"Don't thank the fairies"
Yet another thing that I see frequently in fantasy books and online discussion is that people should never thank fairies. It breaks fairy etiquette, or it places you in their power. But . . . where did this idea come from? Really, why shouldn't you thank a fairy?
Two words: Yallery Brown.
In her Dictionary of Fairies, Katharine Briggs made much of the idea of not thanking fairies as part of their etiquette. For instance, under good manners she wrote, "A polite tongue as well as an incurious eye is an important asset in any adventure among FAIRIES. There is one caution, however: certain fairies do not like to be thanked. It is against etiquette. No fault can be found with a bow or a curtsy, and all questions should be politely answered." I have previously mentioned how influential Briggs' work has been to modern fantasy.
Briggs' evidence is the tale of Yallery Brown, originally published by M. C. Balfour in an 1891 article "Legends Of The Cars," in Folk-Lore vol. II. Joseph Jacobs wrote a version in plainer English. As the tale goes, a boy named Tom rescues a tiny old man the size of a baby, with brown skin and silky golden hair and beard. The grateful sprite tells Tom that he may call him "Yallery Brown," and promises him a reward - but warns Tom with a strange spark of anger never to thank him. From then on, Tom's chores do themselves, but the reward soon turns sour, as his fellow workmen find their own work ruined and turn against him, believing he's some kind of witch. Fired from his job, Tom tells the sprite "I'll thank thee to leave me alone." At those words, a cackling Yallery Brown curses him forever after to a life of bad luck and failure.
Yallery Brown remains mysterious. He is clearly malevolent, with even his "blessing" truly a disguised curse, but it is never explained why thanking him is significant, or why it angers him enough that he will warn a human against doing so.
Briggs drew the conclusion that explicit thanks were just not okay in fairy etiquette. Gratitude and appreciation are fine and dandy. Take, for instance, a man who mended a fairy's baking peel. The grateful fairies left him a cake. Eating it, he announced that it was "proper good" and bid "Goodnight" to the unseen fairies. He then "prospered ever after."
Explicit thanks, though, is bad. For some reason.
I’ve occasionally come across the theory that thanks is acknowledgement of debt, and it’s never a good idea to be indebted to the fae. Morgan Daimler's Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk is one example of a work that mentions this theory.
This is a handy explanation, but does not explain Yallery Brown’s fierce opposition to being thanked. It’s true he is quick to repay a favor, supporting the idea he doesn’t want to be indebted to Tom. But still, why would he be angry about someone else owing him a debt? He seems pleased to have Tom within his power.
Looking for analogues, we run into problems. The story of Yallery Brown is strangely unique. Usually, other fairies do not show the same repulsion to the words "thank you." For isntance, in the Swedish tale of "The Troll Labor," a troll paid a woman in silver, and "thanked her," although his specific words aren't given.
Back to Yallery Brown and Balfour. Some doubt has been cast on the traditionality of Balfour's work. Balfour didn't just transcribe her tales, but gave them a literary flair. That, and the striking uniqueness of her stories, have drawn suspicion by later scholars. The English folktale collector Joseph Jacobs remarked that “One might almost suspect Mrs. Balfour of being the victim of a piece of invention on the part of her . . . informant. But the scrap of verse, especially in its original dialect, has such a folkish ring that it is probable he was only adapting a local legend to his own circumstances.” In the Dictionary, Briggs mentioned Balfour's stories multiple times, while also making reference to the controversy that by then had begun to swirl around Balfour's work.
But this is aside from the point. Whatever the origin, Balfour's story is part of fairy mythology now. And I want to know why thanks are important in Balfour's story. Why is the term "thank you" offensive to Yallery Brown? Is there a missing piece here, a forgotten meaning?
As I started looking for explanations, I realized that there's one line in the story that is usually missed, but which changes the entire outlook of the tale.
Tom thanks Yallery Brown, with no ill consequences, at the beginning of the story! I only caught this on a second read. When Yallery Brown introduces himself and says that they will be friends, Tom responds "Thankee, master."
Later, Tom tries to thank Yallery Brown again, this time for helping him with his work on the farm. This is when the sprite grows angry and commands that he never say those words. This changes the picture. Thanking Yallery Brown innocently for his friendship is fine. It is only thanks for work that angers him. Perhaps it is the low nature of farmwork. Perhaps it is the reversal of roles that upsets him; rather than a meek Tom who says "Thank you, Master," now Tom's message imply "Thank you, Servant."
From here, there are connections to three other tale types. Closest is the famous tale of the household brownie.
"Don't pay the fairies"
Some classes of fairy work in human homes and help with chores. But their human hosts must be careful, for they will leave if given clothes or even the wrong sort of food. The safest bet is plain milk or porridge with butter. In the story of the Cauld Lad of Hylton, the servants behave as if clothes are a well-known way to banish unwanted spirits.
Although leaving clothes is not a verbal thanks, it is an expression of gratitude that backfires. In The Elves and the Shoemaker, collected by the Brothers Grimm, the shoemaker's wife declares, "The little men have made us rich, and we really must show that we are grateful for it." (Emphasis mine.) She notices that the elves are naked and sews beautiful clothes for them. Unfortunately for her, the newly clad elves announce that they now look too fine and handsome to do manual labor, and the shoemaker loses their aid.
In other cases, rather than the fae becoming too vain to serve, some find the gift infuriating. In a Lincolnshire version, a brownie gets angry that the offered shirt is made of rough hemp rather than fine linen. Alternately, the payment implied by the gift may insult the fae who have deigned to clean human homes. Or perhaps it's not an insult at all, just a signal that their term of service is over. The Highland spirit Brownie-Clod actually draws up a deal with some humans "to do their whole winter's threshing for them, on condition of getting in return an old coat and a Kilmarnock hood to which he had taken a fancy." However, his hosts put out his payment a little early, whether out of carelessness or because they're trying to be nice and forget that this is solely a business arrangement to him. Brownie-Clod takes the clothes and books it, leaving the rest of the work unfinished. (Keightley, Fairy Mythology, 396)
The tale type is so widespread, with so many variations and rationalizations, that it's impossible to say what the true meaning is. Although some brownies seem gleeful, in other cases, like that of the phynnodderee, the spirit actually seems distraught that they must now leave.
Lewis Spence theorized that the gift of clothes was insulting because the brownie was expecting a human sacrifice, and the clothes turned out to be only a decoy. I feel like that's a stretch. However, Gillian Edwards points out that these spirits are very frequently not just naked, but resemble hairy wild men or animals. (Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck, p. 111). The phynnodderee is a kind of satyr. Even Yallery Brown is covered in blond hair.
The act of offering clothes might be read as an act of domestication. There's a patronizing feel to the actions of the shoemaker's wife, or farmer, or any human. They decide that the naked or hair-covered fae would be better off if they fit human social mores by wearing human-style clothes.
Could there even be a connection to people turning their coats inside out to avoid being led astray by will o' the wisps, or protecting a baby from fairies by laying the father's clothes over the cradle?
Whatever the roots of the story, the end result is always that a clumsy expression of human gratitude drives away fairy aid.
"Don't interrupt the fairies"
I have found one other tale type where the words "thank you" cause fairies to flee. In this story, a farmer discovers some tiny elves in his barn, threshing his wheat for him.
"[T]he farmer, looking through the key-hole, saw two elves threshing lustily, now and then interrupting their work to say to each other, in the smallest falsetto voice: 'I tweat [sweat], you tweat?' The poor man, unable to contain his gratitude, incautiously thanked them through the key-hole; when the spirits, who love to work or play, 'unheard and unespied,' instantly vanished, and have never since visited that barn." (Choice Notes from Notes and Queries, 1859, p. 76)
Similarly in Brand's Popular Antiquities, the farmer accidentally drives them off with the line that they've done "Quite enough! and thank ye!"
Great! The fairies run away when someone thanks them. But wait - the act of thanks is not what they're running from. The storyteller in the first version explicitly states that they leave because they do not like to be watched.
In addition, this is a very widespread story, and other versions are illuminating. A similar spying farmer does not thank the laboring fairies, but laughs at them with the condescending words "Well done, my little men." Again, the specific words that he uses are not the problem. The fairies leave because "fairies are offended if a mortal speaks to them." (The Folk-Lore Record, 1878)
In most of the versions that I have read, there is no thanks. The farmer actually threatens the fairies, in a much more tense exchange.
In “The Ungrateful Farmer" (Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies), the farmer is pleased that the pixies are doing his farmwork. He witnesses them throwing down their tools saying in exhaustion "I twit, you twit." He mistakenly believes that they have spotted him. Knowing that "once the pixies learn that they are overlooked they cease to return to that spot," he assumes they will leave, and leaps out at them bellowing angrily, "I'll twit 'ee!" Poof, no more pixies.
In Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology, the farmer's anger is explained in a more straightforward way. The story is titled "The Fairy-Thieves" and the fairies are not helping with the harvest, but stealing it. When they make the declaration "I weat, you weat?", the farmer lunges at them with the words "The devil sweat ye. Let me get among ye!"
In the more sinister story of "Master Meppom's Fatal Adventure," the "Pharisees" don't just vanish; they strike the farmer with their flails before disappearing, and he dies within the year. (Lower 1854)
"Don't brag or boast of fairy gifts"
Any misuse of fairy gifts could cost the receiver greatly, as in the story of the Fuwch Gyfeiliorn or stray cow. A man receives a fairy cow and his herds prosper, but as she grows older, he feels it's not worth keeping an elderly cow that will no longer give milk or calves. But when he tries to slaughter her for meat, she runs back to the fairy realm, taking all the herd with her.
However, there was something in particular about revealing the fairy gift's origins.
John Rhys, in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx (1901), listed many versions of a tale where people are not to inform others where they got their fairy gold. For instance, a boy who was left money by the Tylwyth Teg every day, but only on the condition that he tell no one (pages 38, 83, 116, 203, 241). Generally, the tale concludes with the person telling their secret and losing the fairies' favor. The money never appears again. Occasionally, even the money they already had vanishes.
In the 17th century, in Ben Johnson's Entertainment at Althorpe (1605), Queen Mab - bestowing a gift - announces,
"Utter not, we you implore,
Who did give it, nor wherefore:
And whenever you restore
Your self to us, you shall have more."
The trope was around as early as the 12th-century lai of Sir Lanval, by Marie de France. In various versions from across the centuries, Lanval meets a fairy lady who becomes his lover and bestows him with wealth, gold and silver. She informs him that the more he spends, the more he shall have. However, if he ever reveals her existence, he will lose both her love and his fortune.
This is more a taboo of secrecy: not to reveal the source to others. All the same, there is an overlap. It's a taboo against (public) thanks or acknowledgement.
The main theme of these tale families is that fairies like their gifts to be anonymous. They do appreciate gratitude, but they also want discretion, and they can be mysteriously picky.
If these taboos are crossed, fairy servants flee, fairy gifts melt away to nothing, and fairy sweethearts bid farewell. Not because someone used the words "thank you." That, on its own, doesn't insult the fairies' generosity. Instead, it's because a human barged in yelling at them, gave a hamhanded and offensive gift, terminated their contract, or betrayed their trust.
The idea that the actual term "thank you" is offensive to fairies comes from "Yallery Brown," and nowhere else, so far as I know. The folkloric basis of Yallery Brown has been called into question, with later scholars wondering if the collector had the wool pulled over her eyes by her sources, or even if she went beyond polishing collected stories and into creating her own material. Maureen James wrote a thesis defending Balfour. At the same time, she acknowledged that many of the tales are found nowhere else. She suggested that rather than Balfour being wrong, there has been a lack of research into stories from the area of north Lincolnshire that Balfour examined.
All the same, a close reading reveals that Yallery Brown does not find the words "thank you" offensive on their own. The words only become dangerous when the thanks is for his labor with farm work. Still mysterious, but it makes sense in the wider context of brownies, elves and fairies who hate to be loudly acknowledged, and who prefer subtler thanks. In fact, Yallery Brown might be a brownie. His name is Brown, after all.
Edit 7/22/20: Important update! There may be more to the picture; Jacob Grimm, in Volume 4 of Teutonic Mythology, mentioned a German superstition that thanking a witch would place you in her power (p. 1800).
Fairy dust: maybe it’s the stuff that sparkles from a fairy godmother’s magic wand. Or maybe fairies just naturally exude it. (Or, if you delve into Disney’s expanded Tinker Bell universe, fairies need it to fly and it is a vital resource for which the characters must occasionally go on perilous quests.) Alternately, in craft stores I’ve come across little bottles of glitter labeled “fairy dust” to be used in a fairy garden. But where did the idea of fairy dust come from?
I went looking for older sources which mentioned fairies in connection with dust. Some are fairly mundane. The fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, like helpful household brownies, “sweep the dust behind the door.” Okay, so that’s not really their dust. In reverse, according to Thomas Keightley, the German kobold “brings chips and saw-dust into the house, and throws dirt into the milk vessels.”
