The akhlut, in Inuit legend, is an orca-like creature which can turn into a wolf on land, or a giant wolf, or a hybrid of wolf and orca (with many modern artists taking a crack at visualizing it - see examples here). As pack animals and dangerous hunters, orcas and wolves do have a lot in common. Some users on Wikipedia and the Offbeat Folklore Wiki have done excellent digging to establish that the "akhlut" is a very modernized take on a belief.
Akhlut is actually a misnomer; "akh'lut" is the name for the orca among some indigenous peoples around the Bering Sea. (Compare the differently Romanized Yupik word "arrlug," found in Freelang's online dictionary). In 1899, Edward William Nelson, an American naturalist, published his studies collected from the west coast of Alaska and east coast of Siberia. The geographical area encompasses Inuit and Siberian Yupik groups.
Among other mythical creatures, Nelson mentioned a shapeshifting monster known as the “kăk-whăn’-û-ghăt kǐg-û-lu’-nǐk":
"It is described as being similar in form to the killer whale and is credited with the power of changing at will to a wolf; after roaming about over the land it may return to the sea and again become a whale. While in the wolf form it is known by the above name, and the Eskimo say they know that this change takes place as they have seen wolf tracks leading to the edge of the sea ice and ending at the water, or beginning at the edge of the water and leading to the shore. ... These animals are said to be very fierce and to kill men ... This belief is prevalent among all the Eskimo along the shore of Bering sea." (Nelson, p. 444)
"Kǐg-û-lu’-nǐk" means the gray wolf (Nelson, p. 322). Nelson included rationalizations, saying that the killer whale is the clear inspiration and that the vanishing wolf tracks are caused by ice breaking off the shore. He also mentioned other mythical creatures such as white whales (belugas) that also take reindeer form. He included photographs of indigenous art where wolves transform into orcas, or creatures that have aspects of both animals.
After Nelson’s work, the idea of this creature has been simplified and passed around. It was described under the name "akhlut" in Gill and Sullivan's Dictionary of Native American Mythology (1992, p. 8). The dictionary cites Tennant and Bitar's Yupik Lore: Oral Traditions of an Eskimo People (1981), but I think this was a mixup. A) Tennant and Bitar don't mention any myths about orcas, and B) Gill and Sullivan's description is very similar to Nelson's in details and wording. Gill and Sullivan were cited by Carol Rose in her reference book Giants, monsters, and dragons: an encyclopedia of folklore, legend, and myth (2001, p. 10). So the akhlut story spread like many similar factoids, through reference books repeating each other. These stories usually focus on the evil of the akhlut; as Carol Rose wrote, extrapolating wildly, "this being emerges from the ice-floes to hunt for human beings in the guise of an enormous wolf. The Inuit, upon seeing huge wolf tracks that terminate at the edge of the ice, know that they are in peril and are quick to retreat. They recognize this spot as dangerous territory, for it is the place where an Akhlut has changed back into this killer whale form and may reemerge to kill them" (Rose, pp. 10-11).
One story floating around on the Internet snagged my attention: a supposed origin myth for the akhlut. In this account, there was once a man so fascinated by the ocean that he began to spend all of his time there, and slowly to become more and more like an animal, until his own tribe didn’t recognize him and cast him out. Deadset on revenge, he transformed into a beastly wolf. However, his love for the ocean still tugged at him, so he became an orca. Since then, the creature known as the akhlut spends time in the ocean as an orca but comes ashore as a wolf when hungry (whether for food or for revenge - it varies between tellings). This account has been circulating around a few blogs and forums, and even made it into a book in 2023 (Natalie Sanders' The Last Sunset in the West), but something about it seemed off.
After some digging, I discovered that this origin story was attached to the virtual pet site Magistream, which includes numerous mythical creatures. A user first requested that the akhlut be added to the bestiary in March 2010 (source). In December 2011, the akhlut was added, along with an origin story (source). This telling explains more of the internal logic. The man fated to become the first akhlut doesn’t just wander off to become a wolf (although that is not outside the bounds of possibility in folktales). Instead, he is killed by wolves, and his restless spirit shifts between shapes as it is “torn between his love for the water and a consuming need for revenge.” Note that the Inuit people are never mentioned; the story is instead set in a fictional land called Arkene. I tried reaching out to the Magistream moderators for more info, but it seems that the writer who created the Akhlut’s description has moved on from the site since 2010.
A close rewording of this story was added to the Cryptid Wiki on August 10, 2015. This version is less descriptive, garbles some of the details, and attributes the story to Inuit legend, apparently for the first time. The Cryptid Wiki's retelling seems to be the most widespread version, copied on various blogs.
The myth that Nelson collected fits into a much broader context. Many indigenous peoples had deep respect for the orca, which was associated in some cultures with hunting or with the afterlife. In many cultures, there was a belief that the killer whale and the wolf were the same being. Much like the images collected by Nelson, these were depicted with aspects of both animals in ritual art.
The Siberian Yupik believed that the killer whales became wolves during the winter. Unlike what we've seen of the "akhlut" so far, they were revered and seen as helpers. As Edward J. Vajda wrote: "The killer whale... and wolf were considered sacred and could not be killed... Killer whales were also revered as protectors of hunters; it was also thought that the killer whale became a wolf in winter and devoured the reindeer unless some of the reindeer submitted to the hunters. Ritual meals were concluded by throwing a piece of meat into the sea to bless and thank the killer whales who had made the catch possible."
The Kwakwaka'wakw of British Columbia also believed that killer whales could transform into wolves (or humans) at will (Francis and Hewlett, p. 117). They made offerings to the orcas to request food such as seals, and believed that orcas/wolves could bestow supernatural powers such as healing (McMillan, p. 322).
Similarly, the Nuu-chah-nulth viewed the whale-wolf as benevolent and helpful, with both wolves and whales being patrons of hunting. People avoided killing orcas. As an early-20th-century informant stated, "The killer whales are wolves. Wolves sometimes run through caves into the water and turn into killer whales. The tail turns into the big fin on the back." The wolf-orca connection plays a part in several origin myths for the tlukwana or "Wolf Dance," an important traditional mid-winter ceremony. Relevant to the "origin myth" for the "akhlut," one story describes a young man who is adopted by the wolves and taught to hunt marine mammals. He returns to his village in “Killer Whale clothes” to teach his people the tlukwana (McMillan, pp. 314-316).
