That's the cover of a recent picture book retelling the fairytale with a Halloween theme. However, it reminded me of one of the first known mentions of Tom Thumb.
In Reginald Scot's 1584 work, the Discoverie of Witchcraft, he writes:
“...they have so fraied us with bull beggers, spirits, witches . . . the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles . . . and other such bugs, that we are afraid of our owne shadows.”
What's Tom Thumb doing in a list of monsters? This baffled me for a long time, but then I looked at the first existing version of the story, "The History of Tom Thumbe," printed in 1621.
A childless woman goes to Merlin for help. In this chapbook, Merlin is heavily associated with the occult, and is called (among other things) "a devil or spirit" who "consorts with Elves and Fairies." He tells the woman:
Ere thrice the Moone her brightnes change
A shapelesse child by wonder strange,
Shall come abortive from thy wombe,
No bigger then thy Husbands Thumbe:
And as desire hath him begot,
He shall have life, but substance not;
No blood, nor bones in him shall grow,
Not seen, but when he pleaseth so:
His shapeless shadow shall be such,
You'll heare him speak, but not him touch.
The metrical version of 1630 is very similar, with some of the same phrasing. These descriptions indicate a Tom Thumb who is not entirely a physical being. Also notice that he doesn't have bones, and there's another demon on Scot's list named the Boneless. There's also a creature called the Tom Tumbler. Is this related to Tom Thumb, or is it just a readalike?
On a close reading, the early versions of Tom Thumb contain many references to medieval European superstitions surrounding fairies, witches and demons.
In addition to a close relationship with the fairies, Tom shows magical abilities in both of the 1621 and 1630 versions. For instance, he hangs pots and pans “upon a bright sun-beam” as a prank on his classmates. This motif occurs elsewhere in medieval legends. St. Goar of Treves miraculously hung his cape on a sunbeam, and St. Aicadrus did the same with his gloves.
Later, Tom boasts that he can "creepe into a keyhole" and "saile in an egge-shel." Travel through keyholes was a common motif for witches, the devil, alps (nightmares), and other fairylike beings.
Boating in an eggshell, too, was a popular witch/fairy pastime. Superstitious people would crush leftover eggshells so that these creatures couldn't set to sea in them. That's a post for another time, but eggshell-sailing witches appear even in Discoverie of Witchcraft - the same book that started this blog post.
There are many mentions of Tom throughout the late 16th and early 17th centuries. I have a full list on my timeline page. In most of these brief mentions, Tom Thumb is simply a metaphor for something small. However, some give a hint of the story. In the shortened list here, seven works associate him with fairies and/or Robin Goodfellow. Five (possibly six) reference him being trapped in a pudding.
The Thumbling trapped inside food is a common motif which I've discussed before. While his mother is cooking, Tom falls into a pudding and gets boiled inside. In the prose version, the pudding shakes as if "the Devil and old Merlin" are trapped inside, until his mother believes it's bewitched. She hands it off to a passing tinker, who also thinks it must be the devil's work. Tom then breaks out of the pudding and runs home.
"Dathera Dad," a Derbyshire tale published in 1895, consists of just this incident. The creature inside the pudding is "a little fairy child." Similarly, the Russian "Devil in the Dough Pan" has an evil spirit who is baked inside bread when a woman forgets to bless the dough.
This was a common concept throughout Europe. In Scandinavia, peasant women made crosses on their dough to protect it from trolls (Thorpe 1851, pg. 275). The English did the same in order to "cross out" the witches, to "keep the devil from sitting on it," or to "let the devil out." Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology mentions a Somerset woman who would drew crosses on the cakes she baked, in order to stop the tiny, mischievous fairies from leaving footprints on them.
The cross was also meant to make the bread rise faster. Perhaps there was a supernatural explanation of warding off evil spirits who might sit or step on the dough. This superstition was known in the 17th century, and perhaps as early as 1252, when King Henry III condemned bakers marking their bread with the sign of the cross. (Roud 2006)
This could be connected to superstitions about demonic possession in the Early Middle Ages. Possession was often taken in a very literal, physical-minded way. Demons were depicted entering and leaving the victim's body via the mouth, or sometimes other orifices such as the ear. In his Dialogues, the late-6th-century pope St. Gregory the Great describes this case:
"Upon a certain day, one of the Nuns of the same monastery, going into the garden, saw a lettice that liked her, and forgetting to bless it before with the sign of the cross, greedily did she eat it: whereupon she was suddenly possessed with the devil, fell down to the ground, and was pitifully tormented. Word in all haste was carried to [the bishop] Equitius, desiring him quickly to visit the afflicted woman, and to help her with his prayers: who so soon as he came into the garden, the devil that was entered began by her tongue, as it were, to excuse himself, saying: "What have I done? What have I done? I was sitting there upon the lettice, and she came and did eat me." But the man of God in great zeal commanded him to depart."
