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:
One thing I didn't realize until I started researching folklore in depth is how much drama there is behind the scenes. For instance, take the story of "The Soul Cages."
The whole thing started when Thomas Crofton Croker began his collection Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. However, as the story goes, he lost his manuscript right before publication. A number of his Irish friends generously lent their help, writing out material and adding the folktales they knew. The result was a collaborative effort between many authors. Croker chose to publish the book anonymously, as the work of many, and it hit shelves in 1825. It was instantly popular. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm translated it into German as Irische Elfenmarchen in 1826.
Croker claimed all credit. Then he got right to work on producing more material. Around 1827, he published Volume 2, but this one was under his name alone.
One of the tales in Volume 2 was "The Soul Cages." Here, a fisherman befriends a merrow (merman) named Coomara (sea-hound). Coomara lends him a hat that will let him breathe underwater and invites him to visit his home on the seafloor. They have a nice meal and chat, but as the merrow shows him around, the fisherman notices a strange collection of lobster traps. Coomara explains that they are "soul-cages," containing the spirits of drowned sailors which he traps. The merrow makes out that he's doing the souls a favor by keeping them safe with him, but the Catholic fisherman is horrified. He contrives to get the merrow drunk, and then opens each of the cages to release the souls inside. From then on, the fisherman regularly pulls this trick to release souls as the merrow catches them.
Croker noted the story's striking resemblance to the German "Der Wassermann und der Bauer," or "The Waterman and the Peasant," which had appeared in the Brothers Grimm's Deutsche Sagen (1816-1818). In fact, when placed side by side, the stories shared identical plots. "The Soul Cages" is simply a more elaborate retelling of the Grimms' tale with Irish names and stereotypes stapled on.
There arose another issue. It seems there was controversy over Croker's manner of attributing sources - or rather, not attributing them. As one example, contemporary poet A. A. Watts wrote in Literary souvenir (1832):
...See Crofton Croker,
That dull, inveterate, would-be joker,
I wish he'd take a friendly hint,
And when he next appears in print,
Would tell us how he came to claim,
And to book prefix his name –
Those Fairy legends terse and smart,
Of which he penned so small a part,
Wherefore he owned them all himself,
And gave his friends nor fame, nor pelf.
One of Croker's helpers was the Irish writer Thomas Keightley. He went on to publish his own work, including the highly ambitious collection The Fairy Mythology in 1828. And he was steamed about not being credited properly in Fairy Legends. He said several times that credit wasn't important to him, but he still displayed a strong feeling that he had been used and cheated.
In his 1834 work Tales and Popular Fictions, Keightley declared that he was the uncredited source for a large number of tales in the first and second volumes of Fairy Legends. He laid claim to "The Young Piper," "Seeing is Believing," "Field of Boliauns," "Harvest Dinner," "Scath-a-Legaune," "Barry of Cairn Thierna," various pieces of other tales, and - most pertinently at the moment - "The Soul Cages." But it was a collaborative effort, as "another hand" - i. e., Croker - added details to these stories. Keightley adds that he had nothing to do with Volume 3, "which was apparently intended to rival my Fairy Mythology". Although hinting that he has experienced "hostility" over it, he also says he has "been amused at seeing [himself] quoted by those who intended to praise another person." He dismisses Fairy Legends as a bad depiction of Irish culture and dismissively says that he doesn't really care about getting the credit for such a "trifling" book. There are layers of cattiness here.
Croker never explicitly denied that Keightley had authored those stories. His combined volume of Fairy Legends in 1834 left out a number of stories, including "The Soul Cages." The new foreword suggested that the removal of these tales would "sufficiently answer doubts idly raised as to the question of authorship." This contributed to public perception that Keightley really had written the stories he claimed.
In an 1849 interview, Croker included Keightley in a list of people who helped him with the book, but indicated that they were essentially secretaries "writing, in most instances, from dictation." However, they were all skilled authors and scholars in their own right, and considering his apparent bow to pressure in 1834, this seems suspicious.
Collaboration on folktale collections was not uncommon, but in this case there were clearly both confusion and hard feelings.
Keightley did not include "The Soul Cages" or any of his Croker-collaboration material in The Fairy Mythology in 1828. But by 1850, a new edition had appeared. This time, Keightley included an English translation of "The Waterman and the Peasant" - and tucked away in the appendix was "The Soul Cages." Here, as a footnote, Keightley made a stunning announcement:
We must here make an honest confession. This story had no foundation but the German legend in p. 259 [The Peasant and the Waterman]. All that is not to be found there is our own pure invention. Yet we afterwards found that it was well-known on the coast of Cork and Wicklow. "But," said one of our informants, "It was things like flower-pots he kept them in." So faithful is popular tradition is these matters! In this and the following tale there are some traits by another hand which we are now unable to discriminate.
So here we are. "The Soul Cages" was an original creation by Keightley. More than that, it was plagiarized. It was stolen from the Brothers Grimm and not Irish at all.
Keightley has drawn harsh criticism from those who noticed the tiny note. Anne Markey called The Soul Cages "an elaborate confidence trick on Croker, Grimm, and subsequent commentators." (However, she also dated Keightley's confession to an 1878 edition, much later.)
But was it a confidence trick? Was it revenge against Croker for not citing his sources - an attempt to discredit him? Was it a test to see if Croker would even notice?
Honestly, I'm glad that Keightley confessed, even in the sneaky side way he did it. His confession, hidden in a footnote of an appendix of a later edition, was too little, too late. The story had already spread into the public consciousness, and is still circulated by people who never got that easily missed memo. But at least he told the truth at some late point. He even personally wrote to the Grimms to explain.
Or so I'd heard. Then I found out that there are reproductions of Keightley's letters to the Grimms in Volume 7 of the series Brüder Grimm Gedenken.
Keightley wrote to the Grimms to ask advice and feedback on The Fairy Mythology. When he mentioned Croker, the level of venom was astounding. He called Croker “a shallow void pretender” and “a parasitical plant.” According to him, Croker couldn't even speak German, and when he had corresponded with the Grimms, it had really been Keightley translating everything. In his version of the story, Croker was working on “a mere childs book” when Keightley suggested something grander; Keightley and friends then generously contributed material for two volumes of Fairy Legends. But Croker (a writer of “feebleness and puerility”) hogged the spotlight and insulted Keightley's writing abilities to boot, calling him simply a "drudge" good for nothing but writing down what he was told. Keightley insisted that he had been "defrauded" of the tales he collected for Legends, and that Croker was still trying to one-up him and compete with him.
