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Away with the Fairies: A Folk Narrative for the Twenty-First Century.


Some say the good folk left England as the steam-trains puffed over their green and luscious hills hailing in the modern age. Some say tales of the fay folk are the hallucinations of weary travellers roaming the misty morning moors. Some can’t believe their senses.


The cold starchy haze hung around the tower tops in the city. It was late Friday night; another night spent hunched over a glowing screen playing with meaningless figures. Robert and Luke emerged from their headquarters into the black empty street to start the solemn commute home. Yet, on this eve the faint tinge of thyme and heather curiously permeated the air.


They ambled down the street; the soft click of crepe soles on paving stones echoed against the brick facades. Luke could hear the soothing tone of violins emerging from a side street. A sweet green light shone from the rusty gated entrance of a decaying warehouse. Luke transfixed, sauntered towards the source of the melody.


“Aren’t you coming home with us on the 21.17 to Highgate, mate?” Robert queried.


“Nah, you are alright, go ahead, see ya Monday” came the reply.


Robert chuckled and continued towards the underground station. Luke was obviously seeking some licentious lady to sooth the pains of the long week.


Monday morning came; the coffee cups clinked, the keyboards clattered and the rising FTSE100 spelled a promising start to the week. Yet Luke’s workstation lay empty and untouched.


“Have you seen Mr. Price this morning?” Jasper, a fat balding stockbroker in a navy pin-striped suit boomed into the office. “He has not signed off the papers this morning and his mobile is off and his land line is not being answered.”


Luke had not been online all weekend and his phone had been off since Friday. This absence was most atypical for the diligent young trainee. Robert had passed the door of his apartment last night, the property was dark and still, the letters and papers behind the door indicated Luke had not been home. This mysterious desertion seemed sinister. In fact, he was last sighted, by Robert, bound for that derelict warehouse in Islington.


Tuesday and Wednesday passed. Luke’s chair remained vacant, the pile of papers mounting upon his waved flat-pack workstation. Jasper, the manager, had of course dutifully followed all necessary procedures and reported Luke’s disappearance to the authorities. The police thronged through the office asking questions. Computers were removed from home and work, hard-disks were scrutinised for any clues to resolve this bizarre disappearance.


Robert had been called in for police questioning.

“When did you last see him?”

“Was there anything strange about his behaviour on Friday night?”

“Did he mention where he was going?”


Added to this, at every fallow moment Robert faced a barrage of gossip.

“Did you know Luke visits, ahem, madams quite frequently. I hope he’s not got himself into a spot of bother?”

“I hope his penchant for, uummmmm, ladies, hasn’t lead to his downfall!”


Robert had a nasty suspicion that his well groomed companion’s less than respectable personal life might have been connected with the mysterious circumstances of his disappearance. Luke had always frequented less salubrious places, dabbled in un-respectable substances and indulged himself in all means and manners of wantonness. However, he was a firebrand, inexplicably talented with investments. He made others, and indeed himself, a fortune. Any personal discrepancies could easily be overlooked in the face of such successful revenue.


Of course the police had been subtly enlightened as to this ‘upstanding’ young man’s disreputable habits. However, despite tact and cover-up of this sensitive aspect of his life, many questions needed to be answered.


Two weeks passed, all trails went cold. No phone calls, no credit card usage, no sightings and nothing missing from his flat. Mounting pressure and surrounding secrecy fuelled office conspiracies.


“You don’t think Robert could have done it? No he is such a nice young man.”

“But he was the last one to see him alive!”

“Yes, he has been dreadfully quiet”

“No, surely Robert isn’t that type. He doesn’t look shifty.”


One such conspirator, Candy, a jovial squat tea-lady with long grey hair and a retinue of awkward mannerisms shuffled into the main office. “That boy has always been away with the fairies, hasn’t he? I wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t been carted off into some hill somewhere by the pied piper himself.”


“It’s no laughing matter, Candy.” Robert grunted.


“I wasn’t laughing, you young boys have never heard of folk ways have you?”


Robert rolled his eyes. Candy had always trundled round the office with crimpled floral skirts and battered old coffee urns gabbling nonsense. Her immense skill for brewing perfect tea and supply of delectable pastries made this old crone tolerable.


“Why, where did you last see Luke? Show me this old warehouse at lunchtime. I’m sure this wise old bird will field some clues.” Candy, like an old sage, arched her eyebrows reminiscently with an heir of knowing.


Robert found himself agreeing to humour the old soothsayer, partially to appease her babblings and partially to placate the growing sense that his friend might be in some drugged stupor somewhere or unrecognisably beaten, attached to a ventilator.


That lunch Robert found himself marching towards the decaying iron gateway where he had last seen his colleague with a shambling woman scuttling behind him.


“Here” he declared, opening his arms out wide to condescendingly accentuate the void before him. “The gate was closed, the alley was dark and except for a few battered beer cans, it was empty.”


Candy pointed her bony, wizened finger at an empty window and with squinted eyes ceremoniously sniffed the air. “Ahh can you smell the fresh thyme?” She crept towards the crumbling masonry and ran her wrinkled hand over the red bricks. Closing her eyes she felt her way to the gate and bizarrely wedged her worn red shoe under the rusty trellis.


“Ahhh, Can you hear the sweet melodious harps? Look?”


Her head swiftly turned round mid-statement.




Facing skywards, her head sprung round again, as if watching swooping eagles soaring through the London skyline.


“Here! Take this looking glass, turn around and use it to gaze over your left shoulder.” She pulled a red velvet case from her pocket and thrust a tatty old black mirror with a large crack down the centre into his hand, as if it was a conduit to some unseen realm.


This upright young man, in a tight tailored blue suit and brown brogues reddened. This harebrained figure before him was flapping and gasping, humiliating his composed deportment.


“Ummm, very well then” Robert was seeking a means to mollify this old mystic and prevent her exhibition from escalating and drawing unnecessary interest.


He turned around and peered into the distorted black looking glass. A shaft of green light faded into his vision. The harmonious sounds of panpipes and frolicking giggles elevated. Besides him the entrance opened to a scene reminiscent of a Bacchic carousal. Tall languid maidens with skin of various hues of green indolently reclined upon couches brushing their emerald locks. More danced and gyrated to the harmonies. Others poured translucent absinth into their mouths straight from the cooler, lighting the sugar cubes on their tongues. Above more winged damsels swooped in the skies above, circling the tower blocks and balancing on neighbouring window sills. On the floor hairy goblins, no more than a foot tall, ambled about making crude gesticulations towards the girls. Luke danced in the corner surrounded by these fairy folk, gorging himself on fruits, berries and nuts. He dropped the looking glass and turned round.


“Luke, you have been here for two weeks. You have been reported missing, the police are looking for a body.” Robert shouted.


“Come and join us, just a little longer, I have only been here for a short time.” Luke held out a handful of fresh strawberries and one of the imps beckoned with a goblet of green elixir.


Wading into the revelry Robert pulled Luke from within the fay folks’ compound. Luke kicked and protested. The small hob-men jabbed each other and laughed, poking the pair as they exited. The green light faded, the harpsichords and songs drifted into silence. The crispness of the dusty alleyway, the scruffy brickwork of the crumbling Victorian warehouse and the brown rustiness of the barred entrance imprisoned Luke once again back into reality.


It is said that once a man feasts on fairy food he gives himself wholly unto the good folk. Upon re-entering the human realm he is cast into an incurable melancholia. The figure languishes and pines away. As in all good folk narratives, even the contemporary urban, our protagonist also faded. He stopped speaking and took to his bed. Over eight slow months he refused food and slowly withdrew from life. At the tender age of twenty nine this successful young banker was lowered into the ground in a mahogany coffin; a wilted and wasted form. Five minutes feasting with the fairy folk foretold a fatal end.


Some say that the melody of panpipes could be heard on the breeze that day, calling him back to the fairy folk. And so, the timeless tales of our eternal supernatural siblings still linger on our tongues for generations to come.

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That Very Mab by Andrew Lang

Andrew Lang, Scottish anthropologist, journalist and writer of children’s fairy books, anonymously published the satire That Very Mab in 1885, with May Kendall, a poet.  The book follows Queen Mab’s tour of nineteenth century English society, with her knowledgeable owl companion, as an onlooker to a variety of characters and events. Whilst the book follows the trajectory of the fairy, each scene encountered by Mab, in individual chapters, can sit independently and discretely from the other. The book can be seen as a collection of stand-alone scenes but also as a united work.


Mab has received limited attention from academics. Lang’s biographer, Roger Lancelyn Green (1946, pp.65-6), and historian, Carol Silver (1999, p. 202), briefly cover the text, but so far no substantial analysis has occurred. Partially explaining this, Green (1946, p.66) describes the text as ‘dull and disappointing’. Alternatively, it can be described more correctly as misunderstood and deeply culturally intertextual. This paper briefly examines how Lang utilises Fairy Queen Mab’s experience of Victorian England to explore the juxtaposing themes of paganism, science and folklore during the fin de siècle.


Fairies always fascinated Lang. This interest became ‘even stronger though more scientific and academic’ in adulthood (Green, 1965, p.139). Furthermore, Orel (1984, p.149) describes Lang’s ‘hostile or unsympathetic’ relationship with his own age.  These features are unmistakable in Mab’s character, who demonstrates Lang’s tension with nineteenth century progress, particularly his fear of fading fairy-lore. The text follows her experience of Victorian England after missionaries despoil her pagan paradise in Samoa, a place possibly chosen by Lang to comment upon colonial tensions occurring there (Steinmentz, 2008, pp. 243-307). She tours England, presented by the narrator, as an unknowledgeable, antediluvian onlooker: ‘She was an anachronism hundreds of years on the wrong side; in fact, a relic of Paganism’ (Lang and Kendall, 1885, p.14). Mab sings a poem, mournful of Britain’s lost pagan roots:


Ah! Highly favoured Pagan, born

In some far hemisphere

Pity the British child forlorn,

And drop one sorrowing tear!

(Lang and Kendall, 1885, p.75)


For Lang, this poem represented the ‘genuine’ ancient folkloric fairy (1892).  Yoshino (2008, pp.231-2), discussing Lang’s other fictional fairies, argues his ideas separated a ‘culturally nationalist’, ‘genuine’ Scottish fairy belief, in contrast to ‘wrong’ kind of superficial modern fairy. This poem references Lang’s experience of the dying British fairy tradition.


Mab is used to satirically explore modern science and fairy belief. She is captured by a scientist, treated like a butterfly and categorised. When his son starts worshiping the fairy, the scientist proclaims to have discovered the origin of religion. ‘It is worshipping butterflies, with a service of fetich stones. The boy has returned to it by an act of unconscious inherited memory, derived from Palaeolitihic Man’ (Lang and Kendall, 1885, p.40). Silver (1999, p.202) describes this as ‘an amusing moment of self-satire’. It parodies anthropologists searching for the origins of religion, a topic that interested Lang throughout his career. When the boy is schooled, he develops the capacity for rational thought and ‘could no more have composed a hymn to a fairy than he could have endured a false quantity’ (Lang and Kendall, 1885, p. 206). Lang (1905, p.305) argued that schooling destroyed boys’ interest in fairyland, making them ‘no more capable than you or I of seeing fairies’. Mab, frames fairy belief in this new England as the irrational belief of children. When Mab asks if anyone believes in fairies, her owl companion replies: ‘A few of the children, perhaps, and a very, very few grown-up people’ (Lang and Kendall, 1885, p.22). Lang’s fears that fairy-lore is being demoted to the nursery are evident here.


