A common motif in European folklore is that of the faeries being made visible to a human through the application (accidentally or on purpose) of an ointment or salve to the eyes (Aarne-Thompson Motif Index 235.4). Often, the story is completed by the faeries discovering the human has used this magical technique to observe them, and blinding the protagonist, either totally or partially (Aarne-Thompson Motif Index 362.1). These motifs do not always go together, but there is a definite folkloric correlation between the two that seems to be based on the concept of magical vision, a clairvoyant ability to see metaphysical faeries, which is often resisted by them to the extent of taking away the ordinary sight of the observer as a punishment, or simply to prevent them from further perception of the faerie realm. These deeply embedded folkloric motifs suggest the roots of the stories and anecdotes are tapping into some Delphic meaning about being able to see the faeries, with an insinuation that we’re not supposed to be able to see them, and that such occult knowledge may bring retribution in physical consensus reality.
Midwives, Faeries, Ointment and Blinding
The most common folkloric rendering of these motifs involves a human midwife being summoned by the faeries to aid in a faerie birth, where she applies the magical ointment to her eyes (usually by accident) and sees the faeries in all their supernatural glory. Once returned to material reality, she meets with a faerie who was present at the birth, who, on discovering the woman can see them, blinds the woman in one or both eyes. The earliest version of this story is recorded by the 13th-century chronicler Gervase of Tilbury in his Otia Imperialis, but, as usual, the most complete motif-types were collected by 19th- and early 20th-century folklorists, evidently after the tales had been doing the rounds as an oral tradition for many centuries. There are dozens of stories containing the motifs from Lithuania to Scandinavia to Britain and Ireland. John Rhys collected a Welsh version in 1901 about a servant girl called Eilian, who was carried away by the Welsh faeries, the Tylwyth Teg, who she had been consorting with on moonlit nights. Months later the faeries turned up at a midwife’s house to beg her assistance. She travelled with them, accidentally applied ointment to her eyes and saw that the mother was Eilian, surrounded by faerie splendour. She delivered the child, returned home, and then on her next visit to market saw the faerie father in the crowd, and asked how Eilian was. He asked her with which eye she saw him, and on telling him he immediately ‘put it out with a bulrush.’
An English version of the story, from Devon, was collected by the Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs in 1890, and is perhaps the best distillation of the tale-type. He evidently tailored it to the tastes of the Folklore Society (he later became the editor of the society’s journal Folklore) by applying an appropriate name to the midwife and smoothing out the dialect, but it captures the motifs well, encapsulating all the elements of the story type:
DAME Goody was a nurse that looked after sick people, and minded babies. One night she was woke up at midnight, and when she went downstairs, she saw a strange squinny-eyed, little ugly old fellow, who asked her to come to his wife who was too ill to mind her baby. Dame Goody didn’t like the look of the old fellow, but business is business; so she popped on her things, and went down to him. And when she got down to him, he whisked her up on to a large coal-black horse with fiery eyes, that stood at the door; and soon they were going at a rare pace, Dame Goody holding on to the old fellow like grim death.
They rode, and they rode, till at last they stopped before a cottage door. So they got down and went in and found the good woman abed with the children playing about; and the babe, a fine bouncing boy, beside her.
Dame Goody took the babe, which was as fine a baby boy as you’d wish to see. The mother, when she handed the baby to Dame Goody to mind, gave her a box of ointment, and told her to stroke the baby’s eyes with it as soon as it opened them. After a while it began to open its eyes. Dame Goody saw that it had squinny eyes just like its father. So she took the box of ointment and stroked its two eyelids with it. But she couldn’t help wondering what it was for, as she had never seen such a thing done before. So she looked to see if the others were looking, and, when they were not noticing, she stroked her own right eyelid with the ointment.
