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Abducted by the Faeries?

By Jeremy Harte
(Published at Lughnasa 1999)

They came for Mary Rowlandson at dawn, a wild host that shrieked and yelled. Strong brown arms plucked her from the farm and took her away to their secret places in the wild country. She lay on a bed of dry leaves, watching the black shapes as they danced and sang; then the next day they set her to work, along with the other mortals who had been abducted. They themselves were too proud to work - they knew nothing of the crafts and skills by which ordinary people order their lives. This is hardly surprising. They were the Narragansett Indians, and Mary Rowlandson was a New England settler who had been taken captive in the wars of the 1670s.

Mary was a Puritan through and through. Her narrative of the eleven weeks spent with the Indians is threaded effortlessly with quotations and exhortations from the Bible, the one book she cared about. Fairy tales, one gathers, were not on the reading list. And yet her history corresponds, point for point, with those stories from the old country which tell how a woman was carried off by the fairies. There is the same capricious violence from the strange people, the same stealthy plundering of food and drink from the lonely farms, the same theft of women and children. Captives might be needed to replace Indian children; they might be set to work, or offered up to the Devil - ‘for aye at every seven years, they pay a teind to Hell’. The religious views of the Narragansett are not known, but Mary feared the worst, especially after they had selected one of her fellow-captives to be stripped naked. ‘And when they had sung and danced around her (in their hellish manner) as long as they pleased, they knockt her on head, and the child in her arms with her’ (Turner 1974: 322).

Half-starved and weary, Mary was rescued at last for twenty pounds, paid cash down by a friend of her husband who had plucked up courage to enter the Indian camp. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, other husbands were also making threats and bargains - bringing fire to burn the bushes on the fairy hill, or an iron knife to be thrust into its open doors. Usually the abducted wife is returned, although like the Indian captives she may have been threatened with a beating for speaking to one of her own race. Sometimes, if the husband is not brave or quick enough, the wild host will knock their victim on the head, and then there is nothing to show but a little blood trickling down from the air (Foster 1951: 67)However much the godly New Englanders would have disdained these legends, they loved a true story like that of Mary Rowlandson. Captivity narratives, almost always by women, found a ready market in early America, and passed deep into the national psyche. When the Indians no longer represented a threat, other bugbears took their place - Mormons, Catholics, gangsters, the criminal underworld… ‘The image of the woman as pale, frail, protected, vulnerable, and above all chaste…is what furnishes the dramatic tension in the female captivity narrative’ (Turner 1974: 310). Chastity, in its contemporary construction, was not a weakness but a source of almost supernatural power. Witness John Milton, who knew his fairies as well as his Bible -

‘no evil thing that walks by night

In fog, or fire, by lake, or moorish fen…

No goblin, or swart fairy of the mine,

Hath hurtful power o’er true virginity’

(Comus 431-6)

The Lady in Comus is fixed in an enchanted chair, like many other traditional captives in fairyland or in Hell. She is offered magical wine, on the old principle that to take fairy food or drink while a captive in their country will make escape impossible. But the crystal cup is also a moral temptation, a seductive test of her virgin will, and by spurning it she triumphs over the enchanter, who flees as her brothers enter with drawn swords.

Preserving innocent women from temptation was a duty which their husbands took on willingly. Many stories deal with the protection of a young wife from the fairies in this way. Sandie Macharg overheard the fairies as they plotted to steal his bride, and hastened home. First he bolted and locked the doors; then, grimly, he pulled down a Bible and ‘talked of mortification and prayer for averting calamity’. There is a thunderous knocking on the door; a messenger in the darkness calls out his wife to act as midwife, but Sandie will not let her budge. Then the night is lit by fire, as the cowshed is seen to be all in a blaze. Kept back from the door, the wife demands an explanation, but her husband continues to pray as only a Presbyterian can. By morning light, the fairies have given up. Outside the door, black and ugly, is the wooden stock which they had intended to substitute for the stolen wife. He throws it on the fire, where it cracks and spits (Briggs 1971: B1-264).

