Proserpine the Fairy Queen
I’ve always taken an interest in the names given to fairies in folklore and literature. Frequently the most famous fairies are kings and queens, like Oberon, Titania and Mab of Shakespeare. One name that was frequently given to a fairy queen at a certain point, but doesn’t get used as much anymore in pop culture, is Proserpina. The Roman goddess of the Underworld and equivalent of the Greek Persephone was recast as a fairy queen. There's a general trend of gods being downgraded to fairies across history. We see something similar with the goddess Diana’s name attributed in medieval times to pretty much any legend of nightly witch rides. In Dr. Samuel Harsenet's Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures (1603), the god Mercury is "Prince of the Fairies" as well as Jupiter's son. I want to delve into the idea of Proserpina as a fairy.
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale” (The Canterbury Tales, dated 1387-1400), Pluto and Proserpine show up as the rulers of the fairies, hanging out in a garden. It's been suggested that these characters set the model for Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania. In both works, the fairies are deity-like beings who take an interest in human love affairs and may sometimes magically interfere, and there's a focus on a disagreement between the fairy rulers.
This might even have been the spark for later writers to use Proserpine as the fairy queen's name (Green p. 202).
“Proserpyne” or “Proserpyna” is the benevolent fairy queen who guides the hero of The History of The Valiant Knight Arthur of Little Britain, with English translations dating to the mid-1500s. It originally came from French and goes back even further. In this story, there are actually four fairy queens, and she's their chief. Her role includes fairy godmother, fairy lover, supernatural helper and tutelary spirit motifs; blessing newborns, aiding the hero (flirting with him and then setting him up with her human doppelganger Florence), even pulling some changeling-style antics to take a woman's place (although she does it to help).
Fairy queen Proserpina shows up in Thomas Campion’s poem Hark, All You Ladies (1591). Here she is a kind of love- and fertility-related spirit and leader of a troop of fairies who, in classic fashion, pinch people black and blue.
And in RIchard Johnson’s The Most Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendome (1596), Proserpine is a fairy queen who rules in the underworld and whose fairies lead human travelers astray. She also aids in childbirth and foretells children's futures - a very fairy godmother/Greek Fates thing to do.
Proserpina did show up in her more goddess-like roles in literature. For instance, in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590-1956), she and Pluto are mentioned in a more negative light as the rulers of Hell and parents of the villainess Lucifera.
But it seems like, for a small space here, we have a spate of stories where this Roman goddess simply is the fairy queen (and, with her, Pluto is the fairy king). In many ways this makes sense. Fairies are often tied to death and the afterlife in folk belief, and live in subterranean realms. In many cases, fairies actually are the dead. Proserpine/Persephone does hit on a lot of these trends, plus she's associated with nature and the seasons.
But Proserpina was quickly overshadowed by Shakespeare's fairy queens, Titania and Mab. Especially Mab. She absolutely trounced Titania in the popularity department, stealing top billing as empress of all the fairies and also stealing Titania's husband Oberon. This was the time of tiny, comedic fairies being popular. A Midsummer Night's Dream's Titania was a seasonal goddess; Romeo and Juliet's Mab was a comedic mite tailor-made for the fashion of literary fairies. Proserpina, like Titania, just doesn't fit that mold. A more fitting role for her is seen in Michael Drayton’s Nymphidia (1627), where fairy ruler Queen Mab appeals to her as the "Queen of Shades" for witchy magical help.
Just as there are many reasons why Proserpina would fit, there are also plenty of reasons this one didn't stick. Proserpina is clearly an outside influence, a famous Roman goddess, a foreign name slapped onto an ostensibly local story of fairies. Even Titania's name originally comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Mab, an English nickname, may have felt more natural and local. Or maybe people intentionally wanted to move away from Proserpina's darker associations of death, witchcraft and pagan religion (Nichols 404). Fairies were being sanitized. They were cute and funny. In more heroic, less comedic plays and poems, they were often used as metaphors for the royal family.
All in all, it makes sense why this worked out like it did, but I also think Proserpine deserves a little more attention as a somewhat popular fairy queen character. Although her appearances are literary, many of them show hints of contemporary fairy beliefs.
I've written before about Childe Rowland. This story, from the moment it was written down, was greatly edited and altered, to the point where some of the themes and characters are more the work of the collectors than of tradition. I've looked specifically at the way it was tied to Arthurian legend, but there were also significant changes to the way characters traveled to Fairyland.
The story's damsel in distress, Burd Ellen, vanishes when she runs widdershins around a church to find a missing ball. When her brother Rowland sets out to follow her, he learns that he must go to a certain green hill surrounded by terrace-rings, and must circle the hill three times widdershins. On each round, he says "Open, door! open, door! And let me come in." The third time, a door appears, and Roland enters "a long passage" which eventually opens into the palace of the king of Elfland. Roland rescues his sister, and the story ends with the line that she never ran widdershins around a church again.
A church is a holy place, where most people would believe fairies and other spirits are powerless. However, in this story, walking around it widdershins would reverse that protection and put you into the fairies' power. Widdershins is the way contrary to the course of the sun, or counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. This direction, in which your shadow falls behind you so that you can't see it, was seen as unlucky. In Burd Ellen's case, the fairies are able to kidnap her because of her action.
Moving widdershins, particularly in a multiple of three, was a behavior associated with witches and the supernatural. In the Flyting between Montgomerie and Polwart (c. 1580) - a 16th-century battle of insults between two poets - Alexander Montgomerie described a procession of witches riding on pigs, black dogs or monks. Some of them ride backwards, and others "nyne times, widdershins, about the thorne raid [rode]." (Note that thorn trees have many associated superstitions and fairy associations.) Similarly, in a song titled "Betty Bathgate the Witch," about 17th-century witch Elizabeth Bathcat, the witch in the midst of her curses and cantrips goes running "widdershins nine times round the grey stane [stone]." (Henderson 60-61)
As Joseph Jacobs explained when discussing Childe Rowland, "To do things in a way opposite to the Church way was to league oneself with the enemies of the Church. Hence the door of the Dark Tower opens to him that has gone round it three times widershins, just as the Devil appeared to those who said the Paternoster backwards. This element in the story points, then, to a time when Christianity was introduced into these islands, and had the upperhand."
Just one problem: the version I just recapped is Jacobs' retelling of the tale, and it does not match the original. The original collector had already made significant changes, but Jacobs altered it further. In the original, Ellen runs around the church, but her direction is not mentioned:
"Burd Ellen round about the isle
To seek the ba' is gane."
The fairies simply strike when she is alone. Compare this to tales of changelings. Infants had to be watched carefully; if the child was not guarded at night, or if the mother left them to return to work in the fields too early, the fairies were likely to steal them. (Ashliman, "Changelings.")
Jacobs made numerous edits to simplify the tale, and his change to Ellen's abduction was "to improve the tale's internal narrative integrity" (Bihet 2020). He attempted not only to make things consistent, but explain how Ellen could be kidnapped from sacred churchground. However, in the process he makes Ellen responsible for putting herself in danger, an implication that didn't exist in the original. And the route to the fairies' realm becomes incredibly complicated: you must around a specific hill widershins three times and ask permission in order to get into Fairyland, but if you go around a church widershins once, you'll be in the fairies' power... et cetera.
Jacobs also added his reinterpretation of widershins into his version of Tamlane in More English Fairy Tales (1894):
"I was hunting one day, and as I rode widershins round yon hill, a deep drowsiness fell upon me, and when I awoke, behold! I was in Elfland."
However, the original story does have Roland walk widdershins around the hill. The round, green, terraced hill suggests a prehistoric ringfort or stone circle. These were often associated with the fae, for instance in Irish lore where they were called "fairy forts." People believed that these places should not be disturbed. Although Jacobs' version is seemingly more consistent for modern readers, this section is a more authentic representation of fairy belief.
Other Routes to Faerie
By and large, the most common way that people reach fairy realms is by going underground or through a tunnel. The 17th-century story of the Fairy Boy of Leith features people meeting beneath a hill for feasts and music, entering the secret dwelling through invisible gates. This is more about witches, but they could overlap with fairies. A tunnel makes sense because the fairies are subterranean. Sleeping under a tree, wandering in the wilderness, or crossing a river are also common themes.
Liminal spaces and places of transition are frequent - crossroads and graveyards. In the story of "Cherry of Zennor," a human girl meets a fairy man at a crossroads. Their path is interestingly described; he carries her across a river and down a narrow lane through darkness until they reach a sunlit garden. It sounds very much like an entrance to the Underworld. This story does seem like it was retold with some literary treatment. In the story of the Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, a man gets lost on a midnight shortcut across the moor, and winds up at the home of the fairies (who are, in fact, deceased ancestors). In a Welsh legend, a boy named Elidyr hides in a hollow beneath a riverbank all night, and at dawn pigmies lead him through an underground passage into another country.
Thomas the Rhymer is by a tree when he encounters the Fairy Queen, and she guides him across a river to the otherworld. In Sir Orfeo, a medieval retelling of the Orpheus legend, Orfeo's wife attracts the attention of the Fairy King when she sleeps beneath a tree.
This extends outside European fairy stories. In an African tale, a hunter following a porcupine down its burrow ends up in an underground village, the realm of the dead (The Mythology of All Races, Volume VII. 1916). These may be memories of older myths of the spirits of the dead.
