be on something notable and famous, and must include verifiable sources (such as a reliable book or article).
Thus, the Wikipedia page for Cecaelia had a tortured history. Although there were quite a few works that featured such creatures, the name itself was an original creation. The page was originally Cecælia, then changed to Cecaelia, moved in 2010 to "Octopus person" as "a more proper title," and the last holdout was finally deleted in 2018. It now redirects to "List of hybrid creatures in folklore," specifically the section "Modern fiction." The word pops up occasionally on other pages - as of the time of writing, the Wikipedia page for Ursula calls her a cecaelia.
As previously seen, the oldest versions of the "cecaelia" page were honest about its origins. Via the Wayback Machine, a version from December 2008 said even more definitively that the term was a "distorted mispronounced" version of Cilia. This clarification, buried in the paragraph and easier to miss, was ultimately lost. By April 27, 2010, when the page existed as "Octopus Person," the description of the comic had been deleted and only a brief and confusing reference to "Cilia" remained.
Unclear language was another problem; throughout many edits, the page called the cecaelia a “composite mythical being.” A composite myth is constructed from shorter stories or fragments of tradition, often intended to recreate lost legends. However, readers could have taken the phrase in a couple of ways. In the case of the cecaelia, they might read it as “a being of composite myth based on various media," or they might read it as “a mythical being that is a composite of human and octopus.”
Readers took it the second way, with many adopting the term in the belief that it was traditional. Here's one example from a blog in 2008 which specifically gives Wikipedia as its source. Looking through some of my writing from eight years ago, I found that I also used the term without a second thought after encountering it on Wikipedia.
The word spread fairly quickly. The word was picked up across DeviantArt. In April 2008, a user on the roleplaying-based Giant in the Playground Forums posted a writeup for "cecaelias" as a monster race. Cecaelia was the name of an octopus-woman monster in AdventureQuest Worlds, an MMORPG released in 2008. Pathfinder's RPG Bestiary 3, released in 2011, featured the Cecaelia as a monster, and the word also features in Cassandra Clare's Bane Chronicles (2015).
Most recently, the Disney tie-in novel Part of Your World by Liz Braswell (2018) refers to Ursula as a cecaelia. This was, to my knowledge, the first time Ursula had ever received this name in canonical material. Previously she was only called a cecaelia by fans, as in the fan-run database disney.wikia.com.
So are there any traditional sources that feature octopus-like mermaids?
In a Nootka tale from the Pacific Northwest, the animal characters Octopus and Raven show up apparently in human form. When Octopus is angered, her hair (braided into eight sections) transforms into powerful tentacles (Caduto & Bruchac 1997.) I don't know what the characters of Octopus and Raven might have been called in the original language, but according to firstvoices.com, the Nuu-chah-nulth word for Octopus is tiiłuup, and Raven is quʔušin.
"The Devil-Fish's Daughter," a Haida tale also from the Pacific Northwest, features devil-fish (octopi) who can take human form. But this is more a case of animal shapeshifters, not hybrids.
Native Languages, a most helpful site for American Indian legends, has little to say on the octopus. It notes only that octopi "do not play a major role in most Native American mythology."
Some pages on the cecaelia, apparently derived from Wikipedia, claim that the artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) painted octopus-woman hybrids. I have found no evidence for this. Hokusai did paint the erotic 1814 “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife," which features a woman with octopi. (If you look it up, be advised that it is NSFW.)
The "sea monk" or monk-fish of medieval bestiaries also looks vaguely tentacley. Theories on what inspired it include squid and angelshark.
Finally, Scylla, a sea monster of Greek myth, is said by Homer to have twelve dangling feet. She might be understood as somewhat like a squid. Homer's Scylla is not particularly humanoid, but the term has gained some popularity in recent years.
In essence, there is no traditional octopus mermaid. Only in the 20th century did the idea of octopus-human hybrids gain popularity as a symbol of horror and evil. H. P. Lovecraft's squid-faced god Cthulhu first appeared in 1928, later to influence the monstrous "mind flayers" of Dungeons and Dragons. The tragic Cilia the cilophyte, from 1972, has an appearance disturbing to humans despite her kind soul. And in 1989, Disney used the grasping, writhing half-octopus Ursula to contrast their innocent heroine in The Little Mermaid. (Their original concept art had Ursula as a more traditional fish-tailed mercreature.)
However, this budding concept had no unified name. "Cilophyte" was an obscure and unique creation. "Cecaelia" was born around 2007 on the Seatails site, as a name inspired by "Cilia," "cilophyte," "coleoidea," and the alluring Cecelia of Simon and Garfunkel. Artists and other users on the discussion board popularized the title. The Wikipedia page boosted the concept, with many readers taking it to mean that the cecaelia was an established legend. At this point, it's taken on a life of its own, although there are a few other names floating around as well.