In Haida lore from British Columbia, a mythical creature called the Wasco could transform from an orca to (depending on the version) either a wolf or a bear. It hunted whales. (Barbeau, p. 305; Deans, p. 58). There is a story where a man killed the Wasco, skinned it, and was able to gain its power by wearing the skin.
The kăk-whăn’-û-ghăt kǐg-û-lu’-nǐk - or its modernized counterpart, the akhlut - is part of a mythical context in which people and animals change their shapes at will. As part of this, there is often a connection specifically between orcas and wolves which we find in indigenous myths from all around that geographic area. Nelson gives only a tiny bit of information, and it's hard to say how much might be influenced by his retelling and interest in rationalizing. For another instance of aquatic mammals, there are reports of stories from Nunivak Island that belugas could transform into wolves or mountain sheep (Hill, p. 53).
Hi everyone! I'm delighted to announce that my first academic article has been published in Shima Journal. It explores the history of Starbucks' iconic mermaid logo and why Melusine, a serpent-woman from medieval myth, has been identified in recent years with images of double-tailed mermaids. You can read it at 10.21463/shima.190
“Ondine’s Curse” is the name of a rare form of apnea, a condition in which people stop breathing. According to various medical texts, it's based on an old Germanic legend - the story of Undine or Ondine, who cursed her faithless lover to stop breathing. Except . . . this doesn't sound anything like the story of Undine, which isn't even exactly a legend. What's going on here?
As I've described before on this blog, "undines" originally came from the writings of 16th-century philosopher Paracelsus. The word was evidently his original creation, referring to water elementals or nymphs. Combining the medieval legends of "Melusine," "Peter von Stauffenberg," and various folktales about fairy wives, Paracelsus wrote that undines could gain a soul by marrying a human. However, such relationships were fraught with danger; these water-wives could all too easily be lost to the realm they'd come from, and if the mortal husband took another wife, the water-wife would come back to murder him. This story was passed around and adapted by various authors.
Most famously, it found form in the 19th-century novella Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. Undine is a nymph who marries the knight Huldbrand and gains a soul as a result. However, he ditches her for a human lover - which, by the rules of spirits and the otherworld, means he must die. Although Undine still loves him, she is forced to kill him on the night of his second wedding. She appears and embraces him, weeping.
"Tears rushed into the knight's eyes, and seemed to surge through his heaving breast, till at length his breathing ceased, and he fell softly back from the beautiful arms of Undine, upon the pillows of his couch—a corpse."
Undine then states mournfully, "I have wept him to death."
So where did things go off track?
This novella became extremely popular, inspiring many adaptations. There were plays, operas, ballets. Even Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid took inspiration from it.
One play adaptation, Ondine, by Jean Giraudoux, came out in 1938. In this version, the characters are named Ondine and Hans. Although Hans betrays Ondine with another woman, she still loves him and attempts to stop her people from executing him by running away. However, her efforts are of no avail, and Hans is condemned to death by the king of the water spirits.
The former lovers get the chance to say goodbye. The tormented Hans tells Ondine, “Since you went away, I've had to force my body to do things it should do automatically. I no longer see unless I order my eyes to see... I have to control five senses, thirty muscles, even my bones; it's an exhausting stewardship. A moment of inattention, and I will forget to hear, to breathe... He died, they will say, because he got tired of breathing..."
As the two share a final kiss, Hans dies and Ondine's memories of him are erased.
Losing the Way
In 1962, a California-based doctor named John Severinghaus and his colleague Robert Mitchell worked with three patients who all shared similar symptoms. After operations on the brain stem, these patients could not breathe automatically. They had to consciously decide to breathe, and they needed artificial respiration when asleep. Severinghaus and Mitchell wrote a paper about their studies, coining the term "Ondine's Curse" for the phenomenon. They stated briefly:
"The syndrome was first described in German legend. The water nymph, Ondine, having been jilted by her mortal husband, took from him all automatic functions, requiring him to remember to breathe. When he finally fell asleep, he died."
This is a garbled version of Giraudoux's play. They were clearly inspired by Hans's speech, and as pointed out by researcher Fernando Navarro, they use Giraudoux's spelling, "Ondine." But you can see the play being misunderstood and slanted here, misremembered just a little.
Their summary was soon picked up, gaining a life of its own as other medical professionals repeated and mangled it further. Many versions simply repeat some variation on Severinghaus and Mitchell, but we see an emerging image of Ondine as a forceful figure who delivers judgment on her traitorous husband. She, not the ruler of the water spirits, curses Hans. Across various versions, she is angry, a purveyor of revenge or punishment (Navarro 1997).
Usually the husband or lover is unnamed, but Hans remains a common moniker (as in Naughton 2006). Some retellings get much more elaborate, with their own mythology. A popular variant explains that if a nymph ever falls in love with a mortal and gives birth to his child, then she will become an ordinary mortal, subject to aging. Nevertheless, the nymph Ondine falls in love with a human, and he with her. One version names him Lawrence (Coren 1997); another calls him Palemon, borrowing from Frederick Ashton's 1958 ballet adaptation Ondine (Mawer 2009).
Lawrence/Palemon/whoever swears to her that “My every waking breath shall be my pledge of love and faithfulness to you." However, after she bears his son, Ondine begins to age, and her beauty fades. Her shallow husband dallies with other women. When Ondine catches him in bed with a mistress, she is enraged. With the last of her magic, she calls down a curse which mocks her husband's broken vow: as soon as he falls asleep, he'll stop breathing. Her husband inevitably falls asleep from exhaustion and dies.
This variant upends the original worldbuilding. In Fouque’s novel, marriage grants Undine a soul, but she remains otherworldly and powerful. Huldbrand rejects her out of fear and resentment. However, in this variant, marriage transforms Ondine into an ordinary woman, and that's why her husband strays.
Some of the shorter retellings are so clumsily phrased that they mix up vital information. One skips over the husband's infidelity:
"[T]he beautiful water nymph . . . punished her mortal husband by depriving him of the ability to breathe automatically. Without the benefit of tracheostomy, the poor wretch, having forgotten how to breathe, died in his sleep." (Vaisrub 1978)
Another makes Ondine the cheater in the situation!
