Fairy Vampires #1: Spence Speaks January 9, 2017Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
Vampire legends arrived in Britain and Ireland from the east of Europe in the eighteenth century and were, then, celebrated in fiction in the early, mid nineteenth century (The Vampyre, 1819 and Varney the Vampire, 1847). Two of the great popularisers of vampires in, what was then, the UK were, of course, Irish: the brilliant Le Fanu and that poor plodder Bram Stoker and this has led to a strong and growing minority opinion that Le Fanu and Stoker borrowed from native Irish fairylore in creating Carmilla and Dracula. Beach has long been bothered by this idea, because in his experience fairies are not very interested in blood: sure there are many nasty fairies out there but they are all about chewing up and spitting out the soul not messing around with something as trivial as bodily fluids. This post is an attempt, if not to get to the bottom of the problem, at least to understand if it is worth a longer study, with reference to the writing of Lewis Spence. A couple of basic points to start with. First, many supernatural creatures take blood. Second, this is true of European supernatural creatures and perhaps particularly of the Latinate, Germanic and Slav traditions. Third, there is evidence from medieval and modern Britain and Ireland of the undead collecting blood. Let’s not waste time. Let’s just take all of this as a given. But is there any evidence that fairies have got in on the act? Well, Beach will immediately ignore the fairies of England, Wales and Cornwall, where there is nothing approaching this idea: in another post it might be worth bringing up, only to dismiss, a bogey from northern England, Red Cap. More interesting are some supernatural creatures from Scotland and Ireland. However, when you go and look at the evidence it is often doubtful, slight or simply made up.
Beach thought that he would start by quoting the first emphatic attempt to make this association between fairies and vampires: Lewis Spence in Fairy Tradition in Britain (1948). Spence was, as many readers of this blog will know a strange man. He had many bizarre ideas including Atlantean delusions and let’s not get into his politics… However, his writing often has lucid chapters and his work on British and Irish fairylore is certainly to be taken seriously. A section then in the Fairy Tradition entitled ‘Vampirical Attributes of Fairies’ should not be dismissed out of hand. Beach, though, wants to type out this text (because it is not online) and try and show, with some comments, its limitations.
That fairies possessed some of the attributes of the vampire there is more than a little evidence. In the folk-lore sense a vampire is a person existing in a state between life and death, who returns from the grave to absorb the blood of others, chiefly those of his own family, so that he may not suffer from hunger in his tomb. The superstition is a relic of primitive ancestor-worship and is thought to have originated in the idea of the ‘angry dead’ who had not received a sufficiency of food offerings from his relatives and had revenged himself up on them by sucking their blood while they slept.
All very straightforward and inoffensive. Perhaps it is worth noting that Lewis Spence’s great fairy idea was that the fairies were, at least originally, ancestors of the dead. This may or may not be right, but it informs everything he writes here.
The reason given in Scotland for leaving water in the house at night was that fairies would suck the sleeper’s blood if they found no water to quench their thirst.
The reference is to Campbell. Beach would challenge readers to find anything else save this chance aside. In a corpus of a folklore that runs to a couple of million words you can find sentences saying just about anything. The important thing is to show a pattern.
In Scotland and Ireland the peasant belief held that consumption was due to fairy vampirism. ‘In a consumptive disease the fairies steal away the soul and put the soul of a fairy in the room of it.’ To avoid this, withes of oak and ivy were cut and twisted into large wreathes which were kept until the month of March, when persons afflicted with consumption were passed thrice through them; at times children so affected were left all night beside a holy well, and even adults were occasionally so treated, ‘to end or mend them’. Such persons were affixed to the earth by ropes attached to stakes, so that they could ntot move. Such a well was situated in the Inverness-shire parish of Suddie on the top of the eminence known as Therdie Hill. In Ireland it was thought that when consumptive folk died they went to the Faerie, where they dwelt in perfect health. ‘The wasted body is not taken into the hill, for it is usually regarded as not the body of the deceased buy rather that of a changeling, the general belief being that the real body and the soul are carried off together and those of an old person from Fairyland substituted.
It is true that fairies were connected to consumption in Scotland and in Ireland. But this is because they were connected again and again to wasting diseases throughout western Europe, including those illnesses that did not involve coughing up blood. In many wasting diseases it was believed that fairies had replaced the victim with a stock or replacement fairy – the changeling. But the fairy was not feeding on the victim of their changeling antics: they had stolen them away (not the pluperfect). The mechanism is entirely different from Vampirism and it does not involve blood!
‘The old person left soon declines and dies’. This notion is certainly associated with the idea of vampirical possession, that is, the vampire spirit takes up its abode within the body of the afflicted person for the purpose of living upon its physical substance. Miss Gordon Cummin mentions in her volume In the Hebrides (267) that the belief prevails in these islands that ‘when a man is slowly lingering away in consumption, the fairies on watch to steal his soul that they may therewith give life to some other body. To prevent this, old wives are often anxious to cut the nails of the sufferer, that they may tie up the pairings in a bit of rag and wave this precious charm thrice round his head, ‘deisul’ that is according to the course of the sun.
Beach waits to be corrected (and he does not know Scottish fairylore as well as Irish or English or Welsh), but this idea that the fairies use the soul elsewhere is an outlier. It is perhaps the author, Miss Cummin, misunderstanding the idea that the soul will be taken into service with the fairies: a rather different matter? Again the changeling idea is different from Vampirism. The fairy does not enter the person to destroy him, the criminal act is that the individual is stolen. The fairy enters to fool the family into thinking that their family member is still with them.