Liminal times, like Mayday and Halloween, also feature overlaps between this world and the other world. In the story of Tam Lin, Janet waits at a crossroads on Halloween to rescue her lover from the fae. T. F. Thiselton-Dyer mentioned that "according to a Danish belief, any one wandering under an elder-bush at twelve o'clock on Midsummer Eve will see the king of fairyland pass by with all his retinue."
And sleep is frequently a gateway - see Sir Orfeo again. In a 1628 chapbook titled Robin Goodfellow; his mad pranks, and merry Jests, Robin has his first near encounter with other fairies when asleep (Halliwell-Philipps 125), and further along in the story meets Oberon (his father) for the first time when Oberon awakens him at night and calls him to the fairy gathering (141).
Who is Joan the Wad?
Tinker Bell isn’t the only famous pixie. Another is Joan the Wad, from Cornwall . . . Queen Joan. When I looked into the history of this character, I found a faint remnant of a Cornish tradition. I also found a whole lot of advertising for mass-produced good luck charms. Also a libel case.
A wad is a torch or bundle of straw; Joan the Wad’s name classifies her as a spirit similar to the Will o’ the Wisp, a wandering light which leads people astray. This apparition is often attributed to fairies, and in Cornwall it's "pixie-light" or people are "pixie-led." As James Orchard Halliwell wrote in 1861:
A clergyman, whose veracity is unquestionable, assured me that many of the inhabitants of Paul to this day believe devoutly that the piskies control the mists, and can, when so disposed, cast a thick veil over the traveller. Sometimes the fairies throw a light before his face that completely dazzles him, and leads him backwards and forwards, without allowing him to make any progress in his journey. This is called being pixy-laden; and a man lately going from Newlyn to Paul, as straight a country road as can well be imagined, was thus teased by the fairies, and it was not until he thought of turning his coat inside out that he escaped the effects of their influence.
Another popular term is Jack o' Lantern, today especially associated with Halloween and the souls of the wandering dead. An Irish folktale runs that he's a spirit locked out of both Heaven and Hell, left to wander with a light inside a turnip (or pumpkin). Kit with the Canstick (Candlestick) was another one. As for wads, Jack-in-the-wad and Meg-with-the-wad appeared in the Denham Tracts around the 1850s.
The first recorded mention of Joan the Wad was in an 1855 letter from Thomas Q. Couch, a native of Polperro, a large village in Cornwall. Discussing local traditions of piskies and pisky-leading, Couch mentions that he had heard the following rhyme invoking two piskies by name:
That tickled the maid and made her mad,
Light me home, the weather's bad.
Unlike most will o’ the wisp or pixie-led stories, this implies that these spirits were invoked for guidance. Or perhaps this was a plea to beings which usually led people to ruin. It's unusual to see Jack o' Lantern (or Jack-the-lantern in this case) labeled as a pixie, although as already seen, there is overlap.
The tickling refers to the idea that fairies pinched lazy maids, often hard enough to leave bruises. As in Drayton’s Nymphidia:
“These make our girls their sluttery rue,
By pinching them both black and blue...”
Or Herrick’s Hesperides:
“ Sweep your house; who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe."
After Couch's work was published, a few works listed Joan-the-Wad or Joan in the wad as a fairy name. Joan's most prominent outing was in 1899, when the Cornish Magazine published the poem “Joan o’ the Wad: A Pisky Song” by Nora Hopper. In this poem, Joan torments countryfolk and animals, blights fruit, steals milk, and seduces young men.
So far, so good. But this Joan is not a queen, just a generic will o' the wisp.
Here we come to an entrepreneur named F. T. Nettleinghame, who moved to Cornwall in 1923. He began publishing postcards and several short books, but ran into business trouble, declaring bankruptcy in 1931 and also getting a divorce. This didn't stop him; in March 1932, he registered trademarks for 'Joan the Wad' and 'Jack o' Lantern'. And then he started advertising. He sold small brass charms of Joan the Wad, “Queen of the Lucky Cornish Piskeys." Joan "sees all, hears all, does all" and brings "Wonderful Luck in the way of Health, Wealth and Happiness." "Substitutes are not effective." "No one is allowed to have Joan the Wad unless they have previously possessed the History of the Lucky Cornish Piskey Folk" (a booklet also provided by the business).
Also, the charms had to be dipped in "the Lucky Saints' Well" in Polperro in order to be effective. This was a major part of the business’s mythology. The reality was a little less romantic; the charms were manufactured in Birmingham, then taken to a well in Cornwall where they were put into cages for dipping in bulk.
There were also charms of Jack o’ Lantern, now Joan's consort. And plenty of other merchandise including china plates and pamphlets of pixie stories. People could order by mail from “Joan’s Cottage” in Bodmin, Cornwall. Advertisements ran in magazines, with testimonials from satisfied customers writing in that they had won lotteries, miraculously recovered from illnesses, or married millionaires. Or that they'd lost their charms, were having awful luck and desperately needed new ones. This marketing approach was apparently quite successful. Business boomed to the point where Nettleinghame had a whole chain of shops in Devon and Cornwall.
(We know a little more about business operations because in 1934, a couple of years in, Nettleinghame’s business partner Douglas Sargeant sued a newspaper for libel. One of the various allegations was that he and Nettleinghame asked sweepstakes winners to give credit to Joan the Wad for their success - the sweepstakes in question was actually run by Sargeant.)
Even after Nettleinghame stepped back from the charm business, he was still able to live comfortably and explore other business ventures. Joan and Jack were joined by other characters like "Billy Bucca, Duke Of The Buccas" and "Sam Spriggan, Prince of the Spriggans." Other businesses saw an opportunity to piggyback, and in the 1950s, competitors included “Glama, the oriental charm of luck and love,” Lady Luck, Beppo’s Little Man, and quite a few others. Even today, there are still businesses selling Joan the Wad charms.
Joan the Wad, as a pointy-headed metal figure crouched on a mushroom, became a familiar sight in advertisements for British readers. She may even have made her way into folklore in some fashion. In the 1980s, Cornish gardener Den Tuthill told a story about the Devil invading Cornwall. Jack, King of the Giants, and Joan-the-Wad, Queen of the Piskies, teamed up to trick the Devil with the gift of an enchanted walking stick which forced him to walk away from Cornwall and never return. Considering Joan's history, it seems very appropriate that this story was part of Tuthill's advertising for his own handmade walking sticks under the brand name Kellywyck. (Williams pp. 93-95)
So, Joan the Wad may have once been an obscure name along the lines of Jack-in-the-wad and Meg-with-the-wad, but was reinvented as fairy royalty in a wildly successful marketing campaign. If you’ve heard of the pixies having a Queen Joan, it’s because of F. T. Nettleinghame.
Ever since Walt Disney's Peter Pan came out in 1953, Tinker Bell has been a trademark mascot of the company, and an instantly familiar icon. The little pixie even got her own line of books and movies. However, in the original play and book by J. M. Barrie, she is simply a fairy. Disney changed her to a pixie and her fairy dust to pixie dust, permanently altering the language that people used for Tinker Bell. Why was this choice made?
The Development of Disney's Tinker Bell
Walt Disney began planning an animated adaptation of Peter Pan as early as 1935, and originally wanted it to be his next animated feature after Snow White. He obtained the rights in 1939, but various delays meant that it ultimately didn't get going until the late 40s. Tinker Bell's design followed on the heels of the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and the tiny, glitter-strewing fairies in the Nutcracker Suite of Fantasia - both released in 1940. (Johnson 38-45)
In the 1953 animated film, the word "fairy" is never used. On the other hand, "pixie" and "fairy" are used interchangeably in Disney's other works, such as the 2002 sequel Return to Neverland and the Disney Fairies spinoffs (which take place in Pixie Hollow). In one program, Walt Disney himself shook a "pixie bell" to summon Tinker Bell, but then remarked that "a little sprinkling of Tinker Bell's fairy dust can make you fly." (The Making of Peter Pan)
Margaret Kerry, the reference model for Tinker Bell, remembered getting a call saying, "You’re up for a role of a three-and-a-half-inch fairy who doesn’t talk." (Kerry 177) In contrast, animator Marc Davis explained, "We knew we wanted [Tink] to be a pixie" (Johnson 108), and model Ginni Davis recalled being told in 1951 the character was a pixie (110), but it's unclear when these interviews took place.
Either way, the terminology of "pixie" was evidently in place from almost the beginning. In early discarded storyboards, the movie started with a brunette Tinker Bell visiting Mermaid Lagoon seeking Peter Pan. A mermaid remarks, "My, but aren’t we the jealous little pixie-wixie!" (Johnson 95) Another storyboard has a "pixie" laughing at Nana the dog.
Pixies in Folklore
Let's talk about what pixies were, historically. “Pixie” is the term for fairy in Devon and Cornwall and may come from the same root as "pooka" and "Puck." The oldest known recording of the word was in the 16th century, in Nicholas Udal’s translation of Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Apophthegmata: “I shall be ready at thine elbow to plaie the part of Hobgoblin or Collepixie.” (This seems to have been a flowery detail added by Udal.)
Pixies continued to appear in literature, for instance in Coleridge's poem "Songs of the Pixies." However, their local folklore became popular thanks to the English folklorist Anna Eliza Bray, starting with her A Description of the Part of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and the Tavy (1836). Although she recorded the traditions, she also shaped them for Victorian readers, particularly in her children's book A Peep at the Pixies (1854). Bray standardized the spelling as “pixie,” rather than pigsie or piskey or the many other variants floating around.
