Last time, I looked at stories where fairies steal humans. The human dwells in Fairyland as a lover, an adopted child, a pet, or a servant. Sometimes the fairies leave a doppelganger in their place, so that no one will miss them. But there's another side to the coin: tales where humans steal fairies.
It's hard to say why fairies take humans. Storytellers give any number of reasons, or none at all. But it's usually pretty clear why humans take fairies.
In the tale of the selkie, swan wife, or fairy bride, a man sees an otherworldly being take off her magic cloak or garment. He steals it and holds it hostage so that she will stay with him as his bride. That's the most classic tale of a human stealing a fairy. Invariably, she gets her coat back and vanishes.
Sometimes rather than steal a coat, the man makes a deal with the otherworld, and there are conditions on their marriage. Again, he inevitably breaks the bargain. For instance, in some Welsh variants, the bargain may be that he never strike his fairy wife. He accidentally taps her one day without meaning to, and she vanishes forever.
Human women might win fairy men, too. In many versions of Tam Lin, the titular character is a human stolen away by the Fairy Queen. In at least one version, however, there's no mention of him ever being human. He introduces himself as "a fairy, lyth and limb."
Greed for Gold
In another widespread tale, a man catches a leprechaun or fairy and tries to threaten him into giving over his store of treasure. The fairy shows him where it's buried, under a certain tree or plant. The man marks the tree, perhaps with a scarf or marking, and runs home to fetch a shovel - but when he returns, the fairy is gone, and every tree bears an identical mark.
In the Cornish tale of "A Fairy Caught" or "Skillywidden," a human farmer captures a fairy child and treats him rather like a pet, while hoping to get fairy gold from him.
For even on their own, without magical gold, fairies are valuable. An 1851 news article from Ireland contains a mention of a supposed mermaid sighting. The reaction is telling: "It is a pity the crew could not catch her, as, in that case, the exhibition of such prodigy would make the fortune of all the fishermen on the shores."
Greed for Power
Hidden stores of gold are one thing; hostage potential and fairy magic are another. In the German tale of "The Wonderful Plough," a farmer manages to capture a fairy being in an iron pot. After a long captivity, he forces the fairy to give him a special plow that can be drawn easily through the fields.
This reminds one also of witches with familiar spirits and the concept of sorcerers summoning demonic familiars. An old English manuscript has a spell "To Call a Fairy," laying out the instructions and incantations for summoning a being called Elaby Gathen and binding it to one's will. Fairies are powerful servants - like Prospero's manservant Ariel in Shakespeare's play The Tempest.
This theme continues into modern literary tales. In "Bubblan," a 1907 tale by Swedish author Helena Nyblom, translated into English as "The Bubbly Boy," a family captures a merchild by accident. The father, a fisherman, holds him hostage to force the merfolk to send him good catches of fish.
The story of the Green Children of Woolpit is often regarded as a fairy story. Dating from 12th/13th-century accounts, two children with strange green skin, speaking an unknown language, showed up in the village of Woolpit. Both were taken in and baptized and eventually lost their green coloring. The boy died not long after baptism, but the girl adjusted to her new life, learned English, and eventually confided that she was from an underground land where everyone had green skin. This is a case where the fairy children are treated as kindly as their discoverers know how. The humans try to make the fairy children acclimate to human life.
Sometimes a human couple who long for a child wind up with a supernatural one instead. In Undine, a novella published in 1811, a fisherman and his wife adopt a water-sprite child and lovingly raise her as their own. This is a more benevolent relationship on the humans' part - but it's possibly implied that the water fairies killed their biological child. Their daughter, playing by the water, seemed "attracted by something very beautiful in the water" and sprang in, only to be lost. The very same day, a "beautiful little girl" - the titular Undine - arrives at the home of the grieving parents.
Another tale where humans willingly take in a merchild is the Chilean "Pincoya's Daughter," in Brenda Hughes' Folk Tales from Chile. And there's Ruth Tongue's "The Sea-Morgan's Baby" (presented as traditional) in which humans raise a mermaid foundling. This seems particularly frequent with water beings. Maybe it's Undine's influence.
Colman Grey, an English tale, is a lot like Skillywiddens, but the human family finds a starving fairy child and takes him in out of pity. Benevolent enough, but the storyteller mentions that the family was aware there was a chance for good fortune if they pleased the fairies.
The South African psikwembu or shikwembu are ancestral gods whose behavior and stature is similar to that of European fairies. In one story recorded by Henri A. Junod, a woman finds what she believes is a child lost in the woods, and carries him home. When she arrives, he cannot be removed from her back, and people realize his true nature. The priests do a ritual and the god disappears. However, although her actions were well-meaning, the woman dies as a result of the encounter.
Amusements, Pets or Curiosity
In the Suffolk tale of "Brother Mike," a farmer catches fairies in the act of disturbing his wheat stores and manages to capture one in his hat. Like the farmer in "Skillywidden," he takes the fairy home "for his children." In this case, however, the fairy pines away and dies in captivity.
In the cases of the fairy in "Brother Mike" and Skillywidden, the small size of the fairy is emphasized; in one, the fairy is captured in a hat, in the other, carried inside a "furze cuff" (furze cutters wore leather gloves to protect their wrists from furze needles). These tiny fairies, like dolls or kittens, are seen as appropriate to the child's sphere. They are dehumanized and treated like playthings or pets.
In some tales, a human picks up a fairy completely by accident. A fisherman may draw up a mermaid in his nets, for example. However, some humans choose to keep the fairy captive. Others immediately release them, such as in the German story of Krachöhrle, where a man realizes that he has not caught a badger but an elf, and quickly releases it from his trap. The same thing happens in an English tale from Lancashire.
Some stories don't give enough details to prove what's going through the human kidnapper's head.
A legend collected by W. H. D. Longstaffe in County Durham in England: a correspondent's grandmother had seen fairies wash their clothes in the River Tees, and one day encountered "a miniature girl, dressed in green, and with brilliant red eyes." The woman took the strange little child home and fed it. However, it is difficult to tell whether the woman was well-meaning or simply nosy and intrusive. The tiny fairy girl seemed "composed" when found, and when taken indoors, cried so much that the woman was "obliged" to put her back where she found her. The woman's willingness to return the fairy child makes it seem that she had good intentions in the end, but the fact that she knew exactly where to return her to, and the fact that she kept the fairy's stone chair, make me suspicious.
In Teutonic Mythology vol. 2, Jacob Grimm collected the tale of "The Water-Smith" or "The Smith in Darmssen Lake." In the middle of a certain lake is a strange blacksmith who sits in or on the water and works on whatever ploughs or tools are brought to him. (A fairy who works in iron? Intriguing.) One farmer, however, snatches the smith's son - a child who is completely hairy or rough - and raises him as his own. As an adult, the waterkind (water child) or ruwwen ("Shag" or "Roughy") leaves his human family in a story reminiscent of "The Young Giant" tale type, and returns to his watery home. The story feels oddly incomplete. It's not clear why the farmer kidnaps the Roughy; the action is sudden, impulsive and bizarrely cruel. After he does so, the blacksmith vanishes and never does work again. What did the farmer want? Curiosity, perhaps? Or maybe he wanted to use the child to start a rival to the blacksmith's business, or keep the smith's abilities for himself, or maybe he even believed he was helping the fairy child.
The list of why humans abduct fairies is shorter and less esoteric than why fairies abduct humans. It's easy to imagine what a human's reaction would be to finding a fairy in their power. There's also the possibility that a human can pick up a fairy by accident or mistake in a completely random encounter; I don't know that I've come across any stories where a fairy takes a human by accident.
What fascinates me is how much overlap there is.
In the end, we assign our own thoughts and rationales to the otherworld. We imagine for fairies the same motivations which we hold.
The story appears all over the world. Fairies take humans into their world, leaving doppelgangers behind. Sometimes fairies leave their own child, or a grown fairy, or an elderly decrepit one - or just a piece of wood carved to look like the stolen person.
But explanations are harder to obtain. Scattered stories give a variety of causes for this odd fairy behavior. It seems there are quite a few uses that fairies have for humans. Here are thirteen possible explanations I've collected.
1. No reason given/malice/caprice
A majority of changeling tales give no reason. For instance, in "Rumpelstiltskin," the fairylike being is eager to obtain a human infant, but we never learn why.
Fairies just like to take people, along with anything, really. Westropp's Study of Folklore on the Coasts of Connacht, Ireland explains that fairies “carried off children and robbed milk and butter. The sprites could exercise malignant power on infants especially before baptism, stealing the handsome ones and replacing them by puny withered changelings . . . Women who die in childbirth are believed to have been carried off to fairyland."
In a story recorded by John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, a woman banishes a "crimbil" and regains her son - "But when she asked him where he had been so long, he had no account in the world to give but that he had been listening to pleasant music. He was very thin and worn in appearance when he was restored." This indicates that the fairies did not even care much for the human they had taken.
2. The human trespassed on fairy domain
A human who goes into fairy territory is always at risk. Don't step into fairy circles or eat their food! In the tales of Sir Orfeo and Thomas the Rhymer, a human attracts the attention of fairy royalty when they sleep in the shade of a particular tree. In "Child Rowland," Burd Ellen falls into the elf-king's power because she runs around the church widdershins.
Similarly, a human may be taken as revenge for a broken taboo or for spite. In a Swedish tale, a servant-girl takes home a cow belonging to the fairies. The angry trolls promise that they will have revenge, and on the girl's wedding day they snatch her away (Lindow p. 96).
3. Fairies want a beautiful child instead of their own ugly baby
"People fear that the misshapen dwarfs who live beneath the earth, and who would like nothing more than to have beautiful, well-formed human children, will steal newborns, leaving their own malformed children, called changelings, in their place." (J. D. H. Temme, Folk Legends from Altmark)
According to Thomas Keightley, fairies look for human infants with the intention of offloading any fairy children "which they foresee likely to be feeble in mind, in body, in beauty, or other gifts."
According to Icelandic Legends (page liii) "the finest children are the most sought for, and the most hideous oldling is put in their place." (So fairies get some cute babies and also find a cheap retirement home for Grandpa. Two birds, one stone!)
Fairies may have a special preference for blondes in particular. Katharine Briggs (An Encyclopedia of Fairies, p. 195) says that golden-haired children are the most in demand from fairies, citing the Welsh tale of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, where the abducted woman is explicitly mentioned as blonde.
Sir John Rhys, in Celtic Folklore Vol. 2 (pp. 667-668), mentioned twice that fairies like to steal blond babies above all others. Fairy babies, in contrast, are "swarthy," "sallow," and "aged-looking."
In addition to blond hair, fairies apparently had a preference for male children. Adult abductees were men or women, in fact possibly usually women, but the typical changeling story features a baby boy. According to some sources, the practice of dressing boys in girls’ frocks until age ten or eleven was intended to deceive fairies who might steal away a boy and replace him with a changeling (Irish Folk Ways).
Lady Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland gives an interesting variation. An old hag switches a human child for a hairy, ugly, grinning creature. However, as the human parents bewail their misfortune, a young woman in a red handkerchief enters and begins to laugh. She's the fairy parent of the changeling, and was just as upset by the switch! The other fairies, preferring the "fine child" of the humans, stole hers to replace it. But she proclaims, "I would rather have my own, ugly as he is, than any mortal child in the world" - and instructs the human parents on how to steal back their offspring.
