Charms And Fairy Faith by John Greenleaf Whittier

Story type: Essay

“Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We dare n’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men.
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
Gray cock’s feather.”

IT was from a profound knowledge of human nature that Lord Bacon, in discoursing upon truth, remarked that a mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. “Doth any man doubt,” he asks, “that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, and imaginations, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor, shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?” This admitted tendency of our nature, this love of the pleasing intoxication of unveracity, exaggeration, and imagination, may perhaps account for the high relish which children and nations yet in the childhood of civilization find in fabulous legends and tales of wonder. The Arab at the present day listens with eager interest to the same tales of genii and afrits, sorcerers and enchanted princesses, which delighted his ancestors in the times of Haroun al Raschid. The gentle, church-going Icelander of our time beguiles the long night of his winter with the very sagas and runes which thrilled with not unpleasing horror the hearts of the old Norse sea-robbers. What child, although Anglo-Saxon born, escapes a temporary sojourn in fairy-land? Who of us does not remember the intense satisfaction of throwing aside primer and spelling-book for stolen ethnographical studies of dwarfs, and giants? Even in our own country and time old superstitions and credulities still cling to life with feline tenacity. Here and there, oftenest in our fixed, valley-sheltered, inland villages,–slumberous Rip Van Winkles, unprogressive and seldom visited,–may be found the same old beliefs in omens, warnings, witchcraft, and supernatural charms which our ancestors brought with them two centuries ago from Europe.

The practice of charms, or what is popularly called “trying projects,” is still, to some extent, continued in New England. The inimitable description which Burns gives of similar practices in his Halloween may not in all respects apply to these domestic conjurations; but the following needs only the substitution of apple-seeds for nuts:–

“The auld gude wife’s wheel-hoordet nits
Are round an’ round divided;
An’ mony lads and lassies’ fates
Are there that night decided.
Some kindle couthie side by side
An’ burn thegither trimly;
Some start awa wi’ saucy pride
And jump out owre the chimlie.”

One of the most common of these “projects” is as follows: A young woman goes down into the cellar, or into a dark room, with a mirror in her hand, and looking in it, sees the face of her future husband peering at her through the darkness,–the mirror being, for the time, as potent as the famous Cambuscan glass of which Chaucer discourses. A neighbor of mine, in speaking of this conjuration, adduces a case in point. One of her schoolmates made the experiment and saw the face of a strange man in the glass; and many years afterwards she saw the very man pass her father’s door. He proved to be an English emigrant just landed, and in due time became her husband. Burns alludes to something like the spell above described:–

“Wee Jenny to her grannie says,
‘will ye go wi’ me, grannie,
To eat an apple at the glass
I got from Uncle Johnnie?’
She fuff’t her pipe wi’ sic a lunt,
In wrath she was so vaporin’,
She noticed na an’ azle brunt
Her bran new worset apron.

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“Ye little skelpan-limmer’s face,
How dare ye try sic sportin’,
An’ seek the foul thief ony place
For him to try your fortune?
Nae doubt but ye may get a sight;
Great cause ye hae to fear it;
For mony a one has gotten a fright,
An’ lived and died delecrit.”

It is not to be denied, and for truth’s sake not to be regretted, that this amusing juvenile glammary has seen its best days in New England. The schoolmaster has been abroad to some purpose. Not without results have our lyceum lecturers and travels of Peter Parley brought everything in heaven above and in the earth below to the level of childhood’s capacities. In our cities and large towns children nowadays pass through the opening acts of life’s marvellous drama with as little manifestation of wonder and surprise as the Indian does through the streets of a civilized city which he has entered for the first time. Yet Nature, sooner or later, vindicates her mysteries; voices from the unseen penetrate the din of civilization. The child philosopher and materialist often becomes the visionary of riper years, running into illuminism, magnetism, and transcendentalism, with its inspired priests and priestesses, its revelations and oracular responses.

