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.
In Welsh legend, corgis were once the steeds of the fairy folk. You can still see the faint markings of the fairy saddles across the Pembroke Welsh Corgi's shoulders and back... or so I've heard. I found many books and websites which mentioned the "ancient legend," but none provided a source. Conversely, I could not find any books of Welsh legend that mentioned the corgi's enchanted origins. It's an orphaned fun fact.
Welsh Corgis have been around for a long time. They were bred as cattle dogs, whose small stature helped them avoid the cows' kicking hooves, but they worked with all sorts of livestock. In the 1920s, their name came into more widespread use and they were officially acknowledged as a breed. The English Kennel Club formally recognized the two Corgi breeds, Pembroke and Cardigan, as separate in 1934.
There are many theories on where their name came from. One is that it is a compound meaning "dwarf dog": cor (dwarf) + ci (dog). Some modern sources connect this to the Little Folk.
This debate is not new. The Dictionary of the Welsh Language by William Spurrell (1853) defined corgi as a "cur dog." The "cur dog" definition might have more historical support, going back as far as 1574 in William Salesbury’s Dictionary in Englyshe and Welshe. Here, cur would just be used in the sense of a dog of low breeding: a working dog as opposed to a lapdog. In A Dictionary of the Welsh Language (1893), Daniel Silvan Evans defended the "dwarf dog" definition, which is more widespread today. However, he was not using "dwarf" in the sense of fairy. He just meant it was a small dog.
So when did the fairy saddle legend originate?
The earliest source I can find is the poem "Corgi Fantasy" by Anne G. Biddlecombe of Dorset, England. She was one of the top Pembroke breeders of the 1940s and 1950s, and a founding member of the Welsh Corgi League in London, serving as their secretary for some time. She used the pedigree prefix Teekay, under which many of her dogs became show champions.
The poem was first published in 1946 (in the first edition of the Welsh Corgi League Handbook?). Two children find some foxlike puppies out in the woods and take them home. Their father tells them that the dogs are a gift from the fairies, who ride them or use them to pull coaches and herd cows. He points out the image of the fairy saddles on the dogs' coats.
This poem soon became popular and was reprinted in numerous magazines and books, crossing over from England to America. It featured at least twice in the American Kennel Gazette, in 1950 and 1956. The artist Tasha Tudor drew illustrations when it appeared in the Illustrated Study of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi Standard (1975).
(Tudor was a well-known fan of Corgis. In the introduction to her 1971 picture book Corgiville Fair, she said, "They are enchanted. You need only to see them by moonlight to realize this.")
Other modern corgi enthusiasts added their own twists with books, poems and stories like "The Fairy Saddle Legend" and "How the Corgi Lost his Tail." Many artists have turned their talents to drawing corgis with fairies. The stories mention the corgis serving as the fairies' battle steeds - a fantastic mental image.
As an interesting sidenote, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi Club of America uses the acronym PWCCA. The pwca or pooka is a mischievous spirit in Welsh folklore.
Pembrokes weren't the only ones with otherworldly connections. "Rhodd Glas: The Blue Gift," by Pam Brand, appeared in the 1996 handbook of the Cardigan Welsh Corgi Club of America. Brand described how the fairies created the first blue merle Cardigan corgi from a wildflower.
Some even say that corgis were used in a war between the Tylwyth Teg and the Gwyllion, but this is hard to verify. In fact, these two fairy types may be the same thing, not separate tribes at all. The farthest I could trace that particular variation was the book Gods, ghosts and black dogs: The fascinating folklore and mythology of dogs, published in 2016. Later that same year, a Mental Floss article "The Ancient Connection Between Corgis and Fairies" used the story.
You may notice that none of these sources are from fairytales or folklore collections. Instead, they're from articles on dog breeds. At this point, I have found no ancient tales of fairies riding any kind of dog. However, I have found a few Welsh legends of fairy steeds.
In "The Tale of Elidorus," from Giraldus Cambrensis' account in 1191, the little people rode miniature horses perfectly adapted to their size. They had similarly tiny greyhounds.
In Thomas Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends (1828), a woman from the Vale of Neath saw an army of fairies "mounted upon little white horses, not bigger than dogs." That's at least a small step closer to the corgi legend.
Based on all this, I would guess that the legend of the corgi's fairy origins is new, not ancient. It's a modern folktale which grew naturally out of the subculture of corgi breeders and fans. The idea of the "saddle marks" took shape around the time the dog's characteristics were being formally defined. The "Corgi Fantasy" poem was published twelve years after the Pembroke breed was recognized. Other people came up with their own spins on the story, and it developed from there.
I'm currently working on a timeline of the corgi legend's evolution. Many of these poems and stories were first printed in dog magazines and handbooks, which makes them difficult to track down. If you have any clues, please send them in!