"Ondine, a German water nymph, invoked a curse upon her jilted husband so that he would forget to breathe (and die) when he fell asleep." (Swift 1976, as cited in Navarro 1997)
Or was Ondine the one who was cursed?
"[T]he water nymph Ondine was punished by the gods after falling in love with a knight by being condemned to stay awake in order to breathe." (BBC 2003)
In some versions, Ondine is a succubus-like serial killer:
"...a water-spirit of German mythology called Ondine who could cause the death of her victims by stopping their respiration." (Taitz et al 1971, as cited in Navarro 1997)
"Ondine was a mythological water nymph who exhausted her human lovers." This author quotes Giraudoux's play, but labels Hans as just "one victim"! (Sege 1992)
And sometimes the nature of the curse itself changes to a perpetual sleep, as in one dictionary where Ondine is "A water nymph who caused a human male who loved her to sleep forever." (Firkin 1996)
The story goes completely off the rails in one article on spine surgery:
"Ondine, a shepherd in Greek mythology, was cursed for his misdeeds by being put into a sleep from which there was no awakening." (Fielding et al, 1975, as cited in Navarro 1997)
Critics were rightfully outraged at this summary, which manages to get every single detail wrong. The writers were following blindly in the footsteps of a very confused 1968 article which evidently mixed up Undine with the Greek myth of Endymion. The mistake is so wildly far off that I'm honestly impressed.
This is what happens when a bunch of people start retelling a story they've never read. The heart of the modern character Undine – carrying through to her spiritual successor, the Little Mermaid – is that she loves her husband. Her love is self-sacrificing and all-forgiving. The medical myth around “Ondine’s Curse” inverts this, making her a vindictive wife, a vampiric seductress, or a sheep-tending Greek man.
One article examines the history but concludes lackadaisically, "Whether Ondine kissed or clasped her husband to death depends on the version of the tale, and one can never know who cursed whom" (Tamarin et al, 1989). That's not true, though! This isn't like traditional oral folktales where there really are multiple unique variants and no one can determine an original. This is more like saying that we can never really know whether Dorothy's slippers were silver or ruby in The Wizard of Oz.
At what point does urban legend or commonly-repeated misconception become folklore? Can Ondine be considered a myth or legend, as it is often called? Perhaps it has become something of an oral folktale in the medical community. But given that it came specifically from literature, I hesitate to call it that.
This is part of a larger issue surrounding the story of Undine. It left its stamp on Western culture, but the work itself has become pretty obscure. For instance, many readers take jabs at Hans Christian Andersen for the theme of souls and salvation in The Little Mermaid, calling it tacked-on or a case of preachy Christian moralizing. But that plotline wasn’t original to Andersen – it was his response to Undine.
Scholars such as Oscar Sugar, Ravindra Nannapaneni, and Fernando Navarro have put significant work into tracing the fragmented and confused medical legend of Ondine's Curse. Many of them have argued against using the name at all, calling it a misnomer. From the other side, psychology professor Stanley Coren complained that the term was losing favor because of political correctness and "language sensitivity, where labeling people as suffering from some form of curse is seen as being insensitive rather than colorful." However, Coren says this right after weaving an elaborate summary which bears almost no resemblance to the real story. He also incorrectly attributes the coining of the term to the 1950s. And the vast majority of critics don't complain that it's mean to call a medical syndrome a curse; instead they focus on the fact that the name is fundamentally a bad fit.
On the literary level, Ondine neither causes the "curse" nor experiences it, and Hans's experience goes way beyond apnea. You could get pedantic and say "Well, it's named after the play, not the character" but clearly it has not been taken that way.
On the medical level, the shifting definitions lead to inconsistency on what the medical condition is. As Nannapaneni et al point out, the name "Ondine's Curse" has come to be used inconsistently for all sorts of conditions related to respiration. Not ideal for a medical term. They suggest that “this wide and nonspecific usage reflects a lack of awareness of the origins of this eponymous term.”
These days, the condition is typically known as Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome (CCHS); however, the name "Ondine's Curse" is still around in casual language, and is apparently here to stay.
Other Blog Posts
For years, I've thought Nicneven was the name of a legendary Scottish fairy queen, the leader of a Wild Hunt-like procession who made her rounds on Halloween. It was a little confusing - she was also named Gyre-Carling and was the Scottish equivalent of Hecate? But also there was a real woman named Nicneven and no one was sure which came first? Recently I started researching, and discovered pretty much everything I knew was wrong.
As a character, Nicneven's first ever appearance was in the Flyting between Alexander Montgomerie and Patrick Hume of Polwarth, composed sometime between 1580 and 1585. A Flyting was an exchange of intricate poetic insults, essentially a 16th-century rap battle. Montgomerie and Hume (who is referred to throughout the Flyting as Polwart) were court poets under King James VI of Scotland.
One section of Montgomerie's Flyting is quoted constantly. This was an elaborate imaginary narrative about Polwart's birth and infancy, overflowing with folklore and superstition. It kicks into gear about here:
Jn the hinder end of harvest on Alhallow even,
When our good Neighbours do is ride, if I read right,
Some buckled on a bunewand and some on a been,
Ay trottand in troupes from the twylight,
Some sadled a shee Aipe, all grathed into greene,
Some hobland on an hemp stalk, hove and to the hight,
The King of Pharie and his court, with the Elfe Queene,
With many Elrich Incubus was rydand that Night.
So on Halloween night, the Good Neighbors go riding, many on ragwort stalks and other plants, some on apes. The King of Fairy and his court and the Elf Queen are there. During this gathering, an elf and an ape beget an "unsell," an evil creature (a form of the word "unseelie"). This is Baby Polwart. Now, it's unclear whether Polwart is conceived and born in one night or whether more time passes, but at the very least, in the version I read, the poem then moves to him being found the next morning, abandoned in a ditch. He is discovered by the Weird Sisters - i.e. the Fates, essentially the same characters who show up in MacBeth. They are disgusted by his ugliness, and foretell that he shall die in three seemingly contradictory ways (a common Celtic concept, seen in works like the story of Myrddin). One states that Nicneven shall nourish him twice. This is a reference to taboos around breastfeeding and ideas that children who nursed at both breasts were greedy or depraved.
