JON KANEKO-JAMES tells us about some gross fairies who’ll literally get under your skin
This week’s spooky creature is the Alp-Luachra, or Joint-Eater. Don’t worry, I’m not talking about weed. This rather unpleasant faerie won’t be munching on that sweet nail of Aunt Mary you cool cats have been burning up on (as you can see, I’m down with the kids). No, this creature will get under your skin, breed inside you body and starve you to death.
To understand why something would do this, particularly an intelligent creature like a faerie, presumably capable of reasoning, morality and abstract thought, we need to go to the manuscript of a Scottish priest named Robert Kirk, writing in 1691. Kirk’s book, called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, talks about the society and ecology of the fair folk, explaining how they live, why they live as they do and what it means to us.
One of the most interesting things he talks about is a rather sinister explanation behind ‘helpful’ fairies like Brownies, who enter your house in order to square things away and clean up your kitchen (although quite often your housemates will claim it was them, but don’t believe it, you’ll bring down the wrath of the fairies.) Robert Kirk explains that fairies come in two kinds, the fine and the gross. The gross are the ones who we hear about in myth all the time, they’re the ones who are most like us: they make bread, they have babies, raise cattle. They can eat our food, interact with us and marry us.
The problem is that the ‘fine’ can’t do that. They need to live on the spirit or pith of food. They can only ingest the finest of materials, what the Greeks would have called the Quintessence. This presents a problem: it doesn’t matter whether you close your eyes and believe in the fairies, there just isn’t as much magic around as there used to be. As Robert Kirk says himself, humans are spreading and the great enchanted forests where the fine spirits used to make their homes are being encroached on by man.
So, the gross fairies step in. The Brownies clean up your kitchen, eat the food and spiritually transmit a portion of it to their more physically challenged brethren. On the other hand, those are the relatively nice, restrained fairies. Some of them are neither.
Enter the Alp-Luachra, or the Joint-Eater. This is a fairie who lives in streams and long, wet grass. It likes to hide around certain herbs and wait for humans to sleep on the grass or stoop near the water’s edge. When they do, it jumps down their throat and into their stomach, taking up residence.
The most vivid tale of an Alp-Luachra is from Douglas Hyde (scholar and first president of Ireland) who wrote a book called Beside the Fire. In this book a rich farmer lays down after a hard afternoon of harvesting and has a sleep on the grass, waking up with a stomach ache.
After a few days he finds himself sleeping a lot, suffering pains in his stomach and mysteriously losing weight.
The man’s family send him to one doctor and another, selling part of their herds to pay for increasingly expensive and useless medical care… until one day, when the man himself has given up on surviving his illness, an old beggar tells him that he’s infested with Alp-Luachra. Sure enough, they go down to the meadow and find the very herb that the fairie favours. The doctors laugh, but the man sets out on a journey to find a wise man, Mac Dermot Prince of Coolavin (a family of Irish kings deposed by the English in the 16th-17th Centuries, they were still accorded royal respect and status within their community, although this might be romanticism on Hyde’s part, considering his Irish Nationalist politics.)
The Mac Dermot is wise enough to immediately know the cause of the illness, and force-feeds the farmer incredibly salty beef, making him lie down next to a stream. At first nothing happens, but then a slithering, chittering, newt-like creature comes out of his mouth, then another, and another, until twelve in all have made their way out… but it isn’t over. The Mac Dermot leaps on the farmer and holds him down, preventing his weak struggles until, with horror and great pain, a last, huge, serpentine monster has forced its way out of his stomach: the mother of them all.
Alp-Luachra live inside us because they are servents to something greater. Some royal procurer of the fairie court, responsible for securing sustenance for the ‘fine’ amongst the fairie court.
As Robert Kirk wrote:
“They avouch that a Heluo, or Great-eater, hath a voracious Elve to be his attender, called a Joint-eater or Juƒt-halver, feeding on the Pith or Quinteƒƒence of what the Man eats; and that therefoir he continues Lean like a Hawke or Heron, notwithƒtanding his devouring Appetite: yet it would ƒeem that they convey that ƒubƒtance elƒewhere, for theƒe Subterraneans eat but little in their Dwellings.”