“Fairies’ capacity to imperil eternal souls by seducing them into carnal sin made them dangerous to humans”
A new project that explores fairy summoning rituals in the 15th–17th centuries – offering insights into their influences on contemporary life – is now under way at the University of Exeter. Samuel P Gillis Hogan (left), who is leading the study, explains
How were fairies defined during this period? While many people imagine Tinkerbell-like pixies, this sweet and sanitised image of the fairy is a Victorian construction. Late medieval and early modern ideas of fairies were pretty nebulous and varied, but there were some common themes.
Fairies in this period tended to be discussed with a blend of wonder and trepidation. They were generally, though not always, as tall as a human. They were also supernaturally attractive and could seduce young women and men, imperilling their eternal souls. What role did fairies play in daily life? Fairies were a feature of medieval culture and served various functions. Noble families sometimes claimed descent from fairies, in which cases the fairy often served as guardian of the family, as was the case in the stories of the legendary Melusine. Fairies also served a literary function, in courtly romances and ballads.
Yet they were not always so benign. Fairies’ capacity to imperil men and women’s eternal souls by seducing them into carnal sin made them dangerous to humans, as did their role as spirits of illness and madness. There are also folkloric accounts, since the 12th century at least, of children being spirited away. Why and how were fairies summoned? Some people attempted to conjure fairies to acquire medical knowledge, such as the properties of herbs. Then there are several texts where the summoner aims to conjure fairy women in order to sleep with them. Fairies were also summoned to find buried treasure, supply rings of invisibility, reveal the future and much more.
Many texts specify what the spirit will do or say once it appears, and how the magician should respond. Since God is often invoked, a number of rituals include periods of purification through sexual abstinence, fasting and prayer in preparation, so that God will deem the magician worthy of his aid in summoning and binding the spirit. Most rituals order the fairy to appear in a form that is neither frightening nor seductive, since both could entice the magician out of his protective circle, leaving him vulnerable to the dangers of the fairy or demon. Several rituals to conjure Oberon, king of the fairies, direct him to appear in the shape of a young child.
In this new project I’ll be studying manuscripts containing instructions on how to conjure and exorcise fairies, in addition to Inquisition and court records that deal with people who ostensibly used magic to conjure fairies.
Understanding the sources from which summoning texts drew their ideas about fairies and their capacities allows us to contextualise these rituals. It also helps us understand the interactions between literary, folkloric and learned sources during this period.
ABOVE: A 15th- century image of the spirit Melusine breastfeeding her son and (left) flying from a window LEFT: A 17th-century edition of a book on Melusine