What is the Leanan Sidhe? You may have encountered descriptions of this creature as a type of female fairy which grants inspiration to male poets, but drains the life and vitality from them, like a vampire muse. However, this version comes directly from the work of the poet W. B. Yeats, who could be . . . creative with his use of folklore.
Here's what Yeats had to say in his 1888 book Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.
The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress), seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom.
...the Lianhaun shee lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.
Most mentions of the Leannan Sidhe since then (under various spellings) draw directly from Yeats' description of a vampire-like seductress. His account bears a strong resemblance to concepts like John Keats' 1819 poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci."
But Yeats' version doesn't necessarily coincide with the original Irish concept of this being.
A year before Yeats' book came out, Lady Jane Wilde described a significantly more benevolent version of the same creature. "The Leanan-Sidhe, or the spirit of life, was supposed to be the inspirer of the poet and singer, as the Ban-Sidhe was the spirit of death, the foreteller of doom. The Leanan-Sidhe sometimes took the form of a woman, who gave men valour and strength in the battle by her songs." Wilde lists Eodain the poetess as a Leanan-Sidhe. (Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887)
And this being was not always female. In the 1850s, the Transactions of the Ossianic Society spent quite some time laying out details of the "Leannan Sighe" as muses who would inspire bards, only to take them away after a shortened lifespan. The most interesting piece of evidence is an incantation from 1760, created to expel a male Leannan Sighe. Like an incubus, he was harassing a local woman named Sheela Tavish. The incantation, composed by a Catholic priest, is an odd mix of religions and mythologies. At one point he appeals to the fairy queen Aoibheall. The writers of the article suggested that the poem was satirical. They also mentioned meeting "many persons who pretended to be favored with the inspirations of a Leannan Sighe," these apparently being trick psychics.
Yeats' inspirations can be clearly seen here, but it is also clear that he has cherry-picked details. Most pertinently, the Leannan Sighe in traditional Irish lore can be male or female, but Yeats' version is always female.
The Lianhaun Shee is mentioned in John O'Hanlon's Irish Folk Lore (1870) and in The Journal of Science (1872). In Irish Folk Lore, there's reference to the being's fluid gender and to its habit of aiding men in battle (which apparently extends to bar fights).
In the 20th century, the Irish Folklore Commission collected an account of a healer named Eibhlin Ni Ghuinniola who was sometimes seen gathering herbs in the company of a male leannan si. (Crualaoich p. 189-191)
Fairy lovers could be helpful or harmful. In the myths of Fionn mac Cumhaill, Uchtdealbh was a jealous fairy who cursed her lover's wife. She would have been described as some variation of Leannan Sighe since that's literally what she was - a fairy lover. Biroge of the Mountain was a more benevolent spirit who aided the hero Cian.
The New English-Irish Dictionary defines the leannan si as "fairy, phantom, lover," "baleful influence," or "sickly complaining person."
There’s one odd side note in Evans-Wentz’s Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1902), among material collected from a tailor named Patrick Waters.
"The lunantishees are the tribes that guard the blackthorn trees or sloes; they let you cut no stick on the eleventh of November (the original November Day), or on the eleventh of May (the original May Day). If at such a time you cut a blackthorn, some misfortune will come to you." (p. 53)
This may make more sense when we recognize that several of Waters’ descriptions of fairy races were atypical. He described pookas as horse-dealers who invisibly visited racecourses, and referred to the “gentry,” or fairies, as coming from “the planets—according to my idea.” (So . . . aliens?) Evans-Wentz also seemed mystified by some of Waters’ accounts, including one Druid story that he was “unable to verify in any way” (p. 52).
The lunantishee is a little baffling, but comparing it to the many spellings of Leanan Sidhe, I think it's a version of the same name. If pookas are horse-dealers and the Gentry are aliens, then some shuffled attributes aren't that out-of-place.
The connection between fairies, blackthorns and sloes has some possible evidence. An 1894 edition of Transactions of the Folk-lore Society mentioned that the "good people" protect solitary bushes, and mentions specifically that it is unlucky to cut down a lone blackthorn bush. Similar plants like the white-thorn and hawthorn were also sacred to the fairies, in Ireland but also in other places such as Brittany. (Thiselton-Dyer, 1889)
In 1907, Hugh James Byrne mentioned that in Connaught "the fairies are supposed to blight the sloes and haws and other berries on November night." From The Folk-Lore Record in 1881 - in North Ireland it's said that "On Michaelmas Day [September-October] the devil puts his foot on the blackberries." Thomas Keightley mentions in The Fairy Mythology that when blackberries begin to decay, children are warned "not to eat them any longer, as the Pooka has dirtied on them." It's a cautionary story, using the threat of fairies to stop children from potentially eating spoiled berries. Similarly, Churn-Milk Peg was a British spirit who punished those who ate underripe nuts.
Both Yeats' Leanhaun Shee and Patrick Waters' lunantishee appear to be unique renditions of an Irish creature which is both complex and . . . actually rather simple. A fairy lover is a fairy who loves a human, who may be male or female, who may aid or harass humans. Yeats synthesized this into a species of vampiress. Waters, on the other hand, juggled different fairy traits and perhaps his own imagination, giving a hint of what fairy belief might have looked like around 1900 or so.
In her influential Dictionary of Fairies (1976), Katharine Briggs gave a list of charms that protected against fairies. This included several plants and herbs like four-leaved clover, St. John's wort, rowan and ash. These are all extremely well-known superstitions, showing up in books of fairy lore and plant lore alike.
But she also included two plants that are harder to find information on:
"Red verbena was almost equally potent, partly perhaps because of its pure and brilliant colour. Daisies, particularly the little field daisies, were protective plants, and a child wearing daisy chains was supposed to be safe from fairy kidnapping."
Briggs is the only authority to list these herbs in this way. Any later sources generally quote her. Botanist Roy Vickery wrote in 2010, citing Briggs, that accounts of the daisy chain superstition were "rather unconvincingly suggested."
So, can this information be backed up by any other collections of folklore?
Verbena, or vervain, is well-known as a ward against the supernatural, but the fact that Briggs describes it as red brings up questions. Verbena comes in multiple varieties and colors - lilac, blue, pink, white or red. Briggs placed great significance on the red color, making it the plant's most important quality: "Red was always a vital and conquering colour." She also mentions red thread and red berries as protective talismans (although red is also a favored fairy color). But the vervain native to England, the natural candidate for any fairy superstitions, would be Verbena officinalis. And this plant has small, pale, lilac or gray flowers. Briggs wrote elsewhere of verbena-related superstitions, which makes it especially odd that she fixates on the color red here.
Vervain was used in medicine as a healing herb, and also known in lore as the Holy Herb. The name, from Latin, literally means "sacred bough." The ancient Greeks and Egyptians associated it with deities such as Hera and Isis. In Irish lore, vervain was one of the "seven herbs of great value and power" (Wilde p. 182).
As pointed out by Hilderic Friend, vervain and other plants were sometimes supposed to be used by witches, but those same plants were also believed to fight off witches or the devil:
Terfoil, Vervain, John's Wort, Dill,
Hinder witches of their will.
This dichotomy is common, and Friend suggests that this was part of a belief that "the plants and materials employed by magicians...and other similar dealers in the black arts, are equally efficacious if employed against their charms and spells." (529-530) But Friend describes the plant as "slender spikes of grey flowers."
There is a tradition of vervain being connected to blood. John White, writing in 1608, bemoaned the fact that many of his parishioners would "weare vervein against blasts" - i.e., elf-blasts - and mentioned a belief that vervain was used to staunch Jesus Christ's bleeding wounds after the crucifixion. In Brittany, it was known as louzaouenn-ar-groaz, or herb-of-the-cross. John Gerard, in the Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), referred to the vervain as "Mercurie's Moist Bloude." (Or could “Mercury” be the metal, comparing the pale-colored Verbena officinalis to quicksilver?)
The color dilemma shows up in Notes and Queries series 7. Correspondents listed legends of red plants colored by Christ's blood at the crucifixion, and one person mentioned verbena. Another person countered that "The vervain (Verbena officinalis) is a purple flower" and could not have anything to do with the legend. Yet another commenter, however, shot back that historically, colors were categorized differently, and red or purple could be interchangeable. Regardless of classical color distinctions, it's clear that folklore experts were not envisioning a "pure and brilliant" red flower.
Red verbena does exist, of course, but it doesn't grow wild in the UK. Varieties like the scarlet Verbena chamaedrifolia or Verbena peruviana were imported from South America in the early 1800s, too late to have any deep folkloric history (Transactions).
A couple of people suggested to me that Briggs might have meant red valerian - a similar-looking plant with scarlet blossoms. Valerian in general (Valeriana officinalis, a white or pink flower) had similar holy or protective properties to vervain. Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) is a different thing, but is known as "good neighbors," "good neighborhood," or "quiet neighbors" in some areas of England, strikingly like the fairies' name of Good Neighbors. (Plant-Lore)
There's also red campion, which is associated with Robin Goodfellow and also called the Devil's Flower or blaa ny ferrishyn (Manx for fairies' flower). Red campion seems to frequently be pink, though.
On the other hand, these folk names don't sound like something that would belong to a fairy deterrent.
Briggs goes into more detail on daisies, giving them their own entry:
"It is sometimes said that the habit of dressing children in daisy-chains and coronals comes from a desire to protect them against being carried off by the fairies. Daisies are a sun symbol and therefore protective magic."
Daisies are not often listed as having any connection to fairies. More common is the "he loves me, he loves me not" type of fortune-telling rhyme. The daisy is associated with innocence and childhood. One alternate name in England and Scotland is "bairnwort" - bairn meaning baby, because it's "the children's flower." This association can be seen in the poem "The Daisy," by Henry Septimus Sutton (1825–1901) where it is called "the little children's friend."