Widespread through English folklore are black dogs and hellhounds: ghostly presences which terrify people and are portents of death. You have your Grims, your Padfoots, your Black Shucks, and your Freybugs, along with many others.
The Freybug, the black dog of Norfolk, has featured in the video game Final Fantasy and in the Dracopedia series. But there are some concerns.
As pointed out by the blog A Book of Creatures (which I stumbled across while researching other monsters), the freybug first appeared in the work of Carol Rose, specifically her books Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes and Goblins (1996) and Giants, Monsters, and Dragons (2000). According to Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes and Goblins, the Freybug is "a demon of the roads in English folk beliefs of the Middle Ages. It was described as a Black Dog fiend and referred to in an English document of 1555."
Rose cites no sources. What document of 1555? Where did she get this? There are no other sources for the Freybug, and she actually cited herself when she included it in her later book. That is a bad sign.
However, the root words are familiar. "Fray" means fear or panic. "Bug" is a hobgoblin. As a result, Freybug sounds very . . . Denham Tracts-y.
The Denham Tracts were a series of pamphlets by Michael Aislabie Denham from the 1840s and 1850s. They include a walloping list of monsters including, but not limited to: bogies, boggles, boggleboes, boggy-boes, boggarts, barguests, bygorns, bugbears, black-bugs, scar-bugs, bugaboos, and bugs.
A while after I learned about the Freybug, I was looking at my Denham Tracts list again, and one jumped out at me: the Flay-Boggart. This was a word for a scarecrow, but could also apply to a generic frightening monster. It appeared at least as early as 1535, in the Coverdale Bible's Epistle of Jeremiah: "For like as a frayboggarde in a garden off Cucumbers kepeth nothinge, even so are their goddes of wod, of syluer & golde."
Rose's books are the only sources for the Freybug. But what about Fraybug?
It turns out that English martyr Laurence Saunders twice mentioned "fray-bugs" in his letters.
The word was defined by The Church Historians of England: Reformation Period (1859) as an "imaginary monster" and by Letters of the martyrs of the English Church (1884) as a "spectre."
Saunders' letters were written in 1555 - the year so mysteriously cited by Rose.
Under the spellings fray-bug, frai-bugge, and fray-buggard, the word occurs in multiple works from the 16th and 17th centuries - it's in the Oxford English Dictionary and everything. It was also used as a verb, as in "to frighten someone." In the conclusion to book 2 of John Bale's The actes of Englysh votaryes (1551): "They fraybugged the' with the thundreboltes of theyr excommunycacyons and interdiccyons."
Based on these books, and the date of Saunders' letters, things were looking much better for the Freybug - although there was still no tie to black dogs.
And then I found John Brand's Popular Antiquities of Great Britain vol. 1 (1905). This book describes black dogs such as the Barguest or the boggart of Lancashire, and then suggests (bewilderingly), "This dog-spirit may be the malignant influence referred to under the name of Fray-bug, in a curious extract from a letter of Master Saunders to his wife, 1555."
There it is. I suspect that Carol Rose read Popular Antiquities, didn't know who Saunders was, but decided to use the creature in her book anyway. She misspelled the name and fudged the citation (it's not like Brand cited things clearly to begin with). When she returned to the subject in her later book, she rephrased it as "an English manuscript of 1555," something rather different from a letter, which would be even more confusing to anyone who later tried to fact-check it.
I can't say whether the fray-bug was in fact supposed to be a black dog. I would tend to think it's a generic boogeyman, perhaps resembling a scarecrow, although there can be overlaps between black dogs and other apparitions. The black dog called freybug is a new creation, but the fray-bug has been around for hundreds of years.
The asrai is a type of English water fairy. This species appears in a few fairytale collections and fantasy novels, but they were first popularized by Ruth Tongue's 1970 book, Forgotten Folk Tales of the English Counties.
Tongue has been described as problematic. Although she's obscure today, her work inspired later authors and has found its way into all sorts of media. She was an amazing storyteller, and she was writing down traditions that had never been recorded before. Here's the problematic part: she made them up. She often built upon scraps of genuine folklore, but the greater part of her work is original.
So where does this leave the asrai?
In the tale that Tongue recalled from Shropshire and Cheshire, Asrai are peaceful fairy folk. Living deep beneath lakes, they emerge to see the moonlight once every hundred years. They will die if they ever come near sunlight. One night, a fisherman out in his boat happens to catch an Asrai in his net. He is entranced by her beauty and decides to take her home, even though she weeps and protests in a strange language. He covers her with some wet rushes. In the process, she touches his hand, leaving it icy cold for the rest of his life. He rows back as quickly as he can and reaches the shore just as the sun rises. When he picks up the rushes, he finds that the Asrai has melted away to nothing.