While Bray states that "pixies are certainly a distinct race from the fairies," this is because they are the souls of unbaptized infants. In other ways, however, they are pretty much a synonym for fairies. They often starred in brownie-like tales where they completed housework or worked on farms. Like will-o'-the-wisps, they led people astray, thus the saying "pixy-led." They were known for their laughter, thus the existence of various sayings like "to laugh like a pixy."
Bray described them as "tiny elves," fond of the wilderness and of dancing in circles, who could change their shape to be either beautiful or ugly. The one constant was that they always wore green. If you look at the pixies in A Peep at the Pixies, the name is used for a wide range of different fairylike beings, from the satyr-like Gathon to the ghostly water spirit Fontina.
Another collector wrote in 1853 that not only could the Dartmoor pixies appear as
“sprites of the smallest imaginable size", but they could look like large bundles of rags! (English forests and forest trees, historical, legendary, and descriptive.)
Due to the new spotlight during the Victorian era, pixies began developing alongside fairies. They were depicted with the same pointy ears and sometimes wings. For instance, Mr. O'Malley was a stout, winged, troublesome pixie in Crockett Johnson's comic strip Barnaby, beginning in 1941.
As they became popular, pixies were more often sharply separated from fairies. Ruth Tongue wrote in Somerset Folk Lore (1965): "The Pixies are a more prosaic type of creatures than the fairies... They are red-headed, with pointed ears, short faces and turned-up noses, often cross-eyed" (p. 113). She also stated that the pixies went to war with the fairies and drove them out of Somerset (112). Because this is Tongue, I'm side-eyeing it hard. I do think it bears noting that Tongue's pixies have the same red hair and pointed ears as Disney's Peter Pan, although make of that what you will.
Pixies in Peter Pan
I'm fairly sure J. M. Barrie never used the word "pixie" in any of his writing. He was working with the stuff of Victorian and Edwardian children's fantasy, and was inspired by works like the 1901 pantomime Bluebell in Fairyland. Pixies probably didn't even enter into it for him.
However, readers and commenters sometimes used the term to describe Peter Pan. In 1923, a book review of Daniel O'Connor's The Peter Pan Picture Book stated that the illustrations were "full of a pixie liveliness specially adapted to the spirit of the tale." (The Bookman, Volume 65)
A poem in a 1937 issue of Punch wrote about wishing to be "the Pixie type... A-laughing in the sun," "a Tinkerbell," "a Never-Never girl, a sort of female Peter Pan," or "an elfin childish lass."
One writer, describing Professor William Lyon Phelps, called him "over-enthusiastic about ephemeral bits of cleverness, about all the pixie descendants of Peter Pan." (Essay Annual, 1940)
However, perhaps most relevant was the American actress Maude Adams. Sometime around 1909-1911, a young Walt and his brother Roy watched the play 'Peter Pan', starring Adams. In the original UK productions, Peter Pan wore a reddish tunic. Adams was the first to wear the feathered cap and the leafy green tunic with a “Peter Pan collar." The Peter Pan collar would become popular in women’s fashion. Illustrator Mabel Lucie Attwell, in 1921, drew Peter with a similar ensemble - the pointed cap looked a little like Adams', a little like a helmet, a little like the pointed acorn caps often given to fairies in illustrations. And of course, Disney's Peter Pan design was directly influenced by Maude Adams' look.
Adams’ feathered cap may have been a “pixie hat,” a name given to a wide variety of small pointed hats popular from around the 1930s through 1960s. They were mainly worn by women and girls. Although the hat may not have had that name when Adams first wore it, the term would have been familiar at least by the 1940s.
And one writer wrote in 1938 that Adams had “a pixie quality to her personality that made her ‘Peter Pan’ believable and understandable.”
It’s possible that the word “pixie,” applied to Adams’ Peter Pan, could have influenced how Disney described Tink. However, it's intriguing that the term "pixie" was first used for either Peter Pan the story or Peter Pan the character - not for Tinker Bell.
Disney may have liked the sound of "pixie." Or he may have liked that it implied a smallness and a mischievous, childlike nature, in contrast to the more mature and graceful Blue Fairy. Look at those early-1900s references to liveliness and laughing. There are also some pixie associations that seem very fitting for Tinker Bell: they do housework and she is a tinker, they lead people astray and she glows like a will-o'-the-wisp. But again, it's important to remember that all of this is because pixie is a dialect term, a synonym, for fairy. They were not originally a separate species, as Ruth Tongue would have it. All the same things that associate Tinker Bell with pixies also associate her with fairies in general.
Pillywiggins: An Amended Theory
Pillywiggins spurred a lot of my fairylore research. They got me interested in the development of tiny winged fairies and how folklore is evolving in modern culture. I once wrote that I don’t mind using the word “pillywiggin” for the modern flower fairy, but since then, I've grown frustrated by the term. Nearly all of the usual descriptions (appearance, behavior, etc.) are later add-ons which only muddy the question of origins. Recently, I went back to the original source: the 1977 book A Field Guide to the Little People, by American author Nancy Arrowsmith. I now think I was focusing on the wrong details. There may be an alternate clue buried in the text.
First off: I am throwing out any pillywiggin sources published after 1977. They all ultimately lead back to the Field Guide. At one point I guessed that a 1986 "story request" issue of My Little Pony might hold clues, but after more research, I don't think readers had any input. It was just a dedication.
Pillywiggins were supposed to be from Dorset, and have appeared in a handful of 21st-century literary works (the Dark Dorset books by Robert Newland, 2002-2006, and the "Sting in the Tale" storytelling festival in East Dorset, 2014-2015). And I did hear from one commenter whose grandmother from Dorset had spoken of "pesky" pillywiggins.
However, there are a couple of things that give me pause.
1) Dorset folklorist Jeremy Harte nodded indirectly to pillywiggins in a 2018 article only to say that he had not encountered such stories in tradition (Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies - 500 AD to the Present). This is the closest we have ever come to a discussion of pillywiggins in an academic work: an expert saying that they "do not appear in any known sources."
2) The existing Dorset sources are all from the 21st century. 2002 was 25 years after pillywiggins were first publicized. Now it's been 44 years.
With no independent primary sources, that leaves the Field Guide as the only possible lead.
A Field Guide to the Little People was Arrowsmith's only book on fairies, but with its whimsical and accessible descriptions, it became a cult classic and was reprinted and translated multiple times. Arrowsmith's foreword to the 2009 edition talks about her research process. At the Bavarian National Library she read through books on myth and superstition, taking notes in notebooks and on thousands of index cards (which sounds honestly really cool). To be clear, I don't want to undermine the author; my goal is simply to find out more about this one specific fairy.
So far, I have only encountered one other point where I couldn't initially find a source: a description of Italian fairies called gianes (pp. 169-171). However, then I discovered that Gino Bottiglioni, one of the sources listed in the bibliography, wrote of gianas, a slightly different plural. I thought pillywiggins could be a similar case.
The section "English Fairies" (pp. 159-162) includes this brief description:
"The popularized Dorset Fairies, Pillywiggins, are tiny flower spirits.”
All of the other creatures here (hyter sprites, Tiddy Ones, vairies, farisees, etc.) are easily traceable to older works. Nearly all of them appear in Katharine Briggs’ comprehensive overview of British fairylore, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967). That book was a major source for this section, judging by the details (for instance, the unusual variation "Tiddy Ones" rather than Tiddy folk or people). It followed up from Briggs’ previous book The Anatomy of Puck (1959), which focused on fairies in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. Both of these works are included in the Field Guide's bibliography.
In this post, I'm going to go slowly through the earliest known definition of pillywiggins, comparing it to the sources in the Field Guide's bibliography. For full disclosure, I have gone through the bibliography except for some out-of-print German and Italian books not available in the U.S. Also, there are books where I was not able to obtain the exact edition used, and had to go with an older or newer version.
POPULARIZED DORSET FAIRIES
The sources hold very little Dorset fairylore.
In Keightley's Fairy Mythology and Brand’s Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, the Dorsetshire pexy or colepexy haunts the woods as a threatening bogeyman for naughty children. Fossils are called the colepexy's head or fingers.
The Anatomy of Puck briefly mentions John Walsh, an accused witch who said he'd met with the fairies (or "feries") of the Dorset hills.
The Folk-Lore Journal volumes 1-7 were all counted as sources. The Volume 6 article “Dorset Folk-Lore” mentions a superstition that wicked fairies will enter homes through the chimney unless warded off using a bull's heart.
None of these are associated with flowers, and it seems like a stretch to call them "popularized." These are stories of severed body parts, witchcraft and malevolent spirits.
There are similar fairy names such as Pigwiggen, Skillywidden, and the German pilwiz. However, none of these quite fit the details given in the Field Guide for pillywiggins.
Pigwiggen (also spelled Pigwiggin) is the closest. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word "Pigwiggen" to at least 1594. From early on, the word had shades of a cutesy endearment or belittling insult. I believe it originated as a rhyming nickname for a young pig. Similar terms like piggy-whidden or piggen-riggen have survived. It doesn’t suggest the same level of miniaturization as the Mustardseed and Moth of A Midsummer Night's Dream, or the Penny and Cricket of the 1600 play The Maydes Metamorphosis, but does imply littleness if you envision a runt piglet. And traditional fairies could be small without being bug-sized; in fact, the popularity of this extreme tininess was fairly new around 1600.