No sooner had she done so, than everything seemed changed about her. The cottage became elegantly furnished. The mother in the bed was a beautiful lady, dressed up in white silk. The little baby was still more beautiful then before, and its clothes were made of a sort of silvery gauze. Its little brothers and sisters around the bed were flat-nosed imps with pointed ears, who made faces at one another, and scratched their polls. Sometimes they would pull the sick lady’s ears with their long and hairy paws. In fact, they were up to all kinds of mischief; and Dame Goody knew that she had got into a house of pixies. But she said nothing to nobody, and as soon as the lady was well enough to mind the baby, she asked the old fellow to take her back home. So he came round to the door with the coal-black horse with eyes of fire, and off they went as fast as before, or perhaps a little faster, till they came to Dame Goody’s cottage, where the squinny-eyed old fellow lifted her down and left her, thanking her civilly enough, and paying her more than she had ever been paid before for such service.
Now next day happened to be market-day, and as Dame Goody had been away from home, she wanted many things in the house, and trudged off to get them at the market. As she was buying the things she wanted, who should she see but the squinny-eyed old fellow who had taken her on the coal-black horse. And what do you think he was doing? Why he went about from stall to stall taking things from each, here some fruit, and there some eggs, and so on; and no one seemed to take any notice.
Now Dame Goody did not think it her business to interfere, but she thought she ought not to let so good a customer pass without speaking. So she ups to him and bobs a curtsey and said: ‘Gooden, sir, I hopes as how your good lady and the little one are as well as –‘
But she couldn’t finish what she was a-saying, for the funny old fellow started back in surprise, and he says to her, says he:
‘What! do you see me today?’
‘See you,’ says she, ‘why, of course I do, as plain as the sun in the skies, and what’s more,’ says she, ‘I see you are busy, too, into the bargain.’
‘Ah, you see too much,’ said he; ‘now, pray, with which eye do you see all this?’
‘With the right eye to be sure,’ said she, as proud as can be to find him out.
‘The ointment! The ointment!’ cried the old pixy thief. ‘Take that for meddling with what don’t concern you: you shall see me no more.’ And with that he struck her on the right eye, and she couldn’t see him any more; and, what was worse, she was blind on the right side from that hour till the day of her death.
A Cornish version of the tale-type is told in the complex story of Cherry of Zennor, collected by Edwin Sidney Hartland in 1890. Cherry’s journey into the realm of faerie includes travelling through a dark, tunnel-like road, persuaded to do so by a ‘handsome gentleman, or master’, who, when she is ensconced in her new home, persuades her to look after his child (a variation on the theme of midwife). Included in her duties is ensuring a green ointment is applied to the child each day. When she rubs her eyes with the substance: “Everything now looked different about the place. Small people were everywhere, hiding in the flowers sparkling with diamonds, swinging in the trees, and running and leaping under and over the blades of grass.” She had, quite literally, gained a new insight into the magical environment she was in. But once the master discovers she has gained the ability to see the faerie occupants of his world, her adventure ends and she is escorted back through the tunnel and left alone on a windswept hillside in consensus reality.
Cherry was spared being blinded, but seems to have suffered instead from mental illness, brought about by her removal from the faerie dimension: “They say Cherry was never afterwards right in her head, and on moonlight nights, until she died, she would wander on to the Lady Downs to look for her master.” So even though the blinding motif is absent from this story, the protagonist is still deprived of the ability to see what she had once seen by way of the magical ointment, and suffers from an inability to apprehend things clearly or rationally in her life once returned to the physical world. This might be seen as a modification of the motif, where the fundamental message remains the same – witnessing the metaphysical otherworld of the faeries via forbidden means can lead to physical or mental disabling.
Some Anecdotal Evidence
There are dozens more stories of this type, mostly from Britain; the motifs had evidently been deeply embedded long before the collection and publication of the tales by folklorists. The long gestation period of this folklore allowed for much overlaying of tropes and narrative devices to the stories, and the similarity of these tale-types does suggest a common core in the oral tradition that became regionally dispersed from at least the 13th century, when Gervase of Tilbury gives the first written version. But alongside the structured stories, there are also anecdotal reports of the motifs, which can be more closely tied to specific known people. While there is always a large overlap between narrative faerie folklore and faerie anecdotes, the latter do deepen the perceived reality of the experience beyond that of a structured, plot-driven folktale.