Hugh Miller speaks of a ‘Lady in Green’ who carries her goblin child from cottage to cottage at dead of night in the North-east of Scotland. She would enter a dwelling, fan the dying embers of the fire into a blaze and then proceed to bather her infant in the blood of the youngest inmate of the household, who would be found dead next morning. The belief appears to have reference either to glaistig or the gyre-carlin, both of whom were accompanied by children in their nocturnal prowlings.
The glaistig are usually defined as ghosts rather than fairies: that is they are mortals who have been transformed into supernatural entites in death. Here it might be worth stressing the distance between solitary goblins (leprechaun, banshee, boggarts etc etc) and communal fairies.
J.G. McKay alludes to ‘green fairy women with bone beaks or with cloven hoofs, who in some cases crack men’s bones and drink their blood.’ In a highland tale quoted by him they devour men but reject their lungs.’
The ‘crack men’s bones’ here is a reminder that we are talking about bogeys rather than the typical communal fairies. Now for the bloodiest stories….
Eight girls who were tending cattle on Ben Sgath between Loch Bracadale and Loch Snizort, were attacked by an ‘old woman’ who turned out to be a water fairy. While they slept, she sucked the blood of the maidens, only one of whom escaped. Four hunters on the Braes of Lochaber were accosted by as many glaistigs, who assumed the forms of their sweethearts. One of them penetrated the disguise and placed his drawn dirk between his knees. A cock crowed and the glaistigs fled. The hunter who had kept the spirit who tempted him at bay found his three companions dead, ‘every drop of blood sucked out of their veins.’
Again we have bogies, probably bogies connected with the hungry dead, but not what Yeats called ‘trooping fairies’. Spence is messing around with categories here and trying to get away with it by using the word ‘fairy’ artfully: e.g. the reference to a ‘water fairy’. There is a great deal of confusion between different supernatural creatures, but the line between solitaries and the communal fairies is surprisingly consistent.
Lady Wilde remarks that in Ireland the peasants were wont to object to being bled surgically ‘lest the good people would be angry’. This probably implies that the fairies grew excited at the appearance of human blood.
It does nothing of the kind. There are other references and the implication is that the fairies were angry at patients being bled… Perhaps because of the use of metal to cut?
Nutt quotes Grimm as saying that ‘as Homer relates of the spirits that they eagerly sucked blood to imbibe a sensation of life,’ so the fairies ‘seem to renovate or replace their circle by their youthful prey, which is in fact a popular superstition in Wales.’
There is certainly a general point of comparison here. Both vampires and fairies are parasitic on human communities: but again the motivation and the mechanism is entirely different. Vampires attack and feed: fairies steal and exploit.
As Yearsley remarks, the ghosts of primitive people buried in prehistoric barrows developed later into fairies and occasionally revealed vampiric traits. Miss Cox also traces the vampire in Western and Northern Euroe to the ‘buried barrow ghost’.
There is a relation between fairies and barrows, and between monsters and barrows. Barrow monsters are sometimes interested in blood. The fairies never. Spence’s argument is, as always, stimulating but it just does not stand up.
Defenders of Spence please write to: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
Laura C writes in 19 Jan 2017: I have wondered this too, and I admit I do like a good tale of unseelie behaviour! I think you’ve listed all of the references I know of where fairies drink blood, there certainly aren’t many I’ve found so far, so I don’t think we can consider blood drinking to be a common fairy behaviour. I am curious about this quote from Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth though:
“They also pierce cows or other animals, usually said to be Elf-shot, whose purest substance (if they die) these subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aerial and ethereal parts, the most spirituous matter for prolonging of life, such as aquavitae (moderately taken) is amongst liquors, leaving the terrestrial behind. The cure of such hurts is only for a man to find out the hole with his finger, as if the spirits flowing from a man’s warm hand were antidote sufficient against their poisoned darts”.
The fairies being angry at the drawing of blood, could be due to their own lack of blood, rather than them becoming excited at it I think. Eg, “I was told in Co. Tyrone that when the fairies were annoying a man he threw his handkerchief at them, and asked if among them all they could show one drop of blood. This, being spirits, they could not do.” – E Andrews, Ulster Folklore (1913)
I think the term ‘Glaistig’ is a tricky one too, around the Mull and Morvern area of Scotland she is perhaps more a solitary fairy/goblin than ghost, acting more like a house brownie, playing with children and helping people but with a trickster nature to her. Folks left milk offerings out for her in special rocks and in return she watched their cattle at night.
In Morvern she is described as half water, half land sprite and half woman half goat. Harmless and lovable usually, but in some later stories she is represented as irritable and to have once made an attempt on a man’s life. She was fond of children and would play hide and seek with them, and she would claim a share of the spoils of pirates, whose haunts she would find. She left Glenborrodale after hammering on the blacksmith’s anvil night after night and disturbing the township. The smith caught “the imp” and threatened her unless she promised to stop her pranks and she disappeared for good. – Highland Mythology, Watson, Celtic Review Vol 5 No 17 (1908)
In some tales the Glaistig is associated with deer and can be seen driving deer, and helping or hindering hunters and visiting their bothy, though is usually scared of their dogs. Though I think the story of her killing hunters and drinking their blood is a rare occurance, in most stories she just causes trouble and plays tricks, or burns the hair off a dog or two! I definitely wouldn’t consider her to be a vampire creature though, and I don’t know of any examples of the trooping fairy kind drinking blood.