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Magic in Ballads

by Dave &Toni Arthur

Trailer LER 2017


In Norfolk a while ago, an old farmer told us about a horseman who sold his soul to the Devil. This reminded us of a talk we had with Hamish Henderson, of the School of Scottish Studies, about the Scottish agricultural workers secret society, “The Horseman's Word”; an Anti-Calvinist farm workers guild, with smatterings of the occult. Members swore allegiance to “Auld Horie” and after going through an initiation ceremony, were given the secrets of horse control, with some remarkable effects. Hamish managed to collect some songs from ex-members of the society and rather than being magical these turned out to be bawdy, men without women songs, with a preoccupation with Queen Victoria. However some of their rhymes were interesting and had a magical feel about them; here is a standard question and answer one:

Where were you made a horseman?

the answer being

In a horseman's hall
Where the sun never shone
Where the wind never blew
Where the cock never crew
And the feet of a maiden ne'er trod.

This of course has overtones of the ballad style, and Hamish points out the similarity with the opening stanza of Leesome Brand (Child 15)

My boy was scarcely ten years old
When he went to an unco land
Where wind never blow nor cock ever crew
Ohon for my son Leesome Brand

(The ‘unco land where the cock never crew’ is reminiscent of the Scandinavian ballad paradise.)

The fact that the ‘Horseman's Word’, with its ballad style rhymes, songs, and a leaning towards the occult, was so widespread over the East of Scotland, could perhaps, help to explain why the area remained such a repository of the big ballads, so many of which have a supernatural element. The East of Scotland still succeeds in turning up surprises. At least three versions of the finest of the magical ballads, Tamlin (Child 39) have been collected since 1957.

When Bronson was collecting the tunes to the Child Ballads he found that most of the magical ballads had Scottish tunes. England seems to have lost its magical ballads or rationalised them almost out of recognition, one notable exception being The Two Magicians collected by Cecil Sharp from Mr. Sparks, blacksmith from Minehead, Somerset.

In Scotland itself a lot of the tunes have not been collected since the turn of the century. Nevertheless, if magical songs seem to have lost much of their significance to the traditional singer, the reverse is true in the folk revival, where magical ballads are becoming increasingly popular, with Tamlin leading the field, being sung by: A.L. Lloyd, Fairport Convention, Mike Waterson, and ourselves. It has also been used as the basis for a film star­ ring Ava Gardner as the Elfin Queen.

The ballad of Tamlin deals at some length with transformation, which is one of the most widely used themes in our magical ballads. ‘Shape changing’ has an old and respectable history, having been indulged in by Gods, heroes, and magicians for a couple of thousand years. The Celts were particularly prone to shape changing, it being one of the powers accredited to the Druids, and crops up continually in early Welsh and Irish literature. There is Tuan Mac Carells's eye witness account of the history of the colonisation of Ireland, where he watches first as a man, then as a deer, boar, eagle, and salmon. Perhaps the most well known shape changing episode is the one in the tale of Taliesin, in Charlotte Guest's Mabinogion. In the story, Caridwen prepares a potion to give inspiration and foresight to her inadequate son. After a year of preparation, three drops of the magic fluid fly from the cauldron onto the hand of the boy Gwion Bach, who was stirring it for Caridwen. He licks off the drops and acquires the gift of second sight, thereby finding out that Caridwen threatens danger and he runs off, with Caridwen in hot pursuit. He attempts to escape by changing into different things, a hare, fish, bird, and finally a grain of wheat. Caridwen goes one better each time; greyhound, otter-bitch, hawk, and last a black hen which swallows down the grain of wheat. We acquired a song from a modern witch which has in its last verse the swallowing of the male witch by the female:

They spelled their love until close of day
They said goodnight and walked away
She put out her tongue that was long and red
And swallowed him down like a crumb of bread.

The witch Isobel Gowdie in her evidence at her trial in 1662 gave her formula for changing into a hare as:

I shall go into a hare.
With sorrow and sigh and mickle care;
And I shall go in the devil's name
Ay while I come home again.

This is to be repeated three times, three has been considered the fatidic number in many cultures, and religions, and occurs time and again in folklore. In ‘Macbeth’ Shakespeare's witches seal an enchantment with:

Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine
And thrice again to make up nine
Peace the charms wound up.

It has even been suggested that the instructions on modern medicine bottles, and pill boxes, ‘To be taken three times a day” is a relic of magical invocation.

