Tag Archives: Fairies

Eat, Drink, and be Fairy!

I know it’s been a while since my last post, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’ve dropped off the face of the stacks – always a potential hazard given my ladder climbing skills. However fear not, the ladder is still in one piece. The real reason for my online silence of late is not because I have been trapped under an avalanche of books or lost in the valley of incunabula, I have, rather… been away with the fairies.

‘Tis true! While it may not be quite a year and a day since my last post, for the last couple of months I have been caught up in my own little fairy circle, combing the collections for materials for this year’s  Autumn Exhibition’:

What the devil is all this about then, you may ask? Well, it’s less about the devil and more about those ambiguous beings who are often tarred with the same brimstone brush – the fairies, or the ‘tylwyth teg’ (the fair family) as they are commonly known in Wales.

In south Wales the common term for the fairies is Bendith eu Mamau (Their Mothers’ Blessing), so-called because of their blessing, or bringing good luck to those whom they favoured or showed them kindness. If they were offended or mistreated by humans then they would inflict various punishments, some quite severe, and they reputedly stole new born babies from their cradles and replaced them with their own ugly offspring known as changelings.

Fairies stealing a baby

Hugh Evans, Y Tylwyth Teg, (Liverpool, 1935. Illustration of the fairies stealing a baby, by T. J. Bond.

Fairies were believed to be secretive people who lived in caves, hollows, or ‘sepulchral mounds’, with supernatural powers that enabled them to hear what was spoken in the air and whisk people away on otherworld adventures. The popular belief was that the fairies had whisked the clergyman and poet Ellis Wynne (1671-1734) to the top of Moelfre Mountain and taken him on a supernatural journey through the world. This belief was expressed by the Bard himself, who described how they ‘lifted me on [to their] shoulders, like [a] knight; and away we went like the wind over houses and territories, towns and kingdoms, and seas and mountains’.

This supernatural stigma and secretive lifestyle no doubt stemmed from their somewhat shady origins. Some believed they were the souls of Druids who, not being able to enter heaven and too good to be cast into hell, were condemned to exist in limbo. Scottish fairy-lore also sees the fairies as followers of the devil who tried to get into heaven when they saw hell, but found the gates locked and so they settled in the mounds between heaven and hell.

Interestingly, in Welsh folklore Gwyn ap Nudd, a mythical and slightly magical figure from medieval Welsh literature, is regarded as the King of the Fairies and ruler of Annwn – the ‘otherworld’. Indeed, many Welsh observers believed fairies to be spirits or demons with supernatural powers. The Puritan Charles Edwards (1628-1691) describes them as neighbourly ‘devils’ who appeared as a ‘visible troop’ to drag people away to their merriments, while Edmund Jones (1703-1793) was also convinced that fairies were ‘evil Spirits belonging to the Kingdom of Darkness’, while others regarded them as apparitions or spirits of the dead  who were conjured by magical practitioners or cunning-folk.

These themes, and many more are explored in our current exhibition – Neighbourly Devils which runs until the end of March 2018. Ok, I’ll admit this may not be quite the jolly-festive post you were expecting at this time of year, but fear not, I have it on good authority (that of the Reverend and antiquarian Elias Owen, 1833-1899 to be precise), that no evil spirit can appear on Christmas Eve.

Besides, there is another jingle to these fairy bells, for these mischievous folk were also very fond of a good old knees up and a sing-song, and not just for Christmas. They were known to have an enchanting, musical voice that was designed to steal people away with them. This so happened to a farmer’s daughter named Shui Rhys, who was so captivated by the fairies who ‘talked to her in a language to beautiful to be repeated’, that she was eventually ‘carried off’ with them, never to be seen again.  Tales of fairy circles and their love of dancing and colourful dress are rife in Welsh folklore. Edmund Jones the ‘Old Prophet’ of Pontypool, recorded many instances where fairies were seen dancing and prancing about in their unique attire.  Rees John Rosser, for example, heard fine music coming from near his barn and saw a large company come into the floor of the barn with striped clothes, ‘and there danced to their music’, while a young girl of Trevethin on hearing their pleasant music went to dance with them, and described how they were dressed in ‘blue and green aprons’.

