I’ve written about the history of tiny fairies - how fairies, always portrayed in a range of sizes, have become more likely to be depicted as only a few inches tall. This time, I’d like to look at something along the same lines: narratives explaining how fairies have dwindled over time. I’m not talking about the trope of fairies who change size at will, but the idea that fairies were once big, and are now small, because they shrank.
A major theme in accounts of fairies is that they were once greater than they are now. Fairies have faded or are no longer seen. No matter how far back you go, they’re a thing of the past, always just out of reach. The Canterbury Tales, written 1387-1400, place the deeds of fairies back in “tholde dayes of the king Arthour,” and explain that “now can no man see none elves mo.” In a bit of wordplay, friars have replaced fairies as Christianity crowds out spirit-worship.
It’s a short step from this to the idea that the fairies haven’t simply left - they’ve shrunken.
Standish O’Grady wrote "undoubtedly, the fairies of mediæval times are the same potent deities [as the Tuatha De Danan], but shorn of their power and reduced in stature.” Yeats also referenced this theory - the gigantic Irish gods “when no longer worshipped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high."
These are later writings, based on the theory that the fairies are direct adaptations of pagan gods. It’s also confusing how we’re meant to take these accounts of shrinking: Are they literal? Metaphorical? Both?
Stewart Sanderson responded to this kind of theory - “Personally I cannot take too seriously the confusion of moral or spiritual stature with physical stature.” So, he doubts the claim that people stopped believing in the gods as powerful, so they started envisioning them as pocket-sized. I would agree that’s kind of a stretch.
And what about statements like "In Cornwall, the Tommyknockers were thought to be the spirits of Jewish miners from long ago, reduced in stature until they became elf-like" (James 1992). It might indicate a narrative about gradually shrinking Jewish miners, but upon reading further, I haven’t found any explicit mention. Ghosts are simply smaller than their living counterparts in that tradition.
However, there are a few stories where the dwindling of the fairies from large to small is clearly literal. Most of these stories are connected to Cornwall.
Cornish belief tells that ants, or Muryans, are fairies “in their state of decay from off the earth,” and it is unlucky to kill an ant. (Hunt 1903)
In "The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor," the fairies are ghosts who waste away over the centuries until they cease to exist. They are also shapechangers, and “those who take animal forms get smaller and smaller with every change, till they are finally lost in the earth as muryans (ants).” (Bottrell 1873)
Here, shrinking is a natural part of the fairy life cycle, explaining why these wraiths are so much smaller than their living counterparts. The most recently deceased among their group is closer to average human stature.
Evans-Wentz’s collected Cornish pixy-lore mentioned that “Pixies were often supposed to be the souls of the prehistoric dwellers of this country. As such, pixies were supposed to be getting smaller and smaller until, finally, they are to vanish entirely.”
The trope appeared in the more ornate, literary tale of "Wisht Wood,” by Charles Lee. Here, the Piskies, or Pobel Vean, shrink or grow in direct relation to how many people believe in them. They were once giants and gods, but when Christian missionaries sprinkled them with holy water, they shrank to the size of dwarves. They continued to progressively shrink as the last traces of pagan faith waned, until they were only a few inches tall. They feared the approaching day when “the muryons send out hunting parties to chase us from wood and more, and the quilkens [frogs] run at us open-mouthed.” (Note the mention of muryons - the piskies are not becoming ants, but they are still mentioned in connection with them.) The piskies beg a priest to tell their stories and encourage just a little belief in them, "that we may not shrink to dust". The narration closes with the idea that the pixies have clung to life, but still continue to dwindle away with modern agnosticism replacing religious censorship. This is very different from the previous examples, where shrinking is a natural part of fairy life. This is an outside condition; their size depends on human belief. I have a feeling that this story is mostly Lee’s creation, but it still has markers of Cornish folklore.
So far, I’ve found one other example outside Cornwall. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1807 story "Die Neue Melusine" (The New Melusine) is a literary example from Germany. The “Melusine” of the title is from an ancient race of dwarfs, who are progressively shrinking - the reason given is that "everything that has once been great, must become small and decrease.” They intermarry with humans so that they won’t shrink to microscopic size. (Note that ants appear here too, as a dangerous rival nation which may attack the dwarfs.)
This is merely a beginning to researching this trope and there’s much more work to be done. However, so far there are two trends.
First is a later, scholarly theory that the pagan gods shrank into fairies, which is partly metaphorical, and doesn’t necessarily represent folk belief.
Second is a Cornish theme that shrinking is part of a fairy’s (or pixy’s, or muryan’s) natural life cycle. These fairies are actually ghosts, ranging from the recently dead to ancient forgotten tribes.
Goethe’s “The New Melusine” is interesting, and I wonder if there may be other German sources to be found.
If you know of any other examples of shrinking fairies, then leave them in the comments!
"The Water-Horse of Barra" is a fairytale that's stayed with me since I read it years ago. It is especially striking because it takes one of the cruelest monsters in Scottish legend and turns him into a redeemable hero. The story has been presented as a folktale, but I began to wonder if it was really traditional or not.
The tale appeared in Folk Tales of Moor and Mountain by Winifred Finlay (1969). On Barra, an island off the coast of Scotland, there lived a water-horse or each-uisge - a shapeshifting water spirit, similar to the kelpie. The water-horse went seeking a bride, and captured a young woman by tricking her into placing her hand on his pelt. However, the quick-thinking girl invited him to rest a while, and he took human form in order to sleep. While he slept, she placed a halter around his neck, trapping him in horse form and forcing him to do her bidding. She then kept him to work on her father's farm for a year and a day. However, during that year and a day, he learned love and compassion. Rather than depart for Tìr nan Òg (the Scottish Gaelic form of Tir na nOg, the Irish otherworld), he underwent a ritual to become truly human, losing even the memory of being a water-horse. He and the girl married, and lived happily ever after.
Winifred Finlay was an English author who published numerous folklore-inspired novels and collections of folktales. In Moor and Mountain, she gives no sources, leaving it mysterious how she found these stories. This should be an immediate cue to look at them critically.
Some of them are familiar. Midside Maggie and Tam Lin are well-known, and "Jeannie and the fairy spinners" is a retelling of the story of Habetrot. However, others are less familiar to me, such as "The Fair Maid and the Snow-white Unicorn" (which, like "Water-Horse," features a girl marrying a handsome man who used to be a magical horse).
I have never found an older equivalent of Finlay's water-horse romance, although it has been retold in other collections. It appeared as "The Kelpie and the Girl" in The Celtic Breeze by Heather McNeil (2001) and "The Kelpie Who Fell in Love" in Mayo Folk Tales by Tony Locke (2014).
A running theme in Finlay’s books is that the world of fairies and magic has ended, with the modern human world taking its place. In "The Water-horse of Barra," "Saint Columba and the Giants of Staffa," and "The Fishwife and the Changeling," magical creatures must either leave this world forever, or assimilate and become ordinary humans.
"The Water-Horse of Barra" bears an especially strong resemblance to "The Fishwife and the Changeling." Both tales follow a traditionally evil entity who is won over by the love of a human woman, and who opts to become mortal and stay with her rather than depart for the Land of Youth. In the second case, the woman is a devoted mother who adopts a fairy changeling and raises him alongside the child he was meant to replace. Although I adore this take on the changeling mythos, it is strikingly different from most folktales, where any compassion towards changelings would be unusual. In a tale recorded in 1866, a parent who accidentally winds up with both babies still resorts to the threat of torture to get rid of the fairy child (Henderson, Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, 153). The idea of a changeling and the original child raised as siblings is fairly new, although it seems to be growing popular in recent fiction - see, for instance, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black (2015) and The Oddmire: Changeling by William Ritter (2019).
Back to the Water-Horse of Barra. This tale features many of the usual kelpie tropes. A person who touches the water-horse will find herself trapped as if glued to his skin. However, if the creature is haltered or bridled, he becomes docile and tame - at least as long as the halter is in place.
In other ways, however, it is strikingly atypical. Kelpies are usually totally murderous. Although they are often found pursuing women, it is generally to eat them.
There is an older tale about a Water-horse of Barra. However, this tale is very short and takes a gruesome turn. A young woman of Barra encountered a handsome man on a hill. They chatted, and eventually he fell asleep with his head in her lap. However, she noticed water-weeds tangled in his hair, and realized to her horror that he was a water-horse. Thinking quickly, she cut off the part of her skirt that his head was resting on, and slipped away to safety. However, some time later when she was out with friends, he reappeared and dragged her into the lake. All that was ever found of her was part of her lung. This story was told by Anne McIntyre, recorded by Reverend Allan Macdonald of Eriskay, and published by George Henderson in 1911. (Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts)
It is rare for the kelpie to be seen with a softer side. J. F. Campbell gives a one-sentence summary of this story type in Popular Tales of the West Highlands, where he states that the kelpie "falls in love with a lady." The summary ends with her finding sand in his hair and presumably reacting with horror. The phrasing is fairly soft, suggesting that a kelpie could really fall in love, but all of the other kelpie stories Campbell gives are bloody and dark. I wonder if "falls in love" was a euphemism on Campbell's part.
