THE FAIRY MYTHOLOGY OF ENGLAND
W. COOKE STAFFORD.
(Reprinted from: The People's Journal, Volume 4, 1847)
"THE Fairies" — beautiful creations of the olden time — when imagination peopled earth and air, hill and dale, land and water, with bright intelligences, whose business it was to watch over favoured mortals, and to counteract the dark spells of the evil genii, with which, according to popular tradition, creation teemed — where are ye now?
A modern poet tells us—
Ye are flown,Shall we recall a few of these traditions, and record in the modern People's Journal some traits of the ancient people's belief? The task is a pleasant one: let us essay it.
The popular faith in fairies has existed in England for ages; and they are, by far, the most interesting of all the mythological personages, a belief in which was once an article in every popular creed; Chaucer tells us, that in the days of King Arthur—
The Elf-Queen, with her jolly company,And some trace the opinions relative to fairies to the traditions derived from the druidical superstitions. That the aboriginal Britons believed in fairies appears highly probable, from the similarity of features which is observable between the sprites of England and those of Wales and Ireland. But whether they did or not, "our Saxon ancestors," as Dr. Percy observes, "long before they left their German forests, believed in the existence of a kind of diminutive demon, or middle species between men and spirits, whom they called Dwergar or dwarfs." They attributed many wonderful properties to these dwarfs, which were common to all the Teutonic tribes under different names. In the Edda (Scandinavian mythology), we find the words Alfa, and Elves used for the whole tribe of fairyland.
On the name elves, Sir Walter Scott remarks, that
"it is of Gothic origin, and probably signified simply a spirit of the lower order. Thus the Saxons had not only dun-elfin, berg-elfin, and munt-elfin, spirits of the downs, hills, and mountains, but also feld-elfin, woden-elfin, sae-elfin, and water-elfin, spirits of the fields, of the woods, of the seas, and of the waters."As the Celts, the Danes, the Goths, and the Normans, contributed to people England, so its fairy mythology partakes of some of the distinctive features of the creeds of each of those people; and the severer portions of their belief will be found meliorated by the admixture of Oriental and classical superstitions; for the fairies of England possess some of the qualities of the dwergas of Scandinavia, the peris of Persia, and of the sylvan deities of classic mythology.
The fairies seem, like mankind, to have been divided into classes: they had their King Oberon; and their Queen Titania and Mab, with their attendants and guards of honour.  These were spirits of the nobler kind, who floated in air, and loved, as old Lilly tells us, "the southern side of hills, mountains, and groves."
They protected those mortals they favoured, and brought good luck to the houses they patronised. Their dwelling was in "a curious park, paled round about with pick-teeth; a house made all with mother of pearl; an ivory tennis-court; a nutmeg parlour; a sapphire dairy-room; a ginger hall; chambers of agate; kitchens all of chrystal; the jacks being gold, the spits of Spanish needles." 
Ants, flies' eggs, fleas' thighs in scollops, butterflies' brains dissolved in dew, with glow-worm' hearts, and sucking mites, formed their food; and at night they assembled
On hill, in dale, forest, or mead,They loved to sport in the moon-beams; and revelled in the luxury of a fine atmosphere, when the heavens ware thick-set with diamonds in the shape of stars. Then
Their pigmy king and little fairy queenIn their dances they left traces behind them, which were of a circular shape, and are known by the name of "Fairy Rings." These rings were considered charmed spots. No one was found hardy enough to step within them, as, by so doing, the fairies obtained power over him; and the maidens, when gathering May-dew for a cosmetic, always left what they saw upon the fairy rings, lest the sprites should, out of revenge for their taking it, spoil their beauty.