In both the story of the possessed lettuce and the superstitions about crossed bread, the idea is the same. When someone forgot to bless their food - by either praying over it or physically marking it - they became susceptible to any entities which might lurk within.
Is this why Tom Thumb appeared in A Discoverie of Witches? Did Scot have demonic food in mind when he included Tom Thumb in the list? Or might he have encountered a version of the story which mentioned sailing in an eggshell?
Maybe not. Still, the oldest surviving versions of the story contain allusions not only to magic and fairies, but to demonic activity and witchcraft.
I've started researching Snow White and Sleeping Beauty tales, so I decided to check out the Schools' Collection. The Schools' Collection is a compilation of folklore, all collected by Irish schoolchildren during the 1930's. This was part of a coordinated effort in the school system to preserve folklore, both stories and superstitions. Thousands of the stories, written in English and Gaelic, have currently been digitized and can be viewed online here.
So far, I've found one strikingly unusual Snow White story: "The Bright Star of Ireland." It was told by a travelling workman named Patrick Gillispie, age 60, a native of County Louth. The collector was 13-year-old James Fox.
There’s a princess so beautiful that she’s called the Bright Star of Ireland. Her vain stepmother frequently bathes in a pond. One day when she’s admiring her reflection, a brown trout tells her that her stepdaughter is more beautiful than she is. The queen sends two black servants to kill the girl in the forest and bring back her heart and liver. Instead, the servants take pity on the girl and give the queen the heart and liver of a lapdog. (The narrator, unfortunately, uses the N-word for the servants.)
The queen finds out, of course, and tries once again to have the girl killed. This time the servants argue. They end up fighting, and the one defending Bright Star wins. He takes the heart and liver of the other servant to give to the queen, and warns Bright Star to flee.
She finds her way to an island where she enters a beautiful palace. A cat welcomes her in and tells her that in the night, a pack of huge cats will come in and tear at her. On the first night, at eleven o'clock, she is attacked and scratched by six cats; on the second night, twelve cats; on the third night, twenty-four cats. After she has endured the third time, someone enters the room - but instead of her first feline friend, it's a handsome young king. The two get married and are deeply in love.
However, yet again the stepmother learns of her survival and goes to visit. While shaking hands with the girl, she drives a “sleeping needle” under her fingernail.
The girl’s husband returns to find her seemingly dead, but instead of burying her, keeps her in a locked room which he frequently visits. He unwillingly takes a second wife. His new mother-in-law tells his second wife to investigate the locked room, so she finds the Bright Star inside and, by washing her face and hands, pulls out the needle and awakens her. Bright Star and her husband are reunited, and the second wife stays on as Bright Star’s waiting maid.
Learning of Bright Star’s survival from the trout, the stepmother makes one more attempt at visiting in order to give her poisoned wine. However, the waiting maid knocks the wine out of her hands and the murder attempt is revealed. They execute the stepmother by throwing her into the sea in a barrel, and Bright Star’s father marries the waiting maid.
The plotline is almost completely identical to “Gold-tree and Silver-tree,” a Scottish Snow White story. In both tales, rather than a magic mirror, there's a talking trout - reminiscent of the salmon of knowledge in the story of Fionn.
"The Bright Star of Ireland" has two major differences from "Gold-tree." One is the incident with the giant cats, where Bright Star must endure pain before earning an advantageous marriage. It's an unusual interlude which is never fully explained. Why must the heroine go through this? It reminds me of stories like "The Wild Swans" or "East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon" where the heroine has to go through various trials in order to save a man from a curse - like sewing with painful nettles that sting her hands, or sleeping alongside an enchanted prince at night.
The other major difference is that in "Gold-tree," the prince goes with the bigamy option and keeps both wives. I prefer this version, where the prince and second wife immediately separate (with an astonishing amount of good will on both sides) and she ends up as Bright Star’s new stepmother. It's always nice to read fairytales where women are close friends and allies.
The motif of the second wife who saves the first wife seems strange compared to other Snow Whites, but there's actually a long tradition related to this. It's not always the prince who awakens the sleeping girl, but his female relative! It grants the stories a kind of balance. One mother figure/sexual rival is predatory and jealous, and tries to kill Snow White. The second mother figure/sexual rival is loving and generous, and restores her to life.
In stories such as the Italian "The Crystal Casket" and "Maria, the Wicked Stepmother, and the Seven Robbers," it's the prince's mother who opens up the room and orders servants to wash the heroine's face and dress her. This is what frees her from the curse.
