“The piskies, thought of as little people who appear on moonlight nights, are still somewhat believed in here. If interfered with too much they are said to exhibit almost fiendish powers. In a certain sense they are considered spiritual, but in another sense they are much materialized in the conceptions of the people. Generally speaking, the belief in them has almost died out within the last fifty years.” Richard Harry from Mousehole, Cornwall, quoted in WY Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911).
There is a common thread running through the collected folklore of faeries. Stories and descriptions are frequently couched with the explanation that they happened, or were believed to have happened, a generation or several generations previously. You can find this time and again in the collections of 19th- and 20th-century folklorists, where they come across people willing to tell tales about the faeries, but who locate the action in their ‘grandparent’s time’ or at some indistinct period in the past. Depending on the source, this is usually explained as being because the faeries have drifted out of consensus reality, either due to them not being able to exist alongside humans as they used to, or because humans no longer believe in them. There is a large crossover between these two ideas. This may also be due to the storytellers covering themselves in the face of possible ridicule from the perceived modernistic notions of the folklorists collecting the stories. Whilst there is plenty of evidence for a strong belief in the reality of faeries amongst various types of communities up to the present day, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to share this belief openly with outsiders. It’s less problematic for them to use time to give some distance between themselves and the implicit or explicit belief in supernatural beings.
Slightly surprisingly, this vernacular tactic can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In 1452, thirty-four French villagers were questioned by an ecclesiastical commission about a ‘faerie tree’ (arbor fatalism, gallide des fees) in Domrémy, as part of the process of overturning Joan of Arc’s conviction at the hands of the English/Burgundian Gestapo twenty years earlier. In the face of her inquisitors, Joan herself had offset her own belief in the faeries by apportioning it to her godmother, who had apparently seen the faeries gathering at the tree. And, even though they were under no threat from the commission (quite the opposite in fact), none of the thirty-four interviewees would admit in a belief of the faeries, or that they had ever seen them at the tree. Instead, they informed the commissioners that ‘they had heard that in the old days faeries were said to have been seen there.’ As the villagers would have been well aware of the Spanish Inquisition’s requirement for questioning of anyone who confessed to a belief in faeries, this was probably understandable. But the fact that there was a ‘faerie tree’ to begin with, suggests that there was an ingrained belief in the faeries and their gathering places amongst the 15th-century peasantry.
Richard Firth Green, in his 2016 book Elf Queens and Holy Friars, digs deep into the medieval vernacular belief in faeries, mostly by utilising the surviving texts of mystery plays, to demonstrate that there was a widespread acceptance of the faeries as a supernatural race of beings who interacted with humans on a regular basis. He makes the convincing argument that this was a popular cultural reaction to the ecclesiastical conception of faeries as minor-demons. But other medieval commentators and chroniclers were not so quick to dispatch the faeries to the work of the Devil. In the 12th and 13th centuries, English luminaries such as William of Newburgh, Walter Map and Ralph de Coggeshall wrote extensively about the faeries, without portraying them as demons. William and Ralph both recounted the story of The Green Children (see my take on this here: The Green Children) as a real faerie-story that actually happened, and William tells the story of a 12th-century Yorkshire rustic, who stole a cup from a faerie revel inside a hillock, and then goes on to retrace the subsequent history of the cup (of unknown material) until it ends up in the household of King Henry I. These stories were told as genuine occurrences, by educated men, with a certain acceptance of a supernatural realm that was neither Christian nor diabolic. But again, even here the chroniclers are careful to locate the action in the past, to places and societies slightly removed from their own. This is suggestive of a nervousness amongst the medieval educated class when talking about faeries, but also that accounts of the faeries and their engagement with humans were embedded in the culture, even though it’s difficult to penetrate below the writings of the elite class to that of the vernacular.
By the time of the heyday of folkloric collection in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we find the vernacular popular culture mimicking the circumspection of the medieval chroniclers. Faced with an educated, modern folklorist, the parochial purveyors of stories about the faeries seem to have instinctively distanced themselves from the actual events of the stories. The rural people evidently had a deep belief and understanding of how the faeries operated, but when asked to recount their anecdotes, they would tend to disassociate themselves from this conviction by placing the stories in an indefinite period in the recent past. The faultless folklorist, Katherine Briggs gives an example of this from late 19th-century Somerset, which also includes an explanation for why the faeries may have made themselves scarce from everyday interaction with humans. The story is a common folklore motif (F388 in the Aarne-Thompson Index) of the departure of the faeries, told in c.1900 but recounting something that happened a few generations previously:
The farmer of Knighton Farm on Exmoor was on friendly terms with the faeries. They used to thresh his corn for him and do all manner of odd jobs around the farm, until his wife, full of good-will, left suits of clothes for them as a reward. As per usual with the faeries, this was a taboo, and they had to leave. But the faeries evidently still resided in the neighbourhood and retained their affection for the farmer. One day, after the local church bells were hung and rung, an elder faerie made himself manifest to the farmer.
“Will you give us the loan of your horses and cart,” he said.
The farmer was cautious as he’d heard how the faeries could use and abuse horses.
“What do you want them for?” he asked.