Lady Wilde also cited an interesting idea that physical beauty might not last forever. She described a tradition that although fairies will kidnap human brides, "after seven years, when the girls grow old and ugly, they send them back to their kindred, giving them, however, as compensation, a knowledge of herbs and philters and secret spells, but which they can kill or cure."
4. Fairies want breeding stock or human lovers
Perhaps there is such emphasis on beautiful human children because the fairies want to ensure good genetics in their future generations.
In a German tale, a "maniken" informs the stolen child's mother that "her son would someday become the king of the underground people. From time to time they had to exchange one of their king's children for a human child so that earthly beauty would not entirely die out among them." (Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg, 1879, p. 46)
Lady Wilde also said that "handsome children" are taken by the Sidhe and "wedded to fairy mates when they grow up."
The fairies definitely seemed to look at some humans as potential mates and lovers. In many Rumpelstiltskin-type tales, instead of trying to steal a baby, the fairylike helper wants the woman to become his wife and live with him underground, in Fairyland or Hell. Examples are "Mistress Beautiful," "Doubleturk," "Zirkzirk," "Purzinigele," and "Duffy and the Devil," as well as many others.
In medieval ballads, this is the most common reason for humans to go away with the fairies - see Thomas the Rhymer, Sir Lanval, or Sir Guingamuer. In another family of tales, a woman is stolen away by a fairy and bears him children. There's "Agnete and the Merman," "Little Kerstin and the Mountain King," "Jomfruen og Dværgekongen," and "Hind Etin." In stories like that of Eilian, a human midwife visits the fairies only to recognize the mother in childbed as a long-lost member of her own village.
5. Fairies raise human children out of love
In some tales, the fairies are kind foster families to the humans they adopt. For instance, in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," Titania has a changeling boy as a squire, and Oberon wants him as one of his knights. Titania lavishes affection on the child (“crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her joy”), and claims she is raising him out of love for his mother, a dear friend of hers who died in childbirth. This is, of course, Shakespeare's spin on tradition.
Diane Purkiss, in Troublesome Things: A history of Fairies and Fairy Stories, draws a connection to Greek nymphs. The exposure of newborns - leaving unwanted children in the wilderness to die - was not uncommon in Ancient Greece. Good news though - myths said that nymphs would raise these children. Nymphs could be motherly figures, taking care of the infant god Zeus, for instance. In the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite, a woman plans to abandon her illegitimate baby, comforting herself with the idea that mountain nymphs will take care of him. However, Purkiss says, modern Greek nymphs have developed in the popular mind to become malicious baby-stealers.
In the Cornish tale of Betty Stogs, recorded by Robert Hunt, a lazy and slovenly woman neglects her baby and it vanishes with the fairies. On this occasion, however, the pixies simply wash it, care for it, and lovingly return it wrapped in soft moss and flowers. In this case there is no changeling; the baby's absence is brief, and serves only to knock some sense into the neglectful parents.
In many tales, mistreating the fairy child is the best way to get the human back. In Norwegian variants, though, it’s common for the angry fairy parent to rebuke the human, implying that they have been kind and loving foster parents in contrast.
Selma Lagerlof wrote a story called "The Changeling" where the troll parents treat the stolen child exactly as the human parents treat the changeling. The human mother goes against tradition by refusing to mistreat the changeling, which ends up saving her own child's life.
If stolen and recovered humans did not waste away after their return, they often came back with wondrous knowledge and gifts from the fairies. Thomas the Rhymer retained prophetic powers. In the Scottish tale of "The Smith and the Fairies," a stolen boy returns with an uncanny gift for sword-forging.
6. Fairies want to make humans like themselves.
Sometimes the stolen child becomes one of the fairies, transformed either in whole or in part.
In John Fletcher's play The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608), we hear of:
A virtuous well, about whose flowery banks
The nimble-footed Fairies dance their rounds,
By the pale moon-shine, dipping oftentimes
Their stolen children, so to make them free
From dying flesh, and dull mortality.
According to The Borderer's Table Book (1846), changelings were treated quite well: "the elves were... so liberal as to tend it with great kindness, and, by degrees, they brought it to partake almost of their own qualities . . . . it lived and was treated as one of themselves."
Similarly, in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Deutsche Sagen, it's mentioned that some of the "nixies" of the Saal River were once human - "mortals who, as children, had been taken away by nixies."
Ralph of Coggeshall recorded the tale of a strange spirit called Malekin which haunted a certain house around the late 12th century. Malekin was invisible, but sounded like a toddler and once appeared as a small child in a white tunic. He (or she?) claimed to have once been a mortal child, born in Lavenham. When his mother left him in a field while she worked harvesting, he was taken away. Malekin had existed in spirit form for seven years, and in another seven years would be restored to a human state.
7. Fairies punish neglectful parents
Fairies are known to pinch and abuse slovenly humans and aid those who are hard-working; it seems they take an interest in our proper conduct. Betty Stogs and her husband are careless parents who don't spend time caring for their baby or keeping it clean. In more widespread stories, the baby is taken while the mother goes to fetch wood, bind sheaves, or other household tasks. This is shown in the tale of Malekin.
n a tale collected by the Grimms, a nobleman forces one of his tenants to help bind sheaves even though she has a six-week-old baby still nursing. She lays the child on the ground while she works, but to his shock the nobleman observes an "Earth-woman" steal and replace the baby. They get the baby back, but in the moral, the nobleman "resolved to never again force a woman who had recently given birth to work."
This is a cautionary tale about leaving young infants unattended. Neglectful parents are shown the need to change their ways, but also – as D. L. Ashliman points out – such superstitions served some benefits. They insisted that women must have a rest period after childbirth. New mothers should be recovering and caring for their newborns, not forced back into strenuous physical labor.
Parents were warned by changeling superstitions to keep a close watch on their children. Mother and newborn had to be closely guarded. Talismans, such as a piece of the father’s clothing kept nearby, or scissors hung over the cradle, were used to protect the child. If these rituals were neglected, fairies might strike at any moment. The parents are responsible for keeping their offspring out of the fairies’ hands. In this case, a changeling swap implied neglect. Walter Scott mentioned a story where the mother, recovering and alone, is unable to stop her child’s abduction on her own. Here the blame is placed on the nurse, a lower-class woman, who had been drinking and fell asleep rather than guarding her charges.
In another widespread class of tales, the parent carelessly wishes for the child to be taken away. For instance, in the 13th-century tale of "The Daughter of Peter de Cabinam," a man angrily wishes that his crying daughter would be taken away by demons. His unthinking words come true, and she's taken to the demons' realm beneath a lake to toil as a servant. The father manages to regain her seven years later, but she is sickly and mute. Although they're called demons, her captors' behavior and home is very fairylike.
In “Polednice,” a poem by Karel Jaromir Erben based on the Slavic folklore, a woman threatens her noisy child that she will give him to the polednice (a spirit personifying sunstroke) if he doesn't obey. To her horror, the spirit actually arrives at her summons and the story ends tragically.
8. Fairies require human servants
This is what happened to Peter de Cabinam's daughter. Lady Wilde in Ancient Legends of Ireland mentions that young men are taken by the fairies to become "bond-slaves."
In "The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor" (Bottrell 1873), the fairies who capture a woman "wanted a tidy girl who knew how to bake and brew, one that would keep their habitation decent, nurse the changed-children, that wern’t so strongly made as they used to be, for want of more beef and good malt liquor, so they said."
In a Swedish tale, a girl taken by trolls is forced not only to labor for them but to don a cap of invisibility and steal food from human farms for them. (Lindow no. 32)
9. Fairies require human protection for their own children
This may be more of a literary invention. However, Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England gives the story of "The Piskies' Changeling," in which a fairy child is found abandoned, and we hear that piskies sometimes to this with "infants of their race for whom they sought human protection; and it would have been an awful circumstance if such a one were not received by the individual so visited." Here is an entirely different dynamic!
Anna Eliza Bray, in The borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, mentions that a woman who was kind to her changeling "so pleased the pixy mother that some time after she returned the stolen child, who was ever after very lucky."
10. Fairies just really like milk
The days after birth were a dangerous time. Either women or newborns might be swept away, and a common theme was that fairies wanted humans to serve as wet nurses. According to Thomas Keightley, "Lying-in-women and 'unchristened bairns' they regard as lawful prize. The former they employ as wet-nurses, the latter they of course rear up as their own."
In the ballad "The Queen of Elfland's Nourice," a mortal woman is taken from her own newborn to nurse the Queen of Elfland's child, and told she will be allowed to go home afterwards.
In a Hessian legend, a dwarf-woman brings back the real baby, but refuses to hand it over until the human mother has nursed the changeling with "ennobling human milk." (Grimm, Deutsch Mythology, via Keightley)
In Asturian folklore, xanas may sneak their babies into human families in order to get them milk. (Del folklore asturiano, pp. 36-38). Although some stories have it that xana mothers did not have enough milk, others state that xanas don't even have breasts (Baragaño, Mitología y brujería en Asturias p. 22).
In a more sinister turn, in "The Red-Haired Tailor of Rannoch and the Fairy," a rapacious adult fairy poses as a screaming human baby solely to get milk. (James MacDougall, Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English)
11. Fairies want baptism for their own kids
Usually baptism is supposed to ward off changelings, and this is why an unbaptized child is in especial danger. Once the baby's baptized, the fairies cannot touch them. However, in Robert Buchanan’s poem “The Changeling,” a mother asrai explicitly wants her child to have a human soul and a chance at Heaven. And a few rare folktales make it seem like there's a basis for this.
In an Asturian tale, a woman notices that her child has been switched. She runs to the cave where the "Injana" (similar to anjana or xana) lives, and demands her baby back.
The Injana responds,
— Tráelo acá, mala mujer:
no te lo di para que me lo criaras,
dítelo para que me lo bautizaras.
“Bring it here, evil woman:
I didn't give it to you to raise it for me,
I gave it to you to baptize it for me.”
In one Swedish tale, a troll changeling is about to be baptized. You might expect him to be displeased, but it seems the trolls had planned for exactly this; he cries out gleefully that he is "off to the church to become a Christian" (Lindow pg. 92). Lindow notes that the changeling is "delighted" at the possibility of being baptized. In other stories, Christian salvation is normally a gift denied to fairykind - see my blog post The Salvation of Mermaids.
(Other versions of this tale don't always include baptism. The English "Changeling of Brea Vean" is being carried to a healing well, and in a story from the Grimms, the changeling is being taken on a pilgrimage at the end of which he will be weighed. Both are religious rituals meant to encourage a sickly child to thrive.)
12. Fairies need human midwives
Much like wet-nurses, fairies like to use humans as midwives. However, these midwives are typically allowed to go straight home once their task is completed.
Even for this brief time, some may be replaced with a changeling; Biddy Mannion returns home from aiding a fairy birth, only to cross paths with the doppelganger who has been keeping her place. "What a gomal your husband is that didn't know the difference between you and me," the fake Biddy comments.
13. Fairies need replacement tithes to hell?
The story goes that every seven years or so, fairies must offer a living sacrifice to Hell. Not wanting to give up fairy babies, they grab up human babies instead to offer those as a kind of draft dodging. The hell-tithe has been given as a fact of fairylore by Katharine Briggs, Lady Wilde, and many other prominent folklorists running through possible reasons for changelings. However, this story isn't reflected by tradition.