Fairy dust: maybe it’s the stuff that sparkles from a fairy godmother’s magic wand. Or maybe fairies just naturally exude it. (Or, if you delve into Disney’s expanded Tinker Bell universe, fairies need it to fly and it is a vital resource for which the characters must occasionally go on perilous quests.) Alternately, in craft stores I’ve come across little bottles of glitter labeled “fairy dust” to be used in a fairy garden. But where did the idea of fairy dust come from?
I went looking for older sources which mentioned fairies in connection with dust. Some are fairly mundane. The fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, like helpful household brownies, “sweep the dust behind the door.” Okay, so that’s not really their dust. In reverse, according to Thomas Keightley, the German kobold “brings chips and saw-dust into the house, and throws dirt into the milk vessels.”
Closer is John Rhys' Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, where he tells of a fisherman named William Ellis who - out on a dark misty day - saw a large crowd of little people about a foot tall, all dancing and making music. Entranced, he watched for hours, but when he approached too close, "they threw a kind of dust into his eyes, and, while he was wiping it away, the little family took the opportunity of betaking themselves somewhere out of his sight, so that he neither saw nor heard anything more of them."
Similar, though it doesn't feature dust per se, is the tale of Yallery Brown. There, the titular elf blows a dandelion puff into a boy's eyes and ears. "Soon as Tom could see again the tiddy [tiny] creature was gone."
George Sand's short story "La fee poussiere" was translated as "The Fairy Dust" in 1891. "Fairy Dust" in this case is the name of a character, a fairylike being who oversees everything from the earth itself to tiny particles of dust. The main character encounters her in a dream.
In Félicité de Choiseul-Meuse's 1820 fairytale "The Marble Princess," a fairy godmother gives a prince "gold dust of the purest quality" to blind serpents so that he can fight them.
"What Mr. Maguire Saw in the Kitchen," an 1862 story, a character waking from a disorienting dream refers to "dust . . . fairy dust that took away my five senses to the other world, and put me beyond myself." (Dialect removed.)
Mary Augusta Ward's Milly and Olly: or, A Holiday Among the Mountains (1881) features a mention of a fairy throwing golden "fairy-dust" into a girl's eyes so that she sees the beauty in a certain place. There are no literal fairies in the book, but the description is significant.
So far, two tales feature dreams, two have dust used to physically blind others, and the last has dust which alters someone's perception of the world.
Why this connection between fairies and dust in the first place? An interesting link might lie with mushrooms. Many varieties are named for the fairies, and they have traditionally been associated with fairies in a number of ways, possibly in part because of some toadstools' hallucinogenic properties.
One particular fungi tied to fairies is the puffball, a mushroom full of brown dust-like spores that are released when it bursts. Other names include "puckball," “puckfist,” “pixie-puff” or “devil’s snuffbox." (In this case, "fist" does not mean a closed hand, but a fart or foul odor. So these mushrooms were the Devil’s/Puck’s/Fairy’s farts.)
In Scotland they were known as Blind Man’s Ball or Blind Man’s Een (eyes). John Jamieson suggested in 1808 that this was due to a belief that the spores caused blindness. However, it’s also possible that they were named for their resemblance to eyeballs. The mushroom connection is fun, but European puffball mushrooms are evidently not hallucinogenic.
Another possible plant association: pollen, which can look like golden (yellow) dust, and which would have become a stronger link as the modern flower fairy gained popularity. The Victorian educational children's book, Fairy Know-a-Bit, or, A Nutshell of Knowledge (1866) declares that fairies refer to pollen as "gold-dust" and love "to sprinkle [it] over each other in sport."
There is another very old tie between fairies and dust. Traditionally, fairies were believed to be present in the dust clouds stirred up by the wind on the road. Any humans on the road should beware, and show respect to the otherworldly travelers. The cloud of dust might even contain kidnapped humans who were carried along with the fairies. It's been suggested that the Rumpelstiltskin-like character Whuppity Stoorie has a name meaning whipped-up dust, or stoor. For a similar concept, think of the term "dust devil" for a whirlwind.
This idea may be tracked back to the 17th century at least. In 1662, accused witch Isobel Gowdie pulled from fairy lore for her confession. She described how witches, like fairies, would use tiny grass stalks as horses to "fly away, where we would, even as straws fly upon a highway" – in a whirlwind of bits of straw above the road. She added that "If anyone sees these straws in a whirlwind, and do not bless themselves, we may shoot them dead at our pleasure. Any that are shot by us... will fly as our horses, as small as straws."
There's also a touch of the idea of perception here. Humans perceive only a cloud of dust, but those "in the know" realize that fairies are traveling unseen.
In Teutonic Mythology vol. 3, Jacob Grimm makes a reference to witches' or devil's ashes being strewn to raise storms, and Richilde (enemy of Robert the Frisian) throwing dust in the air with "formulas of imprecation" to destroy her enemies.
One more traditional connection between fairies and dust is quite sinister. In many stories, when a human returns from Fairyland, they do so without realizing that they’ve unwittingly spent centuries away from our world. King Herla, for instance, gets a nasty shock when some of his friends dismount from their horses only to crumble into dust the second their feet touch the ground.