In a review of daisy-related folklore in 1956, Katharine T. Kell did not mention fairies or protective qualities at all. She recounted a Celtic origin story - a woman named Malvina, grieving the death of her stillborn son, was comforted by hearing that dead infants were reincarnated as flowers, and that her son had become a daisy. Kell seems unsure about this story's origins; she seems to have had trouble tracking it down, only finding references to it being part of the Ossian cycle. The Poems of Ossian, published by James Macpherson in the 1760s, are already of doubtful authenticity, with many calling them a hoax. I cannot find anything indicating that the daisy story actually appears in the Ossian cycle. The poems were wildly popular when they first came out, and received numerous translations and adaptations across Europe and North America. The daisy story appeared in 1825 in Charlotte de la Tour's Le Langage des Fleurs, and made it back into English by 1834 (The Language of Flowers). Other authors quoted this story as if directly from MacPherson's Ossian. The daisy-as-reincarnated-infant legend is very possibly French fanfiction of a fake Celtic epic.
Kell also included some Christian legends connecting the daisy (or alternately, the white chrysanthemum) to the Child Jesus.
Coming back to Briggs, there is one other authority on protective daisies: the storyteller Ruth Tongue. For those who aren't familiar with Tongue, she's been viewed with skepticism by later scholars.
In Somerset Folklore (1965), Tongue states briefly that "ordinary daisy chains are sometimes felt to be a protection for children" (p. 33). The flowers feature in several of Tongue's Forgotten Folk Tales of the English Counties (1970). They are associated with holiness, innocence, and childlike simplicity. In "Crooker," a Derbyshire tale, a traveler carries posies of St. John's Wort, primroses and daisies to protect himself from evil forces. "The Daisy Dog," attributed to Cornwall, has a simple-minded but kind man who plants "a criss-cross of God's daisies" on a grave to protect it. (The story gets its name from the ghost dog that defends the grave afterwards.)
Most relevant is "Silly Kit and Down-a-down," a Huntingdonshire tale. In a Tam Lin-esque device, the Elfin King plots to use the main character, Kit, as payment for the fairies' "seven years' due" to Hell. Kit is an intellectually disabled and innocent young woman. Jesus himself comes to protect her, and watches over her as she playfully makes a daisy chain. In Hell, "the Devil and all the fiends" flee at the sight of Kit accompanied by Jesus. She returns home with her daisy chain, which is referred to as "Flowers of Paradise."
I do not know of any analogues to this story, although it is reminiscent of those daisies-as-Christ-symbol traditions. Tongue stated that it was told to her aunt "before 1914."
Briggs and Tongue collaborated closely on both Somerset Folklore and Dictionary of Fairies, and Briggs contributed the foreword for Forgotten Folk Tales. Based on this, Tongue seems like the most likely candidate for the contributor of daisies as protective charms.
Although most of the herbs on Briggs' list are easily located in books of superstition and folklore, red verbena and daisies are of doubtful origin. These are not the only unverified "facts" in the book. Briggs remains one of the giants of the folklore field, but the Dictionary of Fairies is one of her later books and skews more towards entertainment than scholarly research. For instance, the Dictionary’s entry for “oakmen” relies on a misreading of source material. These were already of dubious origin, but Briggs used the oakmen’s name with a different creature’s description, resulting in a completely new combo. The red verbena may be a similar case.
Here, she seems to have conflated several different things:
As for daisies: these flowers were popularly associated with children, the sun, and in Christian legend, Jesus. Their defensive properties, though, may be one of Ruth Tongue's unique themes. Oddly enough, it seems this isn't the only possible fauxlore tradition to feature daisies - there's also the French-"Celtic" story of the reincarnated infant.
The wulver is occasionally listed as a type of werewolf from the folklore of Shetland. However, it really has nothing to do with werewolves or shapeshifters. It's something quite different - more like a man with a wolf's head. The wulver has made it into encyclopedias such as Katharine Brigg’s Dictionary of Fairies, but all the sources can be tracked to just one single book: Jessie Saxby's Shetland Traditional Lore, published in 1932. As with other folklore creatures I've looked at, this kind of dead end is a bad sign. Is the wulver truly from folklore, or is it a new creation?
I read a copy of the 1974 edition of Saxby's book. At least in this edition, she did not quote or cite anyone, and did not include a bibliography. Rather, these were accounts she personally collected: "During a long lifetime I have been gathering such traditions and folk-lore as still exist in Shetland."
Even in this context, she rarely names her informants or gives any details on where or when she collected stories. She seemed disinterested in such practices, writing that "I could not follow any systematic arrangement, and I am not a scholarly person to sift and clear up fragments of our Lore until all the mystical charm of the subject has blown away. My compatriots will take what I give them kindly, and ask for no dry, though learned, explanations of what has lived in their souls since childhood" (pp. 5-6).
The beginning of the Trows chapter touches on Saxby's collection methods:
I being the ninth child of a ninth child was supposed to be within privileged lines, and therefore got a good deal of information from members of certain families.
One old man, a joiner and a boat-builder, who had married the daughter of a very noted witch, used to tell me long tales as I sat beside him when he was building a boat for my brothers. I was then a girl of twelve, with imagination running riot to hold all it got. (p. 127)
This gave me instant flashbacks to Ruth Tongue. Like Tongue, Saxby claims that something about her birth gave her special status (specifically, as a psychic), allowing her to gain information that others could not. In addition, she is recounting stories that she originally heard years ago, in childhood. However, while Tongue's account of her birth was apparently incorrect, records indicate that Saxby really was was the ninth of eleven children, and her father was the youngest of at least eight children. She and her family had many stories of psychic premonitions.
The wulver appears on page 141, in the chapter “Trows and their Kindred.”
The Wulver was a creature like a man with a wolf’s head. He had short brown hair all over him. His home was a cave dug out of the side of a steep knowe, half-way up a hill. He didn’t molest folk if folk didn’t molest him. He was fond of fishing, and had a small rock in the deep water which is known to this day as the “Wulver’s Stane.” There he would sit fishing sillaks and piltaks for hour after hour. He was reported to have frequently left a few fish on the window-sill of some poor body.
This chapter had previously appeared as two articles in the Shetland Times in January 1930. The section including the wulver was published as "Trows and Their Kindred, Part II" on January 11, 1930. The text is identical - except that it is spelled in the original version as "Wullver."
There are no citations in either the book or the newspaper article. And no older books mention the wulver. The Scottish Cave and Mine Database mentions the creature's cave dwelling and the Wulver's Stane, but states "So far the location of either the cave on the hillside or the Wulver's Stane remains unknown." This is not promising.
Wulvers in Shetland Place-Names
Saxby mentioned the wulver indirectly in one earlier work: an article titled "Sacred Sites in a Shetland Isle."
"Everywhere one finds the steedes of circular walls. All such places were regarded as 'trowie'--associated with the mysteries of the spirit world. They were haunted, or holy, or horrible, or health-giving--Helyabrun, Crusafiel, Wullver's Hool, Henkiestane, etc., names linked with the unseen and the unknown." (The Antiquary, 1905, p. 138)
So what is Wullver's Hool? (Note the double L, same as the original newspaper article.)
The linguist Jakob Jakobsen spent the years 1893-1895 researching remnants of the Norse language in Shetland, and wrote several books drawing on his research. In his 1897 book The Dialect and Place Names of Shetland, Jakobsen theorized that the names Wulvershool/Wilvershool and Wulhool/Wilhool were derived from the Norse word álfr (“elf”). Hool (or houll) is from the Norse hóll (“hill”). Thus, elf-hill. Supporting this, one of the locations he listed was also known as “de fairy-knowe,” and another was Bokie Brae (Bogie Hill). (Another writer, Gilbert Goudie, noted that the second location had been levelled during road construction.)
There are a wealth of similar names around Shetland. The names are usually applied to hills, or cairns of burnt stones, which in general are often associated with fairies or older religion.
And there are other Will Houlls, not listed here, which might have been duplicates or which didn't have enough information for me to tell. "Will" seems more common than "wull" in modern spelling. However, the alternate names imply that an otherworldly theme was associated with these locations.
The place-names also have a direct personal connection to Jessie Saxby. After many years abroad, now a successful author and a widow whose children were starting families of their own, Saxby returned to her childhood home to settle down. The Shetland Times announced in April 1898 that "A house is being put up for Mrs Saxby on the side of the hill at the side of the voe, which will command a splendid view of the harbour and surrounding district." This single-story stone cottage became known as Wullver's Hool; the name was in use by at least 1899.
The house still exists and is still known by that name. I have not found any details on how it was named. Was it built on the "Wulvershool" described by Jakobsen in 1897, just a year before Saxby's house began construction? Or was it named after it? Saxby clearly associated the name and the place with the ancient and supernatural. A 2018 biography of Saxby also made reference to the idea that "the setting of Wullver's Hool makes it vulnerable to trow intrusions," as it is on a hillside (Snow 312).
Categorizing the Wulver
With similar words ranging from alfar to elf, auf, or ouph, it’s not hard to imagine a jump from "elf" to "wulv" (and thence to wulver). The folklore of Shetland has often been compared and connected to Scandinavia, especially the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Norway. A confusion with “wolf” could have led to the image of the wolf-like spirit.
And wulvers aren't as different from elves as it might seem at first glance. Otherworldly spirits, including some in the fairy category, are often hirsute. See the Roman satyr, medieval pilosus ("hairy one"), Middle English woodwose, German schrat, and Gaelic gruagach ("long-haired"). Hairiness is a common trait for wild men, hobgoblins, and house spirits alike. The Scottish brownie, according to Thomas Keightley, "is a personage of small stature, wrinkled visage, covered with short curly brown hair." (The wording is almost exactly the same as the wulver with his "short brown hair"). There's an idea that elves are small, but some brownie-style creatures may have been giants, and Saxby never actually mentions the wulver's height. Not all brownies worked indoors; the Fenodyree (possibly "hairy stockings") threshed corn and herded sheep.
