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A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West

Anna Eliza Bray

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Tags: Folklore

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A collection of six fairy tales. From the Introduction: 'You have read, my young friends, in your History of England, some accounts of the ancient Britons, and of the Druids, who were priests and judges among them. The Druids lived very much together, and formed schools, in which they taught such arts and learning as they were acquainted with; and they studied much the stars on heights and open places, such as those on Dartmoor, where a great many of them dwelt. They said it was unlawful to perform the rites and ceremonies of their religion within a covered temple or under a roof of any kind.'

This book has 115 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1854.

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Excerpt from 'A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West'

Now this wild tract of land, as well as other parts of Devonshire and Cornwall, is considered to be haunted by a set of little creatures, called Pixies. They are not like children; for, though they are small, and can sometimes be seen, it is said they can fly as well as run, and creep through key-holes, and get into the bells of flowers, and many other places where little boys and girls cannot creep. The Pixies are sometimes good, and do kind acts; but more frequently they are mischievous, and do a great deal of harm to men, women, and children, if they have a spite against them; and often hurt the cattle.

Some people say they are the souls of poor children who die unbaptised, and others think that they are a kind of fairies, but more frolicsome, and have more power to do either good or harm. They are, however, generally considered a distinct race; for if you could but see a Pixy, my young friends, you would see at once how different was such a creature from a Fairy. Indeed, it is matter of tradition, that the Faries wished very much to establish themselves in Devonshire, but the Pixies would not hear of it; and a terrible war ensued. Oberon was, with his host, defeated; and his majesty received a wound in the leg which proved incurable; none of the herbs in his dominions have hitherto had the least beneficial effects, though his principal secretary and attendant, Puck, has been in search of one of a healing nature ever since.

Having said thus much concerning their general character, I will now proceed to speak a little more about the Pixies and their manners in detail, as in many respects. they are very curious; and in doing so, for some few particulars, I shall venture to draw upon my own account, given in a former work, which, being intended for men and women only, is not at all likely to fall into the hands of my young friends.

These tiny elves are said to delight in solitary places, to love pleasant hills and pathless woods, or to disport themselves on the margins of rivers and mountain streams. Of all their amusements dancing forms their chief delight; and this exercise they are said always to practise, like the Druids of old, in a circle or ring. These dainty beings, though represented as of exceeding beauty in their higher order, are nevertheless, in some instances, of strange, uncouth, and fantastic figure and visage; though such natural deformity need give them very little uneasiness, since they are traditionally believed to possess the power of assuming various shapes at will.

Their love of dancing is not unaccompanied with that of music, though it is often of a nature somewhat different to those sounds which human ears are apt to consider harmonious. In Devonshire, that unlucky omen, the cricket's cry, is to them as animating and as well timed as the piercing notes of the fife, or the dulcet melody of the flute, to mortals. The frogs sing their double-bass, and the screech-owl is to them like an aged and favoured minstrel piping in hall. The grasshopper, too, chirps with his merry note in the concert, and the humming-bee plays "his hautbois" to their tripping on the green; as the small stream, on whose banks they hold their sports, seems to share their hilarity, and talks and dances as well as they, in emulation of the revelry, whilst it shows through its crystal waters a gravelly bed as bright as burnished gold, the jewel-house of Pixy-land; or else the pretty stream lies sparkling in the moonbeam, for no hour is so dear to Pixy revels as that in which man sleeps, and the queen of night, who loves not his mortal gaze, becomes a watcher.

It is under the cold light of her beams, or amidst the silent shadows of the dark rocks, where that light never penetrates, that on the moor the elfin king of the Pixy race holds his high court of sovereignty and council. There each Pixy receives his especial charge: some are sent, like the spirit Gathon of Cornwall, to work the will of his master in the mines, to show by sure signs, where lies the richest lode; or sometimes to delude the unfortunate miner, and to mock his toil.

Other Pixies are commissioned on better errands than these; since, nice in their own persons, for they are the avowed enemies of all sluts, they sally forth to see if the maidens do their duty with mop and broom, and if these cares are neglected to give them a good pinching! Many, in this part of the world, are very particular in sweeping their houses before they go to bed, and they will frequently place a basin of water by the chimney nook, to accommodate the Pixies, who are great lovers of water; and sometimes requite the good deed by dropping a piece of money into the basin.

Many a Pixy is sent out on works of mischief to deceive the old nurses and steal away young children, or to do them harm. This is noticed' by one of our old English poets, Ben Jonson:--

"Under a cradle I did creep
By day, and, when the childe was asleepe
At night, I suck'd the breath, and rose
And pluck'd the nodding nurse by the nose."

The wicked and thievish elves, who are despatched on the dreadful errand of changing children in the cradle, are all said to be squint-eyed. In such cases (so say our gossips in Devon) the Pixies use the stolen child just as the mortal mother may happen to use the changeling dropped in its stead.

Many, also, bent solely on mischief are sent forth to lead poor travellers astray, to deceive them with those false lights called Will-o'-the-wisp, or to guide them a fine dance in trudging home through woods and water, through bogs and quagmires and every peril; or, as Robin Goodfellow says, to

"Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harms."

Others, who may be said to content themselves with a practical joke, and who love frolic better than mischief, will merely make sport by blowing out the candles on a sudden, or overturning the cook's pot on the fire. Some Pixies are dispatched to frolic or make noises in wells; and the more gentle and kindly race will spin flax and help their favourite damsels to do their work.

In Devonshire, and more especially on Dartmoor, it is a very common thing with any person who loses his way, to consider himself as Pixy-led, and this frequently happens to our stout yeomen and farmers, when they happen to have a cup too much at a merry-making. But for this there is a remedy. For whoever finds himself; or if a woman herself, Pixy-led, has nothing more to do than to turn jacket, petticoat, pocket or apron inside out, and a Pixy, who hates the sight of any impropriety in dress, cannot stand this, and off the imp goes, as if, according to the vulgar saying, he had been sent packing with a flea in his ear.

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