Within a few decades of Shakespeare's plays in the late 1500s, "Mab" became the most popular name for the queen of the fairies in English literature and poetry. In Shakespeare's play, she was "the fairies' midwife," also a “hag” (a term for a nightmare spirit, an ugly old woman or a witch). Almost microscopic in size, she drives an intricately described miniature coach through the night, distributing dreams. She also creates blisters and tangled elflocks. A succubus-like creature, her occupation as midwife involves birthing dreams rather than babies.
Although other poets picked up this description and made Mab the empress of fairies across literature, “queen” could be playing on the similar word “quean,” meaning simply “woman” or perhaps “prostitute.”
In 1603, Ben Jonson produced The Entertainment at Althorpe, a masque honoring the queen. In addition to the dream rides of Shakespeare, Jonson's Mab steals milk, pinches messy girls, takes changelings, and leads midwives on nightly journeys (a witches' flight?). This version was as influential as Shakespeare's, and established Mab even further as a regal figure mimicking the English monarchy. Other poets and writers followed suit.
However, we can only guess what originally inspired Shakespeare to use that name. Unlike his other fairy characters, Puck and Oberon, we have no surviving older works that mention her. Bear in mind that Shakespeare created some fairy characters - Peaseblossom, Cobweb, etc. Titania and Ariel were his own creations even if their names were based on other sources. We can trace Oberon to 13th-century French romances, and Titania to Ovid’s work. However, Puck and Robin Goodfellow are well-known names from British folklore. A rebel in 1489 was referred to as "Mayster Hobbe Hyrste, Robyn Godfelaws brodyr." "Robin Good-fellowe", "hobgoblin" and "puckle" were all mentioned in Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), and in the 19th century, the Denham Tracts mentioned multiple variations of the names. Similar terms appear in Norse and Celtic languages.
If Mab is a traditional figure of British folklore like Puck, it seems reasonable to expect that we’ll find some evidence – either pre-Shakespeare, or surviving traditions peeking through in later works like the Denham Tracts. Although there are many examples of Mab appearing in literature, many of those examples - like the very influential “Nymphidia” - show Shakespeare’s influence, so I’m setting them aside for now.
There are a few theories claiming Mab's ancient origins. The main two are an origin as the Irish goddess Medb (sometimes rendered Mabh or Maeve), or the fairy figure Habundia or Dame Abonde. Although both of these characters are supernatural queens, the similarities end there. The theories rely mainly on the fact that one has a similar spelling (despite the different pronunciation - Meev or Mave), and the other includes the syllable "ab" or "mab" if you say it quickly (Dame Abonde). I would group these with other 19th-century theories that relied solely on slight name similarities - like the suggestion that Tom Thumb (or Thumbling) was the same as Tam Lin.
I want to look for collections of folklore where a Mab appears. Many scholars have argued that Shakespeare took Mab from contemporary folklore, but are there any surviving records or traditions to indicate this? Or has everything been written over by poetry and literature? So far, I have found six mentions of Mab to examine.
Mab of Fawdon Hill
I was intrigued by a reference to Queen Mab dwelling at Fawdon Hill in Northumberland, and tracked it to Metrical Legends of Northumberland by James Service, 1834. In the introduction to a poem, the author writes of "the superstitious belief that Fawdon Hill is the royal residence of the "Queen Mab" of Northumberland." Further down the page is a reference to “fancy’s midwife”.
Problem: as you might have noticed, in the edition I read, Queen Mab’s name is in quotes. This indicates that the author is not saying Mab is a traditional figure there, but simply using “Queen Mab” as a generic descriptor for a fairy queen. The name Mab is not mentioned in the poem itself.
I did find a reference elsewhere to a story of a farmer who is invited into the fairies' banquet hall beneath Fawdon Hill, and who runs off with one of their cups. I found nothing else tying Mab to Northumberland.
Mab, Queen of the Ellyllon
Wirt Sikes, in British Goblins (1880), asserted that Mab was the queen of the ellyllon, or tiny elves and goblins of Wales.
"Their queen—for though there is no fairy-queen in the large sense that Gwyn ap Nudd is the fairy-king, there is a queen of the elves—is none other than the Shakspearean fairy spoken of by Mercutio, who comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the forefinger of an alderman.
Shakspeare’s use of Welsh folk-lore, it should be noted, was extensive and peculiarly faithful… From his Welsh informant Shakspeare got Mab, which is simply the Cymric for a little child, and the root of numberless words signifying babyish, childish, love for children (mabgar), kitten (mabgath), prattling (mabiaith), and the like, most notable of all which in this connection is mabinogi, the singular of Mabinogion, the romantic tales of enchantment told to the young in by-gone ages.”