However, the key to modern fairy dust is the story of the Sandman. In European folklore, every night a mythical being sprinkles sand or dust into children’s eyes to send them to sleep and give them dreams. The sand/dust may be a way to explain the “sleep” or gritty discharge left in someone’s eyes when they wake up in the morning.
E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story Der Sandmann features a sinister Sandman who steals children’s eyes after throwing sand at them. Hans Christian Andersen’s 1841 tale "Ole Lukøje" ("Mr. Shut-eye") has a gentle sleep-bringer who sprinkles “sweet milk” into children’s eyes. However, subsequent translations changed this to “powder” or “dust" as the character was gradually merged with the Sandman.
There was overlap with the fairy world, and this would only increase. A 1915 dictionary defined the Sandman as "a household elf.”
The children's play “Bluebell in Fairyland,” first produced in 1901, was one of the inspirations for Peter Pan. The main character's travel to Fairyland is framed as a dream. Per John Kruse's site British Fairies, the play mentions the "dustman" (Sandman) and features golden dust being strewn as the characters fall asleep and enter Fairyland. Unfortunately, the play's script and lyrics are not currently available where I can access them.
Algernon Blackwood's 1913 book A Prisoner of Fairyland may also have been influenced by Bluebell. It features a “Dustman” who sprinkles golden dust “fine as star-dust” into people’s eyes to cause them to sleep. Again: sleep, dreams and fairyland are interconnected.
But it was J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (play published 1904, novel published 1911) which really popularized the modern view of fairy dust. From the moment Peter Pan first physically appears in the novel, he is accompanied by fairy dust: “the window was blown open by the breathing of the little stars, and Peter dropped in. He had carried Tinker Bell part of the way, and his hand was still messy with the fairy dust.”
The dust which Tinker Bell exudes bestows children with the ability to fly, and to travel to Neverland, which is made up of their own imaginative stories and daydreams. The island is first described in a sequence where the Darlings' mother examines her sleeping children's minds. When the children reach the island, they find all the locations and characters they've dreamed up. At one point Peter Pan speaks to "all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think."
Disney’s animated adaptation came out in 1953. They altered it a little, calling the stuff “pixie dust.” Tinker Bell became an instant mascot, and her pixie dust was a callword for Disney. (They use "pixie" and "fairy" interchangeably to refer to the character, which is a post for another time.) Neverland's status as both fairyland and dreamworld is toned down in the film version, but still hinted at. The Darling children meet Peter Pan when he wakes them in the middle of the night, and - unlike the book - after they return, their parents enter the room only to find them fast asleep, as if they never left.
Disney's ubiquitous Peter Pan helped popularize the modern idea of fairy dust as glittering stuff given off by fairies or pixies. It was also an important step in leaving behind the associations with dreams and, thus, the Sandman.
Associations between fairies and dust are very old, seen in the whirlwind transportation and in puffball mushrooms. By the 1800s, we have mentions in literature tying fairy dust to vision, eyesight, dreams, and perception of reality. Ultimately fairies and the Sandman were equated, as were Fairyland and Dreamland. At this point, they've diverged. However, I am reminded of the 2012 animated film Rise of the Guardians, where the Sandman works with glowing golden sand that looks a lot like Disney Tinker Bell's pixie dust. Also, "fairy dust" and similarly "angel dust" are slang terms for drugs, keeping that idea of a change in perception.
References and Further Reading
Recently, when reading fantasy, I keep running into the idea that fairies cannot lie, only tell the truth. For this reason, they must use tricky language – literal truths disguising real meanings. For example, in Holly Black's novel Ironside, a fairy says that when she tries to lie, "I feel panicked and my mind starts racing, looking for a safe way to say it. I feel like I'm suffocating. My jaw just locks. I can't make any sound come out" (p. 56).
But is this really supported by older folklore? Deception seems inherent to the fairy way of life when you take into account, for instance, changelings. The core idea of changelings is that fairies are in disguise as your loved ones, pretending to be them. Why, then, is there an idea that fairies are truthful beings?
Trickery, loopholes, and "exact words" do play a significant part in fairytales.
In the Irish tale "The Field of Boliauns," a man bullies a captive leprechaun into showing him where his gold is buried, under a particular boliaun (ragwort stalk) in a field. He doesn't have a shovel with him, so he ties a garter around the stalk and then makes the leprechaun swear not to touch it. He runs home to get the shovel, comes back, and finds that the leprechaun has taken his oath literally: he hasn't touched the garter, but has tied an identical garter around every single ragwort stalk in the field.
Another case: a man carelessly trades with an otherworldly being in exchange for something which sounds inconsequential, but which turns out to be his own child. There's the giant who asks a king for "Nix, Nought, Nothing," which unbeknownst to the king is the name of his newborn son. The Grimms have "The Nixie in the Pond" with a water spirit asking for that which has just been born, and "The Girl Without Hands," where the Devil himself promises riches in exchange for what stands behind the mill; his target thinks he means an apple tree, but it's actually his daughter.
