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Faeries, Elves, & Other Kin

Fairies and the Wild Hunt

There are many versions of the Wild Hunt, most originating among the Germanic peoples.  While the Scandinavian traditions and medieval stories of Woden, Berchta, Odin or others leading the Wild Hunt are of inestimable worth, for the purposes of this article I am going to concentrate on legends and ballads in which the hunters are from the realm of fairy.

In both Germanic and Celtic pagan belief systems, the souls of the dead are gathered up by the Wild Hunt in November.  For the Celtic peoples, this coincided with the appearance of the Pleiades.  In modern times, we celebrate this time of year as All Hallow’s Eve, All Hallows, Hallow E’en, Halloween, Last Harvest, Blood Harvest, Ancestor Night, or Feast of the Dead.  In Welsh, the night is Nos Calan Gaeaf and in Gaelic, it is Samhain.

At Samhain, the veil between the realm of fairy and the human realm, between the land of the dead and the living, thins and travel between the two becomes much easier, which greatly facilitates rescue or recovery of those stolen by the fae.  Three Scottish magical ballads have survived from the 13th century to instruct us in the dangers and rewards of performing such actions:  Tam Lin, Sir Orfeo, and Thomas the Rhymer.

I first heard the ballad Tam Lin, as sung by the lovely Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, in 1975.  Since then, I have discovered many versions of the ballad, some nearly identical and some just barely recognizable with many somewhere in between.  However, when you take the time to compile a few of the different versions of the ballad, a cohesive story emerges (I will use the Steeleye Span version for illustrative purposes because of its simplicity of language):

The opening stanza expressly forbids virgin females of noble birth to enter Carterhaugh, an ancient forest, because of the forest’s guardian, an elven knight named Tam Lin.  This guardian is known to demand a fee for intruding in the forest, particularly the young woman’s green cloak (green being the color of fairy, the color of the forest and camouflage, and also the color of fertility, and cloaks being the most highly prized article of clothing as well as an indicator of status).  Fail to pay the knight’s toll and he will take the young woman’s maidenhood instead.

Oh, I forbid you maidens all
That wear gold in your hair.
To come or go by Carterhaugh
For young Tam Lin is there.

If you go by Carterhaugh
You must leave him a wad.
Either your rings or green mantle
Or else your maidenhead.

Despite the clear warning, the hero of the ballad, young Janet, dresses seductively and hurries off into the wood.  As soon as she plucks a rose (an easily identified symbol of romantic love), Tam Lin appears, as if summoned by magic.  He lays claim to the forest and challenges her right to be there without his permission.  Janet immediately lays claim to the forest for herself or on behalf of her father, and refuses to request his permission.  Since Janet has not paid the fee nor gained permission, Tam Lin takes her maidenhood.  There is much debate over where or not the sex was consensual.  Given Janet’s seductive and aggressive attitude, and her outright defiance of the warning, along with her subsequent actions, I have to conclude she must have anticipated, perhaps even sought, the outcome.

She’s away o’er gravel green
And o’er the gravel brown.
She’s away to Carterhaugh
To flower herself a gown.

She had not pulled a rosy rose
A rose but barely one.
When by came this brisk young man
Says, Lady let alone.

How dare you pull my rose, madam?
How dare you break my tree?
How dare you come to Carterhaugh
Without the leave of me?

Well may I pull the rose, she said
Well may I break the tree.
For Carterhaugh is my father’s
I’ll ask no leave of thee.

He’s taken her by the milk-white hand
And there he’s laid her down.
And there he asked no leave of her
As she lay on the ground.

Janet’s next words kick off the magical elements of the ballad, for Janet asks Tam Lin to tell her the truth about his origins.  Not only does she gain personal information about Tam Lin (which is essential to working magic), this is a break in Tam Lin’s cycle as the forest guardian.  Janet is the first person to express concern and interest in him, and indeed Janet is not content to be a Leannain Sith, or fairy leman, for she is in love with Tam Lin (as evidenced by her seductive dress, her fearlessness, the pulling of the rose, her challenge, and her willing sexual participation).  As it turns out, however, Tam Lin is not an elven knight.  He is a human male enchanted by the Fairy Queen, living in the fairy realm and acting under her compulsion.

Oh tell me, tell me, then she said
Oh tell me who art thee.
My name it is Tam Lin, he said
And this is my story.

As it fell out upon a day
A-hunting I did ride.
There came a wind out of the north
And pulled at me betide.

And drowsy, drowsy as I was
The sleep upon me fell.
The Queen of Fairies she was there
And took me to herself.

He tells Janet he fears the Fairy Queen plans to sacrifice him to pay her “tithe to Hell,” which must be paid every seven years.  He then instructs Janet in the methods necessary to free him from his doom, which can only she can do at a crossroad on Samhain when the fairy host rides forth on the Wild Hunt.  In medieval ages, the number seven appears quite frequently as a length of servitude or penalty.  The number may have been an important blending of pagan and Christian values:  the four seasons, four directions, or four elements combined with the Christian trinity.  By the 12th century, the Church was firmly entrenched in Scotland, but at least the extensive collection of saints contained a great many Gaels.  Thus, while the pagan beliefs and superstitions persisted, Christian ideas crept in inevitably, such as hell.  One could argue that fairies, being either immortal or so long-lived as to seem to be immortal, maintain their status through the transformative enactment of the death portion of the Wheel of Life.  By sacrificing one life every seven years, which life will return to the beginning of the Wheel, the rest of the fairy realm continues untouched.  Combining this argument with the knowledge that fairies are underground inhabitants, or “underworld” creatures, but not of the Christian creed and thus not inhabitants of Hell itself, it is easy to see how Christianity could twist the Fairy Queen into a position of debt to Satan in this ballad.