But in many a green valley of rural New England there are children yet; boys and girls are still to be found not quite overtaken by the march of mind. There, too, are huskings, and apple-bees, and quilting parties, and huge old-fashioned fireplaces piled with crackling walnut, flinging its rosy light over happy countenances of youth and scarcely less happy age. If it be true that, according to Cornelius Agrippa, “a wood fire doth drive away dark spirits,” it is, nevertheless, also true that around it the simple superstitions of our ancestors still love to linger; and there the half-sportful, half-serious charms of which I have spoken are oftenest resorted to. It would be altogether out of place to think of them by our black, unsightly stoves, or in the dull and dark monotony of our furnace-heated rooms. Within the circle of the light of the open fire safely might the young conjurers question destiny; for none but kindly and gentle messengers from wonderland could venture among them. And who of us, looking back to those long autumnal evenings of childhood when the glow of the kitchen-fire rested on the beloved faces of home, does not feel that there is truth and beauty in what the quaint old author just quoted affirms? “As the spirits of darkness grow stronger in the dark, so good spirits, which are angels of light, are multiplied and strengthened, not only by the divine light of the sun and stars, but also by the light of our common wood-fires.” Even Lord Bacon, in condemning the superstitious beliefs of his day, admits that they might serve for winter talk around the fireside.

Fairy faith is, we may safely say, now dead everywhere,–buried, indeed,–for the mad painter Blake saw the funeral of the last of the little people, and an irreverent English bishop has sung their requiem. It never had much hold upon the Yankee mind, our superstitions being mostly of a sterner and less poetical kind. The Irish Presbyterians who settled in New Hampshire about the year 1720 brought indeed with them, among other strange matters, potatoes and fairies; but while the former took root and flourished among us, the latter died out, after lingering a few years in a very melancholy and disconsolate way, looking regretfully back to their green turf dances, moonlight revels, and cheerful nestling around the shealing fires of Ireland. The last that has been heard of them was some forty or fifty years ago in a tavern house in S——-, New Hampshire. The landlord was a spiteful little man, whose sour, pinched look was a standing libel upon the state of his larder. He made his house so uncomfortable by his moroseness that travellers even at nightfall pushed by his door and drove to the next town. Teamsters and drovers, who in those days were apt to be very thirsty, learned, even before temperance societies were thought of, to practice total abstinence on that road, and cracked their whips and goaded on their teams in full view of a most tempting array of bottles and glasses, from behind which the surly little landlord glared out upon them with a look which seemed expressive of all sorts of evil wishes, broken legs, overturned carriages, spavined horses, sprained oxen, unsavory poultry, damaged butter, and bad markets. And if, as a matter of necessity, to “keep the cold out of his stomach,” occasionally a wayfarer stopped his team and ventured to call for “somethin’ warmin’,” the testy publican stirred up the beverage in such a spiteful way, that, on receiving it foaming from his hand, the poor customer was half afraid to open his mouth, lest the red-hot flip iron should be plunged down his gullet.

