January 19, 2014

Turn Your Cloak for the Fairy Folk

There's an old saying from England that goes something like this:

Turn your cloak
For fairy folks
Live in old oaks

It's an instruction and a warning. Fairies are mischievous, if not sometimes maevolent, and often inhabit large, old oak trees. Turning your cloak inside out will prevent them from enchanting you as you pass by their home. I'm not 100%  sure why wearing something inside out will protect you, but I think the belief is that the fairies are just so puzzled by this weird behavior that they don't know what to do.

Not a lot of European fairy lore made it to New England, so I was surprised to read the following in Caroline Howard King's When I Lived in Salem 1822 - 1866:

Judge Story used to tell with great delight, that when he was a boy living in Marblehead, his mother always warned him, when he went to the pasture, to drive home the cows, to turn his jacket inside out for fear of the pixies.

It seems likely that King is talking about Joseph Story, a famous North Shore lawyer who became a Supreme Court Justice. Justice Story was a child in Marblehead during the Revolutionary War and left in 1795 to attend Harvard. The warning against pixies would have been delivered to him by his mother Mehitable Story (maiden name Pedrick).

Joseph Story, 1779 - 1845
Why don't we have more European fairy beliefs in New England? In his new book America Bewitched: Witchcraft After Salem, historian Owen Davies proposes at least one answer. In Great Britain fairies are often associated with certain features of the landscape like ancient burial mounds, streams, or large trees. When the English settlers left their old homes for New England they left behind not only these locations but also their magical inhabitants.

The New World landscape certainly had an abundance of interesting features, but without the weight of oral tradition the fairies didn't become associated with them. Fairies didn't just live in any old tree, but specific trees back in England that had been left behind. In New England, mothers didn't tell their children about fairies living in the oak behind their house here and so the traditions mostly faded away.

New England does have a lot of natural features associated with the Devil, and I wonder if the Devil took the place of the fairies in local folklore. After all, he's not limited to one particular hill or tree, so it was easier for beliefs about the Devil to travel to North America. The various rocks, ponds, etc. named after the Devil aren't so much his home, but have instead been altered by him as he traveled across the region.

The belief about wearing things inside out did persist into the nineteenth century in New England, but without any fairies being associated with it. You were supposed to wear a dress or shirt inside out simply to bring good luck, not to avoid being enchanted by pixies. The practice survived but the fairy association disappeared.


Unknown said...

Brilliant piece. I'm not sure about OD's argument in that on the Atlantic Coast of Canada fairylore took root and lingers on to this day, or at least to recent times. Surely the explanation is the more depressing one that most of the migrants came from parts of Britain where fairylore had died out? In itself that would be interesting as a marker. For example, is there more fairylore in Maryland than New Hampshire?

Unknown said...
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Peter Muise said...

Hi Simon! Thanks for the comment and kind words. You're right about Davies' theory, since there are places in North America where European fairy beliefs are much more vibrant. I believe most of the original English settlers came to New England from East Anglia. Are fairy beliefs stronger or weaker there? It would also be interesting to see where Judge Story's mother's family came from.

Nukiuk said...

Fairy belief's often vanished first in the lowlands of England and Germany, while remaining strong in the mountainous regions into the modern day in some cases. I do agree with Peter Muise that it seems likely that many of the people moving to America didn't believe in fairies from and so made fun of those who did.

George R. Stetson, in his 1896 article on vampires in America stated that "It is perhaps fortunate that the isolation of which this is probably the product, an isolation common in spnrsely settled regions, where thought stagnates and insanity and superstition are prevalent, has produced nothing worse." This in general shows the disdain which American scholarship had for these ideas. Whereas in Ireland scholars like Yeats, celebrated such cultural traditions. Stetson also points out that America has had fairly extensive public education for a long time. Such education likely limits many of these beliefs.

As for Owen Davies argument, I think it's interesting, and may be part of the reason but Iceland and Newfoundland, among other places, continued fairy beliefs after people migrated there.