Five things we’ve learned about fairies through writing this blog

By Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library

 

Our first step on the trail into the world of fairies was creating the exhibition Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain. Between Worlds considered the various types of fairy folk that had existed in Northern British literature, history, and art. Our goal was to try to dispel the popular belief that fairies were pretty little creatures dancing at the bottom of the garden.

When we started this blog to run alongside the exhibition, we thought we would be prepared for all the weird and wonderful folklore and fairy facts that came our way. I’m happy to say that that was most certainly not the case…

Just as Between Worlds came to an end, so must this blog. For our final post, we thought we’d round it all up by telling you the top five fairy and folklore facts we found most interesting:

 

Folklore Fact No. 1:

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Photography by Dwight Burdette: close-up of fairy door at Red Shoes, 332 South Ashley, Ann Arbor, Michigan, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fairy_door_at_Red_Shoes_Ann_Arbor_Michigan_close-up.JPG

Homes are a safe haven for many of us, and landscapes are sacred to fairy folk too. The consequences of trespassing on their land is dire and often deadly, depending on which stories you believe. Whether it’s from setting up camp, walking into a fairy ring, or crashing one of their parties, many unsuspecting mortals have been whisked away or had their lives threatened.

Even in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the unsuspecting humans find themselves the play-things of the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, especially after waltzing into their woodland (see Prof. David Fuller’s piece on Shakespeare’s play).

One of the most prominent examples is Thomas the Rhymer, who played a significant role in the Between Worlds exhibition. The romance between Thomas and the fairy queen is famous, with many people regularly trekking to Eldon Hills to visit the location Thomas was gifted his prophetic powers. To read more about this extraordinary story, check out Dr Victoria Flood and Poppy Holden’s posts.

 

Folklore Fact No. 2:

As folklore and fairy tales are rooted in the supernatural, it has been easy to manipulate them for one’s own purposes. Fairies have been the foundation of numerous hoaxes, including the famous Cottingley Fairies: a story of two young girls who nearly managed to convince the world of the existence of fairies.

Myths, folklore and fairy tales have always been a key tool for learning throughout history, and have often been manipulated for this purpose. One of the more surprising posts we received was on the adaptation of fairy tales by the Nazi regime. Many of the us know that there are variations of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, whether it’s the child-friendly or Brothers Grimm versions, but very few of us recollect a Nazi officer as the hero of that story. More on these sorts of tales can be read about here.

 

Folklore Fact No. 3:

Just as in our own human societies, fairy folk – both good and bad – have their own customs and etiquette too!

If you were to find yourself facing head-on with the Faerie Host, Andy Paciorek informs us that you should shout ‘God Bless you’! He also recommends throwing your left shoe at them (but if that doesn’t work, then you’re going to have to fight them with only one shoe on…).

We believe the general rule is try not to disturb them if you don’t need to. Don’t break a fairy ring if you ever come across them and, if you do want to draw a fairy in, then try using something shiny. But if you want to keep them away, then you should keep yellow flowers outside your house or have some iron objects lying around.

Read Pollyanna Jones’ eight tips on how to socialise with a fairy here.

 

Folklore Fact No. 4:

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Groac’h or Water Witch. © Andy Paciorek

The prominence of certain fairy types differs from region to region. Here in Northern Britain, we have hob goblins, fairies who abduct children and adults alike, and even fairy folk royalty (see Rosalind Kerven’s post on the ancient fairies of Northern Britain), amongst many others.fairy folk royalty (see Rosalind Kerven’s post on the ancient fairies of Northern Britain), amongst many others. But then in Scotland, there’s the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, described by author and illustrator Andy Paciorek as good and bad fairies. In County Durham itself, there’s the Water Witch, which waits by the water’s edge, luring in small children to feast on their flesh and bones.

 

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Illustration by Helena Nyblom for ‘The Seven Wishes’ from Among Pixies and Trolls (1913) by Alfred Smedberg, https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pixie_(folletto)#/media/File:I_samma_ögonblick_var_hon_förvandlad_till_en_underskön_liten_älva.jpg

Our friends at the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft explained that Cornwall has a variety of fairies, but their most prominent is the piskie. The piskie runs rampant causing mischief and mayhem along its path. Like most fairies, in order to fend the piskies off, you need some iron. Otherwise, they’ll steal anything shiny and play tricks.

Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University also had an folklore exhibition running at the same time as ours here at Palace Green Library. Lisa Tallis explained that they wanted to focus on the darker side of Welsh folklore, looking at demons and devils. She speaks of fairies such as the Bendith eu Mamau (Their Mothers’ Blessing), who are known to both bless favoured humans and steal new-borns from their beds.

 

Folklore Fact No. 5:

Folklore and fairy tales aren’t just a thing of the past or creativity to be inspired by the fairy and mythological folk. They still inspire people today, from writers to musicians to artists.

