Fairy-Lore of the Pyrenees: Part I.

Fairy-lore, at least as understood within the 18th/19th century romantic context as so popularised by works such as those of the Grimm brothers within ethnographic literature, is curiously rare within the Pyrenees, at least within the character seen within mainland France and as recorded by Thomas Keightley.[1] Some examples do however exist, hidden away within caves, forests and mountain peaks, and there are presented below (Part I) three of these scarce examples, as recorded within travelogues and legendariums from this period. In Part II, further examples will be presented and dissected in relation to broader European fairy-lore.

It may be worth briefly qualifying what constitutes a ‘fairy’ or ‘sprite’ within ‘traditional’ European folklore. Generally (and this term is used advisably), this refers to some manner of natural spirit (usually small in stature) that personifies some manner of genius loci, and can be said to reach back to a reflection of pre-Christian belief in a spirit of place, minor ‘Pagan’ deity, or associated household spirit that could be both puckish, malign or benign, as so-whether it willed. Typically, they are etymologically linked to the concept of ‘small-folk’ in various ethnographic contexts, they inhabited the margins of human/natural interaction, both aiding, abetting and harming, in the manner of the ‘elves’ of folk belief, and within the 19th century they became transformed into the winged creatures so beloved of folklorists today. It is of course, within the space of a short article, impossible to trace back into the dim past the origins (in a Pyrenean context at least, although this may be the subject of a future volume) of the various and curiously scarce ‘fairy’ motifs within the Pyrenees, but it is worth recording some of the most interesting examples below. It is also worth noting that, within the French context at least, these beliefs have all but been eradicated.

Beginning within the French cultural regions of the Pyrenees, Les Blanquettes is a local term in the Haute Pyrenees for fairies, who are attributed with the power to raise storms, bring luck or misfortune to people, and are said to live in the interior of the Pic de Bergons, where they spin flax into fine thread.

The peasantry have been careful to prepare in a clean and empty chamber, the repast which they wish to offer to their guests. A white cloth covers the table upon which is placed a loaf, a knife, a jug of water, or of wine, with a cup and a candle in the midst. They believe that those who offer the best food, may hope to have their herds increased, their harvests abundant, and that marriage will crown their dearest hopes; but those who fail in these attentions to the fairies, and who neglect to make preparations worthy of the spirits who come to visit them, may expect the greatest misfortunes; fire will consume their dwellings, wild animals devour their flocks, hail will destroy their harvests, or their infants die in the cradle. Upon the first day of the year, the father, the eldest person, or the master of each house, takes the bread which has been offered to the fairies, breaks it, and after having dipped it in the water or the wine, contained in the jug, distributes it among the family, and also among the servants; after this they wish each other a good year, and breakfast upon the bread.[2]

Additionally, in the Bearn valleys, Les Blanquettes are also said to dwell in cavern mouths, mountain peaks, dress in white and often appear in a circular formation. Sadly, when asked at the time that this was reported, the local consulted said that he believed that these were only shadows, and thus that fairy-lore in that area was almost dead.[3]

There also exists a very specific legend from this region, pertaining to the Abadies family of Adast in Cauterets (Hautes-Pyrenees) with a domestic fairy, the fairy Abacia:

In the days when the fairy Urganda (one day old, another young) had her favourite among certain knights-errant whom she especially protected; when the fairy Monto, foundress of the city of Mantua [Lombardy, Italy], changed herself into an adder once a week, and Melusina, from the highest tower of the ancient castle of the Lusignans, announced with mournful and piercing shrieks their destruction and the ruin of the royal house; beneatha  hillock to the south of Adast, in the valley of Lavedan, the fairy Abacia remained enchanted in a fountain, which is no longer on, being at this day dry.

Tradition has not told us whether she was of the first, the second, or the third order of fairies; but Desinty, more powerful than the all, had carefully assigned to each the part she had to perform on earth, and it was written in her immutable decrees, that the fairy Abacia could only be disenchanted by a man not married, who was fasting, and yet had eaten. How many years elapsed before any one thus qualified appeared to release the imprisoned fairy, tradition has also forgotten to inform us.