Two such anecdotes were collected by WY Evans-Wentz in the early 20th century, and published in his 1911 book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Evans-Wentz was more concerned with collecting testimonies about alleged real encounters with the faeries, than with tried and tested folkloric stories, and although many of the anecdotes related to previous generations, they contain the edge of authenticity that has perhaps become rubbed smooth in some of the more elaborate stories. During his time in Co. Clare, Ireland he recorded the testimony of Bridget O’Conner from Cloontipruckilish, about a midwife from her grandmother’s generation:
“This country nurse was requested by a strange man on horseback to go with him to exercise her profession; and she went with him to a castle she didn’t know. When the baby was born, every woman in the place where the event happened put her finger in a basin of water and rubbed her eyes, and so the nurse put her finger in and rubbed it on one of her eyes. She went home and thought no more about it. But one day she was at the fair in Grange and saw some of the same women who were in the castle when the baby was born; though, as she noticed, she only could see them with the one eye she had wet with the water from the basin. The nurse spoke to the women, and they wanted. to know how she recognised them; and she, in reply, said it was with the one eye, and asked, ‘How is the baby?’ ‘Well,’ said one of the fairy women; ‘and what eye do you see us with?’ ‘With the left eye,’ answered the nurse. Then the fairy woman blew her breath against the nurse’s left eye, and said, ‘You’ll never see me again.’ And the nurse was always blind in the left eye after that.”
The ointment in this case was the water in the basin, but it clearly had supernal qualities and gave her enhanced vision, and, as in the stories above, this was dealt with by blinding. In the second testimony, from John Nelson, an elderly man from Ramsey on the Isle of Man, the ointment motif is missing, although the protagonist displayed the ability to see the faeries, and paid a high price:
“My grandfather, William Nelson, was coming home from the herring fishing late at night, on the road near Jurby, when he saw in a pea-field, across a hedge, a great crowd of little fellows in red coats dancing and making music. And as he looked, an old woman from among them came up to him and spat in his eyes, saying: ‘You’ll never see us again’; and I am told that he was blind afterwards till the day of his death. He was certainly blind for fourteen years before his death, for I often had to lead him around; but, of course, I am unable to say of my own knowledge that he became blind immediately after his strange experience, or if not until later in life; but as a young man he certainly had good sight, and it was believed that the fairies destroyed it.”
Such anecdotal incidents of the theme can be traced back to the late 17th century, most notably in the Rev. Robert Kirk’s 1691 manuscript, that has come to be known as The Secret Commonwealth. Kirk recounts the story of a midwife local to his home in Aberfoyle, Scotland. She was apparently taken from her bed one night by the faeries, who left a stock of her as replacement. After two years she returned home, explaining her absence by insisting she’d been in a faerie otherworld (Kirk usually calls the faeries subterraneans). Kirk states that [modernised spelling]:
“She perceived little what they did in the spacious house she lodged in, until she anointed one of her eyes with a certain unction that was by her. When the subterraneans perceived her to have acquaintance with their actions, they fanned her blind of that eye with a puff of their breath; she found the place full of light without any fountain or lamp from whence it did spring.”
Kirk continued to explain:
“But if any Superterraneans be so subtle as to practise sleights for procuring a privacy to any of their Mysteries (such as making use of their ointments, which makes them invisible or nimble, or casts them in a trance, or alters their shape, or makes things appear at a vast distance, &c.) they smite them without pain as with a puff of wind, and bereave them of both the natural and acquired sights in the twinkling of an eye, or they strike them dumb.”
It is clear that the motifs of gaining access to the faeries’ reality via the use of an ointment, and the potential blinding, or other disabling, for having done so, were firmly fixed in folkloric tradition from an early date. As always with these extended folklore themes, they will be conveying deeper, more fundamental insights into the human condition and the nature of contact with the metaphysical, than may be at first apparent.
Magical Ointments and Altered States of Consciousness
The folkloric stories and anecdotes do not usually state the constituents of the magical ointment; it is simply faerie magic. There are several medieval and Early-Modern treatises that include potential ointment recipes for helping to see the faeries, some including the elusive four-leafed clover, but if it is accepted that transit into an otherworld inhabited by metaphysical entities requires some form of altered state of consciousness, then it may be suggested that the folklore is coded, and that the intrusion into the tales of faerie ointment is a cipher; a metaphor for what is causing the altered state.