This same kind of trick can happen in reverse, with a human fooling a fairy! In "The Farmer and the Boggart," a boggart lays claim to a certain farmer's field. The farmer convinces it to split the crop with him, and asks him if he would like "tops or bottoms." When the boggart says "bottoms," the farmer plants wheat, so that the boggart gets nothing but stubble. The next planting season, the infuriated boggart demands "tops" . . . so the farmer plants turnips.
So we have the idea of tricky language in abundance. But what about an inability to lie?
Fairies and Honesty
According to John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx vol. 1, there are different classes of the Tylwyth Teg. Some are "honest and good towards mortals," while others are consummate thieves and cheats - swapping illusory money for real, and their own "wretched" offspring for human babies. They steal any milk, butter or cheese they can get their hands on. Going by context, honesty is referring to not stealing. In addition, the very dichotomy means fairies are not always honest.
One term for the fairies, like the Good Folk or People of Peace, is the "Honest Folk" - daoine coire in Gaelic, and balti z'mones in Lithuanian. (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume 5) However, these names are essentially flattery meant to avoid fairy wrath. I would avoid taking these as literal descriptors.
But if you keep going, in many traditions, the fae do prize honesty.
In a Welsh tale recorded by the 12th-century writer Giraldus Cambrensis, a boy named Elidorus encounters "little men of pigmy stature" - pretty much fae.
"They never took an oath, for they detested nothing so much as lies. As often as they returned from our upper hemisphere, they reprobated our ambition, infidelities, and inconstancies; they had no form of public worship, being strict lovers and reverers, as it seemed, of truth."
However, this is not a "can't lie," but a "won't lie." It's a moral fable, for dishonesty is Elidorus' downfall. When he tells his mother of his adventures, she asks him to bring back "a present of gold." Her request could indicate greed, but it's also a challenge for Elidorus to prove that he's telling the truth. He steals a golden ball and takes it home. For this dishonesty, the pigmies immediately punish him: he is never able to find their realm again.
The 12th-century Irish legend of “The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel" features three riders all in red, on red horses. (Red is a common fairy color.) They are later identified as "[t]hree champions who wrought falsehood in the elfmounds. This is the punishment inflicted upon them by the king of the elfmounds, to be destroyed thrice by the King of Tara."
In another legend from the same era, a man named Cormac visits the sea-god Manannan mac Lir and receives a golden cup which will break into three pieces if three words of falsehood are told nearby, and mend itself if three truths are told.
As Walter Evans-Wentz summed it up in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, “respect for honesty” is a fairy trait in both ancient and contemporary Irish legends. Lady Wilde, in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, also referred to the fairies as "upright and honest" (at least in repaying debts).
Another important piece of evidence is the tale of Thomas the Rhymer, with a story dating at least to a 14th-century romance. Even in the earliest versions, he is given the gift of prophecy by the fairy queen. In a later version recorded in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), when they part, she gives him an apple while saying "Take this for thy wages, True Thomas, It will give the tongue that can never lie."
Thomas points out that this will be super inconvenient, but the fairy queen does not care. Here at last is the idea of being physically unable to lie - having a mouth and a tongue that are capable only of telling truth. However, the person with this quality is a human under a fairy's spell.
There's a kind of mirror image in Giraldus Cambrensis' tale of Meilyr or Melerius, another prophet, who due to his close encounters with "unclean spirits" gains the ability to detect lies.
Moving on: in many traditions, divine or otherworldly beings are swift to reward honesty and punish falsehood. See “The Rough-Face Girl” (Algonquin), “Our Lady’s Child” (German), and “The Honest Woodcutter” (from Aesop’s Fables). (Aesop uses the god Mercury, but other versions of the same story sometimes use a fairy.)
In the book The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1883), Pinocchio repeatedly lies to the Blue Fairy, building on multiple falsehoods. With each lie, his nose grows, until finally it's so long that he gets stuck. The laughing Fairy "allowed the puppet to cry and to roar for a good half-hour over his nose... This she did to give him a severe lesson, and to correct him of the disgraceful fault of telling lies." Only after he has been sufficiently chastised does she restore him to normal. This is the fairy-as-moral-teacher who is so strongly present in 18th- and 19th-century literature, from French salon tales to Victorian children's books. In this era, fairies (particularly fairy godmothers) were strict parental figures who demanded honesty, fairness and goodness from humans.
The Ideas Combine
I think the seeds of the modern idea of fairies and falsehood come from the famed British folklorist Katharine Briggs. In The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), Briggs recounted that "According to Elidurus the fairies were great lovers and respecters of truth, and indeed it is not wise to attempt to deceive them, nor will they ever tell a direct lie or break a direct promise, though they may often distort it. The Devil himself is more apt to prevaricate than to lie..." (pp. 131-132).
There are a couple of different things to take from this. One is that not only do fairies not lie, but it's equally important for humans to be honest with them. "To tell lies to devils, ghosts or fairies was to put oneself into their power" (pp. 222-223).