However, it so happened that, towards reaping tie the youngest heir of the house of Abadie of Adast went abroad into his harvest fields, having for his companion the heir of Vignaux and Natala; and going in to the one where the fountain was with the fairy Abacia hidden under its waters, took an ear of corn, and breaking a grain between his teeth, cast it away without swallowing it.

At the same instant a young and beautiful woman stood before him, who, fixing on him the look which especially belongs to fairies, said in the sweetest of voices, “You have disenchanted me, and ought now to take me as your wife. Do you consent?” The young man, enamoured of her beauty, readily agreed. “My fate (she added) still depends on another engagement. Promise that you will never call me ‘lady’, or ‘lady of the water.’” He promised.

Two children, beautiful as angels, were the fruits of this union; every thing prospered in their happy home; but at an epoch, of whose date there exists no trace, it happened that the husband went up to see his hay cut on the summit of the mountain neighbouring to Cauteretz. As he returned in the evening with his servants, he saw with astonishment and anger, that the unripe grain of his fields had been cut down and piled in shocks; and his wrath redoubled  on arriving at his house he learned that it had been done by his wife’s command. He refused to listen to the gentle explanations which she would have given him; and at once to humiliate and punish her, cried out, “Lady – lady of the water!” The fairy instantly disappeared.

Then did he weep, groan, and utter bitter cries; but he was destined never to behold her more. Sometimes, when he was absent, she would come and embrace her children, combing their hair, and always with a golden comb.

One evening when she was alone with then, she said, and her tears fell as she spoke, “It is owing to your father’s perjury that I have not done for you all that my power as a fairy might have enabled me to undertake, and now my destiny calls me into another region; but from thence I shall watch over you. Love virtue, walk in the paths of honour, and learn what I am permitted to disclose to you of the secrets of futurity. Know, that one of your descendants will have much renown, and that a war-like and illustrious nation of the north will call him to reign over their nation”.

Having thus spoken, the fairy Abacia disappeared – and for ever![4]

Within this we can identify a few key themes that emerge in various ‘fairy’ tales across Western Europe, namely the disenchanting of a fairy via a man, the marriage that ensues, the bearing of children from the union, the ‘profane name(s)’ that must not be uttered, the subsequent uttering and the disappearance thereupon by the fairy wife. An additional note of interest is the mention of a golden comb – again, a typical feature of fairy-lore.

Moving across the granite Pyrenean spine, into the Basque Country, we find several examples of ‘Fairy’-lore, as recorded in the excellent Rev. Wentworth Webster’s ‘Basque Legends’.[5] Particularly of note is the legend of ‘The Lady Pigeon and Her Comb’, accompanied as it is with an interpretation:[6]

A mother and her son scratch a meagre existence, so much so that the son decides to venture off to make a living, and comes across a forest that lies a considerable distance away. Within the forest he finds a castle and, knocking upon the door, he is answered by a Tartaro.[7] Upon revealing the nature of his wretched state, the boy is spared by the giant, and given a very specific task, whose nature is strangely charitable. He is to leave the area in a few days and lie in wait for three young ladies who bathe in the giant’s garden. The boy is charged with stealing the middle of the three ‘pigeon cloaks’ that are discarded by the ladies whilst they bathe, upon which the lady whose cloak is stolen will be forced to remain in the water and promise to help the boy always. The boy thus does as he is told to, and the outcome is that the boy ventures, with an assurance of employment, to the father of the lady’s house the next day.

The father informs him that there is much work to do, much of it manual, and indeed much of it overwhelming: to pull up oaks by their roots, cut them into lengths, sort branches from trunks and roots. After he must plough, harrow and sow the land with wheat, finally creating a small cake of the self-same wheat by midday, lest he be killed.

The boy agrees, yet goes back to the forest to muse, pensively, upon which the fairy lady appears to him assuring him of her help. In order to do so she throws her comb into the air, utter various incantations which will mimic the workload of the boy, including the creation of the cake. By noon the cake is ready, which he races to take to the father. The father however is suspicious, and says to the mother ‘Be careful he is not in league with your daughter!’. I now defer to the legend itself:

His wife says to him, “Take care that he is not in league with your daughter.”