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Wirt Sikes, British Goblins: Welsh folklore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions, (London, 1880), illustration of Shui Rhys and the fairies, by T. H. THomas.

Such good fairy cheer does indeed put me in mind of other Welsh Christmas and New Year traditions, such as the plygain – the traditional carol service sung at dawn on Christmas morning, while in the run-up to the service people would gather to decorate the house and sing and dance to harp music. Or the Mari Llwyd (strangely, I know, but listen up) since this famous New Year custom which was prevalent in south Wales, involves a horse’s skull draped in a white sheet and decorated with ribbons and bells which is then carried by a group of men around the local area where they seek to gain entry into the houses through the medium of song or rhyme. The householder is expected to deny entry, also through song, and so this repartee continues until the Mari Llwyd is granted entry and the group are given food and drink. Such was one way to ‘see the Old Year out and the New Year in’. Others marked the occasion, very much like the tylwyth teg, by singing and dancing all night, some by drinking and feasting – some things never change eh?! Staying with the singing for just a note longer, yet another tradition which has since died out was that of the Apple Gift, where children would go from door to door on New Year’s Day bearing apples or oranges curiously decorated, and singing good wishes for the New Year in the hope of receiving some monetary gifts.

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Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (1880). New Year Apple gift, illustration by T. H. Thomas.

And just as the fairies appreciated a little food or drink left out for their visits, I mean who doesn’t (yes, we know that mince pie and shot of whisky is not really meant for Santa), these customs were often designed to ensure a little good luck for the coming year, as well as having a good old jig! And so the moral of this blog post is, well, it’s quite simple really – eat, drink, and remember to be fairy responsible.

So from all of us here at Special Collections and Archives, a fairy Merry Christmas and a Happy New Apple to you all.

 

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The stars align to reveal an Old Prophet in the stacks!

It was a dark and stormy afternoon in Special Collections & Archives. I was sitting in my office, cataloguing a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, when Lisa, our Assistant Librarian, tapped at my office door. ‘I think maybe there’s an error in the catalogue,’ she said.

When the Cardiff Rare Books collection came to Cardiff University in 2010, we’d drawn up a bare-bones inventory, knowing that it would be several years before the collection could be fully catalogued. Lisa had been looking through the collection inventory to look for uncatalogued books that might be useful for a resource guide on Witchcraft. ‘The inventory says this book was published in 1681, but the catalogue record says 1685,’ she observed as she showed me the two conflicting records.

Being a cataloguer and somewhat inclined to obsessive-compulsive behaviour, I couldn’t allow such an egregious error to remain in our records, so I went to the stacks to investigate. Stretching to reach the top-most shelf, I spotted the title in question: William Lilly’s Merlini Anglici ephemeris: or, Astrological judgments for the year 1685… with the 1681 issue, uncatalogued, sitting next to it on the shelf—both records had been correct, but incomplete! Alongside these almanacs I noticed several other volumes of William Lilly’s astrological writings. Thinking they might be useful for the resource guide, I brought the lot of them back to my office for cataloguing.

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A selection of astrological books by William Lilly, from the Cardiff Rare Books Collection.

A contemporary of John Dee and Nicholas Culpeper, William Lilly began his life as the son of a yeoman farmer in Leicestershire. He worked for seven years as a servant in London before marrying his former master’s widow when he was just 25 years old. Now a man of leisure, he spent his time studying astrology. From 1647 to 1682, he published a series of astrological almanacs which brought him both popularity and scandal. By 1649, sales of his almanacs had reached nearly 30,000 copies and by the 1650s, they were being translated into Dutch, German, Swedish, and Danish. At he same time, however, he made many enemies by predicting on astrological grounds the downfall of the Stuart monarchy, while also criticizing both parliament and the Presbyterians.