The Weird Sisters leave the baby lying there, and Nicneven arrives with a whole crew of women. Here we get some more famous lines:
Nicneven with her nymphes, in number anew,
With charmes from Caitnes and Chanrie of Rosse,
Whose cunning consists in casting of a Clew.
The poem immediately makes it clear that these are witches; they are mounted on pigs, dogs and monks, and ride widdershins nine times around the thorn-tree where Polwart is lying. They immediately spot him and are delighted. They perform an unholy baptism, dedicating Polwart to their goddess Hecate. Finally they send Polwart off to "Kait of Crief" to be raised, where he acts much like a changeling, silent for seven years, and is brought food by fairies and breastfed by monkeys.
Montgomerie was declared winner of the Flyting.
So that's the poem. Anyone seeing a problem here? Nicneven appears in a completely different section from the fairies and the Elf Queen. She is the foremost witch, but is never described as a queen. Her ladies may be called nymphs for alliteration, but they are clearly witches in name and behavior. Apparently, it's not even Halloween anymore by the time Nicneven shows up!
And that's it for appearances of Nicneven in print . . . until the 1800s rolled around. The next mention I know of is from 1801. John Leyden, in his commentary on The Complaynt of Scotland, described a figure known as "the gyre-carlin, the Queen of Fairies, the great hag, Hecate, or mother-witch of the peasants." He states that Nicneven is one of her names, quoting Montgomerie.
This is where the problems start. Leyden is combining a ton of characters here, including a possibly hypothetical "mother witch." The gyre-carlin was a common word, often a generic term for witches in general - Polwart even mentioned it in his response to Montgomerie, saying "Leave boggles, brownies, Gyre-carlings, and Gaists (Ghosts)." Also, Nicneven cannot be Hecate. In Montgomerie's poem, she worships Hecate. This leaves massive questions about why Leyden said any of this, or where he got his information. But his interpretation quickly became widespread, appearing in dictionaries and in works by authors like Sir Walter Scott.
Some writers seem to have simply parroted Leyden - for instance, Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language defines Nicneven as "The Scottish Hecate or mother-witch." But this wasn’t the case for all; Robert Cromek, collecting Scottish folklore about witches, described a more unique Gyre-Carling or “McNeven” who wore a gray cloak and wielded a magic wand that could rearrange the landscape. (Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, 1810.)
A Historical Nicneven?
There were also several mentions of women with names similar to Nicneven, all executed for witchcraft in Scotland. Scott ran wild with this and presumed that Nicneven was a traditional Scottish title for the leader of a witches' coven. But as I read about the few scraps of evidence we have, it seems equally possible that all of these Nicnevens were one person.
According to The Historie and Life of King James the Sext, in May 1569, a woman named Nicniven or Nic Neville - a "notable sorceress" - was burnt to death at St Andrews. The spellings of her name vary from manuscript to manuscript.
A letter from Sir John Mure of Caldwell, dated 10 May 1569, offers a tantalizing look at more of the case. Mure mentions seeing the trial of an old woman called "Niknevin" that past Tuesday. She was considered dangerous, but people weren't sure whether she'd get the death penalty or not. She refused to confess to witchcraft, saying that the doctors had accused her out of envy because she was a better healer than they were. Mure notes that she is very clever and well-spoken for a woman a hundred years old. (Longueville, Pryings)
Then there was the witchcraft trial of John Brughe of Fossoway, in November 1643. Brughe, it was said, had learned spells from a sixty-year-old widow, the "sister daughter" of "Nikneveing that notorious and infamous witch in Monzie" who was burnt as a witch about eighty years before.
Quick math check: at this point, it had been seventy-four years since Niknevin/Nic Neville's execution by burning. That's close enough to eighty. But at the same time, if these are the same woman, here are more questions. Was Mure right that Niknevin was a hundred years old? How does that mesh with a niece born twenty years after her death? Is a "sister daughter" a niece, or a more distant kinswoman?
Finally, we have Kate Nevin or Kate McNevin, the subject of a local legend from Monzie, first mentioned in print in 1818. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, in a foreword to Robert Law's Memorialls, mentioned "a tradition current in Perthshire" about a witch named Catharine Niven. He gave no date, but did suggest that her surname Niven was probably a nickname "from that of the Fairy Queen." Very mysterious . . . unless Sharpe had read Leyden's description of Nicneven as the Queen of the Fairies.
The overall story, across various versions, runs that Kate lived in Monzie and served as a nursemaid for the Graeme family of Inchbrakie. She was also a witch and healer, and in one tale she took the form of a bee to steal silverware. Ultimately she was arrested for witchcraft and burnt to death on the Knock of Crieff. As she died, she cursed the people of Monzie (versions vary on whether she focused on the Laird of Monzie or the local minister) so that their town would languish and the laird's lands would never pass from father to son in an unbroken line. The Laird of Inchbrakie - either her former employer or his son whom she had nursed - attempted to save her, and so she blessed him. She spat out a blue bead and told him that as long as he and his heirs kept it on their land, they would hold that land and always have heirs. Centuries later, the Graemes kept a gemstone they claimed was Kate McNiven's gift, and family tradition ran that it was eventually removed from the home by mistake and the land was subsequently parceled off and sold.
People have suggested a huge range of dates for Kate's death. In 1845, the Reverend George Blair wrote a poem about her ("The Holocaust, or the Witch of Monzie") and set the story in 1715, making her one of the last witches burned in the area. This date has been repeated numerous times by other authors, but Blair is pretty clear in his foreword that it was a guess. We can dismiss this one completely.
Another writer, Alexander Porteous, apparently made the connection to Nikneveing of Monzie. As a result, he called her Kate Nike Neiving, and stated that she died in 1563, exactly eighty years before Brughe's trial.
However, George F. Black dismissed Porteous' date completely, and instead estimated the date at 1615, with no explanation. Did he mean to write 1715? Or did he think 1715 was clearly wrong and "correct" it to 1615? (A Calendar of Cases of Witchcraft in Scotland 1510-1727)
To sum up, we have multiple references to a woman named something like Nicneven of Monzie, who was burnt to death for witchcraft. The existing evidence points to this happening in the 1560s. And Montgomerie's poem is historical evidence too! Particularly in a Flyting, all the jokes had to make sense and references had to be clear.