Also, it is clear that at least one of her main sources for this theme is Elidurus. She referenced Elidurus again in Dictionary of Fairies (1971), where she mentions again that fairies "seem to have a disinterested love" of truth, and that it is unwise to lie to them, although they may use tricky language themselves. She is summarizing based on a combination of two tale types - one where fairies value honesty, and one where they trick and evade.
I have been collecting examples of books where fairies speak only truth. The earliest example so far is the children's book series Circle of Magic by James MacDonald and Debra Doyle. All six books were published in 1990.
In this world, wizards cannot lie or they will corrupt their own power, but it is possible to use misleading language. The restriction is strongest for the elves or fair folk. According to their ruler, the Erlking:
"You [a wizard] cannot speak an untruth and expect magic to serve you truly thereafter. Here magic is purer, and far more strict a master. A mortal wizard can sometimes break the words of a promise in order to keep its spirit, but I cannot. If I say that I will do a thing, or that I will not do a thing - then I must do it, or leave it undone, exactly as the words were spoken." (The High King's Daughter, p. 22)
The examples I've collected really pick up after the year 2000. In Buttercup Baby by Karen Fox (2001), the faery protagonist has physical difficulty with telling actual lies (p. 218). It's also a big theme in the Dresden Files, for instance Summer Knight by Jim Butcher (2002), where not only are faeries not "allowed" to lie, but they are "bound to fulfill a promise spoken thrice." (p. 194)
In Holly Black's Tithe (2002), there is a brief mention of "no lies, no deception" in the realm of fairies. Black goes more in-depth with later books, starting with Valiant (2005), where fairies are physically incapable of falsehood. A running theme is that they covet humans' ability to tell outright falsehoods.
Other examples: Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely series and Cassandra Clare's Shadowhunters (both beginning 2007). Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series hints that if fairies lie, something bad will happen to them.
Holly Black frequently references and recommends Briggs' work (as in this tweet).
Patricia Briggs (no relation) was also inspired by Katharine Briggs, mentioning her work in an interview here. Morgan Daimler's Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk (2017) is a recent compendium that cites Katharine Briggs when saying that fairies are "always strictly honest with their words."
The idea that fairies cannot lie is a creative modern twist, stemming from cautionary fables about honesty and from stories about using wordplay to get the upper hand. Katharine Briggs never says that fairies cannot lie. She says only that they do not lie, apparently out of a strict moral code. My current theory is that a semantic shift occurred sometime between The Fairies in Tradition and Literature in 1967 and the Circle of Magic series in 1990. This shows how fairy mythology is still growing and evolving today.
In older tales, from the honest woodcutter who meets the god Mercury, to Elidurus, to Pinocchio, otherworldly beings - including fairies - deeply value honesty. But it’s not just that fairies may not (technically) lie to you. It’s that you shouldn’t lie to them.
But unvarnished truth isn’t always the best idea either, if you read tales like "The Fairies’ Midwife" . . . Thus the importance of tactical wordplay.
Do you have any other examples of stories on fairies' relationship with honesty? Share them in the comments!
Is there such a thing in folklore as a fairy-human hybrid? What would they be called? What traits would they inherit? Or would they inheirt only one parent’s nature?
In Gilbert and Sullivahn's comic opera Iolanthe (1882), the hero is half-fairy . . . literally, with an immortal upper half but human legs. There are some problems. In a mid-nineteenth-century music hall song, "The Keeper of the Eddystone Light," the union of a man and a mermaid produces two fish and the narrator of the song. More seriously, the protagonist of Eloise McGraw's 1996 novel The Moorchild, is a half-fae with both human and "moorfolk" characteristics. But these are more modern spins.
In fact, there is a basis in legend. In a widespread tale type, a human man encounters a beautiful woman whose species varies from story to story. She may be a fairy, a mermaid, a selkie, a swan maiden, or a Yuki-Onna. Or maybe it’s a human woman who meets an otherworldly man: a fairy knight, an incubus, a god, a prince cursed into bear form… etc. When the human spouse breaks some taboo, the otherworldly spouse flees. Lucky humans go on a quest and have a chance to win them back. Unlucky humans pine away, alone for the rest of their lives. But either way, quite often the couple has produced at least one child.
I’m going to count mermaids among fairies here. Mermaids are essentially water fairies, and half the time when a man takes a fairy bride, she is somehow connected to water.
Otherworldly Hybrids in Mythology
The idea of a human/nonhuman hybrid is not new. Half-gods abound in Greek mythology. However, most are skilled warriors with no supernatural powers. The half-god Achilles gains invulnerability not through genetics, but through a ritual performed by his mother. A few, like Dionysus, are born as full gods. Heracles is an outlier, a human with super-strength, who ultimately becomes a full god. Over in Ireland, Cu Chulainn is the son of a god and a human woman. There are legends that Abe no Seimei of Japan was the son of a human and a kitsune named Kuzunoha, and that he inherited from his mother traits that made him a powerful magician. Similarly, in Arthurian legend Merlin the magician was supposed to derive his abilities from his parentage as the son of a human woman and a demon or spirit.