Among the volumes I’d picked up for cataloguing was a first edition of Christian astrology modestly treated of in three books (London, 1647), Lilly’s most comprehensive work. An amalgamation of 228 earlier texts, Christian astrology contains 832 pages of instruction on reading the stars and planets and their influence on everything from the physical characteristics and likely fortunes of unborn children, to international politics. The work is significant because it was the first astrological instruction book to be published in English rather than Latin, making it accessible to a middle-class audience.

After carefully transcribing the book’s bibliographical details, I began to describe the unique attributes our particular copy: binding and marginalia. I spotted inscriptions in at least four different hands, ranging across three centuries. I deciphered and recorded them in the catalogue record as best I could, and then brought the volume over to Lisa, thinking she might find them interesting.

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Inscriptions, dating between the 17th and 19th centuries, on the front endpaper of William Lilly’s Christian astrology (London, 1647)

*     *     *

‘Is that the “Old Prophet’s” signature?’ I exclaimed, at which point, the lights in the office flickered. I had a sixth-sense (those of us who work with special collections often get this!) that this was the signature of the Welsh Independent Minister and author, Edmund Jones (1702-1793).

An intriguing figure in eighteenth-century Wales, he was a passionate Calvinist connected with the vicinity of Pontypool and Monmouthshire, where he regularly preached during the 1730s. Sympathetic to the growing Methodist movement, characterized by a more heartfelt, experiential form of religion, it was Jones who encouraged Howell Harris to preach in Monmouthshire for the first time in 1738.

Certainly, his diaries record a dedicated schedule where he travelled and preached extensively, delivering 104 sermons in the year 1731. Almost fifty years later, in 1778, he took a ‘tour through Monmouth [and] Wales … to Caerphilly’. Although not traditionally educated, his autobiography reveals how he was a ‘great lover of books, buying and borrowing as much as he could’. One such book it seemed, appeared to be our copy of Lilly’s Christian astrology.

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Edmund Jones’ signature on the front endpaper of Christian astrology (London,  1647).

 

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Edmund Jones’ signature on A geographical, historical, and religious account of the parish of Aberystruth (Trevecka, 1779), held by the National Library of Wales.

In order to confirm my suspicions, we needed to compare this signature with some known examples of Jones’s handwriting. Fortunately, the National Library of Wales holds Jones’s diaries, saved from the final destination of being used as wrapping paper in a Pontypool shop. Thanks to the help of their Manuscript Librarian, these journals not only reveal a script eerily similar to our sample, they also include a list of books that Jones acquired …

And yes! No need to consult the stars on this one, for Lily’s Astrology is clearly recorded at the bottom of the page.

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A page from Edmund Jones’ diary for the year 1768, listing the books that Jones acquired that year. Held by the National Library of Wales (NLW MS 7025A).

So not only does Special Collections hold Edmund Jones’s personal, annotated copy of Lilly’s Astrology, but this discovery reveals Jones’s more mystical side.

Known as the ‘Old Prophet’ due to his apparent gift of prophecy and ability to foretell future events, he was also a firm believer in witchcraft and the supernatural. His interest in books was not confined to collecting, for he published a number of works, including A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits which comprised a collection of supernatural experiences and spiritual encounters designed to ‘prevent a kind of infidelity … the denial of the being of Spirits and Apparitions, which hath a tendency to irreligion’.

As the seventeenth century drew to a close, a slight change of attitude towards the beliefs in apparitions and witchcraft, is evident. Atheism now posed a greater threat than popery (Roman Catholicism), and works composed around this time were directed at countering this new danger.

Joseph Glanvill’s Sadducisimus Triumphatus, for example, provides ‘full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions’. To deny the existence of the spirit, he argues, ‘is quite to destroy the credit of all human testimony’. Bovet’s Pandaemonium, or the devil’s cloyster, is aimed at ‘proving the existence of witches and spirits’, for ‘there can be no apprehensions … from the attacks of the … Sadducees’. For Richard Baxter, a belief in spirits was a means to salvation since through faith in the world of spirits, the ‘saving’ knowledge of God could be obtained.

