Charles Bonnet Syndrome and the Faeries

I was recently interviewed by Simon Young for the Fairy Investigation Society. He wanted to explore my experiences brought on by the condition known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome, and how this might relate to an understanding of what the faeries are, and the interfaces between metaphysical entity encounters and consciousness. I usually keep my own persona and experiences out of deadbutdreaming posts, and I have not talked about my acquaintance with the syndrome in any public format before this. But I thought readers might be interested in what this unusual condition entails, and the possible relationship between its symptoms and the faeries. Thanks to Simon for the interview and agreeing for it to be re-posted here.

Neil, thanks so much for agreeing to talk. Many of our readers will know you from one of the most extraordinary blogs on faerie-lore: deadbutdreaming. Can you tell us something about yourself and how you became so interested in faerie-lore?

I have a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Cambridge, and have been practising archaeology since 1992. About two decades ago I became interested in the confluence between various prehistoric archaeological sites and folklore, after reading Leslie Grinsell’s Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain (1976).

A common experience, I think.

Indeed, and since then I’ve written more and more about folklore. My special interest is in the faerie-lore of Britain, as I quickly realised that these entities were deeply embedded in so much of the folklore of these isles, and that the great wealth of lore about them must mean something. I originally approached the subject from a purely traditional folkloric perspective – that is, understanding the faeries as remnants of previous historic belief systems, and perhaps as characters to explain the human condition through Jungian psychology. This changed somewhat during a meditation session at West Kennet Long Barrow in Wiltshire. This is a Neolithic burial chamber (it would have also been used for a variety of other ritual purposes), and while meditating within its confines in 1999 I had a vivid and super-real experience of various faerie creatures – very Froud-like, and evidently as aware of me as I was of them.

Was this your first experience of meditating?

No, I’d been meditating for a few years by this time, but it was my first experience meditating at a prehistoric site. It took me a long time to incorporate this encounter in to my world-view, but since this time I have had many more experiences, and my research into others’ encounters has drawn me to the conclusion that the faeries are some type of real entity. My current tentative interpretation is that they represent some aspect of human consciousness, not usually apparent in consensus reality, but which can interact with us when certain conditions are met. This is slightly simplistic, as the faeries certainly represent many more things than this, but I am convinced that at some level they are agents of a metaphysical reality that can overlap our own. I have been writing about this on my blog site since 2016.

Neil I know that you suffer from Charles Bonnet Syndrome. As many readers will not have heard of Charles Bonnet Syndrome, can you tell us a bit about it and why it is so often associated with faeries and other supernatural experiences?

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

If you don’t mind me asking how did you realise that you had CBS? How long did diagnosis take?

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

You talked about your own experiences? Can you give us some examples?

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

Extraordinary! How long do they last?

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

You talked of the sense that the vision is next to you: do you have the sense that the voice is real too?

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

And how often do you have these visions? Once a week? Once a day?

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

Would you interpret these as hallucinations then; or are you, somehow, getting privileged sights of a deeper reality?

I think that CBS may be one among many ways of allowing access to non-material phenomenon. If we are willing to accept that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of the brain (thereby allowing CBS visions to be relegated to brain-generated hallucinations), but rather that consciousness is primary, and the instigator of reality, then these visuals may be allowed to take on an autonomous reality of their own. One way of looking at it is by seeing the brain as a reducing valve of a greater consciousness (à la Aldous Huxley), and that if it becomes damaged or altered in any way, it may allow in aspects of consciousness that are usually filtered out, thereby altering the genuine perception of an ulterior or supernal reality experienced by the person with the damaged/altered brain.

But, in as simple a language as possible, how does this work: how is it that a medical condition can lead to this extended vision?

I think CBS is a type of altered state of consciousness. I have taken a variety of psychedelics through my life, and there are definitely similarities in the perception of a non-ordinary presence. For me, these entities more often than not take a form that many people would describe as faeries. There are many thousands of recent reports from people taking the potent psychedelic substance N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which correlate closely with both folkloric descriptions of faeries and also CBS visions. As per the last answer, it seems to me as if a change to the brain can, under certain conditions, allow us to perceive what is usually suppressed in waking reality. Perhaps my long interest in faerie folklore has predisposed me to interpret the appearing entities as faeries (rather than, say, aliens or ghosts) but I cannot emphasise enough the vividness of the experiences and the apparent substantiality of the visions and the communications they impart.

Neil, fascinating. Thanks so much.

You’re welcome Simon.

The cover image is by the Amsterdam-based digital artist Peter Woko, and is called ‘Monkey King and Psychonaut’. Peter’s artwork can be found here, and his Twitter handle is @wokopsyart . Thanks to Peter for his permission to reproduce this piece on deadbutdreaming.

An Investigation into Irish Faerie-Lore by David Halpin

I’m delighted to welcome my friend and colleague David Halpin as a guest author at deadbutdreaming for an investigation into Irish faerie-lore. David writes extensively about Irish folklore and mythology, always producing insightful and thought-provoking articles based on meticulous research. These three pieces have been taken from his excellent Circle Stories Facebook page, which has become a go-to source for a perceptive understanding of Irish folkloric and mythological traditions. Each article is illustrated with David’s own distinctive photography of Irish sacred sites, some of which are included in this piece. Thanks to David for permission to republish these articles and photos here.

Ancestors, Fairies And The Soul In The Stars

One of the most puzzling omissions when it comes to Irish archaeology is the naming and observation of the ancient Irish shaman. Although there are some different views about who exactly the ancient Irish people were, what we can say for certain is they all came from cultures which allocated a position of the ultimate importance to this tribal role.

And yet… the evidence is there, it’s just that the interpretation is half-seen due to the world view of those who made the early pronouncements about ancient Irish beliefs and veneration. For example, many of the 5,000 year old ‘tombs’ contain ashes and body parts but they also contain art, offerings and reusable passageways and entrances. Looking at the shaman’s role in antiquity we can notice that the preservation of ancestral shrines were not places of mourning. They were places of continual communication and ritual. This task was performed by the shaman.

As the world view of ancient people began to change from the Palaeolithic into the Mesolithic and onto the first farming groups the type of veneration also began to include ancestors. The sun, moon and star cycles were continually observed but now people saw the shaman as someone who might bring back information and healing from the members of the tribe who had passed on. There is no definitive time-frame here; cultures ‘progressed’ in different stages and as the assimilation of various peoples and traditions occurred so too did their practices and beliefs.

One thing is consistent, though, and that is the shamanistic function which took place at ancient sites. This is what is missing from the Irish record. While archaeologists talk about graves and shrines they ignore the living traditions and rituals which these places were used for. Obviously our own view of death has filtered our perception of how ancient people might have behaved. Add in the fact that most early Irish archaeologists grew up with an Abrahamic view of religion and you can see why they might have been both reluctant to and unable to take into account the nuances and complexities of a spirituality that challenged their own.

Perhaps one factor which exemplifies this, and also might shed light on the multifaceted Irish concept of fairies, is the concept of the multiple-soul. This belief recurs in indigenous societies from Austronesia to Europe and is probably one you have heard of at some point before as well. Most likely it was the view shared by ancient Irish people as well. Simply put, this belief understands that the soul is divided into various parts. One part might stay within the body and remain on earth after death, whereas another part might travel in dreams or be the summation of the deeds of a person’s life.

Another part of the soul might remain outside of the body and follow it around, sometimes offering advice. It can get quite complex as the Egyptian example demonstrates with the various souls representing the personality, the cumulative deeds, the shadow, the breath and, indeed, the spiritual essence of a person.

The practice of soul-retrieval is another indigenous ritual common to cultures all around the world from Siberia to Africa and from Australia to North America. Often there is a reincarnation or soul transmigration aspect to this as well which we know was part of the Celtic cosmology. Why the multiple-soul is interesting in relation to fairies is because there has always been a contradiction between the fairies being of the Otherworld as well as being the dead themselves. However, when we view fairies from the perspective of those who believed the soul was multifaceted then these contradictions make sense.

The fairies, ancestors, goddesses and gods might dwell in the constellations but they would also be here, on earth, as the ancestral dead.

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Photo: Standing stone on Tonelagee, Co. Wicklow. © David Halpin

Fairy Paths, Ley-Lines and Mass Paths

Fairy roads or fairy paths are often confused with Ley-Lines and Mass Paths. It is true that over time many have fused with one another through customs and folklore. However, it is also worth separating the more ancient ‘spirit and fairy roads’ from the later walkways from the 17th century and beyond. Also connected with church paths here in Ireland are natural rock formations called ‘mass rocks’ where funerals and masses were held during times of Catholic persecution.

But, back to fairy roads and Ley-Lines. What are the differences between these two often confused concepts? To put it simply, Ley-Lines, as envisioned by Alfred Watkins, author of The Old Straight Track, were tracks connecting ancient landmarks such as standing stones, raths and other prominent natural topographic features. Watkins himself did not see any association with spirit paths or supernatural energies but over time, as his ideas were taken up by other researchers, these attributes were incorporated.

Fairy roads or fairy paths are a different matter. These are said to be routes or invisible paths upon which fairies, the souls of the dead and other less-observed energetic forces travel. It is considered extremely bad luck to build a house on these pathways as well as removing any feature which is considered a marker for the good people on these routes. We have all heard of how farmers will not remove a hawthorn tree from their field without suffering the wrath of these enigmatic spirits, for example.

You can also read many accounts of roads being rerouted in order to avoid certain places or sites considered to be home to elves or fairies. It is worth noting that this is by no means a solely Irish consideration. Across the entire world, from Iceland to Australia, from Costa Rica to Siberia these sacred pathways are acknowledged and in many cases preserved. In the instances where a site has been destroyed or a fairy tree removed there are often reports of extreme bad luck then becoming associated with a particular spot on the road where the landmark once stood.

Because there is such an overlap between fairies and the dead it can be difficult to separate more recent folklore from the remnants of probable oral traditions and beliefs spanning much longer time periods. However, comparative mythology shows that many of the same types of spirits and supernatural forms were associated with ancient sites all around the world. Often their behaviour can be observed to have some similar traits although the motivation for this can only be guessed at.

Certainly, fairies are known to move from stone circles and raths when we reach particular points in the year such as Samhain, Bealtaine or during the zenith of certain constellation or star rises. It would be a nice project to try to determine just how encounters and sightings rise and fall before and during these yearly points. Another factor to consider is that individual hawthorn trees, stone circles and sacred sites often also have their own guardian gods, goddesses and spirits as well being markers and byways for nightly and seasonal parades.

Raths in particular are considered both sacred places in themselves as well as being portals and entrances to the Otherworld. There are many recorded sightings of fairy activity at raths in the various Irish folklore archives including this one from Merginstown, Co. Wicklow. This example from Duchas.ie contains all of the typical motifs of the fairy road: the rath from which they emerge, the fact that other raths are visually linked to the site, and the conclusion that building on a fairy path is a very bad idea! There are also legends that raths can be connected through tunnels in many cases. Some stories describe a treasure buried beneath a mound but there is usually a guardian spirit to appease before it can be reached. Often times the treasure turns out to be an appreciation of being allowed to leave alive!

“There are a number of raths or lisses to be found in Merginstown. These Raths go by the name of Moates. Some of them are formed by a deep round pit oftentimes surrounded by the remains of an old ditch or hedge. It is said that these raths are inhabited by the fairies and no one ever molests them. It is also said that one can see a lot of other raths from the one by which they would be standing. There is said to be a great many large flat stones buried in these raths but what was put under them is not rightly known. I have heard it said that at one time the fairies had a path from one rath to another, and that if anything was put on this path it would be pitched aside by the fairies when they would be passing that night. There is generally a couple of bushes to be found growing near these raths. These bushes are called Lone Bushes. If anyone cuts down one of these bushes a curse will fall on them I have heard of a man who cut down a Lone Bush and within a month’s time three or four cattle had died on him. The following is a story which I have heard in connection with the fairies.

There was once a man who lived near a fairies path. The man wished to build a cowhouse and as there was no room in the farmyard he had to build it in a field nearby. Now this was the field through which the fairies had their path. One morning he was coming in with an armful of hay and found to his amazement that the back wall had been knocked down. It was the fairies who had knocked it down because it was built on their path He built it up again that day but it was knocked down again next morning. He then decided on putting a door in the back wall. This he did and ever since the wall was never knocked down. It is believed that the fairies pass through this house at night on their way from rath to rath.”
Original Link

In this example from Co. Kildare a man finds that taking stones from a rath is just as bad as trying to destroy it. And from Carlow we have a description of ongoing encounters with the ‘little red men’ and a local rath. As an aside, those readers who follow this page will again notice the prevalence of red fairies in this area. In this case they are renowned for stealing cows which might interest UFO researchers but in many other incidents they will take a human for a day or two.

A good example of this type of incident is this account from nearby Kiltegan where a man describes the rath lighting up before he is taken away by small men playing music. And, finally, this encounter is listed as a ghost story which demonstrates the ongoing link between fairies and the dead. In this case the man has built his house on a fairy path and now has to put up with his doors being opened and the sound of people moving through his home every night. 

There are further associations between fairy paths and the original form and philosophy of Feng Shui, which may surprise people, but I will keep that for another post. I would recommend the book Spirit Roads: An Exploration of Otherworldly Routes by Paul Devereux for those who would like to delve more deeply into this subject.

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Photo: A summer evening and the fairy tree at Castleruddery stone circle. © David Halpin

Who are the Fairies?

Yes, I know. This is a question for which you will receive many answers but let’s take a quick look at some of the popular explanations which have been given down through the years and also some of the less well known theories about the good people.

The first thing many are surprised by is that Irish fairies being the banished Tuatha Dé Danann is not as clear-cut as some accounts would have us believe. In fact, in Irish mythology it is implied that the Sí were already here before the Tuatha were said to have retreated into the mounds and fairy forts. This would mean that the fairies were separate from the later Gods of Irish lore. The potential twist here is interesting, though. The Tuatha Dé were said to have arrived in supernatural circumstances themselves, emerging from clouds of mist, so perhaps this could be explained as them arriving from a fairy realm in the first place.

As mentioned in a previous post, there is also a story from the west of Ireland that fairies arrived from a western spiritual realm by travelling on the ragwort plant, also known as ‘fairy-horse’. The fairies, then, might be a memory, or an imagining, of the first Irish by the later settlers. When these people arrived and found complex monuments, stone circles and dolmens how could they not be impressed? And to find them no longer used and seemingly abandoned may have led to the belief that they were the homes and entrance-way’s to an ‘otherworld’.

Fairies are continually linked to nature spirits and supernatural beings connected to particular aspects of landscapes. This is not specific to Ireland, of course. All around the world areas considered sacred or magical are said to be the homes of spirits. From New Zealand to North Africa, from Tibet to Peru, natural features and elaborately constructed and aligned monuments are considered the abode of elementals and supernatural deities. However, this does not mean that they are tied to one place, outside of our own understanding. As Claude Lecouteux writes in his book, Demons and Spirits of the Land, “…the syncretic nature of these creatures has conferred upon them specificity so strong it conceals their origin.” (p.133).

After Christianity came to Ireland, the fairies developed a more sinful origin in newer folklore and a spiritual context influenced by a monotheistic point of view. The ambiguity of their actions meant that the good people always occupied a type of neutral space between something that could benefit and something that could harm, but now those outcomes were more simply defined as good and evil. The sidhe, depending on who you asked, might be agents of either side. This notion stemmed from a variety of beliefs which even today makes for interesting conversation.

I suppose the most simple way to put it is that fairies were seen as existing in a type of ‘not quite evil enough for hell, not quite good enough for heaven’ state. Some Christian stories even explained them as fallen angels who had rebelled against god but then regretted their actions.

These stories seem to contain the subtext of an attempt to subjugate pagan gods and spirits into a Christian interpretation of the universe. In his landmark compilation, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, W. Y. Evans Wentz, tried to examine fairies from new anthropological perspectives as well as collecting first-hand accounts of encounters with the good people. One of the most complex areas Wentz questioned was whether or not fairies, ancestors and the dead were the same. Did a person who died become a fairy? Were there specific actions or circumstances that made it so? Or, was it a trick by the good folk and they took the form of dead loved ones in order to influence?

Alas, this area is both thorny and controversial. There are indeed arguments for a crossover at times but in my view, at least, this is linked strongly to the perspective of the person or culture at the time. This trickster capacity will raise its head again in the post but for now this quote from the writer, Morgan Daimler, sums it up quite well, “If one could imagine it as a Venn diagram we would see fairies as one circle, the human dead as another, and the area where the two circles overlapped would represent those who fall into both groups-how small or large that is no one can say for certain.” (p. 41).

Another argument Wentz makes in his book might seem odd to us today, namely that fairies are not to be confused with pygmies. Many people are unaware of the popularity of this explanation but it was an argument prominent enough for Wentz to feel the need to refute it. The 19th-century historian, David MacRitchie, believed the Tuatha De referred to an early Inuit pygmy race who first inhabited Ireland and Northern Europe. His thesis was that this was the basis of the cultural memory of small people.

Today, this idea has become popular again among certain researchers who have drawn parallels to the Twa tribes of Africa and the similarity to the word Tuatha, as well as accounts of dark-skinned Picts in Scotland and Orkney. However, MacRitchie did not believe the pygmy race came from Africa, but from Northern Eurasia. These ideas are not accepted by most scholars, it has to be said.

Although some entrance-ways into mounds and cairns are indeed small, there are also many other sites where the opposite is the case. MacRitchie’s explanation also fails to account for the huge amount of encounters with taller fairies, sometimes known as the gentry. Again, this is a much more complex issue than this short post will be able to cover.

Finally, the explanation for fairies which many contemporary scholars and writers seem to favour is one that fits perfectly with the contradictory nature of these beings. In this view, fairies take on the cultural forms most prevalent to those they appear to. So, the angelic and demonic forms fit the myths and lore of ancient times, for example. Are they aspects of our collective unconscious or even psychological manifestations leading us further into timelessness and non-material aspects of ourselves?

In this view, as we move through the centuries, art, religion and writing begin to influence how these beings are perceived. As we became more and more embedded in technology and urbanization, fairies became aliens and inter-dimensional travellers. Now, if you are unfamiliar with this topic the comparison might seem odd but, in fact, there are many places where striking similarities emerge. Fairies and aliens both kidnapping for midwife purposes is one, changelings replacing human children and spinning bright lights resulting in missing time are others. The writers Jacques Vallée and Terence McKenna have written extensively about this subject, and it’s a topic that receives ongoing attention at deadbutdreaming.

So, as you can see, the concept of who the good people are seems to become more complex as time moves on. But is this really the case? Perhaps fairies have always stayed the same and it is us who change and grow, allowing us to comprehend a little bit more of the whole picture with each new generation. Then again, maybe we will never discover what fairies really are and this is the way it is supposed to be; to hold mystery close to our hearts and to continue to imagine and believe in something other than ourselves.

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Photo: The sun sets behind the fairy tree at Athgreany and between two of the ancient stones. © David Halpin

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A free e-book containing a year’s-worth of Circle Stories can be found here: A Year of Circle Stories: Folklore, Sacred Sites, Mythology and Local History of Ireland’s Ancient East.

David also curates The Occult Book Review, with an associated YouTube channel.

Some Faerie Fiction

Here are some draft sections from my forthcoming novel. The story deals with the progression of a folklorist sent out to the rural hinterlands to study faerie beliefs among the countryfolk. The main locus is a psychiatric hospital, and the protagonist is wondering whether they are a guest or a potential patient, after the trauma of losing their sister and the part they played in that loss. The scenes are not contiguous, but hopefully give a cogent sense of the story’s ambience. It is set in the summer of 1970.

Exordium

My little sister; I lost her when she was just a child. One day we were together, the next she was gone, suddenly and definitively. Her physical memory has become blurred into an arbitrary, flickering collection of blue-eyed glances, soft tones, touches and laughter. But underneath the dulled remembrance rests the overwhelming loss, at least a loss that has overwhelmed me. She usually comes to me in dreams, but not always.

There was a place at the end of an overgrown garden, down a bank and through some alders to a small, dirty brook. I presume it’s still there. We used to spend endless summer days in that gloomy refuge; reading, talking, ruminating, napping. Our secret chatter should have made its mark there. But everything else rests only with me, in my memory. Her memory is gone; it has become something other than memory.

She was always seeing faeries there. When she was a little girl she’d play games with them, but when she was a bigger girl she just talked with them. I was only allowed peripheral glimpses of them amidst the leaves, and their voices were never more than the drone of the brook made fleetingly real during drifts into and out of sleep. But I believed in her belief. She’d always start with the invocation: We must not look at faerie men; we must not eat their fruits, who knows upon what soil they fed their hungry, thirsty roots. And then she would laugh and skip down to her special places within the overhanging trees where she would begin her communions.

She was twelve the last time we went there. It was damp and the brook smelled. She came back from one of her spots amidst the trees, pale and tearful. The faeries had sung her a Requiem and promised her she would be able to come back to me as a blackbird for a short while. But only for a short while, then she would have to disappear completely from the world. She cried as we made our way through the garden. There were no words, just tears. I cannot think further on what happened after this. It is not something I have learned to contemplate without despair.

It was a month or so after her death that I finally allowed myself to visit her grave in the churchyard. The thought of her lifeless, decomposing corpse only a few feet away from me became too much and I retreated to a bench by the church porch. I sobbed, and clutched the bench beneath me. Through the tear-mist I saw a female blackbird skip from the branch of a yew tree above me to within a pace of my foot, chirping vigorously. She cocked her head and looked at me with one dark eye.

“I love you,” I whispered.

She briefly preened her wing, cocked her head again and then darted away to a high branch.

“I love you,” I said again. I rested my head and closed my wet eyes, knowing that she was dead but dreaming, and would always be so.

At the Psychiatric Hospital

The lack of light in this place is starting to cause me problems. They are the same problems that have attached themselves to me since she died, exacerbated now by the gloaming austerity of the buildings here; they lock out the daylight and cast everything in a pall of grey and brown. It’s been five days since my arrival and I haven’t seen the sun once. It has rained every day. At least that’s what my memory tells me. I might be wrong, I often am. But the view from my window confirms the grimness; the high Victorian facades soaked with rain from the outside and seeping the dampness of insanity from within. I’ve made a mistake coming here, I know it. The place has deprived me of the ability to hide my own desperation and grief. I’m surrounded by lunatics and those looking after them, all engaged in stripping away the illusion of normality and replacing it with the unfettered reality of human madness. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to retreat to. I’m immersed in it and my carefully constructed coping mechanisms are being dismantled. When there is a knock at the door my head swims for an instant and my hands start trembling as usual. But as Moore enters, the sudden horror of human contact subsides back inside, and, quickly, I’m able to put on my mask of acceptable social behaviour. I can also slip into a past tense…

‘Ahoy there,’ said Moore, inviting himself in, smiling as usual, ciggy in hand. ‘Ready for action?’

‘I guess. Is she still ok for this?’

‘Yep, she’s out in the vegetable garden talking with her faeries. But she knows you’re coming.’

I picked up my notepad and book, controlling my breathing and forcing the tension out of my body.

‘What’s that?’ asked Moore, nodding at the book in my hand.

‘It’s a motif index… Aarne and Thompson. Bit of a bible for folklorists – it codes and numbers all the different motif types from traditional stories. I had to… err, nick this volume from the reference library before I came.’

‘Ha, excellent. Well come on then, let’s see how many motif numbers you can jot down for Fernanda. I think you might be busy.’

We walked past the laundry building and oil tanks, then under the grey neo-gothic elevations of the chapel, dripping rainwater from their eaves high above.

‘Yeah, you’ll find Fernanda interesting,’ said Moore, chuckling as usual. ‘She’s the only South American in the hospital… actually, she’s probably the only person who isn’t English in the hospital.’

‘So why is she here?’

‘Chile. Something kicking off there – about to elect a Marxist called Allende apparently, and her family have cleared out and come over here.’ Moore affected a conspiratorial gesture. ‘But she’s already been here for a few years at school for some reason. The father found out she’d been having some problems, extracted her from said school and used his influence to get her admitted here. He’s some sort of diplomat or suchlike.’

‘So what are her problems?’

‘Delusional psychosis according to Dr Dawkins at mission control in there,’ he gestured back at the hospital, ‘but I think you might find that label a bit wide of the mark. I get the impression that she just genuinely sees things the rest of us don’t. But you’ll have to make up your own mind on that.’

We walked past the west end of the chapel, with the vegetable gardens in front of us. Moore stopped to light up a spindly-looking joint, took a drag and handed it to me.

‘This is your first field interview isn’t it?’ he said. ‘For your research I mean.’

‘It is, yeah.’ I could feel myself blushing. ‘My folklore has all been from books and lectures till now… bit embarrassing really.’

‘Well, this is where theory can become practice. Good place to start… in at the deep end with a psychiatric patient. If you can deal with her unusual behaviour patterns, you’ll find out a lot about the faeries, I’m pretty sure of that. Anyway, there she is over there in the red top, doing some weeding, or whatever it is you do in a vegetable patch.’

A couple of tokes on the joint calmed me a bit. I gave it back to Moore and went to find out just how mad my first ever interviewee might be.

***

The sun came out. A cloud-breaking ray fell over the gardens, picking out colours that hadn’t seemed to have been there a moment before. Fernanda’s hooded red top pulled her out of the background, made her seem physically separated from it. I walked over to her, hiding anxiety with a smile. She was crouching to place some nuts onto a tree-stump next to the vegetable patch, but saw me, stood up and stretched out her hands as though she expected me to take them in my own.

‘Hola.’

‘Hello. Fernanda?’

‘You’re just in time for the ravens. They are being called now.’

Her accent was slight but distinct. She looked through me somehow. But her eyes were smiling. She’d already taken some control.

‘They only trust me, but I think they’ll trust you too.’

She walked to the end of one of the garden paths and I followed. Closing her eyes she swayed whilst another ray of sun found her face, and I was able to take in her features. When she opened her eyes, they seemed black, iris and pupil, and I couldn’t tell what she was looking at.

‘Dos cuervos,’ she announced, ‘coming to us now.’

Sure enough, from the tree-line to the north, two ravens appeared and silently flew down onto a fence at the far end of the gardens. They tarried there, conspiring and ensuring their coast was clear before gliding down together to the tree-stump, where they put their beaks to work on the nuts. They hopped about taking some more nuts before retreating back to the fence.

‘Now observe,’ she whispered. ‘They will silently call their comrades.’

We stood in silence for about a minute, Fernanda staring into the middle distance, while I shuffled around hoping this wasn’t going to go on too long. Then I saw six more ravens appear above the tree-line, making their way towards us. They flew down in ragged tandem, alighted on the fence with the other two, then, two by two, drifted down to the ground and hopped over to the nuts on the tree-stump. We were only twenty feet from them, but they carried on as if we weren’t there. When they’d finished and were moving back to the fence, Fernanda crouched down. One of the ravens broke ranks and landed closer to us. It bobbed its head a few times in our direction, then flew off, taking the others with it back into the sky.

Fernanda stood up and said ‘I know you want to know about the faeries. Las hadas… they are the nature spirits, the elementals. They are everywhere.’

‘Do you see them now?’

She laughed, then smiled. I blushed.

‘The ravens see them. All animals do. The faeries fix themselves onto the minds of the ravens and then give them instant communication with others of their kind. The faeries summoned the ravens by riding on their minds… their thoughts. Hey my friends! come get the nuts at the tree-stump.‘

I chuckled. ‘But do you see them?’

She stared at me for the first time but said nothing. Instead she took my hand and led me round the vegetable patch to some spinach leaves. She got me to crouch down next to her, and pointed at the biggest leaf in the patch.

‘Stare at this green leaf’, she said. ‘Just stare at it for some moments.’

I complied. The leaf was crumpled a little at its top making a ball-like shape, and the longer I looked at it the more I started to see patterns in the natural chaos of its shape: first a green rose flower, then a scrunched up piece of green paper, which seemed to momentarily expand and contract before forming into a small childlike face. I started, looked again, and it was gone. There was just a snail-nibbled spinach leaf.

‘You see,’ she said. ‘They are here, but you just don’t want to see them. The faeries are part of the minds of the plants… the earth, the rocks, everything.’

I turned to her, she was close. I could see she meant it. But the usual rational stream of thought pulsed through my mind, first explaining the optical illusion of the crumpled spinach leaf, then aligning itself with the reasonable view that she must be delusional and making this up from within a damaged and beguiled mind. But even as the stream of rationality assured me this must be so, I knew it wasn’t.

‘You are a modern Western person my friend,’ she said, quietly. ‘You have grown up in a world of science and material things. It’s quite simple really. You’ve disconnected from Spirit. Once you disconnect you stop seeing what’s really there. If you were a child I would be able to show you. But you have grown up and disconnected. There is Spirit everywhere, but you can no longer recognise it.’

I fiddled with the motif-index volume in my hands, coming to terms with my abrupt perception of inferiority to someone everyone else here thought insane. And, as she looked through me, I was pretty sure she knew this.

‘I need to be alone now,’ she announced, standing up and running her hands through her black hair. ‘But if you can come again tomorrow, without your books, I will teach you about the faeries. I think you might be one who can be taught.’

Without another word, she packed her trowel into her little gardening bag, smiled and started off back to the hospital. She turned at the edge of the vegetable gardens and waved.

‘Mañana,’ she called.

I watched her disappear behind the chapel. It started to rain again.

‘Mañana indeed,’ I whispered, looking first at my unopened book and notepad, and then back at that plain old spinach leaf, now quivering under the raindrops. A raven passed overhead, cawing as if laughing at me. Mañana indeed.

***

I was alone again. Albe, Moore and Scrope had disappeared up-country somewhere leaving me in my quarters with nothing but the sound of the ticking clock, marking out the minutes and hours; creating time to reflect on the deficiencies of my life to date. What was I doing here? I’d swapped the intolerable isolation of university for the unendurable confinement of this lunatic asylum. As the days had dripped by, I recognised the old symptoms re-emerging: dulled vision, stomach cramps, endemic procrastination, and a growing fear of going outside and interacting with people. I was even beginning to suspect the hospital orderlies had all been infected with the insanity they dealt with on a daily basis. It was usually the timbre of their voices; the merest hint of derangement that spoke of exposure to madness over a prolonged period. It was worse in the male staff. They all seemed to exhibit a disquieting emptiness in their tone, as if they were reading from a script, like bad actors. Maybe it was because they were suspicious of me. Maybe they wondered what I was doing here as well, and were acting accordingly. I went over each conversation with them since I’d been here, further instilling the the shaky paranoia that had made itself at home with me. This was not good. I had to break out from this cycle of thought before I went to meet Fernanda, otherwise I might have one of my flip-outs. Christ, they might even put me on a ward if that happened.
 I pulled myself up to the desk and poised my fingers over the Olympia Moore had loaned me, to put my notes in order. I knew I wasn’t going to manage to do anything, but the act of intention distracted me from incessantly thinking the worst of everything. I rolled the sheet of paper up and locked it in position. I stared at it for a few moments, then typed: My sister… I’m so sorry. Please come back… . My breathing shallowed and the usual tears welled up. I yanked out the paper, screwed it up and flung it over the room. One thing was for sure, she wasn’t coming back.

I made my way out to the vegetable gardens in the late afternoon. The sun was shining for once, but the wind took the heat out of it. In my head I went over some of the faerie motifs from the Aarne-Thompson index, agitated, and wondering if Fernanda would come up with anything beyond her neurotic imaginings about nature spirits. I stopped for a moment behind the laundry building, closed my eyes and pictured her. My hands shook a little. I steadied my breathing and walked on.
 She was sitting on the tree stump where she fed the ravens, eyes closed, head bowed, her hands clasped together as if in prayer. I coughed before I reached her, so as to not startle her. She waited until I was a few feet away and slowly raised her head. She kept her eyes closed for a moment, then opened them; black and watery.


‘Hola,’ she said, continuing to stare ahead.


‘Hey Fernanda. Nice day… bit windy.’


God, what did I sound like? Why did I always make personal contact so uncomfortable. She didn’t seem to notice, but when she turned to look at me the curve of her lips suggested she was reading my awkwardness perfectly.

‘It’s not a good day my friend. There is some bad news.’

I tensed up, shoulders and stomach. She observed me for a few seconds, and her words began to echo inside my head somehow. At that moment I was quite sure she was putting them there herself, negating the need to say anything else by reinforcing what she had already said by direct, wordless communication.

‘Telepatía,’ she whispered, standing up, close to me, her black eyes still pooled with tears. ‘I know you don’t believe, but it’s true anyway.’

‘I’m not quite sure what to believe Fernanda. Why is there bad news?’

‘There has been a suicide.’

‘Really? In the hospital?’

‘No, here. In the cobertizo.’

She motioned to the tool shed on the edge of the gardens. My pulse quickened. 

‘A faerie has ended her life there… she did it for you.’

I stared at her, looking for something that would abbreviate her words in her face. There was nothing there.

‘Fernanda, please don’t play games with me. I can’t deal with this sort of thing right now.’

She moved closer to me and stroked back some hair that had fallen over my eyes. 

‘We know you’ve been thinking about ending your life my friend. We know how sad you’ve been. She did it so you do not have to. It was a selfless act. Las Hadas have no ego. This one soaked up your sorrow and and ended her existence so you can continue. She knew your life must carry on, but there had to be a sacrifice. The sacrifice was her life.’

A head-rush dulled my vision for a moment. My hands were shaking so much I put them behind my back instinctively. 

‘Fernanda, I… I… .’

‘You must come and see. It is tragic but it is beautiful. It’s wonderful. You must come and see… come.’

She reached round, took my hand from behind me and led me, unresisting to the shed.

***

We walked back slowly to the main building of the hospital hand in hand. We didn’t speak, but I could hear her soft voice in my head, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish: it’s ok… you’ll be ok. It was meant to be… mantener la calma. In between her words I tried desperately to rationalise what I’d just seen. But every attempt failed. What I’d seen was not rational, it was absurdly irrational, but as real as the neo-gothic walls of the hospital in front of us. I was going to have to overhaul my understanding of the nuts and bolts of this world. It had just been forced upon me. There was no choice. The only choice was acceptance.

She left me at the door with a kiss on the cheek but no words. I wondered why it was she who was going back to the ward instead of me. If I told Dr Dawkins what I’d just experienced, he’d probably commit me on the spot.

In my head I heard Fernanda’s voice again: she is dead but dreaming. Soñando

‘My sister or the faerie?’ I said out loud. There was no response. I walked, unseeing, back to my quarters.

The cover image is S.T.A.R.D.U.S.T by Ylenia Viola. Her mesmeric artwork can be found at fairytalesneverdie

 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Metaphysical Journey

This is another slight diversion from the realm of faerie, but the subject matter is intimately connected to our understanding of metaphysical realities through texts from our past. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is important, loaded as it is with symbology and deep insights into the human condition, that speak to us from over half a millennium ago. The characters, their motivations and their inner-lives, as expressed by the poet, remain recognisable to us in the 21st century. And at the centre of the story (even though she doesn’t utter a word) is a faerie, perhaps the most prominent faerie in English literature: Morgan le Fay. A version of this article was originally published on the Ancient Origins Premium website.

‘The paths he would take were strange,
With little cheer to glean,
And his hopes would often change
Till that chapel could be seen.’

Sir Gawain and Green Knight is a late 14th-century poem, set in an Arthurian world of the past, but which invokes the chivalric codes and environment of the time it was written. Despite numerous attempts to identify the author, it remains anonymous, although the Middle-English dialect used in the poem has been pinned down to the North-West Midlands of England, perhaps the county of Staffordshire. It is written in alliterative verse, suggesting that it was designed to be read aloud, with the alliteration acting as both a memory aid to recitation and as a prop to convey the humorous intonations, which run throughout the poem. It is generally seen as one of the most important examples of English medieval literature and fits within the corpus of Arthurian stories known as ‘The Matter of Britain.’ It certainly adheres to the usual frames of reference that medieval authors used when describing the Arthurian world, where a supernatural Otherworld was consistently interacting with physical reality, and symbolic layers of meaning provide an allegoric purpose that would have been recognised by the elite classes listening to, or reading the stories. Many of the characters in the poem are familiar from other Arthurian sources, but as the title suggests, the main protagonist is Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur. His adventures tell us much about 14th-century society, but also about a metaphysical belief system operating below the radar of Christianity, which, as usual with later medieval Arthurian literature, invokes an older, pagan atmosphere, perhaps more redolent of the immediate post-Roman Dark Ages, when the stories are ostensibly set. The use of such magico-folklore in the Arthurian stories can tell us much about the continuity of pre-Christian beliefs throughout the Middle Ages, and the motifs used consistently through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight retain a timeless folkloric quality, making the poem a commentary on humanity’s interaction with supra-natural dimensions that still manages to resonate with the 21st-century reader.

Image from original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th century. ‘Gawain sleeps in the open air during his quest’ British Library

The Plot and Landscape of the Poem

The action begins on New Year’s Day at Arthur’s court of Camelot, where feasting is in progress. Much Arthurian literature uses the device of Camelot as representative of a golden age in the past, often making derogatory (even satirical) comparisons to contemporary aristocratic courts. This is especially true of several stories from the Welsh cycle of stories known as The Mabinogion (also composed in the 14th century, although containing much earlier material) and the Gawain poet follows this trope, ensuring the reader is aware that Arthur’s court exemplified the pinnacle of chivalric code. But this standard description becomes turned round upon the arrival of the mysterious giant knight, who makes his abrupt entrance into the midst of the feast mounted on a horse. His apparel, his skin and even his horse are green:

‘Wonder at his hue men displayed,
set in his semblance seen;
he fared as a giant were made,
and over all deepest green.’

The Green Knight is not impressed with Arthur’s court or courtiers, who he calls ‘beardless children.’ And after some more disparagement he challenges one amongst them to a ‘Christmas game’ where the Green Knight is struck once with his own axe, on the proviso that in a year and a day’s time he is able to return the blow at his own ‘Green Chapel.’ This is the point of entry into the plot for Gawain, who spares Arthur the need to strike the blow, and takes up the challenge, lopping off the Green Knight’s head with one blow of the axe. But, to the amazement of all, he then proceeds to pick up his own head, mounts his horse and, from his decapitated head, reminds Gawain of his oath, before wheeling away out of Camelot, head in hand.

’The Green Knight enters Camelot’ by Herbert Cole (1906). This is from the 1913 edition (but painted in 1906) of English Fairy Tales by Ernest and Grace Rhys

This sets the scene for a quest journey, which takes up the rest of the poem as Gawain sets out alone to fulfil his pledge a year later. The first part of the quest describes his journey through a winter landscape; a desolate wilderness but firmly rooted in the real landscape of 14th-century Britain. Gawain takes a circuitous (but definitive) route through Wales, perhaps insinuating that the poet thought of Camelot as being situated in southern Wales (Caerleon is one of the traditional locations for Camelot) before heading east from Anglesea to the ‘wilderness of the Wirral’ and inland to the Peak District. Once here the descriptive qualities of the landscape becomes more detailed, with localised words for features in the environment being used such as frith (enclosed scrubland on the edge of a forest), knot (a hillock), and kerre (a marshy thicket), which has been a main element in allowing the interpretation for the author being a native of this part of the country where the counties of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire meet. Eventually, Gawain arrives at the moated castle called Hautdesert.

‘Now he had signed himself times but three,
when he was aware in the wood of a wall in a moat,
above a level, on high land locked under boughs
of many broad set boles about by the ditches:
a castle the comeliest that ever knight owned,
perched on a plain, a park all about,
with a pointed palisade, planted full thick,
encircling many trees in more than two miles.’

Image from original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th century. ‘Lady Bertilak tempts Gawain’ British Library

The castle is most likely identified as Beeston Castle, built by Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester in the 1220s, now a ruin, but in the late 14th century an imposing hilltop citadel. It is here that Gawain enters a somewhat hallucinogenic episode in the tale, as he is given hospitality by the Lord Bertilak. During the next three days Bertilak goes out to hunt (described in elaborate detail), leaving Gawain to rest in the castle. Bertilak proposes that what he gains in the hunt shall be Gawain’s, providing Gawain gives him what he receives during the days in the castle. Gawain soon finds out that the seductive Lady Bertilak has designs on him, and while her lord is out hunting she slips into his chamber to let him know that ‘You are welcome to my body; your pleasure to take all.’ She does this each day, but Gawain resists temptation and gives her only kisses, which are in turn exchanged with Lord Bertilak, on his daily returns, for the spoils of the hunt (a deer, a fox and a boar).

In the final segment of the poem, Gawain sets out for the Green Chapel (usually identified as Lud’s Church, an atmospheric deep sandstone chasm near the village of Gradbach, Staffordshire) to meet his fate with the Green Knight, although arraigned with a ‘green and gold girdle’ given to him by Lady Bertilak for his protection. The pair meet, and Gawain submits to three blows from the Green Knight’s axe, the first two of which are feigned and then the third merely nicking his neck to draw blood. Honour is satisfied, and the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than Bertilak himself, magically transformed into the green knight by Arthur’s arch-enemy, his half-sister Morgan le Fay.

Lad’s Church, Staffordshire, possible inspiration for the ‘Green Chapel’

‘For it is mine that you wear, that same woven girdle;
my own wife gave it you, I know it well forsooth.
Now, know I well your kisses and conduct too,
and the wooing of my wife; I wrought it myself.
I sent her to test you, and truly I think you
the most faultless man that was ever afoot.’

Gawain returns to Camelot, chastened but wiser, realising that the whole ruse had been manipulated by Morgan le Fay in one of her perennial attempts to undermine Arthur’s precedence in Britain.

Arthurian Symbology and Metaphysics

The poem is loaded with symbology and metaphysical motifs, and while the themes of chivalry and Christian virtues run through the work, there is a clear undercurrent of pre-Christian, pagan value-systems integrated into the tale. The beheading game is evidently one of the central features of the story, and there are several precedents for it, for instance in the 12th-century Arthurian story Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes and the anonymous Perlesvaus from the 13th century. The earliest version is from the Irish story of Fled Bricrenn, dating from the 8th century, where the hero Cú Chulainn faces the same three blows as Gawain, from a giant. This would appear to be an ancient Celtic motif, embodying an ultimate test for the virtue and worthiness of the hero, that the author of Gawain was picking up from these and perhaps other sources.

The ‘game’ is intimately connected to the timespan allowed between blows by the disparate characters; a year and a day. This specific timeframe is important and frequently appears in medieval romances and folktales as the amount of time protagonists were given to succeed in quests. In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer highlights the ancient global concept of the Divine King, who was to be ritually murdered after a period of time in charge, which was often a year and a day. The time period was also used in common law to substantiate the legal situation of unwed couples, and it was (in theory) the amount of time a person living under feudal serfdom needed to be absent from his lord’s manor to gain his freedom. Interestingly, a year and a day is also used in Wiccan and other neo-pagan traditions for the time of learning required before being initiated into the first degree. The year and a day motif is evidently embedded within the Gawain story as a message, conveying the idea that it is a magical time-frame. It was a symbolic time-marker for life quests, ruling over others, decisions being made, learning a tradition, securing a marriage, or gaining freedom as one year tips over into another. It is a motif deeply ingrained in both esoteric tradition and everyday life from an early date, and rooted in the cycles of the natural world, in Gawain’s case from one New Year to the next.

Image from original manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th century. ‘Gawain approaches the Green Chapel’ British Library

The overarching theme of the colour green in the poem links with this natural cycle. Although all the action takes place during winter, everything is dependent on the colour, from the Green Knight himself through to the protective girdle and the numerous descriptions of green vegetation, such as the holly branch held by the green knight when he enters Camelot and the ‘verdant dripping moss’ coating the Green Chapel. Green can be representative of rebirth and fertility, and one interpretation of its use in the poem is as the purveyor of life over death – the ‘Green Man’ sculptures found in so many medieval churches may be a codified pagan representation of fertile life overcoming death through the natural cycle. Many of these ‘Green Men’ date to the 14th century, and the Gawain poet would have undoubtedly been intimately aware of them, perhaps even conversant with their pagan cosmology. He certainly imbues every part of the poem with the colour, heightening the sense that the natural world (with green as its symbol) is more powerful and authentic than the veneer of the civilised world represented by the castles and chivalric codes of the stylised Arthurian world. The fact that no-one dies in the poem (unusual for an Arthurian story) strengthens the interpretation that it is at root an allegory about life triumphing over death.

Green Man sculpture from All Saints church, Sutton Benger, Wiltshire (14th century)

But everything that happens in the poem is dependent on the intrusion of the supernatural into consensus reality. The clue given during the Green Knight’s entrance into Camelot, when he is described as ‘of phantom and faerie’, is confirmed after Gawain is let off at the Green Chapel, and we find out that Morgan le Fay has manipulated the entire proceedings:

‘Through the might of Morgan le Fay, that dwells in my house,
and is mistress of magic, by crafts well learned
the mysteries of Merlin, many has she taken,
for she has dealt in depths full dearly sometime
with that excellent sage, and that know all your knights at home.’

’Morgan le Fay’ by Frederick Sandys (1864)

It turns out that she had been lurking in the shadows of Bertilak’s castle as ‘an ancient withered lady’, evidently disguising herself through faerie glamour. Despite having no dialogue in the poem, and appearing only briefly upon Gawain’s arrival at the castle, she has been pulling the strings with her usual metaphysical aplomb. The Green Knight/Bertilak even describes her as ‘a goddess.’ Despite having made her first appearance in Arthurian literature as a benign faerie half-sister of Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1136-50), by the 14th century she invariably played a villainous role in The Matter of Britain, and always executing her machinations via supernatural means. She is an arbiter of fate and representative of an accepted metaphysical intrusion into the physical world, in the case of Gawain and the Green Knight as a tester of courage and rectitude. Her presence in the poem (and her ubiquity in the Arthurian corpus) ensures a magical, supernal dimension, which is unquestioned and establishes a medieval understanding of the world where the natural world could be transcended through what is essentially a pagan belief-system, even if the anonymous poet was wrapping it up within an orthodox Christian worldview.

References

Arthur, Ross G (ed.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1999) Original Middle English text

Brewer, Elisabeth, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analogues (1992)

Brindley, Noel C., A Medieval Mystery (accessed 2018)

Elliott, Ralph WV, The Gawain Country (1984)

Elliott, Ralph WV, ‘Searching for the Green Chapel’ in JK Lloyd Jones (ed). Chaucer’s Landscapes and Other Essays (2010) 293–303

Friedman, Albert B, ‘Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ Speculum 35 (1960) 260–274

Hebert, Jill Marie, Shapeshifter: The Manifestations of Morgan Le Fay (2008)

Frazer, Sir James, The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion (1900)

Kline, AS, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Modern Translation (2007)

Rushton, Neil, Faeries in the Realm of King Arthur, Ancient Origins (2018)

Rushton, Neil, The Mabinogion: Ancient Welsh Tales Bridging the Celtic Mindset and the Otherworld Ancient Origins (2108)

Rhys, Ernest and Grace, English Fairy Tales (1913)

Smith, Michael, In Search of the Green Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2017)

Wilson, Anne, Plots and Powers: Magical Structures in Medieval Narrative (2001)

Simon Armitage’s BBC4 Documentary Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 

Some Faerie Metaphysics

This article is an amalgamation of some previous posts at deadbutdreaming, a shorter version of which was recently published by New Dawn Magazine. It probably raises more questions than it gives answers, but I wanted to put these ideas in one place before moving on to any further Cosmic interpretations of what the faerie phenomenon might really be about. There has been an upsurge of interest in the potential ontological realities of the faeries in the last couple of years, and it seems as if folklore, Forteana, science, paranormal research and philosophical metaphysics may be beginning to draw together to tease out what has previously been hidden or unimagined. But the faeries remain elusive; always at the periphery of our cultural vision. They are not going to divest their secrets easily – and that’s perhaps as it should be.

What are the faeries? Where do they come from and where do they go when they’re not interacting with their human observers? Faeries have been an important part of the folkloric repertoire for hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of years, and while they are portrayed in the popular imagination through faerietales and have become disneyfied through the 20th century, their main presence is in the myriad of folktales and anecdotes from every part of the globe. They usually (though not always) take a humanoid form, and interact with human societies as amorphous supernatural entities, appearing in our world to both co-operate with people and as general arbiters of mischief, while also living in their own Otherworld, sometimes accessible to humans either through accident or abduction. While the phenomenon is ancient, the belief in these metaphysical beings continues, and there are thousands of encounter reports from all over the world every year, as demonstrated by the recent survey by The Fairy Investigation Society, which includes c.500 testimonies.

But folklorists are usually ambivalent about the faeries; they are likely to keep their distance from them, so to speak. While happy to record and discuss the beliefs of people who tell stories and anecdotes about them, most folklorists speak the language (at least in official publications) of the reductionist, materialist worldview that has held sway in Western civilisation for the last few hundred years, and they’ll often be reticent about assessing the potential actual reality of metaphysical beings. In the materialist’s world, faeries simply cannot exist. They must be reduced into a categorised cultural belief system, and any discussion of them will usually be couched in the accepted language of scientific rationalism. This creates a problem for any folklorist (or anybody else) who wants to look behind the stories and investigate the possibility that the faeries can be incorporated into our consensus reality as a genuine phenomenon.

But the reductionist scientific orthodoxy has been challenged recently by a range of philosophical hypotheses such as Idealism, backed up by quantum mechanical theory and experiment, which reinstates consciousness (not matter) as the primary mover and creator of reality. When this is done, entities such faeries are allowed back into the universe as an authentic phenomenon, and if we start to look in the right places, we begin to find that they are indeed everywhere… we just need to know where to look, or perhaps more accurately, how to look.

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John Anster Fitzgerald, ‘The Intruders’ (c.1870)

The Electromagnetic Spectrum, Dark Matter and Dark Energy

Our normal waking consciousness experiences less than 0.5% of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, with visible light being less than 0.1% of this. If we take into account the current (mainstream) scientific hypothesis that this electromagnetic spectrum itself composes less than 8% of the universe, with the mysterious Dark Matter and Dark Energy taking up the rest, then we are at a good starting point to understand that our version of reality is extremely compromised. We may have the technology to utilise the unseen wavelengths in the spectrum, but they are not accessible to our ordinary consciousness, whilst Dark Matter and Dark Energy are totally inaccessible to our technology, and remain for the moment, nothing more than theory based on the by-product of mathematical equations. We also have to take into account the recent theoretical mind-bender that the universe may actually be a virtual reality hologram, put in place by (depending on who you listen to) a supreme being, aliens or future versions of humans, the latter option coming from NASA scientist Dr Rich Terrile. With this level of uncertainty about the reality we inhabit, and in order to gain an understanding of the world in which we live (and the unseen entities that may exist alongside us), we might be advised to fall back on the only known certainty allowed us: consciousness.

The Origins of the Faeries in Altered States of Consciousness

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Cave painting from Altamira, Spain, c. 20,000 BCE

Our earliest known artistic portrayals of the world, and how human consciousness interacted with it, come in the form of cave paintings from all parts of the globe, starting c.35,000 BCE. Many of these cave paintings include humanoids and therianthropes, otherworldly entities that have been recorded alongside geometric imagery, stylised animals and landscapes. They are in effect our earliest known folklore. But what state of mind were our Palaeolithic ancestors in when they were painting these strange entities in often difficult to access caves and shelters?

The anthropologist David Lewis-Williams has made the convincing argument that these cave and rock-shelter paintings were produced by shamanic cultures to represent reality as perceived in an altered state of consciousness. Twenty years ago this idea was anathema to anthropologists, but since the work of Lewis-Williams, and many others, the theory has tipped over to become an accepted orthodoxy. There are hundreds of motifs in the cave paintings that correlate with the visionary states of people in an altered state of consciousness, brought about most especially by the ingestion of a psychotropic substance. The basic premise is that the shamans of these Palaeolithic cultures transported themselves into altered states of consciousness and then painted the results of their experiences on the walls of caves and rock shelters — experiences that frequently included therianthropic beings and supernatural humanoids that correlate in many ways with later faerie types.

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‘The Mimi’ from prehistoric rock shelters in Kimberley, Australia,c.10,000 BCE

In his 2005 book Supernatural, Graham Hancock vividly utilises Lewis-Williams’ work to discuss the continuity through time of entities experienced in altered states of consciousness, coming to the conclusion that the faeries of our historic period are one and the same as those portrayed in prehistoric caves. And writers such as Carlo Ginzburg and Emma Wilby have argued that there is a direct link between prehistoric shamanic storytelling and the folklore embodied in classical, medieval and later periods, that often incorporate entities such as nymphs and faeries; supernatural beings that interact with humanity when the conditions are right. Those conditions may well be reliant on the human participants undergoing an altered state of consciousness as a result of the ingestion of psychotropic compounds. There is certainly a preponderance of mushroom imagery associated to historic depictions of faeries, most especially the highly psychedelic red and white Amanita Muscaria (fly agaric) mushroom, and the psilocybin mushroom, both prevalent in Europe and Asia. If these historic folkloric manifestations of interactions with supernatural entities can be linked to the cave art of prehistory and preliterate societies, then we have a continuation of relationship with an alternative reality, accessed through altered states of consciousness, over a very long period of time.

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17th-century English woodcut with faeries dancing in a circle, burial mound (hollow hill with door), fly agaric mushroom and the face of a ‘spirit’ in the tree

Many of the European faerie motifs repeated in stories and anecdotes through the centuries to the present day were already in place during the medieval period. When folklorists began to collect these stories in earnest from the 19th century onwards, they found a belief in faeries amongst rural populations that was probably very close to the medieval belief and understanding of what faeries were and how they interacted with humanity. Many of the stories include situations where the protagonist interacts with the faeries in what seems an altered state of consciousness: Faerieland doesn’t comply to Newtonian physics, it is consistently inhabited by strange humanoids and therianthropes (the faeries), and there are lots of recurring story motifs that are highly suggestive of an autonomous reality being described. But this is not consensus reality, this is the folklore recording stories from people operating outside consensus reality. The folktales about faeries have been overlain with much allegorical storytelling, but at their root the realities they describe are of people in altered states of consciousness, perhaps not too far from the realities experienced by the Palaeolithic cave painters and shamanic practitioners.

WY Evans-Wentz, Rudolph Steiner and Metaphysical Nature Spirits

bd80b52e65925932d942df292c27a049When the folklorist WY Evans-Wentz travelled around the Celtic world at the beginning of the 20th century, collecting stories and anecdotal experiences about the faeries, it was clear that most of his interviewees rated clairvoyance as the best way of altering the conscious state to a position where it could interact with the faeries. Seership or second-sight was the method of entering, or at least viewing, an alternative reality inhabited by a relatively consistent cast of characters, usually recognised as the faeries. He met one such (un-named) Irish clairvoyant in Rosses Point, County Sligo. This seer talked about various types of faeries that inhabited the landscape of Sligo, “making them sound like a cross between nature spirits and mystical visions.” But Evans-Wentz was just as interested in the mechanics of interacting with the faeries as he was with the stories themselves. How did the seer interface with them?

“I have always made a distinction between pictures seen in the memory of nature and visions of actual beings now existing in the inner world. We can make the same distinction in our world: I may close my eyes and see you as a vivid picture in memory, or I may look at you with my physical eyes and see your actual image. In seeing these beings of which I speak, the physical eyes may be open or closed: mystical beings in their own world and nature are never seen with the physical eyes.”

The rural people interviewed by Evans-Wentz consistently affirmed that clairvoyant alteration of consciousness was the best sure-fire way to see the faeries. By the time Evans-Wentz visited these communities, there was a sense that the number of people gifted with second-sight was dwindling; cutting down on communication with the faeries. But at the same time as these rural communities were feeling the increasing pressures of modernism there was a reaction by organisations such as The Theosophical Society (first founded in 1875), which attempted to incorporate metaphysics into an understanding of reality. And their prime metaphysical technology was clairvoyance. The Austrian Theosophist Rudolf 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).

9781855840188Steiner described the specific elemental animating forces at work in the natural world, when perceived clairvoyantly, in what he calls the Supersensible World. For Steiner the elementals in the Supersensible World existed as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits charged with the growth of vegetation. Steiner (basing his epistemology on that originally developed by the 15th-century alchemist Paracelsus) divides these entities into four main types corresponding to earth (Gnomic), water (Undines), air (Sylphs) and heat/light (Salamanders). This is the faerie realm, existing as a non-material autonomous reality that crosses over with ours, and which can be accessed via a clairvoyant altered state of consciousness. Steiner thought everyone has this innate ability, but they had to be taught how to use it… it had somehow become almost forgotten amongst humanity.

This idea finds common ground with the recent work of biochemist Rupert Sheldrake, who proposes that morphogenetic fields are the formative causation allowing life on earth. Sheldrake’s description of this organising principle behind the natural world is issued in the language of biochemistry, but in effect, what he postulates is the same as Steiner’s vision of nature spirits in action. There are invisible forces that are as essential in ordering life on earth as accepted non-material forces such as gravity. Sheldrake calls these morphogenetic fields ‘the memory of nature.’ In effect, Steiner saw nature spirits as anthropogenic representations of these morphogenetic fields, imposed upon them through the thought forms of the observer, who perceives them clairvoyantly.

The Faeries and DMT

But what allows this access to otherworldly realms and the entities that seem to exist there? What allows for clairvoyance, or second-sight? The answer may lie with the substance called N, N-Dimethyltryptamine – DMT. This molecule is one of the main active ingredients in the Ayahuasca brew used by Amazonian shamans, but it is also produced endogenously in everyone’s brain, potentially (but not definitely) in the pineal gland. It’s usually safely dispersed around the brain and body for functional duties, but it seems that under certain circumstances, it can be released in higher quantities, causing an altered state of consciousness. This would require the DMT to be released in conjunction with Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOI), which inhibit naturally occurring enzymes in the human body. This inhibition leads to increased levels of chemicals such as the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. By slowing their metabolism, MAOIs can allow a surge of DMT production to have full effect and create radically transformed states of consciousness.

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Illustration of Anne Jefferies, from Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England (1865)

There is some evidence that this can happen during a frontal lobe epileptic seizure. This may be the root of the well-documented 17th-century Cornish story of Anne Jefferies’ abduction by diminutive faeries when she suffered a ‘convulsion fit’ and was transported (at least in her mind) to a numinous world inhabited by the faeries. The author Eve LaPlante has used historic and contemporary examples to demonstrate that Temporal Lobe Epilepsy can provide access to an altered state of consciousness where the human mind participates in a reality several steps removed from the consensus material world. This often includes full immersion in alternative landscapes and contact with non-human intelligence.

The late and great Terence McKenna was an enthusiastic user of the synthesised form of DMT to access different realities, and coined the term ‘self-transforming machine elves’ for the creatures he regularly found there. As if to confirm Terence’s assertions, a research study conducted between 1990 and 1995 in the General Clinical Research Center of the University of New Mexico Hospital, by Dr Rick Strassman found that volunteers on the study injected with varying amounts of DMT underwent profound alterations of consciousness. This involved immediate cessation of normal consciousness and transportation to a different realm of reality with divergent physical properties, and inhabited by a range of creatures described as elves, faeries, lizards, reptiles, insects, aliens, clowns (yes, clowns) and various therianthropic entities. One woman even describes a pulsating entity that she called ‘Tinkerbell-like’. The experiences, especially at higher doses, represented to the participants a parallel reality that was ‘super real’, not an hallucination, not a dream, but a substantial built reality with full sensory interaction + telepathy.

boekdmtThe experience reports from the study are irrational, absurd, frightening, illogical and surreal. There is no question of any of the volunteers physically leaving the hospital bed during their experiences, but for all of them (without exception) the DMT-world was every bit as real as the one their minds left behind. After the injections participants frequently talked about ‘blasting through’ or ‘breaking through a barrier’ after which they found themselves in a realm with its own laws of physical space and movement, and its own inhabitants.

There are dozens of recorded experiences from the study, and the participants are all engaging in a non-physical reality directly with their consciousness, seemingly separated from their physical selfs. Some of the experiences agree in type to certain aspects of the faerie phenomenon. But what the research demonstrates is that under the right conditions, human consciousness can operate within a distinct and separate universe inhabited by a range of apparently autonomous entities. These entities may be one and the same as the metaphysical beings recorded in prehistoric cave art and historic folklore, by people who were describing the beings encountered during various types of altered states of consciousness, brought on either actively or passively. The faeries may change superficially through time, adapting to the expectations of the culture they are part of, but if it is human consciousness they are interacting with, this is no surprise. Underneath the cultural masks, the faeries begin to reveal their true selfs.

Materialism vs Consciousness

Image219There are many reasons why folklore about the faeries exists, and it certainly seems that interacting with them during an altered state of consciousness is one of them. Are they real experiences? They are subjectively real, but what is the objective reality? A Theosophist clairvoyant would suggest that we need to override our five senses with a dynamic type of consciousness that commands prominence over the material world. They would probably agree with Aldous Huxley’s description of a universal consciousness being ‘Mind at Large’ and that the brain is a ‘reducing valve transceiver’, that can be retuned by a variety of methods. Huxley did this with Mescaline (and later LSD), describing the experiences in his 1954 book The Doors of Perception.

The brain certainly gives us a very limited view of what is actually going on around us. Altering the transmission to the brain seems to allow non-material consciousness more of a free rein. As in a dream, an altered consciousness is able to construct metaphysical realities. It is able to communicate with the entities it finds there, and bring back a report. The relative consistency of the inhabitants of this alternative reality may suggest that they live there all the time, non-physical, and only able to interact with our physical world when conditions are right for an individual’s consciousness. This is the crux: does consciousness create physical reality, or is consciousness an epiphenomenon of the brain? If the former, then the realities experienced in altered states of consciousness can be accepted as true, with their own autonomous existence. If the latter, then while entities such as the faeries may be subjectively real, they do not exist objectively within the electromagnetic spectrum. This is the materialist/physicalist view. Although even physicalism has to adhere to its own rules and allow for the hypothesis that over 90% of the universe consists of non-physical form: Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Maybe that’s where the faeries are; waiting to be found.

Faeries and Aliens

9780987422484-2But the ontological reality of faeries (in whatever form) has in recent decades become linked to other ‘paranormal’ activity types, primary of which is the intrusion into our consensus reality of entities usually known as aliens. The first person to suggest a definitive link between the the reports of faerie experiences and alien encounters was the astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallée. In his 1969 book Passport to Magonia he put forward the theory that the faeries were one and the same as the alien beings who had been purportedly abducting people around the world for a couple of decades by that date. His hypothesis is that there is a commonality to the experiences reported in alien abduction scenarios, and the reports of interactions with faeries in folklore. He suggests the aliens and the faeries are essentially the same phenomenon, tuned through the cultural receptors of the time and then interpreted accordingly. He makes special reference to the regular motifs in faerie-tales of the abduction, by various means, of humans by faeries. There’s a lot of data here – it’s the commonest motif in faerie folklore, and continues to be reported in anecdotal testimonies. For a variety of reasons humans are taken to an alternative faerie reality, either as midwives or nurses for faerie children, as servants to the faeries, for sex, as punishment or reward, or just because the faeries feel like it. These motifs, of course, coincide with many aspects of the consistently strange phenomenon of alien abductions, reports of which have grown at an exponential rate since the early 1950s. Vallée uses a range of evidence to tie-up faerie abductions from folklore and alien abductions from modern reports, and goes as far to state:

“… the modern, global belief in flying saucers and their occupants is identical to an earlier belief in the fairy-faith. The entities described as the pilots of the craft are indistinguishable from the elves, sylphs and lutins of the Middle Ages. Through the observations of unidentified flying objects, we are concerned with an agency our ancestors knew well and regarded with terror: we are prying into the affairs of The Secret Commonwealth.”

md22767447201The Secret Commonwealth was the term coined for the faeries by the Reverend Robert Kirk in a manuscript of 1691, which includes a detailed description of their appearance, habits and exploits, gleaned from both his own experiences and those Scottish Highlanders purporting to have second-sight, or clairvoyance. As Vallée points out, Kirk’s descriptions of the faeries and their modus operandi bear more than a passing resemblance to the alien visitors of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Among their attributes was an ability to float through the air with insubstantial and fluid bodies, that they could make appear and disappear at will. This allowed them to ‘swim’ through the air and carry off mortals, usually to large circular abodes, that Kirk presumed were underground, and which were lit by a dim, unknown illumination. They even had ‘ætheriall vehicles’ to carry them around the sky. Kirk also asserted that the faeries had a nature intermediate between humans and angels. Their habit of abducting humans was usually for the purpose of wet-nursing faerie children or as midwives; a theme that fits in with the deluge of recent alien abduction reports (subsequent to Vallée’s investigations in 1969) that would suggest one of the main reasons for abduction is to obtain both parents and wet-nurses for hybrid human-alien offspring. Vallée quotes the 19th-century folklorist Edwin Hartland’s suggestion that such a programme of hybridisation was a primary reason for faerie abductions:

“The motive assigned to fairies in northern stories is that of preserving and improving their race, on the one had by carrying off human children to be brought up among the elves and to become united with them, and on the other hand by obtaining the milk and fostering care of human mothers for their own offspring.”

In 2005, Graham Hancock followed Vallee’s lead and took the comparison of faerie and alien abduction much further in his book Supernatural (after dealing with the elements of prehistoric shamanic cave-painting depictions of entities, discussed above). He compiled a range of faerie abduction reports from various time periods and geographical locations and set them against modern-day alien abduction events. He pays special attention to the faerie abduction of young women, such as Mrs Sheridan, an Irish woman, who seems to have spent much of the last decade of the 19th century being whisked off by the fairies for wet-nursing duties:

“Where they brought me I don’t know, or how I got there, but I’d be in a very big house, and it was round, the walls far away that you’d hardly see them, and a great many faeries all about… but they wouldn’t speak to me nor I to them.”

These ‘long-faced’ faeries had a definite purpose for kidnapping her and weren’t too concerned with her tearful appeals to release her – she had a job to do, and that was feeding their faerie babies. The correlation between these types of folkloric encounters and the alien abductions of women is striking. Hancock surveys the work of the late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack and the cultural historian David Jacobs, who have made extensive studies of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, often using hypnotic techniques to extract memories from amnesic events. It’s a minefield subject (mostly due to the vagaries of extracting memories from hypnosis), but John Mack in particular is a convincing advocate of the notion that whatever the experiences represent, they are genuinely real to the participant. The abductee, after being floated or beamed aboard the UFO is taken to a part of the ship where there seem to be drawers or tanks of hybrid alien-human babies, which they are expected to nurse. There is a consistency to these experiences (there are tens of thousands of them) that provides a dataset of testimony that Mack and Jacobs insist must be taken seriously as a phenomenon. For the abductees, the experience is often highly traumatic (Mack states that the best psychiatric diagnosis for many abductees is post-traumatic stress disorder), and no wonder, when they are confronted with alien hybrids often described as more like foetuses than babies. One abductee described to Mack their appearance, which is fairly typical:

“Their bodies were short for their heads. Their heads seemed oversized. They had very blue eyes. They had very thin, wispy hair… I would say they were probably three and a half feet tall, but they all looked the same age. ‘You’re our mother and we need you,’ they said.”

100The evidence presented by Jacques Vallée and Graham Hancock makes a convincing argument for the tight relation between faerie abductions in folklore and alien abductions in the 20th/21st century. It is a relation that has been skilfully investigated by Joshua Cutchin in his 2018 book Thieves in the Night: A Brief History of Supernatural Child Abductions, where he uses a wide range of folkloric, historic and modern testimony data to investigate child abductions by supernatural entities, coming to the conclusion that:

“The parallels between aliens and faeries are remarkable and extend deeply into the lore surrounding paranormal child abduction. The means and motivations behind both phenomena imply a shared ontological reality…”

The experiences are culturally coded to time and place, but the correlations and similarities are intriguing, and suggest the possibility of a common source for the phenomena. But what is that source? Is it purely a metaphysical attribute interacting at the non-material level of consciousness, or is there a physical dimension? Perhaps more importantly, can we make the differentiation between consciousness and material reality?

Ontological Faeries

This brings us back to the ontology of faerie experiences; what are these entities that have been a part of humanity for thousands of years, and where do they come from? They may be adapting to cultural codes, even evolving into new forms, but at what level of reality do they exist?

An answer may be to utilise David Luke’s three-part interpretation for metaphysical entity contact. He used it to assess a study into the otherworldly beings (many of which had faerie-attributes) encountered by people who had altered their states of consciousness with DMT, but it is also a valid tool to evaluate what may be happening to anyone who reports a numinous experience that includes interaction with non-ordinary entities such as the faeries:

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

Of course, all three interpretations may be true at different times and under various circumstances. From a materialist-reductionist standpoint, all faerie experiences could be reduced to hallucinatory events. There is no physical residue as an after-effect of the interactions, and the reports are all limited to visual and audio experiences. While the specific adjuncts allowing for the hallucinations to take place cannot be properly analysed, seeing them all as aberrations of visual and audial fields remains one legitimate interpretation.

This explanatory model is reliant on the theory that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain. The implication is that the brain, for whatever reason, is simply misconstruing sensory input from a physical world where things like faeries simply do not exist. This is the hard and fast materialist-reductionist standpoint, which is deeply embedded in Western culture. But, as discussed above, it is a standpoint that is now challenged at a fundamental level not only by religious and mystical traditions, but also by the recently reinvented philosophy of Kantian Idealism and by a growing number of quantum physicists, who (using a wide range of methodologies) suggest that the brain is a reducer of consciousness, not a creator of it. This model sees consciousness (not matter) as primary; it is everywhere and it is everything, and individual human (and animal) brains are merely conveying it within the remit of what then becomes physical reality. For the most part, this physical reality has a closely defined rule-set, but under certain conditions the usual laws break down and metaphysical events can occur. These supernatural occurrences are thus as legitimate as any natural occurrence. The philosopher Jeffrey Kripal describes this in relation to traumatic episodes that cause apparently non-ordinary experiences in his 2017 book written with Whitley Streiber, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained:

50241583“The body-brain crafts consciousness into a human form through a vast network of highly evolved biology, neurology, culture, language, family, and social interactions until a more or less stable ego or ‘I’ emerges, rather like the way the software and hardware of your laptop can pick up a Wi-Fi signal and translate the Internet into the specificities of your screen and social media. The analogy is a rough and imperfect one, but it gets the basic point across. Sometimes, however, the reducer is compromised or temporarily suppressed. The filtering or reduction of consciousness does not quite work, and other forms of mind or dimensions of consciousness, perhaps even other species or forms of life, that are normally shut out now ‘pop in.’ In extreme cases, it may seem that the cosmos itself has suddenly come alive and is all there. Perhaps it is.”

While most faerie encounters are not the result of trauma, this helps us to perhaps understand preternatural faerie experiences as something metaphysical being allowed to ‘pop in’ from either a greater, transcendent form of consciousness, or from an alternative reality to which humans do not usually have access. This would fit with either of David Luke’s second and third interpretations for supernatural entity contact. Simply put, a numinous zone has been entered and the participant is able to make contact with what usually resides external to their ordinary consciousness.

Experiences in numinous zones could be extended to a variety preternatural encounters, from ghost apparitions through to Near Death Experiences and UFO abduction scenarios, but it would seem that the faeries, as an ontological taxonomic, remain a consistent, even persistent, form of entity that interact with our consensus reality. While reports of the faeries from history have often been turned into folkloric stories (frequently with a moral lesson inserted into the plot line), modern encounters usually take the form of anecdotal testimony. But the phenomenological types of faeries retain an adherence to their folkloric roots. They can receive an updated appearance, and cultural coding, but they remain recognisable as faeries. Graham Hancock has summed up what may be happening if we allow the faeries some type of metaphysical reality:

“If we are prepared to set aside the automatic scepticism and reductionism of our age, and if we spell out the problem in plain language, then we find that we are contemplating the existence of highly intelligent discarnate entities belonging to an order of creation fundamentally different than our own… it really is almost as though the beings we are dealing with have been changing and developing alongside us for thousands of years, and that they therefore cannot simply be mass delusions, but must have a definite, independent reality outside the human brain.”

Whatever their true nature, it seems that for the faeries to make contact with humanity they require our consciousness to become loosened from the usual restraints, and to enter a numinous zone. If the model of reality affirmed by Idealism is correct, then this zone may be allowing us to access a greater Over-Mind, where exist entities that represent either a stand-alone autonomous class of their own, or perhaps aspects of the human collective consciousness (as explicated by Carl Jung), which is usually filtered out through the reducing valve of the brain. Either way, it appears that the faeries are here to stay, functioning in some nebulous region where any interpretation of them is reliant on us finding a way to incorporate consciousness into physical reality. This is something that has eluded both philosophers and scientists for millennia, and so perhaps it is no surprise that the faeries – whether nature spirits, inter-dimensional beings, aliens, or products of our collective imagination – for the moment, remain an intangible part of our cultural zeitgeist.

The cover image is by the reliably supernal artist Ylenia Viola, whose artwork can be found at Fairytalesneverdie. Thanks to Ylenia for her permission to reproduce this image called ‘This is a Work of Fiction’.

Faeries and Aliens: A Review of ‘Thieves in the Night’ by Joshua Cutchin

THIEVES IN THE NIGHT: A Brief History of Supernatural Child Abductions by Joshua Cutchin (Anomalist Books, 2018) ISBN: 9781938398957

This book comes just at the right time. The debate about the possible connections between the folkloric representations of faeries abducting children and modern alien abductions has reached the point where there seems to be a divide between writers who have been highlighting the connection for decades, and (mostly) folklorists who have been reacting against the proposition, with the view that the phenomena are not related. Likewise, there are UFOlogists who do not want to engage with the possibility that alien intervention into consensus reality has anything to do with the amorphous storytelling about folkloric faeries. Joshua Cutchin approaches the issue in an extremely even-handed manner, made all the more incisive by his ability to speak in the language of folklorists, while still retaining a left field Fortean perspective. Thieves in the Night pins down the folklore of child abduction in great detail before attempting to relay it onto the contemporary phenomenon of alien abductions, giving it an intellectual gravitas that commands attention. Despite chapter forays into the phenomenon of Sasquatch abductions and the recent cases of people going missing in national parks, this is primarily a book about explicating the link between faeries and aliens (in relation to abduction scenarios), which Cutchin does by using a wide range of data from historical sources and modern testimony. Sometimes the data is uncomfortable – we may not want the faeries of our folkloric past to become the invasive aliens of contemporary culture – but when enough evidence begins to accrue, we are obliged to accept the possibility that we might be dealing with a single phenomenon that stretches back thousands of years, and suggests that there are metaphysical entities (from the same source) who consistently intrude into our own physical reality, even extending their remit to the abduction of children. This is not subject matter easy to write about. Apart from the special-interest debate about the ontology of historic/contemporary supernatural child-abductors, there is a difficulty in discussing child abduction in general – it has become (perhaps has always been) a taboo subject, that is only allowed to be approached within certain structured codes. In this book Cutchin skilfully bypasses the taboos and grounds his hypotheses on a wealth of folklore, history and contemporary accounts, which makes a very convincing case for the faeries being one and the same as 20th/21st-century aliens, at least when it comes to abduction cases.

The link between the faeries of folklore and contemporary alien encounters was first made In 1969 by the astronomer and computer scientist Jacques Vallée, in his book Passport to Magonia. He suggested that there is a commonality to the experiences reported in alien abduction scenarios, and the reports of interactions with faeries in folklore, especially in abduction stories and anecdotes. He asserts that the aliens and the faeries are essentially the same phenomenon, tuned through the cultural receptors of the time and then interpreted accordingly. This metaphysical link was investigated further by Graham Hancock in his 2005 book Supernatural, where he details the striking similarities between certain faerie and alien encounters, again concentrating on data concerning human abduction by these entities. Both these works have been highly influential for those writers attempting to get under the skin of these phenomena, but Thieves in the Night is without doubt the most extensive assessment to date, albeit concentrating on a sub-set of the whole: child abduction. Cutchin summarises his remit thus:

“This book marks the first interdisciplinary attempt to compare child abduction from antiquity through the modern era. Predominantly, this means focussing upon Western interpretations of faerie folklore and the pernicious alien abduction phenomenon, particularly the means and motivations behind kidnapping, but multiple detours cover global traditions, Sasquatch abductions, and the recently popularised subject of disappearances in national parks.”

The focus is arranged over twenty-one chapters (profiled at the end of this review), which move first through incidences of child abduction from historic texts and folklore, and then on to the tangled web of alien abduction testimony. Cutchin marshals a vast range of documentary evidence to investigate the faerie abduction phenomenon, although restricting himself to mostly Western texts and sources. This is quite difficult to pull off without the end result being just a strung together collection of folkloric anecdotes. But even though the book does not take a strictly chronological approach, the sub-themes are arranged in such a way that the reader is immersed in the folklore, and is presented with a holistic view of how faerie abductions were understood by the people involved as well as by those reporting on the encounters. Cutchin makes extensive use of some core texts such as WY Evans-Wentz’s 1911 classic The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries and the writings of WB Yeats and Katherine Briggs, but, as the 1,572 endnotes and extensive bibliography suggest, he is mining some deep seams of folklore to present his case. This gives the work an ingrained authority – it’s not a collection of cherry-picked examples to support a hypothesis, but rather an attempt to genuinely convey the richness of the evidence, which demonstrates unequivocally that one of the main activities of folkloric faeries was abducting children.

The predominant method of abducting children by the faeries was through the exchange of a changeling for the human child. The worldwide stories of faerie changelings come under a group of folklore motifs recorded in the Aarne-Thompson Index of Folk Literature as F321: ‘Faerie steals child from cradle and leaves faerie substitute.’ The basic premise of these motifs is that the faeries, through supernatural means, are capable of abducting babies from humans, while replacing them with one of their own, usually a wizened old faerie who would proceed to eat and drink voraciously, and maintain a surly silence. With external advice the parents are usually advised of how to rid themselves of the changeling and restore their own baby from the faeries. The ruse is carried through and (usually) works. Cutchin devotes several chapters to changeling folklore while commenting that “… a remarkable feature of the changeling narrative is its stability… It is not only consistent in its narrative beats but also in its description of changelings.” He also notes that the changeling motif is something of an anomaly in faerie folklore. By its very nature there needs to be a component of physicalism in any changeling story; the faeries seem to be interacting directly in material reality and the changelings appear to be embedded within that reality. This is not often the case with faerie motifs, where stories and anecdotes can often be interpreted as metaphysical encounters, and the faeries seem to be interacting with humanity at the level of consciousness rather than as material entities. This is an important distinction, and also remains vital in any interpretation of alien abductions; are these supernatural beings manifesting themselves in consensus material reality as physical beings, or are they interacting with us within consciousness, leaving no corporeal residue. Cutchin is uncommitted on this point, and allows the folklore to speak for itself without imposing ideological narratives into the text.

The author also rounds up his assessment of the changeling phenomenon with a discussion of it as a folkloric device that attempts to make sense of child illness and disability in pre-modern societies by laying the blame squarely at the door of the faeries. The work of John Lindow, Carole Silver, Susan Eberly and RU Sayce are utilised to give one possible modern perspective on what the changeling stories may be:

“Descriptions of the changeling’s appearance and behaviour pointed to developmental disability and disease long before modern medicine eclipsed superstition. Viewed through contemporary eyes, most changeling stories transform from horrifying to tragic, unsettling tales of an inhuman other reinterpreted as heart-rending stories of abused children in dire need of medical assistance.”

The attempt to explain the injustice of infant sickness through the introduction of a supernatural agency into the folklore may well help us understand the deeper meanings of the stories. People sought and created a certain type of story, with defined motifs that would help to explain why children might be infirm, and the pressures it put on a family, especially in a subsistence economy. Unfortunately, many of the changeling stories include some radical solutions for dispatching the faerie and securing the return of the human baby. This frequently involves throwing them on fires, exposing them on hillsides or drowning. Sometimes the threat of these sanctions is enough to get the desired result, but there is usually some viciousness in the stories, at the expense of the changeling. Cutchin goes into some detail as to the means of dispatching changelings, and in light of the possible interpretation of the stories as justification for infanticide it makes for difficult reading.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the changeling motif was mostly relegated to the folklore of what happened in the past, but which doesn’t happen anymore. Improved hygiene and greater access to medicine, raised life-expectancy in rural populations and lowered child infirmity. At the same time the development of universal education ensured the new scientific view of child infirmity and disease replaced many of the folk beliefs that had previously attempted to explain why children became ill, and what could be done about it. But by the second half of the 20th century new culprits became the perpetrators of supernatural abduction, culturally coded to our technological sensibilities: aliens.

“Stories resembling the changeling narrative persist into the modern era, but they are rarely attributed to anything other than UFOs and extraterrestrials – regardless of how obstinately the faerie-faith bleeds into the case files of modern UFOlogy.”

These case files are derived from extremely diverse sources; unlike faerie folklore, alien abductions are primarily related by the person affected, before being viewed through a variety of interpretative lenses. Once again though, the crux of the phenomenon is whether the alien abductions are physical or metaphysical. Are there real extraterrestrials visiting earth and abducting people for their own agenda, or are these experiences acting out within the minds of the abductees, perhaps due to an altered state of consciousness? UFOlogist heavyweights such as the late Budd Hopkins and David Jacobs present the case for the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), based on many years of research with thousands of abductees, much of which has been derived from hypnotic regression. They suggest that off-world aliens are physically abducting adults and children, with the agenda usually seen as carrying out a programme of hybridisation through a variety of means. This interpretation certainly represents the prevailing view of most abductees and probably most UFOlogists. But Cutchin promptly introduces a note of caution for this hypothesis:

“In reality, the ETH is but one of many possible explanations, and a handful of researchers staunchly propose alternative theories: UFOs could be faeries, time travellers, Jungian archetypes, manifestation of psi effects, unexplained natural phenomena, or even top secret human aircraft. Any one explanation may not even explain the entire phenomenon.”

This is more in line with the work of the late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, who, from a very large number of case studies, came to see the alien abduction phenomenon as primarily metaphysical. This doesn’t mean that the encounters are not real, but rather that they are operating within consciousness, where the abducting entities are able to interact with humanity at a non-physical level. Cutchin remains cautious about any absolute interpretation on this and relates several cases where the aliens do seem to manifest as material creatures, with physical properties able to interface with humans and the environment. This echoes the current thinking of the most famous alien abductee, Whitley Streiber, who suggests that the aliens are functioning at a non-corporeal level of reality – pure consciousness – but that under certain circumstances their essence ‘leaks through’ to become material reality, leaving genuine material effects. Cutchin suggests this hypothesis may well be a tangible explanation for both aliens and faeries.

Chapters 11-16 go into a detailed assessment of child abductions by aliens. It is quite clear that children are more prone to be abducted than adults, but also that the abductions are rarely one-off events. Many of the adult case-studies derived from hypnotic regression show that the abductions often started in childhood and continued throughout the lives of the people reporting them. But there are also many abduction testimonies direct from children, and Cutchin investigates their legitimacy: Are they false memories? Do they represent various types of trauma transferred to a supernatural event? Or are children’s developing minds simply more malleable and accepting of a metaphysical reality than those of adults, and therefore able to describe what has happened to them without the psycho-cultural restrictions imposed on adults? Children certainly seem more willing to accept faeries as existing in reality, and so why not aliens?

The case studies are well chosen, and routinely raise questions as to what is really happening to these children. There are many ontological consistencies in the abduction reports, such as the recurring theme of being levitated from bed and ‘beamed’ into an alien vehicle, which is highly suggestive that the abductee is caught up in an Out of Body Experience. But (as in adult abductions) there are frequent absurdities within the reports, such as the aliens’ penchant for using old-fashioned surgical procedures, the appearance of dead people alongside the aliens, and their proclivity for playing games with the children, such as in a report from Tynset, Norway in 1985 when “doll-sized entities in helmets allegedly emerged from a UFO to play hide-and-seek with village children for several hours.” The incongruity of many abduction scenarios is summed up by a report from England, which also demonstrates that many of the components of typical abductions were in place well before the phenomenon began to be mainstreamed from the 1970s:

“In July 1953, twelve-year-old Gerry Armstrong blacked out while skipping school in the woods. His next memory was of an angry teacher rousing him. Under hypnosis, Armstrong revealed watching a light descend into the forest, followed by two short, grey, large-eyed figures approaching him. A voice in his head urged him to not be afraid. The beings floated Armstrong to the ladder of a landed craft. After boarding, he felt the craft take off and roamed its bright interior, where he saw a large dome full of children. Armstrong’s experience ended when a woman in red ripped the cross off his necklace, telling him, ‘It’s not right to worship.’ Like the queen of the fae folk, she seemed offended by the icon.”

Thieves in the Night represents the most detailed attempt to date to collate both folklore and contemporary testimony in order to understand the phenomenon of supernatural child abduction, which has been reported as a reality for centuries. Cutchin’s assessment that there is strong evidence to link the historic stories of abductions of children by faeries and modern alien abductions is convincing, primarily due to the quality of the author’s research and ability to marshall the diverse data into interpretations that are free from any ideological agenda. He brings together folklore and UFOlogy with great dexterity, and delivers a book that suggests that while we will probably never get to bottom of the reality of supernatural child abductions, there is a strong thread of commonality running through the phenomena, which may identify the perpetrating entities as coming from the same source. Whether that source is metaphysical, psychological, cultural or a currently unknown aspect of physical reality is still open to question, but Cutchin’s wide-ranging evaluation is a real gift for future researchers into this complex subject. The last word is his:

“The parallels between aliens and faeries are remarkable and extend deeply into the lore surrounding paranormal child abduction. The means and motivations behind both phenomena imply a shared ontological reality…”

Chapter Profile:

1. THIEVES IN THE NIGHT An Introduction
2. TOO BAD FOR HEAVEN & TOO GOOD FOR HELL A Primer on the Fae Folk and Faerie Abduction
3. CHIEF VICTIMS OF THE FAIRY STROKE Risks, Methods of Abduction, & Destinations
4.NOT YOUR CHILD, NOR IS HE A CHILD Changelings
5. FRESH BLOOD AND HUMAN VIGOR Motivations Behind Faerie Abduction
6. MASTERY BEYOND THE LIGHT OF THE CAMPFIRE Preventing and Thwarting Child Faerie Abduction
7. THE ACORN BEFORE THE OAK Changeling Confirmation & Resolution
8. MARVELOUS OR DIRE Restoration or Resignation
9. HORRIFYING TO TRAGIC Medical & Psychological Perspectives on Changelings
10. NOTHING MORE FAMILIAR Paranormal Child Abduction Worldwide
11. GOING BUT NEVER GONE—COMING BUT NEVER HERE Modern Modalities of Paranormal Child Abduction: An Introduction
12. A ‘TAGGED ANIMAL’ Child Alien Abduction
13. CHILDREN OF THE NORTHERN PEOPLES Risks, Methods of Abduction, & Destinations
14. IT’S TIME TO TAKE IT Missing Foetuses
15. WE NEED BABIES Motivation & the Hybridization Theory
16. YOU ARE NOT WANTED HERE! Preventing, Thwarting, Confirming, & Resolving Child Alien Abduction
17. JUST OUT-OF-FRAME UFOlogy, Hybrids, Faeries, & Changelings: An Intersection
18. COME OUT TOWARDS THE WOODS Child Sasquatch Abduction
19. AS A BABY IN MY CRIB The Crib Creepers
20. STORM CHILD Missing 411
21. WE NEED SHAMANS Seeking Answers
Acknowledgements
Endnotes
Bibliography
Index
About the Author

Thieves in the Night official release trailer

The Mabinogion: Worlds and Otherworlds in Medieval Wales

The medieval Welsh stories contained in what has become known as The Mabinogion hold many faerie motifs, and certainly resonate a magical folkloric ambience. This is an introductory overview of some of the stories from the collection. It only scratches the surface, but the references suggest some possibilities for further study into these preternatural tales. A version of this article first appeared on the Ancient Origins Premium website.

“On the bank of the river he saw a tall tree: from roots to crown one half was aflame and the other was green with leaves.” The History of Peredur Son of Evrawg.

The Mabinogion

The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven stories from medieval Wales. Although only first committed to manuscript during the 13th century (the oldest surviving fragmentary manuscript dates to c.1225), the tales are generally accepted as fossilising an oral tradition that dates back many centuries previous to this. They contain a heady mix of history, pseudo-history, mythology and folklore, and provide our most direct route into the Celtic mindset and worldview of ancient Welsh culture. The stories of The Mabinogion appear in complete form in two 14th-century Welsh manuscripts, ‘The White Book of Rhydderch’ (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch), and ‘The Red Book of Hergest’ (Llyfr Goch Hergest). They were all, originally, separate stories, written by different (unknown) hands, and were only collated into an autonomous group in the 19th century (first published as a complete set in 1849) by Lady Charlotte Guest, who translated the Welsh texts into English, using in part the earlier work of the Welsh antiquarian William Owen Pughe (d.1835). The eleven stories are usually split into the ‘four branches’:

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed (Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed)
Branwen, daughter of Llŷr (Branwen ferch Llŷr)
Manawydan, son of Llŷr (Manawydan fab Llŷr)
Math, son of Mathonwy (Math fab Mathonwy)

and three ‘romances’:

The Lady of the Fountain (Chwedl Iarlles Ffynawn)
The History of Peredur son of Evrawg (Historia Peredur ab Efrawg)
Gereint and Enid (Geraint ac Enid)

and supplemented by four further stories of various dates:

Culhwch and Olwen (Culhwch ac Olwen)
The Dream of Macsen Wledig (Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig)
Lludd and Llefelys (Lludd a Llefelys)
The Dream of Rhonabwy (Breuddwyd Rhonabwy)

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Peredur Son of Evrawg and the flaming tree, artist unknown

The quote from ‘Peredur’, describing the tree half aflame and half alive, illustrates well the preternatural quality that resonates through all the stories, where a magical Otherworld imbricates itself consistently into the landscapes of early medieval Wales. For those telling, listening to and reading the stories, this metaphysical overlapping would have represented a legitimate way of describing a past, where mythology and folklore were as authentic realities as the historical narrative. The characters, and their environment, were in physical reality and the Otherworld at the same time with no contradiction.

An Oral Tradition

Although the scenes and settings in The Mabinogion would have been immediately recognisable to people in the 13th and 14th centuries, when they became codified in manuscript form, the stories are nominally located in a post-Roman Wales, sometimes known as the Dark Ages. While it is not possible to trace the route sources of the stories, It seems certain that they developed from an oral tradition, a body of recitation lore, which has been given the Welsh name cyfarwyddyd (cer-var-with-id). The Mabinogion scholar Will Parker sums up the nature of this dissemination: “In pre-modern societies such as these, the oral tradition is the medium of collective memory; fluid in its details, but essentially static and conservative in its overall ethos… and we might assume that much of this material was informed, directly or otherwise, by the ambient oral tradition.”

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The White Book of Rhydderch, National Library of Wales

Current academic opinion suggests that at least some of the stories in The Mabinogion can be dated back to the early 11th century, based on the structure and style of the narrative units, known by the medieval authors as chwedlau. But many of the themes contained within the stories are replete with pre-Christian imagery and tropes, and it is conceivable that they are transmitting much older traditions, originating from the 5th and 6th centuries. Although the stories would have evolved and mutated over such a long period of time, they do appear to represent a mythologised set of narratives, which could have been recited by storytellers at the courts of Dark Age chieftains just as well as within those of the later medieval Welsh aristocracy. But whatever the true origination of the lore, the subject matter portrays the real world of ancient Wales consistently energised and influenced by an Otherworld that was fully integrated into the consensus reality of both the storytellers and those consuming the stories.

The Arthurian Connection

One of the most intriguing aspects of The Mabinogion is that several of the stories connect to the Arthurian mythos. Without these stories, the earliest literary renditions of the activities of Arthur and his court are found in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who, between 1135-1150, wrote the highly influential Historia Regum Britannia and Vita Merlini. Geoffrey appears to have utilised much oral folklore in his works, but there is a minimum of overlap with The Mabinogion tales, suggesting that he was using different branches of oral (and perhaps lost written) testimonies. The Mabinogion stories do transmit as more ‘folkloric’, with a heavier Celtic footprint and more reliant on folk motifs, which might insinuate they are the older corpus of material. Apart from some of the names, the Arthurian elements in the stories certainly bear little resemblance to what became ‘The Matter of Britain’; the recognisable story of King Arthur, begun by Geoffrey of Monmouth and then propagated by continental authors such as Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, before ending up in the hands of Sir Thomas Malory in the late 15th century. For all the supernatural components included in this later literature, they are not as embedded with the surreal as the stories in The Mabinogion.

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Culhwch and Olwen at Ysbaddaden’s court’ by Ernest Wallcousins (1920)

In the story of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ (often seen as the earliest of the tales) the role of Arthur’s court is paramount. But the king’s men, who are requisitioned to help Culhwch in his quest to obtain the hand of Olwen from her father (the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr) are evidently drawn from otherworldly stock and are given supernatural attributes, such as Sgilti Yscawndroed, who is able to transport himself great distances by treading over the tops of trees and even flying over mountains by utilising the tips of reeds. This was a skill shared with the Tylwyth Teg, the folkloric faeries of Wales. The giant father demands that forty tasks are achieved before he allows Culhwch to marry Olwen, a common folktale motif, and the story proceeds to recount a small number of these tasks, all of which have fantastical qualities. The task of hunting the magical boar Twrch Trwyth takes up the most prose, and seems to be partly based on the 9th-century Irish legends of Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. But the deeper Arthurian connection is made in the task of retrieving the cauldron of Diwrnach. This cauldron can be equated with the grail of the later Arthurian mythos, and its alchemical significance is confirmed by the firepower Arthur and his men implement in its retrieval. The grail motif is made more explicit in ‘The History of Peredur son of Evrawg,’ where the hero Peredur, after being dispatched to his uncle’s castle by Arthur, is confronted by a procession lead by an entity carrying a salver with a severed head. As usual in The Mabinogion, the significance of this is left ambiguous, but the motif of a magical salver/grail seems to have seeped into later renditions of the Arthurian mythos, where it was given more prominence, until (in the early 13th century) Robert de Boron classified it as the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood of Christ on the cross.

There is some contention as to how much cross-pollination there has been from The Mabinogion Arthurian stories to the later ‘Matter of Britain’, and even whether the Welsh manuscript sources were reintegrating French and German literature from the 12th and 13th centuries. But even if they were capturing motifs from these continental sources, the Welsh stories retain decisive elements of a magico-folkloric quality that appear to come from a pure stream of Celtic mysticism. This is best demonstrated in what is usually thought to be the latest of the stories, but the one that includes the most magical symbolism, hinting at an early source to its metaphysical prose. This is ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy.’

Magico-Folklore in Medieval Wales – ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’

Although the beginning of the story is set in the mid-12th century, with known historical personages from the kingdom of Powys, the main bulk of the prose consists of Rhonabwy’s dream, which takes him into a magical Otherworld that interfaces with a Dark Age, Arthurian pseudo-history. The first clue that the writer of the story is tapping into some ancient belief-systems comes as Rhonabwy finds himself in the squalid, dilapidated home of ‘Heilyn Goch son of Cadwgan son of Iddon.’ Rhonabwy sleeps wrapped in a yellow ox-hide situated on the dais of the hall. Sleeping in an ox-hide in order to gain oracular insights is attested to in Inuit and Siberian shamanic cultures from the 19th and 20th centuries, and is also portrayed in pre-Christian Irish texts such as Togail Bruidne Dá Derga. Such an episode even finds its way into Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae. Listeners to (and readers of) the story may not have been aware of the significance of Rhonabwy’s action, but it is clearly a symbolic deed that indicates the story is about to enter the metaphysical.

Rhonabwy’s dream has the hallmarks of an out of body experience, where he is mostly a discarnate observer of events, consistently described as a vision: “As soon as sleep entered his eyes he was granted a vision.” This is enabled by his (spirit) guide Iddawg who discloses that it was he who was responsible for the disastrous last battle of King Arthur (termed emperor throughout the story) at Camlann. But, after the appearance of a horseman “with curly yellow hair and his beard newly trimmed, on a yellow horse, and from the top of its forelegs and its kneecaps downwards green,” the dream then immediately transposes back in time as Rhonabwy is taken by his guide across a plain to witness the prequel to the Battle of Badon, the scene of Arthur’s first and greatest victory of the Saxon armies at some point in the early 6th century. When they come upon Arthur, Iddwag tells Rhonabwy that by seeing the stone set within a ring on Arthur’s finger “you will remember all that you have seen here tonight; had you not seen the stone you would have remembered nothing.” The stone may be seen as a magic talisman, serving as the link between physical reality and the Otherworld, another common shamanic trope and folkloric motif.

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Arthur and Owain play a game of gwyddbwyll by Alan Lee

In his visionary state, Rhonabwy witnesses a series of surreal events, centred around a game of gwyddbwyll (a chess-like board game) between Arthur and his retainer Owain mab Urien. At one point the players are asked to intervene as a flock of ravens dismember a number of their men (dismemberment in the Otherworld is another shamanic device, meant as a sign of spiritual renewal before return to physical reality), before the enigmatic arrival of twenty-four donkeys with baskets of gold and silver, which were to be given to Arthur’s bards. The story ends before any battle takes place, and the purpose and meaning is left undisclosed, as Rhonabwy awakes on the ox-hide having slept for three days and three nights.

Much of the otherworldy symbolism in ‘The Dream of Rhonobwy’ remains undecipherable, and it seems probable that even the late-medieval purveyors of the story were not fully aware of the pre-Christian and shamanistic elements contained in the narrative. But like all the stories in The Mabinogion, it was transmitting an ancient set of folkloric and mythological motifs that relied on an Otherworld to give meaning to the historic past of Wales. In this sense, the stories retain an embedded function and purpose that transcends their historical context, and continue to enhance our understanding of the ontological inheritance of metaphysical belief-systems so fundamental to the Celtic (and especially Welsh) cultural mindset.

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A map of the stories of The Mabinogion

References

Ashe, Geoffrey. The Origins of the Arthurian Legends (1995) http://faculty.smu.edu/bwheeler/arthur/ashe.pdf

Davies, Sioned (tr.), The Mabinogion (2007).

Green, Thomas. Concepts of Arthur (2008).

Guest, Lady Charlotte (tr.), The Mabinogion (1877 ed.) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/mab/index.htm

Historia Regum Britannia by Geoffrey of Monmouth http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/gem/index.htm

Lacy, Norris, J. et al. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia (1996).

Parker, Will. http://www.mabinogion.info (2010). This site contains an in-depth discussion and interpretation of The Mabinogion, with links to the full translated texts with notes.

Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/vm/index.htm

Wilson, Anne. The Magical Quest: The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance (1988).

Wilson, Anne. Plots and Powers: Magical Structures in Medieval Narrative (2001).

A round-table discussion about The Mabinogion on the BBC series ‘In Our Time’ can be streamed or downloaded here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b1p5k7#play

The cover image is ‘Culhwch’ by Arthur Joseph Gaskin (1921).