Sikes seems to imply that he has found Welsh accounts of an ellyllon-queen Mab, but he doesn't actually state this.
Previously, Thoms' Three Notelets on Shakespeare (1865) included an influential passage on Mab. Thoms examined several possible etymologies for Mab's name, and concluded:
"I saw in this designation [the name Queen Mab] a distinct allusion to the diminutive form of the elfin sovereign. Mab, both in Welsh and in the kindred dialects of Brittany, signifies a child or infant; and my readers will, I am sure, agree with me that it would be difficult to find any epithet more befitting one who
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the forefinger of an alderman."
The similarities (including use of the same quote!) indicate that either Sikes is drawing on Thoms, or both were influenced by an earlier source. Sikes remains unique in drawing a connection to ellyllon, and provided no evidence for this claim.
Also, in Welsh, "mab" actually means "son," not "child."
Henry Ellis' 1813 edition of John Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities noted that "In Warwickshire, Mab-led, (pronounced Mob-led) signifies led astray by a Will o'the Wisp." (Shakespeare was from Warwickshire.)
The only source given in the text is "Hamlet," where Shakespeare used the word "mobled."
'But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen--'
'The mobled queen?'
That's good; 'mobled queen' is good.
'Run barefoot up and down, threatening the flames
With bisson rheum; a clout upon that head
Where late the diadem stood, and for a robe,
About her lank and all o'er-teemed loins,
A blanket, in the alarm of fear caught up...
The characters are rehearsing a play within the play, and the “mobled queen” is the character Hecuba. Mobled is also a mysterious word, with Hamlet being the first known instance, and researchers have argued over its origin and meaning. One common definition is that “mobled” means “muffled” or wrapped in fabric, as in a hood, veil, or mobcap (Hecuba is wrapped in a blanket). In the 1655 play "The Gentleman of Venice," by James Shirley, we hear "The moon does mobble up herself sometimes” in a black bag, referencing the lunar phases. Sandys Travels (1673) described Turkish women with "their heads and faces so mabled in fine linen".
However, this alternate reading of "Mab-led," like "puck-led" or "pixie-led," does hold some traction.
In 1856, Jabez Allies published some theories on fairies being referenced in English place-names. He listed Mob's Close or Mop's Close, and also an orchard known as Moblee Pleck or Mobbled Pleck, which Allies helpfully explained "meaning Mab-led Pleck, or a plot where any one was liable to be Mab-led”. He cited Brand's Antiquities. (Allies also proposed that many locations were named after Michael Drayton's jokingly named fairies like Pip and Pin, with the premise that these were all ancient dieties, rather than Drayton being imaginative.)
More interesting is A. R. Winnington-Ingram's 1893 paper, "On the Origin of Names of Places with Special Reference to Gloucestershire" (Proceedings of the Cotteswold Naturalists' Field Club). The author referenced other works mentioning “mab-led,” mainly Allies' work. However, in a note based on his personal experience, he remarked “I have myself heard country people say of a man who was stupified that he was Mambled or Mombled.”
This gives a personal anecdote rather than a lack of sources or simple theorizing. Stupefied or confused would fit well with being led astray by a fairy.
Observations on Popular Antiquities remains the only source on the will o' the wisp connection. I looked for other early mentions, but like Allies, they all turned out to be quoting this one.
In the 1568 play "The Historie of Jacob and Esau," a midwife is called “Mother Mab." In an angry diatribe, another character associates her with midnight and blackness, and also calls her a “heg” (hag).
So we have “Mother Mab” in close association with hags, midwives and witches. This fits perfectly with Shakespeare’s Queen Mab, who is also a hag and a midwife.
The name Mab is possibly derived from the generic girls' name “Mabel.” Additionally, some definitions explain it as a slattern or a loose woman. However, these sexual definitions of "mab" began appearing in dictionaries only post-Shakespeare. So we can't say for certain whether Mab's name was a sexual reference to begin with, or whether viewers of "The Historie of Jacob and Esau" would have heard it that way.
Mabb, Lady to the Queene
According to Katharine Briggs, a 17th-century manuscript known as the Sloane Manuscript 1727, collected in the British Library, mentions "Mabb, lady to the queene" among other spirits. The queen she served might have been Micol, queen of the fairies or "regina pigmeorum," mentioned in the same text. This was an anonymous treatise on magic. (For comparison, Oberon was frequently listed in grimoires of the time.)
Unfortunately there is not much to go on here other than Briggs' second-hand reference, so take this one with a grain of salt, but I'm still going to hang onto it. I'll have to follow this up if I ever get the opportunity to visit that collection.
