God of the Witches 2


“In the hinder end of harvest, on All Hallow Fen,
When the Good Neighbours do ride, if I rede right,
Some buckled on a bune-wand, and some on a bean,
Aye trottand in troops from the twilight;
Some saddled on a she-ape, all graithed into green,
Some hobland on a hemp-stalk, hovand to the height,
The King of Pharie and his court, with the Elf-queen,
With many elfish incubus was ridand that night.”

Montgomerie (1515)

THOUGH to the modern reader, who has been brought up on the fairy tales of the present day, any connection between witches and fairies appears far-fetched and preposterous, yet in order to understand the one it is essential to take the other into account. Even when regarded superficially the likeness between the two is apparent. In stories of the baptism of a royal child the bad fairy, whether naturally malevolent or merely temporarily offended, gives evil gifts or enchants the unfortunate infant, and is thus indistinguishable from the witch. The traditional costume of the fairy godmother is precisely similar to that of the witch, both women carry sticks-a wand or a crutch-with which they perform magic, both can turn human beings into animals, both can appear or disappear at will. In short, the real difference is that the one is a dainty old lady and the other is a dirty old woman.

If then the fairy godmother and the witch are so closely identical, the question of fairies becomes important. The real difficulty in understanding the matter at the present day is due to the iron-bound prejudice of the modern reader in favour of the tiny elf, the “two-inch men”, the little creatures who can “creep into an acorn-cup”, or ride on a butterfly. These fragile little things have gossamer wings, they float on a moonbeam, they play among the blossoms, they dance in the flowery meadows. Everything about them is in miniature, and it would hardly be an alarming experience for a mortal to meet a fairy, a creature he could crush between his finger and thumb. Why then were our ancestors so afraid of fairies? The horror and fear of them is seen in all the records of the trials in which a witch is accused of visiting the fairy-folk.

This horror is expressed in numerous popular rhymes and in popular tales as well as by the poets. A charm to be said at night runs as follows

Saint Francis and Saint Benedight,
Bless this house from wicked wight,
From the nightmare and the goblin
That is hight Goodfellow Robin;
Keep it from all evil spirits,
Fairies, weasels, rats, and ferrets;
From curfew time
To the next prime.”

As late as 1600 Fairfax in his translation of Tasso could bracket the fairies with furies and ghosts:

“The shriking gobblings each where howling flew,
The Furies roare, the ghosts and Fairies yell.”

The Swedish bishop, Olaus Magnus, writing in 1555, says that “there were Nightwalkers that used to enclose and strangely to disturb the field-keepers looking to their charge, with prodigious and wonderful sights of divers kinds, the inhabitants thereabouts call this nightly sport of Monsters, the Elves dance”. (plate xiv. 1).

In the stories of fairies it is not uncommon to find that the mortal is frightened at meeting the Little People: “She was not a little terrified at seeing, though it was midday, some of the old elves of the blue petticoat”.[2] But the most alarming of all the fairies was Robin Goodfellow until Shakespeare made him subordinate to Oberon. The evidence shows that Robin was not a fairy but the god of the Little People, as I have already noted in the previous chapter. According to Keightley his names are Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Robin Hood, Hobgoblin. The charm given above proves that he was classed with wicked wights and evil spirits, and he is even alluded to as “Some Robin the divell, or I wot not what spirit of the Ayre”.[3]

The opinion now generally accepted is that the present idea of fairies is due to Shakespeare. Up to his time English fairies were of the same type as in those countries where his influence has been less felt. In northern Scotland, in Ireland, and in France, especially in Brittany, the fairy is of the size of an ordinary human being and has all the characteristics of a human person. Shakespeare himself, in the Merry Wives of Windsor, makes Anne Page not only dress herself as a fairy but expect to be taken for one, though she was a full-grown young woman. There is plenty of literary evidence in the seventeenth century to show that a fairy could be mistaken for an ordinary mortal; and it was not until after the appearance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the fairy began, in literature, to decrease to its present diminutive proportions. Literature, especially through the theatre, altered the popular conception of the old tradition, and the tiny elf of fancy drove out its human progenitor.

