Common section

What happened to the fairies?

‘There are no fairies in our meadows, and no elves to spirit away our children’. So wrote the Massachusetts Unitarian minister and novelist Sylvester Judd (1813—1853). Reflecting on the fading influence of superstition in New England he went on to observe that ‘witches have quite vanished’.72 So what did he know? Then again, it is true that fairies are very rarely mentioned in the ethnographic sources of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. When the great American folklorist Wayland D. Hand wrote an article on ‘European Fairy Lore in the New World’ some thirty years ago, a lot of his references concerned Canada and Newfoundland rather than the United States, and he recognized that in America the influence of print on recorded fairy lore was ‘considerable, if not decisive’.73 From surveying a wider array of sources than Hand it is patently clear that European oral traditions and beliefs concerning fairies did not migrate as well as ghosts and witches. This failure of fairy tradition to survive the Atlantic crossing has been remarked upon but little studied.74 One obvious reason for the weakness of fairy lore is that in Western Europe the fairies were rooted in local geographies and popular interpretations of the ancient landscape. They inhabited liminal places, physical and metaphysical boundaries between the past and present, this world and other realms, natural features that represented portals between different states of being. So we find fairy legends and sightings focused around prehistoric earthworks and burial mounds, and landscape features such as venerable trees, streams and bridges. Now, all these features could also be found in the North American landscape of course. The difference is that in the old world landscape associations with fairies had their roots in centuries of accumulated tradition and experience. The fairies lost their relevance once divorced from these long-held associations.75 This is not to say, though, that American immigrants ceased believing in fairies. Fairy beliefs have been collected in both Canada and America, usually from Irish or Highland Scots families, but they invariably pertain to events and people back in the old homelands.76 Ghosts on the other hand, while sharing motifs, characteristics, and landscape associations with fairies, were attached not only to places but self-evidently to people. So ghosts repopulated America because they multiplied as people died, allowing new legends to form in new locations.

The curious thing is, though, that fairy belief seems to have been maintained in greater strength in some French Canadian settlements and amongst Newfoundlandlers. Twentieth-century folklorists have collected numerous stories of the French lutins and British fairies in these communities.77 It is no surprise that one of the stronger records of fairy faith collected in mid-twentieth century America was amongst the French Canadian inhabitants of the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, who settled in the area during the logging boom of the late nineteenth century. In 1946 some still expressed a belief in the lutins that rode the farmers’ horses at night leaving their manes knotted. No-one interviewed had caught them in the act though.78 One suggestion for the strength of belief in Newfoundland at least, is that the settlement pattern and economy, which were based primarily on fishing, created small close-knit communities connected to those in the homeland, with life existing in familiar environmental conditions.79 A significant proportion of the population of Newfoundland, furthermore, was drawn from Ireland and the English West Country. Fairy beliefs remained stronger in western England than most other parts of the country in the nineteenth century. In this context it is worth noting that witchcraft beliefs recorded in Newfoundland in the second half of the twentieth century were also strongest amongst communities with a West Country heritage, mirroring the fact that the counties of Somerset, Devon, and Dorset are richer in court cases and recorded witchcraft disputes than most other parts of England.80 Isolation is often considered the key factor in the preservation of traditions, but with regard to fairies this does not necessarily hold true. The Newfoundland evidence suggests a more complex condition whereby geographical remoteness was in play but where the fishing economy reduced cultural and social isolation, providing an environment conducive to limited fairy migration.

I have raised the matter of fairies here because the American witch ball tradition is clearly related to the European fairy or elf shot tradition—or that of Scotland and Ireland, to be more precise. Fairy shooting consisted of two main elements. The first was diagnostic. Unexpected deaths amongst humans and livestock, probably often from heart attacks and strokes, whose bodies displayed no external signs of harm were sometimes thought to have been shot with invisible missiles by elves or fairies, a condition known as elfschuss in German and alfskot in Norwegian.81 The terms ‘elfshot’ or ‘elfshotten’ were still used in eighteenth-century America to describe a specific medical condition in homed cattle. As Samuel Deane, one-time Vice President of Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, explained in his book The New-England Farmer (1790), the symptoms were sluggishness and loss of appetite:

The original of the name seems to have been a superstitious opinion, that cattle were shotten and wounded by elves, or fairies. The disease, however, is not imaginary. It is believed to be an opening in the peritonaeum, or film of the belly, caused by relaxation. It resembles a hole made by a bullet, and may be felt through the skin which remains unhurt.82

This corresponds to information collected in Ireland and Scotland in the same period. It was reported in early nineteenth-century Ireland that the inhabitants of County Antrim, ‘will show you the spot where you may feel a hole in the flesh, but not in the skin, where the cow has been struck’. In Sutherland, Scotland, the symptoms of elf shot were described as the animal feeling uneasy, breathing hard, and refusing food. Samuel Deane advised that elfshot could be cured by robbing the part with salt and water, and we find similar advice from Highland Scotland, where an agricultural survey of 1812 noted that the country people rubbed salt over the holes, and a draft of salted water in which silver had been dipped was dabbed on the ears of the sick animals and poured down their throat.83