Mab expresses pessimism for the fairies’ fate in the face of modernity by employing the folkloric theme of fairies retreating (Silver, 1999, pp.185-212). Consequently Mab retreats to the Admiralty Islands, just outside the realms of the British Empire:


There, till the civilisation that dogs the steps of the old folk-lore has driven her thence- with constitutions, and microscopes, and a higher Pantheism that leaves the old Pantheism in the lurch, and other advantages of the nineteenth century- she is secure. We trust that she is also happy, and that the shadow of the approaching hour when she will be ultimately reduced by scientific theologians to a symbol of some deeper verity, the conception of men whose under-standings could not copy, like ours, with abstract truth, is not cast heavily.

(Lang and Kendall, 1885, p.213).


This excerpt expresses Lang’s wariness of scientific progress that spreads geographically like Empire, hence, killing fairy-lore. Brown (1999, pp. 40-1) argues that Lang’s Princess Niente in A Princess Nobody reflected Queen Victoria’s position as ‘everybody and nobody’. Likewise, Victorian fictional fairies were becoming little more than symbolic of their pagan past, cut-outs of Shakespeare’s Queen Mab. As such, Mab is a dynamic character who Lang employs to symbolise perceived tensions between nineteenth century folklore, Empire and industrialisation, hallmarking the changing perspective of fairies from ancient folkloric creatures to benign Edwardian fairies.


Works Cited


Allen, G. (1885) ‘That very Mab’, Longman’s Magazine (November), pp. 83-87.

Brown, E. (1999) ‘The influence of Queen Victoria on England’s literary fairy tale’, Marvels and Tales, 13 (1), pp.31-51.

Green, R. (1946) Andrew Lang: a critical biography. Leicester: Edmund Ward.

Green, R. (1965) Tellers of tales: children’s books and their authors from 1800 to 1968. London: Kaye & Ward.

Lang, A. and Kendall, M. (1885) That very Mab. London:  Longmans, Green and Co, 1885.

Lang, A. (1892) ‘Modern Fairy Tales’, Illustrated London News, 3 December.

Lang, A. (1905) Adventures among books. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1905.

Orel, H. (1984) Victorian Literary Critics. London: Macmillan.

Silver, C. (1999) Strange and secret peoples: fairies and Victorian consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Steinmetz, G. (2008) The devil’s handwriting: precoloniality and the German colonial state in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Yoshino, Y. (2008) ‘Writing the Borders: Fairies and Ambivalent National Identity in Andrew Lang’s The Golk of Fairnilee’,  in Alcobia-Murphy, S.  and Maxwell, M. (eds) The enclave of my nation: crosscurrents in Irish and Scottish studies. Aberdeen: AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, pp.227-241.



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What are the strengths and weaknesses of Murray’s approach to witchcraft in the Witch-Cult in Western Europe?

After going through my notes for a chapter write up I found this uni essay I wrote nearly  seven years ago!! I would completely revamp it now but still a bit interesting for anyone with the stomach for some historiography.

‘Miss Murray is as earnest as Trimalchio’[1]. Halliday, reviewing Murray’s Witch-Cult in 1922 compares her to the character of Petronius’ Satyricon, a boastful, wealthy freeman marked for ostentatious and fantastical exhibitions. It is a book whose argument and source technique have caused much heated debate. It was published by Murray in 1921, an Egyptologist of University College London, after World War One had disrupted teaching and archaeology.[2]  Firstly, Murray’s thesis must be outlined and its reception in public and academic audiences must be briefly examined. Then the extensiveness of research will be ascertained by reviewing the source material used. Cohn criticised her quotations for excluding portions of the original source material. The effect of this critique on the Witch-Cult’s reception will be considered. Murray reviewed her sources from the primary assertion that the witch-cult existed. Her analysis of the number of people constituting a coven will illustrate how such assertions directed her conclusions. In this connection, evidence used to affirm the witch-cult’s pre-Christianity foundations will be examined. Evidence from wide ranging chronological and geographical contexts are also engaged for comparison of common conceptual themes. Similar techniques are used by Ginzburg, who persuasively applied his methodology. Finally, anthropology and rationalisation provided alternative explanations for the extraordinary Sabbath accounts offered by the accused during early modern witch trials, involving animal metamorphosis, the devils mark or even flying to an assembly[3].


Firstly, the Witch-Cult’s main arguments, focussed upon by critics for their unconventionality, will be briefly outlined. The argument that witches from early modern witch trials, ‘were members of a huge secret society preserving a prehistoric fertility cult through the centuries’[4], forms the central argument. The rituals conferred in trials were actual ceremonies taking place. Followers worshipped a horned god, who originally presided over ‘the cycle of crops’.[5] However, an inversion occurred influenced by Christians presuming the horned deity was the devil. Christianity attempted ‘to obliterate the already fading remnants of an ancient cult’ during the witch trials. [6] ‘Witchcraft seemed a form of Satan-worship.’[7] Witches hereafter referred to their deity in this manner. The cult degenerated into sacrifice and cannibalism brought about by Christian persecution.[8] The uniform cult followed a number of ‘well defined rites’ and ‘organisation as highly developed as that of any other cult in the world.’[9] Cognate cult practices are traced throughout the Witch-Cult. These are organised around central themes; the God, admission, rites and meetings, organisation, familiars and transformations.



Leading on from the above, the reception of Murray’s work will be discussed.  Burstein notes her theories ‘received both rigorous refutation and enthusiastic support.’[10] Popular audiences mainly positively received her ideas.  Simpson claims these concepts became ‘entrenched in popular culture.’[11] Cohn, although criticising Murray, traces the thesis of pre-Christian witch-cult survival back to the Italian cleric Girolamo Tarotti-Serbati and Jacob Grimm of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively,[12] placing her into an academic tradition with a ‘long pedigree’[13]. Her theories, even considered ‘fashionable’[14], paralleled contemporary academic thought. For example, Frazer’s work the Golden Bough also explored agricultural rituals.[15]  In connection, Hutton argues her hypothesis ‘appealed to so many emotional impulses of the age’, from the mystery of the English countryside to the romantic notion of pagan survival in modern folk customs.[16] Similarly, Wood also argues ‘the idea of a counter-culture working in secret, but espousing remarkably modern, liberal ideas, became popular.’[17] The positive reception of Murray’s arguments is partially explained by their appealing conceptions supported by a pedigree of comparable hypotheses.


Conversely, Murray’s work also suffered wide criticism, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s. New developments in history meant her work became dated. Hutton argues because no systematic local study had occurred by 1921 Murray’s argument seemed worth making.[18] During discussion with journalist Farrell-Roberts, for Cauldron magazine, he notes that studies of local trials, revealing how accusations arose, disproved theories of a homogenous witch cult.[19] Change and development in academic trends altered the acceptance of Murray’s theory. Adding to this her later books, whose theories are more unconventional, have affected the reception of the Witch-Cult. In the Divine King in England she postulates the occurrence of regular ritual sacrifice of the King or a substitute to the horned god. Joan of Arc was one such substitute, which Rose describes as ‘obviously false’.[20] Even Sir Runciman’s foreword to the re-printing of the Witch-Cult mentions the later books’ recklessness.[21] Parrinder believes that ‘no professional historian has accepted such a radical re-writing of the lives of these historical personages.’[22] However, he considered that the Witch-Cult’s value should not be overshadowed by her later ‘dubious re-writing of history.’ However, inevitably her unusual later hypotheses overshadow the Witch-Cult. This is exemplified by Briggs’ recommendation for re-reading the Witch-Cult as  memory ‘is apt to be blurred by Dr. Murray’s later books.’[23] Change in academic practice and the unreliability of Murray’s later books partially contribute to discredit the Witch-Cult.


Murray’s source base will now be reviewed to evaluate the extent of her research. She scarcely supports her work with arguments from scholars of her era. Burr notes a need to regard other scholar’s opinions and ‘fairly to weigh their conclusions against her own in the light of the further evidence they may adduce.’[24]  This would have allowed her to scaffold and refine her theories by building up a dialogue with the contemporary debates. However, her methodology focuses on primary sources and facts, omitting the authors’ opinions.[25] She claims to base her theory ‘entirely on contemporary sources’. Her primary sources comprise of ‘legal records of the trials, pamphlets giving accounts of individual witches, and the works of Inquisitors and other writers.’[26] Thomas notes a dependence on accounts from more famous trials.[27] Printed trial records from nineteenth century editions, are frequently cited.[28] Much evidence from Scotland is also used.[29] For instance, extensive case studies from Kinloch’s Reliquiae Antiquiae Scotiticae and Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials are cited.[30] De Lancre, Boguet and Bodin, are heavily relied on for French source material.[31]  Ewen criticised her for not using ‘newly available archive records.’[32] Murray’s research is extensive even though her use of available sources is not as comprehensive as possible. Her bibliography contains 191 carefully cited sources.[33] Meticulous footnoting occurs throughout the Witch-Cult, allowing easy referral to original source material.  She has also received extensive commendation for her care and learning. Hutton acknowledges her ‘careful cataloguing of data.’[34] Parrinder notes his ‘respect for the breadth of her learning’ in a footnote.[35]  Her use of contemporary scholars is deficient but her primary source research, footnoting and source base cannot be significantly criticised.


Nevertheless, in Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975, Cohn criticised Murray’s citation methods. He highlighted significant lacunae in her quotations missing original source material; present the Sabbath as more ordinary and sober. By examining the ‘sources in their original contexts’[36], he repatriates the original material missing from her quote. By way of illustration, Helen Guthrie from Forefar in 1661 relates a meeting of witches in a brewer’s house, making merry and the devil kissing them.[37] Apart from the devil’s presence, which Murray rationalised as the cult leader, this quotation is not fantastical. However, Cohn restores the material Murray excluded ‘… and brought ale from hence, and they (went) through at a little hole like bees, and took the substance of ale.’[38] Farrell-Robert’s, debating with Hutton, criticises Cohn for inaccuracy.[39] However, on closer inspection of Kinloch, the source Murray used, it is evident Cohn accurately located the missing passages.[40] It appears in Kinloch as follows: ‘they [went] threw in at a little hole like bies.’[41] Another example regards the case of the devil entering the sea attached to a cable, removed from evidence of an apparently non fantastical witch assembly.[42] With several other examples Cohn upholds that Murray’s quotations eliminated large sections of text.[43]  He correctly indicates that the removal of parts of citations excludes more extraordinary events. These removals, Cohn highlights, act to misrepresent occurrences. It must be assumed that Murray thought the extraneous material unnecessary for her direct line of argument. However, such large exclusions, apart from being ‘unscholarly procedure’[44], distort the presentation of evidence. This weakens the foundation of Murray’s argument.


Apart from trimming source material many academics criticise Murray’s poor source analysis techniques.[45] At the outset, she holds the witches accounts present genuine reality, counting on the apparent uniformity of confessions to conclude her premise.[46]  In addition to this, Hutton holds she ‘ruthlessly ignored in her sources anything which did not support her case.’[47]  He argues that she begins with the premise that a genuine religion was represented in trial accounts.[48] To enable this line of argument she defines ‘operative witchcraft’, used by all, as a ‘common heritage of the human race’[49]. This is considered nonessential to the study of the witch-cult. Unfortunately a clear demarcation between the two categories is not provided. Therefore any evidence considered not to elucidate the cult’s existence can be categorised as operative magic and excluded.