According to Jacob Grimm in Teutonic Mythology, vol. 3 "From the Devil's commerce with witches proceeds no human offspring, but elvish beings, which are named dinger (things...), elbe, holden" who appear as butterflies, bumblebees, caterpillars, or worms. Grimm describes the holden acting as spirit familiars to aid the witches in their mischief.
Nephilim, or giants, appear in the Bible as offspring of “the sons of God” and “the daughters of man.” Plenty of people have made much of this, suggesting that the Nephilim were born of angels with human women. I’ve also run into the idea that they were the offspring of God’s followers with pagan women.
Throughout history, descent from a god and, later, descent from a fairy could be a bragging point, especially for rulers. In a tale from India, a man lures a solitary girl known as "the daughter of the god Shillong" from her cave dwelling to marry her. She escapes him, as fairy brides always do, but, the people of the area hail their children as "god kings." (Folk Tales of Assam)
Option one: Offspring of humans with fairies are all human
The 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus wrote about "undines" - feminine water-spirits who might take human husbands in order to gain their own souls. Any children of such a union, Paracelsus adds, will be human beings, because they inherit souls from their human fathers.
There are numerous ballads and lais where women have children with "fairy knights." Sir Degare is the offspring of one such pairing, but doesn't seem overtly otherworldly. Similarly, the Yuki-onna of Japan may have children with a human husband in her stories, but they don't have any apparent tendencies towards ice and snow.
Such unions could produce whole clans. In Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, John Rhys recounts a number of overlapping fairy bride tales. A fairy named Penelope or Penelop was the ancestress of the Pelling clan. A fairy named Bella was the ancestress of the Bellisians. A fairy’s daughter with a human, known as Pelisha, began the family known as Bellis, who hated to be reminded of their fairy ancestry, and frequently got into brawls on the subject. Another term was Belsiaid. The names suggest that these are all the same story heard from different sources.
Option two: offspring show otherworldly traits
Even if some half-fairy knights like Sir Degare show no overt fairy characteristics, that is not always the rule. In the medieval lai of Tydorel (whose name I keep reading as Ti-D-Bol), the titular character is the son of a fairy knight and a human queen. Tydorel's otherworldly origins are shown by his inability to sleep. A man who cannot sleep, the lai tells us, is not human.
This tale had a darker counterpart in the story of Merlin, as well as those of Sir Gowther and Robert the Devil, whose fathers were demons. In these cases, their heritage makes them evil, but can be overcome.
The original Oberon, in the tales of Huon of Bordeaux, was depicted as the son of Julius Caesar and a fairy woman sometimes identified as Morgan le Fay. So this Oberon is actually half fairy! But his otherworldly appearance - small size and incredible beauty - is not an inborn trait, but the result of a curse. He does do a lot of magical stuff, though, and is king over the fairy realm.
According to Irish lore, Geróid 'Iarla was the son of the Earl of Desmond, who fell in love with the water-goddess-like Aine n'Chliar when he met her on the lake. It was a typical fairy bride marriage, but in this case, the taboo was that the Earl must never express wonder at his son's abilities. Geróid was able to leap in and out of a bottle. When his father exclaimed at it, Geróid immediately went to the lake, transformed into a goose, and swam away. There was another connected story where Geroid took a wife himself, and she also had to abide by taboos.
This is a legend which grew up around the historical figure of Garrett, fourth Earl of Desmond, who is supposed to have disappeared in 1398. The collector, David Fitzgerald, also mentions a possible connected legend that the Fitzgeralds are web-footed, hinting at the idea that the descendants of a fairy marriage have bird characteristics.
Jeremiah Curtin collected a tale, "Tom Moore and the Seal Woman," which ends with the mention of the fairy's children: "All the five children that she left had webs between their fingers and toes, half-way to the tips." However, this trait decreased with successive generations. In an equivalent tale recounted by Thomas Keightley, the children of a human and a sea-maiden "retained no vestiges of their marine origin, saving a thin web between their fingers, and a bend of their hands, resembling that of the fore paws of a seal; distinctions which characterise the descendants of the family to the present day."
As far as fairy wives go, Melusine possibly takes the lead as the most prolific childbearer. She bore her husband ten sons, eight of whom had strange appearances.
Bear in mind that Melusine herself is half-fairy! Her story is full of repetitions and layers. Her experience with her husband is foreshadowed by that of her mother, the fairy Pressyne, and a human king. Both Melusine and Geroid are examples of a child of a fairy bride and a human who take after their fairy parent - so much so that they repeat the story in the next generation.
Melusine's mother Pressyne bore triplet girls, which in that time would have been scandalous, hinting at marital infidelity. However, like Oberon, Melusine wasn't born with her visible fairy qualities; her form as a half-serpent creature is the result of a curse. She must marry a human, who must keep to certain rules, in order to break it. Some scholars have suggested that her sons' deformities are also created by that curse. In some versions, her youngest sons are apparently human, indicating that her curse has been fading over the years. This makes it all the more tragic when her husband fails her and she loses her chance at humanity.
