A Numinous Zone: Preternatural Modern Faeries

“A numinous zone is a state of consciousness in which numinous (supernatural or spiritual) experiences occur. It can be viewed as a highly dynamic state that gives rise to phenomenal shifts in one’s perception or abilities. These remarkably unique experiences often have a spiritually palpable intensity that includes a heightened sense of awareness, a kind of clarity and awe that emerges from a more open, curious and lucid mind.” Anthony Colombo

This article is based primarily on the results of the recent census into faerie sightings by Simon Young and The Fairy Investigation Society. It includes c.500 reports from all over the world, although the majority are from Britain, Ireland and North America. In some ways this is a follow up survey to that carried out by Marjorie Johnson, and published as Seeing Fairies in 2014. Johnson’s survey was restricted to mostly cases from the mid 20th century, but the new census (published as a free downloadable document in January 2018) contains encounters from the 1960s (with a few predating this) through to the present day, with the majority post-1980. In the introduction to the census, Simon Young explains how the publication takes a different tack to Johnson’s work: “Marjorie Johnson wanted to prove that fairies exist. I do not have this ambition. I, instead, want to get a better understanding of who sees fairies and under what circumstances by looking at the stories and the sightings.” And while contributors to the census were given the opportunity to state what they thought their experiences represented, there is no editorial evaluation into the sightings.

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This analytical but interpretation-free approach allows the reader to reach their own conclusions about the anecdotal accounts, and provides us with a large dataset of faerie encounters that appear to be honest appraisals of numinous experiences, which (for the most part) defy rational, reductionist explanations. And as with most modern faerie experiences, they have not become entangled into folkloric stories – they are simply experience reports of one-off sightings that may, or may not, bear resemblance to the faeries made familiar to us through folklore.

In order for the full scope of these faerie experiences to be appreciated, the census needs to be read in its totality. What follows here, is an attempt to break down some of the themes and drifts that make the anecdotes significant, and provide insights into the phenomenon, which is quite evidently alive and well in the 21st century. And as always at deadbutdreaming we’ll be attempting to get under the skin of the data in order to elucidate what it all might mean.

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‘The Introduction’ by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

Some Examples from the Census

To give a flavour of the content in these accounts, here are four of the experience reports, numbered as per the census (all the reports remain anonymous). They cannot be considered typical, but they can perhaps be thought of as symptomatic of the general tenor of the survey, and convey the personal perceptions of people who are endeavouring to describe a numinous event in their lives that they are attempting to come to terms with and understand. The first is from Somerset, England, and was described by a female in her twenties. The experience happened during the 1990s:

#114 “Friends had gone ahead and I straggled behind. As I turned a corner, it was misty. The mist had a weird glow. As I walked into the low mist there was a procession. Around three feet tall. With lanterns! But in the mist, I paused and they saw me. They came forward and I waited for them to pass. They passed. I have never taken drugs and was not on any alcohol. This was the weirdest experience. It lasted three to five minutes. By [the] time I got back to cottage my friends were concerned as I was away for around forty-five minutes! Very strange. They looked medieval in dress. But their clothes were covered by the mist at times.”

The respondent also reported that there was a profound silence before the experience, and that her hair was prickling or tingling before and during the event. She also suggested that there was a sense that the experience marked a turning point in her life.

The second example is from the Rhondda Valley in Wales, and the testimony is from a woman in her forties, describing an event in May 2010:

#190 “I was sitting out in my garden. The rhododendrons were in flower and it was a hot bright sunny day. I was very comfortable and content to listen to the birds and just relax. Unexpectedly I became aware of the golden outline of a figure down at the bottom of my garden. I say outline because it was not solid, but looked as though just its outline had been drawn with golden ink. The figure shimmered and had tall wings, but mostly it was transparent, like a rough sketch. It was about three foot tall and rose up in the air a little way before descending; it did this several times. Then I saw a second winged figure, very much smaller. This was also golden, but I remember seeing a flash of blue and green. My first thought was that it was a dragonfly, but on closer observation I saw that it flew quite differently and its shape was not that of an insect but a small human-like figure. Next I became aware of someone on the seat beside me, although I could not see them, but they were trying to get my attention – I could even see something pressing on my left upper arm, moving my clothing. I had that strong impression that day that I was meant to see the fairies, and they were pleased about it. It was a lovely experience, totally benign; I was amazed to see how the fairies really did look the way they appear in traditional tales.”

This third report is from the 1960s, and happened in Illinois, US, reported by a female who was then in her twenties. This excerpt is slightly condensed from the original, but is interesting at several levels, including the incorporation of the common folklore motif of the faeries stealing household items:

#267 “Some friends came from the city for the weekend and the lady brought with her a pattern and fabric so I could help make [a] dress for a party. One of the items was a long zipper and when it came time to put the zipper in, it had gone missing. She drove into a nearby town and bought another and the dress was finished. A couple days after they had gone I was in my parlor and I looked up from what I was doing to see a wee man about eighteen inches high. He had a brown skin and a very old looking face. His hair was black and tousled like the hair on a baby. His eyes reminded me of apple seeds. And in his hand was the missing zipper. ‘HEY’ I called out and in that instant, he was gone and the zipper was lying stretched flat on the floor in the doorway. I had seen these things as dark blue shadows running along the wall. My toddler daughter played with them and called them ‘the Blue Bamboozies’. I saw the little fellow clearly one other time while she was playing with him. He had brown skin, black hair, black eyes. Knee length pants barefoot and a tunic like shirt of a cream color. My outcry was a scold since he had made us look for the zipper and cost my friend money to replace it.”

The woman also noted that there was music accompanying the experience: “It sounded like organ music. Like long chords being played.”

For the fourth sighting we’re back across the Atlantic on the Isle of Man in the 1970s. The respondent is a male, then in his thirties who was travelling in a taxi across The Fairy Bridge over the Santon Burn, where it is a custom among the Manx people to greet the faeries with a wave as the bridge is crossed. The experience was shared with the taxi driver, and it is an interesting example of possible psychological suggestion, where the cogitation of faeries may have conjured up an actual encounter:

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

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‘The Fairy Bridge’, Isle of Man

Themes and Drifts in the Census

Many of the census reports date to the late 20th and 21st centuries, and so are relatively recent events in the lives of those reporting them, but there remains the problematic relationship between memory and what really happened. The plasticity of memory has become a well-studied psychological trait, and, of course, the further back in time the memory extends the more likely it is that extraneous elements are introduced into the remembered event, as well as the likelihood that parts of the experience become forgotten, or even suppressed. However, while allowances need to be made for skewed recollection, there is a resonant theme among the reports of the encounters being special events that have made an important impact on the respondents. These were numinous events, which due to their non-ordinary nature, have become important to the people recounting them. This may give more credence to our accepting the accounts as honest assessments of what happened, or at the least, what the respondents thought happened. And while a small number of reports might be put down to over-imaginative people misrepresenting an extraordinary experience, it becomes more difficult to write off c.500 statements from people who have taken the time and effort to communicate what appear to be vivid memories. They are also memories that in general seem meaningful and substantial to the respondents. The comment from the woman in report #114 that the experience marked a turning point in her life is a frequent refrain through the census. This is a significant point that will be discussed later. So while acknowledging the vagaries of memory, but accepting that the reports are conveying significant experiences in the lives of the individuals taking part in the survey, what are some of the thematic tropes that stand out in the census?

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‘Fairies Appear’ by Charles Sims (1900)

A consistent theme in many of the testimonies is disbelief at the unexpected appearance of entities that are not supposed to be part of physical reality. And yet the reality of the experience remains vivid, even (and allowing for the afore-discussed plasticity of memory) when the event happened several decades ago, as is the case in report #18, from a woman who was in her teens during a family holiday in Cornwall in the 1970s:

“I was walking a few steps ahead of my mum and sisters… when I saw a gnome sitting by the side of the path. It was so unexpected; I think I remember feeling scared – or wondering if I was seeing things or going mad? I took another couple of steps and I saw his nut brown wizened face in detail. He was cheekily grinning at me. He had a mossy brown beard and dark brown shining eyes; he was wearing a peaked hat (brown) and a shiny jacket and trousers in shades of brown and ochre. I’d say he was about twelve- to fourteen-inches tall. I (literally) could not believe my eyes. I was even too amazed (dumbstruck is apt here) to turn around and tell my family to ‘look at the gnome’ by the path. Then the gnome cocked his head (again, cheekily), turned his back on me and kind of changed/melted (transmogrified?) into an old tree stump.”

Another woman reported an experience (#82) on Hampstead Heath, London, when she was eighteen in 1987. She was keen to verify her sanity: “I have only told a small handful of people about my faerie experiences, most folk would think I’m nuts, and I’m definitely quite sane, well educated, thoughtful and quite open minded. I’ve never been on any psyche drugs ever, or seen any doctor for mental health conditions.” Her experience made her “rub her eyes in disbelief’:

“I was at a festival on Hampstead Heath in the summer. They told us we couldn’t camp, so we made a makeshift shelter out of an old carpet and climbed under it. We were in the woods on the Heath. As dawn broke and the first shafts of sunlight poured between the leafy canopy above I could see things moving around in the branches. They were pale green and almost transparent in their delicacy. Around fifty or sixty little dryads staring down from the leafy boughs staring at me. They were almost camouflaged by the trees. They had kind little faces and were scurrying around trying to get a better look at us. The light coming from the trees was quite strange and there was early morning mist in the freezing cold woods. I just lay there staring at them totally mesmerised.”

The feeling of incredulity by respondents at the faerie encounters is often coded with assurances to the census that they are not suffering any type of psychosis. There is evidently a sense that the experiences are paranormal, and therefore outside the remit of an accepted materialist worldview, which may open them up to ridicule or disdain. Indeed, there is a persistent drift in the reports where the experiencers are keen to make known that their encounters were singular events in lives otherwise devoid of faerie, or supernatural, occurrences. They weren’t taking psychotropic drugs (with a few exceptions, discussed below), they are not insane or prone to hallucinations, and they usually see the experience as a special event in otherwise normal lives.