For exaxmple, Walter Gregor, in Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, gives the hell-tithe as an explanation for changelings . . . but also directly quotes Tam Lin (pp. 60-62). This leaves it unclear whether he has actually heard folktales which feature a fairy hell-tithe, or whether he is tying in the story of Tam Lin on his own.
Tam Lin is one of only three tales which mention a fairy tithe to hell, making this a rare concept. These tales do indicate that humans visiting Fairyland are in danger of being selected as a living sacrifice. However, they are not in danger because they’re human – it seems to just be a danger of proximity, or the fact that they are “fat and full of flesh” or healthy specimens. In addition, none of these tales feature any exchange of changelings.
I would dismiss this explanation as a later theory based on unconnected tale types.
The changeling as symbolism for death/illness/disability
There's a lot of overlap between fairies and the dead. Remember one of the first books quoted in this post: "Women who die in childbirth are believed to have been carried off to fairyland." All of these changeling myths are associated with a vulnerable time in the lives of mothers and infants.
There are two types of changeling tales. In one, a sickly or disabled child is actually a demon which must be caught in the act. The mentally or physically handicapped child is an impostor; the parents' real, healthy and attractive child was stolen. This myth dehumanized handicapped or sick people and was a way to excuse infanticide - not just in stories, but in real life - see Young, 2013.
In the other, a deceased or missing loved one (typically a wife) turns out to actually be alive. Their "corpse" was a false image. They may yet be rescued if their families just manage to complete the right ritual.
Both types of changeling tales speak of grief and denial. This was people searching for a reason why something bad had happened - or perhaps a scapegoat.
Sometimes they came up with a reason why otherworldly forces did what they did. However, more often there was no point. In the Malleus Maleficarum, (1487), fairy activity is attributed to demons. It calls the supposed cases of changelings - simply and brutally - "another terrible thing which God permits to happen to men."
A search for a "reason" belongs more to later scholarly efforts. For people who believed in changelings, questioning it bore no purpose; questions might even attract the wrath of otherworldly forces. The issue was not "Why did this happen?" but "What do we do now?"
The classic resolution to the story of the changeling: A fairy doppelganger has posed as a human baby and successfully pulled the wool over its human hosts' eyes. However, someone (typically the mother) realizes what's happened. To trick the changeling, she uses empty eggshells as milk pans, stewpots, or brewing cauldrons. The fake infant is so surprised that he suddenly begins to speak. Sometimes he is startled, sometimes amused. "I have never seen the like of that before" is the most common exclamation, as he unthinkingly reveals his great age. Then, in a flash, all is set right and the real baby is returned.
This story is widespread throughout Europe. But why? What is the significance of eggshells?
Bear in mind that people actually believed in changelings well into the 20th century. Other remedies for a changeling were things like putting it on a hot shovel, leaving it out in the elements overnight, or threatening the suspected elf with torture. In an infamous 1895 case, a man named Michael Cleary killed his sickly wife Bridget, insisting that she was a fairy and his real wife had been taken away. He was found guilty of manslaughter. There were other such cases that made it to the news and incited outrage, and probably far more that were never publicized. As suggested by D. L. Ashliman, changeling beliefs may have been a more palatable excuse to kill a disabled relative who was seen as burdensome.
The eggshells are a gentler method. Rather than threatening the child in brutal ways which remind of real practices, this story is more palatable. The parents need not threaten anything wearing the face of an innocent baby. The changeling is ancient and manipulative, but it is still possible to trick it. It reveals itself and (usually near-instantly) the problem is solved. Even if beating it or leaving it on a trash heap overnight is still required, the parents now know for sure that they are torturing a monster and not their own flesh and blood.
There are plenty of superstitions regarding eggs, and the shells were often associated with witches and fairies. Pliny in the 1st century makes a reference to breaking eggshells, apparently to protect against magical harassment. At least by 1584, in Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, there was an elaborate explanation: witches and fairies used eggshells as boats or houses. In one case, a witch was accused of sympathetic magic using eggshells in a cauldron to simulate ships at sea, then wrecking real ships by stirring the cauldron. In this tradition, the shells are associated with sympathetic magic. They are a simple tool easily subverted by dark forces and used for mischief.
In Waldron’s Description of the Isle of Man, a mermaid says that humans "are so very ignorant, as to throw away the water they boil their eggs in."
Campbell's Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1900) tells us that "water in which eggs have been boiled or washed should not be used for washing the hands or face." This is highly unlucky. Also, it was an idiom for someone who'd done something dumb to say "I believe egg-water was put over me."
Campbell mentions a man who asked a mermaid "what virtue or evil there was in egg-water . . . She said, 'If I tell you that, you will have a tale to tell.'"
One possible explanation: according to Legends & Superstitions of the County of Durham (1886), washing in egg-water causes warts.
On the other hand, the accused witch Elspeth Reoch, in 1616, said that fairies had instructed her to roast an egg and use its sweat to wash her hands and rub her eyes, which would give her any knowledge she wished.
I wonder if there is some connection from the egg to birth and babyhood. Most changeling traditions focus on newborns, the days after birth, the period before christening. The changeling is posing as an infant too young to speak. Eggshells are a symbol of new life, and the fairies have choked off life from the family's home by stealing the newest life there.
However, eggshells in changeling tales are also somewhat random. Anything, not just eggs, can be used by humans to bewilder fairies. In an Icelandic tale, a woman binds rods to a spoon to create a long handle, confusing the changeling into exclaiming, "Well! I am old enough, as anybody may guess from my beard, and the father of eighteen elves, but never in all my life, have I seen so long a spoon to so small a pot."
Even when the stories do feature eggshells, they may be used in different ways. They may be left in front of the changeling as-is, or used as pots to boil water or cook food.
Sir Walter Scott retold a Scottish tale where a fairy changeling spoke up when left alone with twelve eggshells all broken in half. In this case, the bewildered fairy says it has "Seven years old was I before I came to the nurse, and four years have I lived since, and never saw so many milk pans before." In this case, rather than the human parent confusing the fairy by telling them they're making dinner in an eggshell, the fairy itself misidentifies the shells. This points to traditions where fairies live inside eggshells and use them as boats, or where fairies are extremely miniature.
In at least one case, fairies seem disturbed and possibly even offended by such behavior. In "The Egg-Shell Dinner," collected by Thomas Crofton Croker, a farm is plagued not by changelings but by mischievous spirits. A wise woman instructs the farmer's wife to boil a tiny amount of pudding in an eggshell, ostensibly as a meal for six hungry farmworkers. The fairy-poltergeists announce,
"We have lived long in this world; we were born just after the earth was made, but before the acorn was planted, and yet we never saw a harvest-dinner prepared in an egg-shell. Something must be wrong in this house, and we will no longer stop under its roof."
Sometimes the eggshells themselves are boiled in water. In Thomas Crofton Croker’s version of the “Brewery of Eggshells,” the mother is told to “get a dozen new-laid eggs, break them, and keep the shells, but throw away the rest; when that is done, put the shells in the pot of boiling water.”
The fairy has reversed the way things should be – a cunning, articulate, ancient being behaves like a baby too young to speak. So the human family performs another reversal. In a nonsensical and wasteful display, the mother throws away food and cooks garbage. Once the changeling is gone, things may return to their normal state.
In nearly all cases, there are mentions of how the changeling does nothing but eat ravenously - screaming for milk or eating the family out of house and home. Therefore, in some versions, the eggshell theme makes it clear that there is now an end to the changeling's "free ride," which prompts them to call it quits.
In Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, &c, vol. 3, people suggest getting rid of a changeling by this method: "to make egg-broth before it, that is, to boil egg-shells and offer it the water they were boiled in for its dinner, which would make it speak at once."
And in a Danish tale, a girl serves a voracious changeling the most inedible pudding possible, containing bones and pighide. He declares, "Well, three times have I seen a young wood by Tis Lake, but never yet did I see such a pudding! The devil himself may stay here now for me!" With that, he's gone.
So inedible or unappetizing food drives off the changeling who is just using the family for a free meal. (At the same time, this is tacit permission to starve the troublesome child who isn't thriving.)
Also note that whether or not the ritual includes an eggshell, it is still nearly always associated with cooking. This could be a memory of real-life rituals in which "changelings" were treated by being burned. Rather than putting the changeling itself into the fire, the changeling is forced to watch something else being heated in the fireplace. There's an implicit threat.
In cases where the Slavic water demon Dziwożona or Boginka sometimes left changelings, human mothers were to take the changeling to a garbage heap, whip it with a rod, and pour water over it using an eggshell, all while calling to the Boginka to "Take yours, return mine!"
(Madrej glowie dość dwie slowie, Krzyżanowski, 1960, p. 73) Perhaps this is a confusion of the eggshell story with the idea of torturing a changeling.
Similarly, in 1643, accused witch Margaret Dickson had performed healing rituals which suggest she attributed sicknesses to fairy changelings. After her attempt to heal a sick child had no effect, she told its mother to throw it onto the fire because "the bairne was not hirs" and was really a hundred years old. The mother ignored this advice and the child began to recover.
In a second case, Dickson advised a man to place meal baked with twelve eggs in front of a fire, and his crippled child on the other side. Then he was to walk around the house, calling the spirits to "give me my daughter againe, and if the bairne mend the bread and egges wald be away, and if not the shells and bread wald be still." Was this an offering - a trade of food for the return of the healthy child? (Scottish Fairy Belief: A History, pg. 97)
These stories are rationalizations, excuses. Note that in nearly all of these tales, the changeling isn't just a fairy baby, but an ancient, malicious, cruelly clever being which takes joy in the human parents' agony.
Many changeling tales end with the note that even after the ordeal of burning or beating, the rescued child is frail or physically changed. This is explained as the result of its time in Fairyland... but... well... Look at the story with historical cases in mind, and it becomes very dark indeed.
I much prefer the modern story "The Changeling" by Selma Lagerlöf, where the mother's tender care for the changeling - and her absolute refusal to torture it - convinces the trolls to return her real son.
I also like the Orkney tale of the Rousay Changeling, where a woman recovers her child by tracking down the fairy who took him, and smacking said fairy in the face with a Bible.
It should be mentioned that not all suspected changelings were harmed. As mentioned, one of Margaret Dickson's "patients" apparently flat-out refused to follow her advice. In a few stories, we hear that human parents who took care of their fairy fosterlings were blessed with good fortune (as in the tale of the Changeling of Sportnitz). Another Scottish witch, Jonet Andirson, confirmed to a suspicious father that his child was a "sharg bairn," but told him that so long as he had that sick child in his house, he would not want - i.e., if he was good to the fairy child, his family would be taken care of. (The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, vol. 8, p. 347)
Every seven years, the fairies must pay a tax to Hell: a living sacrifice. To save themselves, they steal humans as changelings to sacrifice in their place. This folktale has served as the seed for many modern-day faerie fantasy books - Tithe by Holly Black being one example. But the idea of the fairy tithe in actual folklore is rare, rare, rare. Only three stories hint at it. These are a) Thomas the Rhymer, b) the trial of accused witch Alison Pearson, and probably most famously, c) the ballad of Tam Lin.
