Meditation, Psychedelics and Charles Bonnet Syndrome: Some Personal Reflections on Interfacing with the Faeries

Deadbutdreaming usually attempts to interpret the faerie phenomenon from as much of an objective viewpoint as possible. The complexity of the subject matter demands an uninvolved assessment if any sense is to be made of it. But as pointed out in a previous post, the entire substance of both historic faerie folklore and modern faerie experiences is made up of subjective anecdotal testimonies; and the plural of anecdote is data. This data allows analyses. The following article is a personal testimony of my own experiences – a series of data points reliant on my own subjective memory and perception. As such, it does not provide evidence of the reality of the faerie phenomenon, but my own experiences do, I hope, add a small amount of data, which may help in the ongoing exposition of what the faeries are and why they might have been interfacing with humanity for such a long period of time. I have talked and written about some of these experiences before, but thought it might be time to round them up in one place. All my encounters with faerie-type entities have been induced by altered states of consciousness of different types, something which I believe is a strong common denominator in a majority of historic and modern testimonies. The journey begins in a Neolithic long barrow in 1996.

Meditation and the Faerie Code

In the summer of 1996 I had just completed the first year of my BA in Archaeology and History at the University of Southampton. I was using the summer break to travel around Britain and Ireland (sometimes with a good friend, sometimes alone) visiting various archaeological sites. Although I was already beginning to specialise in medieval archaeology/history, I had, for a long time, been interested in prehistory, especially the Neolithic and Bronze Age. The fossilised Neolithic landscape around Avebury, Wiltshire held a special fascination for me, and by 1996 I had already spent much time there. But my interest in such prehistoric places had shifted away from the straight materialistic study of them (as interesting as that was) and towards more esoteric interpretations of what they might represent. I had just read Michael Dames’ books The Silbury Treasure and The Avebury Cycle, and instinctively knew he was on to something, in terms of the deep, spiritual connection to the landscape the Avebury monuments and earthworks represented. So, one evening, about an hour before sunset, I found myself at West Kennet Long Barrow, enjoying the warmth of the fading day and the ambience of this amazing structure. I pitched my tent to one side of it (would I get away with this today? Probably not) and made my way into the chamber with a view to meditate, a practice that I had developed over the course of the previous year to deal with the stresses and strains of university life.

West Kennet Long Barrow is a structure built c.3,500 BCE, and, like all such barrows, was used for burials of human remains already stripped of all flesh and organs. It would also have been used for other, unknown, ritual purposes. It was excavated in the 1950s, and is one of the most complete examples of its type in Britain. It is faced with huge sarsen stones, which lead into a cave-like interior, consisting of small side chambers (where the human remains were excavated) and an end chamber about 3x3m. It’s atmosphere is very distinctive, and the scent of the damp interior stones is sometimes overbearing. I settled in the end chamber and dropped into a meditative state, hoping no other visitors would disturb me. It took me about 20 minutes to get into ‘the zone’ and relax. At this point, there was a low-level buzz, which I had experienced before when meditating. My eyes were open, and I was staring intently down the passage that lead from the entrance. And that is where the faerie appeared. A small character, about two feet tall, strode up the passage towards me, stopped about five feet away and stared at me. There was no sound apart from the continuing buzz. It stayed there for maybe ten seconds and then seemed to back away, disappearing into the light from the entrance. The whole incident lasted for no more than half a minute.

The faerie (as I thought of it then, and still do) resembled an entity illustrated by Brian Froud in his 1978 book with Alan Lee: Faeries. The image below is a close correlation. I had imbued Froud’s illustrations of faeries for several years before this incident, and had been interested in his somewhat ambiguous statements about how he viewed the entities he manifested in his artwork. So, whatever I actually experienced, was I predisposed to see this type of being while in a meditative altered state of consciousness, sitting in an ancient burial chamber? Was the experience coded to my expectations? These are questions I’ve never answered (more on this later), but the sense of presence in the chamber was overwhelming. There was no fear, perhaps due to the meditative state, only a feeling of joy, even amusement, at what I’d experienced. I felt as if the entity had sought me out and was examining me – it was as though it somehow belonged to the barrow, and was simply interested that I had turned up and tuned my consciousness into a place where it could interact with me, however briefly and with no apparent purpose. I sat there for another ten minutes, wondering if it would return, and also assuring myself that I hadn’t fallen asleep and dreamed it. But the special moment had passed. I got up, left the barrow, got into my tent and fell asleep quickly.

An approximation of the entity I experienced in West Kennet Long Barrow, by Brian Froud

This was quite a pivotal moment in my life. Although I had been investigating Fortean and esoteric subject matter for a few years, I had never experienced anything that might be termed supernatural. But this encounter was definitive. It was a gnostic realisation, facilitated by coming face to face with a non-human intelligent entity. The intensity of the moment stayed with me for years afterwards, but I had no further similar experiences, despite spending much time at various prehistoric sites in the hope of a repeat encounter. It was only when I decided to experiment with various psychedelic compounds that I once again experienced faerie-type entities, albeit it in a very different context.

Psychedelic Faeries

Between 2000 and 2012 I took a range of psychedelics. I always did this alone, and my purpose was primarily to look within myself – it was a spiritual investigation. I was always very careful taking these substances; they should never be taken lightly, as without the proper research and understanding of what they can do to consciousness, they can be problematic. I did do my research, and over the course of that decade I took a range of psychedelic substances including LSD, psilocybin, ketamine, Salvia Divinorum, and various phenethylamines and tryptamines. The experiences, while profound, did not usually involve any type of entity encounter such as I’d experienced at West Kennet Long Barrow. Perhaps the closest I got to experiencing faerie-type entities was one night as I was sitting outside my tent while camping at Glastonbury (not the festival, but rather a small campsite just outside the town). I’d taken a rather large dose of 2,5-Dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine (DOI), which is one of the few psychedelic amphetamines. In a very short time, there were small humanoid creatures bustling around in the hedge next to my tent. Once again, my experience may have been coded by having recently watched the film Photographing Fairies, where the faeries are portrayed as diminutive amorphous light-beings, with insect-like buzzing wings. The entities I experienced matched this, and they were definitely diminutive humanoids buzzing around in the hedge. The experience lasted a long time, although DOI is well known for distorting time, so I cannot put a definitive time-frame on the encounter. But once again, as per the West Kennet experience, there seemed no purpose to me seeing these entities. There was no sound or communication, but there was a distinct feeling they were aware of me, and that they viewed me with amusement. At one point, a (seemingly) female faerie jumped up and down on a large leaf as if it were a springboard; apparently just for my edification. But most of the experience consisted of about half a dozen entities simply jumping, dancing, sitting and climbing in the hedge within a few feet of me. Although this experience affected me deeply, I put it aside as an unexplainable anomaly, induced by the psychedelic state. It was numinous and profound, but there seemed no meaning to it. Likewise, the brief episodes of wispy humanoid entities encountered during various other psychedelic trips were not anything I could claim to have been faerie experiences. But there is one psychedelic that is almost guaranteed to invoke an encounter with non-human intelligent entities: N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

DMT has received much attention in recent years, and is currently being used in several clinical trials as a treatment for various mental health issues. The seminal published clinical trial using the compound is Rick Strassman’s study from the 1990s at the University of New Mexico, where sixty volunteers were given intravenous doses and their experiences recorded. The results were published in the book DMT – The Spirit Molecule in 2001. The participants in the study regularly encountered entities, ranging from giant insectoids to faeries, and often within the context of a sci-fi reality very different to our own. There have also been several surveys carried out, which record the experiences of people who have taken DMT. One of these is by the computational physicist Peter Meyer from 2006, where the anecdotal accounts are reported. Many of them include interactions with faerie-type entities, such as this one (#65), which articulates the experience beautifully:

‘This time I saw the ‘elves’ as multidimensional creatures formed by strands of visible language; they were more creaturely than I had ever seen them before. The message was changing from the initial ‘OK, OK, safe, safe… The elves were dancing in and out of the multidimensional visible language matrix, ‘waving’ their ‘arms’ and limbs/hands/fingers? and smiling or laughing, although I saw no faces as such. The elves were telling me (or I was understanding them to say) that I had seen them before, in early childhood. Memories were flooding back of seeing the elves: they looked just like they do now: evershifting, folding, multidimensional, multicolored (what colors!), always laughing, weaving/waving, showing me things, showing me the visible language they are created/creatures of, teaching me to speak and read.’

The most important aspect of the DMT experience is that the person taking it is transported into an alternative reality. This makes it different from most other psychedelics, where, despite the possibility of a radical change in consciousness, the experiencer remains rooted in consensual reality. With DMT consensual reality is simply replaced with another reality, and there are almost always non-human intelligent entities awaiting the participant.

This is what I experienced during the two times I took DMT. Within seconds of taking it, normal reality was closed down and my consciousness entered an entirely different reality, where the geometry of existence was altered. I was in a space similar to a dream, but with a hyper-reality that allowed no doubt as to its absolute substantial authenticity. The experiences were shocking – I was utterly astounded that my normality had been overhauled and replaced by it. The space was filled with metallic cubes and impossible avenues of light, all of which seemed alive with vibrancy. And, sure enough, there were inhabitants here. They were akin to the faeries I’d encountered before, but they matched the environment in being metallic and machine-like. They communicated with me somehow – not in words but in feelings, much as in a dream, overwhelming me with emotions. This communication was neither friendly nor hostile, but rather neutral – they were attempting to convey some information, but it was garbled and I felt as if I were in the presence of intelligences superior to me; who just knew more than me. I couldn’t understand what they were attempting to tell me, and I felt shame at my ineptitude. They knew this and seemed to find it amusing. The DMT experience lasts only about twenty minutes, and I felt as if I were sucked out of it back into my material reality before I’d had a chance to get used to it, or to attempt further communication with the entities I’d experienced within the DMT-space.

I’ve spent many years trying to come to terms with these experiences, and how they might relate to the faerie phenomenon. With the help of other people investigating the phenomenon from a Fortean or esoteric perspective I am starting to make sense of it, as discussed below, but beyond my meditative and psychedelic episodes with the faeries, I have also had a continuing relationship with non-human intelligent entities predicated on my loss of eyesight, which has brought me into regular contact with them.

Charles Bonnet Syndrome and the Faeries

Charle Bonnet Syndrome (CBS) is named after the Swiss naturalist, who first described the condition in 1760. The standard NHS description of CBS is that it is: ‘a condition experienced by people who are losing, or have lost, their sight. It involves seeing things which are not really there (having visual hallucinations). The hallucinations are most marked in low light or when relaxing and are often complicated scenes involving faces, children and wild animals.’ However, this is simply a description from a materialist, reductionist perspective, that assesses anything without material substance as ‘not real’. My own experiences do not feel like hallucinations, and this is a common thread of many people who have CBS visual encounters. They will frequently describe humanoid entities (sometimes cartoon-like) that appear, usually fleetingly, in what remains of their vision. But there is usually interaction with these entities, and a feeling of something real being present, much in the same way as if another person were in the space. The correspondence between these descriptions and folkloric descriptions of the faeries and modern anecdotal testimonies of a variety of supernatural beings (including, but not limited to faeries) is distinct and noticeable.

I lost most of my sight in my left eye through a central retinal occlusion in 2014. In late 2015, after knocking myself unconscious through a fall, my visual cortex was damaged and limited the vision in my right eye as well. Shortly after this the symptoms of CBS began to manifest. I had never heard of CBS, and it was only after a discussion with my then psychiatrist that I was made aware this syndrome might be causing the unusual visuals I was experiencing. I then discussed the issue with my ophthalmologist, who termed the condition Visual Release Hallucinations. An ophthalmologist will not diagnose a person with CBS/VRH as such, but mine did take the time to discuss the condition with me, explaining that it is an uncommon, but well-known symptom of people with my type of optical problems. I have regular annual ophthalmological assessments for my eyesight, and each report now contains a short section describing the continuing symptoms.

The visual entities I experience with CBS usually (though not exclusively) appear in low light, but never in total darkness, and I am always alone when they eventuate. This has happened several times a week since damaging my visual cortex in 2015. Sometimes the visuals are simple lights or smoke-like wisps, and occasionally geometric patterns, which are usually just glimpsed in my peripheral vision, last only a few seconds, and there is only a limited sense that there is something ‘present’. But often the visuals are more substantial, and will manifest as slightly cartoonish humanoid entities, frequently dressed in either archaic clothing or in garb that seems to emit a dull glow. The most fascinating aspect of these visuals is their apparent concrete reality, and even more compelling is the awareness that something is most definitely present. This usually includes a form of telepathic communication, often in the form of a series of phrases, which I never seem to be able to reply to. I can’t stress how real these communications are – as real as if someone were sitting next to me and talking.

These interactions usually last between a few seconds and several minutes. Any attempt to stare at the entities will halt the experience; they do seem to exist only in the periphery of vision. I’ve learnt to not attempt to look straight at the visuals if I want the encounter to continue. A recent example involved a small, mechanical gnome-like entity who materialised on the arm of my sofa and proceeded to communicate the repeated words: ‘Everything will be ok, let go of all anxiety… everything will be ok.’ I do realise that this sounds quite insane, and when these manifestations first began (although I was never frightened by them – they never seem to emit any hostility or malevolence, only empathy), I thought that the trauma of losing so much eyesight was taking me towards a mental breakdown. This is a common feeling of people with CBS. But after a while I just accepted the experiences as part of everyday life. I have to admit that I have come to enjoy the unusual nature of the experiences.

The voices are never present without the visuals, and it is always quite clear they are coming from the same source. Again, when this first started to happen I did a lot of research into the symptoms of schizophrenia, one of which can be hearing disembodied voices, but I quickly satisfied myself that I was not suffering from this disorder. Having spoken with several people with schizophrenia since, I have realised their experiences are very different than mine.

The CBS experiences happen probably twice a week on average, but sometimes they’ll be absent for as long as a fortnight, while other times I’ll experience them more than once a day. There is some type of link to how anxious I am feeling; they are more likely to appear during periods of anxiety. But this is not always the case – they seem to have their own timetable.

In essence, I think that perhaps CBS may be one among many ways of allowing access to non-material phenomenon. If we are willing to accept that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of the brain (thereby allowing CBS visions to be relegated to brain-generated hallucinations), but rather that consciousness is primary, and the instigator of reality, then these visuals may be allowed to take on an autonomous reality of their own. One way of looking at it is by seeing the brain as a reducing valve of a greater consciousness (à la Aldous Huxley), and that if it becomes damaged or altered in any way, it may allow in aspects of consciousness that are usually filtered out, thereby altering the genuine perception of an ulterior or supernal reality experienced by the person with the damaged/altered brain. CBS seems to be a type of altered state of consciousness. For me, the entities experienced during CBS more often than not take a form that many people would describe as faeries. It seems to me as if a change to the brain can, under certain conditions, allow us to perceive what is usually suppressed in waking reality. Perhaps, as with my experiences with meditation and psychedelics, my long interest in faerie folklore has predisposed me to interpret the appearing entities as faeries (rather than, say, aliens or ghosts) but I cannot emphasise enough the vividness of the experiences and the apparent substantiality of the visions and the communications they impart.

