Thursday, April 5, 2012

Remedial Lore: Fairy Tale Familiars

"Witches and fairies were closely associated in popular belief during the Middle Ages, and it is evident from the records of numerous trials that they were still so connected in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1431 St Joan of Arc was questioned about her alleged dealings with fairies who haunted a certain tree and healing-well near her home. St Joan knew these tales and probably believed them, but she denied that she had seen or talked with fairies, or that her mission was in any way connected with them. She admitted that, as a child, she had joined with other village children in singing round the tree and hanging garlands upon it, but the garlands, she said, were made in honour of Our Lady of Domremy. Her examiners were very persistent concerning these matters, which now seem so innocent and childish, and from their own point of view they were right to be so. For them, fairies were evil spirits, and whoever willingly trafficked with them was guilty of witchcraft, and perhaps of heresy."
-Christina Hole, A Mirror of Witchcraft.

"Thus, to my mind at least, the Subterranean Inhabitants of Mr. Kirk's book are not so much a traditional recollection of a real dwarfish race living underground (a hypothesis of Sir Walter Scott's), as a lingering memory of the Chthonian beings, "the Ancestors." A good case in point is that of Bessie Dunlop, of Dalry, in Ayrshire, tried on 8th November 1576 for witchcraft. She dealt in medicine and white magic, and obtained her prescriptions from Thomas Reid, slain at Pinkie fight (1547), who often appeared to her, and tried to lead her off to Fairyland. She, like Alison Pearson, was "convict and burnt" (Scott's Demonology, p. 146, and Pitcairn's Criminal Trials). Both ladies knew the Fairy Queen, and Alison Pearson beheld Maitland of Lethington, and Buccleugh, in Fairyland, as is recounted in a rhymed satire on Archbishop Adamson (Dalzell's Scottish Poems, p. 321). These are excellent proofs that Fairyland was a kind of Hades, or home of the dead."
-Andrew Lang, in his introduction to Robert Kirk's The Secret Commonwealth.

The word fairy derives from Middle English faierie (also fayerye, feirie, fairie), a direct borrowing from Old French faerie (Modern French féerie) meaning the land, realm, or characteristic activity (i.e. enchantment) of the legendary people of folklore and romance called (in Old French) faie or fee (Modern French fée). This derived ultimately from Late Latin fata (one of the personified Fates, hence a guardian or tutelary spirit, hence a spirit in general); cf. Italian fata, Portuguese fada, Spanish hada of the same origin.
Fata, although it became a feminine noun in the Romance languages, was originally the neuter plural ("the Fates") of fatum, past participle of the verb fari to speak, hence "thing spoken, decision, decree" or "prophetic declaration, prediction", hence "destiny, fate". It was used as the equivalent of the Greek Μοῖραι Moirai, the personified Fates who determined the course and ending of human life. -[wiki]

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When we think of historical witchcraft, it usually involves a lot of infernal goings-on. The woman who cracks open a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum is going to be confronted by myriad accounts of heresy, devil-worship and orgiastic chaos. The natural response is to conclude that none of it could possibly be true. Not literally, anyhow; modern witches tend to view this material either through the lens of the Murray thesis (which interprets appearances by "the Devil" as being a code or gloss for the Horned God), or, once they're convinced of the flaws in Murray's thesis, reject it wholesale. Despite having renounced Christianity, most Wiccans aren't interested in participating in anything Satanic - they're looking for something that exists entirely outside of the Christian worldview. So if there's no relationship between medieval witchcraft and the "Old Religion," it appears, on the surface, to lose its relevance. Those who have done their research are sometimes disappointed to learn that many of our magical techniques are actually borrowed from the grimoires of learned, Christian sorcerers - the same crowd that likely contributed to institutional fears of rampant heresy and devil worship in France, Germany, and Britain. The skeptical reader feels certain that the common men and women who stood trial were padding their confessions with what they'd heard of these elite magicians, leading some to ask whether there is nothing more to historical witchcraft than misinformed diabolism. And torture, despite the fact that many people in Britain testified without the use of torture, including many of the cunning folk who were brought to court and convicted of witchcraft as a result of practicing their art quite publicly. There are significant aspects to their confessions that aren't accounted for by the theory of elite-origin, particularly the type of spirit work that was attested to, some of which was clearly drawing on pre-Christian cultural beliefs.

Consider the confession of Andro Man, who attested that his familiar spirit was an angel in the service of the Queen of Elphame (Alfheim). Or the notorious case of Dame Alice Kyteler, whose familiar, although vividly described as a classic incubus, was called by the name of Robin - the appellation more commonly given to a puck. And then there are the witches and cunning folk who persistently referred to their familiars as "fairies," even as their interrogators persisted in calling them devils.