One other point of interest is a song, titled "Skye Water-Kelpie's Lullaby" (Songs of the Hebrides) or "Lamentation of the Water-Horse" (The Old Songs of Skye). In this song, the singer mournfully begs a woman named Mor or Morag (depending on translation) to return to him and their infant son. This song has been interpreted as the story of a water-horse whose human bride has left him after realizing his identity.
Outside the kelpie realm, there is another story with key similarities - the Scottish ballad "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight." In this song, Isabel hears an elf-knight blowing his horn and wishes for him to be her lover. At that very moment, the elf knight leaps through her window and takes her riding with him to the woods. It’s all fun and games until he gets her into the remote wilderness, where he declares that he has murdered seven princesses and she will be the eighth. When begging for mercy doesn’t work, Isabel persuades him to relax and rest his head on her knee for a little while first. She uses a “small charm” to make him sleep, then ties him up with his own belt and kills him with his own dagger.
Finlay’s heroine has strong Isabel vibes. Her suggestion of resting, and then her capture of her would-be kidnapper, is clearly parallel. When she calls on the bees to buzz and lull the water-horse to sleep, it's similar to Isabel's "charm."
“Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight” is one member of a wide family of similar tales, although the plots vary and “Isabel” is somewhat atypical. Of course, the Elf Knight is not a kelpie. His native habitat is apparently the forest. However, in other versions, the serial killer’s method of killing is drowning (see "The Water o' Wearie's Well" and "May Colvin"). Francis James Child suggested that in these versions "the Merman or Nix may be easily recognized". A Dutch neighbor, “Heer Halewijn,” has been compared to a Strömkarl or Nikker. Unfortunately, as critics quickly pointed out, the logic fails since the serial killer dies by drowning in these versions, which would not make sense for a merman. The theory has stuck around despite lack of evidence.
The rather unique “Lady Isabel” has faced scrutiny; the unclear origins have led to many different theories, and some scholars have even suggested that it was a fake written by its collector Peter Buchan. This will have to be a post for another time. Insofar as our current subject, “Lady Isabel” and the connected water-spirit theory are definitely old and well-known enough that Finlay could have been familiar with them. However, like the old kelpie stories, these ballads are not romances but cautionary tales.
The stories in Folk Tales of Moor and Mountain are familiar folk tales, but they are all Finlay's retellings. Her "Water-Horse of Barra" is probably a reimagining of the older Barra water-horse tale. (Perhaps it's influenced by "Lady Isabel," although this might be more of a stretch.) In both Barra stories, a girl finds herself cornered by a kelpie in the form of a handsome man, and must figure out an escape as he lies sleeping. However, Finlay rewrote it with a gentler, family-friendly ending.
Finlay's water-horse is tame and toothless even at the beginning: "he was very good-natured and never caused anyone harm." The only shocking thing about his diet is that he eats raw fish. Older tales often had sexual elements; a disguised kelpie shares a victim's bed to prey on her, and sleeping with your head in someone's lap is a euphemism for sex (note especially that the girl cuts her skirt off to escape). Finlay's water-horse never does anything so improper as sleep in the girl's lap; instead he stretches out in the heather to rest. In folktales, kelpies suck girls dry of blood, or devour them and leave only scraps of viscera. But Finlay's heroine is never in fear for her life. See her reaction: “He really is extremely handsome... but I have no intention of marrying a water-horse and spending the rest of my life at the bottom of a loch.”
Finlay inverts the usual setup: here, the girl captures the kelpie. The kelpie is the one carried into a new realm and affected by their encounter. Not only is this ending more cheerful, but it ties in with Finlay's running theme. The time of magic ends to make way for a modern era. Supernatural power is exchanged for love, whether that love is romantic, familial, or belonging to a community.
Regardless of its origins, Winifred Finlay's romantic tale of a good-hearted water-horse has earned its own place in modern folklore. This shows a shift in how we comprehend and retell these stories. In 19th-century storytelling, kelpies and changelings would have been totally irredeemable, definitely not beings you'd want to invite into your home. Now, however, you can find stories removed from folk belief where kelpies and changelings are the heroes and main characters. There's a growing tendency to give even the most terrifying monsters of legend a chance for redemption.
The Vita Merlini is a Latin poem written around 1150, probably by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This poem has, among other things, one of the earliest mentions of Morgan le Fay and Avalon. She is not Arthur's sister, but an otherworldly healer who carries him away after his death. She is one of nine sisters.
The island of apples which men call “The Fortunate Isle” gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields there have no need of the ploughs of the farmers and all cultivation is lacking except what nature provides. Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus; when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia, and when she will she slips down from the air onto your shores. And men say that she has taught mathematics to her sisters, Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thitis; Thitis best known for her cither.
In the Vita, Avalon (or at least, "The Fortunate Island") is an otherworldly paradise ruled by women. A similar concept is the Land of Women in the 8th-century Irish narrative "The Voyage of Bran." It is also an otherworldly island populated by immortal maidens. Then there's the 12th-century German "Lanzelet," where Lancelot is raised by the queen of the sea-fairies on the island of Meidelant, which is otherwise populated only by women.
Morgen is the most important here, with her sisters only footnotes. Variants of Morgan's name appear all over the place, but its origins are too ancient to truly determine. She is often closely associated with water. The Vita calls her and her sisters "nymphae." Morgan is called "dea quadam fantastica" by Giraldus Cambrensis, "Morgne the goddes' in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and 'Morgain la deesse' in the Prose Lancelot. Morgen is the oldest recorded form of Morgan's name. John Rhys theorized that it meant "sea-born," from Morigenos. A similar name is Muirgen, given to a mermaid in Irish myth. It's also been proposed that Morgan derives from the Welsh mother goddess Modron. Modron is the daughter of Afallach, a name closely related to Avalon.
But back to her eight sisters. The list in Vita Merlini, as a whole, has a Greek look. One writer, David Dom (King Arthur and the Gods of the Round Table, 2013) makes a heroic attempt to connect each name to a Celtic goddess, but by the end even he is left pulling Greek goddesses instead of Irish or Welsh.
There's a clear correspondence to the nine Muses of Greek myth. Morgen is a muse of medicine and science, while the last sister is associated with the cither, a musical instrument.
There's also a group of nine women associated with the French Ile de Sein, according to De Chorographia by Pomponius Mela (d. AD 45).
"Sena, in the Britannic Sea, opposite the coast of the Osismi, is famous for its oracle of a Gaulish god, whose priestesses, living in the holiness of perpetual virginity, are said to be nine in number. They call them Gallizenae, and they believe them to be endowed with extraordinary gifts to rouse the sea and the wind by their incantations, to turn themselves into whatsoever animal form they may choose, to cure diseases which among others are incurable, to know what is to come and to foretell it. They are, however; devoted to the service of voyagers only who have set out on no other errand than to consult them."
The Gallizenae are pretty much identical to Morgen and her sisters. I would venture to say that the author of the Vita Merlini was inspired by both the Gallizenae and the Muses.
The concept of nine maidens recurs throughout world mythology - for instance, Rán, Norse goddess of the sea, had nine daughters. It also crops up frequently in Arthurian legend. In the Welsh poem "Pa Gur yv y Porthur," Cei (Kay) is mentioned as having killed nine witches (the number nine is repeated frequently in this poem). Nine maidens living on the island otherworld of Annwfn use their breath to kindle a magic cauldron in The Spoils of Annwn. (It's been suggested that these two groups are the same.) And in Peredur, the hero kills the nine sorcerous Hags of Gloucester. Those are all villainous examples, though, while Morgen's sisters in Vita Merlini are benevolent.
Of the nine names, there are three clear groups: the M names, G names and T names.
Morgen, Moronoe, Mazoe.
Only Morgen's name is familiar. The others may be original creations, although plenty of scholars have looked for connections to other mythological characters. There are plenty of Celtic goddesses with M names, like Morrigan and Macha.
A sister of Morgan named Marsion or Marrion appears in the 13th-century La Bataille de Loquifer. They are accompanied by an attendant, making this yet another trio. "Dame Marse" is one of the fays alongside Morgain, Sebile, and Dame Oriande in the Chanson D'Esclarmonde, also 13th century, a continuation of Huon de Bordeaux. In the post-Vulgate Suite de Merlin, a beautiful fay named Marsique obtains Excalibur's scabbard for Gawain.
Each one seems to be a single one-off mention. I may be playing phonological games here; there might not be any connection between Marsion, Marse and Marsique, let alone a connection to Moronoe or Mazoe. However, the similarities are intriguing. Marsique is the most interesting to me. Since the scabbard was last seen when Morgan lobbed it into a lake, this could imply a connection between Marsique, the lake, and Morgan. We also know that she helps Gawain fight a sorcerer named either Naborn or Mabon. In the Mabinogion, Mabon is also the name of a son of Modron, the Welsh goddess who may be a proto-Morgan.