Most famously, Pigwiggen is the name of a character in Michael Drayton's 1627 poem "Nymphidia": a fairy knight who holds a tryst with Queen Mab inside a cowslip flower. He rides an earwig and has a fish scale for armor, a beetle’s head for a helmet, a cockle-shell for a shield and a hornet’s sting for a rapier. His squire is Tom Thumb, also closely associated with flower fairies and a byword for "miniature."
There may have been an earlier fairy with the name. “Lady Piggwiggin, th'only snoutfaire of the fairies” appeared in "The Masque of the Twelve Months," which some scholars have dated around 1610-1619. This somewhat bawdy character is nicknamed "Pig." "Snoutfaire" means "fair-faced" or "comely" but can double as an insult; here it was probably a pun on a pig's snout. She is compared in size to a mouse (much larger than the microscopic Sir Pigwiggen), and disguises herself as a glowworm, reminding me of the much later Tinker Bell.
Nymphidia's Pigwiggen would be considered a flower fairy, and was absolutely popularized. The word was already the subject of many spelling changes and clerical errors. Arrowsmith would have encountered references in works such as the following:
With this wealth of alternate spellings, it seems very possible that pillywiggin derived from Pigwiggen. Maybe we have another portmanteau like Perriwiggin on our hands: it might have been combined with Skillywidden, which also appeared in several of the sources. (The Anatomy of Puck includes the story of the tiny fairy found in the furze, and compares Skillywidden to the helpless Tom Thumb - who was elsewhere connected to the "Pigwiggen type". Eileen Molony's Folk Tales of the West retells the story with "skillywiddon" as the name of a fairy race.)
On the other hand, none of this has nothing to do with Dorset.
TINY FLOWER SPIRITS
The pillywiggins are called "flower spirits." This phrase appears verbatim in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, when Briggs argued that William Shakespeare and Michael Drayton relied on a West Midlands tradition of "small and beautiful" fairies who were "nearer to being flower spirits than spirits of the dead." (p. 109)
Briggs repeatedly mentioned "flower fairies" or "small, flower-loving fairies" in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature and The Anatomy of Puck (and other books, but these were the two in the Field Guide's bibliography). Anatomy, especially, explores the late 16th/early 17th-century literature where tiny flower fairies became a fad.
I always approached this as if there was one issue: the pillywiggins. I took the mention of Dorset at face value. But maybe "flower spirits," rather than "Dorset," are the key to the puzzle. Here's my amended theory.
The original complete description reads:
"The popularized Dorset Fairies, Pillywiggins, are tiny flower spirits."
There are a couple of things that "Dorset" could mean.
"The popularized Drayton Fairies, Pigwiggins, are tiny flower spirits.”
This is supported by the common thread of "flower spirits" in the writings of both Arrowsmith and Briggs. If it was originally “Drayton fairies,” there are some possible parallels in the “Folk-Lore of Drayton” article (“Drayton's fairies are true Teutonic tinies”), The Anatomy of Puck (“Drayton’s fairies are smaller even than the elves who crept into an acorn cup,” p. 58) and The Fairies of Tradition and Literature (“the small fairies of Shakespeare and Lyly and Drayton were imported into the fashionable world from the country,” p. 221). Also, Brand's Observations quotes Drayton's poem Polyolbion when discussing the Dorsetshire colepexy.
However, Drayton’s name does appear correctly at the beginning of the “English Fairies” section:
"The word ‘fairy’ has been so often misused (especially by Poets such as Spenser and Drayton) that it is very misleading to employ it as a scientific designation for a particular species of elf."
(Edmund Spenser and Michael Drayton both wrote famous fairy poems, but Spenser’s “Faery Queen” was the sort of mythic romance that Drayton’s “Nymphidia” parodied. Both were criticized on occasion.)
"The popularized Durham Fairies, Piggwiggins, are tiny flower spirits.”
The English Dialect Dictionary's definition of "piggwiggan" or "Peggy Wigan" (notice the spelling) lists the location as "Dur.," an abbreviation of Durham. This could have been misread as "Dor.," or Dorset.
This factoid originally came from the Denham Tracts; the collector Michael Aislabie Denham was a Durham native. It seems like "Peggy Wiggan" was the term actually used, since Denham specifies that this is the vulgo or common pronunciation. When someone suffered a bad fall, it was said they had got or caught Peggy Wiggan. This sounds like a normal woman's name, especially in context with the many other bewildering proverbs in Denham’s list, like “Rather better than common, like Nanny Helmsey’s pie.” Many of them seem like in-jokes specifically to tease local townspeople, like one about a man named David Pearse who mispronounced the word "genuine." (Denham 65, 87)
It's unclear whether anyone actually used "piggwiggan," or if there was any fairy association before Denham suggested it. However, it's possible that someone, having read Katharine Briggs' argument that Drayton took his tiny flower fairies from local folklore, could spot the out-of-context line in the English Dialect Dictionary and theorize that this was the source.
When I first visited this subject, I thought it was a possibility that Pillywiggin was a misspelling of Pigwiggen. However, the mention of Dorset was always a stumbling block for me. If “Dorset” was meant to be “Drayton" or "Durham," then it makes much more sense. “Pillywiggin” is a corruption of Pigwiggen just like “Perriwiggin” and “Pigwidgeon." All other details (like their exact relationship with flowers, and their wings or lack thereof) were added by modern writers of fiction.
And the name totally means “piglet.”
Others may disagree, or may have other suggestions. Comment below and share your thoughts!
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The Leannan Sidhe
What is the Leanan Sidhe? You may have encountered descriptions of this creature as a type of female fairy which grants inspiration to male poets, but drains the life and vitality from them, like a vampire muse. However, this version comes directly from the work of the poet W. B. Yeats, who could be . . . creative with his use of folklore.
Here's what Yeats had to say in his 1888 book Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.
The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress), seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom.
...the Lianhaun shee lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.
Most mentions of the Leannan Sidhe since then (under various spellings) draw directly from Yeats' description of a vampire-like seductress. His account bears a strong resemblance to concepts like John Keats' 1819 poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci."
But Yeats' version doesn't necessarily coincide with the original Irish concept of this being.
A year before Yeats' book came out, Lady Jane Wilde described a significantly more benevolent version of the same creature. "The Leanan-Sidhe, or the spirit of life, was supposed to be the inspirer of the poet and singer, as the Ban-Sidhe was the spirit of death, the foreteller of doom. The Leanan-Sidhe sometimes took the form of a woman, who gave men valour and strength in the battle by her songs." Wilde lists Eodain the poetess as a Leanan-Sidhe. (Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887)
And this being was not always female. In the 1850s, the Transactions of the Ossianic Society spent quite some time laying out details of the "Leannan Sighe" as muses who would inspire bards, only to take them away after a shortened lifespan. The most interesting piece of evidence is an incantation from 1760, created to expel a male Leannan Sighe. Like an incubus, he was harassing a local woman named Sheela Tavish. The incantation, composed by a Catholic priest, is an odd mix of religions and mythologies. At one point he appeals to the fairy queen Aoibheall. The writers of the article suggested that the poem was satirical. They also mentioned meeting "many persons who pretended to be favored with the inspirations of a Leannan Sighe," these apparently being trick psychics.
Yeats' inspirations can be clearly seen here, but it is also clear that he has cherry-picked details. Most pertinently, the Leannan Sighe in traditional Irish lore can be male or female, but Yeats' version is always female.
The Lianhaun Shee is mentioned in John O'Hanlon's Irish Folk Lore (1870) and in The Journal of Science (1872). In Irish Folk Lore, there's reference to the being's fluid gender and to its habit of aiding men in battle (which apparently extends to bar fights).
In the 20th century, the Irish Folklore Commission collected an account of a healer named Eibhlin Ni Ghuinniola who was sometimes seen gathering herbs in the company of a male leannan si. (Crualaoich p. 189-191)
Fairy lovers could be helpful or harmful. In the myths of Fionn mac Cumhaill, Uchtdealbh was a jealous fairy who cursed her lover's wife. She would have been described as some variation of Leannan Sighe since that's literally what she was - a fairy lover. Biroge of the Mountain was a more benevolent spirit who aided the hero Cian.
The New English-Irish Dictionary defines the leannan si as "fairy, phantom, lover," "baleful influence," or "sickly complaining person."
There’s one odd side note in Evans-Wentz’s Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1902), among material collected from a tailor named Patrick Waters.
"The lunantishees are the tribes that guard the blackthorn trees or sloes; they let you cut no stick on the eleventh of November (the original November Day), or on the eleventh of May (the original May Day). If at such a time you cut a blackthorn, some misfortune will come to you." (p. 53)
This may make more sense when we recognize that several of Waters’ descriptions of fairy races were atypical. He described pookas as horse-dealers who invisibly visited racecourses, and referred to the “gentry,” or fairies, as coming from “the planets—according to my idea.” (So . . . aliens?) Evans-Wentz also seemed mystified by some of Waters’ accounts, including one Druid story that he was “unable to verify in any way” (p. 52).
The lunantishee is a little baffling, but comparing it to the many spellings of Leanan Sidhe, I think it's a version of the same name. If pookas are horse-dealers and the Gentry are aliens, then some shuffled attributes aren't that out-of-place.