Another class of fairies were an industrious useful race. "They have, in England," says Gervase of Tilbury in his Otia Imperiale,
"certain demons, though I know not whether I should call them demons or figures of a secret and unknown generation... It is their nature to embrace the simple life of comfortable farmers; and when, on account of their domestic work, they are sitting up at night, and when the doors are shut they warm themselves at the fire, and take little frogs out of their bosoms, roast them on the coals and eat them. They have the countenance of old men, with wrinkled cheeks, and they are of a very small stature, not being quite half an inch high. They wear little patched coats, and if anything is to be carried in the house, or any laborious work to be done, they lend a hand, and finish it sooner than any man would. It is their nature to have the power to serve, and not to injure; they have, however, one little mode of annoying. When in the uncertain shades of night, the English are riding anywhere alone, the Portune (so old Gervase terms the fairy) sometimes invisibly joins the horseman; and when he has accompanied him a good while he at last takes the reins and leads the horse into a neighbouring slough; when the animal is fixed and floundering in the mire, off goes the Portune with a loud laugh, and by sport of this kind he mocks the simplicity of mankind."John Heywood is less scrupulous than Gervase, he does not hesitate to class the fairies with demons; he says:—
In John Milesius any man may readRobin Goodfellow is the most individualised of the fairies, if we except perhaps Queen Mab, who is immortalised by Shakspere's description of her, with which all our readers must be so familiar, that it is unnecessary to quote it. Ben Jonson also enumerates qualities of Mab, in a passage which is not so well known.
This is Mab, the mistress fairy,Such is Mab; who
Plaits the manes of horses in the night,She may be considered as the Queen of those dark spirits, Who can only frequent the "glimpses of the moon!" while the fair and gentle Titania reigns over those superior intelligences, to whom day and night are alike — and who, being
Spirits of another sort,Robin Goodfellow was a merry sprite with a spice of devilry in his composition. He delighted in playing tricks — practical jokes — upon travellers and others, whom, he would deceive by various protean transformations; at the same time, he would assist the servants in their household drudgery: but for such services he required to be rewarded. Reginald Scott says—
"Indeed, your grandam's maids were wont to set a bowl of milk before Incubus and his cousin, Robin Goodfellow, for grinding of malt or mustard, and sweeping the house at midnight; and you have also heard, that he would chafe exceedingly, if the maid, or good wife of the house, having compassion of his nakedness, laid any clothes for him, besides his mess of, white bread and milk, which was his standing fee; for in that case, he saith, 'What have we here? Hemten, hamten; here will I never more tread nor stampen!'" Besides the terrestrial fairies, there was another species, supposed to live an mines, where they were often heard to imitate the actions of the workmen; they had great skill in forging and working metals.
A prevalent belief in the olden time was, that the fairies stole or exchanged children. We have seen what Ben Jonson says of Queen Mab; and Shakspere recognises this article in the popular creed, when he makes Henry IV wish it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged,Drayton mentions the same propensity in his Nymphidia—
These when a child hap to be got,Such were some of the superstitions in which our ancestors believed; superstitions that lingered amongst us till a very recent period — even if they are yet entirely extinguished.
In the early part of the last century, the winter evening's conversation used often to turn on fairies, which were then seriously believed in: and Bourne tells us that people would affirm they had "frequently been seen and heard; nay, that there were some still living who had been stolen away by them, and confined seven years." Mr. Keightly has conversed with a girl from Norfolk, who said she had often seen fairies; and also with a person from Somerset, who seemed to have no doubt of their actual existence. We have seen a curious conical stone, found near Shotesham, Norfolk, and were told that similar ones are often found there. The people call them "Fairy-loaves," and say, while they keep one in their house, they will never want bread. We have also heard the people in the remote parts of the West Riding of Yorkshire talk of the "Boggart," a domestic sprite of the Robin Goodfellow species.
In Hampshire, Devonshire, and Cornwall, they believe, to this day, in the traditions respecting the "Pixies;" but generally, the march of science has destroyed the dream of imagination in which our ancestors loved to revel: we have reality instead of romance — the useful instead of the ideal. Even our poets now seldom, call to their aid the "Fairy Mythology" of our ancestors. Hood however, has done so in his Plea for the Midsummer's Fairies; and Southey, in his Joan of Arc, has the following beautiful passage:—
There is a fountain in the forest called
 Carrington's Dartmoor.
 Pope's January and May.
 Randolph's Amyntas, or the Impossible Dairy.
 Mask of The Satyr.
 Midsummer Nights Dream.
 The World of Witchcraft discovered.