Are in old oaks.’ Traditional proverb
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 the villagers were under no threat from the commission (quite the opposite in fact), none of the thirty-four interviewees would admit to 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 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 penchant for gathering at a certain tree, amongst the rural 15th-century French peasantry in Domrémy.
Thomas the Rhymer and his Eildon Tree
An intimate association between faeries and trees is found even further back in the literary tradition, in the ballad of ‘Thomas the Rhymer.’ Thomas appears to have been a 13th-century visionary and poet from the Scottish Borders, and his adventures with the faeries, and most especially the faerie queen, can be found in several medieval sources as well as being updated through the 18th and 19th centuries, notably by Sir Walter Scott. In the ballad, the interface between consensus reality and the faerie realm is ‘the Eildon Tree’, a hawthorn where Thomas meets the faeries and is transported into their world. There is much arboreal imagery in the ballad, which makes it clear that the faeries are woodland entities: “At the beginning of each summer, when the milk-white hawthorn is in bloom, anointing the air with its sweet odour, and miles and miles of golden whin adorn the glens and hill-slopes, the faeries come forth in grand procession, headed by the Faerie Queen.”
Scott’s setting of the ballad creates a woodland world, itself a place of magic where the otherworldly faeries are able to slip into reality to coax Thomas to join them from beneath the Eildon Tree:
‘Come with us, mortal, come! a welcome to
Through the moonlit shades of the forest glades,
Where the Faeries meet in their dim retreat,
Come with us, mortal, come!
There the shy dreams creep from the darkness deep
To flutter with noiseless wing,
And the bright-eyed stars ‘mid the branching bars
Of the oak and the elm-tree swing.
Where the merry Fays through the wildwood ways
Dance by the firefly’s light,
Thou shalt read the runes of the silver tunes
That ring through the dewy night.’
Further back still, in Ancient Greece, Dryads (Δρυάδες) and Hamadryads (Ἁμαδρυάδες), often given the general term of Nymphs (νύμφη), were female tree spirits, that were usually recognised as being one with the tree, protecting it with their vitality and receiving symbiotic protection and life in return. Pausanias, in his 2nd-century Description of Greece, although distancing himself from the belief, says: “Those Dryads who in days of old, according to the story of the poets, grew out of trees and especially out of oaks.” Some Hamadryads life spans were directly related to the trees, and although usually temperate and kind in nature, they would deal retribution on any person destroying or damaging their trees and habitats, often with the help of the gods. They frequently also had to appeal to the gods (and sometimes humans) to protect them from satyrs, who would rampage around woodlands, drunk and on the lookout for the alluring arboreal dryads. Many of the Dryads are named in the legends, and it is clear that the Greeks apportioned different characters to different trees. The poet Pherenikos described the Dryads as Nymphs and apportioned their roles to individual trees:
Aigeiros was the nymph of the black poplar (Populus nigra);
Ampelos the nymph of the vine–including the wild grape (Vitis silvestris), bryony (Bryonia creticus), black bryony (Tamus communis) and the wrack (Fucus volubilis);
Balanis the nymph of oak-trees–such as the holm oak (Quercus ilex) and prickly-cupped oak (Quercus aegilops);
Karya the nymph of the nut tree–both the hazel (Corylus avellana) and the walnut (Juglans regia), and perhaps also the sweet chestnut (Castanea vesca);
Kraneia the nymph of the cornelian cherry-tree (Cornus mas);
Morea the nymph of the mulberry tree (Morus nigra) or else the wild olive;
Ptelea the nymph of the European elm tree (Ulmus glabra);
and Syke the nymph of the fig tree (Ficus cardiac).
It is clear the ancient Greeks regarded these named and categorised tree-entities as metaphysical representatives of an otherworld, who would only interact with humanity during certain conditions. In this they are faeries in all but name – seen through the cultural lens of classical Greek civilisation.
The Hawthorn as a Faerie Tree
These historic associations between trees and the faeries are suggestive of a deep folk tradition and belief that tied the two together. It is a connection that remains intact to the present day, where folklore informs a modern belief in the importance of certain trees – most especially solitary trees – as arbiters between this world and an ultra-dimensional
faerieland. This is nicely illustrated by the exploits of the Irish folklorist and storyteller Eddie Lenihan, as captured in the 2000 documentary by John Walker, The Fairy Faith. Eddie was instrumental in persuading Co. Clare council to re-route part of the Newmarket-on-Fergus bypass road at Latoon, in order to avoid the destruction of a faerie hawthorn tree, or sceach, which was initially due for uprooting as part of the road construction. A media campaign garnered the support of local people, and even The New York Times was motivated to write a piece about the plight of the tree. Eddie appealed to the intrinsic folkloric beliefs attached to the hawthorn, suggesting that the centuries-old idea that this particular tree was a focal point for the gathering of supernatural beings should be respected, and not simply ignored for the sake of materialistic expediency. He won – the tree remains to this day, albeit marooned between the highway and the slip road.