The second element of the fairy shooting tradition was evidential. While the entry points of their missiles left no visible wound, the reality of such assaults was confirmed by the existence of the prehistoric stone arrowheads that were brought to the surface by ploughing, particularly the distinctive barbed and tanged arrowheads of the late Neolithic and Bronze Age. In societies where the use of such stone tools was far beyond distant memory but it was recognized that they were fabricated, it is not surprising that they were attributed to a race of supernatural beings. Across much of nineteenth-century Europe, Stone Age arrowheads and axes were believed in popular culture to be produced by thunder storms and were kept to ward off lightening.84 But during the nineteenth century at least, it would seem that only in Scotland and Ireland did a direct connection continued to be made between these flint arrowheads and the condition of being fairy shot. The fairies did not use bows to fire their arrows though, just as American witches did not fire their balls from guns. In late seventeenth-century Scotland Robert Kirk wrote that these flints were ‘shaped like a barbed arrow head, but flung as a dart with great force’. Likewise those witches who learned the technique from the fairies. Isobel Gowdie, who was tried for witchcraft in 1662, explained that she flicked them off her thumbnail.85 One fairy doctor in north-west Ireland kept four flint arrowheads that he showed to clients to show the cause of their cows’ ailment. His grandfather had found them near a rath or fort on a farm plagued by elf shot. The fairies, or ‘gentry’ as they were euphemistically known in Ireland, fired them to keep inquisitive cows from their sacred areas.86

Wherever Europeans settled in America they also found familiar-looking arrowheads.87 In 1699 the antiquarian Edward Lhwyd (1660—1708) after visiting the highlands of Scotland and seeing arrowhead amulets, wrote: ‘I doubt not but you have often seen of these Arrowheads they ascribe to elfs or fairies: they are just the same chip’d flints the natives of New England head their arrows with at this day’.88 Many of the examples collected in America over the centuries are prehistoric or date to the early colonial years, but amongst some Native Americans stone technology and the production of stone arrowheads continued into the nineteenth century. That is not to say it was widespread, but the well-worn narrative of Native Americans swiftly ditching their ancient technologies for metal hatchets, knives, arrow tips, and guns is not entirely accurate. There were cultural, economic, and practical reasons for continuing to use stone tools.89 Probably the last of the traditional arrowhead makers was a man who came to be known to the public as Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yahi hunter-gatherer group of north-central California. In 1908 he had fired his arrows at a party of engineers surveying a pipeline to frighten them off his ancestral lands. In 1911 starving and close to death, he made his way to a European settlement. He was taken to the county jail in Oroville but following widespread newspaper coverage of his plight, he was brought to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of California. Here he lived for a further five years demonstrating his tool-making skills, and helping academics record his people’s language and culture, before succumbing to tuberculosis.90

Some Native-American peoples ascribed magical powers to stone arrowheads, but in contexts somewhat different to the Europeans. Amongst the Cheyenne, arrowheads that had killed enemies or those of enemies that had failed to kill their intended victims, were kept on necklaces. The Pueblos wore arrowheads as protection against witches, and they and the Apache used quartz found at the base of trees blasted by lightening to fashion ‘medicine arrows’ used by women in healing rituals. The colour of arrowheads also had spiritual associations.91

There is little evidence, though, of European settlers ascribing supernatural powers or causation to the Native-American stone arrows and axes they found. A rare example of the old elf shot tradition being associated with Native-American stone arrows was recorded by a folklorist in the Appalachians during the 1930s. An informant told how he had been riding home at dusk and had seen a small redheaded fairy at a distance. He then felt something whiz past him, upon which his horse went lame. On searching the spot the next day he found a flint point typical of the sort used by some Native Americans for shooting birds and small game. Elsewhere there are a couple of examples from southern Illinois, an area settled primarily by English and Scots-Irish, of worked flints being used against childbirth pains and to protect chickens from hawks. It was noted that in the area it was by no means rare to find Native-American flint arrows in cultivated fields or old abandoned middens.92 Likewise, African-American use of Indian arrowheads was known but not widespread. A Mississippi conjure doctor told the folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett that the Indian arrowheads found in the area were not made by human hands but forged from thunder and lightning. The ashes remaining from a piece of punk burnt by a spark from an arrowhead gave good luck. Excavations from several nineteenth-century African-American occupation sites have turned up examples of Native-American stone tools, suggesting that their ritual employment might have been in more common use than the literary sources suggest.93

As the reference to Isobel Gowdie shows, the notion of witches shooting like the fairies was not unknown in parts of Europe. In Germany, for instance, ‘hexenschuss’ or ‘witch shot’ was used to describe lumbago or sudden back pain, and the term was certainly in use in early twentieth-century German communities in America.94 But hairballs were not elements in these European projectile traditions. They were, however, in Native-American belief. The late eighteenth- century Moravian missionary David Zeisberger, writing of the Delaware Indians, amongst whom he lived and worked, provides us with a crucial bit of evidence. He described a common form of causing harm amongst the Delaware that involved ‘a little piece of an old blanket or something else. This they rub in their hands until formed into a little ball. Naming the one who is marked for death, they throw this ball at him, saying that he shall die. They call this shooting the witchball’.95 The same notion was reported amongst the Choctaws of Mississippi, with one account describing how a woman was killed by a ‘witch ball’ or Isht-ul- bih shot from an invisible rifle.96 A 1923 report on the shooting of a supposed witch, the 90-year-old Choctaw David Houston, in the mountains of Pushmataha County, Oklahoma, related that his alleged victim and possible murderer, Choctaw Johnnie Hobson, was told by a medicine man that the red blotches on his feet were caused by him having been shot by a witch ball.97

So in some Native-American cultures witches shot not arrowheads but balls with invisible rifles. We shall see in a later chapter how the concept of witchcraft- inspired object intrusion was an important aspect of their medical beliefs. For the moment it is enough to suggest that the American witch ball tradition that developed amongst European settlers and African Americans was a Native- American influence. The concept of supernatural shooting was common to all, but the notion that witches fired balls or bullets seems to have developed from Native-American conceptualization of European technology within a supernatural framework of disease, which then was passed back to the European colonizers. The hair balls found in animal stomachs, such as buffalo, which we know from John Lawson’s early eighteenth-century account that some tribes collected, provided the physical evidence for this new formulation of witch shooting.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!