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in the Isle of Man; and in Ireland, it is a common form of consolation for the spilling of milk on the ground, to say, "Perhaps that place wanted it," - meaning that the milk thus seemingly wasted would probably be drunk by an expectant fairy.
These remarks may probably afford some explanation of the "fairy christenings” of Westmorland, of which Mr Simpson (already quoted) gives us an account. It is still common, he says, for a wife in her husband's absence, and generally without his knowledge, to make a rich cake, and have a feast, to which she invites a select few of her neighbours; and as this is done in a secret way, or at an unseasonable time, it is called a fairy christening
Fairies are now spoken of as belonging to the past. There is abundance of belief in their former existence, but they do not deign to show themselves. At the time of the construction of the Lancaster and Carlisle railway, something was said of the “fairies pulling down the big bridge at Shap,” where the work perhaps did not get on very expeditiously; but, as far as I am aware, it may have been an unauthentic report. “Fairy-bead beck,” near Stainton, some years ago, furnished an unlimited supply of curiously shaped pebbles, from which the stream received its name. They are described as of the size of large beads, partly shaped like the joints of a backbone, partly having a resemblance to ladles with handles, and to “cups and saucers. But they are scarcely to be found now, as if the fairies and their beads had disappeared together.
“I made strict enquiries,” says Brand, “ in the uncultivated wilds of Northumberland, but even there I could only meet with a man who said that he had seen one that had seen fairies.” As long ago as the time of Chaucer, the same kind of unbelief had existence. The Wife of Bath is telling of the “old days of king Artour," when “all was this lond fulfilled of faerie,” but adds:
I speke of many hundred yeres ago,
In Suffolk the fairies of the present day have even lost their name,
DECLINE OF THE FAIRY SUPERSTITION.
and are called the Pharisees.* It is no wonder that the Westmorland man, who under propitious circumstances actually witnessed their departure, was obliged to resign himself never to see o' them.”
* Popular Antiquities, by J. Brand, new edition. The number of names of this kind adrift in England is surprising. I have frequently heard in Cumberland the "gentry'' spoken of as the gentiles. Baal, and Gog and Magog have been already mentioned.
AMONGST the intermediate creations of Gothic mythology, the water-spirits hold a conspicuous place. They inhabit every sea, stream and pool; are of surpassing beauty, gifted with song that no mortal senses can withstand; with golden hair, green teeth, and large eyes.
When they come out on the bank, as they frequently do, to sing, comb their hair, and hold intercourse with the people of the earth, they are easily recognisable by their dripping garments. The boatman who hears the song of the water-spirit-his hour is come; and he who unwarily approaches her on the shore, is snatched to a watery grave.
This superstition, as here described, is, with few discrepancies, generally among the Gothic peoples; and from a comparison of the superstitions of the Goths and Celts, the conclusion is, that the latter were indoctrinated with this particular belief by the former. As the fairies show themselves intrusively among the Scandinavian spirits, so do the spirits of the water find no place in Celtic mythology. The oldest mention made of sacred wells in Ireland, referring to the fourth century, therefore anterior to the introduction of Christianity, appears in the romance or embellished tradition of the “ Battle of Ventry Harbour.” The well is kept by three sisters, and has the property of restoring to perfect health the person who bathes in it, though mortally wounded. But nothing is said of a water-spirit.
DEDICATION OF WELLS.
Every transfer of a superstition, whilst it alters the principle of belief, renders it more inveterate; and so the missionaries, Greek and Latin, to the Irish and Britons, found. They bought off the enemy they were unable to conquer; they exorcised the spirits by giving them Christian names. And as the Midsummer bone-fires were transferred to St. John, so did all the saints in the calendar receive the wells amongst them. In the course of a few generations, the Celtic adoption of the water-spirits became the mere guardianship of Christian saints; and this form of their own superstition seems to have made a deep impression on the Gothic peoples, and to have been received favourably by them on their invasion of these islands. Holy wells were not unknown in Denmark; and in England they abounded, and were frequented for the cure of disease to a late period.
Efforts of various kinds were made by the Christian church to suppress the custom of praying at wells for the restoration of health, but without effect. In an Anglo-Saxon penitentiary we find: “If any keep his wake at any wells, or at any other created things except at God's church, let him fast three years, the first on bread and water, and the other two, on Wednesdays and Fridays on bread and water; and on the other days let him eat his meat, but without flesh.” A Saxon homily against witchcraft and magic says: “Some men are so blind that they bring their offerings to immoveable rocks, and also to trees, and to wells, as witches teach.”
Waking the well continued all through the middle ages. The prevalent custom appears to have been the following: the well was visited on the eve of the patron saint's day, some of the water was drunk, and the offering was made. The visitor lay all night on the ground near the well, drank the water again in the morning, and carried some away in a bottle. But the practice of waking, that is, keeping the vigil of the saint's day, led to such immorality that it was discontinued.
There is every indication that holy wells were once numerous in these counties, and customs connected therewith, as in other Celtic and Dano-Celtic districts, were maintained into the present century.
But owing principally to the influence of the Reformation, the annual meetings at the wells degenerated into “sports" at a comparatively early period. One of the contributors to Hutchinson's Cumberland speaks with regret of the suppression of a holy well in his neighbourhood. On the common east of Blencogo, he says, not far from Ware Brig, near a large rock of granite called St. Cuthbert's Stane, is a spring named Helly Well. It was the custom for the youth of the neighbouring villages to assemble at this well early in the afternoon of the second Sunday in May, and there to join in a variety of rural sports. It was the village wake, but no strong drink of any kind was ever seen there. About twenty years ago (1774) a curate of the parish set his face against it, and the meetings at Helly Well were discontinued. Hutchinson also makes mention of Hally Well, a spring in the parish of Wigton, which comes off iron ore; and of Toddel Well in Kirkbampton, used by the people to cleanse sores.
Some limited localities have had more than one well frequented within the memory of persons yet living. In the neighbourhood of Penrith were no less than four such places of resort, which were visited in turns on the four Sundays of May. First in order of these was Skirsgill Well, second Clifton, third the well at the Giant's Caves, and fourth at Dicky Bank on Penrith fell-side. The chief of these gatherings was held at Clifton, where, it must be confessed, the observances were not all as innocent as those described at Blencogo. Preparations were made as for ordinary sports, stalls of confectionary appeared on the ground, and there ensued a considerable consumption of gingerbread, sweeties, and short cakes. But the drink was not limited to the water of the well, and set fights became a regular part of the amusement. An inhabitant of the neighbourhood for many years of his life fought annually at Clifton, and remembers having taken his part in twelve battles on one day. In consequence of these disorders the meetings were suppressed about thirty-three years ago. Giant's Cave Sunday is still observed, but the custom has dwindled into insignificance, the "shaking bottles" carried by the children at that season being the only remains of what it once has been. But it affords a pleasant