Keightley quickly realized that his colorful account might be taken as unprofessional. In a letter dated April 13, 1829, he backtracked, demurring that he was just an Irishman with "hot blood" - but reiterating that his version contained the hard facts. He explained further,
I know not whether you have translated the 2nd vol. of the Fairy Legends or not. If you have not I cannot blame you for Mr. C. intoxicated with the success of the first volume thought the public would swallow any nonsense & he therefore in spite of me put in some pieces of disgraceful absurdity. The history of the legend called the Soul-cages is curious. I had read, in English, to Mr. C. several of your Deutsche Sagen. One morning he called on me & said that he thought the “Waterman" would make an excellent subject for a tale & that he wished I would write it. I objected that we did not know it to be an Irish legend. “Oh what matter! said he, who will know it? I accordingly wrote the tale which is therefore entirely my invention except the groundwork. You will however except the nonsense-verses & some other puerilities which you will give me credit for not being capable of. But the most curious circumstance is that after the Soul-cage was written I met with two persons from different parts of Ireland who were well acquainted with the legend from their childhood.
According to Keightley's version, this was no prank or confidence trick - at least not on his part. Croker had the idea to plagiarize the Grimms. If there are any scenes you think are dumb, it's because Croker added them. But it's actually okay, Keightley says, because people really were telling similar stories in Ireland.
If this reproduction of the letter is accurate, then I now feel less sympathetic to Keightley. In his casting of blame, he comes off as immature and two-faced.
Keightley may not have published his thoughts on Croker in Fairy Mythology, but he made very sure to always include that he had heard the Soul Cages story in Ireland afterwards. He needed that excuse. Admitting he'd fabricated a story torpedoed his credibility as a folklorist. At least this way he could cling to some plausible deniability. He was practically forced to write the story, he claimed, and afterwards he found out it was genuine anyway.
No one can really say whether or not he really heard the story in this later context. Anne Markey suggests the story slipped into folklore after its origins in Croker's book, but this depends on timing. Keightley's public confession was later, but he confessed to the Grimms only two years after "The Soul Cages" was published. That was hardly enough time for the story to have seeped into public consciousness, especially when Keightley's new informants had supposedly known the story since childhood.
I do not know of any other stories of this type in Ireland. Thomas Westropp, in his "Folklore Survey of County Clare" (1910-1913), noted that he'd found no other examples of this story in Ireland. He expressed "great doubt" on its authenticity.
However, we do have the German tale of "The Waterman and the Peasant," and similar tales from Czech areas.
"Yanechek and the Water Demon" ends with the main characters drowning and being collected by the demonic vodník. "Lidushka and the Water Demon's Wife" has a happier ending, in which a girl successfully releases the souls in the form of white doves. These tales were identified as Bohemian in origin in Slavonic Fairy Tales (1874) by John Theophilus Naaké.
Elfenreigen deutsche und nordische Märchen, by Marie Timme, an 1877 collection of Germanic-based fairytales, features the melancholy story of "The Fallen Bell." A nix, furious that he no longer receives human sacrifices, drowns a small girl and keeps her soul beneath a sunken bell.
These examples point to an origin around Germany and the Czech Republic. They retain a creepy tone which "The Soul-Cages" lost. The villains are explicitly demonic, the trapped souls truly suffering. Meanwhile in "The Soul-Cages," the fisherman remains drinking buddies with the easily duped merman while freeing any souls he catches. Coomara isn’t even an evil being. By his own account, he is just trying to help the drowned souls, and this is supported by the fact that he never does the fisherman or his family any harm. The story is goofy rather than eerie, and the main takeaway is the Irish stereotypes.
The tormented history of "The Soul-Cages" betrays the ease with which any folklorist could sneak in a story and claim it was traditional. Everyone was aware of this. Markey points out that Keightley himself highlighted at least two tales of suspicious origin in other collections. Even the Grimms, whom both Croker and Keightley idolized, hadn't really gotten their stories from the German peasant folk, but from middle-class readers of French fairytale collections. The Grimms also made major edits to polish the collection for a public audience.
So, in summary:
If you believe Keightley's letter, "The Soul Cages" was not intended as a prank on Croker, or anything of that nature. He said Croker was fully aware of its nature and was the person who came up with the idea. At this point we will never know for sure whether that's true. However, Croker himself pointed out the similarities to the Grimms' story and printed the two tales in the same volume. Publishing your plagiarized work with the original for comparison seems phenomenally stupid. Keightley would probably love to inform us that Croker was exactly that stupid. I still don't know if Croker ever responded to the reveal of The Soul Cages' true origin.
Whatever else occurred, I find it interesting that this story gave us the song "The Soul Cages" by Sting.
You might think I was out of things to say about pillywiggins, but you would be wrong! I've begun keeping a list of any books I can find that mention them. This is an opportunity to see how new folklore develops in the era of the Internet. There are far too many works to list here, but here are a few:
Haunts & taunts: a book for Halloweén and all the nights of the year by Jean Chapman (1983)
At this point, the second book ever that I know features pillywiggins. Here, "Pillywiggins" is the given name of a baby fairy in a retelling of the fairytale "Katie Crackernuts." The name also appears in a list of fairies later on.
Fairies & Elves, the "Enchanted World" series (1985)
The Enchanted World was a twenty-one-book series released by Time Life Books. The books were edited by Ellen Phillips, with Tristram Potter Coffin as primary consultant. The series was available through mail order. TV commercials struck a creepy, mysterious tone and featured horror actor Vincent Price. Fairies & Elves was book three. It primarily recounts folktales from around the world, with one very brief description of pillywiggins, mentioning that they hide inside flowers and are about the size of bees.
The illustration shows long-haired, butterfly-winged nymphs peeking out of the tops of wildflowers. This is the earliest picture of pillywiggins I have found, unless you count the unidentified dancing gnomes in Haunts & Taunts.
Various books by Pierre Dubois, 1991-onwards
Dubois has mentioned pillywiggins in many of his works, but I am unsure what the first one was. I know he was including them at least by 1991, namedropping them in his graphic novel Pixies.
The thing about Dubois is that he is a creative writer, not a folklore scholar. He regularly alters folklore creatures to suit his purposes. Parisette (a plant) and Tisanière (an herbal tea infusion) show up as fae creatures in his books. “Freddy” – Freddy Krueger! - gets an entry in a list of bogeymen. And then there are the many creatures which appear nowhere before Dubois's writings: Danthienne, H'awouahoua, Lorialet, Scarille, Tiddyfollicoles, etc. Many of these have since made their way into other fantasy works.
In La grande encyclopédie des lutins (1992), Dubois claims to have found a mention of pillywiggins among other fae in an 11th-century manuscript titled Aelfsidem, translated by "W.T. Dodgsons Luchtat, 1334, Meinster, p. 526." Dubois and people quoting him are the only ones ever to mention this manuscript. In addition, the "quotes" from Aelfsidem read exactly like everything else Dubois writes, and the fairies, pixies, and undines it lists are highly anachronistic. (If you look for fairylike beings in medieval manuscripts, you’re more likely to find incubi, neptuni, fauni, and dryades.) Dubois frequently makes up fictional quotes in the playful way of a fantasy writer building a world. One example is his famous scholar “Petrus Barbygère” - who is, in fact, a fictional character and the lead of one of Dubois's comic series. This has not stopped a few confused authors from quoting Dubois's in-universe books and people as sources.
His Encyclopédie des Fées gives a longer description of pillywiggins, explaining that they have insectoid characteristics and can take the form of bees or dragonflies. The text is rife with errors. Francis James Child becomes "Frances Jammes," and the artist Cicely Mary Barker is "Cecily Mary Broker." Nevertheless, Dubois' work ushered pillywiggins into French fairylore.
A Witch’s Guide to Faery Folk by Edain McCoy (1994)
Okay, so first off, McCoy has been a figure of some controversy among Wiccans, being particularly infamous for claiming that the potato was sacred to the ancient Irish Celts. (The potato was introduced to Ireland around the 16th century.)
She bases this book in folklore, but then runs in her own direction with it, creating fanciful and detailed descriptions for various “faery” races. She introduces the "saleerandee," a Welsh lizard faery whose name resembles the salamander, and the “attorcroppe,” a serpent-like faery. She is the only source for these creatures. She also transforms the Yucatec deity Sip into teensy, shy Mayan fairies called Zips and the German moss-covered dwarves, Mooseleute, into the pretty butterfly-winged Moss People.
She makes the pillywiggins friendly, cute and sweet, concerned only with blossoms and springtime. They ride upon bees. She names their sexy, scantily-clad blonde queen "Ariel." Everything about this Ariel corresponds to the Ariel of Shakespeare's Tempest.
In fact, in art and costuming, Ariel is frequently a feminine figure with golden hair and gauzy white clothing.
McCoy may have been inspired by Fairies & Elves’ mention of cowslips and honeybees, combined with Ariel’s speech in The Tempest. There would have been plenty of available artwork featuring Ariel that increased the similarities.
McCoy’s guide to fairies has been copied and circulated online in its entirety since at least 2001.
A Basket of Wishes, by Rebecca Paisley (1995)
A romance. Splendor, princess of the Pillywiggins, who has vast magic powers and weeps diamonds, has to bear some human guy's child.
Here, Pillywiggin is a realm of Faery. Its inhabitants are referred to as Pillywiggins, Pillywiggin fairies, pixies, sprites, elves or imps. Their natural form is tiny humanoids the size of "the span of a large butterfly's wings." They can grant wishes as well as fly with or without the aid of wings (which are apparently detachable). Physically, they are identical to humans except that they are incredibly beautiful and exude stardust, not unlike Tinker Bell. Overall, they serve as an amalgam of fairy traditions old and new. Their queen is the Tooth Fairy.
Buttercup Baby by Karen Fox (October 2001)
A romance. Ariel, queen of the Pillywiggins, who has vast magic powers and weeps opals, has to bear some human guy's child.
Karen Fox wrote four books for Jove Books' "Magical Love" series, and she used pillywiggins as a race of garden fairies. They apparently make up the majority of the fae and serve King Oberon. They seem uniformly female and very beautiful, and they are distinct from pixies (mischievous miniature trolls who serve Queen Titania). Fox's use of Queen Ariel points to Edain McCoy's work.
Pillywiggins and the Tree Witch, by Julia Jarman (2011)
A chapter book for younger readers, in which Pillywiggins is the personal name of one fairy.
Jarman's Pillywiggins is a refreshing departure from the twee miniature flower goddesses seen elsewhere on this list. She's a tough, tomboyish loner, repeatedly contrasted with the other sparkly pink fairies. Although she looks eerie, she's a heroic figure. There is a scene where she senses plants coming alive on Midsummer’s Eve, but otherwise she doesn’t seem to be associated with flowers that much.
I contacted Ms. Jarman and learned that this Pillywiggins was based on a doll found at a craft fair. Ms. Jarman turned to the Internet in order to find out what the name meant, which is the case for many authors and researchers these days, including me.
Atlantide: La naissance by T. A. Barron (2016)
This is a weird example. In the original English version, Atlantis Rising, the characters encounter tiny forest fairies with wings and antennae. These fairies are called "Quiggleypottles." In the French translation, their name is mysteriously replaced with "pillywiggins."
I’m not sure why it was necessary to substitute anything for Barron’s original creation. Does Quiggleypottle sound bad in French? This does indicate, however, that the translators were familiar with pillywiggin as a word for tiny flower fairies.
Pillywiggins have inspired songs (at least three; the ones I've found are either French or attribute pillywiggins to French tradition). They are monster-insects in the video game Final Fantasy XI. Quite a few small businesses are named after them. You can buy pillywiggin dolls on Etsy. A book of cat names suggests Pillywiggin as a charming name for a kitten. And, as of April 2019, a pillywiggin has appeared in the anime "Fairy Gone" (though it doesn't look much like a traditional fairy).