There are still discrepancies - did this woman die at St Andrews, or at the Knock of Criff in Monzie? Those two places are about 50 miles away from each other. The Kate McNiven legends were not collected until the 19th century; how reliable are they? Another odd note: remember the mention of "Kait of Crief" in Montgomerie's poem? Could this a reference to Kate and the Knock of Crieff? But then, that would imply that Nicneven and Kate were separate people. There are questions upon questions here.
Without more information on John Leyden's methods, it is unclear why he called Nicneven a Fairy Queen. Montgomerie's Nicneven, at least, is not the fairy queen who rides on Halloween. She's clearly not Hecate, either. She might be a gyre-carling, though, because a gyre-carling is a witch. You might say all of her women are gyre-carlings.
As for the question of where the character came from, there are more questions than answers. It's difficult to pin anything down with the spotty record-keeping and wildly varied spellings. Alison Hanham, who looked exhaustively at the various Nicnevens, called this "one of the minor mare's nests of Scottish history." As Jacqueline Simpson puts it, "We cannot therefore decide between two interpretations of Montgomerie's Nicneven. Was she a figure from folk tradition, a superhuman hag-ogress? Or was she a real "criminal," executed barely more than a decade before?"
At this point it's impossible to say for sure, and it's greatly debated. You'll find people arguing that Nicneven was the traditional goddess of Samhain, that Kate Niven never existed, that Kate Niven did exist and was titled after Nicneven, that Kate Niven had nothing to do with Nicneven... and so on. I do think that these are all connected - the very first printed mention of Catharine Niven references Nicneven.
Time for another examination of an obscure fairy legend! Who is the character "Nanny Button-cap"? Is there a real tradition to be found here?
The name "Nanny Button-cap" first appeared in Sidney Oldall Addy's Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Sheffield, published in 1888 for the English Dialect Society. Addy says only that “Nanny Button-cap” is “the name of a fairy” and that “The following lines are repeated by children”:
The moon shines bright,
The stars give light,
And little Nanny Button-cap
Will come to-morrow night.
After this nursery rhyme, Addy includes a note on the Norse goddess Nanna, who he describes as a moon goddess. This would tie in well with a nighttime fairy associated with moon and stars, and the implication is that the goddess Nanna is the source of the fairy Nanny.
The problem is, it’s actually not clear what Nanna was the goddess of. Her role was simply being wife to the god Baldr. She is certainly credited by various sources as a moon deity, but this may have been confusion with the Mesopotamian Nanna (who is a male moon deity) as well as various other similarly-named deities like Inanna. For his information on Nanna, Addy cites Viktor Rydberg's Teutonic Mythology – specifically, a section which is mainly conjecture and hypothesis. Addy does not include any of this context, making it sound like an accepted fact.
The link from Nanna to Nanny is equally suspicious, reeking of the approach that anything with a similar sound must be the same word.
Anyway, the nursery rhyme was reprinted in various books. It appeared in phonetic dialect in "Yorkshire Dialect Poems (1673-1915) and traditional poems," by F. W. Moorman (1917), and was credited as anonymous in Tom Tiddler's Ground: A Book of Poetry for Children (1932).
At the same time, Nanny Button-cap's name began to appear in a few lists of fairies. In 1913, Elizabeth Mary Wright wrote:
“It is difficult to classify all the supernatural beings known to dialect lore, otherwise than very roughly, for even a cursory glance at the whole mass of superstitions and fancies regarding them shows that there is great confusion of idea between fairies and witches, bogies and goblins... The following may, however, rank as Fairies...”
Among various other beings, she lists Nanny Button-cap, and reprints the nursery rhyme as given by Addy.
There follows a clear trail of one person quoting another. In 1976, Katharine Briggs - citing Wright - mentioned the character in her Dictionary of Fairies as “A little West Yorkshire spirit. Not much is known about her, but she is a good fairy.”
Briggs’ only other contribution was to categorize the character under the Aarne-Thompson motif F403, which refers to helpful spirits. Other creatures Briggs listed were “brownie,” “lazy Laurence,” and “seelie court.”
Next was Carol Rose in Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People. Rose cited Briggs, but went rogue with a totally new description:
"This is the name of a fairy or nursery spirit in the folklore of Yorkshire, England. She behaves in much the same way as Wee Willie Winkie, ensuring that all young children are safe and warm in their beds, ready to go to sleep." (p. 231)
Where on earth did this come from? It bears no resemblance to Briggs' description. The song is about moon and stars and nighttime, but why would a fairy that brings sleep be described as coming tomorrow night? Wouldn't she be there every night? (Compare Wee Willie Winkie, whose rhyme takes place in the present tense - "it's past ten o' clock.")
I am also skeptical that Wee Willie Winkie was ever a fairy. However, that at least did come from Briggs, who connected the nursery rhyme to a Lancashire sleep-personification named Billy Winker. Nonetheless, Rose's version of Nanny Button-cap is out there in the cultural consciousness now. Ah, Dictionary of Fairies, mother of a thousand misunderstandings.
Nanny Button-cap's most unique claim to fame was appearing in the 1997 film FairyTale: A True Story, played by Norma Cohen. There was also a tie-in doll line, and Nanny was part of the "Royal Collection," which came in more elaborate boxes with more accessories. The white, blonde doll was dressed in a gauzy white outfit and butterfly headdress. The box explains that "This merry little fairy skips about the glen tidying the flowers! From the sparkle in her eye to the shimmer in her wings, Nanny Buttoncap’s goodness shines through! Mirth and merriment are the gifts she shares! If you’re very lucky, you may glimpse her as she sweetly dances on the honeysuckle blossoms."
The description of her "goodness" makes me think this was also drawn from Briggs.
Going back to the beginning: there’s nothing to indicate why Addy categorized Nanny Button-cap as a fairy. All he provides are (a) a nursery rhyme with no obvious fairy connections and (b) a painfully forced connection to the Norse goddess Nanna. It’s possible he based this entry on personal knowledge or stories he had heard. Maybe it’s just one of those things people accept but that’s not necessarily explicit in the rhyme, like Humpty Dumpty being an egg. But Addy didn’t give any details, so we have nothing to work with except his say-so.