However, sometimes it's the heroine's co-wife who saves her, as in the Breton poem 'The Lai of Eliduc," from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. The married Eliduc falls in love with another woman, who sinks into a deathlike sleep. His wife, Guildeluec, soon discovers this state of affairs. Rather than getting angry, she revives her husband's mistress with a magic flower and steps aside so that they can marry each other. This is more like "The Bright Star of Ireland."
Polygamy was an established custom among the Celts and Gaels. Marie du France called the Lai of Eliduc "a very old Breton lay" when she wrote it down. There may have been ancient pre-Christian versions where Eliduc, like Gold-tree's prince, kept both wives.
I have found a new favorite fairytale. It begins with a wish for a child, a maiden as white as snow and red as blood, and a stepmother.
It's not 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,' but it's clearly a response to such tales. After a very Snow White-like beginning, it runs wild in its own direction. The version I read was collected by Jon Arnason in 1852.
Once there lived a childless King and Queen, as well as an untrustworthy counselor named Rauður. One day the Queen is out for a sleigh ride, with Rauður attending her. The Queen has a nosebleed and lets her blood land on the snow, at which point she wishes for a daughter as red as blood and white as snow.
Rauður says that her wish will be granted, but the moment she sets eyes on her daughter, she will lay an evil spell on the child to burn down her father's palace, get pregnant before she's married, and murder a man. The Queen doesn't care because she so badly wants a baby, and soon enough it comes to pass. Remembering the curse, she sends the child away and never looks at her. The little girl, Ingibjorg, grows up with remarkable beauty, but by the time she's ten, the Queen is dying. The Queen has held out thus far without ever looking at her, but now that she's dying, gives in and calls Ingibjorg into her room. No sooner has she seen Ingibjorg than she pronounces the curse upon her and dies.
More time passes, and the King takes a new fiancee, Hild. They are to be married at the end of three years. Somehow, Hild is already aware of Ingibjorg's curse and she promises to help.
Hild waits until a day when everyone is out, removes everything valuable from the building, and tells Ingibjorg to burn down the palace. And then she has a nicer one built in its place. The first part of the curse is done, and no one was hurt.
The next part of the curse is that Ingibjorg will fall pregnant. Hild is ready for this too. She arranges for Ingibjorg to spend a few nights at a house in the woods with a mysterious man. Now Rauður the advisor comes back into the story. He begins telling the King that Ingibjorg is pregnant - note that the King doesn't know about the curse. However, every time Rauður tries to reveal Ingibjorg's pregnancy, Hild is ready with a trick that will protect her stepdaughter's reputation. After the baby is born, Hild whisks it away into hiding.
And then there's the final part of the curse - Ingibjorg will be compelled to kill a man. No problem, says Hild. Let's kill Rauður. She arranges it so that she and Ingibjorg allow him to fall to his death. He is not greatly missed.
The day arrives for Hild and the King's wedding. Inbigjorg's lover returns with their baby. It turns out, he's Hild's brother! Hild explains the curse to the King, who was unaware of it all this time. She also explains that her brother was under a spell that made him a monster during the day, and could only be saved if a princess slept with him for three nights. With that, they celebrate a double wedding and everyone lives happily ever after.
The story is clearly a response to stories of evil stepmothers. Hild is a clever and proactive heroine. In most tales, the characters try to subvert gloomy prophecies and avoid their fate, but inevitably fail. The original Queen attempts this by completely cutting off her daughter, but ultimately gives in. Hild, however, allows the curse to work under her conditions. In the process, she rids the kingdom of Rauður and saves both her stepdaughter and her brother.
Maria Tatar points out that even though Hild is a hero, the title "The Good Stepmother" is a bit misleading. She doesn't become a literal stepmother until the very end of the story, since her wedding is postponed for three years. In addition, she's saving Ingibjorg from a curse created by her biological mother. So this story does not totally escape the trope of the evil maternal figure.
At first I was startled by Hild's cavalier attitude towards murder, but then I thought more about it.
Rauður is the one who lays out the description of Ingibjorg's curse. It seems like he's just predicting it, but it might actually be a deal-with-the-devil situation. The text says, "The Queen was willing to do anything to get a daughter." Later, it's Rauður who becomes dead-set on revealing Ingibjorg's pregnancy and ruining her. Only after he's dead is Ingibjorg free, and only after he's dead can the truth come to light. (The King is unaware of the curse until the very end. The knowledge is available only to his wives and daughter.)
Another version of the story, in the collection All the World's Reward, makes it even clearer that Rauður is the true source of Ingibjorg's curse.
In many of these snow-white maiden stories, the girl's name emphasizes her color. Her name is typically some variation on "White as Snow." Here, however, the only character with a color name is the villain: Rauður, or Red. Historically, red is associated with blood and violence. In many cultures redheads have been considered untrustworthy or even associated with witchcraft.