To illustrate these analysis methods the example of her coven theory, where groups of witches occur in thirteen, will be discussed. This provides a clear example of how evidence is interpreted to fit a central thesis. Parrinder notes, ‘it requires considerable ingenuity to stretch the number thirteen to fit members of all covens that are mentioned.’[50] Keith Thomas considers this assertion contains ‘extremes of distortion’[51].  Murray refers to Bessie Dunlop, a Scottish witch in 1567, taken to meet a group of ‘aught wemene and four men’ by one Thom Reid.[52] Murray designates this as a coven with their officer Thom; creating a total of thirteen people. Several coven examples containing thirteen people are then cited. For example: ‘At Aberdeen (1596-7) sixty-four names of witches occur in the trials; of these, seven were merely mentioned as being known to the accused, though not as taking part in the ceremonies, and five were acquitted; thus leaving fifty-two persons, or four covens.’[53] To conclude this, several assumptions are made. Firstly, that all those acquitted, therefore left out, were done-so accurately. Secondly, that the prosecutions were accurate.  Thirdly, that this total creates several covens. Yet these assumptions seem to be made in light of the numerical dictum that thirteen people make a coven. The evidence is manoeuvred to confirm this. She eliminates some of those accused based on prosecution evidence then divides the remaining individuals by thirteen to create a number of covens.  However, despite this Parrinder notes many covens  generally contain around thirteen people.[54] In appendix III seventeen covens are cited containing thirteen persons.[55] Murray universalises the evidence claiming a ‘fixed number’.[56] She interprets evidence finding similarities  in the original sources which are not in fact as distinct as  she argues.


Criticism of source interpretation issues can be levelled at arguments claiming the direct lineage of Murray’s cult from prehistoric fertility beliefs to early-modern witch trials. She argues that the cult dates ‘back to pre-Christian times, and appears to be the ancient religion of Western Europe.’[57] Creating a chronological link back to pre-Christian times with mainly early modern records is difficult. Rose claims there is ‘a gap from the conversion to the first trials, of something of the order of 1000 years.’[58]  Murray does admit that ‘historical records are silent on the subject.’[59] Murray, to create this link provides a timeline of laws against witch-craft.  However, no specific witch-cults are referred to in these statutes.[60]  Alternatively, this list of laws could be evidence against the use of ‘operative witchcraft’ and heresy rather than the witch cult. The ninth century Council of Ancyra, which claims at night ladies ‘ride abroad with Diana, the god of the pagans’, is also used to help bridge the chronology gap of the witch-cult.[61] Rose criticises this source, applying his occams razor technique which makes few assumptions upon the evidence. He concludes all the source can tell us is ‘some beings rode with some Being; the later was female, immortal, and (in the eyes of the churchmen) non-existent; the former were female, and may or may not have been mortal.’[62] His criticism illustrates that often sources do not elucidate as much detail as Murray argues. By using her witch-cult premise as a foundation, much evidence is considered to substantiate the cult.  Therefore, evidence is augmented to reach conclusions that it does not necessarily allude to.


Consideration of Murray’s evidence interpretation skills has occurred. The techniques she used to present her arguments in the Witch-Cult will now be assessed. Murray copiously quotes evidence; often her quotes are a full side of text.  Briggs states the book is ‘full of excellent raw material.’[63] Even though a lengthy quote is provided often little analysis is supplied. Evidence is categorised into commonly occurring themes, rather than into contexts or chronologies. For instance, when Murray discusses the God as an animal, the source material is placed into categories of different animals.[64] Hutton notes that conclusions are made based on sources ‘scattered across a great extent of space and time.’[65] By way of illustration, the example of the witches dance will be taken. The survival of a contemporary witch dance in the Walloon district of Belgium[66] is confidently compared and contrasted with witches’ dances in Northumberland in 1673,[67] dances in the Basses-Pyrenees discovered by De Lancre writing in 1613[68] and Swedish witch dances quoted from Horneck in 1681[69], amongst others. These sources occur in a large variety of different context and circumstances in space and time. However, Murray connects them around the central theme of witch dancing. Data within categories is often presented in chronological order. In the example of the God as a bull evidence is arranged from 1597-1662 in date order.[70] Despite this commonality of theme is the overarching category of analysis, sought over the chronological or geographical contexts.


Murray’s choice of methodology was not uncommon and is representative of anthropological and folkloric approaches of her era. Simpson argues that Murray’s use of sources from a wide variety of contexts was ‘common practice amongst comparative mythologists of her period and was not criticised at the time, though it is now seen as a serious flaw.’[71] Later developments and changes in technique practices are one reason why her methods faced extensive criticism. Caro Baroja warned against the techniques of the ‘old school’ of anthropology, ‘prepared to find some common ground or transcendental significance behind documents of widely different periods and totally different historical ideas.’[72] Hutton is also critical of this ‘wilful ignorance of context.’[73] Nevertheless, it must be noted similar criticisms of Murray were launched by Halliday in 1922. He notes that ‘documents torn from the background of their own age and divorced from the serious study of their immediate historical antecedents’, give rise to misleading interpretation.[74] Despite this, generally Murray’s techniques were accepted by contemporary mythologists. Consequently, it is unfair to criticise a book written in 1921 for failing to comply with contemporary methodological practice. Later critics of her work fail to make allowances for the academic practices acceptable during this era.


In this connection, a review of the strengths of comparative methodology is necessary. Ginzburg uses a similarly wide base of source material comparing evidence from a large variety of contexts. He focuses on finding analogous cultural connections between sources from a variety of contexts, focusing on their structural similarities. These commonalities are analysed to propose a lost source of ideas, spread through a process of diffusion or from a common hereditary source.[75] For example, he defends the comparison of benandanti in Friuli, a group who believed they defended the fertility of their crops against wizards whilst in a trance, with shamans in Siberia. He supports the comparison of such sources claiming ‘the discovery of analogous phenomena in very distant areas could be explained by cultural contacts dating back to a much more distant time.’[76]  However, while Ginzburg emphasises a loose shared origin to his source material, Murray claims hers are all part of a single shared religion. She emphasises how the similarities in her sources point to one ‘ancient religion of Western Europe.’[77] Her evidence indicates a number of similarities connecting the phenomena of witchcraft over Europe. However, they do not display enough unity to support her singular organised cult thesis. The method of drawing from a wide decontextualised source base to find common themes has been defended by Ginzburg. However, deficient interpretative caution causes Murray to propose arguments that are not sufficiently upheld with evidence.


Finally, by adopting the approaches of anthropology and rationalism Murray brought new advances to the study of witchcraft. Firstly, she claims ‘it is only by careful comparison with the evidence of anthropology that the facts fall into their proper places.’[78]  Attempts are made to interpret evidence in such light. In her appendix, during a study of Joan of Arc, she exclaims: ‘hitherto the anthropological aspect has been disregarded.’[79] Although her conclusions are not always convincing, Simpson notes her methods brought ‘welcome change from conventional wisdom on the subject’[80]. Unlike her other contemporaries, she did not explicate witchcraft as a result of hysteria and ignorance or like Montague Summers, the manifestation of actual devil worship.[81] Secondly, Murray is credited for use of rationalism in her explanations. Burstein claims Murray was ‘firmly pushing her way through the mists of emotion and dogma and obscurantism that envelope so much of the writing on witchcraft.’[82] Simpson states her interpretations, seemed ‘novel and demystifying’ opening ‘the way to more rational discussion.’[83] A rational explanation usefully elucidated certain supernatural elements in Sabbath accounts. In one notable example Murray interprets descriptions of the devils mark into two categories tattoos,[84] and supernumerary nipples.[85] The Journal of Anatomy is the source of a brief medical explanation of the frequency of the occurrence of supernumerary nipples.[86] In her appendices a rationalised explanation of flying ointments by A.J. Clarke is included. The mental effects of the aconite and belladonna, found in recipes for ointments, are described.[87] Modern scientific disciplines were used to shed light on peculiar and seemingly fantastic events. Therefore her explanations to some extent provide clarity and understanding to seemingly unexplainable occurrences, despite the fact they are often presented as ‘proven fact.’[88]


Murray’s book received an initial positive reception from public audiences but, especially since the 1960s, has also caused much controversy in academia. Wide selections of primary sources are employed in the Witch-Cult. However, secondary academic opinions are scarcer, failing to create an extensive dialogue with her contemporaries. Criticism of her source evaluation occurs in view of the fact that evidence is reviewed under the premise of the witch-cult’s existence. Assumptions are strongly made of evidence based on her contentions, rather than information the sources elucidate. Cohn also criticised Murray for leaving lacunae in her quotations changing their meaning. Rather than concentrating on the context of evidence Murray seeks to compare themes and groupings. Commonality of theme is the overarching category of analysis for Murray. This methodology has been used and defended by Ginzburg. Nevertheless, Murray does not cautiously review evidence; analogies are interpreted as confirmation of strong cult links rather than loose cultural connections. Finally, Murray brought the new approaches of rationalism and anthropology to the field of witchcraft. The Witch-Cult is a well researched book, using methodology typical of the era. Her source base, bibliography and footnoting are commendable. However, Murray’s interpretation of evidence makes far reaching assumptions, leading her to create an argument that is not substantially verifiable when based on her research material. Many criticisms occurred in consideration of later developments in historical practice lacking regard for the standards of her era.



Briggs, K. M. ‘Review:  The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by M. A. Murray’ Folklore 74 (1963), 571.


Burr, G. L. ‘Review: The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology by Margaret Alice Murray’ American Historical Review, 27 (1922), 780-3.


Burstein, S. ‘Some Modern Books on Witchcraft’, Folklore 72 (1961), 520-534.


Caro Baroja, J. The World of the Witches (London, 1964), pp.64-6, 242-53.


Cohn, N. Europe’s Inner Demons: an enquiry inspired by the great witch-hunt, (London, 1975).


Ginzburg, C., ‘Deciphering the Sabbath’, in B. Ankarloo and G. Henningsen (eds), Early Modern European Witchcraft: centres and peripheries ( Oxford, 1990).


Ginzburg, C., Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath (Harmondsworth, 1992).


Halliday, W.R. ‘Review:  The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. A Study in Anthropology by Margaret Alice Murray’, Folklore 33 (1922), 224-30.


Hutton, R., The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, (Oxford, 1991), pp. 300-7, 330-335.


Hutton, R., The Triumph of the Moon: A history of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford, 2000).


Hutton, R. Hutton, and Farrell- Roberts, J. Farrell- Roberts, ‘Margaret Murray and the Distinguished Professor Hutton.’ in (Last accessed 01/03/2010).


Kinloch,  G.R.,  Reliquiae Antiquiae Scoticae, (Edinburgh, 1865), p.121-22.


Magliocco, S., Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America (Philadelphia, 2004), pp.46-49.


Murray, M. A. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, (Oxford, 1962).


Parrinder, G, Witchcraft (Harmondsworth, 1958).


Rose, E. Rose, A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism, (London, 1989).

