The Things Left in their Place: Images of Those Taken by Fairies in 19th and 13th century Folktale and Legend – David Sivier


It’s always nice to have a change of voice, and as the last post was by JG, this one is my friend David Sivier. His piece was written for the Ars Magica roleplaying game convention held in Cheltenham in 2010, but I think everyone will be able to see why I consider it relevant to POLTERWOTSIT as well! I will comment in a future piece on the similarities and differences between these cases and the poltergeist phenomena, but for today, some folklore studies…

David Sivier writes..

“One of the best-known and most frightening elements of the fairy mythology is the belief that they occasionally stole human children, leaving behind in their place one of their own, a wizened and deformed elf. According to the historian and folklorist, Dr. Ronald Hutton, this belief in changelings suddenly appeared in the Sixteenth century without apparently any previous predecessors. In some parts of the British Isles, however, the fairies did not leave behind one of their own kind for the stolen human child. Instead they replaced it with a ‘stock’, a wooden image of the abducted person, which they’d made specially. Tales of such fairy abductions and substituted images continued to be told in Shetland in the late Nineteenth century. While the belief in changelings may only date to the Sixteenth century, the belief in wooden effigies of those taken by supernatural agencies is much older, and can be traced back to the Thirteenth century.

The folklorist J.G. Ollason recorded one story of such an encounter with the fairies from by Bill Robertson of Lerwick in 1890. Then aged 71, he recalled how his mother and told him the tale herself. She had been staying with friend in Kirgood in Weisdale. The farmer’s wife had just had a baby. Just as the farmer had left the lamb-house, he heard three weird knocks, which appeared to come from underground. He didn’t know what they were, but shut everything up tightly and went into the cornyard. As he caught sight of the stacks of corn, he heard a voice say three times ‘Mind the crooked finger’. The farmer’s wife had a crooked finger, and so he knew that his Grey Nieghbours – the trolls – were looking out for the baby or its mother. He decided to combat them using a candle, knife and Bible. He went into the house and lit a candle, and took a Bible and a steel knife. When he opened the Bible and then knife, the house shook with the noise of roaring, bellowing, stamping and rattling from the cow byre, so that everyone shook with fear. The farmer carried on towards the byre with the knife and open Bible, followed by everyone in the house except the mid-wife, and the mother and baby. When he reached the cow byre he threw the open Bible into it, and placed the knife in his mouth with its edge outwards while holding the lit candle in his hand. Immediately all the noise stopped, and all that was left in the byre was the image the trolls had been preparing of the mother and new baby. The farmer took the fairy image into his house, to use as furniture or as a block for sawing wood. Everyone else saw it, and it was indeed very much like a real woman.

The Belgian hagiographer and encyclopedist, Thomas of Cantimpre, recorded a similar incident in his Bonum Universale de Apibus of 1256-61. In this story, the victim of supernatural abduction is not a mother, but instead a young girl. She apparently dies after dies, and is rescued by her lover after her parents refuse to let her marry him. Thomas states that it happened in Gunerchena, a town in Brabant. After the girl’s parents forbade the lad to marry the girl, she fell into a fever. This became increasingly serious until everyone believed that she was dead, and so had the bells tolled for her. The girl’s lover, however, left town. When he passed some thickets he heard a voice like a woman wailing. He stopped and started searching for who had made the noise, and found the supposedly dead girl. He told her that everyone was mourning her, and asked where she had come from. The girl said in reply that the man, who had seduced her, was now in her presence. This amazed the lad, as he couldn’t see anyone else except the girl. Nevertheless, he caught hold of the girl and took her with him to a house just outside the town. He then returned to Gunerchena, where after talking to his friends, he then went to the girl’s father, who was sitting by the girl’s body with his friends. The lad asked him if he would allow him to marry his daughter. The father was amazed at this, and asked him if he was going to play God by resurrecting her and then marrying her. The lad simply replied by asking if the man would allow him to marry the girl if he gave her back her life and health. The father agreed and confirmed his consent to the marriage in front of everyone. The lad then pulled back the linen shroud to reveal an image, which was certainly not the product of human workmanship. The girl was then fetched and returned to her father. Now back in her old, good health, she and the lad were married several days later. Thomas notes that the girl was still alive and healthy at the time he was writing.

