‘Does a photon exist prior to it’s detection? No, it does not exist until it is detected, according to the current understanding of quantum physics. Up to that point, there is only the photon wave function. Ironically, as soon as it is detected, it no longer exists. It vanishes at the moment it appears! For that reason, I prefer to think of the photon as an event, not as a thing.’
Richard Muller, Prof Physics, UC Berkeley, from Now, The Physics of Time.
The tale of the Rev. Robert Kirk and his Secret Commonwealth, is very peculiar. When read carefully, the text of his 1691 manuscript describing the faeries of Aberfoyle, Scotland gives many clues as to the reality of what he calls the Subterraneans, and how people were able to perceive them and interact with them. Much of the discussion in his text centres around people with the ‘second sight’, An Dà Shealladh in Gaelic, and their ability to sense the faerie world, which was apparently occupying the same space as consensus reality, but would only interact with it under special circumstances. We’ll take a look at this aspect of faerieland later on, focusing on the connection between matter and consciousness and where the faeries fit in. But first, who was Robert Kirk, why was he writing about supernatural races on earth at the end of the 17th century, and what happened to him?
Robert Kirk was the church minister at Aberfoyle in the southern Highlands of Scotland from 1685 to his death at age 48 in 1692. He was also (apparently) the seventh son of a seventh son – a sure sign that he should be carrying the requisite clairvoyance in his genetic makeup. A year after penning The Secret Commonwealth, his body was found on the Faerie Knowe at Aberfoyle, a hill he frequented often in life to consort with the faeries whose customs he describes in the book. His will is dated a day before his death, and the folklorist immediately became the subject of folklore, as rumour spread that he’d been abducted by the faeries for giving away too many of their secrets in his book. The plot
thickens when we discover that not only does his grave not contain his body, but that there is a tradition of him appearing in ghostly form to a friend at the christening of his (Kirk’s) posthumous child, with a wheeze to escape faerieland, where he was apparently being held captive. The stunned friend failed to throw a dirk (an iron knife) over the spectral Kirk as pre-planned, dooming the reverend to remain with the faeries, who had taken him into the Faerie Knowe and left a stock or doubleman as his fake body. But the mysterious circumstances of Kirk’s demise pale next to what he had been writing about in The Secret Commonwealth. In his manuscript (not published until 1815) he lays out who the faeries were and who could see them, crystallising what would appear to be a coherent (and matter of fact) belief in the faeries in this part of the Scottish Highlands in the 17th century. The work certainly gives the impression of an educated man (Kirk was the first to translate the Bible into Gaelic) simply describing a supernatural race of beings, much in the way as he might have described a foreign civilisation. And they were quite evidently mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Intriguingly, Kirk is less interested in telling folktales than in giving an overview of what these creatures are and how they live. In this, his manuscript is unique and unusual. He calls them Subterraneans, and tells us that they are halfway between humans and angels. Here’s a summary of Kirk’s treatise on the Secret Commonwealth…
- They have ‘light and fluid bodies’ much as a condensed cloud or ‘congealed air’, which are mostly visible at dusk. They can appear and vanish at will, and their ‘chameleon-like bodies swim in the air near the earth with bag and baggage.’ Their ‘spongeous bodies’ are pure like air and they feed by sucking out the essence of human food, leaving the material remnant behind.
- They live in the earth, either in small hillocks or in subterranean caves. Their dwellings are large and beautiful, but usually invisible to human eyes. These houses are lit by lamps that burn continuously without the need for fuel.
- Their civilisation once lived above ground before humans inhabited the land, and Kirk notes that ‘the furrows still visible on very high hills’ were the work of the faeries.
- At each quarter of the year, they travel to a new place, as they are nomadic and unable to stay in one place for too long. It is usually at these times that they are encountered by humans who ‘have terrifying encounters with them.’
- They are divided into tribes and like humans, they have children, marriages and burials. But Kirk suggests that they may only do this to mock our own customs. Likewise, their language and dress mimic the local people. They have an aristocracy but no religion.
- Their philosophy is that nothing dies or disappears, but that ‘everything goes in a circle’ and is refreshed and renewed in a cyclical evolution.
- They will happily steal human children, wet-nurses and midwives for their own ends and are prone to the ‘irregularities of envy, spite, hypocrisy, lying and dissimulation.’
- Their weaponry consists of flint arrows and they are afraid of iron.
- Kirk also suggests that the faeries can be ‘double-men’ or ‘co-walkers’ for humans – that is, each human has a double amongst the Subterraneans, who will ‘haunt them as a shadow’, whether they know about it or not.
Kirk’s treatise goes a long way to depict the faeries, who appear in less descriptive form in countless folktales through the centuries. The impression given is of an intelligent race of beings who do not usually manifest as material beings, but who can interact with humans through various means. The constant theme is that they inhabit our space and time but engage with the material world in a different way to us. They are immaterial. And as far as we know, there is only one immaterial thing in the universe that we can be certain of: consciousness. So is this where the faeries are residing? Kirk’s discussion about the second sight (An Dà Shealladh) is highly suggestive that this is where they are to be found.
Second sight appeared to be a relatively common phenomenon amongst the Scottish Highlanders in Kirk’s time. It is frequently associated with visions of the future, but Kirk concentrates on their ability to interact with the faeries. The seer with second sight is ‘put in a rapture, transport, and sort of death, as divested of his body and all its senses.’ This might correlate with a dream or an altered state of consciousness, where reality is observed and participated in without the usual constraints of the laws of physics. The second sight is a type of shamanistic vision that is dependent on a change in consciousness. Once the change is made, the faeries become real to the observer. But where are they coming from?
Richard Muller’s quote at the top of this post is an important clue to getting behind the faerie phenomenon that Kirk describes with such attention to detail. In the quantum world, the wave function of a photon does not exist until it is observed, when it becomes a particle. But then it vanishes. Muller makes the simple but mind-bending point that this makes the photon an event, not a thing. This is also how consciousness works – it is not a thing, it is a series of events with no material residue. It exists alongside what we think of as material reality, but it never stays there, it is non-local and transient. Kirk’s faeries behave like a photon in a wave function, or a thought in consciousness – they live there waiting to be observed and detected by someone who is able to plug deeper than usual into their own, or the collective, consciousness – those with the second sight, or those in an altered state of consciousness. This would explain the similarities of the faeries to their human counterparts at any time in history (their dress, language etc.), and may also suggest that the faeries have (at least sometimes) transformed into high-tech aliens in recent times (see Shamans, Faeries, Aliens and DMT).
So was Kirk describing a phenomenon conjured up through the consciousness of both himself and the Highland seers from who he received his information? Maybe, although that simplifies things. By describing the customs of the Subterraneans he was depicting events, not things. These events couldn’t be pinned down as material phenomena and recorded in any rational or scientific procedure; they were the product of people who were able to alter their state of consciousness to the point of perceiving realities not usually perceptible. These realities did, and do not, consist of material things, but they were, and are, as real as immaterial events… just as in consciousness or the sub-atomic world. If I were really pushing the boat out, I might even suggest that ultimately, the faeries exist in the quantum world, unseen and implicate, and only turn up in our world when someone with the requisite skills (second sight) observes them there. They are a fundamental part of our reality but normally hidden: a secret commonwealth. I wonder what the Rev. Robert Kirk would think about that?
For a trailer to the 2009 film Kirk, see Kirk trailer (2009)