Meetings with the Queen of Elphame: A Magical and Protective Fairy Queen
Fairies are common beings in European folklore, perhaps even since pre-Roman times. They are known in most cultures and in different regions around the world. Many legends say that the fairies’ leader is a mysterious queen who wisely ruled all of Fairyland.
There are at least a few well known goddesses that have been linked to fairies. One of them was the famous queen Morrigan. Another one was Danu, a Celtic mother. But the most mysterious of the supposed fairy rulers is arguably the Queen of Elphame (or Elfame), who may be associated with the Scottish goddess Nicnevin.
In Scottish and Northern British folklore the name ''Queen of Elphame'', means ''Queen of Fairyland''. It is unknown when she appeared in history or legends for the first time, but she was mentioned in several old folk stories and also in documents of witch trials.
Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen. (c. 1788) By Henry Fuseli. (Public Domain)
Legendary Meetings with the Queen of Elphame
It is not easy to find resources describing the Queen of Elphame. She did, however, appear in the legend of Thomas the Rhymer (c. 1220 – 1298.) He was said to be a laird and sort of a local prophet, who lived in the Borders region of Scotland. The tale described a man who was helped by the Queen of Elphame and returned from his time with her with the gift of prophecy. In one version of this text the mystical being is the queen of a nameless kingdom. In the translation of Thomas the Rymer by Robert Grave the queen says:
''I'm not the Queen of Heaven, Thomas,
That name does not belong to me;
I am but the Queen of fair Elphame
Come out to hunt in my follie.''
The Queen of Elphame appeared in many witchcraft trials. For example, she was linked to one in 1597 when Andro Man was accused of practicing magic. During his confession he claimed to have had an intimate relationship with the Queen of Elphame. According to his testimony, for more than thirty years he had been making love to and learning from the leader of the fairies. Andro Man said that he had several children with the Queen and she had granted him with gifts of knowledge and healing. Moreover, according to a legend based on the previously described ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, he claimed that he was also kidnapped by the Queen to have a sexual affair with her.
The Queen of Elphame meets Thomas. (Public Domain)
This figure reportedly used to meet with women as well. It is said for example that she appeared in front of two women who were believed to be witches – Bessie Dunlap and Isobel Gowdie. Bessie claimed that the Queen of Elphame came to her for the first time when she was in labor. According to both women, the queen visited them many times. She reportedly taught them how to heal people and animals.
The legend of the fairy queen became an inspiration for many famous artists and writers. This character appeared in plays by Shakespeare and his followers. All of the fairies they presented in their texts may be associated with the Queen of Elphame.
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‘Lily Fairy’ (1888) by Luis Ricardo Falero. (Public Domain)
The Goddess Who Ruled Fairyland
The Scottish Queen of Elphame reminds one of the Norse Freyja and her attributes. She is associated with magic, childbirth, and healing. This goddess has been described as a young and beautiful woman who could steal the heart of any man.
"The Arrival of the King & Queen of Fairies" - E Stuart Hardy. (CC BY NC 2.0)
Nonetheless, the Queen of Elphame is probably based on the goddess Nicnevin, also known as Nicneven and Nicnevan. Her name means ''the daughter of the divine''. Nicneven is a protective deity whose feast was connected with autumn celebrations, especially Samhain. In Celtic legends she was able to communicate with the spirits of the dead and was related to witchcraft and magic. The goddess was one of the inspirational deities in Druid traditions as well. She was believed to provide wisdom and magical ability.
Sir Walter Scott described her in Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft:
''(…) a gigantic and malignant female, the Hecate of this mythology, who rode on the storm and marshalled the rambling host of wanderers under Her grim banner. This hag (in all respects the reverse of the Mab or Titania of the Celtic creed) was called Nicneven in that later system which blended the faith of the Celts and of the Goths on this subject. The great Scottish poet Dunbar has made a spirited description of this Hecate riding at the head of witches and good neighbors (fairies, namely), sorceresses and elves, indifferently, upon the ghostly eve of All-Hallow Mass. In Italy we hear of the hags arraying themselves under the orders of Diana (in Her triple character of Hecate, doubtless) and Herodias, who were the joint leaders of their choir, But we return to the more simple fairy belief, as entertained by the Celts before they were conquered by the Saxons.''
In Scottish folklore, Nicneven was considered to be the Queen of the Fairies, but she was also well known in the other parts of the Celtic world. Sometimes, she was described with some similarities to the Greek goddess Hecate, but normally she was believed to be a Scottish fairy. Her story is full of contrasts and some even saw her as a diabolical goddess.
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A Renaissance of Fairies
The Queen of Elphame is also commonly seen as one of the symbols of Fairyland, which is still important to the people who follow some pagan belief systems. Although Christianity doesn't allow its followers to believe in fairies, many priests claim that the creatures could be representations of angels.
Fairies became a popular art motif during the 19th century. They appeared in many novels, operas, poems, and paintings. With the growing popularity of fantasy novels and movies, descriptions of the Queen of Elphame and her court started to appear even more often.
People in many regions of the world believe that they have seen real fairies. They sometimes build fairy houses for the Queen of Elphame and her court. No matter how different and advanced from ancient people one feels, it seems that there is still a need for similar supportive spirits in today’s world.
‘Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things.’ By Sophie Gengembre Anderson. (Public Domain)
Top Image: The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania. (1849) By Joseph Noel Paton. Source: Public Domain
Patricia Telesco, 365 Goddess: a daily guide to the magic and inspiration of the goddess, 1998.
Rossell Hope Robbins , The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, 1959.
Sir Walter Scott, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, 2006.
The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ffcc/ffcc002.htm
Folklore or literature: images of fairies and witches in Shakespeare's plays (Фольклор или литература: образы фейри и ведьм в пьесах Шекспира) by Sergei Zotow. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/12744766/Folklore_or_literature_images_of_fairies_and_witches_in_Shakespears_plays
Origin of Fairies, by Megan Randall. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/6861230/Origin_of_Fairies