Descriptions of fairies given by eye-witnesses can be found in many accounts in the Middle Ages and slightly later. The sixteenth century was very prolific in such accounts. John Walsh[4] the witch of Netherberry in Dorset, consulted the fairies between the hours of twelve and one at noon and at midnight, and always went among “hills” for the purpose. Bessie Dunlop[5] in Ayrshire saw eight women and four men, “the men were clad in gentlemen’s clothing, and the women had all plaids round them and were very seemly-like to see”; she was informed that these were “from the Court of Elfame”; she had previously received a visit from the Queen of Elfhame though without knowing at the time who her visitor was; she described the Queen as “a stout woman who came in to her and sat down on the form beside her and asked a drink at her and she gave it.” Alesoun Peirsoun[6] in Fifeshire, was “convict for haunting and repairing with the good neighbours and Queen of Elphane, and she had many good friends at that court which were of her own blood, who had good acquaintance with the Queen of Elphane.” In Leith, Christian Livingstone[7] affirmed “that her daughter was taken away with the fairy-folk, and that all the [occult] knowledge she had was by her daughter who met with the fairy”. Aberdeen was full of people who were well acquainted with fairies. One woman[8] told the judges that “what skill so ever she has she had it of her mother, and her mother learned it at an elf-man”. Andro Man appears to have been the husband of the “Queen of Elphen”, with whom he had lived for thirty-two years and by whom he had several children. The seventeenth century was equally prolific in friends of the fairy. Jonet Drever[9] in Orkney was “convict and guilty of the fostering of a bairn in the hill of Westray to the fairyfolk, called of her our good neighbours. And having conversation with the fairy twenty-six years bygone, in respect of her own confession”. The accused escaped with her life, but her sentence was, “To be scourged from the end of the said town to the other. And thereafter to be banished the country. And never to return under pain of death”. Jean Weir,[10] sister of the celebrated witch, Major Weir, stated that “when she keeped a school at Dalkeith and teached children, a tall woman came to the declarant’s house when the children were there; and that she had, as appeared to her, a child upon her back, and one or two at her foot; and that the said woman desired that the declarant should employ her to speak for her to the Queen of the Fairy, and strike and battle in her behalf with the said Queen (which was her own words)”. The records of the Edinburgh Justiciary Court[11] gives an account of this transaction in a shorter and more sinister manner: “Jean Weir took employment from a Woman to speak in her behalf to the Queen of ffarie, meaning the Devil”. In almost every case of so-called witchcraft, from Joan of Arc in 1431 down to the middle or end of the seventeenth century, the most damning evidence against the accused was acquaintance with the fairies; proof of such acquaintance meant, with very rare exceptions, condemnation to the stake. These fairies were not the little gossamer-winged flower-elves of children’s tales, but creatures of flesh and blood, who inspired the utmost fear and horror among the comfortable burgher folk of the towns, and filled the priests and ministers of the Christian Church with the desire to exterminate them.

The number of recorded marriages between “mortals” and fairies is another proof that fairies were the same size as ordinary folk and that they were human. The Plantagenet kings had a fairy ancestry; Conn, King of Tara, married a fairy as his second wife; Bertrand du Guesclin had a fairy wife, so also had that Sieur de Bourlemont who owned the Fairy Tree round which Joan of Arc danced as a girl. When a “mortal” man married a fairy woman the children appear to have belonged to the father and to have been in no way different from the children of two “mortals”. This was the case even when the fairy girl was carried off by force. Marriages between “mortal” women and fairy men were also not infrequent; but unless the girl was captured and kept as a prisoner in the home of the fairies, she remained comfortably in her own village, where she was visited by her fairy husband, and the children were not to be distinguished from “mortal” children. This shows that the cross between mortals and fairies was less distinguishable than one between members of a white and of a coloured race.

The accounts of fairies, when given by people who for various reasons were unaffected by the influence of Shakespeare, show them as real human beings, smaller than those who made the records but not very noticeably so. They lived in the wild uncultivated parts of the country, not necessarily because they were dispossessed by immigrants but more probably because they were originally entirely pastoral and unacquainted with agriculture. Though they might sometimes be found in woods they preferred open moors and heaths which afforded pasturage for their cattle. Like some of the wild tribes in India they fled from a stranger, were fleet of foot, and so highly skilled in the art of taking cover that they were seldom seen unless they so desired. Their dwelling-places were built of stone, wattle or turf, and were in bee-hive form, and here whole families lived together as in an Eskimo igloo. It is not impossible that the houses were in use in the winter only, and the fairy people lived entirely out of doors in the summer. For similar conditions of life the people of the Asiatic steppes afford the best parallel.