The dour Sandie gives his wife no hint of what is going on - a silence which is open to more than one interpretation. It is true that there is a traditional prohibition on speaking of the fairies, and that a refusal to name the danger outside can be understood as part of the protective magic that rings the house. But it is also a way of testing his young wife, of ensuring that she will be saved, not out of enlightened self-interest, but from pure obedience. In fairytales, a prohibition must always seem unreasonable; otherwise there would be no temptation to break it, and no moral credit for observing it.

It cannot be assumed that everyone, even in Scots folktales, subscribes to a full Calvinist morality. Perhaps Sandie is locking the door, not just to keep out the elves, but to keep his wife in. After all, an unguarded wife might well succumb to fairy blandishments, especially when they are designed to play on the weaknesses of her sex. The first call had involved sympathy for another woman in labour. Childbirth is a time of great uneasiness for a masterly husband, since it places women in the hands of other women, with no male control. The threat from the other side is greatest at such a time; magical protection is needed, and can it be safely left to the hands of slovenly female attendants? ‘Near the hour of twelve at night they were alarmed with a dreadful noise, at which of a sudden the candles went out, which drove the attendants into the utmost confusion; soon as the women regained their half-lost senses, they called in the neighbours, who, after striking up lights, and looking towards the lying-in woman, found her a corpse, which caused great confusion in the family’ (Briggs 1971: B1-311). Unlike most corpses, this one was restored to her family, once it was established that she had been taken to the fairy hill. The negligence of the drunken midwives was made good by the bold, confident actions of her brother, a sea captain, who dared to challenge the fairies in their dwelling.

A wife might be seemingly taken by death, and yet return from among the fairies. But there are other ways in which a wife can be lost. A curious Highland tale is reported at first hand, by the son of the woman concerned. He was a child at the time, but old enough to understand that his mother and father did not get on together. There was another man, called Donald, who used to come to the house when his father was away. Soon there was a great quarrel, and then his mother was forbidden to see this other man: but next day she set out for the market, and there she was seen talking to him. That evening, she did not come home.

So far, so good. We feel we understand what is going on, and it doesn’t involve fairies. But although the angry husband turned Donald’s cottage upside down, there was no sign of his wife there - or anywhere else. Nobody saw her, except the children, and that was always at night. She would appear silently in the house, tend to them and brush their hair before vanishing again. Then, two months later, the man was walking past some woods when his wife called to him out of a hazel bush, saying she was tired and wanted to come home. He had to bring her a fresh item of clothing each day, because she was naked, and finally, when he brought her white cap, she told him to go home - which he did, and found her sitting by the fire, looking after the children. By common consent, nothing more was said about the matter (Folklore 21 (1910) 90).

So abduction is not always unwilling. ‘If I had yon horn that I hear blawing/ And yon elf-knight to sleep in my bosom’, sighs Lady Isobel in the ballad, though in the event she gets rather more than she bargained for, as the elf-knight is a serial murderer. Like a smart girl, Isobel talks herself out of trouble (Grigson 1975: 40). The same cannot be said for Marstig’s daughter in the Danish version, a more trusting soul. She gave her hand to the merman, followed him until they were alone out over the deep water, and then…

‘The shriek she shrieked among the waves

Was heard far up upon the land;

I rede good ladies, one and all,

They dance with no such unco’ man’

Female boldness does not go unpunished in these stories (Dean-Smith 1973: 48).

The temptation offered by the demon lover is one of escape - not necessarily into fairyland. It is escape from the castle, the daily routine, the family: outside there is another world, the greenwood, with its own exotic inhabitants. ‘The gypsies came to my Lord Cassillis’ gate/ And O but they sang bonnie!’ The laird’s wife runs, unrestrained, to the head of the stairs so that she can listen to the dark strangers, and ‘they cast their glamourie o’er her’ (Grigson 1975: 53). Glamour is, above all, a fairy power. It changes the appearances of things, making the foul fair, and the fair foul. Music and song were another otherworldly skill; and like the fairies, and the wood-demons before them, gypsies are rumoured to carry off unguarded children. But if Lady Cassillis is carried off, it is not against her will. Under the spell, if it is a spell, of the gypsy lover, she rejects not only her husband but his whole social world. Instead of feather-beds, she will choose the hard ground; instead of red wine, the river water; instead of culture, nature.

