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Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Queen of Elfland

 One figure that we see appearing in Scottish folklore in ballads, stories, and witch trial accounts is the Queen of Elfland or Queen of Fairies. This Queen is never named explicitly in these accounts but only referred to by her title and usually appears alone although in some rare cases she was known to have a king by her side. An enigmatic figure she traveled to the mortal world in some ballads and took young men who interested her, keeping them for a period of time, and in other stories she held court in Fairy itself. In all cases she appeared to be a powerful and influential force.

"Under the Eildon Tree Thomas Met the Lady" by Katherine Cameron, public domain
In ballads the Queen of Elfland appears frequently, often having stolen a young man. In the ballad of Tam Lin the eponymous character relates to the protagonist Janet that when he fell from his horse as a youth the Queen of Fairies caught him and took him "in yon green hill to dwell" (Acland, 1997). Fearing that he is about to be given as the fairies' tithe to Hell Tam Lin then convinces the pregnant Janet to save him by pulling him from his horse as the Queen leads a procession out on Halloween night, which Janet does; she successfully holds onto him through a series of fearsome transformations, winning him away from the Queen. The Queen then curses Janet for stealing away her best knight (rather ironic that) and says that had she known this would happen she would have either taken out Tam Lin's eyes and replaced them with 'eyes of a tree' or his heart and replaced it with one of stone, depending on the version of the ballad. In a similar ballad with a less successful end for the human protagonist, The Faerie Oak of Corriewater, a sister tries to do much the same as Janet to win back her brother who has been taken by the Queen of Fairies, but when her brother is turned to fire in her arms she is afraid and tries to drop him at which point she herself goes up in flames. In contrast to this act of destruction, in the ballad of Alison Gross the Queen of the Seely Court comes across a man bespelled into the shape of a worm, as she and her court are riding our on Halloween, and she returns him to his true shape. Getting back to the theme of the Queen of Elfland taking people we look at the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, were a man sees a beautiful woman riding on a horse and after calling her the Queen of Heaven she corrects him and say that she is in fact the Queen of Elfland (Acland, 1997). In some versions she offers him a kiss and then declares that he must come with her to serve her for 7 years, in other versions the two have sex and afterwards she seems to his sight to have become an ugly hag, but nonetheless she compels him to go with her; once in Fairy her beauty is returned (Acland, 1997; Henderson & Cowan, 2007). It's possible this ugly appearance is a test for Thomas as he faces several others in Fairy including the requirement that he not speak while he is there. It was not always young men who were taken however, as we see in 'The Queen of Elfan's Nourice' where the Queen abducts a nursing mother, with the promise that the woman will be freed when the child she is wet-nursing reaches a certain height (Buchan, 1991).

The Queen of Elfland in the ballads has some common themes. When she is described she is usually on a white horse and wearing green. The white horse is almost certainly a sign of rank or importance as well as being a color associated with fairy animals and green is a common color for fairies to wear in folklore, placing her appearance solidly in the realm of the supernatural. She is said be incomparably beautiful, sometimes compared to the Christian Queen of Heaven, and her actions are best described as mercurial. A kiss as either an element of binding or as payment features in both The Faerie Oak of Corriewater and Thomas the Rhymer. In all the ballads we see her able to both bless and curse people, having the power to transform what she chooses and as we see in Thomas the Rhymer to give the gift of prophecy and true speech. She often takes people, but usually for set amount of time which seems to have been agreed on beforehand, and those who are taken can be won free with effort. She is a power that transcends humanity yet chooses to seek it out and interact with humans, for both good and ill.

The Queen also appears in the witch trial documents, as some of the Scottish witches said it was to this Fairy Queen and not the Christian Devil that they owed allegiance. Isobel Gowdie, one of the most well-known Scottish witches, described the Queen of Fairy well dressed in white and claimed she had been taken into the fairy hill and given as much meat as she could eat (Henderson & Cowan, 2007). In this case, as meat was a luxury food, it may be that what Isobel was fed was form of payment for her services. She also said she was taught things and given elfshot to use against people. Accused witch Bessie Dunlop claimed that she encountered the Queen of Elfland when she [Bessie] was giving birth, and Alison Pearson was put on trial and accused, in part, for spending time with the 'Quene of Elfame' (Henderson & Cowan, 2007). Many of these witches claimed in the trials to have been brought to Fairy to meet with the Queen or the Queen and King of Elfland and related things they had done or seen while there. These visits and the relationship with the Queen more generally usually involved being taught knowledge of healing herbs and skills, and in some cases potentially of cursing. Another Scottish witch, Andro Man, claimed to have had repeated sexual encounters with the Queen of Elfland, or as he called it Elphin (Henderson & Cowan, 2007). This tie in to sexuality is an interesting echo of what we see in the ballads where the Queen also uses sex and intimacy to bind men to her service. Several of these witches said it was this Queen who directed them in their witchcraft and assigned them a fairy as a familiar spirit (Wilby, 2005).

The Queen of Elfland could easily be dismissed today as simply an old literary trope and yet when we look at both her presence in the ballads and her pervasive role in the witchcraft trial testimony, we may perhaps come to another conclusion. She could represent a deeper folklore echo of a goddess, once found in Scotland, whose name has since been lost and who over time went from a deity to a Fairy Queen, and eventually to a literary character. Certainly we see such a pattern in Ireland, although there the names of the Fairy Queens are preserved still and we can trace them back to their former divine persona. We can see hints of this in the Queen of Elfland's appearance and actions in the ballads and more so in the testimony from the witch trials, where she tended to appear to people in circumstances of dire need or liminal states, such as Bessie Dunlop giving birth; to supplant the role of the deity they worshiped previously; and to represent a power that protected, blessed, and empowered them in their lives. This is all supposition, of course, but it is an interesting theory based on the evidence. The Fair Folk at any rate occupy a transitional place between deities and humans and whether she is a goddess or not the Fairy Queen is doubtless a powerful force and one who can help or harm as she chooses.

Buchan, D., (1991) 'Ballads of Otherworld Beings', The Good People
Acland, A., (1997) Tam Lin Child Ballad 39A
Acland, A., (1997) Thomas the Rhymer
Henderson, L., and Cowan, E., (2007) Scottish Fairy Belief

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this informative post. I have been looking for stories and legends about the Queen of Elphame and this post popped up. This gives me a lot to think about and some great references to look into.