Another Icelandic tale, "Surtla in Bluelands Isles," also features a girl named Ingibjorg, a woman named Hildr who eventually becomes her stepmother, and an evil troll named Raudr.
"The Good Stepmother" has its own tale type: AT 934E. Although rare, it appears in a few countries other than Iceland. If you've come across any versions of this story, let me know!
In Welsh legend, corgis were once the steeds of the fairy folk. You can still see the faint markings of the fairy saddles across the Pembroke Welsh Corgi's shoulders and back... or so I've heard. I found many books and websites which mentioned the "ancient legend," but none provided a source. Conversely, I could not find any books of Welsh legend that mentioned the corgi's enchanted origins. It's an orphaned fun fact.
Welsh Corgis have been around for a long time. They were bred as cattle dogs, whose small stature helped them avoid the cows' kicking hooves, but they worked with all sorts of livestock. In the 1920s, their name came into more widespread use and they were officially acknowledged as a breed. The English Kennel Club formally recognized the two Corgi breeds, Pembroke and Cardigan, as separate in 1934.
There are many theories on where their name came from. One is that it is a compound meaning "dwarf dog": cor (dwarf) + ci (dog). Some modern sources connect this to the Little Folk.
This debate is not new. The Dictionary of the Welsh Language by William Spurrell (1853) defined corgi as a "cur dog." The "cur dog" definition might have more historical support, going back as far as 1574 in William Salesbury’s Dictionary in Englyshe and Welshe. Here, cur would just be used in the sense of a dog of low breeding: a working dog as opposed to a lapdog. In A Dictionary of the Welsh Language (1893), Daniel Silvan Evans defended the "dwarf dog" definition, which is more widespread today. However, he was not using "dwarf" in the sense of fairy. He just meant it was a small dog.
So when did the fairy saddle legend originate?
The earliest source I can find is the poem "Corgi Fantasy" by Anne G. Biddlecombe of Dorset, England. She was one of the top Pembroke breeders of the 1940s and 1950s, and a founding member of the Welsh Corgi League in London, serving as their secretary for some time. She used the pedigree prefix Teekay, under which many of her dogs became show champions.
The poem was first published in 1946 (in the first edition of the Welsh Corgi League Handbook?). Two children find some foxlike puppies out in the woods and take them home. Their father tells them that the dogs are a gift from the fairies, who ride them or use them to pull coaches and herd cows. He points out the image of the fairy saddles on the dogs' coats.
This poem soon became popular and was reprinted in numerous magazines and books, crossing over from England to America. It featured at least twice in the American Kennel Gazette, in 1950 and 1956. The artist Tasha Tudor drew illustrations when it appeared in the Illustrated Study of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi Standard (1975).
(Tudor was a well-known fan of Corgis. In the introduction to her 1971 picture book Corgiville Fair, she said, "They are enchanted. You need only to see them by moonlight to realize this.")
Other modern corgi enthusiasts added their own twists with books, poems and stories like "The Fairy Saddle Legend" and "How the Corgi Lost his Tail." Many artists have turned their talents to drawing corgis with fairies. The stories mention the corgis serving as the fairies' battle steeds - a fantastic mental image.
As an interesting sidenote, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi Club of America uses the acronym PWCCA. The pwcca or pooka is a mischievous spirit in Welsh folklore.
Pembrokes weren't the only ones with otherworldly connections. "Rhodd Glas: The Blue Gift," by Pam Brand, appeared in the 1996 handbook of the Cardigan Welsh Corgi Club of America. Brand described how the fairies created the first blue merle Cardigan corgi from a wildflower.
Some even say that corgis were used in a war between the Tylwyth Teg and the Gwyllion, but this is hard to verify. In fact, these two fairy types may be the same thing, not separate tribes at all. The farthest I could trace that particular particular variation was the book Gods, ghosts and black dogs: The fascinating folklore and mythology of dogs, published in 2016. Later that same year, a Mental Floss article "The Ancient Connection Between Corgis and Fairies" used the story.
You may notice that none of these sources are from fairytales or folklore collections. Instead, they're from articles on dog breeds. At this point, I have found no ancient tales of fairies riding any kind of dog. However, I have found a few Welsh legends of fairy steeds.
In "The Tale of Elidorus," from Giraldus Cambrensis' account in 1191, the little people rode miniature horses perfectly adapted to their size. They had similarly tiny greyhounds.
In Thomas Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends (1828), a woman from the Vale of Neath saw an army of fairies "mounted upon little white horses, not bigger than dogs." That's at least a small step closer to the corgi legend.
Based on all this, I would guess that the legend of the corgi's fairy origins is new, not ancient. It's a modern folktale which grew naturally out of the subculture of corgi breeders and fans. The idea of the "saddle marks" took shape around the time the dog's characteristics were being formally defined. The "Corgi Fantasy" poem was published twelve years after the Pembroke breed was recognized. Other people came up with their own spins on the story, and it developed from there.