Thomas the Rhymer
Sir Thomas de Ercildoun, famously known as the poet/prophet Thomas the Rhymer, lived about 1220-1298. The romance "Thomas of Ercildoune" has been dated as early as the 14th century, and the oldest existing versions of the ballad adaptation "Thomas the Rhymer" go back to 1700-1750. Everyone has different ideas on when they were originally written. And did the ballad come first, or was it the romance?
In this story, Thomas the Rhymer is swept away to Elfland by a fairy queen who becomes his lover. But he cannot stay. The queen sends him home lest he be seized by a foul fiend of Hell who takes a tithe from among the people of Fairyland. Thomas returns to our world with skills as a storyteller and prophet.
"Thomas of Erceldoune" and "Thomas the Rhymer" are similar to other ballads and poems like "St Patrick's Purgatory" and "The Daemon Lover" in that there are scenes where a mortal, visiting the Otherworld, is able to see Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory from afar. This sets Thomas's Elfland as a spiritual realm akin to both Paradise and Hell, but also clearly separate.
Tam Lin is a famous Scottish ballad. The Complaynt of Scotland (1549) features the oldest existing mention of ""the tayl of the Ȝong tamlene and of the bold braband." A dance "thom of lyn" is also mentioned. These may or may not be Tam Lin.
The ballad form of Tam Lin appeared in "Kertonha, or, The Fairy Court" (collected by Francis James Child as ballad 39C), dated to 1769. Many other versions have been collected.
A young woman, Janet, is in the woods when she encounters a knight named Tam Lin, a man stolen away years ago by the Fairy Queen. Every seven years, on Halloween, the fairies give a tithe to Hell. Tam Lin is likely going to be that tithe. It's up to a now-pregnant Janet to rescue him, which she does in a climactic transformation sequence.
Tam Lin bears a resemblance to the ancient Greek myth of the goddess Thetis. A mortal man was chosen to be her husband, but in order to win her, he had to hold onto her while she transformed into all sorts of shapes - just as Janet must do with Tam Lin. In the same way, Tam Lin overlaps with a lot of other stories, including that of Thomas the Rhymer.
Alison Pearson or Alesoun Peirsoun was a woman from Fife, executed for witchcraft in 1588. In her testimony, she described being taken away by fairies and learning mystic arts of healing from them. She claimed that her cousin William Sympson was also part of this, and that he was responsible for warning and rescuing her:
"Mr Williame will cum before and tell hir and bid hir keip hir and sane hir, that scho be nocht tane away with thame agane for the teynd of thame gais ewerie 3eir to hell."
"Mr. William will come before and tell her and bid her keep her and sane her, that she be not taken away with them again, for the teind (tenth) of them go every year to hell."
Was Alison inspired by the stories of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, or by a now-lost tradition that birthed both stories?
Each of these three stories deal with a part of the fairy court going to hell. This is always something which the mortal characters are warned about and must avoid. Tithe, teind, kane, and fee are all words used.
Tithe or teind comes from the Old English word for "tenth." A tithe is a tenth of your money or belongings, traditionally given to a church or temple. This is a traditional element in Judaism and Christianity. In this case, the tithe is not paid to a church, but to Hell, and it plays out as a human sacrifice. The religious element implies that the fairies worship the devil.
Kane, on the other hand, is a Scots word referring to a vassal or tenant's fee paid to their landlord. It has nothing to do with tenths, and implies that the fairies hold fealty to Satan.
From another angle, in almost all versions of Tam Lin, this scene takes place at Halloween. (The exception places it at May Day.) The idea that the fairy court went riding at Halloweentide was very common, showing up in the ballad of Alison Gross, Alexander Montgomerie's Poems, and others. Halloween (All Hallows' Eve) and All Saints' Day are Christian feast which were used to supplant the Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-win). This holiday marked the end of harvest and start of winter. Samhain was a time when spirits and fairies or Aos Si moved freely in the human world. People left out food to appease the dead who might visit, and wore disguises to avoid them.
Most importantly, In the Irish work Lebor Gabála Érenn, from about the 11th century, Samain was tax time. People were forced to deliver two thirds of their children, wheat and milk as a tax to the Fomorians, otherworldly beings who had taken over the land.
Halloween, the time that the fairies go riding, is the time of a harvest tax.
Fairies as servants of Hell
The tithe or kane to hell puts fairies in the position of either worshippers or tenants of Satan.
There's a tradition throughout Europe that fairies are fallen angels (see "Origin of Underground People"). As the story goes, when they were cast out of heaven, they were not quite as evil as the demons, or they did not quite make it all the way to Hell and instead landed on Earth. Katharine Briggs called them "not quite devils and yet subject to Satan."
According to Kathleen McGowan in The Ballad of Tam Lin, the Hell-tithe is a Christian invention meant to demonize the fairies. Hell and human sacrifices would be absolutely foreign to the ancient Celtic fairy.
To McGowan, ancient fairies are essentially good, not evil. She points to their alternate names of "the good folk" and "good neighbors.” Says McGowan, "evil simply could not and did not exist in the land of fairy."
Unfortunately, the name "good folk" cannot be taken at face value. There are many names for fairies - e.g., the Fair Folk, the Gentle Folk, the Seelie (happy, blessed) Court. But taking those names literally would be a major error. They are closer to the ancient equivalent of the Eumenides (Kindly Ones) in the Greek play Orestes, from 5th century BC. The Kindly Ones are really the Erinyes, “Furies,” terrifying and brutal bringers of justice.
See also this Scottish rhyme, where a fairy explains its preferred terminology:
Names like "the good folk" or "the kindly ones" are euphemisms for the more ambiguous imp, elf, and fairy. People called fairies good and blessed not to describe them, but to appease them and avoid summoning them!
But there is still a leap from that to tying fairies directly to demons. The language choices and very concept of Hell and Satan are Christian.
Christians did demonize English and Scottish fairies, along with all spirit beings from other cultures. A big part of this process happened during the English Reformation. Reformed Christians reinterpreted tradition and folklore to fit a Protestant worldview. According to Darren Oldridge, "By the late sixteenth century, it was well established among reformed Christians that such 'doubtful spirits' were figments encouraged by the Roman [Catholic] Church."
Fairies, demons, witches, superstition, illusion, and popery were all wrapped up together. Robin was a euphemistic nickname for the devil and also the name of the famous Robin Goodfellow. Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651) called fairies servants of "Beelzebub, prince of demons." Witch trials featured both Satan and the Fairy Queen, and witches' familiars had names similar to those of folkloric fairies. (See Emma Wilby, "The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England.") As for changelings, there was plenty of overlap between fairies and demons, with both playing the role of baby-snatchers. (See my blog post "The History of the Cambion.")
The death of Alison Pearson and the oldest surviving references to Tam Lin were both in the mid-to-late sixteenth century, putting them right in the middle of this era. The tithe to hell in Alison Pearson consists of a tenth of the fairy population going down to Hell. That would have been a natural conclusion for people of that time. Of course the fairies were going to Hell; where else would they go?
"Thomas the Rhymer" predates those stories. Thomas' fairy queen is kind and loving. There are different ways you could interpret her character, but she is at least not all bad. Elfland is explicitly separate from both Heaven and Hell. Still, even at that point, there was the idea of a being from Hell taking away the finest fairy specimens as a fee.
Why did this fee need to be paid?
Tam Lin as Changeling
This is one of the most prevalent explanations today, both for Tam Lin's tithe and for the concept of changelings. It's accounted for from many folklorists and scholars. Lowry Charles Wimberly, writing in 1959, stated blithely that this was standard belief in Scotland. Fairies took changelings in order to offer them to Hell. Fairies be crazy.
There are various muddled explanations for the fairy predilection for baby swaps. Some say that they want their own children nursed by human mothers, or that they prefer beautiful human children to their own, or perhaps just out of pure malice and mischief.
Tam Lin offers a bloody and memorable answer: so that fairies can dodge the draft. They don't want to sacrifice a fairy child to Hell, so they use a human instead. This tied in with the idea, particularly strong due to the Reformation, that fairies held fealty to Satan.
However, I see no evidence for this theory.
Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer are the only fairy stories that really feature the concept of the hell-tithe. According to Emma Lyle (p. 130), "in the absence of other evidence for the story, it is perhaps more likely that the two narratives are directly related." The relevant stanzas in Thomas of Erceldoune and Tam Lin are similar in language and structure, making it likely that one influenced the other.
So what about the changeling theory?
Firstly, Tam Lin fears that he'll be chosen as the tithe not because he is human, but because he is one of the most handsome: "fair and full of flesh." Only two versions have him in danger specifically because he's mortal. And in Version C (one of the earliest surviving versions), Tam Lin isn't human at all. He identifies himself as "a fairy, lyth and limb" and tells Janet that "at every seven years end/ We’re a’ dung down to hell." So the entire fairy court is going. The versions are actually very inconsistent on whether just one person will be sacrificed, or if a tenth of the population will go, or whether all the fairies are going.
It's also not even clear whether Tam Lin's even on the chopping block. In Child's Version 39A, for example, all we have is his suspicion that he'll be sacrificed, and the Queen of Fairies seems angry not to have lost a potential sacrifice, but to have lost "the bonniest knight in a' my companie."
Secondly, there is no fake changeling Tam Lin hanging out in the human world, so far as we know.
Still, as evidence, Emma Lyle lists multiple Scottish tales with a similar idea. In this tale type, someone (typically a woman) has been carried away by the fairies, but someone (typically a male relative) may retrieve her from the fairies' march on Halloween if he pulls her from her horse and does not let go. In some versions he's successful, but in others, he falters at the last moment and she is lost forever.
Lyle gives ten versions of similar tales, but only one of the examples given explicitly mentions a changeling - cases where a "wife was taken by the fairies, and another woman was left in her place." The wife's death comes suddenly, and then the husband realizes that the woman he buried was a fraud and his real wife has been stolen. Other versions could imply the same thing, when they make references to the wife's supposed death.
Another problem is the lack of any mention of Hell, the Devil, tithes, or kanes. The woman in these stories only says that she will be lost forever. In a couple of the examples, after a rescue goes awry, there is the gruesome detail of the walls of the house being covered with blood the next day. In one example, the stolen girl confides that if the rescue fails, the fairies will kill her out of spite. But that's still not a hell-tithe.
The changeling-as-hell-tithe is a theory from later researchers, based on three different tale traditions.
So it's an intriguing theory tying together these different stories, but has little evidence. It's just been repeated as common knowledge by different researchers.
But what if we look at it through a different lens, laying aside the comparison to changeling tales? Could the hell-tithe be a memory of an older, pre-Christian tradition?
The fairy tithe as remnant of pagan sacrifice
The website tam-lin.org suggests that Tam Lin is a harvest figure or Sacred King. This trope was codified by James Frazer in The Golden Bough, his study of mythology and anthropology. The theme: a king-consort is chosen every spring. His people celebrate him all year until harvest-time, at which point they ritually sacrifice him.
There are many customs of straw effigies being created and burnt at harvest-time. Myths abound where gods of crops, fertility or the sun die and return, like the fields that spring back to life.
So perhaps Tam Lin is being sacrificed as part of a harvest ritual that takes place every seven years. The time of year is definitely right.