Captivity narratives caught the imagination most when they confronted their heroine with the risk of seduction. This need not be physical. Lady Cassillis swears to her abandoned husband that she is still chaste, and even Mary Rowlandson observed, with surprise as well as relief, that the Narragansetts behaved like gentlemen. These tales hint at a deeper threat - that the captive may embrace, not just a stranger, but strangeness itself. Like the girl in Borges’ Story of the Warrior and the Captive, she may go native. ‘In her copper-coloured face, which was daubed in ferocious colours, her eyes were of that reluctant blue the English call grey… The woman answered that she was happy and returned that night to the desert’ (Borges 1964: 161).

Who would not be happy?- and the fairy kingdom offers endless bliss, on certain conditions.

‘To and fro we leap

And chase the frothy bubbles,

While the world is full of troubles

And is anxious in its sleep’,

they sing in Yeats, and elsewhere ‘O heart the winds have shaken, the unappeasable host/ Is comelier than candles at Mother Mary’s feet’ (Yeats 1962: 3, 21). An eternity of cold, heartless joy among the sidhe is a terrible temptation: at least, it is to some temperaments. As Bob Stewart observes, writing of the allure of fairyland, what may be irresistibly seductive to some people appears simply trivial to others (Stewart 1992: 10). However, priests, husbands and other guardians of moral welfare were not disposed to take any chances.

Yeats took one strand of the fairy tradition, and worked on it for his own poetic purposes. In the original Irish material on which he drew, things are less romantic. These are peasant stories. The young women who go to the fairy hill do not do so out of a yearning to leave the world, but are the unwilling victims of fairy spite (Smith 1987). The situation is not seen from the viewpoint of the girl, but as yet another of the vexations which nature imposes on a hard-pressed rural community, one which cannot afford to lose a pair of hands on the farm. It is worst when a young wife is lost though death, or apparent death, in childbirth. A funeral is bad enough, but who is to look after the baby? And the situation is a common one, since the human body is ill-adapted for bearing children, especially first children. The human mind is not very well adapted to bear this fact with resignation, either. The death of a young mother is a tragedy - a defiance of hope so cruel that it requires a supernatural explanation. In ancient Greece, and in modern India, the cruelty is transferred to the mother-corpse herself, and she turns into a malignant ghost, preying on the fertile living. In Ireland and Scotland, these women became fairy victims.

The physical risks of childbirth are part of its liminal condition. It is not only the unborn baby who will enter on a new life; the woman herself, especially if it is a first birth, has to make the difficult transition from her status of bride and lover into that of mother. Such moments of change represent breaks in the usual continuity of things - cracks opening up in society and personality, through which strange things can creep, especially if the midwives are drowsy or negligent, and there has been no salt sprinkled before the door.

The crisis of liminality exists in all cultures, including our own, but we are unusual in a reluctance to give it supernatural expression. Instead the phenomenon is medicalised, and referred to as post-natal depression. However it is constructed, there is much about the stolen wife stories that suggests what we would think of as depression - especially in the less stereotyped, first-hand narratives. A young woman touched by the fairy sits by the fire, eating nothing, taking no notice of human life. ‘She sat there by the hob for three days and she didn’t turn her face to the people. And everybody said she used to be a pleasant, jolly girl, but this was like an old woman’ (Gregory 1920: 121). ‘Rose grew so peculiar that her folks locked her up’ (Evans-Wentz 1911: 34).

Obviously we cannot reduce accounts of fairy possession to mental illness, just as we cannot reduce the Donald story to furtive adultery - not if we want to understand these things as lived experience, rather than making up explanations which will trim them to suit our own cultural template. But an acquaintance with clinical depression is the best way in which we can understand what it was like to share space with an elf-struck wife. ‘She never kept the bed, but she’d sit in the corner of the kitchen on a mat, and from a good stout lump of a girl that she was, she was wasted to nothing, and her teeth grew as long as your fingers and then they dropped out. And she’d eat nothing at all, only crabs and sour things. And she’d never leave the house in the day-time, but in the night she’d go out and pick things out of the fields she could eat’ (Gregory 1920: 110).