Like the people of the steppe the fairies appear to have lived chiefly on the milk of their herds, with an occasional orgy of a meat feast. In this they differed completely from the agriculturists who inhabited the more fertile parts of the country. The immense difference in physique caused by the introduction of grain into the regular diet of mankind is hardly yet realised except by the few who have studied the subject. It is not improbable that the small stature of the fairy, the stunted size of the changelings, the starved condition of the “mortal” captive among the fairies, may have been due to the diet.

The accounts of the fairies, as preserved in legal records and in folklore, show a people whose parallel can be found, in Western Europe, in the Neolithic and Bronze ages. The skeletal remains in Neolithic burial-barrows prove that the people who then inhabited Great Britain were short in stature, the height of the men being about 5 feet 5 inches and the women proportionately less. They were long-headed and probably had dark complexions (hence perhaps the affectionate nickname of Brownie given to the kindly fairy).

In Great Britain the Neolithic and Bronze-age people lived on open downs and moors; they were chiefly pastoral, practising agriculture but rarely. They no longer lived in caves like Palaeolithic Man, but built houses or huts. These houses were circular in plan, and were sunk in the earth to the depth of two or three feet; the floor was paved with stone, and the lower part of the walls was of stone also; the upper part of the walls was of wattle-and-daub or of turf, and the roof was of turf supported by a central post which perhaps carried a wooden frame. The hearth, when there was one, was in the middle of the one chamber, and there was an opening in the roof to allow the smoke to escape. Such houses were built in groups; and when overgrown with grass, bracken and small shrubs would appear like mounds or small hills. The remains of Bronze-age houses, known as “hut-circles”, are not found in valleys or those parts which were covered with forest, they are in open grassy country. In those parts are found also the little flint arrow-heads which are commonly called “elf-bolts”, and are known to be of the Bronze-age.

A hut of the kind described above is shown on plate viii, where it is called a “fairy house,” and as the two principal inhabitants wear crowns it must be the palace of the fairy king and queen. The hut is circular, is partly sunk below the surface of the ground and is roofed with turf on which shrubs are growing. It is one of a group of similar huts, which from the outside have the appearance of little hills or mounds, which is perhaps what John Walsh[4] meant when he said that he consulted the fairies on hills. The inhabitants are smaller than the man who is speaking to them, but they are not dwarfs or midgets. This then is clear evidence of the belief in elves and fairies at the date of the picture, i.e. 1555, and is proof not only of the human nature of the fairies and of their close resemblance to the Neolithic people but also of the survival of the Neolithic and Bronze-age folk and their civilisation as late as the sixteenth century.

The fairies, then, were the descendants of the early people who inhabited northern Europe; they were pastoral but not nomad, they lived in the unforested parts of the country where there was good pasturage for their cattle, and they used stone in the Neolithic period and metal in the Bronze-age for their tools and weapons. Later on, when the fierce tribes of the Iron-age, the Kelts, poured into Western Europe and to a great extent exterminated the people and the civilisation of the Bronze-age, those folk who live in the wild parts escaped the general massacre and learned that their best defence was to strike terror into the hearts of their savage neighbours. To them the new metal was part of the equipment of their formidable enemies and they held it in horror, but they still worked so well in bronze that their swords were coveted by the invaders. It was from our ancestors of the Iron-age that the traditional fear of the fairies was derived, the terror of the cunning and implacable enemy which is found in all records of fairies until Shakespeare dispersed it. Undoubtedly as civilisation advanced and more land came under cultivation the fairy people must have mingled more and more with the settled population, till many of them entered the villages and became indistinguishable from the “mortals”. It is the same process of absorption which is going on at the present day among the gypsies in Europe and the Bedawin of the Near East.