This also ties in with the idea of the Samhain tax to the Fomorians, who demanded human sacrifices as well as food from the harvest. The Fomorians were a supernatural, semi-divine race who came from the sea or from underground. Here's our pre-Christian concept that otherworldly beings demanded human sacrifice around Samhain!
Alternately, Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk by Morgan Daimler points to drownings and sacrifices to river deities. According to this theory, "Thomas the Rhymer" takes place near the river Tweed and "Tam Lin" is set off the Ettrick Water, a tributary of the Tweed. Daimler raises the possibility that Tam Lin's sacrifice could be a memory of a regular human sacrifice offered to the Tweed - a small localized tradition, explaining why only these few stories mention the tithe to Hell. This is particularly intriguing because Tam Lin's name could be tied to water. The Gaelic "linn" is a pool, pond, body of water, lake, or sea. This theory is fun but relies on some guesswork and jumps. Alison Pearson, from the more distant Byrehill, Fife, is another issue.
Although often circulated and popular in modern books, the tithe to Hell was apparently never a widespread belief. Only two tales - which are probably closely related - mention it, and one witch trial. No other stories, changeling tales or otherwise make mention of a tithe to hell.
The story we know today has to have picked up a lot of elements after Christianity was established in that area of the world - Satan, Hell, the collusion of fairies and demons. However, it is interesting how far back the separate pieces of Tam Lin go.
A human who obtains a supernatural spouse by holding on as they transform into different shapes? Greek myth.
Otherworldly beings who demand a human sacrifice at Samhain? Irish myth.
A mortal stolen away to the Otherworld, who has to be won back? Pretty much everywhere.
Sources and Further Reading
You might think I was out of things to say about pillywiggins, but you would be wrong! I've begun keeping a list of any books I can find that mention them. This is an opportunity to see how new folklore develops in the era of the Internet. There are far too many works to list here, but here are a few:
Haunts & taunts: a book for Halloweén and all the nights of the year by Jean Chapman (1983)
At this point, the second book ever that I know features pillywiggins. Here, "Pillywiggins" is the given name of a baby fairy in a retelling of the fairytale "Katie Crackernuts." The name also appears in a list of fairies later on.
Fairies & Elves, the "Enchanted World" series (1985)
The Enchanted World was a twenty-one-book series released by Time Life Books. The books were edited by Ellen Phillips, with Tristram Potter Coffin as primary consultant. The series was available through mail order. TV commercials struck a creepy, mysterious tone and featured horror actor Vincent Price. Fairies & Elves was book three. It primarily recounts folktales from around the world, with one very brief description of pillywiggins, mentioning that they hide inside flowers and are about the size of bees.
The illustration shows long-haired, butterfly-winged nymphs peeking out of the tops of wildflowers. This is the earliest picture of pillywiggins I have found, unless you count the unidentified dancing gnomes in Haunts & Taunts.
Various books by Pierre Dubois, 1991-onwards
Dubois has mentioned pillywiggins in many of his works, but I am unsure what the first one was. I know he was including them at least by 1991, namedropping them in his graphic novel Pixies.
The thing about Dubois is that he is a creative writer, not a folklore scholar. He regularly alters folklore creatures to suit his purposes. Parisette (a plant) and Tisanière (an herbal tea infusion) show up as fae creatures in his books. “Freddy” – Freddy Krueger! - gets an entry in a list of bogeymen. And then there are the many creatures which appear nowhere before Dubois's writings: Danthienne, H'awouahoua, Lorialet, Scarille, Tiddyfollicoles, etc. Many of these have since made their way into other fantasy works.
In La grande encyclopédie des lutins (1992), Dubois claims to have found a mention of pillywiggins among other fae in an 11th-century manuscript titled Aelfsidem, translated by "W.T. Dodgsons Luchtat, 1334, Meinster, p. 526." Dubois and people quoting him are the only ones ever to mention this manuscript. In addition, the "quotes" from Aelfsidem read exactly like everything else Dubois writes, and the fairies, pixies, and undines it lists are highly anachronistic. (If you look for fairylike beings in medieval manuscripts, you’re more likely to find incubi, neptuni, fauni, and dryades.) Dubois frequently makes up fictional quotes in the playful way of a fantasy writer building a world. One example is his famous scholar “Petrus Barbygère” - who is, in fact, a fictional character and the lead of one of Dubois's comic series. This has not stopped a few confused authors from quoting Dubois's in-universe books and people as sources.
His Encyclopédie des Fées gives a longer description of pillywiggins, explaining that they have insectoid characteristics and can take the form of bees or dragonflies. The text is rife with errors. Francis James Childe becomes "Frances Jammes," and the artist Cicely Mary Barker is "Cecily Mary Broker." Nevertheless, Dubois' work ushered pillywiggins into French fairylore.
A Witch’s Guide to Faery Folk by Edain McCoy (1994)
Okay, so first off, McCoy has been a figure of some controversy among Wiccans, being particularly infamous for claiming that the potato was sacred to the ancient Irish Celts. (The potato was introduced to Ireland around the 16th century.)
She bases this book in folklore, but then runs in her own direction with it, creating fanciful and detailed descriptions for various “faery” races. She introduces the "saleerandee," a Welsh lizard faery whose name resembles the salamander, and the “attorcroppe,” a serpent-like faery. She is the only source for these creatures. She also transforms the Yucatec deity Sip into teensy, shy Mayan fairies called Zips and the German moss-covered dwarves, Mooseleute, into the pretty butterfly-winged Moss People.
She makes the pillywiggins friendly, cute and sweet, concerned only with blossoms and springtime. They ride upon bees. She names their sexy, scantily-clad blonde queen "Ariel." Everything about this Ariel corresponds to the Ariel of Shakespeare's Tempest.
In fact, in art and costuming, Ariel is frequently a feminine figure with golden hair and gauzy white clothing.
McCoy may have been inspired by Fairies & Elves’ mention of cowslips and honeybees, combined with Ariel’s speech in The Tempest. There would have been plenty of available artwork featuring Ariel that increased the similarities.
McCoy’s guide to fairies has been copied and circulated online in its entirety since at least 2001.
A Basket of Wishes, by Rebecca Paisley (1995)
A romance. Splendor, princess of the Pillywiggins, who has vast magic powers and weeps diamonds, has to bear some human guy's child.
Here, Pillywiggin is a realm of Faery. Its inhabitants are referred to as Pillywiggins, Pillywiggin fairies, pixies, sprites, elves or imps. Their natural form is tiny humanoids the size of "the span of a large butterfly's wings." They can grant wishes as well as fly with or without the aid of wings (which are apparently detachable). Physically, they are identical to humans except that they are incredibly beautiful and exude stardust, not unlike Tinker Bell. Overall, they serve as an amalgam of fairy traditions old and new. Their queen is the Tooth Fairy.
Buttercup Baby by Karen Fox (October 2001)
A romance. Ariel, queen of the Pillywiggins, who has vast magic powers and weeps opals, has to bear some human guy's child.
Karen Fox wrote four books for Jove Books' "Magical Love" series, and she used pillywiggins as a race of garden fairies. They apparently make up the majority of the fae and serve King Oberon. They seem uniformly female and very beautiful, and they are distinct from pixies (mischievous miniature trolls who serve Queen Titania). Fox's use of Queen Ariel points to Edain McCoy's work.
Pillywiggins and the Tree Witch, by Julia Jarman (2011)
A chapter book for younger readers, in which Pillywiggins is the personal name of one fairy.
Jarman's Pillywiggins is a refreshing departure from the twee miniature flower goddesses seen elsewhere on this list. She's a tough, tomboyish loner, repeatedly contrasted with the other sparkly pink fairies. Although she looks eerie, she's a heroic figure. There is a scene where she senses plants coming alive on Midsummer’s Eve, but otherwise she doesn’t seem to be associated with flowers that much.
I contacted Ms. Jarman and learned that this Pillywiggins was based on a doll found at a craft fair. Ms. Jarman turned to the Internet in order to find out what the name meant, which is the case for many authors and researchers these days, including me.
Atlantide: La naissance by T. A. Barron (2016)
This is a weird example. In the original English version, Atlantis Rising, the characters encounter tiny forest fairies with wings and antennae. These fairies are called "Quiggleypottles." In the French translation, their name is mysteriously replaced with "pillywiggins."
I’m not sure why it was necessary to substitute anything for Barron’s original creation. Does Quiggleypottle sound bad in French? This does indicate, however, that the translators were familiar with pillywiggin as a word for tiny flower fairies.
Pillywiggins have inspired songs (at least three; the ones I've found are either French or attribute pillywiggins to French tradition). They are monster-insects in the video game Final Fantasy XI. Quite a few small businesses are named after them. You can buy pillywiggin dolls on Etsy. A book of cat names suggests Pillywiggin as a charming name for a kitten. And, as of April 2019, a pillywiggin has appeared in the anime "Fairy Gone" (though it doesn't look much like a traditional fairy).
I still can't trace pillywiggins any farther back than 1977, and I have yet to find a single scholarly collection that mentions them. It’s entirely possible that they originated in the 70s, and over the next 42 years, took root in the modern imagination and spread across the globe.
I wrote to English folklorist Jeremy Harte as part of my continuing research. He could find no evidence of pillywiggins as part of folklore - which has been typical for me and everyone I've contacted. There are, of course, similar words like Pigwiggen, and he pointed out another similar fairy name, Skillywiddens. Pillywiggin is actually a perfect combo of those two.
He also pointed out a very interesting possibility: "from the way that [the 1977 source] mentions them, it’s possible that she may mean, not ‘there is a Dorset tradition about Pillywiggins’ but ‘there are traditions about tiny flower spirits, just like the (sc. literary) Pillywiggins from Dorset’. In that case we’re back to searching children’s literature."
The source might also be TV or radio rather than a book.
The only thing that can truly settle the issue is to find a source for pillywiggins that predates Field Guide to the Little People. If an older source is found, it will probably be a piece of media from the 60’s or 70’s, possibly connected to Dorset and intended for children.
Again - if you have any information to add, please let me know!
Where did the tiny flower fairy come from? A lot of people blame Victorian authors, but the idea's older than that. The finger's also been pointed at William Shakespeare, but although he codified them and made them famous, he was not the one to introduce tiny fairies either.
Going back into medieval legend and earlier, human-scale fairies seem to be the rule. Nymphs and fauns were the nature fairies of Greek mythology, although they were of human stature. In medieval literature, fairies usually seemed to be human-sized. At their smallest, they were the size of children, like Oberon in "Huon of Bordeaux." In John Lyly's play "Endymion" (1588), the fairies are "fair babies," probably played by children.
However, occasional appearances by very tiny fairies have survived. In Gervase of Tilbury's Otia Imperialia ("Recreation for an Emperor") c.1210-1214, we get the first truly miniature fairies: “portunes,” little old men half an inch tall. There's been some debate over whether this was a textual error, and whether it should be read as closer to half a foot tall. However, I don't see any reason why they couldn't be half an inch tall. In fact, people were probably familiar with the idea of tiny otherworldly beings. In the Middle Ages, both demons and human souls were often portrayed as very tiny. In one medieval story, a priest celebrating a Mass for the dead suddenly sees the church filled with souls. They appear as people no bigger than a finger ("homuncionibus ad mensuram digiti").