Runciman, S. ‘Foreword’ in M. A. Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: (Oxford, 1962) pp. 3-5.


Russell, J. B. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, (London, 1972), pp.21-23, 36-43.


Simpson, J. ‘Margaret Murray: Who believed her, and why?’, Folklore 105 (1994), 89-96.


Simpson, J. ‘Margaret Murray’ in R. Golden’ (ed.), Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition, (4 volumes) (Santa Barbara, 2006), pp.796-7.


Thomas, K. Religion and the Decline of Magic (London. 1991), p. 614-15.


Wood, J.   ‘The Reality of Witch Cults Reasserted: Fertility and Satanism’ in J. Barry, and O. Davies, (ed.), Palgrave Advances in Witchcraft Historiography, (Basingstoke, 2007), pp. 69-85.

[1]W.R. Halliday, ‘Review:  The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. A Study in Anthropology by Margaret Alice Murray’, Folklore 33 (1922), 224.

[2]J. Simpson, ‘Margaret Murray’ in R. Golden’ (ed.), Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition, (4 volumes) (Santa Barbara, 2006), p.796.

[3]M. A. Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe,(Oxford, 1962) pp. 60-70, 86-97, 100-106.

[4]J. Simpson, ‘Margaret Murray: Who believed her, and why?’, Folklore 105 (1994), 89.

[5]N. Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: an enquiry inspired by the great witch-hunt, (London, 1975), p. 109.

[6]J.  Wood, ‘The Reality of Witch Cults Reasserted: Fertility and Satanism’ in J.Barry and O.Davies (ed.), Palgrave Advances in Witchcraft Historiography, (Basingstoke, 2007), p.70.

[7]Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, p. 109.

[8]R. Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, (Oxford, 1991), p.305.

[9]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.12.

[10]S. Burstein, ‘Some Modern Books on Witchcraft’, Folklore 72 (1961), 521.

[11]Simpson, ‘Who believed her’, p.89.

[12]Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, p. 103.

[13]Hutton, Pagan Religions, p.300.

[14]Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, p.107.

[15]Wood, ‘The Reality of Witch Cult’, p.74.

[16]R. Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A history of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, (Oxford, 2000). p.199.

[17]Wood, ‘The Reality of Witch Cult’, p.73.

[18]Hutton, Pagan Religions, p.304.

[19]R. Hutton, ‘Margaret Murray and the Distinguished Professor Hutton.’ in (Last accessed 01/03/2010)

[20]E. Rose, A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism, (London, 1989), p.71.

[21]S. Runciman, ‘Foreword’ in M. A. Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: (Oxford, 1962), p.5.

[22]G. Parrinder, Witchcraft (Harmondsworth, 1958), p.53.

[23]K. M. Briggs, ‘Review:  The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by M. A. Murray’ Folklore 74 (1963), 571.

[24]G. L. Burr, ‘Review: The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology by Margaret Alice Murray’ American Historical Review, 27 (1922), 782.

[25]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.11.

[26]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.11.

[27]K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London. 1991), p.615.

[28]Hutton, Triumph of the Moon, p.195.

[29]Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, p. 111.

[30]Murray, Witch-Cult.(footnotes).

[31]Murray, Witch-Cult, (footnotes).

[32]Wood, ‘The Reality of Witch Cult’, p.75.

[33]Murray, Witch-Cult, pp.281-285.

[34]Hutton, Pagan Religions, p.302.

[35] Parrinder, Witchcraft, p.10.

[36]Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, p.110.

[37]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.141.

[38]Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, p.112.

[39]J. Farrell-Roberts, ‘Margaret Murray and the Distinguished Professor Hutton.’ in (Last accessed 01/03/2010)

[40]G.R. Kinloch,  Reliquiae Antiquiae Scoticae (Edinburgh, 1865) p.121.

[41]Kinloch, Reliquiae Antiquiae Scoticae, p.121.

[42]Kinloch, Reliquiae Antiquiae Scoticae, p.122.; Murray, Witch-Cult, p. 98.

[43]Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, pp. 110-115.

[44]C. Ginzburg, ‘Deciphering the Sabbath’, in B. Ankarloo and G. Henningsen  (eds), Early Modern European Witchcraft: centres and peripheries ( Oxford, 1990), p.134.

[45]Briggs, ‘Review: The Witch-Cult’, 571.;  Halliday, ‘Review: The Witch-Cult’, 228. ; S. Magliocco, Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America (Philadelphia, 2004), pp.46-49.; J. B. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, (London, 1972), p.37.; Thomas, Decline of Magic, p.615., Parrinder, Witchcraft, p.36.

[46]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.16.

[47]Hutton, Triumph of the Moon, p.196.

[48]Hutton, Pagan Religions, p.302.

[49]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.11.

[50]Parrinder, Witchcraft, p.35.

[51]Thomas, Decline of Magic, p.615.

[52]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.191.

[53]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.191.

[54]Parrinder, Witchcraft, p.35.

[55] Murray, Witch-Cult, pp.249-54.

[56]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.191.

[57]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.12.

[58]Rose, Razor for a Goat, p.56.

[59]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.20.

[60]Murray, Witch-Cult, pp.20-26.

[61]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.102.

[62]Rose, Razor for a Goat, p.109.

[63]Briggs, ‘Review: The Witch-Cult’,571.

[64]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.65-70.

[65]Hutton, Triumph of the Moon, p.196.

[66]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.135.

[67]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.134.

[68]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.131.

[69]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.132.

[70]Murray, Witch-Cult, p.64.

[71]Simpson, ‘Margaret Murray’, p.796.

[72]J. Caro Baroja, The World of the Witches, (London, 1964), p.243.

[73]Hutton, Pagan Religions, p.303.

[74]Halliday, ‘Review: The Witch-Cult’, 52.

[75]Ginzburg, ‘Deciphering the Sabbath’, p.128.

[76]C. Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath, (Harmondsworth, 1992), p.41.

[77]Murray, Witch-Cult, p. 12.

[78]Murray, Witch-Cult, p. 10.

[79]Murray, Witch-Cult, p. 270.

[80]Simpson, ‘Margaret Murray’, p.796.

[81]Simpson, ‘Margaret Murray’, p.796.

[82]Burstein, ‘Modern Books on Witchcraft’, p.521.

[83]Simpson, ‘Margaret Murray’, p.797.

[84]Murray, Witch-Cult, p. 87.

[85]Murray, Witch-Cult, p. 90.

[86]Murray, Witch-Cult, p. 90.

[87]Murray, Witch-Cult, p. 279-80.

[88]Simpson, ‘Margaret Murray’, p.796.

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What functions did Fairies perform in Early Modern British Culture and Society?

Fairies are ambivalent and liminal, presiding over thresholds, therefore occur in many different contexts. A wide variety of functions are attributed to them. Considered of value, the study of fairies will initially be examined because their viability for academic study has not always been apparent. The reasons for the recent proliferation in fairy scholarship shall briefly be discussed to contextualise the importance of this topic Fairies interact with many aspects of human life. These relations will therefore be traced throughout the stages of human life. Fairy contact occurs most frequently amongst those people in a period of transition. Women in childbirth and young babies experience fear and risk of mortality. Fairy beliefs played an active role in this emotional state. As teenagers experienced sexual awakening fairies facilitated the exploration of new emotions. During the trials of life and housework drudgery, fairies played a dynamic role in a variety of emotionally supportive and practical ways. They assisted, rewarded and punished people. Fairies caused illness but were also associated with healing powers. Fairies acted without any apparent reasoning and were morally ambivalent. They bestrode Heaven and Earth therefore had links with the supernatural. Due to this nature fairies supported arguments of God’s existence.  This sustained those dealing with questions of mortality. The Reformation redefined the boundaries of fairy belief, making them demonic.  They became a tool to employ in anti-catholic polemic. Fairies functioned in a multitude of contexts and therefore may be treated in a multi-functional manner.

In recent years there has been an upsurge in the academic interest in fairies. However, this has not always been so. Firstly, exploration of the lack of fairy scholarship before the current increase in attention must be discussed.  S. Macdonald, reviewing Scottish Fairy Belief: A History, notes how this recent book fills ‘a significant gap’[1], in the understanding of fairy belief. This lacuna occurs across the fairy discourse. Such a gap needs explanation. The inaccessible content of source material partially explains this. S. Thomson in 1960, reviewing The Anatomy of Puck by K. Briggs, claims the ‘literary student of today can hardly credit the ready acceptance’ of folk stories believed by ‘common current’ and half accepted by the educated. [2] Modern Western society sees fairies as fictional characters from nursery tales; therefore fairy belief in adults is often quite a complex concept to accept. Evidence of Early Modern witch belief has been regarded as ‘the ramblings of deluded or tortured people,’ with no meaning to ‘traditional historians.’[3] Henderson and Cowan note that scholars might be ‘inclined to intellectually reject the bizarre reportage which they [fairy stories] contain.’[4] Purkiss regards fairy study as highly valuable. However, she also acknowledges their inherent ‘ontological dubiety.’[5] Academic credibility of fairy study has been questioned due to challenges of this nature.

However, an increasing interest in the study of fairies has taken place. Examination of why this has occurred is necessary. Changes in the practice of historical discipline help explicate why fairy scholarship has gained popularity and credibility. The rise in social and women’s history and the Post Modernist turn have shaped the historical discipline in the later half of the twentieth century. Firstly, ‘new history’, which developed ‘an interest in class, race, and gender’ [6] opened up numerous new fields of study. Political and elite no longer dominated the study of History. Many new fields of study became popular and extensively researched. More recently the advent of Post Modernism occurred. Post Modernist techniques focus on the ‘analysis of discourses’[7] by seeking ‘an explanation of the internal structures of these texts.’[8] New methodologies when applied to fairy stories, which initially appear peculiar, allow new meaning to be revealed. They can be viewed as rational in their own terms. Recently scholars have frequently sought to investigate the discourse of the fairy folk beliefs.  Such methods are used in the works of Purkiss. For example, she gives explanations why fairies stories were used by women in Scottish witchcraft trials. She explains: ‘If asked to produce a story under pressure, people will draw on stories they have heard, stories they have read, stories they have already told, stories they think others will believe.’[9] The reason provided evaluated why these narratives had meaning contained within their own discourse. Reliability for the stories is consequently created.  The fact they contained meaning for those who initially heard them is learned. Recent changes in the historical discipline allow more significance to be given to fairy stories. They have become a more viable research area.

The validity of studying fairies has been explored, now the paradigm used to analyse meaning in these stories must be considered. Gibson remarks, the theoretical changes in the historical discipline which have been discussed, suggest a ‘variety of paradigms’[10] might be used to explore these stories. Explanation of the roles fairies played in society and the utility of these beliefs will be central to the argument.  A functionalist paradigm shall therefore be our primary means of investigating fairy belief. Thomas takes a functionalist view of fairy beliefs claiming they helped ‘to reinforce some of the standards upon which the effective workings of society depended.’[11]  Functionalists’ views create explanations on how stability and co- operation in societies occur. How fairy beliefs created cohesiveness of behaviour and supported emotional needs of Early Modern Britain will be focussed upon. Weaknesses in this paradigm must be considered.  Marshall claims functionalists ‘often pay insufficient attention to genres, rhetoric and discursive strategies in the texts they draw on.’[12] To overcome this, awareness of literary techniques used by authors will be regarded. However, it should be acknowledged that sources limit us, especially when regarding human emotions; they very rarely explicate emotional information.