Closer is John Rhys' Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, where he tells of a fisherman named William Ellis who - out on a dark misty day - saw a large crowd of little people about a foot tall, all dancing and making music. Entranced, he watched for hours, but when he approached too close, "they threw a kind of dust into his eyes, and, while he was wiping it away, the little family took the opportunity of betaking themselves somewhere out of his sight, so that he neither saw nor heard anything more of them."
Similar, though it doesn't feature dust per se, is the tale of Yallery Brown. There, the titular elf blows a dandelion puff into a boy's eyes and ears. "Soon as Tom could see again the tiddy [tiny] creature was gone."
George Sand's short story "La fee poussiere" was translated as "The Fairy Dust" in 1891. "Fairy Dust" in this case is the name of a character, a fairylike being who oversees everything from the earth itself to tiny particles of dust. The main character encounters her in a dream.
In Félicité de Choiseul-Meuse's 1820 fairytale "The Marble Princess," a fairy godmother gives a prince "gold dust of the purest quality" to blind serpents so that he can fight them.
"What Mr. Maguire Saw in the Kitchen," an 1862 story, a character waking from a disorienting dream refers to "dust . . . fairy dust that took away my five senses to the other world, and put me beyond myself." (Dialect removed.)
Mary Augusta Ward's Milly and Olly: or, A Holiday Among the Mountains (1881) features a mention of a fairy throwing golden "fairy-dust" into a girl's eyes so that she sees the beauty in a certain place. There are no literal fairies in the book, but the description is significant.
So far, two tales feature dreams, two have dust used to physically blind others, and the last has dust which alters someone's perception of the world.
Why this connection between fairies and dust in the first place? An interesting link might lie with mushrooms. Many varieties are named for the fairies, and they have traditionally been associated with fairies in a number of ways, possibly in part because of some toadstools' hallucinogenic properties.
One particular fungi tied to fairies is the puffball, a mushroom full of brown dust-like spores that are released when it bursts. Other names include "puckball," “puckfist,” “pixie-puff” or “devil’s snuffbox." (In this case, "fist" does not mean a closed hand, but a fart or foul odor. So these mushrooms were the Devil’s/Puck’s/Fairy’s farts.)
In Scotland they were known as Blind Man’s Ball or Blind Man’s Een (eyes). John Jamieson suggested in 1808 that this was due to a belief that the spores caused blindness. However, it’s also possible that they were named for their resemblance to eyeballs. The mushroom connection is fun, but European puffball mushrooms are evidently not hallucinogenic.
Another possible plant association: pollen, which can look like golden (yellow) dust, and which would have become a stronger link as the modern flower fairy gained popularity. The Victorian educational children's book, Fairy Know-a-Bit, or, A Nutshell of Knowledge (1866) declares that fairies refer to pollen as "gold-dust" and love "to sprinkle [it] over each other in sport."
There is another very old tie between fairies and dust. Traditionally, fairies were believed to be present in the dust clouds stirred up by the wind on the road. Any humans on the road should beware, and show respect to the otherworldly travelers. The cloud of dust might even contain kidnapped humans who were carried along with the fairies. It's been suggested that the Rumpelstiltskin-like character Whuppity Stoorie has a name meaning whipped-up dust, or stoor. For a similar concept, think of the term "dust devil" for a whirlwind.
This idea may be tracked back to the 17th century at least. In 1662, accused witch Isobel Gowdie pulled from fairy lore for her confession. She described how witches, like fairies, would use tiny grass stalks as horses to "fly away, where we would, even as straws fly upon a highway" – in a whirlwind of bits of straw above the road. She added that "If anyone sees these straws in a whirlwind, and do not bless themselves, we may shoot them dead at our pleasure. Any that are shot by us... will fly as our horses, as small as straws."
There's also a touch of the idea of perception here. Humans perceive only a cloud of dust, but those "in the know" realize that fairies are traveling unseen.
In Teutonic Mythology vol. 3, Jacob Grimm makes a reference to witches' or devil's ashes being strewn to raise storms, and Richilde (enemy of Robert the Frisian) throwing dust in the air with "formulas of imprecation" to destroy her enemies.
One more traditional connection between fairies and dust is quite sinister. In many stories, when a human returns from Fairyland, they do so without realizing that they’ve unwittingly spent centuries away from our world. King Herla, for instance, gets a nasty shock when some of his friends dismount from their horses only to crumble into dust the second their feet touch the ground.
However, the key to modern fairy dust is the story of the Sandman. In European folklore, every night a mythical being sprinkles sand or dust into children’s eyes to send them to sleep and give them dreams. The sand/dust may be a way to explain the “sleep” or gritty discharge left in someone’s eyes when they wake up in the morning.
E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story Der Sandmann features a sinister Sandman who steals children’s eyes after throwing sand at them. Hans Christian Andersen’s 1841 tale "Ole Lukøje" ("Mr. Shut-eye") has a gentle sleep-bringer who sprinkles “sweet milk” into children’s eyes. However, subsequent translations changed this to “powder” or “dust" as the character was gradually merged with the Sandman.
There was overlap with the fairy world, and this would only increase. A 1915 dictionary defined the Sandman as "a household elf.”
The children's play “Bluebell in Fairyland,” first produced in 1901, was one of the inspirations for Peter Pan. The main character's travel to Fairyland is framed as a dream. Per John Kruse's site British Fairies, the play mentions the "dustman" (Sandman) and features golden dust being strewn as the characters fall asleep and enter Fairyland. Unfortunately, the play's script and lyrics are not currently available where I can access them.
Algernon Blackwood's 1913 book A Prisoner of Fairyland may also have been influenced by Bluebell. It features a “Dustman” who sprinkles golden dust “fine as star-dust” into people’s eyes to cause them to sleep. Again: sleep, dreams and fairyland are interconnected.
But it was J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (play published 1904, novel published 1911) which really popularized the modern view of fairy dust. From the moment Peter Pan first physically appears in the novel, he is accompanied by fairy dust: “the window was blown open by the breathing of the little stars, and Peter dropped in. He had carried Tinker Bell part of the way, and his hand was still messy with the fairy dust.”
The dust which Tinker Bell exudes bestows children with the ability to fly, and to travel to Neverland, which is made up of their own imaginative stories and daydreams. The island is first described in a sequence where the Darlings' mother examines her sleeping children's minds. When the children reach the island, they find all the locations and characters they've dreamed up. At one point Peter Pan speaks to "all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think."
Disney’s animated adaptation came out in 1953. They altered it a little, calling the stuff “pixie dust.” Tinker Bell became an instant mascot, and her pixie dust was a callword for Disney. (They use "pixie" and "fairy" interchangeably to refer to the character, which is a post for another time.) Neverland's status as both fairyland and dreamworld is toned down in the film version, but still hinted at. The Darling children meet Peter Pan when he wakes them in the middle of the night, and - unlike the book - after they return, their parents enter the room only to find them fast asleep, as if they never left.
Disney's ubiquitous Peter Pan helped popularize the modern idea of fairy dust as glittering stuff given off by fairies or pixies. It was also an important step in leaving behind the associations with dreams and, thus, the Sandman.
Associations between fairies and dust are very old, seen in the whirlwind transportation and in puffball mushrooms. By the 1800s, we have mentions in literature tying fairy dust to vision, eyesight, dreams, and perception of reality. Ultimately fairies and the Sandman were equated, as were Fairyland and Dreamland. At this point, they've diverged. However, I am reminded of the 2012 animated film Rise of the Guardians, where the Sandman works with glowing golden sand that looks a lot like Disney Tinker Bell's pixie dust. Also, "fairy dust" and similarly "angel dust" are slang terms for drugs, keeping that idea of a change in perception.
References and Further Reading
Recently, when reading fantasy, I keep running into the idea that fairies cannot lie, only tell the truth. For this reason, they must use tricky language – literal truths disguising real meanings. For example, in Holly Black's novel Ironside, a fairy says that when she tries to lie, "I feel panicked and my mind starts racing, looking for a safe way to say it. I feel like I'm suffocating. My jaw just locks. I can't make any sound come out" (p. 56).
But is this really supported by older folklore? Deception seems inherent to the fairy way of life when you take into account, for instance, changelings. The core idea of changelings is that fairies are in disguise as your loved ones, pretending to be them. Why, then, is there an idea that fairies are truthful beings?
Trickery, loopholes, and "exact words" do play a significant part in fairytales.
In the Irish tale "The Field of Boliauns," a man bullies a captive leprechaun into showing him where his gold is buried, under a particular boliaun (ragwort stalk) in a field. He doesn't have a shovel with him, so he ties a garter around the stalk and then makes the leprechaun swear not to touch it. He runs home to get the shovel, comes back, and finds that the leprechaun has taken his oath literally: he hasn't touched the garter, but has tied an identical garter around every single ragwort stalk in the field.
Another case: a man carelessly trades with an otherworldly being in exchange for something which sounds inconsequential, but which turns out to be his own child. There's the giant who asks a king for "Nix, Nought, Nothing," which unbeknownst to the king is the name of his newborn son. The Grimms have "The Nixie in the Pond" with a water spirit asking for that which has just been born, and "The Girl Without Hands," where the Devil himself promises riches in exchange for what stands behind the mill; his target thinks he means an apple tree, but it's actually his daughter.
This same kind of trick can happen in reverse, with a human fooling a fairy! In "The Farmer and the Boggart," a boggart lays claim to a certain farmer's field. The farmer convinces it to split the crop with him, and asks him if he would like "tops or bottoms." When the boggart says "bottoms," the farmer plants wheat, so that the boggart gets nothing but stubble. The next planting season, the infuriated boggart demands "tops" . . . so the farmer plants turnips.
So we have the idea of tricky language in abundance. But what about an inability to lie?
Fairies and Honesty
According to John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx vol. 1, there are different classes of the Tylwyth Teg. Some are "honest and good towards mortals," while others are consummate thieves and cheats - swapping illusory money for real, and their own "wretched" offspring for human babies. They steal any milk, butter or cheese they can get their hands on. Going by context, honesty is referring to not stealing. In addition, the very dichotomy means fairies are not always honest.
One term for the fairies, like the Good Folk or People of Peace, is the "Honest Folk" - daoine coire in Gaelic, and balti z'mones in Lithuanian. (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume 5) However, these names are essentially flattery meant to avoid fairy wrath. I would avoid taking these as literal descriptors.
But if you keep going, in many traditions, the fae do prize honesty.
In a Welsh tale recorded by the 12th-century writer Giraldus Cambrensis, a boy named Elidorus encounters "little men of pigmy stature" - pretty much fae.
"They never took an oath, for they detested nothing so much as lies. As often as they returned from our upper hemisphere, they reprobated our ambition, infidelities, and inconstancies; they had no form of public worship, being strict lovers and reverers, as it seemed, of truth."
However, this is not a "can't lie," but a "won't lie." It's a moral fable, for dishonesty is Elidorus' downfall. When he tells his mother of his adventures, she asks him to bring back "a present of gold." Her request could indicate greed, but it's also a challenge for Elidorus to prove that he's telling the truth. He steals a golden ball and takes it home. For this dishonesty, the pigmies immediately punish him: he is never able to find their realm again.
The 12th-century Irish legend of “The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel" features three riders all in red, on red horses. (Red is a common fairy color.) They are later identified as "[t]hree champions who wrought falsehood in the elfmounds. This is the punishment inflicted upon them by the king of the elfmounds, to be destroyed thrice by the King of Tara."
In another legend from the same era, a man named Cormac visits the sea-god Manannan mac Lir and receives a golden cup which will break into three pieces if three words of falsehood are told nearby, and mend itself if three truths are told.
As Walter Evans-Wentz summed it up in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, “respect for honesty” is a fairy trait in both ancient and contemporary Irish legends. Lady Wilde, in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, also referred to the fairies as "upright and honest" (at least in repaying debts).
Another important piece of evidence is the tale of Thomas the Rhymer, with a story dating at least to a 14th-century romance. Even in the earliest versions, he is given the gift of prophecy by the fairy queen. In a later version recorded in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), when they part, she gives him an apple while saying "Take this for thy wages, True Thomas, It will give the tongue that can never lie."
Thomas points out that this will be super inconvenient, but the fairy queen does not care. Here at last is the idea of being physically unable to lie - having a mouth and a tongue that are capable only of telling truth. However, the person with this quality is a human under a fairy's spell.
There's a kind of mirror image in Giraldus Cambrensis' tale of Meilyr or Melerius, another prophet, who due to his close encounters with "unclean spirits" gains the ability to detect lies.
Moving on: in many traditions, divine or otherworldly beings are swift to reward honesty and punish falsehood. See “The Rough-Face Girl” (Algonquin), “Our Lady’s Child” (German), and “The Honest Woodcutter” (from Aesop’s Fables). (Aesop uses the god Mercury, but other versions of the same story sometimes use a fairy.)
In the book The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1883), Pinocchio repeatedly lies to the Blue Fairy, building on multiple falsehoods. With each lie, his nose grows, until finally it's so long that he gets stuck. The laughing Fairy "allowed the puppet to cry and to roar for a good half-hour over his nose... This she did to give him a severe lesson, and to correct him of the disgraceful fault of telling lies." Only after he has been sufficiently chastised does she restore him to normal. This is the fairy-as-moral-teacher who is so strongly present in 18th- and 19th-century literature, from French salon tales to Victorian children's books. In this era, fairies (particularly fairy godmothers) were strict parental figures who demanded honesty, fairness and goodness from humans.
