Queen Mab – the Queen of the Fairies – first appeared in written literature in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. However her ancestry goes way back, probably to Celtic times.
Names change over time, and Mab has also been known by variations such as Mebh and, probably most commonly, Meave. One possibility is a connection with the ancient word for “baby”. I sometimes wonder whether Mab is indeed the fairies’ midwife or whether there is some more sinister connection with the changeling tradition.
The autumn equinox is today often known as Mabon in Queen Mab’s honour. However this appears to be a modern neopagan name rather than an traditional one.
Queen Mab in Literature
The first known reference to Queen Mab in written literature is in Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet”. Mercutio says to Romeo:
O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
The dictionary lists “atomy” as a “walking skeleton”. Some prefer to read it in the sense of “atom” as a very small creature. Were that the case then the adjective “little” would be otiose.
In the 19th century the poet Shelley wrote a long poem entitled Queen Mab. In this Mab describes herself thus:
I am the Fairy Mab: to me ’tis given
The wonders of the human world to keep;
The secrets of the immeasurable past,
In the unfailing consciences of men,
Those stern, unflattering chroniclers, I find;
The future, from the causes which arise
In each event, I gather; not the sting
Which retributive memory implants
In the hard bosom of the selfish man,
Nor that ecstatic and exulting throb
Which virtue’s votary feels when he sums up
The thoughts and actions of a well-spent day,
Are unforeseen, unregistered by me;
And it is yet permitted me to rend
The veil of mortal frailty, that the spirit,
Clothed in its changeless purity, may know
How soonest to accomplish the great end
For which it hath its being, and may taste
That peace which in the end all life will share.
This is the meed of virtue; happy Soul,
Ascend the car with me!’