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Illustration detail from Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus (London, 1700)

It is in this context that Jones collected Relations of Apparitions which include fairy encounters and apparitions such as corpse candles and phantom funerals. For example, a ‘Mr. E. W.’ confirmed in a letter to Jones that saw the fairies as a company of dancers in the middle of the field, while an innkeeper from Llangynwyd Fawr saw them with speckled clothes of white and red, as they tried to entice him a while he lay in bed. Another gentleman also told Jones how ‘the resemblance of a young child … and also of a big man’ appeared to him. As he looked on, ‘the child seemed to vanish into nothing’. Not long after the encounter, Jones notes, the child of the man who witnessed the apparition sickened and died, as did he not long after his daughter was buried.

The phantom funeral or Toili, could manifest itself as a mournful sound, the cyhyraeth. Noises associated with the funeral procession or service, or the dismal cries of the Cŵn Annwn (Hell Hounds), inevitably signalled death. Thomas Phillips heard the cries of these spiritual dogs prior to the death of a woman in his parish of Trelech. In Ystradgynlais, two women heard someone singing psalms. The voice was that of John Williams, who sang the psalms at a later Dissenting meeting and was indeed ‘buried’ a few days after. Faced with such great sums of truth, Jones challenges, ‘who … can deny the reality of Apparitions of Spirits?’

Indeed, and here at Special Collections we are well aware of the ghosts of owners past that we sometimes encounter amongst the aged pages of our rare books. Like Jones’s unique accounts of the supernatural experiences of ordinary Welsh men and women, these rare books occasionally reveal the spectre of a bygone reader and their occult interests. So the moral of this post is to beware! For you can never predict what you’ll find between the pages of a rare book, even one on predictions.

A Fairy Bookplate

A delightful bookplate depicting a gathering of fairies listening to a story has been discovered on two items in our collection.  One on a copy of the 1622 edition of the Poly-Olbion by Michael Drayton (a topographical poem describing England and Wales celebrating antiquities, bards and King Arthur; and which contains a half-title: ‘The Faerie-Land’), and one on the 1806 edition of Camden’s Britannia.

The books came from the library of John E. Williams of Llandaff; we have a number of other items containing signatures of (presumably) the same individual, with dates from the 1890s – a variety of plays from the ‘French’s acting edition’ series.  Some of these contain pencil markings and underlinings indicating that they were being used for play rehearsals.  We have little information about who he was, but it is likely he was born in March 1863 in Bedwas, Monmouthshire, attended St Peter’s School Marlborough, and by his late twenties was a solicitor living in Llandaff, Cardiff. (1)

The bookplate contains a number of small armorial shields tucked within the picture; one of these has ‘Marl Coll’ written on it and depicts the arms of Marlborough College, another has a Latin motto “Dominus illuminatio mea” (The Lord is my Light) and is the motto and arms of the University of Oxford; it would perhaps imply that Williams attended Oxford as well.  A third depicts a boar’s head with a Welsh banner “Bydd cyfiawn a phaid ofni” (Be righteous and fear not).

 

JohnWilliamsbookplate

The bookplate itself was designed by H. Thomas Maybank (1869-1929), and is dated 1903.

Hector Thomas Maybank Webb was born in Kent; he injured his hip when thrown from a horse at the age of 8, and as an adult became a surveyor for the Borough of Camden before becoming a full time artist in 1902.(2)

As an artist and illustrator he was known for his depictions of fairies and pixies and magical landscapes which were used on Underground advertising posters, prints, and children’s books.  He contributed to Punch and The Daily Sketch, and was the first artist to illustrate the Uncle Oojah comic strip.

We would welcome any more information on the armorial shields in the design.

Ref.
(1) http://www.clan-davies.org/webtrees/individual.php?pid=I8529&ged=DFT2006c.ged
(2) http://ukcomics.wikia.com/wiki/Thomas_Maybank_%281869-1929%29