The connection between fairies, blackthorns and sloes has some possible evidence. An 1894 edition of Transactions of the Folk-lore Society mentioned that the "good people" protect solitary bushes, and mentions specifically that it is unlucky to cut down a lone blackthorn bush. Similar plants like the white-thorn and hawthorn were also sacred to the fairies, in Ireland but also in other places such as Brittany. (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889)
In 1907, Hugh James Byrne mentioned that in Connaught "the fairies are supposed to blight the sloes and haws and other berries on November night." From The Folk-Lore Record in 1881 - in North Ireland it's said that "On Michaelmas Day [September-October] the devil puts his foot on the blackberries." Thomas Keightley mentions in The Fairy Mythology that when blackberries begin to decay, children are warned "not to eat them any longer, as the Pooka has dirtied on them." It's a cautionary story, using the threat of fairies to stop children from potentially eating spoiled berries. Similarly, Churn-Milk Peg was a British spirit who punished those who ate underripe nuts.
Both Yeats' Leanhaun Shee and Patrick Waters' lunantishee appear to be unique renditions of an Irish creature which is both complex and . . . actually rather simple. A fairy lover is a fairy who loves a human, who may be male or female, who may aid or harass humans. Yeats synthesized this into a species of vampiress. Waters, on the other hand, juggled different fairy traits and perhaps his own imagination, giving a hint of what fairy belief might have looked like around 1900 or so.
I’ve written about the history of tiny fairies - how fairies, always portrayed in a range of sizes, have become more likely to be depicted as only a few inches tall. This time, I’d like to look at something along the same lines: narratives explaining how fairies have dwindled over time. I’m not talking about the trope of fairies who change size at will, but the idea that fairies were once big, and are now small, because they shrank.
A major theme in accounts of fairies is that they were once greater than they are now. Fairies have faded or are no longer seen. No matter how far back you go, they’re a thing of the past, always just out of reach. The Canterbury Tales, written 1387-1400, place the deeds of fairies back in “tholde dayes of the king Arthour,” and explain that “now can no man see none elves mo.” In a bit of wordplay, friars have replaced fairies as Christianity crowds out spirit-worship.
It’s a short step from this to the idea that the fairies haven’t simply left - they’ve shrunken.
Standish O’Grady wrote "undoubtedly, the fairies of mediæval times are the same potent deities [as the Tuatha De Danan], but shorn of their power and reduced in stature.” Yeats also referenced this theory - the gigantic Irish gods “when no longer worshipped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high."
These are later writings, based on the theory that the fairies are direct adaptations of pagan gods. It’s also confusing how we’re meant to take these accounts of shrinking: Are they literal? Metaphorical? Both?
Stewart Sanderson responded to this kind of theory - “Personally I cannot take too seriously the confusion of moral or spiritual stature with physical stature.” So, he doubts the claim that people stopped believing in the gods as powerful, so they started envisioning them as pocket-sized. I would agree that’s kind of a stretch.
And what about statements like "In Cornwall, the Tommyknockers were thought to be the spirits of Jewish miners from long ago, reduced in stature until they became elf-like" (James 1992). It might indicate a narrative about gradually shrinking Jewish miners, but upon reading further, I haven’t found any explicit mention. Ghosts are simply smaller than their living counterparts in that tradition.
However, there are a few stories where the dwindling of the fairies from large to small is clearly literal. Most of these stories are connected to Cornwall.
Cornish belief tells that ants, or Muryans, are fairies “in their state of decay from off the earth,” and it is unlucky to kill an ant. (Hunt 1903)
In "The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor," the fairies are ghosts who waste away over the centuries until they cease to exist. They are also shapechangers, and “those who take animal forms get smaller and smaller with every change, till they are finally lost in the earth as muryans (ants).” (Bottrell 1873)
Here, shrinking is a natural part of the fairy life cycle, explaining why these wraiths are so much smaller than their living counterparts. The most recently deceased among their group is closer to average human stature.
Evans-Wentz’s collected Cornish pixy-lore mentioned that “Pixies were often supposed to be the souls of the prehistoric dwellers of this country. As such, pixies were supposed to be getting smaller and smaller until, finally, they are to vanish entirely.”
The trope appeared in the more ornate, literary tale of "Wisht Wood,” by Charles Lee. Here, the Piskies, or Pobel Vean, shrink or grow in direct relation to how many people believe in them. They were once giants and gods, but when Christian missionaries sprinkled them with holy water, they shrank to the size of dwarves. They continued to progressively shrink as the last traces of pagan faith waned, until they were only a few inches tall. They feared the approaching day when “the muryons send out hunting parties to chase us from wood and more, and the quilkens [frogs] run at us open-mouthed.” (Note the mention of muryons - the piskies are not becoming ants, but they are still mentioned in connection with them.) The piskies beg a priest to tell their stories and encourage just a little belief in them, "that we may not shrink to dust". The narration closes with the idea that the pixies have clung to life, but still continue to dwindle away with modern agnosticism replacing religious censorship. This is very different from the previous examples, where shrinking is a natural part of fairy life. This is an outside condition; their size depends on human belief. I have a feeling that this story is mostly Lee’s creation, but it still has markers of Cornish folklore.
So far, I’ve found one other example outside Cornwall. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1807 story "Die Neue Melusine" (The New Melusine) is a literary example from Germany. The “Melusine” of the title is from an ancient race of dwarfs, who are progressively shrinking - the reason given is that "everything that has once been great, must become small and decrease.” They intermarry with humans so that they won’t shrink to microscopic size. (Note that ants appear here too, as a dangerous rival nation which may attack the dwarfs.)
This is merely a beginning to researching this trope and there’s much more work to be done. However, so far there are two trends.
First is a later, scholarly theory that the pagan gods shrank into fairies, which is partly metaphorical, and doesn’t necessarily represent folk belief.
Second is a Cornish theme that shrinking is part of a fairy’s (or pixy’s, or muryan’s) natural life cycle. These fairies are actually ghosts, ranging from the recently dead to ancient forgotten tribes.
Goethe’s “The New Melusine” is interesting, and I wonder if there may be other German sources to be found.
If you know of any other examples of shrinking fairies, then leave them in the comments!
Mab in English Folklore
Within a few decades of Shakespeare's plays in the late 1500s, "Mab" became the most popular name for the queen of the fairies in English literature and poetry. In Shakespeare's play, she was "the fairies' midwife," also a “hag” (a term for a nightmare spirit, an ugly old woman or a witch). Almost microscopic in size, she drives an intricately described miniature coach through the night, distributing dreams. She also creates blisters and tangled elflocks. A succubus-like creature, her occupation as midwife involves birthing dreams rather than babies.
Although other poets picked up this description and made Mab the empress of fairies across literature, “queen” could be playing on the similar word “quean,” meaning simply “woman” or perhaps “prostitute.”
In 1603, Ben Jonson produced The Entertainment at Althorpe, a masque honoring the queen. In addition to the dream rides of Shakespeare, Jonson's Mab steals milk, pinches messy girls, takes changelings, and leads midwives on nightly journeys (a witches' flight?). This version was as influential as Shakespeare's, and established Mab even further as a regal figure mimicking the English monarchy. Other poets and writers followed suit.
However, we can only guess what originally inspired Shakespeare to use that name. Unlike his other fairy characters, Puck and Oberon, we have no surviving older works that mention her. Bear in mind that Shakespeare created some fairy characters - Peaseblossom, Cobweb, etc. Titania and Ariel were his own creations even if their names were based on other sources. We can trace Oberon to 13th-century French romances, and Titania to Ovid’s work. However, Puck and Robin Goodfellow are well-known names from British folklore. A rebel in 1489 was referred to as "Mayster Hobbe Hyrste, Robyn Godfelaws brodyr." "Robin Good-fellowe", "hobgoblin" and "puckle" were all mentioned in Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), and in the 19th century, the Denham Tracts mentioned multiple variations of the names. Similar terms appear in Norse and Celtic languages.
If Mab is a traditional figure of British folklore like Puck, it seems reasonable to expect that we’ll find some evidence – either pre-Shakespeare, or surviving traditions peeking through in later works like the Denham Tracts. Although there are many examples of Mab appearing in literature, many of those examples - like the very influential “Nymphidia” - show Shakespeare’s influence, so I’m setting them aside for now.
There are a few theories claiming Mab's ancient origins. The main two are an origin as the Irish goddess Medb (sometimes rendered Mabh or Maeve), or the fairy figure Habundia or Dame Abonde. Although both of these characters are supernatural queens, the similarities end there. The theories rely mainly on the fact that one has a similar spelling (despite the different pronunciation - Meev or Mave), and the other includes the syllable "ab" or "mab" if you say it quickly (Dame Abonde). I would group these with other 19th-century theories that relied solely on slight name similarities - like the suggestion that Tom Thumb (or Thumbling) was the same as Tam Lin.
I want to look for collections of folklore where a Mab appears. Many scholars have argued that Shakespeare took Mab from contemporary folklore, but are there any surviving records or traditions to indicate this? Or has everything been written over by poetry and literature? So far, I have found six mentions of Mab to examine.
Mab of Fawdon Hill
I was intrigued by a reference to Queen Mab dwelling at Fawdon Hill in Northumberland, and tracked it to Metrical Legends of Northumberland by James Service, 1834. In the introduction to a poem, the author writes of "the superstitious belief that Fawdon Hill is the royal residence of the "Queen Mab" of Northumberland." Further down the page is a reference to “fancy’s midwife”.
Problem: as you might have noticed, in the edition I read, Queen Mab’s name is in quotes. This indicates that the author is not saying Mab is a traditional figure there, but simply using “Queen Mab” as a generic descriptor for a fairy queen. The name Mab is not mentioned in the poem itself.