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‘After the Faerie Ball’ by Josephine Hall

Particularly interesting is the ontology of faerie types described in the reports. There is quite a wide range of forms, but there is a predominance of what may be called traditional folkloric faeries and also a variety of winged faeries that may conform to a Victorianised stereotype: “Like beautiful little tiny women with clear wings” (#211, Canada); “He was about six inches long, with a set of double wings like a dragonfly’s” (#327, New Jersey, US); “The wings were large and flapped – she hovered in the same spot right in front of me for about twenty seconds. I could tell it was a female from her shape and long hair. The size was approximately twenty centimetres in body length, but the wingspan around sixty centimetres” (#179, Scotland). These are some typical descriptions of winged faeries from the census. In all, a little under 40% of respondents described the faeries they experienced as having some form of wings. Rather less described archaic clothing, but there is a strain of descriptions running through the census that depict the faeries as wearing ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘antiquated’ clothes, usually worn by entities that were almost human, but differentiated by their size or mutated features. A female in her twenties from Georgia, US (#256), even described her folkloric-style, three-foot high visitor as “like a classic Brian Froud illustration of a Gnome.” He had: “rustic clothes: pants, shirt, vest and slouchy leather hat. The pants and vest seemed a brownish green, the shirt pale. The hat was a russet color. His eyebrows were bushy, hair long, unkempt and both brows and hair were white.”

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Some gnomic and winged faeries from Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee

Are these faeries a transference of expectations, or are they simply what the entities look like? Some respondents make clear that they are familiar with folkloric faeries or that they are acquainted with the idea that the faeries are winged creatures in the style of Victorian or 20th-century representations. But for the most part it is not evident how culturally-coded they were before their experience. We will come on to what this might mean in terms of the reality of the experiences.

As discussed, most respondents are describing experiences that were spontaneous and unexpected. Only two reports are from people who had actively altered their states of consciousness by taking psychotropic substances, in both cases psilocybin mushrooms (a male in his teens during the 2000s from Powys, Wales, #189, and a male in his forties in 2010 from California, US, #240). Interestingly, the Welsh respondent suggests that the faerie encounter was different from the rest of his psychedelic experience, standing out as something apparently less subjective – not an internalised vision, but rather something that seemed to happen in external physical reality:

“I noticed these small two-dimensional creatures walking in procession in the grain of wood on a chest of drawers. There was one larger member of the procession that appeared to be female and in charge. The entities had long pointed noses, appeared organic, like beautiful little goblins, and were sort of swirling along in their procession. The largest one turned to look at me, noticed I was looking, and then continued with its procession. I shouted out to the other two people in the room ‘I can see fairies,’ because I didn’t know what else to call them. The fairies just continued to move along the grain of the wood, and I stopped paying attention to them. It was a strange experience – they seemed to be different to the rest of the psychedelic experience because they were moving along with deliberate intent, and seemed to possess a consciousness of their own. They clearly noticed me, but were not concerned that I had spotted them. The memory is still very vivid in my mind. [They were] like small, two-dimensional, beautiful goblins. They had long pointed noses.”

The Californian male (who shared the experience with his girlfriend) describes an interaction with a strange humanoid entity: “naked except for a pair of leather Celtic or pagan shorts (or maybe more like a loincloth?), like you’d see at the Renaissance Faire, and a leather vest (of similar style) that was fully open.” He had pointed ears and exuded a “glamour and repulsiveness” that marked him out as otherworldly to the respondent. It is fair to say that while both these encounters bear the hallmarks of the world seen through psychedelic trippiness, if the respondents had failed to disclose their mushroom intake, the reports would not be out of place among the rest of the census in terms of the phenomenology of experience.

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A Californian psychedelically-induced faerie world transformed into a jigsaw puzzle

This phenomenology is shared relatively equally between males and females (a ratio of c.35m-65f), and whilst there is a diverse age range of respondents, all testimonies are from adults, with about 20% of accounts made retrospectively from when they were children. The census questionnaire also asked each person to explain what they thought the faeries are, based on their experiences.  A small number of testimonies suggest uncertainty as to whether the encounters happened in a dream, but the majority report incidences that seem to have taken place in what was perceived as physical reality. And while many people express no opinion about what their encounters represented (some simply state that they don’t know what faeries are), the predominant ideas expressed by respondents are that the faeries are either nature spirits (or elementals) or that they are inter-dimensional beings, interacting with consensus reality in an undefined way.

Most of the descriptions of the faeries as nature spirits take place in natural environments, and there is quite a diversity of visual and audial types of experience. They range from the typical small flower faerie type through to orbs of light, and a few encounters have no visual component but consist of tinkling bells, harmonious music or voices with no apparent source (music and bells often accompany visual experiences as well). A female in her thirties from Sydney, Australia (#468) sums up what many of the respondents thought of their contact with somewhat amorphous faeries in nature: “I believe they were nature spirits – I was in nature in their habitat. [Faeries are] nature spirits. They are there to protect nature.”

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‘Nature Spirits’ by Thylacine-Girl

And a sizeable minority of respondents suggested that the faeries encountered were inter-dimensional beings. These were most often people who disclosed an interest in esoteric phenomena of some sort. Among these accounts there is a mixture of interpretations as to whether this meant the entities were actually present in physical reality after morphing from an extra-physical location, or whether the human participant was engaging with them in their own realm for a period of time. A few respondents suggest that the meeting ground is consciousness itself, with the possibility that a larger ‘Over-Mind’ is the space where humans and faeries can connect. A woman from Wales articulated her thoughts on this after an encounter during the 1990s with a zoomorphic entity, when she was a teenager:

#191 “[Faeries are] other dimensional beings, linked to our earth also, and our psyches, they seem to reflect our inner hidden natures. I am very interested in the awakening of the ufo/alien/faery connection worldwide and the connection to multi-verse theories and other dimensions… Could it be the same thing? How is our human consciousness connected? For we are [connected] or we wouldn’t have these experiences.”

These personal interpretations of faerie encounters also frequently include the recognition that the event was life-changing, or at the least, a special moment in the respondents lives. The mere fact that they took the time to respond to the census, is suggestive of the personal importance of their encounters. This significance is another theme running through the census, and tallies with many people who experience a numinous event in their lives. But if we move on from the subjective perceptions included in the reports, is it possible to get behind the phenomenon and make some assessments of what it means and where it comes from?

A Numinous Zone

A useful place to start might 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 the potent psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine (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:

  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 of the experiences in the census 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 reductionist standpoint becomes more difficult to apply in the cases of shared experiences, of which there are several in the census (including #160 and #240, discussed above). Although even these could be put down to psychological suggestion, transferred from one participant to another.

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‘Walking on the Edge of Your Mind’ by Ylenia Viola

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 it is a standpoint that is challenged at a fundamental level not only by religious and mystical traditions, but also by a 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: Why the Unexplained is Real:

9780143109501“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 the census respondents did not (with a few exceptions) report their encounters as the result of any trauma, the preternatural events they experienced could be interpreted, using the Idealism theory, 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.

Apart from the two instances of respondents who had altered their state of consciousness with psilocybin mushrooms, the emotional condition of the people reporting the experiences remains largely undisclosed. We are sometimes given hints that they were calm, relaxed, anxious or unhappy, and for those reporting encounters in nature there is often a description of feeling contentment prior to the experience, but there is little to suggest any radical alteration of consciousness before the appearance of the faeries. The events just happened spontaneously. Whether they were aberrant hallucinations or numinous moments allowing access to otherworldly dimensions, it would appear that people from a diverse range of backgrounds and geographical locations experience the faeries in contemporary societies, much in the same way they have done for several centuries, perhaps even millennia.

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, such as those from the census, 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; from his 2005 book Supernatural:

supernatural1-2“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 its 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. But even if this is correct, the question remains: why? What purpose are these encounters serving? And is there a meaning to it? Unfortunately, these are very big questions and beyond the scope of this present article. So, with the promise of exploring this in more detail in a future article, we’ll end with a somewhat Cosmic hypothesis, initially intimated by Terence McKenna, Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham in their 1998 book The Evolutionary Mind: Conversations on Science, Imagination & Spirit, but recently fleshed out in some more detail by Jeffrey Kripal. It opens up the possibility that the census respondents, and innumerable people before them, are tapping into a truly transcendent phenomenon when they find themselves in a numinous zone. Kripal explains it thus:

“I want to be explicit. I want to propose the idea that a rare but real form of the imagination may be what the conscious force of evolution looks like. And by ‘looks like,’ I mean two things: how the evolutionary force appears to a human mind in a particular culture; and, with a bit of a trippy twist now, how the evolutionary force itself ‘sees.’ I mean both sides of the two-way mirror. I mean both the reflecting back and seeing through. The second meaning of ‘how the evolutionary force itself sees’ shifts the conversation to new territory. That new territory involves the possibility that, in very special moments, the human imagination somehow becomes temporarily empowered, and functions not as a simple spinner of fantasies (the imaginary) but as a very special organ of cognition and translation (the symbolic), as a kind of supersense that is perceiving some entirely different, probably non-human or superhuman order of reality, but shaping that encounter into a virtual reality display in tune with the local culture: in short, a reflecting back and a seeing through at the same time.”

~~~

* A concise new article (loaded with links to detailed research) outlining how the philosophical theory of Idealism meshes with quantum mechanics can be found at: ‘Coming to Grips with the Implications of Quantum Mechanics’. It is by one of the foremost modern proponents of Idealism, Bernardo Kastrup, and the quantum physicists Henry P. Stapp and Menas C. Kafatos.

As linked at the beginning of this article, the Fairy Census can be downloaded for free at The Fairy Investigation Society’s website. It includes an introduction and explanation of the collection/editorial methodologies by Simon Young. The census was conducted between 2014-17, and there are plans afoot for a further survey. Look out for information on the website and also updates on The Fairy Investigation Society’s Facebook page.

The cover image, A.I.R., is by the preternaturally talented photographer and artist Ylenia Viola, whose artwork can be found at her website: Fairytalesneverdie. Deadbutdreaming thanks Ylenia for permission to use her images.

The Faerie Changeling Phenomenon

“Come away, O human child.
To the waters and the wild,
With a faerie hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
WB Yeats, The Stolen Child

The Phenomenon

The worldwide stories of faerie changelings come under a group of folklore motifs recorded in the Aarne-Thompson index 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. There are many variations on the story, but the Brother’s Grimm summed up in concise form the main components of a typical changeling story from mid 19th-century Germany:

“A mother had her child taken from the cradle by elves. In its place they laid a changeling with a thick head and staring eyes who would do nothing but eat and drink. In distress she went to a neighbour and asked for advice. The neighbour told her to carry the changeling into the kitchen, set it on the hearth, make a fire, and boil water in two eggshells. That should make the changeling laugh, and if he laughs it will be all over with him. The woman did everything just as her neighbour said. When she placed the eggshells filled with water over the fire, the changeling said:

‘Now I am as old
As the Wester Wood,
But have never seen anyone cooking in shells!’

And he began laughing about it. When he laughed, a band of little elves suddenly appeared. They brought the rightful child, set it on the hearth, and took the changeling away.”

A common variation on this plot would be for the changeling to be threatened with (or sometimes given) a roasting over the fire, which was usually enough for them to reveal themselves and thereby break the spell. This basic story type can be found in folklore throughout the world, suggesting that the culturally embedded motifs represented by the stories had great importance to the people who propagated them. Changelings certainly abound in Scottish folklore. Kim McNamara-Wilson recounts a story collected by JF Campbell and first published in 1862 in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands:

“One story speaks of a smith, father to a healthy and happy thirteen year old boy on the Isle of Islay. One day, the boy mysteriously fell ill and his condition and temperament continued to worsen tenfold each day. Though his appetite increased at the same rate, he was in fact rapidly losing weight. In misery, the father confided in a very wise and respected old man in the town. The old man told him that most likely the boy had been taken by the Daoine Sith, and they had left a Sibhreach in his place. Distraught, the father wondered if he’d ever see his son again. The old man instructed him to take several broken eggshells and fill them with water, then place them carefully around the hearth in the boy’s room. He did so, and within no time, the boy was jumping from his bed in a fit of laughter shouting, “I’ve been alive 800 years and have never seen the likes of this!” Hearing that, the father pushed the Changeling into the fire, and it shot up the chimney. The real boy was spit out from the Faerie mound nearby at that very moment, and the father and son were soon after reunited.”

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‘Changeling’ by Alan Lee

While most of these folkloric changeling stories were first collected and published in the 19th century, the changeling motif extends back into the Middle Ages. In the recent publication Elf Queens and Holy Friars, Richard Green demonstrates that the changeling story was a cultural mainstay by at least the 12th century. In the early 13th century, William of Auvergne goes into some detail describing the ‘ignorant people’s’ belief in faerie changelings: “They say they are skinny and always wailing, and such milk-drinkers that four nurses do not supply a sufficient quantity of milk to feed one. These appeared to have remained with their nurses for many years, and afterwards to have flown away, or rather vanished.” He was not alone, amongst medieval chroniclers, to discuss the phenomenon with the implicit suggestion that the belief was a given reality amongst the rural population. But William, and the literate class of which he was a part, would usually use the changeling stories as demonstrations of the uneducated people’s foolish beliefs, and their need to swap their faerie-tales for the orthodox Christian position, which stated that such malevolent acts were the work of the Devil alone.

But Richard Green delves a bit deeper into the medieval record to find a widespread vernacular tradition of faerie changelings. He focuses on the surviving texts of medieval mystery plays, to show that the language of the changeling motif was fully integrated into the culture, down to the town and village level, where many mystery plays were performed. Many faerie themes found their way into the plays, including stories of changelings. In the Chester Cycle of mystery plays from the 15th century, the character of King Herod is even invoked to call Christ: “That elfe and vile changeling.” The mystery plays were always places where subversive ideas could be expressed in theatrical form against the Church and state. They give us an opportunity to understand how the vernacular population viewed folktale motifs, performed to them as representations of commonly understood beliefs, such as the changeling stories. The inclusion of faerie changelings as a natural part of many of the plays, might suggest that there was a genuine and general belief in them, in direct contradistinction to Church doctrine.

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A demon performing a baby changeling swap from The Legend of St Stephen by Martino di Bartolomeo (15th century).

These beliefs seem to have been maintained as an oral tradition at various levels through time and across geographical area until, by the time they came to be collected and recorded in the 19th century, the changeling stories were told almost exclusively as having happened during previous generations or at an indistinct time in the past. Unlike many folkloric faerie motifs, they have not continued to be incorporated into the setting of contemporary stories beyond the early 20th century. So, on the assumption that the changeling phenomenon was culturally important through the Middle Ages to the 20th century; where did it come from, why was it popularised, and why did the belief end so definitively, whilst other faerie beliefs continued? Maybe even more importantly; what does the phenomenon mean?

The Meaning of the Faerie Changeling Phenomenon

When folklorist/anthropologist WY Evans-Wentz was collecting the faerie folklore of the Celtic countries, at the beginning of the 20th century, he included several changeling stories, which incorporated the usual components of human babies being stolen from their cradles and replaced with grizled old faeries, who were nonetheless human enough to fool the parents. At this time, one of the favourite interpretations for the motif was that it was a folk-memory of an indigenous pre-Celtic race of people, who, once pushed into liminal environmental areas by the incomers, would steal Celtic babies, and perhaps even replace them with their own dead or dying. Time has turned this race into faeries; their exploits remembered only in folklore. Evans-Wentz agreed with this interpretation to an extent, and it does give a physicality to the changeling folktales, which might explain their longevity. But there is no evidence for the stories of this potential historical reality being continued over such a long timespan through folklore. And much of the changeling folklore is very evidently meant to represent the contemporary culture producing the stories.

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Illustration from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by Arthur Rackham (1908)

The general current academic consensus sees the phenomenon as an articulation through folklore of a need to understand infant sickness and death. In pre-industrial societies infant mortality was high, and until you survived through to about five years of age, your life-expectancy remained low. In rural subsistence economies an ill or infirm baby would have been a substantial burden on a family. John Lindow has recently discussed the socio-cultural pressures underlying the changeling phenomenon. He suggests that they were stories that were based around the reality of not having enough food, and trying to integrate a sick or disabled child into the household. He notes, correctly, that the rituals to reverse the changeling swap always involve food and its preparation, drawing the conclusion that: “The changeling was an extra mouth to feed, while at the same time, his illness deprived the household of a worker. In that sense the illness indeed made an exchange: a positive productive worker for an unproductive dependent. Legends of changelings mapped that unarticulated exchange onto the articulated exchange of a supernatural being.”

This attempt to explain the injustice of infant sickness through the introduction of a supernatural element into the folklore may well help us understand the deeper meanings of the stories. The Christian explanation for infant sickness and death was not enough and at the vernacular level, 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. And this brings us back to the actual belief in faerie changelings.

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‘Der Wechselbalg’ by Henry Fuseli (1781)

Whatever the merits of the hypotheses of folklore acting as an articulator of social and cultural pressures, it was certainly the case that until the 19th century any distinction between allegory and reality was blurred in the minds of the (mostly) rural populations who told and listened to the stories. And this meant that if a faerie changeling was suspected, then there was a possibility that it might be treated in the same way recommended in the stories. The court records of Gotland, Sweden, for 1690, document one of the rare cases brought to court. A man and woman were placed on trial for having left a ten-year-old changeling — a sickly child who was not growing properly — on a manure pile overnight on Christmas Eve, hoping that the faeries who had made the exchange some years earlier would now return their rightful son. The child died of exposure. This might be seen as the parents being punished for the infanticide of an infirm child, or the trial of an innocent couple who believed fully in the efficacy of what they were doing, based on a wealth of folktales that were told in their communities every day. There are enough further similar cases of parents making real the recommendations of the changeling stories to account for and deal with infirm children, for us to recognise that the consensus reality of rural populations in pre-industrial societies was heavily influenced by the folk tales they told and heard throughout their lives. And allowing the faeries to play the metaphysical villains in changeling stories as well as in real life, offered explanations for child illness and practical options for what could be done about it.