To get back to transformations, the nearest of the popular ballads to the Caridwen story, is the Scottish The Twa Magicians (Child 44) where we have:

Then she became a turtle dove
And flew up in the air
And he became another dove
And they flew pair and pair

She turned herself into a hare
To run upon yon hill
And he became a gude greyhound
And boldly he did fill.

A modern witch we spoke to about this song, suggested that the transformations should not be taken too literally, but would have been conducted on the Astral Plane.

Francis Child printed The Twa Magicians in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads with a note saying: “This is a base-born cousin of a pretty ballad known all over Southern Europe, and elsewhere, and in especially graceful forms in France.”; However we would agree with the comments that Bronson, in Tunes to the Child Ballads makes on Child's notes. That is that one would assume that a form of the ballad in which magic was practised powerfully was more primitive than one in which the magic was restricted to the limits of a play of fancy or to the poetic wishes, as in most of the continental variants Child cites. It would therefore logically follow that as magic is gradually rationalised out of existence, we end up with songs like the well known Hares on the Mountain:

Young women they'll run like hares on the mountain
If I were a young man, I'd soon go a hunting.

Another type of transformation appears in the aforementioned Tamlin. Tamlin is trying to escape from the Elphin Queen with the help of a young girl. The girl having caught Tamlin, has to hold on to him through a series of transformations produced by the Elfin Queen. If the girl succeeds in holding him through all the changes he will eventually turn into a mortal man again and be free of the fairy power:

They first shaped him in her arms
An adder or a snake
But she held him fast, let him not go
For he'd be her worlds make (mate)
They next shaped him into her arms
Like a wood black dog to bite
But she held him fast let him not go
He'd be the father to her bairn.

This is almost identical to the story of Peleus and Thetis in Greek Mythology, albeit with a reversal of the sexes:

Peleus on the orders of Zeus, is to wed the Nereid (sea nymph) Thetis. Cheiron, King of the Centaurs, realising that Thetis would object to marrying a mortal, advises Peleus to hide near the cave in which Thetis has her midday sleep, and as soon as she is asleep to catch hold of her. This Peleus did, and in the ensuing struggle Thetis turned into fire, water, a lion, a serpent and finally a giant cuttle fish which squirted Peleus with ink, when Thetis realised Peleus would not let go, she succumbs to his embraces.

In some of the Tamlin ballads, after the transformations, we find Tamlin telling the girl:

And last they'll turn me in your arms
Into the burning gleed
Then throw me into well water
O throw me in with speed

and in another version:

First dip me in a stand of milk
And then in a stand of water.

This immersion in water is the most important part of the transformation sequence, and magically is essential if one is to change into a human shape from an enchanted non-human state, or to return to the non-human. It is bound up in the universal symbolism of water. Water has always been considered a prerequisite of regeneration,—hence myths of cataclysmic floods, out of which rises a new and better world. Wherever it is used in a religious way, water is believed to disintegrate forms, washing away sins, purifying, and giving new life. We have in the Christian baptism, symbolic drowning, out of which rises the new person, thus the enchanted Tamlin is immersed to rise a mortal man.

On Tamlin's return to mortal form the thwarted Elfin Queen cries out:

“But had I kenned, Tamlane,” she says
“A lady wad borrowed thee
I wad taen out they twa gray een
Put in twa een o tree.”

There was a folk belief that once a mortal had lived in Fairyland he had the ability to see the fairy folk. If the Elfin Queen had realised Tamlin was going to escape, she would have put his eyes out to stop him recognising the fairies in the future. The fact that the Elfin Queen had not foreseen Tamlin's escape, does not say very much for her own powers of clairvoyance. Perhaps also the blinding reflects the Queen's jealousy of the young girl. Whether or not the Elf Queen was capable of this sort of bitchiness we don't know, but jealousy certainly plays a large part in a lot of our other ballads.

The worst offenders of jealousy seem to be stepmothers, they are always returning home with their husbands, and seeing the beautiful sweet natured step-daughter, they go into paroxysms of jealousy, and turn the daughters into snakes coiled around trees; as in Kemp Owyne (Child 34) where the heroine's mother:

… died when she was young
Which gave her cause to make great moan
Her father married the warst woman
That ever lived in Christendom.

or in the Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea (Child 36)

I was but seven years old when my mother she did die
My father married the warst woman the world did ever see.

In a Scandinavian ballad, the father and daughter are fully aware of the bad reputation of stepmothers:

Eight years my father would take no wife
Lest cruel stepmother should take my life.

