Medieval Chroniclers and the Demonization of Fairies

joseph_noel_paton_-_puck_and_fairies_from_-a_midsummer_nights_dream-_-_google_art_projectI’ve already written about fairies in the witch trials on this blog. While it would be inaccurate to say that witches represented a survival of some pre-Christian Pagan religion, the idea of Pagan DNA lurking in the genetic makeup of Medieval and Early Modern Christian practises certainly bothered educated writers. In Buchard of Worms’ Decretum, written sometime around 1066, took time to attack perceived ‘Pagan’ practises such as dream travel, playing music around the dead, and dancing in cemeteries. Whether it was a deliberate campaign — not unlike the general campaign of imitation, assimilation and stigmatisation used through the rest of the spread of Christianity through Europe — or the result of writers attempting to use the Latin language to express native concepts, by the 16th and 17th centuries the idea had become entrenched.

We can see by the late 16th century, by which time the English witch trials were in full swing, and nowhere near the hiatus that would occur in the first Caroline era, that the ecclesiastical elite were very much of the opinion that witches whose work involved mention of the fairies were certainly minions of Satan. In 1579, in a book of medicinal recipes, William Bullein took time to attack a Catholic healer in Parham who used an ebony rosary and prayers to St. Anthony to cure illnesses caused by fairies and sprites.

In his 1590 Treatise Against Witchcraft Henry Holland, a graduate of Cambridge who was the Vicar of St. Brides while Christopher Marlowe was writing his Faustus, mentioned fairy witches in his list of terms for malevolent women, “the witches are sometimes called Thessalae, Thessalian Witches, Sagae, Wise Women, Magae, Persian Witches, Lamiae, Ladies of Fayrie, Stirges, Hegge…”

Likewise, the Puritan cleric George Gifford – another one of the Cambridge Demonologists who would have been attending the university at the same time as Marlowe, albeit in Christ’s rather than Corpus Christi – wrote damningly of the way that some Wise Woman (also known as Cunning Women) merged Christian prayer with folk traditions:

“Herein also lieth a more foule abomination, and that is the abusing and horrible prophaning of the most blessed name of God, and the holie Scriptures, unto witcheries, charmes, coniurations, and unto devilish artes. Such an one is haunted with a fayrie or a spirit he must learn a charme compounded of some strange speaches, and the names of God intermingled or weave some part of St. John’s Gospel or such like.”

And despite the disdain of educated clerics, and the prosecution of a number of Cunning Women (although never as many prosecutions as those levelled against ordinary women who simply happened to be poor and/or disagreeable), there would seem to have been a vital folk tradition of fairy lore. In 1655, Thomas Ady wrote, “Old Wives Fables, who sit talking, and chatting of many false old stories of witches and fairies, and Robin Good-Fellow and walking spirits, and dead walking again; all which lying fancies people are more naturally inclined to listen after than to scripture.”

However, by the mid-17th century attitudes seemed to have cooled. Hobbes wrote of the non-existence of various “Fayries and walking ghosts”, and the educator Charles Hoole’s Easie Introduction to the Latine Tongue gave an exhaustive lexicon of terms for fairies in almost every form they might appear in: faries of the wood (Fauni), Fairies of the Oakes (Dryades), Fairies of the Springs (Nymphae), Fairies of the Streams (Naiades), Fairies of the Hills (Oreades), and fairies of the House (Lares).

While this list might seem fairly open and innocuous – harking fairies back to the various types of spirit from classical literature – it too has a sting in the tail. Hoole’s chosen word for Fairies in general is Lemures; his term for an elf is Larva, and his term for a Fairie Queen is Lamia.

Latin Words for Spirits

Martinus Capella uses the words Larvae ac Maniae to describe “deformed persons and terrifying spirits”, which is also used later by the doctor Cornelius Celsus, who also uses the term Larva to denote possession by evil spirits: a term that Isodore of Seville used in the 7th century to describe a form of possession (Larvaticus). We also see Ovid and Apuleius use the term Lemure to denote the dead, with Larvae being particularly the dead who returned to trouble the living. Claude Lecouteux’s work on the subject quotes Horace: “Can you laugh at dreams (somnia), magic terrors (terrors magicos), miracles (miracula), witches (sagas), revenants (nocturnes lemures)…”, with Porphyrion writing in the 3rd century, “They believe that night lemures are the wandering souls of men who died prematurely, thus are dangerous…”

The word Lamia began as describing a sorceress from Greek mythology: the daughter of a Libyan king who was seduced by Zeus and turned man with grief after Hera killed her children. Diodorus Siculus wrote of her as a monster who devoured children, and was used to scare young people into obedience. In Lucan’s work she was equated with the monstrous Mormo, and Plutarch wrote that she was a power to pluck out eyes.

The Lamia, however, is not simply a monster. In Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius she appears as a shapeshifting vampire/witch who used her beguiling powers to fascinate the young Menippus, being revealed only at the last moment as a monster who intends to devour him.