The Ideas Combine
I think the seeds of the modern idea of fairies and falsehood come from the famed British folklorist Katharine Briggs. In The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), Briggs recounted that "According to Elidurus the fairies were great lovers and respecters of truth, and indeed it is not wise to attempt to deceive them, nor will they ever tell a direct lie or break a direct promise, though they may often distort it. The Devil himself is more apt to prevaricate than to lie..." (pp. 131-132).
There are a couple of different things to take from this. One is that not only do fairies not lie, but it's equally important for humans to be honest with them. "To tell lies to devils, ghosts or fairies was to put oneself into their power" (pp. 222-223).
Also, it is clear that at least one of her main sources for this theme is Elidurus. She referenced Elidurus again in Dictionary of Fairies (1971), where she mentions again that fairies "seem to have a disinterested love" of truth, and that it is unwise to lie to them, although they may use tricky language themselves. She is summarizing based on a combination of two tale types - one where fairies value honesty, and one where they trick and evade.
I have been collecting examples of books where fairies speak only truth. The earliest example so far is the children's book series Circle of Magic by James MacDonald and Debra Doyle. All six books were published in 1990.
In this world, wizards cannot lie or they will corrupt their own power, but it is possible to use misleading language. The restriction is strongest for the elves or fair folk. According to their ruler, the Erlking:
"You [a wizard] cannot speak an untruth and expect magic to serve you truly thereafter. Here magic is purer, and far more strict a master. A mortal wizard can sometimes break the words of a promise in order to keep its spirit, but I cannot. If I say that I will do a thing, or that I will not do a thing - then I must do it, or leave it undone, exactly as the words were spoken." (The High King's Daughter, p. 22)
The examples I've collected really pick up after the year 2000. In Buttercup Baby by Karen Fox (2001), the faery protagonist has physical difficulty with telling actual lies (p. 218). It's also a big theme in the Dresden Files, for instance Summer Knight by Jim Butcher (2002), where not only are faeries not "allowed" to lie, but they are "bound to fulfill a promise spoken thrice." (p. 194)
In Holly Black's Tithe (2002), there is a brief mention of "no lies, no deception" in the realm of fairies. Black goes more in-depth with later books, starting with Valiant (2005), where fairies are physically incapable of falsehood. A running theme is that they covet humans' ability to tell outright falsehoods.
Other examples: Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely series and Cassandra Clare's Shadowhunters (both beginning 2007). Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series hints that if fairies lie, something bad will happen to them.
Holly Black frequently references and recommends Briggs' work (as in this tweet).
Patricia Briggs (no relation) was also inspired by Katharine Briggs, mentioning her work in an interview here. Morgan Daimler's Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk (2017) is a recent compendium that cites Katharine Briggs when saying that fairies are "always strictly honest with their words."
The idea that fairies cannot lie is a creative modern twist, stemming from cautionary fables about honesty and from stories about using wordplay to get the upper hand. Katharine Briggs never says that fairies cannot lie. She says only that they do not lie, apparently out of a strict moral code. My current theory is that a semantic shift occurred sometime between The Fairies in Tradition and Literature in 1967 and the Circle of Magic series in 1990. This shows how fairy mythology is still growing and evolving today.
In older tales, from the honest woodcutter who meets the god Mercury, to Elidurus, to Pinocchio, otherworldly beings - including fairies - deeply value honesty. But it’s not just that fairies may not (technically) lie to you. It’s that you shouldn’t lie to them.
But unvarnished truth isn’t always the best idea either, if you read tales like "The Fairies’ Midwife" . . . Thus the importance of tactical wordplay.
Do you have any other examples of stories on fairies' relationship with honesty? Share them in the comments!
[Edit 1/14/21]: Another one for the list is a German tale, "The Silver Bell" (Das Silberglöckchen), found in Arndt’s Fairy Tales from the Isle of Rügen (1896). Arndt explains that "the little folks [Unterirdischen, literally Underground Ones] may not lie, but must keep their word and fulfil the promises they give, else they are at once changed into the nastiest beasts, toads, snakes, dung-beetles, wolves, lynxes, and monkeys, and have to crawl and rove about for a thousand years, ere they can be delivered; therefore they hate lies." As in the Irish examples, the fairies are physically capable of lying, but fear punishment; and honesty extends not only to telling the truth, but to oaths and other matters of honor. The exact source for this punishment remains unclear.
Is there such a thing in folklore as a fairy-human hybrid? What would they be called? What traits would they inherit? Or would they inheirt only one parent’s nature?
In Gilbert and Sullivahn's comic opera Iolanthe (1882), the hero is half-fairy . . . literally, with an immortal upper half but human legs. There are some problems. In a mid-nineteenth-century music hall song, "The Keeper of the Eddystone Light," the union of a man and a mermaid produces two fish and the narrator of the song. More seriously, the protagonist of Eloise McGraw's 1996 novel The Moorchild, is a half-fae with both human and "moorfolk" characteristics. But these are more modern spins.
In fact, there is a basis in legend. In a widespread tale type, a human man encounters a beautiful woman whose species varies from story to story. She may be a fairy, a mermaid, a selkie, a swan maiden, or a Yuki-Onna. Or maybe it’s a human woman who meets an otherworldly man: a fairy knight, an incubus, a god, a prince cursed into bear form… etc. When the human spouse breaks some taboo, the otherworldly spouse flees. Lucky humans go on a quest and have a chance to win them back. Unlucky humans pine away, alone for the rest of their lives. But either way, quite often the couple has produced at least one child.
I’m going to count mermaids among fairies here. Mermaids are essentially water fairies, and half the time when a man takes a fairy bride, she is somehow connected to water.
Otherworldly Hybrids in Mythology
The idea of a human/nonhuman hybrid is not new. Half-gods abound in Greek mythology. However, most are skilled warriors with no supernatural powers. The half-god Achilles gains invulnerability not through genetics, but through a ritual performed by his mother. A few, like Dionysus, are born as full gods. Heracles is an outlier, a human with super-strength, who ultimately becomes a full god. Over in Ireland, Cu Chulainn is the son of a god and a human woman. There are legends that Abe no Seimei of Japan was the son of a human and a kitsune named Kuzunoha, and that he inherited from his mother traits that made him a powerful magician. Similarly, in Arthurian legend Merlin the magician was supposed to derive his abilities from his parentage as the son of a human woman and a demon or spirit.
According to Jacob Grimm in Teutonic Mythology, vol. 3 "From the Devil's commerce with witches proceeds no human offspring, but elvish beings, which are named dinger (things...), elbe, holden" who appear as butterflies, bumblebees, caterpillars, or worms. Grimm describes the holden acting as spirit familiars to aid the witches in their mischief.
Nephilim, or giants, appear in the Bible as offspring of “the sons of God” and “the daughters of man.” Plenty of people have made much of this, suggesting that the Nephilim were born of angels with human women. I’ve also run into the idea that they were the offspring of God’s followers with pagan women.
Throughout history, descent from a god and, later, descent from a fairy could be a bragging point, especially for rulers. In a tale from India, a man lures a solitary girl known as "the daughter of the god Shillong" from her cave dwelling to marry her. She escapes him, as fairy brides always do, but, the people of the area hail their children as "god kings." (Folk Tales of Assam)
Option one: Offspring of humans with fairies are all human
The 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus wrote about "undines" - feminine water-spirits who might take human husbands in order to gain their own souls. Any children of such a union, Paracelsus adds, will be human beings, because they inherit souls from their human fathers.
There are numerous ballads and lais where women have children with "fairy knights." Sir Degare is the offspring of one such pairing, but doesn't seem overtly otherworldly. Similarly, the Yuki-onna of Japan may have children with a human husband in her stories, but they don't have any apparent tendencies towards ice and snow.
Such unions could produce whole clans. In Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, John Rhys recounts a number of overlapping fairy bride tales. A fairy named Penelope or Penelop was the ancestress of the Pelling clan. A fairy named Bella was the ancestress of the Bellisians. A fairy’s daughter with a human, known as Pelisha, began the family known as Bellis, who hated to be reminded of their fairy ancestry, and frequently got into brawls on the subject. Another term was Belsiaid. The names suggest that these are all the same story heard from different sources.
Option two: offspring show otherworldly traits
Even if some half-fairy knights like Sir Degare show no overt fairy characteristics, that is not always the rule. In the medieval lai of Tydorel (whose name I keep reading as Ti-D-Bol), the titular character is the son of a fairy knight and a human queen. Tydorel's otherworldly origins are shown by his inability to sleep. A man who cannot sleep, the lai tells us, is not human.
This tale had a darker counterpart in the story of Merlin, as well as those of Sir Gowther and Robert the Devil, whose fathers were demons. In these cases, their heritage makes them evil, but can be overcome.
The original Oberon, in the tales of Huon of Bordeaux, was depicted as the son of Julius Caesar and a fairy woman sometimes identified as Morgan le Fay. So this Oberon is actually half fairy! But his otherworldly appearance - small size and incredible beauty - is not an inborn trait, but the result of a curse. He does do a lot of magical stuff, though, and is king over the fairy realm.
According to Irish lore, Geróid 'Iarla was the son of the Earl of Desmond, who fell in love with the water-goddess-like Aine n'Chliar when he met her on the lake. It was a typical fairy bride marriage, but in this case, the taboo was that the Earl must never express wonder at his son's abilities. Geróid was able to leap in and out of a bottle. When his father exclaimed at it, Geróid immediately went to the lake, transformed into a goose, and swam away. There was another connected story where Geroid took a wife himself, and she also had to abide by taboos.
This is a legend which grew up around the historical figure of Garrett, fourth Earl of Desmond, who is supposed to have disappeared in 1398. The collector, David Fitzgerald, also mentions a possible connected legend that the Fitzgeralds are web-footed, hinting at the idea that the descendants of a fairy marriage have bird characteristics.
Jeremiah Curtin collected a tale, "Tom Moore and the Seal Woman," which ends with the mention of the fairy's children: "All the five children that she left had webs between their fingers and toes, half-way to the tips." However, this trait decreased with successive generations. In an equivalent tale recounted by Thomas Keightley, the children of a human and a sea-maiden "retained no vestiges of their marine origin, saving a thin web between their fingers, and a bend of their hands, resembling that of the fore paws of a seal; distinctions which characterise the descendants of the family to the present day."
As far as fairy wives go, Melusine possibly takes the lead as the most prolific childbearer. She bore her husband ten sons, eight of whom had strange appearances.
Bear in mind that Melusine herself is half-fairy! Her story is full of repetitions and layers. Her experience with her husband is foreshadowed by that of her mother, the fairy Pressyne, and a human king. Both Melusine and Geroid are examples of a child of a fairy bride and a human who take after their fairy parent - so much so that they repeat the story in the next generation.
Melusine's mother Pressyne bore triplet girls, which in that time would have been scandalous, hinting at marital infidelity. However, like Oberon, Melusine wasn't born with her visible fairy qualities; her form as a half-serpent creature is the result of a curse. She must marry a human, who must keep to certain rules, in order to break it. Some scholars have suggested that her sons' deformities are also created by that curse. In some versions, her youngest sons are apparently human, indicating that her curse has been fading over the years. This makes it all the more tragic when her husband fails her and she loses her chance at humanity.
Sometimes fairies carried humans off to marry them, and their children would then presumably be half-fairies. in the German tale of "The Changeling of Spornitz," the little people or "Mönks" (manikins) carry off human children to ensure that "earthly beauty would not entirely die out among them."
Similarly, a girl named Eilian is stolen away as a fairy's bride in a Welsh tale. However, nothing is said of what her child is like, other than that it requires ointment in its eyes to have true sight of the fairy world - but this is common in tales of human midwives caring for fairy babies.
The child of a human/fairy marriage is often a culture hero. His parentage explains why he's such a great warrior. One Arapaho tale has two parts - one dealing with a woman who marries a star with tragic results, and the second part dealing with their son Star Boy, who becomes a culture hero.
In a Maori tale from New Zealand, a mermaid named Pania marries a human and bears a son named Moremore, who is completely hairless. His name means "bald." This son becomes a taniwha (serpent) or a shark and guards the local seas.
In a story recorded in More West Highland Tales by Campbell and McKay, a woman becomes pregnant apparently by a seal, reminiscent of selkie tales. She gives birth to a son "as hairy as a goat," whom she names MacCuain, the Son of the Sea. MacCuain sometimes goes into a horrible frenzy where his face is distorted, and plays a villainous role in the tale.
In the fairytale “Hans the Mermaid’s Son,” the main character is the son of a human and a mermaid. This is part of the Young Giant folktale type; Hans is the size of a large grown man when still a child, and has prodigious strength. He lacks any kind of stereotypical mer-attributes, having instead supernatural strength and size. (There are many tales of this type; sometimes, for instance, the Young Giant is the child of a woman and a bear.) Note that Hans is difficult for both his mortal father and magical mother to handle.