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As a matter of course, poverty came upon the house and its tenants like an armed man. Loose clapboards rattled in the wind; rags fluttered from the broken windows; within doors were tattered children and scanty fare. The landlord’s wife was a stout, buxom woman, of Irish lineage, and, what with scolding her husband and liberally patronizing his bar in his absence, managed to keep, as she said, her “own heart whole,” although the same could scarcely be said of her children’s trousers and her own frock of homespun. She confidently predicted that “a betther day was coming,” being, in fact, the only thing hopeful about the premises. And it did come, sure enough. Not only all the regular travellers on the road made a point of stopping at the tavern, but guests from all the adjacent towns filled its long-deserted rooms,–the secret of which was, that it had somehow got abroad that a company of fairies had taken up their abode in the hostelry and daily held conversation with each other in the capacious parlor. I have heard those who at the time visited the tavern say that it was literally thronged for several weeks. Small, squeaking voices spoke in a sort of Yankee-Irish dialect, in the haunted room, to the astonishment and admiration of hundreds. The inn, of course, was blessed by this fairy visitation; the clapboards ceased their racket, clear panes took the place of rags in the sashes, and the little till under the bar grew daily heavy with coin. The magical influence extended even farther; for it was observable that the landlord wore a good-natured face, and that the landlady’s visits to the gin- bottle were less and less frequent. But the thing could not, in the nature of the case, continue long. It was too late in the day and on the wrong side of the water. As the novelty wore off, people began to doubt and reason about it. Had the place been traversed by a ghost or disturbed by a witch they could have acquiesced in it very quietly; but this outlandish belief in fairies was altogether an overtask for Yankee credulity. As might have been expected, the little strangers, unable to breathe in an atmosphere of doubt and suspicion, soon took their leave, shaking off the dust of their elfin feet as a testimony against an unbelieving generation. It was, indeed, said that certain rude fellows from the Bay State pulled away a board from the ceiling and disclosed to view the fairies in the shape of the landlady’s three slatternly daughters. But the reader who has any degree of that charity which thinks no evil will rather credit the statement of the fairies themselves, as reported by the mistress of the house, “that they were tired of the new country, and had no pace of their lives among the Yankees, and were going back to Ould Ireland.”

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It is a curious fact that the Indians had some notion of a race of beings corresponding in many respects to the English fairies. Schoolcraft describes them as small creatures in human shape, inhabiting rocks, crags, and romantic dells, and delighting especially in points of land jutting into lakes and rivers and which were covered with pinetrees. They were called Puckweedjinees,–little vanishers.

In a poetical point of view it is to be regretted that our ancestors did not think it worth their while to hand down to us more of the simple and beautiful traditions and beliefs of the “heathen round about” them. Some hints of them we glean from the writings of the missionary Mayhew and the curious little book of Roger Williams. Especially would one like to know more of that domestic demon, Wetuomanit, who presided over household affairs, assisted the young squaw in her first essay at wigwam-keeping, gave timely note of danger, and kept evil spirits at a distance,–a kind of new-world brownie, gentle and useful.

Very suggestive, too, is the story of Pumoolah,–a mighty spirit, whose home is on the great Katahdin Mountain, sitting there with his earthly bride (a beautiful daughter of the Penobscots transformed into an immortal by her love), in serenest sunshine, above the storm which crouches and growls at his feet. None but the perfectly pure and good can reach his abode. Many have from time to time attempted it in vain; some, after almost reaching the summit, have been driven back by thunderbolts or sleety whirlwinds.

Not far from my place of residence are the ruins of a mill, in a narrow ravine fringed with trees. Some forty years ago the mill was supposed to be haunted; and horse-shoes, in consequence, were nailed over its doors. One worthy man, whose business lay beyond the mill, was afraid to pass it alone; and his wife, who was less fearful of supernatural annoyance, used to accompany him. The little old white-coated miller, who there ground corn and wheat for his neighbors, whenever he made a particularly early visit to his mill, used to hear it in full operation,–the water-wheel dashing bravely, and the old rickety building clattering to the jar of the stones. Yet the moment his hand touched the latch or his foot the threshold all was hushed save the melancholy drip of water from the dam or the low gurgle of the small stream eddying amidst willow roots and mossy stones in the ravine below.

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This haunted mill has always reminded me of that most beautiful of Scottish ballads, the Song of the Elfin Miller, in which fairies are represented as grinding the poor man’s grist without toil:–

“Full merrily rings the mill-stone round;
Full merrily rings the wheel;
Full merrily gushes out the grist;
Come, taste my fragrant meal.
The miller he’s a warldly man,
And maun hae double fee;
So draw the sluice in the churl’s dam
And let the stream gae free!”

Brainerd, who truly deserves the name of an American poet, has left behind him a ballad on the Indian legend of the black fox which haunted Salmon River, a tributary of the Connecticut. Its wild and picturesque beauty causes us to regret that more of the still lingering traditions of the red men have not been made the themes of his verse:–


“How cold, how beautiful, how bright
The cloudless heaven above us shines!
But ‘t is a howling winter’s night;
‘T would freeze the very forest pines.