The husband says to her, “What do you mean? They have never seen each other.”

This husband was a devil. The young lady told our lad that her father is going to send him to fetch a ring in a river far away. “He will tell you to choose a sword from the midst of ever so many others, but you will take an old sabre and leave the others.”

The next day his wife told him that he ought to send him to fetch a ring which he had lost in the bed of a river. He sends him then, and tells him that he must choose a sword; that he will have quantities of evil fish to conquer. The lad says to him that he will not have those fine swords, that he has enough with this old sabre, which was used to scrape off the dirt.

When he arrived at the bank of the river he sat there weeping, not knowing what to do. The young lady comes to him, and says:

“What! You are weeping! Did not I tell you that I would always help you?”

It was eleven o’clock. The young lady says to him

“You must cut me in pieces with this sabre, and throw all the pieces into the water.”

The lad will not do it by any means. He says to her:

“I prefer to die here on the spot than to make you suffer.”

The lady says to him, “It is nothing at all what I shall suffer, and you must do it directly–the favourable moment is passing by like this, like this.”

The lad, trembling all over, begins with his sabre. He throws all the pieces into the river; but, lo I a part of the lady’s little finger sticks to a nail in his shoe. The young lady comes out of the water and says to him:

“You have not thrown everything into the water. My little finger is wanting.” 1

After having looked for it, he sees that he has it under his foot, hooked on to a nail. The young lady gives him the ring. She tells him to go without losing a moment, for he must give it to the king at noon. He arrives happily (in time). The young lady, as she goes into the house, bangs the door with all her might and begins to cry out:

“Ay! ay! ay! I have crushed my little finger.”

And she makes believe that she has done it there. The king was pleased. He tells him that on the morrow he must tame a horse and three young fillies. 2 The lad says to him:

“I will try.”

The master gives him a terrible club. The young lady says to him in the evening:

“The horse which my father has spoken to you about will be himself. You will strike him with all your might with your terrible club on the nose, and he will yield and be conquered. The first filly will be my eldest sister. You will strike her on the chest with all your force, and she also will yield and will be conquered. I shall come the last. You will make a show of beating me too, and you will hit the ground with your stick, and I too will yield, and I shall be conquered.”

The next day the lad does as the young lady has told him. The horse comes. He was very high-spirited, but our lad strikes him on the nose, he yields, and is conquered. He does the same thing with the fillies. He beats them with his terrible club, they yield, and are conquered; and when the third comes he makes a show of hitting her, and strikes the earth. She yields, and all go off..

The next day he sees the master with his lips swollen, and with all his face as black as soot. The young ladies had also pain in the chest. The youngest also gets up very late indeed in order to do as the others.

The master says to him that he sees he is a valuable servant, and very clever, and that he will give him one of his daughters for wife, but that he must choose her with his eyes shut. And the young lady says to him:

“You will choose the one that will give you her hand twice, and in any way you will recognise me, because you will find that my little finger is wanting. I will always put that in front.”

The next day the master said to him:

“We are here now; you shall now choose the one you wish for, always keeping your eyes shut.”

He shuts them then; and the eldest daughter approaches, and gives him her hand. He says to the king:

“It is very heavy, (this hand); too heavy for me. I will not have this one.”

The second one approaches, she gives him her hand, and he immediately recognises that the little finger is wanting. He says to the king:

“This is the one I must have.”

They are married immediately. They pass some days like that. His wife says to him;

“It is better for us to be off from here, and to flee, otherwise my father will kill us.”

They set off, then, that evening at ten o’clock, and the young lady spits before the door of her room, saying:

“Spittle, with thy power, you shall speak in my place.” 2 And they go off a long way. At midnight, the father goes to the door of the lad and his wife, and knocks at the door.; they do not answer. He knocks harder, and then the spittle says to him:

“Just now nobody can come into this room.”

The father says, “It is I. I must come in.”

“It is impossible,” says the spittle again.

