Ecology of Souls is a monumental work. Joshua Cutchin has pulled together many strands of traditional and modern folklore, UFOlogy and philosophy to produce a book that digs deep into the mythology of paranormal activity, while always linking it to the common thread of our most pressing concern: death. It is expansive, ranging over nearly 1500 pages in two volumes, with a separate volume of source references, which guide the reader towards a wealth of data on all the subject matters discussed. The first volume is primarily concerned with the faerie phenomenon, explaining why the concept of death is at the heart of so many of the traditional belief systems and how it might inform our modern conceptualisation of what faeries are. The second volume turns towards aliens, and how this particular paranormal subject is linked deeply with the faerie phenomenon, and ultimately with consciousness and death. The book draws heavily on the works of Terence McKenna (the title is taken from McKenna’s description of the entities experienced under the influence of DMT) and Carl Jung, and manages to clarify much of their, sometimes, ambiguous writings into a satisfying, holistic assessment of why death is at the heart of so much paranormal activity, producing a work that is truly a new mythology.
The first volume begins, somewhat surprisingly, with a chapter on the Near Death Experience (NDE). This consists of an overview of what this phenomenon tells us about the link between death and the paranormal, and sets out the stall for the rest of the two-volume book. Cutchin makes clear in this chapter that the NDE is an essential element for understanding the hard problem of consciousness, and that such a numinous experience (usually involving incorporeal entities) has much bearing on how human consciousness interacts with the paranormal subjects of faeries and aliens. For those unfamiliar with the NDE literature, this chapter acts as an excellent primer, with a wealth of references for further reading. Cutchin comes down hard on the reductionist interpretation of NDEs being nothing but an hallucinatory state caused by hypoxia: the ‘Dying Brain Hypotheses’. He quotes Christof Koch from the Scientific American, who, while determined to push the reductionist position is forced to conclude: “Why the mind should experience the struggle to sustain its operations in the face of loss of blood flow and oxygen as positive and blissful rather than as panic-inducing remains mysterious.” Cutchin also calls out reductionist scientists for their special pleading on the subject:
“Scientists also appropriate research they otherwise criticize. Many suggest NDEs arise from a pre-mortem dump of endogenous, or internally-generated N,N-Dimethyltrytamine (DMT), a chemical with psychedelic properties. While both DMT and dissociative states can model NDEs, this is a poor scapegoat for their mysterious nature: reductionists assume these factors cause hallucinations, rather than alter perception. Scientists may be mistaking the metaphorical key for the room it unlocks.“
The point about hallucinations vs. altered perception is important, especially when extended to paranormal experiences outside the NDE; an issue that is explored throughout the rest of the book. The following two chapters, ‘Psychopomps’ and ‘Soul Traditions’ outline the importance of both the dying process and the entities that may aid it in traditional folkloric belief systems, religious doctrines and shamanism. This leads us in to the meat of the first volume, explored over two chapters: the relation between the faeries and death.
In traditional folklore there was certainly a tight relationship between the faeries and the dead. Cutchin quotes the folklorist Simon Young: “Traditional fairy-believing communities in the nineteenth century tended, if they thought about the meaning of the fairies at all, to associate them with the dead; and it is even possible that fairies were originally born from an attempt to make sense of death.” In WY Evans-Wentz’s study of faerie belief in early 20th-century Celtic communities there is a strong resonance of the faeries being the ancestral dead. This was especially true in Ireland and Brittany, where there was a deep association. Evans-Wentz’s respondents did not usually view the faeries as ghosts, but rather as representatives of the ancestors, changed into a different form; non-corporeal and liable to carry messages, warnings and advice to those who interacted with them. Cutchin explores this relationship throughout the chapter, taking examples from around the world, which suggests a global traditional belief that not only do faeries often correspond with the dead, but that visitors to faerieland, are accessing the same ulterior dimension as those who have died. The descriptions of the NDE reality often transpose smoothly over the details found in folkloric accounts of visits to faerie realms.