This is similar to Esmeree the Blonde, a Welsh princess and lover of Gawain's son Guinglain. A sorcerer named Mabon turned her into a serpent when she wouldn't marry him, and she was only freed through Guinglain's kiss. Meanwhile, in an Italian romance, Gawain's otherworldly lover is the Pulzella Gaia (Merry Maiden), the daughter of Morgan. The Merry Maiden can take snake form apparently at will, and later in the story Morgan imprisons her and turns her into a mermaid.
So there are stories where Gawain (or his son) fights for a fairy maiden who gives him magical aid, and who is associated with water, serpents, and Morgan le Fay.
I found one French reference to a mountain named "Marse" or "Marsique." Pope St. Gregory's Dialogues. A story is related of the monk Marcius of the mountain of Marsico. Marsico could be Monte Marsicano - there are two Italian mountains by this name.
Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton
This is where it really begins to seem likely that the writer is making up names as he goes along. Lucy Allen Paton writes, "The necessity of naming her eight sisters is apparently embarrassing to the poet; he economizes by ringing three changes on one name . . . and his ingenuity deserts him completely before he reaches the eighth." However, Paton also suggests that the G could be a C, and that this is a reference to the Greek nymph Clytie, daughter of Oceanus. This theory has no real evidence.
A 1973 edition of the Life of Merlin suggested a connection to Cliodhna, an Irish goddess. In various myths, she was carried away by a wave, leading to the common phrase "Clíodhna's Wave" and inviting an association with water nymphs. In the 12th-century narrative "Acallam Na Senórach," she is a mortal woman and one of three sisters.
Tyronoe, Thitis, and Thitis best known for her cither.
Tyronoe's resemblance to Moronoe increases the rhythmic quality of the names. There is a princess named Tyro in Greek mythology.
Weirdly, depending on translation, two sisters are either named Thiten and Thiton, or they're both Thitis, only distinguished by one's musical hobby. Thiten could be Thetis, a Greek goddess of water. Combined with Morgen and Clytie, this gives us a theme of goddesses connected to water. A connection to the Greek goddess Thetis seems very possible. There was also a Greek goddess Tethys, and both were tied to water. In a 13th-century German romance, Jüngere Titurel, 'Tetis' operates as a sorceress.
Interestingly, if you go back to the "Acallam Na Senórach" for a minute, Cliodnha drowns at the Shore of Téite. This place got its name because of a previous drowning, that of a woman named Téite Brecc and her companions. However, this may be grasping at straws.
The reference to "cither" remains mysterious. It's unclear what was meant, although it might be a guitar or a Welsh harp like a zither. (Both derive from the Greek word "cithara."
Morgen/Morgan's sisters haven't appeared in other material. This is the only source that makes her one of nine siblings. However, it is very common for her to appear as one third of a trio. The number three was sacred in Celtic culture and some gods or goddesses appeared in triads. For instance, the Morrígan, an Irish example with a very similar name, was sometimes described as a trio with the names Badb, Macha and Nemain. The Matronae, or Mothers (similar to Modron the mother goddess) appeared in threes and were venerated from the 1st to 5th centuries.
In Thomas Malory, Morgan le Fay completes a trio with her sisters Elaine and Margawse. They are the daughters of Gorlois and Igraine, and half-sisters to Arthur. Malory's Morgan seems to enjoy traveling in a group. She shows up at various times with companions like the Queen of Northgales, the Queen of Eastland, the Queen of the Out Isles, and the Queen of the Wasteland, all evidently sorceresses like herself.
In Li Jus Adan or Le jeu de la Feuillee (c. 1262), Morgan appears with two attendants, Maglore and Arsile, eating at a table which was put out for the fairies. Morgain and Arsile bestow blessings on their hosts, but Maglore, like the fairy in Sleeping Beauty, gets angry that no knife was put at her place and declares ill luck on the men who set the table.
In L'Amadigi, an epic poem written by Bernado Tasso in 1560, Fata Morgana has three daughters: Morganetta, Nivetta and Carvilia. Morganetta is a dimunitive of Morgan, so here we've got Morgan again as part of a trio. If I'm understanding it correctly, Morganetta and Nivetta are the only ones who play a real role (tempting the heroes sexually), but the author still chose to round them out to three.
So it seems that Morgan le Fay has a lot in common with the three Fates of Greek mythology. She appears with two sisters or attendants. Making her the head of nine sisters cubes that.
This is a weird and obscure tale, and one of my favorites. It appeared in Andrew Lang's Yellow Fairy Book in 1889, adapted from a tale of the Armenian people living in Transylvania and Bukovina. (Bukovina is a Central European region, which was once part of Moldavia and is now divided between Romania and Ukraine.)
In the story, a childless woman accidentally swallows an icicle, and gives birth to a little girl "as white as snow and as cold as ice," who can't bear any kind of heat. Then the same woman is struck by a flying spark from their fireplace, and gives birth to a boy "as red as fire, and as hot to touch." This is part of the widespread motif of pregnancy beginning with eating.
The siblings avoid each other as they grow up, since they can't bear each other's temperatures. But when their parents die, they decide to go out into the world. They wear thick fur coats so that they won't hurt each other, and they're very happy together.
Eventually, the Snow-daughter meets a king who falls in love with her and makes her his wife. He builds her a house of ice, and makes her brother a house surrounded by furnaces, so that they can both be comfortable.
One day, the king holds a feast. When the Fire-son arrives, he has now grown so hot that no one can bear to be in the same room as him. This is, as you might expect, kind of a mood-killer. The party is totally ruined. The king yells at the Fire-son, who responds by going full-on supervillain and incinerating him. The now-widowed Snow-daughter attacks the Fire-son. The siblings have a battle "the like of which had never been seen on earth," and which is left up to the reader's imagination. However, at its conclusion, the Snow-daughter melts like the icicle she came from, and the Fire-son burns out like a spark, leaving only cinders. And that's it.
I think it's interesting that snow is feminine here and fire masculine. This also not the only story about snow-related children. It's similar to the Russian "Snegurochka" (also known as "Snegurka" or "Snowflake"). There, a childless couple makes a snow sculpture which turns into a little girl. When she tries to play a game jumping over a fire, she melts away into mist.
This tale type, "The Snow Maiden" or Aarne-Thompson 703, has the moral that you can't escape your nature. The Snow Daughter and the Fire Son varies in that the fire is actually the snow-child's sibling.
I've been researching "lorialets," moonlight-loving spritesdescribed by French fantasy author Pierre Dubois in his Great Encyclopedia of Fairies. Lorialets will have to be a post for another time; Dubois' Encyclopedia is not so much a collection of folklore as it is a guide to the world of his comics, and the only real-world sources he gave for lorialets were the Chroniques Gargantuines or Grandes Chroniques Gargantuines. These are a group of 16th-century chapbooks, not to be confused with the famous Gargantua books by Rabelais. I haven't been able to track these down yet. However, my research along the way took me into some fascinating superstitions about mooncalves.
The belief was that the moon influenced congenital defects. "Mooncalf" was a word for a "monstrous birth."
The historian Preserved Smith suggested that the mooncalf was a translation from the German Mondkalb. In December 1522, a deformed calf was born in Saxony. People thought that the folded skin on its head looked like a monk's cowl, and within a month, a popular new broadside compared the creature to controversial contemporary Martin Luther. The calf's birth was supposed to be a divine sign pointing out the unnatural Luther. It was dubbed the "monk-calf," which Smith suggested was a pun on Mondkalb. An English version referred to it as a "Moonkish Calfe," pretty good evidence for a pun. And this was big news, in part because Martin Luther quickly fired back with a pamphlet saying that the monk-calf symbolized the evil of the Church. Not long after this, the word "mooncalf" started to become popular.
Farther back in history, Pliny's Natural History spoke of "molas" - hard, lifeless masses of flesh, which it was believed a woman conceived on her own without a man. This is where you get the term "molar pregnancy." In Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus Linguæ Romanæ & Britannicæ (1565), Pliny's "mola" was interpreted as "moone calfe." Not too much later, in 1601, Philemon Holland translated Pliny's work as The History of the World, commonly called the Natural Historie of C. Plinius Secundus. Holland also chose to render "mola" as "moonecalfe."
To modern eyes, there's not much connection from Pliny's "mola" to the British authors calling it a "moonecalfe." But if the "Moonkish Calf" was fresh in the author's memory, it makes more sense.
Alternately (and perhaps not exclusively), J. W. Ballantine suggested that "calf" did not mean a baby cow, but a swelling, like the calf of the leg. (Calf coming from a word meaning "to swell" is an established theory.) "Moon" would come from the associations with menstruation found in Pliny. So mooncalf could mean, in Ballantine's theory, "menstrual lump." A 1676 German work used the word "monkalb" or "mutterkalb."