Yeah. That's a thing that happened.

In 1677, a Scottish clergyman wrote of spirits whom "the vulgar call white deviles, which possibly have neither so much power nor malice as the black ones have, which served our great grandfathers under the names of Brouny, and Robin Goodfellow, and, to this day, make dayly service to severals in quality of familiars." It's a fairly unambiguous statement about the kinds of beings that seers and diviners in his community had historically dealt with, despite the tone of disapproval. British legal statutes in the 16th and 17th centuries did not differentiate between categories of spirits, nor did the courts particularly concern themselves with the results, good or bad, of the magic allegedly performed. By 1604, the conjuration or contracting of any type of spirit for any purpose was decreed a felony by James I. In her landmark text, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, Emma Wilby contends that this hardline policy lead most prosecutors to characterize any spirit in the service of a witch or healer as malevolent and demonic - a process which can be easily observed:
Some trial records show this process of prosecutorial demonization very clearly. Bessie Dunlop's confession, for example, makes it clear that she perceived Tom Reid to be a classic ghost (classic in the sense that he despatched her with messages to his still-living relatives) with fairy connections (in that he served her at the behest of the fairy queen) who also helped her to perform beneficent magic. Despite Bessie's convictions, however, the prosecutors categorized Tom as a 'spretis of the devill'. This demonizing process is even more blatantly revealed in the trial dittays of Orkney cunning woman Elspeth Reoch, dated 1616, which state that a 'blak man cam to her . . . And callit him selff ane farie man quha wes sumtyme her kinsman callit Johne Stewart quha wes slane be Mc Ky'. Elspeth's interrogators obviously did not find her definition of John Stewart (fairy man or ghost) sufficient, for the dittay later reads 'she confest the devell quhilk she callis the farie man lay with hir.' The way in which the familiar used by Aberdeenshire cunning man 'Andro Man' was similarly distorted by his prosecutors can be clearly seen in his trial records, dated 1598 , which refer to 'the Devill, thy maister, quhom thow termes Christsonday, and supponis to be ane engell, and Goddis godsone' .
Angelic defectors aside, "Robin" was a name supplied by several witches in their confessions, as were Hob, Tom, and Will, among others. Surely, some of these were common names among the mortal populace. Yet the personality of Robin Goodfellow is not altogether irrelevant. The "Ballad of Robin Goodfellow" recounts a number of the puck's humorous adventures, including one in which he rescues a young lady from the lecherous advances of her uncle. While she escapes to the chapel to wed her true love, Robin stays behind to assume the girl's appearance and take on her chores, working at a superhuman rate. This amazes the old man, who responds by giving Robin even more tasks. Deviously, Robin promises to yield to the villain's desire in return for gold, and for written consent for the niece to marry her sweetheart. The old man eagerly supplies these things and prepares to approach the girl's bedchamber, when suddenly, Robin lifts him into the air and drops him into the house where his real niece is residing with her brand new husband. Her uncle's rage only increases the lulz factor.
The old man vainly Robin sought,
So many shapes he tries;
Sometimes he was a hare or hound,
Sometimes like a bird he flies.
The more he strove the less he sped,
The lovers all did see;
And thus did Robin favour them
Full kind and merrilie.
The ballad later goes on to describe the many shapes he is fond of taking.
Sometimes a cripple he would seeme,
Sometimes a souldier brave:
Sometimes a fox, sometimes a hare;
Brave pastimes would he have.

Sometimes an owle he'd seeme to be,
Sometimes a skipping frog;
Sometimes a kirne, in Irish shape,
To leape ore mire or bog:
Sometimes he'd counterfeit a voyce,
And travellers call astray,
Sometimes a walking fire he'd be,
And lead them from their way.