In an Irish tale transcribed around 1517, King Fergus mac Leti meets Iubhdan and Bebo, rulers of the Luchra. One of them can stand upon a human man's palm or drown in a pot of porridge. These beings are clearly fairies. Iubhdan's hare-sized horse is golden with a crimson mane and green legs (red and green being traditionally associated with the fae). They bestow Fergus with magical gifts, like shoes which allow him to walk underwater. The story is an expansion of previously known tales where Fergus encounters "lúchorpáin," or "little bodies," evidently some type of water-dwelling creature and possibly the predecessors of the modern leprechaun.
Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) gives a list of bogeymen and fairies. Included in the list is "Tom thombe" - a character no bigger than a finger. There are other clues that might connect the supernatural to the miniature: the fairies turn hemp stalks into horses, and witches sail in eggshells or cockleshells.
Then came Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night's Dream (c. 1595), we finally find tiny nature fairies. Oberon and Titania are nature gods. Their servants have plant names like Peaseblossom and their tasks include dewing the cowslips and making clothing from bats' pelts. Queen Mab appears in Romeo and Juliet (1597) and is a diminutive force to be reckoned with. In The Tempest (c. 1610), the fairylike Ariel is not exactly a fairy, but he does share their size and affinity with flowers: "In a cowslip's bell I lie."
This began an obsession. Another play, "The Maid's Metamorphosis," was published around 1600. Fairies named Penny, Cricket and Little Pricke "trip . . . lightly as the little Bee" and sing:
‘I do come about the coppes
Leaping upon flowers toppes;
Then I get upon a Flie,
Shee carries me abouve the skie."
In the first known version of Tom Thumb, printed in 1621, Tom's fairy-made wardrobe consists of plants and found objects. His hat is an oak leaf. In one scene, he sleeps “upon the top of a Red Rose new blowne.”
Michael Drayton's "Nymphidia" came out in 1627. This long narrative poem shrinks Shakespeare's fairies even further to the point where Mab and all of her servants can comfortably house themselves inside a nutshell. Tom Thumb, appropriately, appears among them, and a fairy knight wears armor fashioned out of insect parts. Drayton also wrote "A Fairy Wedding" (1630) with a bride robed entirely in petals.
In William Browne of Tavistocke's third book of Britania's Pastorales, Oberon is "clad in a suit of speckled gilliflow'r." His hat is a lily and his ruff a daisy. A servant wears a monkshood flower for a hat. Elsewhere, Browne’s fairies guard the flowers: "water'd the root and kiss'd her pretty shade."
Robert Herrick, writing in the 1620s and 1630s, brought us "The beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen," "The Fairy Temple, or Oberon's Chapel," and "Oberon’s Feast." "Oberon's Clothing" is a poem of similar fare. The author is unknown but has been attributed to Simon Steward or possibly Robert Herrick.
Lady Margaret Newcastle's "The Pastime, and Recreation of the Queen of Fairies in Fairy-land, the Center of the Earth" (1653) is much the same thing.
These works deal with the food, clothing, housing, transportation, and hobbies of flower fairies in exquisite detail. These were smaller, cuter forms of the folklore fairy, and this whimsical form of escapism had captured the popular imagination. However, some of these works may also have served to critique the excesses of royalty. Marjorie Swann suggested that William Browne was subtly mocking King James and other rulers by parodying their lavish banquets and hunting parties.
This interest in the supernatural was not just literary. There were witch hunts actively going on at this time. A Pleasant Treatise of Witches (1673) purports to be a collection of factual accounts of supernatural phenomena. In Chapter 6, a woman sees a tiny man - only a foot tall on horseback - emerge from behind a flowerbed. He introduces himself as "a Prince amongst the Pharies." Later, his army appears at dinner to "[prance] on their horses round the brims of a large dish of white-broth." One soldier slips and falls into the dish! Despite the connection with flowers and the inherent comedy of the fairies' size, there was still a great danger to anyone involved with them. In this particular tale, the woman quickly wastes away and dies after her otherworldly encounter.
All the same, the cute fairy continued strong into the 18th century with Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1717) and Thomas Tickell's Kensington Garden (1722). Plays like "The Fairy Favour" by Thomas Hull, produced in 1766, used fairy imagery and Shakespearean allusions to flatter royalty, continuing a theme popular with Queen Elizabeth. However, Elizabethan fairy literature included works like The Faerie Queene with heroic human-sized fae. Now, the sprites of "The Fairy Favour" slept in the shade of a primrose and wore robes made from butterfly wings.
The Rape of the Lock, a parodic work very much in the tradition of Nymphidia, is particularly significant. Drawing on the work of Paracelsus and the esoteric Comte de Gabalis, it presents a pantheon of elemental spirits. There are sylphs, gnomes, nymphs and salamanders, which Pope makes the reincarnated souls of the dead. They are tiny enough to hide in a woman's hair and dangle from her earrings. (As with other fairy literature, their size is a source of comedy.) Most importantly, they have "insect-wings." A 1798 edition, illustrated by Thomas Stothard, gives the sylphs butterfly wings. This is the earliest known appearance of the modern winged fairy.
In the 19th century, the movement of folklore collecting became a significant force. In the folklore that was collected, and the writings inspired by it, we meet wave upon wave of miniature flower fairies. In Teutonic Mythology volume 2 (1835), Jacob Grimm described elves and wights ranging from "the stature of a four years' child" to "measured by the span or thumb." Thomas Crofton Croker, in Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825), explained that the foxglove is known as the Fairy Cap "from the supposed resemblance of its bells to this part of fairy dress." This inspired Hartley Coleridge to write of "Fays sweetly nestled in the foxglove bells." In British Goblins by Wirt Sikes (1880), we learn that foxgloves serve the Welsh ellyllon for gloves. Anna Eliza Bray's pixies use tulips as cradles (1879). And the "greenies" in James Bowker's Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878) perhaps show the influence of Nymphidia, with a "dainty dwarf in a burnished suit of beetles' wing cases."
At the same time, new fairy tales and fantasy literature were being produced. In 1835, Hans Christian Andersen published the story of Thumbelina. The thumb-sized heroine is born from a flower and eventually becomes queen of the winged flower fairies. The first of these people is introduced as "the angel of the flower" (Blomstens Engel), and we learn that such a being dwells inside every blossom. In 1839, Andersen produced "The Rose Elf" (Rosen-alfen) with a main character "so tiny that no mortal eye could see him" who lived in a rose.
These fairies for children, however, took on a strong educational bent. The Heroes of Asgard, by Annie Keary (1856) turned the Norse Ljósálfar into tiny elves who tended flowers under the tutelage of their "schoolmaster," the god Frey. This story was frequently reprinted in publications like A phonic reading book (1876). Other fairy-centric books included The Novel Adventures of Tom Thumb the Great, Showing How He Visited the Insect World by Louisa Mary Barwell (1838); Fairy Know-a-bit; or, a Nutshell of Knowledge (1866) by Charlotte Tucker; and Old Farm Fairies: A Summer Campaign in Brownieland Against King Cobweaver's Pixies by Henry Christopher McCook (1895). These used a fantasy framework to teach children about the natural world, encouraging them to examine insect and plant life.
But there was a stark divide between fairies for children and fairies for adults. In George Macdonald's Phantastes (1858), the fairies are explicitly flower fairies - hiding in "every bell-shaped flower" - but they are grotesque and not at all benevolent. This was also the era of Victorian fairy paintings like those of Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, and John Anster Fitzgerald. Victorian fairy painting was a movement in and of itself, hitting its high point from 1840 to 1870. These paintings often featured obsessive levels of minute detail, but could have an eerie, ominous, even violent atmosphere. In Dadd's intricate "Contradiction: Oberon and Titania" (c. 1854), the fairy queen inadvertently crushes a mini-fairy under one foot. Fitzgerald's work sometimes held references to drugs and hallucinations, as in his painting "The Nightmare." And a lot of Victorian fairy art was sensual. In a society otherwise bound by the rules of propriety, fairies were allowed to be barely-clothed, undeniably erotic beings.
J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, transformed the fairy genre again at the turn of the century. He published his first Peter Pan book, The Little White Bird, in 1902; there, his fairies disguise themselves as flowers to avoid attention. Barrie's most famous fairy is, of course, Tinker Bell. She first appeared (as a light projected by a mirror) in Barrie's 1904 play, and quickly came to dominate the modern perception of fairies. According to Laura Forsberg:
"[Barrie] changed the terms of the discussion around fairies from observation and imagination to nostalgia and belief. While the Victorian fairy was always accompanied by the adult’s urging the child to look closer at the natural world, Tinkerbell was a trick of mechanical lighting that would be revealed as a fraud if the child approached. Tinkerbell so captured the public imagination that she overshadowed the Victorian fairies who preceded her." (p. 662)
According to author Diane Purkiss, the cult of the flower fairy faltered with the advent of the First World War. A jaded world was no longer interested in cutesy twee pixies. The human-sized elves of J. R. R. Tolkien set a new standard for fantasy literature.
But as far as I can see, the tiny fairy continued to conquer media. The first of Cicely Mary Barker's wildly popular "Flower Fairies" picture books appeared in 1923. Enid Blyton, a classic children's author, described fairies painting the colors of nature. "To Spring," a 1936 cartoon, shows microscopic gnomes laboring to bring the colors of spring. In the 21st century, the Disney Fairies franchise is a marketing behemoth and "fairy gardens" have taken over Pinterest.
This reaches into modern belief in fairies. The Cottingley Fairies were a famous hoax in the 1910s which even took in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His book The Coming of the Fairies, released in 1922, included many testimonials from fairy-believers. Similarly, in 1955, Marjorie Johnson began the work that would eventually become Seeing Fairies, released in English in 2014. It's a collection of "fairy sightings" from many different people who believed they had genuinely seen otherworldly beings. In many of these cases, the fairies they reported were small winged creatures living in nature.
It is true that today the tiny flower fairy is frequently viewed with disdain as something only for children. Works on fairies for older readers usually take pains to specify that these are not the same-old-same-old cute fairies, but the ancient, bloodier, sexier versions. A typical example: The Iron King by Julie Kagawa (2010) dismissively references Tinker Bell as the usual human concept of fairies, calling her "some kind of pixie with glitter dust and butterfly wings," while introducing a darker and crueller Fairyland. There is no longer the same adult fascination with miniature fae that flourished in the 17th and 19th centuries.
It's still unclear where flower fairies originally came from. Shakespeare undoubtedly popularized them, but he apparently expected his audience to take his incredibly miniature nature spirits in stride. There are surviving hints of tiny fairies in literature predating him. And that brings me back to the ghosts of medieval art.
Fairies and ghosts overlap. The further you go back, the more intertwined they are. Anna Eliza Bray's pixies (the ones sleeping in tulips) are "the souls of infants" who died unbaptized. The elementals in The Rape of the Lock are the spirits of the dead. In The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400), Geoffrey Chaucer calls Pluto (Roman god of the underworld) the king of the fairies. And it's not just in Europe; in the lore of West and Central Africa, ancestral spirits can be diminutive figures who behave a lot like European fairies. This makes that medieval story about finger-sized souls, particularly fascinating.
There's a lot of overlap between witches and fairies in older folklore, and the idea of a witch's voyage in an unusual vessel was a common one. According to A Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), witches like to "saile in an egge shell, a cockle or muscle shell, through and under the tempestuous seas."