In 1866, William Henderson's collection Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties included a Rumpelstiltskin-esque tale. The story is set in Selkirkshire, Scotland. A girl who hates spinning is sitting one day on a self-bored stone (a stone with a natural hole worn through it, often believed to grant fairy sight). There she encounters a strange old woman who offers to spin her thread for her. The woman has markedly long lips, from drawing out her thread with them so often. The girl returns later and, looking through the stone, sees an underground cavern of deformed old women, all spinning. The girl hears the leader refer to herself as Habetrot, and bid the ugliest spinner of them all – Scantlie Mab, who has bulging eyes and a hooked nose in addition to her deformed lips – to bundle up the newly-spun yarn. Thanks to the fairy yarn, the girl wins a handsome laird for her husband. Habetrot then rescues her from ever spinning again; she tells the girl to bring her new husband to the stone, where the old women explain that they have all been deformed by so much spinning. The laird, alarmed, declares that his bride shall never touch a spindle again.
Here, the spinners are not baby-stealing little men, but friendly old women who take the girl under their wing. This branch of the tale doesn’t normally feature a name-guessing challenge. In "Habetrot," the girl’s anxiety over not remembering her helper’s name doesn’t really affect the plot; it feels like this section might have been borrowed from other tales. Elsewhere in the volume, Henderson describes "old Habbitrot, that queen of spinsters” (p. 5) as spinning thread with curse-breaking properties. All of the Habetrot material is from a manuscript put together by a Mr. Wilkie about fifty years previously, contracted by Sir Walter Scott.
Scantlie Mab is intriguing, as she is the only other named fairy in the story. Her significance isn’t explained, but she is significant. Some versions even title the story “Habetrot and Scantlie Mab.” Note that she is not the leader of the fairies, but receives orders from Habetrot.
Scantlie, related to “scant”, means the same as “scarcely”, or a very small amount - so, “Little Mab.” (I also find the internal rhyme of Hab and Mab interesting. Might there have been an earlier version where it was Habetrot and Little Hab, or Mabetrot and Little Mab?)
I've never seen anyone connect Scantlie Mab to Queen Mab. This story was printed centuries after Shakespeare, but it's intriguing in that it features a fairy named Mab who does not fit the typical modern profile of Queen Mab as ruler.
Most references to Queen Mab are from literature. Ben Jonson's plays, Michael Drayton's poetry, and so on. However much authors and poets might have drawn on folklore, they were also drawing on literature and plays of the time. Mab does not appear, however, in folklore collections. In contrast, you will find references to pucks, hobgoblins and Robin Goodfellows all over the place.
The ellyllon connection has no clear sources. The Fawdon Hill connection is probably a misreading of an ambiguous text where someone used "Mab" as a generic descriptor. "Mab-led" meaning pixie-led is intriguing, but also lacks much evidence, although the connection from "Queen Mab" to "mobled queen" is tempting.
The last three are more interesting to me. A lot of Mab's regal associations, such as being Oberon's wife, came from other authors after "Romeo and Juliet" and are primarily literary. But if you look at these alternate sources - a pre-Shakespeare play, a pamphlet on witchcraft, and a later fairytale - you can see shades of a different Mab.
Let's try some reconstruction. This Mab is a hag ("Jacob and Esau," "Romeo and Juliet", Habetrot). She is associated with the supernatural (all sources). She is a queen or quean ("Romeo and Juliet"), or serves a queen and is identified in close connection with her (Sloane 1727, Habetrot). Morally, she may be a mischievous trickster, a benevolent figure, or a mixture. Finally, she is associated with traditional feminine tasks like midwifery ("Jacob and Esau," "Romeo and Juliet") or spinning (Habetrot). Both of these tasks were often associated with unmarried women and sometimes witchcraft. There are even myths where they went hand in hand - the Greek Fates, who prophesied the fates of newborns, were depicted as spinning and cutting the thread of life, and Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, was referred to as "the clever spinner."
So maybe we have an alternate version of Queen Mab here. Or perhaps one thing led to another: “The Historie of Jacob and Esau,” where a witchy midwife associated with darkness is called Mother Mab, inspired Shakespeare. In turn, Shakespeare’s work led to a popular literary character of a royal Queen Mab, but also to atypical references such as a folktale in which Mab was the servant of a queen.
Whatever the case, I think it's important to consider that if Shakespeare drew on folklore for Queen Mab, he wasn't necessarily hearing of a miniature, regal fairy monarch. Have you encountered other mentions of Mab in collections of folklore? Let me know in the comments!
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.