Leading on from the above, the definition of fairy must be examined. Purkiss vividly describes modern fairies as ‘small gauzy-wingy thingies.’[13] Fairies are presently predominantly portrayed as small benign beings that are integrated into the genre of children’s fictional literature. Conversely, Early Modern Fairies have a more ambivalent role. Many different types of fairy, goblin, nymphs and spirits, in numerous shapes and sizes appear in fairy accounts. Thomas remarks how they conform to ‘no single set of characteristics.’[14] How were these various creatures incorporated into a single genus? Robert Campbell’s manuscript of Scottish minister Robert Kirk’s The Secret Common Wealth, a treatise on the nature of fairies and second sight, contains an exposition of difficult words. Even though elves, fauns and ‘siths’ are defined, fairies are not.[15] The suggestion implied by this lack of definition is that readers had a clear notion of fairies. Scot provides a list of ‘bugges’ children are taught to fear. A great variety of creatures including witches, centaurs and imps are treated within this group,[16] illustrating a loose unity amongst these beings. Likewise, despite some disparities, fairies are all considered to be part of similar phenomena. Brigg’s Glossary of The Vanishing People contains a useful definition for fairies. She defines fairies as the ‘general name for the whole race.’[17]  The unity of fairies is held, but variety is expressed. They are a species, their types are breeds.

Fairies are often described as ‘liminal’ characters that preside over boundaries. Purkiss observes that fairies appear and control ‘big crises of mortal life.’ [18] Early Modern childbirth was a hazardous event with a high risk of mortality. Estimates of death in childbirth before the eighteenth century vary from 3% to 18%.[19] Women in this vulnerable state were susceptible to fairy abduction. Kirk mentions how:

‘women are yet alive who tell they were taken away when in child-bed to nurse ffayrie children, a lingring voracious image of thiers being left in their place (like their reflexion in a mirrour) which (as if it were som insatiable spirit in an assumed body) made first semblance to devoure the meat, that it cunningly carried by, and yn left the carcase expired, and departed thence by a natural and common death.’

The condition of woman and birth is explored through the medium of fairy belief. A fake image of the woman put in place, implying she is physically taken to fairyland. This image is described as ‘lingring’ and ‘voracious’, implying an obvious disparity in the behaviour of the woman and the image. Kirk describes the apparent altered and fragile state of the mother post-birth, attributing fairy causation. In this piece fairies function as a medium of explaining the post-natal state. This condition is often fraught with risk. The ‘Queen of the Elfame’ visits Bessie Dunlop, who was tried for witchcraft in Scotland, when she is in child-bed prophesises to her that her ‘barne wald de, and that hir husband suld mend of his seikness.’[20] Bessie, who has already experienced the high risk of child birth, also has a sick husband who may die. During this era Purkiss notes women could only bargain with their ‘bodies and their babies’[21]. In a fraught state of mind Bessie has envisioned sacrificing her baby to save her husband? Such encounters with mortality create numerous fears. Emotions arising from her situation could be explored by Bessie through the medium of fairy belief. Henderson and Cowan’s fairy study allows us to learn from people of Early Modern Scotland ‘their hopes and fears, their assumptions and their concerns as they struggled to comprehend the world around them.’[22]  Therefore sense can be derived from these fears through the medium of fairy belief. Fairy belief helped those in a vulnerable transitional state understand and channel their emotions.

The children created were as vulnerable as the women producing them. Human babies were susceptible to theft from the fairies; a fairy changeling put in their place.  The mad merry prankes of Robin Good-fellow, presents this common trope in a comical manner:

‘And babes new born steal as we go,

an elf in bed,

We leave in stead,

And wend us laughing, ho, ho, ho.’[23]

Despite the humour, it plays upon serious fears, babies were defenceless. Kirk describes the fairy thefts as a ‘plaginism’ which clutches ‘our children away which never return.’[24] The implication that the children never return is akin to their death.  In the Early Modern period there were high child mortality rates, with infants being most in danger of illnesses and death.[25] Henderson and Cowan explore how fairy belief reflected the mentality of early modern Scotland. They explain how ‘general concerns about such matters were manifested in part, by what amounted to something of an obsession with the phenomena’[26] of changelings. A fearful incidence is one again associated with fairies, implying that fairy beliefs were used to explore fear of children dying. After high risks in the birthing process, fear of the child perishing became protracted.

Although the phenomenon of changelings expressed worries about child mortality, it also allowed parents address those fears. William Warner in Albion’s England discusses the link between lack of faith and changelings:

‘Yee fairies too made Mother, if weake faith, to sweare that ye

Into their Beds did foist your Babes, and thiers, and theirs exchang’d be.’[27]

Warner exemplifies the risks associated with weak faith. If a mother of weak faith risks having her baby exchanged, then it is implied a mother of strong faith is less susceptible to this risk. People sought to ensure blessings through a greater faith in God. A lack of faith brought punishment through God’s wrath. Fear of these fairy thefts might endure people to seek greater piety and favour in God, in the hope that protection of their child’s life was secured by faith. Fear of changelings, which expressed fears on children’s vulnerability, allowed people to seek solutions to those fears. Religious protection was one way in which people might do this. However, Thomas considers changeling belief was utilised to ensure better care of children. ‘The risk of being landed with a fairy changeling similarly reminded men of the need to look after a newborn child.’[28] The belief functioned to seek better care of children, through parental fears, hence allowing them to prosper. Changeling belief not only allowed people a way to explore fears of loosing children, but also allowed them a senses of control by finding ways to prevent this loss.

Adolescence is a transitional state in between adulthood and childhood. Fairies often preside over these transitional states. During puberty sexual awakening is one of the most distinguishable changes that occur in people. Fairies are often associated with controlling human love and lust. Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet is especially associated with this. Mab is no regal or refined Queen and suggestions have been made that she even represents a slattern or low woman.[29] She is described as a medium of acquaintance for maid’s first sexual awakenings:

‘This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

That presses them and learns them first to bear,’[30]

Lying on your back strongly connotes both erotic associations and sleep. Pressing them down, as male lovers would do, instructs them into sexual activity. This is akin to the incubi or succubi who caused sexually charged dreams.[31] An incubus hag, who haunted maid’s dreams acting as a sexual facilitator, gives the piece a bawdy comic effect. However, sexual awakening is linked to a demonic encounter. Even though this is not a personal encounter, as a performance it shows that the fairy discourse correlated fairies with sexual awakening of young maids. Adolescents were learning about and thinking about sexuality. Fairies are seen to help act as facilitators in this learning experience. Purkiss relates how fairies are associated with transitions and boundaries in society: ‘She is a gate keeper.’[32] Here we see the fairy functioning as a motif for the transitional state of sexual awakening within the discourse.

However, the ambivalent nature of fairies meant they could react to sexuality in a manner of ways. Whilst, Queen Mab’s characters lead the transition into sexuality, she also regulated sexual behaviour. Queen Mab is seen as a malevolent character in the regulation of people’s desires.

‘O’er ladies lips, who straight on kisses dream,

Which of the angry Mab with blisters plagues,

Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are.’[33]

Anger implies that Mab is chastising the ladies, as a parent would correct a small child. She does this because the ladies took pleasure in eating sweetmeats and dreaming of kisses. However, the mention of kisses turns this into a sexual punishment. The physical sign of blisters causes social embarrassment. These blisters reduce the women’s sexual desirability to the men they wish to kiss. The physical sign of their misdeeds correlates to the oral part of the body to which the transgression is linked. Mab acts as a regulator, who controls sexual desires through physical punishment. Mab both encourages young maids to explore sexual feelings yet also punishes women for having desires. Little coherence is shown in the manner chosen to control people. Fairies were just as likely to encourage sexual exploration as prevent it. Todd describes how there is ‘no rhyme or reason to their choices,’[34] fairies act like nature in an ambivalent manner; they have the ‘amorality of nature.’[35] As their moral position is unresolved they can perform both good and bad things. This ambivalent position meant causations could be attributed to them from a number of moral positions. They functioned as a way of explaining phenomena that might have otherwise been attributed to the devil.[36] However, attributing transgressions to the Devil, who was allowed to punish through Gods will, meant personal accountability. Fairy liability released people from personal accountability.

Fairies acted to ease people’s frame of mind in other manners. As fairies might chastise people, so they helped them escape from the hardships of life. Entertainment was one way this was done. A common theme of fairy feasting and celebration runs through folk lore. For example, in the Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow a typical fairy celebration is depicted:

‘By wells and giles in Meadow green,

We highly dance our hey day guise,

And to our fairy King and Queen,

We chant our moonlit harmony.’[37]

This ballad exemplifies some of the typical early modern ballads. It was to be sung to the tune of Dulcina.[38] It was part of oral folk culture. Ballads were sung in groups for entertainment, such activities were part of people’s recreational time. As people entertained themselves with songs and merry making, so did the fairies. This song is inwardly reflecting. The fairy world and the real world are linked by shared activities. On a basic level this ballad acts to entertain. Henderson and Cowan explain that ballads also convey ‘important cultural information about not only the world around, but the world around that.’[39] By exploring themes of entertainment, it is evident fairies express peoples’ desire to make merry, dance and sing. Fairies function at a practical level as part of the discourse of early modern entertainment.

Fairies participated in communal activities but also had associations with individuals displaying unusual behaviour. Fairies provided victuals for individuals. One such lady named NcIntyr was examined by Kirk. He describes how she had taken little or no food for many years. At night she would wander into fields, ‘converse with people she knew not’ and she would ‘sleep on a hillock.’[40]  The inclusion of this account in Kirk’s treatise marks that he considered it a fairy encounter.  Lack of eating linked with her strange behaviour, suggests that fairies were providing her with sustenance. Similarly, Moses Pitts relates the case of Anne Jeffries dealings with the fairies. Anne was a maid in the house he grew up in. She started experiencing fairy encounters in her late teenage years. He explains how Anne ‘was fed by these fairies from that Harvest-time to the next Christmas- day.’[41] By not eating they would have excluded themselves from meal times and aspects of commensality. An individual failing to eat for several months is an unusual behaviour trait that requires explanation. Other types of peculiar behaviour are also related in both these tales. Kirk describes Nc Intyr as ‘still prettie melanchollious/ And silent, hardly ever seen to laugh.’[42] Fairies caused Anne Jeffries ‘such a Fright and Consternation’, she relates them as ‘the Cause of this my great sickness.’[43] Anne suffered fits and seizures, such a sickness would be considered abnormal and required explanation. Todd argues fairies had a ‘willingness to create space for individuals who do not fit within the social norms of society.’[44] As liminal beings fairies were outside human society likewise by behaving abnormally these women were outside social norms. Fairy beliefs, due to their liminality, therefore created an easy function of explanation for their unusual behaviour.