There is a very deeply ingrained belief and understanding in Irish culture as to the importance of these solitary hawthorns, which have gathered folk traditions about them, often in relation to the faeries. They go by various names – Wishing Trees, May Bushes, Rag Trees or Faerie Trees – and are frequently found in association with holy wells or
prehistoric forts (raths). They are also regularly festooned with ribbons, rags and trinkets, sometimes known as clotties, which are demonstrative of a continued folk belief in the spiritual ambience eminating from the trees. The clotties were traditionally tied to the trees as an offering to the nature spirits that inhabited it (sometimes Christianised to the spiritual presence of a saint or saints), in the hope that with their decomposition, ailments or bad luck would disappear with them. This tradition continues, and now incorporates a range of beliefs as to what the clotties are supposed to do. They may be tied to the trees as simple offerings with prayers, as wish-fulfillers, or as a recognition that the tree contains a metaphysical consciousness. These be-ribboned hawthorns can be found all over Ireland, perhaps most famously on the western banks of the Iron-Age hillfort that tops the Hill of Tara (Cnoc na Teamhrach) in Co. Meath, where there are two trees, permanently covered with offerings ranging from tiny ribbons to pink surfboards.
This tradition can be found throughout Ireland but also in Britain, where many solitary trees attached to a prehistoric site or next to a holy well, will have its branches decorated with offerings. At the approach to the Neolithic long barrow burial chamber at West
Kennet in Wiltshire there is a tree known as The Guardian Oak. One tradition states that if a ribbon or piece of cloth with personal value is tied to its branches, the faeries will inform you whether it is advisable to continue along the path to the long barrow. If the answer is no, then all is not lost, as you can take a slight diversion to the nearby Swallowhead Spring nestling between field banks, where a hawthorn and oak hang over the spring that feeds the River Kennet, and is covered in clotties left by people who recognise the charged atmosphere of the place.
A Filmic Faerie Oak
The association of faeries with trees is vividly brought to life in the 1997 film Photographing Fairies, where we are presented with a mighty oak acting as a tree where the faeries are to be found. In this case the faeries are small luminescent beings who seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the oak. They can only be seen in and around the tree (always with the aid of a psychoactive flower), which acts as the interface between consensus reality and the world of the faeries. Interestingly, it also acts as a hub for death in the film, with the faeries operating as arbiters between life and death. This plugs into the folkloric concept that faeries are intimately connected to the world of the dead, able to cross over between material reality and a metaphysical reality, where there is nothing but consciousness. It also acts as a shrine for the two little girls, Clara and Anna, after the death of their mother (who falls from the tree in an altered state of consciousness whilst communing with the faeries), linking into the idea discussed above, that faerie trees can be receptors of offerings, mediated by the supernatural entities that reside there.
Nature Spirits and Elementals
Whilst the faeries in the film are not necessarily portrayed as nature spirits, their reliance on the oak tree is implicit throughout, bringing them into line with the concept that what underlies the folktale perception of the faeries is a deeper metaphysical authenticity. In a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924, the Austrian spiritual philosopher Rudolf Steiner outlined his concept of these nature spirits (sometimes calling them elementals) and their fundamental role in ensuring the propagation of the natural world, most especially in relation to trees. Steiner took clairvoyance as a given reality, and his descriptions of the inter-penetrating of the physical world with the spiritual world is compelling, and points towards a deeper, cosmic understanding of the nuts and bolts of how the world really works. He terms consensus reality as the sense world, and the spiritual realm as the supersensible world. For Steiner, the supersensible world exists as a field of energy devoid of matter, but which constantly interacts with the physical sense world. What exists in the supersensible world is in effect a fifth dimension of reality upon which our own four dimensions rely, and which is essential to the well-being of all life, but can only be perceived by clairvoyance. It is this special faculty that allows people to recognise how the worlds of matter and spirit intertwine.
Steiner saw the supersensible as indispensable to the material world in the same way as consciousness is the necessary animating force to the physical bodies of humans. And he saw consciousness as the key to crossing the boundary between our world of the five senses and that of the nature spirits. He insists that ‘thought forms’ are the only way we are able to perceive the elementals and to understand what they are doing in nature, which he likens to unseen electricity bringing life to dormant machinery. To do this, a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic:
‘If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.’ Perception of the Elemental World (1913).
