Some fairies were associated with the home, but more often they were connected with the landscape, especially with features that seemed mysterious, like mounds and caves.
Many explanations have been given for the belief in fairies. Some thought they were supernatural creatures, like ghosts or spirits of the dead. Others described them as fallen angels. The oldest fairies on record were described by historian Gervase of Tilbury in the 13th century. He wrote a collection of legends and marvels that included stories of fairy creatures and apparitions ‘from a parallel world’.
Fairies appear in myths and folklore across Europe and many of these tales were collected by German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Their scholarly interest in folklore and vernacular storytelling preserved many of the traditional fairytales we know and love today, as well as contributing to a new academic field of linguistics. Their celebrated work, Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) was initially a scientific work of scholarship on local culture and not written for children at all. Jacob Grimm wrote: ‘I did not write the story-book for children, although I rejoice that it is welcome to them; but I would not have worked over it with pleasure if I had not believed that it might appear and be important for poetry, mythology, and history to the most serious and elderly people as well as to myself.’
Similar studies have been made into Jersey folklore that explore the important links between local myths, the Jèrriais language and place names. Jersey Place Names, by Charles Stevens, Jean Arthur, Joan Stevens and Collette Stevens, meticulously records and analyses place names cross the Island and includes several references to fairies and other supernatural creatures.
Before we developed an understanding of our prehistoric ancestors, Jersey’s many ancient dolmens and standing stones were associated with fairies and goblins, and for many people they still hold a powerful mystical quality. For example, La Pouquelaye means a goblin’s path or stone, and is used to describe a dolmen or other megalithic structure. The name appears connected with various roads and fields in the La Pouquelaye area to the north of St Helier. Faldouet dolmen, or La Pouquelaye de Faldouet, stands on Rue de Pouclée, and the variants of ‘pouquelaye’/ ‘pouclée’ also appear in field names in St Ouen and Trinity.
Other sites with fairy associations in their place names include La Cotte de St Brelade, one of Jersey’s most important archaeological sites. In Jèrriais it has been known as La Cave à la Fée a Ouiné (The Fairy Cave at Ouaisné). In St Clement the site of the well-known legend of the witches, an unusual outcrop of rock at Rocqueberg, is also known as Le Rocher des Fées (The Fairies’ Rock). The area around the impressive dolmen at Grantez in St Ouen has been known variously as Le Creux de Faitieaux, Les Petits Faîtchieaux and Le Mont ès Faitieaux (meaning fairy folk). These prehistoric sites were widely believed to have been built by the fairies and historian Giles Bois records that when the Société Jersiaise excavated the dolmen at Grantez in 1912, an elderly man from the parish challenged the workmen with the words: ‘Tchi sacrilège! Mais qu’ou éthez êticbotchi les faîtchieaux ous allez nouos emm’ner tchique dro sus l’vaîsinné!’ This translates as: ‘Such sacrilege! But if you have disturbed the fairies you’ll have brought such trouble on the neighbourhood!’
Many of these place names and their associations with fairy folk have been explored in great depth by Bois in his two-volume Jersey Folklore and Superstitions. He recorded that fairy folk could be benevolent, such as the domestic hearth fairies who secretly helped around the home while the household was sleeping. There were also malevolent creatures, such as ‘les cocagnes’, goblins that were said to lurk at the bottom of wells or ponds. These stories probably originated as warnings to children to avoid these potentially dangerous places. The same goes for cliffs, dunes and caves, which often bear warning names associated with the supernatural.
The Island’s traditional tales of fairy folk, or Les P’tits Faîtchieaux, are the inspiration behind a Fairy Folklore Adventures trail around Jersey Heritage sites this Easter. Here are some examples of the stories:
lThe Lavoir des Dames, St John. Hidden within the rocks at Sorel Point is a rectangular pool called Le Lavoir des Dames. In local folklore, any man who saw the fairies bathing there would be struck blind immediately.
lSt Brelade’s Church. Legend has it that when the church was built, all the necessary materials were collected together at the chosen site in preparation but the next day there was no sign of anything. The items were eventually found almost a mile away near the sea. The workmen moved the materials back again, only to find that the same thing happened the next day. They are said to have accepted this as the will of God and built the church where it is today. Explanations for the change of site include that the original site chosen by the builders was near a pagan shrine and the fairies didn’t want a church on their doorstep. Others said the devil was pleased to get the church built so far from the homes of most of the parishioners. Another explanation given was that God wanted the church walls to be washed by the sea and chose the lovely location where the church still stands.
lLes Rouaux (La Belle Hougue Point), Trinity. Near Les Rouaux is a spring known as La Fontaine des Mittes. According to folklore, this spring could give sight to the blind and restore the hearing of the deaf. The guardian spirits of fountains and streams were called the naiads and people believed that they had powers of good and evil. Two of these nymphs, Arna and Aiûna, are said to have lived in a grotto at La Belle Hougue Point. One autumn evening, near the end of their joyful and peaceful life on earth, an angel guided them to a home beyond the stars. As Arna and Aiûna rose they were reminded of their happy time on earth and cried a tear of sadness from each eye. These pure drops of water could not be received by the ground and so became a spring with healing properties.
nThe Fairy Folklore Adventures trail takes place across Jersey Heritage sites from Friday 2 April to Sunday 18 April and is sponsored by Ogier. There are 18 fairy doors waiting to be discovered and you can learn the language of Les P’tits Faîtchieaux along the way. Visit jerseyheritage.org/whats-on/fairyfolklore for more details.