Thomas the Rhymer

Those who have touched the faerie world have sometimes written poetry about it.

Thomas the Rhymer is one of the most famous faerie / fairy poems.

Thomas the Rhymer was a real person, named Sir Thomas Learmount.  He lived during the 13th century, and was known for his prophecies.  Many people thought he was similar to Merlin.

He was nicknamed “True Thomas” because he could not tell a lie.

[Note: The “Eildon Tree” refers to a tree that once stood near the Eildon Hills. Today, a monument to the tree remains, just outside the Scottish town of Melrose.]

Thomas the Rhymer

thomas the rhymer poem illustrationTrue Thomas lay on Huntlie bank
A fairy he spied with his e’e
And there he saw a lady bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree

Her skirt was of the grass green silk
Her mantle of the velvet fine
At each tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine

True Thomas, he pulled off his cap
And bowed low down to his knee
All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven
For thy peer on earth I never did see

Oh no, oh no, Thomas, she said
That name does not belong to me
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland
That am hither come to visit thee

Harp and carp, Thomas, she said
Harp and carp along with me
And if you dare to kiss my lips
Sure of your body I will be

Betide me well, betide me woe
That weird shall never daunton me
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips
All underneath the Eildon Tree

Now, ye maun go with me, she said
True Thomas, ye maun go with me
And ye maun serve me seven years
Though weal and woe, as may chance to be

She mounted on her milk white steed
She’s taken True Thomas up behind
And aye whenever her bridle rang
The steed flew swifter than the wind

Oh they rode on, and further on
The steed gaed swifter than the wind
Until they reached a desert wide
And living land was left behind

Light down, light down now, true Thomas
And lean you head upon my knee
Abide and rest a little space
And I will show you ferlies three

Oh, see you not yon narrow road
So thick beset with thorn and briars
That is the path of righteousness
Though after it but few enquire

And see you not that broad, broad road
That lies across that lily leven
That is the path of wickedness
Though some call it the road to Heaven

And see you not that bonnie road
That winds about the fernie brae
That is the road to fair Elfland
Where thou and I this night maun gae

But Thomas, you must hold your tongue
Whatever you may hear or see
For if you speak word in Elfin land
You’ll ne’er get back to you ain country

Then they came on to a garden green
And she pulled an apple frae a tree
Take this for thy wages, True Thomas
It will give the tongue that can never lie

My tongue is my own, True Thomas said
A goodly gift you would give to me
I neither dought to buy or sell
At fair or tryst where I may be

I dought neither speak to prince nor peer
Nor ask of grace from fair lady
Now hold thy peace, the lady said
For as I say, so it must be

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth
And a pair of shoes of velvet green
And till seven years were gone and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen

Photo credit
Emily Cahal, Salem, OR, USA

The origins of faerie lore

Where do faeries come from? There are many theories.

Fortunately, faeries appear in stories dating back to ancient times.  We have tremendous information to work with.

The written history of faeries

Faeries appear in literature at least as early as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (approx. 850 BCE), in which he mentions nymphs and dryads. Some translators have romantically used the word “fairies,” as in this Iliad passage quoted by 18th-century historian, Joseph Ritson:

“Where round the bed, whence Achelous springs,
That wat’ry Fairies dance in mazy rings.”
(Iliad, Book XXIV, line 617)

[Note: Mazy means maze-like, or similar to a labyrinth.]

Since that time, there have been many references to faeries, creatures of the middle world, Underworld (or Otherworld), and so on.

The line between the fae folk and other spirits begins to blur, when we delve deeply into this subject.

However, for this page, let’s focus on when faeries in folklore became “little people,” or smaller than humans.

Faeries as “little people”

The first known mention of faeries as tiny beings, is in the 13th century work of Gervase of Tilbury. In his Otia imperialia, he describes “certain daemons, whom the French call Neptunes, the English Portunes,” and are less than “half a thumb” in height.  He’s also quoted as saying they’re as tiny as half an inch, or the size of a small finger.

In the 14th century, Chaucer spoke of a land filled with faeries, in the opening of The Wyf of Bath’s Tale:

“In th’ olde dayes of the kyng arthour,
Of which that britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.”

(In modern English: In the old days of King Arthur,
Of which Britons speak with honor,
All this land was filled with faeries.
The elf-queen with her jolly company
Danced often in many green meadows.)

Next, learn how Shakespeare changed almost everything that we think about faeries.

Or, listen to a podcast about the history of the “little people.”

History of mermaids

Mermaids–and mermen–appear as consistently in history as faeries and dragons.

Like their “mythological” counterparts, mermaids were considered real until the early 20th century.

In fact, although we think of Disney’s Ariel when we hear the word “mermaids,” their actual history is ancient, well-founded, and–until recent years–treated as fact, not fantasy.

In this article series, we define the merfolk as people with a human upper body and a fishlike lower body. Mermaids and mermen appear in some of our earliest recorded history.

ancient vase with mermaid on itOver 7000 years ago, the Babylonians honored a merman called Ea, later named Oannes by the Greeks. This god of the sea had the upper body of a man and the lower body of a fish. He spoke to the people in their own language, and provided important knowledge in the arts and sciences.

Today, we are more familiar with his later Greek and Roman counterparts, Poseidon and Neptune, although only their descendants appear as mermen.

In Roman history, Neptune is a god of water. Neptune is the son of the god, Saturn. Neptune’s legends seem to have formed after the Greek Poseidon, and draw heavily from the Poseidon lore.