This benevolent facet of fairies also extended to helping those in dire need.  Fairies often appeared to those in desperation to offer them help.[45] Herrick poem The Beggar to Mab, the fairie Queen, recounts a poor beggar petitioning Queen Mab to provide help in his desperation. ‘Please your Grace, from out your Store, Give an Almes to one that’s poore.’[46] Reference to her store implies her wealth. Herrick in Oberon’s Palace narrates Mab’s lifestyle, appealing to trappings of miniature grotesque luxury.[47]  She is set up as a potential rich benefactress to the poor beggar. Kirk  recounts a non- fiction tale of fairy aid. It occurs in 1676 during the time of a grain shortage. Two women receive visions, simultaneously but separately, of hidden treasure. This treasure is buried in a hill called ‘Sith bhruaich or Fairie- Hill’[48]. A large vessel full of ancient gold coins was found upon digging.[49] Benefits are gained through this discovery. The gold gets ‘sold in dish-fulls for dish-fulls of meall to the Country people.’[50] Fairies are not directly involved in this incident. However, Kirk suggests them as one possible cause of the event. The hill associated with fairies strongly implies some fairy involvement. The discovery of the pot occurs on territory that is delineated as fairy linked. Their deliverance from hardship is indirectly connected to fairies. Purkiss states that ‘A fairy story is a story about reaching rock bottom – in a sense, a story about dying – but it is a story about finding a way out , if only in story.’[51] Fairy discourses function as a medium through which people might express their desperation. They are also used explanations of how travails are endured and overcome.

Fairies also showed generosity by rewarding people. Fairies might reward individuals for cleanliness and tidiness. Individuals left shoes out in hope of a fairy reward. This acted as an incentive for individuals to clean their houses.[52] However, the fairies also took displeasure in dirty or sloppy housework.  This is expressed in one Herrick poem: ‘Sweep your house: Who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe.’[53] Despite the comic effect created by a miniature fairy queen pinching toes, it provides a pertinent commentary on the social discourses surrounding fairies. Pleasing or displeasing the fairies by your quality of housework was a contemporary folk belief affecting people’s mentalities. Thomas argues that ‘fear of being tormented by the fairies’ [54] was one reason that made maids clean thoroughly. He argues such beliefs enforced codes of social conduct. Purkiss considers that despite forming people’s behaviour they might also act as a control structure. Masters employ these tales so servants conscientiously comply with cleaning duties. ‘Maids are tricked into cleanliness by Lord Smartyboots, who leaves a silver tester in the maid’s shoe as a sly form of tip, to make her good.’[55] Swann notes how in a Foucauldian sense it regulated behaviour before an era of ‘systematic surveillance.’[56] Fairies provided an impression that those doing duties would be constantly observed. Constant observation would cause them to consistently work hard.  Fairy beliefs associated with cleaning functioned as a punishment and reward scheme to encourage cleanliness amongst people.

However, people were not always expected to perform the drudgery of housework themselves. Fairies sometimes performed household duties. Kirk mentions creatures that enter houses while the residents sleep to order the kitchens and clean plates.[57] Some families even had brownies working as ‘drudges.’[58] Kirk’s use of the word ‘drudge’ implies such tasks were considered undesirable. Robin Goodfellow performs certain tasks with an element of pleasure. ‘Yet now and then the Maids to please, I card at midnight up their wool.’[59] Robin Goodfellow acts benevolently towards the maid. He performs such actions with her feelings taken into account. Pleasure was gained by avoiding the drudgery of time consuming tasks. Fairies acting as household aid function to express people’s desire to their desire to escape the drudgery of housework.

As fairies were ambivalent in nature they did not always seek to please. Fairies were sometimes dishonest regarding their nocturnal cleaning. Householders who left milk out for them were tricked into cleaning their own house. Warner relates how fairies took women in their ‘deadest sleep’ and ‘made themselves their houses sweep.’[60] Fairies have the potential to be charlatans. However, in this depiction the owner remains unaware of the trickery. However, it is implied that this trickery may have rendered the lady tired.[61] Fairy belief acted to explain certain symptoms. The morally ambivalent position meant that a wide variety of causations may be attributed to them.

Fairy agency could be used to explain severe symptoms. Kirk describes fairy weaponry that damages the inside of the body, ‘mortally wounding the vittall parts without breaking the skin.’[62] This damaging aspect of fairy activity also linked fairies to the Devil. Isobel Gowdie was questioned for a witchcraft accusation in 1662. During examination she describes how the devil delivers arrow heads, shaped by him, to Elf boys.[63] Like fairies damaging weaponry, a variety of illnesses could be caused by fairy activity.[64] Sickness might be linked with those who consorted with fairies. Anne Jeffries, who is visited by six small fairies, is so frightened ‘she fell into a kind of a Convulsion-fit.’[65] Anne commonly had fits if anything upset her.[66]  Thomas claims fairies could ‘operate as a means of accounting for an otherwise unsatisfactory situation.’[67] Often people would seek the reasoning for their illness. Fairies could function to provide explanation to illnesses, especially for individuals connected with fairies. Gentilcore explains ‘In a world shattered by illness, the construction of narrative allows the sick person to “reconstitute” the world.’ [68] Fairies functioned to help sick people explore their emotional reactions to illness. Finding an explaination for illness allowed them to control their experiences.

Illness could also be alleviated by those who consorted with fairies. Reginald Scot claimed ‘sick folke, children, women, and cowards, which through weaknesse of mind and bodie, are shaken with vaine dreames and continuall feare,’[69] were particularly likely to hold fairy beliefs. Although, Scot was a sceptic, this link is an important one. Sick people often relied upon healers to cure their illnesses. Many elite medical practitioners claimed fairies provided their abilities.[70] Jonat Hunter encountered a fairy that ‘desired [her] to speak of God and do good to poor sick folk.’[71] Likewise, Anne Jeffries’ healing abilities were linked with a period of fairy contact. Her reputation becomes so eminent ‘that people of all distempters, sicknesses, sores and ages, came not only so far off as the Land-end, but also London, and were cured by her.’[72] The distance people travelled shows the strong faith they had in her abilities to heal. However, Anne gets this healing ability through the ‘blessing of God’[73] Even though her ability is divine; many paranormal dealings are associated with her. Moses Pitts, by inclusion of these cures in his dialogue, implicitly links all these phenomena together within the same discourse. In an era where medical solutions were not particularly efficacious, fairy belief functioned as a medium through which people might hope to receive healing. It has been illustrated that fairies both harmed and healed. Everything linked with fairies was tainted with ‘unpredictability, unreason, caprice.’[74] For this reason, they might function to explain many different phenomena.

The unpredictability of fairies became a theological issue during the Reformation. Any spirit who had not been fully assimilated into the ‘Christian Pantheon was officially defined as an “evil spirit” by most contemporary theologians.’[75] The Catholic belief in purgatory, from which ghosts were traditionally derived, was ended by Protestant Reformers. The liminal world and links between the living and the dead had been theologically severed.  However, there was still empirical evidence of Ghost activity. In Post Reformation doctrine Ghosts were considered mainly Devil sent demons. In fact many thought fairies were the dead. Fairies and Ghost come under a similar doctrine.[76] Fairies in this theological system appear to be utterly irreconcilable with Post Reformation doctrine.[77] Despite this, an important role was still served by them at a popular level.  Marshall argues, despite official doctrine, that fairies remained popular and current as evidence of spirit activity in lay protestant communities.[78] It was often tolerated by clergymen on a parish level.’[79]

How did those experiencing mortality use fairy beliefs? Fairies that are ‘liminal in everyway’ constitute ‘a society separate from human society and crucially intertwined with it.’[80] Like the dead they are linked to human society but are also distinct. Elspeth Reoch, just after childbirth, encounters a man who ‘callit Johne Stewart quha wes slane be McKy at the doun going of the soone And therfor nather deid not leiving bot wald go betuix the heaven and the earth.’[81] Both hold a liminal state; she has transitioned into motherhood and he straddles the world of the living and the dead. He acts as a link to the dead. Henderson and Cowan argue that ‘the very idea of Fairyland permitted some assuage meant of the grief attending the death of a loved one.’[82] Fairies were one way grieving relatives could still feel close to their loved ones, even though post reformation belief shut the gates of purgatory. By straddling between the boundaries of life and death, fairies functioned as a scaffold for belief in an after life. People could explore their feelings and emotions through these beliefs.

Fairies could be used as an argument for the supernatural. Empirical evidence of fairies might be drawn upon in the argument against Atheism, which appeared to be increasing after the Reformation. Briggs claims Kirk was free from this ‘puritan bigotry’ and he treated fairies as a ‘natural phenomena.’[83] Kirk seeks out empirical evidence to confirm the existence of fairies. Fairies are treated with a scientific accuracy and recorded systematically. Kirk proposed that evidence of fairies might scaffold an argument against increasing Atheism. In one of the surviving manuscripts of Kirk’s The Secret Common Wealth, the lines ‘to suppress the impudent and growing Atheism of this age’ are included on the title page.[84] Sanderson claims this shows ‘his need to justify his defence of belief in the occult world.’[85]  Kirk saw evidence from his research as evidence against the growing scepticism about supernatural phenomena which would eventually lead to lack of faith in God. As a minister of the church this was of great personal concern to Kirk. In response to Lord Tarbott, Kirk claims visions of people with second sight are not evil but really attempts by ‘fellow creatures in invisible worlds’ to convince us of a deity.[86]  They are used to support a belief in a supernatural world. Empirical evidence of fairies signposts the existence of a divinity.

Fairies, considered demonic by the protestant reformers, were tools of promulgation against papists. It is necessary to explore how fairies were demonically portrayed. James I, King of England in Daemonologie in the Form of a Dialogue, argues that the devil creates fairy appearances by tricking the senses of ‘simple creatures in making them believe that they saw and harde such thinges as were nothing so indeed.’[87]  He also observes that fairies were ‘one of these sorts of illusion that was rifest in the time of Papistrie.’[88] Catholic canon was certainly ‘deeply impregnated’ with spirits.  Ghosts were used to support their belief in Purgatory.  Protestants made this theological link. If Catholic belief supported spiritual presence, which Protestants considered demonic, then Catholicism was linked to the Devil. However, their main purpose of this link was for the purpose of anti-Catholic polemic. It was another device in the theological armoury used to defeat Catholic belief systems.  Fairies were theologically set up against Catholicism as a polemic tool.

How this polemic use of fairies practically functioned, must now be examined. The Examination of John Walsh, a man accused of witchcraft, contains many references regarding his dealings with fairies. However, the printer introduces this booklet with a long warning regarding the evil dealings of papists. John Walsh learned sorcery from a priest. The reader is exhorted to ‘see the fruites of Papistes and papistrye.’[89]  The introduction then includes a list of popes involved with witchcraft, in which the ‘abhominable sea of Rome wer thus occupied.’[90] Withcraft is directly linked with papistry.  In Post-Reformation doctrine theologians placed fairies amongst demonic spirits, therefore Walshe’s account of fairies could be akin to accounts of ‘demonic familiars’[91].  Fairies have been placed in a league of demonic spirits associated with witchcraft and devilry.  Therefore they become useful accompanying material to support the argument of the printer about the links with papistry and witchcraft. Fairies have become incorporated into the protestant discourse arguing the demonic links of Papistry. Fairies thus begun to function as part of a Protestant discourse which painted Catholic beliefs as demonic and evil. Fairies’ liminal and morally ambivalent nature could be manipulated for polemic purposes.


Primary Sources

The examination of John Walsh before Maister Thomas Williams, commissary to the Reuerend father in God William Bishop of Excester, vpon certayne interrogatories touchyng wytchcrafte and sorcerye, in the presence of diuers ge[n]tlemen and others. The .xxiii. of August. 1566. (London, 1566) in Early English Books Online

The mad merry pranks of Robin Good-fellow (London, 1663-1674) in Early English Books Online

Bessie Dunlop and the Fairies (1576) Appendix III in Briggs, K. The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors (London, 1959). p.240.