A few details about Nanny Button-cap are comparable to fairy stories. She is "little" and associated with nighttime. Fairies are often described wearing caps, and in some stories grabbing their caps can even put them in a human's power. Some fairies have hat names, like the Anglo-Scottish redcaps, Scottish thrummy-caps, or German hodekin (“little hat”).
"Button Cap's room" was a reputedly haunted room in a Northamptonshire house. 19th-century clergyman Charles Kingsley stayed there as a child, and years later, in 1864, he described the spirit Button Cap as the ghost of a dishonest and greedy man who wore "a cap with a button on it.” This Button Cap was a poltergeist who would roll barrels around in the cellar but return them all to their places by morning.
As for the Nanny Button-cap nursery rhyme itself, the couplet about the moon and stars appears in several other songs as well. There are probably many more, but here are three that stood out to me:
One old English song with many variants begins:
The Moon shines bright, and the Stars give light,
A little before it was day,
A Christmas version continues:
Our Lord, our God, he called on us,
And bid us awake and pray.
Alternately, a version associated with Maying runs:
So God bless you all, both great and small
And send you a joyful May.
There's also a song titled "The Mermaid," about a group of sailors who encounter a mermaid and are lost in a storm -
Oh, the moon shines bright, and the stars give light;
Oh, my mother'll be looking for me;
She may look, she may weep, she may look to the deep,
She may look to the bottom of the sea. (Hayes 15)
Finally there's an esoteric 1831 novel, Raphael's Witch!!! Or the Oracle of the Future, which features a "Fairy Song."
When the moon shines bright,
When the stars give light,
When the meadows are green,
When the glow-worm is seen...
The chorus runs:
Then we fairies appear,
And roam far and near,
Till the day-star is near!
Unfortunately, this doesn't tell us much. The moon/stars couplet does seem to be old, but it's also an obvious rhyme.
So, is Nanny Button-cap a survival of an ancient Norse moon goddess? Absolutely not.
Is Nanny Button-cap a personification of sleep? No.
Is Nanny Button-cap a fairy from the folklore of Yorkshire? . . . Maybe? Lacking any other information from Addy, we're kind of stuck. Personally, I'm skeptical. If you have any information, comment below!
Tinker Bell isn’t the only famous pixie. Another is Joan the Wad, from Cornwall . . . Queen Joan. When I looked into the history of this character, I found a faint remnant of a Cornish tradition. I also found a whole lot of advertising for mass-produced good luck charms. Also a libel case.
A wad is a torch or bundle of straw; Joan the Wad’s name classifies her as a spirit similar to the Will o’ the Wisp, a wandering light which leads people astray. This apparition is often attributed to fairies, and in Cornwall it's "pixie-light" or people are "pixie-led." As James Orchard Halliwell wrote in 1861:
A clergyman, whose veracity is unquestionable, assured me that many of the inhabitants of Paul to this day believe devoutly that the piskies control the mists, and can, when so disposed, cast a thick veil over the traveller. Sometimes the fairies throw a light before his face that completely dazzles him, and leads him backwards and forwards, without allowing him to make any progress in his journey. This is called being pixy-laden; and a man lately going from Newlyn to Paul, as straight a country road as can well be imagined, was thus teased by the fairies, and it was not until he thought of turning his coat inside out that he escaped the effects of their influence.
Another popular term is Jack o' Lantern, today especially associated with Halloween and the souls of the wandering dead. An Irish folktale runs that he's a spirit locked out of both Heaven and Hell, left to wander with a light inside a turnip (or pumpkin). Kit with the Canstick (Candlestick) was another one. As for wads, Jack-in-the-wad and Meg-with-the-wad appeared in the Denham Tracts around the 1850s.
The first recorded mention of Joan the Wad was in an 1855 letter from Thomas Q. Couch, a native of Polperro, a large village in Cornwall. Discussing local traditions of piskies and pisky-leading, Couch mentions that he had heard the following rhyme invoking two piskies by name:
That tickled the maid and made her mad,
Light me home, the weather's bad.
Unlike most will o’ the wisp or pixie-led stories, this implies that these spirits were invoked for guidance. Or perhaps this was a plea to beings which usually led people to ruin. It's unusual to see Jack o' Lantern (or Jack-the-lantern in this case) labeled as a pixie, although as already seen, there is overlap.
The tickling refers to the idea that fairies pinched lazy maids, often hard enough to leave bruises. As in Drayton’s Nymphidia:
“These make our girls their sluttery rue,
By pinching them both black and blue...”
Or Herrick’s Hesperides:
“ Sweep your house; who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe."
After Couch's work was published, a few works listed Joan-the-Wad or Joan in the wad as a fairy name. Joan's most prominent outing was in 1899, when the Cornish Magazine published the poem “Joan o’ the Wad: A Pisky Song” by Nora Hopper. In this poem, Joan torments countryfolk and animals, blights fruit, steals milk, and seduces young men.
So far, so good. But this Joan is not a queen, just a generic will o' the wisp.
Here we come to an entrepreneur named F. T. Nettleinghame, who moved to Cornwall in 1923. He began publishing postcards and several short books, but ran into business trouble, declaring bankruptcy in 1931 and also getting a divorce. This didn't stop him; in March 1932, he registered trademarks for 'Joan the Wad' and 'Jack o' Lantern'. And then he started advertising. He sold small brass charms of Joan the Wad, “Queen of the Lucky Cornish Piskeys." Joan "sees all, hears all, does all" and brings "Wonderful Luck in the way of Health, Wealth and Happiness." "Substitutes are not effective." "No one is allowed to have Joan the Wad unless they have previously possessed the History of the Lucky Cornish Piskey Folk" (a booklet also provided by the business).
Also, the charms had to be dipped in "the Lucky Saints' Well" in Polperro in order to be effective. This was a major part of the business’s mythology. The reality was a little less romantic; the charms were manufactured in Birmingham, then taken to a well in Cornwall where they were put into cages for dipping in bulk.