Poseidon, the god of the sea, was the son of Kronos and the brother of Zeus and perhaps Hades. When the world was divided, Zeus took the sky, Hades took the Underworld, and Poseidon took the seas. Although he is shown with a human body, Poseidon was able to live on land or under the sea.

Poseidon was also the father of Triton, one of the most famous mermen in history. Triton has the upper body of a man and lower body of a fish. In art, he is usually shown rising from the sea, blowing on a conch shell.

Triton’s mother was Amphitrite, queen of the sea and one of the fifty Nereids. Although Amphitrite is usually portrayed with a fully human form–so she is not a mermaid–in legend she, like Poseidon, was able to travel under the sea as easily as on land.

One of the earliest mermaids was Syria’s Atargatis, loosely related to Astarte and Aphrodite, and perhaps to Pisces. Sometimes–but not always–this goddess is portrayed with the lower body of a fish, relating to the cycles of the moon and the tides. She is also shown with a sheaf of wheat arched over her head, relating to a plentiful harvest.

Other early literature describes similar creatures, including sea nymphs and perhaps Sirens.

So, although Disney has given us a clear picture of a red-haired modern mermaid, the tradition of merfolk is an ancient one.

Photo credits:
Little Mermaid statue – John Nyberg, Copenhagen, Denmark

What mermaids look like

Similar to people, merfolk come in different colors and different sizes.

In one of the earliest written reports of modern times, the 1608 log of Henry Hudson described a mermaid on his second voyage. Two of his crewmen, Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner, saw her at about 71 degrees north in the Barrents Sea, near Norway.

On 15 June 1608, Hudson reported:

“…her skin was very white; and long haire hanging down behinde, of colour blacke; in her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a Porposse, and speckled like a Macrell.”

This mermaid was not simply a walrus that had been mistaken by men too long at sea. In fact, just a few days later, they reported seeing walruses; if there had been confusion about the mermaid, the log would have clarified the earlier report.

There are considerable legends claiming that all “mermaid” sightings were fanciful visions by lonely or drunk sailors, who mistook manatees, seals, walruses, or other sea creatures for mermaids.

Anyone who’s seen a manatee or walrus would raise an eyebrow at this explanation.

When we examine these tales more closely, we see mermaid reports by men of unquestionable reputation.

Also contrary to popular opinion, the majority of documented sightings took place in the 19th century, when people were far more skeptical than their earlier counterparts.

Regardless of the era in which the merfolk were sighted, their descriptions are consistent, within specific categories:

What mermaids look likeTiny merfolk – A small number of sightings report mermaids about the size of a well-fed three or four year old, or a figure approximately three feet tall. However, most accounts describe the merfolk in terms of adult human size.

Some have scales, some do not – Most reports are very specific about the mermaids’ lower bodies having scales, as in Hudson’s report above. However, some sightings are equally insistent that the mermaids were smooth, not scaled.

White merfolk – The majority of documented mermaid sightings refer to their skin as white, and often with very dark or black hair. The merfolk often have ruddy cheeks, and some accounts specifically mention blue eyes.

Green merfolk – Some references, including Ovid’s “green daughters of the sea,” speak of the mermaids and mermen having green skin. Others mention white skin but green hair, and/or green teeth or mouths.

Black or dark merfolk – Late 19th century sightings include mermaids with “dark complexions.”

These descriptions may seem diverse, but each type of mermaid has been seen repeatedly and over many centuries. We need to consider that “mermaid” may be a general terms for a broad category of beings who share only the general description of “part human, part fish.”

You may also be interested in the History of mermaids.

Photo credits
Seahorse – diko1967, Germany
Mermaid display at Harrod’s – Rajal Kanabar Ajai, Maharashtra, India

Dragon trivia

photo courtesy of GraphicStock.com

The study of dragons is an immense subject, and could easily fill an encyclopedia. However, in the course of my research, I collected several bits of trivia which may interest dragon enthusiasts:

For example, dragons provide significant words to our language, and tales to our folklore.

Dragon terminology

A female dragon is a dragoness, a word used since the early 17th century.

A small or young dragon is a dragonet.

Anything pertaining to a dragon is dracontine.

Garguiyle was originally the name of an 8th century dragon in Rouen, France who was killed by St. Romanus. The word gargoyle comes from the name of this dragon.At least one dragon was killed by a woman, Tarasque, the dragon of Isle. St. Marguerite. This dragon was conquered by St. Martha.

A dragon’s environment

There are few natural enemies of dragons. Some are the stork, stag, and ichneumon. The latter is a relative of the mongoose, which is known to destroy crocodile eggs in Egypt. According to legend, dragons are terrified of the ichneumon and will cover themselves in mud and try to close their nostrils to avoid attack by the weasel-like animal.

Flora and fauna

In zoology, draco describes an animal’s characteristic of wing-like membranes on its flanks.

Other sciences

In alchemy, caput dragonis, or the “dragon’s head” is the term for the poisonous breath of the winged dragon.

As late as the 16th century, draconite stone was believed to come from the head of a dragon.

Draco, which is the Latin word for dragon, is also the name of a famous constellation, best seen in July. About 4000 years ago, Thuban, the fourth star from the end of the tail, used to be our North Star.

More dragon lore

There are many astronomy terms which relate the moon to dragons. Likewise, in Western and Oriental lore, dragons are supposed to participate in eclipses.

In mythology, Cadmus planted dragon’s teeth and from the ground, armed warriors sprouted.