Altered States of Consciousness and the Faeries

The three types of interface that have allowed me to encounter faerie-type entities – meditation, psychedelics and Charles Bonnet Syndrome – have resulted in differing phenomenological experiences. But they have all, in different ways, altered my usual state of consciousness. But why would such an altered state produce the visual and audial experience of interacting with faeries? The previously made point about my long-standing interest in faerie folklore perhaps predisposing me to interpret whatever I am experiencing as faeries is probably cardinal. This does not apply to the DMT experience, as many other users of that substance (who have not necessarily had any interest in, or knowledge of faeries) report contact with faerie-type entities. But the ontological consistency of my experiences does seem to suggest that I am encountering these beings through my own cultural and psychological lens, much as the testimonies of historic folklore were dependent on people believing in the faeries, and having an ingrained idea of what they were, how they acted and what they looked like. I am, however, experiencing something, which is, for want of a better term, supernatural. The faeries I have seen, sometimes heard, but never touched, are not part of consensus reality, and only seem to appear during an altered state of consciousness. This altered state seems to be the key to me accessing them, or for them to access me. But what are they?

In order to part-answer this question I have quoted the following assessment in several previous posts, but it remains the most succinct and viable way I have found of getting close to understanding the phenomenon. It is David Luke’s three-part interpretation (based on Peter Meyer’s original eight-points) for metaphysical entity contact. He used it to assess a study into the otherworldly beings (many of which had faerie-attributes) encountered by people who had altered their states of consciousness with DMT, but it is also a valid tool to evaluate what may be happening to anyone who reports a numinous experience that includes interaction with non-ordinary entities such as the faeries:

  1. They are hallucinations. The entities are subjective hallucinations. Such a position is favoured by those taking a purely (materialist-reductionist) neuropsychological approach to the phenomena.
  2. They are psychological/ transpersonal manifestations. The communicating entities appear alien but are actually unfamiliar aspects of ourselves, be they our reptilian brain or our cells, molecules or sub-atomic particles.
  3. The entities exist in otherworlds and can interact with our physical reality. A numinous experience provides access to a true alternate dimension inhabited by independently existing intelligent entities in a stand-alone reality, which exists co-laterally with ours, and may interact with our world when certain conditions are met. The identity of the entities remains speculative.

Of course, any one of these interpretations could be valid at different times and for various experiences. From my own experiential perspective, I find number 1 incompatible with my contacts and observations. Calling something an hallucination seems to be a reductionist get-out clause, which is the only explanation possible from a materialist perspective. Numbers 2 and 3 are, to my mind, better possible explanations for what may be happening when non-human intelligent entities are encountered, either within our physical reality or (as with DMT) within an apparent exterior reality. This does not, of course, explain what the faeries are (‘the identity of the entities remains speculative’), but it does go someway to giving an explanatory model for how we may be interfacing with forms that are not part of ordinary physical reality. Number 2 suggests the faeries are aspects of ourselves, which might explain why they appear as they do to anyone who has an interest in folklore, manifesting from within cultural and psychological belief systems. Number 3 suggests that our narrow view within the electro-magnetic spectrum is simply locking out unseen worlds and the entities that reside there, and that when our state of consciousness is altered (by whatever means) these otherworlds and entities are allowed temporary access into our physical reality, or that we are allowed access to the otherworlds.

This type of approach to understanding the faerie phenomenon seems promising, and it is something that has been gaining traction over the last decade or so. Previous to this there were very few commentators (I can only think of Patrick Harpur) who were approaching this particular subject matter from the perspective of consciousness and transpersonal studies. Perhaps this approach is the best way for us to attempt to unlock the faerie code in the future. Whatever the case, I feel blessed to have had these gnostic experiences, and I will continue to respect and appreciate the opportunities I have to interact with the faeries that have been a part of my life since that summer day at West Kennet Long Barrow in 1996.

***

The cover image shows the entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow, constructed c.3500 BCE.

Anthony Peake talks extensively about non-human intelligent entities and Charles Bonnet Syndrome in his 2019 book The Hidden Universe.

Deadbutdreaming makes it in at number 11 on the ‘Top 25 Best Folklore Blogs and Websites in 2022’ by Feedspot. There are some great resources in the list.

Dead but Dreaming the novel is available now…

Anecdote, Perception and Data: Faerie Experiences from Multiple Observers

Any experience of, or encounter with, faerie-type entities will be anecdotal. This holds true for folkloric testimonies and modern reports. The faeries cannot be recorded via modern technology or quantitative methodology. They defy any reductionist, scientific analysis and remain a phenomenon that is wholly reliant on the perception of the observer. This creates a problem for any attempt to assess their metaphysical reality – the phenomenon is predicated entirely upon subjective experience. This should not, objectively, create a problem, as human existence is made up exclusively of subjective experiences, which may be questioned for a variety of reasons, but will most often be accepted as real. When it comes to apparently supernatural events, however, subjectivity has a bright light shone upon it, and the reductionist worldview will tend to create a series of objections to the validity of the experience. These experiences happen, almost exclusively, spontaneously, and the testimonies are then reliant upon the word of the experiencing client; the testimonies are heuristic and liable to a range of issues in memory, morality, honesty, and previous cultural worldviews. But with a large dataset stretching back over centuries (perhaps even millennia), and a continuing sample of experience reports, the anecdotes of interactions with non-human intelligent entities such as the faeries begin to take the form of a quantitative (rather than qualitative) collection. They may not be recordable, but they can be recorded, and their validation, through sheer quantity and the quality of testimony, may suggest the authenticity of the phenomenon. This phenomenon is open to a myriad of interpretations, but it is, in some metaphysical form, real, simply because it has found so many subjective attributes. There are perhaps millions of testimonies of people who have experienced faerie-type entities through history to the present day. Even though the data is entirely made up of subjective reports, it cannot be dismissed due to it not being able to be subjected to the standardised scientific method of proof by repeated experimentation. The faeries have a distinct place in many cultures around the world – they are an elusive but persistent phenomenon. This persistence suggests reality; at least a reality within human consciousness.

The frequently misquoted aphorism of the late political scientist Raymond Wolfinger is that the plural of anecdote is not data. Unfortunately, for those wanting to use the quote to dismiss anecdotal accounts simply because they are not testable quanta, the actual quote is the plural of anecdote ‘is’ data. Wolfinger’s principle becomes increasingly complex when anecdotal encounters are experienced at the same time by more than one person. Experiences of faerie encounters become much more difficult to explain away as hallucinations or as a vagary of perception or memory when there is a plurality of perception, and these examples make a small, but distinct, dataset to suggest the existence of a particular type of non-human intelligent entity, which seems to frequently interact with humanity in a variety of ways.

Multiple Perceptions of Non-Human Intelligent Entities from the Folkloric Record

Although they are in the minority, the folkloric record contains many examples of faerie-type entities experienced by multiple witnesses. As is always the case with folklore, the testimonies are often overlain with moral attributes and the need to tell a story over the top of any genuine experience. And it is also true that most folkloric faerie encounters are from the perspective of an individual. But there are enough multiple witness anecdotes to suggest the people recounting the testimonies accepted the idea that the faeries were real entities, interacting with humans, and which could be experienced contemporaneously by different people.

Perhaps the first account on record of multiple witnesses to a faerie encounter comes from the 12th century in the story of the Green Children of Woolpit (Suffolk), chronicled by Ralph de Coggeshall and William de Newburgh. This is an extremely odd encounter tale (unlike any other in medieval chronicles) and it could be argued it is not a faerie experience at all. But it remains an anomalous tale with the ring of authenticity. It certainly remains within the remit of folkloric faerie encounters. The two green-coloured children emerged from caves near the village, speaking no English, and proceeded to become a part of the community. There are diverse interpretations of the story, but both chroniclers placed the events firmly within the remit of faerie folklore. The folkorist EW Baughman suggests the story is the only example in English folklore of the motif: Inhabitants of lower world visit mortals, and continue to live with them.

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. Later questioning of the villagers infers they often gathered at the tree in groups to interact with the fees, and that they were all experiencing the same phenomenon.

But it is not until the 18th and 19th centuries that we get more straight anecdotal accounts of multiple-witness faerie encounters. One fascinating encounter took place in 1757, recorded by the prominent Methodist Edward Williams (1750-1813), recalling an incident from childhood. Simon Young describes the rather frightening experience:

It was summer 1757, and about midday. At Lanelwyd House to the south of Bodfari (Wales) four children decided to play outside, as the adults prepared for lunch. The children came from two families. There was Barbara Jones (15) and her sister Ann Jones (11); Edward Williams (7) and his sister, Jane (10). The children climbed over a stile into a nearby field, Cae Caled, and set to their games when one of them noticed a group of small humans dancing about seventy yards away. At this point things began to get very strange, very quickly. The figures were ‘little bigger than we, but of a dwarfish appearance’. They wore red and had red head scarfs polka dotted with yellow. They carried handkerchiefs in their hands as they danced. This seems to have been some kind of frenetic pair dancing: our narrator compared it to Morris Dancing or May Dancing. The figures were dancing so quickly that the children had difficulty in working out how many dancers they were: there was ‘something uncommonly wild in their motions’. The children settled on about sixteen. There seems to have been no music. In fact, no noise of any kind is recorded. At this point one of the dancers broke away from the group and moved towards the children. ‘He came towards us in a slow-running pace, but with long steps for a little one.’ The children ran for the stile as quickly as they could. Edward Williams, as he sprinted off, ‘screamed exceedingly’. Tiny Edward, who recorded the episode, remembered, as an adult, the exact order in which the girls went over the stile: he arrived at the stile last as he was the slowest runner and had to wait. First went Barbara, then Ann, then Edward’s sister, then just as the ‘elf’ was arriving, Edward himself was hauled over by Jane. The dancer apparently said nothing – the silence in the account adds to the terror, at least for me – but he tried to grab Edward then leant over the stile towards the children. He had a ‘swarthy, and grim complexion’ and his skin was ‘copper-coloured’. He ‘looked old rather than young’. Williams described him as a ‘warlike Lilliputian’. The children ‘with palpitating hearts and loud cries’ ran towards Lanelwyd House. The men had already sat down to dinner and rushed out as they heard the tumult. But though the dancers had been just 150 yards from the front door they had all disappeared.

Other multiple-witness accounts from the 19th century range from incidents overlain with a folkloric tenor through to straight-up experience reports from apparently reliable witnesses. One example of the former was collected by the folklorist James Bowker and published in Goblin Tales of Lancashire in 1883. In the story Adam and Robin are walking past Langton church on a moonlit night when they hear the bells peal twenty-six times; the age of Robin. As they approach the avenue of trees leading to the church they see a small, dark figure step out of the churchyard “chanting some mysterious words in a low musical voice as he walked.” They ducked back into the trees and witnessed a faerie funeral procession singing a requiem:

… Adam and Robin saw a marvellous cavalcade pass through the gateway. A number of figures, closely resembling the one to which their attention had first been drawn, walked two by two, and behind them others with their caps in their hands, bore a little black coffin, the lid of which was drawn down so as to leave a portion of the contents uncovered. Behind these again others, walking in pairs, completed the procession. All were singing in inexpressibly mournful tones, pausing at regular intervals to allow the voice of the one in advance to be heard, as it chanted the refrain of the song, and when the last couple had passed into the avenue, the gates closed as noiselessly as they had opened. As the bearers of the burden marched past the two watchers, Adam bent down, and, by the help of a stray gleam of moonlight, saw that there was a little corpse in the coffin. ‘Robin, mi lad,’ said he, in a trembling voice and with a scared look, ‘it’s the picture o’ thee as they have in the coffin!’

Robin reaches out to touch the lead faerie. The procession immediately vanishes, and the two men run back home ashen-faced. Sure enough, one month later, Robin falls from a hay-rick and is fatally wounded. This sounds like a typical morality tale overlaying a potentially real faerie experience witnessed by two people. More prosaic, and more convincing as a straight anecdote, is the testimony (detailed by Janet Bord from an account recorded by Jonathan Ceredig Davies in Folklore of West and Mid-Wales (1911)) from 1862 of two friends, David Evans and Evan Lewis, who stopped on a hillside road in Cwmdwr (Carmarthenshire, Wales) and watched with amazement as about fifty ‘small people’ made their way up the hillside to its top 400 yards away:

The first of those who were climbing up along the winding footpath had reached a small level spot on the top of the hill. The others quickly followed him, and each one in coming to the top gave a jump to dance, and they formed a circle. After dancing for a short time, one of the dancers turned into the middle of the circle, followed by the others, one by one till they appeared like a gimblet screw. Then they disappeared into the ground. After a while one of them reappeared again, and looked about him in every direction as a rat, and the others followed him and did the same. Then they danced fo some time as before, and vanished into the ground as they had done the first time.

This mostly conforms to the common motif of faeries dancing in a circle (Aarne-Thompson Motif Index F. 261.1). Graham Hancock has utilised this folkloric example in his 2005 book Supernatural (republished this year as Visionary: The Mysterious Origins of Human Consciousness) to suggest the faeries can behave with a hive-mind, when forming these dancing circles, to achieve their purpose, even if we do not know what that purpose is. But perhaps a more important element of the anecdote is that both friends confirmed they witnessed the same event and appear to have been reliable testators.

About fifty years later, WY Evans-Wentz collected a story from County Donegal, Ireland, where one Neil Colton described an incident, which had happened during his childhood, also in the mid 19th century:

One day, just before sunset in midsummer, and I a boy then, my brother and cousin and myself were gathering bilberries (whortleberries) up by the rocks at the back of here, when all at once we heard music. We hurried round the rocks, and there we were within a few hundred feet of six or eight of the gentle folk, and they dancing. When they saw us, a little woman dressed all in red came running out from them towards us, and she struck my cousin across the face with what seemed to be a green rush. We ran for home as hard as we could, and when my cousin reached the house she fell dead. Father saddled a horse and went for Father Ryan. When Father Ryan arrived, he put a stole about his neck and began praying over my cousin and reading psalms and striking her with the stole; and in that way brought her back. He said if she had not caught hold of my brother, she would have been taken for ever.

While, once again, there is a tenor of Christian morality infused into the anecdote, the testator was deemed by Evans-Wentz (consistently a good judge of character) to have been relating an honest depiction of something that happened in the past. If the eye-witness account is given credit at face-value, the three children were all evidently experiencing the same entities at the same time. The frightening nature of the encounter, and its aftermath, may also have hardwired it into Colton’s memory in a way that a lesser, more amorphous encounter would not, thereby rendering it a relatively reliable folkloric testimony.