Similar to the brownie was the uruisg, a more introverted Scottish fairy which preferred to live outside in streams and waterfalls but might still lend its services to humans. Sir Walter Scott described the urisk as a cave-dwelling satyr. Alexander Carmichael, in 1900, described the uraisg as "half-human, half-goat, with abnormally long hair, long teeth, and long claws." Other sources simply described it as a hairy, bearded man. One urisk, the Peallaidh ("hairy one"), shared its name with a river.
The wulver has been miscast as a werewolf, when it’s actually something more similar to a brownie or uruisg! Saxby categorized it among trows or trolls to begin with.
We have evidence that the word "wullver" was around as part of a place name, that the many Will Houlls may be related, and that there may be some relation to elves, fairies, and bogies. I think it's also significant that Saxby typically used the spelling "wullver." She seems to have only used the one-L spelling on one occasion, and I’m wondering whether that was unintentional. I think it should also be emphasized that the wullver - as described by Saxby - is not a werewolf, but a sprite similar to a brownie.
However, the wullver still lacks provenance. We still have only Jessie Saxby's account towards a tradition of a fishing wolf-man, which was our problem in the first place.
I wonder if some of these hard-to-find stories were simply told once by a single family, a bedtime story made up on the fly, and not necessarily a "Tradition." All the same, when they were written down, the distinction was lost and they ended up being categorized as widespread folk traditions.
"The Water-Horse of Barra" is a fairytale that's stayed with me since I read it years ago. It is especially striking because it takes one of the cruelest monsters in Scottish legend and turns him into a redeemable hero. The story has been presented as a folktale, but I began to wonder if it was really traditional or not.
The tale appeared in Folk Tales of Moor and Mountain by Winifred Finlay (1969). On Barra, an island off the coast of Scotland, there lived a water-horse or each-uisge - a shapeshifting water spirit, similar to the kelpie. The water-horse went seeking a bride, and captured a young woman by tricking her into placing her hand on his pelt. However, the quick-thinking girl invited him to rest a while, and he took human form in order to sleep. While he slept, she placed a halter around his neck, trapping him in horse form and forcing him to do her bidding. She then kept him to work on her father's farm for a year and a day. However, during that year and a day, he learned love and compassion. Rather than depart for Tìr nan Òg (the Scottish Gaelic form of Tir na nOg, the Irish otherworld), he underwent a ritual to become truly human, losing even the memory of being a water-horse. He and the girl married, and lived happily ever after.
Winifred Finlay was an English author who published numerous folklore-inspired novels and collections of folktales. In Moor and Mountain, she gives no sources, leaving it mysterious how she found these stories. This should be an immediate cue to look at them critically.
Some of them are familiar. Midside Maggie and Tam Lin are well-known, and "Jeannie and the fairy spinners" is a retelling of the story of Habetrot. However, others are less familiar to me, such as "The Fair Maid and the Snow-white Unicorn" (which, like "Water-Horse," features a girl marrying a handsome man who used to be a magical horse).
I have never found an older equivalent of Finlay's water-horse romance, although it has been retold in other collections. It appeared as "The Kelpie and the Girl" in The Celtic Breeze by Heather McNeil (2001) and "The Kelpie Who Fell in Love" in Mayo Folk Tales by Tony Locke (2014).
A running theme in Finlay’s books is that the world of fairies and magic has ended, with the modern human world taking its place. In "The Water-horse of Barra," "Saint Columba and the Giants of Staffa," and "The Fishwife and the Changeling," magical creatures must either leave this world forever, or assimilate and become ordinary humans.
"The Water-Horse of Barra" bears an especially strong resemblance to "The Fishwife and the Changeling." Both tales follow a traditionally evil entity who is won over by the love of a human woman, and who opts to become mortal and stay with her rather than depart for the Land of Youth. In the second case, the woman is a devoted mother who adopts a fairy changeling and raises him alongside the child he was meant to replace. Although I adore this take on the changeling mythos, it is strikingly different from most folktales, where any compassion towards changelings would be unusual. In a tale recorded in 1866, a parent who accidentally winds up with both babies still resorts to the threat of torture to get rid of the fairy child (Henderson, Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, 153). The idea of a changeling and the original child raised as siblings is fairly new, although it seems to be growing popular in recent fiction - see, for instance, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black (2015) and The Oddmire: Changeling by William Ritter (2019).
Back to the Water-Horse of Barra. This tale features many of the usual kelpie tropes. A person who touches the water-horse will find herself trapped as if glued to his skin. However, if the creature is haltered or bridled, he becomes docile and tame - at least as long as the halter is in place.
In other ways, however, it is strikingly atypical. Kelpies are usually totally murderous. Although they are often found pursuing women, it is generally to eat them.
There is an older tale about a Water-horse of Barra. However, this tale is very short and takes a gruesome turn. A young woman of Barra encountered a handsome man on a hill. They chatted, and eventually he fell asleep with his head in her lap. However, she noticed water-weeds tangled in his hair, and realized to her horror that he was a water-horse. Thinking quickly, she cut off the part of her skirt that his head was resting on, and slipped away to safety. However, some time later when she was out with friends, he reappeared and dragged her into the lake. All that was ever found of her was part of her lung. This story was told by Anne McIntyre, recorded by Reverend Allan Macdonald of Eriskay, and published by George Henderson in 1911. (Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts)
It is rare for the kelpie to be seen with a softer side. J. F. Campbell gives a one-sentence summary of this story type in Popular Tales of the West Highlands, where he states that the kelpie "falls in love with a lady." The summary ends with her finding sand in his hair and presumably reacting with horror. The phrasing is fairly soft, suggesting that a kelpie could really fall in love, but all of the other kelpie stories Campbell gives are bloody and dark. I wonder if "falls in love" was a euphemism on Campbell's part.
One other point of interest is a song, titled "Skye Water-Kelpie's Lullaby" (Songs of the Hebrides) or "Lamentation of the Water-Horse" (The Old Songs of Skye). In this song, the singer mournfully begs a woman named Mor or Morag (depending on translation) to return to him and their infant son. This song has been interpreted as the story of a water-horse whose human bride has left him after realizing his identity.
Outside the kelpie realm, there is another story with key similarities - the Scottish ballad "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight." In this song, Isabel hears an elf-knight blowing his horn and wishes for him to be her lover. At that very moment, the elf knight leaps through her window and takes her riding with him to the woods. It’s all fun and games until he gets her into the remote wilderness, where he declares that he has murdered seven princesses and she will be the eighth. When begging for mercy doesn’t work, Isabel persuades him to relax and rest his head on her knee for a little while first. She uses a “small charm” to make him sleep, then ties him up with his own belt and kills him with his own dagger.
Finlay’s heroine has strong Isabel vibes. Her suggestion of resting, and then her capture of her would-be kidnapper, is clearly parallel. When she calls on the bees to buzz and lull the water-horse to sleep, it's similar to Isabel's "charm."
“Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight” is one member of a wide family of similar tales, although the plots vary and “Isabel” is somewhat atypical. Of course, the Elf Knight is not a kelpie. His native habitat is apparently the forest. However, in other versions, the serial killer’s method of killing is drowning (see "The Water o' Wearie's Well" and "May Colvin"). Francis James Child suggested that in these versions "the Merman or Nix may be easily recognized". A Dutch neighbor, “Heer Halewijn,” has been compared to a Strömkarl or Nikker. Unfortunately, as critics quickly pointed out, the logic fails since the serial killer dies by drowning in these versions, which would not make sense for a merman. The theory has stuck around despite lack of evidence.
The rather unique “Lady Isabel” has faced scrutiny; the unclear origins have led to many different theories, and some scholars have even suggested that it was a fake written by its collector Peter Buchan. This will have to be a post for another time. Insofar as our current subject, “Lady Isabel” and the connected water-spirit theory are definitely old and well-known enough that Finlay could have been familiar with them. However, like the old kelpie stories, these ballads are not romances but cautionary tales.
The stories in Folk Tales of Moor and Mountain are familiar folk tales, but they are all Finlay's retellings. Her "Water-Horse of Barra" is probably a reimagining of the older Barra water-horse tale. (Perhaps it's influenced by "Lady Isabel," although this might be more of a stretch.) In both Barra stories, a girl finds herself cornered by a kelpie in the form of a handsome man, and must figure out an escape as he lies sleeping. However, Finlay rewrote it with a gentler, family-friendly ending.
Finlay's water-horse is tame and toothless even at the beginning: "he was very good-natured and never caused anyone harm." The only shocking thing about his diet is that he eats raw fish. Older tales often had sexual elements; a disguised kelpie shares a victim's bed to prey on her, and sleeping with your head in someone's lap is a euphemism for sex (note especially that the girl cuts her skirt off to escape). Finlay's water-horse never does anything so improper as sleep in the girl's lap; instead he stretches out in the heather to rest. In folktales, kelpies suck girls dry of blood, or devour them and leave only scraps of viscera. But Finlay's heroine is never in fear for her life. See her reaction: “He really is extremely handsome... but I have no intention of marrying a water-horse and spending the rest of my life at the bottom of a loch.”
Finlay inverts the usual setup: here, the girl captures the kelpie. The kelpie is the one carried into a new realm and affected by their encounter. Not only is this ending more cheerful, but it ties in with Finlay's running theme. The time of magic ends to make way for a modern era. Supernatural power is exchanged for love, whether that love is romantic, familial, or belonging to a community.
Regardless of its origins, Winifred Finlay's romantic tale of a good-hearted water-horse has earned its own place in modern folklore. This shows a shift in how we comprehend and retell these stories. In 19th-century storytelling, kelpies and changelings would have been totally irredeemable, definitely not beings you'd want to invite into your home. Now, however, you can find stories removed from folk belief where kelpies and changelings are the heroes and main characters. There's a growing tendency to give even the most terrifying monsters of legend a chance for redemption.
