(Previously published in The Magical Times)
Everyone has heard the stories of how Irish leprechauns guard pots of gold, but a very different portrayal of fairies was found in medieval and Renaissance Britain, where fairies were believed to guard hoards of hidden treasure. The connection between Renaissance magicians and fairies is one that has been largely ignored, yet it is a strong link, as my research into the grimoires over many years has shown. I would like to share some of my discoveries with the reader, as it not only emphasises an important link in our magical history, but also reminds us how important it is keep an open mind, particularly when dealing with fairies and other spiritual creatures.
In a time before the stability of the banking system, people often buried their money, and had done for centuries since before the Romans. As a result of this the quest for treasure was a common one, and this made the ruins of fine buildings, such as castles, monasteries and stately homes particularly obvious targets. Likewise old burial mounds and sites were considered prime candidates for buried treasure. The digging up of such sites for treasure was a common occurrence, to the extent that the term ‘hill-digger’ was used for a person on the make.
So we can see that magicians had a strong incentive for conjuring fairies and seeking their aid – treasure! It was widely believed that hidden treasure had magical guardians, and that these might take a number of forms, such as demons, elementals and fairies. A number of the grimoires (from the root ‘grammar’), the magical books which described the tools and practices of the magician, also included lists and details of spiritual beings such as angels, demons and fairies. Furthermore, Renaissance magicians preferred to conduct their art in the wilds away from prying eyes and damning evidence. This is why the most famous of all grimoires, the Key of Solomon, states of spirits that “they will appear to us and talk to us more willingly in the stillness of lonely places”.
An instance of treasure hunting from the reign of King Henry VIII was recorded by the monk William Stapleton in 1528, when “one Denys of Hofton did bring me a book called Thesaurus Spirituum and, after that, another called Secreta Secretorum, a little ring, a plate, a circle, and also a sword for the art of digging.”
The reference to plates is interesting, as these were often used in such conjurations as part of the equipment. William Stapleton mentioned a plate made for the calling of Oberion, and it is also significant that Stapleton explained how after obtaining a license to seek treasure, he spoke again to Denys, who informed him he would bring him two cunning-men.
Of all the fairies, none turn up as frequently in the grimoires as the fairy king, Oberion, and his queen, Mycob. From the sixteenth to eighteenth century Oberion may be found in a number of grimoires, being called upon to provide assistance or command members of his court to do likewise. It is amusing to note that records show that Oberion refused to talk to priests who conjured him, though he was more loquacious with magicians! Although it is not widely realised today, priests were one of the three categories of help called for by treasure-hunters, the other two being magicians and cunning-folk.
The other commonly called fairies were the Seven Sisters, who are described as being under Oberion’s rule in the fairy hierarchy. The names of the Sisters are sometimes surprising, being Africa, Foca, Folla, Julia, Lilia, Rostilia and Venulla. All of these are mentioned, for example, in Sloane MS 3824 (1649), which declared:
“Those Kind of Terrestrial spirits are vulgarly Called of all people generally Fairies or Elves, and the natures and Quality of them are well Known to many, those spirits there are too who are Set over the Hierarchy as the Supreme head thereof, whose names are Mycob and Oberion, under whom again are Seven Sisters, placed as the next principal, whose names, Are, Lilia, Rostilia, Foca, Folla, Africa, Julia, Venulla, under whom again are many Legions as Subjects and Subservient &c: who (as aforesaid) wander to & fro upon the Earth, and have the Keeping also of many Treasures that are hidden or Buried.”
As with angels and demons, when these high-ranking fairies were conjured, the wording would ask them to send a fairy from lower in the hierarchy if they did not wish to appear themselves. It is also important to note that the fairies were being asked to deal with any spiritual creature which might be in situ as the guardian of the treasure, showing a confidence in the fairy’s ability to do such.
“one of you Lilia, Rostilia, Foca, Folla, Africa, Julia, Venulla, to appear visibly to us, or to send someone other of your Subjected Subservients to help and Assist us in the obtaining of the treasures that are hidden or Buried in this house or place, or Elsewhere adjacent hereabouts, And more Especially the spirit or spirits that hath the Keeping thereof, Leave, Be Discharged & quit therefrom.”