A final example, from the early 20th century, is perhaps the ultimate multiple-witness encounter, where tens of thousands of people observed the same phenomenon. It could be argued that this does not belong in the folkloric record, and is instead a modern Fortean phenomenon. But it does provide a segue between a traditional method of collecting anecdotal data and more modern journalistic forms of reporting potentially supernatural events. David Halpin describes the event at Fatima, Portugal in 1916/17:

In early spring 1916 three local shepherd children, Lúcia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto reported that they were visited by an angel on several occasions. These visits later became known as and attributed to the Roman Catholic title – Our Lady of Fatima, or the Virgin Mary. As word of this spread, thousands of people flocked to the area to visit the children and the location of the event. It was said the visitor had promised a miracle for October 13 the following year. During the Miracle of the Sun event on October 13, 1917, over 80,000 people witnessed an event at Fatima where a bright disc-like object spun through the sky and swooped over the crowds below. The disc radiated coloured lights and is said to have emitted heat before returning to the clouds.

The encounter was appropriated by the Church as a manifestation of the Virgin Mary, but the children’s experiences with non-human intelligent entities leading up to the main event on 13 October suggests they were in contact with something that would fit well within a general framework of faerie encounters, however they were interpreted by the children and those reporting (and appropriating) the series of events. While it may be a stretch to include the encounters and events at Fatima as a multiple-observer faerie experience, it may be legitimate to suggest that the concept of what faeries are should be extended to include a range of anomalous phenomena. This comes into focus when we begin to investigate multiple-witness experiences from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Multiple Perceptions of Non-Human Intelligent Entities in the Modern Period

The well-known story of the Cottingley faeries involved sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and her nine-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths, who, in July 1917 (a few months before the Fatima incident), claimed to have taken photographs of faeries near a brook in Elsie’s garden. The photographs were proven to have been faked by the girls, but later in life they both insisted they did encounter faeries together, and that the photographs were simply representative of their real experiences. Interestingly, when the Theosophist, and proclaimed clairvoyant, Geoffrey Hodson visited Elsie’s home in 1921, he reported that both he and the two girls observed a range of faerie-type entities in the garden, described by him as gnomes, fairies, elves, nymphs, and goblins. All three, he reported, encountered the beings together as a multiple-witness observation. Later, when the photographs were shown to be fakes, Hodson was criticised for encouraging the girls, but he insisted that what they saw during his stay was a true clairvoyant interaction with the faeries residing in the garden, and that he and the girls were observing the same phenomenon.

Another multiple-observer account, also involving children, took place in Liverpool in 1964. This was a very peculiar incident, which lasted several days and became known as The Liverpool Leprechaun Scare. It is particularly interesting as it involved a potential UFO sighting that became enmeshed in the anecdotal testimonies. Nigel Watson outlines the events in detail in an edition of Magonia Magazine in 1985. Dozens of children described seeing and chasing leprechauns in Jubilee Park to the east of the city. Watson records that: “According to the Liverpool Daily Post dated 2nd July 1964, the leprechauns were first seen on the night of Tuesday 30th June. Nobody knew how the rumour started, but one nine-year-old boy told the Post reporter, Don McKinley that ‘last night I saw little men in white hats throwing stones and mud at each other on the bowling green.'” Numerous testimonies accorded that there were ‘little green men in white hats throwing stones and tiny clods of earth at one another.’

Two weeks later the leprechauns appear to have moved north of the city to Kirkby, which is where UFOs enter the story, as described in the newspaper The Kirkby Reporter:

Flying saucers and leprechauns came to Kirkby last week – at least according to local children. What the connection was the children were not quite sure, but scores of excited youngsters invaded the Reporter offices on Friday, eager to tell they had seen both these things. A “strange object in the sky”, which changed the colour of its lights from red to silver, and was moving slowly at first, then very fast, was their description of the flying saucer. The ‘flying saucer’ faction vied with the ‘leprechaun’ group for colourful descriptions. About eight inches high, with red and green tunics, and knee-breeches, thus the ‘little people were described. And, of course, they spoke with a strong Irish brogue. The origin of the wee folk remains a mystery, but so convinced were the children that hundreds of them plagued the vicar of Kirkby (Rev. J. Lawton) by invading St Chad’s churchyard in search of the little people. At times the numbers were such that the police had to chase the children away.

There do not seem to be any adult testimonies of observing the leprechauns, but several people did report seeing strange, fast-moving lights in the sky at the time. This correlation between UFOs and faeries was first made explicit five years later by Jacques Vallée in his book Passport to Magonia, and so it is interesting that, whatever really happened in Liverpool in 1964, we have an instance of dual UFO/faerie phenomena, experienced by multiple observers several years before any considered connection was made between them.

More traditionally folkloric in tone, but just as strange is the incident of the Wollaton gnomes, which happened at Wollaton Park in Nottingham on 23 September 1979, and again involves children interacting with non-human intelligent entities. It includes various traditional folkloric faerie motifs, but is overlain with some strange and anomalous features, which give it an edge of authenticity, especially as it was reported by a group of seven children between 8-10 years, who stuck rigorously to their story even when separated and questioned by their headmaster. The consistency of their testimonies is particularly impressive, despite some of the aberrant qualities of the account. Their testimonies were recorded on tape by the headmaster a few days after the event, and the transcriptions can be found here, recorded for posterity by Simon Young.

The incident happened during the early evening, at twilight. The children were playing close to a fenced-off marshy area of the park with ponds. Without warning, there appeared about thirty small cars, each containing two gnome-like creatures, that is, with ‘bobbled nightcaps’, beards, wrinkly skin, and dressed in coloured jerkins. One of the older children described them as: ‘about half the size of me and they had long white beards with red at the bottom and they had little white and red cars and they were chasing us.’ The cars were silent and seemed able to defy the laws of physics by floating over logs on the ground. Although the gnomic cars chased the children they were consistently described as being friendly and the whole encounter seemed like a game with the gnomes laughing, although when the two youngest children fell over in the marsh they became frightened. One of the only discrepancies in the testimonies is that five of the children said the gnomes were, apart from laughing, consistently silent throughout, whereas two children described them as talking in some type of foreign language. The cars were described as having triangular lights and some sort of button instead of a steering wheel. After about fifteen minutes, soon after the two youngsters fell in the marsh, the children ran off and the gnomes disappeared back into the trees.

Both the Liverpool and Wollaton incidents might be construed as examples of mass formation psychosis among children. A kernel of an idea, involving varying types of faerie entities, may have generated a collective belief in their reality, shared by groups of children with impressionable minds. But even if there is some veracity in this concept, the testimonies (especially from Wollaton) contain phenomenological details that remain difficult to reconcile when witnessed by multiple observers, even if they were children. And (as with the Cottingley faeries) the trope of children simply having consciousnesses more open than adults to anomalous events and experiences may be an equally valid explanation. And the fact that both incidents were reported straight after the alleged encounters (as opposed to events remembered and recounted in adulthood) is an important component of the testimonies. However, there are also many examples in the modern period of multiple-witness faerie encounters among adults.

Some of these faerie encounters appear to have happened to people with avowed clairvoyant abilities. Many of the anecdotes reported by Marjorie Johnson in her book Seeing Fairies, for example, included those from her Theosophist correspondents, who may have been predisposed to believe in the existence of non-human intelligent entities. The reports were mostly from the mid 20th century. A report from Mrs Strick, for instance, recounted a walk in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, with her thirteen-year-old niece. She describes how they both saw faerie-type entities riding atop tiny horses in a waterfall. The small humanoids: “… waved their arms above their heads as though encouraging one another in the wild game they appeared to be playing. Then they were gone, and one had time to breathe, but only for a few moments. They appeared again and again at the top of the fall, repeated the same actions, and so it went on for, perhaps, half an hour.” She describes the profound emotional effect the experience had on them both. Johnson also recounts the extraordinary testimony of Mr F McGreal, who described an experience with his late father in County Mayo, Ireland the 1930s. They were travelling across marshy ground after leaving a cart track, but they both knew the area well and were confident of traversing the marsh to reach their home in about half an hour. But suddenly the boggy landscape became more solid:

It was very strange, and my father and I tried to get back to the cart track, but we couldn’t see any familiar landmarks… We carried on walking, but we hadn’t a clue where we were going. Father put his fingers to his mouth and gave a sharp blast like a whistle. Immediately, little brick and slate houses sprang up in all directions. Little people came out holding storm lamps and running around. I cannot recall the dress they wore, but they were approximately two feet six inches in height, and there seemed to be eight or twelve little people to each house… We would change our direction to one of the houses, but when we thought we were almost upon it, it would disappear and spring up elsewhere. This went on for some time, and I began to get afraid, but father said they were only having fun and they would not let any harm come to us.

Mr McGreal then includes the common folkloric tropes of his father turning his coat inside out and throwing it on the ground to disperse the faeries, and that the event had taken up hours of time, bringing them home late into the night. These tropes may have been layered over the experience, but the testator swore to the truth of the anecdote, which had been the same for both father and son.

As in Marjorie Johnson’s collection of faerie encounters, the more recent testimonies gathered in the Fairy Investigation Society’s survey between 2014-17 (mostly from experiences in the late 20th century through to the 2010s) by Simon Young only contain a minority of multiple-witness accounts, although there are forty out of just over 500 reports, which represents a significant dataset. Unlike in Seeing Fairies, the survey tends to include experiences from a wide range of people, who were simply responding (anonymously) to questions in the survey, and most did not suggest any clairvoyant or psychic abilities. Report #160 comes from the Isle of Man in the 1970s. The respondent is a male, then in his thirties who was travelling in a taxi across The Fairy Bridge over the Santon Burn, where it is a custom among the Manx people to greet the faeries with a wave as the bridge is crossed. The experience was shared with the taxi driver, and it is an interesting example of possible psychological suggestion, where the cogitation of faeries may have conjured up an actual encounter:

I was in a taxi driving from a farm back to my hotel in Castletown. The driver told me of the story of the Fairy Bridge and gave the greeting as we crossed it. A few minutes later I saw in the headlights and several feet ahead of the car three strange forms going across the road. They were not humanoid in shape but looked as though they were flat rather than 3D and had a jagged outline about eight inches or so high. Strangely they appeared in the headlights to be bright pink! The driver saw this too but couldn’t explain it. They were six to eight inches tall and maybe five inches broad but like a flat sheet of fluorescent pink card with jagged edges. However they moved in a procession of three from the left to the right of the country road. The comments made earlier by the driver suggested fairies but it could have been something else. This memory has lasted clearly for many years. By nature I am sceptical and I have always tried to examine things with a view to finding an explanation. I never have been able to find one for this.

Report #240, from the 2010s, describes the experience of a man in his forties with his girlfriend in a forest area in California. They had both taken a small dose of Psilocybin mushrooms, which, depending on your point of view, may either render the experience an hallucination, or mark it out as an experience facilitated by an altered state of consciousness (the fact they both saw the same being suggests the latter, as discussed below). He describes an interaction with a strange humanoid entity: “naked except for a pair of leather Celtic or pagan shorts (or maybe more like a loincloth?), like you’d see at the Renaissance Faire, and a leather vest (of similar style) that was fully open.” He had pointed ears and exuded a “glamour and repulsiveness” that marked him out as otherworldly to the respondents. Both the man and his girlfriend communicated with the entity before he “skipped away” in an unusual and prehensile way.

Report #57 describes the experience of a man in his fifties, who was walking with a friend and his dog through a woodland clearing near Chilworth in Hampshire, England in 2007. They both saw a tree: “rushing across the fields towards us, and as it crossed the path before us into the next field, I could see there was a friendly, smiling face in the bark. We both had the same experience and described it to each other in the same way. It was about ten feet tall. The dog stopped to look up at it too.” Interestingly, he also described a profound silence before the experience, a loss of a sense of time and a prickling sensation during the experience, which he felt was a display put on especially for him and his friend (and perhaps the dog).

There is also a multiple-witness report from Wollaton Park (#104C), which happened during midsummer, in the same year (1979) as the gnome incident described above. A 50-year-old male (so at the time, a few years older than the children who encountered the gnomes) recounts being with a friend in the park by a dried-out canal, at about nine in the evening:

I looked across the other side of the canal and directly opposite us was a small shiny white humanoid creature about eighteen inches high. You couldn’t see its face because it was too bright and shiny, glowing white like a light bulb but shaped like a small person. I just felt it was looking at us and standing still. my friend was really scared. He had really short hair but I can remember what bit of hair he had was sticking up on his head. I wasn’t so scared and climbed into the dried up canal with the intention of climbing up the other side to get a better look, and my friend followed. The creature then bolted into a small wooded area then out onto the big field. We chased it but it bolted too fast so we just stood there and watched it get further across the field until it disappeared out of sight. It never bothered me but it really affected my friend. He was scared of dolls and ventriloquist dummies, action man toys, anything like that afterwards. He often discussed it with me for years after and told me he could never watch a Chucky movie because dolls terrify him.

Finally, there are several modern multiple-witness accounts of faerie-type entities contained in the excellent series The Modern Fairy Sightings Podcast produced by the folklorist Jo Hickey-Hall. In episode six an Eastern European female psychologist describes how she and her sister encountered a small (c.50cm tall), white, humanoid in her house during one afternoon in 2020. She describes it as having no face, with a lean shape. It quickly passed through a corridor and past a half-open door. Intriguingly, although the encounter lasted only seconds, she felt as if it had lasted longer the entity would have manifested into something more solid. The two sisters corroborated each other’s story. In episode four a male (from an undisclosed UK location) describes seeing lights in the woods during a winter walk with a friend. When they drew closer they saw a person-sized Ent-like, spindly creature (perhaps a similar entity to the encounter in the Fairy Investigation Society’s survey described above) carrying a light and running through the woods. The friend took fright, but the testator continued to watch, and has drawn an image of the entity, which is reproduced in the show notes for the episode. And in episode eleven two females, on the way to a midsummer Wiccan ritual in a parkland near London, encountered what sounds like a classic small gnome-like entity (although the testator described it as a pixie) with pointed hat and beard. They both agreed on what they’d witnessed, but, interestingly, they took the experience in a very matter-of-fact way and simply carried on to their destination. All of these multiple-witness accounts were visual only, with no audial or tactile elements.