Eventually the father being unable to stand his self imposed celibacy any longer:

He brought to his home a smiling dame
But stepmother harsh she soon became.

They should have known better, for needless to say the girl is turned into a wolf to roam the woods. Once in the woods the sweet girl takes on the personality as well as the form of a wolf, killing knights, and behaving in a manner quite alien to her normal nature. Child points out that, “It is an aggravation of stepmother malice that the victim of enchantment, however amiable, and inoffensive before, should become truculent and destructive.” As does the brother of Gawain's bride in The Marriage of Gawain (Child 31).

Another unpleasant woman is the ugly witch Alison Gross (Child 35) who is responsible for the transformation of a young man into the inevitable worm (snake). She offers him expensive gifts in exchange for his love, but he refuses them all and in her anger she turns him into a worm. The thing that makes this ballad unique, is the fact the the Elfin Queen, finding him a worm, reverses the witches spell and turns him back to a man. This intervention by the Elfin Queen on the behalf of a mortal, is unparalleled in English and Northern tradition, there is however, a Greek tradition of a favourably disposed Elf Queen. A further interesting point about Alison Gross is that the witch invites the young man to her bower and sits him on her knee and strokes his head. The resting of the head on the knee seems to be the usual ballad procedure prior to enchantment. In Thomas Rhymer (Child 37) the Elfin Queen says:

Light down light down not true Thomas
And lean your head upon my knee
Abide and rest a little while
And I will show you wonders three.

The Elfin Queen in The Queen of Elfins Nourice (Child 40) says to the mortal nurse:

O nourice lay your head upon my knee
See you not that narrow road up by yon tree?

And in the Scottish tale of the Rashen Coatie we find the following rhyme used by the heroine to put her ugly stepsister to sleep:

Lay your head upon my knee
And well looked after it there shall be
Then sleep you one eye or sleep you two
You soon shall see what power can do.

She had received this spell from a fairy, and Lewis Spence, in The Fairy Tradition in Britain, considers that the laying of the head on the lap was recognised ritual, by means of which the path to Fairyland could be seen, as in Thomas Rhymer:

And see you not that bonnie road
That winds about the fernie brae
That is the road to fair elfland
There thou and I this night must go.

or at least a method of inducing an enchanted sleep. This must of course be the real reason for the verse in Lady Isobel and the Elf Knight (Child 4) when Lady Isobel says to her would be murderer:

O sit you down awhile lay your head on my knee
That we might have some rest before that I do die

It is obvious that she intends to put him to sleep, and escape;—not just de-louse him as Child suggests, (hardly the sort of service you would render to your murderer). This is born out in at least one version of the ballad:

She stroked him sae fast the nearer he did creep
Wi a small charm she lulled him fast asleep.

A. L. Lloyd in his article How Outlandish is the Outlandish Knight mentions a golden scabbard in the Hermitage in Leningrad, dating from 300 B.C. On it is depicted a warrior lying under a (magical?) nine branched tree, with his head in a girl's lap. Perhaps this particular sleep inducing ritual is an Eastern European idea which gradually spread to Britain.

Snakes and worms crop up time and time again in our ballads coiled around trees or hills, waiting to be freed from a spell, by a touch as in Alison Gross (The ‘She’ here refers to the Elfin Queen):

She took him up in her milkwhite hand
An' she's stroked him three times on her knee
She changed him again to his ain proper shape
An' he nae mair toddles about the tree.

or by a kiss as in The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heughs (see appendix to Kemp Owyne in English and Scottish Popular Ballads)

He quitted his sword, he bent his bow
He gave her kisses three,
She crept into a hole a worm
But stept out a lady.

The snake (worm) is the archetypal villain, used in many traditions as guardian of the tree of life, the obstacle to man's attainment of immortality, tricking and outwitting him.

One of the accepted ways of acquiring immortality was through the apple tree, the oldest known cultivated tree in Europe. This was the talisman needed to get into the Celtic Paradise, and as Tamlin found out, just to sleep under an apple tree was enough to unlock the doors:

When I was a boy of eleven years old
And much was made for me
I went out to my father's garden
Fell asleep at yon apple tree
The Queen of Elfin she came by
And laid her hand on me.

and again in another version:

Ae fatal morning I went out
Dreading nae injury
And thinking lang, fell soun asleep
Beneath an apple tree.

Then by it came the Elfin Queen
And laid her hand on me
And from that time since ever I mind
I've been in her company.