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‘Changeling’ original watercolour by Victoria Grimalkin

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 the deeper meaning of changeling folklore remains. At its roots it offered psychological therapy through storytelling to people who were in difficult situations due to a child’s infirmity. The faeries acted as the supernatural agency to explain traumatic experiences that were otherwise unexplainable. It is this supernatural quality to the changeling stories that allowed their long existence in folklore, and which gives us a vivid insight into the consensus reality of the past.

In many ways, the changeling phenomenon differs from the main body of faerie folklore and anecdotal evidence. As investigated in many posts on this site, the faeries are often encountered as metaphysical entities, frequently when the human interaction is facilitated through some type of altered state of consciousness. Such interactions appear to suggest that the faeries are non-physical, and that immersion into their world involves the human participants operating beyond material reality to interface with them. But faerie changelings are required to be fully embedded into consensus reality. This confluence seems easier to explain via a transpersonal, psychological interpretation, where the concept of the faeries interfering in the material world is used to resolve traumatic circumstances that appear to defy rational explanation. And unlike many manifestations of the faeries, which continue in great number to the present day, the changeling phenomenon has been consigned to the folkloric past. However, like all faerie folklore, the changeling stories do give us an invaluable insight into the modus operandi of these metaphysical beings, who seem to comport themselves at the periphery of consciousness, where their Otherworld can imbricate ours when certain conditions are met.

References

Aarne, Antti and Stith Thompson, Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends, 6 volumes (1955-1958).

Ashliman, DL, ‘Changelings’ (1997).

Briggs, Katherine, An Encyclopaedia of Fairies (1976).

Campbell, JF, Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1862).

Evans-Wentz, WY, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911).

Green, Richard Firth, Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church (2016).

Lindow, John, ‘Changeling, Changing, Re-exchanges: Thoughts on the Relationship between Folk Belief and Legend,’ Legends and Landscapes: Plenary Papers from the 5th Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium, ed. Terry Gunnell (2008), 215-34.

McNamara-Wilson, ‘Irish Faerie Folk of Yore and Yesterday: The Changeling’ (2012).

Sugg, Richard, ‘Fairy Scapegoats: A History of the Persecution of Changeling Children‘ (2018)

The Wikipedia page on changelings also gives some useful information and links, including the idea that autistic children may have been seen as faerie changelings in pre-industrial societies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changeling

One of the most recent, and unusual, changeling episodes is the case of Bridget Cleary from Ireland during the last years of the 19th century. Ali Isaac describes the circumstances of this disturbing event in some detail here.

A version of this article appeared originally on the Ancient Origins Premium website.

The cover image is ‘A Changeling Baby’ by PJ Lynch.

Espíritus de la Naturaleza, Animales Y Fauna Feérica by Óscar Robles

Here’s another first on deadbutdreaming – an article in Spanish. It’s by my colleague and faeriecologist Óscar Robles, and takes an introductory look at the relationship between faeries and animals from a Spanish perspective, but with a global remit. Thanks to Óscar for permission to publish.

The images are all by the Victorian artist John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906), whose paintings often included animals interacting with the faeries.

En mayor o menor medida se ha hablado de la relación entre los espíritus de la naturaleza y las hadas con las plantas, la flora, los árboles, etc. Vemos obras como las de Richard Ely y Véronique Barrau titulada “Les plantes des feés et autres esprits de la nature” en las que tratan hermosamente estas conexiones, una obra que se encuentra en francés. Vemos también la obra de Elizabeth Andrew titulada “Faerie flora” en inglés, o en castellano las obras de Jesús Callejo como “El alma de las flores” Y “Sabiduría ancestral de las plantas” en la que en esta última dedica un breve capítulo al mundo de las plantas y los espíritus de la naturaleza. Se puede decir que obras monográficas sobre la relación entre hadas y plantas se ha escrito algo sin embargo no sucede lo mismo entre la relación de espíritus de la naturaleza y animales.

Salvo menciones o capítulos dentro de libros que abarcan temas más generales, no hay obra monográfica hasta ahora que trate el mundo feérico y su conexión con el mundo animal. Lo que contrasta con que prácticamente cada elfo, duende, hada, gnomo, troll, etc. Tiene algún tipo de relación y asociación con prácticamente cualquier animal del mundo natural. Dado el vacío de trabajos sobre el asunto, daré unas pinceladas sobre este tema tan interesante que nos ocupa.

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Los tipos de asociación entre el mundo de las hadas con el de los animales se pueden dividir en cuatro tipos:

Metamorfosis: Este tipo de relación consiste en hadas, duendes, elfos o gnomos que se convierten en un determinado animal. En otras palabras, llevan a cabo transformaciones en determinados animales.

Mitad – Hada: Este segundo tipo refleja criaturas del reino feérico que poseen una o varias características de animales sin serlo completamente. Como es el ejemplo de tantas criaturas feéricas que poseen patas de otro animal, o incluso garras u otros atributos.

Relación simbiótica: En este tipo de relación, se da la coyuntura de hadas o gnomos que de una forma u otra se hacen acompañar por animales, ya se para transportarse, como acompañantes, para jugar, protegerlos, para que estos animales les avisen de peligros o para utilizarlos con algún fin como el don de la profecía u otros.

Animales feéricos: En este último grupo estarían aquellos tipos de animales que no existen dentro de la zoología convencional y que corresponderían única y exclusivamente al mundo de las hadas. Ejemplos de algunos serían los dragones, unicornios, kelpies, etc. Este grupo último me interesa menos para este tema, puesto que me centraré más en animales conocidos por la zoología convencional y su ligazón con los seres feéricos.

A continuación, expondré un pequeño repertorio de una serie de animales de distintos continentes y su relación con la ‘gente pequeña’. Los he elegido según mis gustos algunos y otros azarosamente.

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Topos. Este micromamífero perteneciente al orden de los insectívoros es una criatura de cuerpo cilíndrico y pelo negruzco, prácticamente ciego y que pasa gran parte de su vida bajo tierra. Es por ello por lo que tiene una estrecha relación con los duendes subterráneos y también con un tipo de hada llamadas “Fayette” que durante el día se convierten en estas criaturas y arrasan con los huertos.

Musarañas. Este animal es el mamífero más pequeño del mundo. De hocico alargado y confundido a veces con el ratón aunque no son de la misma familia, posee un apetito voraz y goza de una energía arrolladora. Puesto que es uno de los mamíferos más pequeños del planeta, sirve como medio de transporte a los duendes y hadas más pequeños de los bosques y campos, que con su gran rapidez y ferocidad les es de gran ayuda a las criaturas feéricas más pequeñas de la naturaleza.

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Erizos. Este adorable animal, con el cuerpo cubierto de espinas que cuando se siente amenazado se convierte en una pelota, recibe en la Isla de Man el nombre de “Arkan Soney” o también “Erizo de la suerte”. Se dice que es un duende metamorfoseado en este pequeño mamífero y todo aquel que consiga atraparlo tendrá siempre una moneda de plata en su bolsillo.

Conejo. Este tierno animal, conocido por todos, inteligente, vegano y con grandes orejas en algunos casos es el elegido por los duendes, gnomos y hadas domésticos para recorrer las zonas en los campos donde viven.

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Grillo. Este insecto acompaña a los seres feéricos más pequeños en sus paseos por el bosque. Con su canto avisa a los elfos del peligro de seres humanos que se aproximan.

Lagarto. Es considerado como un ser feérico en sí mismo, respetado por todos los seres de este mundo y al que se le considera como un gran guardián de secretos.

Gato. El gato es un animal doméstico que tanto para lo bueno como para lo malo está íntimamente unido al mundo feérico. Algunos duendes o hadas se metamorfosean en este tipo de animal para acercarse a los humanos, especialmente los seres domésticos que quieren ayudar en las labores de la casa.

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Salmón. Un pez muy ligado a los seres feéricos vinculados al agua ya que lo utilizan como ayudante a la hora de hacer una profecía.

Tapir. Este animal de la selva amazónica esta muy vinculado a un tipo de ser feérico llamado “kasonkati” el cual se aparece bajo esta forma y es considerado muy peligroso para el ser humano ya que ataca a toda persona que se encuentre en su camino.

Ningaui. El Ningaui es un tipo de marsupial que habita en Australia. Los nativos Australianos llaman a este animalito Tiwi y para ellos es un tipo de espíritu el cual se alimenta de alimentos crudos al no poder manipular el fuego, son muy activos durante la noche y viven en un lugar llamado Melville Island frente a la costa norte de Australia. Ellos suelen asistir a los ritos de iniciación de la tribu Kuala.

Rana. Este batracio está estrechamente ligado a las hadas acuáticas con las que permanece mientras éstas están en las orillas de los ríos. Avisan a los seres feéricos de la llegada de fuertes lluvias o tormentas.

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Jabalí. Este “cerdo salvaje” es el infatigable compañero de un tipo de duende de la mitología Guaraní llamado “curupira”. Irreductible defensor de la naturaleza salvaje que siempre va a lomos de este animal y con una lanza para atacar a todo aquel que dañe la naturaleza, tale árboles o intente matar a hembras embarazadas.

Zarigüeyas. Este tipo de animal marsupial se dice que es el “animal de compañía” de los Mimis. Al igual que los humanos tenemos gatos o perros como mascotas, los mimis, tipos de duendes o elfos australianos, se hacen acompañar por estos animales. Viven en oquedades de las rocas y son benéficos.

Oso gris. Este tipo de gran mamífero es el acompañante de un duende chino con aspecto de avanzada edad llamado “chang hsien”. Este duende es benévolo.

Focas. Estos animales están muy unidos a seres feéricos acuáticos de frías aguas, especialmente del pueblo inuit de Norteamérica, el cual posee en su mitología un tipo de criatura que las protege y vela porque no las cacen más de la cuenta. Este ser es el “agloolik”.

Tigre. Este tipo de animal es la forma que adopta un miembro del mundo de los seres feéricos de Malasia. Es muy peligroso ya que ataca a los humanos bajo esta forma. Vive en la jungla.

Hormiga. Insecto muy apreciado por las hadas que están vinculadas al elemento tierra. En África hay un tipo de hada llamada abatwa que habita junto a ellas en profundas galerías subterráneas.

Como vemos… la lista podría dar para mucho más, es inabarcable. Cada hada, duende o elfo tiene una especial vinculación con todo elemento del mundo natural ya sea planta, animal, mineral, etc. Es la diversidad feérica tan apasionante como desconocida.

Referencias:

Carmina Gadelica, ed. tr. Alexander Carmichael (1900)

J. Felipe Alonso, Diccionario Espasa de seres fantásticos (2005)

Katherine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies (1976)

Olivier Jean Mickaël Beuve, Les animaux dans les croyances et legendes de Normandie (2001)

https://abookofcreatures.com