The Importance of Multiple-Witness Faerie Encounters

Evidently, there is a difference between folkloric multiple-witness encounters and modern experiences. The former have usually been overlain with the need to tell a story, and often with moral attributes. This does not mean they can be discounted as anecdotal data, but they are, by their nature, more dense and hidden beneath their motifs. Even the modern encounters rest beneath the vagaries of memory recall and are reliant upon the honesty of the testators. But once a large number of experiences are compiled over a long time period the plural of anecdote does become data. This also holds true for encounters from individual testators, but when more than one person observes the same phenomenon there is an increased veracity to the experience, as explanations reliant on individual hallucinations are mostly taken out of the equation. While multiple-witness encounters are in the minority of faerie experiences, they still represent a large dataset, of which, only a small number have been referenced here.

If two or more people have witnessed faerie-type entities at the same moment, then, providing the testimonies are honest, it would suggest that something real is interacting with the consciousnesses of the observers. This might be a good time to reintroduce David Luke’s three-part interpretation (based on Peter Meyer’s original eight-points) for metaphysical entity contact. He used it to assess a study into the otherworldly beings (many of which had faerie-attributes) encountered by people who had altered their states of consciousness with DMT, but it is also a valid tool to evaluate what may be happening to anyone who reports a numinous experience that includes interaction with non-ordinary entities such as the faeries:

  1. They are hallucinations. The entities are subjective hallucinations. Such a position is favoured by those taking a purely (materialist-reductionist) neuropsychological approach to the phenomena.
  2. They are psychological/ transpersonal manifestations. The communicating entities appear alien but are actually unfamiliar aspects of ourselves, be they our reptilian brain or our cells, molecules or sub-atomic particles.
  3. The entities exist in otherworlds and can interact with our physical reality. A numinous experience provides access to a true alternate dimension inhabited by independently existing intelligent entities in a stand-alone reality, which exists co-laterally with ours, and may interact with our world when certain conditions are met. The identity of the entities remains speculative.

With multiple-witness encounters, number one can be discarded. The theory of ‘mass/multiple hallucinations’ of the same phenomenon is derelict. There is no scientific basis for the idea that multiple people could individually generate the same visual imagery and auditory information. Number two is more tenable, especially if we accept that two or more people could plug into a collective unconscious at the same moment. A collective un/consciousness might allow multiple observations of the same phenomenon mediated through a transpersonal experience, where a cloud of consciousness is able to manifest any phenomenon to multiple observers. But number three would appear to answer many of the questions raised by multiple-witness encounters. If faerie entities are able to present themselves to two or more people at the same moment, it suggests they are indeed existing in a stand-alone reality, and are able to interact with humans (and perhaps animals) in our physical reality whenever certain conditions are met. These conditions may involve an altered state of consciousness, as many of the examples above suggest, but, as Luke points out, the identity of the entities remains speculative.

Multiple-witness encounters with faeries are an important part of the dataset of non-human intelligent entity experiences. While, as with all such esoteric subject matter, they need to be subjected to scrutiny and analysis, they also provide us with deep insights into what the faerie phenomenon might mean and how we may be able to get under the skin of the complexities of something that has been integrated with humanity for a very long time. The plural of anecdote is indeed data, especially when the anecdotes and data involve more than one observer.

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* Thanks to Jo Hickey-Hall and David Halpin for advice and their expertise in the production of this article.

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The cover image is Dancing Faeries By Johan August Malmstrom (1866).

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Dead but Dreaming the novel is available now

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Talking Faeries on Hare in the Hawthorn – the 2022 Season

Kate Ray and I have just begun a new season of interviews on Hare in the Hawthorn, where we discuss the faerie phenomenon from a range of perspectives. I’ll add a link to each video here as we progress. So far we’ve done a few with just us introducing some themes and ideas, and our first guest this season is Dr Jack Hunter. We have a lot of excellent guests lined up for 2022, so please do go along and subscribe to the YouTube channel and click the bell for notifications whenever a new video is posted. Here are the clickable video links…

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Dead but Dreaming the novel is available now.

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The cover image is by Brian Froud, whose artwork seems to find its way into all of our discussions. Kate and I are big fans, and his depictions of the faerie world has had an important impact on both of us.

Faeries, Children and Altered States of Consciousness

A new publication by Simon Young, The Wollaton Gnomes: A Nottingham Fairy Mystery maps out the peculiar incident from 1979 when a group of children experienced gnome-like entities in a park in Nottingham. The book includes all the known sources, with a discussion of the data. It also has ten new essays that expound upon the incident and introduce a range of perspectives upon what may have happened. My own essay (adapted to include an introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the incident) is republished below. The discussion is curtailed somewhat, due to the word count for the publication, but there will be more lengthy articles here concerning the faeries and altered states of consciousness in the near future. Thanks to Simon for permission to share the text here at deadbutdreaming.

The Wollaton Park Incident

One of the more bizarre modern faerie encounters happened at Wollaton Park in Nottingham on 23 September 1979. It includes various traditional folkloric faerie motifs, but is overlain with some strange and anomalous features, which give it an edge of authenticity, especially as it was reported by a group of seven children between 8-10 years, who stuck rigorously to their story even when separated and questioned by their headmaster. The consistency of their testimonies is particularly impressive, despite some of the aberrant qualities of the account. Their testimonies were recorded on tape by the headmaster a few days after the event, and the transcriptions can be found here, recorded for posterity by Simon Young.

The incident happened during the early evening, at twilight. The children were playing close to a fenced-off marshy area of the park with ponds. Without warning, there appeared about thirty small cars, each containing two gnome-like creatures, that is, with ‘bobbled nightcaps’, beards, wrinkly skin, and dressed in coloured jerkins. One of the older children described them as: ‘about half the size of me and they had long white beards with red at the bottom and they had little white and red cars and they were chasing us.’ The cars were silent and seemed able to defy the laws of physics by floating over logs on the ground. Although the gnomic cars chased the children they were consistently described as being friendly and the whole encounter seemed like a game with the gnomes laughing, although when the two youngest children fell over in the marsh they became frightened. One of the only discrepancies in the testimonies is that five of the children said the gnomes were, apart from laughing, consistently silent throughout, whereas two children described them as talking in some type of foreign language. The cars were described as having triangular lights and some sort of button instead of a steering wheel. After about fifteen minutes, soon after the two youngsters fell in the marsh, the children ran off and the gnomes disappeared back into the trees.

The Wollaton Park incident is certainly one of the most intriguing modern encounter reports of faerie-type entities. If we consider the gnomes the children reported as part of a taxonomy of faeries, then the testimony joins the ranks of thousands from both folklore and modern experiences. Many experience reports are from childhood, usually (unlike with the Wollaton children) recalled in adulthood. When this is the case, we need to take into account the vagaries of memory, and how any incident is recalled. The plasticity of memory appertaining to any eye-witness event is a well-studied psychological trait. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted an in-depth study of how people remembered automobile accidents at various times after the event, concluding that: “findings seem to indicate that memory for an event that has been witnessed is highly flexible. If someone is exposed to new information during the interval between witnessing the event and recalling it, this new information may have marked effects on what they recall. The original memory can be modified, changed or supplemented.” This is, of course, unavoidable in any testimony of a past incident. In some ways, a non-ordinary supernatural event may be less prone to plasticity as it is likely to be a special event, detached from the everyday. Its unconventionality may burn it into memory in a more exacting way and its recall be more reliable than for that of a more commonplace occurrence. But potentially numinous incidents, such as encounters with supernatural entities, may also be subject to increased amounts of reconstitution, where the experiencer attempts to make subsequent rationalisations of the event and even suppress aspects of what has happened in order to codify it to accepted social and cultural belief systems.

So, with these caveats in mind, It is worth exploring how such non-human entity encounters may occur, and why there seems to be a relative prevalence of childhood experiences involving faeries. The gnomes in the Wollaton encounter seem to adhere to a fairly traditional folkloric appearance, but, of course, their levitating cars give them some modern cultural coding. If the incident is taken at face-value it could be seen as an updated version of many folklore anecdotes and stories that involve wizened gnomic faeries, behaving in a slightly irrational manner. Their manifestation in woodland and at dusk also locks in with the usual habitat and aphotic preferences of folkloric gnomes. Their materialisation to children is also important. The transcripts clearly demonstrate that the children, whilst startled by the encounter, were able to accept it without the rationalisation that might be expected of an adult. They viewed it as weird, but not unnatural. Perhaps this was simply a case of the children tuning into to the gloaming, woodland atmosphere and experiencing a non-material reality, acculturated for them by their watching (the very hallucinogenic) Big Ears and Noddy on the television. This state of mind of the children, coupled with their relative lack of (adult) cultural coding, is important. It may be contended that children are more easily able to enter an altered state of consciousness and participate in a non-local reality, which may possibly include supranatural entities such as the Wollaton gnomes.

Children and Faeries

Tales about children interacting with faeries in the historic folklore are relatively rare. The 19th- and early 20th-century collectors, such as Hunt, Campbell, Carmichael and Evans-Wentz did not record testimonies or stories from children, and only occasionally recounted remembered anecdotes from adults. But artwork depicting faeries from the same period often showed children interacting with the entities, and JM Barrie’s stage plays and novels in the first decades of the 20th century suggest an intrinsic understanding that there was an immutable link between children and faeries. This was demonstrated most famously in the story of the Cottingley faeries. In 1917, sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and her nine-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths took photographs of what they claimed to be faeries, located in the grounds of Elsie’s family home in Cottingley, Yorkshire. Four of the five photographs were subsequently shown to be faked by the girls, who used cut-outs from illustrations from Princess Mary’s Gift Book, although the fifth photograph is more ambiguous, and Elsie always claimed it was not manufactured. Perhaps the most interesting part of the Cottingley story is that the girls, while later admitting to faking the images, claimed that they were only attempting to represent what they really saw in the gardens. When the theosophist and proclaimed clairvoyant, Geoffrey Hodson, visited the girls in 1921 he claimed that ‘both he and the girls regularly observed gnomes, fairies, elves, nymphs, and goblins.’ To the end of their lives in the 1980s, both Elsie and Frances insisted they had interacted with faerie entities at Cottingley over the course of five years.

By the mid 20th century, anecdotal experience reports similar to the Cottingley testimony (although without the photographs) were beginning to be collected by organisations such as the Fairy Investigation Society, which had been founded in 1927 (disbanded in 1932 but re-founded after the Second World War). These differed from the folkloric testimonies of earlier periods in that they were rarely overlain with any type of narrative story, but instead consisted of simple encounter reports. One of the most complete collections is that of Marjorie Johnson (secretary of the Fairy Investigation Society from 1950), which was finally published as Seeing Fairies. This included accounts of several hundred faerie encounters, mostly from Britain, and many of them were from children, albeit recalled at a later date. Johnson was a believer in the faerie phenomenon and had many personal experiences, but in Seeing Fairies she mostly recounted the testimonies of people who had written to her with minimal editorial input or interpretation. It is noticeable that many of the childhood recollections referenced gnome-like entities, such as the testimony recounted (in the third-person by Johnson) from Kent, England by Felicity Royds recalling an experience from when she was nine years old:

“Felicity found she had left some object – her coat or a toy – in the rose garden, and was sent back alone to fetch it. The rose garden was surrounded by thick yew hedges, and at the end of it was a cast-iron gate leading into a thicket of rhododendrons. The object, which she had gone to fetch, was on the grass near this gate, and she had just retrieved it and was turning away, fearful of what may come out of the bushes, when she saw coming through the gate a small man leading a light brown horse. The man was shorter than Felicity and appeared to be wearing a blue tunic with something white at the neck. His skin was very brown, browner than his hair. The pony was about the size of a Shetland but very slender. Although she did not feel frightened, Felicity did not look at the man directly, only out of the corner of her eye. He put his hand on her wrist, and his touch was cool, not cool like a fish or a lizard, but much cooler than a human touch. He led her out of the rose garden and onwards until they were within sight of the house, and then stood still while she went in. She said that she was not musical, but while he held her hand she seemed to be aware of a strain of music that was sweet and high but sounded rather unfinished.”

The tactility of this encounter is rare; most experiences are visual and audial only (as per the Wollaton gnomes). But (as elaborated on in the next section) some of Johnson’s correspondents suggest their encounters involved extra-sensory numinous perception, such as Clara Clayton, who recounted experiences throughout her life in Nottinghamshire, including as a child, when one day:

“I found myself in the presence of a little green gnome on a hill. His face was serious, and he looked anxiously from side to side. Then he beckoned to me, and as he went suddenly through the ground like a fish swimming through water, he changed to the colour of earth and he moved easily through soil, rock etc. I followed him with my inner vision until he ceased his downward journey and showed to me his particular place of work.”

The faerie gnome showed her how he fashioned earth and minerals before the experience ended in a sudden blackout.

In the 2014-17 survey by Simon Young of the Fairy Investigation Society there were thirty-four testimonies from adults recounting faerie experiences from when they were under ten, and seventeen from teenage recollections (all anonymised). There is a great divergence of faerie entity types, although several described the entities as gnomes, such as this experience (#18) from a thirteen year-old girl in Cornwall:

“We’d been on holiday in Cornwall before, and had joked about the ‘Little People’ who lived in the tin mines etc… The first proper day of our holiday we went for a walk on a clear sunny day. It was very rural; I remember we were walking down a grassy track with large banks of wild hedges running alongside. It could’ve been somewhere near Polperro. I was walking a few steps ahead of my mum and sisters, excited about having a whole week off, when I saw a gnome sitting by the side of the path. It was so unexpected; I think I remember feeling scared – or wondering if I was seeing things or going mad? I took another couple of steps and I saw his nut brown wizened face in detail. He was cheekily grinning at me. He had a mossy brown beard and dark brown shining eyes; he was wearing a peaked hat (brown) and a shiny jacket and trousers in shades of brown and ochre. I’d say he was about twelve- to fourteen-inches tall. I could not believe my eyes. I was even too amazed to turn around and tell my family to ‘look at the gnome’ by the path. Then the gnome cocked his head (again, cheekily), turned his back on me and kind of changed/melted (transmogrified?) into an old tree stump. This must’ve all happened in a second, just as I found the breath to say ‘Mum! Look…!’ But, of course, there was nothing to see but a tree stump. I felt really stupid then, so I muttered something non-consequential as we walked past. I was almost panicking, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. I was quite shaken. It was a breathtaking experience.”

And this testimony (#10) from an undisclosed location in England:

“[I was] walking home in woodland after building den with friends. [I] was nine at the time. I came around a tree and saw two small creatures two-feet high sitting on a stump. [They] appeared to be carrying small canes and dressed in brown cloaks. Watched them for short time, they saw me then vanished. [They were] thin, two-foot tall, longish arms and legs [with] pale faces.”

While the previous caveats of distorted memories must be taken into account, it is important to note that the correspondents not only took the time to reply to the survey, but that many of them described the events as cardinal points in their lives. The survey also asked respondents to report their state of mind at the time of the encounter. In a majority of cases (both adult encounters and adults recalling childhood memory) the experiencers appears to have been in some form of changed mood from their usual, everyday disposition. They seem, in effect, to have been in an altered state of consciousness.