I still can't trace pillywiggins any farther back than 1977, and I have yet to find a single scholarly collection that mentions them. It’s entirely possible that they originated in the 70s, and over the next 42 years, took root in the modern imagination and spread across the globe.
I wrote to English folklorist Jeremy Harte as part of my continuing research. He could find no evidence of pillywiggins as part of folklore - which has been typical for me and everyone I've contacted. There are, of course, similar words like Pigwiggen, and he pointed out another similar fairy name, Skillywiddens. Pillywiggin is actually a perfect combo of those two.
He also pointed out a very interesting possibility: "from the way that [the 1977 source] mentions them, it’s possible that she may mean, not ‘there is a Dorset tradition about Pillywiggins’ but ‘there are traditions about tiny flower spirits, just like the (sc. literary) Pillywiggins from Dorset’. In that case we’re back to searching children’s literature."
The source might also be TV or radio rather than a book.
The only thing that can truly settle the issue is to find a source for pillywiggins that predates Field Guide to the Little People. If an older source is found, it will probably be a piece of media from the 60’s or 70’s, possibly connected to Dorset and intended for children.
Again - if you have any information to add, please let me know!
[This post was edited 1/3/2020 with a spelling correction.]
If you look up "cambion," you will most likely find sources telling you that this word refers to the offspring of a human and a demon - more specifically a succubus or incubus. But that's not what the word used to mean. Cambion comes from the Latin cambiare, to change. A cambion was originally a changeling.
This confusion isn't new. There are essentially two similar traditions of the Demon Baby, which have always been very close and prone to mixing up.
Today, cambions would be defined as Type 2. But when the 13th century bishop William of Auvergne mentioned cambiones in his work De Universo, he was describing Type 1.
"You should not overlook what is said about infants whom the convention calls cambiones, about which the most widespread are old wives’ tales: that they are the children of demon incubi, substituted by female demons so that they are fed by them as if they are their own and are hence called cambiones, that is, cambici, as if swapped and substituted to female parents for their own children. They say that these are thin, always wailing, drinking so much milk that it takes four wet-nurses to feed one. They are seen to stay with their wet-nurses for many years, after which they ﬂy away, or rather vanish." (Translation via Stainton and Goodey)
William's "cambiones" are the offspring of incubi instead of fairies, but otherwise, they are the same. They eat, they scream, and they plague the families whose children they have replaced. In fact, Richard Firth Green remarks that "incubus" was “probably the most widely used general scholastic term for ‘fairy’ in the Middle Ages." (p. 3) William's account is one of the earliest full description of changelings.
The common people would not actually have called them cambiones - that's Latin, so I'm not sure why William of Auvergne says it's a word of the "vulgar" or common tongue. Richard Firth Green in Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church has a detailed study of changelings in medieval belief. He gives a list of contemporary French and English names for this kind of creature: chamion, conjeoun or cangun. The word changeling did not show up until fairly late. The Oxford English Dictionary found it first in print around 1534.
In 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum appeared on the scene. This was "The Hammer of Witches," a medieval book still infamous today. It was all about witchcraft and what people should do about it (spoiler: burn all the witches).
It touched on the subject of demon-human hybrids a couple of times, but the part relevant to this discussion is Part 2, Chapter 8.
"Another terrible thing which God permits to happen to men is when their own children are taken away from women, and strange children are put in their place by devils. And these children, which are commonly called changelings [campsores], or in the German tongue Wechselkinder, are of three kinds. For some are always ailing and crying, and yet the milk of four women is not enough to satisfy them. Some are generated by the operation of Incubus devils, of whom, however, they are not the sons, but of that man from whom the devil has received the semen as a Succubus, or whose semen he has collected from some nocturnal pollution in sleep. For these children are sometimes, by Divine permission, substituted for the real children.
And there is a third kind, when the devils at times appear in the form of young children and attach themselves to the nurses. But all three kinds have this in common, that though they are very heavy, they are always ailing and do not grow, and cannot receive enough milk to satisfy them, and are often reported to have vanished away."
This, and Martin Luther's "Table Talks" published in 1566, would become the most widely cited authorities on changelings (or in German: Kielkropf, Wechselkinder, or Wechselbälge). Luther's version would fit both Type 1 and Type 2, as they were the demonic children of Satan and human women, whom Satan then swapped for normal children. As Luther said,
"This devil will suck and eat like an animal, but it will not grow. Thus it is said that changelings and killcrops do not live longer than eighteen or nineteen years."
Less than a century later, Pierre de Lancre was a French judge and performer of a huge witch hunt. Among his books on witchcraft was Tableau de l'inconstance des mauvais anges et démons (1612). (Read it in English or French.) Like many of his contemporaries, he touches on the question of whether demons could procreate. He mentions cambions and, in describing them, cites Martin Luther and says that their "age is fixed at seven years." Despite specifically calling these children "changed children" (enfans Changes), he also seems pretty firm on the idea that these are "children born from sexual union with demons." Finally, he cites a story from the encyclopedic Dierum canicularum (Dog Days) by Simonis Majoli, which was printed in 1597. Although I have not been able to track down this tome, the story as de Lancre gives it runs like this. There was a beggar who always carried a little boy with him. The little boy never did anything but scream and cry. A horseman saw them trying to cross the river, and helpfully took the child onto his own horse, but the boy was so heavy that the horse nearly sank. The beggar later confessed that the boy was actually a demon with whom he had made a deal. As long as the beggar carried him around, everyone would give him alms.
Later scholars would give this story significantly different spins, forget that it was Majoli or de Lancre who told it, and misspell de Lancre's name.
The Dictionnaire Infernal by Jacques Auguste Simon Collin de Plancy, first published in 1818, includes the cambion but is rather misleading. It cites Delancre as saying that incubi and succubi produce children called cambions. This can imply that the cambions are born of incubi and succubi together, rather than an incubus-human or succubus-human relationship. The author repeats that Martin Luther said changelings lived seven years. This is clearly wrong, since Martin Luther talked about changelings living until eighteen or nineteen. De Plancy also includes the story of the beggar, but attributes it to Henri Boguet's Discours de Sorciers. (I cannot find the beggar's tale in that book at all, leading me to wonder if De Plancy misread De Lancre's citations.)