A good meal was also suggested as a bribe to gain the attention of the fairies, with a very particular menu suggested!
“These spirits may be also called upon as the other, in such places where Either they haunt or foremost frequent in, and the place which is appointed or set apart for action must be Suffumigated with good Aromatic Odours, and a Clean Cloth spread on the Ground or a table nine foot Distant from the Circle, upon which there must be Either a Chicken or any Kind of small joint, or piece of meat handsomely Roasted, and a white mantle, a Basin or little Dish like a Coffee Dish of fair Running water, half a pint of Salt in a bottle, a bottle of Ale Containing a Quart, Some food and a pint of Cream in a Dish provided Ceremonies they are much pleased & delighted with; and doth allure them to friendly familiarity willingly & Readily.”
The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) by Reginald showed a darker side to the conjuration of fairies, with the magician being instructed to use the spirit of a recently dead person to fetch the fairy Sibylia to him. This text was written as an attempt to disprove witchcraft and magick by dismissing its practices, but served to the contrary, by making large amounts of information about magical techniques available in a book to a much wider audience, at a time where incredibly expensive hand-copied manuscripts were the norm. Scot thus effectively provided a grimoire of practices for many magicians and cunning-folk of the time. A particularly noteworthy point in the conjuration is the use of a hazel wand, which is also seen in other grimoires, and is a popular tool for dealing with spiritual creatures, representing wisdom and not containing iron, which can hurt them.
The sixteenth century manuscript Folger Vb26 has some interesting images of Oberion, emphasising the ability of fairies to appear in forms they choose, and also the tendency to dress in clothes appropriate to the age (hence the popular goth fairy image of modern times!). Amongst these images is one of Oberion resembling a classical genie with a flame-type tail instead of legs, as well as images of him in medieval court clothes, dressed like an aristocrat of the time.
Although the fairy nobility were not constrained by location, one grimoire listed the types of fairies the magician might encounter in different places, in the same way that hierarchies of angels and demons were listed. These were:
Fairies, Hobgoblins, Elfs in Champion fields
Nymphs Marshes & ponds
Dryads & Hamadryads Woods
Satyrs & Sylvani Trees Breaks & Bushes
Napta & Agapta Flowers
Dodona Acorns, fruits
Palea & Feniliae Fodder & the Country
Magic Circle used for Conjuring Fairies.
An important detail regarding the magic circle for conjuring fairies is that the triangle often used to constrain demons is not included. Rather a pentagram is given as the place of manifestation for the fairy. Even then the magicians were sensible enough not to try and apply the same rules to fairies as to demons, recognising that the fairies were already far closer to the physical realm and able to come to it at will rather than needing to be summoned as was the case for many other spiritual creatures.
Scot described the fairy Sibylia as one of three sisters, the other two being named as Milia and Achilia. When conjuring them, the description states that, “there will come before thee three faire women, and all in white clothing”, indicating that the fairy sisters are what are also sometimes called white ladies. As I hope I have demonstrated, the grimoires are a rich source of material which is now opening up as interest in the fairy realms and their inhabitants grows ever greater.
Anon. Folger Vb26. 1583-9.
Rankine, David. The Book of Treasure Spirits. London, Avalonia, 2009.
Scot, Reginald. Discoverie of Witchcraft. London, 1584.
Skinner, Stephen, & David Rankine. The Veritable Key of Solomon. Singapore, Golden Hoard, 2008.
Skinner, Stephen & David Rankine. The Keys to the Gateway of Magic. Singapore, Golden Hoard, 2005.
Turner, Dawson. On Treasure-Trove and Invocation of Spirits. Norfolk Archaeology, 1:46-64, 1846.
 The Veritable Key of Solomon, Skinner & Rankine, 2008:79.
 Another name for the De Nigromancia of Roger Bacon.
 A book of theurgic magic dealing almost exclusively with angels.
 On Treasure Trove and Invocation of Spirits, Turner, 1846.
 The Book of Treasure Spirits, Rankine, 2009:109-10.
 Ibid, 112-3.
 Ibid, 109.
 Discoverie of Witchcraft, Scot, 1584, Book XV, ch.8.
 Discoverie of Witchcraft, Scot, 1584, Book XV, ch.10.