Cutchin explores in some detail how folkloric faeries are often associated with places and rituals of the dead. This, of course, includes prehistoric burial sites: “They [The faeries] also favour Neolithic monuments. This distinction might clarify which beings hold nature spirit status and which more closely align with the dead… Many man-made faerie sites are sepulchral places like barrows, burial mounds, passage tombs, grave cairns, cemeteries and graveyards, all clearly connected with internment.” But the ritualised quality of the folklore also connects the faeries, intimately, with death. The association of the colour green with the faeries is especially important:
“Green is not only a vegetal colour, but is associated in Celtic lore with the dead… The presence of green NDE meadows reflect the afterlife as a place of fertility and rebirth. In something so simple as the colour of their clothing, faeries reveal their dualistic roles as nature spirits and the dead.“
The connection between the faeries taking, or abducting, humans and death is also made explicit. Whether it is the consciousness or the physical body that is, by whatever means, taken to a faerie realm, much folklore clearly signifies that the faeries and the ancestral dead are clearly aligned. Sometimes the folklore directly specifies that the faeries are inhabiting a realm separated from physical reality and reserved for the dead, such as in the Cornish tale of The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor (collected by William Bottrell in the 1870s) where a farmer (evidently in some form of altered state of consciousness) finds himself in a world populated by faeries who once lived as humans, as well as his former sweetheart, Grace, who had apparently died three years previously. Grace’s intriguing descriptions (somewhat unusual in folklore collected at this time) certainly confirm them to be inhabiting a land of the dead:
“Their mode of life seemed somewhat unnatural to her, for all among them is mere illusion or acting and sham. They have no hearts, she believed, and but little sense or feeling; what serves them, in a way, as such, is merely the remembrance of whatever pleased them when they lived as mortals — maybe thousands of years ago… ‘For you must remember they are not of our religion, but star-worshippers. They don’t always live together like Christians and turtle-doves; considering their long existence such constancy would be tiresome for them.’”
The suggestion here that the faeries may be ancestors from thousands of years ago, segues into Cutchin’s discussion of a theory generally dismissed by folklorists, but which may contain some esoteric truths, if the theory is stretched somewhat beyond its original, literal intent. This is The Extinct Race Hypothesis (ERH). This became a popular idea in the 19th century, and posits that the faeries are either survivors of displaced human races, or that they are memories of the same. The first of these ideas is based primarily on the association of faeries with ancient sites, and the connection of artefacts such as flint arrowheads with a living race in traditional folklore. Cutchin quotes Evans-Wentz’s interview with an Irish college professor: “The faeries of any one race are the people of the preceding race – the Fomors for the Fir Bolgs, the Fir Bolgs for the Tuatha Dé Dananns, and the Dannans for us… The old races died. Where did they go? They became spirits – and faeries.” This idea became enmeshed in some racial stereotyping to explain the ERH, an idea that is unacceptable to modern folklorists and anthropologists. But the hypothesis of the faeries as memory is explored in more depth by Cutchin, and he is able to set up subsequent chapters in the book by suggesting that faeries may well be the representation of a collective human memory, manifesting as both ancestral spirits and entities appearing in real time of their own volition.
What could cause this volition? In the chapter ‘Altered States of Consciousness’ Cutchin investigates how altering normal states of consciousness has been responsible for many interactions with faerie-type entities. These states may be induced by meditation, trauma, illness and through dreams. But the most reliable tools for bringing about an altered state of consciousness (ASC) are psychedelic compounds. The wisdom of Terence McKenna is utilised extensively to flesh out the utility of using psychedelics to come to terms with reality and death. McKenna was an enthusiastic user and proponent of the potent psychedelic compound N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and famously described the entities he encountered while using it as self-transforming machine elves. Cutchin quotes the lines that inspired the title of his book: “So the testimony of DMT for me is that there is a nearby dimension teeming with intelligence that, from one perspective seems like an ecology of souls. It seems as though that what the shamans always said they were doing was, in fact, precisely what they were doing.” This appeared to McKenna, to be contacting the dead; the ancestors who had been translated through the lens of human consciousness in to aberrational entities, which are often interpreted as faeries.
Since McKenna wrote and spoke about the DMT experience, there has been a deluge of studies, surveys and clinical trials investigating the phenomenon (described in detail in a previous post: Faerie Entities and DMT). But perhaps the most parsimonious description of why DMT may be so important in getting under the skin of modern faerie encounters is by another enthusiastic proponent of the compound, ‘Zarkov’, quoted by Cutchin: “You give DMT to ten people. They’ve never had DMT before, and you tell them only that they might see something. If nine out of ten of them come back with descriptions of elves, and four of them use the word ‘elves’ unprompted, we think you should investigate the phenomenon of elves seen on DMT.”
Cutchin’s extensive discussion of how altered states of consciousness have a fundamental bearing on the faerie phenomenon is an important addition to our understanding of how and why these particular entities have endured in our cultural tradition for so long. The faeries of traditional and most modern folklore were/are not encountered via DMT (although an endogenous release of DMT may account for some of the episodes), but they do often appear to have been experienced by people in an altered state of consciousness, however induced. And there is an overwhelming connection to death, something that is perpetuated in the most recent iteration of contact with non-human intelligent entities: aliens.