All throughout Europe ran the superstition that people should never leave eggshells unbroken. This is mentioned as early as the writings of Pliny the Elder: "There is no one, too, who does not dread being spell-bound by means of evil imprecations; and hence the practice, after eating eggs or snails, of immediately breaking the shells, or piercing them with the spoons." This suggests sympathetic magic, the possibility that someone might use something connected to you to curse you. In 1658, Sir Thomas Browne said that this custom was to prevent witches who might "draw or prick their names therein, and veneficiously mischief their persons." There were many superstitions of eggs being unlucky. Breaking eggshells over a child would deter witchcraft. Strings of blown eggshells were unlucky when hung inside a house. (Signs, Omens and Superstitions, 1918) Any egg taken aboard a ship would cause contrary winds, and some fishermen would not even call them by name, but referred to them as "roundabouts."
The relevant thing here is the superstition that eggshells were witches' boats. This was all throughout Europe. Eggshells had to be crushed or poked full of holes, or otherwise either witches or fairies would set to sea in them and wreck ships. Along the same lines, a witch named Mother Gabley drowned sailors "by the boiling or rather labouring of certayn Eggs in a payle full of colde water." This could have been sympathetic magic, "raising a storm at sea by simulating one in a pail." (Folklore vol. 13, pg. 431).
Another suggestion put forth in an issue of Notes and Queries was that "witches could use them, if whole, as boats in which to cross running streams." This could connect to the tradition that evil entities like vampires cannot cross running water.
Eggshells were also for fairies, as I mentioned in a previous post. In the 1621 chapbook "The History of Tom Thumb," Tom brags that he can "saile in an egge-shel." According to Lady Wilde's Superstitions of Ireland (1887), "egg-shells are favourite retreats of the fairies, therefore the judicious eater should always break the shell after use, to prevent the fairy sprite from taking up his lodgment therein." In the Netherlands, it was said that when eggshells floated on the water, the alven or elves were riding in them. (Thorpe, Northern Mythology vol. 3. 1852.) In Russia, the smallest rusalki do the same thing (Songs of the Russian People.)
Apparently these eggshell boats weren't confined to watery voyages, but could cross land too. In 1673, a teenaged girl named Anne Armstrong gave testimony accusing several women of witchcraft. She described one of them arriving at coven meetings "rideing upon wooden dishes and egg-shells, both in the rideinge house and in the close adjoyninge." (Publications of the Surtees Society, vol. 42)
Back to Discoverie of Witchcraft - witches weren't just supposed to use eggshells, but cockleshells and sieves. In Cambrian Superstitions by William Howells (1831), a young man sees witches sailing across the river Tivy in cockle shells. A cockleshell has associations with the ocean but is also similar to an eggshell. On the other hand, it's also a word for a small, flimsy boat or for unsteadiness in general.
In ancient Greece, "putting to sail in a sieve" was an idiom for undertaking an impossibly risky enterprise. In the comedy "Peace," by the Greek playwright Aristophenes (421 BC), it is said that Simonedes has "grown so old and sordid, he'd put to sea upon a sieve for money." The implication is that he has more greed than sense. In England, however, sailing in a sieve had implications of black magic. In "Newes from Scotland: Declaring the damnable Life of Doctor Fian" (1591), two hundred witches plotting to attack and drown the king "went by sea, each one in a riddle or sieve, and went in the same very substantially with flaggons of wine, making merry and drinking by the way." Macbeth also mentions this tradition.
So: going to sea in a sieve was a saying for a risky undertaking. A cockleshell was a small, flimsy boat. Altogether, beings who ride in eggshells or sieves might seem tiny, foolish, or laughable. However, some people seem to have actually followed the superstition that witches or fairies setting to sea in eggshells was a genuine danger.
But then, as a character remarks in The Round Table Club (1873), "What could witches not make a voyage in?" Witches and fairies (there's that overlap again) were also commonly said to ride on straw, bulrushes, ragwort, thorn, cabbage stalks, fern roots, rushes, and other types of grass. These unusual steeds would carry them through the air at great speeds - a tradition that's survived in modern depictions of witches on flying broomsticks. Ragwort in particular was called the "fairy horse" in Ireland. De Universo, a work by the 13th-century French bishop William of Auvergne, mentions magicians who believed that demons could create magical steeds from reeds or canes. In Discoverie of Witchcraft (again), the fairies "steal hempen stalks from the fields where they grow, to convert them into horses."
Isobel Gowdie, on trial for witchcraft in 1662, said that when people saw bits of cornstraw flying above the road "in a whirlwind," it was actually witches traveling. She may have been inspired by the lightness of straw and the way chaff flew in the wind. (Goodare, J. Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters).
Today witches are often depicted riding on broomsticks. The broom was connected to wind, and therefore an appropriate tool for witches who controlled winds and storms. In Germany, people burned an old broom when they wanted wind, and sailors fighting a "contrary wind" would throw an old broom at another ship to make the wind change direction. (Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore, 1872, p. 117). And here we are back at the idea of sailors and storms at sea!
Continued from "Yumboes: Senegalese Fairies?"
I first learned of yumboes from a folklore encyclopedia which described them as little fairy creatures with silver hair. When I searched for fairies and little people in Wolof and Senegalese folklore, I couldn't find any matches for the yumboes. It turns out that I was looking the wrong place. I found parallels when I looked for ghosts, gods, and ancestral spirits.
The Kongo people originally took European newcomers for vumbi, white-skinned ghosts. Not only were Europeans white, but when their ships appeared mast-first over the horizon, it could have looked as if they were rising up out of the underworld. And in Jamaica, the duppy folk, like the yumboes, are little white people who live in a society mimicking humans. They love singing and appreciate offerings of food.
Vumbis and duppies are both ghosts. Vumbi in particular seems like it could share a root word with yumboes. In many cultures, there's an overlap between fairies and ghosts. Yumboes are just on the ghost end of the scale.
What do we learn about them from Thomas Keightley's description?
The Mythology of All Races lists examples of African ancestral spirits where, in many cases, ghosts continue their existence exactly as they did in life. They have families and even young children. They keep dogs and cattle. Often, they do all of this in a realm deep beneath the earth. In one widespread tale, a hunter follows a porcupine down its burrow and finds an underground village. There, he recognizes deceased friends and relatives. Sometimes, by the time he returns to the living world, so much time has passed that his family has given him up for dead.
In one tale, while the Underworld is plentiful in food, it has no grain. The ghosts must visit the living world in animal form to steal from gardens. Elsewhere, the Chaga people believe that warimu will steal sheep or beer-making troughs. The living should leave offerings of porridge, beer or other food items for the dead. In some mythologies, the ghosts need and demand these offerings. In others, they just appreciate gifts.
These ghosts sometimes come out to dance and celebrate. Among the Wadoe, it was said that that when the ghosts gathered, you could hear their voices and drums. In Nyasaland and around Delagoa Bay, people might hear the spirits’ drums, horns and flutes, but it was impossible to find the source of the music.
Some Nyasaland ghosts haunted hills. Women who passed those hills might have their pots stolen by baboons, presumably the spirits in animal form. Any fruit taken from those hills will vanish into nothing. (Werner)
The Thonga people believed in ancestral spirits called shikwembu. Accounts varied: upon death, these spirits might go to an underground village where everything is white, or they might dwell in the sacred woods. They have families and homes just like living people – although they carry their babies upside down! They are short of stature (it's not said how short). (Junod)
Almost always, either the spirits or their homes are white. From the area of Lake Tanganyika, in the underground village of the fisinwa, their clothing and huts shine like the moon. (Mulland)
These are still sources written by colonizers, but they all back each other up and have clear parallels.
As Keightley mentions, in many African countries the color white is associated with the spirit world and death. These superstitions have had tragic results for people with albinism, who have been mistreated or murdered. In Zimbabwe, they were believed "to belong to both the living and the dead," and instead of dying, they would vanish into the bush. The funeral of anyone with the condition always attracted lots of attention. (Kromberg) In Tanzania, one woman with albinism described being bullied in school. Other children mocked her by calling her "zeru," a derogatory Swahili word originating from a term for ghosts. (BBC)
So here's what these spirits have in common:
Yumboes fit right in! Fascinatingly, they do have a lot in common with European fairies. The 17th-century story of the Fairy Boy of Leith, for instance, features people meeting beneath a hill for feasts and music, entering the secret dwelling through invisible gates.
I'm not sure whether it's an oversimplification to call these ancestral spirits 'fairies.' Yumboes are only categorized as such because Thomas Keightley included them in The Fairy Mythology. Note that he included "Shedeem, Shehireem, or Mazikeen" as Jewish spirits, and these are probably closer to demons or djinn than fairies.
I still haven't found "yumboes" under that specific name. One problem is that older Wolof folklore has been overwritten by Islamic beliefs. If you look for ghosts or spirits in modern sources, you'll find "jinne" instead. A secondary issue is that we don't know if "yumbo" is an accurate spelling, or even whether it might originate from elsewhere on the continent. Remember that this word was transmitted through multiple European sources before being set to print.
Still, I think we can consider the yumboes "rebunked."
Next step: find the source of their name. There are Wolof words like yomba (cheap) or yombe (either “wise,” or some kind of squash or gourd) - via the Dictionnaire Francais-Wolof. These look the closest to yumbo, but I don’t believe they’re related. I'm inclined to think yumbo comes from the family of jumbie, zumbi, or Nzambi - ghosts and gods - or maybe njuuma, a Wolof word for a mischievous little devil.
Do you have any guesses or evidence? Write in and let me know!
There's an interesting motif in folktales surrounding fairies' reaction to Christianity, and their hope for an afterlife. Norwegian folklorist Reidar Thoralf Christiansen categorized these as Type 5050, Fairies' Hope for Christian Salvation. You can find some of these tales at D. L. Ashliman's site. The story can vary widely, but generally - in tales collected from Sweden, Norway, and Ireland - a preacher tells the fairy that they will not receive God's salvation. The inconsolable fairy begins to weep and wail. However, in some versions, the preacher has a change of heart and gives them some hope.
Some fairies try to enter the church via subterfuge, by switching out a human baby for a changeling. In a Swedish tale, the human mother learns the truth on the way to her son's baptism, when the infant boasts to the other fairies, "I am off to the church to become a Christian." The Asturian xanas were known to try the same trick, according to Mitología y brujería en Asturias by Ramón Baragaño (1983).
This ties in with ideas of fairies' origins. In some stories, they are the spirits of the dead, particularly unbaptized children. The rusalka in Russian lore are the ghosts of drowned women. In another school of thought, fairies are fallen angels.
In the Irish tale "The Blood of Adam," the fairies cannot be redeemed because they are not of the human race for whom Christ died. But in Norway, the story of "The Huldre Minister" goes in the exact opposite direction. A minister seeking to convert the fairies is surprised when one knows the Bible as well as he does. This one claims that the fairies are the descendants of Adam - by his first wife Lilith instead of Eve. Lilith was not involved in humanity's original sin, so they don't need to be redeemed at all.
It seems like there's a particular theme of water spirits seeking redemption. The xanas live in rivers, and the fairy-salvation story is told of the Swedish Nack or Nickar, a water spirit. Even when they're not explicitly water fairies, they may appear by a river, as in one Irish story.