I'm currently working on a timeline of the corgi legend's evolution. Many of these poems and stories were first printed in dog magazines and handbooks, which makes them difficult to track down. If you have any clues, please send them in!
Widespread through English folklore are black dogs and hellhounds: ghostly presences which terrify people and are portents of death. You have your Grims, your Padfoots, your Black Shucks, and your Freybugs, along with many others.
The Freybug, the black dog of Norfolk, has featured in the video game Final Fantasy and in the Dracopedia series. But there are some concerns.
As pointed out by the blog A Book of Creatures (which I stumbled across while researching other monsters), the freybug first appeared in the work of Carol Rose, specifically her books Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes and Goblins (1996) and Giants, Monsters, and Dragons (2000). According to Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes and Goblins, the Freybug is "a demon of the roads in English folk beliefs of the Middle Ages. It was described as a Black Dog fiend and referred to in an English document of 1555."
Rose cites no sources. What document of 1555? Where did she get this? There are no other sources for the Freybug, and she actually cited herself when she included it in her later book. That is a bad sign.
However, the root words are familiar. "Fray" means fear or panic. "Bug" is a hobgoblin. As a result, Freybug sounds very . . . Denham Tracts-y.
The Denham Tracts were a series of pamphlets by Michael Aislabie Denham from the 1840s and 1850s. They include a walloping list of monsters including, but not limited to: bogies, boggles, boggleboes, boggy-boes, boggarts, barguests, bygorns, bugbears, black-bugs, scar-bugs, bugaboos, and bugs.
A while after I learned about the Freybug, I was looking at my Denham Tracts list again, and one jumped out at me: the Flay-Boggart. This was a word for a scarecrow, but could also apply to a generic frightening monster. It appeared at least as early as 1535, in the Coverdale Bible's Epistle of Jeremiah: "For like as a frayboggarde in a garden off Cucumbers kepeth nothinge, even so are their goddes of wod, of syluer & golde."
Rose's books are the only sources for the Freybug. But what about Fraybug?
It turns out that English martyr Laurence Saunders twice mentioned "fray-bugs" in his letters.
The word was defined by The Church Historians of England: Reformation Period (1859) as an "imaginary monster" and by Letters of the martyrs of the English Church (1884) as a "spectre."
Saunders' letters were written in 1555 - the year so mysteriously cited by Rose.
Under the spellings fray-bug, frai-bugge, and fray-buggard, the word occurs in multiple works from the 16th and 17th centuries - it's in the Oxford English Dictionary and everything. It was also used as a verb, as in "to frighten someone." In the conclusion to book 2 of John Bale's The actes of Englysh votaryes (1551): "They fraybugged the' with the thundreboltes of theyr excommunycacyons and interdiccyons."
Based on these books, and the date of Saunders' letters, things were looking much better for the Freybug - although there was still no tie to black dogs.
And then I found John Brand's Popular Antiquities of Great Britain vol. 1 (1905). This book describes black dogs such as the Barguest or the boggart of Lancashire, and then suggests (bewilderingly), "This dog-spirit may be the malignant influence referred to under the name of Fray-bug, in a curious extract from a letter of Master Saunders to his wife, 1555."
There it is. I suspect that Carol Rose read Popular Antiquities, didn't know who Saunders was, but decided to use the creature in her book anyway. She misspelled the name and fudged the citation (it's not like Brand cited things clearly to begin with). When she returned to the subject in her later book, she rephrased it as "an English manuscript of 1555," something rather different from a letter, which would be even more confusing to anyone who later tried to fact-check it.
I can't say whether the fray-bug was in fact supposed to be a black dog. I would tend to think it's a generic boogeyman, perhaps resembling a scarecrow, although there can be overlaps between black dogs and other apparitions. The black dog called freybug is a new creation, but the fray-bug has been around for hundreds of years.
The asrai is a type of English water fairy. This species appears in a few fairytale collections and fantasy novels, but they were first popularized by Ruth Tongue's 1970 book, Forgotten Folk Tales of the English Counties.
Tongue has been described as problematic. Although she's obscure today, her work inspired later authors and has found its way into all sorts of media. She was an amazing storyteller, and she was writing down traditions that had never been recorded before. Here's the problematic part: she made them up. She often built upon scraps of genuine folklore, but the greater part of her work is original. She even lied about where she grew up.
So where does this leave the asrai?
