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How Big Are Fairies? October 12, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

There is a lot of confusion about the size of fairies in tradition and we often read that ‘small’ fairies were the invention of Shakespeare and his hangers on. The proof that small fairies were there all along comes, instead, in Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia written and ‘published’ in the early thirteenth century: long before William was even a saliva droplet in the Oxfordian’s splutter. There can be no doubt that Gervase is describing some form of fairy here: solitaries rather than troopers, but fairies none the less.

Sicut inter hominess quedam mirabalia natura producit, ita spiritus, in humanis corporibus aeries que assumunt ex diuina permissione, ludibria sui faciunt. Ecce enim Anglia demons quosdam habet (demons, inquam, nescio dixerim an secretas et ignote generationis effigies), quos Galli neptunos, Angli portunos nominant. Istis insitum est quod simplicitatem fortunatorum colonorum amplectuntur, et cum nocturnas propter domesticas operas agunt uigilias, subito clauses ianuis ad ignem calefiunt, et ranuculas e sinu proiectas, prunes impositas, comedunt. Senili uultu, facie corrugate, statura pusili, dimidium pollicis non habentes, panniculis consertis induuntur; et si quid gestandum in domo fuerit aut honerosi operas agendum, ad operandumse ingerunt, cicius humana facilitate expedient. Id illis inditum est ut  obsequi possint et obese non possint. Verumptamen unicum quasi nocendi modulum habent. Cum enim inter ambiguas noctis tenebras Angli solitarii quandoque equitant, portunus nonnumquam inuisus equitanti se copulat, et cum diucius comitatur euntem, tandem loris arreptis equum in lutum ad manum ducit ; in quo dum infixus uoluatur, portunus exiens cachinnum facit, et sic huiuscemodi ludebrio humanam simplicitatem deridet.

Just as nature produces certain marvels in the world of humans, so spirits perpertrate their jokes in human bodies made of air, which they put on with God’s permission. For instance, England has certain demons (though I admit that I do not know whether I should call them demons, or mysterious ghosts of unknown origin), which the French call neptunes [!], and the English portunes [!!]. It belongs to their nature to take pleasure in the simplicity of happy peasants. When peasants stay up late at night for the sake of their domestic tasks, suddenly, though the doors are closed, they are there warming themselves at the fire and eating little frogs [!!!] which they bring out of their pockets and roast on the coals. They have an aged appearance, and a wrinkled face; they are very small in stature, measuring less than half a thumb, and they wear tiny rags sewn together. If there should be anything to be carried in the house or any heavy task to be done, they apply themselves to the work and accomplish it more quickly than it could be done by human means. It is a law of their nature that they can be useful but cannot do harm. However, they do have one way of being something of a nuisance: when on occasion Englishmen ride alone through the uncertain shadows of night, a portune sometimes attaches himself to the rider without being seen, and when he has accompanied him on his way for some time, there comes a moment when he seizes the reins and leads the horse into some nearby mud. While the horse wallows stuck in the mud, the portune goes off roaring with laughter, and so with a trick of this kind he makes fun of human simplicity.

There is much that is interesting here but note two things. First, some of those familiar fairy features from eighteenth and nineteenth century belief: ragged clothes, mocking laughter, aged appearance, devils or ghosts, airy bodies (?)… Second, they are TINY. The author says, in fact, that they are less than half a thumb in size (statura pusili, dimidium pollicis). There have been some attempts to emend the Latin here so that the portunes become, instead, half a foot or half a yard etc etc. But the textual history of the Otia suggests no irregularities or alternatives. And the only objection to the half thumb size was that being so small they would not be able to do housework. If one wants to get practical there are far more serious objections: not least their very existence! Gervase, in any case, clearly believed that they were tiny: and this begs the question of how small their frogs were…

So seriously how big are fairies? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com In the end fairies can be ant size and shrinking (visit Cornwall), half a thumb tall, they can look like stunted humans, they can be human size, they can be larger than humans, and Beach has the suspicion that some giants are essentially fairies. What we have are protean and powerful beings. Perhaps even some of those magical creatures of Welsh myth – not least Arthur himself – with their shape-changing proclivities were proto-Brittonic fairies? Certainly, there are lots of very weird cousins, pervy uncles and unlooked for step fathers in the fairy family.  May God preserve us from them all…


4 Nov 2012: The great KR writes: Dr. D.L. Ashliman gives some answers in a book he authored, “Fairie Lore: A Handbook.” He authored other books on the subject, and articles as well. Another author’s opinion stands out among the rest in this work: there were couple of statements by Yeats, which I will paraphrase for you here: (although you can read them in Ashliman’s linked text). Per Yeats: 1. They appear in whatever size they wish to appear. 2. It is something in our own eyes that causes us to see them as we see them. Dr. Ashliman relates this “something in our eyes” to fairy glamour, which is to say fey enchantments upon our perspectives. The fairies put this something there in our eyes, then. And Dr. Ashliman has also mentioned, in other writings, as also did I in a recent post here, that our words often link back to ancient beliefs.  The following ideas and statements are my own, but link up well with some of Ashliman’s: Note the serendipity of our current meanings of “glamour” and “enchantment,” when matching the current meanings with the old meanings. We speak of “glamour” in terms of the surface appearance of beauty, and link this word often with lovely-appearing actresses, who make a living by being good at pretending to be someone they are not. Travel agents speak of various tourist destinations as worlds of “enchantment,” inviting us to come and see the loveliness of these “other” worlds. But travel-agents do not of course, advertise to us the worldly sorrows, poverty, crime, or “disenchantment” of actual people who live there. In both cases, we still use these two words most often to describe the magic of surface appearances, and rarely if ever use them to discuss truth. Certainly we no longer overtly and consciously associate most of these sorts of words with the fairy worlds, although our current definitions are not too far from the old, if we think about those words a bit. That we no longer consciously recognize the fey words we use might just be a glamour: words have a power of their own, as you, a writer, must know. That we use the fey words unthinking, might keep the fey in our psyches, our world, and/or us in theirs.  So, back to your subject: How small? Small enough to sit unobserved in our subconscious minds and fly out unnoticed each day on the air we use to push out words. How large? Large enough to put one foot in the Eastern Hemisphere and the other in the Western Hemisphere, untiringly through time, without having to stretch their legs to do so. Thanks KR!