The elementals in the supersensible world exist as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits charged with the growth of trees and vegetation. Steiner divides these into four main types corresponding to earth (gnomic), water (undines), air (sylphs) and heat/light (salamanders). Steiner describes the chthonic nature spirits responsible for the health of trees, which:
‘… send down their roots into the ground. Anyone who can observe what they really send down and can perceive the roots with spiritual vision (for this he must have) sees how the root is everywhere surrounded by the activities of elemental nature spirits. And these elemental spirits, which an old clairvoyant perception designated as gnomes and which we may call the root spirits, can be studied with Imagination and Inspiration, just as human life and animal life can be studied in the physical world. We can look into the soul nature of these elemental spirits, into this world of the spirits of the roots.’ Elemental Spirits and the Plant World (1923).
Steiner’s language and ideas are informed by his involvement with the Theosophist movement, and may grate with a 21st-century reader. But his metaphysics finds common ground with the compelling recent theory of Morphogenetic Fields propounded by the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake. This is a theory of formative causation in nature:
‘Over the course of fifteen years of research on plant development, I came to the conclusion that for understanding the development of plants, their morphogenesis, genes and gene products are not enough. Morphogenesis also depends on organising fields. The same arguments apply to the development of animals. Since the 1920s many developmental biologists have proposed that biological organisation depends on fields, variously called biological fields, or developmental fields, or positional fields, or morphogenetic fields.’ Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphic Fields.
Sheldrake’s description of this organising principle behind the natural world is issued in the language of biochemistry, but in effect, what he postulates is the same as Steiner’s vision of nature spirits in action. There are invisible forces that are essential in ordering life on earth, something that conventional science accepts in the case of gravitational waves or magnetism, but has a hard time with when it comes to life itself. Steiner’s thesis is that the nature spirits are anthropogenic representations of these morphogenetic fields, imposed upon them through the thought forms of the observer, who perceives them clairvoyantly. Call them what you will, but they exist, and are essential in maintaining reproductive life; they are a form of consciousness responsible for the creation and sustenance of matter. They are the memory of nature.
The Wood Wide Web
With great serendipity, Rupert’s son, Merlin Sheldrake, a scientist specialising in mycorrhizal fungi, has recently put forward the theory that trees and plants are able to communicate through their root systems, mirroring the concept that a form of consciousness is operating to ensure the natural vitality of plant life. This has been nattily titled the Wood Wide Web:
‘For centuries, fungi were widely held to be harmful to plants, parasites that cause disease and dysfunction. More recently, it has become understood that certain kinds of common fungi exist in subtle symbiosis with plants and trees, bringing about not infection but connection. These fungi send out gossamer-fine fungal tubes called hyphae, which infiltrate the soil and weave into the tips of plant and tree roots at a cellular level. Roots and fungi combine to form what is called a mycorrhiza… In this way, individual plants and trees are joined to one another by an underground hyphal network: a dazzlingly complex and collaborative structure that has become known as the Wood Wide Web.’
Whilst the ‘messaging system’ is physically conveyed through the fungal hyphal network, the actual messages must be generated by a form of consciousness. Could this consciousness be one and the same as Steiner’s nature spirits and Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields? As discussed in a previous blog post, Altered States of Consciousness and the Faeries, certain fungi such as Psilocybin and Amanita Muscaria can allow a direct route into what Steiner would call clairvoyance, potentially opening up a psychedelic state of consciousness that is able to see and interact with the faeries, in whatever form they might take. These mushrooms are part of Sheldrake’s fungal wood wide web, and may be acting as routers; allowing us to collaborate with the fundamental natural consciousness that is being manifested. This manifestation could be partly responsible for what we have come to think of as faeries, nature spirits or elementals, allowing for the cultural coding that will generate what we see and experience.
This faerie experience seems to be especially and intrinsically linked to trees and vegetation in the natural world, whether we are looking at Steiner’s elementals, Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields, classical dryads or the faeries of folklore. They have an intimate relationship with trees, and we recognise this even if we don’t properly understand it. But at a metaphysical level maybe we do recognise the relationship, and the clustering of faerie traditions and beliefs around trees is an expression of this. Trees are one of the primary life-forces on the planet – for sound ecological reasons, perhaps we need to respect them, live with them and love them as much as the faeries seem to.
For a breakdown of faerie tree folklore by species, there is a good overview here.
For an Irish perspective, here is Ali Isaac’s excellent article: The Curious Phenomenon of the Irish Fairy Tree