Option three: Offspring are normal humans, but inherit non-genetic otherworldly gifts
In "The Thunder Spirit's Bride," a tale from Rwanda, the children of the Thunder Spirit and a mortal woman are taught by their father "how to travel through the air on flashes of lightning, and they had a much more exciting life than the children of the earth, who could only walk and run."
The Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, was printed in 1628 but may have existed much earlier. Here Robin Goodfellow is the son of Oberon the fairy king and a human woman. Although a born prankster and a thief, Robin seems like a normal human - at least until Oberon reveals his parentage and grants him the ability to shapeshift. Oberon informs him,
"By nature thou has cunning shifts,
Which Ile increase with other gifts.
Wish what thou wilt, thou shalt it have;
And for to vex both fool and knave,
Thou hast the power to change thy shape,
To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape."
The phrasing in these stories leaves it unclear whether their powers are genetic or the result of teaching. The children may or may not have inherent skills, but either way, they require their fairy parent's instruction in order to use them.
There is one clear case where the children are apparently human, but learn fairy knowledge from their mother's teachings. Sir John Rhys recorded a Welsh tale of a fairy bride from the lake Llyn y Fan Fach. Her human husband was told never to strike her three times without cause, but over the years scolded or even just tapped her, and on the third time she vanished back into the lake - leaving three distraught sons, who often walked by the lake searching for her. And one day it worked - she appeared to her oldest son, Rhiwallon, and taught him and his brothers the art of healing, so that they became the famous Physicians of Myddfai.
Child Abandonment and DNA Dominance
Fairy wives hardly ever take their children along when they jump ship, but leave their husbands to care for any offspring they have. For practical story purposes, the children may remain so that they can tell their father what happened to their mother. In T. Crofton Croker's story of the Lady of Gollerus, the mermaid wife doesn't mean to abandon her children, but forgets them the moment she touches the water. (Despite this, her human husband never remarries and always insists that she must be being held against her will beneath the ocean, not understanding how she could possibly want to leave him or their children.)
This indicates that these children, although nominally hybrids, belong to the human world. Their father’s DNA is dominant. In a gender-flipped version, where a human woman is captured by an otherwordly husband and escapes, she still leaves her kids with him.
Francis James Child described different variations of a ballad with this theme. Sometimes the woman returns home with her children, but she may also leave them behind while she makes her escape, ignoring her husband when he tells her the children are crying for her. In one Danish version of "Agnes and the Merman," where when Agnes returns to the human world, her husband insists that they divide their five children evenly. In the worst custody arrangement of all time, the fifth one is split in half. (This is not the only tale where the supernatural husband turns violent towards their children when the mortal wife goes home; the same thing happens in an Italian tale called "The Satyr.") In another related ballad, the human woman has never seen her children, since they are always taken from her to live in the elf-hill. At the end, she is taken to the elf-hill and her children give her a drink which makes her forget her mortal life.
But sometimes the wife, whether human or fairy, does take her children along. In “Story of a Bird-Woman,” from Siberia, a goose-maiden bore her human husband two “real human children", but when she grew homesick, she contrived to take her children along. She begged help from the geese, who "plucked their wings and stuck feathers on the children's sleeves," so that they were able to fly away with their mother.
And according to Hasan el-Shamy in Folktales of Egypt, in a union between a man and a jinniyah, "children from such a marriage belong to the mother, never to their human father." John Rhys, in Celtic Folklore, mentions a man whose fairy wife and children vanished when he broke a promise by unknowingly touching iron.
In a tale from the Orkneys, Gem-de-Lovely the mermaid marries a human and bears seven children, then takes the whole family along when she returns to the sea. However, her mother-in-law brands the youngest child with a cross, blocking the merfolk from ever touching him, and he grows up on land as a powerful soldier who fights in the Crusades and makes a good marriage.
In the story of Melusine, her mother Pressyne actually does take her daughters from a mixed marriage with her when she flees. However, in the next generation, Melusine leaves her sons with their father. In some versions she comes back to nurse those who are still babies. That doesn't change that in some way, daughters share their mother's nature and native realm, while sons share their father's. Maybe this is just because Melusine's sons are more distantly related to the fairy realm. But there's another example that bears it up.
A romance of Richard the Lionheart explained his battle-prowess by saying that he was the son of a human king and a woman named Cassodorien, who had fairylike characteristics, echoing Melusine-style myths. In the story, when forced to attend Mass, Cassodorien flies out through the roof carrying her other son John and daughter Topyas. John falls and is injured, but Topyas is carried away with her mother and never seen again. Again - the son gets left behind, the daughter gets taken.
One of my favorite movies is the 2014 Irish animated film, Song of the Sea, which features two children (a boy and a girl) born of a human-selkie union. The boy is human like his father, while the girl is a selkie like her mother.
Sometimes the offspring of a human-fairy marriage are hybrids - humans with a touch of fairy ancestry, like the webbed-fingered kids in the selkie tale. However, more often they are either one or the other: all human, or all fairy. They typically take after their father's side of the family, at least in European myth, but there are occasional hints that their inheritance might be based on gender. If it's a human with special attributes, it's often because their fairy parent taught them a skill.
Sons are mentioned more frequently than daughters, and typically grow up to be great warriors or wise men. Divine or fairy heritage was used to establish political power or explain the backstory of a popular culture hero. Throughout history, incubi or gods were given as the fathers of figures like Seleucus, Plato, or Scipio the Elder. The houses of Lusignan and Plantagenet claimed ancestry from Melusine or her equivalent.
On the other hand, an unpopular person might be accused of being the offspring of a demon. See Bishop Guichard of Troyes in 1308, rumored to be the son of a human woman with a "neton." Also recall the Bellis clan, who would fight anyone who brought up their fairy background.
I don't think there is any commonly used name for these fairy hybrids- although I would love to hear if you've come across one.
Today, if you search around on the Internet, you may encounter the idea that Titania and Mab are opposing queens, representing Summer and Winter Courts or "Seelie and Unseelie" Courts. I've even found the claim that this is drawn from ancient legend - but is that true? There is also a common idea that Mab as queen of fairies is somehow older than Titania. In 1993, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica claimed that Mab's "place as queen of the fairies in English folklore was eventually taken over by Titania." The entry is misleading, as we will see that both Mab and Titania are Shakespeare's creations. If you go back to the source, Mab may not be a queen at all. It was in literature after Shakespeare that Mab usurped the place of the more regal and powerful Titania as Oberon's wife.
Around Shakespeare’s time - just before, and just after - fairy queen characters showed up under varied names: Gloriana, Chloris, Aureola, Caelia. Proserpina, or Persephone, was sometimes the leading lady. In grimoires, there were Micol and Sybillia. There was also the old medieval tradition of a queen of witches or fairies, who led her followers in a midnight revel traveling across the world. This figure might be known as Herodias, Diana, or a thousand variations.
However, perhaps most often, fairy queens were nameless figures. William Shakespeare changed that.
A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet were both likely composed sometime in the mid-1590s. Which came first? That's up for debate. But it seems generally agreed that they were written within a few years of each other.
A Midsummer Night's Dream featured Oberon and Titania as godlike figures. Although their subjects were miniscule beings who tended flowers and could hide inside acorn cups, the rulers commanded the weather and hailed from far-flung realms like India. "Proud Titania" has human worshippers, and with her husband she holds sway over the four seasons. Her romances with humans imply that she is of roughly human scale.
The name "Titania" or "Titanis" appeared in Ovid's Metamorphoses as an epithet for several goddesses who were descendants of Titans. One "Titania" is Circe, a sorceress who transforms men into beasts. Another is Diana, who is called Titania while bathing in a woodland pond within a sacred grove. When a man sees her naked, she transforms him into a stag to be torn apart by his own hunting hounds. Both of these scenes are echoed in Shakespeare's character Bottom, whose head is switched for a donkey's, and with whom a magically roofied Titania falls in love.
Diana was a Roman goddess, equivalent to the Greek Artemis - goddess of the moon, the hunt, wild animals, and unwed girls. The wilderness and the night are both fitting associations for a fairy queen. However, it also brings to mind the medieval Diana as leader of a nighttime witches' revel. James VI's Daemonologie (1597) said that "Diana and her wandering court . . . amongst us is called Fairy . . . or our good neighbours."
Diana has ties to Hecate, and Hecate to Persephone. So Titania is a super-combo of classical and medieval references – Artemis, Circe, Hecate, Persephone. Goddesses of night, nature, the underworld, witchcraft, and transformation.
Titania is not the only reference here to Ovid; the play also features the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Honestly, the play is set in the time of Greek myth and features the hero Theseus.
Romeo and Juliet featured a very different fairy queen. She does not appear onstage, but is described in jest. "Queen Mab" is "the fairies' midwife." She is also the "hag" who presses people as they sleep - making her a nightmare or succubus. Hag was a common name for this type of spirit.
Mab is a being on bug scale, who as a midwife brings forth not children, but dreams, sex dreams and nightmares. She does ride at night, like some older fairy queens, but her passage is through people's minds, "through lovers' brains." She is so tiny that her ride is not a rampage through forests and air, but over people’s lips or fingers. Her physical actions consist of tickling noses, tangling hair in knots, and delivering blisters or cold sores.
There have been numerous suggestions for Mab's etymology.
Mab is Welsh for "child," tying to her small size.
Mab comes from Medb or Maeve, an imposing warrior queen of Irish mythology. This is perhaps the most commonly cited explanation: Goddess-queen Medb evolved into Fairy Queen Mab.
Mab is connected to the medieval French "Domina Abundia" or "Dame Habonde." Her name means "Lady Abundance." According to William of Auvergne (d. 1249), Domina Abundia and her attendants were believed to enter houses at night and bless anyone who left out food for them - a lot like the Diana/Herodias figure. The M would have been added in the same way you get Ned from Edward, etc., or perhaps from "Dame Abonde" running together into one word.
Wirt Sikes wrote in 1880 that the queen of the Welsh ellyllon (tiny elves) was none other than Mab, and thus Shakespeare must have gotten Mab from "his Welsh informant."
Mab is short for "Amabilis," or lovable.
There is another option. Before Romeo and Juliet, there was a play titled The Historie of Jacob and Esau. This play, performed in 1558 and published in 1568, featured a midwife named Deborra, who is called a witch, a "heg" (hag), "Tib" (a typical name for lower-class English woman, used to mean girl, sweetheart, or prostitute), and finally Mab - "thou mother Mab... olde rotten witche."
Queen Mab is a hag and a midwife . . . just like Deborra. She is not a teeny-tiny Medb or Dame Abonde, but she is a teeny-tiny Deborra.
In fact, is Queen Mab a queen? Or is she a quean - a word for either a woman or a prostitute? This fits with the sexual innuendo throughout the passage. It also makes more sense than a member of royalty working at such a job as midwifery. Other than her title, she is not queenly in the slightest. She's identified as "the fairies' midwife," not "the fairies' queen." We do not see her in any kind of leadership role, as we do Titania. Jennifer Ailes even suggests that Mab is never directly identified as a fairy or a [royal] queen. She is just the fairies' midwife - and there is a large body of tales with titles like "The Fairy's Midwife," where fairies do not go to one of their own for help with childbirth, but to a human. Clearly Mab is not human, but just because she is the fairies' midwife does not mean she is a fairy herself.
In addition, "Mab" was a word for a slattern or dirty, unkempt woman, dating to the 1550s. Ailes suggests that "Mother Mab" was a traditional name for a witch, explaining why it was used for Deborra. Or maybe Mab was simply a nickname for a dirty, slovenly woman. So then, Queen Mab's name might be simply "Mistress Slattern" or "Mrs. Lazybones."
This “mab” could be derived from Mabel – much as the girls’ name Tib (possibly short for Isabel) gained similar connotations. In Elizabethan times, "Tom and Tib" were common names used to mean boy and girl, much like Jack and Jill. Tib became a generic word for girl, sweetheart or prostitute. Tib is another name used for Deborra. Incidentally, around the 1630s, a fairy named Tib shows up independently in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, and in the poem Nymphidia. Both Tibs are close to the leadership ranks – at least, Robin Goodfellow’s Tib is one of the chief female fairies, and Nymphidia’s Tib is one of the fairy queen’s maids of honor. Also, both Tibs are part of a team of fairies with rhythmic, monosyllabic names – “Sib and Tib, and Licke and Lull” in the first, and “Fib and Tib, and Pink and Pin, Tick and Quick,” etc., etc. in the second. So, two things: first, this was the fashion for fairy names at the time. Second, it was quite common for a generic human name to be applied to an otherworldly being. Another example is Thomas, seen as Tom Thumb, Tam Lin, Tom Tit Tot, and Thomas the Feary.
Shakespeare was the apparent tipping point in a huge fad of tiny fairies. Previously, fairies had been either human-scale or the size of children - the old Oberon, of Huon fame, was three feet tall. But now everyone was jumping on the bandwagon with flowery poetry about fairies who, unlike their folkloric ancestors, were practically jokes. They were far too small to be effectual at anything. They skipped about and hid inside flowers. Oberon remained as the fairy king. However, the goddess-like Titania did not accompany him. Instead, as Thomas Keightley said, Mab was such a hit that she "completely dethroned Titania." The wee lady called "Queen" who rode in a hazelnut-shell chariot was the only fitting empress for this generation of fairy.