Okay, so first off, for this book, Tongue had lost most of her notes in fires or moves and had to recreate the stories from memory. Whoops. Still, she manages to give two versions of this story. The first comes from "the Whitchurch Collection (Shropshire)." I found one Whitchurch Collection at the Whitchurch Heritage Center, but it dates from 2008. There's no way to tell what collection Tongue meant or where it might be now - let alone what was in the collection. For the second version, which is exactly the same with some different wording, Tongue says "From the author’s recollections of an account in local papers published between 1875 and 1912.”
That is thirty-seven years' worth of newspapers. THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS.
To accompany the tale, she provides quite a few anecdotes - a Welsh maid who calls full moons "Asrai nights," and various people who avoid deep water because of asrais. Again, her attributions are fragmentary and vague. One says simply "Correspondence, 13 September 1965 (destroyed by fire)."
Going through English and Welsh tales, I found several stories of captured mermaids, but nothing about water fairies that melt. One water creature in Shropshire lore is the monstrous Jenny Greenteeth, but she couldn't be more different from the asrai. (Edit to add: Tongue's tale feels closer to the widespread English and Welsh tales where men take lake-dwelling fairies as brides, only to break some taboo and cause their wives to return to the water forever. Still, it remains unsettlingly unique.)
There are plenty of spelling variants: asrey, ashray, azurai, and more. I searched the English Dialect Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and several books of dialects. The only word I found that was even somewhat close is askal, a water animal or newt, also spelled asker or asgill. Incidentally, Tongue's notes mention a person who thought "asrai" was a term for a newt.
As of writing this, I am stumped. Every modern mention of the asrai goes back to Tongue. I have found one person's account of asrai that predates her book - in the works of Robert Buchanan.
Buchanan published his poem "The Asrai" in The Saint Pauls Magazine, April, 1872. The brief verses described an ethereal race called the Asrai, "pale, yet fair" immortal beings living in darkness before the creation of sunlight. They are innocent and gentle, lacking human passions and pleasures, but also human vices.
In 1875, the author R. E. Francillon wrote to Buchanan and asked him to submit a poem for Francillon's novel Streaked with Gold. The novel was to be published anonymously in the special 1875 Christmas issue of The Gentleman's Magazine, although the authors' identities were an open secret. Buchanan responded with "The Changeling: A Legend of the Moonlight." This poem, included as Chapter VI, has nothing to do with the rest of the book.
It begins with a few verses very similar to its predecessor, explaining the Asrai, who are "cold . . . as the pale moonbeam." After the arrival of the sun, "the pallid Asrai faded away," going almost extinct, with only a few surviving in mountains and lakes. In their place, humanity begins to thrive. One Asrai mother envies the humans and wishes that her baby could live as one of them and gain his own soul. She leaves her home beneath the lake that night and enters a human house, where a woman and her newborn have just died in childbirth. The Asrai's spell causes her baby to inhabit the dead child's body, making him the titular Changeling. He grows up as a mortal man, while his mother invisibly watches over him. However, the human world corrupts him and he becomes cruel, lustful and violent. He eventually repents. Now an old man, he is known as the Abbot Paul and lives in a monastery by the lake where he was born. One night, his mother rises from the water and calls him. He dies and leaves his mortal form behind, freeing his Asrai self, but he has earned a soul and must move on to the afterlife. Mother and son are separated forever.
I have no resources on what inspired Buchanan, except for a later mention of the poem by R. E. Francillon. In their correspondence, Buchanan provided the only clue to his inspirations by mentioning "the Bala Lake Tradition." There are a few stories about Lake Bala or Llyn Tegid in Wales, although I'm not sure which Buchanan meant. There is supposed to be a sunken city beneath its waters, and you can sometimes hear sounds or see its lights deep within. "The Changeling" also includes familiar motifs like the water fairy who lacks a soul.
Tongue's asrai have webbed hands and feet and green hair. They are the size of twelve-year-old children. Buchanan's Asrai are pale, dressed in snowy white. They are invisible to humans, and seem more like spirits than mermaids. They don't melt. However, both are associated with moonlight and cold, live underwater, and avoid sunlight. They're also both associated with Wales and the Welsh border.
Tongue's friend, the famous folklorist K. M. Briggs, took Buchanan's poems as evidence of an older tradition. However, although some elements of his poetry were inspired by fairytales, I have found no evidence that Buchanan ever said the asrai themselves were from folklore. It even seems like he developed the asrai between the first and second poems, since they have more ties to folklore in "The Changeling."
Some of Tongue's stories do have a basis in tradition, but here, it's unclear. Her sources are impossible to track down. She throws out a few names, a few hints at newspaper articles and collections, but on closer inspection, they melt away just like the asrai. It's very easy to imagine her reading a book of poems and later remembering a few romantic details: delicate water sprites, greedy humans, a tragic ending.
