What could be more festive than an evening down by the river in Greenwich sprinkled in fairy dust? Deborah Hyde (aka Jourdemayne), editor-in-chief of the Skeptic, was at Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub to talk about fairies and she began with a little bit of audience participation, asking the assembled to throw out some words they associated with fairies.
'Delicate', 'kindly folk', 'wings', 'female', 'androgynous', and 'crivens' (something to do with Terry Pratchett apparently) eventually gave way to the slightly more sinisiter 'tricksters' and 'baby stealers' and this warmed Deborah to her theme as she announced with no small glee of our titular heroes "they're a bunch of bastards" and the reason that fairies are a bunch of bastards is because, like all Gods and monsters, we invented them and we can be, when we want to be, a bunch of bastards ourselves.
From the peris of Persian and Armenian mythology and the Arabian jinn most cultures have spoke of some kind of Pagan spirit of the dead or of the Earth. As Catholicism took hold it syncretized and assimilated Paganism and polytheism into its belief system (think of all the different saints looking after different aspects of life) to popularise Christianity.
Protestantism didn't take so kindly to such ideas, denouncing polytheism as demonic as it rejected the primacy of God. The Protestants decided fairies were evil or even Satanic and if it hadn't been for the work of the 19c Brothers Grimm (Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin) in Germany and the lesser known Charles Perrault (responsible for Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) in Paris nearly two centuries earlier categorising these stories this folklore may've been lost to Europe.
The Romantic movement also saw something of a comeback in fairies and folklore as we can see in the works of John Anster Fitzgerald and Richard Dadd (this one was used in a poster for a psychedelic club night me and a couple of friends put on about ten years ago called Cuthbert's Morning Off).
The Cottingley Fairies have long since been debunked and now look utterly ridiculous but in 1917 the hoax fooled many, not least Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. The process of bowdlerization that would result in the current Disneyfication of fairies had begun. Fairies were now fit and proper child's entertainment and had completed an almost complete U-turn worthy of Theresa May.
The regular habits of proper, real fairies were not so sweet as those of Tinkerbell & co. They drowned people, often by disguising themselves as 'water horses' who would offer you a ride into the river before forcibly dismounting you and as soon as you'd drowned, few could swim in those days, eating you. Some water horses were said to be able to extend their backs so they could process multiple victims in one fell swoop.
Jenny Greenteeth, known as Peg Powler on the Tees and elsewhere as Nelly Longarms, was another dangerous fairy like creature. A water hag that would pull both children and the elderly into the river and drown them. It's unsure if, like the water horses, she then ate them.
Elf-shot too was another clear and present danger. Now satisfactorily identified as bronze or stone age arrowheads the people of the past didn't have the skills or understanding to recognise such things so, of course, medieval folk believed these were weapons made by fairies (or elves - or pixies, goblins, sprites, it's an absolute minefield the nomenclature) that could strike you with a curse that would soon leave you dead.
It's generally understood that this is how people rationalised tuberculosis and strokes, things that science had yet to understand, but when the fairies weren't getting the blame for it witches were. The Pendle witches of Lancashire were charged, in 1612, for the murder of ten people. Of the eleven who went to trial (nine women and two men) ten were found guilty and hanged and one was, quite bizarrely, exonerated. But that's a whole different blog for the future (hopefully).
Fairies, like some witches, also specialised in seduction and 'draining' and their favourite victims were often poets, minstrels, or the artistically gifted. It's believed that the somewhat wispy nature of these fey boys was what made them ripe for a draining but it's far more likely that poets and minstrels lived in poverty, possibly malnourished, and were more likely to be struck by disease than others.
Alp-luachra wouldn't have helped much. The 'joint-eater' of Ireland would wait for their victim to fall asleep by the side of a stream, seemingly standard behaviour of the time, before mutating into a newt, crawling down the throat of their prey, and eating the half-digested food inside their body. The cure for this, apparently, was to eat huge amounts of salt beef whilst consuming no liquids whatsoever and then run to the water where the Alp-luachra would, horrified, jump out of its hosts body. In some cases there wasn't just one Alp-luachra living inside a human's body but up to twelve of them, a whole family. It's good when the family gets together at meal times, isn't it?
When fairies weren't stealing food they were stealing breast milk. Pregnant women, midwives, and, one presumes, wet nurses found themselves regularly subjected to milk raids by the fairy folk. Worse than stealing your food, or even your baby's food, is stealing your life but that's what characters like the Washer by the Ford did. If you were to be walking down by the stream and, just for a change had decided not to have a little nap, and caught a glimpse of her washing your clothes this meant you were soon to die. It's a similar deal with a banshee although banshees were said to merely presage your death as opposed to cause it like the Washer by the Ford. For aristocratic houses these life takers were seen as a sign of status!
Changelings ain't so sweet either. The particular fairy trick here was to swap a new born human baby with an old and wrinkled knackered old fairy often replacing them in the cradle. Fairies knew humans cared for their babies so it was a way of getting their elderly looked after while at the same time bringing some vim and vigour into the fairy realm.
Martin Luther, the German monk who became one of the leading figures of the Reformation, recommended a changeling that he believed had come into his circle be drowned. Of course this changeling was merely a disfigured child so Luther had simply justified the murder of a toddler by dehumanising them.
Deborah posited that the subconscious desire to get rid of unwanted children, children that didn't really work properly, played a big part in the mythos of changelings. It gave harassed and stressed parents a get out of jail free card. They could kill their children, they probably had too many anyway, and nobody really cared. I've been warned off using the phrase 'cold blooded old times' too often but fucking hell, it's necessary here.
As well as being drowned by over zealous religious reformers changelings could be starved or put on red hot shovels until they burned to death. It was a socially acceptable, if not legal, method of infanticide for mentally and physically impaired children and it's about as far from Cinderella's Fairy Godmother as you're likely get.
The Q&A session that followed the talk covered Icelandic belief in trolls, the Cunning folk and their low magic, and a hierarchy of folkloric creatures (the fact that it's always very similar to the hierarchy of the human world it runs parallel to suggests that SPOILER ALERT it may all be made up) but at the end we could easily return to Deborah's words (and she really is a fantastic speaker - go see her if you get a chance):-
Fairies, "they're a bunch of bastards".