Many authors who have contributed to this blog are still inspired by the stories of fairy folk (the list of authors and their blogs can be viewed here). Adam Bushnell discusses in his post a few modern works that have used folklore and myth as the foundation of their narratives.

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The Brothers Gillespie performing at Palace Green Library Cafe ©Ross Wilkinson

The Brothers Gillespie performed for an audience here at Palace Green Library, playing many songs inspired by the folklore they’ve accumulated on their travels. They’re influenced not only by the likes of Nick Drake and other modern musicians but also the folk songs and fairy tales of old. Many singers today still perform the traditional folk ballads, such as one of our contributors Poppy Holden.

The enchanted atmosphere and landscapes the fairy tales create provide some  fantastic photo opportunities (read James Brown’s blog on his ventures into the fairy landscapes of Melrose, Aberfoyle, Middridge and Inglewood):

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We hope you’ve all enjoyed reading this blog as much as we enjoyed putting it together! However, we couldn’t have done it without the help of all those who made some fantastic contributions:

On Dealing with Fairies

By Pollyanna Jones, co-author of Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies (2018) and author of Legends & Folklore: London (awaiting publication)


Foreword

There are many tales about fairies, but how do we deal with them? Over the years, customs and behaviours have been developed so that your encounter with a fairy can be a positive one. Pollyanna gives us her top eight tips on how to keep on a fairy’s good side.

Jade Westerman, Exhibitions Assistant at Palace Green Library


Fairies have been both loved and feared throughout the ages. With supernatural powers, they are described in folklore and fairy tales as being able to both gift and curse, or at least cause mischief to humans. Items going missing, a spate of breakages of household items, sickness in animals, and periods of bad luck were suspected to follow an instance of upsetting the fairies. As a result, various superstitions and customs developed on establishing healthy relationships with the Good Folk to avoid displeasing them.

Tip One:

It would seem that fairies dislike discord within their host’s homes. Bad language and arguments are bound to cause upset; seemingly these magical folk enjoy their peace and quiet. Offerings of milk and honey could be left to appease the fairies should they have been upset by their human companions.

Tip Two:

Circles of mushrooms known as fairy rings were described as being left behind by fairy footfalls after a night of dancing under the moon. It is considered very bad luck to break a fairy ring, causing seven years of bad luck to fall upon anyone who damages them. Some people avoid walking inside them entirely, believing them to be portals to the fairy realm.

Tip Three:

Anything shiny is supposed to attract the fairies, and you may find that these items go missing only to appear in the most unexpected places once the fairies are bored with their newly found toy. A more recent phenomena is that of placing “fairy nests” or fairy doors in the garden in the hopes that the fey will make such a place their home, helping a garden to thrive. This is a very recent idea, following on from the Victorian concept of flower fairies, and romanticism and taming of these folk.

Tip Four:

The elder tree is believed to be associated with the fairies, and bad luck or seven years in fairyland awaits anyone who would pick flowers from this plant on Midsummer’s eve.

Tip Five:

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Puck and a Fairy by Arthur Rackham, available: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Puck_and_a_Fairy_Rackham.jpg

 

Not all fairies are benevolent! Should you find yourself out walking alone at night, and hear the whickering of a horse or see a strange light up ahead, do not follow, for you may find yourself waylaid and Puck led. Survivors of such experiences often awoke in a muddy ditch, fooled by fairy lights into straying off their path and into disaster.

Tip Six:

For those fearful of fairies dwelling in their homes, yellow flowering broom plants outside the house are thought to act as a deterrent. As are any items crafted from iron.

Tip Seven:

Whilst invisible to most humans, there were ways in which one could obtain the enchanted eye. One would be to wash their eyelids with the dew collected on May Day’s eve. Another is to gaze through  a hole within a hagstone: a stone with a naturally formed hole within it.

Tip Eight:

There are ways to know when a fairy is present nearby, without the aid of a hagstone. The bobbing of a head of bog cotton, when the air is still, laughter heard without an apparent source, or a sudden swirl of leaves crossing the road marks the passing through of one of these magical beings. It is courteous to nod your head or tip your hat to acknowledge them if you are to be known as a friend to the fey. Be warned though, once you are noticed, this can never be undone!

 

Pollyanna Jones’s published work includes articles for The Celtic Guide magazine, Mythology Magazine, and internet sites, including The Spooky Isles and Radio Rivendell. Pollyanna has written a chapter on Worcestershire’s Pixies and Pixy Rocks for Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies (Gibson Square Books Ltd, 2018), and is awaiting the publication of Legends & Folklore: London (Bradwell Books). She tackles various projects – from interviews to reviews, magazine articles to non-fiction publications – focusing on the magical world of folklore.

You can follow Pollyanna on Facebook and Twitter, or you can follow her work on her website or linkedin.