From Isobel Gowdie’s Confession (1662) Appendix III in Briggs, K. The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors (London, 1959). p.242.

Herrick, R.  Hesperides, or, The works both humane & divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. (London,1648) in Early English Books Online

James I King of England, Daemonologie in forme of a dialogue, diuided into three bookes (Edinburgh, 1597) in Early English Books Online

Kirk, R. ‘A Succinct Account of My Lord of Tarbott’s Relationes’ in Sanderson, S. (ed.), The Secret Common-Wealth and A Short Treatise of Charms and Spels, (Cambridge, 1976). pp. 73-103.

Kirk, R. ‘An Exposition of the difficult Words in the for-going Treatises’ in Sanderson, S. (ed.), The Secret Common-Wealth and A Short Treatise of Charms and Spels, (Cambridge, 1976). p. 114-199.

Kirk, R. ‘The Secret Common-Wealth’ in Sanderson, S. (ed.), The Secret Common-Wealth and A Short Treatise of Charms and Spels, (Cambridge, 1976). pp. 47-73.

Pitts, M. An Account of One Anne Jeffries (London, 1696) in Early English Books Online

Scot, R. The Discoverie of Witchcraft (London, 1584) pp.152-153. in Early Modern English Books Online

Shakespeare, W. Romeo and Juliet Brian Gibbons (ed.), (London, 1980).  pp. 109-112.

Warner, W. A continuance of Albions England: by the first author. VV.VV. (London, 1606) p. 368. in Early English Books Online

Secondary Sources

Briggs, K. The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors (London, 1959).

Briggs, K. The Vanishing People: A Study of Traditional Fairy Beliefs (London, 1978).

Downs, L.L. ‘From Womens History to Gender History’ in Stefan Berger, Keiko Feldner and Kevin Passmore (eds.), Writing History: Theory and Practice, (London and New York, 2003),  pp. 261-281.

 Gentilicore, D. ‘Contesting Illness in Early Modern Naples: Miracolati, Physicians and the Congregation of Rites’, Past and Present 148 (1995), 117-148.

Gibson, M. ‘Review: Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby’ Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 3 (2008), 115-117.

Henderson, L. and Cowan, E. J. Scottish Fairy Belief: A History (East Linton, 2001).

  1. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parson. (London, 1992), p. 42.

Macdonald, S. ‘Review: Scottish Fairy Belief: A History by Lizanne Henderson; Edward. J. Cowan’, The Sixteen Century Journal 34 (2003), 271-272.

Marshall, P. ‘Protestants and Fairies in Early Modern England’, in C. Scott Dixon, Dagmar Freist and Mark Greengrass (eds.), Living with Religious Diversity in Early Modern Europe, (Aldershot, 2009), pp.139-159.

Purkiss, D. ‘Sounds of Silence: Fairies in Early Modern England’ in S. Clark (ed.), Languages of Witchcraft, (Basingstoke, 2001). pp. 81-99.

Purkiss, D. Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London, 2000).

Sanderson, S. ‘Commentary’ in Sanderson, S. (ed.), The Secret Common-Wealth and A Short Treatise of Charms and Spels, (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 1-47.

Scott, J. Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988), pp. 28-50.

Stone, L. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 Abridged Edition (London, 1979). pp. 55-65.

Swann, M. ‘The Politics of Fairylore in Early Modern English Literature’, Renaissance Quarterly 53 (2000), 449-473.

Thomas, K. Religion and the Decline of Magic (London. 1991), pp. 701-735.

Thompson, S. ‘Review: The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors by Katharine M. Briggs’ Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960), 367.

Todd, M. ‘Fairies, Egyptians and Elders: Multiple Cosmologies in Post-Reformation Scotland’, in B. Heal and O.P. Grell (eds.), The Impact of the European Reformation, (Aldershot, 2008), pp. 189-208.

Wilby, E. ‘The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland’, Folklore 111 (2000), 283-305.


[1]S. Macdonald, ‘Review: Scottish Fairy Belief: A History by Lizanne Henderson; Edward. J. Cowan’, The Sixteen Century Journal 34 (2003), 271.

[2]S. Thompson, ‘Review: The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors by Katharine M. Briggs’ Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960), 367.

[3]M. Gibson, ‘Review: Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby’ Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 3 (2008), 115.

[4]L. Henderson, and E. J. Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief: A History (East Linton, 2001), p.8.

[5]D. Purkiss, ‘Sounds of Silence: Fairies in Early Modern England’ in S. Clark (ed.), Languages of Witchcraft, (Basingstoke, 2001), p.83.

[6]J. Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988), p.30.

[7]L.L. Downs, ‘From Womens History to Gender History’ in Stefan Berger, Keiko Feldner and Kevin Passmore (eds.), Writing History: Theory and Practice, (London and New York, 2003), p.272.

[8]Downs, ‘ From Womens History’, p.272.

[9]D. Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London, 2000), p.88.

[10]Gibson, ‘Review’, 115.

[11]K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London. 1991), p.731.

[12]P. Marshall, ‘Protestants and Fairies in Early Modern England’, in C. Scott Dixon, Dagmar Freist and Mark Greengrass (eds.), Living with Religious Diversity in Early Modern Europe, (Aldershot, 2009), p.86.

[13]Purkiss, ‘Sounds of Silence’, p.95.

[14]Thomas, Decline of Magic, p.724.

[15]R. Kirk, ‘An Exposition of the difficult Words in the for-going Treatises’ in Sanderson, S. (ed.), The Secret Common-Wealth and A Short Treatise of Charms and Spels, (Cambridge, 1976). p. 114-199.

[16]R. Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (London, 1584) pp.152-153. in Early Modern English Books Online

[17]K. Briggs, The Vanishing People: A Study of Traditional Fairy Beliefs (London, 1978), p.195.

[18]Purkiss, Troublesome Things, p.4.

[19]Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, p.95.

[20]K. Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors (London, 1959), p.240.

[21]Purkiss, Troublesome Things, p.107.

[22]Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, p.2.

[23]The mad merry pranks of Robin Good-fellow (London, 1663-1674) in Early English Books Online

[24]R. Kirk, ‘The Secret Common-Wealth’ in Sanderson, S. (ed.), The Secret Common-Wealth and A Short Treatise of Charms and Spels, (Cambridge, 1976), p.62.

[25]L. Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 Abridged Edition (London, 1979). pp. 55-65.

[26]Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, p.95.

[27]W. Warner, A continuance of Albions England: by the first author. VV.VV. (London, 1606) p. 368. in Early English Books Online

[28]Thomas, Decline of Magic, p.731.

[29]W. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Brian Gibbons (ed.), (London, 1980). p.109.

[30]Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, p.112.

[31]Thomas, Decline of Magic, p.568.

[32]Purkiss, Troublesome Things, p.4.

[33]Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, p.111.

[34]M. Todd, ‘Fairies, Egyptians and Elders: Multiple Cosmologies in Post-Reformation Scotland’, in B. Heal and O.P. Grell (eds.), The Impact of the European Reformation, (Aldershot, 2008), p.197.

[35]Todd, ‘Fairies, Egyptians and Elders, p.198.

[36]Todd, ‘Fairies, Egyptians and Elders, p.198.

[37]The mad merry pranks of Robin Good-fellow

[38]The mad merry pranks of Robin Good-fellow

[39]Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, p.35.

[40]Kirk, ‘The Secret Common-Wealth’, p.70.

[41]M. Pitts, An Account of One Anne Jeffries (London, 1696) in Early English Books Online p.16.

[42]Kirk, ‘The Secret Common-Wealth’, p.70.

[43]Pitts, Account of One Anne Jeffries, p.15.

[44]Todd, ‘Fairies, Egyptians and Elders, p.204.

[45]E. Wilby, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland’, Folklore 111 (2000), 288.

[46]R.  Herrick, Hesperides, or, The works both humane & divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. (London,1648) p.262 in Early English Books Online

[47]Herrick, Hesperides, pp.191-194.

[48]Kirk, ‘The Secret Common-Wealth’, p.61.

[49]Kirk, ‘The Secret Common-Wealth’, pp.61-62.

[50]Kirk, ‘The Secret Common-Wealth’, p.62.

[51]Purkiss, Troublesome Things, p.85.

[52] M. Swann, ‘The Politics of Fairylore in Early Modern English Literature’, Renaissance Quarterly 53 (2000), 452.

[53]Herrick, Hesperides, p.234.

[54]Thomas, Decline of Magic, p.731.

[55]Purkiss, Troublesome Things, p.165.

[56]Swann, ‘The Politics of Fairylore’, 452.

[57]Kirk, ‘The Secret Common-Wealth’, p.50.

[58]R. Kirk, ‘A Succinct Account of My Lord of Tarbott’s Relationes’ in Sanderson, S. (ed.), The Secret Common-Wealth and A Short Treatise of Charms and Spels, (Cambridge, 1976), p.88.

[59]The mad merry pranks of Robin Good-fellow

[60]Warner, Continuance of Albions England, p. 368.

[61]Briggs, The Vanishing People, p.128.

[62]Kirk, ‘The Secret Common-Wealth’, p.58.

[63]From Isobel Gowdie’s Confession (1662) Appendix III in Briggs, K. The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors (London, 1959). p.242.

[64]Briggs, The Vanishing People, p.127.

[65]Pitts, Account of One Anne Jeffries, p.10.

[66]Pitts, Account of One Anne Jeffries, p.11.

[67]Thomas, Decline of Magic, p.732.

[68]D. Gentilicore, ‘Contesting Illness in Early Modern Naples: Miracolati, Physicians and the Congregation of Rites’, Past and Present 148 (1995), 123.

[69]Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, p.152.

[70]Wilby, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’, 290.

[71]Todd, ‘Fairies, Egyptians and Elders, p.191.

[72]Pitts, Account of One Anne Jeffries, p.16.

[73]Pitts, Account of One Anne Jeffries, p.14.

[74]Todd, ‘Fairies, Egyptians and Elders, p.198.

[75]Wilby, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’, 294.

[76]Wilby, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’, 291.

[77]Thomas, Decline of Magic, pp.701-724.

[78]Marshall, ‘Protestants and Fairies’, pp.140-159.

[79]Wilby, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’, 301.

[80]Purkiss, ‘Sounds of Silence’, p.84.

[81]Purkiss, ‘Sounds of Silence’, p.88.

[82]Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, p.61.

[83]Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck, p.27.

[84]S. Sanderson, ‘Commentary’ in Sanderson, S. (ed.), The Secret Common-Wealth and A Short Treatise of Charms and Spels, (Cambridge, 1976), p.38.

[85]Sanderson, ‘Commentary’, p.38.

[86]Kirk, ‘A Succinct Account’, p.83.

[87]James I King of England, Daemonologie in forme of a dialogue, diuided into three bookes (Edinburgh, 1597) p.74. in Early English Books Online

[88]James I, Daemonologie, p.74.

[89]The examination of John Walsh before Maister Thomas Williams, commissary to the Reuerend father in God William Bishop of Excester, vpon certayne interrogatories touchyng wytchcrafte and sorcerye, in the presence of diuers ge[n]tlemen and others. The .xxiii. of August. 1566. (London, 1566) in Early English Books Online

[90]The examination of John Walsh

[91]Marshall, ‘Protestants and Fairies’, p.149.