The Dictionnaire's influence is seen as soon as 1861, when Dudley Costello published Holidays with Hobgoblins: And Talk of Strange Things. When he includes the beggar's tale, he describes the baby explicitly as a Cambion and the child of an incubus and succubus. Remember that de Lancre called it only a demon.
Lewis Spence's Encyclopædia of Occultism (1920) also relied on the Dictionnaire Infernal. He defined cambions as "offspring of the incubi and succubi," citing Delamare. (Whoops.) All of the information is pretty much just a translation of the Dictionnaire.
This new definition spread into popular culture. In Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo (1874), the main character is rumored to be a cambion, the son of a woman and the devil. One poem entitled "Cambion" in Clark Ashton Smith's The Dark Chateau (1951) runs "I am that spawn of witch and demon." Dungeons and Dragons brought out its Monster Manual II in 1983, with the demon-human-hybrid cambion.
The evolution of the word is pretty clear, with both meanings having always twined around each other. There was overlap between fairies and demons as the Church demonized older traditions. The half-demon man was a common trope in medieval lore, like (again) Merlin or Robert the Devil or Sir Gowther. Some version of "cambion" was once an insult common to "bastard." There are other words out there for the same idea. For instance, Jakob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology vol. II (1844) says that the children of witches and devils are elves, Holds, or Holdiken.
However, it's sobering to remember that many of these stories originated in trying to explain children born with congenital disorders. For instance, a severely disabled child whom Martin Luther saw and believed must be a demonic being deserving of death.
Sirens are not the same as mermaids. Mermaids are half-fish women, but sirens (the ones with the hypnotic singing voices) are half-bird women from Greek mythology. On the other hand, sirens and mermaids have been conflated for a long time. When did it begin?
Sirens first appear in Homer's Odyssey in the 8th century B.C. Homer doesn’t really describe them at all. All we know is that their song will ensnare anyone who hears it.
Later writers specify that sirens possess wings, or that they have the heads of beautiful women and bodies of birds. They may have drawn on Near Eastern myth-creatures like the ba of Egyptian cosmology. Human-faced birds were closely associated with the otherworld. Sirens mourned the dead in funerary art, and they were connected to Persephone, queen of the Underworld. Homer may have felt no need to describe sirens, since his audience would have known the context. Despoina Tsiafakis, however, suggests that the sirens could have gained avian attributes after Homer, when others sought to illustrate his work. (Tsiafakis p. 74)
Meanwhile, fish-tailed people were a subject of art for a long time. They showed up in Mesopotamian art at least from the Old Babylonian Period (c. 1830 BC – c. 1531 BC). These were usually men, like the god Ea, but fish-tailed women sometimes appeared.
Then in medieval times, sirens stopped being bird-ladies and became fish-ladies. But birds and fish aren't typically interchangeable. What happened?
Even in Ancient Greece, sirens were already evolving. Male sirens used to appear in art, but disappeared as artists' attitudes shifted (Tsiafakis). Now all female and anthropomorphized, sirens changed from monstrous birds with human heads to instrument-playing women who happened to have wings and bird feet.
The emphasis moved to their beauty and allure. In some late Greek art they appeared as women with no avian attributes at all (Harrison 1882). As the legend traveled abroad, things got even more complicated.
In his Commentary on Isaiah (c. 404-410 AD), Jerome uses siren as a translation for a couple of words. Regarding thennim (tannim, or jackals) he adds, "Moreover, sirens are called thennim (תנים), which we interpret as either demons, or some kind of monsters, or indeed great dragons, who are crested and fly."
So now, apparently, sirens are dragons. This sets the stage for the next stage of sirens, where they are symbols of evil and temptation.
In his Etymologies, compiled between c. 615 and the 630s, Isidore of Seville seems split on the issue. He tells us of "three Sirens who were part maidens, part birds, having wings and talons.” But he goes on to explain that “in Arabia there are snakes with wings, called sirens (sirena).”
In the Liber monstrorum (Book of Monsters), from the late 7th-early 8th century, the anonymous author proposes "a little picture of a sea-girl or siren, which if it has a head of reason is followed by all kinds of shaggy and scaly tales.”
Then there’s the Physiologus, a bestiary which originated as a 2nd-century Greek text. As pointed out by Wilfred P. Mustard, the original Physiologus doesn't mention sirens. However, translations varied widely and contradictions were rampant. In a 9th-century copy from Bern, even though the text described sirens as avian beings, a confused illustrator added an illustration of a half-serpent woman. (Dorofeeva 2014) A early 12th-century German edition gives Sirene as "meremanniu," and a Middle English translation "mereman." (Pakis 2010) Despite the discrepancies between editions, the Physiologus was a universally popular source for creators of medieval bestiaries. People later in this list, like Bartholomaeus and Geoffrey Chaucer, mentioned it by name when describing their siren-mermaids.
Some authors seesawed on the subject. Guillame le Clerc, in his Bestiaire (c. 1210) said that the beautiful, murderous siren has the lower body of "a fish or a bird." Bartholomaeus Anglicus, in De proprietatibus rerum, “On the Properties of Things” (1240), was careful to cover all his bases. "The Mermayden, hyghte Sirena, is a see beaste wonderly shape," he said, and proceeded to describe fish-women, fowl-women, crested serpents, and pretty much everything in between.
In quite a few illustrations, "transitional" sirens held sway. In the Northumberland Bestiary (c.1250-60), sirens are a kind of human-bird-fish hybrid with amphibious webbed feet.
Or take this illustration, where the siren is a winged merperson.
By the 14th century, the siren's identity had become standardized as a fish-tailed temptress with a hypnotic voice. The words siren and mermaid were interchangeable.
When Geoffrey Chaucer translated Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, (1378-1381) he translated sirenae as meremaydenes. Then, in Nonne Preestes Tale (1387-1400), he described a "Song merier than the mermayde in the see."
Male Regle (The Male Regimen) by Thomas Hoccleve (1406)
"...spekth of meermaides in the see,
How þat so inly mirie syngith shee
that the shipman therwith fallith asleepe,
And by hir aftir deuoured is he.
From al swich song is good men hem to keepe."
In Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene book II (1590s), "mermayds . . . making false melodies" tempt the heroes. These mermaids, Spenser explained, were once "fair ladies" but arrogantly challenged the "Heliconian maides" (the Greek Muses) and were turned to fish below the waist as punishment. (This sort of ties in with Pausanias’ Description of Greece from around the 2nd century A. D., where the Sirens and Muses had a singing competition. The Sirens lost and the Muses plucked out their feathers to make into crowns.)
The original version of Sirens never fully went away. William Browne, in the Inner Temple Masque (1615) described Syrens "with their upper parts like women to the navell, and the rest like a hen."
Still, sirens and mermaids remained generally synonymous, with few exceptions. English has the word mermaid for the fish-woman and siren for the mythological bird-woman. In Russian, too, the sirin has survived as a bird-woman. But in many other languages, “siren” is The Word for mermaid. According to Wilfred Mustard, "In French, Italian and Spanish literature, the Siren seems to have been always part fish." Languages that only use sirena or some variant for "mermaid" include Albanian, Basque, Bosnian, Croatian, French, Galician, Italian, Latvian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Serbian, Slovenian, and Spanish. Aquatic mammals like manatees and dugongs belong to the order Sirenia. A congenital disorder that causes children to be born with fused legs is called Sirenomelia.
Sirens have always been associated with the ocean and with sailors. They are the children of a river god. It makes sense that people would portray them as part-fish. But could the change have been intentional, at least on some parts? Jane Harrison suggests that “the tail of an evil sea monster” was meant to emphasize the siren’s corruption and darkness (p. 169). The book Sea Enchantress: The Tale of the Mermaid and her Kin proposes that the intention was to give the beautiful sea-maiden “a graceful fish-tail, since a bird-body is hardly seductive in appearance” (p. 48). Different lines of thought there, but the same effect. Whatever caused this evolution, it's clear that the modern mermaid is truly the direct descendant of the ancient Greek siren.
Continued from "Yumboes: Senegalese Fairies?"
I first learned of yumboes from a folklore encyclopedia which described them as little fairy creatures with silver hair. When I searched for fairies and little people in Wolof and Senegalese folklore, I couldn't find any matches for the yumboes. It turns out that I was looking the wrong place. I found parallels when I looked for ghosts, gods, and ancestral spirits.
The Kongo people originally took European newcomers for vumbi, white-skinned ghosts. Not only were Europeans white, but when their ships appeared mast-first over the horizon, it could have looked as if they were rising up out of the underworld. And in Jamaica, the duppy folk, like the yumboes, are little white people who live in a society mimicking humans. They love singing and appreciate offerings of food.
Vumbis and duppies are both ghosts. Vumbi in particular seems like it could share a root word with yumboes. In many cultures, there's an overlap between fairies and ghosts. Yumboes are just on the ghost end of the scale.
What do we learn about them from Thomas Keightley's description?
The Mythology of All Races lists examples of African ancestral spirits where, in many cases, ghosts continue their existence exactly as they did in life. They have families and even young children. They keep dogs and cattle. Often, they do all of this in a realm deep beneath the earth. In one widespread tale, a hunter follows a porcupine down its burrow and finds an underground village. There, he recognizes deceased friends and relatives. Sometimes, by the time he returns to the living world, so much time has passed that his family has given him up for dead.
In one tale, while the Underworld is plentiful in food, it has no grain. The ghosts must visit the living world in animal form to steal from gardens. Elsewhere, the Chaga people believe that warimu will steal sheep or beer-making troughs. The living should leave offerings of porridge, beer or other food items for the dead. In some mythologies, the ghosts need and demand these offerings. In others, they just appreciate gifts.
These ghosts sometimes come out to dance and celebrate. Among the Wadoe, it was said that that when the ghosts gathered, you could hear their voices and drums. In Nyasaland and around Delagoa Bay, people might hear the spirits’ drums, horns and flutes, but it was impossible to find the source of the music.
Some Nyasaland ghosts haunted hills. Women who passed those hills might have their pots stolen by baboons, presumably the spirits in animal form. Any fruit taken from those hills will vanish into nothing. (Werner)
The Thonga people believed in ancestral spirits called shikwembu. Accounts varied: upon death, these spirits might go to an underground village where everything is white, or they might dwell in the sacred woods. They have families and homes just like living people – although they carry their babies upside down! They are short of stature (it's not said how short). (Junod)
Almost always, either the spirits or their homes are white. From the area of Lake Tanganyika, in the underground village of the fisinwa, their clothing and huts shine like the moon. (Mulland)
These are still sources written by colonizers, but they all back each other up and have clear parallels.
As Keightley mentions, in many African countries the color white is associated with the spirit world and death. These superstitions have had tragic results for people with albinism, who have been mistreated or murdered. In Zimbabwe, they were believed "to belong to both the living and the dead," and instead of dying, they would vanish into the bush. The funeral of anyone with the condition always attracted lots of attention. (Kromberg) In Tanzania, one woman with albinism described being bullied in school. Other children mocked her by calling her "zeru," a derogatory Swahili word originating from a term for ghosts. (BBC)
So here's what these spirits have in common:
Yumboes fit right in! Fascinatingly, they do have a lot in common with European fairies. The 17th-century story of the Fairy Boy of Leith, for instance, features people meeting beneath a hill for feasts and music, entering the secret dwelling through invisible gates.
I'm not sure whether it's an oversimplification to call these ancestral spirits 'fairies.' Yumboes are only categorized as such because Thomas Keightley included them in The Fairy Mythology. Note that he included "Shedeem, Shehireem, or Mazikeen" as Jewish spirits, and these are probably closer to demons or djinn than fairies.
I still haven't found "yumboes" under that specific name. One problem is that older Wolof folklore has been overwritten by Islamic beliefs. If you look for ghosts or spirits in modern sources, you'll find "jinne" instead. A secondary issue is that we don't know if "yumbo" is an accurate spelling, or even whether it might originate from elsewhere on the continent. Remember that this word was transmitted through multiple European sources before being set to print.
Still, I think we can consider the yumboes "rebunked."
Next step: find the source of their name. There are Wolof words like yomba (cheap) or yombe (either “wise,” or some kind of squash or gourd) - via the Dictionnaire Francais-Wolof. These look the closest to yumbo, but I don’t believe they’re related. I'm inclined to think yumbo comes from the family of jumbie, zumbi, or Nzambi - ghosts and gods - or maybe njuuma, a Wolof word for a mischievous little devil.