Sometimes fairies carried humans off to marry them, and their children would then presumably be half-fairies. in the German tale of "The Changeling of Spornitz," the little people or "Mönks" (manikins) carry off human children to ensure that "earthly beauty would not entirely die out among them."
Similarly, a girl named Eilian is stolen away as a fairy's bride in a Welsh tale. However, nothing is said of what her child is like, other than that it requires ointment in its eyes to have true sight of the fairy world - but this is common in tales of human midwives caring for fairy babies.
The child of a human/fairy marriage is often a culture hero. His parentage explains why he's such a great warrior. One Arapaho tale has two parts - one dealing with a woman who marries a star with tragic results, and the second part dealing with their son Star Boy, who becomes a culture hero.
In a Maori tale from New Zealand, a mermaid named Pania marries a human and bears a son named Moremore, who is completely hairless. His name means "bald." This son becomes a taniwha (serpent) or a shark and guards the local seas.
In a story recorded in More West Highland Tales by Campbell and McKay, a woman becomes pregnant apparently by a seal, reminiscent of selkie tales. She gives birth to a son "as hairy as a goat," whom she names MacCuain, the Son of the Sea. MacCuain sometimes goes into a horrible frenzy where his face is distorted, and plays a villainous role in the tale.
In the fairytale “Hans the Mermaid’s Son,” the main character is the son of a human and a mermaid. This is part of the Young Giant folktale type; Hans is the size of a large grown man when still a child, and has prodigious strength. He lacks any kind of stereotypical mer-attributes, having instead supernatural strength and size. (There are many tales of this type; sometimes, for instance, the Young Giant is the child of a woman and a bear.) Note that Hans is difficult for both his mortal father and magical mother to handle.
Option three: Offspring are normal humans, but inherit non-genetic otherworldly gifts
In "The Thunder Spirit's Bride," a tale from Rwanda, the children of the Thunder Spirit and a mortal woman are taught by their father "how to travel through the air on flashes of lightning, and they had a much more exciting life than the children of the earth, who could only walk and run."
The Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, was printed in 1628 but may have existed much earlier. Here Robin Goodfellow is the son of Oberon the fairy king and a human woman. Although a born prankster and a thief, Robin seems like a normal human - at least until Oberon reveals his parentage and grants him the ability to shapeshift. Oberon informs him,
"By nature thou has cunning shifts,
Which Ile increase with other gifts.
Wish what thou wilt, thou shalt it have;
And for to vex both fool and knave,
Thou hast the power to change thy shape,
To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape."
The phrasing in these stories leaves it unclear whether their powers are genetic or the result of teaching. The children may or may not have inherent skills, but either way, they require their fairy parent's instruction in order to use them.
There is one clear case where the children are apparently human, but learn fairy knowledge from their mother's teachings. Sir John Rhys recorded a Welsh tale of a fairy bride from the lake Llyn y Fan Fach. Her human husband was told never to strike her three times without cause, but over the years scolded or even just tapped her, and on the third time she vanished back into the lake - leaving three distraught sons, who often walked by the lake searching for her. And one day it worked - she appeared to her oldest son, Rhiwallon, and taught him and his brothers the art of healing, so that they became the famous Physicians of Myddfai.
Child Abandonment and DNA Dominance
Fairy wives hardly ever take their children along when they jump ship, but leave their husbands to care for any offspring they have. For practical story purposes, the children may remain so that they can tell their father what happened to their mother. In T. Crofton Croker's story of the Lady of Gollerus, the mermaid wife doesn't mean to abandon her children, but forgets them the moment she touches the water. (Despite this, her human husband never remarries and always insists that she must be being held against her will beneath the ocean, not understanding how she could possibly want to leave him or their children.)
This indicates that these children, although nominally hybrids, belong to the human world. Their father’s DNA is dominant. In a gender-flipped version, where a human woman is captured by an otherwordly husband and escapes, she still leaves her kids with him.
Francis James Child described different variations of a ballad with this theme. Sometimes the woman returns home with her children, but she may also leave them behind while she makes her escape, ignoring her husband when he tells her the children are crying for her. In one Danish version of "Agnes and the Merman," where when Agnes returns to the human world, her husband insists that they divide their five children evenly. In the worst custody arrangement of all time, the fifth one is split in half. (This is not the only tale where the supernatural husband turns violent towards their children when the mortal wife goes home; the same thing happens in an Italian tale called "The Satyr.") In another related ballad, the human woman has never seen her children, since they are always taken from her to live in the elf-hill. At the end, she is taken to the elf-hill and her children give her a drink which makes her forget her mortal life.
But sometimes the wife, whether human or fairy, does take her children along. In “Story of a Bird-Woman,” from Siberia, a goose-maiden bore her human husband two “real human children", but when she grew homesick, she contrived to take her children along. She begged help from the geese, who "plucked their wings and stuck feathers on the children's sleeves," so that they were able to fly away with their mother.