In the tale that Tongue recalled from Shropshire and Cheshire, Asrai are peaceful fairy folk. Living deep beneath lakes, they emerge to see the moonlight once every hundred years. They will die if they ever come near sunlight. One night, a fisherman out in his boat happens to catch an Asrai in his net. He is entranced by her beauty and decides to take her home, even though she weeps and protests in a strange language. He covers her with some wet rushes. In the process, she touches his hand, leaving it icy cold for the rest of his life. He rows back as quickly as he can and reaches the shore just as the sun rises. When he picks up the rushes, he finds that the Asrai has melted away to nothing.
Okay, so first off, for this book, Tongue had lost most of her notes in fires or moves and had to recreate the stories from memory. Whoops. Still, she manages to give two versions of this story. The first comes from "the Whitchurch Collection (Shropshire)." I found one Whitchurch Collection at the Whitchurch Heritage Center, but it dates from 2008. There's no way to tell what collection Tongue meant or where it might be now - let alone what was in the collection. For the second version, which is exactly the same with some different wording, Tongue says "From the author’s recollections of an account in local papers published between 1875 and 1912.”
That is thirty-seven years' worth of newspapers. THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS.
To accompany the tale, she provides quite a few anecdotes - a Welsh maid who calls full moons "Asrai nights," and various people who avoid deep water because of asrais. Again, her attributions are fragmentary and vague. One says simply "Correspondence, 13 September 1965 (destroyed by fire)."
Going through English and Welsh tales, I found several stories of captured mermaids, but nothing about water fairies that melt. One water creature in Shropshire lore is the monstrous Jenny Greenteeth, but she couldn't be more different from the asrai. (Edit to add: Tongue's tale feels closer to the widespread English and Welsh tales where men take lake-dwelling fairies as brides, only to break some taboo and cause their wives to return to the water forever. Still, it remains unsettlingly unique.)
There are plenty of spelling variants: asrey, ashray, azurai, and more. I searched the English Dialect Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and several books of dialects. The only word I found that was even somewhat close is askal, a water animal or newt, also spelled asker or asgill. Incidentally, Tongue's notes mention a person who thought "asrai" was a term for a newt.
As of writing this, I am stumped. Every modern mention of the asrai goes back to Tongue. I have found one person's account of asrai that predates her book - in the works of Robert Buchanan.
Buchanan published his poem "The Asrai" in The Saint Pauls Magazine, April, 1872. The brief verses described an ethereal race called the Asrai, "pale, yet fair" immortal beings living in darkness before the creation of sunlight. They are innocent and gentle, lacking human passions and pleasures, but also human vices.
In 1875, the author R. E. Francillon wrote to Buchanan and asked him to submit a poem for Francillon's novel Streaked with Gold. The novel was to be published anonymously in the special 1875 Christmas issue of The Gentleman's Magazine, although the authors' identities were an open secret. Buchanan responded with "The Changeling: A Legend of the Moonlight." This poem, included as Chapter VI, has nothing to do with the rest of the book.
It begins with a few verses very similar to its predecessor, explaining the Asrai, who are "cold . . . as the pale moonbeam." After the arrival of the sun, "the pallid Asrai faded away," going almost extinct, with only a few surviving in mountains and lakes. In their place, humanity begins to thrive. One Asrai mother envies the humans and wishes that her baby could live as one of them and gain his own soul. She leaves her home beneath the lake that night and enters a human house, where a woman and her newborn have just died in childbirth. The Asrai's spell causes her baby to inhabit the dead child's body, making him the titular Changeling. He grows up as a mortal man, while his mother invisibly watches over him. However, the human world corrupts him and he becomes cruel, lustful and violent. He eventually repents. Now an old man, he is known as the Abbot Paul and lives in a monastery by the lake where he was born. One night, his mother rises from the water and calls him. He dies and leaves his mortal form behind, freeing his Asrai self, but he has earned a soul and must move on to the afterlife. Mother and son are separated forever.
I have no resources on what inspired Buchanan, except for a later mention of the poem by R. E. Francillon. In their correspondence, Buchanan provided the only clue to his inspirations by mentioning "the Bala Lake Tradition." There are a few stories about Lake Bala or Llyn Tegid in Wales, although I'm not sure which Buchanan meant. There is supposed to be a sunken city beneath its waters, and you can sometimes hear sounds or see its lights deep within. "The Changeling" also includes familiar motifs like the water fairy who lacks a soul.
Tongue's asrai have webbed hands and feet and green hair. They are the size of twelve-year-old children. Buchanan's Asrai are pale, dressed in snowy white. They are invisible to humans, and seem more like spirits than mermaids. They don't melt. However, both are associated with moonlight and cold, live underwater, and avoid sunlight. They're also both associated with Wales and the Welsh border.
Tongue's friend, the famous folklorist K. M. Briggs, took Buchanan's poems as evidence of an older tradition. However, although some elements of his poetry were inspired by fairytales, I have found no evidence that Buchanan ever said the asrai themselves were from folklore. It even seems like he developed the asrai between the first and second poems, since they have more ties to folklore in "The Changeling."