That the fairies, i.e., the witches, had settled in the villages is shown by the statements of the contemporary recorders. Sprenger[12] in the Malleus Maleficarum says that “there is not so little a parish but there are many witches known to be therein”. In 1589 Remigius[13] states that to the best of his recollection there were not less than eight hundred witches condemned during the sixteen years that he was criminal judge in Lorraine; and that at least the same number either fled or prolonged their lives by enduring torture and torment without confession. De Lancre[14] says that “the abomination” was spread throughout Europe so that France, England, Italy, Germany and Spain were filled and overflowing with it. Bodin[15] notes that “Satan has witches of every quality. He has kings, princes, priests, preachers, in many places the judges, doctors, in short he has them of all professions”. Still later Bishop Hall[16] remarks on a village in Lancashire where the number of witches was greater than the number of houses. This is proof that the religion was not originally confined only to the poor and ignorant but counted the highest ranks among its members. The fact that it was hereditary shows that it was universal; Bodin[17] is very emphatic on this point of an inherited cult, and urges all judges to use this knowledge as a method of catching unsuspected witches, and recommends that young girls should be seized and persuaded or frightened into compromising their relatives and friends. The only explanation of the immense numbers of witches who were legally tried and put to death in Western Europe is that we are dealing with a religion which was spread over the whole continent and counted its members in every rank of society, from the highest to the lowest.

The complete absorption of the primitive population must have come to pass in England after the Black Death, when labour became so scarce that serfage was no longer possible and the feudal system broke down. The landlords, having land and no labour, let their farms to tenant-farmers, and these, owing to the high price of labour, took to sheep-farming. As the trade in wool prospered the number of flocks increased in proportion to the demand, to the great enrichment of the owners, till to the scandal of the old aristocracy the nouveaux riches of the Tudor period were raised to the peerage. Sheep require fewer men than cattle or field-work, and labourers were thrown out of work in such numbers that unemployment became a menace and a danger, and finally resulted in the Peasant Revolt. Sir Thomas More was the first to connect the unemployment of his day with the advent of a new type of industry, and he puts the matter very pithily when he says “The sheep have eaten up the men”. In grazing, the difference between cattle and sheep is very marked. For cattle the grass must be sufficiently long for the animal to put its tongue round a bunch of grass and break it off; the grass which is left is not bitten down to the roots. By the arrangement of their teeth sheep are able to nibble the grass almost to the roots; thus, sheep can graze after cattle but not cattle after sheep. Sheep can also find a living on ground which will not support cattle. As the fairies were cattle keepers the advent of the sheep must have driven them out of their old haunts, there would be no feed for their beasts as in the old days. To paraphrase Sir Thomas More, “The sheep ate up the fairies”. More’s remark was written in 1515; by the time Shakespeare began to write two generations at least had passed; the fairies were no more than a memory, believed in partly as human beings, partly as Little People on whom were fathered all the folk tales–horrible, pretty or comic–which were current. From this medley Shakespeare drew his inspiration with far-reaching results.

The theory that the fairies began as the Neolithic folk is supported by the Irish tradition of the Tuatha-da-Danann, who are the same as the English and Continental fairy-folk. They were “great necromancers, skilled in all magic, and excellent in all arts as builders, poets and musicians”.[18] They were also great horse-breeders, stabling their horses in caves in the hills. When the Milesians, who seem to have been the people of the Bronze-age, invaded Ireland they endeavoured to exterminate the Tuatha, but by degrees the two races learned to live peaceably side by side.

With this theory in view it is worth while to examine the story of fairies in detail; it is then surprising to find how much has been recorded by eye-witnesses as to the appearance, dress and habits of the Little People. The houses are seldom described, for not only were they difficult to find, being carefully concealed, but the owners did not welcome visitors of another race. A parallel people are the Kurumbas of the Neilgherry Hills in South India. They are small in stature, their leaf-built houses are almost invisible in the jungles in which they are hidden, and the people themselves are said to be possessed of terrible magical powers, for which they are greatly feared by the neighbouring races. Much of what is written of the Kurumbas by modern investigators might be a description of the fairies, even more so are the stories of them in the traditions of their more civilised neighbours.

The fairies had a disconcerting habit of appearing and disappearing when least expected, a habit which seemed magical to the slow-moving heavy-footed agriculturists of the villages. Yet dexterity in taking cover was only natural in a people who must often have owed their lives to quickness of movement and ability to remain motionless. In Scott’s “Lady of the Lake” there is a description of Highlanders rising from ambush in an apparently uninhabited glen:

“From shingles gray their lances start,
The bracken bush sends forth the dart,
The rushes and the willow wand
Are bristling into axe and brand,
And every tuft of broom gives life
To plaided warrior armed for strife.”

Kipling in his “Ballad of East and West” describes a similar faculty of complete invisibility among the Indian borderers:

“There is rock to the left and rock to the right, and low lean thorn between,
And ye may hear a breech-bolt snick where never a man is seen.”