It is difficult to do justice, in such a short review, to the wealth of research into the UFO phenomenon Cutchin has managed to pour into this book. While the last three chapters of volume one tease out some strains, in a discussion of shamanistic ideas of death and the paranormal, volume two is perhaps the most complete assessment of the alien/UFO phenomenon in literature to date. The connection between faerie and alien entities is highlighted throughout, but it is much more than a facile connection between folkloric faeries and modern aliens – the connection is always overlain with the assumption that death is at the heart of both phenomena, and that our understanding of any paranormal activity requires us to adjust our concept of what death is. Cutchin explains that volume one was simply a primer to understanding the fundamentally important role UFOs/aliens have in an explanatory model of humanity: “In short, all roads lead to the UFO. Having finally exhausted other avenues of research, we are at last able to address our primary question: What role do UFOs, and alien abduction in particular, play in what we call death.” He then quotes Whitley Streiber: “In fact, it has to [do] with the next state in the evolution of the species, which involves a leap ahead into a completely new relationship with ourselves, in which mysteries like death take on an entirely new meaning.”
Cutchin spends some time examining what has become known as The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) – the idea that all UFO and ‘alien’ contact is the result of entities visiting Earth from elsewhere in the universe. This remains the pervasive explanation of the phenomenon. Suffice to say, Cutchin is not an adherent, and suggests that the reductionism of the ETH is holding us back from a true understanding of how UFOs can help us understand a deeper reality; in the same way as the faeries may. Both are immaterial entities that somehow interact with our physical reality, while at the same time being fundamentally different from it. He quotes Jenny Randles (a UFO researcher) from her 1994 book Star Children: “I have noticed that researchers in the USA run a mile from paranormal revelation. They seem terrified by the dissipation of their phenomenon through psychic experiences… For them aliens and extrasensory perception just don’t make good bedfellows. What this curiously ignores is the fact that every alien contact is steeped in psychic phenomenon.” This sets the scene for Cutchin to pin down UFOs within a more Jungian context, via luminaries such as John Keel and Jacques Vallée, and suggest that aliens, like faeries, are an intrinsic part of the collective human consciousness – they are within not without.
One of the closest comparisons to faerie experiences and UFO encounters is the alien abduction phenomenon. Cutchin has written about this previously in his 2018 book Thieves in the Night, where supernatural abductions through history are discussed. But the analyses in this second volume take the subject much further, always with the assumption of a link with death, and its precursors: Out of Body Experiences (OBEs) and NDEs. It is clear from the literature assessed by Cutchin that once again, altered states of consciousness predominate in alien abductions and that, while there are many physical aspects to the phenomenon, the main attribute is that of consciousness experiencing something removed from physical, material reality. The experiencers are having an OBE and leaving their bodies behind. This, of course, is a key breaking point in the reductionist paradigm. Here, OBEs are impossible, because consciousness is simply an epiphenomenon of the brain, and cannot operate outside it. If this materialist mindset is incorrect, and consciousness is primary, then OBEs become more credible, along with alien abductions, faerie encounters and a host of other paranormal activity. The evidence that Cutchin surveys over the nine chapters in volume two present a convincing argument for consciousness being non-dependent on physical bodies for its existence, which then makes death, as we call it, a transition rather than an oblivion. This brings us back to the numinous reality of the NDE experience, while linking all paranormal experiences to an inherent ability to escape the physical self. Cutchin, unashamedly, uses the term ‘soul’ to describe how previous societies recognised this ability, and how this may explain encounters with non-human, and non-material intelligent entities: “Our souls have always wandered in the company of such beings, joining witches’ sabbaths, riding among the Wild Hunt, weathering the trials of shamanic initiation, visiting faerieland, and, most importantly, penetrating the border between life and death.”
The intrinsic links between the alien abduction phenomenon and NDEs are explored further, and convincingly, making it clear why Cutchin opened up his book with a discussion of the NDE. The remainder of volume two is comparable to an old-school philosophical text, where thought-experiments are set up and then broken down to see how much credence can be placed in them. The chapters ‘The Soulcraft of UFOs’, ‘Aliens as the Other’ and ‘Aliens as Ourselves’ are deep explorations into how we understand ourselves, and how we comprehend something outside of ourselves, whether that be paranormal entities or the concept of death itself. And throughout the second volume, Cutchin consistently reminds us that while his main concern here is ‘aliens’, this noun can be easily transposed to ‘faeries.’ They appear to be coming from the same place, and that location is inevitably connected with the dead. Our ancestors are communicating with us through multifarious means, and in order to understand what they might be attempting to communicate, we need to expand our awareness and conceptualisation to include an ecology of souls. Joshua Cutchin’s magnum opus certainly helps us on our way to doing this.
Joshua was recently interviewed by Kate Ray and me on Kate’s Hare in the Hawthorn YouTube site, where we talk about the book and all things faerie…
Dead but Dreaming the novel is available now…