This was not the first time an abduction like this had occurred, as Thomas uses the description of the image given by others, who had also inspected such diabolical images. These consisted of an inside like decayed wood, covered with a thin layer of skin. This is clearly close to the account of such images from the Shetland tale. In the Shetland story, the image is made completely of wood. There is no mention of skin, and the wood appears to have been normal. The wood of the image in Thomas’ story is decayed. Indeed, it may not have been wood at all, as Thomas states it was only like decayed wood. There are also other differences. In the Shetland story, the creatures preparing to abduct the mother and her child are trolls. In Thomas’ story, it is unclear who the creatures that have taken the girl are. They are not seen or heard and so are not described, though Thomas clearly believes they were devils. Moreover, in Thomas’ tale the young man rescues the girl through simple human strength and determination. He takes her and carries her back with him. In the Shetland story the father drives the trolls away using the ritual objects used against fairies – the Bible and a steel or iron blade. Nevertheless, the two stories are similar. While the incidents that gave rise to the stories are doubtless separate, it seems likely that the belief that the supernatural agents responsible for stealing women left wooden images in their place may well originally have come from Belgium. Medieval Scotland had strong ties with Belgium and the Netherlands. Indeed, the surname ‘Bremner’ originally meant someone from Brabant.

Thomas’ tale is also similar to the other fairy motif in which the fairies also include in their ranks members of the dead. This motif dates from the twelfth century. Ordericus Vitalis in his Historiae Normanorum Scriptores records how a priest, Walchin, saw the company of Harlequin in January 1091 at the church of St. Aubin in Anjou in Bonneval. This was a host of people, dressed in black with black horses and banners, It included people from all positions of society, including noble ladies, churchmen, and people that Walchin had personally known while alive. In some later stories collected in the Nineteenth century the dead in fairyland included a woman known to the male visitor to fairyland, who had arrived there out of her love for him. One of the stories that includes this motif is The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor, in W. Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, published between 1870 and 1880. This story records how a popular farmer, Mr. Noy, who lived near Selena Moor in Cornwall, vanished after leaving the inn one night after ordering drinks for the harvest home the following day. The others searched for him when he failed to return. He was found three days later, when the people looking for him found his horse and dogs tied up in a large thicket.

These took them to a nearby ruined barn. Noy was somewhat confused, and surprised it was now morning, but eventually told them about what had happened to him.

He had attempted to take a shortcut through the moor, but had got lost. Eventually he saw lights in the distance and heard music, and thought he had come to another farmhouse, where they were holding a harvest home supper. His horse and dogs would not go on, however, and so he had tied them to the thicket. He then went on through an orchard towards a house. Outside the house were hundreds of small people sat drinking or dancing. One girl was taller than the others, and played the tambourine. She gave this to an old fellow next to her, and went inside to get some ale. She then asked him to come with her, and went they went out into the orchard. There he recognised her as an old sweetheart, Grace Hutchens, who he believed had died three or four years previously. She told him to follow her into the garden, and remain behind the house. He was to remain out of sight and should not touch either fruit or flower. She also warned him against even touching her. Coming back from bringing beer and cider to the other fairies, she took him into a bowery walk and explained to him how she had come to be in fairyland.

She had been out on Selena Moor looking for a stray sheep, when she’d heard Noy calling to his dogs. She tried to take a shortcut towards him, but had got lost in a place where the ferns were above her head. She then crawled on all fours to an orchard where there was music. She tried to get out of the orchard, but had continued to wander around as deliberately misled by the pixies. Eventually she stopped, and through hunger and thirst plucked and ate a beautiful golden plum from one of the trees. This, however, dissolved into bitter water as she ate it, and she collapsed and fainted. When she regained consciousness, she was surrounded by a crowd of small people. They were delighted at having a neat girl to bake and brew for them and look after their babies. She was not dead, and what had been buried in her place was a changeling or likeness of her body. Although trapped there, she could also take the form of a small bird. She was happy to do this, as it allowed her to fly about near him. Noy attempted to rescue her and him by turning his gloves inside out and throwing them among the fairies. They all disappeared, including Grace, and he was alone in a ruined barn. Then something appeared to hit his head, and he fell on to the ground.
The elderly members of Noy’s community were not surprised at his story and considered that Grace had actually not told him anything they didn’t already know. The people there believed that many of those, who had died entranced, were not really dead but had merely been changed into fairies.