Lamia-like qualities carried on through various classical witches: Ovid’s Meroe, the enchantress Circe, the portrayals of Hecate by Euripades, Origen and Theocritus. The writer Lucian’s Pamphile makes an especially evocative use of the shapeshifting witch: in his version of the Golden Ass story Pamphile is seen taking her clothes off before shape shifting into an owl – something she shared in common with Pliny’s account of the Acadian werewolf in Natruralis Historia.

From this, we can see the logic in the use of the term Lamia when clerics came to translate the Bible into Latin. Through the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, another term, Striges, had been used in close association with Lamia to describe witches who, like Pamphile, turned into screech owls and attacked children so that they could drink the blood from their throats.

Thus, it’s hardly surprising that when the translators of the Vulagate Bible came to make their version of Isiah 34:14, where the Demoness Lilith is mentioned, St. Jerome replaced Lilith with Lamia, probably chosen for their mutual mythological hatred of children and happy couples.

Demons, Elves and Medieval Chroniclers

Lecouteux writes of High German glosses equivalentising the words Wiht and Elbe with the Latin Lemures and Demones, and this association seems to have been one held by English Chroniclers, and we see a similar use in Gervaise of Tilbury.

Gervaise uses a wide variety of borrowed Latin words, terming various things as Lar, Larva, Lamia, Strie and Masca. His explanation for the use of Lar and Larva is that – as he finds in Augustine – a good spirit became a Lar while a bad spirit becomes a Larva. He then goes on to lay down a line of reasoning that we would later find in Luthor and Calvin’s demonization of Ghosts: that while Lar and Larva are not human, they use their powers to appear as such (again, synchronous with Fairies).

Likewise, we see Walter Map, a Chronicler writing in 12th century Herefordshire, mingling Classical ideas with terminology for English folklore: in his De Nugis Curialium he writes of a character, “dubius quid a fatis agatur”, “or in literal terms, “he was dubious of what the fates could be doing.” However in context, it is clear that use of Fatis is in reference to the Fairies.

Neither were these Choniclers oblivious to the mental contortion of likening existing fairie lore to both Christianity and established identities within the terms they were borrowing. Gervaise of Tilbury attempts to create an etymology for the word Lamia that does not stem from the mythical princess, saying that Lamia were named as such from the word Laniare, ‘to mangle or tear to pieces.’

Walter Map writes, in his typical acerbic style he has a fairy character say, “In old times the deluded people called us demi-gods or demi-goddesses, giving us names distinctive of sex, agreeable to the shape of the body or to the appearance we put on: and from the places we dwelt in or functions allowed to us we are called Hill-men, Wood-men, Dryades, Oreades, Fauns, Satyrs, Naiads, and our rules [are Christened by the people] Ceres, Baccus, Pan, Priapus and Pales.”

Perhaps the most satisfying of the explanations, in my own opinion, comes from the works of Giraldus Cambrensis, where he has a fairy-like demon say, “Before Christ assumed human nature the demons had greater power over mankind which, at his coming, was much diminished insomuch as they were dispersed on every side and fled from his presence. Some precipitated themselves into the sea, others inot the hollow parts of trees, or the cleft of rocks. I myself leaped into a well.”

This was certainly a tradition that carried through into the Early Modern period. Richard Johnson’s 1596 book, The Most Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendome tells the story of the fairy queen ‘Proserpine’ who is attended by fairies and creatures of the night who encounter St. George and his lady at night and they are, “drawne out in round circles by the fairies dances so long till they had lost themselves amongst the unknown passages.”

Likewise, when Zachary Jones translated Pierre de Layer’s 1605 book, A Treatise of Spectres or Strange Sights, Visions or Apparitions, the Frenchman writes, “those fairies or nymphes… may well be those Divells or auncient Goddesses, which were said to have charge of the birth of children.”

A fairly comprehensive summing up of the matter comes from Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy, of 1621. He writes on Manes and Lemures, “[They] but grovel on the ground as they were baser in their lives, nearer to the earth…”

On Fairies, “Water divells are those as Naiades, or water nymphs, which have been heretofore conversant about waters and rivers… some call them fairies, and say that Habundia is their queen, these cause inundations, and many times shipwrecks… Hotherus, a King of Sweden, [said] that having lost his company, as hee was hunting one day, mette with these water Nymphs or Fayries, and was feasted by them…

“Terrestrial devils, are those Genii, Faunes, Satyres, Wood-Nymphs, Foliots, Fairies, Robin Goodfellows… which are as they are most conversant with men, so they do them most harm… some put our fairies into their ranke (with Dagon, Beli, Astarte, Balls and other earth Gods), which have in former times been adored with much superstition with sweeping their houses, with setting a pail of cleane water, good victualsand the like, and then they should not be pinched, but find money in their shooes, and be fortunate in their enterprises…

“These are they that dance on heats, as Lavatar thinks, and Olans Magnus, and are sometimes seene by old woman and children… a bigger kind there is called with us Hobgoblins, and Robin Goodfellowes, that would in those superstitious times, grinde corne for a mess of milke, cut woode, or do any manner of drudgery work…”


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