The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Fairies

Source: William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information. London: Thomas Tegg, 1832.
Entry for December 27.

Fairies.

There are some very pretty notions in verse on the love of order and cleanliness among the “Good People,” of our old popular Mythology. They were famous slut-pinchers; and celebrated, withal, for dressing themselves gallantly.

MAB, The Fairy Queen, condescends to her subjects in a ditty entitled with her own name, wherein she says,

When mortals are at rest
And snoring in their nest,
Unheard, and unespied,
Through key-holes we do glide;
Over tables, stools, and shelves,
We trip it with our fairy elves.

And, if the house be foul
With platter, dish, or bowl,
Up stairs we nimbly creep,
And find the sluts asleep;
There we pinch their arms and thighs;
None escapes, and none espies.

So much for punishment of offences; next, as in moral justice, comes reward for services :—

But if the house be swept,
And from uncleanness kept,
We praise the household maid,
And duly she is paid:
For we use, before we go,
To drop a tester in her shoe.

Dr. Richard Corbet, Bishop of Norwich, speaks of this practice in the outset of “A proper New Ballad, entitled, The FAIRIES FAREWELL.”

Farewell Rewards and Fairies!
Good housewives now may say:
For now foul sluts in dairies
Do fare as well as they:
And though they sweep their hearths no less
Than maids were wont to do,
Yet who, of late, for cleanliness,
Finds sixpence in her shoe

The cheerful Prelate afterwards says, in praise of the “Good People,”

A telltale in their company
They never could endure
And whoso kept not secretly
Their mirth was punished sure
It was a just and Christian deed
To pinch such black and blue.
0 how the commonwealth doth need
Such justices as you!

To the same effect, Herrick, who wrote the glorious poem, “Corinna going a Maying,”gives goodly counsel and caution to household maids,

If ye will with Mab find grace,
Set each platter in his place
Rake the fire up, and get
Water in, ere sun be set.
Wash your pails, and cleanse your dairies,
Sluts are loathsome to the fairies
Sweep your house : who doth nut so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe.

The state dresses of their high and mighty little Majesties are always described as suitable to their quality. Two pieces on this subject from The Rhapsody, 8vo. 1750, with some befitting alterations, are at the reader’s service. The first which I find to have been abridged from Poole’s “English Parnassus,” is on

The King.

Upon a time the Fairy elves,
Having newly dress’d themselves,
Thought it meet to clothe their king
In robes most fit for revelling.

They wrought a cobweb shirt more thir
Than ever spiders since could spin
And bleach’d it in the whitest snow
When the northern winds do blow.

A rich waistcoat they did bring
Form’d of the trout fly’s golden wing
Dyed crimson in a maiden’s blush,
And lined with humming bees’ soft plush.

His hosen and his cassock were
Wove of the silken gossamer;
And down the seams, with careful pace,
An unctuous snail drew curious lace.

His girdle was a wreath of pearls
Dropt from the eyes of silly girls,
Pinch’d because they had forgot
To sweep the hearth, and clean the pot.

His hat was all of ladies’ love, -
So passing light that it would move
if any gnat or tiny fly
But stirr’d the air in passing by.

The next, in a different measure, closes with a verse of agreeable sarcasm, and ends the entertainment somewhat abruptly—

The Queen.

No sooner was their king attired
As prince had never been,
Than, as in duty was required,
They next arrayd their queen.

With shining thread shot from the sun
And twisted into line,
They on the Wheel of Fortune spun
Her body-linen fine.

They made her gown of morning dawn
When Phœbus did but peep,
As by a poet’s pencil drawn,
In Chloris’ lap asleep.

Its colour was all colours fair,
The rainbow gave the dip;
Its perfume was the amber air
Drawn from a virgin’s lip.

Her necklace was a subtile tye
Of glorious atoms, set
In the pure black of Beauty’s eye,
As they had been in jet.

Her shoes were lover’s hopes abed,
So passing thin and light,
That alt her care was how to tread
A thought would burst them quite.

The revels ended, she put off
Because her grace was warm.
She fann’d her with a lady’s scoff,
And so she took no harm.

 


Well Fairies

Hutchinson, in his History of Cumberland, speaking of Eden-hall, says: “In this house are some good old-fashioned apartments. An old painted drinking glass, called the ‘Luck of Eden-hall,’ is preserved with great care. In the garden, near to the house, is a well of excellent spring water, called St. Cuthbert’s well (the church is dedicated to that saint); this glass is supposed to have been a sacred chalice; but the legendary tale is, that the butler, going to draw water, surprised a company of fairies ‘who were amusing themselves upon the green near the well: he seized the glass which was standing upon its margin; they tried to recover it; but, after an ineffectual struggle, flew away, saying,

If that glass either break or fall,
Farewell the luck of Eden-hall.’”