At the end of every seven years
They pay a tithe to hell.
And I’m so fair and full of flesh
I’m feared ’twill be myself.

Tonight it is good Halloween
The fairy court will ride.
And if you would your true love win
At Miles Cross, you must bide.

There is much disagreement among the various versions as to timing, but nearly all of the other ballads have Janet confronted by her family about her pregnancy.  What is most interesting about these segments is Janet’s refusal to name the father as someone in her father’s court or household, hinting that the father is unearthly.  With one exception, the confrontations are mild and the family does not act very concerned; nor does Janet herself.  In the one exception, a female relative counsels her to abort the child, and she does indeed return to the wood to pull the necessary herb.  However, it appears she does this only to get Tam Lin’s attention (as she did when she pulled the rose), at which point she questions his origins and the tale continues from there.

Janet hides at the crossroads of Miles Cross to await the passing of the fairy host on Samhain.  I cannot stress the importance of the crossroads enough. Crossroads and stiles draw or call to the dead on Samhain.  Crossroads are thresholds where worlds meet and are symbols of choice.  They are also sacred to ancient gods and goddesses, such as the Goddess Hecate, and many crossroads had small shrines to which passing travelers could make propitiatory offerings.  Janet also consecrates the crossroads deosil (albeit with holy water, another instance of Christian influence), enhancing the protection of the sacred space.  She lets pass the higher levels of fairy society until she sees Tam Lin riding a white horse (for purity), marked with a gold star on his forehead (as the ritual sacrifice).  She pulls him down and wraps her arms tightly around him as he had instructed her previously.

Gloomy was the night
And eerie was the way.
This Lady in her green mantle
To Miles Cross she did go.

With the holy water in her hand
She cast the compass round.
At twelve o’clock the fairy court
Came riding o’er the mound.

First came by the black steed
And then came by the brown.
Then Tam Lin on the milk-white steed
With a gold star in his crown.

She’s pulled him down into her arms
And let the bridle fall.
The Queen of Fairies she cried out
Young Tam Lin is awa’.

Janet defiantly holds onto Tam Lin as the fairies turn him into forms designed to either frighten Janet or physically harm her.  In the final transformation, he is “a naked man” (is reborn as naked as a baby back into the mortal realm) and Janet hides him away in her camouflaging and fertile green cloak.  The significance of the “green mantle” from the second stanza now takes on even greater meaning.  Through action and will, i.e., magic (not prayer or priests, i.e., religion), Janet has won Tam Lin away from the Queen of Fairies.

They’ve shaped him in her arms
An adder or a snake.
She’s held him fast and feared him not
To be her earthly mate.

They’ve shaped him in her arms again
Fire burning bold.
She’s held him fast and feared him not
Till he was iron cold.

They’ve shaped him in her arms
To a wood black dog so wild.
She’s held him fast and feared him not
The father of her child.

They’ve shaped him in her arms at last
Into a naked man.
She’s wrapped him in the green mantle
And knew that she had him won.

This turn of events is not at all to the Queen of Fairy’s’ liking and she flings a series of curses at Tam Lin as she departs.  The first is that she would have given him a heart of stone so that he could never have loved (or been loved in return).  The second is that she would have given him eyes of wood so he would no longer have fairy sight (once granted fairy sight, it must be revoked before leaving the realm, or else one can spy on the fairies).  The third and last is that she would have sacrificed him earlier…if only she had known what was going to happen.  Her curses, however, are ineffectual and she has been bested.

The Queen of Fairies she cried out
Young Tam Lin is awa’.

Had I known, had I known, Tam Lin
Long before, Long before you came from home.
Had I known, I would have taken out your heart
And put in a heart of stone.

Had I known, had I known, Tam Lin
That a Lady, a Lady would steal thee.
Had I known, I would have taken out your eyes
And put in two from a tree.

Had I known, had I known, Tam Lin
That I would lose, that I would lose the day.
Had I known, I would have paid my tithe to hell
Before you’d been won away.

This analysis is but a small sampling of the wonderful symbolism and lessons that await us within the magical fairy ballads of old.  I am not alone in my admiration of the creativity of our ancestors in preserving their beliefs and customs through oral tradition; http://tam-lin.org/ is one website dedicated to the collection and study of the ballad of Tam Lin.

Bibliography and Works Cited/Recommended Reading:

W. Macneil Dixon, Thomas the Rhymer, James MacLehose and Sons, Glasglow (1911)

Edward E. Hunt, Sir Orfeo, The University Press, Cambridge (1909)

Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, John Lindow (eds.), Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, Oxford University Press (2002)

Paul B. Newman, Daily Life in the Middle Ages, McFarland (2001)

Steeleye Span, Tonight’s the Night, Shanachie Entertainment Corp. (1992)

Steeleye Span, Spanning the Years, EMI (1995)

R.J. Stewart, Robert Kirk:  Walker Between the Worlds, R.J. Stewart Books (2007)

R.J. Stewart, The Underworld Initiation:  A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation, Mercury Publishing (1998)