Some call him Robin Good-fellow,
Hob-goblin or mad Crisp,
And some againe doe tearme him oft,
By name of Will the Wispe;
But call him by what name you list,
I have studied on my pillow,
I think the best name he deserves
Is Robin the Good Fellow.
Whether or not Robin Goodfellow was solely a narrative invention of the time, I think an argument can be made that he represents the archetypical Fairy Creature; mercurial, capricious, and able to appear in virtually any guise, he embodies most every trait ascribed to the common Brownie or Hob that haunted the boundaries of human life. That fairy beings were popularly believed to appear to us as animals is an aspect of the lore that is not popularly emphasized today; their industriousness slightly more so. But the basic framework of the encounter described in many witchcraft confessions bears more than a superficial resemblance to your typical fairy story. For example, the induction of 17th century struggling school teacher, Jean Weir, into the cunning profession is an account that could have come right out of Grimm's Tales:
when she keeped a school at Dalkeith, and teached childering, ane tall woman came to the declarant's hous when the childering were there; and that she had, as appeared to her, ane chyld upon her back, and on or two at her foot; and that the said woman desyred that the declarant should imploy her to spick for her to the Queen of Farie, and strik and battle in her behalf with the said Queen, (which was her own words); and that the next day ane little woman came to the declarant, and did give her a piece of a tree, or the root of some herb or tree, as she thought, and told her that als long as she had the samen, she wold be able to doe what she should desyre; and then the said woman did lay ane cloth upon the floor near the door, and caused the declarant set her foot upon the samen, and her hand upon the crown of her own head, and cause the declarant repeit these words thrice, viz. 'All my cross and trubles goe to the door with the;' which accordinglie she did; and that she gave the woman all the silver she hade, being some few turners, and some meall; and that after the said woman went away, the declarant did spin a verie short tyme, and that she did find more yearne upon her pirne, and good yearne, nor she thought could be spun in so short a tyme; which did so affright the declarant, that she did set bye her wheile, and did shut the door, and did stay within her house for the space of twentie dayes or thereby, and was exceedinglie trubled, and weeped becaus she thought what she had done in manner for said was in effect the renuncing of her baptisme.
After receiving the promise of a strange old woman to obtain the Fairy Queen's patronage, Jean recites an incantation, and accepts the gift of a magic root. After that, having worked at her spinning wheel for a short time, she finds an unlikely abundance of yarn on her spool; an arguably mundane series of events that Jean took to have very serious implications for her spirituality. The act of placing one's body, from head to foot, between the hands of another person, was a common feature in the confessions of several Scottish witches. The notorious Isobel Gowdie renounced her Christianity and promised herself to the Devil in this manner. Although most of her magic was chanted "in the Devil's name," Isobel said that she was taught to fly by the King and Queen of Elphame, whose hillside feasts she attended regularly. What role could fairy patrons have played in the affairs of these early modern witches?

When compared to a story like that of Rumpelstiltskin, Tom Tit Tot, or the more benevolent Habetrot, one can easily begin to see some of the parallels between Jean's arrangement and the standard demonic pact. It might be the most basic kind of story there is: that of the donor or magical ally, who aids the protagonist in a time of need, appearing along the road, or beside a lake, or a wall, or at the edge of the woods. In her essay, "The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland," Wilby tells us, "Both familiar and fairy could be encountered either as the result of an invocation, or spontaneously (although in England it was also not uncommon to find the animal familiar passed from one witch to another, often between family members). The initial encounter with both types of spirit was often described as spontaneous and conformed, in fundamentals, to standard encounter narratives found in fairy anecdotes and folktales of all periods. The individual was usually alone, either in the countryside or at home, and in some sort of trouble, when the spirit suddenly appeared and offered to help."

We all know the story of Puss-In-Boots, right? An old miller passes away, leaving his three sons on their own. To the eldest he leaves the mill, to the middle son he leaves his mules, and to the youngest, he leaves a nothing but a cat. The boy laments his lot, thinking that there's nothing left for him to do but put the poor creature in a pot to eat. But, as we all know, the cat is no ordinary cat. With human speech, he asks from the boy a pair of boots, promising, in return, to acquire all that they should need in life and more. And so he does.

And in 1566, Elizabeth Francis testified that she had been taught witchcraft from the age of twelve by her grandmother, Eve, who upon her death left the girl with a white cat:
. . . she counselled her to renounce God and his word, and to give of her blood to Satan (as she termed it) which she delivered in the likeness of a white spotted cat, and taught her to feed the said cat with bread and milk, and she did so, also she taught her to call it by the name Satan and to keep it in a basket.

When this Mother Eve had given her the Cat Satan, then this Elizabeth desired first of the said Cat (calling it Satan) that she might be rich and to have goods, and he promised her she should - asking he what she would have, and she said sheep (for this Cat spake to her as she confessed in a strange hollow voice, but such as she understood by use), and this Cat forthwith brought sheep into her pasture to the number of eighteen, black and white, which continued with her for a time, but in the end did all wear away, she knew not how.
It appears that some of Elizabeth's boons were rather more impermanent. Nevertheless, I think this illustrates a link between our cultural fables and earlier, animistic beliefs. Europe is not the only continent in the world that tells stories about magical talking animals, but we tend not to see them as having any metaphysical content unless the story is being told inside a yurt. One can argue about their ultimate significance (whether as simple allegories or as a spiritual framework), but I think it bears some further consideration.** Yeats, at the very least, was able to find an old countryman who was quite certain of the eerie and numinous nature of the animal kingdom: "He has heard the hedgehog - 'grainne oge,' he calls him - 'grunting like a Christian' . . . He is certain too that the cats, of whom there are many in the woods, have a language of their own - some kind of Old Irish. . . . I am not certain that he distinguishes between the natural and the supernatural very clearly. He told me the other day that foxes and cats like, above all, to be in the 'forths' and lisses after nightfall; and he will certainly pass from some story about a fox to a story about a spirit with less change of voice than when he is going to speak about a marten cat - a rare beast now-a-days."