Altered States of Consciousness and Experiencing Faeries

Faerie encounters reported by adults in adulthood, may seem to be potentially more authentic than something recalled from childhood. While the same issues of memory refraction apply, the time depth is not as great, and the anecdotal episodes will perhaps be given more credence. It is also noticeable that many faerie experiences, both in the historic folklore and in modern testimony, suggest the participants have, in some way, altered their states of consciousness and thereby allowed in the entity encounter. The extreme end of consciousness alteration might be seen as using psychedelics. There are thousands of experience reports across a range of platforms and publications, as well a several clinical studies, which describe radically altered states of consciousness brought on by a variety of psychedelic compounds, many of which involve encounters with non-human intelligent entities, which fall within a faerie taxonomy. These reports are fascinating testimony and suggest that whatever the encountered entities are, a fundamental change in consciousness may increase our chances of interacting with them. One of the most dramatic psychedelic experiences can be induced by injecting or smoking N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Probably the most famous promulgator of the DMT experience was the late Terence McKenna, who coined the term self-transforming machine elves for the entities he often encountered during his many DMT trips: “Trying to describe them isn’t easy. On one level I call them self-transforming machine elves; half machine, half elf. They are also like self-dribbling jewelled basketballs, about half that volume, and they move very quickly and change. And they are, somehow, awaiting. When you burst into this space, there’s a cheer!” Since McKenna was experimenting with DMT there have been several experience surveys, which suggest that faerie-type entities (whether hallucinations, part of a transpersonal reality, or from a standalone reality outside our own), are regular characters within a DMT trip.

One of the most comprehensive surveys is from 2006, collated by the computational physicist Peter Meyer. ‘340 DMT Trip Reports’ documents what Meyer describes as, “reports which attest to contact with apparently independently existing intelligent entities within what seems to be an alternate reality.” The 340 (anonymous) reports certainly contain many encounters with faerie-type entities, most often described as elves. Forty-six of the reports describe encountering faeries/elves. One of the most interesting brings us to an important link between an adult altered state of consciousness and a child’s perspective. Respondent no. 65 had taken an unknown dose of DMT:

“This time I saw the ‘elves’ as multidimensional creatures formed by strands of visible language; they were more creaturely than I had ever seen them before. The message was changing from the initial ‘OK, OK, safe, safe… The elves were dancing in and out of the multidimensional visible language matrix, ‘waving’ their ‘arms’ and limbs/hands/fingers? and smiling or laughing, although I saw no faces as such. The elves were telling me (or I was understanding them to say) that I had seen them before, in early childhood. Memories were flooding back of seeing the elves: they looked just like they do now: evershifting, folding, multidimensional, multicolored (what colors!), always laughing, weaving/waving, showing me things, showing me the visible language they are created/creatures of, teaching me to speak and read.”

The statement that the elves were reminding the experiencer of childhood is interesting. The idea that children are less indoctrinated with a materialistic value system, and are therefore more able to experience a supernal reality is a commonplace motif. In this testimony the encounter may be integrating the memory of a suppressed childhood reality, and bringing it into the present via DMT.

But altered states of consciousness come in many forms, most less dramatic than DMT episodes. In the Fairy Investigation Society’s survey respondents were asked about their mood before and during the experience. In those who answered a majority reported a particular consciousness state, such as: content, anxious, carefree, pensive etc. This suggests they deemed their consciousness state during the experience as in some sense different from their usual everyday state. These mild altered states can be akin to daydream states or even hypnagogic episodes, when consciousness begins to let in what is usually filtered out, sometimes involving non-human intelligent entities. Whether these modes of consciousness may be in a hallucinatory state, conducting transpersonal information, or letting in ulterior entities from their own standalone reality, there seems to be a consistency in the experiences of faerie-type entities being witnessed by people in non-ordinary states of consciousness, however that state has been achieved, and however it is defined.

Were the children at Wollaton Park in an altered state of consciousness? It seems possible; the experience took place at dusk in a place that was fenced and off-limits. The twilight effect on consciousness and the sense of subversiveness in their actions might have skewed their usual take on the electro-magnetic spectrum. The cartoon ambience of the episode may have been the children’s cultural overlay on the true nature of the phenomenon. Perhaps children are more prone to slipping into altered states of consciousness and witnessing entities while there, but it is quite clear that most modern reports of faerie encounters are by adults. This might be due to most children’s testimonies being dismissed and unrecorded, and childhood recollections from later in life being written off as false memories. This makes the testimonies from the children who experienced the gnomes in Wollaton Park so important, as they were transcribed shortly after the incident, and seem to be honest reports. This modern folklore from the mouths of children is quite a rarity. Whether the children of Wollaton had their experience because their consciousness had been altered, cannot be conjectured. But many modern testimonies of faerie encounters stress a changed state of mind during the experience important enough to remember and to mention in a survey. An altered state of consciousness may not be the primary cause for all modern faerie encounters, but it may be the reason for the majority of experiences.

***

The cover image is by Brian Froud from his classic 1978 illustrated collection with Alan Lee, Faeries.

Simon Young’s The Wollaton Gnomes: A Nottingham Fairy Mystery is available now. It is the most comprehensive source for the incident and contains many references to follow up. The ten new essays are written by folklorists, Forteans and fairyists, and provide new insights into how such experiences may help us to understand the faerie phenomenon.

***

Dead but Dreaming the novel is available now.

A Faerie-Type Encounter on the Icknield Way

Recently, I came across a post on the excellent Facebook page Ridgeways and Ancient Tracks of Britain by an acquaintance of mine, Steve Halton (Steve has agreed for his real name being used here). It is a fascinating experience, which might be construed as a faerie encounter, although, as you will see, there are other interpretations for what may have happened. Steve’s experience joins a growing number of reports of possible interactions with faerie-type entities in recent years, exemplified in The Fairy Investigation Society’s recent survey, as well as in many other sources. Testimonies of faerie encounters may have been common in folkloric motifs, but since the late 20th century they have been among the most taboo of paranormal experiences, garnering ridicule and derision, in a way that, for example, encounters with UFOs or ghosts do not. In the last decade or so this has begun to change, as more people become aligned with the possibility that the faeries (in whatever guise) may represent a coded manifestation of human consciousness made available in certain states of consciousness, or that they are even incorporeal non-human intelligent entities, interacting with our own physical reality when certain conditions are met. However, there is still a strong reductionist instinct to write off such experiences, and many people coming forward with their testimonies wish to remain anonymous (all the respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s survey were guaranteed anonymity) for fear of negative reaction. It still takes an amount of fortitude to admit to a belief that a genuine faerie encounter has happened. So, while the following description may or may not be a faerie experience, Steve’s testimony is brave. There were many comments on his Facebook post, most positive and apparently freeing the commentators to recount their own similar stories. But in a small minority there were the inevitable detractors, mocking in tone and sanctimonious in their perceived superiority of knowledge about how our consensus reality works. It made me think that perhaps there is an exponentially larger number of faerie-type encounters than reported in the literature and online, but that many people will simply not want to put their head above the parapet for fear of socio-cultural castigation. Again, I think this attitude is modifying, and if the plural of anecdote is data, then the collation of these experiences may lead to a greater understanding of what the faeries are, and are not. Below is Steve’s testimony, with a commentary afterword.

I am going to talk about an experience I had about twenty years ago (when I was thirty), on the Icknield Way, which is as clear today as it was then. I have only told a couple of close friends and I am genuinely convinced that what I saw was real. I have spent most of my life on the Bedfordshire chalk downlands. I am an ecologist, wildlife artist and writer on wildlife and landscapes. I am also very sensitive and intuitive to nature and landscapes, and I believe that there is still a lot more around us than can be explained by science.

One evening I was walking my dog among a stretch of the Icknield Way between Hitchin (Pirton) and along the crest of Deacon and Pegsdon Hills, following the Bedfordshire/Hertfordshire boundary. I know the area very well and was a volunteer warden on Pegsdon Hills Nature Reserve. It was mid May, warm, still and sunny. Part of the stretch forms a ‘green lane’ about 20ft wide with with thick hedges each side and, one on side was a ditch about 10-12ft feet wide and about 4-5ft deep, overhung with tangled hawthorn, blackthorn, wild clematis and with mature ash trees overhead.

There were no other people around but as I climbed up the hill I could smell and see smoke. I came across several people who were camping in the ditch. I then realised with absolute astonishment that they looked really ‘odd’. They were small in height and size and most appeared very old and wrinkled – as if they had lived outside all their lives. They were weathered looking with dark or grey hair, tied back. There were about ten or twelve of them in total; men and women. At least two of the women were nursing babies, well wrapped up. I did not notice any children. The tents were very small, brown, very old looking and appeared to be of leather. Most of the tents had small fires outside with cooking utensils hanging over the fires.

They all looked really ancient; looks, clothes, apparel, utensils etc. Like someone out of a Robert Holdstock novel such as ‘Myathgo Wood’ or ‘Lavondyss’, if you know his incredible writings. No-one talked but I do remember smiling at a couple of the women and they smiled back to me with gappy grins. I couldn’t believe what I had seen. They were obviously planning to spend the night and, first thing next morning, I went straight back to have a look and there was not a sign; no fires, no signs whatsoever, although the soil under the trees and scrub had been kind of ‘swept’ clear. They were obviously very used to living close to nature.

Who were they? I thought that they were maybe some kind of ‘underground movement’ of people walking and living the old trackways in more modern times but have found no indication that this happens. Did I go through some kind of ‘time slip’ into another time period? Did my sensitive mind ‘pick up’ on some lingering memories of ancient times? I have carried this incredible experience all my life; I now live in north Pembrokeshire and still work both in science and the arts (with degrees in both subjects) but can never, ever forget that astonishing dusk when I saw people from another age right in front of me (and my dog) using a major ancient trackway in a way that it has probably always been used. I know it was real – of that I have no doubt. I swear that I saw and experienced this incident and wanted to genuinely share this because I have no one satisfactory explanation for what I saw that evening. Maybe I should just leave it as a very special experience meant for me alone…?

This encounter is fascinating at many levels. Steve does not relate it as a distinctive faerie encounter, and makes the conjecture of it perhaps being a time-slip. This is a possibility, but even then, the characters have a somewhat non-human element to them, bringing up the mind-bending idea that they were faeries from the past, being witnessed in the present. There is also the issue of memory, and how a recollection of a past event can become malleable. Even the most scrupulously honest recall of an event is still subject to the vagaries of memory. The plasticity of memory appertaining to any eye-witness event is a well-studied psychological trait. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted an in-depth study of how people remembered automobile accidents at various times after the event, concluding that: “findings seem to indicate that memory for an event that has been witnessed is highly flexible. If someone is exposed to new information during the interval between witnessing the event and recalling it, this new information may have marked effects on what they recall. The original memory can be modified, changed or supplemented.” This is, of course, unavoidable in any testimony of a past incident. In some ways, a non-ordinary supernatural event may be less prone to plasticity as it is likely to be a special event, detached from the everyday. Its unconventionality may burn it into memory in a more exacting way and its recall be more reliable than for that of a more commonplace occurrence. But potentially numinous incidents, such as encounters with supernatural entities, may also be subject to increased amounts of reconstitution, where the experiencer attempts to make subsequent rationalisations of the event and even suppress aspects of what has happened in order to codify it to accepted social and cultural belief systems. This is (and always has been) an unavoidable component of folklore. It does not, however, discredit the experience.

Knowing the author of this encounter, I am convinced he is accurately recalling a numinous experience, made more convincing by his return the next day to check out the site. The ‘swept’ nature of the camp appears to have been manufactured just for him. But how did the experience happen and what was Steve really witnessing? While not deliberately altering his state of consciousness, it seems reasonable that walking a dog at evening time in a relatively isolated part of the countryside may have been enough to produce a meditative, even trance-like state of mind, which can induce an alteration to everyday waking consciousness. Many folkloric and modern faerie encounters are preempted by the participant entering a focussed state of mind different from their usual disposition. Once this is achieved, the ability to tune in to non-normal levels of reality may be allowed. It is noticeable in the Fairy Investigation Society’s survey that in the majority of reports, the respondents described emotional perturbance prior to an experience. This was sometimes negative, as in grief, sadness, depression etc. and at other times more positive feelings of contentment, calmness or relaxation. It might also be noted that many descriptions of alien abductions occur when the witness is either in a sleepy, hypnagogic state or driving along a monotonous highway, possibly inducing a hypnotic state. Steve’s state of mind may not have been altered in such an extreme way, but it may have been tweaked just enough to allow him to witness something beyond the bounds of consensus reality.

What he actually witnessed must remain a mystery. As is usually the case in modern faerie encounters, the experience was visual. There was no tactility and, in this case, no audial interaction. This suggests a fragile communication that is only operating within a limited frame. For instance, while all senses may operate within a dream, it is clear that the dreaming mind is predominantly based on vision and audio (always infused with intangible feeling). This is not to suggest that Steve’s experience was a dream, but rather that it was akin to a dream state, whereby entities not usually allowed into consensus reality can manifest, and make themselves apparent within an individual’s consciousness. His consciousness was altered, however slightly, and it experienced entities that were either removed in time or dimensional locality, or maybe both. Whatever the interpretation, the experience is important and helps lead us down the road to a deeper understanding of consciousness and the potential ways it can interact with ulterior forms of being.

***

The cover image is The Gnomes’ Soup by Heinrich Schlitt (1849-1923).

Dead but Dreaming, the novel, is available now.

Revisiting The Wollaton Gnomes by Dan Green

Deadbutdreaming has discussed the case of the 1979 Wollaton gnomes incident previously, but I have only recently come to know Dan Green, who has been carrying out further investigations for some time now. Lately, Dan has been involved with a dowsing project at Wollaton, which is discussed in this article. The 1979 episode is a fascinating incident, and clearly there is something numinous happening at this location, which involves manifestations and encounters with faerie entities, from at least the beginning of the 20th century through to the present day. The original article can be found here, and thanks to Dan for allowing it to be republished at deadbutdreaming.

Wollaton Park is a 500-acre park in Nottingham, England, centred on Wollaton Hall, a classic Elizabethan prodigy house. It is additionally famous for the filming there of key scenes in the final movie of the Batman trilogy The Dark Knight Rises in 2011, the Hall being featured as Wayne Manor. Wollaton Park is also known, although not so widely, for one other thing; people keep seeing faeries there, gnomes to be exact…..

Wollaton Hall and Park

On 23rd September 1979, at about 20:15 on the evening of the Autumnal equinox, several young children witnessed a number of gnome-like figures leaping over fallen logs in small cars (with no sound of engines), coming from out of the bushes in a swampy part area south of the lake there. This is the sort of account you would expect children to have made up, but the story eventually made it onto national news in the UK, owing to the fact that when interviewed separately all the children managed to remain consistent in their account in a situation whereby you would expect young fabricators to fall apart under the psychology of intense adult scrutiny.

