September 09, 2018

Malicious Pixies on the North Shore: A Story from Marblehead

What comes to mind when you hear the word 'pixie?' I tend to think of cute things that are boyishly feminine like pixie haircuts or manic pixie dream girls like Zoey Deschanel. I remember from my distant teenage Dungeons and Dragons days that pixies were little flying fairies similar to Tinkerbell. Our culture tends to portray pixies as twee and sparkly. 

I like twee and sparkly, but those may not be the correct words to describe pixies. Like most fairies, older legends often describe them as ambiguous beings whose relationship with humans can be problematic. They like to have fun at the expense of humans. Here, for example, is some fairy folklore from 19th century Marblehead, Massachusetts:

The pixies, on the contrary, were malicious. They, too, were tiny, but of a brown color; they delighted to bewilder people; a person who was "pixilated," as they called it, would wander about for hours. The only remedy for such afflicted persons was to turn their garments. The belief in this was very strong. I knew a woman fairly well educated, as the education of women went sixty years ago, who told me in perfect good faith that she herself had been "pixilated" and had wandered an hour or more unable to find her home, until at last, recognizing that she was in the power of the little brown people, she turned her cloak, when the glamor vanished; in a moment she saw where she was, and was soon in her own house. (Sarah Bridge Farmer, "Folk-Lore of Marblehead, Mass.", The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 7, No. 26 (July - Sep., 1894), pp. 252 - 253.)

This account probably comes from the 1830s, but in the 19th century fairy folklore was quite rare in New England among those of European descent. Most of the region had been originally colonized by Puritans from England's East Anglia region, which while rich in witch-lore was poor in stories about fairies. The coastal town of Marblehead, on the other hand, was founded by fishermen from many parts of England, including some with rich fairy folklore. In England, stories about pixies are most common in in Devon and Cornwall. 

Turning your garments (i.e. wearing them inside out) is a well-knonw defense against fairy enchantment in English folklore, and is summarized in the rhyme "Turn your cloak/For fairy folk." It was apparently well-known in Marblehead, if this note from Caroline King Howard is any indication:

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. (Caroline King Howard, When We Lived in Salem, 1822 - 1866)

It's my understanding, and I could be wrong, that fairies become confused when you wear your clothes inside out. In their confusion they break the spell and set you free. Causing some confusion of any kind will often break a fairy spell. For example, a famous folktale tells how a woman's child has been replaced by a fairy changeling. When the woman brews egg shells in a pot (which is unusual) the changeling becomes amazed and disappears. Her child reappears in its place. Yay! A happy 

The Native Americans in this region told (and still tell) stories about small magical beings similar to European fairies. Like their European counterparts, these small beings love to mislead travelers and sometimes even kidnap them. Belief in these beings was widespread across the New England tribes and almost certainly predates European colonization. While it is possible that current Native American stories about them show European influences, it is also possible that Europeans and Native Americans encountered similar beings but on different continents. Perhaps there is some truth behind those old folk tales. If you get lost in the woods get ready to turn your coat inside out...

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