In the early 17th century, mooncalf became a popular term for either a monster, or a fool - this second similar to lunatic, from "luna". Shakespeare used the word for the monstrous character Caliban, from The Tempest, written around 1610; the misshapen Caliban was born to a witch who could control the moon. Chapman's Bussy d'Amboise (1607) calls women "the most perfect images of the Moone (Or still-unweand sweet Mooncalves with white faces)."
There were, in fact, superstitions about what the moon might do to pregnant women. In Breton superstition, if a woman or girl urinates outside under the moonlight, she runs the risk of giving birth to a monstrous being. An account is given of such a thing happening; upon being born the monster scurried beneath the bed, and people killed him with a stick. A second anecdote mentions a Breton servant woman who declared that she had never been with a man, and didn't know how she could have fallen pregnant unless it was the moon's influence. (Revue des Traditions Populaires, xv. (1900) p. 471.)
To sum up: there is a long history of superstition that the moon could influence pregnancy, either causing women to conceive monsters on their own, or creating congenital defects.
Within a few decades of Shakespeare's plays in the late 1500s, "Mab" became the most popular name for the queen of the fairies in English literature and poetry. In Shakespeare's play, she was "the fairies' midwife," also a “hag” (a term for a nightmare spirit, an ugly old woman or a witch). Almost microscopic in size, she drives an intricately described miniature coach through the night, distributing dreams. She also creates blisters and tangled elflocks. A succubus-like creature, her occupation as midwife involves birthing dreams rather than babies.
Although other poets picked up this description and made Mab the empress of fairies across literature, “queen” could be playing on the similar word “quean,” meaning simply “woman” or perhaps “prostitute.”
In 1603, Ben Jonson produced The Entertainment at Althorpe, a masque honoring the queen. In addition to the dream rides of Shakespeare, Jonson's Mab steals milk, pinches messy girls, takes changelings, and leads midwives on nightly journeys (a witches' flight?). This version was as influential as Shakespeare's, and established Mab even further as a regal figure mimicking the English monarchy. Other poets and writers followed suit.
However, we can only guess what originally inspired Shakespeare to use that name. Unlike his other fairy characters, Puck and Oberon, we have no surviving older works that mention her. Bear in mind that Shakespeare created some fairy characters - Peaseblossom, Cobweb, etc. Titania and Ariel were his own creations even if their names were based on other sources. We can trace Oberon to 13th-century French romances, and Titania to Ovid’s work. However, Puck and Robin Goodfellow are well-known names from British folklore. A rebel in 1489 was referred to as "Mayster Hobbe Hyrste, Robyn Godfelaws brodyr." "Robin Good-fellowe", "hobgoblin" and "puckle" were all mentioned in Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), and in the 19th century, the Denham Tracts mentioned multiple variations of the names. Similar terms appear in Norse and Celtic languages.
If Mab is a traditional figure of British folklore like Puck, it seems reasonable to expect that we’ll find some evidence – either pre-Shakespeare, or surviving traditions peeking through in later works like the Denham Tracts. Although there are many examples of Mab appearing in literature, many of those examples - like the very influential “Nymphidia” - show Shakespeare’s influence, so I’m setting them aside for now.
There are a few theories claiming Mab's ancient origins. The main two are an origin as the Irish goddess Medb (sometimes rendered Mabh or Maeve), or the fairy figure Habundia or Dame Abonde. Although both of these characters are supernatural queens, the similarities end there. The theories rely mainly on the fact that one has a similar spelling (despite the different pronunciation - Meev or Mave), and the other includes the syllable "ab" or "mab" if you say it quickly (Dame Abonde). I would group these with other 19th-century theories that relied solely on slight name similarities - like the suggestion that Tom Thumb (or Thumbling) was the same as Tam Lin.
I want to look for collections of folklore where a Mab appears. Many scholars have argued that Shakespeare took Mab from contemporary folklore, but are there any surviving records or traditions to indicate this? Or has everything been written over by poetry and literature? So far, I have found six mentions of Mab to examine.
Mab of Fawdon Hill
I was intrigued by a reference to Queen Mab dwelling at Fawdon Hill in Northumberland, and tracked it to Metrical Legends of Northumberland by James Service, 1834. In the introduction to a poem, the author writes of "the superstitious belief that Fawdon Hill is the royal residence of the "Queen Mab" of Northumberland." Further down the page is a reference to “fancy’s midwife”.
Problem: as you might have noticed, in the edition I read, Queen Mab’s name is in quotes. This indicates that the author is not saying Mab is a traditional figure there, but simply using “Queen Mab” as a generic descriptor for a fairy queen. The name Mab is not mentioned in the poem itself.
I did find a reference elsewhere to a story of a farmer who is invited into the fairies' banquet hall beneath Fawdon Hill, and who runs off with one of their cups. I found nothing else tying Mab to Northumberland.
Mab, Queen of the Ellyllon
Wirt Sikes, in British Goblins (1880), asserted that Mab was the queen of the ellyllon, or tiny elves and goblins of Wales.
"Their queen—for though there is no fairy-queen in the large sense that Gwyn ap Nudd is the fairy-king, there is a queen of the elves—is none other than the Shakspearean fairy spoken of by Mercutio, who comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the forefinger of an alderman.
Shakspeare’s use of Welsh folk-lore, it should be noted, was extensive and peculiarly faithful… From his Welsh informant Shakspeare got Mab, which is simply the Cymric for a little child, and the root of numberless words signifying babyish, childish, love for children (mabgar), kitten (mabgath), prattling (mabiaith), and the like, most notable of all which in this connection is mabinogi, the singular of Mabinogion, the romantic tales of enchantment told to the young in by-gone ages.”
Sikes seems to imply that he has found Welsh accounts of an ellyllon-queen Mab, but he doesn't actually state this.
Previously, Thoms' Three Notelets on Shakespeare (1865) included an influential passage on Mab. Thoms examined several possible etymologies for Mab's name, and concluded:
"I saw in this designation [the name Queen Mab] a distinct allusion to the diminutive form of the elfin sovereign. Mab, both in Welsh and in the kindred dialects of Brittany, signifies a child or infant; and my readers will, I am sure, agree with me that it would be difficult to find any epithet more befitting one who
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the forefinger of an alderman."
The similarities (including use of the same quote!) indicate that either Sikes is drawing on Thoms, or both were influenced by an earlier source. Sikes remains unique in drawing a connection to ellyllon, and provided no evidence for this claim.
Also, in Welsh, "mab" actually means "son," not "child."
Henry Ellis' 1813 edition of John Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities noted that "In Warwickshire, Mab-led, (pronounced Mob-led) signifies led astray by a Will o'the Wisp." (Shakespeare was from Warwickshire.)
The only source given in the text is "Hamlet," where Shakespeare used the word "mobled."
'But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen--'
'The mobled queen?'
That's good; 'mobled queen' is good.
'Run barefoot up and down, threatening the flames
With bisson rheum; a clout upon that head
Where late the diadem stood, and for a robe,
About her lank and all o'er-teemed loins,
A blanket, in the alarm of fear caught up...
The characters are rehearsing a play within the play, and the “mobled queen” is the character Hecuba. Mobled is also a mysterious word, with Hamlet being the first known instance, and researchers have argued over its origin and meaning. One common definition is that “mobled” means “muffled” or wrapped in fabric, as in a hood, veil, or mobcap (Hecuba is wrapped in a blanket). In the 1655 play "The Gentleman of Venice," by James Shirley, we hear "The moon does mobble up herself sometimes” in a black bag, referencing the lunar phases. Sandys Travels (1673) described Turkish women with "their heads and faces so mabled in fine linen".
However, this alternate reading of "Mab-led," like "puck-led" or "pixie-led," does hold some traction.
In 1856, Jabez Allies published some theories on fairies being referenced in English place-names. He listed Mob's Close or Mop's Close, and also an orchard known as Moblee Pleck or Mobbled Pleck, which Allies helpfully explained "meaning Mab-led Pleck, or a plot where any one was liable to be Mab-led”. He cited Brand's Antiquities. (Allies also proposed that many locations were named after Michael Drayton's jokingly named fairies like Pip and Pin, with the premise that these were all ancient dieties, rather than Drayton being imaginative.)
More interesting is A. R. Winnington-Ingram's 1893 paper, "On the Origin of Names of Places with Special Reference to Gloucestershire" (Proceedings of the Cotteswold Naturalists' Field Club). The author referenced other works mentioning “mab-led,” mainly Allies' work. However, in a note based on his personal experience, he remarked “I have myself heard country people say of a man who was stupified that he was Mambled or Mombled.”
This gives a personal anecdote rather than a lack of sources or simple theorizing. Stupefied or confused would fit well with being led astray by a fairy.
Observations on Popular Antiquities remains the only source on the will o' the wisp connection. I looked for other early mentions, but like Allies, they all turned out to be quoting this one.