A gnome and his car drawn by one of the children

Casually and without worthy of a mention, the children had glimpsed the gnomes in the same place six weeks earlier. In the summer of 2021 I tried to locate these children, now adults, to see if they would still stick with their story, or come clean about a hoax. An appeal in the local newspaper in Nottingham and local BBC Radio brought no result. Were they hiding away, or had they moved county? Another Wollaton Park account, chronicled in the excellent 2017 Fairy Census – an attempt to gather, scientifically, details of faerie sightings from the last century through to today – detailed how another young witness had also seen a number of laughing gnomes driving around in little cars that seemed to hover above the ground jumping over logs and fallen trees, the cars making a buzzing humming noise. He had been so scared that he hid up a tree. Yet another account from a contributor witness mentions seeing a ‘small, shiny white humanoid creature about 18 inches tall about half a mile away from the Wollaton Park main gates at a dried out canal.’

The 1979 location

Interestingly enough, two years prior to the 1979 encounter, upon Studham Common in Berkshire, another group of children witnessed, during a school lunch break, what they described as a ‘little blue man about 3 foot tall’ in the low valley of Dell, a place surrounded with bushes and trees. Like the Wollaton affair, the children were taken seriously by their sympathetic school teacher.

Wollaton Park, however, has a history of fairy sightings, as collected in the book Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson, who herself thought that there were an ancient tribe of gnomes in the park. In 1900 a woman, whilst passing by the gates at the park, saw ‘little men, dressed like policemen standing just inside the lodge entrance, height between 2-3’. She also recalled fairies having been seen dancing around the lake.

As rationally-thinking beings, what are we to make of all of this? Are so many individuals years apart and of different ages all simply lying, deluded or somehow being mistaken? In both the Wollaton and Studham accounts involving children there were multiple witnesses, which rules out an individual having a hallucination. Is it, perhaps, a case of where gnomes-like figures play on repeat, similar to what is called ‘Stone Tape Theory’, a recording of an event playing out what the earth has recorded? Are the Wollaton gnomes showing us an event? It is well chronicled that children see faeries and that faerie activity is tied to a spot, or what might be considered their territory.

My investigation inspired a lady member of an assembly of credible dowsers familiar with the area and also sympathetic to faerie attunement, therefore with a degree of psychic ability, to visit the area south of the lake where the 1979 encounter is thought to have taken place, and information arrived at by her methods had this to say: ‘The gnomes are only allowed to play after dark as the Fae regard them as troublesome elementals and have confined them to inside a mound to the south of the lake during the day. They come out of hollows in the base of the trees and whizz down the slope in their little cars into the open area at the edge of the lake.’

Assisted by other members of the group upon a later visit, the consensus is that the whole area may have been a sacred landscape in ancient times. I wondered, imaginatively, if the place name ‘Wollaton’ as it is currently pronounced and enunciated, may have been an age old corruption for HOLLOW-ton, bearing in mind the association with faeries appearing from hollows in trees, or even, perhaps, ‘HOLE-aton’, a crude reference to a ‘hole’ or portal through which the faeries manifest. The hall itself is built on a mound with a huge amount of pure water beneath suggesting it may once have been a holy well. Even earlier, dowsers have reported finding the energy signature of an old church under the eastern corner of the hall with the suspicion that several megaliths may be buried underneath.

The Fairy Mound, and a tree hollow

Does the belief system of a dowser combine with what is lurking in their subconscious and so largely dictate what they dowse? To dowse something you have to first visualise it in your mind, so if you are trying to find water you visualise an underground stream and walk along asking to be shown that until the rods react.

Ghost or UFO encounters are usually given more credibility but when we speak of faeries it is usually treated with absolute scepticism, disregard and laughter, and yet researchers for some time now have shown that whatever phenomenon is at play here, it has slowly, over centuries evolved from angels to faeries and now, Ufonauts and extraterrestrials, in that order. On many occasions the encounters blur between faerie and UFO representation, and are hard to distinguish although small entities are a common denominator. However, and it was to my surprise, faerie sightings now seems to be on the ascension again, or at least more people are daring to report them. It is beginning to look like whatever unknown and beyond the normal senses phenomenon we are dealing with will present itself to an onlooker in the best way they might like to comprehend, expect, resonate or be able to understand in appearance. Historically, faerie folklore was the originator of the ‘shape-shifter’ capability of such otherworldly beings. Interestingly, and perhaps significantly here on a much deeper level than simply gnomes in cars, the Egyptian word ‘Ka’ means ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’.

Enid Blyton’s Noddy – totally fictional or an unconscious representation of the Faeries?

I was intrigued by what is clearly an outrageous account of suddenly appearing gnomes driving what might be their own version of our cars. I know of no known record of faerie folk associated with such a means of transport. Were they mimicking what they had seen from our own society and presenting them for our benefit? One of the child witnesses from 1979 said that the gnomes reminded him of Noddy, reminding me of the work of the inspirational world’s best-selling authoress Enid Blyton who back in 1949 gave us this fictional character and whose best friend, Big Ears, is a gnome. Blyton often wrote about children being transported into magical worlds in which they met with faeries, and in 1923 published a collection of 33 poems entitles ‘Real Fairies’.

One wonders, did the Wollaton children have Noddy and Big Ears and his adventures lodged in their mind prior to their sighting? It is quite feasible that they will have come across his books as even younger children. Noddy drives a car, not unlike the ones described at Wollaton. As I am aware of how often the unconscious mind surfaces in the world of art, literature and even in all of us all of the time, I wondered if perhaps this had happened to Blyton and the source material for her fictional Noddy had been borrowed from an actual realm of faerie without her knowledge. Noddy even has a policeman friend, reminding me of the sighting of ‘small policemen’ near the Park gates (as recorded by Marjorie Johnson from the 1950s). All this then had me then musing about when a Victorian, and often gnome-like Santa and his sleigh also motorised.

19th-century Santa and his cars

As I accept that all things are connected I often like to have fun trying to work out my own involvement in things, and so with Wollaton I came up with the following. David Bowie recorded a novelty song in 1967 called ‘The Laughing Gnome’. I met with Bowie in 1978. His record label up until 1983 happened to be RCA records, RCA easily being rearranged to read ‘Car’. One of David’s closest friends was the musician and singer Marc Bolan (with whom I’ve also had dealings) whose Faerie influence was pervasive; in fact he liked being known as ‘The Boppin’ Elf’. Marc even died in a tragic car crash. He is best remembered for his band’s dinosaur titled T-Rex. When I visited Wollaton Park this summer it was their opening week of displaying an extraordinary exhibition showcasing the first Tyrannosaurus Rex to be displayed in England for over a century! Keeping within the music industry, one of the founder members of the British soul ban Hot Chocolate was bass player Patrick Olive – the same name as one of the Wollaton children – and their record label was another simple anagram of ‘Car’ this time RAK.

A Mithraic Temple under the Hall?

Perhaps this had been my entanglement? I also thought about what deeper circumstance than imagined had drawn the gothic Batman movie to be filmed at Wollaton Hall, and that it had been pointed out to me there is an underground reservoir or well hewn out of sandstone under the Hall. There is no doubt that it at least resembles a Mithraeum, a sanctuary or temple of the god Mithras and the Mithraic mysteries. Although it is always hard to distinguish fact from hearsay, it has been whispered that the infamous 18th-century ‘Hell Fire Club’, exclusive for high society rakes, met at Wollaton Hall.

The Dowser group told me that there are 10-12 ley lines that radiate out from a sundial behind the Hall, one of them going along an avenue of trees to reach the slope where the gnomes came down, its energy flowing fast from the Hall and up onto the faerie mound. Perpendicular to this, is another, running along the bottom of the mound. Where these two energies collide seems to announce where the ‘gnome’ encounter occurred.

Research shows that on 23 September 1979 the Autumn Equinox was at 04:19, sunset at 19:02, dusk at 19:36, and a setting moon at 20:04 (two days after the New Moon) therefore it would have been very dark. My dowser friends surmise as a possibility that combined effects of the Equinox sunset, moonset, marsh gases and fluctuating earth energies may have caused an ‘energetic phenomena’ rationalised by the children with Blyton memories of Noddy, his car and gnome accomplice.The dowsers have also informed me that there is a huge amount of paranormal activity and detrimental energy associated with the Hall, purposely disrupted or manipulated. The Hall apparently, and if so, curiously, has 365 windows and 52 doors. Perhaps it was more than a routine accident that whilst preparing for the filming of the Dark Knight Rising (once operating under the working title of Magnus Rex) a large tractor-trailer crashed into the main entrance of the Hall.

Had some of those troublesome elementals been playing out after all….?

***

Dan discusses the Wollaton gnome incident with Kate Ray and myself on Kate’s YouTube channel Hare in the Hawthorn.

Simon Young’s transcript of the 1979 incident can be found here.

‘The Sherwood Dowser’ has an excellent piece on the recent investigations: Dowsing for Gnomes in Wollaton Park.

Dead but Dreaming the novel is available now.

Chatting about the Faeries in Fiction and Reality with Kate HareGirl Ray

Thanks to Kate HareGirl Ray for inviting me on to her You Tube channel to discuss my interaction with, and writing about, the faeries. We chatted for over an hour but only scratched the surface of the phenomenon. The discussion covers my own background and how I came to form an interest in faerie folklore, our personal experiences, the connection of faeries with certain landscapes and environments, the role of altered states of consciousness in faerie interaction, and how I’ve deepened my understanding of the phenomenon through Charles Bonnet Syndrome. We finish off talking about my novel Dead but Dreaming. Kate’s a very easy-going interviewer and it was a pleasure to chew the cud. Please do subscribe to her channel, as she has accumulated a large number of excellent interviews on the subject, from a wide variety of perspectives. Here is the link to the interview:

Author Neil Rushton Talks about the World of the Other

Dead but Dreaming the novel is available now.

A Levitating Butler and the Faeries – Testimony from 17th-Century Ireland

I recently came across an excellent post on the blog site Strange Company, which is compiled by investigator of literary and historical esoterica Undine. It’s entitled The Case of the Levitating Butler and recounts a strange tale recorded by the 17th-century Latitudinarian Joseph Glanvill in his Saducismus Triumphatus (1681). As you will see, it includes several folkloric faerie motifs, even though the faeries are never mentioned by name. My assessment of the testimony follows Undine’s text…

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The Case of the Levitating Butler

A typical morning for a member of the gentry in the 17th century: get out of bed, yawn, stretch, ask the missus how many of the servants died of plague during the night, notice that the butler’s levitating in the parlor again…

… No, really.

The following tale was published by Joseph Glanvill in his influential 1681 book on demonology, Saducismus Triumphatus: one afternoon, an Irish gentleman “near to the Earl of Orrery’s seat,” sent his butler to buy cards. As the servant passed a field, he was puzzled to see a company of people in the middle of the grassland sitting at a table loaded with “a deal of good chear.” As he approached the group, they rose and invited him to join them. However, one of the party whispered to the butler, “Do nothing this company invites you to.”

Sensing this was good advice, the butler declined to sit at the table. Then, the table suddenly disappeared, and the group began dancing and playing musical instruments. Again, they asked the butler to join their revelry. When he repeated his refusal, “they fall all to work.” When working proved no better lure than feasting or dancing, the thwarted company vanished before the butler’s eyes. The servant hurried home, in “a great consternation of mind.” As soon as he entered his master’s door, he fainted. When he came to, he related his unsettling experience to the household.

The following night, one of the company appeared at the butler’s bedside. The visitor warned that if the butler left the house the next day, he would be carried away. He obeyed this warning, but towards evening, a call of nature compelled him to venture just outside the threshold, with several members of the household standing guard over him. The moment he stepped outside, a rope suddenly appeared around his middle and he was dragged off “with great swiftness.” The others followed after him as quickly as they could, but they were unable to overtake him. When they saw a horseman coming their way, they “made signs to him to stop the man, whom he saw coming near him, and both the ends of the rope, but nobody drawing.” When the horseman grabbed one end of the rope, the other end gave him a “smart blow” across his arm. Despite this, he was able to halt the butler’s spectral abduction and return him home.

When the Earl of Orrery heard of these peculiar events, he had the beleaguered butler sent to him. The servant mournfully told him that “his spectre” had visited him again. He was to be kidnapped again that very day, and there was nothing anyone could do to prevent it. The butler was kept in a large room, with many people around to protect him, including two bishops and a neighbor, “the famous stroker, Mr. Greatrix.” [Note: Valentine Greatrakes was a renowned Irish faith healer, known as “The Stroker.”]

All was quiet for most of the day, but that afternoon, the butler was seen to rise in the air. Although several of the men grabbed his shoulders and tried weighing him down, all their strength was unable to anchor him. The poor butler was carried over everyone’s heads for a considerable period of time. When he eventually fell to the ground, his companions were able to cushion the descent enough to prevent any injury.

The rest of the day passed without further incident. The Earl ordered two of his servants to spend the night with the butler, in case there was any new trouble. The next morning, the butler informed the Earl that “his spectre” had visited him during the night. He tried to awake his bedfellows, but was unable to stir them.

The “spectre” told the butler that he had no cause to fear him. He explained that he was the man in the field who warned him against the rest of the company. If the butler had not listened to him, he said, the servant would now be entirely under the company’s power. The ghost assured the butler that there would be no more attempts to abduct him. As he had heard the butler was “troubled with two sorts of sad fits,” he presented a wooden dish containing a “grey liquor,” and told the servant to drink it.

When the butler refused, the wraith grew angry. But as he had “a kindness” for the butler, he advised him to take plantain juice. It would cure one of his “fits,” but he was doomed to carry the other to his grave.

“That of the leaves or roots?” the butler asked. “Roots” replied this spectral dietitian.

The ghost asked whether the butler did not know him? When the servant replied in the negative, his visitor explained, “I have been dead seven years, and you know that I lived a loose life. And ever since have I been hurried up and down in a restless condition with the company you saw, and shall be to the day of judgment.” He added that if he had acknowledged God, he would not have “suffered such severe things.” The apparition concluded, “You never prayed to God that day before you met with this company in the field, and also was then going about an unlawful business.”

On that chiding note, the spirit vanished.

Perhaps the strangest part of our little tale is that it is so well-attested. “Mr. Greatrix,” Lord Orrery, and the numerous other eyewitnesses to all this splendid nuttiness repeatedly affirmed every detail, flying butlers and all.

I really do not know what to say about the whole matter. Except that if you should ever happen to come across a bunch of strangers having a dinner party in the middle of a field, it would be best to run in the other direction. They might turn out to be very Strange Company indeed.