I did find a reference elsewhere to a story of a farmer who is invited into the fairies' banquet hall beneath Fawdon Hill, and who runs off with one of their cups. I found nothing else tying Mab to Northumberland.
Mab, Queen of the Ellyllon
Wirt Sikes, in British Goblins (1880), asserted that Mab was the queen of the ellyllon, or tiny elves and goblins of Wales.
"Their queen—for though there is no fairy-queen in the large sense that Gwyn ap Nudd is the fairy-king, there is a queen of the elves—is none other than the Shakspearean fairy spoken of by Mercutio, who comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the forefinger of an alderman.
Shakspeare’s use of Welsh folk-lore, it should be noted, was extensive and peculiarly faithful… From his Welsh informant Shakspeare got Mab, which is simply the Cymric for a little child, and the root of numberless words signifying babyish, childish, love for children (mabgar), kitten (mabgath), prattling (mabiaith), and the like, most notable of all which in this connection is mabinogi, the singular of Mabinogion, the romantic tales of enchantment told to the young in by-gone ages.”
Sikes seems to imply that he has found Welsh accounts of an ellyllon-queen Mab, but he doesn't actually state this.
Previously, Thoms' Three Notelets on Shakespeare (1865) included an influential passage on Mab. Thoms examined several possible etymologies for Mab's name, and concluded:
"I saw in this designation [the name Queen Mab] a distinct allusion to the diminutive form of the elfin sovereign. Mab, both in Welsh and in the kindred dialects of Brittany, signifies a child or infant; and my readers will, I am sure, agree with me that it would be difficult to find any epithet more befitting one who
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the forefinger of an alderman."
The similarities (including use of the same quote!) indicate that either Sikes is drawing on Thoms, or both were influenced by an earlier source. Sikes remains unique in drawing a connection to ellyllon, and provided no evidence for this claim.
Also, in Welsh, "mab" actually means "son," not "child."
Henry Ellis' 1813 edition of John Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities noted that "In Warwickshire, Mab-led, (pronounced Mob-led) signifies led astray by a Will o'the Wisp." (Shakespeare was from Warwickshire.)
The only source given in the text is "Hamlet," where Shakespeare used the word "mobled."
'But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen--'
'The mobled queen?'
That's good; 'mobled queen' is good.
'Run barefoot up and down, threatening the flames
With bisson rheum; a clout upon that head
Where late the diadem stood, and for a robe,
About her lank and all o'er-teemed loins,
A blanket, in the alarm of fear caught up...
The characters are rehearsing a play within the play, and the “mobled queen” is the character Hecuba. Mobled is also a mysterious word, with Hamlet being the first known instance, and researchers have argued over its origin and meaning. One common definition is that “mobled” means “muffled” or wrapped in fabric, as in a hood, veil, or mobcap (Hecuba is wrapped in a blanket). In the 1655 play "The Gentleman of Venice," by James Shirley, we hear "The moon does mobble up herself sometimes” in a black bag, referencing the lunar phases. Sandys Travels (1673) described Turkish women with "their heads and faces so mabled in fine linen".
However, this alternate reading of "Mab-led," like "puck-led" or "pixie-led," does hold some traction.
In 1856, Jabez Allies published some theories on fairies being referenced in English place-names. He listed Mob's Close or Mop's Close, and also an orchard known as Moblee Pleck or Mobbled Pleck, which Allies helpfully explained "meaning Mab-led Pleck, or a plot where any one was liable to be Mab-led”. He cited Brand's Antiquities. (Allies also proposed that many locations were named after Michael Drayton's jokingly named fairies like Pip and Pin, with the premise that these were all ancient dieties, rather than Drayton being imaginative.)
More interesting is A. R. Winnington-Ingram's 1893 paper, "On the Origin of Names of Places with Special Reference to Gloucestershire" (Proceedings of the Cotteswold Naturalists' Field Club). The author referenced other works mentioning “mab-led,” mainly Allies' work. However, in a note based on his personal experience, he remarked “I have myself heard country people say of a man who was stupified that he was Mambled or Mombled.”
This gives a personal anecdote rather than a lack of sources or simple theorizing. Stupefied or confused would fit well with being led astray by a fairy.
Observations on Popular Antiquities remains the only source on the will o' the wisp connection. I looked for other early mentions, but like Allies, they all turned out to be quoting this one.
In the 1568 play "The Historie of Jacob and Esau," a midwife is called “Mother Mab." In an angry diatribe, another character associates her with midnight and blackness, and also calls her a “heg” (hag).
So we have “Mother Mab” in close association with hags, midwives and witches. This fits perfectly with Shakespeare’s Queen Mab, who is also a hag and a midwife.
The name Mab is possibly derived from the generic girls' name “Mabel.” Additionally, some definitions explain it as a slattern or a loose woman. However, these sexual definitions of "mab" began appearing in dictionaries only post-Shakespeare. So we can't say for certain whether Mab's name was a sexual reference to begin with, or whether viewers of "The Historie of Jacob and Esau" would have heard it that way.
Mabb, Lady to the Queene
According to Katharine Briggs, a 17th-century manuscript known as the Sloane Manuscript 1727, collected in the British Library, mentions "Mabb, lady to the queene" among other spirits. The queen she served might have been Micol, queen of the fairies or "regina pigmeorum," mentioned in the same text. This was an anonymous treatise on magic. (For comparison, Oberon was frequently listed in grimoires of the time.)
Unfortunately there is not much to go on here other than Briggs' second-hand reference, so take this one with a grain of salt, but I'm still going to hang onto it. I'll have to follow this up if I ever get the opportunity to visit that collection.
In 1866, William Henderson's collection Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties included a Rumpelstiltskin-esque tale. The story is set in Selkirkshire, Scotland. A girl who hates spinning is sitting one day on a self-bored stone (a stone with a natural hole worn through it, often believed to grant fairy sight). There she encounters a strange old woman who offers to spin her thread for her. The woman has markedly long lips, from drawing out her thread with them so often. The girl returns later and, looking through the stone, sees an underground cavern of deformed old women, all spinning. The girl hears the leader refer to herself as Habetrot, and bid the ugliest spinner of them all – Scantlie Mab, who has bulging eyes and a hooked nose in addition to her deformed lips – to bundle up the newly-spun yarn. Thanks to the fairy yarn, the girl wins a handsome laird for her husband. Habetrot then rescues her from ever spinning again; she tells the girl to bring her new husband to the stone, where the old women explain that they have all been deformed by so much spinning. The laird, alarmed, declares that his bride shall never touch a spindle again.
Here, the spinners are not baby-stealing little men, but friendly old women who take the girl under their wing. This branch of the tale doesn’t normally feature a name-guessing challenge. In "Habetrot," the girl’s anxiety over not remembering her helper’s name doesn’t really affect the plot; it feels like this section might have been borrowed from other tales. Elsewhere in the volume, Henderson describes "old Habbitrot, that queen of spinsters” (p. 5) as spinning thread with curse-breaking properties. All of the Habetrot material is from a manuscript put together by a Mr. Wilkie about fifty years previously, contracted by Sir Walter Scott.
Scantlie Mab is intriguing, as she is the only other named fairy in the story. Her significance isn’t explained, but she is significant. Some versions even title the story “Habetrot and Scantlie Mab.” Note that she is not the leader of the fairies, but receives orders from Habetrot.
Scantlie, related to “scant”, means the same as “scarcely”, or a very small amount - so, “Little Mab.” (I also find the internal rhyme of Hab and Mab interesting. Might there have been an earlier version where it was Habetrot and Little Hab, or Mabetrot and Little Mab?)
I've never seen anyone connect Scantlie Mab to Queen Mab. This story was printed centuries after Shakespeare, but it's intriguing in that it features a fairy named Mab who does not fit the typical modern profile of Queen Mab as ruler.
Most references to Queen Mab are from literature. Ben Jonson's plays, Michael Drayton's poetry, and so on. However much authors and poets might have drawn on folklore, they were also drawing on literature and plays of the time. Mab does not appear, however, in folklore collections. In contrast, you will find references to pucks, hobgoblins and Robin Goodfellows all over the place.
The ellyllon connection has no clear sources. The Fawdon Hill connection is probably a misreading of an ambiguous text where someone used "Mab" as a generic descriptor. "Mab-led" meaning pixie-led is intriguing, but also lacks much evidence, although the connection from "Queen Mab" to "mobled queen" is tempting.
The last three are more interesting to me. A lot of Mab's regal associations, such as being Oberon's wife, came from other authors after "Romeo and Juliet" and are primarily literary. But if you look at these alternate sources - a pre-Shakespeare play, a pamphlet on witchcraft, and a later fairytale - you can see shades of a different Mab.
Let's try some reconstruction. This Mab is a hag ("Jacob and Esau," "Romeo and Juliet", Habetrot). She is associated with the supernatural (all sources). She is a queen or quean ("Romeo and Juliet"), or serves a queen and is identified in close connection with her (Sloane 1727, Habetrot). Morally, she may be a mischievous trickster, a benevolent figure, or a mixture. Finally, she is associated with traditional feminine tasks like midwifery ("Jacob and Esau," "Romeo and Juliet") or spinning (Habetrot). Both of these tasks were often associated with unmarried women and sometimes witchcraft. There are even myths where they went hand in hand - the Greek Fates, who prophesied the fates of newborns, were depicted as spinning and cutting the thread of life, and Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, was referred to as "the clever spinner."