In the 1568 play "The Historie of Jacob and Esau," a midwife is called “Mother Mab." In an angry diatribe, another character associates her with midnight and blackness, and also calls her a “heg” (hag).
So we have “Mother Mab” in close association with hags, midwives and witches. This fits perfectly with Shakespeare’s Queen Mab, who is also a hag and a midwife.
The name Mab is possibly derived from the generic girls' name “Mabel.” Additionally, some definitions explain it as a slattern or a loose woman. However, these sexual definitions of "mab" began appearing in dictionaries only post-Shakespeare. So we can't say for certain whether Mab's name was a sexual reference to begin with, or whether viewers of "The Historie of Jacob and Esau" would have heard it that way.
Mabb, Lady to the Queene
According to Katharine Briggs, a 17th-century manuscript known as the Sloane Manuscript 1727, collected in the British Library, mentions "Mabb, lady to the queene" among other spirits. The queen she served might have been Micol, queen of the fairies or "regina pigmeorum," mentioned in the same text. This was an anonymous treatise on magic. (For comparison, Oberon was frequently listed in grimoires of the time.)
Unfortunately there is not much to go on here other than Briggs' second-hand reference, so take this one with a grain of salt, but I'm still going to hang onto it. I'll have to follow this up if I ever get the opportunity to visit that collection.
In 1866, William Henderson's collection Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties included a Rumpelstiltskin-esque tale. The story is set in Selkirkshire, Scotland. A girl who hates spinning is sitting one day on a self-bored stone (a stone with a natural hole worn through it, often believed to grant fairy sight). There she encounters a strange old woman who offers to spin her thread for her. The woman has markedly long lips, from drawing out her thread with them so often. The girl returns later and, looking through the stone, sees an underground cavern of deformed old women, all spinning. The girl hears the leader refer to herself as Habetrot, and bid the ugliest spinner of them all – Scantlie Mab, who has bulging eyes and a hooked nose in addition to her deformed lips – to bundle up the newly-spun yarn. Thanks to the fairy yarn, the girl wins a handsome laird for her husband. Habetrot then rescues her from ever spinning again; she tells the girl to bring her new husband to the stone, where the old women explain that they have all been deformed by so much spinning. The laird, alarmed, declares that his bride shall never touch a spindle again.
Here, the spinners are not baby-stealing little men, but friendly old women who take the girl under their wing. This branch of the tale doesn’t normally feature a name-guessing challenge. In "Habetrot," the girl’s anxiety over not remembering her helper’s name doesn’t really affect the plot; it feels like this section might have been borrowed from other tales. Elsewhere in the volume, Henderson describes "old Habbitrot, that queen of spinsters” (p. 5) as spinning thread with curse-breaking properties. All of the Habetrot material is from a manuscript put together by a Mr. Wilkie about fifty years previously, contracted by Sir Walter Scott.
Scantlie Mab is intriguing, as she is the only other named fairy in the story. Her significance isn’t explained, but she is significant. Some versions even title the story “Habetrot and Scantlie Mab.” Note that she is not the leader of the fairies, but receives orders from Habetrot.
Scantlie, related to “scant”, means the same as “scarcely”, or a very small amount - so, “Little Mab.” (I also find the internal rhyme of Hab and Mab interesting. Might there have been an earlier version where it was Habetrot and Little Hab, or Mabetrot and Little Mab?)
I've never seen anyone connect Scantlie Mab to Queen Mab. This story was printed centuries after Shakespeare, but it's intriguing in that it features a fairy named Mab who does not fit the typical modern profile of Queen Mab as ruler.
Most references to Queen Mab are from literature. Ben Jonson's plays, Michael Drayton's poetry, and so on. However much authors and poets might have drawn on folklore, they were also drawing on literature and plays of the time. Mab does not appear, however, in folklore collections. In contrast, you will find references to pucks, hobgoblins and Robin Goodfellows all over the place.
The ellyllon connection has no clear sources. The Fawdon Hill connection is probably a misreading of an ambiguous text where someone used "Mab" as a generic descriptor. "Mab-led" meaning pixie-led is intriguing, but also lacks much evidence, although the connection from "Queen Mab" to "mobled queen" is tempting.
The last three are more interesting to me. A lot of Mab's regal associations, such as being Oberon's wife, came from other authors after "Romeo and Juliet" and are primarily literary. But if you look at these alternate sources - a pre-Shakespeare play, a pamphlet on witchcraft, and a later fairytale - you can see shades of a different Mab.
Let's try some reconstruction. This Mab is a hag ("Jacob and Esau," "Romeo and Juliet", Habetrot). She is associated with the supernatural (all sources). She is a queen or quean ("Romeo and Juliet"), or serves a queen and is identified in close connection with her (Sloane 1727, Habetrot). Morally, she may be a mischievous trickster, a benevolent figure, or a mixture. Finally, she is associated with traditional feminine tasks like midwifery ("Jacob and Esau," "Romeo and Juliet") or spinning (Habetrot). Both of these tasks were often associated with unmarried women and sometimes witchcraft. There are even myths where they went hand in hand - the Greek Fates, who prophesied the fates of newborns, were depicted as spinning and cutting the thread of life, and Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, was referred to as "the clever spinner."
So maybe we have an alternate version of Queen Mab here. Or perhaps one thing led to another: “The Historie of Jacob and Esau,” where a witchy midwife associated with darkness is called Mother Mab, inspired Shakespeare. In turn, Shakespeare’s work led to a popular literary character of a royal Queen Mab, but also to atypical references such as a folktale in which Mab was the servant of a queen.
Whatever the case, I think it's important to consider that if Shakespeare drew on folklore for Queen Mab, he wasn't necessarily hearing of a miniature, regal fairy monarch. Have you encountered other mentions of Mab in collections of folklore? Let me know in the comments!
In most traditional versions, Cinderella’s ball is a multi-night affair. She visits on three nights and dances with the prince three times. Often she wears more elaborate dresses each night, building more and more on the concept. She loses her shoe on the third night. Both Perrault’s Cendrillon and the Brothers Grimm’s Aschenputtel follow this model.
The rule of three also shows in versions where she has two stepsisters. Cinderella is one of three rivals. Her two stepsisters go to the ball first and try on the shoe first. Cinderella is the triumphant final contestant.
The Rule of Three is a common storytelling or rhetorical technique across western literature including folktales. Even in modern times, think how many things come in threes, like the Three Musketeers. The number is also recurrent throughout the Bible (Jonah in the whale for three days) and in Christian teaching (like the Trinity). Three is the smallest possible number that’s still recognizable as a pattern. Patterns of three make the tale feel more satisfying, complete, or amusing, without the repetition becoming boring.
In many modern retellings, however, Cinderella goes to one ball only. I think this began with stage adaptations such as pantomimes. Films followed suit, including the 1914 Cinderella film starring Mary Pickford, and the animated Disney film from 1950.
In storytelling, it’s easy to skim quickly over the details of the ball. In stage or cinema, three spectacles of a kind might start to drag. These are visual adaptations and the fairytale’s exact repetition is not going to work. You could have three identical ball nights, or try to vary it up and make each occasion different (with all the set or animation costs involved) . . . or you could simply summarize it into one.
Does this mean something has been lost? I don’t think so. The formats of the telling are different – a play, movie or a novel is very different from an oral folktale, and the same things won’t necessarily work across different mediums. Movies frequently condense their source material.
Also, audiences’ tastes change. In the original, the three-night ball is really the main plot. Cinderella is a heroine completing a series of trials. Can she escape her family’s attention each night? Can she get another dress from her supernatural benefactor? Can she wow the prince each night and then slip away afterwards? In some versions she becomes a trickster, hiding behind a Clark Kent-esque disguise and savoring her own private joke. You can imagine Perrault’s Cinderella winking at the audience as she asks her sisters about the mysterious lady at the ball. The Grimm Cinderella gets up to some hijinks as she evades the lovelorn prince, scaling a tree or hiding in a pigeon coop.
But modern retellings typically leave this out. In the fairytale, Cinderella and the prince develop a connection over three nights; initial attraction leads immediately to marriage. He can’t even recognize her through her rags and soot, being only able to identify her by her shoe. Not particularly romantic.
Modern versions typically focus on the romance and on giving Cinderella a goal beyond just going to a party and finding a husband. The 1998 film Ever After, Marissa Meyer’s 2012 novel Cinder, and Disney’s 2015 live-action remake all spend the majority of the story building up Cinderella’s relationship with the prince, and her own personality and life goals. Instead of ball attendance being the main plot, the ball is a single dramatic scene. Cinderella gets one shot at wowing her prince, and so the ball is that much more significant.
Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (my favorite Cinderella retelling of all time) goes for three balls. However, Levine – like the other authors mentioned – builds a more unique plot and has Ella fall in love with her prince long before the festival. (I think the movie adaptation reduced the celebrations to a single coronation ball, though I have not watched it).