Animal familiars are not as common in witchcraft confessions from Italy and the Mediterranean, although it was still popularly believed that witches had the power to take the shape of animals, such as owls or cats. Belief in fairy matrons, however, may have played a significant part in that lore as well. In her recent essay, "Aradia in Sardinia: the Archeology of a Legend," Sabina Magliocco presents the theory that the legendary cult of Herodias represents a Christian syncretization with local legends of spirit processions. "Like their leader, the spirits in the procession led by Diana or Herodias were known by a number of names: bonae res ('good things'), dominae nocturnae ('ladies of the night') or fatae ('fairies'). As Ginzburg argues . . . these apellations suggest a certain euphemistic quality indicating the ambiguous nature of the spirits; it is reminiscent of English-language traditions in which fairies are referred to as 'the good people.'"

She goes on: "There are said to be in Sardinia beings called janas, whose name means 'follower of Diana,' linking them directly to medieval legends of roaming spirits. They are said to live in Neolithic shaft tombs, known as domus de janas, 'homes of the fairies,' or in caves, both locations of prehistoric burials. They are expert spinners and weavers, and can interact with and in some cases even marry humans. Like the Romanian iele, who are lead by Irodeasa, Sardinian janas have as their patroness Araja or Arada, whose name is a version of the medieval Italian Eriodade."

So here we have a spectral queen, who dwells in prehistoric graves and rules over fairy spirits. What does that sound like?

In the British Isles, the "fairy hills" spoken of in folk lore are not usually geological formations, but Neolithic passage tombs or tumulii, many of which tend to be associated in folklore with local fairy rulers of legend. When interrogated about the source of their craft, cunning folk would often answer that they got their knowledge and tools from visiting the fairies, or their Queen, at one of these structures. In his Daemonologie, King James I wrote that "sundrie Witches have gone to death with that confession, that they have ben transported with the Phairie to such a hill, which opening, they went in, and there saw a faire Queene, who being now lighter, gave them a stone that had sundrie virtues." John Webster recorded his account of a trial of an unnamed cunning man, whose initiation began when, "one night before the day was gone, as he was going home from his labour, being very sad and full of heavy thoughts, not knowing how to get meat and drink for his Wife and Children, he met a fair Woman in fine cloaths, who asked why he was so sad, and he told her that it was by reason of his poverty, to which she said, that if he would follow her counsel she would help him."
Thereupon she led him to a little Hill and she knocked three times, and the Hill opened, and they went in, and came to a fair hall, wherein was a Queen sitting in great state, and many people about her, and the Gentlewoman that brought him, presented him to the Queen, and she said she was welcom, and bid the Gentlewoman give him some of the white powder, and teach him how to use it; which she did, and gave him a little wood box full of the white powder, and bad him give 2 or 3 grains of it to any that were sick, and it would heal them, and so she brought him forth of the Hill, and so they parted . . . being asked how he got more powder, he said when he wanted he went to that Hill, and knocked three times, and said every time I am coming, I am coming, whereaupon it opened, and he going in was conducted by the aforesaid Woman to the Queen, and so had more powder given him.**
In Norse and Celtic cultures alike, burial mounds and tumulii were sites of spiritual activity. Rural communities in the Orkney Islands have been making libations at their ancestral mounds right up to the 20th century; the Ynglingasaga tells of copper, gold and silver offerings being brought to grave of immortal Frey; the Colloquy of the Ancients tells of three noble brothers, who, upon being denied their inheritance, fasted for three nights on the hill of Newgrange. On the third night, they are approached by "a cheery-looking young man of pacific demeanor," who introduces himself as "the Daghda's son, Bodbh Derg." And who is Bodbh Derg? Only the last known king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who provides the mortal princes with land and fortune after inviting them into the hill.

