Day and Seely Wight

One wholly unimaginative version of the Aen Sidhe fairy court by John Duncan.

As with the witch trials, the fairies and shamans of the British Islands were different from the continent. Aside from Lancashire’s wise women, a likely cult presence were the Seely Wights in Scotland. In general the structure feels similar to the Donas, if less communal. The Wights are also similar to the Taltos shamans in Hungary, and the followers of Zana (lit. Diana) in Romania. Variance aside the wights seem to have been distinct entities in their stories similar to elves or fairies:

“If you  call me imp or elf/ I advise you to look out for yourself/
If you call me fairy/ I’ll cause you much trouble/
If you call me good neighbor/ Then good neighbour I will be/
But if you call me seely wight/ I’ll be your friend both day and night.”.[1]

That we’re quoting a sing song poem speaks to the intangible nature of evidence for the Wights.  Piecing the story of the Seely Wights together is something that requires a great deal of inference, as there is a much less complete record of its practice. As we noted a while back, historian Julian Goodare likens it to extrapolating Tyrannosaurus rex from a single large tooth.[2] In addition to the folkloric elements the Wights haunt the pages of other scholarly writings in the 16th Century, and the lack of focus gives more credence to the idea they were a vaguely known, but hardly worrying presence in the highlands. Notably 16th Century wannabe anthropologist William Hay drew a clear contrast between the witch covens he imagined following Diana or someone similar to their Sabbaths.

“there are certain women who do say that they have dealings with Diana the queen of the fairies. There are others who say that the fairies are demons, and deny having any dealings with them, and say that they hold meetings with a countless multitude of simple women whom they call in our tongue celly vichtys.”[3]

Rackham’s interpretation of the Elves in Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Wights lend a more ethereal quality. But apparently “Seely Wight” is something Google Images interprets as either the Island of Wight, or an MP named Seely.

The “Celly Vichtys”, or Seely Wights, to Hay and his audience, were not about the kind of Satanic wassailing. It’s an interesting piece of nuance in the otherwise dualistic world of Renaissance Christianity. For Hay, a fairy could never be an angel, or its own separate creature, since fairies were neither in the bible nor in the classical literature Hay would leaf through to understand the natural world. By such logic, fairies had to be demons if they were real. But in Hay’s view the Wights were simply fictitious. The expedient and practical assumption that the Wights were just a local superstition, like ghosts or elves. The dissociation probably saved at least a few lives until the witch craze hit the full bloom of hysteria later that century.

In practice the Highlands of the 16th Century the Wights’ human followers would travel by night on the backs of swallows to meet their Fairy Queen. They could also summon up or commune with the wights at an elrich well by invoking “fader and the sone, king Arthour and quene Elspith”.[4] The King Arthur bit especially marks the Wights in their own distinctly British way. Also in the fairy tradition, elfen or fae did not mean that they were strictly nice. In one witchcraft indictment of Janet Boyman in 1572 the cunning woman purportedly informed her client that a sick child had been cursed by the wights, “for the mother had not blessed it well enough…and so [the baby] was a taken-away shit.”[5] Aside from being a truly blunt prognosis, Boyman had chided the client for failing in her duties. Boyman herself like the donas admitted to being “sewin yeir subiectt to the farye” [Subject of the Fairies]

As Boyman’s case shows, the British view of the wights as a separate and fictitious entry may have held true in the 1530s when Hay gave his lectures on the topic, but by the 1570s the Wights were bundled into the overarching narrative of witchcraft at the time. In contrast to the hanged witches of England, Boyman was burned at the stake on December 29th, 1572. As one of the first witch trials under the Elizabethan laws, Boyman’s belief in the wights highlights the kind of local faiths that witchcraft proponents boiled down to the monomyth of the Satanic Witch Cult.[6] Consequently however long the Seely Wights were around as a belief with adherents is unclear. By the time the witch hunts reached Scotland in full force in the late 17th Century the Wights vanish from the record.

[1] Hight, A.M. “What are ye, little mannie?” The persistence of Fairy Culture in Scotland, 1572-1703 and 1811-1927. Master’s Thesis in History to Virginia Polytechnic Institute

[2] And since Goodare pretty much gave us this skeleton, the author is deferring entirely to him in case we’re off base.

[3] Goodare, J. 2012. The Cult of the Seely Wights in Scotland. Folklore 123

[4] Ibid.

[5] Maxwell-Stuart, P.G.  (2001). Satan’s Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-century Scotland. Dundurn Press.

[6] That many folklore historians do the same nowadays in their hunt for the Murrayite coven is stuff and nonsense in the author’s opinion.


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