[92]Purkiss, Troublesome Things, p.2.

[93]Purkiss, ‘Sounds of Silence’, p.84.

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Margaret Murray: an Information Skills lesson from history?


As librarians we must be on constant guard about the quality of information our patrons use. Information literacy in the age of endless internet data has never been a more pressing concern. However, when one Egyptologist Margaret Murray, some ninety years ago, turned her hand to re-writing the history of witchcraft, it was an information skills lesson in the asking. Her false theories and how they penetrated popular culture act as a warning from history regarding the importance of good information skills. When poor sources of information and false ideas creep into the public domain, whole histories can be re-written.


“Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present control the past’”. In George Orwell’s 1984 Winston Smith goes to sit in his tiny booth in the Record Department of Ministry of Truth and spends all day re-writing and amending back records of newspapers. “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”


Orwell’s book inspired me throughout my teenage years and instilled in me a passion for politics and history. My well-loved copy has enjoyed several re-readings over the years and the heavily marked margins would make any librarian weep. Now I am enjoying a fourth re-reading of the book in my late twenties. As a part-time Library Assistant and PhD student of Folklore this image of Winston Smith has brought out some interesting reflections on how the historical record is re-written in the real world. To discuss these ideas I will focus on the enigmatic Egyptologist and Folklorist Margaret Murray, who controversially re-wrote the pages of witchcraft history and in the process falsely changed the entire public perception of witches.


False Ideas


It was 1914 and lecturer of Egyptology Margaret Murray had seen her students go off to war and all opportunities of excavations scuppered. She became a nurse in St. Malo as part of the war effort. After a breakdown of health and a period of convalescence in Glastonbury, she was inspired to begin investigating the history of witchcraft. She was an Egyptian specialist, teaching hieroglyphs to students at University College London, not a witchcraft historian per se. In fact she proudly claimed she had never passed an exam in her life.


Nevertheless with minimal training she wrote several influential books: The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1922) and The God of the Witches (1934). In these she proposed that the witches’ accounts found in sixteenth century trials were actually descendants of a pre-historic religion that had survived several thousand years. Due to persecution, they had in effect survived as a secret society. Murray in her autobiography claimed: “I was startled almost alarmed, by the way the recorded facts fell into place, and showed that the witches were members of an old and primitive form of religion”. She used evidence from Palaeolithic wall paintings, Greek vases and trial records to prove the longevity and survival of this hitherto unheard of religion. Placed side by side with heavy quotations and very little awareness of the source context or reliability any Subject Librarian would surely have offered her immense help to brush up her information skills.


Her theories were highly controversial and faced either polite silence or sometimes venomous reviews. Many of her colleagues did not challenge or take her ideas seriously at first. It was not until 1975 that one historian, Normal Cohn, wrote an extensive criticism of her work. He found her quotations excluded large portions of original source material. She had a habit of adding several ellipses in her lengthy quotations which would often leave out the more fantastical elements of magical happenings. This acted to distort the evidence and change how the accounts were presented.


After a number of deeply critical reviews, her theories had become completely dismissed and debunked. Recently one author Juliette Wood wrote: “Murray’s arguments involved a priori assumptions of considerable proportions imposed on evidence which is fragmentary, ambiguous and, as her critics are quick to point out, often manipulated or poorly argued.” Yet her poor information handling skills were only highlighted years after her incorrect theory had infiltrated into the public domain.


This case study highlights the importance of getting information skills right first time and constantly encouraging students to interrogate the material they use, even if it is from respected peer reviewed journals. In the era of Wikipedia and the array of conspiracy theories banded around on Buzzfeed comments, librarians and teachers must always be on their guard to see that students are using the right kind of sources.


Public Ideas


Murray was asked to write the article for ‘witchcraft’ in the 1929 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was reprinted until 1969. In this article she presented her theory of witchcraft as fact, making no appeals to the other theories at the time. Every time anyone in that 40 year period looked up “witchcraft” in the world famous, trusted encyclopaedia it was her flawed idea that was transmitted to members of the public.


Murray had in become the ‘go-to’ authority on witchcraft in England. She published swathes of articles on this theory in peer reviewed journals, her books were re-printed and her ideas widely infiltrated into popular culture.  Ideas contained in popular films such as The Wicker Man were directly descended from her theories. The theory was clearly appealing to a public audience who liked a good horror story, but sadly the basis of fact was missing. Whilst more recently scholars have been kinder in their reviews and recognise that other folklorists at the time used similar unscholarly methods, the case still stands in point.


Librarian’s Warning


Whist this is not an extreme a case of doctoring history as Orwell’s nightmare vision, it shows how false ideas with a lack of stringent peer review can infiltrate through the walls of the academy. Librarians must always teach their students to be on guard and focus on information literacy. As we live in a world of increasing communications, where everyone has the opportunity to transmit opinions on anything and everything, regardless of how much knowledge they have, the job of the information professional becomes increasingly important.


In October 2013 The Guardian reported: “Hundreds of open access journals accept fake science paper: Publishing hoax exposes ‘wild west’ world of open access journals and raises concerns about poor quality control”. We may wonder how much has changed since the days of Margaret Murray. Information Professionals are more needed now than ever, as the gate keepers of high quality information and as teachers of information skills, so students and researchers use the right high quality information intelligently. Like the Record Department in Orwell’s dystopian novel who controls knowledge can indeed re-write both the past and future. Let’s just make sure that it’s based on reliable information.



 Cohn, N. Europe’s Inner Demons: an enquiry inspired by the great witch-hunt, (London, 1975).

Hutton, R. The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford, 2000).

Murray, M. My First Hundred Years, (London, 1973).

Murray M. A. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (Oxford, 1962).

Murray, M. ‘Organisation of Witches in Great Britain’, Folklore 28 (1917), 228-58.

Murray, M. The God of the Witches (London, 1933).

Orwell, G. 1984 (London, 2000).

Shaw, C. ‘Hundreds of open access journals accept fake science paper’ The Guardian, 4 Oct. 2013, (

Sheppard, K. The Life of Margaret Alice Murray, (Maryland, 2013).

Simpson, J. ‘Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?’, Folklore 105 (1994), 89-96.

Wood, J.  ‘The Reality of Witch Cults Reasserted’ in J. Barry and O. Davies (ed.), Palgrave Advances in Witchcraft Historiography, (Basingstoke, 2007), pp.69-85.


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Google Ngram Viewer, tracking public narratives and interrogating silences.

The Google Ngram viewer statistically models references to words in books. It is a useful guide for linguists to track the “fashions” of words, it can also help identify general trends and spikes in public interest  due to media coverage. For my current chapter interrogating the silence of the Folklore Society on the Cottingley fairies this has provided a useful test gauge for trends which I assumed from my research. Type in “Arthur Conan Doyle” and one finds mentions of him fall away after the Cottingley Affair and his interest in spiritualism; such was the damage to his reputation. Also type in “Cottingley” and one can trace the spikes in public interest along with media updates on the case. The graph shows spikes for Conan Doyle’s book release, the media storm in 1983 after the confessions and also the rising interest in the 1990s when two movies were released. Tracing the word “fairy” has also proved a general drop off in the mentions of fairies in the aftermath of the Cottingley period. This, to a certain extent, elucidates my suspicion of the effect this affair had on the character and interest in the fairy. It is interesting these graphs show the spikes in public attention, general trends in topic interests and can act as a rough guide for confirming trends in timelines. These statistics help to confirm the silence, but trying to explain the reason for it, well that is a gargantuan task of the qualitative kind.

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March a very busy Month

Well I have attended the Eighteen Joint Postgraduate Religion and Theology Conference at Bristol University. The papers proved extremely interesting and it was great to share experiences with other post graduate students. A Workshop on academic writing style, jobs and funding proved a massive practical help. It is nice to know that everyone is in the same boat! I was overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of people’s research interests and the variety of ways of presenting material. Questions and discussions with others gave me a whole mass of ideas to apply to my own research. Talking to some early years researchers and people who had trodden the path before you is a really excellent way to get useful advice. As Saturday afternoon approached my nerves were growing as my paper was coming up. It all went to plan and I just hope I did justice to the complexity of the Cottingley Affair and that the audience found it interesting.

We were then Cambridge bound for Science Week. I was really inspired by the Cambridge Folk Museum and the Fitzwillliam Museum. The highlight of the trip was a lecture on Renaissance Science books. It was so fascinating to see early texts from the 15th century up close and some in their original bindings.

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“Fairies Photog…

“Fairies Photographed: An Epoch Making Event”, headlined the 1920 Christmas Strand Magazine. Conan Doyle, creator of famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes, revealed the infamous Cottingley fairy photographs to the world. This paper explores the backdrop of intersecting meanings overlaid upon this case. After WW1 many sought solace in Spiritualist and Theosophical movements following the death of soldiers. Doyle also championed this cause, his eminence supporting many mediums, spiritual photographers and the congruent Cottingley affair, as proof of otherworldly occurrences. This paper examines the polarisation between the rational sleuth Holmes and Doyle’s incredulous beliefs which were played out in the popular press. An investigative mode dominates Cottingley literature, setting up further polarisation and conflict. In addition, competing meanings attributed to the images, from the girls’ play fantasy to supporting evidence for adults’ Theosophical and Spiritual faith are examined. These created tension and conflict at the boundaries of public discussion in turn affecting the public reception of the infamous photographs.

The abstract to my final paper.

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March 15, 2013 · 8:05 pm

First Ever Conference Paper.

So today I get an email that I have been accepted to give my first conference paper in March!!! Short of jumping up from my issue desk in the library and shouting “hazzah!!!” to perplexed patrons, I am very excited. The topic is entitled: “Sprites, Spiritualists and Sleuths: the Intersecting Ownership of Transcendent Proofs in the Cottingley Fairy Fraud”. It sounds rather catchy and one hopes that the content can live up to its eminent title. I’m sure as the time gets nearer my nerves of presenting to an audience of esteemed intelligent individuals will increase. Saying that it cannot possibly be as scary as standing in front of a class of 18 year old A-Level students to teach a lesson on the Defenestration of Prague, whilst trying to remain interesting and engaging!! 


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A mass of notes

I have locked myself away over Christmas, taking advantage of the generous university holidays, to wade through piles of notes. As I am currently investigating why the Cottingley Fairies were ‘ignored’ by the Folklore Society up until the 1970s, the reason has to be sought in much ‘reading around’ and ‘reading between the lines’. This has provided me with a fascinating year, but of course left me with a pile of unnecessary Cottingley ‘ephemera’. I have spent the last two weeks sorting the wheat from the chaff and have found some excellent nuggets of information which help my question. It is now my task to take 40,000 words of quotes and notes and bash them into the first full chapter of my thesis. This will be my task of the first few months of 2013!!!

As for the chaff, I have found some material which I hope may be used for some interesting conference  papers next year. The backdrop of intersecting meanings overlaid upon the Cottingley case, including the reception of Arthur Conan Doyle’s spiritualism and how Doyle’s public image as Sherlock Holmes’ creator provide fascinating insight into post WW1 social life and media. They also show the strong connections between the Spiritualist and Theosophical groups and their often fraught relationship with the popular press during the 1920s. 

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