Do you have any guesses or evidence? Write in and let me know!
The oakmen are an English species of fairy, included by the famous folklorist Katharine Mary Briggs in her Dictionary of Fairies (1976). They are "squat, dwarfish people with red toadstool caps and red noses who tempt intruders into their copse with disguised food made of fungi." They inhabit a fairy wood where the ground is covered with bluebells. These are "sinister characters," she added in The Vanishing People (1978).
Since then, oakmen have shown up fairly frequently in folklore encyclopedias and fantasy works (for instance, the One Ring RPG based on The Lord of the Rings). But the post "Oakmen Fairy Fakes?" at Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog raises some questions. Specifically: all of this rests on extremely flimsy evidence.
Back up here for a second. Oaks have a long history in folklore and mythology. Fairy associations with trees, especially oaks, show up in Lewis Spence's British Fairy Origins (1946) and Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology vol. 2, among many, many other books. In Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), "the man in the oke" appears in a list of supernatural beings.
But K. M. Briggs isn't talking about any of that. She's describing oakmen, wee little English gnomes who live inside oak trees. And her sources are Ruth Tongue's Forgotten Folktales of the English Counties (1970) and Beatrix Potter's Fairy Caravan (1929). European folklore is clearly threaded through Potter's novel, and Briggs claimed hopefully, "It is probable that her Oakmen are founded on genuine traditions." By 1978 she was more certain. In The Vanishing People she wrote, "Although [The Fairy Caravan] makes no claim to be authoritative the legend is confirmed by the collections of Ruth Tongue."
Ruth Tongue was Briggs' close friend and protégé. As usual, when recording the Cumberland story of "The Vixen and the Oakmen," she left her sources vague. This story was told by a nameless soldier stationed in the Lake District in 1948. Tongue's oakmen are tree-dwelling guardians of animals and nature, with no further description provided.
There are several obscure fairy races which Tongue brought to light, seemingly out of nowhere, and which Briggs eagerly popularized - like the asrai. The oakmen fit the same patterns. Their story is strikingly unique, but there is one older work which could maybe hold evidence of a wider tradition (or evidence that Ruth Tongue took a little inspiration from books). "The Vixen" showcases her signature flowery style. It's the kind of story where talking animals chat about dinner plans.
However, in this case, Briggs relied more strongly on Beatrix Potter as a source. The Fairy Caravan, the longest of Potter's works, follows a guinea pig who runs away and joins a secret animal circus. The watercolor landscapes are based on the Lake District (and hey, isn't that where "The Vixen and the Oakmen" was collected?).
Potter's oakmen are “dwarfy red-capped figures” spotted pushing a miniature wheelbarrow through a glade. One is named Huddikin, like the Hödekin of German folklore. They are surprisingly mundane little people who take in animals during the winter.
In an unrelated subplot, the characters search for a lost companion, Paddy Pig, who has vanished in Pringle Wood. This is a small wood of oaks where anyone who travels becomes lost and it is unwise to eat anything that grows. The ground is carpeted with bluebells, and the illustration shows tiny sprites hiding amidst the flowers. Someone eventually finds Paddy Pig inside a hollow tree, hallucinating after eating "tartlets" which were actually toadstools. While recovering, he describes being chased through the woods by “green things with red noses” that pinched him.
The oakmen are never connected to the "green things with red noses." They have nothing to do with bluebells, poisonous fungi, Pringle Wood or any of the beings that live in it. They are not "sinister." They don't even wear toadstool caps - instead, they have pointed garden-gnome-style hats.
Something has gone very wrong here.
Upon some research, I quickly learned that this whole thing began when Beatrix Potter visited her new husband's seven-year-old niece, Nancy Nicholson. She was delighted by the little girl's imaginative stories of playing in the woods with the Oakmen. For Christmas in 1916, she gave Nancy a six-page watercolor-illustrated story about them. Here, the oakmen are jolly little fellows who live in larch trees (!) with little doors and windows. They are friends to both animals and humans. Their idyllic existence features tea parties sitting around toadstool-tables. When their forest is cut down, they move to a new home close to Potter's house.
Potter was interested in publishing "The Oakmen" as her next book. Due to her failing eyesight, she began some preliminary work with an illustrator named Ernest A. Aris. However, when she started drafting, she learned that the oakmen were not Nancy's original creation. Instead, the idea may have come from a storybook which someone had read to her when she was little.
Potter's biographers generally agree that she ended her plans for the oakmen over copyright concerns. In addition, she had a falling out with Aris over accusations that he had plagiarized her books.
So the story was laid aside, but Potter had fond memories of the oakmen. In a 1924 letter, she lamented "I should have liked to have made a book of some of my 'letters to Nancy.'" And in 1929, she mentioned them briefly in The Fairy Caravan. This was not the story she had developed with Nancy, so perhaps she felt she had sidestepped any copyright problems. One character starts to talk about the Oakmen but swiftly changes the subject.
You can read the original Oakmen story in Leslie Linder's History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter. As for Ernest A. Aris, he went on to include elves identical to Potter's oakmen in multiple picture books. It looks like there was something to those accusations of plagiarism.
So the question is: where did Nancy Nicholson get the oakmen?
Nancy later wrote of her friendship with Potter, "The oak-men were imaginary people who lived in trees, and I remember my amazement on my first visit to Sawrey, when this new aunt left the grown-ups and came to me to imagine windows and doors in the trees with people peeping out."
Interestingly, she hyphenates it as oak-men, not like Potter's portmanteau Oakmen. After some more research, I have a hypothesis as to what inspired her.
William Canton (1845-1926) was a British author who wrote several children's books inspired by his daughter Winifred Vida, or W.V. Some of these books mention Oak-men (with a hyphen!). These began as stories Canton told his daughter while they went for walks in the woods. They built their own fairytale world, ranging from the ominous Webs of the Iron Spider to the Oak-men's "small Gothic doors" in the trees. The Oak-men were small beings who drank out of acorn cups and wore clothes the color of leaves.
W. V.: Her Book (1896), published when she was five years old, features a scene where W.V. gets lost in the woods. Fortunately, "the door of an oak-tree open[s] and a little, little, wee man all dressed in green, with green boots and a green feather in his cap, come[s] out.” This Oak-man and his friends help her find her way home.