I've been researching "lorialets," moonlight-loving spritesdescribed by French fantasy author Pierre Dubois in his Great Encyclopedia of Fairies. Lorialets will have to be a post for another time; Dubois' Encyclopedia is not so much a collection of folklore as it is a guide to the world of his comics, and the only real-world sources he gave for lorialets were the Chroniques Gargantuines or Grandes Chroniques Gargantuines. These are a group of 16th-century chapbooks, not to be confused with the famous Gargantua books by Rabelais. I haven't been able to track these down yet. However, my research along the way took me into some fascinating superstitions about mooncalves.
The belief was that the moon influenced congenital defects. "Mooncalf" was a word for a "monstrous birth."
The historian Preserved Smith suggested that the mooncalf was a translation from the German Mondkalb. In December 1522, a deformed calf was born in Saxony. People thought that the folded skin on its head looked like a monk's cowl, and within a month, a popular new broadside compared the creature to controversial contemporary Martin Luther. The calf's birth was supposed to be a divine sign pointing out the unnatural Luther. It was dubbed the "monk-calf," which Smith suggested was a pun on Mondkalb. An English version referred to it as a "Moonkish Calfe," pretty good evidence for a pun. And this was big news, in part because Martin Luther quickly fired back with a pamphlet saying that the monk-calf symbolized the evil of the Church. Not long after this, the word "mooncalf" started to become popular.
Farther back in history, Pliny's Natural History spoke of "molas" - hard, lifeless masses of flesh, which it was believed a woman conceived on her own without a man. This is where you get the term "molar pregnancy." In Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus Linguæ Romanæ & Britannicæ (1565), Pliny's "mola" was interpreted as "moone calfe." Not too much later, in 1601, Philemon Holland translated Pliny's work as The History of the World, commonly called the Natural Historie of C. Plinius Secundus. Holland also chose to render "mola" as "moonecalfe."
To modern eyes, there's not much connection from Pliny's "mola" to the British authors calling it a "moonecalfe." But if the "Moonkish Calf" was fresh in the author's memory, it makes more sense.
Alternately (and perhaps not exclusively), J. W. Ballantine suggested that "calf" did not mean a baby cow, but a swelling, like the calf of the leg. (Calf coming from a word meaning "to swell" is an established theory.) "Moon" would come from the associations with menstruation found in Pliny. So mooncalf could mean, in Ballantine's theory, "menstrual lump." A 1676 German work used the word "monkalb" or "mutterkalb."
In the early 17th century, mooncalf became a popular term for either a monster, or a fool - this second similar to lunatic, from "luna". Shakespeare used the word for the monstrous character Caliban, from The Tempest, written around 1610; the misshapen Caliban was born to a witch who could control the moon. Chapman's Bussy d'Amboise (1607) calls women "the most perfect images of the Moone (Or still-unweand sweet Mooncalves with white faces)."
There were, in fact, superstitions about what the moon might do to pregnant women. In Breton superstition, if a woman or girl urinates outside under the moonlight, she runs the risk of giving birth to a monstrous being. An account is given of such a thing happening; upon being born the monster scurried beneath the bed, and people killed him with a stick. A second anecdote mentions a Breton servant woman who declared that she had never been with a man, and didn't know how she could have fallen pregnant unless it was the moon's influence. (Revue des Traditions Populaires, xv. (1900) p. 471.)
To sum up: there is a long history of superstition that the moon could influence pregnancy, either causing women to conceive monsters on their own, or creating congenital defects.
In modern fantasy, the idea of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts - two opposing groups of the fae - has become popular. But where did this idea come from? What was the original inspiration? What do Seelie and Unseelie even mean?
Fae Divided into Sections
First of all, there are various old references to different classes of fae which may oppose each other.
The Dökkálfar ("Dark Elves") and Ljósálfar ("Light Elves") are contrasting beings in Norse mythology, with the first surviving mention from the thirteenth century. The Light Elves are fair and the Dark Elves are “blacker than pitch,” and the two groups are totally different in temperament. There are also the svartalfar (apparently the dwarves) but there’s disagreement over whether they are the same as the dokkalfar or not.
16th-century alchemist Paracelsus divided mythical creatures like Melusine, sirens, giants and pygmies into classes by the four elements (water, air, fire and earth).
There was certainly a sense that there could be good or evil fairies. Reverend Thomas Jackson wrote in 1625, in A treatise concerning the original of unbelief, “Thus are Fayries, from difference of events ascribed to them, divided into good and bad, when as it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both; seeking sometimes to be feared, otherwhiles to be loued as God." Jackson took the stance that all fairies were equally evil tricks of Satan, but his argument still gives us a few crumbs of contemporary fairy beliefs.
Hulden and unhulden were Germanic spirits and, beginning in the 15th century, also referred to the witches who consorted with them. The preacher Bertold of Regensburg (c. 1210-1272) exhorted the Bavarian people against belief in such things. There is also a Germanic goddess named Holda, although scholars have disagreed on which is older. The word may come from a German root meaning "gracious” or “kind.” There are also the huldra or huldrefolk from Scandinavian folklore, coming from a word meaning "hidden,” but for holden and unholden I lean towards the “kind” definition. So holden would be “the Kind Ones”, unholden “the Unkind Ones.”
As far back as the 4th century, a Gothic translation of the Bible used the feminine word "unhulþons” for demons. This could possibly mean that "Unkind Ones" and hulþons as good counterparts were also around at the same time. I am not sure whether these “Kind Ones” were really kind, or whether this was a euphemism - but the presence of the very non-euphemistic "unholden" is telling. Both types were certainly demonized during Christianization. Bertold concluded that "totum sunt demones" (all are demons). In the 15th century, the singular character Holda began to appear among other denounced goddesses in the Diana/Herodias crowd. Centuries later, Jacob Grimm noted that witches' familiars might be "called gute holden [good holden] even when harmful magic is wrought with them”.
Now let's look at the most famous example of contrasting fairy groups: the Seelie and Unseelie.
The Seelie and Unseelie Courts
The Seelie and Unseelie Courts are Scottish names for good and bad fairies. Seelie means blessed or lucky and ultimately comes from the Germanic "salig"; the same root gives us the German nature fairies called “Seligen Fräuleins.”
"Seely wight" or "seely folk" was an old term for fairy beings, roughly equivalent to Good Neighbors or Fair Folk. Note that in this case, these names were not meant to be taken literally; they were names meant to appease the temperamental and dangerous fae. In one poem, a spirit warns a human against calling it an imp, elf or a fairy. "Good Neighbor" is an acceptable term, and "Seely Wight" is ideal: "But if you call me Seely Wight, I'll be your friend both day and night."
In Lowland Scotland in the 16th century, some witchcraft and folk magic centered around the seely wights.
Researcher Carlo Ginzburg argued that there were worldwide parallel traditions of folk healers who believed that they left their bodies to travel at night with friends and/or spirits. In these night journeys, they ensured a good harvest for their village by battling witches or even traveling to Hell. Usually these meetings took place on specific nights of the year. The most well-known are the Italian Benandanti (Good Walkers). Some of these cults were connected to fairies. The Sicilian "donas de fuera," or "ladies from outside," derived their name from the spirit beings they were believed to travel with. 13th-century bishop Bernard Gui instructed inquisitors to investigate mentions of night-traveling "fairy women, whom they call the good things [bonas res]." Not all groups had stories of protecting the harvest. Some, like the donas de fuera, were simply supposed to meet up and hang out on certain nights.
Ginzburg's theory has met with some criticism, but it is true that going back into medieval times, Christian bishops spoke out against women supposedly meeting at night with a goddess named Herodias or Diana or a whole host of ladies. Christian authorities denounced this as superstition or hallucination.
William Hay, around 1535, gave a specific Scottish example: "There are others who say that the fairies are demons, and deny having any dealings with them, and say that they hold meetings with a countless multitude of simple women whom they call in our tongue celly vichtys."
Based on the few surviving pieces of evidence, history professor Julian Goodare constructed a theoretical cult: in the 16th century, a group of Scottish women (and possibly some men) believed that they rode on swallows at night to join the seely wights, a group of female nature spirits akin to fairies. Despite their name, these beings weren't necessarily good. In 1572, accused witch Janet Boyman blamed the "sillye wychtis" for "blasting" and killing a child.
The main problem with the theory, Goodare admitted, is fragmentary evidence. Seely wights apparently disappeared from belief before the real furor of witch trials ever started.
However, in the 17th century, “wight” continued to be a common generic Scottish term for mysterious and powerful spirits that were perhaps not exactly fairies, but something harder to define. One accused witch spoke of “guid wichtis,” another of “evill wichts.” (Despite the descriptors, in both cases these creatures were blamed for striking young children with illness.) Another accused witch, Stein Maltman, spoke of "wneardlie" (unearthly) wights. But although “wight” remained popular, “seelie” faded from view. The seelie wights were apparently gone.
Or did they just get a name change? "Seelie" survived in fairy names like Sili go Dwt, Sili Ffrit, and the Seelie or Seely Court.
One of the Seely Court's earliest known appearances is the Scottish ballad of "Allison Gross," collected in the Child Ballads. They ride on Halloween, and their queen releases a man from a witch's curse. The presence of a queen is what makes it a seely court, a structured government under a ruler. They are no longer just random wights. The queen's actions imply a benevolent nature.
The Child Ballads also include "Tam Lin," which features a less friendly fairy queen. In some fragments and scraps, which weren't complete enough to put as full versions, the fairies are called the "seely court."
"The night, the night is Halloween,
Our seely court maun ride,
Thro England and thro Ireland both,
And a' the warld wide."
Note that in this version, there isn't a tithe to Hell. Although the tithe is in the most popular variant, a few feature all the fairies visiting Hell, or (as seen here) riding all over the world.
