It is a common theme of tales of faery that a special ointment is put on the eyes of their babies to enable them to see things that humans can’t see. Sometimes humans get to use the ointment, but if they are found out they are made blind by the faeries. This theme occurs in stories from many different locations and with some variations, Here’s part of a Shetland tale that contains it:
On another occasion when Kirstan was among the Trows, she had to dress a baby and one of the grey men brought a box of curious ointment with which the child was to be anointed. While doing this Kirstan chanced to put up her hand to her eye and wiped some of the ointment onto it. From that time her sight was so keen that she could see a boat on the ocean twenty miles away and could tell the position and features of every man in it. One day a trowman met her on the hill and says to her
“Ye travel light and brisk for sae auld a wife.”
Never suspecting who he was she replied
“It’s my güde sight that helps me alang.”
“And which eye do ye see best upon, güde wife?” he asked.
Kirstan told him and he instantly put his little finger in the eye and she was blind in it ever after.
(from ‘Marie Kirstan the Midwife’)
Humans called to look after faërie babies sometimes get to use the ointment in this way. It does not always confer sharp-sightedness, as here, but usually gives humans the ability to see faeries, or see into the faërie realm, when others can’t.
The most common reason given for blinding is when humans see ‘invisible’ faeries stealing goods in the market and challenge them, thereby giving themselves away.
The desire to see into the Realm of Faery and so look beyond the edge of this world into the Otherworld, manifests itself in a number of ways. The theme of the magic ointment gained from the faeries themselves is one such. At the edge of what we know, or can know, the Otherworld beckons. Properly attuned, we might catch glimpses of it in the twilight, through the mist, or at special times of year. At other times, there is always the ointment, if you care to risk losing your sight altogether.