These stories also similar to the late 13th or early 14th century poem Sir Orfeo. This was a retelling of the Orpheus myth. In this story, Orpheus is a medieval king, who travels to fairyland to rescue his wife, Heuridis. The tale also describes fairyland as including the human dead, which Sir Orfeo sees in his stay there. Both Thomas’ story and Noy’s account of his adventures amongst the fairies are, like Sir Orfeo, about men attempting to rescue the women they love from captivity in fairyland.

As for people travelling to fairyland in a trance or an apparent fit, one of the most famous examples of this is the case of Anne Jeffries in Seventeenth century Cornwall. Jeffries came from St. Teath. When she was 19 years old in 1645, she became a servant in the household of Moses Pitt. Sitting in his garden one day, she met a group of tiny men. One of them touched her eyes, and she flew through the air until she came to the strange, beautiful realm of fairyland.

When she eventually came back to the garden, she found herself surrounded by the rest of the household, who were afraid that she’d had a fit. This was the first of several subsequent meetings with the fairies, who taught her how to use herbs to heal the sick. This led to accusations of witchcraft, for which she was imprisoned in Bodmin jail. She was eventually released because of a lack of evidence. She claimed that during her imprisonment she was fed by the fairies.

It is impossible to know what the reality behind some of these fairy encounters were. In the case of the medieval poem of Sir Orfeo, this may simply be the retelling of classical myth in the feudal setting of medieval Europe, with the classical pagan elements of the story transformed into contemporary medieval fairy lore. It is possible that the poem may have been inspired by tales like Thomas of Cantimpre’s, in which men attempt to protect and rescue their wives, lovers and children from abduction by fairies and evil spirits.

Some of these encounters with the fairies may well have been hallucinations, brought on by illness or hunger, thirst and disorientation, as in the case of the girl in Thomas of Cantimpre’s story, and the accounts of Mr. Noy and Anne Jeffries. As for the fairy ‘stock’, the wooden images that were left in place of the abducted person, this is similar to accounts in witchcraft cases, where a spirit or demon took the place of the witch while they attended the sabbat. In the contemporary mythology of alien abduction, some of the victims claimed that they had been replaced by a robot copy while they were aboard the alien craft. As John Keel pointed out in his discussion of the connections between modern UFO mythology and traditional fairy legends in Operation Trojan Horse, these are attempts by individuals to explain how they could be elsewhere – at the witches’ Sabbath, or aboard an alien spacecraft, when they were seen in their normal surroundings in a trance.

There is, however, one puzzling aspect of Thomas of Cantimpre’s story and that of Bill Robertson in Shetland. In both these accounts, the image of the abducted person created by the fairies remained to be examined and used by the rest of the family and others. This suggests a physical reality. It is possible in the case of Thomas of Cantimpre’s story that the images examined by others could be decayed corpses, in which the badly decayed state of the internal organs had been mistaken for something like wood. If this was the case, then presumably such a corpse could have been used as a dummy by someone wishing to escape particularly stifling personal circumstances, such as parents, who refused to allow them to marry their sweethearts. Perhaps they were even the remains of the supposedly abducted person, who had genuinely died, and whose identity had then been taken over by someone else, who bore a remarkable likeness to them.

This still, however, wouldn’t explain the wooden image left behind by the Shetland fairies, which was definitely wooden, and used for a manner of practical purposes by the family of the intended victim. Unfortunately, like some of these accounts themselves, it’s a matter of speculation what this really looked like, just like the reality of these mysterious journeys into fairyland themselves.

Sources

Katharine Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (London: Routledge 1967), pp. 18-22, 60.

’35. A Disturbing Vision. Thomas of Cantimpre: Bonum Universale de Apibus (1256-61)’ in The Occult in Medieval Europe, ed. and trans. by P.G. Maxwell-Stuart (Basingstoke: Palgrave 2005), pp. 50-1.

‘Mind the Crooked Finger’ in Ernest W. Marwick, The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland (London: B.T. Batsford 1975), pp. 170-2.

‘Sir Orfeo’ in J. Simpson and S. Roud, Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: OUP 2000), p. 269.

‘St. Teath’ in Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain (London: Reader’s Digest 1973), p. 142.

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