The idea of the fairies roaming on a specific feast night (Halloween or an equivalent) does hearken to the idea of Diana's procession, the donas de fuera, and other such groups. The fairy queen would be equivalent to the other patron goddesses.
Another connection - in the 1580s, a poet named Robert Sempill wrote the satirical “Legend of the Bischop of St Androis Lyfe.” One section described the witch Alison Pearson as riding on certain nights to meet the sillie wychtis.
In real life, Alison Pearson's testimony included a tale similar to "Tam Lin." Although the term "seelie wight" doesn't appear in the trial records, she said she had been taken away by the fairies and taught the healing arts, but had to escape, for a tenth of them went to Hell every year.
So Pearson talked about fairies making a journey to Hell, and a contemporary writer identified her fairies as seely wights.
So we have print mentions of "seelie" fairies going back to the 16th century. On the other hand, I don't know of any appearances by the "unseelie" until 1819, when the Edinburgh Magazine featured an article titled "On Good and Bad Fairies." It described the Gude Fairies/Seelie Court and the Wicked Wichts/Unseelie Court; the Unseelie, it specified, were the only ones who pay tithes to Hell. (However, it was still foolish to anger even the Seelie.) I am not sure what the writer's sources were, though they may have drawn on traditions familiar to them. Other early mentions of the Unseelie Court were quotes of this article.
Overall, Seelie and Unseelie Courts as opposed groups of fairies – and the word “unseely” applied to fairies at all – did not appear in print until comparatively recent times.
For a while, I've believed "unseelie" is a neologism. Calling the fairies Seelie was originally meant to avoid their wrath; why would you call a fairy Unseelie? That's death wish territory. But although this theory seemed clear-cut to me at first, it may not have been that simple. Evidence shows that people did refer to "evil" or "wicked" wights as well as seelie wights.
But I do have one wild speculative theory.
The idea of good and bad spirits goes back a long way. Holden and unholden from Germanic myth (potentially as far back as the 4th century) might be a similar word formation indicating good and evil spirits who somehow mirrored each other.
Some of Ginzburg's ecstatic cults were supposed to fight opposing groups. The Benandanti, for instance, fought the Malandanti (Evil Walkers).
Let's extrapolate on the theory; say the seelie wights or Seelie Court were once a witchcraft tradition similar to those cults. What if they sometimes didn't just "travel" across the world or to Hell, but actually battled an opponent at some point in their journey - or had some kind of encounter, perhaps involving a tithe? What if those opponents were Unseely Wights? William Hay spoke of the seely wights' followers distancing themselves from fairies and calling them demons. What if the unseely wights were the forces of Hell?
There is way more to the spectrum of witchcraft beliefs throughout medieval times - much more than can be tackled in one blog post. Anyhow, Seelie and Unseelie have since become common descriptors in both folklore guides and popular fantasy works. The names are a way to delineate between good and evil fairies, and do have at least some background in Scottish folklore. Even in the oldest sources, though, the lines blur between whether any of these beings are "good" or "evil." Both seelie and evil wights were perilous.
Other Blog Posts
Ruth Tongue had an unusual approach to folktale collecting. By her own account and those of others who knew her, she generally collected her stories by remembering them from her early childhood or throughout her life. She was in many ways her own source. And her stories are unique. Beyond their distinctive tone, there are colorful fairies and monsters that are distinct from other collected folklore. As Bob and Jacqueline Patten wrote of Tongue's creatures, "Nowhere else are found the Apple Tree Man, the Conger King, The-One-With-The-White-Hand, Boneless, or Meet-on-the-Road."
Maybe she did make up the Conger King or Meet-on-the-Road. But after research, I believe that Tongue did not make up quite so many of her unique creatures as some have suggested. For instance, Boneless had appeared previously, listed among other monsters by Reginald Scot and, later, Michael Denham - although it received no description and remained mysterious. Tongue, however, published a story in which the Boneless was a kind of blob creature. She also published wholly unique stories explaining the Boneless' fellow bogeys, the Galley-beggar and the Bull-Beggar.
I believe that a number of Tongue's other creatures had similar histories - she did not make them up out of whole cloth. Instead, she borrowed ideas from scholars and fiction authors.
Tongue used not only folklore collections but fantasy books to bolster her credibility as a folklorist. Actually, it makes sense. Although she made much of her connection to Somerset, most of her formative years were spent elsewhere.
She was clearly well-read. In Forgotten Folk Tales, (p. 32), she mentioned James Fraser's Golden Bough, tying her stories into his worldview of comparative folklore.
The famous Katharine Briggs was Tongue's mentor and frequently relied on her as a source. Briggs categorized many of Tongue's stories and found parallels in other collections. Of Tongue's story "The Sea-morgan's Baby," in which a childless couple adopts a merbaby, Briggs wrote that it "suggests the tale given literary expression in Fouque's 'Undine.'" (xv)
The 19th-century novella "Undine" was, of course, influenced by folklore - the myth of the watery fairy bride. But Briggs' method puts forward the case that there was also an older legend of a human couple raising a merchild, which led to both "Undine" and Ruth's "Sea-Morgan" story. It discounts the possibility that "Undine" itself influenced folklore. It also discounts a pertinent question - did Ruth really find the folktale that lay behind Undine, or was she inspired by Undine?
Similarly, in Folktales of England, Briggs compared Tongue's "The Sea Morgan and the Conger Eels" to the Odyssey and to Rudyard Kipling's story "Dymchurch Flit." She had comparisons and supporting evidence for all of the tales; "The Hunted Soul" was "almost identical" to a story told by Anna Eliza Bray in The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy (vol. 2, p. 114).
Tongue picked this up and made similar cases. One example was her story "The Danish Camp," in which redheaded Danish invaders kidnapped English brides. One night, in the midst of their revels, the women rebelled and slew them all, with the exception of a single boy whose lonely song still rings through the hills. In the notes of Somerset Folklore, Tongue wrote, “Wordsworth remembers him in a poem.” She showed her literary expertise and the older existence of the tale.
Or at least, she tried to. Wordsworth's fragmentary poem "The Danish Boy," first published in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), does bear a surface similarity to Tongue's story . . . insofar as it mentions a Danish boy.
In fact, Wordsworth wrote in his letters that the poem was "entirely a fancy."
He wrote further:
"These Stanzas were designed to introduce a Ballad upon the Story of a Danish Prince who had fled from Battle, and, for the sake of the valuables about him, was murdered by the Inhabitant of a Cottage in which he had taken refuge. The House fell under a curse, and the Spirit of the Youth, it was believed, haunted the Valley where the crime had been committed."
It seems that Ruth found the wrong Danish Boy. Wordsworth was not inspired by a legend of a Danish camp in England. He was creating a unique ghost story about a prince murdered for his wealth.
However, there is evidence for the story of "The Danish Camp" existing before Tongue, at least in fragments.
In her early work, such as Somerset Folklore (1965), Tongue's stories fit into established tale types. You could find other books telling the same stories. They showed her signature spark of storytelling, but they were also familiar, as would be expected for traditional folktales.
But were they too familiar?
One book that Tongue drew on and cited often was Tales of the Blackdown Borderland by F. W. Mathews (1923). Was she just citing it for textual support, or something more? According to Jeremy Harte, it was something more: Ruth "rescued" at least fifteen tales from this small book "and reattributed them to her childhood encounters."
Tales which appear in both Mathews and Tongue include "The Fairy Market," "Blue-Burchies," the tale of Jacob Stone, the Hangman's Stone, "The Sheep-Stealers of the Blackdown Hills," the ghost story of Sir John Popham, "Gatchell's Devil," and "Robin Hood's Butts." Plotlines were identical right down to locations mentioned.
Somerset Folklore also relied on “Local Traditions of the Quantocks” by C. W. Whistler, a 1908 article in Folklore. Stories which coincide are "Stoke Curcy," the tradition of hunting Judas, a tale of helpful pixies threshing wheat, “the blacksmith who shod the devil’s horse,” "The Devil of Cheddar Gorge," "The Broken Ped," "The Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood," and the basic elements of "The Danish Camp."
Tongue's stories followed the same patterns as their predecessors, but tended to be "more engagingly told," as J. B. Smith put it. Her versions had more dialogue, smoother plot arcs, and her own signature style.
J. B. Smith pointed out that Tongue's story "The Croydon Devil Claims His Own" was also very similar to an older tale, "The Devil of Croyden Hill," published in the magazine Echoes of Exmoor in 1925. True, that is to be expected - but Smith listed multiple variants of the tale, each with their unique plot points. Tongue's was unique in that it wasn't unique.
Smith wrote that Tongue's version, unlike the others, "shows every sign of being a retelling of (C1), down to small details of topography. It also stands out from other tales in her Somerset Folklore in being unattributed, a fact hardly calculated to allay suspicions that it is an adaptation of (C1) rather than a tradition in the true sense."
There are some distinct Tongue-isms, such as the villain being a redhead, and the unusually supernatural ending (most of the stories have a skeptical theme).
So these stories are well-known folktales from legitimate story families, but sometimes the details are so close to other people's renditions that it becomes noteworthy. It has led J. B. Smith to suggest that these stories are prototypes and not parallels; Jeremy Harte to say that Ruth took "over ten out of the fifteen or so narratives in [Whistler's article], and refashioned them."
It was in Forgotten Folk Tales of the English Counties, Tongue's 1970 book, where she really branched out. These stories are strikingly unique not just in style but in plot. The whole basis of the collection was that these were tales that had escaped every other collector, and were only unearthed by Tongue.