Lancelot was enchanted by Morgan La Fey while asleep under an apple tree, and the Queen in the 14th century poem Sir Orfeo, is abducted by the Fairy King, whilst sleeping under a ‘fair ympe-tree’ (orchard tree). In Thomas Rhymer (Child 37), True Thomas is warned of the consequences of eating an apple, by the Fairy Queen:

Then they rode on and farther on
Until they came to a garden green
To pull an apple he put up his hand
For the lack of food he was like to tyne [perish]

O hold your hand Thomas she said
And let that green flourishing be
For it's the very fruit of hell
Beguiles both man and woman of your country.

The Celtic Elyseum was described as having apple trees always in fruit, ready roasted pigs, and a never ending supply of ale (the original Big Rock Candy Mountain). This is Apple Land, the Avalon where King Arthur was taken to, by the Fairy Queens to have his mortal wounds healed. The regard with which the apple tree was once regarded, has come to us down the centuries, appearing as a shadow of its former self in the Apple Wassailing ceremony at Carhampton, in Somerset, where the B.B.C. recorded this song from a Mr. Adam (a very appropriate name) in 1947:

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord does know where we shall be
Till apples another year.
To blow well and to bear well
So merry let us be
Let every man take off his hat
And shout to the old apple tree

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
Hatfull, capfull, three bushel bagfulls
Hurray, Hurray, Hurray.

Another magical tree is the Rowan, which was believed to give protection against witches. In the ballad of the Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heughs we find Childy Wynd sailing to Spindleston to break a spell put on a young girl by her evil stepmother. The stepmother looking from her window sees his ship and:

When she beheld the silken sails
Full glancing in the sun
To sink the ship she sent aw'y
Her witches wives each one

Their spells were vain, the hags returned
To the Queen in sorrowful mood
Crying that witches have no power
Where there is rowan-tree wood.

All over Britain the Rowan, also called ‘Thor's Helper’ was believed to counteract witches, and the evil eye. It was tied round cow's horns, and worn by highlanders, sewn into their jackets in the form of a cross. In a Scandinavian version of the Scots ballad Willie's Lady (Child 6) Rowan is used to make a witch-proof box. Willie's Lady is one of our most magical ballads, and is based on a belief that dates back at least to Roman times, it is the magical operation known as Ligature, a system of magic using knotted cords. If nine knots were tied in a cord it was thought a person could be made impotent, this state being maintained until the knots were loosed. The idea of sealing a spell by knotting a cord, is one of the accepted methods of spellbinding used by modern witches, and is of course related to the idea of sailors wives knitting their husbands sweaters, and wishing good luck into each stitch,—perhaps this is why the fishermen on the East Coast of Yorkshire are not happy with store bought sweaters:

Poor lad, he’s no yan to knit owt for 'im. That's a miserable sort of gansey he's wearing, nowt but a bowt 'un.

One of the charges against the Knights Templar was that they wore cords, which were considered magical. By varying the number and patters of knots witches wore also thought to be able to perform different spells, one of which was the arresting of child birth, this is what happens in Willie's Lady, Willie's wife becomes pregnant but cannot have the baby because of Willie's mother's spells. The young couple are eventually helped by a friendly household spirit, known as the ‘Belly Blind’ or ‘Billy Blin’, a character who crops up in the ballads; Gil Brenton (Child 5), one version of Young Beichan (Child 53), two versions of the Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter (Child 110), and under the name of ‘Burlow Beanie’ pops up in King Arthur and the King of Cornwall (Child 30).

This article could go on ad infinitum, so far we have only scratched the surface of the subject, pages could be written about fairy music, invisibility, the colour green, the moon, and a host of other topics,—perhaps at some future date we will finish it. To add a final comment though, it seems that as the Christian Church and the materialistic society gained more of a hold, the magical elements in balladry became less important and eventually virtually meaningless to the singers, causing the magical stanzas to be lost or confused. Today, with formal religion playing so small a part in our lives, and man's fundamental need for some faith or other, the interest in the occult and magic has flared up again. How lasting an effect, or what good if any, will come out of this dawning of the Age of Aquarius remains to be seen. In the meantime, let those of us who like the magical ballads, be grateful that for a while at least they have an audience.


The text of Magic in Ballads is reprinted from Folk Unlimited, 31, Hereford Gardens, Pinner, Middx. by kind permission of the editor.

This leaflet accompanies Hearken to the Witches Rune by Dave & Toni Arthur, Trailer LER 2017.