The idea of water spirits' salvation really takes form in stories of mermaids who lack souls. This theme appeared in the work of Paracelsus, a Swiss alchemist. In his 16th-century work Liber de Nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus, he described four types of elemental beings: undines (water), sylphs (air), gnomes (earth) and salamanders (fire). Despite their powers, they lack the eternal soul that humans possess. The only way for them to acquire a soul is to marry a human being. Any children of this union would be born with souls. According to Paracelsus, the most common marriages were of humans to undines - as with Melusine or the nymph bride of Peter von Stauffenberg. There are echoes of folklore here, but he's definitely creating his own mythology.
In German, there's a word for marriage between a human and a supernatural being: Mahrtenehe. As pointed out by Claude Lecouteux, Paracelsus turns the Mahrtenehe motif on its head. In traditional lore, the supernatural being often leads the human to a new, eternal existence in another realm. In Roman myth, Cupid makes Psyche a goddess on Olympus, and in medieval legend, Sir Launfal's bride takes him away to Fairyland. Paracelsus, however, has the human guiding the elemental away from its heathen origins, to eternal life in Heaven.
Paracelsus' influence continued in works like The Comte de Gabalis (1670). This widely read French novel revolved around a secret society of mystics. They abstained from marriage, hoping to offer their service as husbands to nymphs. It is currently considered a satire of occult philosophy, but was taken seriously through most of its history and inspired the use of Paracelsian elementals in other literature, like the poem The Rape of the Lock. This led to many works where humans fell in love with elemental beings. One example is the ballet "The Sylphide."
Another is Friedrich de La Motte's famous 1811 novella, Undine, which concerns a water nymph marrying a human in order to gain a soul. If her husband is ever unfaithful, she will lose her soul again and he will die. It's basically an adaptation of "Peter von Stauffenberg" by way of Paracelsus.
These stories about soul-marriage are literary tales. I can't think of any stories from oral folklore that include this theme, except that in the Orkney Islands, the Fin-Folk could retain their youthful beauty only if they married humans. Much like the fairies mentioned earlier, the Fin-Folk had an uneasy relationship with Christianity. They couldn't live where the Gospel was preached, hated the sight of crosses, and a man could escape them by repeating the name of God three times. (Scottish Antiquary, 1891) (Folklore mermaids can vary wildly from cross-fearing murderesses to the churchgoing Mermaid of Zennor.)
There are stories like "The Peasant and the Waterman" from Germany and "Lidushka and the Water Demon's Wife" from Bohemia. In these tales, merfolk trap the souls of drowned victims underwater, but a visiting human opens the cages and frees them. Thomas Keightley suggested that this was inspired by older mythology of sea deities who took drowned souls to themselves.
Undine's successor was Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid (1836). Andersen didn't like Undine's ending, where the nymph depended on a human being for salvation, and had the Mermaid work her way to Heaven on her own merits.
"The Little Mermaid" inspired countless variations of its own, such as Oscar Wilde's "The Fisherman and His Soul" (1891). Robert Buchanan also used the soul theme for the asrai in "The Changeling: A Legend of the Moonlight" (1875).
Those last two toy with the inherent themes of the old folktale. "The Changeling" takes a dark, cynical view of humanity; the soulless nature spirits are far more virtuous than humans. "The Fisherman and his Soul," which deals with a human giving up his soul to be with his mermaid lover, celebrates love while raising questions about religion. In these stories, to be soulless is to be in a state of innocence rather than evil.
So, to recap: there have always been legends of marriage of humans to gods or other powerful supernatural beings. As Christianity became established, authorities demonized the old pagan gods and spirits. They were recreated as evil beings that feared the church even if they wanted to enter it. Paracelsus put his own spin on the story: these creatures had a shot at redemption by marrying humans, in which case they could earn their own soul. This inspired the tale of Undine, which inspired The Little Mermaid. More recent reactions, if they address this, tend to question established Christian ideas about salvation and the soul.
The oakmen are an English species of fairy, included by the famous folklorist Katharine Mary Briggs in her Dictionary of Fairies (1976). They are "squat, dwarfish people with red toadstool caps and red noses who tempt intruders into their copse with disguised food made of fungi." They inhabit a fairy wood where the ground is covered with bluebells. These are "sinister characters," she added in The Vanishing People (1978).
Since then, oakmen have shown up fairly frequently in folklore encyclopedias and fantasy works (for instance, the One Ring RPG based on The Lord of the Rings). But the post "Oakmen Fairy Fakes?" at Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog raises some questions. Specifically: all of this rests on extremely flimsy evidence.
Back up here for a second. Oaks have a long history in folklore and mythology. Fairy associations with trees, especially oaks, show up in Lewis Spence's British Fairy Origins (1946) and Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology vol. 2, among many, many other books. In Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), "the man in the oke" appears in a list of supernatural beings.
But K. M. Briggs isn't talking about any of that. She's describing oakmen, wee little English gnomes who live inside oak trees. And her sources are Ruth Tongue's Forgotten Folktales of the English Counties (1970) and Beatrix Potter's Fairy Caravan (1929). European folklore is clearly threaded through Potter's novel, and Briggs claimed hopefully, "It is probable that her Oakmen are founded on genuine traditions." By 1978 she was more certain. In The Vanishing People she wrote, "Although [The Fairy Caravan] makes no claim to be authoritative the legend is confirmed by the collections of Ruth Tongue."
Ruth Tongue was Briggs' close friend and protégé. As usual, when recording the Cumberland story of "The Vixen and the Oakmen," she left her sources vague. This story was told by a nameless soldier stationed in the Lake District in 1948. Tongue's oakmen are tree-dwelling guardians of animals and nature, with no further description provided.
There are several obscure fairy races which Tongue brought to light, seemingly out of nowhere, and which Briggs eagerly popularized - like the asrai. The oakmen fit the same patterns. Their story is strikingly unique, but there is one older work which could maybe hold evidence of a wider tradition (or evidence that Ruth Tongue took a little inspiration from books). "The Vixen" showcases her signature flowery style. It's the kind of story where talking animals chat about dinner plans.
However, in this case, Briggs relied more strongly on Beatrix Potter as a source. The Fairy Caravan, the longest of Potter's works, follows a guinea pig who runs away and joins a secret animal circus. The watercolor landscapes are based on the Lake District (and hey, isn't that where "The Vixen and the Oakmen" was collected?).
Potter's oakmen are “dwarfy red-capped figures” spotted pushing a miniature wheelbarrow through a glade. One is named Huddikin, like the Hödekin of German folklore. They are surprisingly mundane little people who take in animals during the winter.
In an unrelated subplot, the characters search for a lost companion, Paddy Pig, who has vanished in Pringle Wood. This is a small wood of oaks where anyone who travels becomes lost and it is unwise to eat anything that grows. The ground is carpeted with bluebells, and the illustration shows tiny sprites hiding amidst the flowers. Someone eventually finds Paddy Pig inside a hollow tree, hallucinating after eating "tartlets" which were actually toadstools. While recovering, he describes being chased through the woods by “green things with red noses” that pinched him.
The oakmen are never connected to the "green things with red noses." They have nothing to do with bluebells, poisonous fungi, Pringle Wood or any of the beings that live in it. They are not "sinister." They don't even wear toadstool caps - instead, they have pointed garden-gnome-style hats.
Something has gone very wrong here.
Upon some research, I quickly learned that this whole thing began when Beatrix Potter visited her new husband's seven-year-old niece, Nancy Nicholson. She was delighted by the little girl's imaginative stories of playing in the woods with the Oakmen. For Christmas in 1916, she gave Nancy a six-page watercolor-illustrated story about them. Here, the oakmen are jolly little fellows who live in larch trees (!) with little doors and windows. They are friends to both animals and humans. Their idyllic existence features tea parties sitting around toadstool-tables. When their forest is cut down, they move to a new home close to Potter's house.
Potter was interested in publishing "The Oakmen" as her next book. Due to her failing eyesight, she began some preliminary work with an illustrator named Ernest A. Aris. However, when she started drafting, she learned that the oakmen were not Nancy's original creation. Instead, the idea may have come from a storybook which someone had read to her when she was little.
Potter's biographers generally agree that she ended her plans for the oakmen over copyright concerns. In addition, she had a falling out with Aris over accusations that he had plagiarized her books.
So the story was laid aside, but Potter had fond memories of the oakmen. In a 1924 letter, she lamented "I should have liked to have made a book of some of my 'letters to Nancy.'" And in 1929, she mentioned them briefly in The Fairy Caravan. This was not the story she had developed with Nancy, so perhaps she felt she had sidestepped any copyright problems. One character starts to talk about the Oakmen but swiftly changes the subject.
You can read the original Oakmen story in Leslie Linder's History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter. As for Ernest A. Aris, he went on to include elves identical to Potter's oakmen in multiple picture books. It looks like there was something to those accusations of plagiarism.
So the question is: where did Nancy Nicholson get the oakmen?
Nancy later wrote of her friendship with Potter, "The oak-men were imaginary people who lived in trees, and I remember my amazement on my first visit to Sawrey, when this new aunt left the grown-ups and came to me to imagine windows and doors in the trees with people peeping out."
Interestingly, she hyphenates it as oak-men, not like Potter's portmanteau Oakmen. After some more research, I have a hypothesis as to what inspired her.
William Canton (1845-1926) was a British author who wrote several children's books inspired by his daughter Winifred Vida, or W.V. Some of these books mention Oak-men (with a hyphen!). These began as stories Canton told his daughter while they went for walks in the woods. They built their own fairytale world, ranging from the ominous Webs of the Iron Spider to the Oak-men's "small Gothic doors" in the trees. The Oak-men were small beings who drank out of acorn cups and wore clothes the color of leaves.
W. V.: Her Book (1896), published when she was five years old, features a scene where W.V. gets lost in the woods. Fortunately, "the door of an oak-tree open[s] and a little, little, wee man all dressed in green, with green boots and a green feather in his cap, come[s] out.” This Oak-man and his friends help her find her way home.
The story is accompanied by an illustration of the little girl in the midst of the trees, which all have little doors at their bases. She thanks one Oak-man with a kiss, while other Oak-men, pixies and animals stand by. (pp. 79-81)
Oak-men also featured in A Child's Book of Saints (1898) and In memory of W. V. (1901). Tragically, ten-year-old W.V. died in 1901.
One of these could be the storybook Nancy read. Her tiny doors in trees and her use of a hyphen are Canton-esque, and she might have identified with the figure of little W.V. wandering the woods. These books also would have been recent enough to make Beatrix Potter's publishers really concerned.
William Canton was well-acquainted with mythology and his daughter's games often featured fairies and pixies. However, it seems likely that the oak-men were not folk-fairies, but an original creation of the Canton family. Briggs treated Beatrix Potter like an author adapting a myth, but evidence shows that Potter behaved more like an author concerned about copyright infringement. That issue would never exist if oakmen were from folklore.
It looks like this is a case of K. M. Briggs focusing on entertainment over accuracy. Although there is plenty of material connecting fairy beings to oak trees, she included the oakmen based on scanty evidence. Not only that, but she completely misread her source. The oakmen do not wear mushroom caps, glamour toadstools to look like tarts, or live in a bluebell-filled wood. Even if there are oakmen hiding in older English folklore, Briggs' description is fundamentally incorrect.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.