Tongue seemed endlessly capable of finding a folktale to match any saying or term. "Lazy Lawrence," an old character and personifying term for laziness, showed up as the name of an orchard-guarding fairy horse. "The Grey Mare is the Better Horse," a saying about henpecked husbands, showed up as a Robin Hood tale (in which all of the wives are quite meek and docile, by the way). "Tom Tiddler's Ground," a children's game, showed up as a story about hidden fairy gold. Hyter Sprites, an obscure type of spirit, were not much known beyond their name existing in a few dictionaries - but Ruth provided a whole story of their antics and their ability to transform into birds.
There are a few stories that I think deserve special attention here.
"The Grig's Red Cap"
This is one of the few times in which I believe Ruth catches herself in a direct lie.
In 1864, an editor of Transactions of the Philological Society theorized that a grig might be a fairy name, based on the word "griggling," a term for collecting leftover apples. After all, similar terms were "colepexying" and "pixy-hoarding."
A hundred years later, in Somerset Folklore, Ruth made the same case thinking along the same lines. As evidence, she also added in the story of "Skillywiddens," where the fairy is nicknamed Bobby Griglans. Tongue wrote that "It seems a reasonable inference that the grig is fairy of sorts [sic].”
In fact, the etymology is not as clear as it might seem. "Griggling" is most likely derived from "griggle," a word for a little apple. "Griglans" means "heather."
But a few years after that, in Forgotten Folk Tales, she gave the story "The Grig's Red Cap," on page 76, and notes "Heard from old Harry White, a groom at Stanmore, 1936. Also from the Welsh marshes, 1912." This implies strongly that Ruth is the one who heard the tale in 1912 and 1936 . . . despite seeming to guess at the grigs' very existence in 1965.
Was Ruth inspired by that old journal issue? Did she decide that grigs deserved their own story - even if she had to construct it herself?
The asrai was a water fairy who emerged from her lake on moonlit nights. A greedy fisherman kidnapped her, planning to sell her, but the delicate sprite could not bear sunlight. At dawn, she melted into a puddle of water -- while the fisherman would always bear her freezing cold handprint on his arm.
Katharine Briggs noted in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature that "The name is mentioned in Robert Buchanan's verses." Robert Buchanan actually wrote two poems about the asrai, although the plots bear no resemblance to Tongue's tale. Although Buchanan clearly took inspiration from folklore, the asrai seem to be his own creation. He is the only person ever to mention them until Ruth Tongue, and he developed their characteristics between poems. His asrai are pale beings who avoid sunlight – metaphorically melting away when the sun emerged and humanity became the dominant species. Tongue’s asrai are much more fishy in appearance, and literally melt if they encounter sunlight.
Tongue may have even subtly woven in a little etymology, saying that one person thought an asrai was a newt. Asgill is an English dialect word for newt.
The "asrai" name was not from folklore - but still, perhaps the plot was. There are plenty of English stories of fishermen encountering or netting mermaids. Closer still, the French "Dame de Font-Chancela" was a fairy who appeared on moonlit nights by a fountain. A lustful nobleman tried to carry her away on his horse, but she vanished from his arms just as if she’d melted, and left him with a frozen feeling that prevented any further escapades for some time. (You go, girl.) I don't know if Tongue read French, but the story was cited in various French books and could very possibly have made its way to England.
"The Vixen and the Oakmen"
In this tale, a fox is protected by the Oakmen, dwarfish forest guardians who live within the great oak. Other characters include a helpful talking hawthorn tree and a malicious, murderous holly. In her notes, Tongue drew connections to two fiction authors. "For other references, see Beatrix Potter, The Fairy Caravan... J. R. R. Tolkien makes dynamic use of similar beliefs in The Lord of the Rings" (18).
Again, Katharine Briggs happily put forward Beatrix Potter's books as evidence of tradition. She wrote in Dictionary of Fairies (1976) that "It is probable that [Potter's] Oakmen are founded on genuine traditions," and in The Vanishing People (1978), "Although [The Fairy Caravan] makes no claim to be authoritative the legend is confirmed by the collections of Ruth Tongue."
Major, major problem here - Potter was not inspired by folklore, but by her niece's imaginary friends, and she was blocked from writing more about them by copyright concerns, because her niece had gotten them from a book. The most likely candidate for the infringed-upon book would be William Canton’s works. In fact, Tongue included all of William Canton's oak-men books in her bibliography for Forgotten Folk-Tales, although she did not explain the connection. Briggs seems to have been unaware of Canton, or she would certainly have included him as "proof" of oakmen's traditional nature. Beatrix Potter's behavior undermines the idea that the oakmen could be traditional. But Tongue would not have known any of this. Only later was the full story published in Leslie Linder's History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter.
In addition, The Fairy Caravan's oakmen are seen around "the Great Oak" and care for animals. It's important to note that this book featured many local landmarks from the Lake District, where Potter lived. The Great Oak was "the great oak beside the road going to Lakeside, beyond Graythwaite Hall." (Linder p. 302)
Tongue attributes "The Vixen" to the Lake District, and she also wrote of the Oakmen living within "the great oak." Tongue doesn't just give oakmen a similar role to those of Potter. She uses the exact same phrase for their dwelling place, even if it is stripped of context.
As for Tolkien, he did not write about oakmen, but he did, of course, have many sentient or moving tree characters. A sentient willow tries to kill people in Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring, and Tongue wrote that "The Barren Holly is credited, like the Willow, with being a murdering tree".
"The Wonderful Wood"
Oak trees are friendly to a mistreated girl. An evil king and army pursue her through the woods, but wind up mysteriously vanishing: "For the trees closed about and they never got out/ Of the wood, the wonderful wood."
Says Ruth: "Trees are believed to be very revengeful and murderous at times. See B. Potter, The Fairy Caravan... J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Pt 3, p. 19."
The reference to Beatrix Potter is probably the "Pringle Wood" that features in The Fairy Caravan: an ominous oak forest, home to unseen, malevolent beings, which can only be navigated when magical protections are in place. (Also based on a real location, as it happens!)
The Tolkien reference is to The Two Towers and the Battle of Helm's Deep, where Saruman's fleeing army encounters the forest of sentient trees or "Huorns."
"Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind... [the Orcs] fled. Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again."
"In My Pocket"
A clever dwarf hides in a giant's pocket. He helps the giant solve a wizard's riddles so that they can win the wizard's sheep and escape imprisonment.
The final riddle which stumps the wizard:
"'Two for one' (and that was the giant),
'A small one for the rest' (and that was the brothers),
'And a little, little piece for my pocket' (and that was the good little dwarf)."
Says Ruth: "It is likely that this Norse tale did not come from a chapbook, but existed as oral tradition only. Perhaps Professor Tolkien came across a variant (see J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit). It might be traceable."
She is suggesting that Bilbo Baggins' famous riddling contest with Gollum, which ends with the trick question "What is in my pocket?" was inspired by her folktale.
Forgotten Folk Tales was written at the apex of Tongue's fame, and was the book where she showed her hand the most. She didn't just write about obscure creatures; she wrote about creatures which had only ever appeared in fantasy works.
Her previously collected folktales could be near-identical to those collected in other books. That was not so unusual. Indeed, it served as proof, footprints showing where and when else the stories had been recorded. Her sources could be vague enough to leave it unclear whether she had actually heard them herself, and no one would strongly challenge her.
I think that in 1970, she got cocky. Encouraged by Briggs, she decided that this applied not only to obscure folktale collections, but to fantasy writers. Whistler and Mathews and William Wordsworth were evidence that her stories were old and established. In the same way, Robert Buchanan, Beatrix Potter, and J. R. R. Tolkien could be evidence! Even when the similarities were much vaguer, they still showed that she had not made up these stories and that others really had "heard" them. In this backwards way, Tongue recast authors' original work as folktale collections. She denied them their creativity as authors.
And Briggs ate it up, and so apparently did others. A few reviews might have mildly pointed out that Tongue's sources were a little confusing, but it was not until after her death that people actually began to voice their doubts.
Other blog posts
The cecaelia is, in modern Internet parlance, a common term for a mermaid that has octopus limbs rather than a fish tail. Another frequently used name is "octomaid." A famous example of an octopus-limbed mermaid is Disney's sea witch Ursula. I want to focus on "cecaelia," an intriguing name - both singular and plural and pronounced seh-SAY-lee-uh. Most importantly... where did it come from?
The etymology, at first look, is baffling. It starts with the same syllable as the word "cephalopod" - cephalo (head) + pod (foot) - but that's not much to go on. It is not related to the Latin girls’ name Cecilia, or to the limbless amphibians called caecilians. Both of those come from the word “caecus,” meaning “blind.”
In Making a Splash (2017), Philip Hayward suggests that the word was inspired by a comic book character from the 1970s. The short comic "Cilia" appeared in Warren Publishing's Vampirella Magazine issue 16 in April 1972. It was reprinted in Issue 27, September 1973. Cilia, a beautiful mermaid-like woman with three tentacles in place of each leg, rescues a sailor from drowning. Although her appearance is horrifying to humans, she is a kind and gentle spirit and her relationship with the sailor grows into love. The story ends tragically when the prejudiced human community discovers her.
Cilia refers to her species as "cilophyte." The term was probably invented by the author - the etymology, again, is murky. As pointed out on the TV Tropes page for this comic, "phyte" means growth and "cilo" could be related to "cilium" (fine hairs), Scylla (a Greek sea monster), or "kilo" (Greek for thousand). Perhaps it was also meant to look similar to "cephalopod."
As Hayward points out, the word "cecaelia" does not appear until around 2007 or 2008. So I went diving.
The "cecaelia" can be traced to a Wikipedia page created in March 2007. (Thank you to Wikipedia administration for their help recovering the page information!) According to the earliest version of the page, the cecaelia is "a composite mythical being." The name "is a corruption of coleoidian, a genus of squid, and derives originally from a comic in Eerie magazine from the early 1970s featuring an octopoidal character named Cecaelia" who "helped a shipwrecked sailor back to land." This is apparently meant to be "Cilia;" the plot is right, as is the publisher. Later versions of the page corrected the character information. In addition, "Coleoidea" is the subclass of cephalopods which includes octopus, squid and cuttlefish.