The first known sign of this was in Ben Jonson's Entertainment at Althorp, presented to Queen Anne in 1603. In this performance, Queen Mab and her attendants welcome the queen. She is described as a prankster, like Shakespeare's Mab - she "rob[s] the dairy" and partakes in typical fairy mischief, but she also has regal associations. She is undeniably queen and ruler of the fairies. She pays homage to Anne as previous fairy queens did to her predecessor, Elizabeth. In a similar masque years before, fairy queen "Aureola" gave Elizabeth a flowery garland; in this one, stage directions call for Mab to give Anne a "jewel." In literature, Elizabeth was obeyed by and represented by fairy queens. Now it was Anne's turn.
Mab was not yet paired with Oberon, but that was soon to come - in "Nymphidia," a mock-epic poem by Michael Drayton, published in 1627. Here again we have Oberon and Puck running around with lots of furor over romance... but Oberon's queen is Mab. Many of the fairies in this play have cutesy monosyllabic names (like Tib); this may be why Drayton leaned towards Mab. Her name fit his style. Drayton also mentioned Mab in his work "The Muses Elyzium." Despite the comedy of their tiny size, there is still a touch of fear to the fairies, with reminders that Mab is really a succubus.
Robert Herrick followed suit in the 1620s and 1630s with many fairy poems. Oberon and Mab feature together in "The beggar to Mab, the Fairy Queen," and in the rather disturbing "Oberon's Palace." As in Nymphidia, there is an eerie sense with these fairies, whose palaces are crafted from the body parts of humans, animals and insects.
In following years, Mab continued to be a hit, appearing as Oberon's consort in:
Newcastle and Randolph give the longest descriptions of Mab and Oberon; the others are just brief mentions, with no explanations necessary, for Mab was familiar enough to their audiences as the Fairy Queen. As time went on, Mab continued to be instantly recognizable. She was mentioned in Peter Pan, for instance. Such is Mab's ubiquity that she could be the ancient, evil queen of the Old Magic in the 1998 TV miniseries Merlin, while also the benevolent monarch of the pixies in the 1999 film FairyTale: A True Story.
On that note, back to Titania. After her adventure in A Midsummer Night's Dream, her history was much less busy than Mab's. She didn't capture the popular mind the way Mab did. There were a few exceptions. She was the fairy queen in Dekker's work "The Whore of Babylon" in 1607, and in The Changeling, a 1622 play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. She also appeared in the heavily Shakespeare-based masque "The Fairy Favour" by Thomas Hull (1766).
Like Mab, Titania apparently made it into at least some oral folklore. In Thomas Pennant’s 1772 book Tour in Scotland, and voyage to the Hebrides, Titania is identified not only as queen of fairies and wife of Oberon, but as the “ben-shi,” literally “fairy woman,” who gave the MacLeod clan a blessed Fairy Flag.
She made a comeback as centuries passed, not really becoming popular until around the Victorian era, when she began regaining her status as Oberon's consort in literature and other media. She appeared in Christoph Martin Wieland’s 1780 poem Oberon, based on both the Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Huon narrative. This influential poem was adapted several times, including into an opera. She was also in the comic opera A Princess of Kensington (1903).
This was also the era when Titania and Mab both began showing up in the same stories. There was some waffling over whether the two were interchangeable.
"We have noticed the general name given to the queen of the fairies, that of Titania; we must not forget that she was sometimes called Mab," according to Henry Christmas, writing in 1841. John Ogilvie's Imperial Dictionary (1859) concludes that Oberon's "wife's name was Titania or Mab." An article in the 1910 Fortnightly Review questioned if Titania and Mab were the same being or not, but seemed to tend towards "yes."
In 1847, in The People's Journal, W. Cooke Stafford suggested that Mab was queen of "dark spirits" of the night, and Titania rules the "superior intelligences" (?) who do not fear sunlight. This is the closest I've seen so far to Mab and Titania being queens of dark and light or whatever.
According to The Century Dictionary in 1895, "Titania, the fairy queen, is not the same person" as Mab. Even more audacious, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) listed Mab as “the faries’ [sic] midwife. Sometimes incorrectly called queen of the fairies."
On to Titania and Mab appearing in the same works:
The Sloane Manuscript 1727 (a 17th-century manuscript in the British Museum) includes a treatise on magic. Katharine Briggs quoted it describing the "treasures of the earth" as "florella, Mical, Tytan, Mabb lady to the queene." The queen whom "Mabb" serves may be Mical or Micol, who is called "regina pigmeorum" in the same book. Tytan and Mabb recall Titania and Mab. In particular, Titan, Titem and other variations were often invoked in grimoires.
In Thomas Hood's 1827 poem "The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies," both Mab and Titania make an appearance, and in 1876, both appeared in in the story "Titania's Farewell" in The Case of Mr Lucraft and Other Tales. In these tales, Mab is a queen, but apparently subordinate to Titania, who is the real queen bee. (Their positions are flipped in the 1913 play "A Good Little Devil" by Rosemond Gerard and Maurice Rostand, later turned into a film starring Mary Pickford.)
Titania and Mab were at odds for perhaps the first time in Camilla Crosland's 1866 children's book The Island of the Rainbow. Here Queen Titania is the wise and gracious queen of the fairies, while "Quean Mab" is a "little spiteful mischievous old Fairy - who, by the bye, must herself have put it into the heads of mortals that she was a Queen." Mab is actually on trial when she appears in the book. Of course by this point in time, being written for children, any good fairies must distance themselves from traditional fairy activities of spoiling milk or making mischief. Still, it seems a little ironic when Mab is the one accused of these crimes, while Puck is a humble servant to the morally upright Titania.
So what about Titania and Mab as leaders of opposing forces?
I think the idea has its basis in a new movement towards classifying all these folktales. Researchers in the 19th and 20th centuries - like William Butler Yeats, Wirt Sikes, and Katharine Mary Briggs - became concerned with categorizing fairies. This moved into fiction, as authors began breaking up fairies into categories. Good and evil. Light and dark. Seelie and unseelie (drawing on a Scottish fairy term meaning essentially "blessed people"). Or summer and winter.
As for Titania and Mab being the leaders: I tried to track this idea through published books. Here is what I have found:
The idea of opposing fairy courts known as Summer and Winter or Seelie and Unseelie has also become very prevalent in recent literature. I can think of multiple YA novel examples from the past 20 years.
Another common idea is that Mab was the first fairy queen, and that Titania is her successor. This has appeared in extra-canonical materials for the 90's TV show Gargoyles, as well as the novels God Save the Queen by Mike Carey (2009) and The Treachery of Beautiful Things by Ruth Long (2013).
To sum up: Titania and Mab as counterparts or enemies is a new idea. Both were created by Shakespeare around the same time, but served very different roles. They weren't even opposing roles - just unique. Titania, inspired by classical Greek goddesses, was a queenly nature deity. Mab, based on stereotypical English midwives and the idea of the nightmare demon, was a microscopic hag who delivered dreams instead of babies.
However, unlike Titania Mab entered popular culture from the beginning. She tied in better with fashions of the time. She even usurped Titania's place as Oberon's bride; he was the archetypal fairy king even before Shakespeare, and Mab became the archetypal fairy queen. I wonder if even royal themes at the time at something to do with it - Mab's name is the same number of syllables as Queen Anne, and one of Mab's most important early appearances was in a play for Anne. Meanwhile, Titania made a comeback around the time of Queen Victoria.
Today, the idea of the two Shakespearean fairy queens as rivals has been popularized by authors like Jim Butcher. Titania, who appears in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and who proclaims "The summer still doth tend upon my state" is the clear front-runner for summer (even though she really oversees all seasons). For a counterpart, why not Mab, who is equally Shakespearean and has associations with nightmares and mischief?
Do you know of other sources where Titania and Mab are either the same person, or diametrically opposed? Leave a comment!
None of Shakespeare's stories are original. They are all products of their time. The character of his fairy king Oberon, for instance, can be traced to cultural trends of the time. Alberich was originally a character from German mythology, a treasure-guarding dwarf who opposes Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied - an epic from around 1200, based in oral tradition. He was a prominent character aiding the hero of the epic Ortnit, around 1230. In Norse his name was Alfrikr, and in Old French, Alberon or Auberon.
As Oberon, he appeared in Huon of Bordeaux, a work possibly completed from around 1216 to 1268. Here, he is a hunchback, three feet tall, but very beautiful (having been cursed by a miffed fairy godmother, not unlike Sleeping Beauty). He rules a city named Momur and comes to the aid of the hero, Huon. This chanson de geste, or song of heroic deeds, was widely circulated, translated and adapted throughout Europe. Oberon was occasionally connected to Morgan le Fey at this point in his history. In the Roman d'Auberon, a later addition to the Huon story, he was her son.
A 1543 translation by John Bourchier popularized the story of Huon in English. There was also a play adaptation, Hewen of Burdoche, produced in 1593, which would have popularized the name.
In 1589, the writer Edmund Spenser presented Queen Elizabeth with the first three books of his master work, The Faerie Queene. Spenser represented Elizabeth in several flatteringly portrayed nobles and heroines. One of them is the fairy queen Gloriana, daughter of Oberon (who, in this allegory, stands for Henry VIII). The book even references Huon in connection.
Then there was "The Scottish Historie of James the Fourth, Slaine at Flodden Entermixed with a Pleasant Comedie, Presented by Oboram King of Fayeries." This play was written about 1590 by Robert Greene, but not printed until 1598. The title is apparently a mistake, as the fairy king is referred to as "Oberon" or "Aster Oberon" in the actual play. [EDIT 8/13/2020 – Upon further research, “Aster” is an error originating in the stage directions and should be “After.” Oberon does not have an extra forename in the play itself.]
In 1591, on tour, Elizabeth was greeted by a performance formally titled “The Honorable Entertainment given to the Queen’s Majesty in a Progress, At Elvetham in Hampshire, by the Right Honorable Earl of Hereford." This was a masque, a form of courtly entertainment heavy on flattery, addressed to Elizabeth as she watched. In the play, classical Greek gods and nymphs practically worshiped her. Amidst dancing, music, and elaborate set pieces, an actress portraying Fairy Queen "Aureola" presented Elizabeth with a flowery garland from "Auberon, the Fairy King."
In 1595 or 1596, Shakespeare brought out A Midsummer Night's Dream, making Oberon and Titania the quintessential fairy royalty forevermore.
Or Oberon, anyway. Although he was apparently firmly fixed in people's minds as the Fairy King, it seems this may not have been due to Shakespeare. Titania did not yet enjoy the same status. While other poets did use Oberon as a fairy king, they often gave him a different queen.
The play "The Fairy Pastoral" by William Percy (1603), intended for King James, portrays Oberon ruling over a realm named Obera, overseeing other fairy princes like Orion and princesses like Hypsiphyle. There are strong similarities to A Midsummer Night's Dream in plot and setting as well as some lines. But Oberon's wife is Chloris - a fairy queen "stickt with Flowres all her body." Chloris is the name of a Greek nymph or goddess associated with flowers and spring.
In 1627, Michael Drayton's poetry including the comedic Nymphidia made Oberon truly comedic - an ineffectual bumbler of microscopic size whose wife Mab is running around behind his back. The fae here are no longer threatening even in the slightest. Notice that Mab is still Shakespearean, although from a different play. Drayton may have used the name of a different Shakespeare fairy because it fit better with the cutesy monosyllabic names he chose for his fairy court - "Fib and Tib, and Pinch and Pin, Tick and Quick, and Jil and Jin, Tit and Nit, and Wap and Win." Also, Shakespeare's Mab better fits with the extreme miniature of the Nymphidia poem. Mab was by far the most popular fairy queen in the years following Shakespeare.
In other cases, Oberon appeared with no apparent wife in tow. As "Obron," he shows up in "The Parliament of Bees," a poem by John Day written probably between 1608 and 1616 and published in 1641. Here he is not only king of the fairies, but also ruler over the bees. Given that he goes fox-hunting, he is evidently larger than Draytonian fae.
Oberon - or “Obreon” - featured in a tract titled "Robin Goodfellow: his mad prankes, and merry Jests." Here, his only apparent significant other was an unnamed human woman, with whom he fathered Robin Goodfellow. Although the surviving copy was dated 1628, collector James Halliwell-Phillipps believed that it had been printed before, and that it could predate Shakespeare’s writing.
Laura Aydelotte points out that in Germanic epics, the Huon cycle, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, common threads connect Alberich and Oberon. The character consistently serves to bring lovers together, and is also frequently said to be from India or the East. Oberon's mixed role lets him play a kindly helper, a trickster, and a regal otherworldly ruler.
However, Oberon had another side as well. Even while used in popular English literature - often to flatter or parody English royalty - a near-identical name appeared in books of witchcraft, as Oberion or Oberyon.