The story is accompanied by an illustration of the little girl in the midst of the trees, which all have little doors at their bases. She thanks one Oak-man with a kiss, while other Oak-men, pixies and animals stand by. (pp. 79-81)
Oak-men also featured in A Child's Book of Saints (1898) and In memory of W. V. (1901). Tragically, ten-year-old W.V. died in 1901.
One of these could be the storybook Nancy read. Her tiny doors in trees and her use of a hyphen are Canton-esque, and she might have identified with the figure of little W.V. wandering the woods. These books also would have been recent enough to make Beatrix Potter's publishers really concerned.
William Canton was well-acquainted with mythology and his daughter's games often featured fairies and pixies. However, it seems likely that the oak-men were not folk-fairies, but an original creation of the Canton family. Briggs treated Beatrix Potter like an author adapting a myth, but evidence shows that Potter behaved more like an author concerned about copyright infringement. That issue would never exist if oakmen were from folklore.
It looks like this is a case of K. M. Briggs focusing on entertainment over accuracy. Although there is plenty of material connecting fairy beings to oak trees, she included the oakmen based on scanty evidence. Not only that, but she completely misread her source. The oakmen do not wear mushroom caps, glamour toadstools to look like tarts, or live in a bluebell-filled wood. Even if there are oakmen hiding in older English folklore, Briggs' description is fundamentally incorrect.
In Welsh legend, corgis were once the steeds of the fairy folk. You can still see the faint markings of the fairy saddles across the Pembroke Welsh Corgi's shoulders and back... or so I've heard. I found many books and websites which mentioned the "ancient legend," but none provided a source. Conversely, I could not find any books of Welsh legend that mentioned the corgi's enchanted origins. It's an orphaned fun fact.
Welsh Corgis have been around for a long time. They were bred as cattle dogs, whose small stature helped them avoid the cows' kicking hooves, but they worked with all sorts of livestock. In the 1920s, their name came into more widespread use and they were officially acknowledged as a breed. The English Kennel Club formally recognized the two Corgi breeds, Pembroke and Cardigan, as separate in 1934.
There are many theories on where their name came from. One is that it is a compound meaning "dwarf dog": cor (dwarf) + ci (dog). Some modern sources connect this to the Little Folk.
This debate is not new. The Dictionary of the Welsh Language by William Spurrell (1853) defined corgi as a "cur dog." The "cur dog" definition might have more historical support, going back as far as 1574 in William Salesbury’s Dictionary in Englyshe and Welshe. Here, cur would just be used in the sense of a dog of low breeding: a working dog as opposed to a lapdog. In A Dictionary of the Welsh Language (1893), Daniel Silvan Evans defended the "dwarf dog" definition, which is more widespread today. However, he was not using "dwarf" in the sense of fairy. He just meant it was a small dog.
So when did the fairy saddle legend originate?
The earliest source I can find is the poem "Corgi Fantasy" by Anne G. Biddlecombe of Dorset, England. She was one of the top Pembroke breeders of the 1940s and 1950s, and a founding member of the Welsh Corgi League in London, serving as their secretary for some time. She used the pedigree prefix Teekay, under which many of her dogs became show champions.
The poem was first published in 1946 (in the first edition of the Welsh Corgi League Handbook?). Two children find some foxlike puppies out in the woods and take them home. Their father tells them that the dogs are a gift from the fairies, who ride them or use them to pull coaches and herd cows. He points out the image of the fairy saddles on the dogs' coats.
This poem soon became popular and was reprinted in numerous magazines and books, crossing over from England to America. It featured at least twice in the American Kennel Gazette, in 1950 and 1956. The artist Tasha Tudor drew illustrations when it appeared in the Illustrated Study of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi Standard (1975).
(Tudor was a well-known fan of Corgis. In the introduction to her 1971 picture book Corgiville Fair, she said, "They are enchanted. You need only to see them by moonlight to realize this.")
Other modern corgi enthusiasts added their own twists with books, poems and stories like "The Fairy Saddle Legend" and "How the Corgi Lost his Tail." Many artists have turned their talents to drawing corgis with fairies. The stories mention the corgis serving as the fairies' battle steeds - a fantastic mental image.
As an interesting sidenote, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi Club of America uses the acronym PWCCA. The pwca or pooka is a mischievous spirit in Welsh folklore.
Pembrokes weren't the only ones with otherworldly connections. "Rhodd Glas: The Blue Gift," by Pam Brand, appeared in the 1996 handbook of the Cardigan Welsh Corgi Club of America. Brand described how the fairies created the first blue merle Cardigan corgi from a wildflower.
Some even say that corgis were used in a war between the Tylwyth Teg and the Gwyllion, but this is hard to verify. In fact, these two fairy types may be the same thing, not separate tribes at all. The farthest I could trace that particular variation was the book Gods, ghosts and black dogs: The fascinating folklore and mythology of dogs, published in 2016. Later that same year, a Mental Floss article "The Ancient Connection Between Corgis and Fairies" used the story.
You may notice that none of these sources are from fairytales or folklore collections. Instead, they're from articles on dog breeds. At this point, I have found no ancient tales of fairies riding any kind of dog. However, I have found a few Welsh legends of fairy steeds.
In "The Tale of Elidorus," from Giraldus Cambrensis' account in 1191, the little people rode miniature horses perfectly adapted to their size. They had similarly tiny greyhounds.
In Thomas Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends (1828), a woman from the Vale of Neath saw an army of fairies "mounted upon little white horses, not bigger than dogs." That's at least a small step closer to the corgi legend.
Based on all this, I would guess that the legend of the corgi's fairy origins is new, not ancient. It's a modern folktale which grew naturally out of the subculture of corgi breeders and fans. The idea of the "saddle marks" took shape around the time the dog's characteristics were being formally defined. The "Corgi Fantasy" poem was published twelve years after the Pembroke breed was recognized. Other people came up with their own spins on the story, and it developed from there.
I'm currently working on a timeline of the corgi legend's evolution. Many of these poems and stories were first printed in dog magazines and handbooks, which makes them difficult to track down. If you have any clues, please send them in!
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.