There is also substantial evidence, from a variety of accounts, to suggest that the spirits of the recently deceased were frequently found in these fairy courts as well. We've already spoken of Bessie Dunlop, whose ghostly tutor taught her medicine and invited her many times to visit Fairyland with him, and of Elspeth Reoch, whose initiator was the spirit of her fallen kinsman, who taught her to be a seer. In the 16th century, Alison Peirson was convicted "for haunting and repairing with the good neighbours and Queen of Elphame, these divers years bypast, as she had confessed by her depositions, declaring that she could not readily say how long she had been with them, and that she had friends in that court which was of her own blood, who had good acquaintance of the Queen of Elphame, which might have helped her . . . And that it was these good neighbors that healed her under God: And that she was coming and going to St Andrews in healing of folks, these sixteen years bypast..."

She had taken ill when she had her first encounter with the "good neighbours," and was alone in her house when she was visited by a strange man clad in green, who promised her, "If she would be faithful, he would do her good." He visited her sickbed a second time, bringing a whole retinue of spirits who carried her from Fifeshire to Lothian, where they entertained her with wine and music as she prayed. After this episode, she was healed, and tutored in medicine by the spirit of her deceased uncle, William Sympson, who had been her doctor as a girl. The record relates how he "healed her and taught her all things . . . and that he was a young man, not six years older than herself; and that she would fear when she saw him; and that he will appear to herself alone before the Court come, and that he before told her how he was carried away with them out of middle-earth."

This kind of ancestral patronage can be found among priests, doctors and spirit-workers in indigenous cultures across Eurasia. Sometimes, a spirit-worker may be assisted in his training by the souls of his predecessors, who advocate for him among spirits great and small. Or, spiritual assistants and instructors may be granted to him by minor deities, appearing in humanoid or animal shape. And anyone with passing familiarity with the subject could draw a comparison between Alison's experience and the phenomenon of "shamanic sickness." There's no reason to assume that Britain and Europe are completely bereft of this kind of cultural legacy - those who dismiss the freely given accounts of early modern witches as simple psychosis are perhaps underestimating the common humanity between the English peasant and the Siberian medic, or indeed, the Christian magician. If we can accept that a literate person treated his spiritual tableau as a real landscape, then why not a poor woman sighing at the wall bordering her property, as Bessie Dunlop was? Don't be too disconcerted when Tom slips back away through the crack in the stones.

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Further Reading:
Witching.Org - Witches In Early Modern England
Cunning Folk And Familiar Spirits (an extensive preview)
Witches and Wizards in Irish Folk-Lore
Confusing Culture for Clinic: Indigenous Shaman-Healer as Psychopathology
And a great collection of links to material on land-wights and historical "fairy faith," at the bottom of this post by Lairbhan.

*There is much that could potentially be said about the Norse concept of the fylgia in relation to witches' familiars, but I'm not prepared to say anything authoritative on the matter.
**Fortunately for our unnamed defendant, his case was thrown out of court. The judge thought it was all a lot of nonsense.
[ETA: When this post was originally published, the paragraph about beliefs in Sardinia read, "earlier, indigenous legends of spirit processions." The word "indigenous," being an inaccurate descriptor, has now been replaced by the word "local." -Yule 2012.]


  1. I've always believed there is truth in fairy tales, but I'm not good at discussing why. It seems to me, through a very detailed discussion and especially with that last paragraph, that you've just done it.

  2. Oh, I'm so glad! It's a tangle-y subject, to be sure - this is one of the most challenging things I've ever written. I think most people don't think to examine it too much, because Western culture has done so much to normalize that material and find acceptable social niches for it. Hidden in plain sight, as it were.

  3. Also, Full Disclosure: the allegations against Alice Kyteler were obtained by flogging her maidservant, Petronilla. The records claim that the latter woman was the first person burnt for witchcraft in Ireland (12th century.) But even if there is no truth to her (highly detailed) testimony, I still find it significant that "Robin" was the name she referenced, especially in a case so much earlier than most of the others mentioned here.

  4. Synchronicity.

    I've just finished reading Cunningfolk and Familiar Spirits and book-wise it's got to be one of the best buys I ever made (I've bought a lot of crud in the past thinking I was getting something else!). This post is perfect follow up reading to help me figure out some of the thoughts I had while reading Wilby's book.

  5. Isn't it neat when that happens?

    It's definitely a valuable piece of research. Even Ronald "there are no pagan survivals!" Hutton is a big fan of her work.

  6. "Europe is not the only continent in the world that tells stories about magical talking animals, but we tend not to see them as having any metaphysical content unless the story is being told inside a yurt."

    Well put. Agreed.

    Awesome work!

  7. Thank you. I really like the word "yurt."