The mind-altering salves and unctions discussed by Early-Modern commentators often related to witches and the means to which they acquired the ability to consort with supernatural beings. Typical ingredients included belladonna, henbane bell, jimson weed, black henbane, mandrake, hemlock, and wolfsbane. These plants contain psychotropic components, such as atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, which can, at appropriate doses, cause altered states of consciousness, including disassociated out-of-body experiences. This may explain the ability of witches to fly to Sabbats and engage within a metaphysical reality while their physical body was left behind, much in the way a shaman will travel to spiritual realms while their body remains inert. Emma Wilby explores the relationship between Early-Modern witchcraft and shamanism in great detail in her 2005 book Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, and expands on the frequent trope of witches having familiars during their spiritual journeys, sometimes spirit animals, but just as often faeries, made visible and real to them after the application or consumption of a liquid compound. This concept is (usually) embraced by modern wiccans. The influential wiccan website witcheslore articulates the historic collaboration between witches and faerie familiars:
“An altered state of consciousness or trance state, allows the witch to astral project. When this happens the witch’s consciousness leaves the physical body and is able to travel where and as they choose. As faeries live in a spirit realm, a witch often used a faerie as a familiar; this allowed the witch a doorway into the otherworld. Witches and faeries were/are often connected and worked well together.”
While this neglects to mention what might bring on the trance state, it seems reasonable to suggest that certain substances have been utilised, historically and in modern times, to invoke a visionary state of consciousness that incorporates metaphysical entities, of which some may be deemed faeries. Writers in the ever-burgeoning psychedelic community are less hesitant in suggesting the possible causes of transit to a state of consciousness where the faeries might be engaged.
Deadbutdreaming has investigated in some detail the modern phenomenon of psychedelic compounds giving access to a state of consciousness where perception of faerie entities can be realised:
And a recent article by Norman Shaw contains some insightful ideas about the possible entheogenic compounds that may be at the root of the folkloric motif of a magical ointment allowing admission to a non-material realm inhabited by metaphysical beings. Especially interesting is the midwife connection:
“Investigating the links between midwives and psychoactive substances leads us to some intriguing clues about what these substances might have been. It is well known that extracts from the fungus ergot, which grows on rye and other grains, had been used by midwives for centuries to speed up contractions in childbirth. Its use was largely discontinued by the end of the 19th century, as its side-effects were deemed too dangerous for medicinal use. It is also well known that ergot contains lysergic acid, from which the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first synthesised LSD in 1938. Hoffmann had been researching ergot’s specifically non-uterotonic medicinal properties when he incidentally spawned his ‘problem child’. Recent research suggests that ancient people from various religious systems and mystery traditions worked with psychoactive preparations of ergot as a vision-inducer, from Egypt to Greece, India and the Middle East.
Ergot was often present in bread, either deliberately or by accident, leading to mass outbreaks of ergotism, the symptoms of which (including hallucinations) were known as the diseases St. Anthony’s Fire and St. Vitus’ Dance, which were relatively common in the Middle Ages. So it seems highly likely that midwives had access to some kind of ointment of ergot for use as a uterotonic, and also for incidental use as an entheogen. Hence the presence of numerous tales of midwives’ Otherworld journeys.”
The folkloric narratives of accidental ointment application may well find their genesis in the possible inadvertent dosing of midwives with ergot, which is active in very small amounts and can be absorbed through skin, or by rubbing it in eyes. The dynamic altered state of consciousness brought about by ergotamines may provide one explanation for the ability of the protagonists in the stories and anecdotes to see and interact with the faeries, while the narrative requirements of the tales simply code the substance as a magical ointment, applied at a relevant point in the story. It is a credible interpretation that might explain the core of the motif, however much it has been overlain with metaphor and allegory in the stories. But what about the blinding motif, which is so often incorporated into the folktales containing use of magical ointment? Why do the two motifs find such conjunction?