————

Folkloric Coding

As with any historical narrative detailing anecdotal events, allowance needs to be made for the folkloric skew, which requires a good story to be told. Glanvill’s primary motive in the Saducismus triumphatus was to recount tales of witchcraft and ghostly apparitions, with a remit to prove they were true, and that there was a malign supernatural force operating in the world. There are many stories in the tract, most of which he appears to have collected from secondary sources and taken at face value, before applying his own belief-system on them; a belief-system that always came to the conclusion that the stories were evidence of supernatural activity, most often instigated by witches. But, as with any folklore, this does not discredit the core of the story. While Glanvill was collating anecdotes recounted by other people, he does describe his sources, and in this particular example, he appeared to have received the tale from a primary witness.

The levitation description is interesting, and not a common trope in historical or folkloric recounts. Probably the most famous historical levitator is the Franciscan St Joseph of Copertino. Michael Grosso has described how this 17th-century friar frequently levitated in front of numerous, reliable eye-witnesses. But it is not a common motif in the folkloric record. However, the motif of meeting strangers in a field, who attempt to draw the protagonist into the fold is a mainstay of folklore (encompassed in the Aarne-Thompson motif index as F.263 and F.361.15). The faeries will often bring a wanderer into their midst with varying techniques and results. Perhaps the most common motif is the dancing circle, where the protagonist of a story is drawn into the circle of faeries and then held in a different space-time continuum until released. But almost as frequent is the folklore describing people finding themselves amidst a faerie feast. When this happens, the primary objective is to not taste any food or drink, which will invariably lead to the human becoming trapped in the faerie dimension.

In Glanvill’s testimony the butler is invited to join the ‘company of people in the middle of the grassland.’ He is saved from making a mistake, which may entrap him, by what later turns out to be the spectre, who warns him to ‘Do nothing this company invites you to.’ It is interesting that Glanvill never describes these entities as faeries. In fact, he does not refer to the faeries at all during his entire treatise. This is unusual for a commentator of his time, especially as ‘the company’ were evidently displaying classic faerie-type behaviour. Glanvill was well-versed in the traditions of witches, as understood in the 17th century, and must have been aware of their tight relationship with the faeries. His reluctance to mention the possibility of the company in the field being faeries can perhaps be explained by his need to keep his tract focussed on witches and ghosts as the main arbiters of supernatural mischief.

Also interesting in the narrative is that the butler was subject to ‘two sorts of sad fits,’ as revealed by his spectral interlocutor. This might suggest an insertion into the story (by design or osmosis) of a code to explain the events. The ‘fits’ could be anything, but comparing this type of language to another 17th-century story of interaction with faerie entities, that of Anne Jefferies, it might be possible to suggest the butler was subject to some form of epilepsy, perhaps Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, which may explain his supernal experiences, brought on by an altered state of consciousness.

If his experience in the field with the company of entities may have been induced by an altered state of consciousness, this does not explain the witnessing of his levitation by several people. But again, this may be more folkloric coding, whereby the witnesses are introduced into the story to give credence to an event that actually happened in the consciousness of the protagonist. It is impossible to get under the skin of the progression of the anecdote and, as with most folklore, especially from this period, there are unspoken layers that have become buried and difficult to unearth. As Undine points out, Glanvill was careful to insist on his verification of the events from primary witnesses, but the need for the author to prove supernatural interference for his thesis must be taken into account, and codes his text.

Finally, there is the ‘plantain juice’ or ‘grey liquor’, which the spectre insists the butler should consume for his ‘fits’. Within the story, this comes at the wrong point to suggest it had any effect on the butler’s state of consciousness in regards the strange events. In fact, there seems little relevance to its introduction. But this may, again, be due to the skewing of the folkloric elements of the tale, and may also be using the common medicinal herb Plantago major as code for something more potent and mind-altering. Contemporary witch-trial reports often obfuscated the types of plants and mushrooms the witches were using in order to alter their states of consciousness and connect with faeries and familiars, and travel to Sabbaths in what may have been akin to out-of-body experiences. They were often described simply as ‘unctions’, ‘potions’ or ‘salves’, which may have been a catch-all for entheogens such as henbane and psilocybin. If the butler had actually consumed such an entheogen before his experiences, there would, perhaps, be a more co-ordinated explanation for what happened to him.

Despite Glanvill not once mentioning the faeries as characters within the story, this anecdote is clearly deeply embedded with faerie motifs. It might even be suggested that the ‘spectre’ is a faerie character, which may tie in to the belief that the faeries are in fact The Dead. The relationship between levitation and the faeries requires more investigation. While there are many instances in folklore (and modern reports) of the faeries defying gravity, there is little to suggest they may invoke levitation in humans. That is why this story from Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus is so interesting and unusual.

Thanks to Undine for allowing the republication of their article.

————

Dead but Dreaming the novel is available now.

The Faerie Phenomenon: Some Podcasts and Video

I was recently invited on to three podcasts to discuss the faerie phenomenon. As always, it is more difficult to articulate thoughts about such a complex subject when under the pressure of immediate response, compared to having time to formulate ideas in a blog post. But the format of a podcast does have an immediacy about it, which creates a level of authenticity. The phenomenon runs at different levels, and sometimes it is healthy to meet with different responses to it in real time.

The first podcast is from Anthony Peake’s Consciousness HourIn Conversation. Anthony is a prolific and astute writer about a range of subject matter, centring around consciousness and how we perceive reality. His most recent book is Hidden Universe: An Investigation into Non-Human Intelligences. He has been conducting podcasts for many years, and has recently introduced the in-conversation format, which allows for a more informal, long-form discussion about the subject at hand. These are produced with Sarah Janes, who adds an extra dimension to the discussions. This podcast (first broadcast on 1 March 2021) covers much ground, but centres around how the faeries are experienced during altered states of consciousness. This ranges from the faeries in folkloric records through to my own experiences of them, most especially due to Charles Bonnet Syndrome. But we also stop off for an interesting chat about solipsism and the nature of a DMT experience. The podcast can be found here:

APCH INCON 015 Dr Neil Rushton

The second podcast is from Cliff Dunning’s Earth Ancients site, broadcast on 13 March 2021. We were restricted to an hour, but a lot was packed in, including a tangent off into the murky territory of the alien abduction phenomenon, and how it might relate to faerie folklore. The interview (audio only on Spreaker) starts at about 37.20.

Earth Ancients – The Faerie Phenomenon

The third podcast is with the folklore researcher Jo Hickey-Hall, who has been producing an excellent series of interviews on her Modern Fairy Sightings Podcast. We talk about some of her interviewees’ experiences, as well as my own, and take a deep dive into what they might be saying about consciousness and the faerie phenomenon.

The Modern Fairy Sightings Podcast

The fourth link is something quite different. A few years ago I wrote an article about the strange and compelling story of Anne Jefferies from the 17th century. Her well-documented case describes her journey into a faerie-inhabited otherworld on the back of what seems to have been an epileptic episode. I have only recently discovered that Madame Raven has turned this into a video. She has done a fabulous job with it, bringing it to life with beautiful diction and her own take on the story. Here it is…

The Faerie Abduction of Anne Jefferies

I have a few more podcasts in the diary over the next couple of months, but there has been a dearth of articles posted here since the Autumn of 2020, which I hope to put right during the Spring months. The faeries will continue to be investigated, whatever the cost.

The cover image is by Brian Froud (who is discussed in all three podcasts) from his seminal book with Alan Lee from 1978: Faeries.

Dead but Dreaming – the novel, is available now.

‘Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland’ by Mike Jay

Deadbutdreaming is delighted to welcome the author Mike Jay as a guest contributor. Mike has written extensively on scientific and medical history. His books on the history of drugs include High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture and his most recent Mescaline: a Global History of the First Psychedelic. In this article he investigates early reports of mushroom-induced trips and how one species in particular became established as a stock motif of Victorian fairyland. It’s an insightful dive into the topic and thanks to both Mike and Adam Green (Editor-in-Chief/Co-Founder of The Public Domain Review) for permission to republish.

This essay was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see: https://publicdomainreview.org/legal/

The first recorded mushroom trip in Britain took place in London’s Green Park on October 3, 1799. Like many such experiences before and since, it was accidental. A man identified in the subsequent medical report as “J. S.” was in the habit of gathering small field mushrooms from the park on autumn mornings and cooking them up into a breakfast broth for his wife and young family. But this particular morning, an hour after they had finished it, everything began to turn very strange. J. S. noticed black spots and odd flashes of colour interrupting his vision; he became disorientated and had difficulty in standing and moving around. His family were complaining of stomach cramps and cold, numb extremities. The notion of poisonous toadstools leapt to his mind, and he staggered out into the streets to seek help, but within a hundred yards he had forgotten where he was going, or why, and was found wandering in a confused staBy chance a physician named Everard Brande was passing through this part of town, and he was summoned to treat J. S. and his family. The scene he witnessed was so unusual that he wrote it up at length and published it in The Medical and Physical Journal a few months later.1 The family’s symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves, their pupils dilated, their pulses fluttering, and their breathing laboured, periodically returning to normal before accelerating into another crisis. All were fixated on the fear that they were dying except for the youngest, the eight-year-old son named as “Edward S.”, whose symptoms were the strangest of all. He had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and was “attacked with fits of immoderate laughter” which his parents’ threats could not subdue. He seemed to have been transported into another world, from which he would only return under duress to speak nonsense: “when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked

The first recorded mushroom trip in Britain took place in London’s Green Park on October 3, 1799. Like many such experiences before and since, it was accidental. A man identified in the subsequent medical report as “J. S.” was in the habit of gathering small field mushrooms from the park on autumn mornings and cooking them up into a breakfast broth for his wife and young family. But this particular morning, an hour after they had finished it, everything began to turn very strange. J. S. noticed black spots and odd flashes of colour interrupting his vision; he became disorientated and had difficulty in standing and moving around. His family were complaining of stomach cramps and cold, numb extremities. The notion of poisonous toadstools leapt to his mind, and he staggered out into the streets to seek help, but within a hundred yards he had forgotten where he was going, or why, and was found wandering in a confused state.

By chance, a physician named Everard Brande was passing through this part of town, and he was summoned to treat J. S. and his family. The scene he witnessed was so unusual that he wrote it up at length and published it in The Medical and Physical Journal a few months later.1 The family’s symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves, their pupils dilated, their pulses fluttering, and their breathing laboured, periodically returning to normal before accelerating into another crisis. All were fixated on the fear that they were dying except for the youngest, the eight-year-old son named as “Edward S.”, whose symptoms were the strangest of all. He had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and was “attacked with fits of immoderate laughter” which his parents’ threats could not subdue. He seemed to have been transported into another world, from which he would only return under duress to speak nonsense: “when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked”.

Dr Brande diagnosed the family’s condition as the “deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric [mushroom], not hitherto suspected to be poisonous”. Today, we can be more specific: this was intoxication by liberty caps (Psilocybe semilanceata), the “magic mushrooms” that grow plentifully across the hills, moors, commons, golf courses, and playing fields of Britain every autumn. The botanical illustrator James Sowerby, who was working on the third volume of his landmark Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms (1803), interrupted his schedule to visit J. S. and identify the species in question. Sowerby’s illustration includes a cluster of unmistakable liberty caps, together with a similar-looking species (now recognised as a roundhead of the Stropharia genus). In his accompanying note, Sowerby emphasises that it was the pointy-headed variety (“with the pileus acuminated”) that “nearly proved fatal to a poor family in Piccadilly, London, who were so indiscreet as to stew a quantity” for breakfast.

Tab 248 from James Sowerby’s Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms (1803). The mushrooms numbered 1, 2, and 3, are all liberty caps — Source.

Brande’s account of the J. S. family’s episode continued to be cited in Victorian drug literature for decades, yet the nineteenth century would come and go without any clear identification of the liberty cap as hallucinogenic. The psychedelic compound that had caused the mysterious derangement remained unknown until the 1950s when Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD, turned his attention to the hallucinogenic mushrooms of Mexico. Psilocybin, LSD’s chemical cousin, was finally isolated from mushrooms in 1958, synthesised in a Swiss laboratory in 1959, and identified in the liberty cap in 1963.2

During the nineteenth century, the liberty cap took on a different set of associations, derived not from its visionary properties but its distinctive appearance. Samuel Taylor Coleridge seems to have been the first to suggest its common name in a short piece published in 1812 in Omniana, a miscellany co-written with Robert Southey. Coleridge was struck by that “common fungus, which so exactly represents the pole and cap of Liberty that it seems offered by Nature herself as the appropriate emblem of Gallic republicanism”.3 The cap of Liberty, or Phrygian cap, a peaked felt bonnet associated with the similar-looking pileus worn by freed slaves in the Roman empire, had become an icon of political freedom through the revolutionary movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. William of Orange included it as a symbol on a coin struck to celebrate his Glorious Revolution in 1688; the anti-monarchist MP John Wilkes holds it, mounted on its pole, in William Hogarth’s devilish caricature of 1763. It appears on a medal designed by Benjamin Franklin to commemorate July 4, 1776, under the banner LIBERTAS AMERICANA, and it was adopted during the French Revolution by the sans-culottes as their signature bonnet rouge. It was these associations — rather than its psychoactive properties, of which he shows no knowledge — that led Coleridge to celebrate it as the “mushroom Cap of Liberty”, a name that percolated through the many reprints of Omniana into nineteenth-century British culture, folklore, and botany.

Left: Benjamin Franklin’s commemorative medal “Libertas Americana”, 1782 — Source; Right: William Hogarth’s 1763 caricature of John Wilkes with pole and cap of liberty — Source.

While the liberty cap’s “magic” properties seemed to go largely unacknowledged, the idea that fungi could provoke hallucinations did begin to percolate more widely in Europe during the nineteenth century — though it became attached to a quite different species of mushroom. In parallel to a growing scientific interest in toxic and hallucinogenic fungi, a vast body of Victorian fairy lore connected mushrooms and toadstools with elves, pixies, hollow hills, and the unwitting transport of subjects to fairyland, a world of shifting perspectives seething with elemental spirits. The similarity of this otherworld to those engendered by plant psychedelics in New World cultures, where psilocybin-containing mushrooms have been used for millennia, is suggestive. Is it possible that the Victorian fairy tradition, beneath its innocent exterior, operated as a conduit for a hidden tradition of psychedelic knowledge? Were the authors of these fantastical narratives — Alice in Wonderland, for example — aware of the powers of certain mushrooms to lead unsuspecting visitors to enchanted lands? Were they, perhaps, even writing from personal experience?