“I want to take my kind out of the noise of those ding-dongs, as we cannot stand them.”
The farmer trusted the faeries, who moved over the hill and out of the neighbourhood, and when the two old pack-horses trotted home they looked like beautiful and healthy two-year olds.
Apart from suggesting that the faeries were unable to co-exist with Christianity, this story demonstrates nicely an explicit reason why the faeries have disappeared from a locality, leaving us with an impression that they are real, but that at some point in the past they have removed themselves from everyday intercommunication with humans. This idea extends into the later 20th century, as the Isle of Man folklorist Margaret Killip describes: “The true believers, if they may be called that, for they are never consciously so, require no audience, and in fact possess knowledge they may never tell to anyone. They are far more likely to keep it hidden, but if inadvertently they let slip a hint of familiarity with a supernatural dimension, the person listening experiences a strange sensation, as if a glimpse had been given of a country heard of but hitherto unrealised.”
Indeed, in modern times, a belief in, and knowledge of, the faeries can find distance in anonymity as well as time. In his brilliant 2010 book Somerset Faeries and Pixies: Exploring Their Hidden World, Jon Dathen finds out that there is a vibrant living tradition of faerie-lore in the county, and he allows his interviewees much time and space to give their detailed stories of encounters with the faeries. The people he interviews, however, do not place their stories in the past; they are anecdotes recounted by the people who have experienced them, but none of his interviewees were willing to be identified beyond their Christian name. This appears to be a defence mechanism against their perception of an established orthodoxy that takes a scientific worldview, which does not include supernatural beings. They were simply afraid of ridicule. One intriguing tale is told by ‘Frank’, who had farmed his Somerset land since the second world war, and suggested that the faeries were to be found everywhere, but that people needed to slow their pace of life to encounter them. He describes a winter night when all the family except him were asleep. Hearing noises in the kitchen he crept downstairs. His description of the event is worth quoting in full, as it encapsulates the strangeness of many chance meetings with the faeries:
The fire was raging as if some soul had jiffied it up a bit, so that was the only light in the room. There perched in front of the fire, perched on a three-legged stool was a strange little creature about the size of a cat. I sort of froze. Gave me a turn it did, but I peered and peered trying to make it out. For all the world it looked like a hare done up in clothes as if it were a little old man. He or it had his legs drawn up and his head resting on his knees, with his hands clasped in front of his shins. I edged in the room on all fours to get a better look. Great big long hairy feet with long toes. He had little grey trousers on, and a collared shirt that was too small, a green waistcoat, and on his head a sort of cap, but his face… it was ugly, half hare half human, big bulgy wide hare eyes, a long twitchy nose, plenty of whiskers sticking out all ways, and long hairy ears sticking downwards from either side of his cap… I stood up and made a noise doing so. The little thing turned then, and I don’t know who was more surprised and frightened. He opened his mouth in alarm and there were two big buck hare teeth in there. He said, ‘Ohw,’ as if mortified to be caught out. I thought how ugly and strange he was, but he looked scared so I spoke, ‘Hello, what are you doing here?’
The little thing looked at me and said one word: ‘Cold’. Then he flew from the stool and ran on his hind legs really fast for the door. Before I could rouse myself to move, he was through it and away. I sprang to the door and looked out after him. I saw his queer little shape hightailing it up the road towards the copse. Then he was gone… I’ve since heard tell of hare type pixies from other people, but then hares are magical creatures.
The rational response is that Frank was indeed asleep and dreaming, but he reiterates that this was definitely not the case; he was lucid and the adrenaline was coursing through him. This might suggest he experienced the faerie in an altered state of consciousness, perhaps as the result of a natural surge of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, a compound released regularly (probably) through the pineal gland in the brain, but which, under certain circumstances, can flood the brain, causing reality to be observed in a remodelled fashion (I investigate this concept in more detail here: Shamans, Faeries, Aliens and DMT).
But as with Dathen’s other interviewees, Frank was nervous about telling the story and quickly changed tact to talk about some older faerie anecdotes, told to him by his father. This sort of discountenance is a common feature of people recounting modern faerie encounters. Unlike encounters with their technologically updated manifestations, extraterrestrial aliens, confrontations with faeries are beyond the pale within the mainstream. They’ve been safely delegated away to children’s stories, cartoons, folktales and as arbiters of psychological allegories and metaphors. They cannot be allowed safely into our five-sense consensus reality. So if they are not distanced into the past, the observer needs to find the distance of anonymity between themselves and the observation.
With an increasing understanding and interest in non-usual states of consciousness, the spiritual aspects of the natural world, and the strange alternative reality of the quantum realm, this distancing is starting to change. The reductionist, materialistic scientific worldview that has imposed itself on humanity for the last few hundred years is being broken down as a growing number of people explicitly and implicitly investigate aspects of reality that do not fit in with the mainstream paradigm. Despite the degraded reputation of faeries, they appear to be making a comeback, without the need to distance them into an indefinite past or to be embarrassed about describing encounters with them. It seems that they were perhaps here all along… just waiting to be rediscovered for what they really are.
Here is a nice forum for discussion of Modern Fairy Sightings.