The asrai's haunting story catches the imagination. Almost fifty years after the publication of Forgotten Folk Tales, it's continually told and retold by different authors. A 2009 family event in Shropshire had a storytime segment featuring "north Shropshire’s very own mermaids, the Azrai."
The asrai may not have been part of folklore before Ruth Tongue. Still, they're definitely part of folklore now.
The yumboes are fairies from the folklore of the Wolof people in Senegal, West Africa, on the coast near Goree Island. Yumboes are two feet tall and colored silvery white from head to toe. They are believed to be the spirits of the dead, and attach themselves closely to human families.
They live underground, beneath hills called the Paps. There are many hills named Paps across the world, so-called because they resemble the shape of a woman's breast. I found mentions of some in Senegal, including the Deux Mamelles.
Though the Yumboes have luxurious dwellings where they invisibly host amazing feasts, they eat by stealing human food and carrying it off in calabashes. At least they catch their own fish.
Yumboes appear occasionally in fiction, including the extended Harry Potter universe. In many ways, they're very similar to European fairies. The oldest mention I can find of them is Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology in 1828. All other descriptions of yumboes seem to be taken directly from Keightley's.
It bears mentioning that Keightley, a pioneer in the folklore field, was Irish. At least to my knowledge, he never studied African cultures in-depth. Most of the fairies in The Fairy Mythology are European, with Africa, Asia and the Middle East stuffed in at the end. His source for yumboes is "a young lady, who spent several years of her childhood at Goree" and who herself heard the story from her Wolof maid. This means that yumboes as we know them are from a third-hand account.
So I went looking for supporting evidence or any stories that might conceivably be about yumboe-like creatures. Unfortunately, much like my venture with pillywiggins (here and here), when I tried to find mentions of yumboes in Wolof folklore, I came up empty-handed. I couldn't even find mentions of the word in dictionaries. Quite a few sites claim that yumboe is a word from Lebou, a language closely related to Wolof, but provide no sources.
A Tumblr post said that the Wolof word "Yomba" means pumpkin, which checks out. The writer draws a connection between "yomba" and the yumboes' love for stealing humans' food. But that still leaves us with no dictionary mention of yumboes. I also found the word yomba defined as "cheap."
Incidentally, this post also pointed me towards a book of African-American tales, specifically "Mom Bett and the Little Ones A-Glowing" in Her Stories by Virginia Hamilton. The tale deals with tiny, glowing fairies who dance around a woman's garden. However, Hamilton comments, "Tales of fairies are few and mostly fragmentary in black folklore. This tale by the author is based on sparse evidence. The African American spirit world is one usually to be feared, and it deals mainly with witches, devils, boo hags, and ghosts."
That's not particularly encouraging.
What about the yumboes' other name, "bakhna rakhna" or the good people? Keightley seizes on this as a parallel to the Good Folk of European lore. I did find "baax" or "baah na" as Wolof words meaning good, which is close enough to "bakhna." However, I have not yet had luck with rakhna.
Taking another tactic, there are plenty of stories of spirit lore in Senegal. There are the jinné, derived from the Arabic jinn. People of Wolof and Lebou ancestry have a tradition of protective ancestor spirits, the "rab," or evil beings, "doma." Closer to the "little people" archetype is the konderong or kondorong. Like most elves and dwarves of Africa, the konderong are no more than two feet tall, with feet turned backwards. Their beards are incredibly long, and they often wrap them around their bodies to serve as clothes. According to David Ames, they can be rascally or dangerous, and serve as guardians of the wild animals. According to other authors, the kondorong might be known to cut off cows' tails or to be great wrestlers. One oral tale is called "Hyena Wrestles a Konderong."
According to Emil Anthony Magel, the konderongs' beards are white. A two-foot-tall creature wrapped in white hair sounds somewhat like the little white yumboes.
But as I kept researching, I thought that maybe yumboes could be related to the jumbee or jumbie. The jumbie is a dark and terrifying figure, a kind of demon in Caribbean countries among people of African descent. It may be linguistically related to Bantu "zombie," Kongo "zumbi" (fetish), or Kimbundu "nzambi" (god).
That put me on a trail I could follow.
The Kongo word "vumbi", according to King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998), refers to "ancestral ghosts" who were white in color, for their "skin changed to the color of chalk when [they] passed into the land of the dead."
And in Jamaica, "duppies" appear as ghosts, malevolent monsters, or - sometimes - fairylike little people, "white, with big heads and big eyes." They live in the branches of silk cotton trees, love singing, and have their own society with a king and queen. People leave out water or small pumpkins as offerings for them (Leach 1961).
Yumboes come from West Africa. Zombi/zumbi-type terms are spread over West and Central Africa and the Caribbean. Which raises the question... could yumboes be related to zombies?
PART 2: Yumboes and African Ghost Lore
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.