So maybe we have an alternate version of Queen Mab here. Or perhaps one thing led to another: “The Historie of Jacob and Esau,” where a witchy midwife associated with darkness is called Mother Mab, inspired Shakespeare. In turn, Shakespeare’s work led to a popular literary character of a royal Queen Mab, but also to atypical references such as a folktale in which Mab was the servant of a queen.
Whatever the case, I think it's important to consider that if Shakespeare drew on folklore for Queen Mab, he wasn't necessarily hearing of a miniature, regal fairy monarch. Have you encountered other mentions of Mab in collections of folklore? Let me know in the comments!
Michael Drayton (1563-1631) was an English poet whose work varied from political to mythical. His poem "Nymphidia" was published in 1627, at the height of a new fad for tiny fairies started by his contemporary William Shakespeare. "Nymphidia" is also known by the title “The Court of Fairy” or in some later editions “The History of Queen Mab”. It has remained a classic of fairy literature ever since.
Drayton explains that he heard the story from a fairy named Nymphidia. He introduces Pigwiggen, a fairy knight who begins wooing Queen Mab - sending her a bracelet of ant's eyes and arranging to meet secretly with her inside a cowslip flower. However, Mab's husband King Oberon grows suspicious. He begins searching for Mab, attacking a wasp at one point when he mistakes it for Pigwiggen, and then generally just bumbling around until he meets Puck. Nymphidia overhears the king and Puck planning to catch Mab, and warns the queen in time for her to hide. Pigwiggen challenges Oberon to a duel for Mab's honor, donning a beetle-head helmet and riding on a mighty earwig. As the duel begins, Mab goes for help to the goddess Proserpina. Proserpina gives all of the men water from the river Lethe to drink, erasing their memory, so that the women are the only ones in the know. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The poem begins with references, each of which parallel "Nymphidia" in some way.
Old Chaucer doth of Topas tell,
Mad Rabelais of Pantagruel,
A later third of Dowsabel...
Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Sir Thopas,” from the Canterbury Tales (1387), is a parodic tale of a knight who woos a fairy queen - just like Pigwiggen with Mab.
Rabelais' novels, written in the 16th century, focus on the fantastical size of giant characters Gargantua and Pantagruel, often for humorous effect. For instance, a baby giant requires thousands of cows for milk. "Nymphidia" reverses this by going microscopic, but still plays with size by using familiar objects in unexpected ways.
Finally, the "later third" is Drayton himself. He wrote a poem called “The Ballad of Dowsabel” in The Shepherd’s Garland, published in 1593. He compared his hero to Sir Thopas there, too. Dowsabel (a variant of Dulcibella, from the Latin “dulcis” or “sweet”) became a generic name in English poetry for an ideal lady-love personifying beauty and purity.
Mab, Oberon and Puck/Hobgoblin
Here are some instantly recognizable characters. Oberon was a familiar fairy king, and comes with Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, although they appear as much more ridiculous figures here. However, Titania does not accompany them. Instead, Oberon is at odds with a different wife.
For Oberon's queen, Drayton used a different Shakespearean fairy - Mab, from Romeo and Juliet. Mab is a much tinier character than Titania, and more suited to the themes of Drayton's poem. Drayton was the first known author to pair Oberon and Mab as spouses, kicking off a tradition of using the two fairy queens interchangeably.
The fairytale character Tom Thumb makes an appearance as a page boy, and serves as Pigwiggen's squire. This was not the only occasion where Tom Thumb showed up in stories about fairies. In fact, it seems the character was instantly recognizable as a fairy name in 16th-and 17th-century England.
One that a valiant knight had been,
And to King Oberon of kin...
This was a surprising one. Drayton's fairy knight Tomalin shows up over a century before the traditional ballad of Tam Lin was recorded in the 1790s. Is there a connection?
Numerous ballads from this era featured characters with a name similar to Tam Lin. From 1549, The Complaynt of Scotland mentioned an unknown story titled "the tayl of the zong tamlene, and of the bald braband." Another song told of "Tom a lin and his wife, and his wiue's mother" falling into a river, and still another began "Tomy Linn is a Scotchman born."
Some authors have tried to group them all with the ballad of Tam Lin (see, for example, Burns 1903). However, all of the surviving works are so different that a connection seems faint. Tam Lin/Tommy Lin/Tomalin may have simply been a common male name. A shepherd named "Thomalin" appeared in Edmund Spenser's Shepheardes Calender (1579), and no one seems to have attempted to tie this character to the fairy Tam Lin. In some cases, such as the "zong tamlene," (young Tamlene? song Tamlene??), it's possible it's simply a similar-sounding word with no real connection.
Drayton’s Tomalin, however, stands out. This is the only work before the Tam Lin ballad where a Tomalin is described as a fairy knight.
Proserpina, the classical goddess, appears along with the River Lethe. Drayton imitates Chaucer again in associating the classical gods of the underworld, Pluto and Proserpine, with the fairies.
Fly Cranion is Mab’s charioteer. Shakespeare gave a famous description of Mab’s coach, made of a hazelnut and driven by a "gray-coated gnat," with atomies (tiny mites) for horses. The wagon spokes are made of spiders' legs, with the wagon's cover made of grasshopper wings, the harness of spiderwebs, the collars or moonbeams, and her whip is made from a cricket's bone.
Drayton gives his own spin on this passage. Some elements are the same, but swapped around, and the coach has a more colorful effect. His Mab rides in a snailshell, decorated with bee fuzz and butterfly-wings, with wheels made of cricket bones. The horses are gnats harnessed with gossamer. Mab’s maids, left behind in the rush, wrap themselves in a cobweb veil and ride after her on a grasshopper.
The coachman is probably an insect rather than a fairy if Drayton is following Shakespeare’s lead. Cranion has been translated as "spider," but also - based on the Nymphidia passage - as “fly.” A writer for the Folk-Lore Journal in 1885 suggested that the character was meant to be the Daddy Longlegs or Crane fly, which makes perfect sense to me, although the writer also thought this might be too big for Mab’s coach. Flies were sometimes known as witches’ familiars.
Hop, and Mop, and Drop so cleare,
Pip, and Trip, and Skip that were,
To Mab their Soveraigne ever deare:
Her speciall Maydes of Honour;
Fib, and Tib, and Pinck, and Pin,
Tick, and Quick, and Jill, and Jin,
Tit, and Nit, and Wap, and Win,
The Trayne that wayte upon her.
Jabez Allies, writing in 1846, tried to connect some of these nonsensical fairy names to old English location names, such as a "Pin's Hill" - the idea being that these were traditional characters who had inspired the names of local land formations. Samuel Lysons in 1865 tried to do something similar, tying the names to ancient myth - Nit must be connected to Gwyn ap Nudd, Tit is Teutates, and Pip is the Phrygian supreme god Attis-Papas. (Our British Ancestors, p. 156) I am not entirely sure whether either of these writers were joking. These are apparently examples of an antiquarian/folkloric movement for a while in the 1800s which drew connections based on how names sounded, rather than function or background.
It's more likely that Drayton's litany of fairies was simply a little light creative fun. The eighteen monosyllabic nonsense names echo Mab in their style. There are some generic nouns. Hop, Trip, Skip, and Quick’s names all suggest playful movement. In the play The Maid's Metamorphosis from 1600, the fairies repeatedly sing of tripping or skipping ("When a dew-drop falleth down, And doth light upon my crown. Then I shake my head and skip, And about I trip."). The fae were frequently described in Drayton’s work and elsewhere as “tripping” or dancing - see the blog British Fairies’ post here.
“Pink and Pin” might suggest the fairy act of pinching humans. Tib, Jill and Jin could be real girls’ names. Tit might be the same word meaning “small” that appears in the bird name tomtit - see also the fairy name “Tom Tit Tot.” A nit is a louse's egg. Katharine Briggs suggested in An Encyclopedia of Fairies that Wap and Win's names might have a sexual meaning, comparing them to Dekker's O Per Se O - "If she won’t wap for a winne, let her trine for a make" ("If she will not lie with a man for a penny, let her hang for a halfpenny.")
Overall, the list of names isn’t really meant to be taken seriously, but there are some interesting connections.
This rhyming style was popular, and similar lists showed up in other works of the time. One was a booklet printed in 1628 - "Robin Goodfellow: his mad prankes, and merry Jests, full of honest mirth, and is a fit medicine for melancholy." Here, Oberon's courtiers are "Patch and Pinch, Grim and Gull," "Tib and Sib, Licke and Lull." 1628 is the date of printing and it's been suggested that the poem is actually older, but there's no way to know for sure. (Take note of Tib - and also note that this is another work where Oberon, Puck and Tom Thumb all feature in the fairy court.)
Drayton's contemporary, Robert Herrick, produced "The Fairy Temple or Oberon's Chapel". Here, the names are designed not just for rhythm but for some contorted rhymes.
Saint Tit, Saint Nit, Saint Is, Saint Itis,
Who 'gainst Mab's-state placed here right is...
Saint Frip, Saint Trip, Saint Fill, Saint Fillie,
Neither those other saintships will I...
It's even been suggested that the Nymphidia fairies influenced Clement Clark Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" with its list of Santa's reindeer.
Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen! (Jones 1954)
As Drayton explains in his framing device, Nymphidia is the narrator of the poem. She is a powerful sorceress in her own right, and takes a quick and capable hand in the doings of the fairy monarchy. Oberon has Puck to be his right-hand man, and Mab has Nymphidia.