These primitive people or fairies were spread across the country in little communities, each governed by its own ruler, as in modern Africa. Lady Wilde notes that every district in Ireland had its peculiar and separate fairy chief or king.[19] Occasionally the names of the fairy kings and queens have survived.[20]

From the great importance of the queen in the community it would seem that she was the real ruler and that the king had only a secondary place, except perhaps in case of war. Property appears to have been communal, consequently marriage laws were non-existent, as was the case among the Picts; and the fairy-queen in particular was never bound to one husband only. This laxness of morals may have been one reason why the Christian Church, which laboured so hard to introduce some kind of regularity into the marital relations among all the nations over which it had influence, so hated the fairies. “Vrais diables incorporez” Boguet calls them with a fierceness quite incomprehensible if the fairies were really only the imaginary tiny beings of our nursery tales. If, however, they were a Pagan population whose religion and customs were definitely contrary to the teaching of the Christian priests, the indignation of the Church would naturally be directed against them and their influence. To have communication with these “incarnate devils” was to proclaim oneself an enemy of Christianity, and the offender would be treated with the utmost rigour by all Christian priests.

The conditions of life in the Neolithic and Bronze-age settlements are fairly well known; the people practised a little agriculture but in some parts were entirely pastoral. They owned all the domestic animals, but cattle were their mainstay. Isobel Gowdie 21 in 1662 claimed to have gone into a fairy hill “and got meat there from the Queen of Fairy. There was elf-bulls routing and skoyling up and down there and affrighted me”. These bulls made a great impression on her mind for in a further confession she said, “We went in to the Downie hills; the hill opened, and we came to a fair and large braw room in the day time. There are elf-bulls routing and skoyling there at the entry, which feared me.” Dogs of the Chow type were kept by the Neolithic people as watch-dogs; skeletons of such dogs have been found on Neolithic sites. Dogs are also mentioned in the tales of the fairies, fierce dogs who guarded the fairy hill. The paucity of agriculture among the fairy people is shown partly by the fact that cultivated land is not mentioned in connection with them, they are associated only with meadows; and partly by the fact that their powers were manifested on cattle, very rarely on crops. This evidence is corroborated by the situation of the known settlements of these periods; they are on open downs and moors, totally unsuited for the primitive plough then in use, though admirably adapted for grazing.

There is still a considerable body of evidence as to the appearance and dresses of the fairies. Their garments appear to have varied not only according to the tribe to which the wearers belonged, but also to the rank which they held in their community. Eyewitnesses aver that the fairies spun and wove their own cloth. The fairy women were very notable spinners and could more than hold their own against a “mortal”, but their looms were not so satisfactory, and there are many stories extant of the fairies entering a cottage and weaving their cloth on the cottager’s loom. The yarn used was generally wool and was occasionally undyed (called loughtyn in the Isle of Man), more often it was green or blue. The colours were dark as in the hunting-tartans of the Highlands, and the extremely dark blue gave rise to the belief in the black fairies. As John Walsh[22] (1566) expresses it, “There be three kindes of fairies, the black, the white, and the green, of which the black be the woorst”. A century later Isobel Gowdie[23] volunteered the information that “the queen of Fairy is brawly clothed in white linens, and in white and brown clothes, etc., and the king of Fairy is a braw man, well favoured, and broad-faced, etc.” It is most unfortunate that the recording clerk always put “etc.” when Isobel began to give any real details about the fairies. Possibly he was afraid to record any information about those terrifying people.

The colours of the fairies’ dresses were due to dyes, produced and used like those still employed in country places. The number of indigenous plants from which dye-stuffs are obtained is surprisingly large, such plants are to be found in all parts of the British Isles and the dyes cover the whole range of colour. Lichens give very fine dyes, red, yellow and blue; besides these, other plants and trees have been in use from time immemorial and dyes are still made from their roots, bark, leaves and fruit. All combinations of colour and shade can be made by mixing the dyes, but it is perhaps worth noting that there is no record of yellow being worn by the fairies; blue, black, green, and a little red, were the chief colours. Green was the favourite colour, the reason, probably being that the fairies were originally hunters, and green made them less visible to their quarry. Later, when they themselves were hunted, green was the best colour in which to move unobserved in a forest or to lie hidden on a moor. White garments are often recorded; these were probably of linen bleached in the sun. In many stories there are accounts of the fairies spreading their linen on the grass, and the extraordinary whiteness of the material is always the subject of admiration. Isobel Gowdie in the passage quoted above, appears to have been struck with the Fairy Queen’s white garments.