There were also charms of Jack o’ Lantern, now Joan's consort. And plenty of other merchandise including china plates and pamphlets of pixie stories. People could order by mail from “Joan’s Cottage” in Bodmin, Cornwall. Advertisements ran in magazines, with testimonials from satisfied customers writing in that they had won lotteries, miraculously recovered from illnesses, or married millionaires. Or that they'd lost their charms, were having awful luck and desperately needed new ones. This marketing approach was apparently quite successful. Business boomed to the point where Nettleinghame had a whole chain of shops in Devon and Cornwall.
(We know a little more about business operations because in 1934, a couple of years in, Nettleinghame’s business partner Douglas Sargeant sued a newspaper for libel. One of the various allegations was that he and Nettleinghame asked sweepstakes winners to give credit to Joan the Wad for their success - the sweepstakes in question was actually run by Sargeant.)
Even after Nettleinghame stepped back from the charm business, he was still able to live comfortably and explore other business ventures. Joan and Jack were joined by other characters like "Billy Bucca, Duke Of The Buccas" and "Sam Spriggan, Prince of the Spriggans." Other businesses saw an opportunity to piggyback, and in the 1950s, competitors included “Glama, the oriental charm of luck and love,” Lady Luck, Beppo’s Little Man, and quite a few others. Even today, there are still businesses selling Joan the Wad charms.
Joan the Wad, as a pointy-headed metal figure crouched on a mushroom, became a familiar sight in advertisements for British readers. She may even have made her way into folklore in some fashion. In the 1980s, Cornish gardener Den Tuthill told a story about the Devil invading Cornwall. Jack, King of the Giants, and Joan-the-Wad, Queen of the Piskies, teamed up to trick the Devil with the gift of an enchanted walking stick which forced him to walk away from Cornwall and never return. Considering Joan's history, it seems very appropriate that this story was part of Tuthill's advertising for his own handmade walking sticks under the brand name Kellywyck. (Williams pp. 93-95)
So, Joan the Wad may have once been an obscure name along the lines of Jack-in-the-wad and Meg-with-the-wad, but was reinvented as fairy royalty in a wildly successful marketing campaign. If you’ve heard of the pixies having a Queen Joan, it’s because of F. T. Nettleinghame.
Pillywiggins spurred a lot of my fairylore research. They got me interested in the development of tiny winged fairies and how folklore is evolving in modern culture. I once wrote that I don’t mind using the word “pillywiggin” for the modern flower fairy, but since then, I've grown frustrated by the term. Nearly all of the usual descriptions (appearance, behavior, etc.) are later add-ons which only muddy the question of origins. Recently, I went back to the original source: the 1977 book A Field Guide to the Little People, by American author Nancy Arrowsmith. I now think I was focusing on the wrong details. There may be an alternate clue buried in the text.
First off: I am throwing out any pillywiggin sources published after 1977. They all ultimately lead back to the Field Guide. At one point I guessed that a 1986 "story request" issue of My Little Pony might hold clues, but after more research, I don't think readers had any input. It was just a dedication.
Pillywiggins were supposed to be from Dorset, and have appeared in a handful of 21st-century literary works (the Dark Dorset books by Robert Newland, 2002-2006, and the "Sting in the Tale" storytelling festival in East Dorset, 2014-2015). And I did hear from one commenter whose grandmother from Dorset had spoken of "pesky" pillywiggins.
However, there are a couple of things that give me pause.
1) Dorset folklorist Jeremy Harte nodded indirectly to pillywiggins in a 2018 article only to say that he had not encountered such stories in tradition (Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies - 500 AD to the Present). This is the closest we have ever come to a discussion of pillywiggins in an academic work: an expert saying that they "do not appear in any known sources."
2) The existing Dorset sources are all from the 21st century. 2002 was 25 years after pillywiggins were first publicized. Now it's been 44 years.
With no independent primary sources, that leaves the Field Guide as the only possible lead.
A Field Guide to the Little People was Arrowsmith's only book on fairies, but with its whimsical and accessible descriptions, it became a cult classic and was reprinted and translated multiple times. Arrowsmith's foreword to the 2009 edition talks about her research process. At the Bavarian National Library she read through books on myth and superstition, taking notes in notebooks and on thousands of index cards (which sounds honestly really cool). To be clear, I don't want to undermine the author; my goal is simply to find out more about this one specific fairy.
So far, I have only encountered one other point where I couldn't initially find a source: a description of Italian fairies called gianes (pp. 169-171). However, then I discovered that Gino Bottiglioni, one of the sources listed in the bibliography, wrote of gianas, a slightly different plural. I thought pillywiggins could be a similar case.
The section "English Fairies" (pp. 159-162) includes this brief description:
"The popularized Dorset Fairies, Pillywiggins, are tiny flower spirits.”
All of the other creatures here (hyter sprites, Tiddy Ones, vairies, farisees, etc.) are easily traceable to older works. Nearly all of them appear in Katharine Briggs’ comprehensive overview of British fairylore, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967). That book was a major source for this section, judging by the details (for instance, the unusual variation "Tiddy Ones" rather than Tiddy folk or people). It followed up from Briggs’ previous book The Anatomy of Puck (1959), which focused on fairies in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. Both of these works are included in the Field Guide's bibliography.
In this post, I'm going to go slowly through the earliest known definition of pillywiggins, comparing it to the sources in the Field Guide's bibliography. For full disclosure, I have gone through the bibliography except for some out-of-print German and Italian books not available in the U.S. Also, there are books where I was not able to obtain the exact edition used, and had to go with an older or newer version.
POPULARIZED DORSET FAIRIES
The sources hold very little Dorset fairylore.
In Keightley's Fairy Mythology and Brand’s Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, the Dorsetshire pexy or colepexy haunts the woods as a threatening bogeyman for naughty children. Fossils are called the colepexy's head or fingers.
The Anatomy of Puck briefly mentions John Walsh, an accused witch who said he'd met with the fairies (or "feries") of the Dorset hills.
The Folk-Lore Journal volumes 1-7 were all counted as sources. The Volume 6 article “Dorset Folk-Lore” mentions a superstition that wicked fairies will enter homes through the chimney unless warded off using a bull's heart.
None of these are associated with flowers, and it seems like a stretch to call them "popularized." These are stories of severed body parts, witchcraft and malevolent spirits.