“The winds are up while mortals sleep;
The stars look forth while eyes are shut;
The bolted snow lies drifted deep
Around our poor and lonely hut.

“With silent step and listening ear,
With bow and arrow, dog and gun,
We’ll mark his track,–his prowl we hear:
Now is our time! Come on! come on!

“O’er many a fence, through many a wood,
Following the dog’s bewildered scent,
In anxious haste and earnest mood,
The white man and the Indian went.

“The gun is cocked; the bow is bent;
The dog stands with uplifted paw;
And ball and arrow both are sent,
Aimed at the prowler’s very jaw.

“The ball to kill that fox is run
Not in a mould by mortals made;
The arrow which that fox should shun
Was never shaped from earthly reed.

“The Indian Druids of the wood
Know where the fatal arrows grow;
They spring not by the summer flood;
They pierce not through the winter’s snow.

“Why cowers the dog, whose snuffing nose
Was never once deceived till now?
And why amidst the chilling snows
Does either hunter wipe his brow?

“For once they see his fearful den;
‘T is a dark cloud that slowly moves
By night around the homes of men,
By day along the stream it loves.

“Again the dog is on the track,
The hunters chase o’er dale and hill;
They may not, though they would, look back;
They must go forward, forward still.

“Onward they go, and never turn,
Amidst a night which knows no day;
For nevermore shall morning sun
Light them upon their endless way.

“The hut is desolate; and there
The famished dog alone returns;
On the cold steps he makes his lair;
By the shut door he lays his bones.

“Now the tired sportsman leans his gun
Against the ruins on its site,
And ponders on the hunting done
By the lost wanderers of the night.

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“And there the little country girls
Will stop to whisper, listen, and look,
And tell, while dressing their sunny curls,
Of the Black Fox of Salmon Brook.”

The same writer has happily versified a pleasant superstition of the valley of the Connecticut. It is supposed that shad are led from the Gulf of Mexico to the Connecticut by a kind of Yankee bogle in the shape of a bird.


“Now drop the bolt, and securely nail
The horse-shoe over the door;
‘T is a wise precaution; and, if it should fail,
It never failed before.

“Know ye the shepherd that gathers his flock
Where the gales of the equinox blow
From each unknown reef and sunken rock
In the Gulf of Mexico,–

“While the monsoons growl, and the trade-winds bark,
And the watch-dogs of the surge
Pursue through the wild waves the ravenous shark
That prowls around their charge?

“To fair Connecticut’s northernmost source,
O’er sand-bars, rapids, and falls,
The Shad Spirit holds his onward course
With the flocks which his whistle calls.

“Oh, how shall he know where he went before?
Will he wander around forever?
The last year’s shad heads shall shine on the shore,
To light him up the river.

“And well can he tell the very time
To undertake his task
When the pork-barrel’s low he sits on the chine
And drums on the empty cask.

“The wind is light, and the wave is white
With the fleece of the flock that’s near;
Like the breath of the breeze he comes over the seas
And faithfully leads them here.

“And now he ‘s passed the bolted door
Where the rusted horse-shoe clings;
So carry the nets to the nearest shore,
And take what the Shad Spirit brings.”

The comparatively innocent nature and simple poetic beauty of this class of superstitions have doubtless often induced the moralist to hesitate in exposing their absurdity, and, like Burns in view of his national thistle, to:

“Turn the weeding hook aside
And spare the symbol dear.”

But the age has fairly outgrown them, and they are falling away by a natural process of exfoliation. The wonderland of childhood must henceforth be sought within the domains of truth. The strange facts of natural history, and the sweet mysteries of flowers and forests, and hills and waters, will profitably take the place of the fairy lore of the past, and poetry and romance still hold their accustomed seats in the circle of home, without bringing with them the evil spirits of credulity and untruth. Truth should be the first lesson of the child and the last aspiration of manhood; for it has been well said that the inquiry of truth, which is the lovemaking of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.

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