Monk-turned-amateur diviner William Stapleton confessed to calling up the spirits of "Andrew Malchus, Oberion and Inchubus" in hopes of finding buried treasure. Oddly, Oberion refused to speak when summoned; Stapleton claimed this was because the spirit was already bound to Cardinal Wolsey. The date of Stapleton's trial is unclear, but he lived until 1544. In 1568, Sir William Stewart of Luthrie and Sir Archibald Napier faced charges of (among other things) calling upon a spirit named Obirion to divine the future. Emma Wilby listed "Oberycon" as the name of a witch's familiar in her book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits.
In 1613, a pamphlet was printed entitled "The severall notorious and lewd Cousenages of John West and Alice West" - a couple of con artists who duped people with promises of riches, not unlike a Nigerian Prince scam except their Nigerian Prince was fairy royalty, sometimes portrayed by accomplices in costume. Oberon's name is mentioned as king of the fairies in Chapter 2, and the Wests' targets seemed eager to believe that Oberon and his queen were both real and ready to contact them.
One grimoire that mentioned Oberion was the Liber Officiorum Spirituum, or Book of the Office of Spirits, dating to the 1500s. When drawn, he sometimes resembled a kind of floating genie. He was sometimes accompanied by a fairy queen named Mycob - as in Sloane MS 3824 (1649), where they are the "supreme head" over "Those Kind of Terrestrial spirits ... vulgarly Called of all people generally Fairies or Elves." There are also seven "sisters" who some readers have interpreted as Oberion and Mycob's daughters. Might Mycob be a form of Mab? Perhaps, but the name also appears as Micol or Michel. Tytan or Titem, similar to Titania, is also an occasional personage in these grimoires.
Oberion, who appeared crowned and regal, knew secrets of the natural world - including where to locate buried treasure or turn invisible. In Arthur Gauntlet's grimoire, from the 17th century, he had lieutenants: Scorax, Carmelyon, Caberyon, and Seberyon. Spellings abounded. Spelling variants were common. By 1796 in the Wellcome MS 4669, a French manuscript, Arthur Gauntlet's spells appeared with Oberion replaced by Ebrion (see Rankine, Grimoire).
However, this Oberion sometimes seems more associated with demons than with fairies. In one manuscript, Oberion is listed with Lucipher and Satan on one page, while Mycob and fairy beings are kept to a separate page. Oberion is the pivotal point where demons are followed by fairies.
Contrast the Oberon of A Midsummer Night's Dream, who - when warned that dawn approaches and the evil spirits and ghosts are hurrying to hide from the light - responds rather defensively, "But we are spirits of another sort." He does not fear the light. He's a powerful being with control over nature, but not an evil spirit. Similarly, Huon's Oberon must specifically say, "I was never devyll nor yll creature." He also speaks such Christian exclamations as "God keepe you all!" Upon his death, he is "borne in to paradyce by a great multytude of angelles sent fro our lord Iesu chryst." Both Oberons are carefully distanced from sorcery and witchcraft. If not saintly Christians, they are at least good spirits.
There was interplay between the fairies of witchcraft and the fairies of literature. They may have diverged, but still continued to influence each other. Oberon/Oberion is not the only fairy to also sort of appear in spells. Numerous variations of Robin (as in Robin Goodfellow) appeared as the names of reputed witches’ familiars. Emma Wilby connected a number of familiars to fairies – such as Hob/Hobgoblin, Browning/Brownie), and Piggin/Pigwiggin.
Sybillia (also Sibyl or Sebile) was a sorceress, fay and temptress in medieval legend from Britain to Italy. She even appears in the Huon cycle as Syble, one of Oberon's subject rulers. Like Oberon, she also made it quite a few grimoires. Sibylia was listed among fairy queens by Reginald Scot in the Discovery of Witchcraft (1584); Scot even parodied a spell to summon this fairy lady.
Overall, my favorite thing that I've learned about Oberon while working on this post is the probably origin of his name. Alberich or Alfrikr translates to alf (elf) + ric (ruler or mighty). Oberon is a French diminutive. So the archetypal fairy king has a name that translates literally to "Fairy King."
"The Name of the Helper" is the title assigned to the Aarne-Thompson type 500 family of fairytales. The main character is usually a young woman, confronted with an impossible task of spinning. She must produce a ridiculous amount of thread, or even spin it into gold. There’s no way for her to do it, until she receives otherworldly help from a strange being. However, she must now guess this creature’s name (hence the title of the tale type). Rumpelstiltskin is the most famous example, but there are many others, usually nonsense names, perhaps with a rhyme or repetitive rhythm. In Celtic countries, the helper’s name nearly always includes the syllable “tot” or “trot.” I have a theory on where this syllable came from, but first, the list:
Habetrot is interesting in that she has a whole group of associates, one of whom has the name Scantlie Mab (harkening to Queen Mab). There's a possibly connection from Habetrot to Holle, Perchta and other European goddesses associated with spinning. This goddess, who appears in many variants with hundreds of names, can be benevolent or fearsome. She usually travels at night with a group of attendants, entering houses where offerings of food should be waiting. She might be a tutelary guardian who helps women spin, or a bogeywoman who punishes them for spinning on the wrong day. The very word "fairy" might be tied to "fata" or "fate," beings in mythology who spun the thread of life.
In French, a related character bore the name Dame Abonde or Lady Habundia, meaning "abundance." She and her attendants, the good ladies, entered houses at night.
Follow this, and a character like Habetrot must be a deity associated with textiles, who leads a group of otherworldly ladies, and watches over young women.
However, the majority of the Tot/Trot family is male. They cannot be tutelary goddesses. They also tend to be malevolent. Habetrot's name may be a later addition to the Habetrot story, which is less related to Rumpelstiltskin and instead belongs to the family of "The Three Aunts" (Norway) and "The Three Spinning Women" (Germany). In these stories, rather than any baby-stealing plot, several strange-looking but kind old women (three of them, just like the Fates in Greek myth) help the heroine attain a happy marriage and a leisurely life. They ask nothing in return for their help, and remain unnamed, as there is no need to find out their names. There is a scene where the girl overhears Habetrot's name, but it's really not important to the story. Incidentally, "Habetrot" resembles "Habundia" with the "trot" sound added on, and both are benevolent fairy ladies who lead a train of followers.
Plenty of people have already looked at the "tot/trot" family. W. B. Yeats' "Even Trot" (who, like Habetrot, is benevolent) gives a very literal and moralizing translation: "Go steadily along, but let your step be even; stop little; keep always advancing; and you'll never have cause to rue the day that you first saw Even Trot."
Sir John Rhys, inspecting Welsh variants, connected Sili go Dwyt to seily or seely - happy or blessed - connected with the Seelie Court or seely wights, old fairy names. Although "go Dwyt" could literally mean tidy, Rhys suggests that the dwt came from twt or tot. Although Trwtyn-Tratyn is a masculine name, Rhys finds the word trwtan or trwdlan to mean a deformed serving maid. From Gwarwyn-a-throt, he translated gwarwyn as "white-necked" and throt as connected to trot. Trot and twt, says Rhys, are not native Welsh words - but I don't think he offers any real theory on what they do mean.
R. Morton Nance did have at theory. Based on Mollyndroat possibly meaning a druid's servant, Nance suggested that the Icelandic Gillitrut means "druid's gillie" (a ghillie being a servant). So a droat, trot or trut is a druid.
I would take a different approach. Going back to England, the Denham Tracts list of monsters and bogeys includes two intriguing names: gally-trots and tutgots.
A gally-trot is a frightening apparition in Suffolk folklore. Edward Moor wrote that it was an apparition known in Woodbridge, which sometimes appeared as a white dog as big as a bullock, and chased people. It especially haunted a place called Bathslough. Moor declares that he "can make nothing of the name; nor much of the story." (Suffolk Words and Phrases, 1823). "Gally" means to scare or worry (hence the word gally-beggar, or scarecrow). The “trot” part is less clear – perhaps because it runs at people. One English bogey-spirit of the “black dog” family is called Padfoot for the sound of its walk, so maybe this is a common idea.
Could there be a connection from the gally-trot to Gilitrutt?
As for tutgots: Tut-gut, along with tut and tom-tit, were Lincolnshire words for a hobgoblin. Tutgot may be interpreted as tut-gotten, or taken away by the fairies and goblins. (Brogden, Provincial Words and Expressions current in Lincolnshire.) (So if a tom-tit is a goblin, is Tom Tit Tot literally named "Goblin" by this reckoning? That seems a bit on-the-nose for a story about an impossible guessing game.)
The English Dialect Dictionary quotes a story where a man was spooked on the road by a glimpse of something white, and remarked, "I thowt I'd happened of a tut" - or, "I thought I'd run into a tut." Pishey Thompson, in The History and Antiquities of Boston, mentions a "hobgoblin, or sprite" known as the "Spittal Hill tut" who took the form of a horse, and would harass and chase away anyone who passed by Spittal Hill. It might have been the site of a murder, or maybe the creature was guarding treasure.
So then, a tut or trot is a bogey-beast, a white apparition which takes animal form and chases people. In the case of both the gally-trot and the Spittal Hill tut, there is a particular place which it likes to haunt. The Spittal Hill tut in particular lives at a hill where either a body or treasure could be buried, like a burial mound.
You might say that the Rumpelstiltskin fairy also has a particular haunt; the hero must find out the name by following the fairy back to his or her home, usually out in a forsaken wild place and often subterranean. Habetrot lives in a cavern and Titty Tod beneath a fairy mound. Was the tut or the trot a hobgoblin which inspired these characters?
Is this a fairy name with a forgotten root? Where does the shared ancestor lie in all these names? Two suggestions appear to me.
One is that it is derived from "tot," a word for a little child, which may come from Scottish. Maybe it is related to the Icelandic word tottr, or dwarf. Compare also the Danish name Tommeltot, used for the Danish thumbling. (In England, Tom Thumb and the possibly related Tom Tumbler appear as monsters in Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), and Tom Thumb in his earliest appearances is associated with fairyish and demonic traits.)
Tom Tit Tot is close to the bird name tomtit, which itself is a shortened version of "tom titmouse." One sense of the word "tit," like "tot," is used for anything small, and is a common name for small birds. So then, perhaps, Tom Tit Tot means Tom Little Little. The character in question is "a small little black thing with a long tail." That would fit, as would the frequent description of Rumpelstiltskin characters as little men and little women.
But in some cases, like Mollyndroat's, the Rumpelstiltskin figure is a giant. That doesn't fit.
Maybe trot is the way to go instead. "Totter" also means an uneven walk, bringing "tot" back in. Could this be a reference to the fairy having a strange walk?
There are many different types of otherworldly creatures in folklore and myth, but there is a consistent thing about their feet. They have deformed legs, backwards feet, or inverted knees. The Brazilian Curupira and Ghanaian mmoatia are described with feet affixed backward. The henkies of Shetland and the Orkney Islands were trolls who would "henk," or limp, when they danced. Fauns of Greek mythology were goat-legged and hoofed. They lent this trait to Puck and to popular depictions of the Devil. Also from Greek myth, sirens were depicted as everything from human-headed birds to women with bird feet. This is another surviving trait. Jacob Grimm mentioned a group of dwarfs who wore long cloaks covering their feet; when someone sprinkled ashes on the ground to catch their footprints, it was discovered that the dwarves had the feet of ducks and geese.
Jacob Grimm, seeking evidence of a Germanic goddess named Berhta or Perchta, found many variants on the name "Bertha with the foot" - "Berte as grans pies," "Baerte met ten breden voeten," as well as the idea of a goddess-like figure with a bird's foot. The goddess Perchta is often described with one mismatched foot - either too large, or the foot of a goose. Grimm decided that "It is apparently a swan maiden's foot, which as a mark of her higher nature she cannot lay aside (any more than... the devil his horse hoof) and at the same time the spinning-woman's splayfoot that worked the treadle."
A god or goddess associated with spinning might very well have odd feet and an unusual gait. Rumpelstiltskin types are often described to walk around or pedal at a wheel when spinning. Dancing is also a frequent activity for them. Rumpelstiltskin is caught saying his name while "jumping about as if on one leg." Terrytop and his friends dance with a clattering noise "as if they had on each foot a pewter platter." The kindlier Habetrot is found "walking backwards and forwards" spinning with her distaff. She and all of her attendants are deformed from the work of spinning nonstop all their lives.
In "The Three Spinning Women," “[t]he first [woman] had a broad flat foot, the second one had such a large lower lip that it hung down over her chin, and the third one had a broad thumb.” They attribute these traits to peddling, licking and twisting thread.
So the name might be based on "tot," for a little creature, a dwarf ("tottr"). Or it could be "trot" or "totter," meaning that the creature is an otherworldly being with strange feet or one splayfoot. Or something entirely different! Somehow I doubt that it is derived from "druid," but I could be wrong. There's also a German nightmare spirit named a "drude" or "trute." The word "trot" has been used to mean old woman.