The J. S. family’s trip in 1799 is a useful starting point for such enquiries. It shows liberty caps were growing in Britain at the time, and commonplace even in London’s parks. But also, the trip evidences that the mushroom’s hallucinogenic effects were unfamiliar, perhaps even unheard of: certainly unusual enough for a London physician to draw them to the attention of his learned colleagues. At the same time, however, scholars and naturalists were becoming more aware of the widespread use of plant intoxicants in non-western cultures. In 1762 Carl Linnaeus, the great taxonomist and father of modern botany, compiled the first-ever list of intoxicating plants: a monograph entitled Inebriantia, which assembled a global pharmacopoeia that extended from Europe (opium, henbane) to the Middle East (hashish, datura), South America (coca leaf), Asia (betel nut), and the Pacific (kava). The study of such plants was emerging from the margins of classical studies, ethnography, folklore, and medicine to become a subject in its own right.

The interest in traditional cultures extended to European folklore. A new generation of folklore collectors, such as the Brothers Grimm, realised that the migration of peasant populations to the city was dismantling centuries of folk stories, songs, and oral histories with alarming rapidity. In Britain, Robert Southey was a prominent collector of vanishing folk traditions, soliciting and publishing examples offered by his readers. The Victorian fairy tradition, as it emerged, was imbued with a Romantic sensibility in which rustic traditions were no longer coarse and backward but picturesque and semi-sacred, an escape from industrial modernity into an ancient, often pagan land of enchantment. The subject lent itself to writers and artists who, under the guise of innocence, were able to explore sensual and erotic themes with a boldness off limits in more realistic genres and to reimagine the muddy and impoverished countryside through the prism of classical and Shakespearian scenes of playful nature spirits. The lore of plants and flowers was carefully curated and woven into supernatural tapestries of flower-fairies and enchanted woods, and mushrooms and toadstools popped up everywhere. Fairy rings and toadstool-dwelling elves were recycled through a pictorial culture of motif and decoration until they became emblematic of fairyland itself.

Illustration by Richard Doyle from his In Fairyland: A Series of Pictures from the Elf-World (1870) — Source.

This magical allure marked a shift from previous depictions of Britain’s fungi. In herbals and medical texts from the Renaissance onwards, they had typically been associated with rot, dung-heaps, and poison. The new generation of folklorists, however, followed Coleridge in appreciating them. Thomas Keightley, whose survey The Fairy Mythology (1850) exerted much influence on the fictional fairy tradition, gives Welsh and Gaelic examples of traditional names for fungi which invoke elves and Puck. In Ireland, the Gaelic slang for mushrooms is “pookies”, which Keightley associated with the elemental nature spirit Pooka (hence Puck); it’s a term that persists in Irish drug culture today, although evidence for pre-modern Gaelic magic mushroom use remains elusive. At one point Keightley refers to “those pretty small delicate fungi, with their conical heads, which are named Fairy-mushrooms in Ireland, where they grow so plentifully”.4 This seems to describe the liberty cap, though Keightley, like Coleridge, focuses on the physical appearance of the mushroom and appears unaware of its psychedelic properties.

Despite its ubiquity, and occasional and tentative association with nature spirits, the mushroom that became the distinctive motif of fairyland was not the liberty cap but rather the spectacular red-and-white fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). The fly agaric is psychoactive but unlike the liberty cap, which delivers psilocybin in reliable doses, it contains a mix of alkaloids — muscarine, muscimol, ibotenic acid — which generate an unpredictable and toxic cocktail of effects. These can include wooziness and disorientation, drooling, sweats, numbness in the lips and extremities, nausea, muscle twitches, sleep, and a vague, often retrospective sense of liminal consciousness and waking dreams. At lower doses, none of these may manifest; at higher doses they may lead to coma and, on rare occasions, death.

Watercolour depiction of the fly agaric, 1892. Likely painted at an art class near Bristol, England, the writing says “Agaricus muscarius” and “Leigh woods Sept/92” — Source.

Unlike the liberty cap, the fly agaric is hard to ignore or misidentify, and its toxicity has been well established for centuries (its name derives from its ability to kill flies). One could argue then that this aura of livid beauty and danger would alone be enough to explain its association with the otherworldly realm of fairies. Yet at the same time its mind-altering effects were becoming more widely known, not from any rustic tradition in Britain but from the discovery that it was used as an intoxicant among the remote peoples of Siberia. Sporadically through the eighteenth century, Swedish and Russian explorers had returned from Siberia with travellers’ tales of shamans, spirit possession, and self-poisoning with brightly-coloured toadstools; but it was a Polish traveller named Joseph Kopék who was the first to write an account of his own first-hand experience with the fly agaric, which appeared in an 1837 publication of his travel diary.

In around 1797, after he had been living in Kamchatka for two years, Kopék was taken ill with a fever and was told by a local of a “miraculous” mushroom that would cure him. He ate half a fly agaric and fell into a vivid fever dream. “As though magnetised”, he was drawn through “the most attractive gardens where only pleasure and beauty seemed to rule”; beautiful women dressed in white fed him with fruits, berries, and flowers. He woke after a long and healing sleep and took a second, stronger dose, which precipitated him back into slumber and the sense of an epic voyage into another world. He relived swathes of his childhood, re-encountered friends from throughout his life, and even predicted the future at length with such confidence that a priest was summoned to witness. He concluded with a challenge to science: “If someone can prove that both the effect and the influence of the mushroom are non-existent, then I shall stop being defender of the miraculous mushroom of Kamchatka”.5

Illustration of a Siberian Evenki shaman from Nicolaas Witsen’s Noord en Oost Tartarye (1705) — Source.

Illustrations by Ivan Bilibin for an 1899 edition of the Russian fairytale Vasilisa the Beautiful. On the left we see the supernatural being Baba Yaga, the ground strewn with fly agarics, and on the right the heroine Vasilisa outside Baba Yaga’s hut, the border decorated prominently with liberty caps and what look to be fly agarics — Source.

Kopék’s toadstool epiphany was one of several descriptions of fly agaric use by Siberian peoples that were widely reported in various learned journals and popular works throughout Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.6 Such accounts began a fashion for re-examining elements of European folklore and culture and interpolating fly agaric intoxication into odd corners of myth and tradition. This is the source of the notion that the Berserkers, the Viking shock troops of the eighth to tenth centuries, drank a fly agaric potion before going into battle and fighting like men possessed, regularly asserted not only among mushroom and Viking aficionados but also in text-books and encyclopaedias. There is, however, no reference to fly agaric, or indeed to any exotic plant stimulants, in the sagas or Eddas: the theory of mushroom-intoxicated Berserker warriors was first suggested by the Swedish professor Samuel Ödman in his Attempt to Explain the Berserk-Raging of Ancient Nordic Warriors through Natural History (1784), a speculation based on the eighteenth-century reports from Siberia.

By the mid-nineteenth century, then, the fly agaric had become synonymous with fairyland. The mushroom had also, in the guise of the Siberian sources, been claimed as a portal to the land of dreams and written into European folklore. Exactly to what extent and in what manner these two cultural journeys of the fly agaric are intertwined is hard to pin down. Long before the Siberian accounts, in both art and literature, mushrooms of all sorts are depicted as part of fairyland. In Margaret Cavendish’s mid-seventeenth-century poem “The Pastime of the Queen of Fairies”, a mushroom acts as Queen Mab’s dining table, and in late eighteenth-century paintings by Henry Fuseli and Joshua Reynolds, the mushroom acts as a surface upon which fairies, sprites, and similar assemble. Such a presence of mushrooms in supernatural worlds might suggest a concealed or half-forgotten knowledge of hallucinogenic mushrooms in British culture. However, these fungi do not resemble fly agaric (or any other hallucinogenic mushroom) and, of course, for small woodland creatures the large splay of a mushroom would seem like natural furniture. It is only in the Victorian era, post-Siberian tales, that an hallucinogenic mushroom establishes itself so firmly in Britain as the stock mushroom of fairyland.

Titania’s Awakening (ca. 1785) by Henry Fuseli — Source.

Gnome transporting a fly agaric mushroom, from a German New Year’s card, ca. 1900 — Source.

Let us turn now to the most famous and frequently-debated conjunction of fungi, psychedelia, and fairy-lore: the array of mushrooms and hallucinatory potions, mind-bending and shapeshifting motifs in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Do Alice’s adventures represent first-hand knowledge of hallucinogenic mushrooms?

The scenes in question could hardly be better known. Alice, down the rabbit hole, meets a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom, who tells her in a “languid, sleepy voice” that the mushroom is the key to navigating through her strange journey: “one side will make you grow taller, the other side will make you grow shorter”. Alice takes a chunk from each side of the mushroom and begins a series of vertiginous transformations of size, shooting up into the clouds before learning to maintain her normal size by eating alternate bites. Throughout the rest of the book she continues to take the mushroom: entering the house of the Duchess, approaching the domain of the March Hare, and, climactically, before entering the hidden garden with the golden key.

Lewis Carroll’s illustration of the caterpillar scene from his original manuscript of the story. There’s nothing here to suggest it is meant to be a fly agaric — Source.

Since the 1960s this has often been read as an initiatic work of drug literature, an esoteric guide to the other worlds opened up by psychedelics — most memorably, perhaps, in Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic anthem “White Rabbit” (1967), which conjures Alice’s journey as a path of self-discovery where the stale advice of parents is transcended by the guidance received from within by “feeding your head”. This reading is often dismissed by Lewis Carroll scholars,7 but medication and unusual states of consciousness certainly exercised a profound fascination for Carroll, and he read about them voraciously. His interest was spurred by his own delicate health — insomnia and frequent migraines — which he treated with homoeopathic remedies, including many derived from psychoactive plants such as aconite and belladonna. His library included books on homoeopathy as well as texts that discussed mind-altering drugs, including F. E. Anstie’s thorough compendium, Stimulants and Narcotics (1864). He was greatly intrigued by the epileptic seizure of an Oxford student at which he was present, and in 1857 visited St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London in order to witness chloroform anaesthesia, a novel procedure that had come to public attention four years previously when it was administered to Queen Victoria during childbirth.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Alice’s mind-expanding journeys owed anything to the actual drug experiences of their author. Although Carroll — in daily life the Reverend Charles Dodgson — was a moderate drinker and, to judge by his library, opposed to alcohol prohibition, he had a strong dislike of tobacco smoking and wrote sceptically in his letters about the pervasive presence in syrups and soothing tonics of powerful narcotics like opium — the “medicine so dexterously, but ineffectually, concealed in the jam of our early childhood”.8 Yet Alice’s adventures may have their roots in a psychedelic mushroom experience. The scholar Michael Carmichael has demonstrated that, a few days before he began writing the story, Carroll made his only ever visit to Oxford’s Bodleian library, where a copy of Mordecai Cooke’s recently-published drug survey The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860) had been deposited.9 The Bodleian copy of this book still has most of its pages uncut, with the exception of the contents page and the chapter on the fly agaric, entitled “The Exile of Siberia”. Carroll was particularly interested in Russia: it was the only country he ever visited outside Britain. And, as Carmichael puts it, Carroll “would have been immediately attracted to Cooke’s Seven Sisters of Sleep for two more obvious reasons: he had seven sisters and he was a lifelong insomniac”.

Gnomes transporting a fly agaric mushroom, from a German New Year’s card, ca. 1900 — Source.

Cooke’s chapter on fly agaric is, like the rest of his book, a valuable source of the drug lore that was familiar to his generation of Victorians. It refers to Everard Brande’s account of the J. S. family and rounds up various Siberian descriptions of fly agaric experiences, including details that appear in Alice’s adventures. “Erroneous impressions of size and distance are common occurrences”, Cooke records of the fly agaric. “A straw lying in the road becomes a formidable object, to overcome which, a leap is taken sufficient to clear a barrel of ale, or the prostrate trunk of a British oak.”10

The hypothesis is suggestive, though at this distance of time, it’s impossible to know for certain whether or not Carroll read this Bodleian copy, or indeed any other copy of Cooke’s book. It may be that Carroll encountered the Siberian fly agaric reportage elsewhere — we know, for example, that he owned a copy of James F. Johnston’s The Chemistry of Common Life (1854) which includes mention of fly agaric and size delusions11 — or it may be that he simply drew on the fertile resources of his imagination. But some contact with the widely reported Siberian cases does seem much more likely than the idea that Carroll drew on any hidden British tradition of magic mushroom use, let alone the author’s own. If so, he was neither a secret drug initiate nor a Victorian gentleman entirely innocent of the arcane knowledge of drugs. In this sense, Alice’s otherworld experiences seem to hover, like much of Victorian fairy literature and fantasy, in a borderland between naïve innocence of such drugs and knowing references to them. We read them today from a very different vantage point, one in which magic mushrooms are consumed far more widely than in the Victorian or indeed any previous era. In our thriving psychedelic culture, fly agaric is only to be encountered at the distant margins; by contrast, psilocybin mushrooms are a global phenomenon, grown and consumed in virtually every country on earth and even making inroads into clinical psychotherapy. Today the liberty cap is an emblem of a new political struggle: the right to “cognitive liberty”, the free and legal alteration of one’s own consciousness.

Notes

1. Everard Brande, “Mr E. Brande, on a poisonous Species of Agaric”, in Medical and Physical Journal 3 (January–June, 1800): 41–44.
2. Albert Hofmann, Roger Heim, and Hans Tscherter, Présence de la psilocybine dans une espèce Européenne d’agaric, le Psilocybe semilanceata (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1963).
3. Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Omniana, or Horæ Otiosiores (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1812), 1:218.
4. Thomas Keightley, The Fairy Mythology (London: H.G. Bohn, 1850), 412.
5. Gordon R. Wasson, Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality, Ethno-mycological Studies 1 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 243–6.
6. For example, see “Psychological Studies on Hachisch and on Mental Derangement, by J. Moreau” in The British and Foreign Medical Review 23, no. 45 (January 1847): 216–236; James F. Johnston, The Chemistry of Common Life (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1854); and Mordecai Cooke, The Seven Sisters of Sleep (London: James Blackwood, Paternoster Row, 1860).
7. Heather Worthington, interview by Sophie Robehmed, “Is Alice in Wonderland Really about Drugs?”, BBC News, August 20, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19254839.
8. Lewis Carroll, “A Tangled Tale” (London: MacMillan and Co., 1885; Project Gutenberg, 2009), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/29042/29042-h/29042-h.htm.
9. Michael Carmichael, “Wonderland Revisited”, in Psychedelia Britannica: Hallucinogenic Drugs in Britain, ed. Antonio Melechi (London: Turnaround, 1997), 5–20.
10. Mordecai Cooke, The Seven Sisters of Sleep (London: J. Blackwood, 1860), 342.
11. James F. Johnston, The Chemistry of Common Life, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1855), 170.

This article is drawn from Mike’s book Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century.

The cover image is The Intruder (ca. 1860) by John Anster Fitzgerald, with a fly agaric centre stage — Source.

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