The Rain Will Make A Door III: Faerie and the Dead

The first two installments of this series, using Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as a mythic human-tale of the history of magic, introduced an overview of British fairy traditions, and surveyed a variety of magical operations for producing a substance by which one could perceive spirits. This time, we begin exploring some of the pre-modern contexts for how fairies and the dead were considered connected.

One specific feature of the old disreputable magic which Gilbert Norrell so ardently opposes is its necromancy. Whether in his original pact with the Gentleman to return Lady Pole to the land of the living (at least for half of her time) or his apprentice’s raising of the Neapolitan soldiers, it is the application of wild magic to manipulating the dead that seems to be considered so particularly “un-Norrellite”: not merely uncivilised but downright dangerous. This should perhaps not surprise us. Associations and conflations of necromancy and nigromancy have made it “black” (that is, illicit) magic by definition. Historically, Christian authorities have argued less over whether necromancy was evil and more over how it was evil. The Church was (indeed, remains) extremely invested in regulating death practices such as burial rites and remembrance services. Professional pride and its trade secrets die hard. 

Definitionally, there holds a Greek distinction between working the shades or spirits of the dead (sciomancy) and the actual bones, flesh and fluids of the corpse, which is necromancy (im)proper. This very taxonomic language is attested in early modern records of sciomantic operations, such as those of The Excellent Booke of the Art of Magick (British Library Additional MS 36674). 

It is interesting to note that the necromancy of the latter dirty-handed sort in Clarke’s tale involves maiming or otherwise desecrating a body: from Lady Pole’s finger to poor Jonathan’s concern to ensure Mrs Strange returns to him in whole living body, not as an animated yet rotting corpse speaking the language of Hell. It is a set of practices with especially embodied means and results. Indeed, there is surely plenty to be said of Lady Pole’s missing finger - the finger of a dead person having particularly interesting sorcerous applications, especially in historical Northern European folk necromancy. But that matter surely deserves a more focused post at a later date.

Two specific positions on necromancy dominate pre-modern Europe. Firstly, following from the Reformation, a newer position emerged - that it is impossible to raise the dead or summon their shades, as this is solely the power of the Almighty and his Son, and that it is a treat being mostly saved for Judgement Day. Any apparent ghost sighting was, at best, the result of confusion or trickery. The necromancer was a charlatan, a foul cozener fleecing gullible marks. Shades of the changing context and meaning of the term goetes in the ancient world flit about this conception;  of powerful sorcerers of the dead transformed in the popular imagination to antiquity’s equivalent of unscrupulous TV psychics and con-men. 

Alternatively, there was also an anxiety - exacerbated especially after the Reformation abolishes Purgatory - that an apparent ghost was in fact a demon in disguise, as “Helen of Troy” in Marlowe’s Faust. This position only further linked necromancy with the nigromancy of consorting with devils. Such a perspective was also used to explain away the witch of Endor’s apparently Scripturally-evidenced sciomancy.

But what of fairies and the dead? What specific links are there between them in pre-modern magic? In the judgement of at least one historian, this turns out to be ‘the most consistent association’ for the Fair Folk. Noted political philosopher of the mid-seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes judged that ‘Faeries are Spirits and Ghosts’, and that ‘Faeries and Ghosts inhabite Darknesse, Solitudes, and Graves.’ [Lathan, The Elizabethan Fairies (Columbia University Press: New York, 1930), p. 45] Scottish clergymen and theologians - especially Robert Kirk and James Garden - relayed similar opinions, and the conclusion ‘that these learned commentators accurately reflected popular belief is illustrated by the fact that many people claimed to have seen dead friends and relatives in fairyland.’ [Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk & Familiar Spirits, p. 18] At the very least then, ‘fairies were often defined as either departed souls themselves, or as existing in, or having access to, a spirit-realm inhabited by the dead.’ [Wilby, CF&FS p. 69] This realm was not necessarily entirely tangibly physical: ‘after natural death human souls might find themselves in fairyland, or living humans taken into or visiting the fairy realm could find themselves unwilling or unable to leave, resulting in the death of the mortal body.’ [Wilby, CF&FS, p. 102] Significantly in light of the events of Clarke’s story, such a visit or forceful abduction “in spirit” - a sort of kidnapping of the Christian soul - could also occur to those with imbalanced imaginations: ‘ravished out of their bodies & caried to such places’. [James, Daemonologie (London, 1597) p. 39] Of course contact and compact with the Fae could itself encourage and exacerbate such reveries and fugues, and such states habituated the soul to being removed, and increased likelihood of further and deeper abductions. The more you were fairy-taken the easier it was to be taken further. Lost Hope, indeed. 