Depression needs time for its cure, and time is in short supply in a peasant household. There was little sympathy for a pair of idle hands, that ate and did no work. In one account, the mother-in-law leaves the young wife sitting by the fire, with orders to get the dinner ready before the men come in from the fields. Returning, she finds nothing has been done, and lashes out at the girl with some strands of flax - flax is such a labour-intensive crop that it can stand as a symbol of work itself. The girl, or a thing in her likeness, flees shrieking up the chimney and the real wife is met with soon after, walking down from the fairy hill to take up her duties (Gregory 1920: 121).

In these stories of stolen wives, a clear distinction is made between the real wife, the one who was there before the fairy troubles came on her, and the sullen thing that has taken her place. This false wife is not real; she is a deceit, something which should be treated without any mercy. The laird of Balmachie, while away from home, encountered a troop of fairies and made them release their captive. It was his wife, whom he thought he had left in bed. Wrapping her up warmly and carrying her back home, he confronts the false wife who remains in the bedchamber. ‘She was fretful, discontented, and complained much of having been neglected in his absence’. The laird simulates concern. He has a fine fire made up in the bedchamber and then, in one swift move, plucks the hated figure from the bedclothes and hurls her on the fire. ‘She bounced like a sky-rocket, and went through the ceiling and out at the roof of the house, leaving a hole among the slates’ (Briggs 1971: B1-297). And so the scene is set for the return of the true, loving wife.

In other accounts it is made clear that this thing which is thrown in the fire is the wooden stock, carved into the likeness of a woman, which the fairies prepare for their attempt at abduction, as in the story of Sandie Macharg (Briggs 1971: B1-360). This distinguishes these stories from accounts of changelings, in which an actual, wizened fairy is threatened with the fire in order to bring back the loved, healthy child. Either way, there is an unpleasant whiff of charred flesh about these tales. They offer a charter for behaviour which would have been unacceptable if it had been seen as involving suffering human beings, rather than spirits or wooden blocks. Was it not the Japanese prison guards who referred to their experimental subjects as ‘logs of wood’?

Stolen wife and changeling stories are common developments from a single mediaeval prototype. Gervase of Tilbury tells of a girl child in Catalonia who was carried off in consequence of an angry word from her father, when he was tired of her crying. Seven years later, news came that the mountain demons were prepared to return her. The repentant father climbed lonely mountains, and called out for his child. ‘Like a sudden gust of wind she came, tall in stature, but wasted and dirty, her eyes rolling wildly, and her speech inarticulate’ (Keightley 1900 [1828]: 457).

The Bishop of Gerunda made a splendid sermon on the occasion, reminding parents of the ill consequences that follow when you wish your offspring to the Devil. The unwanted child grows up rough and neglected: when she is wanted again, there is a magical change. After reviewing the abuse, deceit, mania, adultery and torture involved in most stories of fairy abduction, it is nice to conclude on one with a happy ending.


Borges, Jorge Luis, 1964 Labyrinths, Penguin

Briggs, Katherine M., 1971 A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language, Routledge & Kegan Paul

Dean-Smith, Margaret, 1973, ‘The ominous wood’, in Venetia Newall, (Ed), The Witch Figure, Routledge & Kegan Paul

Evans-Wentz, W.Y., 1911, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Oxford University Press

Foster, Jeanne Cooper, 1951, Ulster Folklore, Carter, Belfast

Gregory, Lady Augusta, 1920, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland

Grigson, Geoffrey, 1975, The Penguin Book of Ballads, Penguin

Keightley, Thomas, 1900 [1828], The Fairy Mythology

Smith, P.A., 1987, W.B. Yeats and the Tribes of Danu: Three Views of Ireland’s Fairies, Bucks

Stewart, R.J., 1992, Earth Light, Element

Turner, Frederick W., 1974, The North American Indian Reader, Viking

Yeats, William Butler, 1962, Poems of W.B. Yeats, Macmillan