There are similar fairy names such as Pigwiggen, Skillywidden, and the German pilwiz. However, none of these quite fit the details given in the Field Guide for pillywiggins.
Pigwiggen (also spelled Pigwiggin) is the closest. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word "Pigwiggen" to at least 1594. From early on, the word had shades of a cutesy endearment or belittling insult. I believe it originated as a rhyming nickname for a young pig. Similar terms like piggy-whidden or piggen-riggen have survived. It doesn’t suggest the same level of miniaturization as the Mustardseed and Moth of A Midsummer Night's Dream, or the Penny and Cricket of the 1600 play The Maydes Metamorphosis, but does imply littleness if you envision a runt piglet. And traditional fairies could be small without being bug-sized; in fact, the popularity of this extreme tininess was fairly new around 1600.
Most famously, Pigwiggen is the name of a character in Michael Drayton's 1627 poem "Nymphidia": a fairy knight who holds a tryst with Queen Mab inside a cowslip flower. He rides an earwig and has a fish scale for armor, a beetle’s head for a helmet, a cockle-shell for a shield and a hornet’s sting for a rapier. His squire is Tom Thumb, also closely associated with flower fairies and a byword for "miniature."
There may have been an earlier fairy with the name. “Lady Piggwiggin, th'only snoutfaire of the fairies” appeared in "The Masque of the Twelve Months," which some scholars have dated around 1610-1619. This somewhat bawdy character is nicknamed "Pig." "Snoutfaire" means "fair-faced" or "comely" but can double as an insult; here it was probably a pun on a pig's snout. She is compared in size to a mouse (much larger than the microscopic Sir Pigwiggen), and disguises herself as a glowworm, reminding me of the much later Tinker Bell.
Nymphidia's Pigwiggen would be considered a flower fairy, and was absolutely popularized. The word was already the subject of many spelling changes and clerical errors. Arrowsmith would have encountered references in works such as the following:
With this wealth of alternate spellings, it seems very possible that pillywiggin derived from Pigwiggen. Maybe we have another portmanteau like Perriwiggin on our hands: it might have been combined with Skillywidden, which also appeared in several of the sources. (The Anatomy of Puck includes the story of the tiny fairy found in the furze, and compares Skillywidden to the helpless Tom Thumb - who was elsewhere connected to the "Pigwiggen type". Eileen Molony's Folk Tales of the West retells the story with "skillywiddon" as the name of a fairy race.)
On the other hand, none of this has nothing to do with Dorset.
TINY FLOWER SPIRITS
The pillywiggins are called "flower spirits." This phrase appears verbatim in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, when Briggs argued that William Shakespeare and Michael Drayton relied on a West Midlands tradition of "small and beautiful" fairies who were "nearer to being flower spirits than spirits of the dead." (p. 109)
Briggs repeatedly mentioned "flower fairies" or "small, flower-loving fairies" in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature and The Anatomy of Puck (and other books, but these were the two in the Field Guide's bibliography). Anatomy, especially, explores the late 16th/early 17th-century literature where tiny flower fairies became a fad.
I always approached this as if there was one issue: the pillywiggins. I took the mention of Dorset at face value. But maybe "flower spirits," rather than "Dorset," are the key to the puzzle. Here's my amended theory.
The original complete description reads:
"The popularized Dorset Fairies, Pillywiggins, are tiny flower spirits."
There are a couple of things that "Dorset" could mean.
"The popularized Drayton Fairies, Pigwiggins, are tiny flower spirits.”
This is supported by the common thread of "flower spirits" in the writings of both Arrowsmith and Briggs. If it was originally “Drayton fairies,” there are some possible parallels in the “Folk-Lore of Drayton” article (“Drayton's fairies are true Teutonic tinies”), The Anatomy of Puck (“Drayton’s fairies are smaller even than the elves who crept into an acorn cup,” p. 58) and The Fairies of Tradition and Literature (“the small fairies of Shakespeare and Lyly and Drayton were imported into the fashionable world from the country,” p. 221). Also, Brand's Observations quotes Drayton's poem Polyolbion when discussing the Dorsetshire colepexy.
However, Drayton’s name does appear correctly at the beginning of the “English Fairies” section:
"The word ‘fairy’ has been so often misused (especially by Poets such as Spenser and Drayton) that it is very misleading to employ it as a scientific designation for a particular species of elf."
(Edmund Spenser and Michael Drayton both wrote famous fairy poems, but Spenser’s “Faery Queen” was the sort of mythic romance that Drayton’s “Nymphidia” parodied. Both were criticized on occasion.)
"The popularized Durham Fairies, Piggwiggins, are tiny flower spirits.”
The English Dialect Dictionary's definition of "piggwiggan" or "Peggy Wigan" (notice the spelling) lists the location as "Dur.," an abbreviation of Durham. This could have been misread as "Dor.," or Dorset.
This factoid originally came from the Denham Tracts; the collector Michael Aislabie Denham was a Durham native. It seems like "Peggy Wiggan" was the term actually used, since Denham specifies that this is the vulgo or common pronunciation. When someone suffered a bad fall, it was said they had got or caught Peggy Wiggan. This sounds like a normal woman's name, especially in context with the many other bewildering proverbs in Denham’s list, like “Rather better than common, like Nanny Helmsey’s pie.” Many of them seem like in-jokes specifically to tease local townspeople, like one about a man named David Pearse who mispronounced the word "genuine." (Denham 65, 87)
It's unclear whether anyone actually used "piggwiggan," or if there was any fairy association before Denham suggested it. However, it's possible that someone, having read Katharine Briggs' argument that Drayton took his tiny flower fairies from local folklore, could spot the out-of-context line in the English Dialect Dictionary and theorize that this was the source.
When I first visited this subject, I thought it was a possibility that Pillywiggin was a misspelling of Pigwiggen. However, the mention of Dorset was always a stumbling block for me. If “Dorset” was meant to be “Drayton" or "Durham," then it makes much more sense. “Pillywiggin” is a corruption of Pigwiggen just like “Perriwiggin” and “Pigwidgeon." All other details (like their exact relationship with flowers, and their wings or lack thereof) were added by modern writers of fiction.
And the name totally means “piglet.”
Others may disagree, or may have other suggestions. Comment below and share your thoughts!
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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.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.