Another aspect of faerie fauna is explored in a previous deadbutdreaming article: Faerie Familiars and Zoomorphic Witches.

Talking about the Faeries

I was recently invited on to Charles Christian‘s Weird Tales Radio Show to discuss some aspects of the faeries. The links are below, and the interview begins at 05.14. What did we talk about?

  • Morgan le Fay and Arthuriana
  • The origins of the faeries
  • Altered states of consciousness and the faeries
  • Are they supposed to have wings?
  • Elves vs Faeries
  • Faerie or Fairy?
  • Brian Froud, Alan Lee and The Lord of the Rings film (where I forgot the name of the director Peter Jackson!)
  • The Fairy Investigation Society and modern faerie encounters
  • Syd Barrett

Download at Paranormal UK Radio Network

Stream at Weird Tales Radio Show, episode #15

Stream at Weird Tales Radio Show You Tube channel

Thanks to Charles for inviting me on to the show.

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From Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s “Faeries”

Faeries in the Arthurian Landscape

The faeries who appear in the Arthurian mythos are a distinctive breed; ontologically different from the entities that most often surface in folklore. They usually have specific roles to fulfil, catering to the literate classes who were consuming the stories. But the genesis of the faeries in the Arthurian landscape is deeply rooted in an embedded folk belief-system, developed from a Celtic oral tradition, which informs many of the motifs within the legends. This article is a brief overview of a very complex subject, serving as an introduction for any readers who may be inclined to delve deeper. A version of the article appeared originally on the Ancient Origins Premium website.

The Development of the Arthurian Mythos

When Geoffrey of Monmouth produced his Historia Regum Britannia and Vita Merlini between 1135 and 1150, he became the central transmitter of the Arthurian mythos; from a largely oral testimony to a written body of legend that has continued to develop to this day. Geoffrey may have had access to some of the early sources, which suggest Arthur could have been a 5th/6th-century British chieftain, such as St Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (6th century) and Nennius’ Historia Brittonum (9th century), and possibly other lost literary sources. But it seems clear that much of his Historia and the Vita Merlini used an orally transmitted folklore to construct the ontology of the inhabitants of his Arthurian stories. Although many scholars of the following generation, such as Giraldus Cambrensis, derided Geoffrey’s account of Dark-Age history as ‘a book full of lies and made-up fables’, it retained its influence over later medieval authors and helped to imbue a supernatural ambience into the literary mythical cycle that would come to be known as ‘The Matter of Britain’. Writers such as Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach and Sir Thomas Malory took the core of Geoffrey’s Historia and Vita Merlini, and proceeded to convert it to their own literary ends. In part this involved them taking the opportunity to culturally code the stories to their own social milieus, but they were also channeling some of the deeply embedded folkloric motifs contained in the legends that have their roots in an ancient Celtic oral tradition. One of these sets of story motifs include the genus of characters who seem to be part of the physical world but also part of a metaphysical otherworld. These are the faeries, and they play a critical role throughout the Arthurian landscape. Their forms and functions contain clues to help decipher some of the deeper meaning ingrained within the Arthurian mythos.

Arthurian Faeries

‘The Matter of Britain’ was written for the elite class of European medieval society. The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems. Subsequently, the cast of characters specifically ascribed faerie qualities in the Arthurian mythos were invariably given the attributes of nobility. Much medieval and later folklore includes facets of a royal hierarchical organisation within the metaphysical faerie realm, but in the Arthurian cycle of stories the quality of ‘faerie’ is subsumed into an unique set of players whose nobility ensured their respect and credence among the aristocratic audiences listening to or reading the stories. However, the embedded supernatural elements of the medieval Arthurian landscape, most especially the faerie motifs, contain the footprints of an older, Celtic tradition, which demonstrates that the faeries who found their way into The Matter of Britain represent a deeper cultural legacy than their plot-line actors may suggest.

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‘The Fairy Circle’ by Gustav Doré, illustration for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1867)

One of the primary faerie characters in the Arthurian mythos, throughout the medieval period and beyond, is Morgan le Fay. She makes her first literary appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, where she resides within the Insula pomorum que fortunata vocatur, that is “The island of apples which men call The Fortunate Isle.” This is evidently a faerie otherworld where Morgan le Fay retains some form of precedence. Geoffrey describes the isle and Morgan’s magical abilities:

“The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There, nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country. She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgen is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus; when she wishes she is at Brest, Chartres, or Pavia, and when she will she slips down from the air onto your shores… Thither after the battle of Camlan we took the wounded Arthur… and Morgen received him with fitting honour, and in her chamber she placed the king on a golden bed… At length she said that health could be restored to him if he stayed with her for a long time and made use of her healing art.”

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‘Morgan le Fay’ by Frederick Sandys (1863)

This is an important passage, which sets the gauge for all later representations of Morgan. Geoffrey’s spelling of the name as Morgen is also significant. The Morgens appear in Breton and Welsh folklore as shapeshifting water faeries, and it is possible that Geoffrey was basing his character on this folkloric oral tradition. Morgan represents a metamorphosic otherworldly creature, detached from physical reality on an enchanted island, with magical healing abilities. By the time the Arthurian mythos made its way to France and became what is now known as the Vulgate Cycle of stories, Morgan had become a more ambiguous personage, still retaining her faerie nature, but often with more malicious intent than in the early stories. In the late 13th-century Prophesies de Merlin, for instance, she is a shaman/witch-like character with zoomorphic abilities, living in ‘The Vale of No Return.’ In this text she even comes to be known as Morgan the Goddess. And in later medieval renditions of Arthurian stories, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century) and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (first published 1485), Morgan comes to be portrayed as Arthur’s nemesis, losing some of her faerie attributes and instead becoming an evil enchantress, bent on destroying Arthur and his chivalric order.

While Morgan slipped under the radar in many post-medieval Arthurian retellings, she re-emerged as a magical figure in the 19th century, most notably in the poetic cycle The Idylls of the King by Tennyson (1859) and through her portrayal in art, especially as a model for the pre-Raphaelite movement. And she has certainly found her place in modern cultural representations of the stories, most often as a malevolent character, as in John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur, but also in more sympathetic roles that emphasise her faerie roots, such as in the novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Fay Sampson. Since the mid 20th century Morgan has been characterised in over 200 portrayals, in literature, film, television, theatre, and even video games.

Of equal importance to Morgan in Arthurian plotlines, although less well-developed as a character, is The Lady of the Lake. She first appears in Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart in the late 12th century, and thereafter becomes almost ubiquitous in the Arthurian mythos. Her main role in these stories was as a water faerie, responsible for raising Lancelot in an otherworldly land, usually described as a magical island populated by faerie maidens under the command of a queen; frequently this queen was The Lady of the Lake. The conception of a faerie island inhabited by maidens matches Geoffrey of Monmouth’s earlier description of ‘The Fortunate Isle’, which suggests that this plot device was being drawn from earlier folkloric and mythological sources. These sources may have had Celtic origins; early Welsh, Irish, Breton and Cornish stories including various supernatural islands, did not usually find literary form until the 12th century, but the convention appears to have been well modelled in an oral tradition before this time.

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‘The Lady of the Lake Steals Lancelot’ by George Wooliscroft Rhead (1898)

By the mid 13th century (in the French Arthurian prose cycle now known as the Post-Vulgate) The Lady of the Lake became a more integral part of the mythos, while retaining her faerie qualities as a metaphysical entity. Most importantly it is she that provides Arthur with the magical sword Excalibur from within the waters surrounding the otherworldly isle. In several stories she also appears as one of the faerie hierarchy taking the wounded Arthur across the sea/lake to the island after the final Battle of Camlann, and it is here that her personality becomes somewhat enmeshed with that of Morgan le Fay, perhaps demonstrating that in the original folkloric traditions they were one and the same faerie construct. In Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur The Lady of the Lake (here named Nimue) is used as a magical, usually benign, figure who appears every time there is a major transition in the plot.

The Mabinogion and the Metaphysical Roots of Arthurian Faerie Tradition

The Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay represent a consistent supernatural element in the Arthurian landscape. Their characters developed within the courtly story cycles of medieval Europe, always culturally coded to the times, but also maintaining the components of an earlier tradition, where they constituted faerie entities, manipulating plotlines where the physical world was consistently affected by a metaphysical reality. There are many other characters in the Arthurian mythos with faerie qualities; Lancelot, Niniane, Mordred, Merlin, and sometimes even Arthur himself, giving a legitimate interpretation that the entire cycle could be seen as an elite faerie folklore, taking themes and motifs from vernacular folklore and overlaying them with tropes acceptable to noble and literate audiences.

51ujalxBceLBut these themes and motifs seem to have been spilling over into the medieval literature from older sources; an oral tradition that was encapsulating a deeply embedded belief system that included a metaphysical faerie otherworld. There is no direct route to this tradition but there is a cycle of stories, including many Arthurian narratives, that are disconnected from the main body of the mythos, and seem to retain a very ancient transmission, fossilised in writing during the later medieval period. This cycle has come to be known as The Mabinogion, a corpus of Welsh literature dated to the 13th and 14th centuries, but which were evidently drawing on much earlier material. Several of the stories are concerned with Arthurian narratives, and in them we can glimpse the genesis of the mythos, transmitted from a Celtic oral tradition that pre-dates Geoffrey of Monmouth and provides a window into the thought-worlds of early medieval culture. The Mabinogion Arthurian stories differ widely (in style and content) from the later medieval ‘Matter of Britain’, and there are none of the faerie characters, such as Morgan and The Lady of the Lake, that came to be central to the later mythos. But faerie themes and motifs are everywhere in the stories, creating a distinctly magical, sometimes surreal narrative landscape. The otherworldly nature of the stories seems more connected to vernacular folklore than courtly literature, and perhaps are filtered down forms of distinct early faerie belief systems in Wales.

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‘The Mabonigion: Culhwch and Olwen at Ysbaddaden’s court’ by Ernest Wallcousins (1920)

Three of the stories from The Mabinogion, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, ‘Llud and Llefelys’ and ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ are especially replete with faerie motifs. In ‘Culhwch’ Arthur’s retinue are given faerie-like 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. And in ‘Llud’ the first part of the story deals with the Coraniaidd, a hostile race of diminutive invaders with supernatural powers, including the ability to hear any conversation held outside, another feature in common with the Tylwyth Teg.

But it is ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ that perhaps captures the deeper roots of what faerie themes represented in this ancient culture. The story is in the form of a dream-vision of the various deeds of Arthur, instigated when Rhonabwy sleeps wrapped in an ox-hide, itself a shamanic motif described in 19th- and 20th-century Siberian shamanic traditions and in Old Irish texts such as Togail Bruidne Dá Derga. This initiates a metaphysical story, replete with supernatural faerie motifs and disjointed timeframes, where Rhonabwy interacts with the esoteric Arthurian narrative almost in the form of a disembodied consciousness. This Arthurian story from the perspective of someone in an altered state of consciousness is an explicit indication that the people listening to or reading these stories were aware, at some level, that the faeries in the Arthurian landscape were attributes of non-physical consciousness rather than historical figures operating in physical material reality. By locating the stories at some indefinite location in the past, a type of magical-realism was invoked, allowing the supernatural and metaphysical elements of the stories, dominated by faerie themes, to become acceptable plot devices within the mythos. But ultimately, the characters in The Mabinogion and the later magical faeries such as Morgan le Fay and The Lady of the Lake are pointers towards an Arthurian cultural legacy that treat the faeries with reverence, as arbiters of wisdom, alchemy and power. The faeries were representative of an esoteric and occult knowledge that physical reality can be interacted with, and manipulated by, metaphysical forces beyond our full understanding.

References

Ashe, Geoffrey. The Origins of the Arthurian Legends (1995)

Briggs, Katherine. An Encyclopaedia of Fairies (New York, 1976).

Green, Caitlin, R. Arthuriana A resource for all things Arthurian.

Green, Thomas. Concepts of Arthur (London, 2008).

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

Historia Regum Britannia by Geoffrey of Monmouth

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

Le Morte D’Arthur (1485) by Sir Thomas Malory

Loponen, Mika. ‘Faerie Folklore in Medieval Tales – An Introduction’ (2017) 

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.

Paton, Lucy Allen. Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance (Cambridge, US, 1903) 

Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth

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

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

The cover image shows a knight meeting a lake faerie from a manuscript illustration to Chrétien de Troyes ‘Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart’ (c.1350) – BNF Français 1433 Le Chevalier au Lion.

‘Visions and Pablo Amaringo’ by Loes Modderman

Here’s an article by the Dutch artist and writer Loes Modderman, which takes a look at the Ayahuasca-inspired visions of the late Peruvian shaman Pablo Amaringo. As with everyone who partakes of this potent psychedelic brew, Amaringo was able to touch diverse metaphysical realities, and interact with entities there, several steps removed from anything in our consensual physical material world. His large body of artwork is testament to what he found within these realities. Loes ties in Amaringo’s visions and art with a discussion of plant consciousness, UFOs, out-of-the-body experiences and Charles Bonnet Syndrome. All of this this relates to the faeries and their otherworld at a deep level. When consciousness is altered from its normal state, we can experience beings that appear to have an autonomous non-physical existence, and which interact with our material reality when certain conditions are met. Sometimes they appear as faeries, sometimes not. But whatever they represent, the ontology of the entities that are regularly experienced in altered states of consciousness demands investigation and interpretation.

The article was first published by The Fairy Investigation Society. Thanks to Loes for agreeing to allow deadbutdreaming to republish it here.

‘Visions and Pablo Amaringo’ by Loes Modderman

Plant Consciousness

On the question of how the Shamans of the Amazon know that certain plants contain exactly the right chemical components to induce otherwordly visions, these shamans tell us that they know it from the plants themselves. ‘The plants tell us’ sounds crazy in the ears of Western scientists. Or used to. But the subject of plant-plant and plant-human interaction has been explored by a lot of people, in the wake of the groundbreaking 1973  secret-life-of-plants-bookbook by Tompkins and Bird: The Secret Life of Plants. That plants are endowed with a particular kind of consciousness that makes them aware of us and able to respond to stimuli like attention, voices and music has been proven. They even compose their own music, as experiments in the Italian ecological community Damanhur seem to indicate. Plants also have empathy. Whoever reads the book Primary Perception (2003) written by lie- detector specialist Cleve Backster may still have a kind of guilty feeling whenever they slice a carrot or peel a potato. I have, time and again, but we have to eat, haven’t we?

In the longstanding Scottish community of Findhorn miracles happened. The barren ground in the harsh climate of north eastern Scotland was magically transformed into green gardens that yielded enormous vegetables and lots of flowers during the 1960s. Eileen Caddy (1907- 2006), one of the three people who started the community in the years after their arrival in 1962, was a clairvoyant, who talked to the plant spirits , just like the shamans of the Amazon and everywhere else in the world do. Nature spirits, caring for the plants, as is their given assignment, worked with Caddy and the results were not a question of belief, but of obvious fact. Caddy was able to see the spirits, which facilitated communication. They told her how to, and how not to. In this light the simple remark of a shaman is utterly believable: ‘the plants tell us.’

What is commonly known as ‘Ayahuasca’, a brew from a vine growing in the Amazonian rainforest, is actually made from two different plants, which supplement each other in making it work on our brains. The active substance is DMT – Dimethyltryptamine. This chemical compound differs from most other mind altering drugs: it takes the user into a different reality. And here it gets interesting, for in this reality there are elves as well as UFOs, and a lot of other real and mythical creatures. People using Ayahuasca in the forest or pure DMT in the laboratory come up with the same experience of having been somewhere outside normal space and time. Their experience is real and transformative, different from LSD or the more common psychoactive chemicals that manipulate this reality.

The Visions of Pablo Amaringo

Pablo Amaringo (1938-2009) was an ‘Ayahuasquero’, a simple Peruvian who took the brew regularly and transformed his visions into colorful paintings of exquisite beauty and multi-layered symbolism. Amaringo painted hundreds of them, and in his later years taught others. Spaceships and Faeries are intimately connected in Amaringo’s family of paintings. The first time Pablo took Ayahuasca he saw a huge UFO. Manuel, Pablo’s older brother, is a curandero, a healer. He employs mostly one special icaro – a sacred song rooted in the ‘music of Creation’ – which he learned from a faerie, named Altos Cielos Nieves.

The-Ayahuasca-Visions-of-Pablo-AmaringoIn 2011 an exceptional book was published, The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo (parenthesised numbers relate to the indexed images in this book), which sadly Amaringo never held in his hands while still being in this world. The book is a true legacy of the artist and his philosophy. Every painting is commented on and explained by Amaringo himself, and there are also several articles from Dennis McKenna, Jeremy Narby, Graham Hancock and other ‘psychonauts’ with DMT experience. Amaringo roamed many worlds. Reading through the explanations of his paintings and looking at them, one is overcome by the feeling that here is a reality more real than ours, and we ‘normal people’ are the ones living in a dream world.
 The interconnectedness of everything is the central theme; the universe is alive, there are multiple dimensions, plants and animals are conscious beings, conveying deep wisdom to the shaman. Amaringo’s Ayahuasca world is populated with mythical beings, the kind we have banished to faerie-tales or religion. There are many mermaids, shapeshifting animals, talking birds and dolphins, spirits of place like the undines, salamanders and sylphs of Paracelsus or the Comte de Gabalis. There are Angels, Devas, enlightened beings and extradimensional visitors. Heavenly, as well as under water cities exist in this visionary world.

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‘Yana Huaman’ by Pablo Amaringo

Essential to all life are the Icaros, according to Amaringo, being ‘the sound of the Universe – the planets, stars, comets, Everything is created by music, by vibration, by sound. Icaros is the music of creation’ (172). Here many other traditions come to mind, and one is reminded of the Music of the Spheres, an old concept, which lately came to life again with the discovery of the sounds planets and the sun make and on which even electronic compositions were based. The painter sang Icaros into the paintings when working, which, he said, ‘makes them alive and endows them with healing powers’.

Pagoda-Dorada
‘Pagoda Dorada’ by Pablo Amaringo

As for the UFOs he painted so colourfully: ‘Extraterrestrial ships visit Earth frequently. They come from parallel universes with Sumirunas (human beings that attained mastery over land, air and water) aboard them to understand the mysterious forces of electromagnetism and gravity that maintain the cosmos’ (128). In his explanation of the painting ‘Pagoda Dorada’ (145), Amaringo says: ‘In in the corner are extraterrestrial ships carrying beings who visited primitive peoples on earth in prehistoric times, and gave them laws and spiritual teachings.’ A repeatedly painted subject is the transformative power of shamans and living things. Matter is not something static, spirit is what determines its shape. ‘You see extraterrestrial ships arriving from a celestial city to teach sumirunas and banco sumis (maestros who have attained the level of an angel) the science of the transformation of physical matter’ (147). And: ‘The Incan masters transformed themselves into machaco runas (a being with the head of a human and the body of a serpent) with ease, and in this form were able to traverse the great distances between the galaxies at the speed of thought. These great maestros developed extrasensory abilities that allowed them to explore other dimensions and celestial realms’ (147). In another painting (149) Amaringo explains: ‘Here you see the flower of toé, a plant sometimes combined with Ayahuasca to intensify your visions. With toé you can learn what a person is thinking, and it can enable you to see spirit beings as they are in their natural form. Shamans use toé to help them delve into profound mysteries. They may be assisted by extraterrestrials, coming from Mars and Jupiter, and from other galaxies (150).’

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‘Sumac Icaro’ by Pablo Amaringo

When the Shaman is in the process of healing someone from the influence of a malignant spirit, he sings the sublime sumac icaro. ‘The spirits always accept the invitation, and nymphs, dryads, faeries and hamadryads who live in the trees , and elves and sibyls all come to listen to the sumac icaro. Spirits arrive in spaceships from far away galaxies to see if someone needs them’ (151). In one painting Amaringo states: ‘There’s an extraterrestrial craft radiating a blue beam, which transmits knowledge from other dimensions’ (153). In one of the last paintings in the book, Misterio Profundo, a space ship has a central position. He explains: ‘The spaceship that has arrived from a distant galaxy brings spiritual beings to teach the sumiruna (far advanced humans), muraya (master with the ability to live under water) and banco sumi (master of wisdom, as wise as an angel) in their ceremony. They warn of the imbalance of the biosphere caused by man’s destruction of the rain forest. Through negligence, ignorance and greed, humans have prejudiced the delicate web of life on which we depend. The beings are giving shamans’ energy to heal the planet with icaros and soplos (smoke used in rituals and healing)’ (159).

Misterio-Profundo
‘Misterio Profundo’ by Pablo Amaringo

It is clear from these fragments that in the wisdom obtained by regularly drinking Ayahuasca no clear distinction is made between different realities. The idea is that multiple realities overlap and in fact fill the same space, only at different vibrational levels. Amaringo’s descriptions of what ‘extraterrestrials’ are doing in his paintings is seemingly as much part of our own abduction lore (the environmental warnings, the extraterrestrial origin on other planets) as it is of interdimensional origin, as described in the interaction with nature spirits, shamans and holy humans in an extradimensional space-time setting. Some elements also sound reminiscent of our own UFO lore: the shapeshifting abilities, the sudden appearance when being called, the ancient astronaut analogies and even the disappearances under water. Amaringo says that these vehicles may take many shapes, are able to attain infinite speed, and can travel under water or under the earth. The beings travelling in them are like spirits, having bodies more subtle than ours, appearing and disappearing at will. They belong to extraterrestrial civilizations that live in perfect harmony. Great Amerindian civilizations like the Maya, Tiahuanaco, and Inca had contact with these beings. Pablo says that he saw in his journeys with Ayahuasca that the Maya knew about this brew, and that they left for other worlds at some point in their history, but are about to return to this planet. In fact he says that some of the flying saucers seen by people today are piloted by Maya wise men. Just wondering: could the amazing frequency of UFOs seen in the heavens and on the grounds of the Latin American continent have any connection with their being ‘called’ and contacted by Ayahuasquero and shamans? Or do otherworldly beliefs and practice like those of the Candomblé and Umbanda religions in Brazil have any influence? If UFOs really are (sometimes) liminal objects, between ‘real’ and psychic, this could be a possibility.

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‘Llullun Llaki Supai’ by Pablo Amaringo

Ayahuasca, OBEs, Faeries and DMT

Ayahuasca doesn’t yield its wonder-world easily. One has to grow into the experience and in this it is no different from moving to another country: one has to learn and adjust before one can easily find the way. What makes the Ayahuasca different from other drugs is that in time one encounters beings that seem to be aware of you being there. They react, and talk to you. There is interaction. How strange is that? No more strange than what Ingo Swann, the late psychic and Remote Viewer encountered when he visited the dark side of the Moon. He saw beings there, buildings, saucers, and they saw him too (Penetration, 1998). Imagine the power of the human mind, which allows us to project our consciousness over enormous distances and take an astral shape that can be seen, and talked to. Ingo Swann didn’t let that happen, he was simply afraid and left. What’s the difference between inner and outer space when Remote Viewing as well as Ayahuasca allows the psychonaut to have a conversation with beings from other worlds or other dimensions, while physically sitting in his easy chair? The late Terrence McKenna in True Hallucinations (1993) wrote: ‘A UFO is essentially this hyperspatially mobile psychic vortex, and the trip may well involve contact with some race of hyperspatial dwellers. Perhaps it will be an encounter similar to a ‘flying lesson’: instruction in the use of the transdimensional stone, how to navigate in hyperspace, and perhaps an introductory course in Cosmic Ecology tending.’

DMT-The-Spirit-Molecule-M-D-Rick-EB2370002753142People having Out of Body Experiences are doing the same thing, and some of them mention encounters with other OBE-ers, or frightening encounters with less agreeable astral beings. Probably the air around us is alive with astral junk, and not being able to see them is a gift. ‘Only with DMT do people meet up with them, with other beings in a nonmaterial world’, writes Rick Strassman in his book DMT – The Spirit Molecule (2001). No other drug has this effect. From 1990 till 1995 Rick Strassman carried out government sanctioned research at the University of New Mexico (normally DMT is a scheduled drug) with 60 volunteers, by injecting them with various doses of pure DMT. Karl, a 45 year old blacksmith, described his experience: ‘This was real strange. There were a lot of elves. They were prankish.(…) They commanded the scene, it was their terrain! They were about my height. (…) one of them made it impossible for me to move. There was no issue of control; they were totally in control. (…) I heard a giggling sound – the elves laughing or talking at high speed volume, chattering, twittering’.

Elves were met by Terrence McKenna too, on his regular DMT trips. He calls them ‘machine elves’. Some of them, seen by him and others, wear pointed hats and green elf- garb and are around one metre in height. Aaron, another of Strassman’s guinea pigs gave the following description: ‘An insectlike thing got right into my face, hovering over me as the drug was going in. This thing sucked me out of my head into outer space. It was clearly outer space, a black sky with millions of stars.’ In the next experiment Aaron felt helpless and being watched by reptilians. This all sounds very much like an alien abduction scenario, only nobody was abducted – not in the flesh, anyway. A guy named Lucas said: ‘There was a space station below me and to my right. There were at least two presences, one on either side of me, guiding me to a platform. I was aware of many entities inside the space station – automatons, androidlike creatures, except that they were living creatures, not robots.’. Experiences get increasingly strange and the whole hodgepodge of beings from faerie folklore and abduction scenarios are encountered. But if there are many dimensions, there is no reason to assume that every user of DMT end up in the same dimension. Some experiences are good and warm, others are extremely frightening, but all are absurdly weird. For almost every person who participates, these experiences are among the most impressive and unforgettable of their whole lives.

9780987422484Jacques Vallée has done pioneering work in Passport to Magonia (1969), in which he explores the many similarities between folklore and Ufology. He was the first to study this subject scientifically, though not the first to pay attention to the phenomena in this way. Many followed, among them the Fortean writers John Keel and Jerome Clark. I’m not going into Vallée now, everyone should read this book. Vallée never mentioned DMT though. In the light of the DMT related visions we can safely assume that the world of spirits and elementals, and the world of UFOs are somehow connected by inter-dimensional strings. How, we don’t know. Maybe all dimensions are endowed with the same ‘magic’ and the same characteristics. Something really fascinating is going on.

A Postscript – Charles Bonnet Syndrome

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‘CBS’ by Cecil Riley

People with a form of macular degeneration, known as ‘Charles Bonnet Syndrome’ lose sight at the centre of their vision. But in some cases that is not all that happens. Some of them, maybe many, start hallucinating. They see all kinds of beings parading through their rooms and in the street. Some are ‘extra’ people or animals, others are characters that seem to be out of faerie folklore. Ophthalmologists are quick to point out that this is one of many tricks our brains play on us, when there is lack of visual stimulants. Our minds tend to fill in the blanks. Oh, is that so? I always have the feeling that some scientists can’t think straight, because of all the eye woes that people suffer – cataract, inherited bad eyes, you name it – Charles Bonnet Syndrome is the only one where the brains seem to produce ‘replacement’ stimuli in this particular way. Strangely enough, this theory is the accepted one. Clifford Pickover, who talks about Charles Bonnet Syndrome extensively in his book Sex, Drugs, Einstein & Elves (2005) compares the Bonnet experience with DMT visions. Elves, strange midgets with pointed heads, angels, ghostly figures, aliens, floating processions of the damned parade where they should not be. Small wonder that the sufferer thinks he is raving mad, and is reluctant to mention his visions to his family. DMT is a substance that naturally occurs in our brains: it makes you wonder why it is forbidden in many countries! Just a thought: could it be that the brains of people with Charles Bonnet Syndrome are somehow opening up, or producing more of the chemical for some unknown reason, rending the veil between dimensions? Are there always, in every Charles Bonnet patient, the same sort of visions? Somehow these visions are triggered. Somehow these visions must be real, somewhere. Maybe these people are compensated in a very unusual way for the partial loss of sight.

***

The cover image is ‘Sumac Ňusta’ by Pablo Amaringo. He describes her thus: Sumak Ňusta – Hermosa Doncella. She is a faerie from the Aquarius constellation and she stands in front of a celestial temple inspiring love, beauty, and gentleness. In her hand she holds a jar of aromatic balsam, and flowing from this are iridescent waves that transmit the sublime fragrance of flowers. She is a specialist in the extraction and distillation of balsams, scents, and incenses from flowering plants found only on earth. Her delightful perfumes are a source of joy and contentment for these extraterrestrial beings.

Loes’ artwork can be found at her website here. She also has a blogsite ParaVaria. Prints of Pablo Amaringo’s original artwork can be viewed and purchased here.

The Lambton Wyrm

As a sideways break from my ruminations on the faeries and their abodes, here are some contemplations on the magico-folkloric tale of the Lambton Wyrm, from the North-East of England. A version of the article was originally published on the Ancient Origins website.

“Whisht! lads, haad ya gobs,
 Aa’ll tell ye aall an awful story. Whisht! lads, haad ya gobs,
 An aa’ll tell ye ‘boot the wyrm.”
(C.M. Leumane, 1867)

There are more than twenty folktales from north-east England and Scotland that include the motif of a ‘wyrm’, a huge dragon-like, wingless serpent that terrorises neighbourhoods – sometimes for many years – before being eventually slain (motifs classified in the Aarne-Thompson folktale index as B11.1.3.1, B11.2.1, and B11.11). These wyrm folktales are not exclusive to this geographical area – one appears in Somerset as the Gurt Wyrm of Shervage Wood, and there are several German, Scandinavian and Irish examples. Indeed, Dale Drinnon demonstrates that this folkloric motif can be found worldwide, in both stories and in cryptozoological anecdotes. But there does seem to be a cluster of the story type in Northumberland, North Yorkshire, County Durham and the Scottish Borders. Two of the best known examples are the Linton Wyrm and the Sockburn Wyrm, beasts that hide by day but then emerge at night to scorch the land, eat livestock and occasionally people. In all cases a hero appears on the scene, and due to various ruses, is able to dispatch the wyrm, thus saving the people from further predation. These folktales are always set during the medieval period, but only transfer from oral tradition to literary sources from the 16th century onwards. One of the fullest renditions of this folktale type is that of the Lambton Wyrm, from County Durham, first recorded in 1785, but evidently drawing on a much earlier oral tradition, with the action set in the late 12th century.

The Story of the Lambton Wyrm

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16th-century chap-book cover showing a knight slaying a wyrm

Apart from the wyrm itself, the main protagonist is a young squire, John Lambton, heir to the Lambton estate. One Sabbath he decides to abscond himself from the church service at Brugeford Chapel in order to do some fishing on the River Wear instead. He catches no fish but he does land a small, black eel-like creature with razor-sharp teeth and nine holes along each side of its head. Heading home with his unwelcome catch (in some versions John calls it ‘a devil’), he meets a stranger who warns him that the creature will cause trouble unless the young squire deals with it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain what dealing with it meant and so John decides on a policy of disposal by lobbing it into a well.

Time passes and John goes off to the Crusades, where he stays for seven years. But whilst he is away his tiddler grows into a monstrous wyrm, leaves the well and proceeds to terrorise the locality, ravaging crops, animals and humans. It’s a black, venomous serpent without wings or legs, and is large enough to coil itself round the local Worm Hill three times. The locals manage to placate the wyrm by giving it regular tributes of milk and livestock, but after seven years this has impoverished the village and estate.

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Illustration of Lambton versus the wyrm, from Edwin Sidney Hartland’s 1890 book English Fairy and Other Folk Tales

This is when John returns from the Middle East, where he has evidently been knighted. With a monster abroad and the lands of his father laid waste, he takes the interesting decision to visit the local ‘wise woman’, who, after berating him for causing the disaster in the first place, instructs him to commission a suit of armour covered in spikes, and repair to the river where he caught the wyrm, to do battle. Curiously, she also insists that once the wyrm is dispatched, John then needs to kill the first living thing he sees or else his descendants will suffer the curse of violent deaths for the next nine generations. The spiked-up knight does as he is told and when the wyrm attacks him, it is sliced to pieces by the armour, before John decapitates it with his sword. Unfortunately, John’s father (still the Lord of Lambton) is first on the scene after the battle. John refrains from carrying out the wise-woman’s harsh directions, dooming the next nine lords of Lambton to grisly deaths.

This medieval folktale only gained a literary foothold in 1785 when the antiquarian William Hutchinson picked up what was evidently an oral tradition:

“Near this place is an eminence called the Worm Hill, which tradition says was once possessed by an enormous serpent, that wound its horrid body round the base; that it destroyed much provision, and used to infest the Lambton estate, till some hero in that family engaged it, cased in armour set with razors…the whole miraculous tale has no other evidence than the memories of old women.”

During the 19th century the story gained much traction as a popular folktale, finding its way into local histories, ballads, poems, plays and even a pantomime (from which come the lyrics at the top of this article). It’s popularity has continued to this day (there are several Lambton Worm pubs in the locality) and it has become the most celebrated of British ‘dragon’ stories. But from where does the story originate, and what does it mean?

The Genesis of the Wyrm

The etymology of the word ‘wyrm’ derives from either Old Norse or Old English. This might allow an interpretation of the Lambton Wyrm story as being a memory of Viking raids along the north-east coast of England in the 8th and 9th centuries. There were certainly several such chronicled raids that used the River Wear as an access route inland. The dragon prows of the Viking longboats may have become transformed over time into the monstrous beast that ravaged the countryside. The number of wyrm stories in this much-raided area of the country might also support this hypothesis. Although this interpretation would require a long gestation period in the folk memory, it is not inconceivable, and might be supported by the similarly long period of story survivals from other British myths such as the Arthurian legends, where historic fragments from the 5th and 6th centuries were mutated through time, until the characters and narratives became overlain with the customs and mores of the later Middle Ages.

However, this assessment doesn’t quite tally with the relatively close historic dating of the story, which could have included elements of its Anglo-Saxon roots if the events (however radically modified) had been generated from this time. Instead we are given a definite protagonist in the heir to the lordship, John Lambton, and all versions of the story place the time period as during the Crusades. This would put the genesis of the story in the 12th or 13th centuries, and local historian Audrey Fletcher has traced the earliest recorded mention of a John Lambton to a land charter dated between 1183 and 1200, where John de Lamtun is a witness. This would coincide with the Third Crusade, joint-led by King Richard I between 1187-92, where there was a large contingent of English noblemen travelling to the Holy Land.

But even if this is the historic John Lambton, made into the hero of the story, the narrative still requires explanation. The 19th-century antiquarian Robert Surtees suggested the story might be literally true, and wrote to Sir Walter Scott in 1810 with the idea:

”I have lately often been near the supposed haunts of the Lambton Worm, and I really feel much inclined to adopt your idea, that animals of this description may have been formally nourished to a much larger size in our woods and waters. Of four of these prodigies which our bishopric is said to have produced, it is observable that all of them had their haunts on large rivers. The country round Lambton seems particularly favourable for the production of such a creature.”

The possibility of a very large reptile or amphibian roaming the Durham countryside, and terrorising the populace to a state of destitution in the late 12th century seems remote. And there is no surviving mention of the event in any of the medieval chronicles, where these ‘marvels’ can often be found. Dale Drinnon has suggested that stories of this type may have had their genesis in sightings of giant eels (the original creature caught by John Lambton is described as ‘eel-like’) in waterways and rivers, although even if this is a possibility it does not explain the subsequent laying waste of the hinterland that is a vital component of this particular folktale motif. But the belief in dragon-like creatures during the Middle Ages was widespread and persistent. Perhaps if the genesis of the story is placed at some time several generations after the historic John Lambton, we may begin to see an allegorical story overlaying what people would have accepted as a real story, discreetly removed from the actual events by several decades or even centuries.

The Meaning of the Wyrm

Dragon-slaying heroes such as St Michael and St George were common medieval motifs, and are usually seen as allegories for the defeat of paganism by Christianity. At a deeper level the folktale may even encapsulate the suppression of perceived prehistoric earth energies, embodied by the wyrm, through a representative of Christianity. If the geopathic inclinations of pre-Christian belief systems were stored in the folk-memory, the story may be conveying an implicate Christian message of religious victory over a serpentine paganism that viewed reality in a more animistic manner.

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Giorgio Vasari, Altarpiece with the Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew; detail showing the back of the central panel with Saint George Slaying the Dragon, 1551

There are Classical precedents for this story of good (the hero) overcoming evil (the serpent) in Phorbas of Rhodes, who rid the island of a nest of giant serpents, and Hercules slaying a dragon on the banks of the River Sagaris. This is codified in the star constellation of Hercules poised next to the Celestial River (the Milky Way) and the constellation of Draco, the Dragon. These eternal stories of good overcoming evil may well be what the story of the Lambton Wyrm is designed to convey. This would require the provenance of the story to have originated from a literate and educated source, but there are also enough elements of morality and vernacular detail to give the story a lasting quality; a tale that could be popularised and told through the centuries in the locality, without the purveyors or the listeners necessarily understanding the more cosmic meaning of the folktale.

The morality comes in the form of the wyrm being allowed to exist through the recklessness of John Lambton and his inattentiveness to the church service. His penance, in this case going on Crusade, permits his cleansing and ability to slay the serpent. The vernacular detail is contained in the specific landscape, including features that would have been well-known to anyone telling or listening to the story, such as the River Wear, Brugeford Chapel, and Worm Hill with the well near its base. We can also glimpse an ingrained vernacular characterisation of the medieval ‘wise woman’, who plays an important role in the story, and is the person John goes to (ahead of a churchman or peer) to find out what to do about the wyrm. There is even the implied doomy kismet foretold for future generations of Lambtons for not following her instructions, suggesting that these women were significant characters in the medieval mind.

As with all folktales of this complex type, there are probably many overlays of meaning that have accumulated over the centuries. The fact that there are so many of these wyrm folktales congregating within the north-east region of Britain, does suggest that they are describing some real set of events (perhaps the Viking raids) however remodelled they have become over time. This local vernacular meaning probably ensured the stories survived from the oral tradition to the literary tradition. We could even entertain the the more prosaic explanation that the wyrm in the well represented a warning against polluting water sources. In the medieval period, fresh water sources were of paramount importance to the health of local communities, and their contamination would be likely to bring pestilence and disease to all who relied on them. The wyrm may simply be a symbolic representative of this, coded into folklore, as an admonishment to look after water sources. Blaming a poisonous wyrm might even provide an excuse for a recalcitrant landlord who had not ensured the cleanliness of a water-head on his land (thanks to Mark Lidster for this pragmatic interpretation).

But the stories are certainly also passing on archetypal symbols, using allegorical language to convey timeless human values. In the Lambton Wyrm story there are several important concepts being transmitted through the idiom of folklore, not only the triumph of good over evil, but also the need for the hero (the good Christian) to be cleansed of sin before being able to achieve victory. The wyrm seems to represent the ultimate evil, conquered only by Christian virtue. It’s another example of ancient folklore containing deeper meaning, layered beneath the telling of a good yarn.

Further Reading

Aarne, Antti and Stith Thompson, Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends, 6 volumes (Bloomington, 1955-1958)

Briggs, Katherine, An Encyclopaedia of Fairies (New York, 1976)

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, 2008)

Fletcher, Audrey, ‘Worm Hill ‘Serpens Caput’: A Sacred Mound within a Ritual Landscape’ (2012) 

Hartland, Edwin Sidney, English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (London 1890)

Ingersoll, Ernest; et al. The Illustrated Book of Dragons and Dragon Lore (Chiang Mai, 2013)

Jenkin, Andrew, ‘The Curse of the Lambton Worm’ (2009)

Screeton, Paul, The Lambton Worm and other Northumbrian Dragon Legends (Zodiac House Publications, 1978)

McKenzie, Laura, ‘The History of the Lambton Worm and Cockburn Worm’ (2016)

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There are several folk songs about the Lambton Wyrm, most of them utilising the dialect-rich words of C.M. Leumane. Here’s one by Tony Wilson. More surprisingly, there is also a version by Bryan Ferry, which can be listened to here. Thanks again to Mark Lidster for bringing these to my attention.

The cover image is by the talented artist Martin Cash, whose esoteric artwork can be explored here.

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Cover illustration for C.E Leumane’s lyrical rendition of The Lambton Wyrm (1867)