Midsummer is upon us – it’s damp, it’s wet, it’s England. Nevertheless, the RSC, with the collaboration of Slung Low, The School of Night and Rash Dash are seeing in the equinox in style; celebrating, engaging and sharing creativity in their Fairy Portal Camp.
I, like others from the Shakespeare Institute will no doubt join in the fun this week despite the weather, but from a historical perspective our ancestors would be quivering in their boots at the thought of opening a portal to the fairy world, as much of the folklore around fairies in the British Isles revolves around the dangers and avoidance of interaction with fairies. So when looking through books on fairy lore we do not see much on how to conjure images of fairies but a significant amount on how to avoid them.
Liminality is at the heart of the timing of our engagement with the supernatural and the nature of fairies themselves. They are intermediate beings, somewhere between ourselves, spirits, demons, and ghosts. They are material and yet can make themselves invisible, comprised of the fleshy nature of man and yet able to transform themselves into ‘airy nothings.’ In Elizabethan times fairy encounters were closely linked with witchcraft and it wasn’t advisable to demonstrate too much knowledge of fairy lore. On Midsummer Eve fairy visits were linked with visitations from the dead – if you were to stand in a churchyard and eat something before midnight you would see the spirits of all those who died in the last year lining up at the church door in chronological order. Handy that Holy Trinity is so close! Some believed that fairies were the spirits of the dead.
Humans are at their most vulnerable to the fairy world at certain liminal times of the year – equinoxes and solstices, when the increase of day or night shifts over to its decrease. The most outstanding of these festivals are Bealltainn, held on 1st of May; Midsummer Day; the feast of the Sun-god Lugh, in August and Samhain, or Hallowmass, on 1st November. Proof that fairies were placated or dreaded at these seasons is evident from the tradition that those who had been enchanted by them in their dances cannot be released until a year after, this indicating “a recurring festival celebrated annually, the observance of which has been transferred in part to the fairies.” Times of the day are also more conducive to fairy encounters. Some days of the week or even hours of the day are connected with beliefs concerning fairies. In the ballad of Tam Lin we are told that: “They begin at sky-setting, ride a’ the evening tide”. Twilight and dawn serves as a liminal time, between day and night – where one is ‘in the twilight zone, in a liminal nether region of the night’, between sleeping and waking, dreams and reality – the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. In Ireland it was suggested that no mention of fairies should be made on Mondays and Thursdays. Lady Wilde (Oscar’s mum) maintained that on Fridays their power was exceptionally strong; therefore children and cattle had to be strictly watched on that day. Wednesday, says a passage in The Denham Tracts, is “the fairies’ Sabbath or holiday.
With regards to humans, our own liminal states make us susceptible to fairy encounters: birth, puberty, death, for example. Birth is a particularly strong attractant to the fairy world and there are many tales of fairy blessings at birth times (see Sleeping Beauty) or of kidnappings when fairies would replace a new born infant with a changeling.
In all lore of the supernatural, eating whilst in the presence of fairies or any other spirits is not advisable – to eat in the fairy world is to risk entrapment in that world. However, the eating of eggs or bathing eyelids with egg whites enabled mortals to see the fairies. Eggs, a symbol of birth and therefore of liminality in folklore gave one the power to see across the borders of reality.
The great Katherine Briggs in her Anatomy of Puck explains how mortals trapped in the fairy world risked more than entrapment as ‘Time spent with them passes at a different rate than when spent with mortals; seven days in fairyland is generally equivalent to seven years in mortal time. They are dangerous to human beings, their food is taboo and people who fall into their power are carried away and often crumble into dust on their long-delayed return.’ (14)
Anyone in a high passion and thus a vulnerable state will also attract fairy attention. There are many tales of fairies encouraging passions in mortals with their dances, songs or beauty, in order to entrap them. Sometimes people would be trapped forever in the fairy world and on other occasions, they would bestow supernatural gifts on particular favourites. In the case of Thomas the Rhymer, the Fairy Queen confers “the tongue that shall never lie”, a boon which earned him the popular sobriquet of “True Thomas”. One young man of Nithsdale, overcome by the wild and delightful music and signing of the fays, took part in their dance and was presented with a cup of wine of which he drank deeply. He was permitted to return to the world of men, but “was ever after endowed with the second sight”.
Thankfully, the fairies leave us physical landmarks of where they’ve been. Fairies are known for dwelling in mounds, trees, near graves or standing stones, near water – streams, lakes and wells. Beaumont and Fletcher in The Faithful Shepherdess, make references to a well as a fairy haunt. The fays danced round it by moonlight, and dipped their stolen children in its waters:
So to make them free / From dying flesh and dull mortality.
However, the most famous natural landmark is the Fairy Ring – a dark, circular patch of long grass. The fairies present in fairy rings could not be seen unless you stood in the middle of their circle dance. Alfred Nutt, alluding to the fairy dance by moonlight, describes it as “the classic manifestation of the fairy folk… in wild and desert places.” He thought that it had a realistic basis in the superstition that “night is essentially the time for growth” and that the ritual which sought to evoke growth was “frenzied and orgiastic.” Fairy dancing was associated with the idea that saltation assists the growth of the corps. Violent action has a magical and sympathetic effect upon the powers of nature, and the emanations of action strengthen the supernaturals in their task and are passed on to them; or, by sympathetic magic, they encourage them to similar exertions. Many primitive dances assume the form of imitative motions pantomimic of the growth of the crops, or of vegetation. Participants forming a circle and dancing with their backs to the centre.
“Let turtle-footed peace dance fayrie rings / About her court.”
Ben Jonson, Every Man out of his Humour
To cultivate or dig the fairy ring caused one’s luck to disappear, but to clean it meant an easy death.
At Chathill farm, near Alnwick, in Northumberland, there was a famous fairy ring round which the children of the locality might dance, but not more than nine times. If they exceeded this number of rounds “they would have been carried off by the fairies.” A house built on ground marked by these rings was fortunate for those who inhabited it.
It is unlucky to pass a fairy haunt without leaving an offering there, a piece of cheese, or other morsel. Offerings of milk are given to brownies. In Derbyshire offerings of clay tobacco pipes found in mounds seem to have formerly been made to the fairies. So, as you pass the Fairy Portal Camp it may be worth leaving a gift in order to appease the beautiful but dangerous spirits that may be unleashed! You have been warned.
Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian