A Review of Morgan Daimler’s ‘A New Dictionary of Fairies’

A New Dictionary of Fairies: A 21st-Century Exploration of Celtic and Related Western European Fairies by Morgan Daimler (Moon Books, 2020). ISBN 978 1 78904 036 4

The upsurge of interest in faerie traditions over the last decade suggests there is an innate, newly invigorated, understanding that the faeries represent a fundamentally important part of our cultural zeitgeist. This is partly the result of the internet and the wide spread of information that is now available about a phenomenon, which was previously relegated to the sidelines and even disregarded as an irrelevant, fossilised remnant of past superstition. While folklorists have always maintained the tradition in public consciousness, there has recently been a more dynamic delivery of the faerie phenomenon, which suggests it may have much more to offer, and that its place in the 21st century is an ongoing process.

In fact, the exponential growth in faerie literature, both in print and online, has meant it’s become difficult to keep track of new thinking on the phenomenon. There is great diversity in this new thinking, ranging from reassessments of the corpus of traditional folklore through to radical interpretations of what these metaphysical entities might represent in our modern world. Morgan Daimler’s new book thus comes at a good time. It’s a work that grounds much of the faerie folklore from the Western tradition and provides a digestible survey of many of the key elements. This grounding is essential; however far out we might want to go with an investigation into the faeries, this can only be achieved via a thorough understanding of what the traditions are and where they come from. Daimler understands this, and has written extensively about faerie folklore, from a range of perspectives, in previous work. This evidently underpins the current volume, which has been meticulously researched and co-ordinated with much acumen. It is a solid resource for anyone (from professional folklorist to interested lay-reader) who wants to gain insights into the ontology of the faeries.

In the introduction, Daimler wisely makes reference to Katharine Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Fairies (first published in Britain as A Dictionary of Fairies in 1976) as the original compendium of faerie folklore:

‘This book has become the cornerstone for many as a reference on the subject, yet in the last 40 years the field of folklore and fairy lore has moved on from where it was when Briggs was writing. There have been new ideas advanced and new material covered, and in some cases uncovered, yet there is no work that equals Briggs in its scope and depth on the subject. If one is looking for a single go to resource on fairy lore, the 1976 A Dictionary of Fairies remains, I believe, the best option despite the fact that it is out of print and ageing.’

This is a gracious nod to one of the foremost folklorists of the 20th century, whose work has indeed inspired many people (myself included) to further investigate the faerie phenomenon. Daimler’s new volume does not replicate Briggs’ in any way, despite the obvious overlap. It might be better to see it as a tangental updating; not a replacement, but a complementary work. Ideally, anyone investigating the faerie traditions would have both volumes on their bookshelf.

The entries range in scope and length and carry a vast array of subject matter (there are over 250 entries in all). As the title suggests, the book is weighted towards Celtic traditions, and Daimler is particularly good on Irish lore, something Briggs touched on only lightly. But there is also much on more ambiguous subject matter such as the physicality of faeries, possession, the connection between faeries and aliens, and their relationship with people claiming second sight. There is a good mix of descriptive narrative and interpretation throughout, perhaps demonstrated best by referencing two entries, which give a flavour of Daimler’s intention. After discussing various manifestations of the Púca and the different etymology from disparate geographical locations, Daimler pins down some of the essential attributes:

‘The Púca is a mysterious being, if indeed there is only one of him as some claim, or a complicated type if there are more than one. Generally, all of the above named beings – the Púca, Pwca, Bucca and Puck – are considered to be the same, however, while it may be that they are different cultural iterations of one being it might also be that they are simply similar enough to be classed together. The Welsh Bucca is said to be a single being who was once a god, while the English Puck is thought by some to perhaps be a type of pixie. In contrast, some older Irish folklore would clearly indicate the Púca was not solitary but a group of beings.’

The Púca is an (albeit complex) example of a faerie tradition that can be brought into a narrative framework. But Daimler tackles many more conceptual subjects, such as in the entry for Selling the Soul:

‘Most of us are familiar with the idea of classical witches selling their souls to the Devil, but there is another concept we see as well in folkloric sources: a person selling their should to the fairies. The implication in the wider narrative is that the soul is being pledged to the Queen of Fairy but it is rarely spelled out as such. This is usually done as a combination of a required renunciation of the person’s previous faith and either a pledge of loyalty to the Good People or else a more formal agreement to give over one’s soul to them, with the implicit understanding that ultimately one’s loyalty then is owed to the Fairy Queen or King. We see this in examples from the Scottish witch trials where an agent of the Fairy Queen approaches a person and offers them things they would want, often good luck and success, in exchange for the person giving up Christianity and swearing loyalty to the fairies instead.’

This is one of the strengths of the book: the building blocks of the traditions are clearly delineated but there is also a willingness to roam outside the reality box of folklore in order to convey the meaning of the lore. Joseph Campbell describes this approach (with approval) as the conceptual appropriation of mythology. The folklore (or mythology) will lose its meaning unless it is appropriated and reinterpreted by each generation, but this needs to be carried out with sensitivity and understanding, something which Daimler does with aplomb. There is no judgement applied to any entry; only an overview, even-handed interpretation, and summation. This is very much in the style of Briggs’ Encyclopedia of Fairies, and it allows the reader enough space to form their own conclusions, and to pursue the subject further if they wish. This is aided by a good footnoting protocol and an extensive bibliography, which brings the reader up to date with the latest thinking on the faerie phenomenon.

And as noted above, Daimler is not averse to tackling some of the more controversial faerie subject matter. In the entry on ‘Aliens’ we are provided with the range of similarities between faerie traditions and the modern UFO phenomenon, from the uses of ‘glamour’ by the faeries/aliens, to the commonalities of sleep paralysis and abduction techniques, which bear remarkable similarities in both the folklore and modern testimonies. Daimler prefaces the discussion in succinct style:

‘Fairies have been a part of belief and folklore for as long as we have written stories from the various cultures we find them in. However, as we have moved, culturally, into the modern and post-modern period fairies have largely, in the dominant culture of America, become relegated to children’s story and nostalgia. This left a contextual void for people having experiences to explain what they were experiencing. This void was filled by fiction and film, as popculture embraced the idea of extraterrestrials and our cultural consciousness became saturated by these new stories.’

As throughout the book, this typifies the clean, solid prose-style, which Daimler maintains, and gives the reader confidence in the purveyed information, which is free from perceptual tenets. We are being given well-researched and comprehensive information, which can be followed up if so desired. While some equitable interpretation is applied, it never overbears the narrative elements of the entries.

A New Dictionary provides both a consolidation of faerie folklore from a range of sources and a new, insightful way of viewing the phenomenon. It’s pitched in a way that allows resonance with both practised folklorists and newcomers, describing a myriad of faerie types, themes and motifs in an accessible but scholarly fashion. It is an important addition to the literature, and is likely to remain a go-to source for anyone interested in getting under the skin of faerie folklore for many years to come. As such, it is a worthy complementary successor to Katharine Briggs’ work, and that is high praise indeed.

Morgan Daimler’s website is Living Liminally.

‘Marjorie Johnson, Shaman of Suburbia’ by Simon Young

The story of Marjorie Johnson (1911-2011) is fascinating. Her primary legacy is the book Seeing Fairies, but, as recounted here, her interactions with the faeries took many paths and she may legitimately be seen as a mystic, and perhaps even a modern shaman, albeit a very unusual one. She also became secretary of The Fairy Investigation Society, a role now inhabited by Dr Simon Young. Simon has written extensively on faerie folklore and currently teaches at the University of Virginia Program (Siena, CET), Italy. This article appeared originally in the newsletter of The Fairy Investigation Society (no. 7, 2018), a twice yearly publication available to members. Membership is free, and deadbutdreaming strongly recommends readers head over to the website and sign up. The newsletters are always packed with faerie data, from a vast range of perspectives. And the FIS website is also excellent, including a downloadable version of the 2017 Census, which updates the accounts of faerie interactions from Seeing Fairies with over 500 modern testimonies from around the world. Thanks to Simon for permission to republish this article here.

At first glance her life seemed so normal. Marjorie Johnson, Nottingham’s fairy woman, was born in a lower middle class street, in 1911. She would die, a hundred years later, having lived through the Somme, the Blitz, the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9/11, in the same terraced house on Brooklands Road, Carlton. Stability was an essential part of her remarkable development. Not only did she live in the same building, she lived, for much of that time, with the same individuals. Mum and Dad had an idyllic marriage: a prized family possession were the courtship letters between the two. Then, there was sister Dorothy, nine years older, who would become Marjorie’s soul mate: neither married and neither seemed to have had any inclination to do so. The worst that could be said about this family was that perhaps it was too happy, too self-contained.

The outlines of Marjorie’s life suggest a buoyant normality: not quiet desperation, but essential satisfaction. She had met D.H. Lawrence and Freida as a young girl: the writer and his lover had come over for tea. Later in life, she worked in a law firm as a secretary. Her sister Dorothy worked, meanwhile, as a professional pet painter and travelled around the country to undertake portraits. Marjorie had the typical quotient of outside interests: she was, for example, a passionate member of the anti-vivisection league, and became a vegetarian; she and her sister kept dogs; she also was interested in gypsy culture. She was universally liked by those who knew her: again and again in talking or writing to her acquaintances the words ‘kind’, ‘good’, or ‘considerate’ come up. The closest Marjorie came to decadence was that she, later in life, would allow herself a tipple of Baileys in the evening. Oh and then there were the fairies…

There is no easy way to say this but Marjorie Johnson, from very early in life, until her death heard, saw and conversed with fairies. Sometimes they were glimpsed out of the corner of her eyes. Sometimes they came in dreams. Sometimes she believed that the fairies were sending her messages: for example, a series of dead birds in the garden were interpreted as the fairies wanting her to bury their animal friends. Once she was pushed on a beach by invisible hands: a sea nymph was apparently angry that she had tried to take a shell. On another occasion the fairies played tricks on her and she lost an important letter only for it to turn up in a place she had already looked for it. With the right expectations we could perhaps all convince ourselves, on grounds like these, that we have fairies in our lives. Things go missing but then are found. You slip on the sand while trying to reach a shell. There is an ornithological murrain and bird corpses appear in the garden. A bee or a butterfly glimpsed in the loaming becomes a fairy on patrol.

But Marjorie’s experiences were often stronger, and more difficult to explain away. She once, for instance, stood by while a fairy procession passed in front of her and was invited to join the fairies in their feasting: she declined because she was worried about being made to eat their food. In advanced middle age Marjorie, was misled by fairies at a cemetery and came face-to-face with a fairy house that then vanished. On yet another occasion she watched fairies running to and fro in the street and dancing, getting ready for a summer solstice festival: they warned her telepathically not to approach. Then, when Marjorie wanted to buy some land for gardening a fairy came to tell her not to, shaking its finger energetically: thanks to the fairy Marjorie was able to rent the land for practically nothing and saved a good deal of money. In these cases it would be difficult for someone to live these experiences without a schizophrenic condition or access to hallucinogens; neither of which, needless to say, featured in Marjorie’s life.

Marjorie had always seen fairies. An old friend of the family confirmed that as a toddler, in the Great War, Marjorie had babbled about the colours of fairies she saw among the flowers. However, Marjorie’s most significant fairy experience came when she was six. We know about the experience because, aged twenty-five, Marjorie wrote about what she had seen to the letters page of a then much-read national magazine, John O’London’s Weekly, where a number of readers had contributed their own fairy experiences:

On this particular morning I was lying in bed enjoying the early morning sunshine which streamed in through the low, open window, when suddenly I felt compelled to sit up in bed and turn my eyes to the empty fire grate. There, on a filmy cobweb on the bars, sat a strange little creature. It seemed quite unafraid and, from the broad grin on its face, appeared to enjoy my observation. At first I just kept still and stared, and it blinked back at me with a blank expression which showed very little intelligence. Soon I had to satisfy my childish curiosity by climbing out of bed. The elf immediately disappeared. I climbed back, and when I turned round it was perched in the same place. This disappearance and reappearance continued until I brushed away the cobweb. I never saw the nature sprite again.

The elf episode was, for Marjorie, a wake-up call. As we shall establish, below, many people and perhaps especially young children have experiences of this kind. But very few twenty-five year olds are ready for their name to appear under an account like this in a national publication, particularly in the stifling and judgmental Britain of the late 1930s. Marjorie, as noted above, was repeatedly described as ‘good’ and ‘considerate’ by friends, but she also had a steely resolve. She would not ignore the evidence of her senses. Here it is worth stressing that a small part of the population do see impossible things: ghosts, fairies, monsters, aliens…. The first great survey of the paranormal, the wonderfully named ‘Census of Hallucinations’, began in Britain in 1889 and 16000 people, from all runs of life, were interviewed. Of those interviewed about ten percent had had a striking paranormal experience in their lives. Since then there have been other surveys. Some have put the number of visionaries in our society as low as five percent, others as high as twenty percent. It is possible that the number contracts or grows according to factors within a given society: totalitarianism, war, hardship, busts and booms… But what is clear is that, in every society, a small, but not a vanishingly small, part of the population have supernatural experiences. It is also interesting that many of these have frequent supernatural experiences; there seems to be a predisposition in certain individuals to have visions and unworldly meetings.

This all makes sense in terms of evolution. These five, ten or twenty percent are likely the men and women who were supposed to become sibyls and druids, soothsayers and healers in early societies; the elders who painted dreams onto cave walls, or who worked miracles in the first human villages. These were the spirit-folk who would speak to the ancestors. They would bring wisdom and cohesion to the tribe. They would give medical relief, with herbs and by ‘faith’. The problem is that, again in evolutionary terms, these visionaries no longer have a straightforward role in a world dominated by automated machines and by the internet. There is, then, the danger that the mystic tendency has become like our tail-bones, a relict of a previous epoch, which has no relevance to us today. This is why most people with such dangerous ‘gifts’, conscious of the potential for embarrassment or even humiliation, ignore or hide them.

Yet Marjorie Johnson had, already by her mid twenties, decided to be defined by her fairies. We know, for example, that aged twenty-three, two years before she wrote to John O’ London’s, she made a bamboo pipe and took it out to play to any fairies she might happen upon. There is an extraordinary photograph of Marjorie in 1934 kneeling in the ferns at Castle Rising (in Norfolk) and playing passionately to something invisible: she looks like a snake charmer without the cobra. A smudge of light on the negative is described, on the back of the photograph, as ‘Nature spirits veiled in ectoplasm’.

Marjorie was at it again a few days later, playing as she and her sister Dorothy strolled through the countryside, and when she reached a copse of trees the fairies answered with music. Marjorie being Marjorie she stopped and wrote the notes down: she would later, always thorough, get a composer to give proper notations to the fairies’ riffs and harmonies.

Why is it that Marjorie embraced mysticism, when most of the visionary ten percent try, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, to turn off this part of their hardwiring? The first reason was her family. There is no clue that there was any special interest in the paranormal in the Johnson household, though Marjorie later wrote that her mother had premonitory dreams. But Dorothy had seen fairies, too, as a child and continued to do so through her life: even if with less frequency than Marjorie. As a young child Dorothy had lost a ring in some woods outside Nottingham. After asking the fairies to help her find it she returned to the wood at twilight and, in her own words, ‘I was able to discern in the dim light the ring moving towards me about a foot above the ground, as if floating on air or being carried by some invisible being, and, as I watched, it dropped at my feet.’ Dorothy, Marjorie later revealed, had also seen the elf in the fireplace – she had been fifteen: the sisters had been sleeping in the same bed when the elf had appeared and Marjorie had nudged her sister awake.

Had the parents perhaps fostered, then, a belief in fairies? It seems unlikely. Marjorie believed that her mother had once seen a fairy. While washing Mrs Johnson had thought she saw, at the upstairs bathroom window, a tiny face peeping through. But there is no suggestion that the Johnson parents had any interest in small men or winged sylphs or, indeed, knew anything about supernatural forces. There is not even any sense of strong religious beliefs in the household. Their most important contribution to Marjorie’s development was that of providing a loving and understanding environment while the girls grew up. Some imaginative Victorian and Edwardian children were punished for ‘lies’ or simply mocked into conformity. As one of Marjorie’s later correspondents put it: ‘It is so nice to know that someone else has seen fairies besides myself. I saw them when I was a child, but I was laughed at so often that gradually I ceased to go where they were, and did not speak of them again….’

This was not how such things worked in the Johnson household. This is Marjorie’s description of Dorothy’s first fairy experience and her mother’s model reaction:

[A] fairy had appeared in front of [Dorothy] in the old orchard when she was a small child and I was not yet born. It stood smiling at her – a dainty little fairy dress with silvery wings. It had a pretty coronet on its head, and in its hand was a wand with a tiny, twinkling star on top. My sister said she was so thrilled that she ran up the garden path to fetch Mother, who hurried back with her, but of course, by then, as usually happens, the little creature had disappeared. But Mother knew from Dorothy’s joy and excitement that she was telling the truth. We were very lucky in having wise parents who never scoffed at us or crushed our excited outpourings, but always found time to listen understandingly to what we had to say.

Marjorie was born, then, into a tolerant and imaginative family. However, she had another advantage, she was born at just the right time, the time that a new kind of fairy was emerging into the British imagination. In the nineteenth century there had been two kinds of fairies. There were the rather frightening fairies that ‘infested’ the most rural and isolated regions of Britain and Ireland, stealing children and cursing crops: it must be remembered that just sixteen years before Marjorie’s birth a woman, Bridget Cleary, had been burnt in County Tipperary because it was believed that she was a fairy. These traditional fairies were viewed, by almost everyone who cared to write about them, as unhappy fossils of medieval (and in Ireland Catholic) barbarism. Then, there was the sugar plum fairy, a proto-Tinkerbell in children’s books, in art and, perhaps most importantly, in the theatre. These were the priggish white winged fairies of the Victorian imagination, fairies that are still with us today in Disney films and toy franchises: these fairies, it goes without saying, were understood not to be real. They were like our unicorns or dragons.

Had Marjorie Johnson been born in Nottingham in, say, 1850 she would doubtless have had visionary experiences, but she would not have described those experiences with the word ‘fairy’. After all, the fairies in her children’s books would not have been living things; and she would have had no contact with the scary fairies of Wales or northern England. Her experiences would have been difficult to situate or she might have been taught the word ‘ghost’. However, in the late nineteenth-century, a third fairy emerged, the spiritualist fairy. The spiritualists were a breakaway Christian movement and they are most famous today for their energetic efforts to contact the dead with rapping in darkened rooms. As spiritualism developed, though, and particularly in the branch of spiritualism called theosophy, there was an attempt to reduce the entire universe to supernatural mechanics. Yes, there were the spirits of the dead, said the theosophists. But there were also ‘elementals’, forces that inhabited flowers, rocks and other objects in the natural world. These ‘elementals’ were, it was argued, what our ancestors had called ‘fairies’.

This idea burbled gently away at the end of the nineteenth-century in spiritualist books and occasional newspaper columns: impressing several important figures, not least W.B. Yeats, whose fairy visions were based, in part on traditional lore and, in part, on theosophy. It became more and more commonplace in the early twentieth century. Then, the idea went mainstream after the First World War with the Cottingley fairy photographs. In 1917 two girls from Cottingley in West Yorkshire, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, saw and photographed fairies. We now know that these photographs were faked by the girls. But when they were published in 1920 and 1921, after theosophists had publicized them, the photographs divided opinion. Those who did support their authenticity, among them Arthur Conan Doyle, did so, on the basis of the spiritualist idea of fairies: these were nature spirits from the beck at Cottingley, caught on camera for all the world to see.

Marjorie saw her cobweb elf in 1917, the same year as Elsie and Frances took their first photographs. It is not impossible that she had already picked up, from school or friends, the idea of ‘nature spirits’. But by the time she wrote to John O’London’s Weekly, in 1936, she had very definite ideas about fairies and these ideas were theosophic. In fact, in the letter to John O’London’s she quotes, approvingly, Geoffrey Hodson, a theosophist, who had gone to Cottingley to look for the fairies with Elsie and Frances; and who had published accounts of his fairy encounters elsewhere. Hodson memorably claimed to have met a nature god on Hellvellyn in Cumbria, among many other visionary experiences. Marjorie, then, by her mid twenties had not just decided that she could see fairies: she had also found an explanation for this mystical force. She would remain true to that explanation for the rest of her life and she would even project it backwards onto her early experiences. She came to believe, for example, that the elf she had seen aged six was actually the nature spirit of a rambling rose outside her window. It had presumably crept in, having decided to treat the cobweb as an improvised hammock. The remarkable thing about Marjorie is not that she had a personality programmed to having these experiences; in that, as we have seen, she was far from being alone. But, rather, what is striking is that her personality survived, where many others conformed to modern ideas about what the senses should and should not do. Marjorie had grown up in a family where these experiences had been accepted. The society she had grown up in had also, even if only as a minority opinion, attempted to explain what Marjorie was seeing and Marjorie enthusiastically took up this explanation. But, with a happy childhood, and books on theosophy, she would have led a very lonely and frustrating existence in her terraced house in Nottingham, sustained only by her sister. Marjorie, though, made a concerted effort to find others like herself. She clutched at every chance: and this was, remember, a young woman with a gift for friendship. So after she had published in the John O’London’s Weekly she reached out, through the editor, to those who had written in with their experiences. Some of these became pen friends with whom Marjorie would have a decades-long correspondence. She would also write to Geoffrey Hodson, a man she stoutly defended against charges of fakery in the 1980s  and the 1990s. It was not that she joined a tribe. There wasn’t one. She painstakingly created her own around a fairy totem.

1936 was a special year in Marjorie’s life not only because of the John O’ London letter. It was also the year that she began to collect fairy accounts in a systematic way, ‘cuttings of true experiences’: Marjorie loved the word ‘true’. She wanted not only to live as a fairy seer (the term she used for herself and for others with her gift of fairy sight) she wanted to educate society more generally. ‘[A]s I grew older’ she wrote many years afterwards, ‘I became filled with a burning desire to keep the Fairy Faith alive and to know more about this fascinating evolution that runs parallel to and merges with our own.’ Her clippings collection got bigger as did her contacts with other seers and the idea slowly germinated that she should publish a book of these encounters between human- and fairy-kind. But there was a problem. Would the fairies approve?

Folklorists will tell you that fairies do not enjoy publicity. In fact, in traditions from all over Europe the fairies punish or abandon those who betray their confidences. The typical story goes like this: a child becomes friends with the fairies who leave a coin at a certain tree every day for their favourite. But the child is bullied, by a parent or sibling, into revealing where this small fortune comes from. The child tells the secret, and the fairies immediately cease to leave gifts and want nothing more to do with the child. This was Marjorie’s greatest concern. She apparently had personal relations with some of the fey, her ‘familiars’ to use a witchcraft term, her ‘spirits’ thinking of shamans, and she did not want to risk a break in the relationship. She was not receiving money, but she was receiving insights and direction.

To talk about a relationship with the fairies might seem bizarre, but though Marjorie did not know this, there were strong British precedents for what she was experiencing in the 1930s and the 1940s. We know that in the Middle Ages and in the early Modern period, and as late as the nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland, certain men, and particularly women claimed to have relations with fairies, communicating with these fairies for the good of their communities. These reports, especially in the early period, often come out in witch trials or ecclesiastical records where cunning men or cunning women were investigated for holding unorthodox religious opinions. There is, indeed, the suspicion, one that has been articulated by a British historian of witchcraft, Emma Wilby, that many ‘witches’ who were executed in England and Scotland, in the early modern period, were not devil worshippers, but fairy seers, who got on the wrong side of authority.

A striking case, and one with some relevance to Marjorie was Joan Tyrry of Taunton, who, in 1555, was called before the diocesan court in her home city. There she revealed that ‘the fairies taught her such knowledge that she getteth her living by it’: her powers of healing animals and people and picking out witches from among her neighbours, depended, by her own testimony, on the local fairies’ good will. Joan was let off but told to stay away from the fairies: she was lucky, a century later she might easily have been executed. Joan, though, was bereft. She replied that this staying away from the fairies would not be a problem because now that she had revealed fairy secrets, her magical neighbours would want nothing more to do with her. It is remarkable to see two individuals separated by about four hundred years with the same gifts and the same problem, the desire to respect the fairies’ confidences.

Let us give, in her own words, Marjorie’s negotiations with the fairies, because it is the only time that she reveals in writing her private communications with these spirit guides. The word ‘deva’, in what follows, is a Hindu word that had been adopted by theosophists in the late nineteenth century:

One day in the 1940s, I was thinking seriously about [publishing a book on fairies], but was a bit apprehensive as to whether the fairies themselves would like it, and I wished I could obtain their consent. That night I went to bed thinking about it, and early the next morning I had a wonderful true dream. Standing in front of me was one of the higher devas, or ‘Shining Ones,’ and I had never before seen such a vision of loveliness. She glowed with light; her hair was long and golden; her gown was flowing and opalescent; and the aura, which surrounded her, coruscated with all the colours of the rainbow, I christened her ‘Iris,’ and felt she was a Guardian of the Fairy Borderland. She was standing in front of a symbolic filmy curtain of gauze, which she drew aside and beckoned me through, so I knew I had been accepted. She was showing me some interesting things when something – perhaps a sudden noise – made me waken, but not before she had impressed on me that whenever I saw the rainbow-flash of her aura I was to ask the person who might be next to me in a street, shop, or other building, etc., if he or she had, or knew someone who’d had, any fairy experiences.

So the deva fairy had not only given Marjorie permission to gather accounts, she had given her a magic power to do so as well. Whenever Marjorie was to see someone with a ‘rainbow flash’ around them she was to ask about fairies. And Marjorie, as she put it, ‘plucked up my courage to do it’. Her rainbow informants represented a goodly range of  men and women: one can only imagine their bewilderment as the earnest middle-aged woman bustled towards them. There was a concert pianist, a man at a printer’s shop, someone at a meeting, a clairvoyant housewife and ‘a tourist in the porch of Coventry Cathedral’, among many others. The deva’s advice proved good. All were able to talk to Marjorie about fairies, with Marjorie naturally keeping notes. Marjorie was a shaman in the age of the printing press. She would collect ‘true’ accounts of fairies and, then, publish them. She now had her life mission.

Marjorie was helped towards this goal, in 1950, by a new and exciting role that was offered her. In that year, aged thirty-nine, she became secretary of the Fairy Investigation Society. The FIS was a body that had been founded in 1927 by a number of theosophists and bohemians in London. It had fallen apart by 1932. But, after the Second World War, one of its original members, Quentin Craufurd, a naval commander and scientist, refounded the organisation and recruited Marjorie, recognizing her talent, her energy and her convictions. Marjorie was responsible for welcoming new members – the only condition for membership was a belief in fairies – and for bringing out the FIS newsletter, an occasional publication that detailed new sightings and fairy projects. The FIS was, in terms of its members, a remarkable organisation: there were just over a hundred in the rosters including several famous men and women. Walt Disney, for example, was a fairy believer and was on the FIS lists. So was Lord Dowding, the man who had won the Battle of Britain for the RAF, and who, later in life, wrote an introduction to a fairy seer book. Walter Starkie the controversial Irish author, who wrote entertaining descriptions of his wanderings with the Roma in eastern Europe, had also signed up. There was, then, a marvelous crop of lesser known eccentrics. Take Daphne Charters, a fairy seer who attempted to create a fairy League of Nations. Ithell Colquhoun, a gifted occultist and artist. Naomi Mitchison, a fantasy author, whose reputation has risen in the last years. There was Wellesley Tudor Pole who founded the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, where many Britons still go to see fairies, and there was, moving down into the C list of celebrities, June Kynaston, author of Nude Dancing for Health.

Addresses were shared in the newsletters and members were encouraged to get in touch with each other. Indeed, group visits were organized. Marjorie, in one of her letters describes a holiday where four members met in Iona in the Hebrides to look for fairies. Marjorie herself responded with her sister Dorothy to a call from Lincolnshire about some elves that had been seen in a forest there in ‘a very rudimentary phase of development’. In 1956 she took two field trips and saw a fairy dog and a ‘green, shapeless, ectoplasm mass’, which she interpreted as an ‘embryo elf’. Marjorie may have become a fairy administrator but she was still given to strong mystic fits. In the late 1960s, about ten years after her investigations on the east coast, she was at her house when she had a vision of these Lincolnshire elves ‘and was able to watch swarms of them climbing up the stems of plants and sliding down again’. ‘Though I knew I was at home’, she wrote, ‘I seemed no more than a yard away from them in the woodland and could even sense their strong, magnetic quality.’

The FIS brought another boon to Marjorie: Alasdair Alpin MacGregor. MacGregor was a gifted Scottish writer and folklorist who wrote a number of books on fairies, ghosts and other unworldly traditions. He was a member of the FIS and he soon came into  contact with Marjorie Johnson. A bold, charismatic man MacGregor and Marjorie, ten years his junior, seemed to have quickly established a working relationship of unusual intensity. They were both passionate anti-vivisectionists and they both, of course, believed in fairies. The two decided to publish together the book of Marjorie’s fairy accounts. But MacGregor was used to doing things on a larger scale and proved a canny publicist. In 1955 and 1956 MacGregor took the whole idea of collecting fairy accounts to another level. He wrote letters to newspapers and journals, asking whether readers had fairy sightings to contribute to Marjorie’s survey.

Marjorie’s clipping book now seemed modest, as accounts, some very dramatic, began to pour in from around the English-speaking world, and sometimes from beyond: South Africa, Italy, Canada, California, Germany, New Zealand… MacGregor detached himself from the project in the next year: he was a brilliant but restless man and announced that he wanted to travel abroad. But Marjorie had gathered scores of accounts, convincing her more than ever that she was not an isolated eccentric, but part of a global encounter between humanity and nature spirits: an encounter that had to be proved and, then, explained to the general public. This was not the age of Aquarius but of Oberon. It is interesting that after MacGregor came into her life Marjorie no longer saw the rainbow flashes around total strangers. In fairy terms, perhaps the time for magic had passed; or perhaps it was simply that MacGregor’s more efficient but louder strategy had unsettled the fairies’ always delicate sense of decorum.

Collecting fairy accounts might have been central in Marjorie’s life, but the mystic quality of her day-to-day existence continued, often with her new FIS friends provoking and assisting. Marjorie reports, for example, the visit of a fairy seer named Vera Westmorland who found a fairy on one of Marjorie’s chairs. The fairy, after complaining about Marjorie’s decorating – this fairy did not like the smell of paint – decided to go on a journey with Vera and rode away in her car, returning several days later. Marjorie considered Vera the more powerful seer: her ‘psychic gifts far exceeded my own’, not least because Marjorie had not been properly aware of the fairy and had certainly not seen it. However, some days afterwards Marjorie spotted for the first time ‘a misty little figure’ in an upstairs’ room. Marjorie was, forever bumping into nature spirits in her house. Another day the dogs of two visitors alerted her to ‘the semi-transparent figure of a gnome or dwarf, one and a half to two feet in height, with a large head, a beard, and a pointed cap,’ in a downstairs corridor. ‘Although I was unable to see any colouring, he appeared to be wearing the traditional belted jacket and trousers of his kind.’

If Marjorie’s mystic experiences continued progress on the book was more uneven. MacGregor had claimed that Fairy Vision, as the two had wanted to call their opus, was almost ready for publication in 1956. But Marjorie was still looking for more accounts in 1960, when she had her most traumatic fairy experience. Through MacGregor she had learnt of the value of the media and had sometimes spoken to the press to drum up publicity for the FIS and more particularly for the fairy survey. In 1960 she was offered an interview with the Sunday Pictorial and met with one Tom Riley, a journalist, to talk about fairies. The article when it was published was cruel. It focused in on one small part of Marjorie’s interview where, unwisely, she had spoken about how fairies reproduce: no doubt goaded by Riley, who saw this eccentric Midlander as a meal ticket. A small photograph of Marjorie appeared under the title: ‘She Does a Kinsey on Fairies…’ To be mocked in this way in the national press, in an article with words like ‘bisexual’ and ‘polygamous’, must have been mortifying: this was 1960, remember, the year of the Lady Chatterley Trial and this was a middle class area of Nottingham where ‘keeping up with the Jones’ was as much about propriety as possessions.

Worse, though, was to come. The story was syndicated and slowly made its way around the world: appearing in a reduced form in newspapers from Florida to Australia. Journalists scented blood and turned up at Marjorie’s door: according to a later memory they ‘camped out’ there. The consequences, for Marjorie, were terrible. She demanded a retraction from the Pictorial and wrote imploringly to FIS members, many who had been shocked and embarrassed by the episode. Craufurd’s FIS now entered a hibernation from which it would never properly recover. Even ten years later, Marjorie’s successor as secretary, an English writer Leslie Shepard still talked about members’ privacy concerns. The organization was, finally, closed down in the early nineties. As Shepard himself noted the fey had fallen out of fashion as aliens, fairies with jetpacks, had taken their place.

The story of the visitor to a fairy feast is widely known. The human spent an hour in the underground halls of Titania, only to reappear in the world to find that a hundred years have passed. In fairyland times passes at a different rate. Marjorie’s book now entered fairyland. Marjorie was distracted, first, by her mother’s poor health, then by her sister’s and her own health problems. Through the next decades she continued to collect encounters but at a reduced rate. The fairies and nature spirits remained, however, loyal.

Perhaps the most moving passages in her writing, and one that gives an excellent flavour of her remarkable personality, is about a walk that she and Dorothy took to Colwick Woods in Nottingham, where the two had played together as children (it was where Dorothy had seen the floating ring many years before) and where they had walked with their dogs in middle age:

Now, after a long interval of many years, we were wandering again over the familiar haunts, this time in our old age, and (though we did not know it) for the last time together. We were in a nostalgic mood, and we sat down to rest on a hilltop, trying to recapture the old magic. After a while, feeling more peaceful and relaxed, we began to retrace our steps and were walking towards a tree, which had known us intimately in our younger days and grew apart from the others, when to our amazement it suddenly became illumined. This was no trick of the sunlight, for the tree shone from within, and its radiance rayed out in a golden-white aureole, ethereal and translucent. The tree wanted us to know it had recognized us, and we stood in silent communion under its branches, enfolded in its welcoming vibrations. After a while we had to say goodbye, and we continued our walk home feeling blessed and uplifted. It was a truly wonderful and touching experience to be greeted and remembered so lovingly by an old woodland friend.

Dorothy herself died in 1988. Marjorie describes how, the night before her sister passed, fairies came to dance in the air around her head. ‘I had a strong impression that they were preparing me and trying to strengthen me for something that was to come.’ The book, finally, emerged from fairyland in 1996. Marjorie, now eighty five, had rearranged the contents, added some new accounts and the title had changed from Fairy Vision to the more winsome Seeing Fairies: the entire work included some four hundred fairy sightings and encounters, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, the vast majority of which had never appeared before in print. British publishers turned up their noses. By 2000 Marjorie was ready to give up, but she had a dream. She was walking up a hill and was getting tired. But Dorothy, who had died fourteen years before, and a group of fairies, urged her to continue. She awoke with a new sense of determination and soon afterwards she learnt that a publisher was interested in bringing out the book in German: and so Seeing Fairies or Naturgeister as it came to be known, enjoyed some modest success among German New Age readers. Four years later thebook was translated into Italian and Czech. Marjorie now had her book in print in threelanguages, none of which she could read. She continued to look for an English publisher but had no success and, in her final illness, she even misplaced the English manuscript. That manuscript re-emerged after her death and Seeing Fairies was finally published, postmortem, in English in 2014.

As the dream of Dorothy and the fairies suggests, Marjorie’s mystic life continued into her twilight years. There is an account in Seeing Fairies of her homehelp, at that time, Maureen having a peculiar experience in Marjorie’s sitting room while cleaning:

[Maureen] told me that ‘a little shining thing’ had flown under the table on a beam of sunlight towards her and had risen into the air in front of her. She saw that it was about three inches in length and was sparkling all over as though speckled with stardust. It was so bright that she could not see its face, and as she watched, it flew down again and disappeared. ‘It was so wonderful, and so lovely,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it in my life before. I wish I could see it again.’

A one off and presumably unrepeatable incident? Well, Rose, another homehelp, in the years that followed, was shocked to see, on her first day at work, a transparent blue light pass before her while she was doing the washing up. Marjorie was now in advanced old age but her magic was still there, leaking out into the rooms where she and her sister had lived.

We all know the famous lines of Frost about two roads dividing in a yellow wood. There is the well travelled, and the less travelled path. Which should we choose? When, in her late teens or early twenties, Marjorie came to that fork, she, bamboo pipe in one hand, notepad in the other, ignored both. Instead, she thrashed her way through the undergrowth making her own way among the trees. Whatever, the reader thinks of Marjorie’s fairy experiences it is impossible not to admire the integrity of a woman who listened to her inner voice and lived her entire life according to its dictates. ‘They broke the mould when they made, Marjorie’, said one of her friends: it is the best epitaph I know for Nottingham’s fairy seer.

But the greater problem remains. What is the place of these natural mystics, in our industrial and post-industrial societies: particularly those who lack sympathetic support networks, or who have visions that do not cohere with the whims of a changing society, or who, worst of all, get lost in our mental-health system? What should they do? We have seen in recent years that archaeological and nutritional work into the Paleolithic diet have given us insights into how we should eat: we are digital men and women living in caveman bodies, goes the mantra. Perhaps new investigations into Paleolithic religion and the visions of our cave-dwelling ancestors will give us insights into our psychological well being. The propensity for some of us to have visions is well-established; the prehistoric roots of these visions are likewise generally accepted; the relevance of these visions to the modern world is interesting, but as yet unproven.

Author’s note: this article was based in large part on Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times (Anomalist Books, 2014). I also used information from a number of interviews, and also back numbers of the FIS newsletter from the 1950s, which Marjorie edited.

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Marjorie Johnson, c.1929

‘The Consciousness Hour’: Talking about the Faeries with Anthony Peake

The-Hidden-Universe-An-Investigation-into-Non-Human-Intelligences-Anthony-Peake-508x813The great Anthony Peake was kind enough to invite me on to the January 2020 edition of his Consciousness Hour podcast to talk about the faeries and how they might interact with human consciousness. For those unfamiliar with Anthony’s work, I recommend checking out his website, which holds a big dataset of information, or, even better, sourcing some of his books, which investigate consciousness from a variety of perspectives. They are always deeply insightful. His most recent publication is The Hidden Universe: An Investigation into Non-Human Intelligences, published in December 2019. It’s excellent.

During our hour-long conversation we talked about:

  • My background and how I became interested in folklore, and especially the faerie phenomenon.
  • The chronology of cultural representations of the faeries, from Palaeolithic cave paintings to Tinkerbell.
  • The place of faeries in modern culture.
  • What are the faeries? Are they physical or non-physical?
  • How are the faeries experienced? This led down the cosmic path, which always ends up with an investigation of altered states of consciousness.
  • We finished with some of my own experiences and how they have affected me.

Please make an allowance for some garbled sentences, but I hope the basic concepts of the subject matter are conveyed.

Here’s the link: Anthony Peake’s Consciousness Hour, January 2020: Dr Neil Rushton

Screenshot 2020-01-17 at 21.17.51

The interview can also be found on Anthony’s own website here.

The cover image is from Faeries (1978) by Brian Froud and Alan Lee; an influential book which is discussed during our conversation.

Paracelsus, Nature Spirits and Faeries

There is a long tradition of metaphysical entities becoming manifest in our consensus reality as distinctive attributes of nature. They interact with the material world but they are never fully consolidated within it. They are deemed essential to the propagation of nature but their presence remains supernatural and beyond the bounds of relativistic inquiry. They are usually termed nature spirits, or sometimes elementals, and while they are frequently equated with the faeries of folklore there is a disparity between these classes of beings, which has, however, become increasingly enmeshed, to the point where they are often seen as the same thing. Are they the same thing? Are nature spirits faeries and vice versa? This post investigates the, sometimes complex, entanglements of these metaphysical entities beginning with the 16th-century progenitor of the concept of nature spirits: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, more often (and conveniently) known as Paracelsus.

Paracelsus and Nature Spirits

Paracelsus was born in 1494 in the district of Einsiedeln, in what is now Switzerland. He trained as a physician, specialising in chemistry, but also incorporated astrology into his practice (as did the majority of Renaissance physicians), and produced several volumes investigating what he called the alchemical catechism. In fact, he produced an enormous body of work (most of it published posthumously) ranging from philosophy to toxicological treatises, which had much influence on post-Renaissance thought, from medicine to spiritual traditions such as Rosicrucianism. While some of his philosophical works touch on the subject of metaphysical nature spirits, it is in the volume Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris, et Gigantibus etc. (1566) where he treats the subject in detail, and sets the blueprint for what were to be later termed elementals.

Portrait_of_Paracelsus._Wellcome_L0014988-e1468316408736

Paracelsus drew on Greek and Roman mythologies, which suggested the metaphysical world interacted with the physical world via the four Empedoclean elements of water, earth, air and fire. But his classification of the entities that made up the interaction went much further than his classical sources, and he designated particular attributes to them as well as new names. The title of the volume is somewhat misleading in this respect, probably due to the need of the publisher to apply classical appellations to attract an educated readership. In the body of the work Paracelsus consistently applies the following names to describe supernatural nature spirits, which were able to manifest within physical reality: Undines (water), Gnomes (earth), Sylphs (air) and Salamanders (fire). Each nature spirit was only able to operate within its own element, but their presence in these elements was essential to the continuation of the physical world. They were the underlying metaphysical reality, which enabled our own to exist. In order to make this palatable Paracelsus ascribed human-like characteristics to these entities: “They are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb like we who are from Adam.” They were supernatural, with the ability to live in environments in which humans would not survive, but under the right circumstances (Paracelsus describes these circumstances as ‘when we see naturally’) they could interact with humanity and even form relationships with humans – an important point explored below. He was also keen to iterate that these beings were created by God as guardians of nature. Paracelsus was twice accused of sorcery for his beliefs (although never tried in an ecclesiastical court) and he was on thin ice when discussing entities that would customarily be seen by the 16th-century Church as nothing more than demons. So he encapsulated the nature spirits within a Christian epistemology, even though they had no doctrinal credence. He reinforced this by suggesting they had no souls and could only be redeemed by being brought into the human world and accepting Christianity. But the tenor of his thesis implies this was a cover to make his concept of an overriding spirituality to nature acceptable. Paracelsus was importing pagan metaphysics into a Christian world, but he was pragmatic enough to realise this needed to be coded to the prevailing 16th-century Christian worldview.

The Influence of Paracelsus on the Rosicrucian and Theosophical Movements

Most of Paracelsus’ alchemical works only gained traction after his death in 1541, as they began to be published from the 1560s. Perhaps most crucial was the influence of his ideas on the Rosicrucian Order, which originated between 1614-17 and promulgated a wide range of esoteric and occult mysticism, which followers claimed to be based on an ancient and hidden tradition. One of the core tenets of Rosicrucianism was that through alchemical techniques (including the purging of eyes with a Panacea) the unseen spiritual world could be made manifest in the material world to the benefit of humanity. The Rosicrucian spiritual world was made up from a range of ‘Nature Forces’, which existed in an extra dimension but which were fundamental to all life on earth. Among these were the metaphysical representatives of the Empedoclean elements, as described by Paracelsus. By the 18th century these ideas had seeped out from Rosicrucianism into general occultism, so that influential writers on alchemy such as George von Welling, felt able to use the exact terminology of Paracelsus to describe nature spirits who lived beside us unseen and non-physical, but were responsible for the propagation and wellbeing of the natural world in his Opus Magocabalisticum et Theosophicum (1719). Many of these concepts of elemental nature spirits were collected and expanded on by Max Heindel in his 1909 book The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception (with an annexed treatise Nature Spirits and Nature Forces), which contains perhaps the fullest description of the cosmology of nature spirits from a Rosicrucianesque perspective. His linguistic style rides on his Rosicrucian predecessors:

“With respect to the consciousness of the ELEMENTALS OR NATURE SPIRITS, it is quite correct to assume that they have what may be called a fourth dimensional consciousness, for in addition to the height, width, and depth which are the dimensions of space in the physical world, there is what we may call “thoroughness” in the ethers. With the etheric sight you may look into a mountain and if you have an etheric body such as the nature spirits possess, you may also walk through the hardest granite rock. It will offer no more obstruction than the air does to our progress here. But even among nature spirits there are different entities and a corresponding variation of consciousness. The bodies of the gnomes are made of the chemical ether principally and therefore they are of the earth earthy; that is, one never sees them fly about as do the sylphs. They can be burned in fire. They also grow old in a manner not so greatly different from human beings. The undines which live in the water and the sylphs of the air are also subject to mortality, but their bodies being composed of the life and light ethers respectively, make them much more enduring, so that while it is stated that the gnomes do not live more than a few hundred years, the undines and sylphs are said to live for thousands, and the salamanders whose bodies are principally built of the fourth ether are said to live many thousands of years. The CONSCIOUSNESS, which builds and ensouls these bodies, however, belongs to a number of divine hierarchs who are gaining additional experience in that manner; and the FORMS which are built of matter and thus ensouled have attained a degree of self-consciousness.”

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‘The Rosicrucian Order’ by John Augustus Knapp (1853-1938)

The natural inheritors of Paracelsus’ ideas and Rosicrucian alchemy were those involved in the Theosophist movement (founded in 1875). This movement suffered from various schisms during its early years, but its followers remained consistent in their mystical doctrine of the need to practice unmediated contact with nature, where divinity was to be found. Aspects of theosophy may perhaps be seen as contingent to Animism and panpsychism, where the natural world is deemed alive and conscious at every level. This ‘natural consciousness’ was responsible for the continued wellbeing of the biosphere and could be communicated with by humans when their consciousness was correctly attuned. Indeed, a main tenet of theosophy is that this communication is essential to the health of the natural world, and that the interaction point for humans is with the metaphysical representatives of nature: the elementals. The theosophical nature spirits/elementals are non-material but, as with Paracelsus’ alchemical catechism, they can manifest within consensus material reality when certain conditions are met.

One of the prime-disseminators of the theosophist nature spirit hypothesis was the Austrian Rudolf Steiner. In a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924 he outlined his hypothesis of how a range of supernatural entities (usually termed elementals) acted within nature and how a human observer might interact with them. This was dependent on altering consciousness. In this case the metaphysical technology was clairvoyance; an ability to perceive a non-material reality existing alongside, but in constant synergy with, the material world. Steiner attempted to explain the mechanics of clairvoyance, when a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic. In normal consciousness thoughts:

“… allow themselves to be connected and separated, to be formed and then dismissed. This life of thought must develop in the elemental world a step further. There a person is not in a position to deal with thoughts that are passive. If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.” Rudolf Steiner, ‘Perception of the Elemental World’ (1913).

NatureSpiritsSteiner goes on to describe the specific elemental animating forces at work in the natural world when perceived clairvoyantly in what he calls the Supersensible World. The elementals in the Supersensible World exist as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits/elementals charged with the maintenance of local biosystems. Steiner uses Paracelsus’ terms for these elementals: Gnomes (earth), Undines (water), Sylphs (air) and Salamanders (fire), in order to integrate specific supernatural characters (who had clearly defined tasks relative to their element) into the natural world. He (and Theosophists in general) were integrating a 400-year old alchemical philosophy into a new way of interacting with nature; one that involved entities that could only be recognised through attaining an altered state of consciousness (clairvoyance).

Such Theosophist doctrines continue to the present day, sometimes morphing into occult philosophies and practices, which may view nature spirits as fundamental attributes to a worldview based on respect for nature and a connection to metaphysical belief systems. This is a broad church and includes a variety of pagan, animistic, mystic, esoteric and philosophical strains, but there remains in all a recognition of a force in nature, which can sometimes make itself known in the forms of recognisable supernatural entities. These forms still often manifest as the nature spirits described by Paracelsus, most particularly in the chthonic guise of gnomes and ephemeral air-borne sylphs. There is evidently a deep-set recognition of these entities in our cultural consciousness. But are they faeries? Are faeries and nature spirits part of the same cultural tradition and (more importantly) are they emanating from the same metaphysical place?

Faeries vs Nature Spirits

There is certainly an ontological gap between the faeries found in folklore and the elemental nature spirits described by Paracelsus, Theosophists and modern occultism. While traditional folkloric faeries are often found in natural surroundings, they do not appear to be propagators of nature. The faeries can be kind to humans, and sometimes require our help, but their role is more often ambivalent or even malicious. While nature spirits are sometimes held responsible for adverse weather events or vegetation failure, they are usually deemed benign benefactors of the natural environment – either equivocal to humanity or in lockstep with us; at least those of us who respect and believe in them.

But the differences are perhaps more cultural semantics than epistemological. Paracelsus relates several (allegoric) stories of Undines being enabled to leave their water element in order to marry humans. These trysts always end badly, which put them in the same category as the folklore of lake faeries, where a supernatural entity used to existing in a watery environment is persuaded to join with a mortal, only for the relationship to end when a taboo is broken. Undines are humanoids – lake faeries are humanoids. The stories told about their behaviour contain the same motifs and the ontological gap between them seems narrow. Likewise, gnomic entities have long since become mainstays of faerie folklore, as described by John McVan: “Following their conception in Renaissance alchemical theory, gnomes became a popular subject of 18th-century fairy tales and romanticism, their traits often changing to suit the needs of the writer but their short stature and close association with the earth and underground generally remaining consistent.” While a theosophical viewpoint may see gnomes as an anthropomorphised agent of the natural environment (in this case the elements of earth and minerals), their generally consistent appearance and behaviour through a long time period makes them appear much the same as the descriptions of many folkloric faeries. Their archaic clothing, diminutive stature, a tendency to distrust humans, and their proclivity for living in underground environments are all indistinguishable from recognised faerie appearance, behaviour and story motifs.

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‘Elementals’ by Josephine Wall

Perhaps most interesting are the sylphs. As nature spirits, described by Paracelsus, they are aerial entities responsible for pollination and the cultivation of vegetation as it transitions from earth to air. Their form finds description in Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, written 150 years after Paracelsus, where Kirk attempts to convey the ability of faeries to move through the air: “Their chamælion-lyke bodies swim in the air near the Earth.” Neither Paracelsus nor Kirk suggested these entities had wings, but from the 18th century (perhaps earlier) the imagery of faeries with wings took hold in both literature and art until by the late 19th century a flying sylph or faerie were indistinguishable and accepted as one and the same thing. Once JM Barrie introduced Tinkerbell into the cultural zeitgeist in his 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, aerial, winged faeries became the predominant form of the phenomenon. Barrie even describes Tinkerbell as a sylph. This had much cultural influence. Whatever the metaphysical components of the elemental sylphs and flying faeries, through the 20th century they were culturally integrated as the same thing. This cultural integration is important; because however we may attempt to differentiate faeries from nature spirits (in all their forms), they appear to be coming from the same place; a place that can be tapped into and experienced when certain conditions are met within our consciousness. Whether folkloric characters or alchemical manifestations they are supernatural entities that somehow find their way into our consensus reality and are culturally coded accordingly. They have done this for a very long time, and our conception of them as a phenomenon has perhaps evolved to a stage where now semantic differentiation and classification is less important than discovering the source of their existence and how (in true alchemical convention) their apparently non-physical forms can interact with the physical world.

A Modern Perspective

In the 2017 Fairy Census conducted by the Fairy Investigation Society, the most common explanation of respondents (of those who offered an explanation) to their experiences of interacting with faeries was that they were some form of nature spirit. There is not a single example of these respondents questioning their encounter as anything but a faerie experience, even though their descriptions tally more with nature elementals rather than folkloric faeries. This suggests, at least in popular culture, that numinous experiences with supernatural humanoid entities have come to be considered, to a majority extent, faerie encounters. And in many reports the entities could be straight out of either a traditional folkloric anecdote or a theosophist description of an elemental, as in report #18, from a woman who was in her teens during a family holiday in Cornwall, UK, in the 1970s:

“I was walking a few steps ahead of my mum and sisters… 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 (literally) could not believe my eyes. I was even too amazed (dumbstruck is apt here) 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.”

An American woman, who experienced faerie beings while on a student exchange visit in Sussex, UK, articulated an important view of what these entities might be, which correlates with many of the respondents, while also bringing some Eastern mysticism to the table:

“[Fairies are] nature spirits. [Fairies] could be tulpas that manifest with group consciousness. When you dwell on them in thought, they will manifest. They are protectors of the earth and remind us that there is more to our plane of existence than just physical.” (Report #128).

To ‘dwell on them in thought’ mirrors the intentionality of Paracelsus’ alchemy, Rosicrucian ideas and Steiner’s brand of theosophy. The thought can, of course, only originate in human consciousness – consciousness that is culturally coded and, when altered from its usual view of consensus reality, may tap into non-usual states. The entities that consciousness experiences in these states will, nevertheless, be informed by personal and cultural memory. Many of the census reports describe winged faeries. As discussed, this particular faerie/elemental archetype has become deeply embedded in our culture for well over a hundred years, even though it has no folkloric precedence and does not adhere to any historic epistemological classification of nature spirits. But for over a century, winged, Tinkerbell-like, faeries have become a dynamic cultural trope. When, for whatever reason, a person becomes able to see or interact with non-physical entities, there appears to be a good chance they may experience faeries/nature spirits as the winged sylphs so ubiquitous in our culture.

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‘Nature Faeries’ by Brian Froud

If we accept these types of testimonies as genuine experiences with something supernatural it would seem as if what is being manifested in these encounters is from a collective experience. Carl Jung’s theory of a Collective Unconscious is a starting point for understanding that perhaps these numinous encounters with supernatural entities are actually individual human consciousnesses plugging into the totality of human existence. The totality is represented by archetypes, which are present in many fairy-tales, but which also appear in dreams and altered states of consciousness, where the individual is in the presence of the collective. The (non-physical) entities residing in the collective (un)consciousness make themselves known as faeries or nature spirits depending on the cultural expectations of the experiencer. They might be the ambivalent characters of folklore, benign propagators of nature, or winged Tinkerbells. Their appearance and purpose will depend on the observer and their particular cultural, psychological, philosophical and spiritual backdrop.

Jung’s Collective Unconscious is adapted and expanded in the theory of Morphogenetic Fields propounded by the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake. This is a theory of formative causation in nature:

346529“Over the course of fifteen years of research on plant development, I came to the conclusion that for understanding the development of plants, their morphogenesis, genes and gene products are not enough. Morphogenesis also depends on organising fields. The same arguments apply to the development of animals. Since the 1920s many developmental biologists have proposed that biological organisation depends on fields, variously called biological fields, or developmental fields, or positional fields, or morphogenetic fields.”

Sheldrake’s description of this organising principle behind the natural world is issued in the language of biochemistry, but in effect, what he postulates is an overall lifeforce acting as (what he terms) the memory of nature: human, animal, vegetable and mineral. This memory may be what manifests itself in anthropogenic form as faeries or nature spirits when we are in a state of consciousness to experience it via our cultural lenses. Sheldrake’s theorem finds resonance in animism and panpsychism (where everything is alive with consciousness) as well as a wide diaspora of environmental spiritual movements and occultism. But his idea of a metaphysical memory takes things one step further. It allows for the prospect of us remembering the collective of existence. When this remembering happens, we are liable to enter a state of consciousness where reside a myriad of entities, who we encounter in forms to suit our cultural and psychological expectations. They may be gnarled faeries dressed up in 18th-century garb and beckoning us to dance with them in a circle, elementals ensuring the propagation of the soil and flora, or fluttering Tinkerbells. They may have even morphed into grey aliens to meet our sci-fi sensibilities. But whatever they are, they would appear to be coming from the same place, deep inside our collective consciousness and nature’s memory – places we seem to be able to tap into when circumstances allow. Faeries and nature spirits may or may not be the same phenomenon, but they are both non-physical entities, and so it is perhaps logical to attempt to understand them via the only non-physical thing we know to exist definitively: consciousness.

Edmund Siderius provides a detailed assessment of Paracelsus’ incorporation of nature spirits into his philosophical/alchemical writings in his 2011 article: Knowledge in Nature, Knowledge of Nature: Paracelsus and the Elementals.

The cover image is by Fi Bowman, and was produced for the book Mermaids, Sylphs, Gnomes, and Salamanders: Dialogues with the Kings and Queens of Nature by William R Mistele.

The Faerie Taboos

taboo [ta·​boo | tə-‘bü] NOUN
A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.

Taboo motifs are common in both traditional faerie-tales and folklore. In traditional tales they can form the centrepiece of the plotline; the crux that everything turns on, usually marking a change in state from supernatural to natural or vice-versa. In more anecdotal folklore their function is also often central to the didactics of the testimony. Whether the action takes place in a faerie Otherworld with a human placed under the edicts of a taboo, or whether it is a faerie in consensus reality imposing unbreakable taboos on humans, the motif appears to represent a fundamental premise concerning the interaction between physical and metaphysical reality. It would seem the taboo is a coded message that may help unlock the meaning of the tales and folklore. But the code is usually deeply embedded and buried beneath metaphors and symbolism that often appear too layered and hidden to elicit any explanation as to the purpose of the taboos. They are most often surreal and even absurd parts of tales and folklore. So are these taboo motifs inserted into stories simply as useful plot devices and to invoke a sense of magical realism in folk tales, or do they have a more profound significance, locked into the transpersonal memory of folklore as hermeneutic tools to interpret aspects of reality and the human condition?

Taboos in Faerie-Tales and Folklore

Faerie-tale taboos come in many forms but in essence, they represent prohibitions invoked by faerie entities that cannot be broken. Invariably, they are broken and the consequences are as promised. These consequences are nearly always (though not exclusively) detrimental to the human protagonists of the stories. The motif is ancient and finds its way into several early-medieval Irish tales, the most well-known being Oisín in Tír na nÓg, which includes a double-taboo. Oisín is a poet of the Fianna, and falls asleep under an ash tree. He awakes to find Niamh, Queen of Tír na nÓg, the land of perpetual youth, inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Danann, summoning him to join her in her realm as husband. He agrees and for three years he finds himself living in a paradise of perpetual summer and where time and death hold no sway. Oisín and Niamh even have three children together. But soon he breaks the taboo of standing on a broad flat stone, from where he is able to view the Ireland he left behind. It has changed for the worse, and he begs Niamh to give him leave to return. She reluctantly agrees but asks that he return after only one day with the mortal inhabitants. She supplies him with a magical black horse, which he is not to dismount, and ‘gifted him with wisdom and knowledge far surpassing that of men.’ Once back in Ireland he realises that three hundred years have passed and that he is no longer recognised or known. Inevitably, he dismounts his horse and immediately his youth is gone and he becomes an enfeebled old man with nothing but his immortal wisdom. There is no returning to the faerieland of Tír na nÓg. In other variations of the story, the hero breaks the taboo and turns to dust as soon as his feet touch the ground of consensus reality.

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‘Niamh meets Oisín’ by PJ Lynch

Medieval prose and poetry from Britain and France also used the taboo motif frequently, usually within the Arthurian cycle of stories, which often involved a faerie Otherworld as an essential component of the mythos. Chrétien de Troyes’s romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, is the earliest text example (12th century), where Yvain (like Oisín) falls in love with the Otherworldly faerie, Laudine, and lives with her in a magical land. After a time, he leaves to return to his own world under her stipulation (the taboo) that he returns after a year and a day. He fails to do so and is therefore rejected by her and prohibited from re-entering the faerie Otherworld. In the 14th-century Middle-English romance Sir Launfal by Thomas Chestre (based on the 12th-century Lanval by Marie de France) Launfal is undone by uttering the name of his faerie lover Tryamour (a theme explored below), who had previously bestowed gifts on him – including a faerie horse, an invisible servant and a self-replenishing bag of gold coins – and promised to come to him whenever he wished, provided he adhered to the taboo of never naming her to another human. Once he has uttered her name (to Queen Guenevere no less) and broken the taboo, she comes to him no more and the gifts she has given him disappear.

This Arthurian mythos was plugging into earlier Celtic stories, which may have dated from at least the 8th century in written form and to the pre-Christian era in oral tradition. So the regurgitation of the taboo motif through the Middle Ages demonstrates a continuation of its Pagan metaphysical significance, even if the composers of the stories in the later medieval period were not fully aware of the coded meaning of the motif. They may have been using it as a useful magical plot device, but they were, in fact, perpetuating an ancient symbolic motif that was an intrinsic part of stories where a faerie Otherworld formed part of the narrative.

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Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (1855)

The taboo motif evidently continued to form part of evolving oral folklore in the post-medieval period until the stories began to be recorded in the 19th century. When Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm recorded their traditional European faerie-tales in the early 19th century about a third of them incorporated a taboo motif. The motifs found many forms but are all recognisable as magical prohibitions. In Cinderella, the midnight curfew is the prohibition invoked by the ‘fairy godmother’, which allows the heroine to maintain an aura of glamour to achieve her goals, but which has a defined time-period before the magic is taken away. When Cinderella breaks the curfew/taboo she has to quickly escape the constructed reality, losing her slipper as she does so, and thereby setting up the rest of the story. In Little Brother and Little Sister, a witch (a common propagator of taboos in faerie-tales) sets up the prohibition to the siblings of drinking from streams. The taboo is communicated telepathically to the sister every time her brother is about to drink from a stream: First, he will be turned into a tiger and the next time into a wolf. He resists the urge to drink but at the third stream breaks the taboo, drinks and is turned into a roebuck. This allows the story to continue along the theme of sibling love with magical realism embedded in the narrative, but only because it has been countenanced through the symbolic breaking of the taboo, which is the arbiter of the magical situation.

The Grimms’ Rumpelstiltskin was a version of a story that was paralleled in the English Tom Tit Tot. Here the put-upon and imprisoned heroine is aided in her duties of spinning flax by an ‘imp’. But his aid comes with the condition that she will need to guess his name before a year and a day otherwise she becomes his. She eventually hears him yabbering his name beneath her prison window and so on the final night she is able to repeat his name and avoid being taken from the natural to the supernatural. This story is embedded with the taboo motif of ‘not naming’ (a theme returned to below). A supernatural entity imposes the taboo in a form of competition, which is won by the heroine. She has broken the taboo, in this instance, to her benefit.

By the time most of these classic faerie-tales were collected by folklorists in the 19th century, they were being recorded alongside less structured types of folklore, which often incorporated localised events and known people (usually from the past but not always) overlain by a story narrative. Taboos are frequently found in this type of folklore, as exampled by the Cornish story Cherry of Zennor, collected by Robert Hunt in 1865. Cherry is a young girl about to enter service in the locality of her home in Zennor. But as she finds herself on a lonely hill she is taken to an alternative reality through the persuasions of the ‘master’; a faerie entity. She finds the faerie world much more to her liking than the one she left and is pleased to stay there under the spell of the master. She is obliged to look after the master’s child and to anoint his eyes each day with an ointment, which she is told to never apply to her own eyes. Once she breaks this taboo she is able to see the faerie realm in its completeness and the faeries that ‘seemed to swarm everywhere.’ But she is soon found out for contravening the prohibition and is escorted back to the windswept hillside. Her breaking the taboo had given her temporary cosmic vision, but the price had to be paid in the expulsion from a magical reality.

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‘Girl and Faeries’ by Brian Froud

The magical ointment motif is common in this folklore type, where the human protagonist is most often a midwife who is persuaded to help out the faeries. She is usually given access to the ointment for washing the babies while being warned not to apply it to her eyes. When she (inevitably) self-applies the ointment the realm of the faeries becomes clearly visible. The most frequent punishment for breaking this taboo was to be blinded at a later date when the ability to see the faeries was revealed to one of their own. In some folklore, this is watered down so that the midwife only has her ability to see the faeries taken away while retaining her natural sight.

Swan Maidens and Lake Faeries

The many folktales about swan maidens and lake faeries always contain a specific taboo implemented by the supernatural being while living in physical reality. While the swan maiden stories are Europe-wide, lake faerie folktales seem concentrated in Britain and especially Wales. Once again, there is a crossover quality about these stories, where a recognisable environment and a not-too-distant past is overlain with certain classical faerie-tale archetypes and symbology. The standard scheme of the stories is that the supernatural female is lured from her watery existence by a male, either through a ruse or by charm. They are married and will usually have children together. But at some point, a taboo is broken and she deserts her husband to return to the water, which always seems to represent the portal between the physical world and a non-material reality.

The most detailed of these folktales is the Welsh tale The Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach, which though only recorded in the 19th century contains named personages that appear to date the origin of the story to the 12th century. In this tale, a young farmer called Gwyn regularly frequents Llyn y Fan Fach, where he pastures his cattle. One day he sees a golden-haired woman, combing her locks and using the lake as a mirror. He woos her and she agrees to marry him. But there is a faerie taboo attached: “Silver and gold cannot buy me. Your love is beyond price so I will marry you and live upon Earth with you until you give to me three causeless blows. The striking of the third blow will be the breaking of our marriage contract. I will leave earth and we shall be parted forever. Do you accept?” He does.

Their marriage prospered and they had three sons, but inevitably the three blows were dealt over time, all as accidents: a playful flick on the shoulder with a glove, a tap on the arm and then a third touch when the faerie wife displays joy at the funeral of a neighbour’s infant. She explains that she still sees with the eyes of the Otherworld and that her joy was that the child had transcended the pain and suffering of mortality. But when the third blow is struck she returns to the lake, with her dowry, and disappears below the surface. Distraught, Gwyn follows her, drowning himself in his grief.

Once again, the taboo motif is central to the narrative arc of these folktales. It always represents the jointure between the physical and the metaphysical, and its breaking will sever whatever link has been made between the two. The taboo appears to be a coded message embedded in the folklore, which is perhaps purveying the idea that any interaction with a metaphysical reality has to have a subsequent consequence. The taboo is the key that locks or unlocks the door joining the natural with the supernatural.

More Folkloric Taboos

The taboo was evidently an important element of many folk tales but it is also a vital part of many folk beliefs existing outside structured tales. These beliefs often manifest in anecdotal folklore, where the lore doesn’t need a story loop. One long-standing folk belief was that mortals should not consume faerie food or drink if they ever found themselves in a faerie reality. This was a taboo – to break it meant to leave the physical world and stay in the faerie Otherworld. It is a motif that can be dated back to the 12th century at least, when the chronicler William of Newburgh recounted a story told to him by ‘a reliable person’, where a somewhat inebriated horseman comes upon a prehistoric burial mound known as Willy Howe (Humberside), at night only to be drawn into it via an opening, where he finds a band of faeries in the midst of a revel. He joins in, but when handed a silver goblet to drink from he remembers the warnings against consuming faerie food or drink (evidently a well-established tradition as early as the 12th century), and threw out the contents before making off with the goblet.

The taboo against ingesting anything from the faerie world found its way into many of the 19th- and 20th-century folklore collections. WY Evans-Wentz collected anecdotes with the motif throughout the Celtic world in the early 20th century. In Brittany, the faeries were frequently associated with the dead and if a mortal consumed offerings of food when inhabiting their world, s/he would have to stay there. And a seer in County Sligo told Evans-Wentz, “that once the faeries take you and you taste food in their palace you cannot come back. You are changed to one of them, and live with them forever.”

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‘A Faerie Banquet’ by John Anster Fitzgerald (1859)

There is also a prevalent motif of the faeries not liking to be named. This has resulted in the faeries being euphemised with tags such as ‘The Good People’, ‘The Other Lot’, ‘The Fair Folk.’ The motif comes from faerie-tales such as Tom Tit Tot, but it is retained within folklore as a general taboo: the faeries do not want to receive human appellations. Evans-Wentz found the majority of people in all the regions he visited reluctant to name the faeries as such. In Wales, the term was usually the Tylwyth Teg (Fair Family) and several testimonies collected by Evans-Wentz suggested that as long as they were euphemised as such they would remain on good terms with humanity. Too much investigation into what they really were was likely to invoke their hostility.

This feeds into the folkloric idea of the faeries requiring privacy. They usually liked to choose their own time of interaction with humanity and often dealt retribution on those who pried too deeply into their affairs. They lived in a different dimension and it was private, with taboos to protect its autonomy and to ensure a limited transaction between the natural and the supernatural. These taboos are everywhere in the folklore. But where are they coming from? What is generating them as essential elements in so many faerie-tales and in much of the folklore? What do the taboos mean?

The Coded Meaning of the Faerie Taboos

19th-century proto-anthropologists such as W. Robertson Smith, Sir James Frazer, and Robert R. Marett, applied the word taboo mostly to the religious customs of pre-industrial indigenous peoples. For them the taboo acted as a socio-religious code, most 9781411430068_p0_v1_s1200x630often used to control access to the supernatural. Sigmund Freud adapted their ideas to compare mentally ill patients in early 20th-century Europe to indigenous people, and he retained the colonialist language in his primary thesis on the subject: Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics (1913). Freud suggested (like his predecessors) that indigenous societies were ‘degenerative’ through their inclusion of magic in everyday life. They were delusional and the delusion was kept in check partly through the elites controlling access to the source of the magic by imposing taboos – prohibiting general social inclusion into Mysteries. Freud compared the indigenous mindset to the ‘neurotic’s’ disorder. The ‘neurotic’ is unable to assimilate the social taboos against breaching ‘normal’ behaviour and will develop according behaviour patterns, usually described as mental illness.

Franz Steiner consolidated a lot of this anthropological and psychological data but argued, in his 1956 book Taboo, that the taboo was not exclusive to preliterate societies but was alive and well in the industrial West. Steiner separates religious and political taboos from those that appear to be socially sanctioned and appear organically. But he makes the important observation that there appears to be a core attribute to most taboos, in that they: “have been originally inspired by awe of the supernatural, and that they were intended to restrain men from the use of that of which the Divine power or powers were jealous.” Taboos were devices that helped keep the supernatural from being too accessible. They were warning signs.

These writers seldom touched upon the taboo motif in faerie-tales or folklore despite its ancient presence in the stories. As a folklorist, Evans-Wentz was perhaps more able to consolidate the anthropology of his time with his own insights into the folklore and the living faith in faeries at the beginning of the 20th century:

9781717179296_p0_v1_s1200x630“Irish taboo, and inferentially all Celtic taboo, dates back to an unknown pagan antiquity. It is imposed at or before birth, or again during life, usually at some critical period, and when broken brings disaster and death to the breaker. Its whole background appears to rest on a supernatural relationship between divine men and the Otherworid of the Tuatha De Danann; and it is very certain that this ancient relationship survives in the living Fairy-Faith as one between ordinary men and the fairy-world. Therefore, almost all taboos surviving among Celts ought to be interpreted psychologically or even psychically, and not as ordinary social regulations.”

As the taboo survived in folklore for centuries it suggests the motif was central to understanding the relationship between the humans who were the main elements of the stories, and their relationship to the supernatural world, regularly manifested through the agency of the faeries. The taboo motif was most often included at the intersection between physical reality and the supernatural. This could work both ways, even in the same story; so whereas Oisín was a part of the supernatural world when he broke his first taboo, his second taboo was committed in consensus reality and closed off his access to the Otherworld. Launfal also closed off his access to the non-physical world by breaking his taboo, and Cherry of Zennor’s chance of staying in the faerie Otherworld away from the harsh realities of her physical life was curtailed when she broke the ointment taboo. These taboos represent the marker-points in the stories where there is a breach between the physical and the metaphysical. The actuality of such a breach is coded in the taboo, which expresses a real transcendent experience in the metaphor of language in a story.

The flat stone Oisín stood on, despite it being taboo to do so, is a symbol of the intersection between material reality and non-material reality, illustrated in plain-form in the story where Oisín is able to behold the physical reality of Ireland and the faerie Otherworld at the same time as long as he remains on the stone. The taboo stone is the link between the worlds but interaction with it also marks the central moment of transition from one reality to another. And the lesson is usually that the supernatural world is not something to be accessed indefinitely by mortal humans. There are entrenched cosmic protocols that seem to legislate against the prolonged joining of natural and supernatural. The taboo acts more as a moment than a thing in the stories – contrasting realities and forcing choices on the protagonists. And in the folklore where the use of an ‘ointment’ is the subject of taboo, there is perhaps a clue that there are compounds that can alter a state of consciousness and so facilitate interaction with an ulterior reality. But their use is sanctioned – they are taboo. The folklore seems to project a consistent message via the taboo motif: We are not supposed to access the supernatural. Under special circumstances, access will be allowed but there will always be a price to pay, and this will be arbitrated by the breaking of a prohibition – the taboo. But is there anything to glean from this folkloric message? What are the modern faerie taboos?

In the Fairy Investigation Society’s 2017 census of faerie encounters, there are over 500 testimonies. They are anecdotal and carry no story arc and so it is no surprise there are no taboos in the narratives. Their anecdotal nature does not allow for any heavy symbolic features. But perhaps the nature of the taboo is just operating at a different level in these modern testimonies. The taboo has become the fear of talking about the faeries and thus confirming a belief in supernatural entities. All of the census correspondents remain anonymous and even then many felt the need to reiterate during their testimonies that they were not intoxicated or mentally ill. This is the case in much modern testimony of people who believe they have experienced a faerie encounter. The fear of ridicule, or worse, acts as the socially sanctioned taboo, which may hinder or prevent people from making a disclosure. This applies to most parapsychological phenomena. Our culture has adopted materialism as its primary ideology and anything psi or supernatural is deemed inadmissible and the product of delusion, misapprehension, hallucination or fakery. This outlook permeates all parts of Western society and so a person claiming to have encountered anything supernatural risks placing themselves outside of accepted, conventional social-norms. This is especially the case with faeries, who have a peculiar niche in the supernatural hierarchy, mostly due to their transition from folkloric creatures to amorphous winged beings in the 19th and 20th centuries. In today’s world talking about encountering faeries has a specific taboo placed on it – the faeries have a particular quality of otherness that is different from other psi phenomena such as UFOs, ghosts, precognition, telepathy etc. There is something deeply subversive about disclosing an encounter with a supernatural life-form that, according to the folklore, appears to have been around for millennia, but which has been marginalised to children’s lore for at least a century. The disclosure has become the taboo that will have consequences for the purveyor, and just as in the tales and folklore this modern taboo is at the intersect between physical and metaphysical.

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The metaphysical/physical intersection in ‘The Flammarion Engraving‘ (c.1888)

The taboo motif seems almost to operate as an archetype – a prohibition that is always in place to prevent too much contact between the natural and the supernatural. In faerie-tales and folklore, a taboo-breakage is the means to take a human out of the Otherworld or to take a faerie out of this world. The stories need the taboo key, and the key always ends up locking the door between different realities. Modern faerie-encounter anecdotes have a social taboo placed on them created by a fear of discussing such supernatural interaction, thus stifling any chance to understand them. In all cases, the taboo manifests as an apparently inherent barrier between physical and metaphysical. The breaking of a taboo is the moment where the necessary closure between natural and supernatural is maintained. The coded message seems to be that while we live we can only have limited contact with any transcendent reality. Any transgression of the taboos that hold the contact in place will sever the link – the taboo acts as a metaphysical control-mechanism. From the faeries’ perspective of needing and requiring only limited contact with humans, the taboos have been very effective.

Electronic Faeries

During the past couple of years, there has been a burgeoning number of online sources discussing the faeries in all their guises. This perhaps represents a renewed interest in these supernatural entities that have been part of our culture for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. There appears to be an extended realisation that they have something important to add to our understanding of reality; whether it be through the lens of folklore or through a modernistic, esoteric view. There are many approaches to the subject matter. These range from the purely folkloric remit of discussing faeries as a fossilised remnant of our culture through to encompassing them into a phenomenology as extreme as alien abduction scenarios. Deadbutdreaming has always attempted to provide a holistic overview of what the faeries might be, but I am always reliant on, and grateful for, the excellent research and interpretations of others – folklorists, historians, archaeologists, Forteans, esoteric writers, artists, and just thoughtful commentators – who are attempting to make sense of what is a very strange but pervasive phenomenon, which remains below the mainstream radar.