The Grimm-inspired musical Into the Woods features three balls, but at least in the film adaptation, they take place mostly offscreen. The ball is not the focus. Instead, the focus is on Cinderella fleeing on three consecutive nights, and the slightly different events each time. Again, it’s avoiding too much repetition.
Another thing: particularly if it’s a contemporary or high-school retelling, one-night events are often more common than multi-night recurring festivals. The 2004 movie A Cinderella Story made it a Halloween dance. Some of these stories still include the secret identity element by making it a masquerade ball, or having Cinderella not realize her beloved is the prince at first. Contemporary versions have an advantage in that the romantic interests can chat online to begin with, preserving their anonymity until it's time for the big finale.
So it makes sense for the story to be updated. But the new emphasis on Cinderella having more personality, or more chemistry with the prince, is separate from the fact that many versions just have one ball.
A lot of this may be the effect of film. Cinderella has been retold many times, and today a lot of people get their main exposure to fairytales through movie format. Disney is one of the main heavy-hitters, but even earlier versions (like the Mary Pickford film) had just one ball.
You don’t see as many versions of Cinderella’s close cousin All-kinds-of-fur or Donkeyskin (which is probably rare because of the incest theme). I’ve seen three versions, and all featured the three balls. This story is a little different because it is an important plot point that the heroine has three different dresses, and of course she has to show them all off. However, I can’t think of any versions where the three dresses are condensed into one. If Disney had been daring enough to adapt this tale, we might have a standardized simplified version as we do with Cinderella.
(While we’re on this subject, I would heartily recommend Jim Henson’s TV episode “Sapsorrow” – a combination of Cinderella and Donkeyskin including a dark spin on the glass slipper, where a king is unhappily bound by law to marry whoever his dead wife’s ring fits.)
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One of my favorite childhood fairytales was the expressively titled "The Two Sisters Who Envied Their Cadette" (or in more modern language, "The Two Sisters Who Envied Their Younger Sister.") This is one of the Arabian Nights, but it's actually part of a group of "orphan tales," which appeared in Antoine Galland's translation from the early 1700s, and not in the original manuscripts. Some, like Aladdin and Ali Baba, are actually more well-known than the original Nights, and I have to say Periezade was my absolute favorite when I read a collection as a kid.
The story begins with a king named Khusraw Shah or Khosrouschah. There were a few real Persian kings named Khosrau. This story’s Khosrau Shah comes off as capricious and murderous, but we'll get to that in a minute.
He overhears three sisters talking. One dreams of marrying the king's baker, another of marrying the Sultan's chef, and the youngest and most beautiful says that she would marry the Sultan. While the first two make their wishes out of gluttony, the youngest is said by the narrator to have more sense. Amused, the Sultan has them fetched to the palace and performs all three weddings on the spot. Unfortunately, this sows resentment; the older sisters grow jealous and plot their sister's demise. Over the next few years, she gives birth to two sons and a daughter, and each time her sisters replace them with a puppy, a kitten, and a wooden stick that they pass off as a molar pregnancy. They secretly put the babies in a basket and boat them off down the canal.
The king initially wants to execute his wife straight off, but his advisors talk him down and he decides to instead have her imprisoned on the steps of the mosque, where everyone on their way to worship must spit on her.
The superintendent of the palace gardens, with fantastic timing, happens to be in the area each time a baby comes floating along the river. He realizes that they must have come from the queen's apartments, but decides it's better not to get involved, and just raises them as his own. He and his wife pass away before they have the chance to explain the children's true origins, so the king's children - Bahman, Perviz and Periezade - are left to live in their isolated house, living a wealthy and comfortable yet solitary life. The boys are named after Persian kings - Perviz's name means "victorious" and I found out that one of the real Khosraus had "Parviz" as a byname. Periezade's name is derived from "peri" or fairy. The narrator takes note that Periezade is formally educated and physically active just as much as her brothers.
One day, an old woman tells Periezade of three marvelous treasures: Speaking Bird, the Singing Tree, and the Golden Water. Periezade is overcome with longing for these things (I had forgotten before I reread it how weirdly obsessed she becomes). She pleads so much that her oldest brother Bahman agrees to go and find them, leaving behind a magical dagger that will become covered in blood if he dies. Soon enough the dagger turns bloody, and Perviz does the same, leaving Periezade with a string of pearls that will get stuck if he's in danger. When Perviz also falls into peril, Periezade disguises herself as a boy and sets out after them.
Now, both Bahman and Perviz had encountered an old man on their journey, and Periezade soon does the same. In many stories, when a trio of siblings encounters an old beggar in the woods, it's a chance to contrast the nobler and kinder youngest sibling. However, in this case all three siblings are courteous and generous to the old man who warns them of the dangers ahead. The difference is in how they take his warning into account. He tells them that as they climb the mountain to the Speaking Bird, they must not turn back, even though voices will taunt or frighten them. The brothers each climbed the hill, filled with over-confidence, and end up turning around only to be transformed into black stones. Periezade, however, has the practical foresight and self-knowledge to stuff her ears with cotton. Not only does she get the bird, but it tells her how to restore her brothers and all the other travelers to life with the magical Golden Water.
They return home with the treasures, and it so happens that the king encounters the brothers while they're hunting in the forest. They invite him to dinner. The Speaking Bird advises Periezade to serve a cucumber stuffed with pearls. Baffled, the king says that it makes no sense, and the Speaking Bird tells him that it makes just as much sense as a woman giving birth to animals. The Bird reveals the whole backstory, and the king embraces his long-lost children, sends the wicked sisters to be executed, and restores his queen to favor. (Even though I feel like a much more satisfying ending would be for her to take the kids and run far, far away.)
Periezade's story is an example of Aarne-Thompson Type 707, "The Bird of Truth" or "The Golden Sons." Another version does appear in the Arabian Nights, known as "The Tale of the Sultan and his Sons and the Enchanting Birds."
European versions are widespread. The persecuted wife accused of giving birth to animals, who is imprisoned but later restored to favor when her grown children return, is a very common motif that appears in all sorts of stories. Sometimes all of the children are boys. Sometimes it's twins, a boy and a girl, or a girl and several boys. Often, they are connected to stars or other celestial bodies, such as having a star on their foreheads. The blame on the queen in these stories hints that she indulged in bestiality to produce animal children, or she is responsible for bearing not a child but a molar pregnancy, disgracing her husband either way.
The old woman who tells Periezade about the treasures remains mysterious. In some versions, it’s actually the wicked aunts or one of their servants, trying to get rid of the children now that they know they’ve survived. It seems this element was lost or confused in the Galland version. In some other tales, though, the old woman is a benevolent figure.
Not all versions feature the quest for the magical objects, but the typical ending is that the king encounters the grown children - perhaps in the woods, perhaps at his own wedding to a second wife - and their story comes out, causing him to repent of his treatment to his wife.
The story has ancient roots. A similar tale appeared around 1190 in Johannes de Alta Silva's Dolopathos sive de Rege et Septem Sapientibus. A lord marries a fairylike maiden who gives birth to septuplets, six boys and a girl, each born wearing a gold chain. The jealous mother-in-law swaps the children for puppies, and the easily fooled husband punishes his wife by having her buried up to the neck in the middle of the woods. The children survive and grow up in the forest; each has the power to transform into a swan, but the mother-in-law discovers them and steals the boys’ golden chains, leaving them trapped in swan form. The sister escapes this fate and continues to take care of her brothers, and when the lord finds out, he has the chains returned to his sons and frees them. (One son, whose chain was damaged, is left as a swan.) This is closer to the tale type of the Swan-Children, but there are still familiar elements. The more modern versions of "The Wild Swans," like Hans Christian Andersen's story, have the sister imprisoned, persecuted and accused of murdering her own children. Perhaps not incidentally, at the end she saves her brothers and regains her children at the same time, and is finally able to speak and tell her husband her whole backstory.
The oldest known version of the Periezade variation is "Ancilotto, King of Provino," in The Facetious Nights of Straparola from the 1550s. The heroine is named Serena. This version has the quest as the villainous mother-in-law and aunts’ attempt to get rid of the children. The similarities in general are close enough that Galland might even have been directly influenced. Galland's contemporary, Madame D'Aulnoy, wrote her own version of the story as "Princess Belle-Etoile and the Prince Cheri."
Michael Drayton (1563-1631) was an English poet whose work varied from political to mythical. His poem "Nymphidia" was published in 1627, at the height of a new fad for tiny fairies started by his contemporary William Shakespeare. "Nymphidia" is also known by the title “The Court of Fairy” or in some later editions “The History of Queen Mab”. It has remained a classic of fairy literature ever since.