This cup is celebrated in the duke of Wharton’s ballad upon a remarkable drinking match held at sir Christopher Musgrave’s. Another reading of the lines said to have been left with it, is,

Whene’er this cup shall break or fall,
Farewell the luck of Eden-hall.”

 


Fairy Saddle

Waldron, in his Description of the Isle of Man, tells us that there is in that island, “the fairies’ saddle, a stone termed so, as I suppose, from the similitude it has of a saddle. It seems to lie loose on the edge of a small rock, and the wise natives of Man tell you it is every night made use of by the fairies, but what kind of horses they are, on whose backs this is put, I could never find any of them who pretended to resolve me.” The same writer acquaints us that the Monks confidently assert that the first inhabitants of their island were fairies, and that these little people have still their residence among them. They call them t/te good people, and say they live in wilds and forests, and on mountains, and shun great cities because of the wickedness acted therein. (Citing Brand.)

 


Fairy Haunts, &c.

In a curious and rare book entitled “Paradoxical Assertions, &c., by R. H.” 1664, we read, that Englishmen “maintain and defend the sacred hearth, as the sanctuary and chief place of residence of the tutelary laces and household gods, and the only court where the lady Fairies convene to dance and revel?”

Aubrey, in his Miscellanies, says that, “ When Fairies remove from place to place they are said “to use the words Horse and Hattock.”

In Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland, the intelligent minister of the parishes of Strachur and Stralachlan in Argyleshire, tells us, that “ About eight miles to the eastward of Cailleach-vear, a small conical hill rises considerably above the neighbouring hills. It is seen from Inverary, and from many parts at a great distance. It is called Sien-Sluai, the fairy habitation of a multitude. A belief in Fairies prevailed very much in the Highlands of old; nor at this day is it quite obliterated. A small conical hill, called Sien, was assigned them for a dwelling, from which melodious music was frequently heard, and gleams of light seen in dark nights.”

The account of Kirkmichael says, “ Not more firmly established in this country is the belief in ghosts than that in fairies. The legendary records of fancy, transmitted from age to age, have assigned their mansions to that class of Genii, in detached hillocks covered with verdure, situated on the banks of purling brooks, or surrounded by thickets of wood. These hillocks are called sioth-dhunan, abbreviated sioth-anan, from sioth, peace, and dun, a mound. They derive this name from the practice of the druids, who were wont occasionally to retire to green eminences to administer justice, establish peace, and compose differences between contending parties. Their followers, when they were no more, fondly imagined, that seats where they exercised a virtue so beneficial to mankind, were still inhabited by them in their disembodied state. In the autumnal season, when the moon shines from a serene sky, often is the way. faring traveller arrested by the music of the hills, more melodious than the strains of Orpheus. Often, struck with a more solemn scene, he beholds the visionary hunters engaged in the chace, and pursuing the deer of the clouds, while the hollow rocks, in long-sounding echoes, reverberate their cries. About fifty years ago, a clergyman in the neighbourhood, whose faith was more regulated by the scepticism of Philosophy than the credulity of Superstition, could not be prevailed upon to yield his assent to the opinion of the times. At length, however, he felt from experience, that he doubted what he ought to have believed. One night as he was returning home, at a late hour, from a presbytery, he was seized by the fairies, and carried aloft into the air. Through fields of æther and fleecy-clouds he journeyed many a mile, descrying, like Sancho Panza on his Clavileno, the earth far distant below him, and no bigger than a nut-shell. Being thus sufficiently convinced of the reality of their existence, they let him down at the door of his own house, where he afterward often recited to the wondering circle the marvellous tale of his adventure. These genii are still supposed by many of the people to exist in the woods and sequestered valleys of the mountains, where they frequently appear to the lonely traveller, clothed in green, with dishevelled hair floating over their shoulders, and with faces more blooming than the vermil blush of a summer morning. At night, in particular, when fancy assimilates to its own preconceived ideas every appearance and every sound, the wandering enthusiast is frequently entertained by their music, more melodious than he ever before heard.

 

Fairy Treasure

In the Leverian museum were “ Orbiular sparry bodies, commonly called fairies’ money, from the banks of the Tyne, Northumberland.” Ramont, a character in the play of the ‘Fatal Dowry,’ 1632, says,—

But not a word of it, ‘tis fairies treasure;
Which but reveal’d, brings on the blabber’s ruine.

Various works contain allusions to this well-known trait of fairy mythology.