I, for one, enjoy the idea that the tot or tut was a now-forgotten English hobgoblin, and that was how people came up with the names of Tom Tit Tot, Habetrot, the gally-trot, and others. Being "tutgot," or taken by tuts, was a worrying prospect, and indeed, Terrytop and Tom Tit Tot are eager to carry off young maidens for dark purposes. Tut or trot would be a root word, much like Puck with Puck-hairy and nisse-puk, and Hob with Hobgoblin, hobby-lantern and hobbit. Incidentally, the roots of both Puck and Hob are mysterious, too ancient to truly determine.
However, I try to be wary of tying words together based on a surface resemblance, so I'll leave it at the basics. There is a widespread folktale type where a fairy's name must be uncovered. In Celtic countries that name usually includes the stem "tot," "trot," "top," "tod," or something similar, to the point where this concept has merged into other stories - like Habetrot, who is quite different from Rumpelstiltskin, and Gwarwyn a Throt, whose story is otherwise just random antics of a brownie-like house fairy.
Despite the fact that this fairy is associated with spinning - traditionally a feminine activity - he is generally male. He is also generally evil, wanting to steal away human women and children. If female, the character is slightly more likely to be benevolent—perhaps bleeding into the archetype of Perchta and Holle—but that's not a hard and fast rule.
The Three Little Pigs is one of the most iconic fairytales, instantly recognizable in any list. But where did it come from? In fact, the earliest known version of the story actually features not pigs, but pixies.
This story, Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 124, resembles tales like "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids" (ATU 123) and "Little Red Riding Hood" (ATU 333) where a predator tries to gain access to its prey's home through trickery or force. The listener identifies with a child like Red Riding Hood, or a domesticated animal like the goats or pigs. Sometimes the victim escapes with a clever trick. In other versions, he or she is gobbled up whole, and may or may not escape the wolf's belly.
However, the three pigs are sort of latecomers.
In 1853, an untitled story about a fox stalking a group of pixies was published in English forests and forest trees, historical, legendary, and descriptive. The story was also recorded in “The Folk-Lore of Devonshire” in Fraser's Magazine vol. 8 (1873). The pixies in the fox story live in an oddly domestic colony; two who dwell in wooden and stone houses are eaten. The fox, in search of prey, knocks at each door and calls "Let me in, let me in" before breaking the house open. However, a clever third pixie lives in an iron house which the fox can't break into. At the end, the fox finally captures the pixy in a box. However, the pixy uses a magical charm to trick him into switching places, and the fox dies.
This is the earliest known version of the story. So how did we get to pigs?
[Edit 3/23/21: J. F. Campbell's Popular Tales of the West Highlands, first published around 1860, mentions the pig story. "There is a long and tragic story which has been current amongst at least three generations of my own family regarding a lot of little pigs who had a wise mother, who told them where they were to build their houses, and how, so as to avoid the fox. Some of the little pigs would not follow their mother's counsel, and built houses of leaves, and the fox got in and said, "I will gallop, and I'll trample, and I'll knock down your house," and he ate the foolish, little, proud pigs; but the youngest was a wise little pig, and, after many adventures, she put an end to the wicked fox when she was almost vanquished, bidding him look into the caldron to see if the dinner was ready, and then tilting him in headforemost."]
In 1877, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine featured William Owens' article "Folk-Lore of the Southern Negroes," including the story of "Tiny Pig." Seven pigs are hunted by a fox, who goes to each of their houses and asks entrance. The pigs each reply in rhyme, "No, no, Mr. Fox, by the beard on my chin! You may say what you will, but I'll not let you in." The fox proceeds to blow down each house and eat the occupant. Only the seventh one, Tiny Pig, has built a strong stone house, and the fox finds that he cannot blow it or tear it down. The fox attempts to enter through the chimney, but Tiny Pig has a fire waiting for him.
In an odd note, Owens compares "Tiny Pig" to an Anglo-Saxon tale called "The Three Blue Pigs." He implies that this was the source for the African-American tale. He gives no source for this story, but it seems he expected his readers to recognize it. However, Thomas Frederick Crane, a collector of Italian tales, seemed baffled by the reference and wrote that he was unable to find the tale.
The tale seems to have been strongly present in African-American folklore of the time. In addition to this appearance in Lippincott's Magazine, Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation by Joel Chandler Harris (1883) featured "The Story of the Pigs." Five build houses for themselves from "bresh," sticks, mud, planks, and rock. Brer Wolf sweet-talks and lures each one, coaxing them to open the doors of their respective homes. In this way, he devours them one by one. Only the Runt sees through his deception. In a scene reminiscent of both Red Riding Hood's dialogue with a disguised wolf, and the Seven Kids' protests that the wolf doesn't resemble their mother, Runt sees through each of Brer Wolf's claims that he's one of her siblings. Again, there is the ending with the chimney and the pig's waiting fire. A Harris story published later, "The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf," told a similar narrative with Brer Rabbit as the protagonist.
"The Three Goslings" appeared in Thomas Frederick Crane's Italian Popular Tales in 1885. This is another close variation on the story, but with geese rather than pigs. Here we find the wolf blowing down houses. Ultimately, the third gosling pours boiling water into the wolf's mouth to kill him, and then cuts open his stomach to free her sisters. (I'm not sure why the boiling water didn't hurt them.) Crane collected this from Tradizioni popolari veneziane raccolte by Dom. Giuseppe Bernoni, vol. 3 (c. 1875-77). He also included a story called "The Cock," which similarly featured a wolf blowing down animals' houses (in this case built of feathers).
Our modern famous trio of pigs can be traced back to James Orchard Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes of England (1886). The tale was titled "The Story of the Three Little Pigs." Here is the final pig living in a brick house. Here are the rhyming couplets with the wolf calling out, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in" and huffing and puffing houses in. A few scenes, such as the wolf trying to lure out the pig and the pig duping him, are identical to scenes in the pixie story. As in the Italian stories, the wolf blows down the houses, and as in the African-American versions, the ending has the wolf's descent through the chimney. (However, the pig boils him and eats him, reminding one of the Italian gosling's boiling pot of water.) The British version featuring the pigs gained popularity through Joseph Jacobs' English Fairy Tales (1890), which cited Halliwell. Another version showed up in Andrew Lang's Green Fairy Book (1906).
Some African and Middle-Eastern versions tell the same story with different animals, such as sheep or goats. In some areas, human main characters seem more popular, as in the Moroccan tale of Nciç (Scellés-Millie, Paraboles et contes d’Afrique du Nord, 1982). A sultan and his seven sons travel to Mecca, but one by one the sons lose courage and build houses - one with walls of honey, another with walls of date paste. The seventh and smallest son Nciç builds an iron house and faces off against a ghoul.
The story of the fox and the pixies remains an outlier. It is the first known tale to introduce the now-familiar framework of the Three Little Pigs. However, it is also oddly rare. Pigs, fowl, goats, and humans all star in similar tales, but I've never encountered another version with pixies.
And what exactly makes foxes a natural enemy of pixies? The 1873 article in Fraser's Magazine remarks that "There is a very curious connection between the pixies and the wild animals of the moor, especially with the fox, which features in many local stories. These turn frequently on a struggle in craft and cunning between the fox and the pixie." However, the only story cited is this one - not exactly a large sample size - and the author admits that the story of the pixies living in individual houses of iron, etc., is atypical.
Meanwhile, in the other stories recorded in English Forests, pixies are "merry wicked sprites" who torment horses, lead humans astray in the woods, and steal babies. These are not cute winged fairies. They appear as "large bundles of rags," or occasionally tiny sprites dressed in filthy rags. Rather than being harmed by iron like some folkloric fae, they are miners and metalworkers. In one story, they are apparently immune to gunfire ("they were not to be harmed by weapon of 'middle earth'").
In the fox story, however, they are hapless creatures easily devoured by a woodland animal. The only pixy-ish thing they do is at the very end, when the final survivor uses an unspecified "charm" to entrap the fox.
I believe the answer is lies in a confusion between similar words. The word "pixy" is close to "pig" - and that's before you get into related words like puck or pug. One variation is pigsies or pigseys.
Pigsie is a Devonshire term for pixie. The story of the fox and the pixies is from Dartmoor, in Devon.
The pixie version could have arisen through a misinterpretation of the animal pig (or piggie) as the supernatural creature pigsie. If it was originally about pigs, that would explain why similar tales frequently feature animal heroes, and the same tale was widespread with pig protagonists even on the other side of an ocean. It would also explain why the Dartmoor tale's pixies act so unpixylike and helpless, with only one mention of magic thrown in at the end almost as an afterthought.
I can only think of a couple of versions of The Three Little Pigs which feature fairies as protagonists, and they are modern take-offs. In 1996, a book titled Feminist Fairy Tales by Barbara Walker featured a parody of the Three Little Pigs as "The Three Little Pinks." In this fable about girl power, a misogynistic gardener named Wolf comes at odds with three flower fairies who share the task of painting flowers pink. I found this parody less than impressive. But it's still intriguing in how it cycles - perhaps unknowingly - back to one of the earliest published versions of the tale.
Oh, and there was an early 20th century version of "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids" which featured a goblin and seven little breeze spirits. That was "The Gradual Fairy" by Alice Brown, published in 1911.
I do wonder about the "Three Blue Pigs" tale mentioned by William Owens, which could potentially date back before the tale of the fox and the pixies. Perhaps it didn't survive. That would be a fascinating find, though.
Brownies and boggarts are both terms for household spirits, fairies that haunt the home. And sometimes, they're one and the same. An angered brownie will stop cleaning and doing chores around the house, and become a boggart, causing mischief and destruction. I happen to like this idea... but is it accurate?
In folklore, there are many classes of spirits, including household spirits. There are brownies, hobgoblins, hobs, kobolds, dobbies, silkies, and countless others. They are usually benevolent, helping around the house as long as they are discreetly rewarded with a simple bowl of milk or other food. Clothing is a more perilous gift and usually results in them leaving. (This is where you get "Master has given Dobby a sock!")
Boggarts are a wilder variation. They are close to bogeymen - notice that "bog" root syllable, related to "bug," "pug," "puck" and "pooka." Some haunt outdoor places. Others are attached to particular houses and families, and behave like poltergeists. Like other house spirits, they are frequently the ghosts of the deceased.
House-spirits could absolutely change with the tides. The German house-spirit or kobold, Hinzelmann, was helpful and playful (although with a mischievous streak), but sometimes behaved as a poltergeist - driving off suitors who visited the family's daughters, for instance. Another, Hödeken, was "kind and obliging" but also strangled an insolent servant boy and cooked him into a soup. From there on, he became so violent that he had to be exorcised. And still another, Goldemar or Vollmar, had a similar escapade of cooking and devouring a human who insulted him.
In a Danish family of tales like "The Nis and the Boy," a house-spirit called a nis has an ongoing rivalry with a boy who mocked him. This is ATU Type 7010, The House-Fairy's Revenge for Being Teased. In "The Penitent Nis," the nis believes that the humans neglected to put butter in his offering of porridge, so he kills their cow. However, he then finds butter at the bottom of his bowl. To make things right, he leaves treasure in the barn. The same thing happens in the Swedish tale "The Missing Butter," except that here the tomte steals a cow from the neighbors to replace the one he killed.
In Popular Tales of the West Highlands vol. 2, there is a story of a "bauchan" which annoyed and tormented a man named Callum, but which also often aided him. It might steal a prized handkerchief or cause other trouble, but was always helpful in a pinch. It brought a load of much-needed firewood through a snowstorm, and accompanied Callum to America and helped him start a farm there (pp. 91-93).
In British Goblins, Wirt Sikes - discussing the household goblin called the Bwbach - remarks that "The same confusion in outlines which exists regarding our own Bogie and Hobgoblin gives the Bwbach a double character, as a household fairy and as a terrifying phantom."
Even Shakespeare’s Puck, Robin Goodfellow, or Hobgoblin fits this description. Puck is best known for his mischief and messes – he “frights the maidens,” keeps butter from churning or beer from foaming, and “mislead[s] night-wanderers, laughing at their harm.” But he also bestows good luck and does housework: "I am sent with broom before, to sweep the dust behind the door." These traits were common for Puck or Robin Goodfellow whenever he appeared in chapbooks and ballads around this era. He’s equal parts will o’ the wisp, bogeyman, poltergeist and brownie.
But those are all different house spirits from different countries. The theme here was brownies and boggarts.
Despite often being ghosts and monsters, boggarts could be benevolent in their role as house-spirit. Lancashire Folk-lore (1882) mentions the "Boggart of Hackensall Hall," who appears as a horse. It did all the chores, but if a warm fire was not lit on the hearth for it, it became furious and noisy.
In Howard Pyle's story "Farmer Griggs's Boggart" (1885), a boggart is "a small imp that lives in a man's house... doing a little good and much harm." Here, a boggart enters the house and gains the family's welcome by promising to do the housework, and at least at first, he really does help. Only later does his true malevolent nature rear its head.
Nor were brownies always good. John Brand wrote in 1703 that "Not above forty or fifty years ago, every family had a brownie, or evil spirit." Katharine Briggs mentioned a Scottish tale in which a human girl kills a sinister brownie, and is in turn killed by his mother Maggie Moloch. Meg Mullach has elsewhere been recorded as a brownie's name. There is also a tale where a greedy farmer fired some of his staff, and Maggie became destructive and mischievous until he hired them back.