The Taboo of the Unseen
The motif of the faeries blinding the people who have been enabled to see them through the use of magical ointment is perhaps an embedded warning in the folklore against the acquisition of occult knowledge. In The Secret Commonwealth Kirk makes a distinction between those who have inherent second sight and those who stumble upon it accidentally. Inherent second sight – allowing precognition as well as perceiving supernatural entities and environs – was a genetic gift (which could also occasionally be learned), and, providing certain respectful modalities were adhered to, those in possession of the gift were regarded with courtesy by the faeries. It was an allowed vision. But acquisition of the gift through an artifice, even if it were accidentally gained, represented a type of deceit; something which invariably invoked the anger of folkloric faeries. The faeries were notoriously jealous of their otherworldly privacy, as explicated by Katherine Briggs:
“From the earliest times the faeries have been noted as secret people. They do not like to be watched, their land must not be trespassed on, their kindnesses must not be boasted of… though faeries are ready to reveal themselves to mortals whom they favour, or whose services they wish to secure, they are quick to resent and revenge any presumption upon that favour.”
Blinding those who infringed upon their hidden otherworld was drastic retribution, but it can also be seen as a symbolic act to prevent further breaches between the physical and metaphysical worlds by those deemed to have attained a shortcut by use of an enabling compound. Gnosis of ordinarily unseen realities could be achieved by certain people under certain conditions, but using an ointment was cheating, and the access it provided had to be curtailed.
This tallies with the burgeoning literature, and online discussion, regarding the means to which gnosis of the non-physical, spiritual world can be achieved. Many commentators suggest that breaking through the barriers to a supernatural realm by means of entheogenic compounds is illegitimate; experiencing different realities and contacting non-terrestrial entities during, say, a DMT trip, is taking a shortcut that will lead to difficulties when a return to consensus reality is compelled. In contrast, practising, for instance, meditation, allows a verified inner control over your state of consciousness and the ability to interact with non-physical forms. But ingesting an external agent, whatever it may be, is forcing the issue, and provides illicit acquisition of knowledge, for which some cosmic punishment may be administered.
The allegorical potency of being blinded allows the folklore to make a powerful point within the narratives. Being deprived of sight is something to be feared, and the ability of the faeries to carry out such an injunction on those deemed to have illegitimately invaded their metaphysical space carries within its motif the warning that supernatural interaction has codes and strictures. This very much fits into the context of shamanism, in all its historic and modern forms. The shaman is a special individual, able to negotiate pathways into radical altered states of consciousness, where non-corporeal entities might be encountered. The shaman achieves this through a variety of means, including the consumption of psychotropic compounds, always within a ritual setting. It can be a dangerous undertaking and may inflict damage on the unwary attempting to simulate the shamanic journey through the use of mind and vision enhancing substances. While modern psychonauts reporting difficulties after returning from a psychedelic-induced trip into metaphysical worlds rarely (if ever) suffer any type of ocular blindness, there can be mental health repercussions (as per Cherry of Zennor). This may be seen as analogous to a loss of clarity; the blindness has found other forms in which to manifest.
But the faeries of folklore did not always perpetrate full physical blinding on the protagonists. Many of the tales end with the denouement of partial blinding, most often in order to prevent further perception of the otherworld, rather than inflicting total visual loss. This dilutes the vindictiveness of the faeries somewhat, and strengthens the contention that the tales and anecdotes developed as a specific admonition about respecting the thaumaturgic essence of a metaphysical reality. The faeries inhabit their own space, and whether it is a standalone reality external to our 3D world or a territory deeply embedded in human collective consciousness, incursion into it is conditional on certain conventions and regulations. If they are not adhered to, a forfeiture will be sanctioned.
A reversal of the themes discussed can be found in partially blind people with Charles Bonnet Syndrome, who sometimes acquire the ability to perceive faerie-like entities within their visual range. This phenomenon is discussed in a previous interview-article here.
The cover image is ‘You Were Dead’ by Ylenia Viola, whose cosmic artwork can be found at FairyTalesNeverDie. Thanks to Ylenia for allowing her images to be used for this article.