I recently came across an excellent post on the blog site Strange Company, which is compiled by investigator of literary and historical esoterica Undine. It’s entitled The Case of the Levitating Butler and recounts a strange tale recorded by the 17th-century Latitudinarian Joseph Glanvill in his Saducismus Triumphatus (1681). As you will see, it includes several folkloric faerie motifs, even though the faeries are never mentioned by name. My assessment of the testimony follows Undine’s text…
The Case of the Levitating Butler
A typical morning for a member of the gentry in the 17th century: get out of bed, yawn, stretch, ask the missus how many of the servants died of plague during the night, notice that the butler’s levitating in the parlor again…
… No, really.
The following tale was published by Joseph Glanvill in his influential 1681 book on demonology, Saducismus Triumphatus: one afternoon, an Irish gentleman “near to the Earl of Orrery’s seat,” sent his butler to buy cards. As the servant passed a field, he was puzzled to see a company of people in the middle of the grassland sitting at a table loaded with “a deal of good chear.” As he approached the group, they rose and invited him to join them. However, one of the party whispered to the butler, “Do nothing this company invites you to.”
Sensing this was good advice, the butler declined to sit at the table. Then, the table suddenly disappeared, and the group began dancing and playing musical instruments. Again, they asked the butler to join their revelry. When he repeated his refusal, “they fall all to work.” When working proved no better lure than feasting or dancing, the thwarted company vanished before the butler’s eyes. The servant hurried home, in “a great consternation of mind.” As soon as he entered his master’s door, he fainted. When he came to, he related his unsettling experience to the household.
The following night, one of the company appeared at the butler’s bedside. The visitor warned that if the butler left the house the next day, he would be carried away. He obeyed this warning, but towards evening, a call of nature compelled him to venture just outside the threshold, with several members of the household standing guard over him. The moment he stepped outside, a rope suddenly appeared around his middle and he was dragged off “with great swiftness.” The others followed after him as quickly as they could, but they were unable to overtake him. When they saw a horseman coming their way, they “made signs to him to stop the man, whom he saw coming near him, and both the ends of the rope, but nobody drawing.” When the horseman grabbed one end of the rope, the other end gave him a “smart blow” across his arm. Despite this, he was able to halt the butler’s spectral abduction and return him home.
When the Earl of Orrery heard of these peculiar events, he had the beleaguered butler sent to him. The servant mournfully told him that “his spectre” had visited him again. He was to be kidnapped again that very day, and there was nothing anyone could do to prevent it. The butler was kept in a large room, with many people around to protect him, including two bishops and a neighbor, “the famous stroker, Mr. Greatrix.” [Note: Valentine Greatrakes was a renowned Irish faith healer, known as “The Stroker.”]
All was quiet for most of the day, but that afternoon, the butler was seen to rise in the air. Although several of the men grabbed his shoulders and tried weighing him down, all their strength was unable to anchor him. The poor butler was carried over everyone’s heads for a considerable period of time. When he eventually fell to the ground, his companions were able to cushion the descent enough to prevent any injury.
The rest of the day passed without further incident. The Earl ordered two of his servants to spend the night with the butler, in case there was any new trouble. The next morning, the butler informed the Earl that “his spectre” had visited him during the night. He tried to awake his bedfellows, but was unable to stir them.
The “spectre” told the butler that he had no cause to fear him. He explained that he was the man in the field who warned him against the rest of the company. If the butler had not listened to him, he said, the servant would now be entirely under the company’s power. The ghost assured the butler that there would be no more attempts to abduct him. As he had heard the butler was “troubled with two sorts of sad fits,” he presented a wooden dish containing a “grey liquor,” and told the servant to drink it.
When the butler refused, the wraith grew angry. But as he had “a kindness” for the butler, he advised him to take plantain juice. It would cure one of his “fits,” but he was doomed to carry the other to his grave.
“That of the leaves or roots?” the butler asked. “Roots” replied this spectral dietitian.
The ghost asked whether the butler did not know him? When the servant replied in the negative, his visitor explained, “I have been dead seven years, and you know that I lived a loose life. And ever since have I been hurried up and down in a restless condition with the company you saw, and shall be to the day of judgment.” He added that if he had acknowledged God, he would not have “suffered such severe things.” The apparition concluded, “You never prayed to God that day before you met with this company in the field, and also was then going about an unlawful business.”
On that chiding note, the spirit vanished.
Perhaps the strangest part of our little tale is that it is so well-attested. “Mr. Greatrix,” Lord Orrery, and the numerous other eyewitnesses to all this splendid nuttiness repeatedly affirmed every detail, flying butlers and all.
I really do not know what to say about the whole matter. Except that if you should ever happen to come across a bunch of strangers having a dinner party in the middle of a field, it would be best to run in the other direction. They might turn out to be very Strange Company indeed.
