Tom Thumb, Ghost
That's the cover of a recent picture book retelling the fairytale with a Halloween theme. However, it reminded me of one of the first known mentions of Tom Thumb.
In Reginald Scot's 1584 work, the Discoverie of Witchcraft, he writes:
“...they have so fraied us with bull beggers, spirits, witches . . . the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles . . . and other such bugs, that we are afraid of our owne shadows.”
What's Tom Thumb doing in a list of monsters? This baffled me for a long time, but then I looked at the first existing version of the story, "The History of Tom Thumbe," printed in 1621.
A childless woman goes to Merlin for help. In this chapbook, Merlin is heavily associated with the occult, and is called (among other things) "a devil or spirit" who "consorts with Elves and Fairies." He tells the woman:
Ere thrice the Moone her brightnes change
A shapelesse child by wonder strange,
Shall come abortive from thy wombe,
No bigger then thy Husbands Thumbe:
And as desire hath him begot,
He shall have life, but substance not;
No blood, nor bones in him shall grow,
Not seen, but when he pleaseth so:
His shapeless shadow shall be such,
You'll heare him speak, but not him touch.
The metrical version of 1630 is very similar, with some of the same phrasing. These descriptions indicate a Tom Thumb who is not entirely a physical being. Also notice that he doesn't have bones, and there's another demon on Scot's list named the Boneless. There's also a creature called the Tom Tumbler. Is this related to Tom Thumb, or is it just a readalike?
On a close reading, the early versions of Tom Thumb contain many references to medieval European superstitions surrounding fairies, witches and demons.
In addition to a close relationship with the fairies, Tom shows magical abilities in both of the 1621 and 1630 versions. For instance, he hangs pots and pans “upon a bright sun-beam” as a prank on his classmates. This motif occurs elsewhere in medieval legends. St. Goar of Treves miraculously hung his cape on a sunbeam, and St. Aicadrus did the same with his gloves.
Later, Tom boasts that he can "creepe into a keyhole" and "saile in an egge-shel." Travel through keyholes was a common motif for witches, the devil, alps (nightmares), and other fairylike beings.
Boating in an eggshell, too, was a popular witch/fairy pastime. Superstitious people would crush leftover eggshells so that these creatures couldn't set to sea in them. That's a post for another time, but eggshell-sailing witches appear even in Discoverie of Witchcraft - the same book that started this blog post.
There are many mentions of Tom throughout the late 16th and early 17th centuries. I have a full list on my timeline page. In most of these brief mentions, Tom Thumb is simply a metaphor for something small. However, some give a hint of the story. In the shortened list here, seven works associate him with fairies and/or Robin Goodfellow. Five (possibly six) reference him being trapped in a pudding.
The Thumbling trapped inside food is a common motif which I've discussed before. While his mother is cooking, Tom falls into a pudding and gets boiled inside. In the prose version, the pudding shakes as if "the Devil and old Merlin" are trapped inside, until his mother believes it's bewitched. She hands it off to a passing tinker, who also thinks it must be the devil's work. Tom then breaks out of the pudding and runs home.
"Dathera Dad," a Derbyshire tale published in 1895, consists of just this incident. The creature inside the pudding is "a little fairy child." Similarly, the Russian "Devil in the Dough Pan" has an evil spirit who is baked inside bread when a woman forgets to bless the dough.
This was a common concept throughout Europe. In Scandinavia, peasant women made crosses on their dough to protect it from trolls (Thorpe 1851, pg. 275). The English did the same in order to "cross out" the witches, to "keep the devil from sitting on it," or to "let the devil out." Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology mentions a Somerset woman who would drew crosses on the cakes she baked, in order to stop the tiny, mischievous fairies from leaving footprints on them.
The cross was also meant to make the bread rise faster. Perhaps there was a supernatural explanation of warding off evil spirits who might sit or step on the dough. This superstition was known in the 17th century, and perhaps as early as 1252, when King Henry III condemned bakers marking their bread with the sign of the cross. (Roud 2006)
This could be connected to superstitions about demonic possession in the Early Middle Ages. Possession was often taken in a very literal, physical-minded way. Demons were depicted entering and leaving the victim's body via the mouth, or sometimes other orifices such as the ear. In his Dialogues, the late-6th-century pope St. Gregory the Great describes this case:
"Upon a certain day, one of the Nuns of the same monastery, going into the garden, saw a lettice that liked her, and forgetting to bless it before with the sign of the cross, greedily did she eat it: whereupon she was suddenly possessed with the devil, fell down to the ground, and was pitifully tormented. Word in all haste was carried to [the bishop] Equitius, desiring him quickly to visit the afflicted woman, and to help her with his prayers: who so soon as he came into the garden, the devil that was entered began by her tongue, as it were, to excuse himself, saying: "What have I done? What have I done? I was sitting there upon the lettice, and she came and did eat me." But the man of God in great zeal commanded him to depart."
In both the story of the possessed lettuce and the superstitions about crossed bread, the idea is the same. When someone forgot to bless their food - by either praying over it or physically marking it - they became susceptible to any entities which might lurk within.
Is this why Tom Thumb appeared in A Discoverie of Witches? Did Scot have demonic food in mind when he included Tom Thumb in the list? Or might he have encountered a version of the story which mentioned sailing in an eggshell?
Maybe not. Still, the oldest surviving versions of the story contain allusions not only to magic and fairies, but to demonic activity and witchcraft.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.