Drayton explains that he heard the story from a fairy named Nymphidia. He introduces Pigwiggen, a fairy knight who begins wooing Queen Mab - sending her a bracelet of ant's eyes and arranging to meet secretly with her inside a cowslip flower. However, Mab's husband King Oberon grows suspicious. He begins searching for Mab, attacking a wasp at one point when he mistakes it for Pigwiggen, and then generally just bumbling around until he meets Puck. Nymphidia overhears the king and Puck planning to catch Mab, and warns the queen in time for her to hide. Pigwiggen challenges Oberon to a duel for Mab's honor, donning a beetle-head helmet and riding on a mighty earwig. As the duel begins, Mab goes for help to the goddess Proserpina. Proserpina gives all of the men water from the river Lethe to drink, erasing their memory, so that the women are the only ones in the know. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The poem begins with references, each of which parallel "Nymphidia" in some way.
Old Chaucer doth of Topas tell,
Mad Rabelais of Pantagruel,
A later third of Dowsabel...
Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Sir Thopas,” from the Canterbury Tales (1387), is a parodic tale of a knight who woos a fairy queen - just like Pigwiggen with Mab.
Rabelais' novels, written in the 16th century, focus on the fantastical size of giant characters Gargantua and Pantagruel, often for humorous effect. For instance, a baby giant requires thousands of cows for milk. "Nymphidia" reverses this by going microscopic, but still plays with size by using familiar objects in unexpected ways.
Finally, the "later third" is Drayton himself. He wrote a poem called “The Ballad of Dowsabel” in The Shepherd’s Garland, published in 1593. He compared his hero to Sir Thopas there, too. Dowsabel (a variant of Dulcibella, from the Latin “dulcis” or “sweet”) became a generic name in English poetry for an ideal lady-love personifying beauty and purity.
Mab, Oberon and Puck/Hobgoblin
Here are some instantly recognizable characters. Oberon was a familiar fairy king, and comes with Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, although they appear as much more ridiculous figures here. However, Titania does not accompany them. Instead, Oberon is at odds with a different wife.
For Oberon's queen, Drayton used a different Shakespearean fairy - Mab, from Romeo and Juliet. Mab is a much tinier character than Titania, and more suited to the themes of Drayton's poem. Drayton was the first known author to pair Oberon and Mab as spouses, kicking off a tradition of using the two fairy queens interchangeably.
The fairytale character Tom Thumb makes an appearance as a page boy, and serves as Pigwiggen's squire. This was not the only occasion where Tom Thumb showed up in stories about fairies. In fact, it seems the character was instantly recognizable as a fairy name in 16th-and 17th-century England.
One that a valiant knight had been,
And to King Oberon of kin...
This was a surprising one. Drayton's fairy knight Tomalin shows up over a century before the traditional ballad of Tam Lin was recorded in the 1790s. Is there a connection?
Numerous ballads from this era featured characters with a name similar to Tam Lin. From 1549, The Complaynt of Scotland mentioned an unknown story titled "the tayl of the zong tamlene, and of the bald braband." Another song told of "Tom a lin and his wife, and his wiue's mother" falling into a river, and still another began "Tomy Linn is a Scotchman born."
Some authors have tried to group them all with the ballad of Tam Lin (see, for example, Burns 1903). However, all of the surviving works are so different that a connection seems faint. Tam Lin/Tommy Lin/Tomalin may have simply been a common male name. A shepherd named "Thomalin" appeared in Edmund Spenser's Shepheardes Calender (1579), and no one seems to have attempted to tie this character to the fairy Tam Lin. In some cases, such as the "zong tamlene," (young Tamlene? song Tamlene??), it's possible it's simply a similar-sounding word with no real connection.
Drayton’s Tomalin, however, stands out. This is the only work before the Tam Lin ballad where a Tomalin is described as a fairy knight.
Proserpina, the classical goddess, appears along with the River Lethe. Drayton imitates Chaucer again in associating the classical gods of the underworld, Pluto and Proserpine, with the fairies.
Fly Cranion is Mab’s charioteer. Shakespeare gave a famous description of Mab’s coach, made of a hazelnut and driven by a "gray-coated gnat," with atomies (tiny mites) for horses. The wagon spokes are made of spiders' legs, with the wagon's cover made of grasshopper wings, the harness of spiderwebs, the collars or moonbeams, and her whip is made from a cricket's bone.
Drayton gives his own spin on this passage. Some elements are the same, but swapped around, and the coach has a more colorful effect. His Mab rides in a snailshell, decorated with bee fuzz and butterfly-wings, with wheels made of cricket bones. The horses are gnats harnessed with gossamer. Mab’s maids, left behind in the rush, wrap themselves in a cobweb veil and ride after her on a grasshopper.
The coachman is probably an insect rather than a fairy if Drayton is following Shakespeare’s lead. Cranion has been translated as "spider," but also - based on the Nymphidia passage - as “fly.” A writer for the Folk-Lore Journal in 1885 suggested that the character was meant to be the Daddy Longlegs or Crane fly, which makes perfect sense to me, although the writer also thought this might be too big for Mab’s coach. Flies were sometimes known as witches’ familiars.
Hop, and Mop, and Drop so cleare,
Pip, and Trip, and Skip that were,
To Mab their Soveraigne ever deare:
Her speciall Maydes of Honour;
Fib, and Tib, and Pinck, and Pin,
Tick, and Quick, and Jill, and Jin,
Tit, and Nit, and Wap, and Win,
The Trayne that wayte upon her.
Jabez Allies, writing in 1846, tried to connect some of these nonsensical fairy names to old English location names, such as a "Pin's Hill" - the idea being that these were traditional characters who had inspired the names of local land formations. Samuel Lysons in 1865 tried to do something similar, tying the names to ancient myth - Nit must be connected to Gwyn ap Nudd, Tit is Teutates, and Pip is the Phrygian supreme god Attis-Papas. (Our British Ancestors, p. 156) I am not entirely sure whether either of these writers were joking. These are apparently examples of an antiquarian/folkloric movement for a while in the 1800s which drew connections based on how names sounded, rather than function or background.
It's more likely that Drayton's litany of fairies was simply a little light creative fun. The eighteen monosyllabic nonsense names echo Mab in their style. There are some generic nouns. Hop, Trip, Skip, and Quick’s names all suggest playful movement. In the play The Maid's Metamorphosis from 1600, the fairies repeatedly sing of tripping or skipping ("When a dew-drop falleth down, And doth light upon my crown. Then I shake my head and skip, And about I trip."). The fae were frequently described in Drayton’s work and elsewhere as “tripping” or dancing - see the blog British Fairies’ post here.
“Pink and Pin” might suggest the fairy act of pinching humans. Tib, Jill and Jin could be real girls’ names. Tit might be the same word meaning “small” that appears in the bird name tomtit - see also the fairy name “Tom Tit Tot.” A nit is a louse's egg. Katharine Briggs suggested in An Encyclopedia of Fairies that Wap and Win's names might have a sexual meaning, comparing them to Dekker's O Per Se O - "If she won’t wap for a winne, let her trine for a make" ("If she will not lie with a man for a penny, let her hang for a halfpenny.")
Overall, the list of names isn’t really meant to be taken seriously, but there are some interesting connections.
This rhyming style was popular, and similar lists showed up in other works of the time. One was a booklet printed in 1628 - "Robin Goodfellow: his mad prankes, and merry Jests, full of honest mirth, and is a fit medicine for melancholy." Here, Oberon's courtiers are "Patch and Pinch, Grim and Gull," "Tib and Sib, Licke and Lull." 1628 is the date of printing and it's been suggested that the poem is actually older, but there's no way to know for sure. (Take note of Tib - and also note that this is another work where Oberon, Puck and Tom Thumb all feature in the fairy court.)
Drayton's contemporary, Robert Herrick, produced "The Fairy Temple or Oberon's Chapel". Here, the names are designed not just for rhythm but for some contorted rhymes.
Saint Tit, Saint Nit, Saint Is, Saint Itis,
Who 'gainst Mab's-state placed here right is...
Saint Frip, Saint Trip, Saint Fill, Saint Fillie,
Neither those other saintships will I...
It's even been suggested that the Nymphidia fairies influenced Clement Clark Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" with its list of Santa's reindeer.
Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen! (Jones 1954)
As Drayton explains in his framing device, Nymphidia is the narrator of the poem. She is a powerful sorceress in her own right, and takes a quick and capable hand in the doings of the fairy monarchy. Oberon has Puck to be his right-hand man, and Mab has Nymphidia.
According to Plutarch and some other writers, a woman named Nymphidia was the mother of a prefect named Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus who served under Emperor Nero. This Nymphidia, according to some sources, was a courtesan. The name derives from "nymph," which comes originally from the Greek word for "bride" and came to refer to beautiful female nature spirits.
Nymphs frequently played a role in Drayton’s poetry. Nymphidia was not his only unique spin on the word, as he described “nymphets sporting” in Poly-Olbion (1612), and divided his poem "The Muses' Elysium" (1630) into ten sections labeled "Nymphalls."