This post is an attempt to list and describe briefly some of the sites that I have found insightful and useful. They cover a wide range of research and come at the phenomenon from many different angles. I hope this will be a beneficial tool for readers looking to scope out the faeries and their place in the present cultural zeitgeist. Inevitably, I’ll miss some sites and so would very much appreciate pointers towards any not listed below, so that I can update the post.

Facebook Faeries

Love it or loathe it, some of the best up to date information about research and writing into the faerie phenomenon can be found on Facebook within groups and community pages. Deadbutdreaming has a companion community page called The Faerie Code, where I link to recent articles and historic and new faerie artwork. The following groups and community pages all contain regularly updated posts and are invaluable for anyone wanting to know more about the faeries in all their forms.

Circle Stories  A special mention for this excellent community page, which is administered by David Halpin where he frequently posts articles about his research into the folklore and mythology of Ireland. It is well-sourced and often exhumes folklore from the archives that has not seen the light of day for a long time. But the posts are more than a simple recounting of historic folklore – David always applies a keen interpretative (and esoteric) eye on what the folklore might mean and what we can learn from it. There is much coverage of Irish megalithic sites (hence the page name) and their relationship to folklore, and the faeries find their way into many of the posts.

The following pages are those I have found most useful, in terms of regular updates, interesting links, personal testimonies and artwork, which shed some light on the faerie Otherworld:

A Little Witchery

Beneath the Hollow Hills

Between the Realms

Centre for Folklore, Myth and Magic

Encounters with the Good People

Fae Propaganda Department

Faerie Fables & Sea-Folk Tales from the Grotto

Faery Whispering

Faerywylde

Fairy Tales and Folk Tales

Fairy Witchcraft (community)

Fairy Witchcraft (group)

Fortean Times

Hedgewitchery

Into the Hollow Hill: An Exploration of Faerie and Folklore

Little People of the Forest

Magic Folklore, Esoteric Neo-Pagan & Weird Fiction

Modern Fairy Sightings

Nature Spirits and Humans

Spirits of Faery

Tales of the Old Forest Faeries

The Coming of the Faeries

The Faerie Wanderers

The Fairy Folklore Group

The Fairy Investigation Society

The Fairy Podcast

The Hidden People

The Secret Realms of Fairies, Mystics, Dragons, Knights, Ladies & more

The Secret Worlds

The Serious Business of Fairy Research

Tradition’olds

Faerie Websites/Blog Sites

There are not that many websites devoted exclusively to the faeries. Articles and research tend to find their way onto the liminal and folklore sites listed in the following sections. However, there are some, which are excellent. First among equals is The Fairy Investigation Society, which also has an exemplary, regularly updated Facebook page (listed above). The website has a wealth of resources for anyone wanting to dig deep into faerie-lore, including the results of the 2017 census, which includes over 500 anecdotal faerie encounter reports from around the world. A new survey is currently being conducted and there is a form on the website for anyone wishing to give testimony to their own faerie experience. The Fairy Investigation Society has an interesting history, being first founded in 1927 before folding before the second world war, refounded in 1950 and then falling into abeyance again in 1992. The current incarnation began in 2013 and the society continues to be an important hub for understanding what the faeries might represent in our culture.

One of my favourite sites is British Fairies, the blog site of researcher John Kruse. As the name suggests, this concentrates on the faerie folklore of the British Isles, and John has, over the past three years, compiled a large archive of studies into the faeries covering a wide subject-matter. The posts are always well-referenced and researched, and will encourage the reader to delve deeper into the folklore. Likewise, Laura Coulson’s The Faery Folklorist site contains a wealth of data, ranging from folktales to personal experiences to book reviews. Laura has travelled the British Isles to gain insights into regional aspects of faerie folklore and has been posting since 2009. Coming from a more esoteric outlook is Morgan Daimler’s site Living Liminally. Morgan has published several incisive books on the faeries and while her blog site is not exclusively about the faeries, they feature heavily on the site, and Morgan’s research into faerie folklore, its modern interpretation and how our culture might incorporate the faeries is always illuminating.

Faerie of Ireland – Encounters with the Good People is a relatively new site, which has already accumulated lots of great articles and links, and there is also a series of podcasts, which are required listening for Irish faerie-lore. And from across the Atlantic comes the slightly leftfield blog site of George Harvey that has many takes on the faeries. As the constitution states: “It is our firm belief that a human society can only be healthy if the Wee Folk who live with it are comfortable and happy.” This is The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Wee Folk. There have been no recent posts but the archive from 2012-14 is recommended reading. The Fairy Podcast has been set up recently by Dan Baines (see below under Liminal Sites, for his blog) and produces monthly features on faerie folklore and modern lore.

Coming from a distinctly spiritual perspective are three first-rate sites: Sisters of the Fey (which covers a wide subject-matter but contains much faerie-lore) and Celtic Faerie Teachings. Both approach faerie phenomenology from an esoteric perspective and attempt to place the faeries within the context of magic(k)al modern practices. And the faeries as nature spirits are discussed in depth at RealityWalker, an incisive esoteric website, which also covers a mass of anomalous and paranormal phenomena.

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is a particularly well-written site by the author Katherine Langrish, which looks primarily at faerie-tales and what they might be attempting to tell us. But the faeries in all their folkloric forms appear in many of the articles, including some of Katherine’s excellent fiction writing.

Liminal Sites

Much modern thinking on faerie phenomenology appears on what can be deemed liminal websites; that is sites that consider a wide variety of Fortean, esoteric, paranormal and occult subjects. But the faeries make regular appearances on these pages, confirming their position as intrinsic supernatural icons in our underground sub-culture.

Two sites that are especially good are The Anomalist and The Daily Grail. Both have large databases of articles and also produce excellent daily digests, giving a breakdown of links to the latest thinking on subjects from UFOs to quantum physics to NDEs… and to faeries. The Anomalist (through its adjunct Anomalist Books) has also published Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and Joshua Cutchin’s Thieves in the Night – the faerie phenomenon is well-recognised here.

The faeries are also represented on the following liminal sites, which cover a broad range of subject-matter but consistently refer back to faerie phenomenology in both folkloric and esoteric forms:

Ancient Origins  This is a large site, which covers a vast topic range, from pure archaeology to more esoteric thinking. It has a good search engine, where you will be able to find a large number of articles related to the faeries.

Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog  Dr Beachcombing’s site contains a wealth of Fortean articles, always resonating with a sly sense of humour. There is much Leftfield perspective on the faeries in this blog.

Dan Baines  A blog site with many takes on the faeries from an exceptionally talented author.

Håkan Blomqvist´s blog  This site is primarily about the UFO phenomenon, but also contains much other Borderline research, which contains the faeries at regular intervals.

Haunted Ohio Books  The website of Chris Woodyard is a Fortean cornucopia. There are many incisive articles discussing the faeries in all their forms.

Metaphysical Source  Jonny Enoch’s site, which encompasses the faerie otherworld in many articles. It also has a forum section for discussion on any metaphysical subject.

Mysterious Universe  On the woo-woo side of things, but there is still some good writing on the faeries, with many articles to make you think outside of the reality box.

Patheos  A magazine site that moves from politics to esotericism in the blink of an eye. But there are a lot of articles about folkloric and modern faeries, which can be found via the search engine.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology  An exemplary blog site by Ronan Coghlan (founding editor Michael Newton), where the primary focus is on cryptozoology, but where faerie-type entities make regular appearances. Ronan has produced a large archive of articles since 2013.

Weird Tales Radio Show  This is a wonderful podcast series produced by Charles Christian. It covers a range of Forteana and has now accumulated a well-populated archive of hour-long shows. The faeries wriggle into much of the content and my own interview with Charles is episode #15 from April 2018.

Folklore Sites

The following sites include articles and podcasts that come at the faerie phenomenon from a folkloric perspective. This ranges from academic articles to content for general interest. In order to understand what the faeries may represent to us in the modern world, it is essential to understand their roots in folklore. This will, ideally, require reading lots of books, but I’ve found these sites contain the best online content.

Academia.edu  This site requires a subscription, but once you have that you will discover over a hundred academic articles (published and unpublished) about folkloric and literary faeries from diverse frames of reference. The search engine is effective.

Ali Isaac Storyteller  Ali Isaac’s site has a deservedly high reputation and encompasses a wide spectrum of Irish folklore that frequently engages with faerie folklore.

Emerald Isle  This site has an extensive range of articles investigating Irish folklore and mythology, geo-located with a very useful map. There is an especially good section on Folk Tales and Faerie Tales.

Folklore Thursday has accumulated a large database of articles that investigate folklore from around the world. As per the name, every Thursday is #FolkloreThursday on Twitter, when enthusiasts can post articles, images, testimonies etc. relating to the theme of the week. The faeries are regular subject-matter.

Icy Sedgwick  This is a folklore blog with many posts about faerie-lore. Icy also writes supernatural fiction – she’s a very accomplished writer.

New England Folklore  Peter Muise’s blog site, which has been examining the folklore of the region for over a decade, and has accumulated much faerie folklore.

The Folklore Podcast is produced by the folklorist Mark Norman and includes regular audio shows discussing folkloric subjects. It is now in its fourth season and episodes are browsable… plenty of faeries within these podcasts.

The Folklore Society is the main hub for the academic study of the subject and produces the venerable Folklore journal. If you subscribe you’ll have access to a searchable database of the journal’s articles from over a hundred years, many of which investigate faerie traditions.

Writing in Margins could perhaps have been placed in the ‘Faerie Websites’ section above, but its content frequently stretches into a wider folkloric remit. There are many articles on the faeries, including a dictionary of faerie types. There are special sections on ‘The Thumbling Project’ and ‘The Snow White Project.

There are also a couple of free sites, which are invaluable for finding primary source material. Sacred Texts has a large collection of faerie folklore, ranging from folktales to more anecdotal stories collected by 19th- and 20th-century folklorists and contained in classic volumes; for instance, WY Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries and JF Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands. And Dúchas is University College Dublin’s digitised Irish national folklore collection, which has an excellent search engine to aid research into a mine of faerie folklore from Ireland.

I haven’t included any YouTube channels as they tend to be quite disparate, but a simple search will bring up many videos, from animated films to documentaries and video-blogs. Here’s a taster from Thomas Sheridan’s always insightful channel Beyond Room 313.

Encountering the Faeries in the 21st Century

Recently I was sent an email from a woman wanting to share her experience of encountering what appeared to be faeries or nature spirits. As with many people who interact with faerie-type entities for the first time, she wanted to make clear that she was not intoxicated, had not taken any drugs and has no history of mental illness. In our rationalistic culture, this is understandable; any contact with something that may be termed supernatural is often met with suspicion, derision or concern as to the person’s mental state. Western culture is predominantly reductionist – anything that appears to contravene the accepted consensus reality based on material physical laws is usually deemed as a misrepresentation of a natural phenomenon, a hallucination, a dream, or chicanery. This is a narrow vision of reality. There are mountains of data describing supernatural, parapsychological and anomalous phenomena from around the world, but most of it is anecdotal. The data cannot usually be scrutinised by scientific protocols because most of it happens spontaneously; it is not possible to recreate the circumstances in a laboratory. Does this make the anecdotes less real? Does it disqualify them from our attention? It shouldn’t. Our entire lives are made up of a series of anecdotal incidents, stored in memory and recalled when necessary to inform the present. If an anecdotal account of an experience that seems supernatural is recounted with honesty and clarity, we should perhaps attempt to escape any reality boxes we find ourselves in and assess it on its merits, even if it contradicts an ingrained worldview. The following anecdotal testimony describes an encounter with faerie-like entities, which may be compared to the hundreds of reports made to The Fairy Investigation Society’s recent census, suggesting that whatever the faeries are, people are still experiencing contact with them in the 21st century. There is a palpable, authentic interface with a metaphysical reality, which doesn’t sit well with mainstream culture but is nonetheless continuing to happen.

The woman was 39 years old when the experience happened in June 2018. She has insisted on anonymity but given permission to publish her testimony on deadbutdreaming along with any interpretative assessment. The main body of her text is reproduced here in full, with minor spelling, grammatical and formatting corrections. She has seen the article in its first draft, corrected some points of fact and agreed for me to post it.

A 21st-Century Faerie Experience

“I live in London with my husband and two daughters aged 4 and 6. My husband and I are both professional people living what I guess you would call a middle-class life. We are happy and enjoy the culture available in London. But sometimes I find the city a bit pressured and claustrophobic. But I am lucky enough to have an aunt who lives in a cottage in Somerset, who I have visited twice a year since my eldest was born. The cottage has a very large garden (over half an acre?), which is the pride and joy of my aunt. She has help to look after it, but she does a lot herself and it is a beautiful mixture of lawn, borders, summer house, wild areas and a small orchard of a dozen apple trees and half a dozen plum trees. It is such a contrast to my London life and the girls have come to love being there.

