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Not far from Wold Newton, in Humberside, England, there is a huge, round ancient grave mound called Willy Howe. Probably raised in the late Neolithic period, it was recognized as a burial place by both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian settlers, hence its name (“howe” meaning “burial ground”).

Strange beliefs were attached to the Howe. The twelfth-century chronicler William of Newburgh, a native of the area, tells of a villager who was coming home, tipsy, late one night, when he heard singing and sounds of merrymaking coming from the Howe. He found an open door in the side of the mound and, looking in, saw a spacious house, brilliantly lit, filled with men and women seated at a banquet. A servant, seeing him at the door, gave him a cup of wine. The man emptied out the wine, kept the cup and ran off. The banqueters gave chase, but he reached home with his prize. The villager had been afraid to drink the wine because to do so in the banqueters’ domain would have put him in the power of the underworld.

In northern Europe it was thought that the dead continued a kind of afterlife inside burial mounds like Willy Howe. Such ideas may have contributed to the belief that fairies lived in these most ancient grave mounds.

In due course the stolen cup was given as a gift to King Henry I, who in turn gave it to his brother-in-law, King David of Scotland. Years later, when Henry II asked to see it, William of Scotland returned it to England. But what happened to it afterwards is not known.

Several cups were stolen in similar circumstances from the “fairies” in the Middle Ages, according to reports from Scandinavia, England and north Germany.

One “fairy cup” that survived is known as the Luck of Edenhall, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. An enameled and gilded glass beaker of unusual design, made in Syria in the thirteenth century AD, it was an heirloom in the Musgrave family of Edenhall in Cumbria. Legend has it that the cup was dropped by fairies who were caught merrymaking around nearby St Cuthbert’s Well. Interrupted, the fairies fled, screaming, “If this cup should break or fall, Farewell the Luck of Edenhall.” The “Luck” was therefore carefully preserved, and when anyone wanted to drink from it, a napkin was held underneath in case of an accident.

 

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