 


Brownies

Brownies, according to fairy legends, were a sort of domestic fairies, extremely useful, and performers of ail sorts of domestic drudgery.

Milton describes the fairy character answering to the Browny, who seems here to be the same with Robin Goodfellow:

Tells how the drudging goblin swet,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, era glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flale bath trresh’d the corn
That ten day-lab’rers could not end
Then lays him down the lubbar-fiend,
And stretch’d out all the chimney’s length
Basks at the fire his hairy strength,
And, crop-full, out of doers he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings,

Martin, in his description of the Shetland Isles, says : “It is not long since every family of any considerable substance in those islands was haunted by a spirit they called Browny, which did several sorts of work: and this was the reason why they have him offerings of the various products of the place. Thus some, when they charmed their milk, or brewed, poured some milk and wort through the hole of a stone called Browny’s stone.— Browny was frequently seen in all the most considerable families in these isles, and north of Scotland, in the shape of a tall man: but, within these twenty or thirty years past, he is seen but rarely. — There were spirits, also, that appeared in the shape of women, horses, swine, cats, and some like fiery balls, which would follow men in the fields: but there have been but few instances of these for forty years past. — These spirits used to form sounds in the air, resembling those of a harp, pipe, crowing of a cock, and of the grinding of querns; and sometimes they thrice heard voices in the air by night, singing Irish songs: the words of which songs some of my acquaintance still retain. One of them resembled the voice of a woman who had died some time before, and the song related to her state in the other world. — Below the chappels (three chapels in the island of Valay) there is a flat thin stone, called Brownie’s stone, upon which the ancient inhabitants offered a cow’s milk every Sunday: but this custom is now quite abolished.”

King James I., in his Dæmonology,says: “Brownie appeared like a rough man, and haunted divers houses without doing any evill, but doing, as it were, necessarie tures up and downe the house; yet some were so blinded as to beleeve that their house was all the sonsier, as they called it, that such spirits resorted there.’

Dr. Johnson, in his Journey to the Western Islands, observes, “Browny was a sturdy fairy, who, if he was fed, and kindly treated, would, as they say, do a great deal of work. They now pay him no wages, and are content to labor for themselves.”

Robert Heron says, “The Brownie was a very obliging spirit, who used to come into houses by night, and, for a dish of cream, to perform lustily any piece of work that might remain to be done: sometimes he would work, and sometimes eat till he bursted: if old clothes were laid out for him, he took them in great distress, and never more returned.”

 


Knockers

Besides the common class of imaginary beings called fairies, with whose qualities we are familiar, through the story-books of childhood; we have accounts, on like good authority, of another species, who dwelt in the mines, where, it is said, they ‘were often heard to imitate the actions of the workmen, whom they were thought to be inclined to assist, and never, unless provoked by insult, to injure. In Wales they were called knockers, and were said to point out the rich veins of silver and lead. Some fairies are also said to have resided in wells.

Respecting “ knockers,” the Scottish Encyclopedia says: “The belief of fairies still subsists in many parts of our own country. The ‘swart fairy of the mine’ (of German extraction) has scarce yet quitted our subterraneous works. —- The Germans believed in two species of fairies of the mines, one fierce and malevolent, the other a gentle race, appearing like little old men dressed like miners, and not much above two feet high.” Our “knockers” are described by Mr. John Lewis, in his correspondence with Mr. Baxter, as little statured, and about half a yard long: he adds, “at this very instant there are miners on a discovery of a vein of metal, and two of them are ready to make oath they have heard these knockers in the day-time.”

 


Fairy Sickness

Camden, in his “Ancient and Modern Manners of the Irish,” says, “ When any one happens to fall, he springs up again, and, turning round three times to the right, digs the earth with a sword or knife, and takes up a turf, because, they say, the earth reflects his shadow to him (or they imagine there is a spirit in the earth) : and, if he falls sick within two or three days after, a woman skilled in those shatters is sent to the spot, and there says, ‘ I call thee P. from the east, west, south, and north, from the groves, woods, rivers, marshes, fairies white, red, black,’ &c.; and, after uttering certain short prayers, she returns home to the sick person, to see whether it be the distemper they call esane, which they suppose inflicted by the fairies, and, whispering in his ear another short prayer, with the pater-noster, puts some burning coals into a cup of clear water, and forms a better judgment of the disorder than most physicians.”

 


Elf Shots.

Fairies were thought to shoot cattle with arrows headed with flint-stones, which were often found and called elf-shots.

Collins, in the Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the highlands, says;

There, ev’ry herd by sad experience knows
How, wing’d with fate, their elf-shot arrows fly,
When the sick ewe her summer-food foregoes,
Or stretch’d on earth the heart-smit heifers lie.

