Newfoundland unexplained -
Heritage fair season is upon us. For those of you who do not know a child in the elementary school system in our province, heritage fairs are like the old-fashioned science fairs. But instead of kids making displays about the chemistry of baking soda volcanoes, or diagrams of the correct way to dissect a frog, heritage fairs see students preparing displays on some aspect of our history, folklore or culture.
I usually get questions this time of year about ghostly legends or phantom ships. This year, the topic students have been e-mailing me about is Newfoundland fairylore.
There is no doubt that stories about fairies are a firm part of the culture of this province. By far, the most thorough published study of local fairylore is Barbara Rieti's book "Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland." It was first published close to 20 years ago, and is still a great resource for anyone interested in local traditions.
In her introduction, Rieti remarks about arriving at the Memorial University Folklore and Language Archives (MUNFLA) and discovering hundreds of accounts of fairy traditions. Her subsequent fieldwork revealed people still told those types of stories.
It is a source of great interest for me this continues to hold true; people in Newfoundland still tell stories about the fairies.
Many local stories revolve around the idea of protection. Depending on where you are in the province, there are various means of protecting oneself from the oftimes malicious attentions of the little people.
Some say a coin, or loose change, in your pocket serves as protection against the fairies. A Newfoundland five-cent piece was said to be particularly effective, and a silver dollar pressed into the palm of a newborn child was said to be a good charm against the fairies. Sometimes, money would be pinned into a crib or baby's clothes as a charm.
The most popular type of protection, it would seem, is bread. The type of bread varies from story to story. A bit of stale bread, a piece of hard biscuit, even a fresh slice of a mother's home-made three-bun bread was said to do the trick.
I once heard a man from the Southern Shore talk about being bedevilled by bad dreams, dreams which only stopped once he put a slice of bread under his pillow.
A woman from Placentia Bay told me a story about a relative who had been taken by the fairies, and who was only able to escape once the family threw bread into the woods.
The Dictionary of Newfoundland English defines the phrase "fairy-led" as meaning "led astray by fairies; lost in familiar surroundings; dazed."
People were often warned not to go into the woods or down certain paths without taking specific precautions of the sort described above. Those who did not heed the warnings could be stolen away, or could be led around in a daze until someone found them and led them home.
Some people say turning your pockets, or your clothes, inside-out will help you find your way home if you are pixie-led, or prevent you from being taken in the first place.
Clarence Dewling of Trouty, Trinity Bay, learned a tale from his maternal grandfather, George Brown, about a man who was led astray.
"Then he was able to recall that if he turned some item of clothing inside out, the fairies would leave him alone," Dewling says. "He removed his cloth peaked cap and reversed it so that the rayon interior was on the outside. As soon as he put it on his head, his senses returned as did his desire to 'go home out of it.'"
When students ask me for the inside scoop on local folklore, I always suggest they ask the real experts: the people who live in their communities. Folk belief is hard to define, and it changes dramatically from place to place. What one might consider a true charm against the fairies, someone from the next town along the coast might consider old foolishness, all the while believing in the effectiveness of their own type of precaution.
What stories about fairy charms or fairy protection exist in your town, your family? I am interested in finding out!
You can e-mail me at the address below. Or better yet, tell a youngster, and help them out with this year's heritage fair.
Dale Jarvis can be reached at email@example.com.