According to Plutarch and some other writers, a woman named Nymphidia was the mother of a prefect named Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus who served under Emperor Nero. This Nymphidia, according to some sources, was a courtesan. The name derives from "nymph," which comes originally from the Greek word for "bride" and came to refer to beautiful female nature spirits.
Nymphs frequently played a role in Drayton’s poetry. Nymphidia was not his only unique spin on the word, as he described “nymphets sporting” in Poly-Olbion (1612), and divided his poem "The Muses' Elysium" (1630) into ten sections labeled "Nymphalls."
In modern science, the name “nymph” is also associated with insects. The larvae of some species, such as dragonflies, are called nymphs. One family of butterflies is known as Nymphalidae (a name introduced in the 19th century), and one Asian butterfly is known as the Stiboges nymphidia. It seems possible that the poem influenced that last one. Although the butterfly associations came later, they are very appropriate to Drayton's poem.
Pigwiggen, our Sir Thopas figure, is also a new one. (Or Pigwiggin, depending on edition and spelling.) The name suggests pygmy - originally from a Greek word referring to the measure of length from wrist to elbow. There's also pixie, pronounced pigsie in some dialects, although I don't think pixies had truly gained popularity in fairy literature at that point. This poem remains the most famous use of the name - but Drayton wasn't the first to use it.
A 1594 play featured the line "Now will I be as stately to them as if I were maister Pigwiggen our constable." So the name was around before "Nymphidia," although it really picked up afterwards, referring to anything tiny and contemptible. (Mysteriously, pigwiggan or peggy wiggan is also supposed to be a word for a somersault.)
As time went on, the variant "pigwidgeon" became popular, referring to a small, petty creature, or a term of affection. As a fantasy race of little gnomes, pigwidgeons featured in some 19th- and early 20th-century literature. For instance, they were gruesome goblins in the 1912 children's book Trystie's Quest, or, Kit, King of the Pigwidgeons.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's unclear how the split happened and whether the word initially sounded like widgin or wiggin. However, the OED leans towards wiggin.
A form of the word appeared in Nashe's Have with you to Saffron-Walden (1596), in a reference to a man's "Piggen de wiggen or gentlewoman."
According to the English Dialect Dictionary, piggin-riggin is an Irish term for "a half-grown boy or girl." However, the quote given in the Dictionary is "The eight or ten childer were what we call 'piggin riggins', too old for a dumly and too young for bacon." Searching out the source, Barrington's Personal Sketches of His Own Times, this description is referring to piglets, not to human children.
18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke was criticized for referring to lower-class people as a "swinish multitude." Burke later tried to defend himself, saying that he was talking about the French revolutionaries - "I never dreamt of our poor little English piggen-riggen, who go about squeaking and grunting quite innocently; my thoughts were on the wild boar of the Gallic forest."
Very similar is a Cornish term, piggy-whidden or piggy-wiggy for the runt of a litter of piglets, which was also known as a term of endearment (Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable). It has been interpreted as meaning "white pig," from "gwyn" or white, but this may be a false etymology.
Both "piggin-riggin" and "piggy-whidden" are probably just variants on the rhyming baby-talk "piggy-wiggy." This term for a piglet was common throughout the 19th century.
Pigsney is a term for a sweetheart meaning literally "pig's eye." It appeared as "piggesnye" in The Canterbury Tales (1380s-1390s). The word could apply to men, but was generally feminine.
Emma Wilby suggested that Pigwiggen could be connected to the name of one 16th-century witch familiar, Piggin ("The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England"). "Piggin" is actually a word for a small wooden pail.
I learned recently that Drayton may not have been the first person to mention a fairy Pigwiggen after all. "The Masque of the Twelve Months" was a fragmented script printed by John Payne Collier in 1848, with no author's name. Although some critics suggested that it was a forgery, others have argued for it being genuine. The play begins with a dialogue between an owl, "Madge Howlet," and a fairy lady, Piggwiggin.
"Lady Piggwiggin, th' only snoutfaire of the fairies. A my word, hadst thou not spoken like a maid, I had snatcht thee up for a mouse."
In the 1950s, it was suggested that the author was George Chapman. Critics such as E. K. Chambers in 1923, Kenneth Muir in 1950, Margaret Dean-Smith in 1951, and Martin Butler in 2007 have dated the masque in a range of years from 1608 to 1619. Most lean earlier, around 1611-1613. Any of these prospective dates would mean that Pigwiggen was a fairy name before the writing of "Nymphidia," and Drayton did not originate it. Not only that, but it was a feminine name! This would fit with "Piggen de wiggen," "Pigwidgeon," and "pigsnye" being used for a female sweetheart. This may have been an additional layer of satire to the poem. For his parody of courtly love and royal affairs, Drayton gave the Lancelot-like knight a unisex/feminine name meaning "sweetheart," possibly a pet name based on piglets.
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Summer and Winter Courts of Faerie
Where did we get the idea of faeries in Summer and Winter Courts - or courts themed around all four seasons? Why does this appear so much in current fantasy novels? And what do they have to do with the Seelie and Unseelie Courts?
There are many legends of weather or seasonal spirits. Winter in particular has plenty of personifications. But these beings weren't necessarily fairies, and fairies weren't divided by seasons. If you go back to Shakespeare, Titania and Oberon were rulers over all the seasons. When did it get split up?
This may have been a product of the Victorian era. Toned down for children, fairies became toothless things made primarily for education and edification. They were closely associated with nature and thus the seasons. There was some blurring of lines; this wasn't actually meant to promote genuine fairy belief, and often the "fairies" were poetic representations of insects, birds or plants. This was, after all, a way to educate kids on nature.
In Victorian children's literature, fairies were responsible for painting the flowers, decorating the autumn leaves, or bringing snowflakes - and unlike Shakespeare, there were separate kingdoms. Fairies of spring, summer, autumn and winter worked in exclusive groups. In some books, they had their own monarchs, or there might be rivalries between groups.
The Grand Christmas Pantomime Entitled Gosling the Great (1860) featured a fairy queen of spring named Azurina.
"The Fairies of the Earth, and Their Hiding Places," by Lizzie Beach (1870) explained all of nature in fairy terms; Jack Frost was the king of the autumn and winter fairies.
In the Libretto of the Fairy Operetta of the Naiad Queen (1872), the queens of each season are mentioned alongside queens of the fairies, sprites and flowers.
Margaret T. Canby, in Birdie and his Fairie Friends (1873), included a story called "The Frost Fairies" in which Jack Frost is king over the fairies of winter.
The trope of the seasonal fairy continued strong into the 20th century and continues to be popular. Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series (beginning 2010) for one, features courts of Summer and Winter, while Disney's Tinker Bell animated movies (beginning 2008) put major emphasis on the fairies causing the seasons. But there's another factor that I believe is important here:
The Oak King and the Holly King
As mentioned, there are many myths to explain seasonal changes. Persephone is a classic seasonal myth. In Orcadian legend there is a constant struggle between the benevolent Sea Mither (Mother) and the evil storm spirit Teran who fight every spring and autumn. In Germany, Mother Holle was an legendary figure who created snow by shaking out her pillows.
There were also holiday traditions where a person dressed as Summer defeated another dressed as Winter. In other cases, effigies were torn apart or thrown into the stream to celebrate the end of Winter.
Robert Graves, in The White Goddess (1948), took influence from these rituals when he defined the Oak and Holly Kings. These were two gods who battled every year over a maiden representing Spring or fertility. The Oak King ruled during summer, but the Holly King defeated him and took over every winter. The yearly cycle goes on forever. Graves held that this was an actual myth that survived in multiple legends, and he had plenty of examples (Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, for instance). In any story, if there are two men who fight (and particularly if there is a lady involved who can be connected to the Spring season), then there's your Oak and Holly King. It's very convenient.
In fact, the Oak and Holly Kings are Graves' original creation, extrapolating from many different myths and the work of James Frazer. However, his work had a huge influence on modern paganism. For instance, Edain McCoy's popular 1994 book A Witch's Guide to Faery Folk is packed full of seasonal fairies as well as Gravesian mythology.
Conclusion: Modern Times
So in the twentieth century, you have a strong literary tradition of pretty little fairies being responsible for every change in season. And in addition to old myths of seasonal changes, you also have a newly popular neopagan theme of an unending power struggle between kings of Summer and Winter.
However, what really tipped the scales was Jim Butcher's bestselling fantasy series: The Dresden Files. The 2002 novel Summer Knight introduced the fairy rulers. Butcher had the idea of conflating the seasons with the idea of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts - a concept from late Scottish folklore, which I examined recently on this blog. Thus, his fairies are split into two factions: the Seelie (or Summer) fae, ruled by Titania, and the Unseelie (or Winter) fae, ruled by Mab.
Since the publication of this book, Butcher's system has grown huge in fairy fantasy - Titania and Mab as opposing seasonal queens, the seasons divided into Seelie and Unseelie, etc. Many authors seem to have lifted it wholesale straight from Butcher.
And if Summer and Winter are courts, it seems reasonable enough that Spring and Autumn might also be courts, or that there might be other themed groups. Sarah J. Maas' series Court of Thorns and Roses has seven themed fairy courts (all four seasons, plus dawn, day and night).
It is true that the Seelie Court is an old idea, as are good and evil fae, and fairies or other beings who influence the seasons. But originally, Seelie and Unseelie had nothing to do with the seasons. Thanks to popular literature, Jim Butcher's worldbuilding has grown popular enough to sometimes be confused for an old tradition.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.