Why the connection specifically from brownies to boggarts? Maybe it's the alliterative sound. They lend themselves to association. In the same way, the similar "bogles" were mentioned alongside brownies in early fairy-related literature. In the preface to the Eneados, his translation of Virgil's Aeneid, the Scottish bishop Gawain Douglas wrote "Of brownyis and of bogillis faill this buke" - "of brownies and bogles full is this book." That was in 1513. Similarly, in Polwart's Last Flyting Against Montgomery (c. 1580s), we hear of "Bogles, Brownies, Gyre-carlings, and Gaists."
In Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, Volume 2, John Rhys calls the "Bwca'r Trwyn" (Bwca of the Nose) "both brownie and bogie in one." "Bogie" is the Welsh equivalent of "boggart." It follows a bwca, or house spirit, who becomes troublesome after his favorite human leaves and must be exorcised. concludes that "the brownie and the bogie reduce themselves here into different humours of the same uncanny being." I.e., there's overlap between two similar classes of fairy here. He adds, however, "Their appearance may be said to have differed . . . the bogie had a very long nose, while the brownie of Blednoch had only 'a hole where a nose should hae been.'"
Rhys also told a story where a servant girl, as a prank, put stale urine into the milk left out for the household's benevolent bwca. At this trick, he grew enraged and beat her, then left forever. (Rhys 593-594).
The English folklorist Katharine Mary Briggs seems to have been interested in this particular tale type of brownies gone bad. In The Personnel of Fairyland (1953), she collected a tale near-identical to that of the Bwca'r Trwyn, and titled it "From Brownie to Boggart." Here we are at last: brownies and boggarts explicitly identified as the same thing.
"...as a dog will sometimes grow mischievous and morose when it is unhappy, so the brownie gave himself over more and more to mischief until he was no better than a boggart." Briggs' titular character, fallen from house-cleaning grace, wreaks havoc with the farm animals, smashes dishes, and makes noise all night. Briggs throws in a unique description, telling us that the brownie "even grew a boggart's long, sharp nose."
In this book, Briggs was trying to establish various classes of fairy, and she selected certain names for those classes. Plenty of folklorists have done this as they tried to classify fae. In Briggsian taxonomy, it is simply that good house spirits are "brownies" and bad house spirits are "boggarts."
She was hardly the first to use "brownie" as a classification. Callum's bauchan, in 1860, was "a regular brownie." The story of Bwca'r Trwyn, with its brownies and bogies, was published in 1901. Briggs does, however, seem pivotal in pairing brownies with boggarts specificially. Her taxonomy shows up in her other books and articles as well. In The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, she identifies a ghostly "Silkie" who went from benevolent to poltergeisty as a case where a "Brownie had turned into a Boggart."
As always, with stuff of this nature, popular culture both feeds on it and influences it.
Juliana Horatia Ewing published a story titled "The Brownies" in 1865, which inspired the girl's club name. According to Ewing:
"The Brownies, or, as they are sometimes called, the Small Folk, the Little People, or the Good People, are a race of tiny beings who domesticate themselves in a house of which some grown-up human being pays the rent and taxes. . . They are little people, and can only do little things. When they are idle and mischievous, they are called Boggarts, and are a curse to the house they live in. When they are useful and considerate, they are Brownies, and are a much-coveted blessing."
It ultimately turns out that human children are the "brownies" and "boggarts." I remember being disappointed when I read it as a child, since it was sadly lacking in actual magic and turned out to just be a moral tale.
I think Ewing may indeed be the driving force here. I am not sure whether she originated this idea, but she definitely pushed it into the public eye. This story inspired the girls' club name, for one thing. It could have influenced Katharine Briggs as she picked out the names of her fairy classes.
The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, newly popularized the alter-ego approach. Thimbletack the brownie and sometime boggart first appeared in The Field Guide, published May 2003. The film adaptation made this even more explicit. Thimbletack would hulk out into a larger green version of himself, but could be instantly calmed down with food.
Another author who takes this tack is Mark Del Franco in his books Skin Deep (2009), Unperfect Souls (2010), and Face Off (2010), in which brownies are capable of temporarily "going boggart." It seems to be like entering a manic state and can happen easily, swapping between helpful and industrious and absolutely crazed.
So are brownies and boggarts the same thing?
As shown here, many stories show an angry house-spirit turn violent. Even the most benevolent fairy beings are still dangerous. However, I'd caution against sweeping claims that brownies and boggarts are traditionally two sides of the same coin. As far as I'm concerned, brownies and boggarts specifically are entirely separate ideas from different sources. A boggart is an English term dating to around the 1560s. A brownie is an originally Scottish term dating to around the 1510s. Juliana Horatia Ewing popularized them as two names for a Jekyll-and-Hyde-style creature, and Katharine Briggs continued that.
In folklore, you're more likely to find brownies, boggarts, kobolds, nisses, tomten, bogies and other beings that are simply ambiguous, capable of help or mischief without changing their names or appearances. Insult was the best way to turn a house spirit vindictive and cruel, but they also seemed to turn mischievous when left idle and bored. As Wirt Sikes said, these creatures - whatever they were called and wherever they showed up - always had a double nature. And they didn't need a double name. One name was enough to encompass both sides of their blurred identity.
The alter-ego boggart is still a cool idea. It's one of those concepts that is genuinely fun, so it gets adopted into more and more adaptations of folklore. One of my own stories-in-progress features brownies who transform into boggarts.
Last time, I looked at stories where fairies steal humans. The human dwells in Fairyland as a lover, an adopted child, a pet, or a servant. Sometimes the fairies leave a doppelganger in their place, so that no one will miss them. But there's another side to the coin: tales where humans steal fairies.
It's hard to say why fairies take humans. Storytellers give any number of reasons, or none at all. But it's usually pretty clear why humans take fairies.
In the tale of the selkie, swan wife, or fairy bride, a man sees an otherworldly being take off her magic cloak or garment. He steals it and holds it hostage so that she will stay with him as his bride. That's the most classic tale of a human stealing a fairy. Invariably, she gets her coat back and vanishes.
Sometimes rather than steal a coat, the man makes a deal with the otherworld, and there are conditions on their marriage. Again, he inevitably breaks the bargain. For instance, in some Welsh variants, the bargain may be that he never strike his fairy wife. He accidentally taps her one day without meaning to, and she vanishes forever.
Human women might win fairy men, too. In many versions of Tam Lin, the titular character is a human stolen away by the Fairy Queen. In at least one version, however, there's no mention of him ever being human. He introduces himself as "a fairy, lyth and limb."
Greed for Gold
In another widespread tale, a man catches a leprechaun or fairy and tries to threaten him into giving over his store of treasure. The fairy shows him where it's buried, under a certain tree or plant. The man marks the tree, perhaps with a scarf or marking, and runs home to fetch a shovel - but when he returns, the fairy is gone, and every tree bears an identical mark.
In the Cornish tale of "A Fairy Caught" or "Skillywidden," a human farmer captures a fairy child and treats him rather like a pet, while hoping to get fairy gold from him.
For even on their own, without magical gold, fairies are valuable. An 1851 news article from Ireland contains a mention of a supposed mermaid sighting. The reaction is telling: "It is a pity the crew could not catch her, as, in that case, the exhibition of such prodigy would make the fortune of all the fishermen on the shores."
Greed for Power
Hidden stores of gold are one thing; hostage potential and fairy magic are another. In the German tale of "The Wonderful Plough," a farmer manages to capture a fairy being in an iron pot. After a long captivity, he forces the fairy to give him a special plow that can be drawn easily through the fields.
This reminds one also of witches with familiar spirits and the concept of sorcerers summoning demonic familiars. An old English manuscript has a spell "To Call a Fairy," laying out the instructions and incantations for summoning a being called Elaby Gathen and binding it to one's will. Fairies are powerful servants - like Prospero's manservant Ariel in Shakespeare's play The Tempest.
This theme continues into modern literary tales. In "Bubblan," a 1907 tale by Swedish author Helena Nyblom, translated into English as "The Bubbly Boy," a family captures a merchild by accident. The father, a fisherman, holds him hostage to force the merfolk to send him good catches of fish.
The story of the Green Children of Woolpit is often regarded as a fairy story. Dating from 12th/13th-century accounts, two children with strange green skin, speaking an unknown language, showed up in the village of Woolpit. Both were taken in and baptized and eventually lost their green coloring. The boy died not long after baptism, but the girl adjusted to her new life, learned English, and eventually confided that she was from an underground land where everyone had green skin. This is a case where the fairy children are treated as kindly as their discoverers know how. The humans try to make the fairy children acclimate to human life.
Sometimes a human couple who long for a child wind up with a supernatural one instead. In Undine, a novella published in 1811, a fisherman and his wife adopt a water-sprite child and lovingly raise her as their own. This is a more benevolent relationship on the humans' part - but it's possibly implied that the water fairies killed their biological child. Their daughter, playing by the water, seemed "attracted by something very beautiful in the water" and sprang in, only to be lost. The very same day, a "beautiful little girl" - the titular Undine - arrives at the home of the grieving parents.
Another tale where humans willingly take in a merchild is the Chilean "Pincoya's Daughter," in Brenda Hughes' Folk Tales from Chile. And there's Ruth Tongue's "The Sea-Morgan's Baby" (presented as traditional) in which humans raise a mermaid foundling. This seems particularly frequent with water beings. Maybe it's Undine's influence.
Colman Grey, an English tale, is a lot like Skillywiddens, but the human family finds a starving fairy child and takes him in out of pity. Benevolent enough, but the storyteller mentions that the family was aware there was a chance for good fortune if they pleased the fairies.
The South African psikwembu or shikwembu are ancestral gods whose behavior and stature is similar to that of European fairies. In one story recorded by Henri A. Junod, a woman finds what she believes is a child lost in the woods, and carries him home. When she arrives, he cannot be removed from her back, and people realize his true nature. The priests do a ritual and the god disappears. However, although her actions were well-meaning, the woman dies as a result of the encounter.
Amusements, Pets or Curiosity
In the Suffolk tale of "Brother Mike," a farmer catches fairies in the act of disturbing his wheat stores and manages to capture one in his hat. Like the farmer in "Skillywidden," he takes the fairy home "for his children." In this case, however, the fairy pines away and dies in captivity.
In the cases of the fairy in "Brother Mike" and Skillywidden, the small size of the fairy is emphasized; in one, the fairy is captured in a hat, in the other, carried inside a "furze cuff" (furze cutters wore leather gloves to protect their wrists from furze needles). These tiny fairies, like dolls or kittens, are seen as appropriate to the child's sphere. They are dehumanized and treated like playthings or pets.
In some tales, a human picks up a fairy completely by accident. A fisherman may draw up a mermaid in his nets, for example. However, some humans choose to keep the fairy captive. Others immediately release them, such as in the German story of Krachöhrle, where a man realizes that he has not caught a badger but an elf, and quickly releases it from his trap. The same thing happens in an English tale from Lancashire.
Some stories don't give enough details to prove what's going through the human kidnapper's head.
A legend collected by W. H. D. Longstaffe in County Durham in England: a correspondent's grandmother had seen fairies wash their clothes in the River Tees, and one day encountered "a miniature girl, dressed in green, and with brilliant red eyes." The woman took the strange little child home and fed it. However, it is difficult to tell whether the woman was well-meaning or simply nosy and intrusive. The tiny fairy girl seemed "composed" when found, and when taken indoors, cried so much that the woman was "obliged" to put her back where she found her. The woman's willingness to return the fairy child makes it seem that she had good intentions in the end, but the fact that she knew exactly where to return her to, and the fact that she kept the fairy's stone chair, make me suspicious.
In Teutonic Mythology vol. 2, Jacob Grimm collected the tale of "The Water-Smith" or "The Smith in Darmssen Lake." In the middle of a certain lake is a strange blacksmith who sits in or on the water and works on whatever ploughs or tools are brought to him. (A fairy who works in iron? Intriguing.) One farmer, however, snatches the smith's son - a child who is completely hairy or rough - and raises him as his own. As an adult, the waterkind (water child) or ruwwen ("Shag" or "Roughy") leaves his human family in a story reminiscent of "The Young Giant" tale type, and returns to his watery home. The story feels oddly incomplete. It's not clear why the farmer kidnaps the Roughy; the action is sudden, impulsive and bizarrely cruel. After he does so, the blacksmith vanishes and never does work again. What did the farmer want? Curiosity, perhaps? Or maybe he wanted to use the child to start a rival to the blacksmith's business, or keep the smith's abilities for himself, or maybe he even believed he was helping the fairy child.
The list of why humans abduct fairies is shorter and less esoteric than why fairies abduct humans. It's easy to imagine what a human's reaction would be to finding a fairy in their power. There's also the possibility that a human can pick up a fairy by accident or mistake in a completely random encounter; I don't know that I've come across any stories where a fairy takes a human by accident.
What fascinates me is how much overlap there is.
In the end, we assign our own thoughts and rationales to the otherworld. We imagine for fairies the same motivations which we hold.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.