The father grows more and more angry; the spittle makes him stop an hour like that at the door. At last, not being able to do anything else, he smashes the door, and goes inside. What is his terrible rage when he sees the room empty. He goes off to his wife, and says to her:

“You were not mistaken; they were well acquainted, and they were really in league with one another, and they have both escaped together; but I will not leave them like that. I will go off after them, and I shall find them sooner or later.”

He starts off. Our gentleman and lady had gone very far, but the young lady was still afraid. She said to her husband:

“He might overtake us even now. I–I cannot turn my head; but (look) if you can see something.”

The husband says to her: “Yes, something terrible is coming after us; I have never seen a monster like this.”

The young lady throws up a comb, and says:

“Comb, with thy power, let there be formed before my father hedges and thorns, and before me a good road.”

It is done as she wished. They go a good way, and she says again:

“Look, I beg you, if you see anything again.”

The husband looks back, and sees nothing; but in the clouds he sees something terrible, and tells so to his wife. And his wife says, taking her comb:

“Comb, with thy power, let there be formed where he is a fog, and hail, and a terrific storm.”

It happens as they wish. They go a little way farther, and his wife says to him:

“Look behind you, then, if you see anything.”

The husband says to her: “Now it is all over with us. We have him here after us; he is on us. Use all your power.”

She throws again a comb immediately, and says:

“Comb, with thy power, form between my father and me a terrible river, and let him be drowned there for ever.”

As soon as she has said that, they see a mighty water, and there their father and enemy drowns himself.

The young lady says, “Now we have no more fear of him, we shall live in peace.”

They go a good distance, and arrive at a country into which the young lady could not enter. She says to her husband:

“I can go no farther. It is the land of the Christians there; I cannot enter into it. You must go there the first. You must fetch a priest. He must baptize me, and afterwards I will come with you; but you must take great care that nobody kisses you. If so, you will forget me altogether. Mind and pay great attention to it; and you, too, do not you kiss anyone.”

He promises his wife that he will not. He goes, then, on, and on, and on. He arrives in his own country, and as he is entering it an old aunt recognises him, and comes behind him, and gives him two kisses. 2 It is all over with him. He forgets his wife, as if he had never seen her, and he stays there amusing himself, and taking his pleasure.

The young lady, seeing that her husband never returned, that something had happened to him, and that she could no longer count upon him, she takes a little stick, and striking the earth, she says:

“I will that here, in this very spot, is built a beautiful hotel, with all that is necessary, servants, and all the rest.”

There was a beautiful garden, too, in front, and she had put over the door:

“Here they give to eat without payment.”

One day the young man goes out hunting with two comrades, and while they were in the forest they said one to the other:

“We never knew of this hotel here before. We must go there too. One can eat without payment.”

They go off then. The young lady recognises her husband very well, but he does not recognise her at all. She receives them very well. These gentlemen are so pleased with her, that one of them asks her if she will not let him pass the night with her. 1 The young lady says to him, “Yes.” The other asks also, “I, too, was wishing it.” The young lady says to him:

“To-morrow then, you, if you wish it, certainly.”

And her husband says to her: “And I after to-morrow then.”

The young lady says to him, “Yes.” One of the young men remains then. He passes the evening in great delight, and when the hour comes for going to bed, the young lady says to him:

“When you were small you were a choir-boy, and they used to powder you; this smell displeases me in bed. Before coming there you must comb yourself. Here is a comb, and when you have got all the powder out, you may come to bed.”

Our lad begins then to comb his hair, but never could he get all the powder out, such quantities came out, and were still coming out of his head; and he was still at it when the young lady rose. The lad said to her:

“What! you are getting up before I come.”

“And do you not see that it is day? I cannot stop there any longer. People will come.”

Our young man goes off home without saying a word more. He meets his comrade who was to pass the night with this young lady. He says to him:

“You are satisfied? You amused yourself well?”

“Yes, certainly, very well. If the time flies as fast with you as it did with me you will amuse yourself well.”

He goes off then to this house. The young lady says to him, after he had had a good supper:

“Before going to bed you must wash your feet. The water will be here in this big copper; when you have them quite clean you may come to bed.”