The only source in this first version was a link to a discussion thread on seatails.org, a mermaid-enthusiast messageboard. Created by Kurt Cagle, Seatails began as a print magazine that ran briefly in 1987 and then moved to the web, shifting through several platforms over the years. In the early 2000s, it existed in a discussion board format. Members included numerous artists and collectors who were interested not only in mermaids but in other hybrid mythological creatures.
The link was apparently quickly deleted, since it did not meet Wikipedia's standards for sources. Unfortunately, Seatails is now defunct and the discussion thread in question cannot be reached even through the Internet Archive.
In addition to the information from Wikipedia, I contacted Kurt Cagle via the current Seatails page on the art site DeviantArt. I also contacted a DeviantArt user called EVAUnit4A, who identified themself as a user of the old message board and a contributor to the Cecaelia Wikipedia page.
Based on that, here are the main points of the history of the cecaelia as I understand it:
If the comic inspired all this, why wasn’t the species term “cilophyte” adopted instead? First of all, it seems it took a while to track down the specifics of the comic. EVAUnit4A suggested that perhaps cilophyte was “too unwieldy to type out properly" and that people may have wanted "a word closer to real octopus and squid." When I reached out to Cagle, he wrote back that another influence was the song “Cecelia” by Simon and Garfunkel, about a fickle and demanding lover.
According to Cagle, “I actually kind of forgot about [the cecaelia] after a while, and was surprised to find the term gaining traction a few years later.”
I have to take a quick detour here. Wikipedia is near-universally used, often more easily than print encyclopedias because it’s just a push of a button away. But it can also be edited by anyone at any time. As a result, it has strict guidelines. One of the most important is that "Wikipedia is not for things made up one day." The page for this rule, which has existed since 2005, sums up many of Wikipedia's policies, including that articles must be on something notable and famous, and must include verifiable sources (such as a reliable book or article).
Thus, the Wikipedia page for Cecaelia had a tortured history. Although there were quite a few works that featured such creatures, the name itself was an original creation. The page was originally Cecælia, then changed to Cecaelia, moved in 2010 to "Octopus person" as "a more proper title," and the last holdout was finally deleted in 2018. It now redirects to "List of hybrid creatures in folklore," specifically the section "Modern fiction." The word pops up occasionally on other pages - as of the time of writing, the Wikipedia page for Ursula calls her a cecaelia.
As previously seen, the oldest versions of the "cecaelia" page were honest about its origins. Via the Wayback Machine, a version from December 2008 said even more definitively that the term was a "distorted mispronounced" version of Cilia. This clarification, buried in the paragraph and easier to miss, was ultimately lost. By April 27, 2010, when the page existed as "Octopus Person," the description of the comic had been deleted and only a brief and confusing reference to "Cilia" remained.
Unclear language was another problem; throughout many edits, the page called the cecaelia a “composite mythical being.” A composite myth is constructed from shorter stories or fragments of tradition, often intended to recreate lost legends. However, readers could have taken the phrase in a couple of ways. In the case of the cecaelia, they might read it as “a being of composite myth based on various media," or they might read it as “a mythical being that is a composite of human and octopus.”
Readers took it the second way, with many adopting the term in the belief that it was traditional. Here's one example from a blog in 2008 which specifically gives Wikipedia as its source. Looking through some of my writing from eight years ago, I found that I also used the term without a second thought after encountering it on Wikipedia.
The word spread fairly quickly. The word was picked up across DeviantArt. In April 2008, a user on the roleplaying-based Giant in the Playground Forums posted a writeup for "cecaelias" as a monster race. Cecaelia was the name of an octopus-woman monster in AdventureQuest Worlds, an MMORPG released in 2008. Pathfinder's RPG Bestiary 3, released in 2011, featured the Cecaelia as a monster, and the word also features in Cassandra Clare's Bane Chronicles (2015).
Most recently, the Disney tie-in novel Part of Your World by Liz Braswell (2018) refers to Ursula as a cecaelia. This was, to my knowledge, the first time Ursula had ever received this name in canonical material. Previously she was only called a cecaelia by fans, as in the fan-run database disney.wikia.com.
So are there any traditional sources that feature octopus-like mermaids?
In a Nootka tale from the Pacific Northwest, the animal characters Octopus and Raven show up apparently in human form. When Octopus is angered, her hair (braided into eight sections) transforms into powerful tentacles (Caduto & Bruchac 1997.) I don't know what the characters of Octopus and Raven might have been called in the original language, but according to firstvoices.com, the Nuu-chah-nulth word for Octopus is tiiłuup, and Raven is quʔušin.
"The Devil-Fish's Daughter," a Haida tale also from the Pacific Northwest, features devil-fish (octopi) who can take human form. But this is more a case of animal shapeshifters, not hybrids.
Native Languages, a most helpful site for American Indian legends, has little to say on the octopus. It notes only that octopi "do not play a major role in most Native American mythology."
Some pages on the cecaelia, apparently derived from Wikipedia, claim that the artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) painted octopus-woman hybrids. I have found no evidence for this. Hokusai did paint the erotic 1814 “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife," which features a woman with octopi. (If you look it up, be advised that it is NSFW.)
The "sea monk" or monk-fish of medieval bestiaries also looks vaguely tentacley. Theories on what inspired it include squid and angelshark.
Finally, Scylla, a sea monster of Greek myth, is said by Homer to have twelve dangling feet. She might be understood as somewhat like a squid. Homer's Scylla is not particularly humanoid, but the term has gained some popularity in recent years.
In essence, there is no traditional octopus mermaid. Only in the 20th century did the idea of octopus-human hybrids gain popularity as a symbol of horror and evil. H. P. Lovecraft's squid-faced god Cthulhu first appeared in 1928, later to influence the monstrous "mind flayers" of Dungeons and Dragons. The tragic Cilia the cilophyte, from 1972, has an appearance disturbing to humans despite her kind soul. And in 1989, Disney used the grasping, writhing half-octopus Ursula to contrast their innocent heroine in The Little Mermaid. (Their original concept art had Ursula as a more traditional fish-tailed mercreature.)
However, this budding concept had no unified name. "Cilophyte" was an obscure and unique creation. "Cecaelia" was born around 2007 on the Seatails site, as a name inspired by "Cilia," "cilophyte," "coleoidea," and the alluring Cecelia of Simon and Garfunkel. Artists and other users on the discussion board popularized the title. The Wikipedia page boosted the concept, with many readers taking it to mean that the cecaelia was an established legend. At this point, it's taken on a life of its own, although there are a few other names floating around as well.
I recently saw someone cite A Basket of Wishes as an example of a romance novel cover, and it reminded me of something I noticed a while ago. And yes, this is another post on pillywiggins.
Among other appearances, these flower fairies showed up in a spate of romance novels through the 1990s and a little bit into the 2000s. First was A Basket of Wishes by Rebecca Paisley (1995). Then Twin Beds by Regan Forest (1996), A Little Something Extra by Pam McCutcheon (1996), Stronger than Magic by Heather Cullman (1997), Scottish Magic: Four Spellbinding Tales of Magic and Timeless Love (1998), A Dangerous Magic (1999), and Buttercup Baby by Karen Fox (2001).
A Basket of Wishes and Buttercup Baby, the first and last in this list, share a number of similarities.
Beyond the rather by-the-numbers plot setup, one of the most striking similarities is the fairy heroine whose tears are gemstones. The idea of tears becoming jewels has its own Aarne-Thompson motif number, D475.4.5. It appears in the Grimms' tale "The Goose Girl at the Well." In the Palestinian story of "Lolabe," the heroine weeps pearls and coral. This trope is often associated with mermaids. "Mermaid tears" is an alternate name for sea glass. There's a Scottish legend - recorded in 1896 when adapted into a poem - that a mermaid's tears became the distinctive pebbles on the shore of Iona. In Chinese legend, mermaids weep pearls; this idea was recorded going pretty far back, for instance by fourth-century scholar Zhang Hua in his Record of Diverse Matters.
Rebecca Paisley is the first person to apply this motif to pillywiggins. Karen Fox is the second. So far as I know, they remain the only two authors to do so.
As far as differences, they do take place in different time periods. Buttercup Baby is about the pregnancy and slice-of-life fluff. A Basket of Wishes, on the other hand, tends more towards high fantasy and some drama with Splendor’s realm being in danger.
Paisley's writing has a number of folklore references. Her pillywiggins (who are synonymous with fairies) live under a mound and tie elf knots in horses' manes. They are incredibly lightweight, like Indian tales of a princess who weighs as much as five flowers. They have no shadows, like Jewish demons and Indian bhoots or bhutas. Most intriguingly, Splendor reveals that her powers are not always limitless. She can't just vanish maladies like a stutter, an unsightly birthmark, or baldness, but must transfer them to someone else - which she does, giving those attributes to the book's antagonists. This harkens to the fairytale known in the Aarne-Thompson system as Type 503. In a common variation, two hunchbacks visit the fairies. One pleases the fairies and they reward him by removing his hunch. The second man is rude and greedy, and the fairies add the first man's hunch to his own.
Karen Fox, on the other hand, builds a world based on old English literature: A Midsummer Night's Dream and 17th-century ballads about Robin Goodfellow. She uses “pillywiggins” as a singular noun (which is not uncommon as a variant spelling). Unlike Paisley's version, Fox's pillywiggins are not a name for fairykind as a whole, but a specific subspecies.