As with any historical narrative detailing anecdotal events, allowance needs to be made for the folkloric skew, which requires a good story to be told. Glanvill’s primary motive in the Saducismus triumphatus was to recount tales of witchcraft and ghostly apparitions, with a remit to prove they were true, and that there was a malign supernatural force operating in the world. There are many stories in the tract, most of which he appears to have collected from secondary sources and taken at face value, before applying his own belief-system on them; a belief-system that always came to the conclusion that the stories were evidence of supernatural activity, most often instigated by witches. But, as with any folklore, this does not discredit the core of the story. While Glanvill was collating anecdotes recounted by other people, he does describe his sources, and in this particular example, he appeared to have received the tale from a primary witness.
The levitation description is interesting, and not a common trope in historical or folkloric recounts. Probably the most famous historical levitator is the Franciscan St Joseph of Copertino. Michael Grosso has described how this 17th-century friar frequently levitated in front of numerous, reliable eye-witnesses. But it is not a common motif in the folkloric record. However, the motif of meeting strangers in a field, who attempt to draw the protagonist into the fold is a mainstay of folklore (encompassed in the Aarne-Thompson motif index as F.263 and F.361.15). The faeries will often bring a wanderer into their midst with varying techniques and results. Perhaps the most common motif is the dancing circle, where the protagonist of a story is drawn into the circle of faeries and then held in a different space-time continuum until released. But almost as frequent is the folklore describing people finding themselves amidst a faerie feast. When this happens, the primary objective is to not taste any food or drink, which will invariably lead to the human becoming trapped in the faerie dimension.
In Glanvill’s testimony the butler is invited to join the ‘company of people in the middle of the grassland.’ He is saved from making a mistake, which may entrap him, by what later turns out to be the spectre, who warns him to ‘Do nothing this company invites you to.’ It is interesting that Glanvill never describes these entities as faeries. In fact, he does not refer to the faeries at all during his entire treatise. This is unusual for a commentator of his time, especially as ‘the company’ were evidently displaying classic faerie-type behaviour. Glanvill was well-versed in the traditions of witches, as understood in the 17th century, and must have been aware of their tight relationship with the faeries. His reluctance to mention the possibility of the company in the field being faeries can perhaps be explained by his need to keep his tract focussed on witches and ghosts as the main arbiters of supernatural mischief.
Also interesting in the narrative is that the butler was subject to ‘two sorts of sad fits,’ as revealed by his spectral interlocutor. This might suggest an insertion into the story (by design or osmosis) of a code to explain the events. The ‘fits’ could be anything, but comparing this type of language to another 17th-century story of interaction with faerie entities, that of Anne Jefferies, it might be possible to suggest the butler was subject to some form of epilepsy, perhaps Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, which may explain his supernal experiences, brought on by an altered state of consciousness.
If his experience in the field with the company of entities may have been induced by an altered state of consciousness, this does not explain the witnessing of his levitation by several people. But again, this may be more folkloric coding, whereby the witnesses are introduced into the story to give credence to an event that actually happened in the consciousness of the protagonist. It is impossible to get under the skin of the progression of the anecdote and, as with most folklore, especially from this period, there are unspoken layers that have become buried and difficult to unearth. As Undine points out, Glanvill was careful to insist on his verification of the events from primary witnesses, but the need for the author to prove supernatural interference for his thesis must be taken into account, and codes his text.
Finally, there is the ‘plantain juice’ or ‘grey liquor’, which the spectre insists the butler should consume for his ‘fits’. Within the story, this comes at the wrong point to suggest it had any effect on the butler’s state of consciousness in regards the strange events. In fact, there seems little relevance to its introduction. But this may, again, be due to the skewing of the folkloric elements of the tale, and may also be using the common medicinal herb Plantago major as code for something more potent and mind-altering. Contemporary witch-trial reports often obfuscated the types of plants and mushrooms the witches were using in order to alter their states of consciousness and connect with faeries and familiars, and travel to Sabbaths in what may have been akin to out-of-body experiences. They were often described simply as ‘unctions’, ‘potions’ or ‘salves’, which may have been a catch-all for entheogens such as henbane and psilocybin. If the butler had actually consumed such an entheogen before his experiences, there would, perhaps, be a more co-ordinated explanation for what happened to him.
Despite Glanvill not once mentioning the faeries as characters within the story, this anecdote is clearly deeply embedded with faerie motifs. It might even be suggested that the ‘spectre’ is a faerie character, which may tie in to the belief that the faeries are in fact The Dead. The relationship between levitation and the faeries requires more investigation. While there are many instances in folklore (and modern reports) of the faeries defying gravity, there is little to suggest they may invoke levitation in humans. That is why this story from Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus is so interesting and unusual.
Thanks to Undine for allowing the republication of their article.