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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 19.djvu/82

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72
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

On this point Mr. Brand[1] has rightly remarked that the naturalists of the dark ages "owed many obligations to our fairies, for, whatever they found wonderful and could not account for, they easily got rid of by charging to their account. Thus they called those which have since been supposed to have been the heads of arrows or spears, before the use of iron was known, Elfshots." In the same way Shakespeare uses the expression "Elfish-marked";[2] and also speaks of Elf-locks in "Romeo and Juliet"[3]:

". . . This is that very Mab

That plats the manes of horses in the night
And bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs,

Which, once untangled, much misfortune bodes."

A disease, too, consisting of a hardness of the side was in days gone by termed Elf-cake. Just, then, as the fairies were supposed to be guilty of committing various pranks as seen in the sundry mishaps that befall humanity, so the Will-o'-the-Wisp with its treacherous light was reckoned among them. Thus Shakespeare represents Puck as transforming himself into a fire, by which he clearly alluded to the Will-o'-the-Wisp; and it may be remembered how the fairy asks him—[4]

". . . Are you not he

That fright the maidens of the villagery,

Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?"

We have already noticed, too, Shakespeare's allusion to Ariel's assuming this form, who, like Puck, is a fairy. The term Puck, which is evidently the same as the old word "Pouke," a devil or evil spirit, still survives, although its spelling in lapse of years has become somewhat altered. The following passage from a modern writer[5] proves, too, that in some places the idea of Puck as a delusive fairy haunting the woods and fields is not yet extinct: "The peasants in certain districts of Worcestershire say that they are sometimes what they call 'Poake-ledden,' that is, they are occasionally waylaid in the night by a mischievous sprite whom they call Poake, who leads them into ditches, bogs, pools, and other such scrapes, often sets up a loud laugh, and leaves them, quite bewildered, in the lurch." This corresponds with what in Devon is called being Pixy-led; and various stories are told how the frolicsome pixies deceive travelers with the Will-o'-the-Wisp, and chuckle over their dismay when they are lost for a time on the moor. By moonlight the Pixy-Monarch was supposed to hold his court, where, like Titania, he gave his subjects their several charges. Some were sent to the mines, where they either good-naturedly led the miner to the richest lode, or maliciously, by noises imitating the stroke of the

  1. "Popular Antiquities," 1849, ii, 490.
  2. "Richard III," Act i, sc. 3.
  3. "Romeo and Juliet," Act i, sc. 4.
  4. "Midsummer-Night's Dream," Act i, sc. 1.
  5. "Mr. J. Allies's "On the Ignis Fatuus."