In modern science, the name “nymph” is also associated with insects. The larvae of some species, such as dragonflies, are called nymphs. One family of butterflies is known as Nymphalidae (a name introduced in the 19th century), and one Asian butterfly is known as the Stiboges nymphidia. It seems possible that the poem influenced that last one. Although the butterfly associations came later, they are very appropriate to Drayton's poem.
Pigwiggen, our Sir Thopas figure, is also a new one. (Or Pigwiggin, depending on edition and spelling.) The name suggests pygmy - originally from a Greek word referring to the measure of length from wrist to elbow. There's also pixie, pronounced pigsie in some dialects, although I don't think pixies had truly gained popularity in fairy literature at that point. This poem remains the most famous use of the name - but Drayton wasn't the first to use it.
A 1594 play featured the line "Now will I be as stately to them as if I were maister Pigwiggen our constable." So the name was around before "Nymphidia," although it really picked up afterwards, referring to anything tiny and contemptible. (Mysteriously, pigwiggan or peggy wiggan is also supposed to be a word for a somersault.)
As time went on, the variant "pigwidgeon" became popular. George Powell's play "A Very Good Wife" (1693) uses the word "Pigwidgeon" to refer to someone's lady-love. More often, the word referred to a small, petty creature. As a fantasy race of little gnomes, pigwidgeons featured in some 19th- and early 20th-century literature. For instance, they were gruesome goblins in the 1912 children's book Trystie's Quest, or, Kit, King of the Pigwidgeons.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's unclear how the split happened and whether the word initially sounded like widgin or wiggin. However, the OED leans towards wiggin.
A form of the word appeared in Nashe's Have with you to Saffron-Walden (1596), in a reference to a man's "Piggen de wiggen or gentlewoman."
According to the English Dialect Dictionary, piggin-riggin is an Irish term for "a half-grown boy or girl." However, the quote given in the Dictionary is "The eight or ten childer were what we call 'piggin riggins', too old for a dumly and too young for bacon." Searching out the source, Barrington's Personal Sketches of His Own Times, this description is referring to piglets, not to human children.
18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke was criticized for referring to lower-class people as a "swinish multitude." Burke later tried to defend himself, saying that he was talking about the French revolutionaries - "I never dreamt of our poor little English piggen-riggen, who go about squeaking and grunting quite innocently; my thoughts were on the wild boar of the Gallic forest."
Very similar is a Cornish term, piggy-whidden or piggy-wiggy for the runt of a litter of piglets, which was also known as a term of endearment (Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable). It has been interpreted as meaning "white pig," from "gwyn" or white, but this may be a false etymology.
Both "piggin-riggin" and "piggy-whidden" are probably just variants on the rhyming baby-talk "piggy-wiggy." This term for a piglet was common throughout the 19th century.
Pigsney is a term for a sweetheart meaning literally "pig's eye." It appeared as "piggesnye" in The Canterbury Tales (1380s-1390s). The word could apply to men, but was generally feminine.
Emma Wilby suggested that Pigwiggen could be connected to the name of one 16th-century witch familiar, Piggin ("The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England"). "Piggin" is actually a word for a small wooden pail.
I learned recently that Drayton may not have been the first person to mention a fairy Pigwiggen after all. "The Masque of the Twelve Months" was a fragmented script printed by John Payne Collier in 1848, with no author's name. Although some critics suggested that it was a forgery, others have argued for it being genuine. The play begins with a dialogue between an owl, "Madge Howlet," and a fairy lady, Piggwiggin.
"Lady Piggwiggin, th' only snoutfaire of the fairies. A my word, hadst thou not spoken like a maid, I had snatcht thee up for a mouse."
In the 1950s, it was suggested that the author was George Chapman. Critics such as E. K. Chambers in 1923, Kenneth Muir in 1950, Margaret Dean-Smith in 1951, and Martin Butler in 2007 have dated the masque in a range of years from 1608 to 1619. Most lean earlier, around 1611-1613. Any of these prospective dates would mean that Pigwiggen was a fairy name before the writing of "Nymphidia," and Drayton did not originate it. Not only that, but it was a feminine name! This would fit with "Piggen de wiggen," "Pigwidgeon," and "pigsnye" being used for a female sweetheart. This may have been an additional layer of satire to the poem. For his parody of courtly love and royal affairs, Drayton gave the Lancelot-like knight a unisex/feminine name meaning "sweetheart," possibly a pet name based on piglets.
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Where did we get the idea of faeries in Summer and Winter Courts - or courts themed around all four seasons? Why does this appear so much in current fantasy novels? And what do they have to do with the Seelie and Unseelie Courts?
There are many legends of weather or seasonal spirits. Winter in particular has plenty of personifications. But these beings weren't necessarily fairies, and fairies weren't divided by seasons. If you go back to Shakespeare, Titania and Oberon were rulers over all the seasons. When did it get split up?
This may have been a product of the Victorian era. Toned down for children, fairies became toothless things made primarily for education and edification. They were closely associated with nature and thus the seasons. There was some blurring of lines; this wasn't actually meant to promote genuine fairy belief, and often the "fairies" were poetic representations of insects, birds or plants. This was, after all, a way to educate kids on nature.
In Victorian children's literature, fairies were responsible for painting the flowers, decorating the autumn leaves, or bringing snowflakes - and unlike Shakespeare, there were separate kingdoms. Fairies of spring, summer, autumn and winter worked in exclusive groups. In some books, they had their own monarchs, or there might be rivalries between groups.
The Grand Christmas Pantomime Entitled Gosling the Great (1860) featured a fairy queen of spring named Azurina.
"The Fairies of the Earth, and Their Hiding Places," by Lizzie Beach (1870) explained all of nature in fairy terms; Jack Frost was the king of the autumn and winter fairies.
In the Libretto of the Fairy Operetta of the Naiad Queen (1872), the queens of each season are mentioned alongside queens of the fairies, sprites and flowers.
Margaret T. Canby, in Birdie and his Fairie Friends (1873), included a story called "The Frost Fairies" in which Jack Frost is king over the fairies of winter.
The trope of the seasonal fairy continued strong into the 20th century and continues to be popular. Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series (beginning 2010) for one, features courts of Summer and Winter, while Disney's Tinker Bell animated movies (beginning 2008) put major emphasis on the fairies causing the seasons. But there's another factor that I believe is important here:
The Oak King and the Holly King
As mentioned, there are many myths to explain seasonal changes. Persephone is a classic seasonal myth. In Orcadian legend there is a constant struggle between the benevolent Sea Mither (Mother) and the evil storm spirit Teran who fight every spring and autumn. In Germany, Mother Holle was an legendary figure who created snow by shaking out her pillows.
There were also holiday traditions where a person dressed as Summer defeated another dressed as Winter. In other cases, effigies were torn apart or thrown into the stream to celebrate the end of Winter.
Robert Graves, in The White Goddess (1948), took influence from these rituals when he defined the Oak and Holly Kings. These were two gods who battled every year over a maiden representing Spring or fertility. The Oak King ruled during summer, but the Holly King defeated him and took over every winter. The yearly cycle goes on forever. Graves held that this was an actual myth that survived in multiple legends, and he had plenty of examples (Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, for instance). In any story, if there are two men who fight (and particularly if there is a lady involved who can be connected to the Spring season), then there's your Oak and Holly King. It's very convenient.
In fact, the Oak and Holly Kings are Graves' original creation, extrapolating from many different myths and the work of James Frazer. However, his work had a huge influence on modern paganism. For instance, Edain McCoy's popular 1994 book A Witch's Guide to Faery Folk is packed full of seasonal fairies as well as Gravesian mythology.
Conclusion: Modern Times
So in the twentieth century, you have a strong literary tradition of pretty little fairies being responsible for every change in season. And in addition to old myths of seasonal changes, you also have a newly popular neopagan theme of an unending power struggle between kings of Summer and Winter.
However, what really tipped the scales was Jim Butcher's bestselling fantasy series: The Dresden Files. The 2002 novel Summer Knight introduced the fairy rulers. Butcher had the idea of conflating the seasons with the idea of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts - a concept from late Scottish folklore, which I examined recently on this blog. Thus, his fairies are split into two factions: the Seelie (or Summer) fae, ruled by Titania, and the Unseelie (or Winter) fae, ruled by Mab.
Since the publication of this book, Butcher's system has grown huge in fairy fantasy - Titania and Mab as opposing seasonal queens, the seasons divided into Seelie and Unseelie, etc. Many authors seem to have lifted it wholesale straight from Butcher.
And if Summer and Winter are courts, it seems reasonable enough that Spring and Autumn might also be courts, or that there might be other themed groups. Sarah J. Maas' series Court of Thorns and Roses has seven themed fairy courts (all four seasons, plus dawn, day and night).
It is true that the Seelie Court is an old idea, as are good and evil fae, and fairies or other beings who influence the seasons. But originally, Seelie and Unseelie had nothing to do with the seasons. Thanks to popular literature, Jim Butcher's worldbuilding has grown popular enough to sometimes be confused for an old tradition.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.