The event I want to tell you about happened in June 2018. My husband was away at a conference and so I took the week off and took the girls to my aunt’s place. On the second night, once I’d put them to bed, I went out to sit on a lounger next to the apple trees. The sun had just set after a very warm day and I was feeling very relaxed, content to just gaze out beyond the trees to the soft light on the hill beyond the garden. I’d just been through a very stressful couple of months at work and this felt like heaven.

After about fifteen minutes I noticed what I thought were a couple of squirrels racing up the trunk of one of the trees. They were moving a bit oddly and so I pulled myself up from the recliner to focus in on them more clearly. When they moved into sight from behind the trunk I was suddenly jolted. My heart was in my mouth. The two squirrels were actually two small humans! They moved strangely, with jerky movements but I was convinced they had human form, although I could not tell the gender. They could have been no taller than two feet and seemed dressed in dull brown clothing that sometimes melded into the tree bark. I was about twenty feet away and although the dusk was coming they were very clear to me. They seemed to be ‘mucking about’ on one of the boughs, as if playing a game. But I heard no sounds. My feeling was amazement. I shut and opened my eyes several times and pinched myself. They continued to play their game for about five minutes, during which time I watched intently but did not move a muscle. I could just make out their facial features, and would be willing to testify in a court of law that they were human, albeit distorted and maybe slightly cartoon-like. After approximately five minutes they simply vanished. I mean really vanished. One second they were there, the next they just popped out of sight.

When they had disappeared I became slightly agitated. I watched for a few more minutes and then felt I needed to get back to the cottage. The next day I decided to ask my aunt outright if she had ever seen anything strange in the garden. She’s an old-school country woman and has lived there for over three decades. She told me she was always hearing laughter and tinkling bells when working in the garden but had never seen anything. I told her what had happened and she seemed quite relaxed to hear it. She suggested there might be ‘nature spirits’ in the garden and for some reason they had made an appearance to me.

The next evening at the same time I sat in the lounger again, but there was nothing. I started to doubt my memory even though I knew what I had seen. The following day the girls were playing in the garden under the apple trees while aunt and I took tea. I was convinced we were being watched. It’s hard to describe and I know it sounds like paranoia, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that we were all being observed by something. I said nothing to my aunt about this and obviously nothing to the girls. So once again that evening I sat in the lounger by the apple trees. I was relaxed but thinking about the feeling of earlier that afternoon. Then, again, I saw two squirrels on the same tree. This time they seemed to ‘drift’. I mean they were squirrels but they seemed to levitate from the bough, at which moment they became something else. It’s hard for me to describe. They appeared to form into misty shapes, slightly illuminated, which flew around the branches of the tree. Again, I watched for maybe five minutes and there was a deep feeling of peace as I did so. And the moment before the shapes faded away I heard a distinct voice, as if next to my ear, which said: ‘We tend the trees.’ It was like a whisper, maybe childlike, but ever so real. It made me jump from the lounger. I investigated the tree for about fifteen minutes before returning to the cottage. Again, once they were gone I became agitated.

I discussed this with my aunt the next day and she was very blasé about it, which surprised me. She didn’t seem to see the big deal, but it was definitely a big deal to me. Nothing else like this happened for the rest of the week and we returned to London. I haven’t said a word to my husband about this as he is a very practical, no-nonsense sort of person and I don’t want to rock any boats. In fact, I am a very practical person, non-religious and have never considered the supernatural anything more than delusion. But these experiences seemed very supernatural. I really don’t know what to make of it. All I can say is that I am as convinced as I can be that the incidents happened as I describe. They had a dream-like quality but I WAS NOT asleep. I haven’t drunk alcohol for eight years, have never taken illicit drugs and have no history of mental illness.

Since the experiences, I have researched into ‘nature spirits’ and found out something about fairy folklore, which is something I knew nothing about (although the girls have always loved fairy stories). I found your website and was amazed to read about modern people interacting with ‘faeries’ (why do you spell it like that?). You speak a lot about altered states of consciousness in your writing. Maybe I was in an altered state, but if so it must have been totally natural, because, as I say, I take no intoxicants. The experiences have definitely changed the way I look at the world. I feel that since they happened I have become more open-minded and questioning of the way the world works. It’s been almost a year now but the effect remains. I haven’t visited my aunt since, but the family is due there in July 2019, and so I’ll let you know if I see any more fairies!”

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‘Tree Spirits’ by Brian Froud

Assessing the Experience

There is a lot to unpack here. As with any anecdotal testimony, the first question must be to assess the honesty of the account. People make things up and not always for clearly-defined gains or reasons. Without knowing the person giving the testimony it is difficult to ascertain whether they are fabricating the whole or part of the account or if they are exaggerating for effect. This is a perennial issue in folklore collection – the hermeneutical compounds of the testimonies are difficult to unravel. However, in this particular case (augmented by some additional email correspondence) I’m as sure as I can be that the person is telling the truth as far as she remembers it. It seems to be the deposition of someone who is genuinely confused and intrigued about an incident for which they have no explanation within their ordinary and familiar worldview.

But 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. So with these caveats in mind, what might this incident tell us about the faeries and how they may be able to interface with human consciousness?

First, the state of consciousness of the woman had been altered by her transplantation from her usual urban environment to a rural setting. This is not an uncommon occurrence for city-dwellers holidaying in the country, but it evidently had an effect on her state of mind, perhaps heightened by a period of work pressures leading up to the stay with her aunt. Many of the respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census reported their experiences as happening during various types of special circumstances, where they were somewhere away from their usual habitat. The census also contains many descriptions of people being calm, happy, relaxed or meditative just prior to their experiences. These states of mind (along with more negative states such as grief, depression and anxiety) also play a part in many historical folklore accounts of interactions with metaphysical entities, where the protagonist is removed from their normal everyday existence and find themselves in a different mindset. This was the case with my correspondent. She had moved from an intense, stressful lifestyle to one of relaxation and calmness in a short space of time. While there were evidently no intoxicants involved in constructing her experience, the swift change of environments is an important element in terms of how her consciousness may have been altered and perhaps rendered more susceptible to a numinous incident.

Relaxed and calm, enjoying the ambience of a special natural environment she found herself encountering something outside her usual cosmology. The shock of what was happening finds common cause with the respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census, where disbelief is a customary reaction. Such consternation is a natural response to something so out of the ordinary. And the disturbance of normality is likely to cause an adrenalin rush. This can have a variety of effects on how the reality of the moment is perceived, but one is that attention is concentrated so that events can appear so super-NatureSpiritsreal that they become abnormal. However, it is this type of intense concentration that was advocated by Rudolf Steiner when, in the early 20th century, he was suggesting we are able to recognise metaphysical realities sitting alongside our usual material reality only when we are capable of relaxing our usual sense-filters. He suggested that once this filter removal was achieved we would be able to ascertain the Supersensible world, where, he proposed, reside a multifarious realm of nature spirits, sometimes known as faeries. Steiner called this clairvoyance, and this is perhaps what was pervading my correspondent’s consciousness when she experienced supernatural entities in the orchard garden.

The observed entities themselves conform to folkloric and esoteric taxonomies. Most faeries (though by no means all) are described as humanoid. This may be the human observer translating what they are actually seeing into something tangible in order to make sense out of it. Although she did not describe any details of clothing, the description of them ‘melding’ into the tree bark has resonance with many historic and modern faerie encounters, where the entities seem almost a part of the natural environment, but not quite. They also seemed playful: ‘mucking about’ on the tree. This is another common attribute of the faeries – they like games. Are they doing this for the benefit of the human observer, or is this once again a trick of consciousness to make the supernatural more palatable? Childlike behaviour is less threatening than an intense encounter. The suggestion that faeries have in recent decades been updated to a new tech-form in the shape of alien abductors may indicate that our collective consciousness has lost the ability to code metaphysical encounters and that our cultural neurosis has turned them into specific sinister confrontations. However, although my correspondent felt agitated after the experiences, the actual time of the encounter was marked by a feeling of peace and wonder. She was not frightened, only amazed.

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‘The Introduction’ by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872-1945)

The second experience seems to have turned the relatively traditional faerie-types into ‘nature spirits’. There is much discussion among folklorists, Fortean investigators and occultists about whether ‘nature spirits’ and faeries are two different forms of metaphysical entities. It is certainly true that most folkloric representations of faeries do not see them as environment propagators. But there is also a long tradition of allowing elementals into the faerie taxonomy. The 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus defined the metaphysical spirits of nature into gnomes (earth), sylphs (air), undines (water) and salamanders (fire), a typology followed by 19th- and 20th-century Theosophists, including Rudolf Steiner. And a large minority of respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census described the entities they encountered as ‘nature spirits’. The difference between folkloric faeries and nature spirits is perhaps only semantic. They all seem to be coming from the same place and interact with human consciousness in the same concerted manner. The fact that my correspondent saw her entities on the same tree might strengthen the idea that they were simply different aspects of a common phenomenon.

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‘The Elementals’ by Josephine Wall

The Faerie Phenomenon

What that phenomenon is, however, is a difficult question to answer. Deadbutdreaming has made several attempts to get to the root of faerie phenomenology:

A Faerie Taxonomy

Some Faerie Metaphysics

Frightening and Enlightening: The Phenomenology of Modern Faeries

But they are evasive, like many supernatural or metaphysical phenomena. This particular encounter is perhaps rather typical of modern faerie experiences in that there is an oblique quality to the interaction; the person is confronted by what they deem an irrational occurrence. From a materialistic perspective, it should not have happened. But if that perspective is allowed some leeway, then it is possible to accept that a human consciousness is interacting with a physical environment and what is intrinsic within that consciousness, albeit latent, makes itself visible (and audible) in a coded way within that environment. The concept of a collective consciousness, storing all human experience, allows the explanation of a transceiving brain to plug into mythological and archetypal subject matter when certain conditions are met. Faeries and nature spirits are deeply embedded within the mythological cycle of humanity. Historically, they have manifested in folklore and occult literature, but more recently (as in this incident) they appear anecdotally, often within the lives of people who do not expect their presence. This does not mean they are not real. They are subjectively real within the consciousness of the observer, just as any experience in life, and just because they cannot be captured within experimental conditions does not exclude them from an overall reality. Consciousness itself is not material; it exists as a metaphysical construct and, despite many centuries of scientific endeavour, its true nature remains elusive – it cannot be wedded to matter. It usually operates within the bounds of material physical laws, but when the bonds are loosened and the state of consciousness is altered – through psychotropic drugs, meditation, clairvoyance, emotional disturbance, trauma, or just a peaceful mindset – we appear to sometimes view things that are operating outside of normalised reality. They are non-local, i.e. they come from somewhere else; perhaps a collective consciousness to which we do not normally have access.

So do faerie and supernatural entity encounters have a purpose? If we allow the possibility of their existence at whatever level, are they conveying a message? In this particular testimony, they may have been simply manifesting in order to draw the woman out of her stressful lifestyle; to recalibrate a potentially unhealthy mindset. Her consciousness was perhaps tapping into a deeper, archetypal reality (as it might also do in dreams) to demonstrate to her that there is more to life than she had been believing. 9781593080723Her comment that she had become more “open-minded and questioning of the way the world works” since the encounter suggests the experience has had a fundamental effect on her worldview. This is a common motif among people who interact with faerie entities. Folkloric examples often describe a changed person after the faerie encounter and The Fairy Investigation Society’s census is replete with people who say their experience has changed them, usually for the better. Perhaps the faeries and nature spirit-type entities appear simply to drag us out of the dogmatic materialistic/reductionist cosmology we have become entrenched within. They may be (and have always been) metaphysical messengers, reminding us of William James‘ words: “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness that are entirely different.”

But there can be specific messages as well. “We tend the trees” does appear to be a definitive communication conveying the point about the nature spirits’ purpose in the metaphysical cultivation of the natural world to a person who had no idea this might be a possibility. Despite my correspondent insisting she was not asleep during the encounter, this does sound like the sort of audio-communication that takes place during a hypnogogic episode, when we are on the edge of sleep. This is, of course, another form of altered state of consciousness, when the waking state partly crosses the border into the unconscious realm. Once again, this state of consciousness is no less real than our everyday state and may constitute a special place where we are able to access information that is not usually available.

Whatever the various interpretations of this particular experience, it does seem clear that interactions with supernatural entities, which may be described as faeries, are still taking place in the 21st century. They do not seem to be consigned to folklore and appear to be a genuine phenomenon that pervades our contemporary culture. While there is a tendency in recent literature to relate faerie-type encounters to altered states of consciousness invoked by psychotropic substances, my correspondent’s testimony, as well as the hundreds of experiences recorded in the Fairy Investigation Society’s census, do suggest that anyone can interact with these metaphysical beings if certain circumstances are conducive. It would seem the faeries are with us for the long haul, unwilling to depart from human consciousness and perhaps hanging around to teach us a few more lessons about ourselves.

The cover image is ‘Midsummer Faeries’ by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).