In the ”Survey of the South of Ireland,” there is this passage,—- ”I have seen one of those elf-stones like a thin triangular flint, not half an inch in diameter, with which they suppose the fairies destroy their cows. And when these animals are seized with a certain disorder, to which they are very incident, they say they are elf-shot.”

A cow, or other animal, supposed to have been injured by these missiles, was to be touched with one of them, or to be made to drink of the water in which one of them had been dipped.

The origin of these fairy weapons is of high antiquity; they were either flint arrow-heads used by our ancestors, in battle or chase, or tools of ordinary service in a barbarous state of society, before iron was known. (Citing Brand)

 


Fairy Rings

Fairies were thought to have their haunts in groves or on mountains,the southern side of hills, and in verdant meadows, where their diversion was dancing hand in hand in a circle. The traces of their tiny feet are supposed to remain visible on the grass a long time afterwards, and are called “Fairy Rings,” or circles.

Moses Pitt, in a scarce tract, relates that his female servant, “Anne Jefferies (for that was her maiden name) was born in the parish of St. Teath, in the county of Cornwall, in December, 1626, and is still living, 1696, aged 70. She is married to one William Warren, formerly bind to the late eminent physician, Dr. Richard Lower, deceased, and now to Sir Andrew Slanning of Devon, Bart. A. D. 1645; as she was one day sitting knitting in an arbour in the garden, there came over the hedge, of a sudden, six persons of a small stature, all clothed in green, which frightened her so much as to throw her into a great sickness. They continued their apppearance to her, never less than two at a time nor ever more than eight, always in even numbers, two, four, six, eight. She forsook eating our victuals, and was fed by these fairies from the harvest time to the next Christmas; upon which day she came to our table and said, because it was that day she would eat some roast beef with us, which she did, I myself being then at table. One day she gave me a piece of her (fairy) bread, which I did eat, and think it was the most delicious bread that ever I did eat, either before or since.” Moses Pitt again says “On another day these fairies gave my sister Mary a silver cup, which held about a quart, bidding her give it my mother, but my mother would not accept it. I presume this was the time my sister owns she same the fairies. I confess to your Lordship I never did see them. I have seen Anne in the orchard dancing among the trees, and she told me she was then dancing with the fairies.” It appears that Anne was afterwards thrown into jail as an impostor; but the friendly narrator of her singular story, Moses Pitt, does not give any plausible account why the fairies, like false earthly friends, forsook her in the time of her distress,

To dance on ringlets to the whistling wind.
Mid. N. Dream. Act. ii. Sec. 2.

Dr. Grey observes, in his notes on Shakspeare, that “ringlets of grass are very common in meadows, which are higher, sowrer, and of a deeper green than the grass that grows round them: and by the common people are usually called fairy circles.” We have in Shakspeare’s Tempest, act v. Sc. 1.

Ye elves — you demy puppets that
By moon-shine do the green-sour ringlets make
Whereof the ewe not bites.”

Drayton, speaking of the fairies, says,

They in their courses make that round -
In meadows and in marshes found
Of them so called the fairy ground.

According to Olaus Magnus, this cause of the circles in the grass called fairy rings was a general belief with the northen nations: many of our own poets allude to these fairy rings, and adopt the prevailing persuasion.

Browne, in his Britannia’s Pastorals, describes

          a pleasant mead,
Where fairies often did their measures tread,
Which in the meadows made such circles green
As if with garlands it had crowned been.
Within one of these rounds was to be seen
A hillock rise, where oft the fairy-queen
At twilight sat.

The author of “Round about our Coal Fire,” treating of fairies, says, “they had fine music always among themselves, and danced in a moon-shiny night, around or in a ring, as one may see at this day upon every common in England where mushroomes grow.”

One of the “Six Pastorals” by George Smith, the painter of Chicester, refers to the popular belief.

Some say the schreech-owl, at each midnight hour,
Awakes the fairies in yon ancient tow’r.
Their nightly-dancing ring I always dread,
Nor let my sheep within that circle tread
Where round and round all night, in moonlight fair,
They dance to some strange musick in the air.

It is still a vulgar notion that if a house be built upon the ground where the fairy rings are, whoever becomes the inhabitant will wonderfully prosper.

 


The most clear and satisfactory remarks on the origin of fairy rings are probably those of Dr. Wollaston, Sec. R. S. printed in the second part of the Philosophical Transactions for 1807; made during a few years residence in the country. The cause of these appearances he ascribes to the growth of a certain species of Agaric, which so entirely absorbs all nutriment from the soil beneath that the herbage is for a while destroyed. (Citing Brand)

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