The fairy men of lower rank wore trousers and jackets, the women skirts and bodices. The most characteristic article of attire, however, for all ranks was the hat, cap, or hood. This was so precious to a fairy that any of them would risk capture or pay any ransom to recover it if it fell into alien hands. The cap varied in shape and colour according to the district. In the West Highlands[24] the green conical caps of the fairies were like the rush helmets which children made, and like those commonly worn by Swedish Lapps. In Ireland[25] a fairy-man was “like a boy of ten or twelve years old, only more broad and bulky, dressed in a grey little coat, and stockings of the same colour, with an old little black woollen hat.” In the Isle of Man” the fairies were dressed in undyed wool with little pointed red caps. In Wales[27] the male fairies had “red-tripled caps and the ladies a light fantastic headdress which waved in the wind”. The fairies of Upper Brittany[28] wore a kind of cap “like a crown, which seemed to be part of their person.” At Hildesheim[29] the local goblin was dressed like a peasant, but so invariably wore a hood that he was called Hedekin or Hutkin. Even so far away as Eastern Europe a Slav story[30] gives an account of a man who saw “two little demons pulling each other’s hair. By the cut of their short waistcoats, by their tight pantaloons and their three-cornered hats, he knew that they were inhabitants of the nether world.”

Fairies of higher rank were naturally better dressed. The king and queen, when riding in procession, wore rich garments and were always crowned; on less solemn occasions they were dressed like their subjects though in richer materials. When, in a domestic emergency in the Royal Household, the Fairy Queen went herself to borrow a basinful of oatmeal from a cottage woman, she was dressed in the richest green embroidered with gold and wore a small coronet of pearls. Her servant, who returned the oatmeal, is simply recorded as being in green. This was in Kirkcudbrightshire.[31]

Fairy ladies of rank wore long flowing dresses which fell to the ground in soft, sweeping folds; these robes were usually white, sometimes green, and occasionally scarlet. The hair was loose over the shoulders, which increased the beauty of the younger ladies, but the long straggling elf-locks of the older women are always commented on with horror by the “mortal” beholder. The fairy ladies covered their hair with a veil or hood, and often wore a small coronet of gold. The fairy knights wore gold or silver armour in battle or in solemn processions; for ordinary wear they dressed in green with a hat or cap; and on all occasions they wore green cloaks or mantles, possibly arranged like a plaid.

When going among the villagers the records show that the fairies were dressed like their neighbours, apparently lest they should attract attention and so be recognised. Bessie Dunlop[32] (1576) did not know till long afterwards that the “stout woman” who visited her was actually the Queen of Elfhame. There are also innumerable stories of “mortals” entering a fairy knowe and thereby becoming acquainted with the appearance of some of the fairies whom they recognised later among the villagers; such recognition invariably met with severe punishment. The fairy-woman of modern Ireland is described as being like a respectable house-keeper dressed in black; and as it is impossible to distinguish these terrible and terrifying visitants from ordinary folk by their appearance and dress, it is advisable not to admit a stranger to the house or to show hospitality to an unknown visitor while any serious domestic work, such as churning, is in progress, lest the stranger should prove to be one of the Good People.

A little is known of the tools and domestic implements of the fairy folk. They possessed spindles, but a spinning-wheel is never mentioned; weaving was practised, but there is no record of looms. Pottery, not metal, must have been generally used for domestic purposes as there are numerous stories of the fairies borrowing metal vessels which were punctually returned, often with a gift as repayment for the loan. In passing it may be noted that the fairies were scrupulous in keeping a promise, in which they were better than the “mortals” who often cheated them. They were also grateful for kindnesses and repaid a debt of money or help generously. In Northumberland the fairies were definitely mortal, for they died and lie buried in Brinkburn under a green mound.[33]