Accordingly he washes one, and when he has finished washing the other, the first washed is still black and dirty. He washes it again, and finds the foot that he has just well washed very dirty again. He kept doing like that for such a long time. When the young lady gets up, the gentleman says to her:

“What! You are getting up already, without me coming?”

“Why did you not then come before day? I cannot stay any longer in bed. It is daylight, and the people will begin (to come).”

Our young man withdraws as the other had done. Now it is the turn of her husband. She serves him still better than the others; nothing was wanting at his supper. When the hour for going to bed arrives, they go to the young lady’s room; when they are ready to get into bed, the young lady says to him:

“Put out the light.”

He puts it out, and it lights again directly. He puts it out again, and it lights again as soon as it is put out. He passes all the night like that in his shirt, never being able to put out that light. When daylight is come, the young lady says to him:

“You do not know me then? You do not remember how you left your wife to go and fetch a priest?”

As soon as she had said that he strikes his head, and says to her:

“Only now I remember all that–up to this moment I was as if I had never had a wife at all–how sorry I am; but indeed it is not my fault, not at all. I never wished it like that, and it is my old aunt who kissed me twice without my knowing it.”

“It is all the same now. You are here now. You have done penance enough; your friends have done it too. One passed the whole night getting powder out of his head, and the other in washing his feet, and they have not slept with me any more than you have. At present you must go into your country, and you must get a priest. He shall baptize me, and then we will go into your country.”

The husband goes off and returns with the priest, and she is baptized, and they set out for his country. When they have arrived there, she touched the earth with her stick, and says to it:

“Let there be a beautiful palace, with everything that is needed inside it, and a beautiful garden before the house.”

As soon as it is said, it is done. They lived there very rich and very happy with the old mother of the lad, and as they lived well they died well too.

It has been suggested that this myth relates to the age-old cycle of weather and fertility. Webster (1879) writes that the opening of the story represents man in misery, without the knowledge or aid of cultivation and agriculture. The old king is Winter personified, and his daughter is Spring, her golden comb being the sun. The young man ‘who, without her aid, can effect nothing, is man in relation to the frozen ground, which needs her aid to quicken it into fertility. It is the old Sun-god, the Cyclops, who tells him where to find, and how to woo, his fairy bride.’[8] However, in order to be married, he must acquire the skills of managing the forest, sowing and reaping corn, and creating the cake, all of which are only learned with the help of the lady: ‘The taming of the horses shows the need and help of domestic animals in agriculture. These things are necessary to be known ere spring can free herself from winter’s dominion and marry her chosen lover.’[9] Ultimately after the escape from her father (Winter) and the conjuring of vegetation, it is the swollen river and rains of Spring that sweep Winter away, however she is unable to enter the Christian land. This has been interpreted by Webster as the need of the natural powers for the civilizing effect of agriculture for their potential to be reached, and the man, scared by the prospect of such work, it lured back to nomadic, hunter-gatherer ways. He forgets his bride in the pleasure of the chase and spends the rest of the Winter hunting. However, the lure of the Spring, with her food in abundance draws man back into the world of agriculture, and he submits to her, the wedding of earth and husbandry ensues, and the warm glow of Summer can be looked forward to.

In Part II we will explore more fairy tales from the Pyrenees and delve deeper into their interpretations…



[1] Keightley, Thomas, The Fairy Mythology : Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries (London: H.G. Bon, 1870).

[2] Murray, James, A Summer in the Pyrenees Vol. II (London: John Macrone, 1837), p. 173.

[3] Costello, Louisa Stuart, Béarn and the Pyrenees, Volume 2 (London: Richard Bentley, 1844), p. 335.

[4] Chatterton, Lady Georgina, The Pyrenees: With Excursions into Spain, Volume 2 (London: Saunders & Otley, 1843), pp. 208 – 211.

[5] Webster, Wentworth, Basque Legends (London: Walbrook & Co., 1879).

[6] Webster, 1879, pp. 120 – 132.

[7] This is a cyclopean giant frequently found within Basque mythology.

[8] Webster, 1879, p. 131.

[9] Ibid.

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