We do have a specific example of a magical operation concerned with both fairies (one fairy in particular, in point of fact) and the dead. It is taken from witchcraft skeptic and anti-Catholic demonologist Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (London, 1584) which, although written ‘to prove the worthlessness of its contents… unwittingly ended up democratizing ritual magic rather than undermining it’, making Scot’s Discoverie ‘what amounted to the first grimoire printed in the English language’. [Owen Davies, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009), p. 70] 

It is thus especially significant that this ‘experiment' should be found in a foundational text of English magic, albeit one of which Mr Norrell would doubtlessly disapprove.

“FIRST fast and praie three daies, and absteine thee from all filthinesse; go to one that is new buried, such a one as killed himselfe or destroied himselfe wilfullie: or else get thee promise of one that shalbe hanged, and let him sweare an oth to thee, after his bodie is dead, that his spirit shall come to thee, and doo thee true service, at thy commandements, in all dales, houres, and minuts. And let no persons see thy doings, but thy fellow. And about eleven a clocke in the night, go to the place where he was buried, and saie with a bold faith & hartie desire, to have the spirit come that thou doost call for, thy fellow having a candle in his left hand, and in his right hand a christall stone, and saie these words following, the maister having a hazell wand in his right hand, and these names of God written thereupon, Tetragrammaton + Adonay + Agla + Craton + Then strike three strokes on the ground, and saie;

Arise N. Arise N. Arise N. I conjure thee spirit N. by the resurrection of our Lord Jesu Christ, that thou doo obey to my words, and come unto me this night verelie and trulie, as thou beleevest to be saved at the daie of judgement. And I will sweare to thee on oth, by the perill of my soule, that if thou wilt come to me, and appeare to me this night, and shew me true visions in this christall stone, and fetch me the fairie Sibylia, that I may talke with hir visiblie, and she may come before me, as the conjuration leadeth: and in so doing, I will give thee an almesse deed, and praie for thee N. to my Lord God, wherby thou maiest be restored to thy salvation at the resurrection daie, to be received as one of the elect of God, to the everlasting glorie, Amen.

The maister standing at the head of the grave, his fellow having in his hands the candle and the stone, must begin the conjuration as followeth, and the spirit will appeare to you in the christall stone, in a faire forme of a child of twelve yeares of age. And when he is in, feele the stone, and it will be hot; and feare nothing, for he or shee will shew manie delusions, to drive you from your worke. Feare God, but feare him not. This is to constraine him, as followeth.”

This operation does not employ a fairy to return someone from the dead, but rather raises a ghost to go fetch a fairy; indeed, by many accounts, a/The Queen of Fairies. 

Journals left by seventeenth-century minor aristocrat Goodwin Wharton detailing his time, eventual love affair, and magical work with the cunning-woman Mary Parish include a particularly pertinent example of a very different manner in which ghostly intermediaries and faerie queens related in a personal practice. Parish had secured a form of the condemned man’s promise, mentioned in the operation above, from a friend she had met in debtors’ prison, one George Whitmore. After George was executed, this promise to serve Mary - motivated partly it seems by Whitmore’s guilt at his recidivism not to mention some apparently ardent infatuation - proved powerful enough to bring his ghost back to act as a sort of familiar. Only visible and audible to Parish however, Wharton soon demanded that George’s allegiance and services be formally passed to him, so he could more directly communicate with the helpful specter. Yet this desire was thwarted not only by the fact that George’s deal was with Mary (highlighting the significance of the personal pact and the spirit’s displeasure at a potential reassignment) but also by Wharton’s existing arrangements and promises to the/a queen of the fairies (who called themselves Lowlanders), whom Goodwin had contacted through Mary, but not yet actually met or seen:

‘The transfer of George was further complicated by the queen of the Lowlanders, who demanded that Goodwin stop attempting to have George as his own personal spirit. At first Goodwin was a little resistant, but the queen insisted that if he would not willingly show her this preference, he should never see any of the Lowlanders. She wanted to be his number-one contact with the spirit world. Goodwin had little choice but to agree to her terms. As a consolation, George agreed to answer any questions directed at him as long as Goodwin turned his back and did not look directly where George stood. However, Goodwin could not understand the spirit very clearly, as he spoke in a low, soft voice close to Mary’s ear. So throughout their relationship, Goodwin relied on Mary to communicate with George.’ [Frances Timbers, The Magical Adventures of Mary Parish: The Occult World of Seventeenth-Century London (Truman State University Press: Kirksville, 2016), p. 69]

The mediation of Wharton’s life and magical career through Parish’s visions and ministrations proved to be a defining characteristic of their magic together. Timbers paints a picture of them constantly arranging spiritual experiences and results, being met with defeat and disappointment, and concocting ever-more-elaborate reasons for their failures; reasons which flattered Wharton’s ego and of course necessitated further magical workings and further, apparently ever-frustrated, lost hope