Fox's use of Ariel as the pillywiggin queen points to Edain McCoy's Witch's Guide to Faery Folk (1994). McCoy was the first to give Ariel as the name of a queen of pillywiggins, and Fox is far from the only author to have followed suit. McCoy's book has been subtly but deeply influential, with large portions posted online by 1996. A now-defunct quiz titled "What type of female fairy are you?", online around 2002, advises the user that "Most of the information used in this quiz was taken (in some cases verbatim) from A Witches' Guide to Faery Folk by Edain McCoy." Pillywiggins are one possible result on the quiz.
The new mythology of pillywiggins has been spread mainly through the Internet through sites like this. Creators in the 80's, 90's and early 2000's, like McCoy, Paisley and Fox, used them as basic winged flower fairies. Later authors played with this. In 2011, Julia Jarman made Pillywiggins a singular fairy who stands out from her glittery peers as bold and boyish. The pillywiggens of Marik Berghs’ Fae Wars novels (2013) are “fierce hunters” who ride on birds. Even in these fiercer examples, though, there remains a focus on their minuscule size and "cuteness." Jarman's heroine receives doll clothes. Berghs' pillywiggens speak in chirps and eat crumbs.
The attraction of the pillywiggin lies partly in its ability to put a name to the modern archetype of the cute, winged flower fairy. In the first known appearance of pillywiggins, they were listed as a type of flower fairy. However, when it now appears in modern Internet parlance, pillywiggin is the name for the flower fairy category.
Despite their similarities, Paisley's and Fox's works both show slightly different takes on pillywiggins. Nearly every author seems to have their own unique approach, while still subtly building up a new piece of folklore. At this point, I feel that if a pre-1970s source for flower-fairy pillywiggins ever shows up, it will be completely unrecognizable compared to the newly evolved myth.
Other posts in this series
I found a mention of the word pillywiggin from before 1977!
. . . sort of. The spelling's right, but in this context it has nothing to do with fairies or flowers. In fact, it's possible evidence against pillywiggins as flower fairies.
Firstly, some background. One of the things about the word pillywiggin is that it does sound like an English fairy name, very much so. There are fairy names that are very close. It almost feels criminal that pillywiggin doesn't show up among them in the pages of an English dialect dictionary somewhere.
Pigwiggen. The word appears as early as 1594 in the Tragical Reign of Selimus: "Now will I be as stately to them as if I were master Pigwiggen our constable." Nash's Have with you to Saffron Walden (1596) uses the word "piggen-de-wiggen" as a term for a sweetheart. In 1627, Michael Drayton produced his epic-in-miniature "Nimphidia." Here, Queen Mab has an affair with the fairy knight Pigwiggen, and an angry King Oberon challenges him to a duel. From here, Pigwiggen or Pigwiggin came to mean any excessively tiny thing. The etymology is unknown. The first syllable, "pig," may be related to pug or puck, other types of fairies (a root which could also be related to phouka or pixie). Other suggestions would connect it to "earwig."
Notably, around 1657, Josua Poole's English Parnassus, or, a Helpe to English Poesie gave a list of denizens of the fairy court. Nearly all of the names were from "Nimphidia." Except that instead of Pigwiggen, it gives Periwiggin - a word even closer to "pillywiggin." The next name in the list is "Periwinckle," so it may be an error of accidentally combining two similar names. (Periwinckle or Perriwinckle was Oberon's barber in the 1638 play Amyntas, or the Impossible Dowry.) Also possible is that the writer unconsciously brought in the word "periwig," meaning a wig.
Pigwiggen later developed into the similar Pigwidgeon. Pigwidgeons appeared as gnomelike beings and miniature fairies in the fantasy writing of Frank Richard Stockton (1834-1902) and others.
Skillywidden is the given name of one fairy in a story from Cornwall (Popular Romances of the West of England, 1865). In a reversal of the usual changeling tale, a farmer discovers a tiny fairy child in the heather and takes him home. The farmer's children play with him and name him Bobby Griglans (i.e., Bobby Heather). However, one day they see a fairy man and woman crying for their lost child, "Skillywidden." They release the fairy child, who runs to his mother and vanishes off into Fairyland.
Intriguingly, there is a real-world Skillywadden Moor as well as a farm and a barn under the same name, all neighboring the location where the story is set. Note the different spelling. I'm not sure whether the moor took its name from the story or vice versa. The etymology is obscure. It could mean white wings, from Cornish askell (fin or wing) and gwydn (white). By comparison, the Cornish word for a bat is sgelli-grehan or skelli-grehan, literally "leather wings." Alternately, 1000 Cornish place names explained (1983) tentatively defines Skillywadden as "poor nooks."
Compared to Pillywiggin, this name has same number of syllables and many of the same letters: _illywi__en. When I contacted English folklorist Jeremy Harte, he pointed out that Skillywidden and Pigwiggen combine perfectly into Pillywiggen. Someone could easily have mixed up the two words.
The writer Enys Tregarthen frequently used the word “skillywidden” as a generic term for baby fairies. In Folk Tales from the West (1971), Eileen Molony retold the Skillywidden story and left the fairy nameless, but used "skillywiddons" for his species of hairy, mischievous sprites. Skillywiddens could definitely qualify as "popularized," the word used for pillywiggins in their first known appearance.
Pilwis is the name of a German field spirit (okay, not English, but bear with me). The variant spellings are where it gets interesting: pilwitze (plural pilwitzen), pilewizze, pelewysen, and pilwihten. In Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology, the word was compared variously to wood-sprites, "hairy shaggy elves," and witches. Pilwisses or bilwisses were part of a class of feldgeister, or field spirits, who haunted cornfields. They ranged from malevolent bogeymen to personifications of the harvest. Like other elves, bilwisses might tangle hair, cause nightmares, or live in trees.
I've collected a number of other words.
The Pellings were a Welsh family supposedly descended from a fairy named Penelope (Y Cymmrodor, 1881).
A wiggan tree is an ash tree (also wicken-tree, wich-tree, wicky, witch-hazel or witch-tree). There are ties between ash trees, magic, and witches in folklore.
Piggin was the name of several familiar spirits in 16th/17th-century witch trials. Ursula Kemp, for instance, claimed a black toad named Piggin. (The name means pail or ladle.) (Rosen, Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618.)
Pillicock appears in songs and rhymes such as Shakespeare's King Lear ("Pillicock sat upon Pillicock hill"). It's generally glossed as a slang term for penis. So is pillie wanton. However, Robert Gordon Latham's Dictionary of the English Language makes a valiant effort at interpreting Pillicock as a fairy name connected to Puck and the Pilwiz.
Outside the fairytale field, pigwiggan or Peggy Wiggan is a bad fall. A piggy-whidden, from Cornish, is a runt piglet. A piggin-riggin is a small boy or girl. Pillie-winkie is a child's game. (English Dialect Dictionary vol. 4). Pirlie-winkie or peerie-winkie is the little finger and peerie-weerie-winkie is something excessively small (Transactions of the Philological Society). Wigan is an English town, and at least at one point in time was home to a site known as Pilly Toft (The history of Wigan, 1882)
So these are common word constructions. Bear this in mind for later. Now: the pre-1977 sort-of mention of the word pillywiggin.
Louisiana's Crowley Signal, December 14, 1917, featured an article on page 8 titled "Speed Up Your Needles; Soldiers Need Warm Garments."
"[T]hose who are pilly-wiggin along with their knitting, thinking most anytime will do; and "it isn't very cold yet;" and "after Christmas I'll try" . . ."
Finally! But there are issues. Not only is the word hyphenated, but it's apparently a verb (to pilly-wig?).
A word "pilliwig" does show up in a few historical newspapers and magazines. "The Fate of Mr. Pilliwig" was a short story by N. P. Darling that appeared in Ballou's Monthly Magazine in 1871. All the characters had made-up surnames, another being Slingbillie. Similarly, in an 1880 article in the Huntingdon Journal, "pilliwig" was used as a random childish nonsense word.
The most puzzling occurrence: in Kansas in the 1890s, pilliwig or pilly-wig briefly became a synonym for liquor.
September 12, 1895, Enterprise Eagle, Enterprise, Kansas
"[I]t seemed that the "pilly-wig" that he was alleged to have been selling affects the memory..."
February 26, 1896, The Solomon Sentinel, Solomon, Kansas
At the "largest brewing house in the world" . . . "its Guides shewed us the plant and processes for making "pilliwig" and other decoctions which maketh fools of men."
June 17, 1896, The Solomon Sentinel, Solomon, Kansas
"We regret to learn that Bro. J. W. Murray of Dillon Republican is so badly under the weather that he is compelled to take his medicine at the hands of a "pilliwig doctor." He says: "On these hot days when thirst is gnawing at your vitals and your tissues are consumed as by a burning fever, a visit to the hop tea dispensary on Main Street will put you in running order again."
October 29, 1897, The Solomon Tribune, Solomon, Kansas
There was a hot time in the old town last Saturday night. Two fights occured by the influences of "pilliwig."
So, to sum up, we have one 1910s instance of a verb pilly-wig/pilly-wigging. Going by context, I would interpret the meaning as "procrastinating"; perhaps doing a very small amount at a time, or spending time on nonsense.
There is no evidence of a noun “pillywiggin” existing before the 1970s. However, we do have instances of “pilliwig” used as a nonsense word. It pops up every decade or so through the late 1800s and 1900s (more in America than in England, it seems). However, it has no context or continuity. It’s so devoid of meaning that it can be used for anything and everything, from a clown in a 1960's children's TV show, to booze. To me, that lack of meaning indicates that pillywiggins in pop culture just weren't a thing.
Maybe pillywig is recurrent because there are so many similar words in English that this is a natural word construction. Different authors could easily have come up with the same word, or have read a previous use of the word and subconsciously remembered it.
Some 20th-century children's author could easily have constructed the word "pillywiggin" for a fantasy creature. I haven't given up on that possibility. However, it would be equally easy for fairy names like Pigwiggen and Skillywiddens to be garbled, combined, or misspelled. We have evidence of that very thing happening with "Periwiggin."
Also in this series:
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.