The characteristic weapon of the fairies, and one which still bears their name, is the stone arrow-head or elf-bolt. These arrow-heads are made of flint and are found on open heaths and downs where the fairy people dwelt. They are now known to be of the Bronze-age. They are so small and slight that they could have been used only with a small and light bow, such as that carried by the masked dancer of the palaeolithic times (plate II). A little light weapon of this kind could have been of little value against a human enemy or a wild beast, the arrow could inflict hardly more than a flesh wound. The recorded method of using the arrow-heads, and one quite as ineffective as the little bow, was to spang them with the thumb as boys shoot a marble. Yet to be shot with an elfbolt meant death or at least severe illness, usually paralysis. The only theory which explains the terror in which this puny weapon was held is that it was poisoned. A slight wound inflicted by the sharp point would be sufficient to introduce the poison into the system; and in the case of human beings, fright would do the rest. Domestic animals seldom died of elf-shot if remedies were applied within a reasonable time, the result being then only a few days’ illness; but if neglected the creature died. Poisoned arrows[34] are actually recorded, “The fairy arrows were made of bog-reed, tipped with white flints, and dipped in the dew of hemlock”. It is not unlikely that the use of poisoned darts was a legacy from Palaeolithic times; it was probably one of the means by which primitive man was able to destroy his four-footed enemies. The common poisonous plants of the fields and woods are often deadly when distilled and then introduced into the system through a wound. A couple of hunters with a good stock of poisoned arrows could have kept a pack of wolves at bay, for the poison acts with great rapidity. There is still extant the evidence of an eyewitness that fairy arrows were being made, and used by their makers, in the seventeenth century. In 1662 Isobel Gowdie[35] records, “As for Elf arrow-heads, the Devil shapes them with his own hands, and then delivers them to elf-boys, who whet and dight them with a sharp thing like a packing-needle.” Isobel found that it required practice to spang an arrow with her thumb, for though she claimed to have hit and killed a ploughman she missed the Laird of Park when she shot at him. The poisoned arrows could not have been used for killing game of food animals as the poison remains in the body and is not removed by cooking. Game was probably run down by the hunters on foot, as is still done by the Bedawin of the Near East.

The Little People are not recorded as having used any other weapon than the arrow against human beings; they seem to have fought with spears among themselves, and they made bronze swords of extraordinary efficacy. In the story of Gish, the sword Graysteel was forged by the dwarfs (i.e. the fairies), and it could therefore cut through whatever its blow fell on, nor could its edge be blunted by spells like swords made by mortals. A fairy javelin[36] was preserved at Midridge Hall in the county of Durham, but there is unfortunately no legend to account for its coming into the possession of a mortal.

A certain amount of tangible evidence as to the existence of fairies Mill remains in the form of objects of fairy workmanship, which have come in various ways into the possession of “mortals”. Gervase of Tilbury and William of Newbury record how a cup was once stolen by a man from a fairy; it was “of an unknown material, extraordinary colour, and unusual form”. It was given by the stealer to the Earl of Gloucester, and by him presented to Henry I, who in his turn gave it to his Queen’s brother, David of Scotland; after remaining many years in the Scotch treasury it was presented by William the Lion to Henry II. In Kirk Malew, in the Isle of Man,[37] the silver chalice was a cup stolen from the fairies; a similar story is told of other places. The Luck of Edenhall is a painted glass cup; it came into the possession of the family through the butler, who accidentally surprised a party of fairies at a feast; the terrified fairies fled leaving the cup behind. At Frensham, in Surrey, there is a huge metal cauldron which is said to have been borrowed from the fairies and never returned. In Scotland the banner of the Macdonalds is well known, it was presented to the head of the clan by the fairies. Though no proof can be adduced that these objects were made by fairy hands the tradition that they were so made shows the belief that, in later times at any rate, the fairies were as skilful in working metal and stone and in weaving textiles as any human being, and that the objects which they made are as solid and tangible as any others of that period.

If then my theory is correct we have in the medieval accounts of the fairies a living tradition of the Neolithic and Bronze-age people who inhabited Western Europe. With further study it might be possible to show the development of their civilisation, first by the contact between the flint-users and the bronze-workers, then by the slow development of intercourse with the people of the Iron-age, by whose descendants they were finally absorbed. The last authentic account of the fairies occurs in Scotland at the end of the seventeenth century, but in England they had disappeared long before. This strange and interesting people and their primitive civilisation have degenerated into the diminutive gossamer-winged sprites of legend and fancy, and occur only in stories to amuse children. The real upland-dweller, who struck terror into the lowlanders and horrified the priests of the Christian faith, has vanished utterly.

NEW: Mesopotamia

Explore the ancient writings of Mesopotamia, with our newly hosted texts from Sumer and Babylon. Also added are comparative studies of Sumerian and Assyrian legend in comparison to the Old Testament - all at the new Mesopotamia section.