Some of Tongue's stories do have a basis in tradition, but here, it's unclear. Her sources are impossible to track down. She throws out a few names, a few hints at newspaper articles and collections, but on closer inspection, they melt away just like the asrai. It's very easy to imagine her reading a book of poems and later remembering a few romantic details: delicate water sprites, greedy humans, a tragic ending.
The asrai's haunting story catches the imagination. Almost fifty years after the publication of Forgotten Folk Tales, it's continually told and retold by different authors. A 2009 family event in Shropshire had a storytime segment featuring "north Shropshire’s very own mermaids, the Azrai."
The asrai may not have been part of folklore before Ruth Tongue. Still, they're definitely part of folklore now.
I always heard the stories where King Arthur was taken to Avalon after his death, and was supposed to sleep until England needed him. However, there are also stories where he's still hanging around as a bird - either a raven or a chough. Choughs are recognizable by their red beaks and legs.
The tradition was mentioned as early as in Don Quixote. The first detailed examination was the 1903 book Popular Romances of the West of England. In this was gathered traditions of Arthur appearing as a raven, crow, or chough, particularly in Cornwall. There's a really good rundown of all this at "'But Arthur's Grave is Nowhere Seen': Twelfth-Century and Later Solutions to Arthur's Current Whereabouts."
I first stumbled across this Arthurian tidbit in a story about a pixie who loses his laugh and regains it with the help of the chough King Arthur. You can find this tale as "The Adventures of a Piskey in Search of his Laugh" in North Cornwall Fairies and Legends by Enys Tregarthen (1906), or "The Pisky Who Lost His Laugh" in Traditional Cornish Stories and Rhymes. by Donald R. Raw (1971).
"Nya-Nya Bulembu or the Moss-Green Princess" is a tale from Swaziland. I first found this story summarized in the picture book Finding Fairies: Secrets for Attracting Little People From Around the World. The story was intriguing, and I tracked down the original version in the 1908 book Fairy Tales from South Africa.
In the 1908 version, there is a Chief with two wives and a daughter by each one. He loves one daughter, Mapindane, and despises the other, Kitila. Wanting to humiliate Kitila, the chief has his hunters go out seeking a monster called the Nya-nya Bulembu, a hideous beast with a moss green hide. He sends his huntsmen to find such a creature. They find one living in a blue pool, but when they summon it with a chant, it turns out to be old and toothless with no moss on its hide. The second is equally unimpressive. Finally, they find a suitably terrifying beast in a green pool. They bring it home and skin it. When Kitila is wrapped in the skin, she cannot remove it and becomes indistinguishable from a normal Bulembu. She is left to live as a servant, abhorred by everyone for her monstrous appearance.
However, one day she meets a fairy man who takes pity on her and gives her a carved stick. From then on, whenever she goes to bathe in the river, she is joined by the fairies, her monstrous skin comes off, and she becomes beautiful again for a little while. One day, a visiting prince sees her bathing and is stricken by her beauty. Even though she becomes hideous again when she leaves the water, he takes her as his wife. When she goes to bathe on the morning of their wedding, her Bulembu skin is finally stripped off once and for all. The couple lives happily ever after.
The book is verrry dated. Although the foreword says that the tales are traditional, I was unsure whether I would find other versions of it.
It turns out that Nyanyabulembu (plural dinyanyabulembu) is a Setswana word which translates as dragon.
I also found the story "A Boy Goes After a Nyanyabulembu," performed by Sarah Dlamini, in the book The Uncoiling Python: South African Storyteller and Resistance.
In this story, a king wants a Nyanyabulembu skin to make a coat for his child - not as a curse, but as a sign that this child is beloved and will one day be the next king. Only one boy is brave enough to go hunting the monster. Just like the huntsmen in the first story, he visits two blue pools, where he summons the monster with a short chant, but finds it unimpressive. At a third, green pool, he finds a strong, healthy monster. It chases him, and at the end of the chase the monster is killed, the boy is greatly rewarded, and the monster's skin is turned into a ceremonial cloak for the next king.
In some places, there are parallels - most notably, the repetition of finding the monster in its pool and trying to find one suitably frightening. However, the intent of the hunt and the creation of the Nyanyabulembu cloak is completely different. One story is reminiscent of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. The other is the tale of a young man coming of age.
EDIT 7/2/2018: I've found another version of the story! "The Ogre Scaly-Heart" (Nwambilutimhokora) features a beautiful young bride who, en route to her wedding, is forced to switch places with an ogre and wear a hideous monster skin. When she's alone, she takes off the skin and bathes in the river, and is joined by the ghosts of her relatives and servants. The truth is revealed when a child sees her and tells the intended husband. (The life of a South African tribe, vol 2, by Henri A. Junod.)