And according to Hasan el-Shamy in Folktales of Egypt, in a union between a man and a jinniyah, "children from such a marriage belong to the mother, never to their human father." John Rhys, in Celtic Folklore, mentions a man whose fairy wife and children vanished when he broke a promise by unknowingly touching iron.
In a tale from the Orkneys, Gem-de-Lovely the mermaid marries a human and bears seven children, then takes the whole family along when she returns to the sea. However, her mother-in-law brands the youngest child with a cross, blocking the merfolk from ever touching him, and he grows up on land as a powerful soldier who fights in the Crusades and makes a good marriage.
In the story of Melusine, her mother Pressyne actually does take her daughters from a mixed marriage with her when she flees. However, in the next generation, Melusine leaves her sons with their father. In some versions she comes back to nurse those who are still babies. That doesn't change that in some way, daughters share their mother's nature and native realm, while sons share their father's. Maybe this is just because Melusine's sons are more distantly related to the fairy realm. But there's another example that bears it up.
A romance of Richard the Lionheart explained his battle-prowess by saying that he was the son of a human king and a woman named Cassodorien, who had fairylike characteristics, echoing Melusine-style myths. In the story, when forced to attend Mass, Cassodorien flies out through the roof carrying her other son John and daughter Topyas. John falls and is injured, but Topyas is carried away with her mother and never seen again. Again - the son gets left behind, the daughter gets taken.
One of my favorite movies is the 2014 Irish animated film, Song of the Sea, which features two children (a boy and a girl) born of a human-selkie union. The boy is human like his father, while the girl is a selkie like her mother.
Sometimes the offspring of a human-fairy marriage are hybrids - humans with a touch of fairy ancestry, like the webbed-fingered kids in the selkie tale. However, more often they are either one or the other: all human, or all fairy. They typically take after their father's side of the family, at least in European myth, but there are occasional hints that their inheritance might be based on gender. If it's a human with special attributes, it's often because their fairy parent taught them a skill.
Sons are mentioned more frequently than daughters, and typically grow up to be great warriors or wise men. Divine or fairy heritage was used to establish political power or explain the backstory of a popular culture hero. Throughout history, incubi or gods were given as the fathers of figures like Seleucus, Plato, or Scipio the Elder. The houses of Lusignan and Plantagenet claimed ancestry from Melusine or her equivalent.
On the other hand, an unpopular person might be accused of being the offspring of a demon. See Bishop Guichard of Troyes in 1308, rumored to be the son of a human woman with a "neton." Also recall the Bellis clan, who would fight anyone who brought up their fairy background.
I don't think there is any commonly used name for these fairy hybrids- although I would love to hear if you've come across one.
This was one of my favorite fairytale books as a child. I still have my copy, although it's fraying and the spine is taped together. The illustrations have a dreamy, misty feel.
It follows a king who has lost his throne and crown, who goes out to wander the world. He encounters other travelers, who each have strange gifts. One can turn into an elephant, another into fire, and so on. They reach a kingdom where the king is offering his daughter's hand in marriage, but there are tests to complete. With the help of his extraordinary friends (the fire-man, for instance, devours an impossibly large feast), the lost king passes the tests and gains the princess's hand.
This is ATU Type 513A, a widespread tale. The Grimms published one called "The Six Servants." It's fun particularly for the image of what would, in modern terms, be a team of superheroes.
One fascinating early example is the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, possibly dated to around the 11th or 12th century. This is also one of the first existing stories connected with King Arthur.
Culhwch's stepmother curses him so that the only woman he can marry is Olwen, beautiful daughter of a giant named Ysbaddaden. (This scene, with Olwen described as snowy and rosy-red, falls in with many stories where a prince seeks a bride as white as snow. Her ogre-like father needs his heavy eyebrows lifted up so he can see - another trope from those stories.)
However, as it continues, Culhwch goes to his relative King Arthur for help. Because, of course, Ysbaddaden requires that several impossible tasks be completed before his daughter can marry anyone. This version abounds with mystical powers, so that Arthur's warriors resemble superheroes more than anything else. Cei (known better today as Sir Kay) can generate heat. A Welsh god, Gwyn ap Nudd, is among their number. The court list is prodigious. I do find it interesting that Arthur initially sends six of his warriors to scout things out when he hears of Culhwch's quest. Cei (who as mentioned is super hot), Bedwyr (who sheds blood faster than any other fighter), Kynddelig (an extraordinary guide), Gwrhyr (who knows all tongues), Gwalchmai (or Gawain, who always achieves his goals), and Menw (who can cast illusions and shapeshift into a bird).
This is also the Greek myth of Jason and Medea. Jason captains the Argo, a ship crewed by gifted heroes and demigods. Medea is the villain's daughter who works magic and helps her lover flee.
The King with Six Friends has an addition that is my favorite conclusion to this kind of tale. One might wonder why his friends don't get the kingdom and the princess, since they did all the work. And this is brought up in the text! But one of the friends responds, "He did what only a good king can do . . . He led us."
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.