Pixar's next short, accompanying Incredibles II, looks like it'll bear some resemblances to the story of the Gingerbread Man. In this story, it's a dumpling that comes to life.
The Entertainment Weekly article
The yumboes are fairies from the folklore of the Wolof people in Senegal, West Africa, on the coast near Goree Island. Yumboes are two feet tall and colored silvery white from head to toe. They are believed to be the spirits of the dead, and attach themselves closely to human families.
They live underground, beneath hills called the Paps. There are many hills named Paps across the world, so-called because they resemble the shape of a woman's breast. I found mentions of some in Senegal, including the Deux Mamelles.
Though the Yumboes have luxurious dwellings where they invisibly host amazing feasts, they eat by stealing human food and carrying it off in calabashes. At least they catch their own fish.
Yumboes appear occasionally in fiction, including the extended Harry Potter universe. In many ways, they're very similar to European fairies. The oldest mention I can find of them is Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology in 1828. All other descriptions of yumboes seem to be taken directly from Keightley's.
It bears mentioning that Keightley, a pioneer in the folklore field, was Irish. At least to my knowledge, he never studied African cultures in-depth. Most of the fairies in The Fairy Mythology are European, with Africa, Asia and the Middle East stuffed in at the end. His source for yumboes is "a young lady, who spent several years of her childhood at Goree" and who herself heard the story from her Wolof maid. This means that yumboes as we know them are from a third-hand account.
So I went looking for supporting evidence or any stories that might conceivably be about yumboe-like creatures. Unfortunately, much like my venture with pillywiggins (here and here), when I tried to find mentions of yumboes in Wolof folklore, I came up empty-handed. I couldn't even find mentions of the word in dictionaries. Quite a few sites claim that yumboe is a word from Lebou, a language closely related to Wolof, but provide no sources.
A Tumblr post said that the Wolof word "Yomba" means pumpkin, which checks out. The writer draws a connection between "yomba" and the yumboes' love for stealing humans' food. But that still leaves us with no dictionary mention of yumboes. I also found the word yomba defined as "cheap."
Incidentally, this post also pointed me towards a book of African-American tales, specifically "Mom Bett and the Little Ones A-Glowing" in Her Stories by Virginia Hamilton. The tale deals with tiny, glowing fairies who dance around a woman's garden. However, Hamilton comments, "Tales of fairies are few and mostly fragmentary in black folklore. This tale by the author is based on sparse evidence. The African American spirit world is one usually to be feared, and it deals mainly with witches, devils, boo hags, and ghosts."
That's not particularly encouraging.
What about the yumboes' other name, "bakhna rakhna" or the good people? Keightley seizes on this as a parallel to the Good Folk of European lore. I did find "baax" or "baah na" as Wolof words meaning good, which is close enough to "bakhna." However, I have not yet had luck with rakhna.
Taking another tactic, there are plenty of stories of spirit lore in Senegal. There are the jinné, derived from the Arabic jinn. People of Wolof and Lebou ancestry have a tradition of protective ancestor spirits, the "rab," or evil beings, "doma." Closer to the "little people" archetype is the konderong or kondorong. Like most elves and dwarves of Africa, the konderong are no more than two feet tall, with feet turned backwards. Their beards are incredibly long, and they often wrap them around their bodies to serve as clothes. According to David Ames, they can be rascally or dangerous, and serve as guardians of the wild animals. According to other authors, the kondorong might be known to cut off cows' tails or to be great wrestlers. One oral tale is called "Hyena Wrestles a Konderong."
According to Emil Anthony Magel, the konderongs' beards are white. A two-foot-tall creature wrapped in white hair sounds somewhat like the little white yumboes.
But as I kept researching, I thought that maybe yumboes could be related to the jumbee or jumbie. The jumbie is a dark and terrifying figure, a kind of demon in Caribbean countries among people of African descent. It may be linguistically related to Bantu "zombie," Kongo "zumbi" (fetish), or Kimbundu "nzambi" (god).
That put me on a trail I could follow.
The Kongo word "vumbi", according to King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998), refers to "ancestral ghosts" who were white in color, for their "skin changed to the color of chalk when [they] passed into the land of the dead."
And in Jamaica, "duppies" appear as ghosts, malevolent monsters, or - sometimes - fairylike little people, "white, with big heads and big eyes." They live in the branches of silk cotton trees, love singing, and have their own society with a king and queen. People leave out water or small pumpkins as offerings for them (Leach 1961).
Yumboes come from West Africa. Zombi/zumbi-type terms are spread over West and Central Africa and the Caribbean. Which raises the question... could yumboes be related to zombies?
If you know anything about yumboes, comment or contact me!
This website is based on my research into folklore.